Tag Archives: Christianity

Brief Vignettes of Spiritual Death

Brief Interviews Cover

I wrote this essay for class in April, 2014. Here was the prompt: “In what way is David Foster Wallace an ethical writer in ‘Brief Interviews with Hideous Men’? What would that even mean in the context of these stories?” If you haven’t read the book, I’d firmly exhort you to check it out before reading this essay; it’s challenging and rewarding in equal measure. Otherwise you might find yourself a bit lost in my non-contextualized references. Or not. You decide. Either way, I like it enough to share it with you.

 

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men reminded me of one of my favorite segments in the New Testament, Chapter 7 of Paul’s letter to the Roman Church. In this portion of the text, I imagine Paul having a sort of mental breakdown. He writes:

So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate…. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway… I have discovered this principle in life––that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong… Oh, what a miserable person I am! (7:14-25, New Living Translation, abridged).

Paul’s repetitions are striking here, especially considering the expense of ink and papyrus during this historical moment. It seems that cost-consciousness alone––not to mention common editorial sense and philosophical rules-of-thumb like Occam’s Razor––would have kept him from making the same point four consecutive times.

This portion of the letter isn’t a logical, didactic treatise. This is the textual imprint of a mental breakdown. Anxiety builds and builds until an eruption of self-loathing and self-pity gushes onto the page: “Oh, what a miserable person I am!” In verses 7 through 10, Paul explains how the command “You must not covet” led him to this place of self-loathing. Through a life of restricted living, Paul easily avoided breaking most of the Ten Commandments. But this particular command was a different beast. It dealt in the realm of internal motivation, not external action. Paul realized that, as a Jewish Pharisee determined to follow the Law at all times, he began to covet a lack of covetousness. He says: “Sin used this command to arouse all kinds of covetous desires within me!” Paul’s self-centeredness felt unbeatable and he admits that, until his Christian conversion, this realization caused “spiritual death.”

In Brief Interviews, one gets the sense that Wallace knows this “spiritual death” all too well. Similarities between the texts are obvious: volatile prose, self-awareness, and a despairing attitude toward the seemingly incurable problem of human self-centeredness. Wallace understands our all-too-automatic inclination to covet.

How should we go about solving this problem? Perhaps we should grow aware of our own self-centeredness. Maybe self-knowledge will better us? This seems to be the prototypical Freudian or faux-Shakespearian solution: “This above all—to thine own self be true.” We can ignore that this phrase is uttered by the Polonius, a character Hamlet calls a “tedious old fool.”

Wallace has no qualms trampling on the moral implications of this simplistic worldview. The titular men are hideous––not only for their self-serving misogyny, but because many of them are self-aware and, therefore, guiltless. They use their self-awareness like defensive armor, uttering phrases like: “I’m aware of how it might sound, believe me,” “men are just shit,” “Does that sound shallow? Or does the real truth about this sort of thing always sound shallow, you know everybody’s real reasons?” They are Late Night comedians scowling at their own mediocre jokes, grasping for easy ways to gain favor with the “audience.” One interviewee even uses an “accurate” assessment of his relationship––“I saw that she would forever go on playing victim to my villain”––to forgive himself for committing domestic violence. For these men, awareness is the key to absolution.

Wallace compares this approach to the attitude of “‘meta’-type writers” whom are “honest” about the artificiality of their work. He calls this sort of “honesty” cheap, “highly rhetorical sham-honesty that’s designed to get you to like him and approve of him (i.e., of the ‘meta’-type writer).” He (i.e. the ‘meta’-type writer) is like the Hideous Man “who tries to manipulate you into liking him by making a big deal of how… open and honest… he’s being all the time…. Constantly congratulating himself for not doing precisely what the self-congratulation itself ends up doing… [He’s] just performing in some highly self-conscious and manipulative way.”

Well, where do we go from here? Maybe we can override our self-centeredness by helping others. This notion inspired my favorite line in the short film collection Paris, Je T’aime: “By acting like a man in love, he became a man in love again.” Self-determination defines Sartre’s solution in “Existentialism As Humanism”: “Man will only attain existence when he is what he purposes to be…. Man is responsible for what he is…” If I act selflessly, perhaps I will become selfless.

Although Wallace is sympathetic toward self-determination––the raped Granola Cruncher transcends her situation through a demined, empathetic stare[1]––he is weary because acts of self-giving are often motivated by “pure selfishness.”  The Great Lover exemplifies this problem. The Great Lover is not “your basic pig.” He’s not the sort of thoughtless, hedonistic being that “wants whatever he can get, and as long as he gets it that’s all there is to it.” The pig doesn’t care about his partner’s pleasure because he’s “barely even semiconscious anyhow,” but the Great Lover tries to please his partner at all costs. He gives himself to her like a dedicated soldier laying his life on the line for his country: offering massages, “going down on her yingyang for hours on hours, holding off [his] own coming so [he] can keep at it for hours, knowing the G-spot and Ecstasy Posture and such.”

