Born To Be Alive

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Many other critics maintain that the Saw series forwent character development in favour of shock value, which rendered flat and consequently unrelatable personae; and that may hold true as viewers aren’t invested in player survival as much as they are passive to their imminent failure and thereafter, demise. Fatality is conveyed through rapid, sometimes incorrigible reverse shots. Shots do linger, even in their haste, on timers and machinations which punctuate gruesome excisions. I know I never expected players to win as I watched each Saw instalment back when it debuted.

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What I found telling was the profusely low likelihood of victory. The odds of success never increase with the number of players, most of whose involvements are cited as unethical since the lives of others are not subject to their own games, but meant as pawns in another’s; contingent upon a lone player’s decision or success. For me, this is yet another unnerving element: everyone can or does have a role to play. No one is safe or absolved. Jigsaw purposes people as actants or accessories in each game.

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Saw is one of many franchises which vindicate my misanthropy as it evinces that—more often than not, regardless of what’s at stake—catharsis proves to be a fruitless objective. People are fickle. Proud. Rampantly complacent and unapologetic. Disparities which precede and prevail define our systems wherein too few, if any are truly invested in change. But Saw isn’t marked for me by its legion of losers or few winners. It’s the indiscriminate subject selection. Games are not exclusive to particular demographics: they can and do include privileged positionalities. Had the series continued, I would’ve liked to see a wider inclusion of aristocrats and celebrities.

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I would say that the attention paid to cops is thematic, but it seems more coincidental than calculative. The players in blue are primarily those assigned to the case. I find their deaths—and therefore, lack of revelation—entirely too convenient respective to Jigsaw’s/John Kramer’s [Tobin Bell] favour despite how he waxes poetic about their obsessions or shortcomings. I find the bulk of them are as unrelatable as the other players. Detectives Tapp [Danny Glover], Kerry [Dina Meyer], and Gibson [Chad Donella] are my only exceptions. The first being avidly albeit ignobly compelled to pursue answers to his own detriment, whereas insurmountable odds were foisted upon the latter.

Then, there’s Detective Rigg [Lyriq Bent] who invokes a little of both.

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The entirety of the Saw series captivated me from start to finish. Quite frankly, respective to philosophy and cinema studies, I’m surprised by its absence in scholarship or wider speculation. For many, franchise has been characterized and condemned as torture porn, coding sadism and gratuitous gore as a central [and tactless] narrative device. Others purport that Saw is an indictment of the very existentialism its eponymous antihero purports. That Kramer simultaneously establishes, maintains, and circumvents game parameters renders each trial to be a mere vanity project. What drives that prospect home is how he admonishes the murderous dimensions of his accomplices yet ultimately passive to them, allowing them to continue and therein subjecting players to inescapable traps.

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Compared to the other Saw movies, Saw IV (2007) isn’t exactly more intimate although it does feature the smallest roster of swine fated to reap what they sow. Viewers know that individuation is key to the Saw series, a standard effected through Saw IV’s predecessors: the frigid formality of Dr. Gordon [I]; Detective Matthews’ graft and outrage [II]; and Jeff Denlon’s irreconcilable bereavement and outrage [III]. Peripheral players had explicit connections respectively to each film’s main players: forsaken patients, victims, or bystanders whom wither or stagnate because of cyclic anguish.

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In Saw IV, Detective Rigg braves the moral quandary of complacency. He must acknowledge that he cannot—and moreover, should not—save everyone. That victory entails he be his own saviour imbues a degree of irony to this learning objective because goodwill is [ideally] supposed to be what motivates the intervention and prevention of violence, along with the subsequent detection or apprehension of its perpetrators. Bearing this in mind, it proves useful that players in Saw IV are rather impersonal instead of woven into Rigg’s personal tapestry because there is something distinctly universal in the conclusion he should arrive at. His game conveys that people are and can be accountable for their adversities despite the guise or actuality of victimhood. To impart this, one’s familiarity or lack thereof is inconsequential.

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Parallels can be drawn between Rigg as an impulsive agent of judiciaries whom are prescribed to affirm social order, and Kramer who entraps wayward souls as an essentialist paladin. Transgression marks the distinction between the two. Rigg is spurred to action less out of virtuosity and more because he succumbs to idealism that casts him as sanctimonious and headstrong. Whereas Kramer acts in a state of pronoia, impassive to what transpires within or beyond the realm of his control, Rigg assumes he himself possesses the capacity—no matter how grand or infinitesimal—to change things for the better and his failure to do so results in a crisis of faith.

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Not once does this occur to either Kramer or Rigg that the system is broken. One need only consider the significance of hegemony and qualifiers of positionality which account for disparities. Introspectively, both men conclude—but cannot acquiesce—that no amount of conviction can absolve this. Kramer resolves to incite an appreciation for life itself in disconsolate people by subjecting them to excruciating machinations purported to trigger a survival instinct. He contends that he hasn’t actually killed anyone, that failure results because of the players themselves. Their fate, he maintains, is in their own hands.

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Alternatively, Rigg endeavours to arbitrate justice despite the prevalence of injustice. That he is the most fervent denominator in the scheme of things—against the grain of comparatively hapless or dispassionate parties—means that he assumes rather fruitless pursuits. This in itself may bear an element reflective of modernity wherein the individual grows increasingly alienated and tasked against the decline [and de-regulation] of initiatives traditionally attributed to the welfare state. Antiquity is conversely imparted in through Kramer’s brute, analogue machinations which are contrived in the interests of functionality as much as austerity. Likewise, the phylogeny of enterprise or capital interest evinces oppressive contingencies as the market fails to yield fair or equitable outcomes. It is the accrual of capital, not magnanimity which becomes tantamount to esteem; and it is the inordinate, systemic concept of accountability that motivates Rigg to take action. The latter would be admirable had this been successful. Instead, Rigg finds himself shafted each and every time he goes out on a limb. Deliverance, honesty, virtue: the glare of reality dislodges what hopes he pins on these things to pass.

