The Value of Role Models In the Art World

I don’t like being an English major very much. I’m grateful for the opportunity to study at a university with such knowledgeable faculty and abundant resources, but if I had to do these last four years of my life over again I would definitely change my major to communications because I love pop culture so much. The one thing that makes me happy about studying literature is that I get to take creative writing classes and write a thesis in fiction by doing the creative writing sub-concentration in the English major.

The only thing I want to do with my English degree is write. I don’t want to write just any stories; I want to write stories about people with underrepresented identities like me, and I want to write a blend of literary fiction and horror. I got to see a professional  writer do just that this Monday, January 21st, when Literati bookstore had a fiction reading with Kristen Roupenian. She wrote the short story “Cat Person” that was published in The New Yorker and quickly went viral. She now has a short story collection out and is working on a novel and a film for the cinephile’s movie studio of choice, A24. Hearing her talk about how emotion drives the blend of drama and horror of her plots focused on female desire and male entitlement as her girlfriend interviewed her and moderated a Q-and-A session with the audience felt familiar and affirming, like seeing someone  charting a path through a difficult terrain you’re planning to hike but aren’t convinced you’ll get through.

I got my copy of her new short story collection signed and told her she inspired me to stick with the English degree to write a creative writing thesis that is drawn on influences similar to hers. I also told her that I found it interesting how she saw horror as existing in a continuum when my English professor of horror literature taught from a textbook that said “real horror” is the supernatural like monsters, while the horror of real life tragedies falls more into the realm of realistic fiction. She said that was absolutely ridiculous and it felt good to know your writing can be appreciated on your own terms regardless of what academics have to say about it.  Seeing her success makes me feel validated in what inspires my own writing and makes me feel that trying to become a writer is not such a stupid goal like I thought.

What stood out about Roupenian’s short story is that it put into words how women feel pressured into accommodating men who want to hurt them because society seems to invest more energy in teaching girls to be agreeable and passive than in preventing abuse. The fact this story with a realistic young woman as a protagonist had been published in The New Yorker, the most well-known literary magazine in the country, was seen as a huge achievement for better representation of white middle-class women. I want to be the change I see in the world, and it’s very encouraging to see others succeed with the same intent.

Embracing the Sentimental During Difficult Times

I love “The Wizard of Oz” and think it deserves to be considered a classic of American cinema. This week, one of my professors showed the ending of the film to my class to make a relevant point during lecture. Tears formed in the corners of my eyes, and I remembered how I actually did cry the first time I saw it. I’m not a big fan of fantasy, but the message that nothing can replace the ones you love is very moving. The way the lecture hall had people audibly sniffing after the clip ended let me know I wasn’t the only one that found the movie powerful.

After the video ended, my professor addressed the class by saying that although the scene is “cheesy” it was still insightful for the purposes of studying witches. My mood soured when I heard her say that. “Cheesy”? The fact that the movie came out in 1939 at the end of the Great Depression and the beginnings of World War II makes it unsurprising that it was a box office hit. In my English classes, I learn about how history provides relevant context to literature that allows the reader to understand texts more deeply. In therapy, I have learned that a useful coping mechanism when emotionally distraught is to pretend that you are somewhere far away physically from your problems so that you do not become so emotionally attached that you are incapable of working towards solving them. What better way for the people living through such brutal times to be given a glimmer of hope, than to be transported to a magical wonderland that shows there’s no better place to be than home, with their loved ones who make struggling in life worthwhile?

I wonder if my professor didn’t like The Wizard of Oz or just was self-conscious about including the G-rated movie in lecture. The way she talked about it made the film sound more out there than it really is, in my opinion. Compare Oz with the song “Pon Pon Pon” by Japanese singer Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. She has said what drove her to become a singer is to make other people happy. This can be seen by how her first performance was a charity event called “One Snap to Love” in 2011 to raise funds for victims of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. On the English-language Internet, I’ve heard people speculate that she made such an over-the-top music video for her debut single in order to cheer up the people of Japan as the nation started to repair and mourn after the massive devastation of the earthquake. The lyrics are really sweet, full of optimism and vitality as it calls people to become vulnerable by exploring where they live and joining hands as one in order to take life by the horns. The music video, however…

is full of surreal imagery as Kyary dances around a psychedelic room fulled to the brim with cute junk and faceless backup dancers. It’s wacky and colorful and way over-the-top. If my professor was weirded out somehow by the ending of The Wizard of Oz, then I’m sure she would have a cow watching this. But I for one almost teared up when I realized the context that this wild music video was released in because at the end of the day it tried to inject life into desperate times full of death. Let the people struggling decide what’s too weird to appreciate.

