Thursday, April 1, 2021

Noise in the Middle: Movie Review

I've been on a horror movie kick for a while (as I've said before particularly here and here, I love a good horror movie, and I also think that after the last year+ of insanity, nothing really scares me anymore, or at least fiction doesn't scare me more than reality). I've been checking out every horror movie I can find on my various streaming services and, well, I've definitely watched some crappy ones. Maybe I'll blog about them sometime.

This evening, I watched Noise in the Middle, the story of a grieving widow and his daughter with severe autism, who seek out an experimental treatment (what appears to be transcranial magnetic stimulation therapy or something like it). What he doesn't realize is that the house he rents is haunted by an occult-loving sadist and the ghosts of the children from his poor house/orphanage that he bound to be trapped in the house after their death. Or something. It's not completely clear but it apparently involved branding the children with an infinity symbol and also the children killing him and themselves with a fire. Or something. 

The concept was promising - although I find the "kid with autism has special powers (in this case, is a conduit and can see spirits)" concept to be problematic, just like I found the "woman with dementia is actually possessed" concept to be problematic in The Taking of Deborah Logan - and the movie started off great. We established the background, got some ominous shots and glowing eyes in dark rooms. We also saw some really interesting symbolic imagery after Emmy's (the daughter) treatments with TMS, very Ring-video type images, which could have been used more fully in connection with the haunted house and the concept but sadly was not. We even had the "person randomly finds occult shop/enthusiast who believes the main character and helps them" trope used for more humorous and uplifting effect. 

In the middle, things began to drag and become more convoluted, which I thought might be used to tie in the symbolic imagery from Emmy's sessions, but sadly was not. The end was just a big old mess. It felt like the writer had a great idea, spent lots of time on the beginning, lost steam in the middle, and then had to just finish the damn thing by the end. The movie toyed with so many horror concepts (haunted house starts to bring out the darkness in/infect the father, like The Shining; seemingly random images have more concrete meaning for the mystery, like Ringu/The Ring; grief manifested as a spirit or entity, like The Babadook) but never really fully committed to any of it.

Overall, I'd say don't bother with this one. The beginning made me have high expectations that this movie would be good/meaningful/even a little scary, but I ended up with "WTF did I just watch and why?". 

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Super Bowl Reactions

 I watched the Super Bowl tonight rooting hard for my Chiefs - I was even wearing a Mahomes jersey (full disclosure: it was supposed to be a Kelce jersey, since he's my favorite player, but due to a royal f-up by the post office, that jersey never arrived, so I was able to get a quick backup Mahomes, my second favorite player, jersey). I was disheartened that my Chiefs lost, but am happy for the Buccs to make an amazing comeback as a franchise (except you, Tom Brady, I still don't like you).

So my reactions:

America the Beautiful by H.E.R., the National Anthem by Eric Church and Jazmine Sullivan, and the poem by Amanda Gorman were wonderful. Honoring our frontline workers and the message from our President and First Lady - beautiful. Plus the first female ref at the Super Bowl - all the feels.

The penalties were a bit ridiculous, and mostly being called on the Chiefs. It's ballsy to call pass interference on an uncatchable pass. I understand that many penalty calls in football are based on what we scientists call the counterfactual - what would have happened if a condition (such as, a defensive player pushing a receiver out of the way) was not present - but when a call equals free yards or another try at a down, they need to be used thoughtfully. The penalty calls felt very one-sided. Yes, the Buccs finally got their own "unsportsmanlike conduct" call as well as a much-needed "roughing the passer" (but it took 3 guys hitting Mahomes in much the same whiplash way that caused a concussion 2 games ago). They say homefield advantage doesn't exist in playoff games. I beg to differ.

I'm surprised at the hate I'm seeing about the Halftime Show by The Weeknd. I went into halftime knowing a couple songs by him, and finished it as a fan. We're used to these blow-out halftime shows with 3 big-name artists plus 10 high schools worth of marching bands and drill teams on the field, but in COVID-land, that's just not possible. Instead, we got an artist who was able to showcase choral and dancing talent while still respecting social distance and safety. The dancers wrapped in face bandages for "I Can't Feel My Face" was super clever - guys, those were face masks! (NOT JOCK STRAPS, as some have joked.) They were able to have dancers in close quarters wearing face masks in a way that made sense with the song. In fact, they looked so little like face masks that... see jock strap comment. I was super impressed!

In the second half, we saw a bit of the old Chiefs, but sadly not enough to score a single point. The Buccs' defensive line was just too good - I mean, they ran a blitz on every f***ing play, and our offensive line couldn't hold them back long enough to give Mahomes as much time in the pocket as he's used to. This is something to work on for next season. Mahomes is an amazing quarterback but he's used to hanging in the pocket long enough to survey the field, pick his receiver, and pass; let's work on decreasing the time he needs in the pocket. And let's work on an offensive line that can predict how the blitz is going to work and knock those guys down. Yeah, a team that blitzes on every defensive play is unusual, but as we saw tonight, IT HAPPENS! Practice defusing a blitz from every angle.

Also, WHY DIDN'T YOU SHOW US AN INSTANT REPLAY ON THE RANDOM FAN ON THE FIELD?! I wanted to see that again/closer up.

