Fucks you up.
Everyone talks about the romanticized notion that great art comes from tortured souls. It’s an idea that’s existed since Plato, and has been examined through several scientific studies. The results? Mixed. But I’m not interested in whether or not to produce truly good art across any of the endless mediums that exist in this ever-evolving world, someone has to be plagued by deep emotional or physical turmoil. I want the after effect: what truly good art (a subjective determination) does to us.
Most review columns, including ones I’ve written, follow a pretty generic formula of examination and analysis. This then leads to either recommendation or suggested avoidance. These ratings normally place the piece in question on a scalable table, usually running from 1 – 5 or 1 – 10 or something along those lines. When we watch or read or experience something, we usually know right away where on this scale the experience will land. Sometimes, maybe not.
When I review something, I always look at two big umbrella questions: how did I feel while I was experiencing it? And how did I feel about it in the time that followed? Sometimes I’ll burn through a book in a day because it was such a good read, but then forget the details only a day or two later because it didn’t stick with me. Despite how good it was, and how much I enjoyed it at the time, there was no lasting effect (Feed; Mira Grant). Other times, a book will be eh while I’m reading it, but afterwards it lingers. I start thinking about lines or scenes when I'm done reading it (Last Night in Nuuk; Niviaq Korneliussen). Art in either of these areas usually garners a 4 on those review scales we talked about. Maybe, if the reviewer is feeling generous, a five (or if they’re feeling the opposite – a three).
Then there’s the stuff that you truly enjoy while you’re experiencing it and are still talking about for a few days after. These are the five-star reviews. (Fight Club (the movie); Milkman, Anna Burns; Control (PS4)). This is the stuff we look for, the good art. Now again, good is subjective, especially in the realm of entertainment. Good books to you probably suck for me, and vice versa. I once mentioned Requiem for a Dream in a meeting and a director looked at me with her lip curled and asked how I could ever like something like that. But that’s the beauty of there being so much out there. There’s some for you and him and her and me and them.
So, we all look for the five-star stuff that’ll make for a great weekend on the couch reading with whiskey or wine and the dogs at our feet, or provide for a perfect movie night with popcorn and boxed candy we bought at the grocery store to make it feel like we're at the cinema.
But what about the better stuff?
The trouble with finding the truly great art, the art that fucks us up afterward, is we never know it’s going to happen until it does. It could be while we’re watching it or right after or even a few days later when it creeps back into our subconscious and we realize we’ve been existing in this odd haze of going through the motions but our minds have been completely elsewhere. Everything outside the world we just left is simply kind of muted.
I consider myself lucky; I’ll usually have this happen maybe three or four times a year – sometimes less, sometimes more. It’s never frequent enough to reduce the impact, and rarely so distant from one another that I’m afraid it won’t happen again. It’s come from video games (The Last of Us Part I & II), books (Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro), and movies (Burn, Burn, Burn). Most recently, it happened with a show: Undone.
Undone is an animated comedy-drama series created by Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, and starring Rosa Salazar. It follows Alma (Salazar) after she gets into a nearly fatal car accident. Through the accident and its aftermath, Undone, explores the idea of reality through Alma’s new relationship with time and how she uses this to try and find out how her father really died.
The show is done through a style of animation called rotoscoping, where animators trace over motion picture footage to produce realistic action. It’s trippy to say the least, and takes a little bit of getting used to, but after half-an episode, the characters seem realer than most of the ones on non-animated shows.
I don’t want to go too far into Undone’s story (I actually do, but I really don’t want to spoil anything for anyone because it should be experienced as blindly as possible), but the creators and writers of this show should be commended for the way they handled certain topics, and the way they ended the season. Alma’s story is tragic and yet hopeful at the same time. And I think it’s this balance that the creators strike—similar balances seen in The Last of Us series, and other great art like Fleabag—that acts as the sledge hammer shattering our state of mind. Because let’s face it, all of our lives are tragic in some way or another. Whether it’s incessant, periodic, self-inflicted, circumstantial or random, tragedy is there. But it’s also the hopefulness that we look for. Hopeful that the storm will pass, the waves will calm, and the clouds will part. Calm seas may not make skilled sailors, but we can all appreciate safe harbor every now and then.
