Sunday, March 2, 2008

It Means "Dreamy" But Not Like "Patrick Dempsey Dreamy"...

This article is all about surrealism, and why I hate Stanley Kubrick.

Well, ok, no, I don't hate Kubrick. I just think that his use of the surreal should be toned down a bit. Let me explain.

Every story, and I want to emphasis this point, every story contains an element of the surreal, from horror movies, to Shakespeare, to "Dude, you'll never believe what happened to me today".

I just finished reading Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces and it was very enlightening. One of the main points that he talks about is the difference between reality and the "other" world. The hero of myths and legends is born and raised in reality, but then crosses the threshold to the other side -- be it underworld, heaven, the dessert, land of dreams, etc. -- and then emerges a better person and brings back his or her knowledge to the "real" people.

This theme of "crossing the threshold" is so reoccurring in fiction and myths, that it would be pointless for me to recount all the possible times it could happen. One of the ones that always sticks out in my mind is the forest in Midsummer Night's Dream. Everybody is having a cool time in Athens with their twentysomething drama ("OFMG I heart you so much but this other guy is a douche lawlz") but when they enter into just a regular stupid old forest, shit gets crazy yo, with fairies and goatmen and...well, I guess just fairies and goatmen, but isn't that enough?

This whole idea of the surreal world is especially prevalent in horror movies. Think about Halloween. Whenever Mikey Myers was nearby, you'd always hear that godawful breathing (you know the one), but never during "normal" times. The breathing noise is a slap in the face for the audience that says, "things are going to crazy about nowish."

Another quick example is the use of light and setting in Suspiria. Whenever the protagonist is inside the haunted school, not only are the surroundings very "artsy" to begin with, but there's always some strange light with nondescript origins around, and makes the whole thing very jarring. In fact, for the few scenes where you see the outside world, you almost forget that the world could look that way. Again, the light is your queue to start feeling weird. Start paying attention to this in movies and you begin to see the indicators very plainly -- like the snow in Fargo.

The reason that this technique has so much potential to make the audience feel uncomfortable is because of the disparity between the surreal world and the real world. Think about a movie like X-Men. The opening scene there is Magneto as a teenager (in WWII era Europe, which, by all accounts, was surreal enough anyway). When he uses his powers, the audience gets a "shocked" sense. Nobody could have seen that coming (except for the nerds in the audience who already knew that Magneto was a Jewish Holocaust survivor, but other than that, NOBODY). This, of course, pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the movie and even in the next scene, we see just how normal moving metal without your hands really is. After that, is it really surprising or unnerving to see someone shoot lasers from their eyes?

Now, I love Dr. Strangelove, which was directed by Kubrick. Love it. The reason that surrealism works in that movie is the switching back and forth between reality and surrealism, but instead of snow or creepy breathing, the settings themselves distinguish between the surrealistic and the realistic.

The movie was made back when I was at the tender age of negative twenty something, so I'll recap it for everyone. The United States Military has nuclear-equipped war planes in constant motion near specific targets at all times. At any point, one of these planes could receive the order to drop a nuke and essentially start World War Three. At some military base, a spunky but batshit crazy military leader decides he's going to fire up the old Apocalypse and tells one particular plane to bomb the bejesus out of someplace foreign. The higher-ups in the US command get word and all convene in a shadowy room and talk about it, in the silliest manner possible. I won't ruin the ending for anyone, but let's just say, in scientific terms, things get blowed up.

Most of the movie switches between three locations -- the plane, the base, and the shadowy room. The reason that surrealism works in this case in because each location either makes the audience feel either "at home" or "weirded out by all the crazy shit." In this case, the guys on the plane are all completely normal, and react pretty much exactly how you think they would act in this situation in a remarkably believable manner. It's the guys in charge that display their insanity. You know that when you see Dr. Stangelove in a poorly-lit gigantic room with a large table that some ridiculous things are going to happen. This creates an atmosphere of complete terror, as you see that our world leaders are out of their fucking minds, and it works, and works really well. In fact, the movie closes with a series of nuclear bombs going off that gives you a sense of "Wow, this cannot be real," and it's remarkably terrifying.

In The Shining surrealism takes a wrong turn.

The reason it doesn't work, at least, according to me, is because there's a lack of an indicator. The whole hotel is pretty surreal, but not any more so than some of the other scenes, and not all the time. For instance, when we first enter the hotel, it looks very inviting and completely normal. The problem is that at the exact same time we have a scene of the family back at home where the kid starts hallucinating and freaking out and things are actually more surreal than the hotel. It's very confusing for the audience if there is no point of reference for normality.

The hotel gets progressively more surreal as time goes on, and there are definitely smaller indicators of insanity along the way. For instance, I think that the ballroom is a pretty good clue that things are about to take a trip to Crazytown. The problem with the "progressive" approach of the hotel as opposed to the "threshold" style is that a bad first impression is hard to recover from. If it you don't learn early on that a place or a sound or a particular use of lighting is "weird" than it's hard to retrain yourself later on.

Towards the end of The Shining, two scenes I think help illustrate this. The first is one where the wife (Duvall) happens across a dead-looking guy in a hallway and he says, "Enjoying the party?" or some such. There is no shock value with this scene, and I would argue that it's barely even jarring to the audience. It is a little weird, yes, but it does nothing different than wasn't already done with an elevator full of cherry kool-aid. The appearance of the dead guy doesn't do anything because it doesn't establish a new level of surrealism, only plays upon the level of surrealism that had been occurring for most of the movie.

The second scene that caught my attention is the one with the guy in the wolf costume (I presume) giving head to some old guy. This pisses me off. One thing that I cannot stand is the superfluous use of shit that be freaky. It wouldn't be any different than if the little boy had just plucked a balloon from the hedge maze and used it to float away. In the end, you can justify any kind of surrealism ("The balloon represents a child's fleeting hopes and dreams being chased down by the heavy responsibilities of adulthood and parenthood. Sky = innocence") but the question will always remain with what you're trying to say with it. In Strangelove the message with surrealism is that we should always be cautious of our leaders. In Fargo, it's the fact that surprising things happen, even under the most mundane of circumstances. In The Shining, it's the fact that directors with over-inflated egos will almost invariably throw weird shit into their movie solely for the sake of being weird, and not give a damn about any kind of message they want to send. And that's why I hate Kubrick.

*Floats away on a balloon*
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