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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

I Have Nothing To Say About The Cabin In The Woods

So I finally watched The Cabin In The Woods.

And I have nothing to say about it.

So this is not going to be an article so much as a non-article, a void where an article might have been, the hollow space beyond the stars… where there isn’t an article.

Essentially this is going to be an article about how I can’t come up with a topic for this article, because I found this film to be very, I suppose, pre-determined. Now I don’t mean to dismiss the film just because it’s clear with what it’s saying--and it is very clear with what it’s saying. It telegraphs quite strongly what it’s trying to communicate, and it does a good job of making an argument. That’s not a bad thing. There’s some films, in fact, that I think could learn a thing or two from this movie and its clarity.

The film tries to say something, and it says it with economy and efficacy. I don’t want to fault it for that.

However, I will at the same time say that I find that it narrows the field of what I can contribute to the film analytically. It’s something that I find kind of odd given that the film so loudly seems to be begging for analysis.

I guess what I’m suggesting is that maybe there’s some tension there. Of course, maybe I’m just not smart enough to come up with something original--always a good possibility! Nevertheless, let’s talk about not talking about the film.

I think it makes sense, maybe, to talk about what makes it a film that someone would potentially want to analyze. Therefore, I’m going to run through a list here quickly of all the things this film that I’d put in the category of, essentially, Too Obvious To Write On. I feel like with these things I don’t have a lot of room to maneuver around because it feels like other people will probably have covered it. (Though, of course, stuff that seems obvious to me sometimes flies right past other commentators’ heads so some of this might baffle you, my dear readers. It’s happened before.)

First of all, most obviously this is a film commenting on horror films. I don’t see any reason to belabor this point too much--the whole film is about horror film tropes and the reasons for those tropes, right? All the tropes in the film are constructed artificially by the villainous observers. These tropes serve the particular function of enabling the slaughter of the main characters. With that we necessarily get a whole bunch of commentary on the tropes and their functionality--the kids are being stupid because they’ve been drugged to be extra stupid, they’re having sex in the woods because there’s pheromone gas, the point is not that they must die but that they must suffer, &c.

So we have a bunch of stuff clearly aimed at critiquing or responding to horror movies and their tropes. Ok great.

What else seems pretty straightforward here?

Well, there’s a critique of the Gaze. Not a whole not new to say there. The Gaze is the notion of who has the power to see and perceive within a system, and who is seen and turned into an object of study. Typically we see this mobilized in discussions of the male gaze and the objectification of women in cinema.

So the gaze here is critiqued by literally setting up a series of observers watching the proceedings of the film itself and watching the proceedings for their own amusement--and there’s definitely an element of amusement for these observers, hence them betting on the outcome. We see from the outset lots of indicators of this gazey stuff, this interest in vision and its oppressive qualities. There are many instances of this--the actual presence of literal observers is merely the most overt. We can see it for example in the actual view the film itself sets up with the introduction of our lead character in her underwear in her college dorm. Something with the gaze just might be going on there. We’ve got other elements like the two way mirror that tempts the Hot Teens to look at one another's bodies, as well... and it’s implied, I think, that part of that temptation to look is an aspect of the Transgression that the Hot Teens must make in order to be prepared for sacrifice. So the gaze itself is a kind of sin committed in the film that sets up the slaughter later.

The film is very interested in the gaze but I’m not sure that makes it exceptional compared to other films interested in that dynamic. After all, Rear Window was filmed a long time ago now--we've been doing this for a while. Nevertheless, it’s kind of interesting… in a way that I am sure everyone else already picked up on.

The film is responding to horror movies but it’s also responding to humanity as a whole and I’d say that it falls pretty comfortably on the side of “I for one welcome our new tentacled overlords.” So that's something interesting. The film sets up an idea that the observer characters are doing what they’re doing because it’s necessary, a needful act. Then, it carefully and completely dismantles that idea. The film shows these characters to be hypocritical--they’re supposedly working for the Greater Good but in actuality they’re kind of getting off on what’s happening. They’re pretty shitty from that perspective, and the film uses that shittiness to pass judgment on humanity.