I strongly recommend Undone. And, while I can feel the fog starting to lift, it was great to find that all-enveloping experience again, and I’m looking forward to the next one. I hope every one of you finds the same.
So, pretty much like everyone else who has access to streaming services, I tend to spend more time browsing trailers and adding things to my list than I do actually watching things on my list. I know - first world problems and also a bit of ADD with some inability to choose? Fear of commitment maybe?
Anyways, armchair psychological diagnoses aside, since my partner and I are both into horror movies and the fall/October motif, we decided to upend the never-ending selection process by throwing the titles of the movies we want to watch into a random selector website (I know, revolutionary right?) and have the program decide what we're going to watch, thus eliminating the all too common occurrence of one of us (her) falling asleep before the other (me) can pick something out. We managed six, and while the handful of movies we watched ranged from decent to pretty good, there's still nothing as horrifying as watching 'The Strangers' for the first time in theaters. I've yet to re-experience that fear. Maybe next year. In the meantime, here's some one sentence reviews that will maybe persuade you to watch something new. Or, at the very least, add something else to your own ever-growing list.
0/5 = did not finish
1/5 = finished while doing something else
2/5 = decent
3/5 = will mention during happy hour
4/5 = still thinking about it a few days later.
5/5 = watch it. Now.
Happy Halloween. Oh, and also... make sure you vote!
I recently finished reading My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (full disclosure I have not read Lolita which was, per the author, a significant influence on this book) and, for lack of better words, was pretty unsettled by what I had just read. Needless to say, that was the point of the book. For anyone who hasn't read it, Vanessa follows the vastly inappropriate relationship between a fifteen year old boarding school student and her much older English teacher. The novel took place over two time periods, consecutively telling the story as it happened and through Vanessa's 'adult' eyes as the long term ramifications of what she went through continued to manifest in different ways.
About a week or so later, I threw on the horror movie The Hunt, which was a gory, satirical look at the left vs right, globalist vs nationalist rifts that we see permeating both social media and our society. Two things real quick: I thoroughly enjoyed The Hunt (recognizing it for the over-the-top satire that it was), and also that, while it might have been categorized as horror, it was more of a modern day splatterpunk dark comedy. That being said, the amplification of these cultural wars along with violence that is unfortunately not reserved to fiction and entertainment was also... a little unsettling.
So, because I had nothing better to do, I started thinking about the different genre-bending concepts we see across media. Is all horror unsettling? You could argue so: things that jump out at you unsettle your psyche and make you scream; slow burn dreadful there's someone behind you unsettle your nerves because you know, just know, something awful is going to happen; and the Halloween franchise is unsettling because, I mean if you're constantly running, and Michael Myers is only walking... how the hell does he catch up to you every. single. time?
I think, throughout all of media, we are seeing a further blurring of lines between different genres. Not saying this hasn't happened forever, but we're seeing more of a mainstream recognition of it. One of the biggest that comes to mind would be Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: a speculative, end-of-the-world literary work. And I hope we continue to see more of this kind of work. Work that approaches questions and situations through kaleidoscope eyes.
Bringing this rambling conversation back to the line between unsettling and horror, I think one might lead into the other. Horror, in and of itself, is unsettling in some way. But not all unsettling topics are truly horrifying (though it's safe to say that adult-child sexual relationships are not only unsettling and disgusting, but completely horrifying in their own right. And the amount of trauma that they put on victims is, again, horrifying). There are numerous organizations that work to assist victims of this kind of reprehensible behavior, and I urge you to support them in anyway you can.
So, at the end of the day, if you want to feel irked and uneasy, read some unsettling works. If you want to be horrified, read some unsettling works that push you into something truly scary. Or, if you wanna laugh, watch some dark comedy bloodbaths. It is October after all.
The Resident Evil franchise, a staple among zombie culture and survival-horror fans, began in 1996 with the original video game: Resident Evil. Since then, the massive franchise has, much like the Umbrella Corporation antagonist throughout the story, grown and dug its roots in across the globe and media platforms including movies, animated features, books, comic books, merch (I have an Umbrella Corporation BioWeapons Division ID Badge hanging not two feet from me), you name it. My first foray into Capcom's world of corporate espionage, bio-terror came via Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, originally released for PlayStation in 1999, effectively making me ten when it came out.
