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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David Altmejd is all of you weirdo hipsters’ daddy.

Early last week, I was visiting my brother in Houston, but swung by Austin, where I lived when I was a good bit younger. I bought some records at Waterloo, and then swung by a place I’d never visited before – Farewell Books. For some reason, the Yelp review set off my “awesome shit” spider-sense – and it wasn’t wrong.

Farewell is in the former Domy Books space, and was actually taken over by former Domy employees when that awesome, awesome project wrapped up. It’s now technically four businesses – the bookstore on one side, the equally rad Las Cruxes avant-clothing/jewelry/record shop/gallery on the other, and two I was a little less clear on somewhere in back. I was reminded just how great Austin can be when I ran into the critic George Elkind and, along with Farewell intern Jori (sorry dude, I forgot your last name!) went down several rabbit holes’ worth of conversations about comics, movies – and, finally artists.

I seriously mulled picking up Farewell’s copy of a complete Cremaster compendium book which, at $120, was an absolute steal. But then Jori got me to take a look at a David Altmejd book, and I instantly saw it was the more interesting choice.

Altmejd’s work does everything I so badly want someday to accomplish with my writing. He takes the fantastical and the grotesque and refines it to its absolute peak, making it impossible to say it’s not ‘art’. He is to studio art what Thomas Ligotti or Michael Cisco are to fiction, what Matt Brinkman or Charles Burns are to comics, what Alejandro Jodorowsky is to film, what True Detective Season 1 was to TV. He takes outre, low-brow ideas and formalizes them to a powerful sheen, explores their depths to find what really makes them tick – but without intellectualizing or sucking the life out of them.

I’ve just discovered the guy (shamefully), so I haven’t seen these works in person. But even on the page they are staggering, mind-bending, specific yet visionary. His creatures transcend anything that Tolkien ever cooked up, instead having more in common with the horrific beauty of ’70s extremists like M. John Harrison or Michael Shea (or their godchild, Jeff Vandermeer). These are things that most people aren’t creative enough to cook up even in their wildest nightmares.

He first came to prominence with a series of monster bodies and heads encrusted with crystals, which seemed to grow on them like mold or mushrooms. If you recognize the crystals, you might be a certain sort of witchy hipster, living a realm where the otherworldly has become at least a little bit more relevant. It’s unclear to me whether the chicken or the egg came first (crystal imagery has been around in hipsterworld for a long time), and saying that Altmejd’s work influenced the design of a few tops at Urban Outfitters is pretty insulting anyway.

But more importantly, his work expands on and delves deeper into what those trifles are just barely brushing the surface of – a certain kind of intense wonder, sometimes stomach-turning as much as brain-bending, that we experience in contact with that which is truly, deeply different. Altmejd’s figures are often vaguely humanoid, but nothing about them works according to rules we would recognize – gravity, biology, chemistry.

The fact that they gesture strongly towards the human, of course, makes them all the more astounding when they go a drastically different direction. They open up, turn inside out (both, admittedly, shortcuts to the uncanny), grow things, fall apart. They’re the wrong color, with the wrong affect – most often, none at all.

I’m just getting to now him for the first time, but just as much as Matthew Barney or William Burroughs before them, I can already tell that David Altmejd is sure to be that worst and best of things – an inspiration who is also an intimidation. A fragmentary dream of what I would like to achieve, but maybe never will.