Nagging Narratives: Stories of the Year

Some stories are like other worlds we visit for a little while. Some climb in our minds and manipulate our thoughts. “[O]ur brains are built to try to process everything we see as a story,” writes David Wong of Cracked.com, so it’s no wonder that some stories are so powerful. These are the ones that haunted my head this year.

Upstream Color

Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color is easily the best movie of the year. As I wrote elsewhere, the hollow, breathless feeling I always choke down at the climax of his previous movie, Primer, was evident throughout Upstream Color. If the grammar of Primer is mechanical, spurred on by engineers spending their off hours tinkering in the garage, then Upstream Color is organic, revealing itself through rote ritual, hypnotic motion, and passages from Walden. Where Primer was wordy, stacked with dialogue and guided by Aaron’s answering-machine voice-over, Upstream Color is primarily nonverbal, a collage of scenes, snatches of dialog, subtle sounds, and spacious music.

Spring Breakers

Another collage-like experience, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is as beautiful as it is bewildering. Its heist scene might be the best few minutes of cinema I’ve seen in years. Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) rob the Chicken Shack restaurant with a hammer and a squirt gun while Cotty (Rachel Korine) circles the building in the getaway car with the camera (and us) riding shotgun. Our limited vantage point gives the scene an added tension because though we are at a distance, it feels far from safe. Much like the security camera footage of Columbine and Chronicle, and the camera-as-character of Chronicle and Cloverfield, we receive a crippled information flow while experiencing total exposure. Their mantra: “Just pretend it’s a fucking video game. Act like you’re in a movie or something.”

Lauren Beukes' Shining Girls timeline. (photo by Morne Van Zyl, Wired UK)

The book of the year is The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes (Mulholland Books). Beukes’ easily digestible prose and gleefully nagging narrative betray a convoluted timeline and staggering depth of research. Drifter Harper Curtis quantum leaps from time to time gutting the girls as he goes. The House he squats in his helper, enabling the temporal jaunts. He’s like an inverted Patrick Bateman: no money, all motive. Where Bateman’s stories are told from his point of view in the tones of torture-porn, Harper’s kills are described from the abject horror of the victims. And the victims, who are all strong-willed women with drive and purpose, are only victims at his hand. Otherwise they shine with potential and promise.

Also worthy of mention are Year Zero by Rob Reid (Del Rey/Ballantine), Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon (Penguin), The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (Scribner), the nonfiction The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit (Viking) and Present Shock by Doug Rushkoff (Current), and the reissued, 20th anniversary edition of Vurt by Jeff Noon (Pan Macmillan).

Lauren Beukes’ Tangled Timeline of Transgression

“The problem with snapshots,” Kirby Mazrachi thinks, “is that they replace actual memories. You lock down the moment and it becomes all there is of it” (p. 319). Kirby is one of the girls in The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes (Mulholland Books, 2013), the disturbingly beguiling novel of the summer. Beukes’ easily digestible prose and gleefully nagging narrative betray a convoluted timeline and staggering depth of research. Drifter Harper Curtis quantum leaps from time to time gutting the girls as he goes. The House he squats in his helper, enabling the temporal jaunts. He’s like an inverted Patrick Bateman: no money, all motive. Where Bateman’s stories are told from his point of view in the tones of torture-porn, Harper’s kills are described from the abject horror of the victims. And the victims, who are all strong-willed women with drive and purpose, are only victims at his hand. Otherwise they shine with potential and promise.

Lauren Beukes' Shining Girls timeline. (photo by Morne Van Zyl, Wired UK)

Harper’s havoc reaches roughly from the 1930s to the 1950s and the 1990s. It’s a tangled mess of totems, trauma, and one who got away. As Harper puts it, “There are patterns because we try to find them. A desperate attempt at order because we can’t face the terror that it might all be random” (p. 324). Beukes had her own method, mess, and snapshots to deal with while writing. She has a murderous map, full of “crazy pictures, three different timelines, murder dates…” She told WIRED UK, “It’s been completely insane trying to keep track of all of this.”

The Shining GirlsThe Shining Girls is set in my current home of Chicago, which gave me both a history lesson and a feeling of familiarity. The differences among the decades in the story are as interesting as the use of usual local terms like “Red Line,” “Wacker Drive,” “Merchandise Mart,” and “Naked Raygun,” the latter thanks to the one that got away, the spunky, punky Kirby Mazrachi. It’s one part murder mystery, one part detective story, one part science fiction, and another part love story, but it’s all subtle, supple, and masterfully handled.