Since then, I've played the gamut, watched the movies, absorbed the in-depth (although convoluted) lore, and generally been an enthusiastic fan of the series. Then in 2012, Capcom released Resident Evil 6 to a wave of criticism and poor reviews. The beloved horror franchise had delved into something it wasn't: an action series. Now let's be honest: Resident Evil was never on par with say Outlast or Amnesia, but the game was horror, had scary moments, and was dripping in an atmosphere filled with dread. Unfortunately for fans of the series, the sixth installment was so far from horror and into action it would have made Michael Bay giddy. God help us.
Then something else happened... Capcom took the fans' words to heart and delivered us the Godsend that is Resident Evil VII: Biohazard. Our franchise was back and on the I'll-hunt-you-while-you're-sleeping legs it was built on. That historical tangent aside, 2019 and 2020 saw HD PS4 and Xbox One remakes of Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 3 respectively.
The concept of remakes isn't anything new. They've been happening across entertainment and media since well before I was born (this isn't the first remake of the RE Series either). Seriously though, how many iterations of the same movie can they do? Just because you add cell phones and a new vernacular doesn't make it worth the money ...Anyways...
I picked up Resident Evil 2 last year because, well, it looked bloody fantastic. And it was. In an instant I was transported back to the world of Raccoon City with characters I knew. There were new things thrown in and a few tweaks and changes, but the game played well and it was a lot of fun. That brings me to the RE3 remake I'm currently playing through.
This game was released to mixed reviews with the general consensus among them falling into two camps: it was great or it should have just been an add-on to the Resident Evil 2 remake. So, I shrugged, waited until it went on sale and jumped in. Here's the thing: the atmosphere is amazing and being back in Raccoon City again, chased by Nemesis, and shooting zombies in the face, is awesome. But the nostalgia feeling that I was looking for, that I found with RE2, is oddly absent.
Maybe that's the thing with remakes and remasters though... sometimes they just don't hit home. I'm not naive to think that remakes aren't done as somewhat of a cash grab. I say this not knowing, in any capacity, what it takes to make a video game remake, but I would imagine, perhaps ignorantly, that remakes and remasters serve two purposes: to introduce a new audience of gamers (usually on a new platform) to a beloved series, or to give hardcore fans of a franchise something to latch onto and, well you know, buy.
News, politics, and zombies. If I struck the last word and replaced it with covid-19 infections, you could safely assume I was talking about any of today’s headlines, not Feed, the 2010 post-apocalyptic zombie novel by Mira Grant. Like all good fiction, despite the fact that the novel is a decade old, it reads true, is relatable, and thoroughly enjoyable well into the shitshow year that is 2020. You know, if you feel like you can handle a disease-focused bit of writing in the age of coronavirus.
Feed follows Georgia ‘George’ Mason, her brother Shaun, and their intrepid tech expert fictional, Buffy as they land the biggest job in their blogging careers: prime press corps to the presidential campaign of republican senator Peter Ryman. The campaign trail brings them across the pandemic-ravaged United States while they aspire to bring truth and validity to the blogging world, while traditional news sites, and more conservative politicians continue to shun their perspective.
Mira Grant’s narrative is fun, intense, and filled with great dialogue, amazing characterization, and a fantastic balance of expose, development (both plot and character), and action. As the story progresses, it becomes evident that not everyone is keen on bloggers (or journalists in general) and that includes parties additional to the flesh-hungry infected rummaging through suburbs and cities looking for food.
The CDC is fully funded; money flows into political campaigns from special interest sources, and a fictional history since the rising is fully and expertly developed on the page. Feed is a hefty novel. The mass market paperback edition comes in at 571 pages. Despite the length, it doesn’t drag, and even the slower parts of the narrative are so carefully exploring the way the post-Rising United States operates, they keep you turning the pages well into the next chapter. Feed has been on my list for a while, and is one of the many critically acclaimed works by Mira Grant (also writing under Seanan McGuire where she is well known for her successful Wayward Children novellas). The series is followed up with two subsequent novels: Deadline and Blackout, both of which are stacked high on my TBR pile.
It may be infection-based, but at least it’s not COVID. Though at this point, if we’re being honest, who’s ready to trade Coronavirus for the Zombie plague?
Cheers and be safe.
Also: Wear a mask. Survive the Apocalypse