Michael Almereyda’s ‘Experimenter’ Is a Multi-Dimensional Look at Our Desire to Obey

Michael Almereyda’s ‘Experimenter’ Is a Multi-Dimensional Look at Our Desire to Obey

nullMichael Almereyda’s films don’t move forward, backward, upwards, or downwards; they just move. His characters’ bearings are fairly consistent, from film to film: detached, fixated on some distant point, murmuring more than they speak; as a result, his works tend to be characterized as prototypical “art-house” films, as far removed from the blockbuster arena as they could be. And yet “Experimenter,” his marvelous, polyvalent new film about famed and infamous psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), whose most famous experiment involved making subjects believe they were giving other participants electric shocks, points up both a populist strain in his work as well as a slowly growing sense of the comic; his work is not so much mellowing, in terms of his subject matter, as expanding. He tells ever larger stories, with an ever-expanding reach.

As the film begins, we see two men led into Milgram’s lab, as Milgram observes them from behind a two-way mirror. The tone, here and elsewhere, is soft, restrained, little dialogue above normal conversational decibel levels; at first you might think the restraint is purposeful, to reflect scientific detachment—or deep-rooted repression. While either is possible, what becomes evident as the film progresses is that it is an affable work, as movies go; it doesn’t raise its voice because it wants to keep the level of dialogue comfortable and rational, so that the numerous experiments described in this quasi-biopic will sink in. The experiment at the outset is a curious one, and one for which Milgram would receive intense criticism—and yet it sets a slightly comic mood that lingers for the rest of the film. One person in the experiment is the teacher, the other the learner. The learner goes into a room and awaits questions from the teacher, based on a list of word pairs read rather rapidly by the teacher. If, upon being read a word, the learner remembers the word it was paired with originally, they proceed to the next question—if not, the teacher administers electric shocks to the learner, in increasing amounts with each new wrong answer. Or thinks he does. In reality, the “learner” is a plant, who sits with a tape recorder and plays clips such as "ouch" and "Aa–ahhh" at appropriate moments. As the various "teachers" march through–among them John Leguizamo and Tamryn Manning, both memorable in brief spots–their distress becomes palpable with each increasing application of the shock, but a monitor placed in the room forbids them from stopping, and, by and large, they don’t stop. They challenge, and they question, and they argue, but they obey orders, ultimately. The root motivation for this experiment is quite serious; Milgram, whose parents died in the Holocaust, is trying to determine what would have compelled so many humans to kill so many other humans. But here, one can’t help thinking the experiment is played for semi-laughs. The seriousness of the monitor’s delivery, the histrionics of the "teachers," the retiring quality of the "learner," played relaxedly by Jim Gaffigan, all combine to induce amusement rather than alarm, reflection rather than disturbance.

The film tells another story, as well, threaded through Milgram’s successive experiments—that of the love between Milgram and  his wife Sasha (Winona Ryder). Although the progress of Milgram’s career wouldn’t seem to have anything to do with their relationship, work ultimately inscribes itself upon life, as it will. Sarsgaard and Ryder give remarkable performances here, both stepping out of their range significantly. Ryder has, since her first appearances in films like ‘Heathers’ or ‘Beetlejuice,’ combined animation with sultriness, poise with awkwardness. Fitting Sasha into life with Milgram requires a different energy from Ryder, and she plays it elegantly, essentially telling the story of the relationship in her face. Milgram meets her as he is in the midst of his early experiments and on the brink of notoriety. The early flirtation between them combines nuance, wit, and affection, in stark contrast to the rest of the film’s stillness. As the film progresses, we watch Ryder’s face become more severe and lined, bespeaking both Sasha’s alienation within her marriage and the toll the work she and her husband do has taken on her. Granted, the experiments Milgram does are fairly benign; one involves looking up at a skyscraper, in order to see if others will follow suit, while another involves gauging individuals’ reactions to pictures of themselves and another involves identifying strangers on might see everyday on a train platform in a photo of that platform. Nothing overtly harmful here, but in the other hand, the experiments have in common a certain built-in alienation whose cumulative effect, one imagines, is akin to the effect repeated exposure to uranium had on Pierre and Marie Curie. Milgram feels this, as well. Sarsgaard gives one of his most self-effacing and modest performances ever here; from the beginning, Milgram seems to consider and momentarily retract every word he says, not so much deliberating as interrogating himself–and in so doing, oddly enough, he seems to place a barrier between himself and others. Sasha is is the only figure here with whom we see him interacting in anything like a direct fashion; his initial romantic proposition to her is razor-efficient, surrounded by a swirl of prevarication with others. Paradoxically, Milgram speaks to the camera for much of the film–however, this breaking of the fourth wall ultimately comes to seem like yet another avoidance technique for Milgram, another way for him to put his work between himself and everyone else. Of course, this work takes its toll on Milgram, as well; we watch his body decay as his work loses its initial fire.

The key question the film seems to want to ask is this: To what extent can the actions we perform tell us something about ourselves? In one segment set in the seventies, Milgram has sprouted an aggressive and somewhat awkward beard. Watching Sarsgaard declaim to the camera, I scolded myself inwardly for chuckling at him until (it was a street scene) a man dressed as Abraham Lincoln passed by. Milgram notices the Lincoln-esque man, and even engages with him–as if to point up, albeit humorously, his awareness of his own odd appearance, and his astonishment that there might be a corollary for it outside himself. The chief irony here is that the obedience which Milgram examines, which would have caused the Nazi officials to execute millions of people, plays itself out within his own life, seemingly without his knowledge. His duties to his job damage his relationship–how stable could a couple be if a husband has his wife as a secretary, as Milgram did, and as one of his students notices, with a sneer. There’s not a story arc here, to speak of. If there is is one, it most resembles the path the earth traces around the sun, as night turns into day, and with each sunrise, we are brought into increased awareness of who we are, and what it is we are doing, exactly, on this planet.  


Watching Alex Ross Perry’s ‘Queen of Earth’ Follow Itself

Watching Alex Ross Perry’s ‘Queen of Earth’ Follow Itself

Queen of EarthIf you take enough writing classes, you will eventually hear the expression "following the poem." When used in relation to reading, it simply means tracing the visible path a writer has taken from the beginning to the end of a piece; when used in relation to writing, though, it means that the writer has followed the work’s inspiring impulse to its natural end, rather than trying to steer it, and that that following is recognizable in the structure of the poem. Alex Ross Perry’s most recent film, ‘Queen of Earth,’ can be said to "follow the film" as it makes an excellent portrait of a woman having a nervous breakdown that often tips into being a cross-section of a character’s mind, and does so in a way that seems effortless and seamless and wholly natural.

