Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Monday, November 19, 2018

Miss Chthonic Temple: SUSPIRIA, SABRINA (Chilling Adventures of)

We're finally there, at the point in time wherein women have eclipsed men as their own worst enemy and the Apollonian phallus comes crashing into the sea like a blood-caked sandcastle to be replaced by a whole new tower: the blood-soaked erect white Tamm-Pon. Symbolizing birth, the shedding of the unfertilized eggs, the eclipse of the moon that recommences the menstrual cycle, Tamm-Pon looms tall, bloody but unbowed. See it rise, Amphitrite! Kali! Asherah! See its bloody exit unleash the Paglian chthonic floods, washing out the coastal regions like a melting ice cap blood tide. It is time. 

Witches are in the theater. Witches are on the Netflix. 

In theaters there is SUSPIRIA remake, made by the guy who did Call Me by Your Name; on Netflix is a show called THE CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA, something that by far was America's Halloween post-trick-or-treating binge of 2018. Earlier this year there was Hereditary. What else do you need, sister? To write your own story yourself? (Men created all three). Did you think men wouldn't be so naive as to let a girl write the story of a woman's magic triumph? We haven't listed to a voice other than our own in so long, we can't really pass the talking stick, so sorry but that's one phallus you'll need to actively pry from our metallic grip. It'll take more than beach erosion to end our ceaseless filibuster!

But hey, women star and feminine sensibility pervades, rather fearlessly in fact, relative to past witchcraft movies. I gleaned from the imagery presented, for example, a dark feminine secret: that bedknobs and broomsticks might be associated with witchcraft because they are items--always close to hand--a young girl may safely 'employ' towards her first orgasm (alone at night, or alone in the house during the day doing chores). And her first orgasm never really stops once it starts; it's like a fire that can destroy the patriarchy with a single moan. Is this not why censors of the past so feared it? 

Maybe they were right!

All my film geek friends love the new SUSPIRIA --and the Erich-targeted Alamo Drafthouse ads on my Facebook never shut up about how much their own geek contingent adores it, too. For my sins, I saw it. What a joint.  And I like that it's (Suspiria, I mean) totally boy-free: there's no romance, no sex, no pregnancies, no walks of shame, not even a throw-away glance from a pretty eyelashed young houseboy like in the original! This new version switches from a co-ed ballet academy to an acclaimed modern dance troupe and unlike the original there's actual dance performances. But something that made the original great is lost --the lurid, nightmarish color and sense of genuine menace. Terror, color and loudness have been replaced by body horror, Eastern European drabness and long-winded psychosocial allegory. The threat now is not to the soul and the neck but the ligaments, masculine pride, and joints. The scharzwald Hansel and Gretel primary co.or rock and roll of the original is replaced by gray rundown 1977 Berlin that already feels nostalgic  for the gold grey misery of the Wall (it stands here right outside the Hene Markos Dance Academy, replete with tasteful graffiti). In order to properly justify its political heft, this remake is an extra hour longer than the original, making it perhaps the longest horror film since The Shining.

Further differences abound: the exposition-history-relating parts played by Udo Kier (at his most devastatingly handsome) and Rudolf Schündler in the original are now combined into one old duffer (played by Tilda Swinton in good old man make-up but an unconvincing falsetto voice), who spends great swaths of time reading the diagram-packed diary of a missing dance student patient (Chloë Grace Moretz --whose insane babbling in his office apartment a highlight) and wasting time puttering back and forth across the Berlin wall to his country house while the idiosyncratic and wildly misguided Thom Yorke 90s-style alt rock balladry moans in the background. The reason it's set in 1977 soon becomes apparent: we overhear lots of TVs on in lobbies and apartments and bars as German terrorists try to free the imprisoned Baader-Meinhof four via a plane hijacking (as seen in Uli Edel's Baader-Meinhof Complex.)

It's interesting that the film presumes there is connections to be made, yet never really makes them. There's no real link between the aetheric consumption of Suzy Bannon's youthful vigor by the evil unseen Helena Markos and the crunching up of a generation by the children of the Nazis, for example. Such things aren't even afterthoughts (there's a much more vivid connection to German history in Ferrara's Addiction just from visiting a Holocaust exhibit). Instead of actually making and points, the film just watches as this old duffer putters around and read diaries full of arcane markings that, perhaps, director Luca Guadignino presumes we'll one day be pausing and reviewing up close to unscramble archaic clues the way those David Lynch pronoiacs do on Twin Peaks. In my case, good sir, he presumes in error.