Overall, I'm sad the Chiefs lost and annoyed at the one-sided-ness/overeagerness of the penalties. I enjoyed the game, the commercials (ALL the celebs came out for those, including a Wayne's World call-back with Cardi B???!), and the performances. I'm happy for the Buccs and hopeful for the Chief's next season (I mean, winning Super Bowl last year plus being AFC Champs again this year is nothing to sneeze at). And okay, Tom Brady proved that a quarterback can still be good and (pretty much automatically, because we always honor quarterbacks and ignore the other positions - like how about TE Gronkowski?) be Super Bowl MVP at 43. You're on top, dude; how about you retire?

Monday, January 4, 2021

My Dark Vanessa: Book Review

Content Warning: sexual abuse, child abuse, and rape

Earlier today, I finished My Dark Vanessa, a debut novel by Kate Elizabeth Russell. The book is told by Vanessa Wye, a young woman who was abused by her boarding school English teacher starting when she was 15. The book spans 17 years, jumping between Vanessa's youth and adulthood. Before I get into my (slightly spoiler-y) review, I want to say: I loved this book, and I also have no desire to ever read it again.

As you can imagine from the title and brief synopsis, this a difficult book, as we hear everything that happened in the mind of a young woman who was gaslighted into believing she had all the power in situations when she had almost none and at the same time, that she had no power in situations where she could do something to stop the abuse. It's a deep and disturbing dive into the way an older man selects and grooms his victim, changing her thinking and behavior for decades, and convincing her that she's a willing participant, even when she describes very clear dissociation (being outside of herself) during the episodes of abuse - a reaction often seen in victims of child abuse.

The book also digs into two really key issues, that I haven't often seen explored or explored this well: 1. The narrative that women have "feminine gifts" that allow them to have power over a man, and make these men do things they wouldn't otherwise do. And 2. That coming forward is the only responsible thing a victim of such abuse can do.

The first issue (the "power" of femininity to take away men's agency) is such a pervasive part of rape culture. But this book also explores how this narrative has been romanticized to even apply to situations of a very young girl and a much older man, in stories like Lolita, American Beauty, and Pretty Baby. It is this romanticization and narrative that makes Vanessa continue her relationship with her abuser, Jacob Strane, even when it actively hurts her. He convinces her that he has so much more to lose than she does if their "love" becomes public, that he cannot help himself, that she has the power in the situation to consent or decline (even when he ignores her requests for him to stop and/or fails to ask for consent for very extreme sexual acts), and that, most of all, she is special because of this power she has. For a lonely girl, away from home for the first time, it's so easy to see how he selects and grooms her. But perhaps one of the most frustrating things is, even as I was reading and feeling what Vanessa feels, the descriptions and behaviors were so clear, I would shout at her as I read that there's some textbook-level gaslighting going on. It's why this is such a good book - that the author can give us those really clear cues while still telling the book in first-person, and avoid the "unreliable narrator" trope - and also one I hope to never read again.

This narrative of feminine wiles is perhaps ones of biggest issues we need to contend with if we want to do away with rape culture for good. It's a narrative that, on its surface, appears to assign all the power to the woman and none to her rapist or abuser, when at its core, it instead makes the woman powerless to stop (and deserving of) whatever harm is done to her. It's also a narrative that can be so easily spun as a positive thing when it is actually toxic and harmful. 

The second issue is a bit more ambiguous, at least for me, because before I read this book, I would have agreed with this second statement, that victims must come forward so that the abuser can be brought to justice and that others can be protected. I believed this even as a person who did not bring my own rapist to justice, something I was very ashamed of about myself. But this book made me realize just how tricky this issue is. 

At a surface level, it seems like a conflict between the needs of the individual and the needs of many, and from a philosophical standpoint, the needs of the many should outweigh the needs of the individual. But framing it in such a way takes away the individual's autonomy, a major issue considering that the abuse/rape was all about taking away one individual's autonomy. And victims already feel a great deal of guilt and self-blame for the event; they don't need the guilt of believing they failed others, or that they are in some way responsible for the reprehensible actions of another. 

Framing it as needs of the individual vs. needs of the many oversimplifies exactly what the needs of the individuals are (privacy, self-care, fear of reprisals, and so on), while also making that individual an accomplice in how another person's actions affects the many. In the case of adults in positions of power abusing the people they should be protecting, no victim should ever be to blame; this is on the system that put (and often helps to keep) that person in power, and on all of us, for the ways (big and small) that we may contribute to these power dynamics and rape culture.

This book was very triggering for me (even though my personal experiences do not resemble Vanessa), and I'm still working through the emotions it's brought up. I was reminded of a book I read in college, Bastard Out of Carolina, which also details years of sexual abuse of a child. When I finished that book, I threw it against the wall. Fortunately this book didn't elicit that reaction, but I didn't have a super-positive reaction to the ending either. 

I'm still glad I read it, though I probably wouldn't recommend it to anyone who might also be triggered, especially if they haven't been able to work through their own trauma through therapy or treatment. And I'll definitely keep an eye out for future books by Kate Elizabeth Russell.