Issue #230: There Is No Band, Just a Player Piano
Table of Contents
More writing about Westworld this week, plus some horror movie reviews.
Horror Mass Produced
I watched a couple recent horror films over the last week. One, The Black Phone (2022), has received a lot of praise since release. Another, Suicide Forest Village (2021), is more obscure despite the fact it offers some fairly compelling reasons for one’s attention — at least on paper. Both are directed by major horror filmmakers. Scott Derrickson, director of The Black Phone, defined himself with Sinister (2012), one of my favorite horror films of the last thirty years. Takahashi Shimizu has been even more prolific in the genre, best known for Ju-on: The Grudge (2002) but also directing its American adaptation, taking a turn at the iconic Tomie franchise with Tomie: Re-birth (2001), collaborating with Shinya Tsukamoto on Marebito (2004), and beginning his “village” sequence with Howling Village (2019). He’s also since continued these thematically connected films with Ox-Head Village, released this year, but not available with English subtitles as of yet.
Between the two, Suicide Forest Village was by far my favorite. I won’t mince words, The Black Phone sucked. Adapted from a Joe Hill story by the same name, this formal trajectory is at least part of the reason. Hill is a pen name for Joseph King, son of Stephen King. At least in this case, the apple did not fall from the tree. The setting, aesthetic, tone, and plot are indistinguishable from the elder King’s work. I’m not a fan of Stephen King’s work, either, and vastly prefer the adaptations of it that he hates. He has a fixation on suburban neighborhoods and small northeastern towns, but rather than inverting their idyllic signification he simply paints a veneer of cynicism over it. Good people may die, but the really good ones — or at least, the ones good enough to be a protagonist — triumph. Ugly things may happen in King’s world, but they most often remain orderly, ideological, and partake in an idealist fantasy.
Hill’s work in “The Black Phone” is no different. Though Derrickson does his best to emphasize the bleak, run-down nature of the Denver suburb where the story and film take place, this is still a neighborhood where kids walk to and from school, have weekly sleepovers, and aimlessly ride their bicycles down paved streets bereft of cars. Hill’s story doesn’t just follow in the footsteps of King in terms of its setting, but also many of its features: light supernatural elements, faux-insight into the logic of human-made horrors, and a supposedly happy ending.
The film’s narrative arc seems simple enough. Finney (Mason Thames), a bullied public school student unable to stand up for himself, is kidnapped and imprisoned by The Grabber (Ethan Hawke). Gwen (Madeline McGraw), Finney’s sister, has visions of the kidnapped children The Grabber has taken and even more acute insight into Finney’s kidnapping. Finney’s abduction is preceded by several narrative sacrifices, including close friend and defender Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora), who repeatedly encourages Finney to fight back against the bullies who harass him. Though the other children die, Finney triumphs over The Grabber and escapes, all with a new swagger walking through his school halls and respect from his peers who formerly reviled him.
This all starts to become a little more strange examining some of the details, though. Early in the film, Robin brutally beats another student who insults him using a racial slur. The film is unambiguous as presenting Robin’s beating of the student as excessive. When Finney asks if the degree of violence was necessary, Robin replies, “the more blood, the stronger the message.” Finney’s suspicion of Robin’s action is associated with his own general inability to confront his own attackers. By the film’s end, it’s Robin’s ghost who instructs Finney on how to sufficiently beat The Grabber, which he does. The Grabber is treated in the same brutal fashion by Finney, following the model of adolescent masculinity of Robin. The bloody message conveyed by both Finney and Robin inspires awe from their fellow students rather than suspicion or revulsion.
Even more curious, Finney and Gwen’s father, Terrence (Jeremy Davies), abuses them horribly. Terrence and The Grabber are clearly associated with one another. The Grabber’s torture of choice for the boys he kidnaps is playing a game where he gives them the opportunity to escape, recaptures them, and beats them with a belt mimicking corporal punishment. Terrence also uses a belt when beating Finney and Gwen, with Gwen’s abuse actually depicted on screen in a scene that is overlong for my taste — or perhaps even unnecessary. And yet, despite Finney bludgeoning and strangling The Grabber, it seems his relationship with his father is mended by the film’s conclusion. Perhaps the implication is that the newly minted Finney, capable of appropriate (in the film’s view) reprisal (bloody enough to send a message) will not allow himself or his sister to be hit by their father anymore. However, the two children end the film in the arms of their abusive father who delivers them a tearful apology. Terrence’s apology seems to not just be for allowing Finney to be kidnapped, but also for the abuse he so readily dispensed.
