Thursday, April 07, 2016

Take out the Kids and Tuck in the Trash: #HORROR (2015)

An ICE STORM of cyber-bullying and vaporwave orgiastic trances, or a John Cassavetes version of GOSSIP GIRL after he'd just seen SUSPIRIA and thought it was a video art installation by Matthew Barney, #HORROR chronicles the damage wrought at a winter slumber party worth of 'in-crowd' super-rich 12 year-olds (many played by the children of hip NYC artists and producers) engaged in an endless back and forth of narcissistic gossip and self-hating ridicule, driving each other (and critics apparently) quite mad. Laden with a whole Whitney Biennale of contemporary art pieces, perched around the glass windows looking out into barren snowy woods of the Connecticut money belt (Greenwich even sounds like Midwich) and occurring in proper tick-tock momentum across one late afternoon into evening, #HORROR has a real spontaneous, improvisational loose feeling.... most of the time. Each room the girls explore seems to be about to evoke some mood or other film, first in an intriguingly ambiguous way, then in a groan-worthy obvious way. Wearing all gray evening dresses, the girls dance to an old hauntologic 30s song on an old victrola, the sound echoing Caretaker-style across the surface of the pool... but before you can even think "Overlook" #HORROR's first-time writer-director Tara Subkoff sends in the tidal blood surges like she's haunted by the need to add one last capillary-busting straw up the back of the camel's snorting, coke-swollen nose. In short, sir... madame, she overpaints. 

I'm--if rushing, sorry--to be seen, art attempts all defiance of criticism linearity, by which I mean #HORROR has a lot of good ideas and places it wants to go and no time to let film grammar fall into a recognizable linguistic pattern. Breathlessly, Subkoff is clearly aware of how facile the life she's depicting is, but she's totally sure we haven't already come to the same conclusion years ago. So is #HORROR an artsy experimental avant-garde video art installation or a home movie Subkoff shot of her daughter's slumber party? Or is it that they're all waiting around, like Cassavetes or Jarmusch, for the movie to write itself out of awkward pauses and sudden lurches of realness, because it's better than drinking alone to the nanny-cam?

At moments I was quite moved by the innocence and commitment with which these startling young actresses played mood-altered rich girls practicing their bitchy claw swipes (if they survive the night they could grow up to be Norma Shearer and her posse in THE WOMEN). At other times--not unlike how I felt visiting all the downtown art galleries any given Thursday back in the 90s--I got that Emperor's New Clothes feeling. I had to bite my tongue to keep from scoffing, lest I reveal myself to be the free wine-quaffing, cheese-eating philistine I was. Subkoff's married to a famous $wiss sculptor in real life. All the work on display is assuredly by him and/or their successful artist friends, but that's no excuse for not actually using the pieces themselves to say anything relevant diegetically beyond some words about how the rich husband of Chloe and all the other high-end art buyers trade the pieces like stocks--which I've always thought too, even back when I was working at high-end UES art gallery in the 90s --that these pieces are all just poker chips or bonds to these rich collectors; they just like buying and selling so they're constantly buying the same things from each other at higher and higher prices and aside from selling a Damien Hirst dot painting for $17,000. and watching the gallery who bought it sell it for $300,000. a year later, my boss never regretted a single decision. That is, until the ones that drove him to flee the country and be labeled "the Artful Dodger" and the biggest art swindler in history by the NY Post. You better ask Jerry Saltz. 