Deconstruction Means “Freddy Got Fingered” and “School Days” Are Good, Actually

I grew up being exposed to gross-out comedies, so even though I can’t remember specific movie titles, the opening sequence to “Freddy Got Fingered” feels extremely familiar and tired. It’s almost laughable how lame the movie’s beginning is, and I was concerned this bad movie wasn’t going to reach a level where it was so bad it became good. I’m not surprised that there is debate over whether or not the movie is parody. However, I’m convinced this is intentionally left unanswered because the movie is satire. The man-child cartoonist called Gord who is unfortunately the protagonist of the film put my concerns to rest 30 minutes in, right when he begins to spread pain and suffering on a wider scale in his quest to have his cartoons adapted into a TV show.

Gord (Tom Green) storms an animation studio by force, bypassing security and harassing a secretary in an effort to meet the TV executive who runs the company (Anthony Michael Hall). When informed that the executive is at lunch, the public nuisance goes to the restaurant and harasses diners until he finds the person able to turn his dream into a reality. While this is off-putting to Hall’s character at first, he immediately listens when Gord begins to sell his comics.

Gord being given the chance to pitch his work despite being a terrible writer and a threat to society. Source: IMDB

This is amusing to me only because Gord had a hard time finding the exec after running into many men who look and are dressed like the one from the animation studio. The fact that Hall is just one of many blond-haired, blue-eyed men eating at Movers and Shakers restaurant is transparent criticism of the lack of inclusion in Hollywood and, by extension, powerful institutions in America. The way the TV executive turns away in disgust from Gord’s ridiculously unprofessional proposal but automatically turns around again to give the desperate cartoonist a chance when Gord starts to beg to sell his cartoons suggests that influential people in the media are more open to giving opportunities to some people more than others, even when it is undeserved…

In this scene, Gord is giving up on his cartoons at the same time Green is giving up on his movie. Source: IMDB

Despite his generosity, the TV executive is not blind to how talentless Gord is. He tells the artist that while the art of the comics is good, the stories and humor behind them are awful and would never sell. This pushes Gord over the edge, making him pull out a gun and lament that his characters are losers so he is a loser. He threatens to kill himself right then and there, which is shocking and completely unexpected if not for how this situation would be played straight in a normal comedy movie with the hero getting the job and the girl at the end. It is extremely funny to me how the stepping stone of Gord’s career is when our protagonist declares he needs to die, because this is the most illustrative way possible for Tom Green to scream about how much he clearly hates gross-out comedy movies and explains why the 90 minute run-time is used to push tropes of the genre to their most grotesque and absurd limits in order to make a point.

The infamy of “Freddy Got Fingered” reminds me of the reputation of “School Days”, an anime that I think wasn’t intentionally satire but ended up criticizing the short-comings of harem animes anyway. The formulaic show is based on a video game where a painfully average young man named Makoto suddenly finds himself becoming the most eligible bachelor in his high school after creating a love triangle. The video game has many endings determined by how well you navigate having multiple girlfriends, and the majority of the outcomes are good. However, “School Days” is infamous for its few bad endings that depict the absolute worst possible consequences of someone playing with the affections of a group of people.

Makoto easily guilt-tripping Otome, the third girl he’s cheating on, in order to keep their relationship a (poorly kept) secret. Source: MyAnimeList

The value of this criticism I think is highlighted in the anime when Makoto goes from being too shy to talk to an attractive girl in the first episode to having romantic encounters with three girls in one day by the end of the show. He is warned by his latest conquest, Otome, that problems will arise if the fact he is seeing several women at the same time becomes known. He tells her what he has already told his other girlfriends, that she is as responsible for the delicate situation as he is and that she should just let things happen. The anime adapts the worst possible endings of the game and illustrates that in real life it would take someone to be extremely narcissistic and emotionally abusive to sustain a harem like in anime.

I think these two works were poorly received because fans of these comedy genres weren’t expecting the deconstruction of the tropes they have come to love. The shocking violence and overall bad taste is only believable as the work of professional writers if the intention is to show how ridiculous the cliches expected from viewers are. It is difficult to make a parody or satire of something, especially with film, without being mistaken for the real deal, but as someone who thinks they’re in on the joke I think I have the right to laugh along.

