Ghost Story (1981) – I Spit on Your Town

It is easy to see why people might hate this film. After all, it is not and could never be a book by Peter Straub.

The origin story behind Straub’s novel has been extensively documented: Straub has repeatedly stated that Ghost Story was inspired by Stephen King’s early vampire novel Salem’s Lot, a tip of the hat that was later acknowledged by King in his non-fiction collection Danse Macabre where Ghost Story was written up as one of the most influential and structurally effective novels in 20th Century horror. This much we know.

For my part, Straub’s acknowledgement came as something of a surprise as Straub’s approach to fiction has always struck me as quite different to the plodding accessibility of King’s Victorian realism in which the world is just as real and fixed as the characters uncovering it. In Straub’s books, the boundary between world and character is far more mutable, its nuances coaxed into existence by structural complexities and stylistic flourishes designed to keep readers off-balance until a trap is sprung and a particular impression is lodged deep inside the reader’s vulnerable skull. Cocteau famously said that style was a way of saying very complicated things in a very simple manner and Straub is an author who is mostly in the business of using style to coax his readers into receiving certain — often wordless — impressions.

Had Ghost Story been written by Stephen King then one might have described it as the story of a group of old men who are being haunted. As the story unfolds, the men are revealed as having shared a disastrous encounter with a single woman. This encounter not only fills them with guilt, it also seems to account for a litany of emotional crises that have defined their adult lives. Assuming that both world and characters are fixed and real entities, Ghost Story is all about a haunting the grows with the passage of time, consuming not only the lives of the guilty but also the town in which they live. This is the story that John Irvin tried and failed to adapt but the result was a cinematic Ghost Story that is a lot closer to that of Peter Straub than that of Stephen King.

 

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Winter’s Bone (2010) – It’s a Man’s World… Thanks to Women

“The astonishing thing is not that some people steal or that others occasionally go out on strike, but rather that all those who are starving do not steal as a regular practice, and all those who are exploited are not continually out on strike: after centuries of exploitation, why do people still tolerate being humiliated and enslaved, to such a point, indeed, that they actually want humiliation and slavery not only for others but for themselves?”

So wrote the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich in his book on the psycho-sexual attractions of authoritarianism The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933).  Nowhere is this question more salient than in considering man’s oppression of women.  Indeed, the question is not why would a woman cut off her partner’s penis and throw it out the window of a speeding car but rather why it is not a daily occurrence.  A partial answer can be found in the concept of Kyriarchy.  ‘Kyriarchy’ is a neologism coined by the Harvard theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.  This concept, designed to clear some of the clutter from the road to clarity, reflects the fact that society is far more complex than a simple dichotomy of power between men and women.  In truth, society is structured by an ever-changing swarm of inequalities that reflects the dynamic nature of our civilisation.  Yes, a man may well have an easier time rising to the top than a woman but at the same time a lesbian woman may well have an easier time of it than a trans man and a black man may lead a harder life than an asian woman while a one-legged Baha’i woman may find doors opening to her that have previously been shut in the face of a HIV+ Catholic.  Humanity’s inhumanity to Humanity takes myriad forms.  We are ruled not by a Patriarchal father but by a Kyriarchal lord and the shape of that lord is forever changing.

The dynamic nature of human oppression goes some way to explaining the extent to which women can be complicit in the oppression of other women.  This is a theme that cuts right to the heart of Debra Granik’s cinematic adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel Winter’s Bone (2006).  Set in the Ozark mountains, the film tells the story of a seventeen year-old girl as she navigates the terrifying network of hatreds, fears and obligations that holds together her impoverished rural community.

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Rosemary’s Baby : Whimper Against the Machine

Polanski week has seen me write at length about the cinematic technique, intellectual pedigree and philosophical themes of Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy but for Rosemary’s Baby (1968) I would like to take a different approach.  Arguably one of Polanski’s best known films, Rosemary’s Baby is wonderfully acted, perfectly paced and so tightly written and shot that not a single frame feels out of place or fails to pull its weight.  From the famously ‘Doris Day’ soap operatic opening scenes to the macabre ending, it is close to being a flawless work of cinematic genius.  However, where The Tenant (1976) and Repulsion (1965) are quite clearly about the descent into madness via sexual repression, Rosemary’s Baby deals in the more fantastical currency of witches, Satanism and the birth of the anti-Christ.  The use of such fantastical imagery invites us to wonder what the film is really about.  Rosemary is clearly not mad, nor is she sexually frustrated.

Rosemary’s Baby is a snapshot of social power dynamics in 1970s New York.  It is a film not only about the treatment of women at the hands of a powerful Patriarchy, it is also an account of price exacted from the young by the elderly in return for the transferal of power to members of a new generation.  Despite being a film about unearthly creatures, Rosemary’s Baby is ultimately a profoundly temporal film about man’s inhumanity to man (and especially woman).

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