the playthings, slowly, slowly

From the original Etsy posting:

I love this! It is what appears may have been a soft children’s ball at one time that has hardened over the years. It has a kewpie-like face and lots of personality. There is a stamp that is no longer legible and an indent to the back.

slowly, slowly
To me, that — and especially “There is a stamp that is no longer legible” — sounds like the opening of a story written in partnership by E. Nesbit and H.P. Lovecraft.

… Yeah, it does, doesn’t it? There are worse sources for inspiration.

The Playthings, Slowly, Slowly
Chapter One (and possibly Chapter Only)

Amanda leaned in closer to the cracked surface of the doll’s head, peering at the tiny spidery writing on the once-soft rubber. Adding the maker’s name and a year of production to the item’s description could raise the asking price, maybe double it. The box of goods from the estate sale was a jumble, mostly worthless, but this doll head was promising. It might draw a collector’s eye, even in its damaged state.

Amanda trained the desk lamp closer on the antique toy and squinted, trying to mouth the sound of words she couldn’t… quite.. read. Absently, she muttered. “Rev. Riv. Hmm. triple, tribble, truffle. Rise. Rise!”

Encouraged, Amanda drew a battered jeweler’s loupe from the desk drawer, seated it expertly in her eye, and looked closer. Slowly, slowly, she deciphered the thready letters — not stamped, she now saw, but hand-inscribed finely and in rusty-colored paint, all but invisible against the sienna of the painted-on hair.

She read it out slowly, slowly, hesitating over each word. “‘Riven trifles, rise and gather?’ Huh.” Disappointing. Not the maker’s mark she’d banked on. Not even the name of the child who owned the doll, a sentimental touch that might nudge up the appeal for the right buyer. Just this nonsense, painted so delicately, so carefully, and for no apparent purpose.

Amanda read it again, hoping to squeeze some sense from it. “Riven trifles, rise and gather.” She tried it a third time, lilting the syllables brightly as if she could wring meaning out of the mere sound. “Riven trifles, rise and gather.” Nothing. It was nonsense, it was no sense, it made no sense.

A heavy thunk came from the office closet, startling her in the quiet of the night. She sat in the dim office, its one bright light trained on the flat brown of the doll’s nape, and tittered at her own nerviness. Something toppled from a shelf, one of the many old game boards or half-dressed dolls or boxes of grimy wooden blocks, one of the pieces of yard-sale detritus Amanda had stashed away, planning to clean it up and sell it off to a buyer motivated by nostalgia or sentiment or irony.

Smiling wryly at her skittishness, Amanda tucked the loupe back in its drawer, switched off the light, closed the office door, and went to brush her teeth. There were no great treasures in that jumbled stash of toys and trinkets. Tomorrow was soon enough to check on them, to face the mess behind those doors. She forgot all about the thunk, the sudden thump of something falling, until later.

That thunk was the start of it all. That thunk was echoed for miles around. Thunks and thuds and rustles and wriggles, whispers and stirrings and scratchings. Everywhere, small noises of escape and unearthing.

All night long and slowly, slowly, in all corners of the city, discarded toys shudder and rise, slowly, slowly, from their resting places, from attics and toychests, from middens and cellars, from under long-abandoned beds and cluttered closet floors. Slowly, slowly, they gather their broken bits — their sundered limbs, their shattered glassy eyes, their sprung battery hatches — and they start to walk. Slowly, slowly. Stumbling on their shattered legs, rolling on crooked wheels, or jerked along on marionette strings that rise up impossibly with no hand to guide them, they shuffle and scuff along, all drawn in one direction, all headed toward a single destination. Slowly, slowly, the scatter of shambling toys and games and dolls draws closer, gathering into an ever-tightening band, pulled inexorably closer to the voice that uttered the words.

[Thanks to Jagosaurus for bringing this Etsy item to my attention. It should be obvious that all details of the story, including the seller’s name, their selling practices, and the history of the item, are completely fictionalized.]



The scene: you’re sitting cozily under a blanket drinking your coffee on Sunday morning. Suddenly, you hear something scraping — repeatedly, insistently, roughly — against the ice and wooden planks of your front porch. Your mind fills in the blank by guessing:

A. the giant claws of some unknown, unseen beast that dares to venture out in the day only because it knows a warm and tender morsel is curled up inside the house, waiting helplessly.

B. It’s the guy they hired to shovel snow and ice, shoveling snow and ice.

If you chose B., carry on. You’re fine.

If you chose A., maybe lay off the Lovecraft for a while. And the caffeine. And get some sleep. But in the meantime, come sit over here by me. I’ll make coffee.