The reason the film might interest us and hold our attention from its outset is that its characters are, for lack of a better word, real: the rarified parts of their personalities are laid bare next to the less interesting aspects, with no narrative preference. Every trait is fair game for the filmmaker, and the story evolves from these traits, rather than from an overarching plot. Catherine has come to the country house of Virginia’s parents, following two traumatic events: her father’s suicide and breaking up with her boyfriend; while she stays in the house, she unravels. And that’s pretty much it. Watching is the sport here, and because virtually every actor in the film gives an equally strong performance, regardless of screen time, watching a natural course of events unfold is a pleasure. If I say Elizabeth Moss, as Catherine, is a "revelation," I might actually mean just that: her descent in the film, complete with snot, running make-up, some horrifyingly depressed facial turns, shows us, in a way entirely new, how far one might go into the self’s abyss. Moss’s typically straightforward delivery, each sentence announced as much as it is said, is perfect for a character in a film which seeks, eventually, to expose her. Moss seems open to us, the viewers, at first, and then only becomes more open. Katherine Waterston brings a familiar kind of negativity to her performance as Virginia; there’s a pout behind every statement she makes. It’s easy to see that she’s the more stable of the two friends, and yet her stability seems somewhat joyless. Perry includes several shots here of Waterston simply jogging, seemingly pointless but telling at the same time: she runs with the mood of someone determined to bring discipline into her life; somehow her downcast eyes tell us the exercise isn’t the point. Patrick Fugit has a brief but very memorable appearance here as Virginia’s semi-boyfriend. You’ve seen this person before. He’s the kind of gadabout male who enters a social milieu, takes advantage of it for a while, and then leaves–but not before telling Catherine off, calling her a "spoiled rich brat." His movements are sluggish, cool, and mildly creepy. We can’t be certain what his relationship to Virginia is, and this seems as if it might be because of an allergy to commitment. These characters are thrown together, and not; at times it seems as if Perry is playing alchemist here, tossing a collection of characters together in a beaker and seeing what new element arises from their combination.

Throughout the film, characters beat each other up, verbally, even in their offhand remarks. When one of Virginia’s neighbors meets Catherine near the house, he calls Virginia’s parents "terrible people." How often does such a plain statement of dislike occur in a film? During an intimate conversation, at a time when Catherine’s unraveling strands are plainly visible, Virginia remarks that this must have been what Catherine was really like, all along, even before her break-up or her father’s demise. The insensitivity is startling. And yet Perry doesn’t necessarily swing empathy in Catherine’s favor, or Virginia’s, or anyone else’s. These people’s relentless sniping at each other has an important function, or perhaps two functions. It entertains: few filmmakers do "mean" as well as Perry does. But it also stabilizes. The nastiness seems effortless, part of the film’s highly natural motion, its following of itself. This is only true to a certain extent, of course; the razor-sharp editing of the film–the close-ups, the cuts, the vaguely hallucinatory light refractions–is highly deliberate. Everything is deliberate: such a closely observed portrait of an individual, which in turn gives portraits-in-relief of other characters, must be worked out ever-so-carefully. But the driving impulse of the film is to work from within, to let lives fall where they may, with all their cruelties, sufferings, and deteriorations on full display.  

‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’ Is an Essay on Performance

‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’ Is an Essay on Performance

null‘The Stanford Prison Experiment,’ Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s beautifully and intensely executed new film, is a hard film to say you “like.” Who wants, after all, to have humans’ latent inhumanity shoved in their face? Many viewers like the security of knowing that the expression of evil is contained within a carefully constructed plot, rather than within an account of actual events, as is the case with this film. That being said, the movie’s tale of a 6-day Stanford 1971 psychological group experiment gone wrong could be shown to visitors from outer space as an example of what debased behavior we people are capable of; within the limits of this film we witness violence, sexual aggression, and verbal abuse among people who don’t know each other, under the guise of role-playing: playacting at being prisoners and prison guards. In showing these interactions between individuals in a controlled circumstance, the film not only teaches us about human nature but about what it means, in a number of senses, to perform.

If you were so inclined, you could read the film as a distorted, souped-up revision of ‘The Breakfast Club.’ Characters’ defenses are broken down, and social leveling occurs—but not in a benign, easily digested manner. If one were looking for someone to embody “the detachment of scientific inquiry” to serve as the erstwhile chaperone/monitor of this group, you could choose no better actor than Billy Crudup. His rather blank eyes and face, since his turn as drug-addled FH in the film of Denis Johnson’s ‘Jesus’ Son,’ make him seem capable of doing or saying anything. Here, he portrays Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who chose 24 Stanford students to find the answer to a question that was, to be fair, one he should have been talked out of by peers: what would happen if you recreated prison-like circumstances for 2 weeks? How would subjects interact? How would their behavior change? How does this explain prisoner guard-relationships in current houses of detention? He pursues his ends with focus that ultimately tends towards dementia. The selection of the students is handled briskly; almost all of the long-haired, effete, mellow students say that would prefer to be prisoners, almost none guards—but in the end the roles are assigned randomly. Once “inside,” the individuals fall easily into their assigned parts—almost too easily, one thinks, until you remember that their acceptance of the assignment indicates interest in its performative aspect. And yet the performance promptly gives way to an ugly reality, as the guards brutalize and intimidate their charges without restraint, and the prisoners plot small revolts against the guards—within days.

Few of the actors here are household names, and yet one would hope the film garners them the recognition they deserve. Each individual here gives a crisp, independent performance; each character’s unraveling and debasement is rendered beautifully, fascinating to watch. One prisoner gets headaches without his glasses; one won’t say the word “bastard” even when threatened by a brutal “guard”; another takes his role as prisoner so seriously that he practically collapses from nervous exhaustion. The guards, as well, show great comfort in their meanness—the guard the scientists refer to as “John Wayne” (played with strikingly persuasive confidence by Michael Angarano) issues all of his commands in a relaxed drawl, while one of his colleagues stomps impassively through the hallways, expression concealed by reflecting sunglasses. Much of the dialogue we hear in the film comes from transcripts—very little had to be fabricated to make the film gripping to watch.

And yet there’s a question lurking here, beneath the film’s impressive, headlong momentum. Why? Why the experiment? Did Zimbardo think his experiment might make a social difference, or was there some intellectual game-playing behind it? We learn something in this film, in addition to lessons about the human psyche, about the nature of performance—about the different ways performers assume their roles, and about the different effects those roles can have. We play roles perpetually–in daily life, in our relationships, in our jobs. We feel things we don’t feel, we take actions we know by rote, the meant gesture and the unmeant gesture blur. And yet we never think about the cumulative effect all of this pretending has on our psyches.