No matter what your opinion on contemporary art, some critic must think it means something, even if only to the students of a certain "problematic" art history teacher from Bryn Mawr. And even the worst or Emperor's New Clothes-y of contemporary artists (I won't name names) have the sense not to overpaint. At her best, Subkoff conveys something new in her blend of wintry CT woodsy stillness and timeless Princess of the Flies primordial bling-bling savagery, but then she breaks her own spell every ten seconds with constant animated jpeg flashes: the killer (who is it??) is involved in some kind of hit count video game!  Hashtags slash the screen with loud ripping sounds! Cartoon inserts and meme captions under instant freeze frame photos! Loud! It makes one a tad irritable after awhile. If I could re-edit this film I would just take all those cutaways out, and maybe put them all at the very end in a strobe effect. The freeze-frame candid shot of an unknowingly photographed subject, seen from the killer's hidden POV, was spooky in the 60s when it was new (BIRD WITH CRYSTAL PLUMAGE) largely because we didn't know who was the person behind the camera or why the women were being photographed. We were 'with' the killer instead, and the effect was like claws down our spines. We were put in the outsider perspective so the very act of filming them seemed dirty and wrong. It's hard to recapture that in the Age of 'the Selfie,' especially with a pack of wild girls playing diva with mom's jewelry; especially when these 'secret' angles are so clearly from out in plain view where they can't possibly be without those gathered seeing. You can't have the killer POV filming everyone gathered on the other side of a sliding porch door, with no trees around, in the middle of the afternoon, and presume the people on the other side looking out don't see you. The effect isn't ingenious, chilling, or strange - it's just so impossible it seems sloppy.

Contemporary artists all seem to have a real thing for cows. 

That all said, it's still got some worthy things going on, and yet, as if some extension of its characters' constant sniping and stabbing and constant deriving, #HORROR has earned searingly hostile reviews, getting 3.6 on imdb and a 17% w/ audiences on Rotten Tomatoes. I mean good lord, it's not Argento but even Argento ain't Argento anymore! This rating is so bad it smacks of misogyny. It's way too harsh for such an original, stunningly filmed, constantly fluid and relentlessly bizarre, beautifully-scored piece of Harmony Korine meets Sophia Coppola experimental rich kid icicle disco ball psycho breakdown dreckitude.

As I recall, critics and irate parents all charged against the electrified fences to decry KIDS (1995) when it came out, too. THIRTEEN (2003) drew the same ire, this kind of knee-jerk revulsion from critics (the bulk of whom, let's not forget, are also parents). Their insistence that (their own) kids didn't behave that way led them to feel any film about kids who did must be burned at the stake lest it start a kind of Pied Piper effect (and lack of self-awareness made them not see their own culpability). After all, if the shoe fits, you must wear its golf spike puncture wounds in stoic grace or be labeled a boorish philistine... but that's only on the coasts, where we've been to therapy so can recognize it when our own fears cloud our critical acumen. The average flyover state newspaper critic perhaps lacks that level of expensively-earned self-awareness (am I the one being knee-jerk hostile now?)

The main burnt umbrage I have with #HORROR is much different than that. It's the same   umber I have with 90% of contemporary 'conceptual' art: it may be well made and have some meaning or make some statements, but from an aesthetic point of view, it's bupkis. Who wants to look at it day after day? As I once famelessly said to Damien Hirst: contemporary 'conceptual' art wastes valuable wall space that could be better left blank, there to contemplate the infinite (see also: Godard and the Urinal). But I was trying to justify my refusing to go around to every bar in the city, collecting cigarette butts for 'his' latest sculpture, a gigantic ashtray. So apt. Gagosian's far less self-asserting staff made it for him and it's probably worth a zillion dollars right now. But at least my fingers smell... nicer... than they would...if... hmmm. 

Confession: I still can't forgive myself for throwing away a stack of his signed/numbered Pharmacy Invites (to his first American show at Cohen Gallery in the early 90s), now selling for upwards of $2,000. each at auction. 

Some pains will never go away. 

Mid-90s Anecdote #2: My boss often used his apartment to show art. One afternoon he was visited by a very rich collector/dealer to look over a 1985 Dubuffet. The maid had left this giant old-school hose-style vacuum cleaner sprawled in the middle of the floor.  "Oh," said the other dealer kicking it lightly, "a Jeff Koons?" 

He was only half-joking.

Mid-90s Anecdote #3: There was this super rich apartment I'd bring paintings to or take from - in the Trump tower. Everything was gold and glitz and gorgeous in a tacky Versace kind of way. The guy was into 'folk art' (i.e. art made by mental patients). You walk in there to the living room it looked like the Swiss Family Manson had been through there: the giant wall-size Basquiat looking like the apartment had been broken into and vandalized; ugly cumbersome sculptures everywhere that looked like a deranged homeless man made them out of wood he found in the forest-which is probably close to the truth. A Cy Twombly on another wall looked like the five year-old kid there had drawn in colored pencil on the wall and the maid hadn't gotten around to washing it off yet. Meanwhile, on the refrigerator was the artwork clearly of his five year-old child, and frankly, it was the only decent art there. At least he got the proportions more or less correct. 

