Films first. Poltergeist: The last movie I saw before my (successful, thank you St Lucy) cataract surgery. Despite the blurriness, this Tobe Hooper (but apparently really Steven Spielberg) joint had a terrific front half. For quite some time we’re in the world of Elm Street/Arachnophobia/The ‘Burbs, that world where you yell at your neighbors over the fence and your pot-smoking parental cuddling is interrupted by your kid’s bad dream. The pet funeral is both touching and ridiculous.
I wanted to watch this mostly because of the Decades of Horror podcast episode about it, in which the hosts suggested that you can tell it’s a Spielberg film because the characters express genuine wonder at the unknown. When objects begin to move by themselves, the mom is entranced, delighting in making the poltergeist do tricks. Even after her youngest child is sucked into a place in between this life and the next, the mom is still able to react with rapture when her daughter’s spirit passes through her: “She went through my soul!” There’s just a lot to love about this family, and the film does a great job of setting up their loving home which the ghost or poltergeist or whatever will try to destroy.
Unfortunately the climax is painfully dragged-out, this CGI afterlife portal battle goes on forever and ever and it’s accompanied by interminable exposition. Including this bit, from tiny psychic Zelda Rubinstein (I’m paraphrasing bc I didn’t take notes): “Are you willing to do anything to rescue your daughter? Will you even go against your Christian beliefs?” People. In normal movies, as in life itself, the person who offers you your child’s life in exchange for your conscience is the Devil! And yet this movie acts like our tempter-psychic hasn’t said anything awful, and this line is just there to emphasize that things are about to get real weird up in here. What a creepy, unnecessary moment, so unhooked from anything else that happens.
The Body Snatcher: Far from the best oily Karloff villain, and far from the best Val Lewton chiller. Weirdly skippable for a film featuring so much talent.
I Walked with a Zombie: This otoh is so, so great. This isn’t really a review (you’ll get some of my thoughts on IWWAZ if you come to Doxacon) but just a statement that I have scientifically calculated that this is my fourth-favorite horror film of the black and white era. Chilling imagery and a surprising, rare portrayal of Christianity as an agent of modernity. (“Modernity” here is a term of abuse.)
The Gospel According to Matthew: Does what it says on the tin. No, this is a poetic movie. It seems like it’s trying simply to show you various parts of the Gospel: charged moments, where you can feel the underlying conviction that what’s being shown you is vitally important. If you don’t already share that conviction I’m not sure how this film plays. It’s seriously “here is a moment from the Bible, depicted with quivering intensity; here is another; here is a third.”
The only thing I would criticize is adult Jesus. Pasolini’s Jesus is severe, self-serious, condemning far more often than he forgives. He often sounds like a politician of a particularly Robespierrian stripe. He never lets up or changes note. It’s bizarre to think of somebody writing “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild” about this guy.
After the first story I found myself thinking, “Gosh, this is incredibly self-righteous. Did I think that was good?” It’s very much about the suffering of “I” at the hands of deluded, treacherous “you,” and I either furiously dish out the justice you deserve or forgive you (but always remember just how nobly I forgave, how my profile looked as I gazed out from my moral high ground). I thought, “Don’t any of these narrators know what it’s like to be the one who did something wrong?”
And one of the most intriguing elements of this collection, which I ended up still loving, is that here and there the positions shift. The “I” suddenly turns out maybe to have been a previous story’s “you.” There are hints that the furious, angel-of-justice “I” understands that holding the high ground has been bad for her. Forgiveness is inherently unfair–you hurt me and that means there’s extra, humiliating and hard stuff I have to do?–but Brown’s narrators are damaged by their inability to see anything but this unfairness. In the final story the narrator’s own heart has to be located, which means that her own failures and sins and complicities have to be confronted. The final scene of the collection is a little cliched for me (there’s poetry and it isn’t good enough, or isn’t my thing, I guess) but even in spite of that, I put the book down with that resonant feeling of catharsis. I felt pity and relief and love for these characters. I felt that I could see their world, carved red and dripping, and I wanted it to be healed.
On a sociological level, the rage and violence in this book now seem like hallmarks of ’90s queer/lesbian art. I think some of this is about AIDS (so many lesbians spent their twenties as political protesters by day, hospice nurses to their twentysomething gay friends by night; they witnessed a generation decimated in its youth, rejected by parents and ignored or mocked by outsiders) and some is maybe about the overall greater violence of that time. Sarah Schulman, Diane DiMassa, Gregg Araki: This book feels like it comes from that world, with its violence and hospital humor.