Thanks to the pre-show videos at the Alamo, I knew before the movie started that its screenwriter David Kajganich had done research by watching videos of and by female European modern dance choreographers from the era, soaking up their worldly artistic views and goals, before and after the war. A lot of the choreography, credos and sociological underpinnings seem imported wholesale from those videos. The dancing in the film, the movements we do see seems legit, like they worked at it. Dakota Johnson especially gives it 100%, and there is some really excellent sound design: her every sexy breath and the whoosh of air from her movements can be felt in the solar plexus. But the director and editor seldom trust a single dance movement, a jump or a spin, to play out on its own in a simple medium shot, not when they can add thirty crosscuts to random things like faces of those watching, strange angles, other movements by other people in other areas of the school, faces, artwork, architecture, and then, maybe--if we're lucky--back to the dancer finishing their movement. It's the kind of thing that would probably make Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly so mad they'd break the editor's legs. In its trying so hard to craft associative meanings in the editing room, Suspiria lets itself get all carried away by the magic of crosscuts until you kind of wish DW Griffith had never been born!

That's not to say there aren't moments where this rapid-fire cutting works when, for example Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) touches Suzy Banon's (Johnson's) shoulder blades, arms, and legs before she does some difficult movement, injecting some matriarchal chthonic oomph, the force of which --while invisible to the eye--is felt via clever sound design (where we feel air currents in our lower chakras) and editing that shows clued-in dancers and instructors all throughout the building sensing--if you will--a stirring in the (dark) force.  That sort of thing great, but then we can't just have a dance without seeing the linked puppet agony it causes some other girl trapped below in the fuzzily circumscribed secret sanctum, and those dancer and instructor's faces, and on and on until it's like beating a dead horse that's somehow still breathing. The original Suspiria murders were grand terrifying erotic and disturbing, but then Argento knew to keep the camera on the action. He didn't feel the need to crosscut to five other things. In the first murder, for example, we only cross-cut between the murder and the roommate feebly trying to get help pounding on their neighbor's doors. In the remake we'd probably also cut to the interior of every single neighbor's apartment as they debate answering or calling the cops, as well as Suzy back in her cab driving to a hotel, and so on, until all the dread and shock was drained out, replaced by some half-assed grand statement about the modern age.

What this remake reminded me most of, actually, was the recent Atomic Blonde starring Charlize Theron. The point of that film may have been that 70s Berlin was a mess, or that James MacAvoy is a drink best served on a short leash, but it was also about how intoxicating Theron and Sofia Boutella look under red and blue lights, in loose-knit sweaters, kissing in a neon-drenched club bathroom foyer (left). Similarly, this Suspiria remake's point might be that 70s Berlin was a mess but it's really about how sexy Dakota is when she's writhing around on the floor, her grey-white-peach accented skin making a gorgeous counterpoint to her gray gym clothes; her breathing given a nice swooshing circular sound design like she's conducting great swaths of air in and around herself in some shamanic ecstatic trance.

Her skin, gray as the Wall! Ladies and gentlemen.. her pale peach-gray skin! I can hear the blood rushing right behind its lustrous surface.

Another thing that made the original, as well as Halloween and Psycho, so iconic, was the presence of a female voice behind the scenes, to correct, perhaps, countless irritants as to what women would or wouldn't say and how they say it. Daria Nicolodi, Debra Hill, Paula Pell, Alma Reville, Gale Ann Hurd all helped make the films they worked on the classics they are. We see what happens to Argento when Daria isn't there (in his later work), he just goes in for gory murders without much style or interest in the rest. Daria supplied him with a counterbalance. In the documentary accompanying the film (on my DVD), it's clear she brought the Jungian fairy tale weirdness, the dreamy Alice in Wonderland haunted quality to Suspiria and when she's gone from his work, it begins to fade away like a dream. In the remake there might be a lot of women in the cast, but few behind the scenes, thus we have to wait for the big climactic reveal which--upon closer examination--makes little sense--for any kind of chthonic payoff. For all it's length, a lot seems left out, things we'd have rather seen than all this 90s mope rock Mennonite funeral wandering and old man notebook reading, precinct-bothering and wall-traversing. A good woman behind the scenes could have ripped out at last 1/2 the script, and maybe added some things that actually made sense.