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I think this is somewhat of a statement on how idiosyncratic it is to liken advancement to independence or free enterprise, as laissez-faire economics serve to envenom class brackets and monopolize any-/everything, including the welfare state. For me: I have yet to reconcile the anomie which afflicts labourers and the have nots while reckoning ceases to exist for cruel, parasitic elites whom own the means of production.

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I could ramble [even more] about the implicit themes of horticulture, agronomy, and livestock which could be gleaned from the Saw series overall: the tacit likeness of flesh and anatomization [wherein Kramer details the literal and figurative bodywork of each apparatus he devises in his instructive recordings] to industrial meat production. Another thing I could ramble [even more] about is the horological dimension underlain in Kramer’s adoption of the pig guise since Saw IV reveals its origins to be from a zodiacal festival; but I’d think Kramer is too much of an empiricist to afford that much to fate or some prescription of cosmic order. I’m more inclined to think of a more blatant likeness in which Kramer regards subjects as bonafide hogs and is more or less apotropaic as he personally adopts the literal guise of one.

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Saw IV markedly conveys the crucial roles played in everyday [and the after-]life by law enforcement. Each film depicts subjects whose agonized [inter]connections arise from jurisdictive actors whom relish and uphold the venality of carceral regimes. Praxes and politics underlay the wrongdoing players suffer or execute. Depending on what you believe in—fate or magistry—sanctions Kramer interposes can be read overall as karmic or coincidental.

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Saw IV proffers that life is conditioned on the vagaries of law enforcement. Kramer transposes Rigg’s compulsion to ‘save everyone‘ to reflect the proclivity of disciplinary, surveillance societies to—perhaps, unwittingly—tyrannize its citizens. Judiciaries and officers can and do summarily have marginalized positionalities incarcerated or executed for thwarting their purview. As Rigg strives to take all matters into his own hands and obsesses over missing or deceased colleagues, he inadvertently absconds the very social order he resolves to maintain.  He comprises a class of professionals whom cultivate and are privy to a wealth of information, domains, and governance unbeknownst to underlings or outsiders. Everyday people cannot monitor, enforce, or escape law and order. Therefore, they oblige these things lest they be punished or exiled.

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Eventually, Rigg ascertains the prosaic likeness between people and gatekeepers. He realizes that anyone can be rendered invisible, powerless, and disposable regardless of panoptic polity. This revelation comes once he—under Kramer’s watch—is subjected to this asymmetrical oversight. This occurred to me earlier this week once I spoke to a [more misanthropic] colleague. No matter what came from the plight of our ancestors; no matter where or upon what one stands; no matter how ideal things may seem—we will always be captive. Modernity does not overcome, but rather breeds a wider spectrum of enslavement. An open-air prison is still a prison. So is a seemingly tolerant one.

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Prisoners may rebel. Others will say that prisoners may riot, but these terms are not exactly interchangeable. Riots span a range of mass acts where people abandon what they know for what they don’t. They surrender themselves. They wholly aspire to integrate. Then, the crowd assumes a life of its own that thrives on insurrection. Rebellions concern the resistance of oppressed peoples against systemic violence. Rioters ultimately tend to be incorrigible and disjointed. They want to disrupt politics while rebels aspire to redefine or eliminate them.

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Saw IV actually does a good job in illustrating these distinctions to me. Through Rigg, I see the heart of the judicial systems which subjugate—and quite often, sadly, fail to protect—life as we know it. His own life attests to how positionality renders hollow the impunity given to those in power who attempt to forge judicature with the master’s tools. Blackness compounds an already intuitive, identifiable figure whose persona is harnessed unbeknownst to its allusion. If imperial ascriptions of civil order cannot be leveraged concomitant to integrity and good faith by the successors of emancipation, only resignation is possible. What underpins his obsession is a desire for tangible action from the forces of order whose platforms are not only purported for, but capable of such.

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The problem with Rigg is that his thought process and rationale are always one step behind his emotions. He speaks too loudly through his actions which consequently render him silent, and therefore unable to articulate that the justice system coalesces around an impersonal consensus that fails those most vulnerable in the effort of service and protection. Rigg embodies how we cannot amend our oppressions as agents of the very discourse which justifies them.

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The arm of imperial law is an empty platitude in and of itself. Which is why I think Rigg is such a relatable character. We are taught to value ourselves in relation to others. But our sense of worth is innately flawed because we seldom see real honesty or kindness in others, so we become enamoured less with what comprises actual people and more with what—or who—we imagine. Rigg is transfixed by the feat of rescuing others more than seeing people as/for themselves; and each time he ventures to save someone, he is unsuccessful and resigned to a litany of vain regulations. Kramer just sees people as a mere succession of associations and reactions to stimuli. He maintains that the will to live lurks within and he endeavours to coax it out because it is withdrawn from consciousness.

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And, this is where I had and still—probably always will—have a problem: Rigg doesn’t really ‘qualify’ for a game to me. An indictment of agents whom wield state-sanctioned violence with legal impunity can justify Kramer’s overall focus on law enforcement. But while we can admonish penal overseers and systems for their failure to care for those they systemically prejudice, Rigg is condemned for caring too much. At best, he illustrates the necessity for boundaries: that we must recognize and respect our own limitations; that we may have realism and satisfaction which aren’t conditional on vacuous optimism or the descent into pessimism that repudiates the future.