1993 is the latest year Harper’s House will go. That’s also the year that Michael Silverblatt of the Los Angeles Times coined the term “transgressive fiction,” a term that aptly describes Beukes’ novel. Silverblatt used the term to describe fiction that includes “unpleasant” content such as sex, drugs, and violence, and coined it in response to the censor-baiting controversy of American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (Vintage, 1991), Patrick Bateman’s nearly choked conduit into the world.

Transgressive FictionIn Transgressive Fiction: The New Satiric Tradition (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) Robin Mookerjee discusses Ellis, as well as many other literary forebears of Beukes and The Shining Girls. From mock epics like Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to the perversions of J. G. Ballard and Nabokov to the cut-ups and borrowing of William Burroughs and Kathy Acker, on up to contemporary deviants like Chuck Palahniuk, Irvine Welsh, and Ellis, of course.

Mookerjee discusses these writers’ novels through the Menippean mode of satire, in which the transgression is total rather than individual, a literary style that “opposes everything and proposes nothing,” as Mookerjee puts it. For instance, in American Psycho, whether Bateman is brushing his teeth or slicing up some hired young thing, his tone never changes. The effect is indirect, general not specific, and pervades the book’s ontology as a whole.

It’s also notable that Transgressive Fiction seriously considers many works of fiction that have often only been vilified in the past, and Mookerjee does it with both conviction and an even hand.

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Here’s the trailer for Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls [runtime: 1:01]:

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This Bright Flash: Chronicle and Source Code

For many of us, the way we see the world relies on a belief that all the mysteries are eventually knowable. Many of our ontologies hinge on the fact that all will one day be revealed, or that we’ll at least get a glimpse at what’s really going on as we move through this life, that it’s not all just some “lattice of coincidence,” as Miller explained it in Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984; scene embedded below). Our being is bound by time and space, and untethering it from its temporal and spatial planes requires knowledge from somewhere else.

Somewhere between the teen-angst-with-superpowers of Jumper (2008), the camera-as-character of Cloverfield (2008), and the amazing invention / discovery that drives a wedge between friends in Primer (2004), Chronicle tests the bounds of the human and the bonds between them. As a movie, it’s also not quite like any of these. “It’s the most human superhero movie you will ever see,” Dane DeHaan (who plays Chronicle‘s primary concern, Andrew Detmer) told Fox’s Film File, and that gets at one reason the movie is so compelling.

The Crush: Andrew Detmer

Set in my beloved Seattle (though obviously filmed elsewhere), Chronicle tells the tale of three high school friends of various social status who find something that gives them the mental abilities to move matter. It doesn’t take them long to realize how powerful this makes them and how much stronger they can get. This is all fine and fun until the downtrodden Andrew (e.g., abusive, alcoholic father, terminally ill mother, no friends, bullied at school, etc.) begins to exact revenge on his familiar foes and becomes punch-drunk with power, claiming to be an “apex predator.” His cousin Matt Garrety (second of the three, played by Alex Russell) attempts to mediate the madness, to no avail. Michael B. Jordan, who plays the gregarious Steve Montgomery and third of the affected, main characters, previously lit up the small screen on The Wire and Friday Night Lights. His megawatt on-screen presence alone powers much of the pace of this movie. By the time he is gone, Andrew has lost control and sent the plot over the edge.

For all the things that one could do with telekinesis, the film shows remarkable restraint. Sure, the boys go flying in the clouds and nearly get hit by an airplane, move cars around parking lots, give girls sensations heretofore unfelt, and totally own their school’s talent show, but when things get really bad, it’s restraint — theirs and the film’s writing/directing team, Max Landis and Josh Trank — that saves the day. The trailer probably gives away more than it needs to, but there’s plenty to discover in Chronicle, enough that I’m anxious for the DVD release and subsequent repeated viewings.

