Saturday, October 20, 2018

Stephen King's America

Bill Skarsgård in It (2017)

Whenever you have a massive breakout success in the horror genre, there is usually some underlying social force at work over and above the relative quality of the film. It's not just that, say, Get Out is a crackerjack thriller. There are plenty of crackerjack thrillers that are at least as good as Get Out that never find a wide audience. But Get Out appeared in the social ferment of Black Lives Matter and a conversation about race in America that wasn't happening four years earlier. It hit a window in the zeitgeist that provided it with the exact moment to become a monster breakout success. You could probably say the same thing about the new version of Stephen King's It (2017, directed by Andrés Muschietti). As a movie, it's good enough. It's well-made. But merely being "well made" isn't enough to explain its success. Director Andrés Muschietti's last film, Mama, was "well made," but that only got it modest box office, not the gaudy success of It. As I write this, It has become the highest grossing horror movie ever made. Its success is the stuff of summer blockbusters, not autumn horror movies. You might think that this is a matter of kids who grew up in the nineties latching on to something from their childhood, but I don't think that's it, or, at least, that's not everything. Its brutal view of what childhood entails (not just in the 1980s) goes a fair way to debunking pure nostalgia as the author of the film's outsized financial success. There's more to it than that.

It adapts half of Stephen King's novel (the novel runs 1138 pages in its hardbound first edition). This part of the story follows seven children in the fictional town of Derry, Maine, over the course of 1988 and 1989, when strange things are happening in their small town. These seven kids are "the loser's club," each of them a target for the scorn of their schoolyard peers for one reason or another. Bill Denbrough has a severe stutter. Stan Uris is a Jew. Richie Tozier is a pottymouth, Eddie Kaspbrak is (apparently) sickly and asthmatic, Mike Hanlon is black (the only black kid in town, it seems), Beverly Marsh is thought by her schoolmates to be a slut (even though she's actually enduring abuse from her father), and Ben Hanscom is the fat new kid. Each of them has a private demon, and some force haunting the town is exploiting those demons. Bill Denbrough's demon is more vivid than those of his friends. His real horror is the disappearance (death) of his brother, Georgie, for which Bill blames himself. Georgie was a victim of "it", which usually takes the form of Pennywise, the Dancing Clown. Pennywise is the common element of all of the kids psychic terrors. Meanwhile, they all attempt to live their lives and avoid the terror of the town bullies and their own more private torments. The bullies, for their part, are both victim and instrument of Pennywise, particularly Henry Bowers, who behaves violently with some level of impunity because his dad is a cop. Pennywise gives Henry a nudge into violent psychosis. It's against Henry and his entourage of like-minded young hoodlums that the "loser's club" forms, based on the idea that there's safety in numbers. There's not, though. Pennywise continues to torment them. Only now, they exchange notes and formulate a plan to rid themselves of "it" once and for all...

At a basic level of film craft, It is a pretty good movie. Its characters are engaging and recognizable. Its performances from its cast of child actors are excellent; this quality of child actors has dramatically improved since the 1990 miniseries, or the ability of directors to get good performances out of kids has improved, maybe in combination. The film is shot and edited with a preference for suspense over outright horror most of the time. It even has space for stylistic flourishes (the most extravagant one being the traveling overhead shot that follows Ben into the creek as he's pursued by Bowers and his friends). Muschietti knows his way around the camera and knows how to elide horror without showing his hand too soon. Rather, he lets it out in ever increasing drops, ever more elaborate and horrible set pieces (Stan's horror of the Modigliani in his father's office, Mike's encounter with the burned dead of a roadhouse fire, Bev's blood-covered bathroom, etc). He's sly, too, in so far as he recognizes the strength of the opening to King's book, the one that was emblazoned on the hardback cover when it was first published in 1985. He films it mostly verbatim. This shows us the worst of the horrors to come as Pennywise kills Georgie and drags him into the sewers (in the book Georgie is left on the street; the movie improves upon this by leaving Georgie's fate unknown to Bill and his parents, which is even more horrible). So the audience knows what's waiting for the kids as the story unfolds. Pennywise is Hitchcock's ticking bomb under the table. It fuels the film's narrative engine.