At first glance, the Great Lover seems like a charitable, honorable man––hence the title “Great.” Yet these sorts of men need to “think of themselves as Great.” The problem rears its ugly head with the three words “think of themselves,” but Wallace continues: “Seeing themselves as a Great Lover doesn’t mean they give any more of a shit about her than the pigs do, and deep down they aren’t one little bit less selfish in bed…. Their trip is different, but it’s still only just their own trip they’re on, in bed, and the little lady deep down’s going to feel like she’s just getting used just the same.”

What an awkward, insightful phrase: “it’s still only just their own trip they’re on.” They may be giving themselves, but they’re coveting power and status. They may be physically giving, but they’re emotionally using. It’s easier to pinpoint this in wannabe Great Lovers than in successful Great Lovers, which is why Andrew Crawford stands out in The Easter Parade. After an embarrassing display of sexual impotence, “he sat slumped on the edge of the bed as if on a prizefighter’s stool, his head hanging.” He may be trying to please Emily physically, but he looks like a prizefighter; he’s fighting for his own glory and self-worth. She is a conduit to his own accomplishment, “worked like a Porsche.”

Selfish self-giving isn’t an exclusively sexual phenomenon, of course. In “Octet,” Wallace refers to the sorts of people “everybody’s seen.” They will use you “as some piece of like moral gymnastics equipment on which they can demonstrate their virtuous character (as in people who are generous to other people only because they want to be seen as generous, and so actually secretly like it when people around them go broke or get into trouble, because it means they can rush generously in and act all helpful….” These people like when others are in trouble because it gives them opportunities to build up their self-worth. They want to call themselves good people.

They’re often blind to their own self-centeredness. In “The Devil Is A Busy Man,” the Charitable Giver condemns himself unintentionally. He says: “selfish motive would empty the nice gesture of any ultimate value, and cause me to once again fail in my efforts to be classifiable as a nice or ‘good’ person.” By trying so hard to be a good person, he’s still “on his own trip.”  Maybe we should call a sort of Sympathy Simulacrum, or, more specifically, a genuinely sympathetic impulse “turned inward on oneself.”

As with the manipulative, “honest” meta-writer, perhaps this sort of selfishness is more deadly than brazen greed because it pretends to be virtuous. When we interact with “good people,” we begin to play by their rules. If we wish to be regarded as a good people, too, then other “good people” demand our respect. They’ll use our approval to build up their sense of self-worth; we’ll use our own appreciation of their “goodness” to decide that we’re at least partially good, too.  Look at me. I “admire” this refugee worker––aren’t I a good person?

At this point, we can agree with Wallace: “there are literally a billion times more ways to ‘use’ somebody than there are to honestly just ‘be with’ them.” We will also admit, as Paul does: “when we want to do what is right, we inevitably do what is wrong.” Perhaps we’ll cry out in frustration: “Oh, what miserable people we are!” This cry describes the attitude of The Depressed Person in a nutshell. She understands how she exploits her Support System. She knows that these telephone-based relationships are unbalanced; she’s using her poor confidants. The Depressed Person realizes that she’s using her therapist, too, by paying for the “pathetic temporary illusion of a friend” “who[m] could fulfill her childishly narcissistic fantasies of getting her own emotional needs met by another without having to reciprocally… empathize with… the other’s own emotional needs.”

Yet she uses her “temporary illusion of a friend” to express these anxieties instead of finding a “real friend.” She uses her Support Group to express her Support Group anxieties, “bursting involuntarily into tears and telling them that she knew all too well that she was one of those dreaded types of people of everyone’s grim acquaintance who call at inconvenient times and just go on and on about themselves…” She lives out the relational equivalent of the joke-phrase “don’t fucking swear,” using people as she decries using them––even though she, like Paul in his insurmountable covetousness, despises her own hypocrisy.

Unlike the Hideous Men, the Depressed Person seems genuinely concerned by her lack of empathy. She’s not trying to use her Support Group members as pieces of “moral gymnastics equipment.” In the spirit of absolute honesty, she even “urged her terminally ill friend to go on, to not hold back, to let her have it: what words and terms might be applied to describe and assess such a solipsistic, self-consumed, endless emotional vacuum and sponge as she now appeared herself to be?”