Now your child's intense alienation belongs to the ages, just not their own version of it.

#HORROR could easily have fallen down numerous artsy rabbit holes and become insufferably pretentious, instead it just misses a lot of opportunities as it spazzes around, but there great stretches in the middle of the film when you feel the girls' collective isolation, their claws ever sharpening as their fear responses grow, up until Timothy Hutton starts prowling around as a nervous dad of great adventure, veering from ignoring his daughter (earlier ostracized for being twice as vicious as everyone else) to running around the woods in a blind panic screaming her name. I kept hoping the girls would tie him to a tree and set him on fire, but at least he's there, frothing at the mouth, for minutes on end. I was so impressed I had to fast forward through the second half of his endless tirade of threats against the rest of the unchaperoned girls (while mom is at AA).

As the lead 'final' girl --the relatively sweet if totally cracked Sadie Seelert--is so good that the camera always searches her out amidst the cacophony of girly malice. You feel intensely for her (yet she was totally mean to her cool mom in the beginning, so what the fuck) and Subkoff's camera captures all sorts of odd moments of beauty, so it's sad that the farther along it goes, the more Subkoff's narrative style starts to fail her, as if she noticed how nihilistic her film was so she tacked on a hackneyed commentary on the jadedness of the internet age. But there are so few nihilist deconstructions of children's human nature, the Lord of the Flies-style fundamental ambivalence humanity has about its own apathy towards its own ambivalence, that Subkoff would have been better off trusting this gaggle of girls to find their own abyss. She was doing okay with the whole 'pretty sixth graders dying as grand modern art spectacle in their glass house frames, that when she lobs it into the collective 'apathy' of the media punditry infield instead of trying to smack it out of the park into genuine dangerous territory, it elicits a shrug. 

It's like honey, you're rich and successful, part of the jet set world of successful working artists; why not try and say something about that, about what is art vs. photography, the parameters of human vision, pornographic art vs. Joycean aesthetic arrest, the way rich kids' lives are measured and devalued by the shitty art that surrounds them, rather than just be one of the 'social media horror' stories being cranked out nonstop around the world? To say that our craving for gossip and diversion is now so instant and keyed into itself that the slightest aberration of behavior is irreversible, well - it's true, but is it art?  

from top: Chloe w/ egg face (#Horror) 2015;
bottom: Chloe w/ "Elevator Panel" (Kids) 20 years earlier

Word is that Subkoff spent seven months editing #HORROR and it shows not in a good way. The ominous, hypnotic spell created by EMA's breathy synth score gives the slow porch position pans across the barren tree backyard a 'Wendy Carlos through the Rockies' sense of foreboding that's completely undone by sudden intrusions of crass Candy Crush, bouncy emojis and hit counts; every interesting shot disowned via flash-meme-freezes, as if the film itself can't stop checking its 'feed' or taking selfies any more than the children. (Not that the latest film from Helene Cattet and Bruno Forlani, THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS, didn't have the same trouble). And I'm a huge EMA fan, as I had a spiritual experience watching the suicide scene in the 1953 A STAR IS BORN with the sound off listening to her "The Grey Ship" after seeing THE TREE OF LIFE and learning via phone call right before the movie started that my dad was dying. Art, man.