If Terrence is exculpated or forgiven for what he has done, that does seem at odds with the advice Robin dispenses at the film’s outset. The logic of retribution this film endorses goes beyond even the Old Testament, it is downright Bas Rutten-esque. Rutten’s philosophy? “I don’t believe in an eye for an eye, I believe in two eyes for an eye.” All of this comes together for a film that lands somewhere between stupid and ideological with no redeeming aesthetic features to speak of. The film’s plot and character development is painfully predictable and anodyne.
While The Black Phone assembles all the perfunctory storytelling pieces in a totally uninteresting way (there’s a clear narrative arc, foreshadowing, etc.), Suicide Forest Village is disorganized and chaotic. There are parallel plot lines, a shift from one protagonist to another, and ideas assembled in a way that isn’t quite coherent. In both Howling Village and Suicide Forest Village, Shimizu is interested in urban legends. The titular villages are apocryphal and sinister. They’re not on any map. They are the destination of the cursed, rejected, and resentful. But like the resentment of any individual or group in horror film, it travels. The legend of Suicide Forest Village draws in a youtuber, Akina (Rinka Otani), who the protagonist, Hibiki Amasawa (Anna Yamada) watches in a darkened room.
Akina disappears and Hibiki is questioned about this disappearance by the police. If the film that followed was about Hibiki trying to uncover the secret of the village while searching for Akina, it would make sense in the way that The Black Phone makes sense. While Hibiki does eventually look for Akina, this is a relatively minor plot point despite its privileged position at the beginning of the film. The preeminent mystery for Hibiki and her older sister Mei (Mayu Yamaguchi) is about a strange stone box Hibiki discovers under the new house of the sibling’s childhood friends, Miyu Katase (Haruka Kudou) and Akira Akutsu (Fuju Kamio).
The box is cursed, and causes all manner of misfortune to befall the five central characters, Hibiki, Mei, Miyu, Akira, and Shinjiro Washio (Kura Yuki), including Miyu miscarrying. While the box and the village seem initially disconnected, they share the common thread of having their legends transmitted via the internet.
More than Howling Village before it, Suicide Forest Village is acutely focused on the way the internet can transmit urban legends like these. By the film’s end, though, the relationship is explained. The box was made in the village and cursed the Amasawa family over generations. Hibiki and Mei turn out to be orphans from the village, escaped and adopted but followed by the box. The box is also bizarrely filled with severed ring fingers, the act of severing marking one as being confined to the village. As each character in the film dies, they each lose their ring finger.
It’s these sort of disconnected ideas that make the film so chaotic. The village is suggested to be a space of forced relocation for the infirm and otherwise socially undesirable. If that’s the case, why does the box seem to oscillate between killing anyone who touches it and having something to do with cursing children? The significance of the cut ring finger as some kind of distinguishing mark is clear, but why the ring finger? Maybe I need to watch more closely, but I can’t account for the element’s symbolic or plot significance in a compelling way.
These loose threads connect the film from scene to scene, including a late-runtime switch from Hibiki as the primary character to Mei. But the evocativeness of the space of Aokigahara, the box itself, Shimizu’s gift for mind-searing imagery, and the connection of the urban legend to the online forum all do a lot of work to make the film enjoyable. Even if not everything made sense, I preferred it to the film where most things made too much sense. Suicide Forest Village leaves its viewer with a lot of questions, whereas the only ones The Black Phone leaves its viewers with are clearly unintended.
Big budget horror in both the U.S. and Japan is hit or miss — and more miss than hit — but I don’t regret my time watching either film. I only recommend one though, and that’s Shimizu’s Suicide Forest Village. What can I say, I’m a sucker for horror movies involving the internet. The Black Phone’s spectral collect callers just don’t cut it.