Send your dreams
Where nobody hides
Give your tears
To the tide
No time
No time  — M83. “Wait”

Duncan Jones‘ Source Code (2011) is another recent achievement. During the initial, getting-acquainted period, it feels like 12 Monkeys (1995), The Matrix (1999), and Memento (2000) all crammed together and compressed tight, but once it gets rolling, it’s on a track all its own. Writer Ben Ripley brings together some tightly written science fiction and raises some interesting questions. The film is not about time travel per se, but its causal questions are the same: What happens to one reality when we change another quantum reality’s outcome? Source Code, the system for which the movie is named, uses the last eight minutes of brain activity we all experience upon death to allow a person to experience a different timeline in another, compatible person (via quantum entanglement and “parabolic calculus”;  As William Gibson put it, “The people who complain about Source Code not getting quantum whatsit right probably thought Moon was about cloning.”). The idea of the system is to be able to find out what happened just before a catastrophic event (in this case a train bombing), in order to prevent further events from happening (e.g., a massive dirty bomb set for downtown Chicago). Somewhere between brain stimulation and computer simulation, Source Code does its work. But Captain Coulter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) goes in for one last shot at getting everything just right (like Aaron’s repeated runs in Primer) and manages to manipulate more than the system is supposed to allow.

Jake on a Train: Duncan Jones directs the lovelies.

The film’s not flawless, but most of the causes for concern are cast-related. The “bad guy,” Derek Frost (Michael Arden), is barely believable, and Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) serviceably scrapes by, but Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), the inventor of Source Code, is the standout bummer. As a serious scientist, as well as the movie’s real bad guy, he’s not only not believable, but his presence drags down an otherwise well-paced, well-performed movie. Gyllenhaal revisits and repeats a line from Donnie Darko (2001) — “Everything is going to be okay” — as well as some of the other themes from that movie.

There’s no end
There is no goodbye
Disappear
With the night
No time
No time — M83. “Wait”

These two movies rely on well-worn mythologies of mind power and its manipulation of time and space, and, like other narratives of this kind, their underlying conceits rely on glimpses behind the lattice of reality in order to move beyond. But more than that, they rely on the strength of the human spirit to overcome undue adversity. Whether it be bullying in the case of Chronicle or the horrors of war in Source Code, the real story is human.

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Plate of Shrimp: Miller from Repo Man explains it all [runtime: 2:44]:

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Evergreen Halloween: Ten Years of Donnie Darko

This week marks the ten-year anniversary of Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko. In the time since its inauspicious, post-9/11 release, it has become my favorite movie ever. At the height of my obsession with it, I attended a midnight screening of the director’s cut at The Egyptian Theatre in Seattle. During the trivia contest that preceded the movie, I was asked to sit out due to my answering all of the questions. The movie struck something in me, and I am certainly not alone. As Kelly himself put it, “I think you are challenged by things that are slightly beyond your grasp” (p. xiv). So, this is not another “twenty-five things you didn’t know” or “fifty reasons why it’s the best” (the internet loves this movie), but there are some things about it that I think make it so engaging, endearing, and enduring.

Donnie Darko is set in a Virginia high school 1988. I was in high school during the time, so that connects the film to my life in several ways: The soundtrack, the angst, and the nerdy struggle are all very familiar to me. One of my friends once derided Donnie, saying he was, “so emo he can travel through time,” and I can see how Donnie’s whiney approach to therapy could wear on one, but it’s a minor flaw in a major piece of myth-making.

Like its lauded indie debut cousin Reservoir Dogs, Donnie Darko starts with a conversation scene set over a meal, a scene in which we meet most of the main characters of the film. It’s an elegant and efficient way to establish not only the characters but also their social dynamic. In Reservoir Dogs, the scene revolves around Mr. Blue’s Madonna monologue (which one assumes at this point was written by Roger Avery and not by Quinten Tarantino, who delivers it in the movie), Joe’s address book, and Mr. Pink’s refusal to tip. In Donnie Darko, it revolves around his sister Elizabeth’s (played by his sister Maggie Gyllenhaal) politics, Donnie’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) apparent refusal to take his meds, and their use of foul language at the dinner table. In each, the trio of topics reveals just enough about the characters’ attitudes and how they play together.

Aside from Donnie and Elizabeth (played by the the real-life siblings Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal), the Darko family consists of father Eddie (the inimitable Holmes Osborne), mother Rose (the fabulous Mary McDonnell), and kid sister Samantha (Daveigh Chase, the only original Darko defector to the abortive sequel S. Darko). Other stellar performances are turned in by Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone), Kitty “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion” Farmer (Beth Grant), Jim Cunnigham (Patrick Swayze, R.I.P.), Ronald Fisher (Stuart Stone), Professor Monnitoff (Noah Wyle), Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore), Ricky Danforth (Seth Rogan, in his big-screen debut), Seth Devlin (Alex Greenwald), and, of course, Frank (James Duvall).