The most obvious moment of this early on is a juxtaposition centered on a conversation about the Hot Teens needing to make their own decision that will damn them. They must choose the means of their death--this is where the one observer declares that they must transgress so that there can be punishment. But then immediately after this conversation we see the observers betting and being invited to join this wager on how the characters will die horribly. The dramatic irony is pretty damn thick there--there’s a clear choice being made there to indulge rather than to carry out the plan with stoic sobriety. And, of course, it’s all still a commentary on horror films in the sense that it makes apparent the hypocrisy of any kind of moralizing explanation for both the choices of these observes and our choice in watching slasher flicks. We can say we're only watching for morally sound reasons, but aren't we also getting off on this a little?

The obvious offshoot of that is the critique of humanity’s impulses and ulterior motives and hypocrisies: if we’re prone to making sacrificial choices like this with no recognition of our own ulterior motives, then maybe, in the words of our protagonist, it’s time to give someone else a chance. That someone else being the Great Old Ones I guess. In the face of the ongoing suffering of Hot Teens, these particular Hot Teens choose the destruction of humanity. The tradeoff isn’t one they’re willing to make.

Hey, guess what? It’s my Madoka Magica article again. Not only has someone else probably picked up on this before, I’VE picked up on it before.

So that’s essentially the difficulty with analyzing the film, at least for me… it’s so highly telegraphed as to its intentions and interests and thematic notions that it’s difficult to get an analytical word in edgewise. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but it does kind of feel like the film almost is begging me to find something to say about it--it’s really putting itself out there as this thing desperate to be analyzed--but it’s saying things so overtly that to elaborate past a certain point feels very difficult. It seems so metatextual that to grapple with it in a way that isn’t circumscribed by that metatextuality feels very difficult to me, in the same way that analyzing, say, Dubliners or Lord of the Flies in your high school English class can feel somewhat suffocating. There’s so many symbols paired to so many exact meanings, so many corollaries in the particular language of the author, that it can feel a little suffocating, particularly when you’ve got a teacher who’s read 50 years worth of interpretive material on a text and who’s explaining to you exactly what the symbols mean. Sometimes they even hand you a useful chart! Chanticleer represents the Catholic Church and Snowball is Stalin. The end.

I don’t want to seem like I hated the film or like I think this is a huge issue, or a huge failing, that I’m not getting this particular thing out of the film. The film was a blast to watch in a lot of ways! I guess I just feel frustrated by the way I increasingly am diving into truly obscure territory in order to talk about media in a way that’s going to be fresh, and not redundant--particularly when I'm writing about something that's existed for three years! So I find myself, for example, talking about 19th century landscape paintings, in relationship to Mad Max. I’m genuinely interested in it as a topic, but it’s also an opportunity to say something that might actually be original--that might not have been covered by the countless other people doing web critic stuff.

To some extent this kinda feels like the nature of the game now, and The Cabin in the Woods is kind of a reflection of a much larger sort of system. This crisis I’m having is, itself, not necessarily that original. It’s an identified problem with postmodernism. As my partner Lee pointed out to me as I drafted the audio version of this article, when a film is working with pastiche, as this one is, you’re sort of inherently in the realm of simulacra and layers of reflection. This all comes from Baudrillard, and, as far as I understand, his notion of simulacra is that you can have copies without originals, essentially--in late capitalism, we have reproductions of ideas until we arrive at a kind of purely simulated existence, a world of mirrors where the copies don’t necessarily have more than a very tenuous relationship to some sort of original.

That’s basically what this movie is doing and the space it occupies. This is a horror movie about horror movies… so what is it actually about? Is it about anything? I think that’s kind of an open or unresolved question. If this is sort of about horror movies, then does it have a bearing on real life, or is it like Alan Moore sees his work on Batman comics--something that has no relationship to our world because there is no way of translating its fantasy into our terms? Maybe it does have some bearing with the gaze stuff and the judgment on humanity stuff, sort of… but it’s MORE about this set of other ideas already responding to other things, this network of reflected tropes. It’s sort of the ultimate in simulacra in that, everything constantly feeds back into this relationship it has to other horror movies.

