Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Paranormal’s Domestic Activities

When I was a kid, the next door neighbors were odd. They didn't leave the house much. He was a pianist, she a housewife. One night, I awoke at 3:00 a.m. and heard a faint popping sound. I went back to sleep. In the morning, my mother was distraught and there were police cars everywhere. The housewife had shot the pianist dead during the night.

It came out that he had been abusing his wife for years, gradually building over time, until she was finally pushed over the edge. But why did they continue to live in this situation? Why didn't she seek help or move out? They remained cut off from the world, until something really bad finally happened.

In Paranormal Activity (2007), a young woman, Katie, shares a home with her boyfriend Micah. After moving in together, she shared with him that she’s been haunted since childhood. His response was to buy an expensive video camera and try to catch the ghosts in the act. She’s not crazy about the idea, but he’s so enthusiastic, like a boy with a new toy. Each night, something happens, something more frightening each time. And Micah keeps on shooting and they both keep on falling asleep together at bedtime.

A friend complained. He said, “With all of the freaky things going on, why didn’t the characters do something? Why didn’t they go to a hotel?” “Well,” I replied, “the movie does say that the haunting goes wherever she goes, so not much point in leaving.” (I did wonder though how they were able to keep falling asleep each night fully knowing crazy stuff was sure to happen.) But later I wondered, “Maybe their inaction meant something more.”

So, consider this proposition: Paranormal Activity is in one sense a nice, scary little demon-possession story about a guy who is a bit of an immature jerk sharing a haunted house with his girlfriend. And it is also an allegory representing a case study in domestic violence.

I first noted a nice poetic symmetry between the title Paranormal Activity and the phrase “Domestic Violence.” Then I noticed a strange echo between the movie’s end titles and my childhood experience. Micah has been found dead by the police just as was the pianist. Katie has not been seen since just as was the case with the pianist’s wife – at least not by us or her other neighbors. I then wondered: “What’s going on, lurking just out of sight, between the beginning and the end of this intriguing little movie?”

Representing the abuser in my proposed allegory (abuse by over-zealous videoing?), Micah has no problem sleeping at night. Standing in for the abused, it is Katie who wakes up every night in fear. The abuser is in control, is the one with peace of mind. The victim is the one who suffers. Katie is always the one to first awaken in the very early morning hours, sometimes screaming. Micah is such a sound sleeper that he even remains conked out after his blanket has been pulled from his body.

Victims of abuse characteristically experience feelings of there being no way out and no one to help them. The movie clearly makes the point that the demon will follow Katie wherever she goes. They could pack their bags and check into a motel, but it would be to no avail. There’s no escaping the terror. A psychic is invited into their home on two occasions. He is characterized as being ridiculously ineffective though. On his second visit, he can hardly wait to make tracks. This surface story plot contrivance and flimsy character work as perfect representations for “no way out for the abused” and “no one to help her.”

Abusive situations are often the latest in a long history of abuses. Both the abuser and the abused accept the behavior because they were taught to accept it by their parents. It is interesting how strongly the point is made that the haunting has been going on for Katie since childhood. And when her childhood photo is discovered, it has been burned around the edges. It has a similar visual effect as if she had rolled up her sleeve to reveal a cigarette burn on her arm, left there long ago by her father.

For the movie to be an allegory for an abusive relationship such as the one of my childhood experience, there are two things that must be represented: the behavior of the abuser and the growing resistance to that abuse by the abused, ultimately taking the form of some final action to end it. The haunting, the demon, clearly represents this growing resistance. Along this line of thought, Katie’s final action of attacking the camera seems quite logical (more on that in a moment). It also makes sense that the demon’s entire animus is directed toward Micah – remember the photograph on the wall and Micah’s saying, “Why did it only scratch my face?”

The behavior of the abuser is represented by the camera and how Micah wields it. In movies of this first person genre, whenever a man (so often a man) points a camera at a woman (so often a woman) and keeps shooting her even after she has asked him to stop, she is being violated, abused. Paranormal Activity contains constant variations on Katie asking Micah to stop and he only complies once, to get sex. Tensions related to his new little hobby build between them steadily. The use of profanity pointedly escalates throughout the movie. She almost makes him leave the bedroom and sleep downstairs with his camera at one point before they tentatively kiss and make up. And Katie’s going downstairs and outside at night can be read as escaping from the camera's unwanted gaze.

Paranormal Activity will go down in history as a movie that made countless people afraid to go to bed at night, like Psycho (1960) made people afraid to take showers. But the fear I’ll always remember is what must’ve been in the wife’s eyes as she looked into those of the pianist for the last time.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


The most pleasant surprise of this month’s Fall Cinema 100 series is the wonderfully realized drama “Tulpan” from Kazakhstan. Set in rugged desert terrain, all dry and dusty and windy, the movie captures the life of a herding family with a refreshing sense of realism. It also, perhaps a bit oddly, reminded me of “Star Wars.”

Asa, the main character, lives in a yurt with his sister Samal, her husband Ondas, and their three children. Ondas is tough and strong and devoted to this rugged life even though he is deeply troubled by a high rate of stillborn lambs. Asa is different. He’s slight of build and a dreamer. The setting they live in reminded me constantly of the planet Tatooine from “Star Wars.” And Asa with his eyes forever peering over the horizon resembles Luke Skywalker.

In an early and infectious scene, Asa and his buddy Boni travel across the desert in a truck. They groove and bop to the strains of the reggae classic “Rivers of Babylon.” Asa is especially happy as he hangs off the back of the truck, wind blowing in his face. It’s a wondrous expression of freedom. They are travelling home after almost meeting Tulpan, the girl of Asa’s dreams.

Tulpan (meaning Tulip) is an interesting character. Or rather she’s more of an apparition than a flesh and blood girl. Asa has never seen her face, never really met her. She’s like a hope, a dream, something keeping him going. The scene where he goes to visit her is beautifully mysterious with Asa remaining outside of the door to her home, gently speaking with her, encouraging her to show him her face. She never does.

She’s like a dream that keeps him tied to the desert life. The only available girl left in the region. She counterbalances the pull he feels from his best buddy to adventure and toward the “big city” that is out there, somewhere. This herding life may not be for him, he knows instinctively. And it’s just too depressing having to gaze upon more and more dead baby lambs every day.

I won’t go into specifics, but there are two scenes that cause Asa’s head to spin and that pull him in different directions, seemingly pulling him apart. There’s a scene between him and Tulpan’s mother that is almost cruel in the bluntness of the reality it forces him to face. And then there’s a remarkable scene involving the difficult birth of a lamb that asks him to reassess his place in this parched, life or death land.

“Tulpan” ends with Asa and Boni again travelling across the desert by truck and again listening to “Rivers of Babylon.” But now the joyful sense of freedom has left Asa. He sulks, torn between loss of hope and new-found responsibility. He’s an image of a Luke Skywalker who had never been permitted to see the princess’s face.

The movie’s dusty realism frequently fills the screen with pleasures. The desert has always been a highly photogenic landscape and never more so than here, especially when howling winds envelope the characters in swirls of blowing sand. And the images of children at play are delightfully vivid.

I wish more movies would realize – as “Tulpan” does – that nothing is more magical than simple moments such as a young girl dealing with the stress and boredom of her existence by singing, beautifully and loudly. The scenes here of children singing have a way of making the characters – and us – forget all of life’s hardships.

“Tulpan” has not been rated, but is suitable for all ages. It screens at the Grand Theater on Thursday, October 22 at 3:00 and 5:30.