Though he’s never formally acknowledged it, Kelly’s Frank the Rabbit character can be interpreted as a play on the pookah legend, which Robert Anton Wilson (1991) explained as follows:

The pookah takes many forms, but is most famous when he appears as a giant, six-foot white rabbit — which is the form most Americans know from the play and film, Harvey. Whatever form the pookah takes, he retains the special ability of his species, which is like that of Thoth in Egyptian legend, Coyote in Native American myth, or Hanuman the Divine Monkey in Hindu lore — he can move us from one universe, or Belief System, into another, and he likes to play games with our ideas about “reality” (p. 29).

Frank is from the future and he mentors Donnie through the film with cryptic guidance and disjointed advice. Like the overall feeling of the film, Frank’s ambiguity keeps Donnie and us wondering exactly what’s in store.

The iconography of Donnie Darko starts with Frank. He is as distinctive a symbol for a movie as there has ever been. The setting and surroundings of Halloween, as well as the late-night bike-ride nod to E.T., are also endemic to this movie. For example, take the music video for “What’s a Girl to Do?” by Bat for Lashes [runtime: 2:59]. Nothing here directly refers to the movie, but the cumulative homage is obvious.

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The references to other movies in Donnie Darko are as subtle as the soundtrack is. Like Tarantino, Kelly uses music to add another element to the film. It’s a different approach to soundtracking than many movies use. For instance, I always wonder what the music in True Romance would’ve entailed had Tarantino ended up directing it as well (Tony Scott did a fine job, but the music is, well, lacking). The music in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction adds so much to the overall feel of the films. Kelly pulled off the same added element with Donnie Darko‘s soundtrack, saying, “there were opportunities in this story to put a musical code on the character’s experience within this era. Picking those songs was, on our part, not to do with making it campy and mocking of the 1980s… We wanted the music to be sincere” (p. xxvii). To wit, the feeling and lyrics of Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Killing Moon,” INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart,” and Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” as well as Michael Andrews’ cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World,” all play with the complex themes of the story.

Somehow in the midst of the musings of a confused, possibly schizophrenic teenage boy, Kelly puts no less than the future of humanity at stake. Drawing from Graham Greene’s “The Destructors,” Richard Adams’ Watership Down (the inspiration for Frank, according to Kelly), and The Last Temptation of Christ (what is Donnie Darko if not a teen angst-ridden, sci-fi version of the Christ narrative?), he carries us to the absolute brink on All Hallow’s Eve. The meaning of all of this is never fully explained, but whatever it means remains important to us. It’s not enough to just like the characters and to wonder. We have to care. As Stephen Jay Gould explained:

But we also need the possibility of cataclysm, so that, when situations seem hopeless, and beyond the power of any natural force to amend, we may still anticipate salvation from a messiah, a conquering hero, a deus ex machina, or some other agent with power to fracture the unsupportable and institute the unobtainable (p. 58).

The official story consists of a rogue alternate universe that must be resolved through a comic-book logic involving Manipulated Living, Manipulated Dead, The Living Receiver (all explained in Roberta Sparrow’s The Philosophy of Time Travel), and others, but one of the enduring features of Donnie Darko is that even given an “official story,” one can draw many meanings. This is essential to its proven shelf-life.

My favorite scene in the movie is a short snatch of conversation between Donnie’s teachers Professor Monnitoff (Noah Wyle) and Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore). He’s grading papers and she’s eating lunch, presumably in the teacher’s lounge at Middlesex High School. Monnitoff mentions Donnie, chuckling incredulously, and she laughs, agreeing. The scene is so brief as to be missable, but it indicates that they’re in on something, that they know the answer. As Christopher Nolan said of Inception, there is an answer. That the answer doesn’t impede further speculation or meaning-mining is one of the things that makes Donnie Darko so tenacious. As Jake Gyllenhaal says, “What does it mean to you?” (p. viii)

If you haven’t seen the film (and of course I think you should), here’s the trailer [runtime: 2:23]:

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References:

Gould, Stephen Jay (1999). Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist’s Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown. New York: Crown.

Kelly, Richard. (2003). The Donnie Darko Book. London: faber and faber.

Wilson, Robert Anton. (1991). Cosmic Trigger, Volume II: Down to Earth. Las Vegas, NV: New Falcon.