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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A View of What Scares Us

This poster was everywhere in Paris in April.
I recently watched what is the latest in thing in Horror--a Joss Whedon special--The Cabin in the Woods.  This mash-up fright flick is basically a tongue-in-cheek look at slasher flicks of the past.  Not designed to scare you as much as make you think that Joss Whedon is ingenious and funny and just a little wise.  I'll give him funny, since there are as many funny lines in it as an episode of Home Improvement (though the movie is three times as long as a Tim Taylor episode), but if Whedon wants to mix comedy and horror, he should rent The Frighteners and take lots of notes.  I would have to substitute clever for ingenious, since the plot could be considered ingenious but the clipped, quick theatrical version of the film is just too short to handle the possibilities of such a plot.  As for wisdom, there isn't any.  Not even a hint of profundity.  It manages to project a few brief, ironic moments, as when partiers ignore a victim being brutalized on TV monitors overlooking the crowd.  It is not that this group of people watch violence like the crowds at the Coliseum.  They in fact cannot even become interested in the violence, much like movie-goers today.  And so the movie ends in horrific bloodshed with little to no suspense.
  Which left me wondering why we had just watched it.  I was expecting it to be what we old people (as in non-teenagers) would call a scary movie.  No, I did not expect to scream and shake in my seat.  But I can still find a movie now and then that leaves me disturbed, a bit hesitant to walk through the house in the dark, and unable to fall asleep without listening to the sounds of the house once the living have taken refuge under the covers.  Cabin in the Woods did none of that for me.  The most suspenseful moment was one of the oldest shticks in the film-makers bag-of-magic-shticks; that moment when you say don't go down in the basement.  Beyond this, there is nothing to make your heart pound.  Sure, there are zombies stalking the characters, and even an explosion of our worst nightmares let loose upon the screen that is more or less designed to make us say "oh-fill-in-the-blank-expletive".  But it never reaches scary.
Peter Jackson's 1996The Frighteners
  Perhaps Whedon would defend his film by declaring it was never meant to be scary.  I can buy that.  It would make more sense.  I wouldn't argue with him.  This is more about my own expectations and how this movie failed to meet them.  Maybe I should have read more reviews before I saw it.  Maybe I just shouldn't be so picky.
  But what exactly then does a movie need to be scary?  That's the question over which this movie left me wondering.  It is a question that has vexed me for some time as I work to construct a plot for a future novel of mine as well.  I mean, let's face it, the scariest things in life are never in the movies we call scary.  Where, for example, are the horror classics April the 15th, and The Mortgage from Hell.  Guys with chainsaws chasing you?  They can't compare to the bureaucratic horror of an insurance company's convoluted medical policies.
  Honestly, one of the scariest moments I ever saw in a movie was in a Jamie Lee Curtis movie called Mother's Boys.  The movie wasn't scary, but in one scene, a little toddler is running across a room in his fuzzy sleeper, with a large glass of water held out in front of him.  Right away, any parent worth their salt feels their heartbeat quicken, their forehead feels flush, and they want to shout "stop running in the house!"  Why?  Because we know those cute little sleepers have plastic feet that stick out too far, and they are slippery, and this kid is gonna...oh yeah, in slow motion, we watch him pitch forward, eyes wide, hands still holding onto that glass...and he falls face first into the glass, which shatters.  It is one of the most traumatic and scary moments I've ever seen.  I knew as soon as he started running it would happen.  I still don't know how they filmed that scene, but I'm disturbed that they did.  It was truly horrifying.
  So what movies have really scared us?  The Exorcist is often cited as the scariest movie ever filmed.  And it is, for someone who does not know the power of Jesus that is available to believers.  A simple movie about mountain climbing scares people who are afraid of heights.  Many things scare us on personal levels, and these cannot be objectively evaluated.  Bumblebees don't scare most people, they are slow, passive, and even sort of cute.  But if you've ever had one get caught in your bangs, you tend to have a troubling view of them.
The Skull in our display.  (And a shameless plug for our books.)
  Skulls don't scare me.  We were in the Paris Catacombs with millions of them and they never bothered me.  I find them fascinating, since we all have one.  In fact, we all have one that we will never get to see.  I just think that's weird.  But during a book festival, when we had a fairly realistic skull sitting on the table, a surprising number of people shied away from it, asking if it was real as they recoiled from it as if its jaw might suddenly open wide as it prepared to eat them.  I was actually shocked to see their reactions.  One lady, her eyes as big as the empty sockets on the skull, her head shaking back and forth like a bobble-head skeleton, answered my question "do you like ghost stories?" with the simple answer "no, no, no, no, no..."  Okay, so skeletons scare her.  Maybe one of them fell on her in a science lab once.  I dunno.
Julie Harris learns what it means to be afraid in 1963's The Haunting
  For good old-fashioned scary I would suggest you look for The Haunting or its British cousin The Legend of Hell House.  Both of these movies do a great job of examining the iconic haunted house story, with actual examinations of them as their plots.  Burnt Offerings and The Changeling do a nice job of scaring the audience.  Any time a movie has multiple moments when you say "stop going into that room!" it is worthy of inclusion on these types of lists.  For a more recent movie, I suggest Identity, which plays with the slasher formula much better than Cabin in the Woods, and leaves us not only afraid of a killer, but afraid of a mind that has gone very, very wrong.  You are forced to consider what it means to lose your mind-- a horror that Gogol examined in The Diary of a Madman.  The mind is a far more terrifying place than the world around us.  Even worse is the darkness of man's heart.  Something I examine in the short story What Scares Henry Payne.  (Another shameless plug!)
  And most people will agree that the scariest parts of any movie are the parts that are never seen.  It is why so many old movies are still respected.  Were the censors aware that they were creating more suspense and terror by not allowing things to be shown?
  So what is it that really scares you?  What movies have captured this feeling best?  Room With No View would love to know!