That's not to say the sheer abundance of grand old German broads in the cast isn't a great thing, or that the men who made this Suspiria don't love and appreciate strong women, but maybe that's the problem? A woman writer would know how and why women are both scared and scary, they'd go places a man wouldn't dare without a woman leading the way. The male voice here hems and haws around the edges instead, trying to work up the nerve to plunge deep into the menses pool. We see the coven carousing and swilling food and liquor at the local restaurant from afar as if small children left out by adult conversations. We don't get to see female-empowered evil as an unknowable, strange otherworldly force but as a kind of henhouse pyramid scheme, where young women sacrifice their youth so that their elders can act like five year-olds at a Kindersport Spielplatz geburtstag. In the original, the presence of evil was like an ice cold razor blade run down back of our necks --we could feel it. Every shard of rain in the opening scenes of Suzy's first night arrival in Germany cut deep. It was like long thin razors were falling between the tall trees. This frisson transcended misogyny or the body or any kind of normal Michael Myers brand of fear. It was the fear of a real abstract maternal threat. Here the pain is all dancing, twisting Red Shoes-kind of prolonged misery. It's so over the top and abstracted it becomes numbing. It's not evil as a malevolent force but as mere Saw-style sadism. The rain doesn't sting. Thom Yorke does not howl and rattle metal sheets and whisper "witch!" in a pursed hiss through the echo chambre. There is nothing to fear, only to mourn. We mourn for fear.

On the other hand, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina now on Netflix, at least has the willingness to look under the dark rocks. The story of a young witch in a Salem-like town about to have the occult version of her blood-spattered bot-mitzvah, Sabrina builds up to her big signing of Satan's book during a deep woods midnight ceremony that involves--among other things--the sacrifice of a goat. The catch? Sabrina is only half a witch. Her mom was human. And she balks at the last minute, even though the goat's already been killed... and why? Because she has some pie-eyed faux-Wahlberg chump human boyfriend named, of fall things, Harvey Kinkel (grown-Disney kid Ross Lynch) and she doesn't want to have to give him up and go to a new school. Oy!


But, in a show that positions boys so far to the side they're as superfluous as wives in a war movie, we're put in a very unique place with the presence of this lump of proletariat Jungenfleisch, an interesting en verso of all the buzzkill fiancees in films like Gunga Din. The whole show seems to want this boy gone. Sabrina clings to him like a security blanket while the Satanic magickal side of things beckons - luring her and therefore the show away from banal Archie-ism into something sexy and October-dark and cool.  We really don't need another show about a girl who turns her back on her own blossoming career/powers to support some half-written sensitive 'perfect' doormat. Harvey doesn't even have a motorcycle!

There's an unwritten cardinal rule when writing female protagonists, something--alas--many showrunners and writers learn the hard way--no one likes the boyfriend of the heroine. The only way we like him is if she meets him for the first time over the course of the film or episode. If she starts out with a boyfriend, we don't like him. This is always true, in life and in shows. Thus, this Harvey--while innocuous and sweet--is a burden, like the townie high school boyfriend who tries to hang on to a cute intelligent girl after she moves away to college, calling incessantly and coming up weekends, trying to pull her down from her limitless horizons into his same go-nowhere small town quicksand like a clinging vine, the chocolate diamond engagement ring (he went to Jared!) his last desperate tendril.

Either way, among things she will do other than sign the book is--as the series progresses--raise the Harvey's brother from the dead (just because her dear Harvey misses him) and slit a fellow witch's throat to do so. Why? Because she doesn't want Harvey to suffer. One thinks of Katniss running high and low like a nervous mom to protect her little Peeda in The Hunger Games. But while Lawrence invested Katniss with a kind of dour humorless resolve, Kiernan Shipka cocks her heads and purses her lips with a kind of false pride,  never doubting she's on the morally superior end of the spectrum.

