Sunday, February 24, 2008

Fear of Yourself - Perfect Blue

One of the more interesting movies of the 90's was the Japanese animated feature, "Perfect Blue". The story follows a young idol singer Mima. Mima decides to leave the popular girl group Cham and attempt to start a career in acting. Some of her fans don't take kindly to this. They become enraged when sweet, cute Mima poses for nude pictures in a fashion magazine and appears in a savage rape scene in her first film. In addition, the pressures of acting, the uncomfortable feelings of shooting the rape scene and finding a fan web site that seems a little too dedicated to her life starts getting to Mima. She isn't that strong of a girl to begin with and these events start to push her into a world of paranoia and guilt.

Then the murders start.

What works so well in this movie is that we are only allowed to see Mima's impressions of events. As her world starts to fall apart, we are there with her, seeing the strange illusions she sees, and realizing the terrifying possibility that she might be killing people and not even know it. Director Satoshi Kon, keeps the audience and Mima off balance till the final five minutes of the movie.

The main fear at work here is the fear of self, something executed as far back as "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde". More recently this fear was exploited in David Lynch's "Lost Highway" and Christopher Nolan's "Momento". In "Perfect Blue" animation makes this fear even more acute. Mima's world is torn down literally, with animation allowing the director to create images that would be impossible in a life action setting. Kon would go on to warp reality in his later works "Millennium Actress ", "Paranoia Agent" and "Paprika".

What are some works that you've encountered that use fear of self as the instrument of horror? What techniques are used to make this type of story work (of what was done that made it not work at all)? If you've seen "Perfect Blue", what did you think of it?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Buffy Summers - you’re my hero! - Buffy the Vampire Slayer

This topic came up as a type of sideline to my princess blog. Most myths and legends revolve around a male hero who does most of the action and a female secondary character who has a vital role to play but isn't the mover or shaker. There are exceptions, but they are few.

Most modern stories are based on these mythic molds and as such most stories in genre fiction revolve around a male hero. Now, I've been noticing more and more stories with a female lead and one that is much more active in the hero role. You even see the male secondary character playing a more low key approach (going so far as to become the damsel in distress).

One of the great examples of this is "Buffy the Vampire Slayer". The creator of the series made a conscious effort to switch around the stereotypical approach to a hero. By switching the roles around he brought us a warrior who was still a woman. The Buffy series is filled with strong women and stories that test these women in all kinds of ways. Now, many writers and readers have been influenced and excited by this type of character and she's become an archetype of sorts.

And this leads me to the question... is this type of female warrior set along the same path as a typical male hero - or does she face different obstacles and different trials based on her sex?

I think that in the grand scheme of things, the story is the same. She receives the call to adventure. She tries to avoid it, but is forced to make a decision. She faces many trials and gateway blockers. She faces the final challenge and initially fails (and may even die). She returns from death (or a long training montage) and fights again, this time using her newfound knowledge and/or power. She wins and saves not only her friends but her love.

Its the details that get different. Who is the love? Who is her nemesis? What forces her hand to act? Like all good mythic stories the details make a difference and give each story their own feel.

What do you think about a female in the lead of of hero's journey story? Does she have a different road to travel? What are your favorite female hero characters, and do they take a different path?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Stephanie Plum vs. Superman! - One for the Money

I experienced two origin stories in close succession and it provided me with a nice glimpse of how to do handle the origins of a main character in two different ways.

In one corner we have the film version of "Superman" (1978) directed by Richard Donner. The film is split into three distinct parts. The first takes place on Krypton. This tells the viewer where Superman came from and what his possible mission was. The second portion shows him as young man growing up on the Kent farm and coming into his powers. The final section is his first major adventure against Lex Luthor and breaking one of the laws his father set down.

This movie is actually mostly exposition, especially in it's first section. In a way these stories are interesting to watch, but don't really have a drive to them. The third section is driven by Lex Luthor's plot and Superman's interaction with Lois Lane. Overall the movie is effective and for a long time was considered one of the best adaptation of a comic book character to the screen.

In the other corner is Stephanie Plum and her origin story in "One for the Money". The book only gives us a little bit of exposition, telling us that Stephanie is broke, has been laid off and is getting desperate. We get a bit of her history with Morelli (which comes into play later). The minute she becomes a bounty hunter and attempts to track down the rogue cop the story is cooking. What is great about this book is that Stephanie's actions, dialogue and reactions give us plenty of backstory and explanation. The book moves along at a brisk pace, keeps you entertained throughout and covers the basics of character introductions along the way.

So there you have it, two ways to bring the origins of a character to life. Which way do you think is more successful: starting the story at the beginning of the character's life and going into a brief first adventure or giving the reader the adventure and revealing elements of character as you go? Was Richard Donner's approach in "Superman" dictated by the fact that he was making a movie and it was based off a comic book? Was "One for the Money" handled differently because it was a book?

Sunday, February 3, 2008

How Long Can You Look? - Freaks

So I finally got a chance to watch the 1932 classic, "Freaks". I found it to be an unsettling experience. It wasn't particularly scary, but I was unnerved at the use of actual people who were born without limbs, conjoined and a myriad of other variables. It wasn't that I was disturbed by them physically (OK, maybe I was a little bit), but I felt uncomfortable staring at them. I was staring at them because Todd Browning's camera was staring at them, inviting the viewer to look long and hard at these people.

Now I normally attempt to treat all people the same, no matter what they look like. Staring is not something polite people do, and this movie made me feel less then polite. Still the overarching story is plain, the sideshow folk are more adjusted and fun loving than the "normal" people in this movie. In the end the bad people are punished and people without limbs crawl in the mud.

Still this got me thinking about horror in general. One aspect of gross out horror is that it forces you to look at something you would rather not see, or something that you would hope to never see. The camera focuses lovingly on those moments where flesh is pierced and living flesh is turned dead.

However in this film, the camera is pointed at humans who are shown to be just like you and me except for their massive physical differences. Is this supposed to be horrifying? Or is the horror from the way the beautiful people treat the sideshow folk? In a way I found the movie to have a mixed message. This film is usually classified as a horror film, and the image of these sideshow performers crawling through mud armed with blades and obviously thirsting for blood made me feel that I was supposed to be disturbed by them. Instead I was cheering them on! Go FREAKS!

In the end I appreciated Todd Browning's skill behind the camera. I appreciated the way the story moved quickly and created some interesting characters. But I was unclear on the horror. If there is one thing a horror movie should be clear on, it's the idea of what scares you.

Was Browning trying to make his own version of a gross out movie? What was he daring us to look at? Where do you stand on gross out horror films and books? Is there more skill in the gross out shock or in the slow creeping dread?