Friday, October 26, 2012

A Macabre View of Paris Part Four

 The paintings in Paris are not always of beautiful scenery with soft, impressionistic vistas.  This time around, we'll look at a few of the more macabre images you will find around the City of Light.
Right away, as you enter the Pantheon, you'll be treated to this larger than life mural of the patron Saint of Paris--Saint Denis.  As we've mentioned in earlier posts, after his martyrdom, he is said to have picked up his head and walked with it, preaching the gospel for ten miles before finally dying.
You can't keep a good man down.
 Okay, this takes some explaining.  These next two are from the Louvre, details from Mantegna's Pallas and the Vices (aka Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtues).
Here we see two figures helping a third, drunken figure.  Their Latin headbands are translated as (left to right) Ingratitude, Ignorance, Avarice/Greed.
 This detail from the same painting has some rather creepy little owl cupids who seem to be helping Athena, though it is hard to tell.  Are they instead, perhaps,the classic precursors to Batman and Hawkeye?
 I know we covered this guy before, but he offered a hand in order to demonstrate the more ghoulish images you'll find in Paris.  This detail, from Salvator Rosa's Heroic Battle.  A picture that seems to be an inspiration for Hammer Horror films.
This detail is from a mural on the walls of the Pantheon--Joseph Paul Blanc's The Vow of Clovis at the Battle of Tolbiac.

Finally, we get this great shot, which is not a a scene from the latest Scarlett Johansson tough girl action flick.  It is, in fact, from Jacques-Louis David's 1799 oil painting The Intervention of the Sabine Women, which is in fact a far more moving story than a Hollywood action movie would be.  The Romans, denied a chance to marry women from the Sabine tribe, attack the Sabines at a festival in order to steal away the women.  In order to prevent further bloodshed, the women intervene, offering themselves as a sort of living sacrifice.  Of interest here is the woman in yellow holding up her baby, which I imagine is her way of attempting to keep it out of the melee all around her.  Even more moving is the old woman, in the center, just beginning to bare her breast in a sacrificial gesture.  And of course, what parent cannot be moved by the little pile of babies endangered by the warring men as the women hover over them in an attempt to protect them?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Macabre View of Paris Part Three

I can't help but take advantage of the cemeteries of Paris to add to our macabre collection of Paris sights.  To pass them up would just be wrong--dead wrong.

