Saturday, 14 March 2015

"It Follows"

I'm trying to get into horror media more right now. For years I've consistently had friends who are really into horror, but a bad experience with a Flash game screamer years ago and an aborted attempt to play Clock Tower have meant that I always felt too scared to really delve in. Recently, however, after watching some friends play the Silent Hills Playable Teaser I found that despite getting my pants scared off once or twice, I didn't get the expected nightmares, and actually wanted to go back for more. I decided it was time to start becoming a proper horror fan. Shortly afterwards some friends strongly recommended David Robert Mitchell's It Follows, so I got somebody to come with me to see it.

This isn't going to be a review, per se, as that's not the kind of thing I like to do. It'll be a personal reaction, and I won't be moderating spoilers, so I only recommend reading on if you've also seen the film.

I enjoyed it, but I think I went in with the wrong expectations. As a relative newbie to horror I was expecting it to scare me shitless the whole way through. I yelped like a child when Paul threw the football at the window, but that was the only real jump I got. There were a couple of good scares, such as when the spectre walks up behind Yara at a moment when you've been led to believe things are safe, and lots of tension. However, I realised afterwards that my inexperience in consuming horror had led me to focus too much on whether or not I was going to be scared instead of really watching the film properly.

I started thinking about how the central premise could be read. The idea of a sexually transmitted ghost is certainly new to me. With the principle cast all being teenagers, and the almost complete absence of any visible parental figures, it is fitting for the story to be about how scary sex can be. The obvious parallel to draw is sexually transmitted infections. However, I cannot help but bring my own baggage out when thinking about this, and I wonder if the spectre is more of a parellel for psychological trauma and mental illness than venereal disease.

Hugh has a problem. This problem can be alleviated somewhat by sharing it with someone, but this means that that they now have to deal with it. His attitude is to give it to someone else then run away. Let them figure it out. When Jay and her friends track him down for more information, he says that they shouldn't be in the same place. Hugh's solution to his problem sort of works. It is no longer immediately to him. However, it is not guaranteed that he is free of it. If Jay succumbs, it will come for him again. And while distancing himself from her means that the problem is no longer quite so close to him, it also means that he has no way of controlling or knowing whether Jay is able to deal with it properly. He is still on edge, and has cut himself off from someone he apparently cared about.

Jay struggles with the problem. She tries to communicate it to those close to her. This is a challenge, as it is something they cannot directly see, and while they love her and want to help her it is hard for them to believe what she is telling them. However, she persists, as do her friends. She involves them intimately in helping her tackle this problem. She gives them all the information she has. By staying close to her they end up at risk of being hurt by the problem themselves, but in doing so they are finally able to see that it is not imagined, that it is real and is a true danger to Jay.

She agrees with Greg to pass the problem on to him. She thinks that he is brave and will be able to handle it. However, this does not work. Greg is less brave than he is ignorant. He does not truly understand the problem. It is suggested that he maybe doesn't completely believe Jay as her other friends do. Certainly, he was not close enough to her to be there at a crucial moment when it became visible to everyone else. As a result, it catches him off-guard and Jay is back where she started, minus one friend.

She and the others hatch a hare-brained scheme to solve the problem, but it doesn't work. In the end, she and Paul come to an agreement. They share the problem, both of them fully aware of the nature of it, both knowing that they may never be rid of it completely. They have ways to distance themselves from it temporarily, but ultimately they must live with it. The last shot shows them walking down a street holding hands, the problem still present in the background. They appear a little pained, but calm, and do not acknowledge the problem behind them, but we are left to imagine that perhaps they know it's there. It is still real and dangerous, but by staying together, rather than distancing themselves from eachother, they can both be aware of the danger and protect eachother and themselves.

I think this can very easily be read as being about coping strategies for mental illness. Hugh's strategy is avoidant. Get rid of it, give it to someone else, make the barest minimum effort so that they know how to stop it getting back to me, then run away. He is not necessarily a cold or bad person. He is visibly pained when he drugs Jay, and while the way he introduces her to the spectre is shocking, one could easily believe that he does it this way because he does not think she will believe him if he doesn't force it on her. He does something really awful less because he wants to inflict pain on somebody else, but because he is so mortally afraid of the spectre that he want to distance himself from it as much as possible. Reading the spectre as a manifestation of mental illness, or emotional pain, or trauma: Hugh wants to avoid thinking about it or dealing with it, coping by pushing it out of his mind. He pushes it onto somebody else, giving them a portion of that stress, but then runs away from them, hoping to leave behind the fragment he left them with.

