Journadventures

Ridiculously Terrifying: Kevin Smith’s Tusk

Imagine the serial killer logic of Criminal Minds, the inventive and perverse body horror of The Human Centipede, and the wacky, irreverent – yet nonetheless emotional – hijinks of 90s slacker cinema, each taken to their logical extremity simultaneously.
You might then, for the briefest of moments, catch a glimpse of the feverish nightmare that is Tusk.

The trailer for the Kevin Smith’s 2014 film Tusk is as ambiguous as the film itself. For two and a half minutes, it is impossible to tell if you are watching a trailer for a comedy movie, a shlock horror flick, or something somewhere in between – a loving, though no less mocking, send up of the horror genre of the sort which were the rage in the first half of the 2010s.

The basic set-up has a young, hot-shot podcaster going to Canada to interview a well-traveled old man, only to be drugged and abducted by his prospective interviewee who plans to transform him into a walrus. (That’s right.)

Obviously, the events of the film defy all logic – be it scientific, medical, or rhetorical – but they are executed with such unflinching dedication and apparent sincerity so as to demand the audience suspend their disbelief and meet the movie on its terms.

Justin Long is deeply hateable as Wallace Bryton, host of a successful humiliation comedy podcast with the puerile, though provocative, name: “The Not-See Party.” At the risk of attributing meaning where none was intended, Long’s performance may succeed thanks to the implicit moral law: only a complete asshole could find himself in such a situation.

Genesis Rodriguez plays Ally Leon, Bryton’s longtime girlfriend. Rodriguez is the true star and emotional core of this film, without her tender and engaging performance the movie would have devolved beyond its barely manageable absurdity into pure farce.

Haley Joel Osment carefully navigates the divided loyalties familiar to anyone with a best friend completely outclassed by their better half. Osment’s Teddy Craft struggles to balance his involvement with Wallace’s podcasting fame fueled antics and his recognition of increasingly unattractive qualities his friend has developed as a result of success. Osment manages the convoluted emotions demanded of his character with grace and a persuasive friendliness.

Meanwhile, Michael Parks and Johnny Depp (almost entirely unrecognizable under a terrible wig, false nose, and exaggerated not-quite-Quebecois accent) compete for the distinction of most bizarre and unsettling performance.

Parks projects an unsettling menace without ever appearing physically threatening. The psychosis he reveals with every wild-eyed pronouncement is a performance wasted on his would-be interviewer. Long’s Wallace is dedicatedly vacuous and self-involved, ensuring that each scene he shares with Parks incites a piteous horror of the sort usually reserved for small, stupid animals. Parks unflinchingly executes a performance which demands everything from waxing poetic about an animal otherwise banished to satiric 19th century poetry (familiar from another Kevin Smith film, Dogma) to deranged vocalizations and low brow caricature.

Depp’s Guy Lapointe is a washed-up Inspector Clouseau, beaten down by the world and haunted by his past failures, keeping all of the exaggerated ridiculousness of a Peter Sellers’ character and adding an incongruous sense of grief and world-weariness.

Were Depp’s character the beaten down, veteran gumshoe in any other film, he would certainly drink too much. Instead, Smith writes in the fast food diner equivalent of the raw egg hangover cure routine, leaving the desperate protagonists to lay their plight in the dubious – and, in this case, greasy – hands of the only man willing to take them on.

When Parks and Depp share the screen, scenes that would have, at best, been satires of stereotype, become distressingly unsettling and perverse, suffused with a menace that originates as much in the distorted portrayals as it does in the narrative context.

The special effects have that rubbery quality particular to practical effect, yet are no less unsettling or horrific for it. Give the propensity for gory realism and smooth CGI in so much of contemporary cinema, the return to silicone and painted foam exacerbates the conflicting impulses present throughout the film. They are patently ridiculous and heighten the un-reality of the mechanics of the plot, simultaneously, however, they have the inescapable materiality of something that exists.

Smith’s filmmaking is impeccable. He wields the misdirection of the frame and the editing suite to maximum effect, especially in the scenes which delve into the unexpectedly complex relationship ensnaring Wallace, Ally, and Teddy. The film establishes a pattern of flashbacks early on, lulling the audience into a sense of security. The slow unfolding of a dreamy, already unreachable, sun-dappled status quo illustrates the depths of Wallace’s douchebaggery, while demonstrating the genuine affection – rooted in what little remains of the young man she fell in love with – which ties Ally to this undeserving cretin.

Imagine the serial killer logic of Criminal Minds, the inventive and perverse body horror of The Human Centipede, and the wacky, irreverent – yet nonetheless emotional – hijinks of 90s slacker cinema, each taken to their logical extremity simultaneously.
You might then, for the briefest of moments, catch a glimpse of the feverish nightmare that is Tusk.

