Writing Autopsy: Oh, For Fuck’s Sake, The Neon Demon

Every week or so, we like to sit down and examine a film or TV show from a writer’s perspective, digging deep into the not-always-obvious mechanics of plot and character. Sometimes the exercise is an attempt to understand greatness. Other times – as in this week’s installment – it’s quite the opposite.

I should start things off by saying I didn’t finish Drive. I don’t remember disliking it, or particularly liking it. I just never finished it. Take that as you will.

But Neon Demon (let’s just put our cards on the table) is a pretty rough watch given the level of enthusiasm that greeted Nicolas Winding Refn’s first film. To call this one “half baked” would be an insult to collapsed cakes. Its theme is interesting, but the execution of that theme manages to be offensive and insulting. Its setting is trite, but workable. Its structure is a little weird, though not entirely broken. But the devil here is really in the details, because Refn has tried to direct a kind of horror film, but seems to have missed most of the key elements of what makes horror work.

Neon Demon is a film that completely eliminates suspense. It almost seems like an art project towards that goal. It’s not that you know what’s going to happen – the problem, actually, is that you don’t know enough about what’s going to happen.

Okay though, wait, rewind. Let’s start from the beginning here.

On Art Films and Abstraction

Some will certainly argue that this is not a movie where ‘writing’ should be a matter of focus. It’s an art film, people will say. And I’ll say look, having a lot of unnecessarily long takes does not make it an art film. The world’s great art films, while often not conventionally plotted, are usually incredibly well written/structured (same thing).  Holy Mountain, Naked Lunch, Drawing Restraint 9: These are, I want to say symphonies, but maybe more like frantic, jagged jazz masterpieces.

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Writer Autopsy: What’s the Matter With the Conjuring 2?

I was very late to the party on The Conjuring, but when I saw it about two months ago it scared the pants off me. (There’s nothing dignified about a 36 year old man clutching his fiancée like some sort of mystical talisman against the dark – but it’s definitely fun.) So I was happy to devote a couple of hours to the followup last week – only to be disappointed. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it’s not that scary or interesting, even though it has a lot of the same ingredients as the first one.

But for a writer, a failed piece of work can be just as educational as a successful one. You can see the cracks – in fact, the cracks leap out at you. So here are the cracks in The Conjuring 2.

Structurally Fucked: The movie is 2 hours and 15 minutes long, give or take. Which is too long for a haunted-house movie to start with – but that weakness is really exacerbated by the frontloading of the haunting. We get an hour and 30 minutes of foreboding rattles and jump scares before the demon hunters show up – and that fight is the center of the story, especially since it isn’t until that conflict gets rolling that we actually gain even a hint of understanding as to the nature of what’s happening.

The long buildup might have been sustainable if there had been slightly clearer hints as to the nature or motivation of the ghost, but there just aren’t. Slight spoiler, but the ghost’s main motivation seems at first to be . . . wanting to watch a different TV channel?

Low Stakes: It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why, but you know practically from the get-go that no one in this movie is going to die. Even after the haunting is clear to everyone, people just kind of hang around, remaining under threat. They go elsewhere if they want to sleep, suggesting that the ghost is about as threatening as a termite infestation. The exception, of course, is the ‘host’ character – but even she isn’t seen to be really in danger until a very late scene. The haunting, for her, is more of a bummer because it makes her a social outcast, than because she’s in actual danger. That’s just not a good way to generate fear.

Contrast that with the first movie, where people had a mounting plague of bruises and cuts, and oh yeah, your mom is trying to murder you. And your mom is Lili Taylor, and she’s totally terrifying.

Fake, Shallow Central Relationship: Since it’s now officially A Franchise, the Conjuring’s central duo are more important than in the first film. And nothing about them feels remotely real. God Bless Vera Farmiga, who deserves much better, but these un-flawed whitebread ghost hunters are terminally uninteresting. And their boringness makes the few moments when they express their mutual affection downright squicky – “It’ll give you something to look forward to when you get home.” Thanks, Mom and Dad.

All of which is to say that their relationship is core to the dramatic moment at the heart of the movie, when Dad Hunter decides to go into the house alone despite the danger. When Farmiga tells him, “I can’t lose you. I’m so scared,” it’s hard to buy, because they seem more like business partners and mutual beards than two people in love.

Doesn’t Question its Own Highly Questionable Premise: The movie makes a few minor gestures towards the haunting being faked, but it doesn’t rise to the level of a dramatic question, largely because the context makes doubt hard to swallow. Everyone who questions Mom and Dad Ghost Hunters’ core belief that demons love to possess children and haunt houses is depicted as a deluded, pinheaded ivory-tower academic, who is also physically weak. Dad Ghost Hunter is shown to be willing to beat someone up for his beliefs, which is, you know, proof that he’s right?

Even on its own terms, this does much less than the first film to explore the idea that demons prey on weakness and doubt. Honestly, it could even be seen as pretty anti-feminist, since basically all the family did to ‘invite’ the haunting is to be led by a single mother.

Anyway, intellectually shallow. I had the same problem with The Witch and its dangerously-close-to-total acceptance of women as conduits of evil – though that’s a far, far superior film.

Other Minor Stuff:

Uses the exact same “crosses flipping upside down” moment as the first movie (I’m pretty sure?). Gives us a three minute montage set to “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You,” which, sorry, doesn’t do much to actually convince me about the relationship.

