Sunday, October 31, 2010

Suspense and M. Night Shyamalan

Like Janet Reid I am now posting multiple blogs on Sundays. At least for today when I am thinking about techniques for suspense.

In passing today - and the other night - I caught The Happening on television. Have you seen this movie? I actually saw it in the theater. I love M.Night Shyamalan and I know many people just don't get his work. So...I want to talk about it a little. Here are my reasons for liking his work:

1) He spins light horror and the classic fairy tale in a whole new way. Everybody loved The Sixth Sense - it was a ghost story at its best - and I love ghost stories. It had the then uncommon twist that the guy didn't know he was a ghost. The Village which came out after Signs, (which I will discuss in # 2), was seen as just not up to the same standard as the previous two films which were filled with suspense and spooktacular tension. The Village however is a deft commentary on modern life, societal anxiety, and the power of story telling. The same happened with The Lady in the Water. People hated it - I loved it. But it was a modern day fairy tale that was both suspenseful and heart warming.

#2 Masterful direction - in every Shyamalan film his talent as a director is clearly exhibited. He is not being arrogant when he parallels himself to Hitchock by making cameo appearances in his films. He is as talented - if not more- that than great master of suspense. To examine this I ask you to consider Signs and The Happening. In both of these films there the viewer never sees the monster. In signs there are very brief glimpses of an alien and in The Happening - the monster is the wind in the trees. Yet, he is able to make the view tense and jumpy with just implication. In The Happening when they figure out that it is coming from the plants - suddenly a beautiful shot of the wind blowing tall grass in a field becomes ominous. Run! The wind is coming. I also love his use of color both symbolically and as a means of distraction or direction. Often his scenes are beautiful and sinister at the same time.

# 3 Comic relief/ Satirical commentary. This is not in every film - but in most. Shyamalyn's ability to incorporate humor between tense moments, or to utilize light and bright moments of human tenderness to contrast darkness and fear is masterful. The Happening - I believe - is quite satirical. It is a funny movie. The over the top violence is ridiculous in places - but it again is showing something about human beings. The underlying theme that we are destroying the planet and it is going to get back at us is noble, timely, and scary. The humans stupidly offing themselves is not plain gore - it is exactly what we are doing every day by destroying our planet. Shamalyn also uses television and radio background broadcasts or newspaper headlines to underscore his points about society. Watch and listen for them and what seems inconsequential or funny is often a jab at what you might be missing all along.

#4 Use of Allegory and Archetype - this is scene in Unbreakable and The Lady in the Water the most - but it is in all of his stories. The Lady in the Water used allegory and archetype to present its tale of humanity. It was akin to Melville's Pequod in that that little apartment complex was the ship of the world - it represents the path we all share as human beings and the very essence of the human struggle: peril, doubt, cooperation, belief, and unity. It also had a mermaid -type lady so I loved it even more.

And he is a story teller of the best sort. He is writing High Concept stories and then bringing them to life in films that leave on thinking long after the screen goes black. Or at least they should if you are paying attention.

His work is inspirational to me in my own writing and if I could choose a director for DISTILLATION (if it ever were to get published and then made into a movie - hey I can dream) I would pick him. His subtlety and sophisticated treatment of the genre of suspense, horror, and fantasy is some of the best we have from today's creative minds.

Literary Cretin

Happy Halloween! To celebrate the transition into the dark time this year I decided to read a horror story - a real classic. Stephen King's The Shining. I had never read this book before, though I had seen the movie a thousand times. The first time was when I was eight or nine years old and my friend's aunt let us watch it - and this was no edited for tv version either. I think it scarred me for life - so much that I went on to read quite a bit of Stephen King throughout my teenage years and now write books about...ghosts and murders.

I am almost done reading the book now and I am loving it. As well as a good read, I am appreciating the horror writing techniques. It is really well written and it is really scary. A few items I have liked: Danny sees the woman in the bathtub -all gross and dead - and she comes out and follows him and strangles him. Jack - the dad - goes to investigate and at first sees nothing at all, but when he turns away he hears the sound of the shower curtain being pulled closed. He turns back and he can see the shadow behind it - but he does not actually see the ghost at that point. I loved that. The sound of the shower curtain closing was the scarier element - more than actually seeing the woman. Also - the topiaries - which are not in the film. They move - but only when the observer looks away. My initial thought when reading the first of these scenes was that it was a little silly, but then it was a little scary, and now just thinking about animal shaped topiaries is giving me the heebie jeebies.

I think Stephen King is a good writer. Some of his work is better than others - and some of itI actually consider literary horror or just plain literary. So why do some people think he is a low brow writer? I am an English teacher - a high school English teacher who teaches the classics - and has begun incoporating YA lit into my classroom at least on a self selected read basis. King's writing is a lot better than much contemporary fiction. Of course, much contemporary fiction is considered low brow too.

So what is good fiction? What is literature? Shakespeare? Well he was a low brow writer. He wrote for the uneducated masses and his work is rife with dirty jokes - some very dirty. Sure he also wrote about the human condition - but name one story that doesn't. What about Steinbeck - or Melville - the great American writers - who also wrote about the human condition - but also wrote about the poor and desperate and adventure stories (respectively). Or Faulkner or Joyce? Is that literature? So bizarre it is nearly impossible to read?

What makes something "literature"? And, are we, who read - and/or write - with and/or for the masses, Literary Cretins? I don't think so, but you tell me.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Finding time to write

My writing ladies met today and we had another good round of critiquing. One thing that came up, as I am sure comes up all the time for writers, is that we have trouble (especially this time of year) finding time to write.

Family, school, jobs all make finding time difficult. Right now I am feeling really cramped by my day job. I am a high school English teacher and it is both rewarding and absolutely draining, emotionally and physically.

Many people do not understand the job of a teacher. This is made more apparent by the things politicians, parents, and film makers say. This is the superjob that goes completely underappreciated. It is believed that a teacher should make up for all that a family situation lacks and advance a child intellectually despite exterior influences. This is very difficult, but almost every teacher tries their hardest to make it happen. But when you have a student who comes from a family that does not have an educational foundation with books in the home and an interest in learning new things (ie. closed minded), that feels teachers are worthless, and who encourages their child to "hit the easy button" by cheating (it does happen), it is a difficult job. Not to mention the constant onrush of 20 or more children (whatever their age) needing answers, needing support, not waiting their turn, hitting each other, engaging in typical behavior, but behavior that is unexceptable in a classroom nonetheless, and the bizarre disconnectedness of administrators is various applications of nonsupport and uninsightful micromanagement, it becomes a VERY difficult job.

After eight years I still find myself drowning at times. I have a student teacher this year and right now is a difficult time for me to feel like I am leading her into something worthwhile. It will change. October is the month where it all catches fire and right now I have a lot of fires to put out. Things will settle down. There will be amazing moments in learning and growing. But right is consuming me.

It goes without saying that I am not doing much writing. How can I? I want to get back into the world of DISTILLATION and LADY SLIPPER (the continuation of the story) - but it takes a while to get my mojo on. Once I do get back into novel mode, it can only last so long - then, when I have to come out and grade papers or deal with a tough day of student defiance and apathy - I am angry - yes angry  - about having to do that. About having to step back into the muck of real life rather than create a ficitional one.

Is this a writer's illness? Are we escapists who would rather live in an imagined world? How does one overcome the emotional drain that life brings and easilly step in and out of the writing mind without it feeling like it is a gigantic leap that - in itself - is disruptive?

How do you find time to write? How do you make the jump to the writing mind from the reality mind? I know it is an escape. I have said so myself. But I am finding it to be an escape accessed only by traversing an tremendous divide.