Neil Jordan and Patrick McCabe at the Irish Film Institute

Neil Jordan and Patrick McGrath 001edit

On Saturday, May 25, I was fortunate enough to see filmmaker (and novelist) Neil Jordan in conversation with writer Patrick McCabe at the Irish Film Institute here in Dublin. Jordan is one of those filmmakers I always find interesting though I haven’t seen all of his movies. McCabe’s The Butcher Boy has been on my to-read list for approximately 800 years so, stop hassling me, I just put it on reserve at the library. Once the talk was underway, it occurred to me that taking some notes might be a good idea, although my pen started running out of ink partway through and I didn’t have a backup. Poor preparation. Still, below are a few of the highlights.

Jordan met Angela Carter at a writers’ festival in Dublin, and that’s where The Company of Wolves (one of my favorite movies by him), based on her book The Bloody Chamber, was born. He described their collaboration as easy, taking just a few weeks — they’d have a cup of tea, write, send stuff back and forth.

Jordan says he isn’t obsessed with vampires in particular despite the fact that his new film Byzantium is about them and he directed Interview With a Vampire. In the latter instance, he was drawn to make the film because he found the book “haunting.” In the former case, he was very taken with Moira Buffini’s screenplay, the story of these two immortal women, mother and daughter.

He was philosophical about Anne Rice’s initial rejection of the choice of Tom Cruise for Lestat: When a book is that popular, he pointed out, everybody has an idea about who should play the characters. He said David Geffen (producer) and “Brad” (Pitt) wanted Daniel Day Lewis for the role, and he knew Daniel  Day Lewis would say no, so he went with Cruise. (Interestingly, the question of being pressured to cast big stars in films came up, and he said, yes, there was a great deal of pressure to do that. And some of those big stars are good actors and well-suited to the roles, he pointed out, but when he was preparing to make Byzantium, he had two ground rules: he wouldn’t make it if he couldn’t cast it the way he wanted and film it where he wanted to film it).

Jordan: “The only two monsters left in pop culture seem to be vampires and zombies.”

McCabe speculated that both Interview and Byzantium had what he called a “poetic trash element to them” that he compared to the best of the Hammer films. Jordan objected (with humor) to the choice of the word”trash” — “if you mean Grand Guignol, call it Grand Guignol!”

An interesting note to me personally is that Jordan was taught in school by John McGahern. McGahern is an Irish writer who I think is not quite as well-known outside of Ireland as some other Irish writers, but I lived in the area he came from in the midlands, and his book That They May Face the Rising Sun is a really beautiful evocation of rural Irish life. Despite Jordan’s father being a schoolteacher and Jordan being an avid reader, he was a poor student himself, leading McGahern to comment that Jordan “was the living repudiation” of everything his father stood for.

The two men spoke about Jordan’s novel-writing career as well. McCabe described Jordan’s novel Mistaken as a love letter to a Dublin all-too-rarely portrayed (if ever) in film and fiction, a 1950s/1960s Dublin of beat cafes and nightclubs, what McCabe called “the beginning of modern Ireland.” Jordan recalled that he had been a mod, and that even growing up middle-class in Clontarf, when he crossed over to the southside of the Liffey he was often treated as though he were some sort of ruffian, and some southside establishments wouldn’t let him enter. McCabe and Jordan shared a knowing laugh over the statement that Ireland does have a class system, it’s just that nobody can figure out what it is.

Jordan discussed how he moved into film after starting out as a novelist. The Irish writer, he explained, labors under the very long shadows of James Joyce and William Butler Yeats.  Film for him was by contrast “virgin territory,” and he got into it “by accident.” Director John Boorman read a book and a story by Jordan and contacted him to write a script with him. (Dear hopeful writers, this NEVER EVER happens, so don’t get your hopes up.) They worked on a script together (and here my ink shortage began to reach crisis point as I didn’t get details down about that) and then Boorman wanted him on the set of Excalibur, just to bounce ideas off of, Jordan supposed. (Aspiring writers: this, too, will never happen.) At that point, Jordan suggested that he would make a documentary about the making of Excalibur. Jordan was nonchalant about how he developed his directing chops from this point: if you hang around a set long enough, he said, you get an idea of when to point the camera at something interesting.