I can’t fault him for the latter.

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Characters like Rigg [likewise marginalized, racialized] remind me of myself in that they are credulous albeit painfully aware of how miserable life is or can be. There are no windows of opportunity or to the soul. We don’t see windows. We see gutters. When we realize that we can’t tidy them, we become nauseated by what resolute filth mounts. People then vilify us as ungrateful or obnoxious.

As if we choose to be like this.

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Contrary to what most prescribe, we don’t lack will or imagination. It never occurs to anyone that our outlooks are actually vindicated by lived experience. We are cognizant of the (often unwitting or unapologetic) micro-aggressions that define the bulk of interactions with new or unavoidable people. Our lives have cultivated in lessons which affirm how and why trying to educate or relate is futile since our efforts prove moot. Because most folks’ [maintaining] privileges or feels always undermine our realities. Absolutely no one is exempt. Not even our own since “all skinfolk ain’t kinfolk.” Rigg is berated for being reckless and hopeless. Not once does anyone consider that his growing pessimism, however absconded, is but valid nonetheless. The same world that builds certain people up has a predilection to tear us down. When we grow nihilistic and misanthropic, it is not indignant. These perspectives are borne of a presiding sense of despair that is beyond our control. This despair is also timeless. It is evinced by blood memory and cyclic evils.

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Kramer urges Rigg to cherish his life. Of course, the implication is that one cannot watch over others at the expense of overlooking themselves. The most obvious moral is that people must save themselves. Another implicit one is that people cannot be saved if they don’t want to be. Sure, Rigg cannot and should not assume the responsibilities or plights of others; but I think that’s beside the point.

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People liken me as exigent since I dwell on ensuring and upon the purpose of my survival. I see myself in Rigg as starved and restless. I see myself in his incensed bereavement and the sheer intent which serves as his only cudgel to go onward. Rigg is completely within his right to despair. Some of the most dehumanizing things I face concern the reproach and disbelief of my emotions. This world strives less for reckoning and justice than it does composure. There is always someone or something, some richling or platitude, that rebukes me even when I know I have every right to be angry or despondent. It’s not that I should be happy to be alive. It’s that I should be happy that I’m allowed to exist.

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Which adds another dimension to how insidiously privileged positionalities appropriate our cultures and mechanisms to strengthen their condescension. Our grasps of value and welfare break free of imperial concepts of temporality which are linear and forever bind us to anguish, and are meant to afford us the power determine our own paths as Arrivants and Indigenous peoples. We instead see these models adulterated and weaponized by colonial contemporaries to legitimate their inaction, indecision, or disengagement. It’s fine for a SWAM to vacate his office to the detriment of others citing a mental health crisis. Whereas, it’s somehow not fine if I express contempt for maltreatment and abuses of power from that office—despite my own crises. I am often deigned insatiable because I question the absence of guarantees or precarious odds. My ND obliges me to a daily cocktail of prescriptions. I can’t sleep without sedatives. Every night, I knock myself out simply because I’d lay awake musing of all the ways my life can—or is bound to—unravel; and all the people I’ve loved and lost, and how it’s only a matter of time before I lose the ones I’ve got now.

Saw IV doesn’t drive home that we can’t save everyone. It conveys that we just can’t win.

Another Brick in the Wall

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I think people largely enjoy films wholly for their narratives; as in, the principle of there even being a narrative. Although events may be disjointed and crucial moments tend to manifest later rather than sooner, the story still unfolds chronologically. Personae embody clear beginnings and endings despite whatever happens between, and we have some grasp of meaning or lack thereof which is something that we lack in real time. Because our lives are ultimately nonlinear albeit spatial or temporal. The prevalence of disparities or institutions incline us not to what we deserve, but to whatever awaits. I’ve known many people who see life as a precipitous, an ongoing avenue that can be climbed like a mountain whose inevitable lows are justified by heights which accord to joyous apex. Lately, I find myself thinking life is more of a descent: less of a mountain climb than a fall down a rabbit hole, more of a plunge than a summit.

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Nothing like the movies.

Narrative pretense is meant to suspend our disbelief which is usually accomplished by some resonant line or likeness. This obviously goes well beyond the movies in how we’ve literally been cultivated from infancy not only oblige, but perform particular social norms and mores. Performativity has been definitive in growth and learning. From day one, we’re groomed through positive and negative reinforcement. We’re told to act or think in certain ways so that we may optimize our odds of success or acceptance. Most importantly, we’re alienated if we fail to deliver the script.

This was driven home in each and every scene in Lesson of the Evil. Pretenses are the means through which its lead—the handsome, charismatic Seiji Hasumi; played by Hideaki Itô—accrues favour in social capital. His allure is fruitlessly dissected through pensive exchanges and musings from secondary characters wherefore his charms become inexplicably uncanny, but never cease to enthrall. Yet Hasumi thrives as much from his looks as his strong albeit sociopathic grasp of social contracts. He knows that the mechanisms involved respectability are grounded in reciprocity: the determinant of a star is applause, hence they must simultaneously gauge and appease their audience; and although the audience excises the power of their patronage, they are resigned because they are beholden to the spectacles before them. The transactions underlain in each exchange—of look, touch, dialogue—incline characters to distrust their instincts. Which is why their prolonged albeit valid suspicions never materialize.