In this exhausting and desperate ending, Wallace successfully utilizes what he calls exformation: “a certain quantity of vital information removed from but evoked by a communication in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections within the recipient.” This story evokes what it refuses to say: if the depressed person really wants escape from her selfish conundrum, she is asking the wrong question! She ought to ask the terminally ill person: How are you today? or What can I do for you? The ending pulls us in two directions simultaneously: we feel sorry for the depressed person––who has medical reasons for this endless self-obsession, after all––and compassion for the terminally ill person. Since our impressions of these confidantes are filtered through the untrustworthy mind of The Depressed Person, we desperately want to escape her mind. And we want to take her––or at least the sacred, ethically minded part of her[2]––with us on the way out.

The term “self-centeredness” is helpful here because it suggests that, like focused camera lens, the mind and heart are often centered on the self. Yet the term also implies that it is possible to shift this center away from the self. In other words, the locus of my attention may be internal or external. In an ideal world, the question “How are you?” suggests an external orientation; the center of my attention shifts onto you.[3] We can determine the location of a speaker’s “center” by attending to their personal pronouns. “I want to be a good, caring person. I want to do charity work in Africa.” is a very different statement than “They are dying of AIDS in Swaziland. We must assist by distributing contraceptives.”

How do you shift your center? As Wallace demonstrates, this is more easily said than done. He’d agree with Benjamin Franklin: “even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome [pride], I should probably be proud of my humility.” Similarly, after we learn about the Great Lovers, the speaker suggests that if you’re able to “put your picture of yourself on the goddamn back burner for once in your life,” you’ll “get” the woman you’ve been coveting: “Then you really and truly got her.” Once again, self-centeredness pokes its ugly head into the fray.

How does Paul center his mind? His solution is theistic and direct: “Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.” Therefore, he writes in Chapter 8: “The Law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins” (8:3-4, NLT).

After Paul found a god that kept all of the laws and died the death that he deserved––a god of “substitutionary atonement,” a Sydney Carton to his Charles Darnay––he found an external force worth centering his thoughts on. This discovery allowed him to center his thoughts on other people, too, since this god loved them all equally. In this vein, Benedictine Monks have developed what they call Centering Prayer. Modern Christian worship music speaks of putting “Jesus at the center of it all.”

When we don’t call this exuberant center-shifting process “falling in love,” we call it worship. Paul found something outside of himself worship-worthy. In what is perhaps Wallace’s most famous quote, he speaks of worship: “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship––be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles –– is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.” For Wallace, modern culture is particularly pernicious because it “hums merrily along in a pool of… worship of self,” encouraging us to believe that we are all “lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.” Brief Interviews focuses on the toxic byproducts of self-worship: vanity, misogyny, disillusionment, anxiety, helplessness, and solipsism.

Yet Wallace’s characters are at their best when they chose to initiate a center-shifting process. Consider the protagonist in “Think.” As the “younger sister of his wife’s college roommate” seduces him, “her expression is from Page 18 of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue.” She wants him to covet her body; she covets his approval. Her sexual vulnerability ought to flatter his ego; his willingness to fuck ought to compliment her seductive prowess. And yet, instead of leaning into his self-centered lust, he kneels to pray. “His gaze at the room’s ceiling is supplicatory. His lips are soundlessly moving… She’s not sure how to stand or look while he’s gazing so intently upward… His eyes never leave the middle distance between the ceiling and themselves.”

It doesn’t matter if he’s praying to JC or Allah or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, but his unfailing gaze is surprising and crucial. It demonstrates how he’s trying to re-center his focus in order to worship something more meaningful than her “media taught” body and his covetous lust. What is worth worshiping in this situation? He lands on a beautiful, fantastical possibility: “And what if she joined him on the floor, just like this, clasped in supplication.” Mutual regard for eternal value would be worth worshiping. Center shifting would be worth worshiping. Genuine intimacy––not a transactional sort of “mutual using”––would be worth worshiping.

Finally, consider the last Hideous Man. His story is all about center shifting. It’s like a falling domino line of center shifting experiences, actually. In chronological order: the Granola Cruncher centers her thoughts on her rapist. “She wills herself not to weep or plead but merely to use her penetrating focus to attempt to feel and empathize with the sex offender’s psychosis…” Just as the praying man intently stares at the ceiling, she stares at the sex offender. And in a similar manner, her dedicated focus changes what would have otherwise been a self-centered disaster for both parties involved.[4]

As she recounts this horrific event to the Hideous Man, the Granola Cruncher exemplifies this sort of focus with her storytelling. She “had an unexpected ability to recount it in such a way as to deflect attention from herself and displace maximum attention onto the anecdote itself.” She isn’t using this anecdote to prove how she’s a “good person.” Hence, the Hideous Man is the next domino to fall. He finds himself shifting his center of attention onto her. He is legitimately focused on the Granola Cruncher: “She had all my attention. I’d fallen in love with her.” And she continues to hold his attention as he recounts her recount to us. In another storytelling universe, this might not seem like a marvelous occasion. But in Wallace’s diegetic sphere, when a man uses the phrase “She had all my attention,” it feels like an ethical victory. Even the pronoun “she” seems to signify a seismic shift.