Les Diaboliques: a review

In the first shot of Les Diaboliques, a rattletrap truck putt-putts its way through wet streets. As it enters the shabby grounds of L’Institution Delassalle, the truck runs through a deep mud puddle, crushing a small paper boat left drifting there. In that moment, master director Henri-Georges Clouzot (Le Corbeau, Wages of Fear) presents the two themes at the film’s core: that we should watch the waters, and that we will see the fragile and the frivolous crushed underfoot.

M. Delassalle (Paul Meurisse), the headmaster of this rundown boarding school, treats his students and staff with equal (and crushing) disdain, but he saves his true sadism for his women. His brassy mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret) first appears wearing sunglasses to hide a bruised eye. After his delicate wife Christina (Véra Clouzot) cannot force herself to choke down the spoiled fish served in the dining hall (as “an example” for the students), we hear her pained squeals as Delassalle administers her punishment.

The early minutes of the film show us that Delassalle is loathed by all, from the tippling teacher he humiliates at the dinner table to the dawdling student he confines to school for the weekend vacation, so when the two women who’ve suffered at his hands for years team up and hatch a scheme to rid themselves of the brute, it’s no surprise. But trust me: Les Diaboliques does have plenty of surprises for its audience.

At its release in 1955, the film caused a sensation, and it remains a spine-chilling classic of suspense cinema. Les Diaboliques‘ pervasive influence on generations of thrillers to follow may make its twists and turns feel familiar, but it is just as haunting on the 20th viewing as on the first; the film stands as a masterpiece of mood and tension.

The pervasive corruption of the story is evident in every aspect: the muddied splash of the truck, the untended and grassless school grounds, the stagnant swimming pool, the spoiled fish, the slightly grubby hotel room to which our heroines repair, the broken-down laundry basket upon which an early suspense scene turns. The dirty waters of the first scene hint at the insinuating, encroaching quality of creeping evil. Water seeps into the film at every turn: stale in the streets, spitting from the sky, banging through pipes, trickling down drains, and spilling every which way.

Even the sweetly timorous Christina, whose long shiny plaits, gingham dress, and winsome half-smile make her look like a barely-grown Dorothy Gale still in a daze from her trip to Oz — even she is blemished; her weak heart is a metaphor for her moral weakness. If Christina can sink to the depths she does, the film seems to ask, who in this world can stand against moral corruption?

Zodiac: a movie review

Procedural thrillers tend to have a few things in common: they have a well-defined stable of characters, they take place over a reasonably brief stretch of time, and they… y’know, resolve. If a procedural presents a whodunnit, the end will reveal who, in fact, dunnit, and usually why.

David Fincher’s Zodiac necessarily throws these rules out. The Zodiac case covered many, many years of active police inquiry — and so does the film, showing us fourteen years of investigation, both by the police detectives (Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards) and by a journalist (Robert Downey, Jr.)

But the film really centers around Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhall), a cartoonist who became engrossed by the coded messages that the Zodiac Killer’s sent in to San Francisco’s newspapers. Zodiac follows Graysmith through the years as he studies, decodes, and researches the messages, trying to tie them to any of the suspects — and there are plenty of suspects.

Zodiac is a sprawling endeavor, trying to make sense out of a tangled mass of evidence. “Sprawling” isn’t usually something I look for in a movie, but Fincher makes it work with one simple, demanding choice: every single role is written and cast thoughtfully, intelligently, carefully, with the sense that these people are real, not vehicles for moving the plot along.

This is also true of the very difficult scenes of the Zodiac attacks. In the most vivid and disturbing depiction, which takes place during a picnic, Fincher uses close-ups and POV shots to narrow our focus: the entire outdoor scene shrinks down to a frantic, tight few feet. He forces us to identify in the most heartbreaking way with the terror and tension of the victims.

The A.V. Club recently inducted David Fincher’s Zodiac into their New Cult Canon, and with good reason. It’s a modern classic, a resonant story of obsession and uncertainty circling endlessly around a series of senseless tragedies.

[This review was cross-posted to The Video RePort.]

Perfect Blue: a movie review

In the trailer for Perfect Blue, Roger Corman is quoted: “If Alfred Hitchcock partnered with Walt Disney they’d make a picture like this.” I say Corman misses the mark a little. Perfect Blue feels more like a collaboration between Hayao Miyazaki* (Princess Mononoke, Kiki’s Delivery Service) and Brian DePalma (Body Double, Sisters) — but only at first.

The introduction sets up a silly if juicy plot: a pert and innocent young pop idol named Mima leaves her musical career to pursue acting. Soon after, Mima starts receiving messages by fax and by internet (jarringly described in this 1997 film as “that thing that’s really popular lately”) from an obsessed fan or, um, someone… someone who knows every detail of her daily life, someone who witnesses the small humiliations of her new career, someone who describes the darkest aspects of her thoughts in the first person. And then some, um, stuff starts to happen.