 We begin at Pere Lachaise, the most popular cemetery in Paris.  I couldn't help but feel deep empathy with this poor fellow, who has obviously been weeping for a great many years.  But seriously, I wonder who would commission such an image for their family crypt?  He might be meant to represent mourning, or something similar, but even without the stains, he mostly looks comical, or at least overly dramatic.

   You might think this was actually a picture taken at Disney World's Haunted Mansion, since he looks much like one of the singing heads from that spooktacular ride.  However, this gentleman sits atop a memorial at Montparnasse Cemetery, not far from the grave site of none other than Charles Baudelaire.

Back at Pere Lachaise, you can find this dramatic and bizarre memorial to the Czechoslovakian soldiers who died in WWI.  The odd image here, of course, is the dying soldier, being held by the mythical warrior and his lady, as they are watched by a figure that could be either Death or simply a refugee from the ghastliness of the Great War.  Considering the carnage this generation had to see and embrace, I think this memorial is a bit restrained.

  And speaking of the ghastliness of war, this memorial is not dedicated to any men who died on the field of battle.  It is, instead, a reminder of the extreme cruelty of which man is capable .  These figures represent those souls who suffered such cruelty at Buchenwald.  Despite the grotesque figures on display, I still think this image shows great restraint in light of the reality of what Buchenwald represents.

And lest we forget what is underneath such elaborate and artistic monuments, let's take advantage of our ability to see what was once buried in the Cemetery of the Innocents before it was emptied to make way for Les Halles, the great Paris Market, and is now piled up in the caverns of the Paris Catacombs.

As they say...Paris is for Lovers.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A Macabre View of Paris Part Two

When I think of the opera, I think of big Viking women singing like there’s no tomorrow.  And maybe a chorus made up of peasants, singing about their happy little lives—just before they storm the castle.  Basically, something dramatic is always going down.  So why shouldn't the d├ęcor at the Opera Garnier be just as dramatic?
We start with this happy looking fella, who I noticed staring down at me from the ceiling of the outdoor balcony overlooking Place de l'Opera.  Is he crying because spears are sticking out of his head?  Or is he just sad that no one notices him as they stand at the railing and watch all the brightly colored buses zoom by?  As drama masks go, this face, much like the face of a two-year-old who has been told no when he tries to stick his finger in the light socket, is pretty standard.  If I had spent more time searching I’m sure I would have found his counterpart—a happy face.

I’m pretty proud of this find.  It wasn't easy to see, being in a fairly darkened anteroom off the main staircase.  I've increased the light to it so you can see the wild bats and owls painted above the lights.  This is great detail.  Very imaginative.

This little dragon was slinking his way around the base of the main staircase.  He wasn’t easy to spot, since his color blended in with the stairs, and he was really, really still.  Why would a dragon be sneaking around the hems of all those overdressed opera socialites?

Every Opera needs a ghost.  And this one looks deliciously spooky.  Even better, she has a companion ghost.  What was so great about them was the fact that they were lit from below, surrounded mostly by the dark.

On the front corner of the Opera, you can see this fun-loving group.  The only thing better than an angel that destroys its foe?  One who takes the time to step on him after she’s done so.  Whoever this guy is, she is really infuriated with him.  I get the idea she’s about to use that stick to bash in his head.  She does not like the guy.  It’s a safe bet.