Wallace surely agreed with C.S. Lewis’s aphorism: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” But Brief Interviews is valuable precisely because it demonstrates how difficult it can be to think of yourself less. Self-worship is not just tempting; it’s our “default setting.” However, if we consciously shift our centers of attention, we may just find something outside of ourselves worth worshiping.

Actually, Wallace doesn’t equivocate with these sorts of “may just find” statements. He has a desperate, urgent need to say that if don’t worship something outside of ourselves, we will worship ourselves and we will drown in the mire of our own imperfections and insecurities. Here is Lewis again, at the end of “The Weight of Glory,” a sermon that he wrote in the middle of World War II: “Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be inside some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation.”

Wallace knew this door.

 


[1] In his 2005 Kenyon College Address, Wallace acknowledges how self-determined focus takes work: “Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.” (emphasis mine).

[2] The Depressed Person’s “soul,” maybe?

[3]In everyday Western existence, there is perhaps no question robbed of its altruistic power quite like “How are you?”. In Czech culture, for example, if you ask someone how she is, she will respond with excessive details: “Not too well, I’m going through a divorce right now. My husband wants custody of Jan…” and so on. They assume that the question actually arises from an externally oriented place.

[4] There is something Christ-like going on here, actually. She exudes empathy that the Sex Offender cannot exude, giving him the sort of intimacy that he could never imagine.

6 Sorts of Women You Shouldn’t Be Hooking Up With In A Gas Station Bathroom

Godly Man

[Please note: This is morally motivated satirical fiction, through and through. Hence the fictional author, and so on. It deserves pretty hard PG-13 rating. You have been warned.]

by Michael Labeline

Ok, guys. We all know how difficult it is to be a Godly man in the age when every single internet link leads to porn and every woman in your life just wants your toned abs and rockin bod. But the truth is that sexual purity was never easy… Heck, even Jesus had to scribble in the dirt to keep his eyes off of a curvilicious ho. So that’s why we all need to realize that there are just some ladies that you shouldn’t be hooking up with in the ever-so-tempting gas station bathrooms. With a little accountability and a lot of prayer, we can be intentionally pursuing the shiny, long hair; sharp, elegant nose; and white, gleaming skin of Jesus instead of what I believe the apostle Paul called the forbidden-fruit-eating-woman’s “Rump of Repulsion.” So here are some of Lucifer’s Luscious Ladies that we need to say “Hell no” to, in more ways than one. Avoiding the temptation may feel like squeezing your Johnson through the eye of the needle, but isn’t that the point?

 

1.  Definitely-Cracked-Out Lady

And no, I’m not talking about the B-crack, although that may be out too. No, I’m talking about the little lady who is probably rapidly repeating Kelly Clarkson lyrics while combing her hair with your baseball bat in the trunk of your Volvo. You know who I’m talking about. She may say, “Oooh, that Valero sign makes me want to—Wait, where’d the eagle go? Where’s Tito?” but you STAY AWAY from that Valero, boy. The STD Doctor waiting for you is just the servant of the real doctor, Doctor Sin Consequence Man.

 

2.    Your Worship Team’s Two-Sundays-A-Month Drummer

So it’s after worship practice and you’re still trying to master that A-D-A-C chord progression of this month’s really popular worship song. The cross-tattooed drummer with short hair asks if you want to check out a set her cousin is playing down at the Raging Lion. You’re really supposed to meet with your small group to bench press and talk about Chapter 2 of “Finding God in Braveheart,” but she seems chill and maybe secretly lesbian, so…. hot, right?

Well:

  1. Lesbians: no, no, no. Even that Juno chick’s a lesbian now, and you see what happened when she did it with a straight guy. Disaster and, as Netflix calls it, “quirky indie comedy.” No way.
  2. This lady might even ask you about stuff like “Keekeguard” or “Ackwynus” (whatever that is?). Come on, girl.
  3. Let’s just say that Chevron’s family bathrooms are NOT up to any other company’s “Quality Standards”. And she might lock you in them for being a “presumptive jerk” and take your car and leave until you call her and apologize over and over again #ugh.