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Nobuyasu Kita [director of photography] also effects the magnitude of social contracts as well as their innately contradictory nature through chilly colour grading and volley of deep space. The indistinction between genuity and pretension is thematic to many films for which Kita as served as cinematographer. He relates the tenacity and indecision of the ties that bind through ever-shifting rack focuses, and through profuse overhead and low angles which serve to alienate as much they put things in perspective.

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Kita also reinforces each characters’ positionality as most instances of match on action are low angle whereas Hasumi is primarily shot from eye level. This conveys how principle and reciprocity are inconsequential as charisma undermines the infrastructure of social contracts. People like Hasumi are beheld more than they are upheld because they feign relativity. In supplanting terms of engagement with terms of endearment, disparities and boundaries are things they can easily dissuade or neutralize. Which is kind of reminiscent of the conglomerate apparatus—celebrities, elites en vogue—whose simulations of amity or solidarity sustain fans and consumers. The sight of Hasumi straight on accentuates the uncanny albeit immaculate extent of this deception: how everyone, including the audience, are duped by his artifice of parity; and how we are inclined to uncritically cede, devoid of facts and instincts.

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Another noticeable aspect in the cinematography is the lack of montage. The only exception is an instance of cross-cutting wherein Hasumi is nonplussed by a pair of ominous crows, then revels in mortally wounding one of them. The pair are understood to be Norse mythological incarnates of thought [Huginn] and memory [Muninn], key to Hasumi’s fabled defense of absolution. This likeness eclipses subsequent character exchanges, and that was the only aspect of the film that I found disappointing. Unconsciously, these crows may serve as metaphors for thought and memory: looming, inconspicuous, and almighty albeit precarious. Everyone in Lesson of the Evil exhibits this, including Hasumi. Appearances, intents, and purposes falter because of harrowing memories, points of origin, and the inability to wholly suspend their disbeliefs. Which also speaks to how social contracts are largely operant upon efforts to contrive thought and memory to be selective.

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For me, this resonated on another level in terms of politics and scholarship: the conscious choices I make to not only secure, but reclaim my personal time and space; and it is no coincidence that that primarily entails disengagement. We are constantly told that establishing and respecting boundaries are the means to health, transparency, and productivity. At the same time, we are also told that maturity, efficacy, and compromise require that our boundaries be fluid, amenable to negotiation. And, nobody articulates that bullshit quite like the idealists I encounter whom aspire to be educators or judiciaries. These people are typically prone to tangents and false equivalences, assuming sanctimonious platitudes. Their lack of self-awareness sees them opine as if they were to adjudicate; and they are unable and unwilling to see that the very laws which govern us—to which they purport their loyalties—were created, gatekept, and circumvented by imperialist hegemonic powers.

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We like to think that these people will be duly dealt with; that their superiors will inevitably conclude that they are inimical or otherwise unremarkable; that their penchants or privileges will eventually count for little since they only count for so much; that cosmic justice or karma will prevail and they just won’t last. Unfortunately, that is hardly the case. These people tend to fall upward. Institutions are rife with them, and they are adulated by those likewise or none-the-wiser.

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Which is why our own likeness in Hasumi makes Lesson of the Evil all the more unnerving. The only difference between him and the majority is that he assumes a particularly callous and destructive stance without conscience; whereas others begrudgingly yield, weighing the pros and cons of pretension or conformity, and salvage what pride they can in conclusion. People like Hasumi embody the social contracts which force us to maintain the guise of civility. Not because of their success or disposition, but because of how they [claimers] the narrative as a means to sublimate their contempt. Their stories are principled on the idea that the pen is mightier than the sword and manifest in the realization that those who wield the sword incline those who hold the pen. Lesson of the Evil shows this as its other characters relinquish their own swords on principle and assume Hasumi has done the same, only to discover that he is innately driven to weaponize any means to an end.

UPDATE – 11/27/2020 – This piece was actually shared on the Takashi Miike Facebook page

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How Soon Is Now?

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Most films I’ve seen tend to open with extreme long shots. Likewise, the cinematography employed in first minute is often termed to be establishing shots since this is where audiences are granted their first taste of perspective; and in these shots, the camera is impartial in being parallel. Subjects are occluded by a literal and figurative bigger picture as visuality unfolds along a linear axis. But this indistinction isn’t exclusive to long shots. Even in close ups or medium shots, impersonality can be effected since subjects themselves preclude the absence of narrative. Ambiguity may also maintain characters as unknowns if we can’t discern or relate to their motives.

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Which is probably why nothing gets under my skin quite like psychological horror. It’s a subgenre whose horrors I have yet to fully describe, but maybe that’s the point; maybe it’s meant to invoke aversion—angst, fear, irresolution, loathing—by an inarticulate form of unnerving. It’s a distinct vein in the body of horror. There’s no pun intended when I say the body of horror has become a corpse. It’s an apt figure of speech since the horror genre has become oversaturated with a multitude of half-assed tropes whose imitability have devolved into pastiche and clichés which cheapen narratives as camp and disingenuous. The vein of psychological horror isn’t exempt from the corpse-like genre’s autolysis, which explains why it’s acclimated—if not, collapsed—with hallucinatory dei ex machina purported to be abstract.

