Posts tagged ‘symbols’

April 18, 2011

the shadow knows: an appreciation of lois duncan

by Megan Abbott

In the process of writing my upcoming novel, The End of Everything, I had this strange experience of return. All my books prior were set in the past, a time before I was born, and were set in milieus (organized crime, Hollywood, gambling, party girls), I’d likely never have known otherwise. To find me, or my life, in them, one would have to look very hard, at least I would. But, about two years ago, I decided to try my hand at a book set in a world I knew, in a time and place I knew.

The book is from the point of view of a 13 year old, specifically a 13 year old in a Midwestern suburb in the 1980s. Writing it, I found myself drawing on all the sense memories of that time, especially my late elementary school years, many of which were spent in the home of my best friend, Meg.  She had two older teen sisters and a teen brother and I remember as far back as age nine or ten trawling their cluttered, shag-carpeted bedrooms. The whole upstairs of Meg’s house made of pale blue wood panels, all kinds of alcoves and niches and built-ins into which treasures could be tucked. We found Playboy hidden in the eaves her brother’s room and, always, fat glittery paperbacks (with those sinister, tantalizing keyhole covers) of V.C. Andrews stuffed under her sisters’ pillows.

I never read much young adult fiction, and there certainly weren’t a fraction the number of YA novels as there are today (nor the array of options within them). As a result, with the notable, stirring exception of Flowers in the Attic (and, of course, Judy Blume), I jumped to adult books, which promised a peek into the grownup world for which I was unprepared (sex ed courtesy of John Irving and Irwin Shaw).

But there was one author whose books utterly entranced me. I’m not sure how old I was when I first read Lois Duncan, but I do know I first found one of her books—either Summer of Fear or Stranger with My Face—doing one of my grade-school prowls through Meg’s house, arrested by the covers (remember those painted covers of so many novels then? Of long-haired girls with limpid eyes and mouths arrested with fear, confusion, suspicion, longing?), reading breathlessly the plot description on the back. And I remember it was exactly these covers (above and below) that fixated me.

Duncan’s books felt dark, strange, taboo—much like V.C. Andrews. Except when you read V.C. Andrews, you feel the frantic, sexed crazy on her. And her world is very foreign from yours (I didn’t know any girl imprisoned in the attic of a mansion, starved and tortured and whipped by mother and grandmother, dangerously beloved by her own very handsome brother), which is part of their appeal. It’s total, compulsive, dirty fantasy.

The heroines of Lois Duncan, however, were girls I knew—prettier than me, more comfortable in their skin (at the start), with an easier way of navigating life—but definitely a part of my world. Yet everything that happened to them was bewildering, terrifying, perilous, thrilling—in short, everything I wanted. Astral projection, witchcraft, voodoo, ESP, possession, patricide.

Both Summer of Fear and Stranger with My Face, I now see, bear similarities to the female gothic novel, in particular the pulse at the center of those novels: the Dark Other. In Summer of Fear, the heroine, Rachel, realizes that Julia, her mysterious witchy cousin from the Ozarks, aims to steal Rachel’s her best friend and boyfriend but her whole life. In the end (cue V.C. Andrews and the entire Freud playlist), we learn Julia’s true goal is not Rachel’s boyfriend but Rachel’s father (“You mean—you can’t mean—you plan to marry Dad!”).

In Stranger with My Face, teenage Laurie Stratton is haunted by the presence of another, someone who looks just like her. Laurie—whose dark features never matched her family’s sunny ones—turns out to be adopted, permitting full play of pre-adolescent and adolescent fantasies of orphanage and mysterious ancestry—and a reason for feeling different, out of place. When her dark double first appears, it’s a moment that, for me now, gives me the same spiky shiver and horror I experienced when first reading Sara’s magnificent Come Closer:

‘Can you see me?’ asked a voice by my bed.

I opened my eyes. The moon had risen now above the level of my window, and the room was very dark. …

‘Are you the one with my face?’ I whispered.

‘I came first,’ she answered with a little laugh. ‘It’s you who have my face.’

‘Who are you?’ I asked her.

‘You must know that. We are two sides of a coin. We floated together in the same sea before birth. Didn’t you know I would be coming for you one day?’

There was a movement by the pillow. I felt the air stir against my face, and something as slight and soft as the breast feather of a gull brushed my forehead.

These dark doubles call to mind Jane Eyre’s Bertha Mason and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and seem to serve just the same function. These shadowed women do what the heroines can’t—they get angry, they shout, they fight, they demand things. They demand to be heard. To want things and take them. To go mad.

