Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Thursday, April 09, 2015

BabaDOOK! Jennifer Kent's Psychotropic Fairy Tale

Film's aren't always bad just because they're familiar and use overused cliches. Think about it, mate, and you'll see great art sometimes comes in colors so familiar you want to scream like John Waters at the sight of them. For example: soap operas are often trite, cliche'd and overwrought but that doesn't mean we should dismiss Douglas Sirk; costume dramas are often barrenly obsequious but that doesn't mean we should dismiss Jane Campion; fairy tale monster under the bed tropes are often overly whimsical and hackneyed but we can't dismiss The Babadook. A Sheila, a quick Sheila, can take the Gorey-Addams-Grimm signifiers overused by Tim Burton and go deep into their nightmare parable fore, the zone where men (and boys like Burton) dare not go (it's too close to the, um... you know what). It has to be a resourceful and courageous Shelia to go there, but if she's brave and resourceful enough she can slither her scoop down past the popcorn bowl's hard bottom for the black brass kernel at the bottom of the nightmare bucket. Mmmm-hmmm, good on ya, Sheila! Whomever you are. 

Such a Sheila is the newest great lady Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent, and The Babadook (2014), out on DVD and Blu-ray this week, but crafts from that Gorey-Addams-Burton cloth a Shining-Repulsion (1) collapse of the consensual real. The story of a mom and her squirrelly, strange son going totally bonkers--she half crazy from lack of sleep and sexual frustration and he from prolonged anxiety about his long-missing father--who create a collectively produced poltergeist-ish manifestation and if--with its magician's hat and bony fingers--the title monster can come off a little This Way the Wicked Kruger Comes Depp-ensian Dr. Caligari Cat in the Hat 'high on mercurochrome- whimsical, it still has more than enough genuine menace to make it closer to Kubrick than Disney... most of the time, anyway. 

Like our daily dreads, the pop-up book Amelia (Essie Davis) finds on the doorstep starts out Gorey-normal but soon evolves into a genuine, disturbing threat, with drawings of Amelia herself, possessed, stabbing her child to death, as crazy as James Mason at the end of Nicholas Ray's Bigger than Life. (1956), making the book half-R.L. Stine, half legitimate death threat, with pull-tabs.

It works because at the core of this archetypal mysterious ghost intruder lurks a great hybrid archetype, and unassimilated animus for mom Amelia (Essie Davis), representing her dark wish fulfillment (to be free of her difficult brat once and for all), and a grim devouring father figure for the boy, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). This nightmare figure, common to sleep paralysis, waits until you're almost asleep, or trying to spend a little me-time, if you know what I mean, then starts thumping on doors or rattling chains, hammering away at your nerves as you try to repress your inner rage, until it breaks off and comes back in poltergeist form and your sense of reality shifts and the border between dreams and reality collapses. 

And Kent gets it--probably better than any filmmaker yet--how gigantic adults seem in the eyes small apprehensive children. I had forgotten it myself, having not been a child in quite awhile, but Kent brings it all back, to ground zero of childhood nightmares, that sense of relative smallness. Even Kubrick never quite dared deal with that monstrously large parent element. The one time Jack Torrance seemed bigger than normal he was looming over a model of the maze and neither mom nor son could see him. But Kent shows how children see themselves as normal size and adults as giants. As her mood gets blacker, Amelia gradually seems to grow to ogre-size; our perspective changes and she's shot from low angles, and her anger at Samuel morphs her (sans CGI or make-up--just great acting) into some dark evil thing. 

When I was very young I used to have nightmares about my mom creeping into my room like a vampire to drink my blood. I can still remember how she moved in those nightmares, like she was simultaneously swimming in slow motion and moving too fast to run away from.  When I was scared in the dead of night I'd run in to her room to wake her so she could stand guard while I went to the bathroom.  This one time though, she sat up slowly and straight like a vampire rising from a coffin and moaned really low... and it was like my nightmare was coming true. I knelt in submission, buried my head in my hands and started crying and screaming, "I'm your son! I'm your son!!" 

We joked about it for years, but at the time I knew true fear. 