THE BABADOOK as Fairy Tale Therapy: “Committed to the monster theory”

THE BABADOOK as Fairy Tale Therapy: “Committed to the monster theory”

nullThe Babadook opens
with an enigmatic, dream-like sequence depicting a car crash with one fatality: Oskar, husband and father to Amelia and Samuel, the film’s protagonists.  This traumatic event haunts them, as mother
and son try to make sense of their loss. 
Like the film itself, they have recourse to those age-old narrative
structures we call fairy tales, whose major themes run like red threads through
the often-maligned horror genre.  This is
the first film by Australian director Jennifer Kent, and with it she boldly
reclaims horror as a nuanced and imaginative structure for working through the
deepest of psychic traumas, enfolding us in an uncompromising and original
vision that is at the same time disturbingly familiar.

After the opening car-crash sequence, we see six-year old
Samuel waking his mother to tell her, “I had the dream again.” She helps him
look under the bed for his imaginary assailant, and then she reads him a fairy tale
in which the Big Bad Wolf is destroyed. 
“Did they really kill the wolf, Mom?” Sam asks.  “I’m sure they did,” Amelia replies.  Then a strange look comes over the boy’s face
as he says, “I’ll kill the monster when it comes and smash its head in.” Fear
at the unexpected violence of this outburst passes briefly over Amelia’s face
before she rearranges it into a motherly smile. 
Then Sam demands she read the story over again and Amelia wearily

This early sequence establishes the tensions in this
mother-child relationship with remarkable economy and vividness.  Intriguingly, the fairy tale is as much a
soothing force on Samuel’s psyche as it is a weapon of manipulation.  In the sequences that follow, Amelia struggles to keep it together while her boy goes from one disturbing
outburst to the next, alienating friends and family.  The ostensible cause of these outbursts is an
imaginary monster who Samuel feels compelled to slay, in order to protect him
and his mother.   At one point he speaks
to the imagined presence of his father, assuring him that he’ll protect Mum,
underlining the Oedipal dimension of this obsessive narrative. Yet, as in the
Big Bad Wolf scene, this monster narrative is used as much against his mother
as for psychic release.  “Acting out” is
how a child therapist might describe Samuel’s behavior, a cliché that
inadvertently reveals the abiding role of drama and narrative in the troubled
mental lives of children, as well as adults.

The film’s visual and symbolic hook is an evil pop-up book, Mr. Babadook, that magically appears on
Samuel’s bookshelf, and which, of course, he forces his reluctant mother to
read to him.  Both are frightened yet
fascinated by the book’s sinister, black and white images of a top-hatted, trench-coated
figure who occasionally smiles with evil, three-dimensional glee.  This dramatic figure provides Samuel’s vague
monster a more palpable identity, and his obsession with slaying it becomes increasingly
urgent and violent.  When his cousin
mocks him for believing in monsters, he pushes her out of a tree-house and
breaks her nose.  The fanciful, Goonies-like weapons he builds in the
basement to defend himself against Mr. Babadook are eventually turned on his
classmates.  When they seek help from a
therapist, he observes that Samuel is “committed to the monster theory.”

As Amelia and Samuel grow increasingly isolated, they both
become committed to this theory, and the figure of Mr. Babadook serves as both
an externalization of their fears and a weapon to be used against one another.  Through intimate close-ups emphasizing the
pair’s uncomfortable proximity, and agonizing shouting matches and screaming
fits, mother-child tension builds to the point where the horror sequences
actually serve as an emotional release.  Kent
has said that in the film she wanted “to explore parenting from a very real
perspective. Now, I’m not saying we all want to go and kill our kids, but a lot
of women struggle. And it is a very taboo subject, to say that motherhood is
anything but a perfect experience for women.” How do mothers cope with such
feelings, in a culture where they are expected to be consistently loving and

The Babadook makes
a persuasive case for horror films as a form of therapy.  Relentlessly kept awake by Samuel’s outbursts,
an increasingly insomniac Amelia seeks escape by watching television, but the
shows that seem magically to appear become visual manifestations of her mental
life.  Kent displays an extensive
knowledge of the history of horror, and of the fantastic in film
generally.  One sequence portrays Amelia
watching some particularly haunting sequences from early film master Georges Melies,
featuring dancing devils, tentacled monsters, and flying body parts.  Out of these black and white sequences from
the early age of film emerge images of the Babadook, at once an homage to one
of the director’s inspirations as well as an uncanny merging of personal demons
and public domain.  The pop-up book,
which later reappears after Amelia tore it up and threw it out, takes on a
stop-motion animated life of its own, in sequences that deftly combine the
visual styles of figures as diverse as Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak, Jan
Svankmajer, and F. W. Murnau. 

The Victorian-styled house in which Amelia and Samuel live gradually begins to look
more like the black and white illustrations of the book, and the realistic
elements of the narrative gradually fall away to plunge us into a realm of
utter horror.  With nods to the lurid and
dream-like European horror films of the 1970s, by directors like Mario Bava,
George Franju and Roman Polanski, Kent creates an imaginary realm in which the
commonplace becomes fantastic, as the domestic sphere draws in like a noose on
mother and child.  In a clear nod to
Polanski’s agoraphobic masterpiece Repulsion,
Amelia becomes obsessed with a scratching sound coming from behind the
refrigerator.  As she moves the appliance
away, she sees cockroaches crawling from a slit in the wall, which she worries
until it becomes an ugly gash, at once wound and vagina. 

The Babadook addresses
difficult issues from a uniquely feminine perspective, and the female-led
production is able to take us into areas where few films have been able to go
without falling back on clichés and stereotypes.  Essie Davis turns in a harrowing performance
as increasingly unhinged mother Amelia, and Kent’s careful direction just
manages to keep this character from becoming a caricature of the hysterical
mother.  At one point she watches Lon
Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera on television, and Davis shows a similar
capacity for physical transformation, at times recalling Faye Dunaway’s
exploitation-camp meets Kabuki-theater wildness of Mommie Dearest.  From mousey,
beleaguered mother to vengeful monster, Davis shows an astonishing range,
inhabiting the many personae horror films and fairy tales have to offer.