McCabe praised Jordan’s first feature film Angel (which I’ve never seen), about musicians and murderous gangs in Northern Ireland, as breaking free from “the straitjacket of social realism,” and, as McCabe pointed out, “social realism only tells 10% of the story.” (Side note: unlike some of my colleagues who also work in the fabulist realms, I have no problem with the social realist genre in the right hands although it can be excruciating in the wrong hands, a little goes a long way, and it can indeed become a straitjacket that condemns all other types of art as trivial.)

Speaking of his foray into Hollywood, Jordan discussed how things have changed for European directors in Hollywood. The auteur-type European filmmaker, Jordan pointed out, once believed it possible to master the Hollywood machine, but it always proved to be a “poisoned chalice.” Today, Jordan felt, young directors welcome it — rather than pursuing a distinct artistic vision, they want nothing more than to helm the latest action franchise. I hate to use a word as facile as “selling out,” and god knows we all have to eat, but I agree with Jordan that there simply seems to be less tension these days between art and commerce than is right. I’ve got more to say about this later at greater length elsewhere actually, so I’ll just leave this here for now.

At this stage the ink situation became really dire, but I did get a last interesting note down. Jordan and McCabe were discussing initial critical (not popular) reception of Interview and how critics in Britain and Ireland in particular were unkind to it, yet it’s held in much higher regard critically today. The talk then turned to how common this is, a gap between the way a film is first received and later regarded, and McCabe cited Hitchcock’s Vertigo as a prime example of a film that received some savage reviews on its release yet recently toppled the ubiquitous Citizen Kane from its perch atop the famous Sight and Sound‘s critics’ poll as the best film of all time.  And here is where Jordan made a comment I found especially compelling:

Anything that challenges assumptions has a rough ride.

Jordan made one more comment I want to highlight in response to a question about where film criticism is headed and the death of Roger Ebert — Jordan reminded the audience that when Siskel and Ebert premiered with their thumbs-up-thumbs-down approach they themselves were considered the death of criticism, and that much good criticism had moved onto the webs and blogs in particular. But here’s what Jordan said that struck me, and for me, this is true not just of film criticism but of all types of criticism: “What matters to me isn’t what films a critics likes or dislikes but how good a writer the critic is.”

Weirdly, this produced titters throughout the audience, which caused Jordan to have to emphasize “No, I’m serious” — well, of course he was. This is what distinguishes criticism from reviewing and the great critics from reviewers. This is why the grouse that “all critics hate movies” misses the point entirely. In fact, a good critic is engaging with a text (and I’m using the word “text” here to mean movies, books, anything the critic is writing about) on a profound and really exciting level, and the experience for me of reading great criticism is the thrill of that excavation even when I’m mentally arguing with the critic all the way through the piece. Critics get so much bile directed their way, and those of us who love to read (or write) good criticism aren’t doing it at  you — it’s just a real pleasure to read a talented writer’s analysis of a book or a film.

Anyway, this is only a smattering of the wide-ranging talk throughout the afternoon; there was so much more — talk of the great Graham Greene and P.G. Wodehouse, the rise of the “boxed set” and American cable series and Jordan’s work on The Borgias, the imaginative shadow cast for Jordan by growing up near Bram Stoker’s residence, Godard and Jean-Pierre Melville and what can be learned from watching the crime genre and more. My only regret (besides not starting the note taking earlier and not bringing extra ink) is that I didn’t prepare a question to ask about Jordan’s In Dreams, a film I find maddeningly problematic, possibly disastrous, but weirdly compelling, and the only mention the movie got was McCabe saying “We haven’t even talked about In Dreams!” and Jordan going “Let’s not.” I’m kicking myself, in fact, for not at least piggybacking on that comment and asking what he meant by that.

All the same, it was a rare and terrific couple of hours with these remarkable gentlemen, and kudos to the IFI for opening it to the public for free.

Boxing Day Horrors

Actually, this is a very  pleasant and kinda snowy day-after-Christmas. (The snow started last night, the first white Christmas here in over 100 years!) The “horrors” mentioned above just refer to some spooky links I’ve been collecting to share recently.

From Gemma Files, this weird little animated short, The Forbidden Forest

Film critic and writer Anne Billson made her first short film, the creepy Alouette, and posted it here

Someone on my Facebook page (sorry, forgot who!) posted this atmospheric short, The Ten Steps

And I wrote about some of the best horror by women writers that I read (or wanted to read) in 2010 in The Drink Tank 265.  On the non-horrific front, that issue also contains some very good recommendations for the best SF novels of 2010, as well as overviews of comics, art, and more from this waning year.