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For me, good psychological horror films lead down a path which turns outs to be along a hillside. You don’t think to go on because the rise is unassuming; but no matter how far you go, something seemingly innocent or happenstance always occludes the apex. When you finally reach the top, you settle in to take in the view—only to realize that all along, there was a path next to yours. Not only is it adjacent, it’s well-trodden and whoever has walked it is worlds ahead of you. When you retrace your steps, you discover that your path wasn’t a ‘path’; not because it was fundamentally different, but because you’ve got nothing to prove there was ever any path at all. Still, you know there was a path. There had to be. How else could you be here? After a cursory glance, you realize you actually aren’t at the top; but the path you’re so sure of has yet to manifest. However, whatever lies ahead is on even ground. There’s no up or down. There’s just forward. It just makes sense to distrust whether you proceed or pack it in. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Given humankind’s tendency to destroy itself, you have to wonder if there’s such a thing as an advance. Except this outlook isn’t about logic or entropy. It’s personal. Everything in your life has led you to this point. You lived under the impression that you were going somewhere; you were meant for somewhere.

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Now, you’re in the middle of nowhere.

Psychological horror plays upon the mundane. It evokes fear in the fact that life as we know it is and always will be fractal despite the totality of the human mind. This subgenre’s best movies effect that catharsis comes down to alienation and disenchantment; and living under the weight of revelation that you were never really alive to begin with, wondering if you’ll ever feel alive, or resigned to the conclusion that one can never truly feel alive in the absence of delusion. These prospects aren’t fantasy-like or speculative. They’re real, if not imminent. Life itself as a phenomenon is novel, but each life as it manifests is empirically unremarkable. Existence is recurrent. Evolution doesn’t boil down to cultures or technologies because everything is already preset. In this way, history is bound to repeat itself because the knowledge of the past hasn’t inclined us to heed it. There is no God or angels regardless of how miraculously one may take flight because any ascent is contingent upon obliging demons a priori. Any happy ending or inspirational anecdote is moot, if not fallacy when disparity has a predetermined meaning.

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It’s been a while since I’ve cracked open Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, or Ligotti; but I remember what they were on about. I’m sure when I dust off their classics—wherever they may be in my never-ending library—I’ll be able to better relate psychological horror to continental philosophy for an academic article down the line. Which makes me think of a recent exchange I had on campus. These days, as a PhD student, I’m usually the most senior in my [required] elective classes. I happened to take one last semester which concerned philosophy and artificial intelligence, specifically if the latter could be capable of sentience or actual intelligence.

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Although the crux of its was philosophical, this class was cross-listed as a psychology course; and I only mentioned that because that might account for why it ended up being predominantly dudes, some of whom were edgelords (and some of whom I’ve seen lurk and whinge on campus pages). One day, we happened to gloss over the virulent egotism and bigotry of an infamous academic who happens to be a patron saint for today’s edgelords. The fact that those in my class incline people to “consider” them is unsurprising. I found one of my fellow students who proceeded to explain Nietzsche surprising—and amusing. Nietzsche came up since he was frequently cited (and laughably, misread) by the notorious aforementioned academic.

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I pretended not to know anything about him; I let this student—who was an undergrad with little, if any background in philosophy (or by extension: early modern and contemporary studies, classics, English, and miscellaneous social sciences or humanities—all of which I was familiar with or had aced)—try to explain what was behind [and what justified that bogus scholar’s reference of] Nietzsche, of all people! I won’t recount the bullshit he proceeded to relay as if it were remotely corrigible; but I will say it was surreal to see someone so woefully wrong feign expertise, even as they registered that their inarticulation betrayed their very own fallacy.

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Which is kind of a good segue into the film I watched this week, Abandon. It follows Catherine ‘Katie’ Burke (played by Katie Holmes), a university senior whose ambition and meticulosity ensures she is bound for a corporate ascent. The plot is driven by the pursuit of her ex-boyfriend, Embry (played by Charlie Hunnam) whose estate seeks to declare him deceased given his disappearance two years ago. Benjamin Bratt rounds out the narrative tripartite as Detective Wade Handler who is tasked with privately investigating the case. Although it’s been dubbed as psychological horror and likened to the realm of mystery, Abandon employs psychological horror at its core. It’s a series of everyday albeit eerie sketches which unearth many seeds which have failed to flourish for our three points of interest. Repression is personified mainly in Katie, the austere beauty whose fanatic WPM and hyper-focused scholarship overshadow her sense of self, time, and space; while Embry—the bourgeoise narcissist with a penchant for theatre—embodies sanctimony and mania. Handler represents a grim sense of wonder as his gazes seems to search offscreen, into the distance, in pursuit of something further than answers; something I suspect may reference one of many ruinous machinations of modern capitalism wherein happiness ceases to overcome the technologies which augment reality, prosperity, and celebrity.

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Each character, including those peripheral (such as the now wider-knowns: Gabrielle Union, Tony Goldwyn, and Zoey Deschanel), is walking a hillside path despite lacking any concept of summit. Abandon builds upon this, but falls short because it lacks continuity and momentum. Integral aspects of character development are only referenced in passing. These could’ve been explored as opposed to several emphases on impersonal character exchanges. The institutional angle of Abandon—through lenses of post-secondary education, neo-liberalism, and law enforcement—effects just how much success and survival are operant upon quick, superficial, and incisive insights as opposed kindness or principle. In terms of cinematography, the film employs a maximum visual and expressive use of the depth of field in long-shots which are underscored by foreboding scores. Fatalism and disconnected are further conveyed as the characters’ interrelation is conveyed through a singular or flattened planes. These span cool palettes and barren landscapes.