The retrospective quality of both books also mirrors the narrative structure of Rebecca (the narrator beginning that book, famously, with her dream of return to the house where everything happened, everything changed forever), to similar effect. These are books narrated by someone a few years past the events but changed by them forever (I now, just now, writing this, wonder if that was in my mind with The End of Everything, which begins similarly).

There is not even space enough to talk about what was my favorite Duncan novel, Daughters of Eve, the tale of a charismatic teacher and her young protégées—a Jean Brodie for the post-feminist 1980s.

No supernatural elements here—the complexities of female power and powerlessness laid bare and one for the most shocking murder scenes I’ve ever read in any book. I never forgot it.

The endings of these books, when happy (as in, order restored, threat expunged), have the dreamlike, haunting, unreal happiness of the endings of Carrie or the original, masterful Nightmare on Elm Street. Or any fairy tale at all. You can’t have a happy ending after you’ve torn the seam that separates light from dark, the world we live in from the world we know, under our skin.

Next up: My interview with Lois Duncan and our book giveaway.

Highly recommended: Lizzie Skurnick’s essays on Summer and Stranger.



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March 4, 2011

dream (il)logic

by Megan Abbott

Now and again, I go through phases—frequently as a result of poor (yet legitimately pharmaceutical) choices—of bad dreams.

I am in the middle of such a phase (including an especially terrifying one involving angry squirrels). And it’s a real drag right now because I’m revisiting one of my favorite true crime books, the highly contested Black Dahlia Avenger by Steve Hodel. A retired LA cop, Hodel  devotes hundreds of pages to proving that his father, George Hodel, is not only the killer of Elizabeth Short, AKA “The Black Dahlia,” but possibly scores of other women in Los Angeles in the 1940s (and earlier, and later).

I have conversations with folks about this book at least every few weeks. It seems there are many of us who are haunted by its particular blend of truthiness, utter throw-the-book-across-the-room implausibility and the humming ring of real, and deeply haunting, truth.

Going back to bad dreams, though—well, this book gives me very bad dreams. It’s a disturbing, exotic and strange world George Hodel lived in—doctor, lothario, friend to surrealists, decadent. And Steve Hodel renders it well.  (Do read Craig McDonald‘s wonderful Toros and Torsos novel and the book Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder for more on this world.)

The point is, I cannot possibly read this book before I go to sleep.  Instead, I am watching Larry Sanders, or reading The Believer’s first-rate film issue (more on that in the days to come). But it reminds of conversations Sara and I have had about the possibility of “directing” our own dreams (and about lucid dreaming). Can one “will” bad dreams away—or more pointedly set the stage for good ones?

This is all a long (sleepless) way of saying, speaking of surrealism, I got a postcard in the mail from my dad:

The caption is “Gadget Dance, 1936,”  and it’s Depression-era timestamp is significant. But the main thing is, I smiled very widely when I got it, and have placed it above my computer.

This picture, like so many of those Busby Berkeley musical numbers from the 30s, are sometimes what we think of when we think of dreamscapes. So my goal tonight, is to dream my way into this.

Personally, I want to be the washing machine girl in the back, with the balloon bubbles. (Who can tell me what the girl behind the oven and next to the radio is supposed to be? Jack, I’m asking you!).

March 3, 2011

“I made a mistake, once”: The second of three reflections on noir

by Shannon Clute

The noir universe is often considered to be fatalistic, or more broadly nihilistic.  I believe it is more accurate to see that world as existentialist, for a simple reason that has vast implications: to be fatalistic is to accept one’s situation; to be existentialist is to recognize how one’s agency has created one’s situation.  It may sound like a razor-fine distinction, but the thinnest blades cut the deepest.

When we first feast our eyes on the abundant misery of noir’s drama, we see broken players, or players bending until they break.  For reasons I addressed in Tuesday’s post, we can’t help but revel in the particular pains of noir.  But over time that revelry would create a real hangover if there were no other nuances that kept us coming back.  Two of those I discussed already: noir’s overt self-consciousness and its deeply quirky, highly self-referential humor.

To these we must add a particular philosophical stance—one that is, once again, marked by profound self-awareness.  It is what distinguishes noir from westerns, war films, and straight domestic melodramas.  It is likely what made this dark body of films resonate so deeply with American viewers in the wartime and immediate post-war years.  Granted, it was easy for most to recognize they weren’t living the Technicolor suburban dream Hollywood was starting to feed them, and that alone might explain some of noir’s popularity .  But in the wake of two wars that scarred the world forever, everyone was feeling some measure of guilt.  Everyone felt complicit.  Noir let them suffer, and go on, in ways they felt they should.

