Issue #224: More Forest Horror Movies
Last week I promised some writing about Cabin Fever (2002) and this week I have delivered. Also on the agenda today, a little bit of a re-cap of a music festival I attended last weekend.
Eli Roth’s Empathy
There’s no better starting point for considering Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever (2002) than the country store clerk who bookends the film. If a film begins and ends with something, after all, that suggests it is important. In the first scene among the duo, the five college students going on vacation (all white — an important detail) stop to gas up and get supplies. They pose a question to the gray haired white clerk (Robert Harris), Old Man Cadwell, about a rifle he has displayed behind the counter. They ask him what it’s for, and in his response he uses a racial invective (the so-called “n-word”), suggesting he uses the rifle to threaten or shoot Black people who patronize his store. In the closing scene, after the college students who indirectly accuse the shopkeeper of racism are long dead, a group of unnamed Black characters enter the store to pick up the rifle they left with the shopkeeper to repair. Greeting him, they refer to him using the aforementioned racial epithet (ending with a vowel rather than a consonant), and the shopkeeper responds to them in kind in a friendly fashion. Part of the joke is that this old white man has been granted a “pass” to use this word as a “term of endearment.”
Whether one finds this funny is a matter of taste, but the Shyamalanian twist is that the elderly, southern-accented white man is in fact (ostensibly) devoid of prejudice. More important to the logic of the film, though, is the fact that he was misunderstood in the first place. Part of it is in the syntax of his response to the college students’ questions. Before asking about the rifle, they ask about fox urine which he says is “for fox season.”
Because the structure of the response to their question about the rifle is the same, it carries the implied violence of something being used on someone rather than given to them. But the old clerk is profiled himself, both by viewers and the college students. He is no victim of “racial profiling” as such, but one’s predisposition to believe he would be racist and the misreading of his statement (unquestionably meant to be misread, in all of Roth’s cleverness) foregrounds one of the film’s main concern — mutual understanding and lack thereof.
As the five college students, Paul (Rider Strong), Karen (Jordan Ladd), Bert (James DeBello), Marcy (Cerina Vincent), and Jeff (Joey Kern) each come down with the virulent illness that is the film’s principal problem, one recognizes that what they are really infected with is hostility to their fellow human being. The contagion is indifference to, disunity with, and disdain for others. There is no ambiguity about this whatsoever. After Bert shoots the beleaguered Henry (Arie Verveen), Henry is also left outside to fend for himself despite the serious illness. He is eventually even lit on fired, killed in the chaos to protect the college partiers from infection. Coincidentally, their murder of the man actually insures their own infection as his body contaminates the water supply.
By the film’s conclusion, Paul takes up the position of Henry as he begs for help from partying teenagers and a Twin Peaks-influenced sheriff. They, of course, would sooner kill him.
Again and again, those that might help another repeatedly retreat to reject and even harm those they should be helping. Even Tommy (Hal Courtney), another employee at the shop, has little interest in helping Bert. He says being sick is “your problem,” suggesting he is not beholden to help.
All of these lapses in empathy have a prohibition of communication at their root. Much like Cadwell’s bizarre account of the customers who have utilized his gun repair service, the capacity to communicate is crucial in order to empathize. More than just talking and listening, it is an issue of messages being sent and received.
The ideal of togetherness, extolled in the film’s middle by Paul, is never achieved. Instead, there are more antagonisms (such as ones that might be indicated by Cadwell’s racist language) that Paul and his friends can’t escape. Bert and Karen use homophobic and ableist language that reveals their own confusion about the status of the signs they speak. These are more than just petty problems or uncritical microaggressions that fit the college student vocabulary of 2002. For Roth, they are genuine impediments to communication because of the way in which the meanings of these words are so diffuse. Bert, in particular, frequently embodies this confusion as the buffoonish character.
Roth doesn’t just anatomize problems of communication. These are also issues of knowledge — how can one know something if the language used to express it is so wide-ranging in its potential meanings? Education doesn’t resolve this issue, as Marcy emphasizes at the outset speaking to a child on the sidewalk.
College isn’t just a scam because of the money it divests its students of, but because it cannot teach students what they really need to know — the difference between Smokey the Bear and Smokey the Clown, between competing meanings for certain insensitive words, between an insult and a non-judgmental way of referring to someone. It all comes back to the students’ confusion at Cadwell’s comments. In the film’s closing (and only) musical number, the group coming to pick up the rifle from the general store stand and listen to the bluegrass players sitting outside.
This is Roth’s communal vision, without recourse to divisive rhetoric that drips with malice. If the infection spreads where empathy is missing, everyone here is (almost) immunized. But you can also see cups in hand, each filled with lemonade made from the tainted water that contains the disease. This final, fatal turn is the victory of the detached signifier over the cohesive sign. Genuine communication is only possible up to a point because of language’s very structure. One is left to consider the myriad possible definitions of the question, “what’s eating you?”
Richmond, VA Gig Report
Last weekend I made my way down to Richmond for a hardcore music festival, Big Takeover. A couple of my friends’ bands played and it was a good time. It was especially nice because it was a pretty unique grouping of people I know from all over the country, with some first time meetings between many of my oldest friends who had never crossed paths with each other.
There were some exciting sets, too. In chronological order: Burning Lord, Payload, Grand Scheme, Ideation, C4, Kontaminate, Protocol, Armor, Final Gasp, and C4 (again) topped my list. Final Gasp really stood out to me with my friend Jack comparing them favorably to Samhain. I’m not very well versed in the music of Glenn Danzig, but I would take Jack’s word for it. Vocalist Jake Murphy looked like he was letting all the demons out on stage, moving like a man possessed — but exorcizing them, like I said — with a great dance routine involving the mic stand. In short, he looked badass.
The Protocol set was an instant classic. It’s funny, eating at a Mexican restaurant with a bunch of people after the set, I had a really ambitious vision for how I was going to talk about their performance. But to be honest with you, I forgot what I was thinking. I should have written it down. They covered “I Have Faith” by Youth of Today, as an under-the-radar tribute to another great hardcore band — Failures. The video of Failures playing “I Have Faith” was on Vimeo sometime in the 2010s, but it’s long gone now. Some things aren’t meant to be on the internet forever.
Other observations: the mosh call quality rating was pretty high. Jay Petagine of Mindforce made at least two exhortations to “kickboxers,” which produced a grin on my face that will be difficult to replicate. Another dude in the band was wearing Hokas — the only pair of them I saw the whole weekend. Mindforce maintains their reputation for impeccable on stage style and presence.
Terrorizer, who headlined the fest, played well to a crowd of about 30. The less said about it, the better. You just had to be there.
Weekly Reading List
It’s never a bad time to reflect on the words of Grace Lee Boggs, particularly when they address the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Boggs delivered this speech at Antioch College for a 1997 celebration of Martin Luther King Day.
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Until next time.