Monday, May 18, 2015

Currently Watching: Postmodern Conversations in 70's Horror

The Exorcist and Martin in Conversation

[Before I start, let me say that this post is going to include MASSIVE SPOILERS for both The Exorcist and Martin. I mean, these movies are over thirty years old, so I feel like the spoiler-warning is unnecessary, but it's here.]

Last weekend, I watched The Exorcist for the first time because it was put on Netflix. I thought the movie was great—it was delightfully heretical, sinister, and postmodern in all the right ways. Thinking specifically about the movie's postmodernism, especially with my fiendish interest in all things meta, like the literal presence of lights, camera, action: 

I got to thinking about another movie, one of my favorites, another 70's horror flick, Martin. Because whenever I've mentioned this movie I get the reply, "The TV show? Martin Lawrence?" I'm going to spend a moment explaining the movie:

Martin, directed by George A. Romero (which is interesting of itself, as a man known for zombie movies) is the story of a kid named, unsurprisingly, Martin, who is mercilessly awkward and either is or believes himself to be a vampire (whether vampirism, Renfield's syndrome, or haematodipsia, we're left unsure). 

Oh Martin, you rogue! Is that strangely-shaped, needle-looking flower for me?
He is taken in by his cousin, Cuda, a Colonel-Sanders-looking old man who feverishly believes in his old-world Catholicism and his "family curse," which produces Martin as a "nosferatu." 

I will preach to you as I sell you chicken. Ask me about the secret curses—I mean, spices!
The movie sets two viewpoints on Martin's condition from Cuda's and Martin's perspective: one is the supernatural, the other isn't. Martin claims his condition to be just that—"There is no magic," he says, "it's a disease." And though he claims to be old—"Oh, I'm old. Older than I look."—which suggests immortality, he does his damnedest to dispel many of the other tropes of vampirism: after first moving into Cuda's home, Cuda shows Martin that there are garlic bulbs hanging from his bedroom door, and continually chastises him for his condition; then, in a bit of rage, Martin bursts into Cuda's room, eats the garlic raw, and touches the cross Cuda holds to him to his face. Later in the movie, to seek company, he calls a Coast-to-Coast-like radio show as "The Count," further dispelling vampire myths, claiming that there's no need for blood-sucking on a nightly basis, that he has no powers of mind-control and seduction, and that the sun merely "hurts his eyes sometimes, especially when it's been a while." In what I think is the best scene of the movie, he even taunts Cuda by stalking him in the night dressed in a Halloween costume, dancing around and making fun of Cuda for his beliefs:

I vant to suck your varicose veins!
Eventually causing Cuda to assault him with his cane, to which Martin replies by spitting out the false teeth and saying, "it's only a costume." 

The movie ends with Cuda driving a stake into Martin's chest. 

It happens about as abruptly as that sentence. The movie is brilliant and thoughtful on its own, and deserves a watch. The entire thing is apparently available on YouTube. Watch it.

(As for a synopsis of The Exorcist: You've seen it. There's a little girl. She gets possessed. There's an exorcism. Sometimes she walks down the stairs upside down.)

Look mom, I'm doing it! Mom, look! ... you're not looking.
So what does this movie have to do with The Exorcist? Well, the director forces a connection in his cameo-appearance as a priest (you can skip to 2:10 for the relevant bit, but the entire scene is awesome):

The director of this horror film, literally placing himself into the most direct position of power the movie seems to offer, spends his time completely shirking off everything a priest is supposed to be, and comments on a horror film: "He went to see that film, The Exorcist; said they did it all wrong! ... I don't suppose you saw that movie; I thought it was great." Though this can be and totally works as a sort of throwaway joke, it places this movie in direct contact with another and forces conversation between them. Which is great, because they both have so much to say.

Part of what makes The Exorcist align with postmodernity, aside from its possible commentary on the power of directors and actors and other such characters of film production, is its distrust of technology. For a good and concise quote, I'll let Higgs and Smith take it away:
If any one film captures humanity's disillusionment with science and the scientific method, it is The Exorcist. The film tells a simple story: the possession of a young American girl by a demon. The crux of the film, in the opinion of the writer, is the rage and bewilderment of the girl's mother, facing the team of "medical experts." "My god, I've spent all of this money and none of you can tell me what's wrong!"  
That, as far as postmodernism is concerned, is the whole point. Science can't tell us what's wrong. 
So, The Exorcist regales against technology in much the same way as a book like Infinite Jest does: it foregoes and warns against technology for the seemingly obvious deficiencies it presents, and instead turns more towards more nebulous ideas of faith—for The Exorcist, it's Catholicism in the face of possession; for Infinite Jest, it's the twelve steps and sincerity in the face of addiction and irony. For The Exorcist, where science fails to perceive the obvious, the priest stands by with holy water.