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For viewers, the horror of Abandon is one that bleeds in. We’re gradually unnerved as we watch Katie, Embry, Handler, and the rest of the ensemble scurry by because we’re inclined to consider our own paths in contrast. Thematically, this is what defines the film. As we wade onward, even as we may have yet to cultivate any sense of direction, the people and the world as we once knew fall away; but even if we’ve outgrown them, we can never shake the sense that it is us who they’ve left behind. People don’t persist because of any particular objective, but because they are constantly reminded of how little the world thinks of them. As we grow older, we don’t grow freer. We aren’t entrusted with independence and responsibility in adulthood, we’re categorically tasked with such as we’re expected to hold our own on the market.

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And, that’s really at the heart of Abandon. It drives home that our most poignant moments ensue when we find ourselves as alienated and isolated, instead of appeased by some abstract sense of reckoning or greater good. People are vainly inclined to emulate some semblance life even as they gradually die inside because of what alienation prevails during our formative years.

 

When The Party’s Over

…if it ever started.

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I think a part of growing up in this day and age is discerning IRL prospects from fickle social capital. This may be part and parcel with the assertion: “High school doesn’t last forever,” a proverb engrained upon young student bodies by various adults; mostly career or guidance counsellors. The saying didn’t really resonate during the first half of the twentieth century since success and acceptance had been so politicized in terms of aristocracy and respectability. Since face was so esteemed, there wasn’t such a thing as outgrowing your class: literal or figurative.

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Then, “High school doesn’t last forever” was only alluded to in the sixties given the ascent of the middle class along with scores of rags to riches celebrities who became staples of transcendence, divination, and countercultures.

During the late seventies, it became a mantra to empower marginalized academics; people who were defined by isolation and scarcity with a penchant for STEM fields—who would go on to cultivate lucrative empires, some of which are revered to date. This carried on into the eighties where class divisions somewhat coalesced since students could be sponsored more openly as opposed to exclusively, if not painstakingly chosen or moderated by private benefactors. These ascensions would play into the innately contradictory pastiche of decadent albeit disillusioned yuppies and revellers. New drugs along with new cults [of celebrity and Darwinian sci-fi angles] bled into what became an antithetical outlook of existentialism and nihilism.

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What drove home the mantra was how everyone could relate to how high school was particularly hateful and hierarchal. Knowing it literally was only a matter of time was said as an assurance. What was ironic was that it had to be said in the first place, because it evinced the inaction of the adults who floated this consolation. The toxic cultures of high school were bred by the same people who sold this proverb as motivational. There were no callouts or interventions. No expulsions. Not much beyond a slap on the wrist. The very same people who swore the anguish wouldn’t last forever either ignored or idled by as it happened. Except in these decades, students had a firmer grasp of world events and a whiff of corporate politics. The wider range of press, peer groups, along with the seamless portals between nightlife and the high life shaped their emotive and intellectual landscapes—and with that came not only the cognizance, but reactions to adult hypocrisy.

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Of course, hypocrisy was nothing new; its awareness just materialized as a rite of passage. Pop culture monetized tropes of student solidarity on a local level. The villainous parliamentarians and warmongers were still screwing the world over, but students were inclined to note how they were otherwise antagonized; and to an extent, to note how their protectors [parents, guardians, voting or apathetic adults] had themselves played into the hands of the evil, elite overseers—whose legacy they would fare against once they grew up.

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The more they stewed and speculated, the clearer things became. The immediate adults didn’t have their best interests at heart which was even more of a betrayal than the tyrannous conglomerates. So, the objective became to overthrow, not merely outwit disgruntled parents and educators.

Even though ranks were clear, peer groups diversified by interest. There were still kings and queens, but also monarchies—which wasn’t too different from the real world. What marked the shift in the later decade was how one could not only climb ranks, but climb as high as they desired by any means possible to the chagrin of peers and elders. Growing up afforded the prospect of independence and outclassing anyone at anytime.

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Which would be great if life was only about reputation. The consolation that there are bigger fish to fry in the sea of life as well as possessing the agency to move with, lead, or even surpass the school doesn’t hold much water for the people who must swim against the tide. Everyday people internalized a morsel of that when they found themselves alienated; wholly investing in systems and socialites only to turn up short. The “cool kids” were everywhere and nowhere—the selective [back then, rare] social influencers, the glamorous heirs, the ingenious economists, the reclusive visionaries—all of whom were just as likely to be the gold stars or the odd ones out in high school.

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By the time the nineties rolled round, people began to notice that there was a distinct singularity of the real-time scene king or queen. They offered little, if anything of real value that was usually in the form of a single “circumstantial” asset. The royals were by default conventionally attractive which made their “good looks” unremarkable—something people invariably learned through the billion-dollar beauty industries which banked upon consumer insecurities, and the gatekeepers who absconded them. Beyond that, what was there? Contagious laughter? Comic “genius”? A golden arm or other appendage? Generous allowances?

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Whatever it was, it was always one thing. There was a range of depth (or lack thereof) in terms of personality or what made the cool kids unique as people in and of themselves; but when it came to popularity, all of that was insubstantial. While this fact wasn’t new, it struck home in the nineties for most of the same reasons students were inclined to think more critically about what did/didn’t set apart their peers and protectors decades before. The nineties just drew this out more because [of] most civil wars had been escalated or prolonged to a disastrous precipice; the hypervisibility and Othering of drug epidemics and state sanctioned brutality; the individualism and idealism which defined Generation X; and many people believed 2000 would be the end of the world.

