We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Film Review)

Shirley Jackson’s work is disguised in the trappings of genre fiction, particularly horror and thrillers. What she really does is use the tropes of horror to create complex psychological character studies. The 2018 adaptation of We Have Always Lived in the Castle is refreshingly true to the thematic concerns of the novel upon which it is based. Set in the 1960s, the two Blackwood sisters live apart from the town over which their decaying mansion casts a shadow. Both are living sequestered away due to the scandalous murder of the Blackwood patriarch and his wife—they were poisoned with arsenic. Constance (Alexandra D’Addario) was acquitted but the town folk believe that one of the two sisters is guilty of the crime. Mary Katherine or Merricat (Taissa Farmiga) bears the brunt of the town’s abusive gossip when she visits for supplies. Merricat, who is portrayed as possibly on the spectrum by Farmiga, is a misanthropic loner who does arcane witchcraft-inspired rituals to protect the surviving members of her family, which include Constance and dementia-affected Uncle Julian (Crispin Glover). Merricat buries dolls, coins and books on the manse’s overgrown grounds and casts curses on those people who are cruel to her. Constance stays in the house, where she cooks and cleans with an almost Stepford Wife devotion. The three members of the family all assiduously talk around the fatal events of the poisoning and the subsequent trial. Merricat believes that her spells are working until cousin Charles shows up out of nowhere, with an unclear agenda.  Constance, who’s played as a wide-eyed, innocent ingenue by D’Addario, is charmed by Charles. Sebastian Stan’s portrayal is appropriately slick and two-faced. He’s frustrated that he can’t charm the taciturn Merricat like he can her sister. (Uncle Julian believes that Charles is his brother, and Glover gives the befuddled character a quiet dignity). Inevitably, the battle for Constance’s affection yields disastrous results. There are a lot of thematics at work here.  There’s Jackson’s preoccupation with group hysteria, and the role of misfit women in a strictly patriarchal society alongside an exploration of trauma and the loss of innocence. I enjoyed the look of the film, with is period Popoluxe aesthetic, and it captured the delicate balance of black comedy, social satire and dark group dynamics that was in the book.

Tarsem Singh’s “The Fall”

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I finally saw The Fall, a 2009 indie movie by Tarsem Singh. Like Beasts of the Southern Wild and Pan’s Labyrinth, it uses the archetypes of fantastic, imaginative storytelling to mask a bleaker reality. In 1920s California, young immigrant orphan Alexandria is convalescing from an obliquely referenced illness. By chance, she runs into Roy, a stuntman who is convalescing from a suicide attempt. Roy spins fabulist yarns for the 5 year old child, full of whimsy and derring-do. In return, she unwittingly helps Roy with his morphine addiction. The real star is the gorgeous, surreal set pieces that reference paintings by Dali and De Chirico. An extra resonance to the viewing was that I was ill at the time, and needed some fantasy in my life.

My review of Von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA: depression is a glowing blue planet

{Below is the text of the spoken review}

I want to like the films of Lars Von Trier more than I do. I admire that he has a singular vision, and that he has the audacity to disturb his audience. His work is difficult and he explores the darkest reaches of the human experience. But there is always something about his work that irritates me, that stops me from fully embracing his work.

I saw MELANCHOLIA last night. It’s an intensely personal meditation on Depression and self destruction. Justine’s descent into a depression is beautifully realized, and I would tell anyone who doesn’t believe Depression is a genuine medical condition to look at the first part of the film. The actress Kirsten Dunst portrays Justine’s pain as physical (which Depression can be) as well as mental. Her face mimics joy, but she’s really a husk inside, a tangle of psychic scars. The second part of the movie, about the destruction of the earth, isn’t as strong. Firstly, because the narrative shifts its focus from Justine to her sister Claire. The scenes that show Justine’s reactions are more powerful. She seems to embrace the end of the world. There’s a scene where she bathes naked in the spectral blue glow of the planet Melancholia that is just gorgeous.

The second part of the movie also has all of the features that annoy me about Von Trier’s work. His characters act in ways that don’t make sense. When Kiefer Sutherland’s character kills himself, it comes out of left-field. This sudden out of character behavior is a hallmark of his films. In DANCER IN THE DARK, Selma murders a man—out of left field. In DOGVILLE, Nicole Kidman’s character goes from being unbelievably passive (getting raped by an entire village!!!!) to committing genocide. The writer in me sees that as lazy, if not bad writing. Mood whiplash is one thing. Character arc whiplash is another.

To me, MELANCHOLIA is half of a masterpiece. He should really hire a script doctor (me!) for his next outing.

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The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan: the secret history of Chocolate City

DC in the 80s was a hellish place. It was a city plagued by poverty, murder and the scourge of the Crack Epidemic. I was shipped off to high school in nearby Maryland during that time, where my mostly white and affluent classmates would marvel that I lived in the sordid mess that was the District. I remember one of my classmates even told me, quite snottily, that in the suburbs, “At least we have trees!” (Please note that my house was directly across from Rock Creek Park, and we would get routine visits from deer, possum, and raccoons). My older brother was shot in the late 80s, after being carjacked.

During those turbulent times, if you rode the Metro, you saw the graffiti tag  Cool “Disco” Dan everywhere. On the buses, against the walls, on rooftops, under bridges. This mysterious artist’s (or vandal, depending on who you spoke to) signature  appeared everywhere in the Metro Area. Who was this person?

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The documentary The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan examines the man behind the tag. Dan was a man who started tagging in his teen years, fueled both by his love of the indigenous  Go Go scene and his own mental anguish. The film contextualized his avocation against the larger zeitgeist of the Reagan 80s, the Crack Epidemic, Go Go music and the heyday of Chocolate City. While not exactly agitprop, the emblematic logo was and still is a sign of times and of the DC that exists in the shadows of the federal government. Dan became a kind of folk hero.

Other things learned: the “Disco” nomenclature came from an episode of the 70s sitcom What’s Happening!! where there was a character named “Disco Danny.” Before I saw the movie, Cool “Disco” Dan himself was in the lobby, signing posters.