In a sense, the bewildering array of monsters that large scale engineering has put into convenient boxes in order to rationalize the eldritch sacrificial rites parallels the actual nature of the film. I mean you don’t get much more postmodern than that--we’ve got this whole space that operates by a machine logic, that can’t really be grasped by the human experience as anything other than a kind of sensory overload, an Escher print brought to horrible life. And that’s kind of the realm in which the film is situated thematically. You can go up the chain of signification here, but you’re always going to find one more layer that leads back into the hall of mirrors that is the film’s relationship to other copies of copies, other works referencing other works. Choice is an illusion in this framework, because any line of flight ultimately leads right back to the pastiche of the film, just as the game was rigged from the start, and the kids were always fated to die.

That might, interestingly, be a way back to the horror of the film--I mean, all this intellectualizing kind of has the effect of dulling the experience of horror, right? Picking apart theme in the abstract doesn’t lend itself to spine tingling terror. But when you realize how well the film has caught you in its web, the way that you’ve been sucked into its games of gazes, and choices, and hypocritical juxtapositions… I think there’s a horror in that. This overdetermination isn’t just simplicity at work, it’s the film nesting inside itself, all warped and wrapped in a way that makes untangling it impossible. It’s a film that I think, on some level, is laughing at us.

I find that a little creepy

And then add to that the weirdness of writing this article.

Oh man.

See, on Halloween I decided, what the heck, I’m not doing anything, I’ve got no place to be, and I’m feeling lonely, so I’m going to try to write this article, and I’m gonna do it while being watched by… well, whoever, really. It's something normally I open just to my $1 Patreon backers but I made the google doc available to everyone to view tonight. So we’ve got this system here where I’m writing about the Gaze and people watching other people and what that does, and I’ve got a whole crowd of people watching me, and commenting on watching me while writing on the gaze, and I’m watching them watching me… Again, we’ve got this weird hall of mirrors thing going on.

I think it kind of highlights how uncanny and weird the actual process of communicating and trading information and engaging in analysis on the Web really is--yeah, there’s a collaborative element to it, sure, and we could view that very positively, but it’s also kind of weird and uncomfortable to realize that you might be playing out a particular set of tropes for your audience, in service of… who knows what? In service of a mechanism that’s far vaster than you can individually comprehend.

I think the real horror of the film is one of realizing how small you are. The protagonists are dwarfed by the bureaucratic and institutional murder machine that they’re fodder for--they’re part of a system that’s not just institutionally but also physically far beyond their ability to comprehend. The elevator chambers are just a visualization of that nightmare mechanism. But in turn the bureaucracy is, itself, dwarfed by the ancient evil gods, and the system ultimately devours itself in an orgy of violence when things fall apart, in a way that no one can control. Things simply happen. And that’s, to a large extent, what contemporary existence in our digital, late capitalist era is like--viewing and being viewed without necessarily being able to grasp the full ramifications of what goes on around us.

I’m reminded of another horror-comedy pastiche, actually, and the monologue by the chief horrific antagonist, the eldritch god being Korrok:

“I AM KORROK. In the mountains of Uruguay, a goat gets its hoof caught in a posthole and the bone snaps like a twig. The splinter juts from its skin, blooding spraying onto white fur. It is stuck like that for three days. Finally, a wolf mother comes along, carrying her pup in her jaws. She lets the pup feed off the goat, gnawing bits of fur and skin and tearing at muscle. The goat feels it and screams and there is pain and pain and neither the goat nor the wolf nor the pup understand their place in the machine. I stand above all, and call them fags. I AM KORROK.”

It’s hilarious because of that totally 12 Year Old Edgelord ending, but it’s also kind of horrifying because even the cosmic horror in the story is somehow weirdly mundane, weirdly false, weirdly a simulacrum of some bigger, better, more awesome threat to humanity.

If the horror of Lovecraft was a horror of a vast unknown, this is a horror of a vast known, of finding yourself wandering through the hall of mirrors created by our expectations.

It’s the horror of realizing that at the end of the day, I set out to write about how I had nothing to say about The Cabin in the Woods and by the time I hit 3000 words, by the time I finished untangling the knots of the film that I found so obvious, so simple, I had tied myself up even tighter than before, and found quite a bit to say after all.

I can’t help but feel like I’ve been tricked, somehow.

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