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This decade also saw a break where adults could no longer assume an inactive or misguided whilst condescending stance for youth. What were understood to be adult ills found their way to high schools and afflicted students therein. Adults couldn’t simply sit back and assure students nothing lasted forever in this decade because by then, things had gone too far to the wayside on a grand scale. Surviving high school became a feat in itself. The drug use, gun violence, and a burgeoning attempt to acknowledge rape culture yielded too many casualties. I also think that a good chuck of adults in this era were also incentivized to act since they bore in mind their own youthful revelations and resistances. They had seen casualties firsthand of their own or of others. Grassroots initiatives and community outreach became transformative staples. Anti-bullying, anger management, and gun control (and education) campaigns emerged in the tragic wake of murderous spats between students. Active efforts were also explored to better suicide prevention. The derisive resolve of grunge icons and the underground also inclined folks against uncritically revering authority.

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And, that all gradually wilted once the internet flourished. There was the upside in enabling connectivity, insulating communities, and open access information. However, none of that outweighed the cons: cyberbullying, cyber-stalking, death threats, doxing, romanticism; and how the power of numbers is subverted to quantify rather than qualify merit, instead of uniting a working majority against a corrupt minority who control natural and monetary reservoirs.

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While people started to question and outgrow the popularity complex and the one-dimensionality of those at the top, the 2000s saw the internet completely transform the cult of the individual. Social media imbued users with a wealth of tools to assume airs. Unlike what folks came to see as the garden variety patrician IRL, online personae assume a sentience because of technological matrices. This is evinced in the disparities between the Kiki who gleans acclaim [by means of circulation and validation] from tens of thousands online, everyday people and celebrities alike; and the unremarkable mendicant who is ultimately faceless and penniless IRL.

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Truth or Die (also known as Truth or Dare) is one of many movies at whose heart is the confrontation of shifting positionalities and the culture shock of new versus old technologies. It follows the familiar setup of scores unsettled and bones unpicked premised through flashbacks which afflict what’s intended to be a friendly reunion. One of the integral conflicts sees a main character’s (Felix, played by Tom Kane) unrequited crush that sows discord—which would go on to ultimately hollow past and prospective relationships. While the character’s trauma remains in the foreground, a core focus is their deficit social capital as a result.

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While the murder mystery that unfolds is rather formulaic, what makes Truth or Die unique is the lens of it looks through. Reality hinges upon the fact that media and capital are at odds in how they serve to disrupt or fracture social networks. The main characters comprise a peer group whose members were popular in trademark fashion: the archetype one who is an optimist, the goof, the athlete, the rich, the rationalist—but nobody was ever more than one. The present day reunion makes for a contemporary past their former lives were set in, which informs the precarious rank they held over their nonplussed classmates.

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True to the adage, the group dissolves as time passed. They grow enraged, then estranged after a fallout. Most of them forget one another as they make new ties once they sever old ones. Felix’s brother, Justin—played by the handsome David Oakes [who has made me salivate since The Borgias]—orchestrates their reunion. He invites them to a dinner party; the occasion to celebrate Felix’s homecoming; the venue being a cabin on his family’s estate. While some might cite the lack of character development or back story could hamper the story, I find thats exactly what strengthens the narrative in respect to the theme of reunion. Whats past or present is inconsequential since these archetypes, just like those of high school realities, are genuinely unlikeable characters. It doesnt matter where they came from, where theyre headed, or what trials and tribulations they face. Theyre the cool kids. Their existenceand statusis contingent upon their often cruel subjectification of others. Nothing justifies that. No insight into their personal lives or catharses would elicit sympathy; which is what makes Justin’s creed somewhat identifiable, if not noble. This role also drives home Oakes’ virtuosity as an actor. At least, if you’ve kept up with his filmography. This is one of many characters which evince his mutability. His personae are superb since he’s totally believable as hero or villain, and he’s married the two in this latest crusade.

20This kind of rising action isn’t exactly new, but precarity is what marks this departure: how easily havoc can be wrought by ranks and media is what’s thematic of the overall film. I found Truth or Die more honest and grounded than similar series—Gossip Girl being the infamous example—in its dynamics and execution. Profound revelations bleed through point blank dialogue in the absence of cosmic or quirky coincidences. The lack of pretension redirects viewers to the actual plot rather than suspend their disbelief. And the cinematography that hones in on every subject through mostly mid to tight closeups emphasizes both literal and figurative faces. An expressive focus is further diffused by russet, sparsely furnished interiors and dark forest thickets which comprise the mise-en-scène.

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There’s also an element of surrealism as bites of a melancholic, transcendent narration muse upon both living and dying in the moment. Moreover, how the moment loses rather than retains meaning as new technologies emerge to record it. Truth or Die incorporates a dimension of mastery which motivates one’s compulsion to photograph, videotape, scrapbook, or otherwise archive; where one can always assume a degree of control—however small or significant—over a moment that technology can capture. It also relates to a generational divide; where antiquated technologies crystallize precious moments versus the profuse modern, individual histories which hang online through public archives and activity logs.

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However, Truth or Die falls short in its adherence to the archetype tale. Occasional campy exchanges and emphatic, spontaneous outbursts undermine narrative tension. This ends up reducing a chunk of reactions to stilt performances. Erraticism then minimizes the characters’ desperation as they try to bully out confessions and search for escape routes. It’s hard to believe they’re driven wholly by a sense of urgency as they saunter through scene by scene since they can’t be bothered to tread lightly. It’s even harder to believe they’re sympathetic as they turn on one another in a way that’s more flighty than callous.

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Then, there’s Felix as a framing device: the clumsy recluse everyone is so keen to demoralize. His credulity makes for an obvious red herring. The camerawork is also a bit shaky in parts where it shouldn’t be; and cuts which go from straight on to canted angles disjoint the focus, particularly in sequences with dialogue.