A bonus picture for today.  From the Musee D’Orsay, we see this depiction of hell in William Bouguereau's Dante and Virgil.  This demon is pleased to see Redhead tearing into his wrestling partner—with both his teeth and with his hand.  I was impressed that my fourteen-year-old son knew right away who these guys were.  Anybody else know?  I’ll give you a hint—just off to the side we can see Dante and Virgil observing the scene.
  Bouguereau painted this terrible scene in an effort to win the Prix de Rome from the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, which he had failed to win the previous two years.  It was said Jacques-Louis David nearly attempted suicide after failing to win in three attempts.  Bouguereau's Dante and Virgil won him the prize.  (A feat even Degas and Manet never accomplished.)  You can see the full painting here, a site with the complete list of his paintings.  Despite this intense, violent scene, 29 years later, Bouguereau would give the world his most famous and more beautiful work: The Birth of Venus, which won the Grand Prix de Rome at the 1879 Paris Salon.  Botticelli's The Birth of Venus is by far the more famous, but I always liked Bouguereau's more.
  Amazingly, Bouguereau went from being one of the most popular artists of his time to near eradication from the world of art after Degas and many others singled him out and derided his work.  His staunch opposition to the Impressionists seems have been a major factor in this.  At one point, his name was not even listed in encyclopedias.  Oppose newly popular artists at your own risk!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Macabre View of Paris Part One

Well, I've shown you so many beautiful things from our Paris adventure, I thought I would add a few of the more macabre, darker images I noticed while in the City of Light.  This more sinister side does not always mean there is less beauty here.  Often, this means just the opposite.  The artists rendered many powerful and bizarre images in quite beautiful ways.
This first batch if from Versailles, the apex of Beauty in that city.  Yet in all this beauty, there is often an odd little detail that makes you sort of wonder what was going on.
 This odd little scene is near the entrance to one of the main courtyards, over the gilded iron fence.  I don't know if this statue was in place at the time, but if there's a revolution fomenting in the streets, it is probably not the best thing to have your goddesses and Royalty depicted as sitting on the backs of the downtrodden.
  I could be wrong.
 I actually hurried over to this statue, which is quite large, overlooking the Water Parterre, because I thought it would be a touching scene of a father holding his infant.
  Is there anything touching about this father?  I'm thinking this child needs to be placed in Protective Services, sooner rather than later!
 I'm not always the best resource for the Greek Myths and Roman Myths, and German Myths, and Urban Myths.  So this might not be as odd as it looks, if you know the story.  Okay, I suppose this guy is really feeling guilty for having killed his lover in a hasty moment and decided to stick the sharp end of his sword into the breast pocket of his shirt for safe keeping.  Of course, being a warrior, and not a geek, he was not wearing his pocket protector, and so he has inadvertently stuck his sword into his breast.
  Anyone have any better ideas?
 This is just a great, decrepit scene from Marie Antoinette's play village.  I imagine this spiral staircase, made of wood with what was more than likely great skill hundreds of years ago, was something Marie was proud to show off to friends.  And so was everyone else, which is why they have trouble admitting the old staircase needs to be torn down and an escalator installed for all the lazy, huge American tourists who visit daily.
 In the Hall of Mirrors, this odd little scene was staring down over us from on high.  I'm pretty sure that's Boromir staring out from the top center, probably saying "One Does Not Simply Paint the Hall of Mirrors with Dutch Boy Flat Black."  (If you look close enough, you'll see this Boromir look-a-like is actually someone from Holland, according to the French inscription.)
  I really like the shades on either side of the lower painting.  They've got to be ghosts.  I'm gonna be disappointed if the chief curator of Versailles comes on this blog and leaves a snarky comment that they are not ghosts but simply faded images that have not yet been restored to their original color.
Here's my favorite guy at Versailles.  When you enter the War Room, from the diplomatic rooms, this guy is on your immediate left, just inches from you.  He's a startling sight to behold.  He is, in fact, a prisoner of war, who, along with his buddy on the other side, pull the chains that secure the great relief you see just behind him of King Louis the Some-Such (XIV, I'd guess, but I can't recall off hand and I'm too lazy to go look,) as he parades in the war room on his horse, gloating over his conquests and spoils.
  The prisoner's expression is priceless.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Free View of Cities of the Dead

click on the cover for the free ebook.