Is there anything worse a very young boy can imagine than his mom, his one true protector, turning evil on him? It's easy to forget you ever feared her once you get past the breakwaters of adolescence; the passage of mom from benevolent giantess to a sweet if nagging allowance-payer is a one-way street and we're glad to not have to look back. We modulate our perceptions so that we presume we've always seen from the same height, but a film like The Babadook can remind us, as good horror movies do, of all the terror we grew so hard to forget. 

As I wrote about The Shining, cabin fever is a very hard thing to study, as just showing up to study it rapidly dissipates it. One is either killed like Scatman Crothers or sucked up into the madness, as with the semi-sympathetic father whose poor brain oscillates between giggling sadism and paternal sympathy for Marilyn Burns in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Those kind of characters are so rare in horror that when they show up we take notice. Like Frederic March becoming Mr. Hyde halfway through the terrorized Miriam Hopkins' plea for help, Amelia in The Babadook or Ray's ogres in Bigger than Life and In A Lonely Place exhume that fear our source of comfort will turn on us. Having very little (adult) experience reading children's books I can't be too scared of the Babadook book in theory. But I have relied on The Thing (1951) for most of my life to save me in times of trouble, and if I put it on during one of my regular dark nights of the soul and the film had changed, if Captain Hendry was now a sadist in league with Dr. Carrington, and tortured people or something, that yawning terror of my mom sitting up in bed and moaning like some beanstalk vampire giant in the dead of night would come roaring back. Films are great in that sense, they can be edited but they can't really change, especially on DVD. 

But the Babadook terror rolls in both directions: The vulnerability and trust involved with familial love hinges on acceptance of uncanny extremes, for a mother must love even the most loathsome of creatures--the beast, the frog, the rat, the touched and wayward Richard--giving them, at the very least, a kiss, an embrace, a bottle and a place to sleep it off in, in order slowly grow them into a princeIf the mother can't provide this, the child snaps and begins to darken into something worse, trying to create for others the terror he feels as a result of his mom's ambivalence. And the mom, via the uncuttable psycho-umbilical root that connects them even past death, that root no machete or pill can sever, comes tumbling down the well after him, barking at him not to put her in the root cellar. 

(SPOILERS) But while, for example, the horrors of cloistered, sexually dysmorphic animus shadow-projectors, like Catherine Deneuve in Roman Polanski's Repulsion (or Mrs. Bates in Psycho), ended their isolation with their murders and sins exposed, pinned to the patriarchy-enforced consensual reality cork board like still-twitching wasp wings (and old Jack Torrance never quite made it out of his maze), the mom in Baba passes through the Repulsion needle and out of the Overlook cabin fever, past even Ring 2's child services and suspicious neighbors, into the safe press clippings of the Taxi Driver "hero" fantasia. Developing farther in fact than any psychotropic horror character before, Amelia gets all demons safely integrated rather than merely repressed or succumbed to; she learns that madness, once harnessed, becomes genius. If you're not willing to let go of all self constructs, from surface persona right down to your twitching core, you will not not re-merge with undifferentiated consciousness. Amelia's strength as a mom lies not in Ford tough Magdalene invulnerable cloaking and burning as we might expect, but raw Aussie gumption and the power that comes when you finally get down so low, as the saying goes, you can touch off from the bottom and swim up faster. John Ford had the Depression, war, the harshness of the era, and drink. Spielberg though, had only his childhood, traumatized by schoolyard bully anti-Semitism, but he was saved by the power of fantasy and Ford's westerns. I've got a history with drugs, alcoholism, recovery, decadence, years of undiagnosed depression, spiritual enlightenments and disillusionments, W.C. Fields, Camille Paglia, and Howard Hawks. We all got something to draw on, is my point, the childhood trauma informs the choice of comfort. My mom as a vampire translated to a lifetime love of Dracula.
Admittedly, the children's book / nursery rhythm gimmick, while creepy, is also overly familiar: from Edward Gorey (left) and Charles Addams-ish drawings -to everything Tim Burton ever made. But they're all usually tempered with some degree of levity. "Good fright, pleasant screams," as the creepy narrator of The Inner Sanctum radio show used to say. When the death threat implied is tempered with 'just kidding' bad pun, one misses the macabre tone of unedited nursery rhymes or Grimm's Fairy Tales, which offer little sugar and lots of coldly regarded suffering. I was amused by Gorey as a child but now I look at his stuff and think he's way too disturbing for my adult sensitivity. Maybe it's that as children we know where death is, we were just there not so long ago, and so death can't suddenly surprise us. For very young children the big fear is never death, but of being separated from one's mother (i.e. an unpleasant moment without her is far scarier than eternity with her). But adults have been away from death long enough that they no longer recognize its reflection in the mirror, and so when it shows up out of the blue, that's when the spook moves in. And so Babadook's children's book gimmick would be just cliche if not for its blunt unremitting threat, moving slowly and gingerly from playfully macabre to outright hostile, threatening, malicious, obscene even as it never strays from the psychosexual Lynchian ostrich nasal lampshade Joe Campbell crucible in order to harden into what might be a 'next stage in a woman's life" sequel to coming-of-age myths like Twilight, Maleficent, Frozen, and Snow White and the Huntsman.