And with that I’m back to a very lazy December 26 of doing practically nothing at all.

a review. a picture. some links.

I feel like I need to post something here which is not actually All About Me (despite the fact that it’s my blog), but I haven’t really had the time.

So, here are more things about me!

The first review of Black Static #16 says nice things about everyone.  People seem to be receiving their copies in the UK now but thanks to the angry volcano gods I expect mine will be delayed a bit longer.

Here is a link to the creepy illustration from the Polish edition of “The Last Reel.”  Thank you, Ben, for passing it on!  Scroll down to the three little pictures at the bottom.  It’s the first one, of the girl from behind, if you haven’t read the story.  For those who have read the story…people have pointed out to me that 1. they expected a darker room and 2. they expected that if the walls could be seen, they would have more stuff on them.  I agree with both of these points, but I think the picture captures the essence of that moment in the story.  I always enjoy seeing stories I write take on a life of their own in this way once they’re out in the world, whether through illustrations or reviews or what someone tells me about what they saw in the story.  Although I have never felt egregiously misread–which I’m sure is unpleasant–I am not particularly attached to the images inside my head and the ideas behind stories I write.  Actually, that’s not true–I am quite attached to those things, but I don’t feel compelled that others share them with me when they encounter whatever sprang from them.

Okay, here is something which is not all about me.  A couple of years ago, the excellent and mysteriously pseudonymous Arbogast tossed out a compelling challenge known as The One I Might Have Saved.  What horror movie victim really gets you–who would you save if you could?  A few days ago, he resurrected the challenge across a couple of posts.  I’d like to do this at some point when I get a chance but in the meantime, as well as the other contributions, you can check out Derek’s: poor old Brendan Gleeson from 28 Days Later. Yeah, Frank always gets me too.

If he asked me for a bloodworm I’d find one

I’m a veteran of several years’ worth of short film blocks at Portland’s HP Lovecraft film festival, which is to say, I know the drill: some stuff works, some stuff doesn’t, and everybody likes the funny stuff more than me*.  Most of the films screened at the sold-out Women in Horror festival at Athens Ciné last night are steeped in an underground, DIY, punk rock aesthetic; most of the women who work on them aren’t looking to become professional filmmakers.  They’re just having a good time, and as part of the audience you can’t help having fun along with them.

Two things struck me during the screening: 1.  You can put aside any notions that girls are squeamish about violence, gore, and various bodily effluvia.  2.  So many of these films are suffused with a sense of femaleness, by which I mean not any sort of biological determinism, but a real engagement with what living in a female body and being female in early 21st century America is like.

Many of these films cut straight to the subtext–and gush it viscerally all over the screen.  The most striking aspect of the night’s program as a whole was the degree to which these films presented a picture of femaleness in such opposition to the mainstream images and ideas with which we’re bombarded constantly: Romcom women.  Nurturing women. Women in bromances (god help me, that is the first time I have ever written that “word” out and let it be the last).  Selfless women.  Not so these women.  Belated By Valentine’s Lover, directed by Ruby LaRocca and by turns poetic, surreal, and silly, turns tropes of girlhood and the good girlfriend inside out, following its protagonist from kitchen stove to washing machine, wrapping up a homemade gift for her boyfriend–a gruesome love potion–in a pretty package with a big pink bow.  The rage of the berated, bulimic wife in Heidi Martinuzzi & Leslie Delano’s Wretched (featuring the legendary Joe Bob Briggs) is literalized in a series of scenes so gross I couldn’t watch (I have a thing about vomit), culminating in a Gregory Nicotero-choreographed blood-spewing extravaganza.  From the supremely disturbing sexual self-loathing in Stacey Ponder and Shannon Lark’s Lip Stick to a little girl’s ambivalent love for her absent mother in Devi Snively’s blackly comic Death in Charge–with AFI funding this was the slickest of the lot–to the gleeful rage of a snuff filmmaker’s intended victim in Maude Michaud’s Snuff, so many of the shorts, consciously or unconsciously, upended notions of femininity that still seem to have such a hold today.

In fact, that girl we’re used to seeing–the one who appears over and over in movies and on television and in commercials, the one who waits anxiously for her boyfriend’s proposal, who reads cheesy romance novels, whose best day ever is the one in which she dons her white wedding dress and walks down the aisle with said boyfriend–well, she appears exactly once in these movies, and she ends up dead in the first scene, stabbed to death giallo-style.  Good riddance to her, I say.