If Amelia begins as the damsel in distress of Samuel’s
boyhood fantasies, she eventually becomes the evil stepmother of fairy tale
myth.  But this, too, is only a role, and
whatever constitutes her true identity remains elusive, hidden.  The monstrous figures and harrowing
narratives of horror, like the fairy tale, can serve as a means of imaginative
self-actualization, as psychologist Bruno Bettelheim famously argued.  But The
suggests that they can also become traps, enclosing us in vivid
fictions that cunningly replicate our repressed mental lives.  Or, in the words of Samuel’s pop-up book, “If
it’s in a word, or it’s in a book, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

Why Whit Stillman’s Work Endures After All These Similar Movies: On THE COSMOPOLITANS

Why Whit Stillman’s Work Endures After All These Similar Movies: On THE COSMOPOLITANS

There are plenty of reasons not to watch The Cosmopolitans. The director of this Amazon pilot, Whit Stillman, has been issuing films about the upper-upper-class
since the early 1990s, and at a time at which the country in which the films are
released continues to go through severe economic duress, and at which the
divisions between the wealthy and the non-wealthy continue to grow sharper,
viewers might well choose to watch other pilots; after all, several have been released very recently. Additionally,
one might say his characters tend to hew to the same characteristics, time
after time: disaffected, confused, fortunate, unreliable, unpredictable, and
yet also quite predictable. And the list of dissuading elements goes on.
However, when I watch his films, as I continue to do, I think of a couple of
comments I received, oddly enough, from writing teachers. One pertained to what
the teacher called “the courage to be quiet.” In context, the comment
referenced being able to resist the impulse to write loud, flashy,
attention-grabbing, surreal work, as I was doing, and challenging myself to
write in a softer register. In terms of Stillman’s films the phrase could refer
to filming stories in which no one really does
anything, if “doing something” means saving the world or fighting
10-storey-tall robots or jetting between dimensions or inhabiting John
Malkovich’s brain or seeing a double of one’s self on a weekend retreat—or
working with, and competing with, that double. In a climate in which concepts
are important in films and TV shows, and original concepts sell (and why shouldn’t they?), making a
film in which problems are local, dialogue is clever, and no one moves terribly
quickly does indeed take courage.

The pilot of The Cosmopolitans is plenty quiet. Its story,
such as it is, involves a threesome of wealthy young men who live in Paris.
It’s not clear that they have jobs; it’s not clear that they do much during the
day, besides taking language courses and pursuing women. The men are fairly
prototypical Stillman characters. Jimmy, played with considerable energy and
nail-biting nervousness by Adam Brody, is looking for love, finding it each
minute, and then losing it. His tall, thin, fair-complexioned friend Hal (Jordan Rountree), who resembles a
cross between a Russian wolfhound and a human, is similarly unlucky; his
girlfriend Clemence has left him, and he hangs on her every text message in the
hopes she might be contacting him. Their Italian acquaintance Sandro (Adriano Giannini) seems marginally
more worldly but similarly unfocused, similarly single, and comfortable in the
high-end world they live in. As you can see, there isn’t much drama here.
There’s no hook. There’s no rush to create a fraught story within the first ten
minutes. There are no twists. There’s intrigue, but all of the boring, human
sort. And yet at the same time, the pilot is very watchable, because it is, as
famous American expatriate Hemingway might have said (and indeed one of his
descendants stars here), true. Sharp as the witticisms these
characters exchange might be, and they are sharp, they are memorable primarily because
they emanate from a firm knowledge of the class Stillman is making films about.
Similarities and differences with Woody Allen have been noted, but the chief
difference is this, and it turns out to be the key to why Allen’s films have
declined in quality in recent years: Allen does not know the class he is
filming, the European artists, the young, independently wealthy protagonists,
and his is not the kind of imagination which can recreate experiences he has
not had, or had a portion of. Stillman is, to honor an ancient and shady chestnut, writing about what he knows.

Even-keeled as the dramatic topography may be in this pilot,
Stillman manages to insert some literary characters, figures with some breadth
and potential. Chloe Sevigny, in what might be her best performance since Kids,
plays a fashion journalist who radiates a mood of anger, bitterness and possible sexual
frustration from her first appearance; she says everything through clenched teeth
and what would seem to be too much caffeine, speaking truth but without caring
about its damage when spoken, criticizing the three single fellows for not
having “figured things out” yet. Freddy Asblom plays Fritz, a shifty,
bottomlessly wealthy young snot whose life revolves around cocktail parties,
philandering, romantic entanglements; he quite memorably loses his poise as he throws Sandro out of a party at his home for bringing drug dealers there, all of his previous oily delivery reduced to some barked
monosyllables. And Carrie MacLemore brings us Aubrey, a young woman on her own from Alabama, living
with a passive-aggressive boyfriend, or perhaps not living with him, or maybe
both; she’s played openly and with memorable plainness here by MacLemore, though she is a type who has appeared in
Stillman’s films before, moneyed, intelligent, not quite sure of herself, and
yet challenging enough to hold her own against Stillman’s young,
hyper-articulate bucks.

The second comment Stillman’s work makes me think of was one
I received much earlier, and which is perhaps more relevant to the work at
hand. During a discussion of class in fiction, the teacher suggested that one shouldn’t
be biased towards a writer’s work because the writer might be wealthy and might
depict people who are young, happy, and wealthy; neither the writer nor the
characters can help being that way. A sage observation: one can learn a lot by appreciating a work’s virtues before deriding it for characteristics which may set you off in some private, personal way. Stillman’s films are aggressively, steadily clever and perceptive, and this pilot is no different. They move forward less than they burrow in, one comment leading to another comment, until a final insight is reached that may be surprisingly dark but still somewhat profound. After all is through, the class of these characters, their sameness, their lack of what many people would consider to be real problems, bcomes beside the point. The wit of Stillman’s scripts, as well as the sense of introspection that wit creates, becomes sufficiently moving on its own, and the rest is just gravy, or in this case, jus.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

Vivian Maier, Mystery Woman and Master Photographer

Vivian Maier, Mystery Woman and Master Photographer


“I am the mystery woman,” Vivian Maier
says when asked her name by a child in one of her home movies, and she remains a
mystery to us today. Little is known about the specific details of Maier’s life,
despite her great photographic talent and tremendous physical presence, described
(albeit with exaggeration) as masculine, seven-feet in height, and walking with
a commandeering stride. Born in New York in 1926, Maier spent much of her youth
in France, and then later, after working in New York City sweatshops, she moved
to Chicago, where she worked as a nanny for nearly forty years. Other than this
skeletal history, the details are scattered and sparse. To one acquaintance she
described herself as being “sort of a spy,” and to businesses she patronized
she would give permutations of her name as identification. And yet paradoxically,
given this intensely private woman’s attempt to conceal the details of her
personal life, the incredible body of photographic work she left behind is now
receiving international recognition.

Is this the legacy that Maier would
have wanted? Likely not, given the way she guarded her privacy when she was
alive. This photographic evidence would have been dispersed and forever escaped
our notice if not for John Maloof’s good eye and brilliant luck in purchasing a
case of her photographic negatives at auction, or his tenacity in both
gathering physical evidence and, like a detective, meticulously piecing together
a story from the items that she collected. And so, with the release of Maloof’s
film, Finding Vivian Maier, come
looming questions—would Maier have wanted this? And, how self-serving is
Maloof’s ambition? The former was asked of the subjects who knew Maier best
(which still was not very well) and their response was unequivocally “no,” she
would have loathed the attention. The answer to the latter question is more
ambiguous. The film is a paean to Maier’s work, but it’s also a documentation
of the director’s own quest to reconstruct her identity and retroactively
position her work alongside that of photographic giants like Arbus and Avedon.
Uncovering Maier’s work has become Maloof’s obsession, and for now, it’s also become
his life’s work.

