V/H/S/2 And The Dancing Poodle

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Schopenhauer came up with this thought experiment:

He imagined a world that was only time, no space to go with it. There are creatures who inhabit this world, but they have no corporeal form, and nothing around them has any mass, shape, or form. There is nothing but time. In such a world, Schopenhauer argues, the only art form that could exist is music, because music is the perfectly abstract art. Literature would have no place in this world, because literature is constantly alluding to the world, it needs a world to reference itself; no matter how fantastical the story, it is always based on how it relates to our own universe. In this sense, all literature is allusive, and a writer should worry about being too referential or not referential enough. Everything you write is a literary reference.

The purity of music, its universal purity (“they say music is the universal language, but soon it will be replaced by Chinese” –Norm Macdonald), is perfect for those who are sometimes called primitive artists, people with no formal training, and little knowledge of their chosen art form’s canon, who are still great at it because they strike at some fundamentally human element in their creations.

The people who made this movie, however.

There is something to be said about this movie, but it’s not really about the movie. This won’t be a review, because V/H/S/2 came out last year and I understand how things on the Internet become old news instantly. When you first hear about a meme, that meme is already overdone. Have we reached the memetic singularity yet? Who cares.

V/H/S/2 is a horror movie anthology, and consists of four short films, all based around the “found footage handheld camera first person view” concept popularized–but not invented–by The Blair Witch Project. I was extremely disappointed when I found out that one of the shorts was directed by the guy who made Blair Witch, much like Rob Reiner when he decided to make North for some reason.

As an avid horror movie fan that hates all horror movies, I have a problem with this movie. My main problem is that, even though all the directors were trying very hard to incorporate the handheld camera element to their stories in innovative ways, the end result is still a series of bad horror movie clichés. This reminds me of a rather famous analogy about a dancing poodle: the gimmick is that the dog is dancing, it doesn’t matter if it dances well.

(Alternatively: The marvel is not that the bear dances well, but that the bear dances at all.)

Here are the summaries of the four short films, so you can understand what I mean (spoilers):

  1. This one is about a young rich guy living alone in a giant house with a pool and a flat screen TV (so we can all relate to his troubles), who suffers eye damage in a car accident. He gets an experimental implant that allows his eye to work again, but also records everything he sees (nevermind that the framing device of this movie is that this footage which was recorded using the latest technology is found on a VHS tape). This sounds interesting and the first person camera gimmick doesn’t seem too forced. The young rich man arrives at his mansion and plays video games. And then he starts seeing ghosts. Ghosts that are one cliché away from wearing bed sheets with eyes on them. One of the ghosts is a little girl standing still at the end of a hallway. He has to sleep in the bathroom that night because ghosts don’t go in bathrooms, apparently. Then a girl rings his doorbell and tells him that she was deaf until she got a cochlear implant–an implant made by the same company that made this guy’s eye camera, whose technology can somehow make you aware of the spirit world. And when this guy can see ghosts, she can only hear them. During their conversation, the ghost of her uncle appears nearby. She tells him not to pay attention, and then announces that there’s a way you can keep the ghosts at bay. The solution is to have sex. She takes off her shirt and jumps on the guy. The movie then cuts to the morning after the soon-to-be-pointless sex scene, where after a few minutes of calm, the ghosts show up again, this time more aggressive than ever, and our protagonist is forced to cut off the eye implant with a razor blade. Then the ghosts make him swallow it? I don’t fucking. The sex didn’t work, I wonder why they would even include such a gratuitous scene.
  2. The second short is about zombies. I have a confession to make here: I don’t get zombies. The only time I was scared by zombies was in that scene in Shaun of the Dead where Bernard Black gets eaten. This one seems to be mostly humorous/dramatic instead of pure horror, because some parts made me laugh and some made me cry, though not in the order intended by the director. It is about a compulsive cyclist who takes his bicycle to the forest. He has a camera mounted on his helmet, for whatever reason–stories don’t have to make sense, they just have to be good. He gets stopped by a girl who was just bitten by a zombie. You get a glimpse of the zombies, and they are the most clichéd things you’ll find in this movie. They slowly shamble towards the protagonist and he obviously gets bitten. Now you can watch a zombie flick from the zombie’s perspective! He eats people. Then he storms into a birthday party (which is taking place in the middle of the woods, apparently, and again, this wouldn’t bother me if the short as a whole had been good), he and his zombie buddies, and they eat a bunch of people (except the children because that would be too shocking, you know, in 2013). Now, this is where the thing happens: the zombie stares at his own reflection in a car window. Okay, whatever. Then his cell phone rings. He answers the call (in this multiverse, zombies can answer phones) and hears his girlfriend being allegedly sweet (this is a problem with this movie, everyone’s a terrible person in a non-ironic way, I guess they want terrible people to relate to the characters). This stirs something inside the zombified asshole’s mind, so he grabs a shotgun and kills himself.
  3. The third short is actually the least bad one. A group of journalists decide to investigate a strange cult, whose leader is accused of brainwashing and child molesting, in that order. It turns out to be a suicide cult, but it’s also a Satanic cult. I’m not sure how the cult works, but half the people kill themselves in unison, half of them turn into (yes, again) zombies, and the female journalist is kidnapped and used for the summoning of a Baphomet. I say Baphomet, but it’s more like a bear suit with a goat head on top. This short doesn’t have as many clichés as the rest; however, it often tends to forget that it’s supposed to be a found footage film, made with handheld or hidden cameras. Sometimes an actual camera will be used to show certain plot-important scenes, because the director had no idea how to implement the first-person view to the story. There is also one remarkably stupid scene where the journalist confesses to some guy in the film crew that she’s pregnant with his child. The girl’s boyfriend, however, can see and hear all of this because she has a camera hidden inside a button on her blouse. The scene is laughable. First, there’s the fact that she has decided to reveal the terrible secret while being recorded. She has a camera on her, literally. Then, the dialogue. At first they hint at it, saying things like “yes, I’m sure, he and I haven’t been…”, “is there… anything you could do to, uh”, “I don’t need you, I can do this on my own”; then they decide that the viewers are complete morons, so the girl basically screams “I’m pregnant, and you’re the father!” Imagine if Hemingway wrote Hills Like White Elephants, and at the end he makes the guy say “so we’re getting that abortion, right?”.
  4. The last one was very upsetting for me, because I love alien movies as much as I hate zombie movies. The gimmick here is that the camera is mounted on a puppy’s back (the director used a severed ALF doll head instead of an actual puppy, it looks convincing enough), a puppy owned by a group of teenagers who throw a weekend-long party while his parents are away. They live in a secluded area, which already makes the short suspiciously similar to Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County, one of my favorite movies of all time. I was painfully aware of the similarities, but I thought to myself, “Well, at least it’s aliens and not zombies.” And then the aliens show up and they act exactly like zombies. They’re faster, though, but fast zombies are also a thing. You know a horror movie is bad when you can’t wait for the monsters to kill off the last guy, or the puppy in this case.