*I like a good horror comedy as much as the next girl–Shawn of the Dead achieved a great fusion of humor and horror, even if it did spawn a zombie craze which ran its course years ago and still shows no sign of stopping, like that dumb kid in the back of the classroom who hasn’t figured out that joke was funny the first twenty times we heard it and he won’t stop saying it and now you just kind of want to beat the shit out of him not to mention the fact that zombies as an object of fear or even metaphor are ruined for at least a generation if not more–but by and large I prefer my horror straight, no laugh chaser.

Yes, Girls Dig Horror, Too

Some things to note, in preface.

February has been named Women in Horror Recognition Month by Hannah Neurotica, editor of Ax Wound, the feminist horror zine.  As part of the activities surrounding this, a program of short horror films by women directors will be screened at Athens Cine Saturday night, which I plan to attend if I can overcome my natural recluse tendencies.

Also in February, SFX Magazine produced a special horror issue.  Among other features, they interviewed 34 screenwriters, directors, and novelists for a section entitled “Horror’s Hidden Treasures.”  In a bit of unintentional irony, given the month in which the issue appeared, they, uh, forgot to ask any women.

Maura McHugh discusses the omission on her blog and publishes her email exchange with editor Ian Berriman.  Mr. Berriman engages with her politely and explains some of the reasons for the omission.  Women are certainly less represented in screenwriting and directing in general, and even less visible in the horror genre.  Fair enough.  It’s more difficult to justify the complete absence of women novelists.  You wouldn’t need to look that far, given that writer Tanith Lee is the guest of honor at the World Horror Convention in Brighton, UK next month and that Sarah Langan is one of four nominees for this year’s Bram Stoker Award for best novel.  Caitlín R. Kiernan is hardly an unknown, either and her The Red Tree, which came out last year, is one of the best horror novels I’ve read in years.  Seriously, it has already ascended to Classic rank for me alongside such beloved favorites as Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, T.E.D. Klein’s The Ceremonies, Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness, and Fred Chappell’s Dagon.

I can sympathize with the editor’s frustration in feeling like he’s put a lot of work into this issue and now he’s being “dismissed” on the basis of this omission, although given earlier, recent Internet brouhahas over similar omissions, I’m kind of surprised he didn’t anticipate it.  But that’s neither here nor there.  I’m not crazy about the reactive nature of the Internet in responding to these sorts of things.  Tempers flare and awful things are said that people would never say to one another’s faces. On balance, as my dad (who grew up in the mountains of North Georgia) used to  say, “I’m agin’ it.”

What I want to talk about is this line from Ian Berriman’s response:

A female freelancer who specialises in horror journalism responded in similar terms: “It’s not your fault; you’re just reflecting the industry. There just aren’t that many female horror directors. There aren’t even that many female horror fans, come to that.

Emphasis mine.  That’s the comment that rankles.  This is a persistent myth, and one I loathe.  It’s simply not true.

There are lots and lots of women who do work in the horror genre in some capacity or another, and before we were creators, we were fans.  We still are fans.  And we still hear this kind of thing a lot, whether from people anxious to save us from our own collusion in a genre often seen as misogynistic to those fine specimens of manhood hailing from what I think of as the smelly boy’s locker room of horror who smugly declare that they “don’t read women writers” because “they just aren’t dark enough“!  (For that notion, I prescribe a reading of Natsuo Kirino’s Out.)  Then there are people who think women in horror means this new marketing category dubbed “paranormal romance” or “urban fantasy.”  Or, god forbid, they think Twilight.

So, in response to this assertion, that there just aren’t that many women horror fans, what I really want to do is write about my own, earliest memories of falling in love with horror.

This is a conversation I’ve had with a couple of (as it happens) male horror fans in my life: this early, primal attraction to the imagery of horror.  A memory of being very young, three or four or five, and being simultaneously drawn to and terrified by forbidden things glimpsed on book covers or television: monsters, haunted houses, blood and things that go bump in the night.

Later I remember picking up this Alfred Hitchcock anthology lying around the house.

It must have belonged to an older sibling or cousin.  (Orphaned books had a way of wending their way to our house.)  A.M. Burrage’s “The Waxwork,” a tale of an impoverished journalist who agrees to spend the night in a waxworks chamber of horrors, frightened me half to death, which didn’t stop me reading and rereading it.