Maloof is on a quest to uncover an
identity that explains Maier’s enigmatic practice, but in so doing, he seems a
bit enigmatic himself: “You always want to know who is behind the work,” he states,
as if this is the only justification he needs to publicly reveal and make sense
of the traces Maier left behind. He’s made it his mission to “find” Maier, to
make sure that her estate is preserved the “right” way, and he says that he has
been “pushed” into this role of curator of her work. While this at first sounds
believable, and Maier’s body of work is arresting, deserving of attention, it
is hard to believe that Maloof has merely been “pushed”: he also seems terribly
ambitious. Even though he questions what Maier would have wanted, the answers
he’s given—that she would not have wanted the personally directed public
attention—don’t seem to weigh heavily on him. All for art’s sake might be Maloof’s motto. But of course, there remains
the looming question of what Maloof stands to gain from this: it seems like a
great deal. On the one hand, Maloof’s enthusiasm is seemingly borne of good
intentions. On the other, his posthumous discovery of Maier’s work, combined
with her lack of descendants and close friends to vie for control of it, means
he stumbled upon a treasure with no strings attached. And so, there are really two
stories being told in Finding Vivian
: that of Maier the enigma, of reveling in her art while constructing
a narrative to stand beside it; and that of Maloof’s curatorial pursuit to
preserve Maier’s work, to sell her work, and to establish her relevance within
the art world—and through her relevance, his own significance.

Vivian Maier walked through the
world with a camera around her neck. As a nanny she took long strolls with her
charges, and they accompanied her on adventures through rundown areas of town—the
stockyards, abandoned lots, city streets. She falls in to the category of photographer
as flâneur,
as Susan Sontag identifies in On
: “an armed version of the solitary walker, reconnoitering,
stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers
the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes.” It seems Maier developed her
practice on the street, too. She had no formal schooling, and yet she had developed
a brilliant eye for composition and lighting, a sense of humor, and a capacity
for the grotesque, as well as a flare for capturing intimate gazes on film. Her
eye for the eccentric and offbeat, framed exquisitely, made for an arresting
image. As a person, Maier was eccentric, opinionated, didn’t trust men, followed
the news and politics, and was quite brave despite her reserve, traveling the
world on her own. But as a poor woman—“too poor to die,” she claimed—working as
a live-in nanny meant that shelter and amenities were built into her job, and
this, along with her vast solitude, gave her freedom and autonomy to pursue her
photographic work, and this work comprised her life.

She left behind her over 100,000
negatives, nearly 1,000 undeveloped rolls of film, as well as cassette recordings
and short films. She also had tendencies toward hoarding, such as saving
towering stacks of newspapers for articles she wanted to read and accumulating
piles of insignificant receipts (then placing them all in storage). It’s as if
Maier’s connection to material objects in some way compensated for her lack of
intimacy with any other people besides the children she tended. The intimacy
and humor in her photographs is undeniable. And yet it seems as if Maier never
had any intention of showing these images publicly, or even sharing them with
the families she lived with. In our hyperconnected state, with Instagram and myriad
forms of social media, this is an unthinkable idea. So, we’re told that Maier
sold herself short, that something was wrong with her.

Perhaps. Perhaps Maier would’ve
been acknowledged as one of the greats if she had sought to show her work.
Maloof gets caught up with this question of why Maier was so prolific and yet so
private. And while it’s a conundrum, it’s also disconcerting to think that something
was wrong, in that Maier had an extensive practice that she didn’t try to
profit from. Maier’s lack of wealth and status may have made it difficult to show
work and have it taken seriously. And also, given that she was an eccentric woman
without connections who made work starting in the ‘50s—would she really have been
embraced by the commercial art world? It seems that she didn’t lust after this
recognition, and she didn’t think it an option, either. Maier acknowledges in a
letter she wrote to a French photo developer that she was difficult to deal
with. But there’s also the possibility that, for Maier, the work was enough.

As we look at the images—filled
with soft gazes, drunks passed out on stoops, knowing glances, so many faces,
some disfigured, some dazzling—it becomes apparent that photography was one of
the few ways Maier truly engaged with the world.  It’s almost as if she found comfort in the
distance that comes with standing behind the lens. This allowed for the brief
intimate exchanges she had in her pictures. She was endowed with the power of
the gaze while not having to give any of herself up. In this space, even an
outsider and eccentric could discover moments of intimacy.

Susan Sontag discusses the distance
and voyeurism inherent to photography: “The whole point of photographing people
is that you are not intervening in their lives, only visiting them. The
photographer is a supertourist, an extension of the anthropologist, visiting
natives and bringing back news of their exotic doings and strange gear. The
photographer is always trying to colonize new experiences or find new ways to
look at subjects.” Sontag is talking about Diane Arbus’ work, but it’s just as
relevant to Maier’s here. Photography provided Maier with a form of intimacy
and experience gathered vicariously, through watching others. These others “are
to remain exotic, hence ‘terrific.’ Her view is always from the outside.” And
that’s just it: Maier was always on the outside looking in. And she always took
photos—even when it seemed callous, such as when one of the children we tended
was hit by a car: she turned the camera on him and kept filming.  It seems to be a way she mitigated the chaos
of the external world.  And as an
impoverished, eccentric woman Maier perhaps saw herself within the people she
captured, too. She captured many images of herself: often refracted, at oblique
angles, always solitary except when accompanied by a child, or as a shadow lurking
over the scene.

This inability to enter the world
is not unique to Maier—but she was closed off in such an extreme way, and made so
much work, that it is remarkable that her incredible talent remained so
well-hidden. Poet Mary Ruefle identifies this inability as inherent to the
poet, too: “There is a world that poets cannot seem to enter. It is the world
everybody else lives in. And the only thing poets have in common is their
desire to enter this world.” In this sense, Maier is a true poet, and by poet I
mean artist, photographer, woman with a singular vision. Perhaps her extreme
need for privacy created the very tension that drove Maier to document so much.
And yet, here I am falling prey to hypotheses and opinions, attached to my own idea
of Vivian Maier, reconstructing her narrative in a different light than Maloof,
but still just as much a fabrication.

Maloof is a curator—and with his
meticulous sense of detail, his strong inclination toward achievement and
connection, and his eye for the market, he’s also extremely shrewd. But he’s
something of a conquistador, too, claiming Maier’s work, in a sense, and making
the recognition of her work his mission, when perhaps it’s just enough that her
work is seen. Maier herself would probably recoil from her growing celebrity. Her
philosophy of life is, surprisingly, rather communal, as she said on tape: “It’s
a wheel—you get on, you go to the end, and someone else has the same
opportunity to go to the end, and so on, and somebody takes their place.
There’s nothing new under the sun.” The wheel of fortune spins around, Maier’s went
down, and in her descent brought Maloof up with it again. There’s nothing new
in that either.

