Monday, December 29, 2014

2014 in Shit (Bonus): The Babadook

I saw The Babadook about a week ago, which is why I didn't include it in the projected reviews, and why I won't be able to claim that I barely remember any of it in this review. Luckily, I was incredibly tired when I did see it, so I was both a little sour on it and not able to focus as well as I ought to have, so I get to claim those which are effectively the same as not remembering. So good call on me for that.

Here's the thing about The Babadook: I can dig a The Aristocrats joke as much as the next white boy, but when it's told exclusively through masterful sound design and the punchline is that the monster chitters like the fucking Dilophosaurus from Jurassic Park it's all a bit much. Honestly rude, y'all.

No, okay, it was a fine movie. It was probably even pretty great. The monster was pretty fantastic, the sound design really was phenomenal and made the movie clip along with springy tension, the acting was suitably uncanny, and the appearances of the monster (excluding the last one where he's visible and has just come back from Jurassic Park for whatever reason) were exceptionally well done. There were also a number of smaller, gradual things, like how the slow shifting of the mother's perspective over the course of the film was reflected in the cinematography and how the non-central characters were realistically and gradually written out of the film through a series of sudden events, that I thought were pretty cool.

Just yesterday I was talking about the weirdness of being called to watch a movie with an eye towards things like its continuity in worldbuilding and how I both respected and resented it. I had a similar experience, bizarrely, with The Babadook, though this was largely because I was really tired, I think. The introduction of the monster is through a pop-up story book that the child asks to be read after he has had some trouble at school; his mom doesn't recognize it, but starts it anyway. Very early on, there's the monsters name as onomatopoeia; the page in question luckily turns out to be in the trailer, so here's a screencap of it.

You'll notice that it goes "ba BA-ba;" for whatever reason this started to bother me a lot. Particularly when, later in the movie, the mother receives a phone call that turns out to be from the Babadook, who does do the three Dooks but only does two Bas. It's like that through the bulk of the movie; ba BA-ba becomes BA-ba, but DOOK! DOOK! DOOK! stays just the same. It's a bizarre, pointless, nitpicky thing to be worried about, but there's something about how central the noises are to this movie, and how tired I was, that made that whole bit stick out to me. Which might also be the case for the dinosaur sounds, although honestly for everything the movie does right I thought that final confrontation was totally shitty.

There's also the fact that the kids in this movie all had weirdly stilted, adult dialog, but then I'm just kind of finding pleasure in articulating these little nitpicky things (which, to be fair, is at least partially honest to my experience of watching the movie, even if I didn't particularly like that I was doing it then and like it even less now). Anyway.

If there's one thing underlying everything, I suspect that it has something to do with how the movie is one of those horror films that seems unduly invested in its own narrative ambiguity; how this plays out is in the very familiar "the monster may exist but it may also just be some sort of projection/whatever by the characters." It's a thing that a lot of people are fond of praising movies for; it's also something that I find tiresome and defanging. It's the sort of ambiguity that is much more productively left in the hands of readers than of writers, if that's a binary that I'm allowed to invoke despite the bulk of my work being quietly dedicated to dismantling it. When, I guess another way to say it, the ambiguous presence of the monster is a directed subtext of the film, it becomes a discussion of inches; does this scene or that scene more accurately represent the film's reality, do we take her eyes having closed to mean that it was all a dream even if they didn't open until much later, that sort of thing. The existential question of the monster is one that is only really interesting as a structural question; how do we make this whole thing hold up -- not just the narrative, but the POV, the themes, the everything -- in the absence of this generic material? And even that, sometimes, is just a tedious act of debate for debates sake, but it can also be productive in ways that I've never seen the intentional ambiguity be. Or, more accurately, the existential question is at least a step in the right direction, while the subtextual inclusion just resolves into the sort of nitpicky bullshit that I ended up spending my time watching this movie doing.

So what I'm saying is that The Babadook, for all its outstanding elements, falls prey to a form of valorization that propagates what I consider to be bad reading practices, and so I disliked that part of it enough to take pleasure in wielding those against it. It is good though, on the whole. Just don't be one of those people who are like "this is so smart because the monster might just be all in her head" because I don't think that's very smart at all. Or do because who the fuck am I, come on, why would I even pretend like I want people to follow my advice there.

I just like reading a lot I guess. It's neat and I think about it a lot and do it even more and I would like more things to think about it and work on that. Especially things like weird breakout horror films, which is a genre that is basically entirely predicated on cultivating and exploiting intelligent reading practices. It's a good movie though, you'll probably dig it.

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