The Emptiness of the Scene’s Simulacrum in Westworld, “Well Enough Alone”
This episode of Westworld, “Well Enough Alone,” deals with issues that have preoccupied the series for a long time — the foreign set against the domestic, the contrast between something’s appearance and its function, and the ease or difficulty with which one might transgress borders and limits.
Consider the episode’s opening, an angled top-down shot of a Mexican city where Clementine (Angela Sarafyan) has gone into hiding to avoid William. The show’s brief visit to the jurisdiction shows it to be colorful, lively, alive in a way the U.S. locales are not. This kind of depiction splits the difference between fetishism and self-critique, as the line that separates Mexico and the U.S. isn’t even that of a continent — they’re both America, and even North America. The signification of “American” as confined to U.S. ideology set against “American” broadly construed has always been a part of Westworld’s DNA.
William’s expedition “south of the border” demonstrates there is no border he won’t cross, geographical or otherwise. As it turns out, the border he needs to cross — and will find the most difficult — is the interior one, the border that defines what one expects on “American soil” as well as the propriety Delos’s salacious and violent parks threaten to transgress.
His enclosure is within the ideology of the United States, his American-ness, which should make him free, restricting him. He can create his fantastical worlds anywhere but in the space that he calls home, the space that defines him. This is the cleverness of placing the facsimile of the American west, the frontier, on an island in the South China Sea. “America” isn’t a place, it’s an ideological construct.
One of this week’s episode’s main plots involve William attempting to open his new park, what I called “Mobworld” last week, within the contiguous United States. He encounters resistance at every turn, some circumvented in the months and weeks leading up to the events of the episode, some within the episode’s text. He enlists Clementine in helping him, continuing the riffing on borders and Americas.
This version of William’s absolute adherence to the tenets of American-ness and capitalism (co-extensive, I assure you) is unmistakable in his speech introducing the new park, which he calls “the Golden Age.” Keeping in mind that this William is a Host operative of “Hale” (the name Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan use to refer to the Dolores/Charlotte hybrid Host played by Tessa Thompson), he gives his best Steve Jobs impression when emphasizing profits over propriety, hyping up the public, investors, journalists, whoever, as he turns the lights on at the park.
William’s (Host or human, take your pick) entire life is dedicated to these grand moments of creation. Self-creation of his identity as The Man in Black foremost, but his position as a mogul lends himself to this sort of thing. While he may not be the mind behind Westworld nor “Mobworld,” he gets to define their borders by controlling their funding. He also defines the borders, the enclosure, of the federally leased golf course where he confronts the Vice President.
Any Delos park may as well be a giant golf course. A space for recreation, gendered masculine, financially gated, a simulacrum of the world that is meticulously constructed.
Caleb and Maeve find themselves within that simulacrum, onboarded into the Golden Age for beta testing and ending the episode arriving by train, echoing the arrival of Westworld guests. But how they get to getting there is a little more interesting. The duo are alerted to a performance of Don Giovanni but find only a phonograph and an empty auditorium. “No hay banda,” anyone?
In the iconic scene from David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita (Laura Elena Harring) attend a performance at Club Silencio (cute) where a litany of performers lip and trumpet-sync to an invisible recording played over the club’s speakers, all while an emcee exhorts the audience to remember, “no hay banda,” Il n'y a pas d'orchestre,” “there is no band.”
Lynch, here, emphasizes an essential quality of filmmaking and perhaps storytelling itself. There is never any band. The things that move audiences and viewers and readers do not exist. But just as Betty and Rita are fooled, so are we, every time we are wrapped up in a story. And we enjoy letting ourselves be fooled in this way. Lynch and “Well Enough Alone” go beyond this simple idea, however. The “no”-ness of the band, its negative absence, doesn’t just emphasize the illusory nature of fiction — there is also a contradiction that Westworld draws out.
There is a machine whose function is to deceive, much like Descartes’ evil demon or the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave, that mediates the space between Betty and Rita’s belief and disbelief. Though it is elided somewhat in Mulholland Drive, Westworld emphasizes the phonograph, the delivery mechanism for the art of Don Giovanni.
