Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Associative Properties of Lampshades (The Cabin in the Woods)

Here, yet another way in which life imitates art, and comedy and horror intersect: this past weekend I went to the movies with a couple of buddies to see The Cabin in the Woods. The main narrative of the movie … no, wait, one of the two main parallel narratives (yeah, it’s that kind of movie, which of course meant I ate it up) is a very direct homage to a specific kind of slasher flick, but the movie as a whole is a love letter to horror movies of all types and traditions. As such there are a few brief nods to Japanese horror, the very first of which prompted me to lean over to my buddy Clutch and whisper “I hate J-horror” although what I actually meant was “J-horror is particularly effective at creeping me right the hell out” (which of course he very well knows because back when we used to carpool together, we both saw The Ring separately and proceeded to spend hours discussing it to pass time on the road). Said J-horror nod involved a shot of a typical unquiet Asian ghostgirl floating menacingly over the desks of uniformed elementary school children.

Meanwhile, back at home, we are now about a week and a half out from the little girl’s birthday party, which means the mylar balloons are losing some of their helium lift. The regular-sized ones in the shapes of flowers and stars are doing all right, actually, but the oversized one in the shape of Hello Kitty is on its way towards its demise, due in no small part to the fact that the little guy considers the balloon to be either a punching bag or body pillow depending on his mood. With that much rough treatment the Hello Kitty balloon also came away from the ribbon tethering it to the rest of the bouquet, or anything else, and so its been roaming somewhat freely around the house. And thus a couple of nights ago my wife and I turned off all the lights throughout the house as we made our way up to the bedroom, and arrived in a darkness only slightly broken up by streetlight filtered through the blinds to see … Hello Kitty hovering in our bathroom doorway. Not exactly a ghostgirl, but definitely both female and Japanese, and unquestionably creepy, moreso for the coincidental echoing of the movie.

But, again, I like horror and on some level I like being harmlessly creeped out, so I can’t complain too much. I definitely have no complaints about The Cabin in the Woods itself, because it was simply fantastic. I’m reasonably sure that when it comes out on Blu-ray I’ll have to get a copy, because I’m convinced that it will greatly reward repeat viewings. You may or may not have heard that it is a movie which contains some really exquisite twists, like Fight Club or The Usual Suspects, and that’s usually reason enough to watch something at least a second and possibly third time, to appreciate the first-act clues once you know how the whole thing ends. But in addition to that there’s the love letter aspect I mentioned earlier. Cabin in the Woods is super-dense with references to the history of horror cinema and I was more or less overwhelmed by them on the big screen. Even when I tried to pick one out to focus on, it was often offscreen again too fast for me to get a fix on. So I look forward to picking the whole thing apart at home with the assistance of a remote control pause button.

I’m positive that I could go on and on and on about the movie for at least 5000 words or so; I could have sat on this a little longer and just done Cabin in the Woods Week all next week. But I’ll try to stick to the highlights, one of which has to do with lampshading, as I alluded to in the title of this post.

Lampshading is a term writers use for acknowledging the ridiculousness of certain elements of a story (or tropes of a genre) within the story itself. It supposedly originates from theater, and the idea that if there is an object on stage which doesn’t belong there (imagine a scene set in an English drawing room acted out on a stage with two wingback chairs and an elephant) it will be distracting, not only for not belonging but due to the fact that the actors on stage are pretending it’s not there, which creates some insurmountable cognitive dissonance in the audience members’ minds. If you put a lampshade on the elephant’s head, you’re not only no longer ignoring the elephant, you’re drawing more attention to it, BUT (so the theory goes) it’s just enough attention to convey a message to the audience, roughly “yes, there’s an elephant on stage, we know it and you know, let’s call it a lamp and move on.” For example, hearken back to the original X-Men movie from 2000, and the conversation on the Blackbird en route to the Big Throwdown. Wolverine says, in reference to the matching black leather uniforms the whole team has donned, “I can’t believe you go out in public like this” and Cyclops retorts “What would you prefer? Yellow spandex?” Which, ha ha, because Wolverine in the comic books does in fact wear yellow spandex, but the fact is that the black leather is still silly, and that silliness remains unresolved, but a character in the story has addressed that fact, which means the audience doesn’t have to sit there wondering why mutant chromosomes contain no fashion sense genes and can just go on with the business of enjoying the story. Lampshading allows the writer to tacitly address the audience and say “Look, I don’t expect you to swallow this as if it makes perfect sense. I certainly don’t think it makes perfect sense. But I am asking you to swallow it for the sake of this being that kind of story, and for a potential payoff later on, fair enough?” Instead of feeling like their intelligence has been insulted, the audience feels appreciated.