 “The new creativity is pointing, not making,”
claims poet Kenneth Goldsmith. “Likewise, in the future, the best writers will
be the best information managers.” And following his logic, the best artists
will be the best curators. In this sense, Maier’s extensive body of work is the
perfect discovery for Maloof, who now identifies as a filmmaker and
photographer—Maier was a prolific artist whose life is a mystery, whose posthumously
discovered work echoes that of other great photographers of her era, and whose
prints can be multiplied and distributed. We can read into her what we want,
and with Finding Vivian Maier’s
widespread release, this seems to be just the beginning of the making of
Maier’s personal mythology. But perhaps we’ve already found all we need by
looking at her photographs.

Anne K. Yoder’s fiction and nonfiction have
appeared in
The Millions, Fence, Bomb, and Tin House, among other publications. She
has received fellowships from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago
and the Summer Literary Seminars. She currently lives in Chicago.




What do we do when things get worse than we can stand? Or better yet, what do we do when things have been worse than we could stand? Some of us crumple. Some of us lash out, and in so doing, may make things more horrific for ourselves. Many of us, though, choose a much more complicated response: we create, we do things, we act. The creation of art as a sublimation of pain or suffering is not a new concept, but it comes close to being made new in the work of Russian artist Ilya Kabakov, born and raised in Soviet Russia, an American expatriate for nearly 25 years. In one of his sculptures, a pair of booted legs descends from the ceiling, soles firmly planted on the ground. The work’s title is “What Is Our Place?” In one of his installations, we see a room papered with all kinds of wild, colorful posters; the ceiling of the room contains a gaping hole, plaster from the ceiling hanging down, along with peeling paint. The work’s title? “The Man Who Flew Into Space from His Apartment.” Amei Wallach’s Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here is less a documentary than a study of the ways we react to tragedy, to trauma, to past suffering–in Kabakov’s case, the trauma was the time he spent living under Soviet rule, from 1933 to 1987. And yet, miraculously, these works never seem overburdened by the past behind them: they are always guided by the urge to narrate, to tell a story. You might feel, bumping up against one of his installations, that you’ve been dropped into the middle of a surreal novel. The works suggest that for Kabakov, the telling of a story provides the means for one to leave suffering, to fly into space.

It is significant, then, that the documentary concerns itself with a trip Ilya and Emilia Kabakov took in 2008, back to Moscow, which they had not visited in 20 years (they currently live in Long Island, outside New York City), for a vast retrospective of Kabakov’s work–well-deserved, given that Ilya is one of the most widely-known Russian artists now living. The film shows little of Moscow itself, but the little it does show, along with the references made to it in the film, are enough to communicate the essence: raw, oppressive, intense, unhappy, dark. The artist’s acquaintances–fellow artists, patrons, scholars–establish that Ilya’s time in Soviet Russia, illustrating children’s books for survival while also secretly making work which would certainly have earned him punishment by the government, was quite difficult, even soul-destroying. 

Kabakov’s work itself displays this same sort of truculence, only in a quieter, more inventive manner. The exhibition described in the film occurred in three different locations; the most elaborate and eccentric of these exhibits was staged in a former bus garage–in fact, the site of Dziga Vertov’s famous 1929 film, Man with a Movie Camera–now the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture. One part of the exhibit was called the “museum”; in this museum hung rows and rows of paintings, meant to emulate the Soviet-approved artwork that permeated Kabakov’s youth, filled with false happiness: happy workers returning home from their (dreary) jobs; cheerful, rosy-cheeked families eating dinner together; delighted children playing in the snow. As we watch Kabakov setting up this exhibition, we notice things one might not normally notice in a documentary about an artist who has worked his way, literally, out of years of oppression: his masterful walk, the strangely humble expression on his face, his grace when instructing workers about where to place parts of the display. He resembles nothing less than a little Prospero, exercising magical powers when necessary to keep the island of his sensibility in order. His wife is a presence here too; a frequent collaborator with Kabakov, she most resembles a guide for her extremely intense husband.

My own first experience with Kabokov’s work was in 1993, at the Whitney Biennial. Young as I was, I harbored incredibly jaded, cynical feelings as I walked through much of the exhibition. The works I saw, with their loud colors, their video loops, their larger-than-life signage, were more than I could digest at one time, or perhaps more than I could stomach. Only two artists paused my arrogant 23-year-old’s wandering eye–Ida Applebroog, with her storied, direct approach to her subject, seemingly antiquated in this context, and Kabakov. The work on display was an installation, a small crowded, cluttered room, with numerous tiny, human figures arranged on the floor. My immediate response was wonder: how did these figures get here? What was I to think? And it is this same sense of wonder that drives Enter Here. One wonders out of what recesses in his imagination Ilya Kabakov is able to pull the concept for his works–and beyond that, how he is able to keep producing them. In the presence of his work, we all become like those small figures, dropped down into alien territory, trying to make sense of it all, and yet feeling, at the same time, as if the scenarios we witness are strangely familiar.           

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

The Tragic Absorption of THE MOTEL LIFE

The Tragic Absorption of THE MOTEL LIFE


There are times, during THE MOTEL LIFE, when it seems as if the film is sustaining itself on pure mood. Directors Alan and Gabriel Polsky have put substantial energy, in their delivery of this story of two brothers with flawed judgment but unfailing commitment to each other, into its darkness, into drenching us in the dim light of motel rooms or the darkness of city streets at night, so that when the film moves into a brighter location, such as a hospital room or a casino (the film is set in Reno), the shift comes as a shock, as if someone were shining bright lights on the story, asking us to look it in the face, possible interpretations of it being as various as the viewers themselves.

The story is a sad one, without much room for light. The two brothers, Jerry Lee and Frank, ran away from home as children after their mother’s death from cancer. In an accident which occurred while they were train-hopping, Jerry Lee lost half of one leg–and as it is, the lost half-limb comes to serve as an outer manifestation of his personality; as Stephen Dorff plays him, he seems only half-present for much of the film, as if he were talking to others while also having another conversation with himself. By contrast, his brother, played here with depressed immediacy by Emile Hirsch, seems more grounded, carrying the burden of the brothers’ perpetual rootlessness along that of his brother’s needs. After Jerry Lee kills a young boy in a hit and run accident, what was a dour story becomes much more dour–the brothers have to run from the police, and what was previously a seemingly hand-to-mouth existence becomes rife with traditional images of desperation and outsiderhood. All the motels look the same. All the meals are take-out. Frank carries a bottle of whiskey around with him like a holy chalice.