Today and tomorrow, the 11th and 12th of October, Saint James Infirmary Books is running a free promotion of my book Cities of the Dead.  Our ebook version, available exclusively at Amazon, is completely free.  Not only can it be read on a Kindle, but it can also be read with one of the many free reading apps on a Blackberry, iPhone, iPad, Android (phone and tablet), Windows Phone 7, PC and Mac computers, as well as from your browser.  Just click here to see how to use one of the free reading apps.
  The book continues to gain more great reviews, and will be exhibited at the 2012 Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge, LA on October 27th.  We are hoping to be able to announce some reviews of it in the local papers soon as well.  We've already begun to see sales of the print version, before the release date of the 13th.  All in all, I've been very encouraged by the response to this book.  My thanks go out to everyone who has been kind enough to show such early interest in this book.
  So please be sure to download your free copy today or tomorrow, and let as many of your friends, family, and complete strangers know about it that you possibly can.  Thanks so very much!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

31 Things I Have Learned from the Presidential Race So Far

With 31 days left until the election, I offer you the 31 things I've learned from this campaign so far.

1.  How to post messages on FaceBook that exclude those people who want to argue about everything.
2.  While we love to laugh at ourselves, we do not, without exception, laugh at our own political parties, especially if someone else is poking fun at them.
3.  People become experts in the Economy as easily as they become experts in Gymnastics Judging during the Olympics.
4.  Mitt Romney's sons lied to him.  Repeatedly.
5.  If Air Force One crashed into the mountains at high altitude, Barack Obama would be defenseless and not survive the night.
6.  If we repealed the 22nd Constitutional Amendment, Bill Clinton would win this election in a landslide.
7.  This year, in Florida, Democrats are worried about voter fraud.
8.  This year, in Pennsylvania, Democrats are not worried about voter fraud.
9.  Rue the day is a phrase that applies to any day in which you post a political comment on FaceBook and spend the rest of the day arguing with people you have never even heard of.
10.  This year, Republicans hate Obama's National Health Care.
11.  This year, Republicans love Mitt's Massachusetts' State Health Care.
12.  The Democrats should pay Joe Biden to take a two-month vacation any where there are no cameras and microphones.
13.  The Republicans should pay Joe Biden more to keep a microphone and camera on him 24/7.
14.  We should not use NFL replacement Refs and MLB umpires to make sure the election is conducted by the rules.
15.  Democrats would not object to Mitt Romney if he were poor.
16.  Republicans would not object to Barack Obama if he had simply shaken the Saudi King's hand.
17.  Debates mean nothing.
18.  Debates are game-changers.
19.  Debates should only be held at sea-level.
20.  Some of my friends are geniuses.
21.  Some of my friends are crazy.
22.  All of my friends need this election to pass by so they can return to normal life.
23.  No one cares about the congressional races.
24.  The Republicans ran out of old men to throw into the race.
25.  The Mayor of Los Angeles cannot distinguish between a two-thirds majority and a half and half tie.
26.  Clint Eastwood will best be known for his Director's Chair.
27.  Everyone agrees our political system is corrupt.
28.  No one will ever agree to change our political system.
29.  The other candidate is lying, is too vague, too specific, lacks experience, is evil, is greedy, is too slick, is too gaff prone, is too tall, is too snarky, is too inflexible, is too flip-floppy, is too young, is too immoral, is too religious, is too secular, is too American, is not American, is too negative, too positive, too angry, too content...
30.  My good friends understand it when I'm just having a little fun.
31.  My not so good friends don't understand when I'm just having a bit of fun.