On Good Boy (2020)
“All history is erased with one pet of the animal.”
Millennials only talk cruel in a fancy circle, playing duck, duck, goose with our victimhood, reverse engineering every human relationship via podcast. The concept of “radical honesty” allows art makers and poseurs alike to eschew style and personality for identity. No longing for the blank history of commitment will spring up under our deflated housing bubble. Good taste split its sprockets for moral revisionism. Good Boy is not shock therapy against an anesthetized life. Cinema has failed art too hard to be this. Anti-serious and playful, the film is, at least, innocent in its campiness. Our protagonist’s rescue dog is a killing machine – how smilingly millennial. Maggie (Judy Greer) hauls the casket of the film around a fun performance. The dog’s pajamas match her own. By night, it mauls those who slight its master.
The aftermath of a crime cries out to be answered for, to be rectified, even when it isn’t. Art must be responded to oppositely, even, and especially, if it remains as close to the shock of crime as possible. It’s convenient that Ruben (the dog) rips the landlord’s throat out, but now no one’s left to skim the pool. The creature’s cuteness helps the blood bathe away. Rare to sit through a film co-signed with copacetic blood anymore. Imagine what murder might be like for dogs: sharp bursts of chemical odors sped through the tramway of a snout, olfactory maps unfurled, refreshing the nuanced scent of death rattles; each smell arriving with timestamp and a half-life, as if the eyes were equipped with a retractable microscope. Cohabiting with pets teases our instincts back to an animal nature. Maggie chooses her demonic companion over any human. If anything, a man is a fertilizing catalyst for her rapidly depleting eggs, best breed in show. Even as she drags a body wrapped in a shower curtain into the desert, it turns out that all she wanted was something adorable to groom. The beast (an artist, of sorts) removes her anxiety while positioning her to abet its crimes.
We comb our pets till their coats are sleek as smartphones. It’s amazing what we will forgive of those not completely repulsed by our scent. Miscellaneous Good Boy interpretations wonder if Maggie’s dog is a slaughter-proxy, like Norman Bates’ mother in Psycho, a way for Maggie to stomach her own dissociative attacks. Thankfully this ambiguity is kept (and kempt) as dainty as our patience grows.
Burnt Cold by the Moon
On Unsane (2018)
Let’s let the side effect eclipse the symptom. Sawyer Vallentini (Claire Foy) twirls her fork between her latte and quinoa salad, planning to escape her stalker (Joshua Leonard), a very contemporary yuppie upgrade, black glasses thickening the effect of his Viking beard. The negotiable long-term damage she undergoes, Repulsion-style, experiments with naming its twinge, somewhere in the nausea of a never-ending iPhone “ding”. But dementia’s the silver lining beneath which her stalker crowns himself, hailing his neurodivergent patrol. Poor guy, no one says, his attempt to love a woman who’ll never want him heavily outweighs the need to love, but nevertheless he persisted.
This, the schizoid scroll of a cloudy surface layer, but the meat of the film is suspiciously sandwiched by the color blue, absent from the wild, calling attention to the film as artifice. Blue: unnatural poison of a color, good for drowning in, while guided by voices. Which side of the scam, as the audience, are we on? Is every uncomfortable date equated with being hunted into insanity? Sawyer is certainly not hunting her stalker, but it never feels like the stalker is all there. Mentally as well as cinematographically. The exposed veins of a city, alienation in one razor stroke, kissing the road to the psych ward. I know a man who fucks himself up to have a hospital bed to sleep in at night. Why not? Sanity was always ambiguous at best.
The cinematography of prescription drugs and insurance scams is easier on the eyes through Unsane’s Valium-blue fisheye nightmare, as it autoerotically closes the net around its own beautiful body. Our protagonist sees herself as mushroom food in revolt. Biologists flock to pews behind their microscopes and will touch your no-no square the same. Mycelium communicates at lighting speed in languages we can’t even cough in. In Evil Dead a book spells nature into poison and even the branches rape. In Antichrist, Satan comes through nature in its prettiest creation, a woman. Much more often the contenders with waste basket diagnoses, women, like Sawyer, are coaxed by fibrous phantoms so invisible on an x-ray it tickles. Eternally triggered for a business expense, Sawyer prefers peering over her little shoulder to being a corporate dogsbody. Why should she argue with her disease? It might be fun to get killed by her for what she thought happened. Luckily, she’s everyone now. We’re all one diagnosis away from being denied a disability check.
What therapist can outperform the subscription they enforce? Most friends are merely homeopathic, anyway, because they’re free of charge. The inside of our lavender-scented bubble of online lotion is more hellish than advertised. We’ve been draining Argento of his prismatic operas because we miss him. Socially justifying the originals into an inverted great art (this, mostly by name alone, Unsane – retitled from Tenebre’s American release) and into half a crap (Suspiria 2018) shows our eras lack. Flies eat better than most.
