Monday, September 21, 2009

Nola, your womb is showing

Where did all these kids come from? Nola!

First, David Cronenberg is a brave man, brave and innovative. Horror can be found in the simplest things and the darkest places. But the most terrible horror is the stuff found in places it shouldn’t be: a daycare, a honeymoon, etc. Cronenberg takes that even further by finding horror in motherhood, in the very act of birth.

The big reveal in "The Brood" is graphic and disturbing. It does two things that horrify the audience. One, it shows where the Brood of children is coming from, and since the audience knows these are viscous little murderers to see the source of this is terrifying. Two, and I don’t know if this was intentional by Cronenberg or not, it reduces the miracle of human birth to something akin to watching a barnyard animal give birth. The way Nola licks placenta and blood off of her latest Brood child is graphic and disturbing, but not because of the gore, because Nola seems less human.

That had to take guts. To not only write this story, but to put it on film. I can imagine the feminist movement was ready to crucify him after this came out. Lots of horror, especially the stories and category being studied this semester, center on fear of the opposite gender. In general the fear is from the male point of view, and in not understanding female sexuality, or being so drawn to that sexuality that they lose control or lash out (Norman Bates from "Psycho," or the poor protagonist in "The Head of Hair").

Cronenberg goes beyond that in "The Brood." To quote a movie I just saw, he “goes all the way through it, to the end.” Nola is presented as the unstable matriarch of a family, and she is sequestered away to get better. Instead of getting better she finds physical form for her rage and lashes out at those she perceives to have hurt her.

The concept is fascinating: emotions finding physical manifestation. Mike, the patient searching for a father, develops lesions and sores all over his visible skin. Jan may or may not have woken up a cancer that is now spreading throughout his body by taking part in psychoplasmics.

But Nola takes the blue ribbon. Nola can actually give birth, breathe life, to her anger. Her rage takes the shape of deformed children who then go and commit physical violence. In William Beard’s “The Artist as Monster, The Cinema of David Cronenberg” Beard states on pages 83 and 84: “Admittedly, Nola is moved by rage, by the wish to hurt and destroy, and this gives her actions an intentionality that Rose’s lack entirely. But then Nola is quite unaware of the terrible acts her brood perform.” Is she?

Beard continues on page 84: “In this sense, the deaths of her parents and of Ruth Mayer are not her fault; she doesn’t even know about them. Even the beating of Candice, which takes place before the action opens, is the result of a passing annoyance in Nola to which the brood overreact, because proportion and judiciousness are exactly what they lack. She is not responsible.” Really?

Beard’s assertion loses a lot of credibility at the end of the movie when Frank is repulsed by Nola’s external womb. When Frank’s revulsion becomes apparent to Nola she tells him she’ll kill Candice. This implies some level of control over the Brood children. It also implies some level of knowledge on Nola’s part about what they do. Also, when Raglan asks Nola how she feels about Candice’s kindergarten teacher, Ruth Mayer, the day after The Brood beats her to death, Nola is all smiles and relaxation. She feels alright about the teacher. She’s moved past it, no big deal.

And this makes sense. The Brood children are less autonomous and more a part of Nola. In that way, a viewer must completely remove Candice from being lumped in with The Brood. Candice is a product of Frank and Nola, hopefully a product of their love. The Brood children are produced by Nola alone, and are a product of her rage. In some ways The Brood children are no more than extra stomach acid or toenails or hair. But they are charged emotionally. When they kill, at least in one example, Nola is relaxed and feels like the problem she so recently had raged about is now taken care of, and it is. Permanently.

So, to completely exonerate Nola of the crimes of The Brood is a bit too polite, too nice. Raglan has some culpability to be sure. His psychoplasmics theories obviously have some truth in them, and he helped Nola develop this external ability to personify her rage. I’m assuming Nola’s external womb and ability to birth Brood children came about at the Somafree institute and not before. Surely Raglan is the one who built the little nursery or camp in which The Brood children live (the rustic look reminded me of summer camp with bunk beds in the woods). Towards the end Raglan is trying to atone for aiding and abetting Nola in creating these little monsters, but he suffers the fate of most mad scientists who busy themselves in mucking with God’s work.

