Sunday, 4 September 2016

What Are You Looking At? - Rochelle Sibley and Simon Turner discuss It Follows, and other matters pertaining to it

ST: We’ll leave aside the fact that I’m pretty studiously avoiding talking about poetry at all, with a couple of lapses, for this new iteration of Gists and Piths – read into that what you will – and move, slowly but determinedly, to the topic of horror (not that far removed from poetry, all things considered).  The other weekend when you were away, my teenage self decided to crash my brain, and took me on a three-part horror jaunt (although the chosen movies were of a decidedly classier calibre than I would have favoured when I was actually sixteen, rather than a thirty six year old playing host to a spotty, recalcitrant neurological revenant), which started with The Witch, took in The Babadook, and landed with a soft, kitteny thump upon It Follows, which proved the strongest, certainly the oddest and least easily parsed of the three.  Having nudged you into watching it too, chiefly so I could have someone to talk to about it, I thought it germane to have our promised conversation in a digitised public place.  You know, because.  It should go without saying, by the way, that there will be MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD, so anyone who’s reading but who is yet to see It Follows, please do, partly because our ramblings will be more coherent and (hopefully) more rewarding once you have, but chiefly because I think it’s a genuinely excellent film, regardless of its position within the genre. 
Which brings me to the first point of order: genre.  All the films I’ve mentioned above take a somewhat oblique approach to the process of scaring the audience witless: in some regards (this is particularly true of The Witch, which for all its strengths never quite rose above the level of an academic exercise), they’re almost running parallel with their chosen genre, commenting on horror as a form and as a strategy as much as they’re setting out to terrify.  This might be a sign of aging on my part – the more overt horror that seems to dominate the stage at the moment doesn’t really hold any interest for me, and in many instances feels actively repellent – or that the form’s entered a kind of post-post-modern phase: having got through the hyper-referentiality of the Scream series, the best work in the field’s going to start mutating and absorbing other genres and modes, like New Wave science fiction did in the 60s and 70s.             

RS: OK: first of all, the phrase “soft, kitteny thump” brings me out in a cold sweat (thanks M.R. James), but involuntary nervous reactions aside, I know what you mean about the whole genre issue.  It Follows reminded me of the creature from John Carpenter’s The Thing, in that it was constantly mimicking other forms that were partially recognisable, but somehow not quite right. About halfway through the film I realised that the It Follows creature (not sure what else to call it) seemed to be morphing between several different but familiar horror figures, like the Guillermo Del Toro-inspired lanky bastard or that terrifying kid who pulled the classic crawl move from The Ring (it was through a door not a TV screen, but even so).  But it was more than just flicking through the archetypes of horror, because the inconsistency of the It Follows creature (sometimes it’s someone you know, sometimes it’s not) allowed the whole narrative structure of the film to keep incorporating different genres as it went along.  It seemed as though there were several films overlaid here and they just took it in turns to rise to the top of the pile.  Does that make sense?

ST: Yes, it does, and that sense of uncertainty, of wooziness, is what accounts I think for the interest the film holds.  It is genuinely unlike anything I’ve seen in the field for some time, suggesting a non-linear kind of thinking quite at odds with the more obviously scare-inducing fare that grabs the majority of the headlines (just off the top of my head: the found-footage thang, the post-Hostel demi-snuff nonsense, and the diminishing returns on the unstoppable wraith motif that Hideo Nakata and his peers do really well, but the Americans just can’t seem to get right, It Follows being a notable exception).  Stephen King’s really useful here, and if you’ve not read it, I’d recommend Danse Macabre as the gold standard in critical writing on horror.  It’s been a while since I’ve perused it, but from what I remember King distinguishes between three tiers in horror writing: outright terror, plain horror and homely disgust.  The brass ring for the horror writer is terror, a heightened emotion or set of emotions not all that far removed from the Burkean sublime, but without the unnecessary appendage of beauty; horror, which is the next step down, and suggests cruder methods and effects (a thing pops out of a cupboard; a talking doll comes charging down a hospital corridor with a knife clamped between its teeth; something in that line, anyway); whilst disgust is the cheapest trick in the horror toolbox, in King’s schema.  It Follows feels like such an oddity because it doesn’t seem particularly interested in doing any of those things, least of all the last element in King’s triad of fear.  What it is interested in doing is inducing an advanced state of paranoia in the audience.  The basic premise – that something terrible is coming, at a walking pace, and won’t stop till it’s nailed you: a very M R James narrative trope, it’s worth noting – coupled to the way the movie’s filmed (lots and lots and lots of wide shots, often using a panoramic camera which roves dispassionately around the landscape: James again, this time the BBC adaptations of his work in the 60s and 70s) means the viewer’s pretty much permanently on guard for any unexpected movement at the outer edges of the frame.  Is that the thing, or is it just a guy out for a stroll?  Do I detect motion behind that tree, that hedge, or is my mind playing tricks again?  It’s monstrously immersive as a viewing experience in that regard: the viewer’s no kind of passive receiver of images and narrative jolts, but becomes, through a steady but relentless process, an active, unwilling participant in events.  Which is what any horror film is really aiming at, but It Follows is particularly good – because particularly ruthless – at achieving it.

