Albertine Dissects Punk in Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.

Reading Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys, I felt like this was the punk exhibit that the Metropolitan Museum wanted to put on a few years ago with its replica of CBGB’s bathroom, and then, weirdly, a bunch of couture paper plate dresses and Alexander McQueen creations. I could see how those designers had been influenced by punk, but as for the clothes themselves—the DIY ethos that was the core of the punk movement—nope, not so much.

Luckily, Albertine, the guitarist of the female punk band the Slits, gives detailed descriptions of the key pieces she bought at Sex (the boutique, run by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, that was a cornerstone of the punk movement) along with bargain-bin finds that helped give her band—first Flowers of Romance with Sid Vicious and then the Slits with Ari Up and Palmolive—the necessary look. Because the punk look always came before the music, according to Albertine.

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She’s named her book after a catchphrase her mother teased her with when she was a teenager. Albertine would come home from school, and her mother would chide her with “Clothes, clothes, clothes, music, music, music, boys, boys, boys” because she said that’s all that her daughter talked about.

Albertine’s autobiography is organized thematically according to her title, and it works like a collage of punk, which is a small miracle since her manager was pressuring her to use a ghostwriter who was in her early twenties, a music journalist who would get it “right.” After reading so many music memoirs where that was done—Belinda Carlisle’s Lips Unsealed and Bobbie Brown’s Dirty Rocker Boys come to mind—I can just imagine the trite story arc that would have gone with that. Thankfully, Albertine is headstrong and did it her way, showing how she got to the triumphs of her life and through some major downs as well.

Originally Albertine and some of the great women of music spent their time following around boys in bands. There was no room for them in music, so they took the second-best thing—to become the girlfriends of the boys in bands. But then Albertine listened to Patti Smith’s Horses and her attitude changed. Smith who originally lived with Robert Mapplethorpe in a groupie type of role, supporting him while neglecting her own artistic yearnings, emerged with a breakthrough record that had come through her poetry written on the side. Smith’s music ends up giving Albertine the confidence she needs to write about female sexuality from a woman’s point of view, but first she had to find the right band.

She started in Flowers of Romance, a band that she was in with Sid Vicious, who was far from the lazy lugabout that he usually is portrayed as (before becoming addicted to heroin). Albertine recalls one night where Sid stays up all night after taking speed and teaching himself bass by listening and playing along to a Ramones record over and over.

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Albertine dated Mick Jones when he was in the Clash and watched how he was always on the phone trying to get things going for the band and took notes from him. He helped her buy her first guitar with inheritance money from her grandma when she didn’t know a damn thing about how to play and the salesman of the music store sneered at her. At first, Albertine was terrible, and her neighbors would beg her to stop practicing. And then Sid kicked her out of the band, leaving her devastated, but Albertine got a chance to try out for the Slits, a group of ladies who liked her look and attitude. She started writing music with them and everything fell into place.

Albertine says, “In the past I listened to tracks as a whole, paying most attention to the lyrics. Words were what I knew, what I was familiar with; they worked or didn’t work for me. That’s how girls listened to songs. Most of the songs I’ve been exposed to are about romantic love. They’re an extension of the fairy tales I read as a little girl—I’ll love you forever. You’re the only one. I’ll rescue you. You broke my heart. Blah blah—which is shocking when you think about the effect that obsessive listening and repetitive exposure to songs about idealised love must have had on my brain. I’ve been brainwashed. The Slits’ lyrics are very carefully thought about and scrutinised. No peddling clichés and lies for us. No lazy escapism. Words have to be true to your life. Write what you know. And make people think.”


Ari Up, the band’s lead singer, was underage, and after watching how Jones hustled to keep the Clash going, Albertine becomes the linchpin for the Slits, organizing band practices, giving players the boot when they’re not fully committed, etc. After the band is signed, Dennis Morris, Island’s art director, had a simplistic concept involving pink for the Slits’ first album cover. Albertine refuses, and at their famous photo shoot for the half-naked album cover, Morris wants a wind machine to be used so the band looks sexier. Albertine becomes incensed with his suggestions and the band does it their way, but not before Morris tries to kick her out of the band for being disruptive.

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Eventually the Slits break up, and Albertine goes through a huge depression. She has a stint in the 1980s where she teaches aerobics and then goes into film. Eventually she marries and spends all the money she’s ever made on IVF treatments, desperate to have a baby. And then cancer strikes. Albertine keeps going through all these tragedies, rising to the top more often than not by challenging herself, and it’s this willingness to pick herself back up, to risk making a fool of herself that make her heroic.