But in Martin, Romero—playing a priest—loudly disagrees with The Exorcist's presentiments. It even presents its own version of an exorcism, which goes about as well as you might expect:

Just let me get my reading glasses on, here. Okay. This is the New Testament, so the language might be a little softer. Oh unkind spirit, being around you is a discomfort! Please leave!
Though The Exorcist presents Father Karras as a sort of anti-hero of a priest—he drinks, he smokes, he's in the process of losing his faith—it is ultimately his faith which proves to be true. But Martin's priest is as sure of his belief, seemingly, as the movie is: by the end of the movie, it's still ambiguous as to what, exactly, Martin is. Whether he is a boy with an unfortunate psychosis, fed into by a zealous relative (which is exactly what Cuda's niece believes, by the way), a vampire as Cuda believes him to be, or a person with an unfortunate but natural malady is unclear. The entire movie is intercut with black-and-white scenes of a presumably younger Martin running around a castle after having killed someone, chases by a mob with torches; these scenes are purposely overdone and campy and, while maybe serving as flashback, could also serve as fantasy—as even Martin's first victim, in a very modern train, is intercut with this sort of scene, still on the train. In fact, it may really be Cuda's faith which gets in the way of the truth by the movie's end: the stake is driven in after Cuda hears of a neighbor's suicide (incidentally, this neighbor was cuckolding her husband with Martin, which drives her to the act) and believes it to be Martin covering up his feasting. The scene is over before it starts, and leaves you with a feeling of "wait... that's it?"

Yep, that's it. Go home. Nothing to see here.
As the credits roll, Cuda digs a grave and sows seeds over Martin's corpse.

Cuda, where did that boy who helped you in your shop go? Lovely new flower bed, by the way.
In The Exorcist, faith proves to be the truth: Regan is a girl who is, in fact, possessed by a demon—a symptom of a very real devil; this possession is fought by two priests wielding the very-real power of God. Though the movie ends with Satan's presence still felt, his presence is definitely there—as is God's. The movie has a faith that leads to Regan's rescue, despite the ending's ambiguities. But in Martin, faith is colluding with lies: the truth doesn't exist because faith doesn't allow its exploration and discovery. But, even still, Martin doesn't offer the scathing comment on science that The Exorcist indulges in either: two of the characters believe Martin's condition to be treatable, in some sense, by science—they fiercely dispel faith and magic. Though Martin is ambivalent about the idea of doctors ("I couldn't go to a hospital. It'd be too hard for me."), Cuda's niece is a full proponent. The genius of the commentary here, I think, is that Martin doesn't hold to any one truth: where Romero saw The Exorcist as a movie basing truth in faith, he created a movie that shows the nebulous nature of the truth. Whose perspective do we believe more by Martin's end: Martin's, Cuda's, Cuda's niece's, or somewhere in between? Evidence exists for and against each of them and, ultimately, is left unknown. To make a parallel, if The Exorcist went about its writing the same way Martin did, upon discovering Father Merrin's death, Father Karras—instead of beseeching the demon unto him and diving out the window—would have have an ambulance called to take Regan away, and the final shot would have been Karras looking down the famous steps with his collar in his hand.

What makes me so excited about this is that Martin can work both in and out of conversation, and The Exorcist isn't ruined by Romero's commentary. These movies work in conversation, not argument, and they stand alone as well as they stand apart. Without the commentary on faith and truth, Martin is still a solid vampire movie about what a vampire really is, and whether they can still be terrifying without the smoke and mirrors. But with the commentary, it opens up the movie into an even more meditative stance on what the truth really is, and how we discover it.

And, yaknow, I just friggin' love seventies horror movies. Let's talk about them. New topic, start: I hate Poltergeist.

[Coincidentally, this is my last post for the Boylan Blog. It's been a great time, here, and I hope my readers (Hi, fellow interns) enjoyed my pieces as much as I enjoyed writing them and reading theirs. I leave you with a treatise on what the truth is in the form of a commentary on a 70's horror movie no one cares about. True to form, it's long and postmodern and maybe a little pretentious. This is Kyle Williams, signing off.]

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