It (2017)

King knows his way around an archetype. He coded his kids in a way that makes them universal figures, avatars of the dispossessed and oppressed in childhood. King set this part of the book in 1958. This film is set in the 1980s. In spite of its setting in the past, the character types still resonate in today's political moment. They may even resonate more in the contemporary political moment than they did in 1985, but maybe not. Archetypes are durable. Each of the kids represents an axis of oppression. Bill has a disability (he's a stutterer). Ben is fat. Stan is Jewish. Mike is black. Eddie is an invalid (or a hypochondriac, as the case may be), Richie is a pottymouth who questions authority and is a perpetual outsider, Bev is both a girl and a survivor of sexual and domestic abuse. These are all archetypes that would have been "losers" in Reagan's 1980s; in 2017, they are doubly so. These are the kids who are "disposable" in the present moment. Moreover, the kids in It are economically downtrodden, too. None of them comes from a wealthy family, and some of them are dirt poor. Class is an axis of oppression for all of them. Many of their specific fears stem from their various identities. Ben's encounter with Henry Bowers, for example, finds them carving into his flesh like he's a pig to be butchered. Bev's ordeal in her bathroom reflects both the abuse of her father and the expectations for girls in many families; the bathroom has been painted red by a fountain of blood and she knows she won't be able to clean it to her father's expectations. Is this intended as a menstrual image? I suspect that it is. The roadhouse of Mike's nightmares was a juke joint frequented by African Americans and its burning was a hate crime. And so on. King made his name by making the familiar into the terrifying, and when the film (and book) is focusing on these particular themes, It burrows deep into the collective unease of an audience. In the America of 2017, it is dangerous to be in the out group, and this is a film that stokes the specific fears of those groups. One almost wishes that King had included a gay kid in his loser's club, but he dealt with homophobia a bit in the part of the book that didn't make it into this first film. I hope the filmmakers pick it up when they make that film. The film's most pointed jab at patriarchy and authority is in the character of Henry Bowers, who is the embodiment of toxic masculinity, who fancies himself top of the heap as a strong white male, with the backing of authority. He's the kind of kid who would get away with rape because of who his father is. He likes the gun he steals from his father. In many ways, he's a much scarier monster than Pennywise, even without the clown prodding him to evil. The absence or indifference of adults in this film further suggests that authority sides with the oppressor even by virtue of remaining silent.

Bill Skarsgård in It (2017)

When the film veers away from King's America and finds itself exploring Tod Browning's America, the film is less sure of itself. Tod Browning's America is the world rendered as a carnival, distorted in a funhouse mirror, and the archetype Pennywise represents should be self-evident. Lon Chaney himself once quipped that nothing was scarier than a clown at midnight. Even today, after all the circuses have closed and Browning's carny midway has receded into the past, the unease generated by clowns persists. Certainly John Wayne Gacy had something to do with this; the party clown who was the ur-Pennywise, who likewise preyed on young people. Pennywise's proclivities are a close mirror, and it laces the story with a vein of pedophilia (also present in Bev's relationship with her father). If the film has a queer subtext, it can be found in the more androgynous depiction of Pennywise than the one found in 1990 miniseries. This is unfortunate and tends to muddy the film's major themes. In any event, when the film plunges into Pennywise's world through the haunted house that leads to his lair, the film finds itself in the territory of a carnival ride. It's less frightening than the more naturalistic scenes in the ostensible real world, but it provides a conduit for the film's protagonists to go from innocence to experience without the help of the book's most notorious scene (which this film mercifully omits). For an audience, though, it doesn't tickle the hindbrain as ruthlessly as the other parts of the film. As genre structures go, the scenes inside Pennywise's lair take place in horror movie land, while the scenes that take place outside of it seem more like a dark version of magical realism. Chalk one up for magical realism.

It (2017)

In a lot of ways, It is a classic horror narrative, and King and Muschietti are certainly aware of its provenance. Gothic signposts include a backstory revealed by old documents--one of the film's best scenes--one not in the book--has Pennywise taking over a slideshow while the loser's club plans their next moves--and an obvious "bad place"/haunted house. One presumes that the Gothic's "return of the repressed" will be a central feature of this film's sequel. An even older horror tradition finds the kids, like the heroes of Greek mythology, venturing into the underworld to face a Chthonic demon in its lair, like it's Grendel's mum or something. In a more unfortunate heroic tradition, the film renders Bev into a damsel in distress to be rescued by our heroes and depriving her of a central role in a story that had heretofore belonged equally to her. Alas. Finally, there's even a touch of Lovecraft, presenting the filmmakers with the unenviable task of rendering some indescribable monstrous thing from the outer dark in a literal photographic image. It's more successful at this than the miniseries was, but this sort of thing is hard to pull off with complete satisfaction.

It's the echoes in the zeitgeist that make the film memorable, though. And as the world darkens, the more pointed its critique of America will become, all while our own real-world version of Pennywise the dancing clown ascends to the very pinnacle of power.

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