But it all comes back to Nola, doesn’t it? Instead of getting better, it seems the Somafree institute has made her far worse. Dealing with her rage, “pushing all the way through it to the end” isn’t diminishing it, isn’t helping her to deal with it constructively. Far from it. She becomes a murderer using little living guided missiles to do her deeds while she sits in the woods creating new guided missiles that she can launch whenever somebody looks at her wrong.

And that rage? It isn’t going away. She’s still raging as Frank strangles her. Therapy isn’t working for Nola. One wonders what could have been if she could have let go of her anger and yet kept the external womb. Is it possible she could create Brood children who were nice and helpful? Or did the rage itself give her this ability?

Finally this movie can be summed up in one word: bleak. David Cronenberg’s "The Brood" is bleak from start to finish. At no point in the film does a character or any of the interaction between characters provide a smidge of joy or happiness. The setting is cold and harsh, as are the characters. Even family members don’t seem to share any love or warmth around each other. When Juliana is showing pictures to Candice there is one focused on the interior of a hospital room. No one is smiling. For Candice to pick this one as her favorite speaks volumes to the level of sadness and despair this entire family dynamic provides.

Fast forward to the end and Candice is developing physical signs on her arms. Are these the beginnings of her Nola-like abilities? Or just lesions and sores like Mike develops? Candice has almost zero emotional response to anything in the movie save her screaming as The Brood children try to kill her when Nola sics them on her. All that repression will lead to future issues, and the cycle continues. How sad, and I think that was Cronenberg's point.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Where are the Fathers?

The asylum is getting full now, lots of inmates. This one claims he needs two rooms, one for himself, and one for his mother.

Robert Bloch’s novel “Psycho” is excellent. Norman Bates, the first and most believable of all the slashers, is disturbed and wonderfully fractured. He can maintain some semblance of normalcy because he lives an isolated existence. If he ever had to spend an extended period of time around others, or if he were stressed or pressured, he’d pop like a cork at midnight January 1. On some level he knows this and stays isolated and alone, living in the shadow of “mother.”

After reading “Psycho” the thought of authority figures kept occurring to me. Authority figures and family relations, both important building blocks of any society, both of these notions kept pinging around in my head. Bloch’s novel drips with the perversion of the mother/son relationship. But where are the fathers?

Norman Bates and Marion Crane share an absence of good parenting. After reading Cyndy Hendershot’s “Taboo and Transgression in The Bad Seed, The Fly, and Psycho” a very interesting thought occurred. Hendershot points out that maybe the overbearing “mother” Norman blames his murderous ways on is just a construct for Norman to protect himself. On page 29 of Hendershot’s essay: “Thus, Mother of the film may well be only Norman’s creation of a mother who needs him.” And “…we cannot dismiss the sheriff’s original story “that Norman’s mother killed her lover when she found out that he was married, the poisoned herself, with Norman discovering both bodies in bed If we accept this explanation, Mrs. Bates emerges as a woman very much like Marion Crane, a woman who followed her erotic desire to the point of death itself.”

What an interesting notion, and one that puts a lot more blame on Norman than on his mother. Ultimately, though, I discount this notion. It reduces Norman Bates to an opportunistic killer who has a fancy cover story. I think he's far more interesting as a true split personality who has a true dual nature.

Marion Crane has a similar, though less violent, lack of parenting. Her parents left later in her life. In the novel “Psycho” on page 22: “The opportunity to go on to college had vanished, at seventeen, when Daddy was hit by a car.” Later on the same page: “Besides, Mom was pretty sick by then. It took her three years to die, while Lila was off at school. Mary had insisted she go to college, come what may, but that left her carrying the whole load.”