 

3. Bartender from The Rusty Buzzard

Yeah, so you’re a hotshot regular now. You don’t even need to show your slowly crumbling fake Arizona ID anymore. They KNOW you. You can drink a glass of whisky and only choke on the shit every third or forth sip. So you show up for the Cowboys game…. and let’s just say that they’re not the only Cowboys scoring one touchdown that night, am I right? ;)

Anyway, bad idea. It might be hot, it might be sweaty, it might rock your world, but it also might make the threat of Hell keep you up at night, putting you into cold sweats and keep you crying out for forgiveness endlessly in the dark to God who won’t answer.

 

4.    Teenage Summer Camp Girl

You’re in tenth grade. Everybody’s having that “How Camp Rocked My World” meeting on the last night, acoustic worship music is being played, people are crying, and all she wants to do is have you come to her cabin and spoon her while she talks about her life and stuff. This girl doesn’t even want any action. She’s just an emotional wreck who doesn’t want to go home to her kindof meh upper-middle-class life after having her hair braided by pretty college girls for two weeks.

So when she sees you three years later, she’s gonna jump onto you like you’re her long lost puppy or something, all teary eyed and sentimental like you bought her a Bouqet on valentines day or something. This girl is just a hot mess. She might want to yank your wang, but she’s gonna get all attached and bleh about it. (Also, P.S., BP might spill their gas in the gulf or w/e, but she might help you learn that their restrooms are TIGHT. Not that this really matters, though. Don’t do anything in them. Period. Yeah, never.)

 

5. The “Feminist”

K, this grl seems CRAZY. Like, she spits fire in your face that you’re never seen. She’s like Grandma before the Vicodin kicks in. She keeps you on your toes, rolling her eyes, acting like she owns the place.

Well here’s the twist: she actually thinks she does own the place. Yeah, you heard me right. She thinks girls can call the shots, that chivalry is so old-school, that your Johnny Manziel wall-calendar emphasizes male domination as if that’s a bad thing. She makes up words like “male gaze” and “misojenny” and pretty much hates your guts. She doesn’t want to do it unless it’s on her terms, on her time. She acts as if girls don’t evenreally want the D! Puhleeeasssee.

Guys, this girl is trouble. This is not what the Bible is about, ever. No, no sir. Consider this verse from Romans (paraphrasing, don’t have a bible b/c my iPhone’s out of battery): “Let the man be in control and the woman be subservient to her husband. She has to keep stuff on her head in church because men are better.”

Stay away, bros, stay away.

 

6. Your half-sister, New Years Eve, Johnny’s “14 Shots For 2014” Party

Nuff said. We’ve all been there.

 

 

Bro Jesus

So man nuggets, let’s keep our eyes on the prize like the medal waiting at the end of the 800 meter dash. Some day we’re going to get married and have our wives do us like 200 times on the first night of the honeymoon and it’s going to be hot and awesome. Crazy positions up the wazoo, you know the drill.

But until then, we gotta keep focused on God and he said don’t do any of this stuff until we’re married. We gotta let Jesus give us boundaries and stuff because who knows when he’s coming back? When you hear that knock on the Citgo restroom door mid-smash, how do you really know that it’s the manager or a cop and not the Big Man Upstairs himself?

That’s enough to keep you up at night, guys. Be strong.

 

Great Enters The Little

Recently, thanks to Tim Keller, I discovered a C.S. Lewis quote that radically shook my complacency regarding the oft-mentioned “Miracle of Christmas.” This full quote is too long to post on Facebook, but the least I can do is share it here.

“What can be meant by ‘God becoming man’? In what sense is it conceivable that eternal self-existent Spirit, basic Fact-hood, should be so combined with a natural human organism as to make one person?…..  We cannot conceive how the Divine Spirit dwelled within the created and human spirit of Jesus: but neither can we conceive how His human spirit, or that of any man, dwells within his natural organism. What we can understand, if the Christian doctrine is true, is that our own composite existence is not the sheer anomaly it might seem to be, but a faint image of the Divine Incarnation itself—the same theme in a very minor key. We can understand that if God so descends into a human spirit, and human spirit so descends into Nature, and our thoughts into our senses and passions, and if adult minds (but only the best of them) can descend into sympathy with children, and men into sympathy with beasts, then everything hangs together and the total reality, both Natural and Supernatural, in which we are living is more multifariously and subtly harmonious than we had suspected. We catch sight of a new key principle—the power of the Higher, just in so far as it is truly Higher, to come down, the power of the greater to include the less. Thus solid bodies exemplify many truths of plane geometry, but plane figures no truths of solid geometry: many inorganic propositions are true of organisms but no organic propositions are true of minerals; Montaigne became kittenish with his kitten but she never talked philosophy to him. Everywhere the great enters the little—its power to do so is almost the test of its greatness.”