AMREADING: M. John Harrison, The Centauri Device

I’ve just finished M. John Harrison’s The Centauri Device, which I picked up for a very well-spent $12.50 from Sarasota’s pretty awesome Parker’s Books last week. It’s a great piece of work on its own, but particularly interesting to me because it was Harrison’s third novel, published in 1974 – and there’s no contemporary writer whose artistic evolution is more fascinating, challenging, and inspiring to me than Harrison’s.

If you’re not familiar with Harrison, don’t beat yourself up. He’s a very unfairly lesser-known member of the so-called New Wave of science fiction writers of the 1960s and 1970s, centered mainly in Britain, and also including Samuel R. Delaney, Harlan Ellison, and Michael Moorcock. Like Delaney, he started his career working pretty firmly in the mold of adventurous sci-fi, then went with great determination in sometimes extremely strange directions. He’s most frequently compared to Moorcock, but at his most weirdly adventurous – A Storm of Wings and In Viriconium – Harrison creates more hallucinatory worlds and more convincingly acidic characters than Moorcock, using language that simultaneously pushes the boundaries of sensibility and penetrates the truth.

What’s even more interesting about Harrison – to a writer, at least – is that after pushing things so far into the formally and substantively bizarre in the Viriconium books, he took a rather drastic turn into more subdued psychological realism, then returned to sci-fi with slightly more conventional novels like Light – which is, incidentally, a fair preview of Anne Leckie’s recently highly praised Ancillary series.

In short, he’s a master at multiple styles, and reading his mature work is a sure way for a writer to get discouraged. But what about the earlier books?

The Centauri Device is, on one level, quite encouragingly straightforward. The essence of the plot is not just spare, but clichéd – the last living member of an alien race is also the only key to operating an ancient superweapon, and several factions vie to capture or control him. The central character is also a fairly standard-issue Space Rogue, and the factions rotating around him are Space Empires, Space Rebellions, and Space Religions. It’s fun, quick, and, structurally, not particularly ambitious.

But in the details of Centauri, there are clear signs of what Harrison would deliver in A Storm of Wings six years later – strange poetry, bizarre imagery, and most of all, characters that by design don’t live up to their roles as heroes. In Centauri, that’s John Truck, the secretly-last-of-his-race who, though he shows a few flashes of concern and initiative, is for most of the novel a passive layabout, putting his greatest effort into avoiding responsibility.

But the factions battling to control Truck are even less appealing than he is, a collection of bullies and manipulative zealots. The sole (maybe) exception is a crew of anarchist pirates, who seem to have laudable motives, but aren’t able to make much of them. In short, it sounds like a space opera in outline, but it undercuts the easy good-vs-evil polarity that dumb fiction of all sorts continues to hinge on to this day. There really aren’t any good guys.

It’s just as nihilistic as it sounds – and readers who want ‘fun’ are going to be bummed right out. But it’s not joyless – what saves it, and more than saves it, is the same wealth of non-descriptive descriptions and turgid-yet-profound turns of phrase that define the Viriconium books. Here, in a particularly great example, are the dying words of one of the book’s more admirable characters:

“You were there when she bled into the dyne fields, you saw the substance of her flaring out like ritual evidence of the future. I believe she was near to her proper place, then.”

It’s not clear what this means, even in context. But there is a weight and precision here that makes it at least seem that Harrison had some sense of its meaning, was trying to point towards that meaning, worked on these words. There are tensions between them, allowing possible interpretations.

Or this description of a spaceship in action:

Precarious and hungry, hovering on the edge of the time when its prey might come into season, like a huge fragile insect against the gloomy bulk of the earth, it spun and darted – extruding its armament and making playful threatening passes . . .

What’s really glorious about this is that you don’t have much visual image of what the thing looks like – but you have what’s better, a rich feeling of the experience of seeing it. It’s the same trick that Harrison would later pull with the superficially mundane villains of A Storm of Wings. They’re just giant insects – dying giant insects, at that – but because every description is inflected with this kind of emotional resonance, they’re deeply unnerving.

Plenty of readers are frustrated with Harrison’s combination of nihilism and verbosity, and the Amazon reviews of this are a fun read. The ending in particular is a giant Fuck You to conventional heroism. But that sense of challenge is exactly why the book is still so much more worthwhile than most of its contemporaries.

As far as what that means for a writer, trying to measure himself against the arcs of the people he admires? On the one hand, Centauri is, again, encouragingly straightforward in structure. A lot happens, but it’s all linear. My own current project is on shaky ground in that regard, with several entwining threads and an inevitable measure of jumping around through time. Which is another way of saying that discovering that linear simplicity is in itself a skill.

And, though there are those flashes of intense subtlety, a lot of The Centauri Device is written fairly straightforwardly. Overall, it’s a reminder that you have to walk before you run, and this is one of the great writers walking, with occasional sprints, trying out his legs.

The real x-factor here, of course, is Harrison’s timing. He both loved the SF of his time, and was frustrated by it. The Centauri Device isn’t just a book – it’s a strategy of a moment, which is the main reason it may still hold interest for those of you who aren’t total word nerds. Most evocatively, it’s worth considering that John Truck – the lackadaisical anarchist smuggler – appeared three years before Han Solo – the lackadaisical anarchist smuggler. I’m not suggesting there’s any direct influence, but the two are a product of the same moment, of a related subversion of space opera.

The big difference is that Solo redeems the archetype for tradition, ultimately choosing to serve the ‘good’ guys. John Truck has no such comforting delusions.

Though it doesn’t exactly seem to be currently in print, you can get The Centauri Device in several formats on Amazon (isn’t the future grand?). I recommend the 1974 hardcover, available for 20 or 25 dollars with shipping.