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And, the obvious thread that ties everything together here is that life does indeed beat beyond high school. Ironically, this is a pretty obvious element that tends to be downplayed or entirely overlooked in high school whodunnit reunion tales. The only explicit, fleshed out references to high school are ambivalent flashbacks that allude to potential murder motives or scenes within (or following) the climax when the culprit is unmasked. You’d think that wouldn’t be the case given the literal premise of these tales. It’s a shame because it’s such a simple, clever way to frame plot and character development—which in itself motivates why people have high school reunions.

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No matter how much times change, the saying that “High school doesn’t last forever” resonates on the principle that happiness and bragging rights await those who take playground politics in stride. People don’t show up to high school reunions to check in or rekindle friendships. They show up to show out: drive home how they’ve become “cool kids” in their own right; gloat over how the cold, real world of adulthood overshadows whatever twinkled at the centre lunch table or bleachers.

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The motive is petty in hindsight, but something most of us can relate to. I’m not exactly stewing over things everyday, every time, plotting in the wilderness; wearing a skull shirt and trench coat, resolving to enact vengeance—only to realize no matter what, it will always consume me long after the final execution. But I’m aware there are past qualms I’ve yet to suss out which have manifest in how I relate to things; and I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t feel the teeniest bit vindicated if I heard tragedy struck the monsters I knew in high school. Truth or Die acknowledges this not so guilty pleasure as it reinforces not only how far its circle of friends have fallen from glamorous graces, but how these falls serve as comeuppance. Nobody is perfect nor are they exempt from karma, but there are certain people who are duly dealt a distinct brand of just deserters.

Of Parlance and Pastimes

Pisces

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Online and in real life, legions of romance fans claim that stylized stereotypes mainstreamed in popular media are all in good fun and totally harmless; and that dissenters are either imagining or exaggerating their cons. The same could be said for more of the intellectual perspectives regarding interpersonal idealism. Hyung-Tae Kim’s Pisces assumes a refreshing, riveting point of view that marries real and surreal.

Pisces centralizes Aeryun, played by Lee Mi-Yeon, a rental video store owner who loves movies. She is quiet albeit charismatic with her customers, often suggesting movies according to their personalities that further tailor tastes in film and culture. Dongsuk, played by Choi Woo-Jae [also known as the man of my dreams], is relieved by her recommendations as well as their many mutual interests in music, film, and fish. However, this seemingly ideal setup breeds inelegance, not intimacy. Any prospects of pleasure or realm of romance concerning Aeryun and Dongsuk shatter as their friendship falters.

The film portrays Aeryun’s descent from amity to infatuation, to obsession. Its resonance plays upon how often we are sold the stalking sensualist as noble or noteworthy, which realities of rape culture reflect are not fictionalized. Pisces bares the truth of this trope for the projection and paranoia it is. Its slow pace prolongs every painstaking, pathological detail which mirrors how these relationships work in real time.

Unlike the popular romance or drama setup, Dongsuk isn’t interested when Aeryun articulates his affection. Their shared interests and token chemistry aren’t enough to ensure a hookup or happy ending. Piscespresents the erratic, ‘endearing’ pursuit past refusal as ignoble and invasive. There is nothing adorable, persuasive, let alone rational about someone who doesn’t—or ‘can’t’—take no for an answer; and Hyung-Tae’s forthright literality of that personality appeals to viewers’ sensibilities as opposed to their sentimentalities.

While Aeryun represents furtive fixation, Dongsuk conveys common, abysmal ambitions that seldom come to fruition. He has a specific, grand sense of self that wilts against the greater society which constrains lower castes to servile livelihoods. Moreover, he is immodest albeit inconspicuous; something his gatekeepers sense and reference in their rejections. The audience sees this through his maladaptive dependency and drunken stupors of self-deprecation, notably when he staggers into Aeryun’s shop afterhours with slurred regrets over a failed contract.

In comparison, Aeryun is humble. Compared to Dongsuk, she has simpler ambitions as well as a smaller, stringent, and selective circle of friends. She is reserved, but resolute in addition to introverted; while he is gregarious. His charms and magnetism make him an unwitting extrovert; but his casual attitude eclipses those assets. He has dreams, but lacks foresight and resolution which prevents him from appreciating as well as acknowledging deeper meanings. In that way, he epitomizes the film’s greatest irony: dismissing the extol and extent of Aeryun’s feelings for him and life as they know it, whilst sympathizing with the profound principles in the movies he rents from her.

The PSYCH film scholar in me also takes note of how film itself is metaphorized as well as transmuted. For the audience, everything is evident to us in its entirety as onlookers. Everything is also identifiable, in the sense that we internalize the scenes in accordance to our worldviews and personal experiences—which is why we are not truly objective. The characters cultivate their own truths founded upon tropes of lies. This itself is a statement on the conscious and unconscious performativity through which we live vicariously and uncritically revere. Life is less lived than institutionalized, and the knowledge our mortality and humanity is of no consequence as we abide inequitable hegemonic orders. Pisces breaks the fourth wall somewhat, because it depicts characters who muse upon modal means that justify largely dead ends even as observers. Their capacity to watch films and sympathize with other likenesses don’t negate their imperfections nor prevent their mistakes.

The saying “You can lead a horse to water, but can’t make it drink” comes to mind as Pisces proposes we are privy to see senseless scenarios and abject antics play out over and over in film and elsewhere, yet we are ultimately unable to heed cautionary tales. Whether that inability comes from willful ignorance, rueful romanticism, or simply flaws attributed to human nature is a question Hyung-Tae—and Aeryun, and Dongsuk—leave open.