What is amazing, in the body of the film, is how much texture and soul the directors manage to reap from such a bleak story. The Nevada landscape is sublime, in the truest sense of the word, its grand, uncrossable mountains a comment on the impossibility of the brothers’ situation. Kris Kristofferson shines here in a minimal part, as an old boss of Frank’s who tries, beautifully un-invasively, to counsel Frank on how to lead a responsible, or at least a forward-looking life. Dakota Fanning is mature, and sad, and memorable as a girlfriend of Frank’s, left and then found again, living in the tiny, poetically barren town of Elko. And then there are the oddballs: one sadsack who we first meet after he’s been hospitalized following a liquid-acid binge, and another old friend of Frank, a generally unlucky gambling addict who persuades Frank to go in with him on an implausible-seeming bet.

True to itself, the progress of the movie is both sad and upbeat. As options decrease for the brothers, their trajectory becomes more wild and stealthy. They sustain themselves, as they have since childhood, through story-telling; Frank tells Jerry Lee possible anecdotes from possible lives he hasn’t lived—and the directors take a risk by animating these stories in the style of Jerry Lee’s own cartoonish drawings, a touch which doesn’t necessarily work in all movies (such as Howl, which was at its most successful when most simple, its animated sequences a distraction from James Franco’s responsible performance) but which gives a pleasant sense of release, of taking off, to this work.

As we’ve learned from Breaking Bad, from Cormac McCarthy, from Sam Shepard, from Badlands, and even from the recent COG, the land west of the Mississippi can be a fecund setting for stories having to do with loss, or restlessness, or despair, or hopelessness. The Motel Life, while it operates on a quiet enough register that it might not reach all viewers, brings home a meaningful story without significant compromise, a promising debut feature from two very skilled filmmakers.

Kubrick in Reverse: The Earthly Pull of GRAVITY

Kubrick in Reverse: The Earthly Pull of GRAVITY


Since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, Gravity has generated a tremendous
amount of reverential hype, but with its general release the inevitable
critical backlash is beginning to roll—or rather troll—its way across the
web.  Where once critics compared Cuarón’s
film favorably with the work it most resembles, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is now being
criticized for falling short of that earlier film’s ambition.  While Gravity’s
special effects are sufficiently stunning to distract, potentially, from
the film’s intellectual and emotional impact, it is a much smarter film than it
is generally given credit for being.  Far
from being mere imitation or homage, Gravity
offers an ingenious and moving revision and critique of its predecessor, one
that begins in the stars but returns us to our own earthly soil. Cuarón’s
achievement is to make our own planet and the fragile lives it sustains seem as
miraculous as the cosmos that surrounds it.

Both films concern space travel, yet while 2001 reflects the sense of wonder inspired
by the golden era of space travel, Gravity
shows a space program in which the optimism of its early years has been gutted,
along with its budget. Much of the film
takes place in abandoned space stations, interiors clogged with the trash
and cast-off tchotchkes of departed astronauts. The opening scene shows a technical crew repairing
the Hubble telescope above a jaw-dropping view of the Earth, but they seem
almost bored, or, like Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), nauseous, as she
attempts to fight off the effects of zero-g by concentrating on her work, evidently
as dull to her as the scenery might be grand to a novice.

But dullness and nausea quickly give way to terror as the
hurtling debris from an exploded Russian satellite strikes the repair crew, and
it is telling that the film’s greatest threat comes from, essentially,
garbage.  Stone is sent spinning out of
control into space, in a scene clearly derived from that harrowing moment in 2001 when Frank Poole hurtles into the
darkness when his oxygen hose is severed. Yet it is at this early point that Cuarón begins to reverse the direction
of Kubrick’s odyssey: whereas the one surviving astronaut of 2001’s Jupiter crew will set out on a
journey “Beyond the Infinite,” Cuarón will take us into the finite, as Ryan
Stone confronts her own mortality.

Throughout Gravity we
are reminded of how fragile human beings are, how vulnerable our bodies, as we
witness Stone being thrown and pummeled through a series of deadly and dazzling
physics lessons. As in Children of Men, Cuarón’s elaborately
choreographed camera work is used to place us in almost unbearably intimate
proximity to the fear and suffering of his characters. We hear and see Stone’s breathing until it
becomes almost an extension of our own. The awkward bulkiness of her suit only serves to
emphasize the frailty of a body it cannot hope to protect. 

While some of these elements are also present in Kubrick’s 2001, human frailty and the technologies which sustain it are emphasized only to underscore the film’s final
movement towards transcendence. Though
there are a wide range of possible interpretations of 2001’s final image of a gigantic fetus floating in space, it
is clearly meant to represent some kind of rebirth, one in which David Bowman,
and by extension the human race, has moved on to its next, possibly final,
evolutionary stage, a journey that began long ago, when a giant black monolith
taught early hominids how to use tools.  Ryan
Stone, on the other hand, will journey in the opposite direction, towards a
humanness that is less cosmic, more earthly.

Cuarón explicitly references Kubrick’s final image when
Stone finally makes it to the shelter of the International Space Station. There, she frees herself from her burdensome
suit and floats, fetus-like, in the oxygenated atmosphere. The image is mesmerizing, and Kubrick-like in
its use of one-point perspective; yet Cuarón’s fetus image is radically
different in its thematic implications. Whereas Dave Bowman’s transformation signals another, clearly
post-human, phase of evolution, Cuarón emphasizes Stone’s humanity, her
corporeal, embodied self. Cuarón
replaces Kubrick’s image of transcendence with one of vulnerability.

Given the fact that most of Gravity is spent free of the earth’s pull, the title might seem
ironic, at least until we learn more about Stone’s personal history. The absorption in work that marked her first
appearance in the film is in large part an escape from the painful memory of the
death of her young daughter, who fell while playing on the schoolyard. The randomness of this tragic event serves to
underscore the film’s preoccupation with human frailty, as both mother and
daughter find themselves pulled by natural forces beyond their control. Rather than transcend these merely physical
forces, however, Cuarón asks us to accept, and even embrace, them.

In what is, to me, the film’s most powerful scene, Stone,
alone in an abandoned space station and desperate for the sound of another
voice, searches the airwaves for some signal from Earth. At last, out of the static, there emerges a
foreign male voice, apparently drunk, and laughing. Stone seems a little disappointed, until she
hears a dog in the background. Attempting to transcend the language barrier, she makes dog sounds, at
first in the hopes of engaging her human counterpart, but eventually engaging the
nonhuman.  We are pulled into an intimate
close-up as Stone begins to howl, mournfully, along with the dog, shedding
tears that float into the oxygenated air, forming globules like tiny
planets. She has found a place in herself prior to speech, allowing her to give vent to sorrows deeper than human
language.  Like the dog, she is an
embodied, vulnerable creature, and in evolutionary terms they share a common
ancestry, and a common planet.

