Study Hal: Week 10 – Movie Night

Grab a tasty snack and a refreshing beverage, we’re having a movie night!

Last week, Hal was really stressed out, so he spent some time finding a low-stakes hobby to keep him grounded. After some research, he discovered that plenty of classic horror movies are in the public domain and available for free online! So now, once a week, he sits down with his tea and popcorn to watch one. More often than not, though, Hal comes to movie nights so tired that he falls asleep halfway through the dang movie! I guess it’s good that he’s getting some rest…

Hal’s favorite movies are ones with the campy special effects, but he’s been more open to other psychological horror flicks, too. Can you figure out what movie he’s watching here?

In case you haven’t heard, Hal’s a U-M student back in his hometown for the summer of 2020. He shares his experiences of this weird time every week, so check out the Study Hal tag if you want to see more!

The Irony of Parasite’s Success at the Academy Awards

Parasite, directed by Bong Joon Ho, is a masterful South Korean black comedy film that has taken the media world by storm. After sweeping the 2020 Academy Awards in four categories, people are still talking about Parasite since its premiere in May 2019. at the Cannes Film Festival. It has achieved the monumental milestone of being the first South Korean film to win any award at the Oscars, ever. I have watched the movie twice and consider myself a big fan. Yet, I am not the only person to believe that Parasite’s success at the Academy Awards serves as an ironic reminder of the film’s true message.

Social and class equality form the basis of Parasite’s plot. A poorer family, the Kims, work their way into each being employed by the wealthy Parks, and the two families start to become interdependent before the tragic ending. The Kims depend on the Parks for their money, and the Parks depend on the Kims for their labor. Bong Joon Ho’s brilliant storyline highlights the disparity between destitute and extraneously rich families, ultimately satirizing the traditional rags to riches dream heard in developed nations.

But the Academy Awards themselves stand in direct contradiction to the film’s themes: the Oscars is traditionally a night of famous actors and actresses, big shot film producers and directors, and glitzy dresses and tuxedoes. The gift bags given to nominees this year, created by Distinctive Assets, had a total value of around $225,000 each, its 80 items including a gold vape pen, a 12-day yacht cruise, and $20,000 in matchmaking services. According to company founder Lash Fary, they only deliver the bags to “about 25 people”, meaning that they have to freedom to gift “the most insanely priced things.” It seems that the Academy Awards and the high cost of production and attending further illustrate the frustrating path of wealth within a capitalist society that preaches the merits of the American Dream that at the same time neglects the lower class.

Parasite seeks to illuminate the divide between extreme wealth and the stories of society’s downcast, impoverished, and displaced. Even the film is not free of complicated relationships–it was produced by CJ ENM, one of South Korea’s family-run large businesses. Director Bong Joon Ho suggests that within Parasite “no one is guilty–or perhaps, all are guilty.” Examined on a broader level, everyone in greater society is guilty in a way–we are all guilty of ignoring those who are different than us while simultaneously engaging in the exploitation of their stories. While capitalism, class, and society are intertwined in complex ways, Parasite’s positive reception indicates that at least we are somewhat self aware.

The Shining: Horror Perfected

One of my all time favorite movies is The Shining, starring Jack Nicholson and directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1980. I can’t recall the first time I watched it, although I know I was still young enough that I had to cover my eyes for the more intense scenes. Regardless, it left an impact on me even at that age; there was something unique and indescribable about it, it was like nothing I had ever seen before, and that’s saying something since I had already watched a lot of horror movies by that time. Over time it has haunted me more and more, as I keep watching it and analyzing it, trying to understand it while appreciating it in new ways. Gradually I’ve started to understand what makes it so special, and why it has become one of my all time favorite movies: its ability to create an atmosphere, the incredibly convincing acting, the haunting soundtrack, the tension and uncertainty created through subtle devices, and of course the plot itself, which is scary in its simplicity.