Conversely, Jay's strategy is, to my eye, ultimately to accept this thing that has been brought into her life. She and Paul take it on together, but they remain with eachother. It is slightly painful, but they both know that no matter what they do they can't completely escape that pain. Rather than running away and ending up paranoid and distant as Hugh has, they stay close so that they can protect eachother. They accept the spectre and their pain as parts of their lives, and are prepared to accept and share it equally.

This actually parallels some of my own personal experiences in coping with periods of anxiety and catastrophic thoughts or triggers. While dwelling on them too much is a dangerous trap, I've found that it also doesn't always help to push them away immediately. That can only end two ways: either they're going to come back, and I'm going to be just as ill-equipped to deal with them properly; or I push those triggering, stressful things out of my life entirely and miss out on things that could be good even if they're scary (which is a big part of what I'm dealing with right now). The times I've dealt best with anxiety have been when I've been able to hold the thought in my head and process it a bit before letting it go. I need to accept these things as a part of my life and the feelings as a valid part of me even if they're painful, so that I can cope with them. This is why I read this into the different ways Hugh and Jay handle the spectre.

That the spectre is not given one consistent appearance is important. There are many iconic monsters in horror, but Mitchell seems to have understood that by giving a monster a face the fear becomes abgout that specific face. By having his spectre appear as anybody, random straners or people close to its target, it is made clear that the horror isn't literally about this spectre: it's about the more general concepts, whatever the viewer might read them to be, whether it's being followed, sex, intimacy, or, as I've decided, emotional pain. Of course, monster-as-metaphor-for-general-concept probably isn't a new idea in horror, but I liked this way of handling it.

A specific reason I was attracted to watch this film was knowing that the soundtrack was by Disasterpeace, who did the music for Fez, a game which I loved. I'm a little bit uncertain how I felt about this music in the film though. There's one specific track that feels almost lifted from Fez, just with notes changed around, and that was a distraction for me. The pseudo-chiptune synths came off as a little incongruous for me in general. I liked the bass rumblings, but the lilting melodies just felt kind of... cute. I definitely would enjoy the music out of context, but occasionally it felt too noticeable for me in this film.

All my more horror-savvy friends really liked this film, and I certainly enjoyed it and appreciate it more after thinking about it. Hopefully I'll have the stomach to watch some more horror and maybe play a few of those horror games that terrify me, and maybe I'll get more interesting thoughts out of those!

Friday, 13 March 2015

Tumblr stumblr

As mentioned in my last entry I've started to crosspost things over to a Tumblr. I'm being selective, and posting only those bits of writing that feel like they're actually cohesive and interesting and have a purpose. I've also discovered that Tumblr allows for alot more flexibility than I expected in what you can put into a text post, so I can actually get things across pretty much in full. Enough that I could, theoretically, migrate things over fully, though I'm still averse to that idea. We'll see how things go though.

For those who want to be able to follow, HERE'S THE LINK.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Venetian Snares: "Rossz Csillag Alatt Született"

Last time I talked about the album that really formed my lasting taste in music, the first CD I ever bought, which has strong connections to that time in my life. This time I'm going to talk about an album that feels very closely tied to where I am right now: Venetian Snares' Rossz Csillag Alatt Született (Hungarian, pronounced roughly "rose tshillog ollot syooletet").

Canadian artist Aaron Funk is known stereotypically for his harsh use of breakbeats and samples and mostly 7/4 time in his music. This album definitely delivers on those fronts, but employs alot of samples of classical music (including several from pieces by Béla Bartók, a Hungarian composer), which for all I know might have been partially played by Funk himself. However, what has set this apart from what other few works I've heard by Snares is the tone of the album, what feels like an overarching theme.

For me, this is an album about depression and anxiety.