So, tragedy destroys both the Bates and the Crane homes, taking parents from children prematurely. Norman is far more damaged by this than Mary, though both resort to criminal behavior. Norman murders (Mary), then murders again (Arbogast) to cover the original murder. Mary steals $40,000 to cut the timeline short on her path to marriage and happiness.

So, what if the fathers were still there? Mary Crane lost her father, yes, but she seemed to get stronger because of it. She becomes the rock of the family, sacrificing her happiness and putting her future on hold on behalf of her dying mother and younger sister. Taking the money seems an out of character knee-jerk thing to do, her one true sin. Perhaps Mary felt she had waited long enough and her happiness was overdue? There is a hint of class envy as Mary’s reaction to wealthy old Tom Cassidy being able to throw $40,000 in cash around on behalf of his own daughter. Did Mary grow jealous, and maybe angry, at the lack of a father to buy her a wedding gift? Sure, the follow on thoughts were of paying off Sam’s debts and living happily ever after, but what was the trigger point for the theft? A daddy-based jealous reaction is not out of the realm of possibility.

This is a more interesting question to ask of Norman Bates. What about Norman’s father? Without a strong male influence Norman stayed in the shadow of his mother. Had his father stayed one has to believe Norman’s development would have followed more acceptable paths.

The entire first chapter of the novel, especially when re-read knowing Norman is just talking to himself, shows how Norman never developed into adulthood. Page 17 probably sums it up best as Norma berates Norman: ““Change, boy? Nothing’s going to change. You can read all the books in the world and you’ll still be the same. I don’t need to listen to a lot of vile obscene rigamarole to know what you are. Why, even an eight-year-old child could recognize it. They did, too, all your little playmates did, way back then. You’re a Mamma’s Boy. That’s what they called you, and that’s what you were. Were, are, and always will be. A big, fat, overgrown Mamma’s Boy!””

There are men in this story. Sam Loomis and Arbogast the private detective are the two most prominent. Sam is reserved and pretty quiet. He accepts his life and his fate. He is working off his own father’s debts and is focused on that singular task. He has a stereotypical male’s lack of emotional response to events, specifically Mary’s disappearance and the constant waiting that drives Lila, Mary’s younger sister, to near hysterics.

Arbogast is probably the most masculine character. He doesn’t accept any situation, or any story at face value. He is persistent, pushes for more answers and more information, and his curiosity and forceful nature lead to his ultimate demise. His fatherly nature is revealed in his civility and politeness towards Lila, and even Sam when he sees they are innocent of the theft. Arbogast probably scared Norman the most. Here is an adult male of authority, something Norman never became.

Norman/Norma’s quick dispatching of Arbogast doesn’t have the same impact as Mary’s murder. Hitchcock’s treatment of the shower scene, and the focus on mother/son relationships makes the male/female dynamic much more evident.

But think of the symbolism of Norman/Norma hacking at Arbogast, an adult male, to death. He barely gets in the front door before Norman is upon him hacking and slashing. He isn’t even allowed upstairs. What if Arbogast, an adult male, a real man, had gotten upstairs to Norma Bates’s bedroom? Norman couldn’t allow this to happen. Mary is at least sexual, Norman’s dual urges to be with Mary and to have “mother” protect him from Mary leads to her demise. Arbogast may be more of a threat. What if Arbogast sees mother and, instead of being repulsed or afraid, tries to take mother away from him?

The relationship dynamics in “Psycho” are what make this so compelling a story. I was lucky enough to have a fatherly moment right after I read this novel. My five year daughter was struggling to snap the front of her jean shorts. My wife was already swooping in to snap them for her. I had my wife pause and asked my daughter to try again, and she got the shorts snapped and beamed about her accomplishment for several moments afterward. I couldn’t help but think: what if Norman’s father had been there to keep his mother in check? What if Norman had done what everybody should do? What if he’d been forced to grow up?