The opening scene is the perfect example of how Stanley Kubrick creates the unsettling atmosphere of The Shining, from the brass symphony playing heavy, ominous tones, to the swooping shots of wilderness and the long winding road up to the setting of the story, the Overlook Hotel. The visual and audio aspects of the opening work in tandem to create this insane tension, and the actual story hasn’t even begun. Kubrick utilizes music and sounds to emphasize disturbing scenes throughout the movie, and it is interesting when you pay attention to it. The infamous scene of the boy Danny riding his big wheel through the empty halls, as the wheels go from carpet to wood, from silence to a jarring rattling and that keeps you on the edge of the seat. In similar scenes the music will build up, like an insane symphony inside the hotel and the mind of Jack, the main antagonist, and then suddenly cut out with a piercing screech, as something terrifying occurs. I think it is important to note however that these are not jump-scares as you might see in recent horror movies; they are planned out, and don’t lead to chaos, but instead disturbing silence. As important as the sound is in the atmosphere of the film, silence is just important. I find it fascinating how well The Shining pulls this off, better than most horror movies ever have.

Image result for the shining

The other thing that makes he Shining so unique is the simple story, a descent into madness, but portrayed so well by Jack Nicholson that it is unexpectedly disturbing. Recently I saw the sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep, which focuses on Danny as an adult, and in it he returns to the Overlook Hotel where he encounters the ghost of his dad, Jack. This Jack was not played by Jack Nicholson however, and it was so weird to see how different the two actors were. Jack Nicholson dripped with insanity, where this guy seemed so staged and reserved. It made me appreciate just how great Jack Nicholson was in the original role: he committed to the role in such a rare way that made it so convincing, and his mannerisms and tone throughout the movie are so iconic and haunting that you can’t even tell if he is acting.

I could go on for hours talking about all of the small details that make The Shining great, from the symbolism and imagery to the aesthetic of the film and the cinematography, but ‘ll save that for another time. For now, I highly recommend that you go and watch it immediately if you haven’t seen it already. Even if you have, watch it again and pay attention to how Kubrick uses music and sound design to create the unsettling atmosphere of the Overlook, and notice how Jack Nicholson embodies the insanity of Jack Torrance. It is an incredible work of art that stands as one of the highest points in the horror and thriller film genres, and it should be appreciated as such.

Soundtracks that Stand Out

Although I claim to open to almost any style or genre of music, there are a few that I just find hard to bear: whether it be screamo, country, or experimental noise that gives me a headache. Soundtrack music tends to be more complicated. I know a lot of people that can just listen to the soundtrack of a movie, play, game, or tv show from front to back, just like how I would listen to a normal album, and that concept is completely foreign to me. I’ve just always felt like there was something missing from soundtracks, and that missing piece tends to be a strong overarching theme or common aesthetic. Most of these albums lack vocals, relying solely on instrumentation, while simultaneously being the background music to something much more interesting happening visually. For these reasons I often don’t think twice about the soundtracks to my favorite media; when I do, it’s usually only to point out one fitting song or memorable moment, not to listen to the entire album. However, I do think some soundtracks break this monotony, and in appreciating what makes these albums interesting, I think we can learn a lot about what it takes for a soundtrack to stand out, and more importantly what its role is in the overall work of art. To examine these questions, I want to bring up two soundtracks that I find particularly notable: Devilman Crybaby and Swiss Army Man.

Image result for devilman crybabyDevilman Crybaby is an original Netflix anime adaptation of the original manga by Go Nagai, and although I highly recommend watching it, I’ll try to save some of my praise for another post. The essential story is about a young boy named Akira who gets wrapped up in an emerging world of demons by his mysterious childhood friend Ryo. It features existential and dark themes, and raises questions about humanity, society, and love that make you think long after the show is over. It’s a tragedy to be sure; be prepared to cry when it’s over, but it is not without its moments of hope. The soundtrack to the show mirrors this so accurately and poignantly, making it the perfect complement to the show and adding something that makes it entirely unique. The aesthetic of the soundtrack perfectly fits the artistic style of the animation; it’s primal and pounding at times, matching the intense scenes of chaos, and other times it’s subtle and futuristic, setting this iconic tone throughout the show that lasts long after its over. My favorite tracks however are these long orchestral pieces, featuring these solemn and mourning grand piano melodies that are absolutely haunting. They contrast so well, both on the overall album and in the show itself; they provide these thoughtful reprieves from the chaos, where both the characters and audience are forced to reflect on the tragedies of humanity. Overall, I find this soundtrack incredible in how it affects the story, and how well crafted it is that it can stand alone.