Right, so, Cabin in the Woods, and deeper and deeper into Spoiler Territory. There’s a lot of lampshading going on in the first and second act. The premise of the movie is that a group of college kids have been chosen to live out an archetypal horror movie plot, with all of their potential actions scientifically modeled and then influenced accordingly by a shadowy organization behind the scenes. It’s a clever meta-conceit, since horror movies have a notorious rap for depicting behavior which no human being would ever engage in. If you heard a weird noise at night in a strange place, would you go looking for it by yourself, or maybe ask at least one other person to come with you? Cabin in the Woods acknowledges this by having the secret manipulators do various things, from doctoring a girl’s hair dye to spiking the drugs and beer to pumping in pheromones, all to chemically induce bad decision making in the protagonist victims. But it barely counts as pseudo-science explanation, certainly not in a way that stands up to scrutiny. Then again, that’s not the point. If you’re looking for a hyper-realistic deconstruction of horror tropes, this is not that movie. But in terms of a paper-thin explanation for otherwise incomprehensible behavior being better than none at all, it’s a cheap and flimsy lampshade over a blinking red bulb.

More to the point, it gets the audience on the movie’s side. And then (wisely, I think) the flick abandons any pretense of lampshading at all. The manipulators operate out of a high-tech facility which has a seemingly limitless interdisciplinary budget, and the third act essentially hinges on the surviving protagonists turning the tables on their tormentors. I can’t possibly overstate this: I think the moment that justifies the entire existence of the movie around it is the moment when the manipulators go from offense to defense. It is a Fuck Yeah moment par excellence. It also makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Seriously, I know I already gave the Spoilers warning, but if you ever want to feel the impact of this moment yourself go ahead and skip to the next paragraph. So Dana and Marty have jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire and are cornered in a small control booth inside the hi-tech facility with the heavily armed security forces closing in. Fortunately there are banks of elevators surrounding the control booth, and one huge red panic button on the main panel labeled SYSTEM PURGE. Dana hits the button, all the elevator doors open, and every monster ever imprisoned by the manipulators for use in their horror scenarios comes pouring out, tearing through the security force and then proceeding to rampage through the facility slaughtering everyone they find, while Dana and Marty hunker down in the booth. The carnage is glorious and the comeuppance for the manipulators is cathartic. The spot-the-references opportunities fly fast and furious and hilarious; by the time a staffer gets impaled by a unicorn it’s pretty clear this is supposed to be more fun than scary (to say nothing of the payoff for the merman joke). I cannot remember a more brain-exploding-with-geek-joy moment I’ve had at the movies in I don’t know how long. And yet. AND YET. SYSTEM PURGE??? Are you kidding me??? There are approximately a bajillion reasons why the very existence of a system purge function in the facility is a terrible, suicidal idea (as the movie goes on to demonstrate at length) and, by my reckoning, exactly zero good reasons to include such a button in the control booth in the first place. Yet there it is, intrinsic to the very nut of the movie. That is brazen. That is the movie spitting in its hand and then slapping logic right in the face. And there is no attempt to lampshade it at all, no one even questions the wisdom of a system purge button, let alone makes any attempt to explain it. But as I said, at that point in the movie it really doesn’t matter. The audience is totally on the movie’s side and when the movie offers up the big shiny red button the only reasonable reaction is “YES! PUSH IT PUSH IT PUSH IT!” So maybe, in a way, it is lampshaded; it’s covered by the lampshades that were hung up earlier. At a certain point the writer no longer needs to keep saying “Now I know this is also ridiculous, but …” The trust with the audience has already been established, and anything done with a flagrant disregard for realism is done that way for a good reason. Like the undiluted awesome of seeing buzzsaw-scorpion construction bots and psycho clowns working side by side to slaughter as many people as possible.

And then it’s all downhill from there, not in a diminishment of quality way but simply in that there’s no way to top that pivotal sequence. The movie does indeed have a downer ending, and not an ambiguous one but literally “and then the world ended and everybody died”, although even that is handled in such a spirit of reveling in the madness of it all that it didn’t feel like as much of a downer as it could have.

There’s another point I wanted to make about the internal logic of the movie but this post is already verging on overlong and that other point isn’t going to come out any shorter, I suspect. To be continued, then!

1 comment:

  1. Sorry we couldn't make the little girl's party. I tried. But given distances and schedules, I couldn't pull it off. Hope it went well, and that much cake was thrown from her high chair.

    For our little one's birthday last month, we got an Elmo balloon shaped like the full body of the muppet. It stood about four feet tall, and weights in the feet kept it from floating around. One night the weights fell off, and Mr. Elmo floated through the house. Waking up in the night to find a giant, bug-eyed humanoid form floating over your bed in the darkness, just after it smacked into your ceiling fan, yeah, that's...intense.

    A fine piece on the difference between storytelling logic and dramatic logic can be found here, in a piece that explains why John Carter didn't work as a drama for many people. Much to chew on.