The commitment to seeing the film through without giving in to the nudge-nudge-wink-wink of irony is quite possibly the thing which makes it surpass all other recent horror films in terms of absolute perversity. It has none of the ironic trope inversions which made Tucker and Dale vs. Evil or Cabin in the Woods so delightful. Instead it operates with the white-knuckled sincerity of a horror film unselfconscious of genre.

Somehow, regardless of the way it should absolutely be a bad joke, Smith never breaks the tension, keeping the audience captive (quite possibly against their will and their better judgement) up until the very end. The audience is left dangling over the abyss, uncertain if the soft cushion of a punchline awaits them at the bottom. Without ever telegraphing whether the story will end on a laugh or a piteous cry, Kevin Smith has brought the metahorror of cognitive dissonance to its apotheosis. The film traps the audience in that moment where they are uncertain whether or not they should laugh.

After all, a joke without a punchline is a horror story.

 

Content Warnings: mutilation, suicide, kidnapping, infidelity, crass language, douchebaggery.

2018.04.19 : In defense of Cynicism

The opposite of optimism is pessimism; the belief that everything will go wrong, all attempts will end in failure, and happy endings are impossible. This is the diametric opposition of the optimist, who believes that things will be okay, things will work out, and happy endings are always possible.

I am not a pessimist.

Two weeks ago (maybe more, maybe less) a friend and I sat down and started discussing philosophy.

I struggle to get along with optimists. Not to denigrate or dismiss them, because I think it’s beautiful to be able to believe in the best possible outcome. It is simply not something I am always able to entertain or understand. For me, optimism takes work.

The opposite of optimism is pessimism; the belief that everything will go wrong, all attempts will end in failure, and happy endings are impossible. This is the diametric opposition of the optimist, who believes that things will be okay, things will work out, and happy endings are always possible.

I am not a pessimist.

I consider myself a cynic. What does that mean exactly? It can’t be the same as pessimism, despite the fact that the words are often used interchangeably. Why does cynicism feel apt, where pessimism is grating?

The cynic, in my mind, is one who is ever hopeful, someone who dreams of happy endings, who wants things to work out. But. (And there is always a “but” with the cynic, it’s true.) Despite all that wanting, despite the dreaming, they’ve been frustrated too many times to believe that things will work out. The cynic reads the paper in the morning and weeps, because every morning they hope that the news will not be a litany of tragedies (though they know, every morning, when their feet touch the floor, that they should expect something terrible).

The cynic has taken a bad bet. Because the cynic will bet on the underdog, the new-comer, the good man knowing that they will lose. This is where the cynic and the pessimist differ; the pessimist has no desire to be surprised. The cynic is ever hopeful that this time, things will be different (despite knowing the odds).

So who is the opposite of the cynic? It is not the optimist, for they are static, just the same as the pessimist; they both look down the long uncertain road ahead, and see the light at the end, one sees sunlight, the other the on-coming train. The cynic is waiting, hoping for sunlight, and expecting the train. Who sits with them in that uncertainty?

My friend said, “Faith.” And she was correct.

Faith is that which sustains people in times of uncertainty. Faith is not optimism; it doesn’t promise that everything will work out for the best. Faith is an abiding belief in the future, that when the road is long and dark, something warm and safe awaits at the end of the road. Faith never promises a journey absent of strife, danger, and suffering. Faith promises that one can always take another step; look how far you’ve come.

The cynic and the faithful sit together in the dark, they know the odds. They know that the road is long and dark, and they both hope for the best. The difference is that the faithful knows the strength of hope. They know that hope is capable of sustaining someone, so long as you are a true believer.

The cynic, by contrast, is not quite strong enough. The cynic knows what hope tastes like, but doesn’t know how to make it grow, does not know how to harvest it, how to bake it into what they eat.

On days when I have to attempt great works, I sometimes wish I could have the strength of the faithful. There is a certainty to faith, to optimism, to pessimism that can seem enviable.

On every other day, I welcome the spark of doubt that lives within my cynicism. It is a balancing act, a middle path. The cynic can dream of heaven and keep their feet on the ground. One must be able to see clearly to know what is broken and one must have tasted hope to know what is possible.

Without cynicism, I would not be able to do the things I dream of doing. Cynicism is both that which arms to me examine how we have failed as a people, as a species, and where we have done wrong, it is the expectation of being beaten down, of being lied to, of finding victims and perpetrators. But it is also cynicism that makes me believe that we can do better, that we can improve, that we can apologize and heal.