C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: MacMillan, 1947/1960), p. 111.

 

“The Conjuring” Review

“The Conjuring” is a direct and unapologetic Haunted House film. Regardless of James Wan’s opinion on the actual existence of paranormal activity—it seems that Wan is a curious paranormal agnostic at the very least, or (a cynic would suggest) impersonating that attitude in order to enhance his cinematic craft—he is certainly a believer in the classic horror motifs. I spent a good deal his film feeling like Marty in “Cabin in The Woods,” questioning why its characters consistently made the mistakes that all characters are bound to make in every haunted house.

But these tropes must come from somewhere, and the real Lorraine Warren and Andrea Perron (consultants for Wan) claim that the film is “art” instead of fiction. Regardless of how you respond to their claim, it is this implied veracity that makes the film stand apart from other members of its wood-creaking, wind-blowing, door-thumping niche. Wan gives our demon-hunting protagonists, Ed and Lorraine Warren, a level of intelligence, humanity, and confidence that is functions as the brain and heart of the entire film. And while Patrick Wilson is serviceable, the true center is Vera Farmiga, turning in another performance brimming with a remarkable blend of pathos and cool intelligence. As no stranger to genuine spiritual search,—her own directorial debut “Higher Ground” percolates with metaphysical wrestling—Farmiga’s Lorraine has the remarkable (and underrated) ability to look her husband in the eye and say “I believe that God brought us together for a reason” without sounding trite, sentimental, or shrill. Like a belabored psalmist, she trusts God in spite of her weary, frightened, and frustrated soul.

Ed and Lorraine are human enough to become annoyed with the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church (their priestless, self-initiated exorcism made this protestant feel an embarrassing twinge of theological satisfaction), but sensitive enough to recognize the vastness of evil that lurks beyond humanity’s control. The actual evil shown in The Conjuring amounts to smoke, mirrors, and CGI, but Farmiga’s performance gives testimony to a transcendent pain and suffering. Like Francis McDormand in the Coen’s noir-pastiche Fargo, Farmiga both grounds and elevates all of the ridiculousness surrounding her.

Yet while Farmiga and Wilson are impressive, and while the tormented family is believable as well, the true crux of good horror lies in its formal presentation. Wan is credited as saying: “…the irony has always been that horror may be disregarded by critics, but often they are the best-made movies you’re going to find in terms of craft. You can’t scare people if they see the seams,” and he is right. Classic horror is intensely indebted to cinematic craft, pacing, and what the camera can and can’t see (or chooses not see).

In this regard I am happy to report that The Conjuring has some remarkable shots. Before anything crazy even occurs Wan uses an expositional steadicam shot with the skill and audacity of Martin Scorsese. The slow, intentional zooms he uses throughout the film effortlessly evoke films of the 1970s, when motorized zoom lenses were all the rage; rotating gimbal shots make us feel like spirits floating through out the haunted house. The whole film feels as if it is shot through either a blue-grey or warm orange filter (depending on mood and location), a nice homage to the browns and light-blues that fill out our cultural imagining of the seventies.

However, while it is evident that Wan is a student of Friedkin, De Palma, and other masters of horror, he refuses to immerse himself in their classic cinematic language, settling for pastiche rather than full-on technique adoption. And while I admire his desire to find an original cinematic voice instead of beating a dead horse (oh, but what a beautiful dead horse!), his visual style ends up in a sort of lukewarm deadlock; “The Conjuring” shifts between traditional dollying/steadicamming and the newer “Blair Witch”-style first-person shakeycam. These shifts often accommodate the purpose of individual shots, but they often detract from the pacing and groundwork laid by previous scenes. While this stylistic potpourri isn’t as obnoxious as Abrams’ direction in “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” Wan’s craftsmanship reflects on his generation in a similar way. He can clearly appreciate past styles and pull from them, but he seems to lack the slow, patient energy needed to build a coherent visual language that encompasses an entire film. He bears the DNA of a visionary, perhaps, but certainly lacks the perfection-driven legwork needed to get there.

Regardless, Wan’s sensitive, sincere approach to character and paranormal storytelling elevates The Conjouring into something that leaves you with a beating, compassionate heart long after you’ve exorcized its jolts and chills out of your system. And this summer, that’s saying a lot.

“The Shining:” Well, What About Hell?

Reposted from Facebook. Originally published on October 31, 2012.

In honor of Halloween, I thought I’d share with you all my review of Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining, a film that I haven’t seen in its entirety before a couple weeks ago. Like the Fargo review, this was for my Writing About Film class. If you want to watch something truly scary on this fabled night…. well, the review speaks for itself. It isn’t exactly spoiler free, but spoilers aren’t the name of the game here. What I tell you will hardly reduce your experience watching the film. Enjoy.