A lot has been made of noir as a visual style—an outgrowth German Expressionism and French Poetic Realism, once immigrated.  These are compelling arguments that any fan of noir should explore.  Less has been made, by film scholars at least, of the equal contribution of American hard-boiled writing to the creation of noir.  That is a lacuna that must be filled, and one we have often addressed in our “Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir” podcasts.  The types of stories noir told, the idiom in which it told them, the characters that populated these stories—they were all distinctly American.  German Expressionism was just that until it ran smack into the pulpy world of mid-century America.

But in that collision was an alchemy that created a hitherto unknown essence, at once ethereal and very worldly (for more on the alchemical moment of collision, see the entry on The Killers at the bottom of this post).  I would maintain it is the very essence of noir.  It is noir’s philosophy, and it is surprisingly fleshed out, surprisingly nuanced.

For want of a better term, I have called it existentialist.  That’s a fairly descriptive term, as long as we understand what branch of existentialism we’re discussing.  In noir I don’t see Kierkegaard or Nietzsche or Heidegger.  I see something closer to Sartre and closest to Camus, and it’s probably no wonder French critics were the first to see coherence in this dark body of works coming out of Hollywood at the time, and to give it a name—film noir (a term they coined, we must remember, because of the well known imprint from Gallimard called Série Noire, which specialized in hard-boiled American fiction).

That brand of existentialism is unique for many reasons, but two seem particularly relevant to noir.  The first is Sartre’s explicit dictum “Existence precedes essence” (to paraphrase somewhat selectively and recklessly, nothing is anything before it takes action).  The second is the concept of the “absurde,” best articulated by Camus in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus.  I like to think of Camus’s absurd as purposeful action in the face of meaninglessness, a recognition of the importance of one’s own agency in the act of ultimately changing nothing.

That, to me, is noir.  It is what keeps us from pitying noir heros who ultimately can’t change the world.  It’s what makes us love the scoundrels whose greatest virtue is to keep being scoundrels.  It is why femmes fatales don’t strike us as simply immoral, but as somehow determined and admirable in their recklessness.

I should say at this point that Richard Edwards and I, in our podcasts and in the book that those inspired (The Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism, forthcoming from UPNE in the fall, as Megan was kind enough to mention), have studiously avoided the question of what “is” and what “is not” noir.  This leads us down the path of debating style versus genre, of establishing a noir canon, and so on—well worn paths in the world of noir studies that at this point have little potential to reveal new information about noir, or help us achieve new understandings.  But because this is a blog, and blog musings are by definition rather personal, I’ll step away from my co-investigator for just a moment and offer this contentious musing.

He Walked by Night

To my mind, films that don’t evince the philosophical stance above don’t ultimately feel very noir.  These would include, above all, any films where a character set up to be a moral force within the film counterbalances or corrects the agency of a character set up to be flawed: films gris such as The Big Heat; noir-styled westerns such as Blood on the Moon or The Naked Spur; noir-styled war films such as The Third Man (which unabashedly “borrows” John Alton’s sewer scene from He Walked by Night for its own climax)—none of them are, to my mind, truly or fully films noirs.  They have all the trappings.  They may even have the proper measure of misery.  But something is amiss.

The Third Man

In the films that strike me as most fully noir, protagonists recognize their mistake.  That doesn’t mean they give up, or turn themselves in (in fact, they usually go down swinging).  But they come to understand both their own complicity in the crime (sometimes the bigger Crime, existence itself) and the absurdity of their action as part of their inability to remain inactive.   They know they will be punished, but damn it, it won’t be by something as inconsequential as another person representing order or good.  It may be Law itself, or Fate, or Desire—forces we can only understand in caps, even if they occasionally appear in an embodied form—but nothing as small as just a man or woman.

Here’s an example of what I mean, drawn from a podcast conversation Rich and I had in which we began to formulate some of the thoughts I’ve expressed above:

~ A Frenchman’s Question and The Swede’s American Answer

The Killers

Near the beginning of The Killers, Nick (Phil Brown) runs to tell The Swede (Burt Lancaster) two men are coming to kill him.  The Swede says there’s nothing he can do about it.  Nick asks, “Couldn’t you get out of town?”  The Swede answers, “No.  I’m through with all that running around.”  What we see at play in this exchange is the fundamental question of the post-war era—the question Camus poses in his 1940 essay The Myth of Sisyphus: “There is but one serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.  Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” In the Hemingway story that is the source material for The Killers, the only physical detail we have of The Swede, besides him being an ex-heavyweight who’s too long for his bed, is that he has a mashed-up face.  In a film, of course, we can’t have a protagonist with a mashed up face, for he has to have leading man good looks.  But as The Swede is gunned down and lays dying in his bed, he reaches up with his right hand to grasp the bed frame, and what we see is a prominent scar on his hand.  This is a very different sort of scar, because it doesn’t indicate that he has taken a beating.  It would seem to indicate that he has given a beating, that he has gone down fighting; and yet, he doesn’t go down fighting.   The Killers examines the story behind the scar The Swede bears; it is the story of the reasons for his decision not to fight any longer. –Shannon Clute