I’m not sure I recommend it. The cynic is always expecting disappointment and, unlike the pessimist, they are not ready to accept it. But it’s a fighting spirit; still hoping for the best, despite their expectations.

Finishing 50 Books in a Year (2017)

My reading goal in 2017 started with a desire to finish a number of the books which I had started over the past three years for the purpose of getting them off my “Currently reading” list. On the list, those books which I started before 2017 are marked with an *. I’ve sorted the books into four categories: F (Fiction), NF (Non-fiction), E (Essays), and P (Poetry). Additional notes have been provided for distinctive experiences, or other informational tidbits.

Most interesting was the way the type of book I read evolved. In the last few years, I’ve displayed a propensity for non-fiction, particularly high theory and neo-Marxist economic treatises (lots of things published by Verso and Semiotext(e)). In the name of expediency, I turned to both poetry and fiction. Around the time I picked up Bruce Sterling’s Pirate Utopia (an excellent alternate history where the short-lived Futurist state the Regency of Carnaro, does not fail), with its introduction by Warren Ellis, I determined that I should attempt to read more fiction. That path led me to The Ballad of Black Tom, the genius of Victor LaValle, and a taste of the recent spate of Tor Publications of new Lovecraftian stories focusing on the voices that H.P. himself would have overlooked.

Working with the Lovecraft Arts and Science Council opened up a wealth of opportunities to pick up more Weird fiction (contemporary and otherwise). My time with them began in earnest around October, which is reflected, somewhat, in the wealth of Weird fiction novels that make their way onto the list around that time.

  1. Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco [01.09] *F
  2. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams [01.11] – F
  3. Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams [01.17] – F
  4. Governing by Debt by Mauricio Lazzarato [01.19] *NF
  5. Hellboy’s World, Monsters in the Margins by Scott Bukatman [02.11] – NF
  6. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine [????] – P
  7. Six Memos for the New Millenium by Italo Calvino [03.13] – E
  8. Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling [????] – F
  9. Patient by Bettina Judd [04.10] – P
  10. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle [04.17] – F
  11. The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle [04.27] – F
  12. The Agony of Eros by Byung Chul-Han [05.06] – NF
  13. Curious Visions of Modernity by David L. Martin [05.20] – NF
  14. Failure and I Bury the Body by Sasha West [05.26] *P
  15. No Accident by Aaron Anstett [????] – P
  16. The Panopticon Writing by Jeremy Bentham [06.03] *E (more @ this post)
  17. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion [06.11] – E
  18. Between Ghosts by Reno Dakota/SJ Lee [06.18] – P
  19. The White Album by Joan Didion [06.23] – E
  20. Books v. Cigarettes by George Orwell [06.24] *E
  21. Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery [06.29] – F (French)
  22. The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White [07.05] – NF
  23. Frank Miller’s Daredevil and the End of Heroism by Paul Young [08.06] – NF
  24. Censorship Now!! by I.F. Svenonius [08.14] – NF
  25. A Short Guide to Writing About Film, 3rd Ed. by Timothy Corrigan [08.26] – NF
  26. Girls Omnibus by The Luna Bros. [08.30] – F (Graphic Novel)
  27. 13 Views of the Suicide Woods by Bracken MacLeod [09.09] – F
  28. Teatro Grottesco by Thomas Ligotti [09.10] – F
  29. On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the 20th Century by Timothy Snyder [09.21] – NF
  30. The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance by Franco “Bifo” Berardi [09.22] *NF
  31. Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer [10.11] – F
  32. Authority by Jeff Vandermeer [10.13] – F
  33. Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer [10.14] – F
  34. Islands in the Net by Bruce Sterling [10.28] – F
  35. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera [11.13] – F
  36. Looming Low Vol. 1 by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan, eds. [11.20?] – F
  37. Songs of Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti [11.25] * – F
  38. King Lear by William Shakespeare [12.01] – F
  39. War of the Foxes by Richard Siken [12.03] – P
  40. Agents of Dreamland by Caitlyn R. KIernan [12.05] – F
  41. Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw [12.05] – F
  42. Unnatural Creatures by Neil Gaiman, ed. [12.08] – F
  43. Parasite Life by Victoria Dalpe [12.09] – F
  44. Beta Decay #1 & 2 by Andrew Jackson King [12.15] – F
  45. The Dream Quest of Vellit Boe by Kij Johnson [12.19] – F
  46. A Guide to Undressing Your Monsters by Sam Sax [12.28] *P
  47. Beta Decay #3 & 4 by Andrew Jackson King [12.29] – F
  48. A User’s Guide to the Demanding Impossible by Gavin Grinden and John Jordan [12.30] – NF
  49. Kissing Dead Girls by Daphne Gottlieb [12.30] * P
  50. City, rediscovering the center by William Whyte [01.11.18] – NF

Obviously, I extended my deadline of “the end of 2017” by a little, but I needed to motivate myself to finish City by William Whyte, not because it was bad, but because the last few chapters deal almost exclusively with the issues facing zoning boards and their habits. Without underselling my enthusiasm for city planning, descriptions of zoning board decisions don’t even have the excitement of watching them come about as one is able to do in transcripts or in person.

