Essential Viewing

The first hot day of the summer, and the Sunday before Memorial Day, was a good one to take a holiday from social media. With apologies to my Really Smart Friends (RSF’s) who shared links about the Santa Barbara killer, I couldn’t watch or read anything. I wish I’d never seen the video I’d watched the day before, the one the 22-year-old killer posted to Youtube saying what he planned to do. Neither did anyone want to see it, apparently, since he posted it a full day ahead of time. It turns out, he had to email a PDF of a 140-page lonely guy manifesto to his parents, minutes before he started the killing spree, to get anyone’s attention.

Guns and misogyny, yes and yes, and one RSF even started an insightful discussion by posting right away that he bet the killer was on prescription anti-depressants for years – and I would like to know how many of the recent spree killers were on them, or just coming off. Now I guess it’s going to be essential viewing for someone in law enforcement to watch every dumb Youtube video. We shouldn’t watch them after the fact for the same reason we shouldn’t buy Ed Geen memorabilia: The pre-killing Youtube testimonial only codifies what’s long been a truth, that killers, like the rest of us, have narratives in their heads in which they are heroes. By adding currency to the stories, we are making them more attractive to future author-characters in the genre. So unless we’re proposing solutions, let’s actually talk about anything else!

Stranger by the Lake:  So good-looking he's sinister.

Stranger by the Lake: So good-looking he’s sinister.

Till then it had been a month of catching up on essential viewing: movies and plays that were a responsibility of sorts. These ranged from the tight Chicago indie Drinking Buddies (2013), a very warm story of a friendship with extra sexual charge in it that packed a few nice surprises, to a new-to-me William Inge play called A Loss of Roses that flopped in 1959 but fifty years later holds up beautifully, to the unique Stranger by the Lake.

Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake or L’inconnu du lac(2013) is about a sympathetic guy named Franck at a gay cruising beach in southern France, who’s so smitten by a hunky newcomer that he’s willing to overlook the inconvenient fact that he saw him murder another guy by drowning him in the lake. Like cruising itself, it’s full of scenes in which the dialogue is beside the point. Just by positioning himself next to another sunbather, a character triggers all kinds of communication. It’s a good lesson in another take on characterization: Don’t make your villain a sweaty scarface with a lazy eye and a too-obvious chip on his shoulder, make him literally so good-looking it’s scary.

When the body of the deceased turns up, a detective starts asking questions, ultimately creating a real relationship issue. Stranger by the Lake is memorable for its explicit sex scenes, which says a lot about the sex-phobic eye of the viewer. Early on, before he’s wooed his Brawny paper towel guy, Franck has a dalliance with another man, and we see the come shot in shocking detail. Minutes later, we see a man get murdered by drowning, also rendered in a long, explicit take, but guess which image is, uhhh, stickier.

With an extra layer of narrative about safe versus unprotected sex, equating unsafe sex metaphorically with the complicity to kill, this was another seriously overlooked film of 2013. The effect of the explicit sex is to heighten the suspense: If this is how Guiraudie renders taboo sex, then what’s he going to make us look at when the handsome stranger turns on Franck?

Which brings me to the 2012 documentary The Central Park Five. Heartbreak! For New Yorkers and everyone else. No doubt the cops and D.A. thought they were doing a great service when they railroaded these kids, and that they “just knew in their hearts” they were guilty, so the ends justified whatever means. Anyone who stood up and cheered for Zero Dark Thirty should watch this closely: Law enforcement believing their hunch above anything else isn’t always heroic. Independent filmmakers like to piss and moan about Ken Burns, being the establishment documentarian of our time, but I dare them to watch this and not be moved.

Among its tough philosophical medicine, mostly delivered by the historian Craig Steven Wilder, there is a point about video. VHS was still a bit of a novelty in 1989 when the NYPD’s best detectives coerced phony confessions out of the five teenagers. One thing the boys accused of the crime of the decade did for fun was rewind and rewatch videos from Yo! MTV Raps all day. Only after police had hounded the five confessions into one reasonably similar narrative did the D.A. come and start videotaping. Even though terror is all over their faces, and all of them recanted almost immediately, and the official story was riddled with serious problems, the D.A. convinced the jury that video does not lie.

New York in 1989 was not the last racially charged place on earth, but teenagers and jurors today are probably too video-savvy to get caught in exactly that kind of trap. The social media revolution promises that we can all seize control of how what we do in the unmediated, real world gets interpreted, and video is the most authoritative expression of that spin-doctoring. As a writer I like to think I still live in the kingdom of the written word, but if I get on your website, and there’s a video embedded in it that says anything about your work, you can bet I’ll click on that video and at least half-watch it while I leaf through the rest of your content. The frighteningly cute Santa Barbara killer was 13 years old when Youtube was launched. Whatever he did in life he was going to try defining it himself via video. He saved his 140 page PDF for mom and dad.

Dreaming of the Red Chamber

I woke up at 4:15 Mother’s Day morning, in the basement of the historic Brill Building off of Times Square. A singer in an evening gown was getting dance-chased by an invisible demon through a matrix of white curtains, some serving as screens for abstract video images. I was at Dream of the Red Chamber: a performance for a sleeping audience, a musical installation conceived by Jim Findlay and Jeff Jackson, featuring some songs of the Elysian Fields.