Image result for swiss army manAnother great example of a stand out soundtrack is Swiss Army Man, a small indie film featuring Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano. Again, one of my favorite movies; a little quirky and hard to swallow at first, but it leaves a lasting impression and is just genuinely fun to watch. Similar to the Devilman Crybaby soundtrack, this soundtrack stands out for its aesthetic and style: it is fun and folky, featuring a lot of vocals and accapella, accompanied by simple instrumentation and haunting chords. All of the vocals are performed by the two actors as well, which is ingenious, especially during the film when the characters are quiet and the music speaks for them. The movie mostly takes place in the woods and is an unusual love story, which is reflected well in the soundtrack. It features a variety of unusual songs, mostly focused on the relationship between the two main characters, and tells its own story in a way that the film itself can’t. In this way, the soundtrack adds an important element to the story and can’t be ignored. These reasons make the soundtrack stand out, and as a result I still find myself listening to it, reliving the great moments of the story through music.

 

Facing Your Doppelgänger

Having just been Halloween and being a huge fan of the spooky season, horror movies, and generally scary thoughts, I found myself thinking a lot about doppelgängers. In case you’ve never heard of the term before, it simply means an apparition or double of a living person; literally an exact physical copy of a person. The concept of a doppelgänger can be found in various mythologies and cultures, usually with an insidious connotation of one who takes over the original person’s life. Of course I find this fascinating, for a variety of reasons which I’ll touch on, but most importantly I thought it would be interesting to present three different stories that feature doppelgängers, from television shows and movies, and draw some conclusion about what you should do if you ever find yourself face to face with your own doppelgänger.

If you’ve been a reader of my posts for awhile you’ll recognize this first one: The Double, a film based off the original novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky. In the film, the main character played by Jesse Eisenberg is a simple man living in a mundane and grimy world, with a mediocre job and little aspirations beyond falling in love with a certain girl. However, suddenly a new employee is hired at his work, and it is dramatically revealed that it is his doppelgänger. Much to his surprise, nobody else notices that the new employee is identical, but the reason reveals itself to the audience from the beginning: this new version of the protagonist is more charming, personable, and cunning than the original. Gradually the doppelgänger starts to take over the original’s life, being promoted over him and winning over the girl almost instantly. The film ends with the original outsmarting the doppelgänger by relying on the unique fact that both of them are connected in feeling pain. I won’t spoil it beyond that, especially since it is a brilliant ending. However the original novel ends with the original going mad, being sent to an asylum, and the doppelgänger completely replacing him. The takeaway from this doppelgänger story: never let your doppelgänger dominate. Either get as far away as possible, or hope that you have some characteristic that gives you an advantage over them.

The next great doppelgänger movie is Enemy, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as the original protagonist. This movie is much more subtle in the beginning; the original is another plain and uninteresting guy, but as he’s watching a movie he sees an actor that looks just like him, his doppelgänger! He essentially tracks him down and the situation devolves from there. One thing I love about this film is how vague it is in identifying the doppelgänger; technically it never states which one is the original, if an original even exists! However, similar to The Double, the actor doppelgänger is much smarter and more charming, although they both have crucial flaws. In the end they switch lives, much for the benefit of the original and to the detriment of the doppelgänger. A lot of fascinating moral questions are raised, particularly about identity and the ethics of living a life that isn’t yours. The main thing to learn from this unusual story is to be cautious of the life of your doppelgänger; you never know what kind of life they are living. Also, don’t get involved in their romantic relationships, even if it seems like a great idea I can assure you that it is not.

Finally, the climax of this doppelgänger trifecta is a Netflix original show that I watched last week called Living With Yourself, starring Paul Rudd. It’s a short, jarring series that is a little bit shallower than the two previous stories, but offers something unique instead. It focuses on the protagonist Miles who has hit a rough patch in life, both at work and in his marriage. He takes the advice of a coworker and visits an elite spa, where he pays $50,000 to become a better, happier person. Long story short, he wakes up in a grave, eventually realizes that they cloned him and meant to kill him, and meets his clone who is once again an improved version of himself. However, this is where the story starts to differ: although the clone outperforms Miles at work, his wife prefers the original Miles, even after acknowledging his flaws and shortcomings. There is certainly a lot of conflict between the two as they take turns living the same life, which leads up to a dramatic climax where the audience is led to believe that only one of them will live. This is my favorite part; it raises so many questions about human worth and life, specifically about which Miles deserves to live and why, and that is such a hard question to solve with how the show portrays them both. In the end, they end up deciding to all live together as one family, which I personally found a little disappointing, but I appreciate how it diverges from the other two stories. The moral here: play to your strengths and be authentic, it helps to differentiate yourself from your doppelgänger so people treat you as different people. Keep in mind as well that hypothetically you could all coexist peacefully as well.