It is a purely functional machine, producing sound from the ridges on a pressed piece of vinyl. And yet, what comes through it is something amazing — maybe even transcendent — that calls function into question. The Hosts are much the same. Previously the vessels for the narratives of Robert Ford, their transformation from objects to subjects is also a transformation of their relationship to themselves. An object has a form and a function, but a work of art (or a Host) has form but not necessarily function. It does something, but that’s not the same as functionality. The moving power of the lip-synched cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” does not accomplish a function as it rivets Betty, Rita, and anyone watching Mulholland Drive. The phonograph and the Host, the complex machines that bring together function and doing something non-functional are likewise a layer worth reading into the film from which Westworld draws its inspiration for the scene.
Form, function, and act (let’s say art moving someone is an act) can also be intentionally deceptive. During William and the Vice President’s tense encounter, Clementine queries the duo of Secret Service agents. She asks them, “I’ve always wondered, why do they call you the ‘Secret’ Service? Aren’t you a little… obvious?”
Though you might not think so just reading about it, she’s pretty menacing here. And it’s not a misreading to think so, since she summarily kills them both.
In this case, there is too wide a gulf between the promise of secret service, ensuring the prolonging of a humble civil servant’s life by assessing threats from an advantaged point of view, and the reality of their inability to protect the Vice President or compete physically with the utterly dominating power of the Host. William, too, flexes his quantum computing and targeting software (or whatever) hitting flawless shot after shot after shot, to the increasing concern of the Vice President. William’s perfect golf game makes the Vice President’s dire situation clear, they will replace us. Just like the audio recording of the Orbison cover might replace the real thing, in the right circumstances at least.
Our heroes are a little too smart to be fooled, though, with Caleb and Maeve immediately recognizing the unnatural scene they come upon encountering the recorded version of Don Giovanni.
They are the real Secret Service, infiltrating the new Delos park, for the moment, undetected. Their advantage is no more clear when they turn down the offer to don a hat upon entering the park. In this way, we find them both refusing to have their biological and brain data captured by Delos — which does so through the guests’ hats — and rejecting the black-and-white binary logic the hat selection implies.
Never been much of a hat guy, indeed.
Weekly Reading List
http://lalifeanddeath.blogspot.com/2014/05/a-touch-of-orson-venice-beach-as-border.html — I’ve really been enjoying the blog of this random guy from the film noir subreddit. Here, he writes a little bit about Touch of Evil (1958). What he doesn’t include is the (unattributed) story (I keep telling to everyone) that Heston orchestrated the hiring of Welles as the villain with the end goal of getting him to direct (instead of, as the archive suggests, congenially suggesting it) and Welles only taking a fee for his acting — not his directing or writing. Any of it true? Who can say.
You know, current events. They happen. They’re not really pleasant. Some of them involve abortion bans. Some of them involve shootings, the routine of them having become itself routine. When it comes to shootings, Tommy Orange has written about them best. This isn’t the first time I have talked about the book and I teach it twice a semester. In the chapter titled “Interlude,” he has a subsection called “Apparent Death.” He writes:
We won’t have come expecting gunfire. A shooter. As many times as it happens, as we see it happen on our screens, we still walk around in our lives thinking: No, not us, that happens to them, the people on the other side of the screen, the victims, their families, we don’t know those people, we don’t even know people who know those people, we’re once and twice removed from most of what we see on the other side of the screen, especially that awful man, always a man, we watch and feel the horror, the unbelievable act, for a day, for two whole days, for a week, we post and click links and like and don’t like and repost and then, and then it’s like it didn’t happen, we move on, the next thing comes. We get used to everything to the point that we even get used to getting used to everything. Or we only think we’re used to it until the shooter, until we meet him in real life, when he’s there with us, the shots will come from everywhere, inside, outside, past, future, now, and we won’t know right away where the shooter is, the bodies will drop, the depths of the booms will make our hearts skip beats, the rush of panic and spark and sweat on our skin, nothing will be more real than the moment we know in our bones the end is near.
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Until next time.