The title translates roughly to "born under a bad star", an expression referring to being born with bad luck, a curse. The track names follow in this vein. The first track is Sikertelenség, "failure". Others include Szerencsétlen ("unlucky"), Szamár Madár ("stupid bird"), and Hiszékeny ("gullible"). And the music is almost always taught, strained, frustrated, despondent. It's not like Winnipeg Is A Frozen Shithole, which is a witty parody of itself, or Meathole, which, at least for now, feels to me a bit contrived and artificial in its anger.

This album wasn't an instant favourite for me. This happens occasionally, that I will pick something up and listen to it a few times, but only really start to enjoy it weeks, months, maybe years later when the time is right. I only came to appreciate I Care Because You Do (mentioned in my last post) after I had listened to Richard D. James Album. I have a couple of other Venetian Snares CDs that haven't quite clicked yet (Meathole mentioned above, Huge Chrome Cylinder Box Unfolding, which is too inorganic and cold, and Horse & Goat, which is just too weird). However, some time last year I found myself listening to Rossz again having put it down for three years after buying it and suddenly it just fell into place. It's practically been on loop for me since then.

Every track feels like it's describing something, some emotion, some aspect of being afflicted with mental illness.

Sikertelenség is a short introduction, a creepy, awkward little piano piece. It tentatively steps forward, before falling over itself in an ugly, disordered mess. It's a socially awkward person, trying to appeal to other people but making a fool of themselves, and what might be trivial or mildly comical to others is awful and hideous and unloveable in that person's own mind. It's a sikertelenség — a failure.

Szerencsétlen begins with jittery, uneasy plucked strings leading into uneven, clipped bursts. It's paranoid, jumpy, nervous. Even once the beat and the percussion settle in, this anxious tone is maintained. It seems like Funk's standard tools of the spitty, cut-up amen break and the awkward, off-balance 7/4 time signature were made for this purpose, but the sampled classical strings he uses are brilliant as well. All the plucked string riffs after the middle, played with the tips of the fingers, evoke nervous, uncertain, uncomfortable contact. A creepy, undesirable person touching you. Or maybe you're that person. I particularly love the specific back-and-forth riff used at at 2:06 and isolated at 4:31 to close the track out.

Öngyilkos Vasárnap is the first track that makes the tone of the album explicit. It uses sampled vocals from Billie Holiday's rendition of Szomorú Vasárnap ("Gloomy Sunday") by Hungarian Composer Rezső Seress. It is a song about suicide. I feel that this is the perfect place in the album to do this. We've had suggestions of the mood, delivered to us organically in the form of pure instrumentals. Now when we get a track that is very explicitly about killing oneself it does not feel tawdry and contrived as it might were it the first track ("Hello this album is about being sad and I'm going to make sure you know this by putting a sad song about suicide right at the beginning"). Its place within the aesthetic structure of the album is brilliant as well: the slower, plodding pace is a break from Szerencsétlen's harsh breaks. The introduction of vocals is a departure that feels natural. And it works conceptually as well. We've been aware there might be something wrong. Something we can't identify or describe but that makes certain things difficult, that hurts us somehow, that makes us feel anxious and ill-at-ease. It pushes us away from people. And as we slip into solitude to avoid the anxiety, depression takes its place, and all we can think of is how we'd be better off dead.

Felbomlasztott Mentőkocsi takes us back not only to instrumentals, but in fact removes even the percussion. It's one of the most horrible, unpleasant, unsettling pieces of music I've ever heard, competing with Aphex Twin's Ventolin and Krzysztof Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. It sounds like it's building up to something absolutely awful. It feels just like getting hit by a single anxious thought that then won't go away, that sticks around, pecking at you, taking up all your attention and energy, feeding and growing, spiralling, catastrophising out of control, until you're completely convinced that only the absolute worst possible thing can happen and that you're worthless and insane for even thinking this. What's worst is that it doesn't even reach a proper climax or ending. It just kind of... runs out of energy and twists itself into horrid, echoey silence.

The title, by the way, apparently translates to "disintegrated ambulance", which makes me wonder if Aaron Funk is actually telling a deliberate story with these last few tracks. A failed suicide attempt that resulted in a rush to the hospital?