If the first act of Perfect Blue feels like a partnership between Miyazaki and DePalma, the second act veers into the territory of David Lynch or Roman Polanski, tangling up the seemingly straightforward stalker-thriller with an interplay of reality and fantasy, muddling the timelines and narrative flow, and toying with our expectations about identity and agency.

Fittingly, Perfect Blue gained new fame recently as a possible inspiration for Black Swan. There are some glancing similarities, but that’s all they are — similarities of theme and story including the pressures of fame, deteriorating self-image, and the difficulty of discerning reality from desire. (Arguably, Black Swan contains a few momentary homages: the subway window, the bathtub scene.) You could put together a fun-but-harrowing Black & Blue double feature, but Perfect Blue would pair equally well with Polanski’s The Tenant or Repulsion or with Lynch’s Inland Empire.

* By namechecking Hayao Miyazaki, I’m not implying that Perfect Blue is suitable for children — oh, my goodness, NO. Yikes.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me: a movie review

The opening of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me serves as a warning to the audience. Credits play over a staticky TV, promising us appearances by a host of names familiar from “Twin Peaks”… then that TV is smashed in a shower of sparks as a woman’s voice screams in the background. This nasty little vignette frames the ensuing story. The film relies upon the viewer’s familiarity with the cozy-quirky world of the TV series, but even as it employs the mythology and grammar of the show’s world, the movie viciously rejects the comforts we found in the drowsy little town of Twin Peaks.

Then comes the most damning scene, an example of the kind of over-the-top quirkiness that sank the movie. FBI Bureau Chief Gordon Cole (David Lynch reprising his role from the series) meets with his field agents (Chris Isaak and Keifer Sutherland) to give them notes on their upcoming case. But rather than simply speaking or writing, Cole transmits his “notes” via Lil (Kimberly Ann Cole), a red-clad orange-bewigged woman who performs a coded dance of exaggerated movements and expressions. For a lot of viewers, this chapter points out everything that’s wrong with the movie, and I ain’t arguing. Lil’s dance feels like an asinine self-parody, a ham-fisted caricature of the show’s whimsy.

This moment is an affront; it’s garish and silly and clumsy, but it serves a purpose. Like the smashed TV, Lil’s dance gives us a flash of warning: forget what you think you know about this story. The message you’re about to receive is not what you expect.

We’re about to enter Deer Meadow, the shadowy opposite of Twin Peaks. Deer Meadow boasts no pleasant Double R Diner, no outstanding cherry pie, no quietly competent and welcoming sheriff, no damn fine coffee, no Special Agent Dale Cooper, and no beloved Homecoming Queen with a mysterious secret. The victim here is Teresa Banks, whom you may remember from the TV series: she was evidently murdered by the same killer who claimed Laura Palmer’s life.

But Teresa is no golden girl: she’s a short-time night-shift waitress in a seedy diner, her home is a shabby trailer, and no one seems to know much about her — or to care. As dim and dismal as this is and as sorry as we are to dig into Teresa Banks’ squalid life and death, it’s only priming us for the deeper sorrow of witnessing — of becoming complicit in — the last days of Laura Palmer’s short life.

In the TV series, Laura is a distant dream, a lovely portrait gazing out passively from the school’s trophy case or from her parents’ mantel, a brief snip of footage innocently cavorting with Donna on a mountaintop. She’s safely contained in memories and images. In Fire Walk with Me, Laura is unsettlingly tangible and willful. Her actuality and her agency undermine all the romanticized memories and projections that the series fueled. We’re forced to confront Laura’s despair and to face the sordid grotesqueries of her young life, the denial and culpability of her loved ones, and the terrible choices her trauma has led her to make.

That’s not to say that Fire Walk with Me is a great film; it’s deeply flawed, marred by terrible diversions into the absurd and the surreal, and by Lynch’s stubborn insistence upon his own inventions and argot. But it has its moments and they’re terrifically effective, in part thanks to Sheryl Lee’s bravura acting. Her Laura is dizzyingly mercurial, one moment passionate and the next cold and numb. Lee also gives Laura a subtle and unnerving trait: she never maintains eye contact. Laura always seems to look slightly askance, gazing at her companion’s chest or above his head even when she’s proclaiming her devotion. The gives her scenes a strangely potent aura of deep disconnection from her friends and family.

But those laughable diversions of Lynch’s have their own ineluctable power. Just between you and me and the whole internet, after watching FWWM, I spent a night shuddering awake from creeping nightmares, clutching the blankets to me and shrinking from noises in the dark. Even as I scorned and derided them, the images of this ridiculous movie got under my skin like few films can… maybe because it wrought such violent changes upon familiar characters and places, just as a dream does. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me divorces itself from the cozy comforts of “Twin Peaks” the series even as it exploits our familiarity with it. It’s as if “Twin Peaks” itself has entered The Black Lodge and transformed to its dark, dismal alter-ego, taking us with it on a ghastly adventure.