After years being offstage, Albertine teaches herself to play guitar again in her own particular style and she starts singing and performing as a solo artist. Albertine calls this her “Year of Saying Yes,” and when a friend brings her to her first open-mike session, she starts performing again at the bottom. First a mild panic attack ensues. Albertine remembers, “He must be mad. I can’t stand up in front of people and play and sing. I would rather die. Remember, Viv, the Year of Saying Yes. So what if I die? So what if I’m crap and make a fool of myself? I know that no one ever does anything or gets anywhere without failure and foolishness. I’ve got to do it.”

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It Follows Freshens Up Horror with Homage to ’80s

It Follows reminded me very much of ’80s horror movies, from the neon colors to the soundtrack that sounded eerily like Tangerine Dream. I think what I saw referenced most often was Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street series, where teenagers are menaced by Freddy Krueger, the boogeyman in their dreams. It Follows opens with a damsel in distress running down the street in just a T-shirt and high heels, obviously post-coitus, trying to escape from an unknown something. She’s shown being menaced, leaving a voicemail for her dad, and then the next shot shows her in the daytime ripped to pieces. Right away it seems that the beautiful people are under attack in It Follows with ladies first.

Jay, the main character of the movie, is played by Maika Monroe, who spends a lot of time running around in underwear or swimsuits. When a person’s almost naked, they’re at their most vulnerable, and that’s what this movie plays on, the sexploitation of young women and what they can do with it. Jay is close with her sister Kelly and a group of neighborhood friends: Yara, the brainy one, who’s gaining great insight from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, which she reads throughout most of the movie, and Paul, the sisters’ guy friend who kissed them both when they were younger and still pines for Jay.

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The sisters live a simple life in a suburban home, with Jay attending college classes and her younger sister working at an ice cream store. In the backyard is an aboveground pool with five-foot-tall blue plastic walls, what I’ve always seen as a symbol of lower middle class striving for something better. Jay loves the pool, to the delight of the neighborhood boys who are in lust for this dream girl, and many of the shots in the movie are from Jay’s point of view there while looking up into the open sky crabbed with a few tree branches.

She goes on a date with a guy she likes but doesn’t know very well yet. The date starts off normally, but when they go to see a movie that’s where things start to go off-kilter. While playing a game involving the people around them, Hugh, her date, is freaked out that Jay can’t see what’s clear as day to him. He gets so upset by this that they have to leave the movie theater. Later, Jay and Hugh take it to the next level and have backseat car sex and Hugh kidnaps her, bringing Jay to an abandoned parking garage where he schools her on what will happen next in a truly terrifying scene.

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Hugh’s got a terrible curse where he sees people that aren’t there—people whom he seems to love mostly—and they’re going to kill him unless he gets rid of “it” by having sex with another person and passing the curse on to them. Traumatized, Jay isn’t sure what he means after she’s returned home, abandoned at her house like a date rape victim. An STD? But soon after she starts seeing people who aren’t there, such as an old woman with knee and ankle braces who stalks her through her school, a figure that only Jay can see and react to while her behavior strikes others as that of a crazy person. This reminded me again of some of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, when characters are locked in a nightmare but nobody else can see what they are battling, just their bizarre actions. There’s even a Johnny Depp lookalike, Greg (played by Daniel Zovatto), whose family looks down on Jay’s, similar to the first installment of the Nightmare on Elm Street series.

The movie’s scares come from not knowing who is after the infected. Sometimes a person is there and everybody can see them, or it morphs into one of the group of friends and it’s hard to tell the real apart from the threatening.

I like that the movie plays with the trope of virgins being the survivors in a horror movie, while those who have sex are goners. I think I first saw this exploited in another Wes Craven film, Scream, which had those candy colors in it as well. In It Follows, the virgins are safe unless they get caught in the crossfire of the sexually active who are duking it out with the menacing spirits out to get them.

The premise gets muddy, though, and I found myself puzzling about how the curse works during the last part of the movie rather than watching it. Hugh, the last victim who infects Jay, says that there is a chain that can’t be broken or he’ll be gone, too, but the origin is never revealed. There’s no Krueger or Samara of the Ring series to explain the how and why of the curse. It’s also hard to believe that young adults are going to explain the rules of the sex curse to their hookups when they don’t really know them, either. But maybe that’s playing on certain sexual myths that I’ve heard directly from guys’ mouths in the past, like you can’t pregnant when you’re having your period or a woman’s fertility shuts down when she’s raped.