Sisyphus

Sisyphus

The film’s action alternates between present moments in which insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) tries to discover what happened to Ole Andersen, aka The Swede, and moments in The Swede’s past.  The film underscores the centrality of the question of suicide by making it an early plot point, and Reardon begins to really get interested in The Swede’s story when he realizes that the beneficiary of The Swede’s life insurance policy is a person who prevented his earlier attempt at suicide years before.  So the central thrust of the film is an investigation into what propels Ole to continue, or to give up.  In the post-war years, this really is analogous to the Sisyphean question.  Why does the Greek myth of Sisyphus exist?  The fate of Sisyphus, which most philosophers read as a very negative existence, is that he is doomed for all eternity to roll the rock up the hill without ever completing his task; just before he can push the rock over the top, it comes bounding back down Camus, writing from an Existentialist perspective, has an interesting take on this myth, which I think Siodmak shares.  Rather than focusing on the moment when the rock rolls down the hill, both pay attention to the instant at which Sisyphus decides to go back down the hill to get started over again—or in The Swedes case, decides not to. –Richard Edwards

This is the key part of Camus’s argument.  The absurde allows us to recognize, in the words of Camus, that “Our solitary effort, our day to day revolt, gives proof of the only truth.  Which is defiance.”  And so it’s at the moment that Sisyphus turns and looks back down at the rock that has crashed to the plains below, and decides to take that first step back down to retrieve it, that he becomes greater than his fate.  With this action, Fate is to some degree undermined.  Ole Andersen finally gets to a point where he’s just too tired to take that step. –Shannon Clute

January 31, 2011

Appendix A

by Sara Gran
Screenshot of Steve McQueen from the trailer f...

Image via Wikipedia

Funny little addendum to yesterday’s post: yesterday afternoon my boyfriend and I went to the last matinee of the Film Noir Festival in SF. After the movies, we stopped and got a bite to eat, which we didn’t finish, so we wrapped the leftovers up to take home. We go to the car, get in the car, start driving, turn a corner, and something comes flying off the car. Me: “What was that?” Boyfriend: “I don’t know.” Me: “Did you leave our food on top of the car?” Boyfriend: “No. Oh, wait…”

So boyfriend makes a u-turn, swings back around to the corner, and then, without fully stopping the car, opens the driver door, reaches out, and snatches the bag of leftovers (which were not in such edible shape, but I don’t like to litter). Which of course is another of those strange recurring movie images, although one that’s less common lately–the hero-driver swoops in and picks up his package without stopping the car. I’d never had that happen in real life before!

You’ll be happy to know, though, that the flan was saved.

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January 29, 2011

recurring images we may not need

by Sara Gran
Explosion

Image by kevindooley via Flickr

I was talking with some friends the other day about these recurring images I’ve noticed in movies over the past few years, and what they might mean. The strongest recurring image is the vomiting scene. I would say over 90% of movies made within the last, say, four years have at least one scene of a person vomiting, loudly. The sound seems to be a part of the phenomena. When did vomiting become so appealing? I used to work in this building where people would always fight about the garbage–who’s dumpster was who’s, what night which garbage went were, what went to the various garbage outlets. And my brilliant co-worker (Hi Carolyn! Are you out there?) said well, elimination is a very deep issue. So maybe that’s part of the vomiting issue. I also wonder if it has to do with “not swallowing” something. But what are we not swallowing? What is it that we just can’t stomach?

Another image, one that’s waning in movies but still going strong on tv, is this: someone sets a match, timer, or other gimmick to blow something up. Person walks away from incendiary device. Huge explosion follows. Our hero walks away, explosion in the background, without breaking stride or looking back. This one is a bit more obvious, and I think it’s even been poked fun at in a few parodies. But I still think it’s a fascinating image. Why the complete lack of response to the explosion? Why a refusal to even glance back? And these scenes are nearly always physical impossibilities–the hero is usually way too close to the explosion not to get burned, but he never does.

The last one is one I’ve seen in a lot trailers lately–I noticed it in trailers for the new harry potter movie, for example. This is a design element where, behind the titles or credits, there’s a kind of big roiling black smoky somethingness–a weather system or fire or smoke incident that involves big round black cloud-like things rolling around. It’s a very dark image. It’s a bit reminiscent of the giant clouds of dust created when the towers fell down, but in shades of black.

I wonder if these images have something to with the fact that we’ve been at war for like ten years? What do you think? I don’t have any strong opinions here, but I’m curious to hear what others think.

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