Todd Hayne’s Safe had its troubled woman emotionally experience the enemy earth as a trailing chemical, stalked by the air. The handle of a knife, like Safe’s protagonist lipping aphorisms in the mirror, is there to stir the wound. Artists bloat with the objects they create. Orson Welles shaped balloons haunt us. Victimhood remains ambient enough to fog over a life. Even elephants choose sedation. There is the distorted desire for the parentage of a hospital, which today has been made handheld. Life is not worth the Tylenol.
Denise Levertov: “Something in me that wants to cling/ to never,/ wants to have been/ wounded deeper/ burned by the cold moon to cinder.” Sawyer glitches down to a protracted pause, rammed out of synch by a reality, frozen, motherless, in Pluto’s atmosphere. At least Sawyer’s phantoms desire her. They won’t forever.
We Die & We Don’t
On Carnival of Souls (1962)
Last night I had a dream. On the outskirts of a city, I chanted a mantra to Shiva. A businessman appeared, gathering a crowd. His skull split open at his crown. As flesh and bone wilted down his shoulders, Shiva bloomed into his immortal form, strengthening the potency of my song. His mandala of a mouth, layered with knifelike teeth, swirled and inflated to the size of a bus. The entire cosmos turned in him. Wire-thin tongues harpooned my torso. In a dozen languages at once Shiva demanded my last words. Drag me through hells, I said, ready to stretch this full bellied feeling into rings of empty ones, preparing to saddle the painted ponies with my savior.
I liken Time to an enormous millipede – anus and antennae tickling the distance of past and future. Every once in a while, a hooked leg nestles in my footprint. It’s in that intersection, smaller than a centimeter, where I exit such dreams. Wakefulness like a finger dragged across the map, tapping on my tiny X. I’m on all fours, creeping through the house abandoned by my deceased relatives. The highway retracts its asphalt, keeping me hidden. Communicating with the dead works best when the throat speaks on its own. Grief is dynamic and perverse enough to unbind logic.
My loved ones taught me how dreams, hovering moonlike, reveal other dimensions with shaky matchsticks. Carnival of Souls presents a pressurized ticket to strike. A puff of smoke, igniting the gas-stained cave painting of my past. Released in 1962, this black and white cult classic remains shrouded in mystery even after the credits roll. Mary Henry, a possibly undead organist, is strangely attracted to an abandoned fairground. We walk the perimeter of the mysterious theme park with her. Ghouls twerk in ballrooms by the dozen. Skeletons turned black from smoke serve drinks. The screen haunts our memory corporeally. Whether or not I feel chemically revised after watching, the wallpaper laughs in curls from every corner. Anyone can stop a man’s life, Seneca wrote, but no one his death, a thousand doors open on to it.
Diagetic sound means we hear what the characters hear – Mary Henry’s car tumbling off the bridge and splashing in the river. Screams becoming bubbles. The score swims through our ear fishlike, demonic organ music gurgling from nowhere – is this part of the film? I try to find the rhythm of her pulse. Seduced by the tune, I place two fingers on my carotid, just in case. I’m too plugged into meaning gleaned from cinema. This film ironed me to the river’s bottom. Every breath squeezed out like toothpaste. My pipes remain fitted with Mary Henry’s pedals and pistons. Imagination keeps the architecture’s walls hollow enough to float, just over there, like wisps of faces underwater. Flickering images condensate, melting the corpse paint off everyone I love. It’s just a job, Mary Henry repeats, spinning their heads like coins between her fingers and the keys.
Hell’s become asthmatic trying to convince my generation that it’s not a place on earth but worse. We keep phantasmagoric entities in the projectionist’s realm. So, here’s my congregation, coughed up, smudging lenses. Twisting my fingers into a rectangle I mimic a camera shutter with my spit. My Uncle’s ice blue teardrop tattoo is swollen and bruised from the needle he used to poke it. He watched Carnival of Souls two days before he killed himself. When I watched it in his room (which I now share with my wife and dogs) I didn’t know. Perhaps it means nothing, but I feel guided by Mary Henry’s first lines, her retort to neighbors asking her to visit the next time she’s in town. Thank you, Mary Henry says, but I’m never coming back. I get splinters kissing her coffin-shaped mouth. I whisper the voices I wish to hear through them. Dousing the lights, I cop a feel in a box of tapes, rewinding through the credits so the dead might live again.
David Kuhnlein’s film reviews have been featured in Bright Lights Film Journal, Entropy, Expat, and others. He edits the literary review column Torment, venerating pain and illness, at The Quarterless Review. He lives in Michigan and is online @princessbl00d .