Why “Ringu” Started a Hollywood Trend

I was surprised to learn that Hollywood loved Japanese horror films so much in the early 2000’s that it made America remakes of the most successful ones. I’ve seen “Ringu” and “Ju-On: the Grudge”, two of the most famous Japanese horror films here, and started thinking what about these movies could have captured American audiences so much. From the outset, it’s clear that Japanese horror loves a good villain, like Sadako and Toshio, the same way American horror does, like with Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees. All of these characters were born human but gained supernatural powers over time. Toshio from “The Grudge” and Jason Voorhees from “Friday the 13th” are more sympathetic villains because (spoilers) they were abused by their families before their death and want revenge for how they died, while Sadako from “Ringu” and Freddy Krueger from “A Nightmare on Elm Street” are scary from the start of the movie because unbeknownst to the viewer, they killed innocent people while alive before dying and taking on demonic powers that allow them to seek new victims in the afterlife. The motivations of these villains aren’t unfamiliar to American audiences.

At the same time, I’m not surprised “Ringu” made Hollywood sit up and take notice. The movie blends supernatural horror and psychological thriller to weave a complex plot about Reiko, a journalist and single mother, on the hunt for the mysterious entity killing teenagers across Japan via VHS tape. Not only is the movie entertaining because the mysterious case keeps you guessing who is behind the murders, but it is innovative on an artistic level as well. The movie puts the literary archetype of the vengeful ghost from Japanese literature into a contemporary setting. This is represented by the ghost behind the murders adapting to modern technology in order to haunt more people. Released in 1998, the movie captures this unease with how past horrors will exist in society after the turn of the millennium, a concern that I’m sure is relatable to developed nations like America. Additionally, the film provides social commentary on the changing role of women in Japanese society by having Reiko neglect her son more and more as the case goes on while Sadako kills more and more people. It is a pessimistic movie in that it puts women attempting impossible “double shifts” as professionals and homemakers on the same footing as past horrors developing alongside society in the future. I can’t tell if the movie is sympathetic to Reiko’s struggles to be a good mom, but this parallel plot raises the stakes of an already horrible mystery.

What I think cements “Ringu” as an instant classic is Sadako. She doesn’t have to appear much to make a grand entrance after seeing her infamous VHS tape and her increasing body count. The VHS tape almost looks like a bizarre art film but in reality has clues that let Reiko find Sadako, making the ghost’s capabilities and motivation unknown. The scene where Sadako finally reveals herself is horrifying because it juxtaposes the strange footage of her VHS tape with the deaths of her victims, suggesting she is in control of the afterlife in addition to her existence on Earth, letting her bend the rules dividing the present from the past and art from real life. She conveys her great power and anger without saying a word. By confirming Reiko’s worst fears of who could be killing without leaving a trace, the movie combines the best of psychological horror with the paranormal, an achievement that is essential viewing for any horror fan.

Why Are Survival Horror Video Games So Popular With Kids?

This summer, I worked part-time at Big Lots. One day I had to mark down the prices of a shipment of calendars. To my surprise, the majority of the calendars were of Internet culture. Some of these were animals like Grumpy Cat and Doug the Pug, which seemed like a savvy business deal to me because pets are inherently good and deserve the world. But the other kinds of calendars were of the horror game Five Nights at Freddy’s. This game, in case you don’t know, is where you play as a security guard in their office at a spoof of Chuck E. Cheese’s. Your job is to check the security cameras, where the animatronics led by the eponymous Freddy Fazbear can be seen roaming the restaurant. The catch is that they want to kill you (they’ve killed someone before) and every time you protect yourself by checking the dark hallway by turning on the dim lights or shutting the doors to keep anything out, you use up battery that keeps you from being able to scan the security cameras to know where the animatronics are. If you run out of battery before the end of your shift, Freddy or one of his friends will get you and scare you by having their presence announced with musical box music or by jumping in your face and screaming if you’re caught when you’re checking the security camera. The game is super effective despite being simple, and for someone who doesn’t play video games that often I can tell you it took me time to win the game. Imagine my shock when a customer in her late 30s or early 40s came to buy a calendar of the game for what I assume was her small child. How could kids be such passionate fans of such horror?

I think part of it is that the characters of the game are easily marketable. They are distinctive anthropomorphic animals, which make up many popular characters used for mass production, and are based on a familiar cultural institution in America. I’ve heard of girls in middle school who would destroy their Barbie dolls in an effort to show how mature they had become by turning their backs on their childhood. I think it’s possible young fans of the game want to do the same thing by turning a place that brought them innocent fun with other children their age into a warped nightmare that makes them feel grown-up by withstanding the sinister story of Five Nights, proving they aren’t scared of the dark anymore and that they can handle taking away the sugar-coating of the robots their parents paid to entertain them. The fact that the game has turned into a series of five installments and has a film adaptation in the works produced by Blumhouse Productions is testament to how popular it is.