The film’s final scene will make this evolutionary narrative
even more explicit, but I don’t want to give anything away, since this is a thriller
after all, isn’t it? While the film’s
action sequences have been justly praised as some of the most gripping and
technically accomplished ever filmed, I would argue that they are there
primarily to serve the central human narrative. This narrative is told through minimal dialogue and maximal images, yet
it is as clear and direct as fairy tale or myth. If we compare Cuarón’s space
sequences with Kubrick’s, a clear difference emerges: though the space-ships of
2001 might dance to the rhythms of a
Strauss waltz, they are cold and inhuman, whereas in Gravity the human form is at the center of nearly every shot.  One might compare the presence of CGI technology
in Gravity to that of the HAL
computer in 2001: each might guide
our journey, but after a certain point we need to cut them loose to discover
how our story will turn out.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

INSIDIOUS, CHAPTER 2: The Haunting of the American Male

INSIDIOUS, CHAPTER 2: The Haunting of the American Male


Warning: This review contains the mildest of spoilers, probably nothing you couldn’t guess for yourself.

The Insidious
films take place in an America haunted by faded dreams of a prosperity provided
by a loved and respected father.  In
James Wan’s vision this patriarchal figure has been replaced by a maniacal
presence brooding in the dark corners of a house where women are the strongest
presence and men have become peripheral. Wan’s latest film (his second this
summer) is too filled with tiresome exposition and brazen shock tactics to be
haunting, but like many horror films, good, bad, or indifferent, it is
certainly haunted.  Set in starkly
isolated locations, where it is always dusk or nighttime, with characters
slouching towards doom at dream-like pace, horror films speak as much through
their conventions as through the stories they tell.  Like its predecessor, this second chapter of
the Insidious franchise tells the
story of a father and son who have the ability to project their sleeping selves
into a ghostly realm called “The Further.” 
While this imaginatively-realized plane of the undead has its
fascinations, the world in which the Dalton family leads its waking life seems
no less lifeless and every bit as haunted as the spirit world they fear.

Like many American popular discourses, the film is
preoccupied with anxieties about masculinity. 
The story is haunted by the rise of women as chief breadwinners in the
household, a demographic shift that has somehow surprised and disturbed cable
news pundits from across the political spectrum.  At times male anxieties seem so pronounced in
the film as to suggest a horror film adaptation of Susan Faludi’s Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Male,
which addresses the rise of “Angry White Male” politics in the face of rising
unemployment and perceived male disenfranchisement.  James Patrick Wilson turns out to be an ideal
actor to convey this brooding male anger, barely hidden behind his unnaturally
frozen, deceptively boyish good looks. 
One of the chief pleasures in watching the first Insidious film was trying to decide whether Josh Lambert’s behavior
was the result of unknown forces or simply run-of-the-mill dickishness.  As he grows increasingly unconcerned about
the plight of his family, he spends more and more time at work; it is only
later in that film that we discover he is haunted by a secret.

Chapter 2 begins
by delving further into the secret of Josh’s behavior, as we revisit his
haunted childhood.  In one especially
striking scene, an old videotape filmed by a paranormal investigator when Josh
was a child shows a brooding presence hovering over the boy’s shoulder, a
presence which turns out, on closer scrutiny, to be his adult self.  The therapeutic solution to his disturbed
childhood is a novel one for a culture otherwise obsessed with recovering and
publicly airing repressed traumas: Josh is hypnotized into forgetting.  While repression is not generally encouraged
by therapists, it is certainly a common way of dealing with complex emotional
problems, particularly among men. 

Not surprisingly, Josh’s repressed trauma does what every
psychologist from Freud onward has warned us it would do: it returns, and with
a vengeance.  While the previous film
focused primarily on Josh’s son Dalton, who shares his father’s ability to
travel between the lands of the living and the dead, Chapter 2 centers on the father, a figure who has become a haunted
simulacrum of the American male.  We soon
learn that Josh is haunted, not just by his past traumas, but also by a
maniacal, sexually ambiguous presence. 
While the plot of the film centers on the problem of how to get the real
Dad back, the most frightening scenes, and those that linger longest in the
mind, are those where Josh is both frightening and fatherly, paternal and
possessed.  The story becomes a kind of male
version of The Stepford Wives, in
which lifeless replacements can be substituted for actual people because their
behavior is only a slight but disturbing exaggeration of the gender characteristics
of their originals.  Like many American
fathers, Josh doesn’t listen to his wife, gives meaningless orders he expects
everyone to follow, and stares blankly at his children. He hides his lack of
feeling behind a fixed grin.  It seems a
surprisingly short step from this sadly familiar behavior to the more
disturbing mayhem of the film’s latter half.

So what’s wrong with Dad, exactly?  In a revealing moment, the film cuts suddenly
from the story of the attempted self-castration and suicide of a patient
overseen by Josh’s mother to a shot of Josh pulling a healthy tooth out of the
back of his own mouth, itself a kind of symbolic self-castration.  Masculinity is deeply suspect in Wan’s world,
as men become increasingly peripheral, fading away before the stronger presence
of women.  In the first film, Dalton is
saved as much through the efforts of medium Elise Rainier (Lyn Shae) as by his
devoted father.  That film ended with her
mysterious death, possibly at the hands of Josh himself.  In Chapter
he is under suspicion for the crime, the motive for which is obscure, but
which seems related to his increasingly misogynistic behavior, suggesting
resentment over a woman taking control. 
In both films the other psychic investigators are a pair of inept male
nerds, whose uncertain masculinity is marked by a rather tasteless moment of
homophobia in the sequel.  An older
psychic investigator misreads the signs he receives from the beyond, completing
the picture of a world where men are largely at the periphery.

Taking up the slack are Josh’s wife and mother.  As in the first film, Rose Byrne’s
performance as suspicious and frightened wife Renai is utterly persuasive. While
she is often made to succumb to stereotypically female screaming fits, her best
moments occur when she scrutinizes her husband’s appearance and behavior,
trying to figure out what’s happened to the man she thought she knew. Barbara
Hershey transforms the taciturn mother-figure she played in the first film into
a more confident and assured character who helps her daughter-in-law reclaim
her family.  When the male psychic
investigators prove too weak for the challenges thrown out by “The Further,”
the ghostly presence of Elise Rainier emerges to save their skins.  This is a woman’s world in which the presence
of men is annoying at best, insidious at worst.

The least believable yet most compelling quality in Wan’s
films is a sense of haunted isolation from the living world.  The characters live in impossibly large
houses that are completely detached, both socially and physically, from their
communities. The characters are rarely seen engaging in conventional domestic
activities, like eating together or playing board games.  They just wander around their sumptuous homes,
waiting for the next intrusion from the beyond. 
Their world is a ghostly remnant of the American dream, one grown
insubstantial as much through economic recession as through demographic
shift.   Insidious, Chapter 2 ends like its predecessor, with a hypnosis
session in which Josh is made to forget the horrors he experienced, ensuring
that there will be another sequel, and that Dad will remain as cold and empty
as his enormous house.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.