Shout's Blu-ray includes Kent's short, Monster, a 16mm black and white short that's basically an early draft of the Babadook. And of course trailers, and a long string of interviews that really stretch out. The Blu-ray brings excellent tactile depth to the powder blues and grays of the walls, a color scheme that I'll confess is not my favorite, but it works to suggest color is draining out of this bizarre family. "I'll make you a bet, the more you deny, the bigger I get!" It's pretty Freudian, especially when the pop-ups begin. And the score emphasizes and distorts Amelia's disintegrating mentality; in one great scene Amelia looks for her son and you hear his calling her, muffled and echoed, hard to pinpoint. We're never sure if it's just a hallucination. While the kid is being terrorized, she's downstairs and the cuts back and forth exhibit a profound grasp of the way the repressed emotions and sexual frustrations of a widowed parent can spontaneously generate autonomous external threats, as in Dr. Morphius' monster "from the Id" in Forbidden Planet or (single mom) Jessica Tandy's Birds.

Kent and Babadook is what Jane Campion and The Piano used to be, a female furie from down under come to wade through chthonic swamps of menstrual blood and societal taboo, dragging her son, daughter, piano, canoe, and civilization behind her, surrendering to and then conquering her darkest shadows. In Kent we maybe have found a female Polanski-esque Nicholas Ray to shake the "Yellow Wallpaper" madness and horror back to its primal core, the childhood fear that one day you'll wake up and your parents will be gone, leaving only their demons, their madness, addictions and dysmorphia to babysit through your slow genetic flowering. You can't run. You can't hide. You can only endure and stand up, unafraid, unbowed, your warrior stance, battle cry, and unflinching courage draining them down to shaking junkie shadows. 

Unconditional love: no monster can survive it. 


1 comment:

  1. Oh man! I have been waiting since Christmas to hear your take on this amazing movie! The thing that struck me, in addition to all the things you say here, is the not hitting you over the head message that grief must be dealt with or it will kill you. Unacknowledged ghosts turn evil! They are just ghosts if you acknowledge them, they may be frightening, but they are benign. Everything about this movie worked for me. When I saw it, I wasn't sure how I felt about the ending. I was so overwhelmed with the whole package that I couldn't tell if they stuck the landing or not. Then I woke up the next morning really struck with how Non-American the ending was, how beautifully they realized that life's solutions lay in manageable moderation. I couldn't help but think that an American version would have a conquering/banishment of the haunting presence, but in this Australian original, a victory is just learning to live with things as they are. "I will feed you fifteen minutes a day," she seems to be saying, "and someday when i have managed to not get my hair blown back in your presence, I will share you with our son. But right now, you are my grief, and I must deal with you first by not ignoring you, because you obviously will not let me ignore you." I thought it was a beautiful movie that worked as metaphor and as straight up ghost story horror, survivor's guilt, parenting angst, exhaustion. Oh, and what great use of public domain television clips. I love that! Even Skippy The Bush Kangaroo, Australia's Flipper, that I had seen when i lived in Europe. I don't have enough praise for this movie. My thesaurus is found lacking.


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