But where did these little kids hear about the game in the first place? I for one first heard about it from the many gamers on YouTube who posted videos playing the game upon its release in 2014. The journalist Shane Digman for the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail believes that the merchandise to the game from the popular collectibles company Funko Pop may actually be an effective kind of advertising to introduce the game to children. He raises the question of whether or not this can be done in good conscious, seeing as how children can have psychological repercussions from being exposed to horror that causes them fear. The thought that the child-friendly inspiration of Five Nights at Freddy’s could lead it to be misinterpreted as a game for children makes me sad, because not only could it put little kids through unnecessary stress if they play the game when they’re too young, but it also defines video games as a medium for children that cannot be taken seriously if it explores the dark nature of what is considered innocent.

One of the reasons presented in Digman’s article as to why young people playing horror games would be a bad idea is because their brains are still developing and can’t distinguish fact from fiction yet. That brings to mind the horrifying attempted murder of a 12 year-old Wisconsin girl by two mentally ill girls her age in 2014, where the perpetrators claimed they wanted to gain Slender Man’s approval and protect their families from him with a sacrifice. Slender Man is an urban legend created by Eric Knudsen in 2009, a cryptid who is tall without facial expressions that can teleport and stalks his prey (notably children) in forests. Thankfully the victim survived the attack, but it’s tragic that a character who is known to be fictional could inspire such a horrifying act. I, like most people I know, was introduced to Slender Man through the video game based on the urban legend called Slender: The Eight Pages. I find it interesting that the game found success like FNAF did through viral videos on YouTube of gamers playing the game, gaining many young fans as a result. There is something deeply fascinating about a modern day myth that can be put into many settings in our country. The scary nature of these two games, however, makes me wonder if there’s something beneath the surface of the current generation of youth that would make them feel validated somehow by such scary creatures that would threaten people like them in the real world.

“The Assassin” and Pacing in Action Movies

Despite being about an actual assassin, “The Assassin” nearly put me to sleep. The film is based on a classical Chinese text from the 9th century titled “Nie Yianning”, a notable entry of Chinese fiction’s famed ancient martial artists, and is rendered beautifully with stunning cinematography and gripping premise. Yet its pace leaves a lot to be desired.

The film stars Shu Qi (“Journey to the West”) as the titular assassin Nie Yinniang, who has been trained for years and has become a superb killer sent to murder corrupt government officials. Qi is badass and kind of terrifying in her unwavering resolve as the assassin, appearing just enough in action to illustrate her skills without getting too attached to believe she is a sympathetic character. Yinniang reaches her limit, however, when the next target she is sent to kill is the nun who raised her. She does not complete the task, and as punishment is sent to kill the governor of the far Weibo province, Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). The plot development of the movie, while slow, still manages to establish the premise within the first 30 minutes, which kept my expectations high at the start. The catch? Tian Ji’an is her cousin who she had been arranged to marry. Drama of the stickiest order ensues as Nie Yinniang takes up her next mission.

I can’t stress enough what a feast for the eyes “The Assassin” is. The cinematography of the Chinese landscapes are absolutely beautiful and breathtaking. The lighting is exquisite as well, making the gold of the rich main characters shine in a way that adds to the luxurious sets and costumes. The shots of the uninhabited mountains transports the viewer back in time, another stunning element paid careful attention to in order to bring to life this historical drama. Some of the visuals foreshadow the plot as well, like when a blood-red sky at sunset is reflected in a lake, contributing to the mise-en-scène as well.

Unfortunately, the editing does not allow the screenplay to breath, making you feel every minute that passes by while watching this movie. There is far too much exposition, especially at the beginning where the assassin is given her orders to kill, only to then attempt to kill the following shot. Instead of feeling like a detailed chronicle of the assassin’s life, it often feels terribly redundant. Additionally, the shots themselves are way too long. Despite being a martial arts movie, the movie seems more preoccupied with the mundane aspects of daily life than the fighting itself. You literally watch people sit, eat and sleep while stuck with the same forlorn expression for the entire time, making you wait for any plot development (of which there is too little). This adds gravity to the characters, but in an unoriginal way as if they were all in a Western playing mysterious sheriffs who blew into town to restore law and order. To be sure, the editing wasn’t all bad. There was an effective switching from black and white to color in order differentiate the past in flashbacks from the present. But this does nothing to quicken the pace, making important developments feel understated and inconsequential, like when Governor Tian’s interesting origin story is delivered through a boring monologue.

Overall, “The Assassin” is a solid piece of film that feels more like a recorded play than a movie. There is a limited number of sets that the camera stays stationary on the majority of the time as monologues and exposition are dished out like nobody’s business. If you love historical pieces, this will surely delight. But damn, is it boring.