Still from 'A Warning to the Curious', dir. Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1972
RS: Isn’t this where the comparison to The Shining comes in?  Both films have that same refusal to provide answers and that same feeling that what you’re seeing is just the outward edge of something much deeper and more complex.  There’s a peculiar cleanness to the horror in both films, because in each case the viewer isn’t just implicated in the events but actually feels part of them.  Both films seem to invoke a particular state of mind, not just paranoia but the eerie feeling that these terrible events can happen in the most mundane of environments, and that perhaps such occurrences are perpetually in play, it’s just that the rest of us can’t see them.  Then everything becomes horrifying, not just the movements you think you see at the edge of the frame, but every little detail of the house and the street and the town where this is taking place.  It all suggests an unwillingness or an inability to see what is going on right in front of us, which might be one of the reasons why this film seems to be an uncomfortable fit within the standard definition of horror.  It Follows seems most interested in that question of complicity rather than the expected ideas of what is or isn’t terrifying.
ST: It’s interesting that you mention The Shining.  You’re right to say that both Kubrick’s film and It Follows are intensely interested and involved in the mental states of the characters onscreen – in the case of The Shining, this is taken to an almost abstract extreme – but they’re both also equally involved in matters of looking, of seeing (which I suppose is an extension of their interest in psychology).  The camera in The Shining has a habit of showing its characters’ reactions to horror before revealing the event or object that’s induced the horror in the first place, which is partly a cheeky short-cut to heightening the horror and tension that the audience is already feeling, but it also highlights the fact that Kubrick’s more interested in the mechanics and metaphysics of horror than he is in its narrative possibilities.  It Follows has a similar approach, though the director David Robert Mitchell plays through more variants on the theme than Kubrick: we get the classic Kubrickian response-horror-response rhythm, sure, but also quite a few false scares, characters looking over their shoulders, or simply describing things that the audience themselves can’t see.  In terms of the notion of complicity, It Follows is definitely a follower – ha! – of Hitchcock in this regard: the camera operates for the most part in an eerily dispassionate, voyeuristic, uncharacterised way, and only focuses its gaze when ‘looking’ through the eyes of particular characters.  For example, given this is a movie with a cast of teenage characters that revolves around the twin poles of terror and sex, the camera steers clear of leering or objectifying; this only occurs through the eyes of one character, Greg, who’s a bit of a douchebag, and is certainly revealed to have a less than respectful attitude to women as the narrative progresses.  The way ‘Greg’s’ eyes linger on his female friends, then, feels less like a capitulation to those genre expectations, and more like an explicit critique of them. 

RS: I agree that Greg is something of a sleaze, but isn’t it interesting how the viewer is pushed towards seeing his fate as somehow justified, when Paul’s response to the same situation is so much worse?  Greg doesn’t really believe that the threat is real, so he’s just guilty of being an opportunist perv at worst.  But Paul knows it’s real and his actions mean consciously sacrificing sex workers to protect himself and the girl he loves.  That’s what I meant about the audience being complicit – we like the protagonists and want them to survive, but that means watching them push other, entirely blameless but unknown individuals under the proverbial bus. That’s why when you asked whether or not I thought that the film ended on an optimistic note I said no, because their safety can only be bought by putting other people directly in the line of fire.