A list of 50 books does pretty much no one any good, however, so instead, I will tease my list of Top 10 Books I recommend after 2017:

  1. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
  2. Failure and I Bury the Body by Sasha West
  3. The Elements of Style by Strunk and Whyte
  4. On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder
  5. Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
  6. Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan
  7. 13 Views of the Suicide Woods by Bracken MacLeod
  8. Beta Decay (whatever Issue you can find) by Andrew Jackson King
  9. Girls Omnibus by the Luna Brothers
  10. Kissing Dead Girls by Daphne Gottlieb

More on those ten books to follow.

Capsule Reviews I

It has seemed incomprehensible to some that there should be any need or desire for horror fiction when one need only look to the newspaper or out the window to find things to make one’s blood run cold.

But Professor Nobody, who makes his appearance in Thomas Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer, explains why it is exactly, in moments of turmoil and distress, that we turn to horror fiction, not as individuals, but as a collective:

“In transforming natural ordeals into supernatural ones, we find the strength to affirm and deny the horror, to savor and suffer them at the same time. […] In story and song, we could entertain ourselves with the worst we could think of, overwriting real pains with ones that were unreal and harmless to our species.”
— “Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures,” Thomas Ligotti

With that in mind, consider picking up the following titles the next time you are at loose ends and looking for something to read.

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer

Beyond a barrier blocking off a portion of the Floridian peninsula, some kind of otherworldly natural rejuvenation is at work. In Annihilation, the first book, we join the 12th expedition, this time comprised entirely of female scientists, across the barrier as they seek to understand what is happening in Area X,. Few things in that otherworldly Eden are as they first appear.

The first installment works excellently as a stand alone narrative, introducing us to Area X and establishing the tantalizing promise of the Southern Reach, the government department tasked with understanding Area X. The subsequent two books take you deeper into the mystery of Area X and the Southern Reach to find answers that are as strange and satisfying as the questions to which they correspond. Vandermeer’s lush prose is rivaled only by the Florida landscape it describes and the elegant tapestries of his characters.

Ultimately, Jeff Vandermeer’s alienating masterpiece might best be described as it was by the reviewer Scott Christensen on Google Books: “It’s kind of a love story at the end. And I thought that was sweet.”

(Read Annihilation to prepare for its cinematic adaptation, starring Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Oscar Isaac.)

Looming Low (Vol. 1) Edited by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan

The first anthology out from Dim Shores, a press established by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan in 2015 dedicated to Weird and dark fiction. The press has has made a name for itself publishing chapbooks from esteemed Weird fiction authors including Jeffrey Thomas, and more recently, Gemma Files and Joseph S Pulver, Sr.

Looming Low Vol. 1 serves as a whistle-stop tour of contemporary Weird fiction. While it features works by established names like Michael Cisco, Brian Evanson, Livia Llewellyn, and S.P. Miskowski, it also includes stories from less immediately familiar names. As a whole,  it serves as an excellent introduction to Weird fiction and its impressive variety of styles and topics; from the supernatural to the mundane, the romantic to the fraternal, and beyond, the human heart is metamorphosed before your eyes as it tangles with the incomprehensible and the irreconcilable.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti

Thomas Ligotti has been described as a mix between Kafka and Lovecraft. His personal brand of transcendental horror, as if Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau had ascended to that higher spiritual plane only to realize that life is something worse than a cosmic joke, is utterly unlike anything else. His dreamy, rotting post-industrial landscapes peel back to reveal humanity dancing on the end of a string, while elsewhere, close by, the universe laughs.

Perhaps most effectively, unlike the hapless or blissfully ignorant characters which populate Weird and Science Fiction, who unwittingly stumble upon unimaginable horrors, Ligotti’s characters often walk to their doom with some foreknowledge. His protagonists are seekers after truth, aware that they are damning themselves by looking but unable look away.

The Penguin classics single volume re-release of his first and second collections of short stories (Songs and Grimscribe, respectively) is an opportunity for everyone to re-/discover this master of dread.

Edited 26 JULY 2018 (for typos/clarity)