  Well, What About Hell?

One morning, Stephen King stood in his bathroom hung over and shaving. His wife burst open the door, wide-eyed, and emphatically whispered: “Someone’s on the phone who says he’s Stanley Kubrick!” Stunned, King jabbed the razor into the side of his cheek and ran out of the bathroom. Blood dripping down his face, shaving cream still coving half of it, he gripped the phone and heard a gravelly Bronx accent exclaim: “Hi, Stanley Kubrick here. I actually think stories of the supernatural are always optimistic, don’t you?

“I don’t understand exactly what you mean by that, Mr. Kubrick.”

“Call me Stanley.”

“What do you mean by that, Stanley?”

“Well, supernatural fiction and ghost stories all posit the basic suggestion that we survive death. If we survive death, that’s optimistic.”

King retorted: “Well, what about Hell?”

There was a long pause on the other end of the telephone before a grim retort resounded with foreboding finality.

“I don’t believe in Hell.”

According to King, this is the only pre-production discussion he had with Kubrick about adapting his book The Shining into a film.

  *****

  The idea of Stanley Kubrick soberly denying the reality of Hell seems ironic and slightly absurd. For it seems that, in the pantheon of 20th century “auteurs,” Kubrick labored most relentlessly to immerse audiences in a Hell of his own creation. In particular, The Shiningdid leave me optimistic: optimistic that if someone didn’t believe in Hell before watching it, their mind would at least be full of hellish provocation by the end credits.

  The Shining is a surreal, expressionistic, and perversely evocative horror film. It situates its protagonist, Jack (Jack Nicholson), in his own personal hell before letting his narcissism trap his family there with him. From the first time we see his disheveled face, Jack bristles with an uneasy, nervous energy. And as the film progresses, Jack Torrance seems more and more like the demonic lovechild of Nicholson’s previous roles. Bobby Dupea famously asked a diner waitress to hold chicken between her knees. Mac McMurphy­ nearly goes crazy with rage while pretending to be crazy. But unlike these characters, Jack is not even initially portrayed as the story’s “everyman” or even a moral man; in his first scene, a job interview, he seems a little too confident that he’ll avoid cabin fever when taking care of the Overlook Hotel for the winter, a little too confident that his wife and son will like it, a little too confident that they’ll be unperturbed by the murderous tragedy that took place in The Overlook. In reference to the murders, he says: “You can rest assured, Mr. Ullman, that’s not gonna happen with me. And as far as my wife is concerned, I’m sure she’ll be absolutely fascinated when I tell her about it. She’s a confirmed ghost story and horror film addict.”

Who would talk in such a way about a real-life tragedy? Who would say, “My wife loves disaster films, so she’d love watching footage from 9-11”? Meta-jab aside, Kubrick is giving away the game from the beginning: Jack is self-absorbed and incapable of empathy. Nicholson’s nervous energy is enough to give it away and learning how he hurt Danny simply adds a concrete fact to what we have already felt. Yes, Nurse Ratched, this time he really is insane.

On the other end of the spectrum, Kubrick extends no more empathy or warmth to Jack’s sane wife Wendy (Shelly Duval). Duval makes for a homely and likeable mother, but she seems almost too likeable, too much like the hollow echo of an innocent Hollywood archetype. Danny asks: “Mom, do you really want to go and live in that hotel for the winter?” She responds like a peer on the playground: “Sure I do! It’ll be lots of fun.” Wandering around the Overlook on arrival, she gawks at it like a kid in a candy store. After her first couple days there, she giddily tells Jack, “It’s amazing how fast you get used to such a big place. I tell you, when we first came up here I thought it was kinda scary.” Wendy has naïve energy but she isn’t portrayed as a person with much depth or fortitude. When things get rough she is very good at being terrified (her wide eyes do more acting than anyone except Nicholson), but Kubrick gives her character little textured zeal. She’s eighty-percent vulnerability, twenty-percent tepid resilience.

The sheer contrast between Jack and Wendy is obviously intentional; they mix like oil and water. Even before things get violent, the couple embodies the disintegration of the nuclear family in a way that is as scary and unbearably empty as the Overlook Hotel in winter. However, Kubrick’s nearly satirical portrayal of this family seriously hinders the rest of his film. Part of the masochistic pleasure of horror is seeing good things perverted: young people dying, good people in pain, sane people turned insane, innocent children turned bitter and evil. Yet Kubrick never gives his leads, even the young boy Danny, enough pathos for us to be horrified by their demise. We see them disintegrate, but we never saw them integrated to begin with; we see the tail end of a long train wreck without witnessing the train smoothly traveling down the tracks. This may be an attempt at realism on Kubrick’s part (after all, real families don’t typically go from loving each other to killing each other in the span of two and a half hours), but it makes the rest of his film seem more like a formal experiment than an emotionally-grounded story of tragic psychological corrosion. Kubrick seems too cold a director for that type of emotional investment.