It runs from 5pm till midnight through Friday, with Saturday’s show going all night, till 6. Sleeping during the show is permissible, as the title suggests, and the installation includes cots with pillows for lying down and dozing while appreciating the music, and there’s the half the genius of it.

As Findlay told Huffpost: “The piece is structured so there is no beginning, middle or end. Things are structured…like they’re structured in our dreams, in a non-linear fashion.” As far as I’m concerned, that means there’s no narrative. Call me an obsessive, but even my dreams have beginnings, middles, and ends. Then again, as someone who likes to doze off watching Turner Classic Movies just for the pleasure of waking up to a random gunfight or love song, this show was made for me. You are given a leaflet to fold into a “dream box” upon entering, but I recommend showing up sufficiently late and loose that you don’t need any encouragement.

You could call it a deconstructionist operatic iteration of the holy sanctuaries we build out of our living rooms when we adjust the lights and stereophonics and put on our favorite sleep-friendly music: Thomas Tallis, Dark Side of the Moon, Coltrane & Hartman, or whatever you love to space out to. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” were famously commissioned by a count with insomnia, who liked hearing a harpsichord wafting across his house while he lay in bed trying to rest. Dream of the Red Chamber takes these private moments and makes a public spectacle out of them. Listeners stroll past, and you the sleeping audience are part of the show.

"Where the hell am I?"

“Where the hell am I?”

Then there’s the site-specificity of this show, which gives that spectacle a delicious depth. You’re in the basement of the freakin’ Brill Building! One of the epicenters of American songwriting and music commerce, where the Muse meets Mammon. Bacharach, Leiber and Stoller, Phil Spector, Carole King and many more warriors of the great American cultural empire of the mid-20th Century, when they came home to the mother ship, came here.

And far below deck, this week only, the avant-garde has infiltrated with a free show, reminding us where all great melodies end up: echoing from the dark corners of our furniture, and dissipating between our house plants and our stacks of unread magazines, while the night traffic lights up our curtains. Times Square is our lava lamp.

Blue Ruin: Beyond the Slow Burn

Blue Ruin is damn good, and deserves all the critical love it is getting. Hand it to writer-director Jeremy Saulnier for getting all the story he can from the indie thriller genre and then some.

If the defining thing about thrillers is that the villain drives the story, then I see two main distinctions between the independent thriller and the Hollywood thriller. One’s the moral complexity of the protagonist: Hollywood likes innocents, or banal flaws, whereas indies give you the viewer a harder assignment. The satisfaction you get from A History of Violence or One Hour Photo is in entering the mind of someone who is truly compromised.

Macon Blair in "Blue Ruin."

Macon Blair in “Blue Ruin.”

The other difference is the “slow burn.” When you hear of an independent thriller, you enter the theater expecting 15-20 minutes of character scenes with a few pointed threats and maybe a robbery, or an act of violence rendered efficiently, and then around minute 25, plans go awry and something horrific happens, and now the hero has a problem bigger than he or she imagined. In Fargo, for example, there is a string of character scenes and dramatic setup, with a kidnapping played for laughs inserted in it, and then at minute 29 the bungling crook’s sociopathic partner flips the car and the script. (Apologies for that.)

Blue Ruin is about a drifter who’s waiting when the man who killed his parents gets out of prison. He sets out to kill him, and we’re treated to a few minutes of grand hesitance. I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say he processes things a lot faster than Hamlet does.

As I watched it I was acutely aware that the Suspension of Disbelief is one of the main tools we use in crafting the World of the Story. I get script notes – and sometimes, I admit, give script notes – that say “nobody would ever do that.” It’s good to invite that cranky voice in your head to the conference table, but you don’t want it to have the gavel all the time, or even much of the time. Feature films, and especially thrillers, are about outliers. They’re about people doing extraordinary things.

No family that just suffered twenty years of separation from one of its own would choose blood revenge when the law is on its side for once, and it could just call the authorities. Well, this one did, and it had me most of the way. Only for scattered moments here and there did I wonder, “She would call the police now,” or “Now she would call the police,” or “Really, he’s going to bury that body himself?”

Without the suspension of disbelief – without our willingness to go there with the narrative – genres get reduced to procedurals, so I get why we have to just keep going. Blue Ruin goes to show that the storyteller’s best asset in this regard is sheer momentum. Don’t let it slow down enough to let the viewer say, “Stop! I want to go back to some form of reality as I know it.”

I also admire how often Saulnier’s protagonist fails at single narrative steps he’s attempting. One of them – the much talked-about arrow surgery – was too much for my taste, but I deeply appreciated where it ended up, in failure and a just-in-time visit to the E.R. Even critics who like the film are calling Saulnier out on his ending, which is, I’ll admit, packing too much heat. I suppose the pitfall of telling a story that lives on momentum is that it might go one or two steps too far – or that sustaining that kind of rush will raise the viewer’s expectations about the climax.

But that’s getting down to finer points. The indie thriller is easy to do badly and hard to do well, and this guy nailed it.

AND NOW, can we please call a moratorium on the Blue Title craze? Blue Jasmine, Blue Valentine, …the Warmest Color et al. Enough already!