What I’m trying to point out here is that there’s a vice in fiction, a vice that’s indulged very often nowadays, and it’s when the gimmick takes over everything else. I believe that a good ending will not save a bad beginning, or that one good verse in a poem with mediocre verses will save the poem. A “gimmick” should be used to improve an already good story, but you can’t rely on it unconditionally. House of Leaves, to me, is the perfect example of gimmicks done right. There is a purpose to all of it, but beyond the clever typography tricks, under that pretty surface you can feel the beating of several love stories, of beautiful language, of a truly unsettling horror story, of the tragedies of parenthood, of language itself. Behind the gimmick of V/H/S/2, you find nothing.

Or maybe I just hated this movie so much that I used this post as a thinly veiled attempt at trash talking.

Moby-Dick: Extracts (Addendum)

Whale on the beach, you dinosaur,
what brought you smoothing into this dead harbor?
If you’d stayed inside you could have grown
as big as the Empire State. Still you are not a fish,
perhaps you like the land, you’d had enough of
holding your breath under water. What is it we want
of you? To take our warm blood into the great sea
and prove we are not the sufferers of god?
We are sick of babies crying and the birds flapping
loose in the air. We want the double to be big,
and ominous and we want to remember when you were
money in Massachusetts and yet were wild and rude
and killers.
Anne Sexton, Whale

The colt stood against the horse with its head down and the horse was watching, out there past men’s knowing, where the stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea.
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

So it was that my most impressionable years of boyhood were spent gazing at not a whale but a whale’s penis.
Haruki Murakami, A Wild Sheep Chase

It is said that someone once asked Tennyson for his opinion on Walt Whitman. He said: ”I do not have an opinion. I know Whitman exists, just as I know there is a whale in the sea. That is not an opinion.” However, by saying ”a whale”, there seemed to be in Tennyson’s phrase the memory of something vast, barbarous and threatening, which is quite an opinion in itself.
Jorge Luis Borges

He said, ‘You cannot live in the ocean’
And she said to him
‘You never can live in the sky’
But the ocean is filled with tears
And the sea turns into a mirror
There’s a whale in the moon when it’s clear
And a bird on the tide
Tom Waits, Fish & Bird

For when this moment is attained we who imagined that we were sitting in the belly of the whale and doomed to nothingness suddenly discover that the whale was a projection of our own insufficiency. The whale remains, but the whale becomes the whole wide world, with stars and seasons, with banquets and festivals, with everything that is wonderful to see and touch, and being that it is no longer a whale but something nameless because something that is inside as well as outside us.
Henry Miller

The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite,
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale’s backbone
T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Its skin is rugged and grey; seamen who see it believe it is an island. They tie their ships to this false land and disembark without fearing any danger. They camp, they make a fire, and they sleep, exhausted. The traitor then submerges into the ocean; it seeks its deepness and lets the ship and the men drown in this courthouse of death.
Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings

Here now, with neither kin nor quest,
I am so full of sea
That whales may make of me a nest
And go to sleep in me.
Malcolm Lowry, Alcoholic

Perhaps it is not useless to point out that in ancient books, a search was always fortunate; the Argonauts reached the Fleece and Galahad the Holy Grail. Nowadays, however, we find a mysterious joy in the concept of something that, once found, produces horrible consequences. K., the land surveyor, will never reach the castle, and the white whale is the doom of the one who finds it in the end.
Adolfo Bioy Casares, Los Orilleros

(((((((((((((Jonah in the belly of the beast)))))))))))))
Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves

Being a somewhat dark person myself, I fell in love with the idea that the mysterious thing you look for your whole life will eventually eat you alive.
Laurie Anderson