It's a very wary weird line to tread, for this Sabrina is not always sympathetic and we're regularly put in the succulent position of the completely morally neutral observer, for unless we're prudes, what's not to celebrate in one of her rival's enjoying a luxurious orgy before her sacrifice at the hands of the Satanic coven for a horrifyingly literal combination thanksgiving and church sacramental wafer? Nada!

And that's what makes this show great, aside from the sprawling, beautiful art direction and framing which takes full use of HD's ability to clarify darker color schemes, it's unafraid to go pretty frickin' dark in its deeds (one woman slits her own throat and is devoured by her coven during a Thanksgiving celebration, for example) while never putting on the dour self-important face of something like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones. There's plenty of dark, darker than dark comedy: The witches here make no bones about being aligned with the devil and it's not condemned overtly as morally wrong (since the humans are even worse - hanging witches and not suffering them to live, and so forth). In sum, this isn't Tabitha and Dick York! These bitches got a hotline to Hell, and every once in awhile in the caverns below the town, Satan himself appears to suck the soul right out of an unlucky miner. Hell is literally a place under their feet and the honesty and directness of that, evidenced in the Satanic statue adorning the foyer of the Witch school, and the way Sabrina doesn't want to turn her back on evil, totally, since it's 'her heritage' is the film's great strength. The Comics Code Authority would shit themselves, and should. Let what they did to EC be done unto them!

As with the pro-occult 'dying and heroin are cool'-subtext of Twilight, Sabrina's subversive delight in her dark prowess is almost invisible for being so pronounced. Maybe other viewers' opinions will differ but what we have is the typical story of a girl who could be such a badass except she keeps hanging around a drip of a boy instead of spreading her limitless wings. I can only hope the producers intended us to have a negative reaction towards him. (2) At my house over Halloween we were shouting at the screen "Sign the damn book already!" and "Dump that idiot!" For the powers of darkness seem formidable indeed here, and as with the paltry human company in Twilight, humanity is seen as rather anemic and dull. The idea that anyone would cherish it is pathetic. We already know what it's like not to sign Satan's book: life bubbles thick and sludgy, one 'blurp' at a time. The human side is so stalled out, not even getting the non-binary Lachlan Watson an Amelia Earhart-ish ghost ancestor save them from a unenviable torpor.

And most importantly, the evil witch adult cast is sublime: Michelle Gomez (above) as Satan's evil henchwoman (above) hangs back from the action in the guise of Sabrina's (human) school counsellor, to make sure Sabrina has enough rope to hang herself. BBC Dr. Who fans of course know how awesome Gomez is at playing characters who inhabit her body rather than 'are' it --she was the female incarnation of Who's archetypal shadow, 'The Master' (and it's perhaps Gomez's brilliance in the role that led to the new Dr. Who himself being reconstituted as Jodi Whitaker)--and she's aces as the sexually alive deep-breathing agent of Satan on Earth. The Dark Lord is evidently keen to take the long way around to win Sabrina into signing the book, and it's this arc that constitutes the general thrust of the show. Gomez is such a kick, luxuriating in her own evil, that we root for her wild schemes every step of the way and find Sabrina's smirky hypocrisy and sense of busybody superiority more and more insufferable.

At the same time, we realize this is a topsy turvy realm where we can almost suspect some masonic secret message encoded in the tree bark, gearing us all towards a kind of Satanic fascist paganism. The rush of evil, in other words, transcends the screen, and just as Sabrina is being systematically corrupted and morally compromised, so are we being trained to see wrong as right, up as down, darkness as light, square as round... If Sabrina cannot survive corruption, what chance have we? And why indeed, would we want to? According to Suspiria's big climax on the other hand, the best we can wish for, as humans marooned outside the Satanic coven, is either blessed forgetfulness or peaceful death. And maybe there's no difference (we can't remember).

With evil, at least, there's dancing.

Speaking of Witches (respectfully, for they are always listening), visit 
Erich K's HEREDITARY Witchcraft Conspiracy DSM-IV Reader (Sept. 18, 2018)
Bell, Book, and Hallucinogenic Tampon (Feb 23, 2017)

Erich Kuersten is still getting over the bitterness he feels towards Giuliani after the brutal re-implementation of NYC's Cabaret Law in 1998.

1 comment:

  1. I hadn't even considered watching Sabrina until I read this. I had no idea.


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