And after that rush and the anaesthetic wears off, we wake up. It is dawn — Hajnal. This is the most firmly and clearly structured track so far. It never strays from a beat or clear rythm. And unlike Felbomlastott's unresolved buildup this manages a satisfying climax, a drop, even, at 4:11. It's like after a suicide attempt we're starting to resolve in our head that something is really wrong, something that needs tackling. Hajnal, as well as literally meaning "dawn", is a name. The name of a person. Is this track describing that moment where a person finally opens up to somebody else about the chaos that's been going on in their head for weeks, months, years? Is that why this track has a more satisfying, clear structure than those previous? To reflect the satisfying feeling of telling somebody something's wrong? It's certainly still not happy though. In fact it adds a new emotion to the mix: anger. Anger at oneself. At one's own inadequacy for being unable to function normally, to deal with the trivial, normal shit that everybody else seems to take in their stride. The breaks are actually pitched or balanced lower than they are in Szerencsétlen. It's definitely angry where that track is anxious. And just listen to that sound at 3:41. Perhaps that kickass drop reflects a more general snapping point, the release of a buildup of tension that, while it certainly lets some poison out, still leaves behind a knotted mess. The lingering, stuttering ending reflects this. It doesn't seem to quite know when it's stopping. There's that social awkwardness again. How do I even end a conversation elegantly?

Galamb Egyedül and Második Galamb are essentially a single track split into two. In fact, I only found out that they were two tracks when I went through the track listing to put this post together, as they bleed between eachother so seamlessly. We go back to sampled voice, but instead of sung vocals, it's now spoken word: a woman talking about her inability to reconcile her irrational fear of pigeons. This explains the pigeons on the album cover, and the two track titles translating to "pigeon, alone" and "second pigeon". Apart from the desperately morose sampled instrumentals, the monologue is gut-wrenching to me. It's so pathetic. So pitiable. Almost silly. Pigeons. Really? That's the thing? After six tracks, a descent into madness, a suicide attempt, and a confession, what comes out is that you're afraid of pigeons? The pigeon is the most mundane, ubiquitous bird imaginableand yet it's frightening to you?

But that's exactly it. The pigeon the woman refers to doesn't need to be a pigeon. It's any given trivial, meaningless, everyday thing that triggers you. And because it's trivial and meaningless that just adds shame on top of the existing anxiety.

"It's just a pigeon."
"Pigeon, why can you scare me?"

And the musical progression reflects this. We start with maudlin strings, then the old nervous, ticky-tacky breaks layer on top as deep, wobbly synth bass layers underneath. The tension and noise builds. At 2:59 the word "pigeon" is suddenly isolated in a gap in the percussion. It's downright comical. Mocking. Self-deriding. The anxiety continues to mount and the tone gets more and more sour, more growly, more angry. And then at 3:20 after a sudden build up it just explodes in these amazing syncopated, violent distorted bass drum hits. This part seriously just kicks my fucking ass every single time. This anger, anger at oneself, one's own irrationality and stupidity just thrashes around out of control until the structure tears itself apart at 4:35, but even then it continues to flail its horribly mutilated, degloved limbs around, losing more and more of its original form until finally it disintegrates completely and dissolves into white noise.

Szamár Madár is the only track that I feel is maybe misplaced, only because it feels a bit too neat in its form and too vague in its tone. It's certainly not a bad track by any aesthetic definition. Perhaps this is just where my reading loses its grip. The title translates literally as "donkey bird", but "donkey" seems to be used to mean "stupid". This title definitely follows logically from how I'm interpreting the previous two tracks. But what is the tone of the music itself? Sorrowful? Vaguely angry? Perhaps this is my imagined character turning their ire to the object of their anxiety, blaming it, externalising and projecting their self-hatred. Or maybe the relative simplicity of the track's structure and instrumentation signify the beginnings of being able to put an organised, readable form to one's mental ills.

Hiszékeny is the Goon Gumpas of this album. A break in mood, it's gentle and lilting. Almost infantile. I already wrote about how great I think this sort of structural tool is, but it works specifically within the story I've been writing about here. After offloading one's ills, or finding something to blame, or a way to give shape to them, there's a calm. A relief. A period of bliss. Almost euphoria. One forgets that one ever felt bad. Forgets what it felt like at all. Imagines that it can never happen again. But of course, this complacency is misleading. The babyish tone is appropriate. The only reason you think this is all it takes to be happy is because you are hiszékeny — gullible.