Overall, I hope you can appreciate these stories as much as I do; the concept of a doppelgänger leads down so many different roads, each one raising its own philosophical and moral questions, all of which I love. I definitely recommend you check all of these out as well, I would love to hear some different thoughts and opinions about how to survive a doppelgänger. Besides that, I’ll leave you with a few parting thoughts and ideas. What do these stories tell us about ourselves and our own identities and personalities? Perhaps the doppelgänger simply represents the other side of our psyche, one which we would rather not acknowledge? How does understanding a doppelgänger help us to deal with our own inner conflicts? What is the best way to survive these mental doppelgängers? And finally, notice how all three stories feature doppelgängers with unique origins: supernatural, vague, and cloning. How does the origin of a doppelgänger affect the conflict between them and the original?

The Lighthouse: A Master-Class in Immersion

 Immersion – A state of being deeply engaged or involved mentally

Last Friday I decided on a whim to go see The Lighthouse at the Michigan Theater; I’m a devoted fan of horror and thriller movies, and the trailer had peaked my interest a few months prior. I figured why not treat myself and go see a movie alone and get into the Halloween spirit. Based off of the trailer, I went into the movie expecting something terrifying and entirely unique; leaving the theater, I definitely felt like I had watched something unique, but I certainly wasn’t terrified. In fact, it’s hard for me to say whether or not The Lighthouse truly falls into the genre of horror; more likely it’s a psychological thriller. Hardly any scenes made me jump or frightened me, and in general there were more scenes where the entire audience was laughing, purely at the absurdity of certain situations. Needless to say, my feelings about the film were mixed, but after mulling it over for a while, I’ve started to understand that it had a much more profound impact than I first thought. Something was nagging at the back of my brain, something that made the film hard to forget, and the more I thought about it, the more I started to see why it’s so much greater than I first realized: because it creates this complete feeling of immersion that has you on the edge of your seat, holding your breath, and it achieves that incredible effect with so little flair.

The Lighthouse is entirely black and white and is presented in a square aspect ratio, much like classic movies or shows like The Twilight Zone (a personal favorite of mine). This gives it an aesthetic that stands out from other horror movies today, and was largely what peaked my interest when I saw the trailer. It feels so gritty and stylized, like an old documentary that was never released, which pairs perfectly with the story of two grizzly men keeping watch over a lighthouse on a rock in the middle of the ocean, completely stranded and abandoned. That grit creeps into the characters, especially the older lighthouse keeper Tom, played by Willem Dafoe, who completely embodies the idea of a sea-worn sailor. This pairing of visual style and complementary characters makes the story feel so authentic: even though it seems so far removed from reality, it felt like I was sitting at the table with them, eating dinner and being dragged into their arguments. I didn’t realize the effect while I was watching it, which I think is further proof of just how convincing it truly was.

In the end, it was the power of the movie to draw me in that made it horrifying: it felt like I was a part of this eerie, stormy world, and every small element of horror was amplified by the immersion. The music and sound design throughout was incredible, being constantly oppressive and bearing down on the audience like a great storm. The few moments of shock and surprise hit much harder than in a typical thriller; they completely threw me off balance, either in disgust or confusion, and then kept me off guard, never knowing what to expect next. I can appreciate those qualities more now, having discovered how subtle they were in the moment, but how long lasting the effects were because I was so enthralled at the time. I think that makes The Lighthouse special in a way that most movies aren’t: it presents the audience with something subtle, uncanny, and disturbing, and immerses them completely until only afterwards they realize the crazy roller coaster they just went on. Not only does this style set the film apart, it makes me want to go back and watch it again.