Late Gothic: It Follows
ST: That’s rather a bleak analysis, but I would agree.  Moreover, the premise – that someone’s happiness is always dependent on someone else’s misery and suffering – speaks directly to the film’s other undercurrent: class.  It Follows seems to make a point of different time frames coexisting impossibly.  Ostensibly, the film is set in the present day, although the accoutrements of the contemporary world we’ve all grown to know and love are conspicuous through their absence (the only up to the minute technology – Yara’s ever-represent clamshell e-reader – is, it’s worth noting, a complete fabrication).  Elsewhere, the tech on display favours the redundant and vintage – big cathode ray tube televisions (complete with bunny ear aerials) from at least the 80s, possibly earlier; household Bakelite telephones with cords (cords!), electric typewriters, classic cars – as do the cultural products that pop up throughout the movie.  The televisions in question seem to be showing an endless loop of 50s schlock science fiction (complete with Wilhelm screams whenever a monster gets iced); kids these days apparently go on dates to see Charade (Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, 1963)* at a very, very old school cinema that looks as though it’s not been refitted since the 30s; and the absence of contemporary pop music on the soundtrack only exacerbates the sense of woozy, temporal dislocation induced by Rich Vreeland’s fantastic score.**  This is really just a background, though, to the more unsettling juxtaposition that the film enacts between the perfectly manicured lawns and houses of the suburbs where the kids reside, and the haunted, recession-hit desolation of the city proper (It Follows is set in Detroit).  These are literally two worlds co-existing in uneasy parallel, barely or rarely meeting: this is segregation enacted at an architectural level, a segregation brought home by the closing moments of the film, as Paul crosses to the wrong side of the tracks to pass the curse onto sex workers who are, according to the social schema of this world, essentially expendable.  That this kind of social disjunction continues to exist, and has always existed, is a far more horrifying possibility than a sexually-transmitted haunting, right?
RS:  Absolutely, but then the film is in danger of working itself into a metaphysical corner on this.  In a way, the whole haunting side of it is a distraction from these far broader concerns about social inequality and the prevalence of sexual violence, and there is the chance that the viewer gets completely drawn into the supernatural element without getting the space to think about the underlying observations that the film is making.  Part of that weird wooziness you mentioned is that there seem to be two films here, one that’s about a sexually-transmitted succubus and another that’s about social and familial breakdown.  Not that a horror film can’t comment on other, wider issues, but it’s a tricky move to get right and three-dimensional character development is usually sacrificed in favour of flinging further blood and guts up the walls.  That said, It Follows is a rare beast in that it successfully manages the tension between these two different layers of the narrative, so that the viewer can toggle between them at will.  All those dreamy driving sequences create the perfect space in which to open up the broader social discussion without overloading the central characters or wrecking the pace.  In fact, the scenes with the most weight in that respect are the ones without dialogue, where the audience is just left to observe and make the connections for themselves.  This might be one of the reasons why I enjoyed It Follows so much: it credits its viewers with enough smarts to deal with unanswered questions and to engage with those quiet points of reflection.  Plus it made me want to watch The Shining again, which can only ever be an excellent idea.


* NB: it’s worth noting that Charade’s not just a neat metonym for ‘pastness’, but also a nod in the direction of It Follow’s own narrative turn, as its own plot revolves around pursuit, deception and murder as well. [ST]   

** The film doesn’t just blur the boundaries between eras, though: it’s also impossible to judge the season in which It Follows takes place (the regular visual refrain of leaf-raking suggests autumn or early winter, but the characters also spend a great deal of time hanging around in open-air pools, and at one point it’s warm enough for Jay, the protagonist, to fall asleep sans blanket on the hood of her car, which to my mind doesn’t seem like a particularly viable scenario in the midst of a Michigan November); and at points, even judging the time of day’s a little squiffy.  Mitchell seems interested, then, in subconsciously disturbing us before the consciously disturbing stuff even begins to happen, to the extent that the whole narrative seems to be taking place in a borderland between waking and sleeping, populated with enough of the accoutrements of the known, real world to be recognisable, but undermining that realism with something decidedly other and uncanny.  Surrealist, if you will.  [ST]         

Magritte, 'Empire of Light'

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