Kétsarkú Mozgalom was another track that I initially felt unsure of. Its samples seem to make things too explicit. There was a genuine poignancy to the woman talking about her fear of pigeons earlier on, but now she is talking simply about being unhappy where she was not unhappy before. It felt too simple, too obvious. However, as I've listened to the album repeatedly, I've realised how this fits into the overall structure. It's about finally realising how fundamental the problem is. That the problem is not really the pigeon at all. The pigeon is just a projection of the fact that you don't love yourself. It's not about blaming someone or something else or offloading your problems onto them. The problem exists solely within you.

As the penultimate piece it is a summary. A conclusion. Just as a good essay or dissertation starts by telling you what it's going to say and ends by telling you what it's said,so this track tells you in simple terms what the whole album is really about. And it is a summary in compositional terms, too. It collects all the moods we've been through, the sadness, the anxiety, the anger. It even reuses a specific structural feature from a key earlier moment: the gap leading into the reintroduction of the melody at 3:03 is a repeat of how the two "pigeon" tracks bleed into eachother.

And just as this album has its Goon Gumpas, so too does it have its Logon Rock Witch. Senki Dala is a quiet ending. But it is sad. We've realised that the problem lies within ourselves, but we are not yet able to fix it. Right now we may not be angry, or anxious, or suicidal, but we are not happy. For now there's just this ringing, hollow emptiness. A dull void inside us. We're a zombie. A nobody. And this is nobody's song — senki dala. Things will continue to be difficult. There's no satisfying conclusion. It doesn't simply end. It just slowly decays away.

This album hits home for me lately because it feels like it is describing my life right now. It might have been apparent, but alot of what I wrote above was drawn from personal experience.

I've been depressed and lonely for a very long time. It's hard to say exactly how long. I know I wrote a blog post in February 2011 pretty much saying that, but the events that I think are the source of this go back way further. In the middle of last year something happened that made it all come crashing down on me, and it became unbearable. Those closest to me know already, and I'm willing to disclose it to others I know personally, but it's not something I'm going to talk about publicly.

Almost everything up there, if it wasn't already apparent, was from personal experience. I don't know if Aaron Funk was really making an album about mental illness when he composed these songs (supposedly it's just about being a pigeon on Budapest's Royal Palace), but the structure, the story of it feel like it really reflects what I've been going through. The awkwardness is mine. The anxiety is mine. The depression is mine. The pigeon is also, I suppose, mine. I am the sikertelenség. I am hiszékeny. I am the stupid bird. The whole thing seems to be about me, and even though it's all miserable there's something really beautiful about that misery, about loving it, owning it, understanding it, accepting that as awful as it is it's still important. It was hard to write this post without just typing "I can't get over this album"

because I can't get over this album.

(I should clarify, however, that I have never self-harmed and have never attempted suicide, though those thoughts have definitely been there on occasion, thankfully not recently)

The last eight months have been awful.  However, what happened was something that was going to happen eventually, and I'm very lucky to have had friends who are as supportive as they are. After some time and coaxing I spoke to a doctor about it and was referred to therapy as well as put on a course of antidepressants. I'm nearing the end of this first round of therapy (I had the second last of eight weekly sessions today). It took alot of time and effort to unravel things enough to find an angle to work with, but today's session was very positive, if difficult and quite upsetting. We finally set some real goals. Taking better care of this blog is one of them. It's one of the few ways I really allow myself to love the things I love, and love myself. Not to protect them, protect myself, from imagined harm. I've been very on and off with it for years and keep saying I'll do more with it, but now I see the real value it has to me.

I've received encouragement from friends to get this content onto Tumblr somehow. It's definitely the more widely used and circulated format. I can't migrate it over fully as I don't think Tumblr allows you to freely post images and videos within the text body as I often do. However, I do want to find some sort of compromise. I might try crossposting my more important entries over to a Tumblr so I can get more visibility. I'll have to see what the format is actually capable of but I think it would be valuable.

If you've read this far, thanks for doing so.