This is not to say that Nicholson’s performance isn’t consistently entertaining; Kubrick wastes no time in giving Nicholson a stage to perform on. And Nicholson takes the stage like a skilled jazz musician giving a virtuoso solo performance; his face lurches and twitches with improvisational ease, with unpredictable moods and mounting tension that build into the film’s spectacularly famous climax (One of his best deliveries, often overshadowed by the “Here’s Johnny!” zinger, takes place when he’s confronting Wendy on the stairs: “Wendy? Darling? Light, of my life. I’m not gonna hurt ya. I’m just gonna bash your brains in!”). Is Nicholson a little too over the top to give Jack’s presence much weight? Yes, probably. But his beardy, beady-eyed, white toothed, grimacing mug deserves its place on the film’s poster and in our collective conscience simply for its menacing excess.

In a larger sense, Nicholson’s performance is the prime part of a yin-and-yang dynamic common to the best auteur filmmaking, fusing disparate elements: total directorial control and unpredictable, improvisational acting. During The Shining, you never feel like you’re out of Kubrick’s obsessive, calm direction, but Nicholson fills the frame with a manic unpredictability. The synthesis of elements makes you feel like you’re watching a perfectly practiced balancing act. Nicholson gives life to his own personal hell and Kubrick shows us what that hell looks like.

And what a hell Kubrick wants to show us! In cinematic form, psychological horror should be incredibly expressionistic. Cinema has immense power to turn internal fears into external realities and suppressed nightmares into perceptual truths. And in the hands of a good director like Murnau, Hitchcock, or Aronofsky, horror films can vividly realize our deepest anxieties.

The Shining pushed expressionistic horror to a level of nightmarish resonance unsurpassed to this day (except, arguably, in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive). The garish Overlook Hotel set is so large and paradoxical in its purpose that it is consistently uncomfortable for the viewer. It externalizes the hollow, empty nature of the family’s relationship, the vast chasms between them, while simultaneously trapping them together in unbearable emptiness. The dissonance builds when Jack refuses to let Wendy into his writing room while he’s working—a room made to accommodate hundreds of hotel guests. Yet at the same time, wide-angle shots of Danny riding his bicycle down the skinny halls or running in the narrow hedge maze create a sense of distorted claustrophobia, expressing his increasing terror his family gets sucked into supernatural violence.

Some of film’s best scenes are its most hypnotic and show Jack’s fantasies come to vivid, surreal life. Room 237, the shape-shifting epicenter of Jack’s perverse fantasy, is beautifully constructed. It contrasts strikingly with the rest of the hotel, purple furniture and green walls giving it a 70s feel that undoubtedly places us in Jack’s self-imagined pornographic film. Its imaginative set design is as vivid as the slow-motion pool of blood seeping out of the elevator. Equally stunning is the modern, all-red bathroom where Jack decides to kill his wife and son.

Less impressive to a modern filmgoer are the more conventional movie scares: the skeletons and cobwebs in the lobby, the ghosts and bleeding figures that randomly appear. A modern day horror trailer has more affective jump-cuts than Kubrick uses in this film, and these innocuous figures undermine the plot when they begin to scare Wendy as well as Danny. They make Danny’s “shining” seem more like a plot device and his imaginary friend Tony seem more like a foreshadowing tool than a fully realized story element. In fact, the hotel’s residents are only sparsely and lamely picked up from Stephen King’s original novel in which they have far more purpose and resonance. In Kubrick’s hands, at the very least, they do add to the film’s sense of unpredictable surrealism. The Shining deftly defies logical analysis and structural cohesion. It’s not about what happens or why it happens but how it makes you feel.

For the long-standing achievement of The Shining is not its dramatic twists (“All work and no play” revelation aside) or its literal scares. No, The Shining is a masterpiece of conjuredatmosphere. Its vivid, surreal, perversely beautiful style stays firmly lodged in the mind. Its hissing, forebodingly experimental soundtrack and its cries of moaning winter wind may literally make you squirm in your seat. And while you may not feel for its characters, The Shining will trap you in a miserable hotel for over two hours and slowly, seductively dig its way into your mind.

There’s no Hell, Stanley?

Well, I’ve seen The Shining and I politely disagree. You’ve taken me there.