But the most memorable scare of my young life came a little later than that, within the pages of the anthology up there at the top, Shudders.  I remember where I bought it, back in the day when drugstores carried racks of books.  I remember picking it up and reading this from the back: If this book feels cold when you first touch it, don’t be surprised.  Inside is a bone-chilling collection of stories by nine masters of terror.

And I said to myself: It does feel cold!   It does!

This book contained “The Waxwork” as well.  Ah, if only that had been the only horror that awaited me within.  No, there was much worse ahead, and two stories in particular which kept me awake for the entirety of the summer that I was eight years old.

First up: “The Monkey’s Paw.”  W.W. Jacobs.

I’m sure this story seems positively tame to anyone over the age of ten or so encountering it today.   Not so for my eight-year-old self then.  One of my bedroom windows, as it happened, looked out directly over the steps leading up to our front porch.  Do you know what that meant?

I spent an entire summer lying awake in horror, waiting for the sound of the dead son’s footsteps coming up those steps to knock on our front door.

Why on earth did I think the shambling remains of dead Herbert White would see fit to turn up at our front door in the middle of the night?  It made no sense; terror never does.  (It also made no sense to me that his parents were offered two hundred pounds in compensation; two hundreds pounds of what? I wondered, rereading that bit over and over in frustrated incomprehension, looking for clues that were not forthcoming.)  So there I lay, night after night, listening for a knock, so quiet and stealthy as to be scarcely audible, sounded on the front door.

Sometimes I thought I heard it.  After all, it was described as scarcely audible.  Was that it?  Could that be it?  Eventually, I’d pass out from sheer exhaustion and get some sleep.

If I managed to survive the shambling and knocking of Herbert White, there was something even worse to contend with.  Frank Belknap’s Long “Second Night Out.”

I hesitate to ruin this story for anyone who hasn’t read it, but once again, I suspect the power it held over eight-year-old me will not be quite the same for anyone reading this.  At any rate, it mattered no more to me that we were not on a ship than that Herbert White had no reason to visit me.  The only thing worse than the undead Herbert White was Frank Belknap’s Long killer undead monkey monster.  Don’t laugh.  The story contains a number of gruesome, hysterical descriptions of this horror, culminating in this final dreadful (in my imagination) manifestation:

For a moment, a moment only, I stared at the dark and repugnant visage, with its stary, corpse-white eyes, viscid and malignant, its flat simian nose, hairy ears, and thick black tongue that seemed to leap up at me from out of the mouth.  The face moved as I watched it, wriggled and squirmed revoltingly, while the head itself shifted its position, turning slightly to one side and revealing a profile even more bestial and gangrenous and unclean than the brunt of its countenance.

Every night, that summer of my eighth year, I lay awake in bed, trying not to look into the corners of the room, where, I was absolutely convinced this wrong, rotted monkey face would leer at me out of the dark.  Meanwhile, Herbert White would be knocking away and the front door.  And that would be all she wrote.

I’m amazed I survived to nine.

So why did I keep reading the stuff when it scared me so badly?

Well…it was awful, yeah, lying there sleepless, absolutely convinced I was going to die a horrible death, torn apart by the hands of a dead monkey.

But…it was also fun.

A few years later, Michael Myers* finally provided me with scares equivalent to the zombified Herbert White and the killer monkey–specifically, Michael Myers standing silent at the doorway wearing nothing but a bedsheet and, over it, the glasses of Lynda’s (P.J. Soles’s) dead boyfriend.  Another season of sleepless nights followed.  But that’s a topic for another post…

So, female and male fans alike: what are your earliest horror memories?

*Speaking of women screenwriters and horror, the late Debra Hill was the co-writer along with John Carpenter of the classic Halloween.

sumer is icumen in!

wickerhand

Edward Woodward, the star of one of my favorite horror movies–why qualify it?  one of my favorite movies–The Wicker Man, has died at 79.  (That would be the 1973 British version; if the Nic Cage abomination was the first thing you thought of, wash your brain out with soap and see me after class.)  Edward Woodward played the unforgettable Sergeant Howie who successfully resisted the carnal temptations of Britt Ekland only to find himself…well, I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it.  And if you haven’t, you owe it to yourself to see the only successful musical horror film ever made.  Also starring Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle, and the delightful Ingrid Pitt makes an appearance as well.   Avoid the shamefully truncated and incoherent 88-minute version and be certain you get the proper 100-minute version instead.