A lot of foreshadowing strangeness with the children being lost inside the context of the art--as if the works are somehow effecting their mentality, like an unseen leader of their gang--is an idea promises a lot. A table full of eerie masks by the front door invites a kind of girl scout Illuminati masquerade that comes off best and only via a trippy dance scene; after the ostracized bully Kat keeps sending them all mean-spirited texts, the girls all decide to lock up their cell phones in mom's safe so they can talk freely without worrying their conversation is going to go viral from some poisonous traitor secretly recording them. BUT their conversation is going viral thanks to the black gloved Argento-esque killer prowling outside; s/he's got quite a microphone on that thing, apparently, and a talent for invisibility (how anyone can hide in the middle of the day in leafless woods right outside a glass house and not be seen by everyone inside is the least of Subkoff's problems). Then the night falls, so the film is harder to see. Lacking beauty; the killings all must occur near light, like from a tennis court or heated indoor pool which glows at night through the blinds to create a very Eric Fischl-meets-Edward Hopper suburban gloom. Eventually the girls' number shrinks until all that's left is the fat girl stuffing cupcakes into her mouth in a tightening noose of self-loathing. Even without the phones and Kat's malice, the girls eventually start bullying one another, as if unable to stop. But when they find a cell phone under the couch and see how jammed it is with Vines of their missing friends being murdered, that's a good opportunity for suspense too that's never really developed... cuz then the battery runs out - how convenient!

You might think I'm anti-rich kid counter-snob, but nothing, monsieur, could be from ze truth further--I'm fine with movies about rich kids made by rich kids about rich kid problems - those are universal. And approximately 80% of my friends were rich kids. I do object to the reverse - rich kids with self-important tears in their eyes filling us in on how tough it is to be poor, or about that one time they volunteered at a soup kitchen and met an old woman who changed their life blah blah. We'd know if Tara Subkoff was trying to tell us about ourselves-- we 'little' people --in some Sullivan's Jet Set Travels neorealist sermon. But she's not, until the end, of course when it's time for the grand statement on cyber bullying, and phone addiction, and jadedness to violence-zzz.

In other words, this is about the kids of those kids in KIDS (1995), a hard-to-believe-it-was-20-years-ago burst of street-eye smashtercult that I personally watched over and over for months, amazed at its similarity to the clique dynamics in my own circle of (older) debauched NYC libertines, right down to the same hang-out spots. That makes it sad as now KIDS star Chloe Sevigny is a wearisome cuckolded wife wearing frocks so ugly they must be ultra-expensive, made up to look like one of the evil harpy wives from BRAZIL in case the message wasn't clear. But I still like her! Why? Because she's going to AA, which means she's trying, even if she brings a drink in the car (in a glass, cuz she classy) when driving there. And from the angle we see her outside the AA meeting having a smoke, Chloe's cool sponsor looks just like my old lesbian sponsee, so that makes me a grand sponsor of Chloe Sevigny, which is very reassuring. Also reassuring: the way Chloe brushes off Hutton's maniacal attack, his spittle-flecked accusations and threats. He may reduce a pack of girls to tearful hysterics but to Chloe he rates little more than a chuckle.

I guess this film as a whole is kind of the same - its overwrought 'artsy' kid-killing may drive the mainstream critics and audiences into unctuous rage but these same critics wouldn't dare attack any art they saw at MOMA (where #HORROR premiered); they're too afraid of bucking critical consensus, of seeming boorish. But everyone's invited to throw stones at a horror movie--whole TV shows (like MST3K) make an art of it. I guess it's not profound anymore to note that the only difference between art and trash is the right signature. That's all some of these artists do, fax over some sketches or ideas, then show up at the gallery awhile later to sign the finished (by 'assistants') projects, but I support any film that tries to apply that same harmful arbitrariness to children. If I had to grow up bowing and scraping before some piece of incoherent scribble on the wall that would rate an 'F' from my first grade art teacher, while my own masterpieces are ignored on--and confined to--the fridge, well, I'd be homicidal, too. I believe children are all born sadistic megalomaniacs, we only grow out of it if we perceive some benefit to doing so, when we begin to understand karma, that merit pays off even if no one sees it. Suddenly, torturing that beetle in the drive-way makes us feel sick instead of strong. We've grown. Hopefully. 

The art world, tied as it is (in NY especially) to designer labels and cocaine, on the other hand, is way beyond karmic law, beyond even 'the golden rule.' There is no scale of order or justice, no real merit, skill, vision, or craft measurable in what makes one all-white canvas worth a million five and another one worthless. The only way to make your name bankable is to inflict yourself like a stab wound into the guts of the world. 

Throw your enraged tweets at Tara Subkoff all you want, haters, but she's rich, she's hot, and she just inflicted.

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