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Not knowing where the curse is coming from just left me with a lot of questions, and then some of the original “rules” are broken. I like that the women in horror cliché is turned upside-down and the ladies in their skimpy outfits actually hold the position of real power in the story. As the lovely Jay is told by her infector, “It should be easy for you. You’re a girl.” But I still want to know the how’s and why’s of the curse, even if this is a horror movie where not everything has to make sense.

I’ve already looked up the plotline of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot on Wikipedia to see if there’s a clue there, since Yara’s reading it obsessively on her clamshell e-reader and quotes from it, but that didn’t help. And I don’t have room on my reading list to fit that book in, especially if it’s not going to help me solve the mystery of the curse. I always swore I was saving the heavy-duty Russian authors for when I was near death.

Why Didn’t I Have This Book When I Was Growing Up?

I started reading Caitlin Moran’s book How to Be a Woman  in the tub, and after three chapters in, I want to air-drop a copy to every teenage girl in the world. I can still learn, though, and need to now that I’m working in an office where I mostly feel rage as female artists are relegated to sidebars about booty-offs while male singers’ lyrics are parsed as if they were poets in an eighteenth-century literature class

Metal Cats: Make This a Series, Please?

On May 12, Kristi and I went to powerHouse Arena in DUMBO, Brooklyn, to see Jo Nesbo in a Q-and-A promoting his new stand-alone novel The Son. While waiting in line to buy our discounted copy of the book, we spied a plastic folder full of postcards featuring a metal guy with what looked like grumpy cat on his shoulder. On the back were all events for powerHouse during May, and it turns out that the bookstore has also launched its own publishing house. One of its first offerings is Metal Cats, a photo book of West Coast metal guys posing with their cats and kitties, who often resemble their owners looks- and personality-wise (as far as a photo can capture). There was a book launch later in the week with three metal bands performing, a raffle, and a chance to meet some of the guys who posed with their cats.

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That was three nights out in a week for me, which very much goes against my Taurean nature that likes to putter around in my home office while pondering participial phrases, but I made myself go. I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t because I might miss something like this:

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We started out at Bushwick Country Club, where we thought we could have a few beers and warm up for the event. A fellow Taurus was having a birthday party on the back deck, and she had her guests wear pajamas. I got to see footie pajamas on adults, and when I made my way to the bar, there was a sign advertising Tecate with a tequila shot for six dollars. In other parts of the country that might seem expensive, but in New York that’s a hell of a deal. And very heavy metal. After girding ourselves with a few rounds of those and seeing a pair of Wonder Women arrive to the back deck birthday party (one a man), we headed to Union Pool, where the Metal Cats benefit was taking place.

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Kristi at Metal Cats benefit.

 

We met the book’s photographer and editor Alexandra Crockett, picked up a few free pins, and looked at the book’s photographs. I love the Metal Cats photographs, but I really thought it was going to be a coffee table book with a thick, stiff binding that could take a lot of abuse. Instead, Metal Cats is a paperback slightly smaller than a composition notebook. Some of the pictures continue over a spread, and I’m afraid to open the book fully and crack its spine to look at them because then I might lose pages. And these are pictures that a metal person wants to study and absorb all of the details.

I’m so intrigued by the metal lifestyle and found the background details of the photographs as interesting, or more so, than the subjects and their cats. I want to see the book titles on these metal guys’ bookshelves, I want to know exactly which Kiss posters are tacked up and papering the walls in their rooms, and I need to check and see if those are indeed matching potholders in the kitchen that appears in the background. I’ll probably be going over those photos later with a magnifying glass, like Guillermo del Toro used to with monster movie magazines, trying to figure out how filmmakers achieved certain special effects.

My dream is that powerHouse Books turns Metal Cats into a series—preferably as calendars. I want big, blown-up pictures of metalheads posing with their cats, so I can study and take in all the photo’s details for a full month. Right now my monthly calendar is a freebie from my grocery store, and I’m sick of seeing the same chicken recipe every day. It’s been some time since I’ve found a calendar I can live with month to month, and I’d gladly pay $12 or more for a yearly calendar of Metal Cats, especially since I know that a portion of the proceeds goes to no-kill shelters.

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Metalhead at Metal Cats benefit.

 

There was a $7 charge for the Metal Cats benefit show, but the money raised was dedicated to no-kill shelters, along with a portion that I paid for the book. I felt completely comfortable in the crowd watching the bands, knowing I was among metalheads who are also animal lovers. While paying for my copy of the book in the lobby area between shows, Young WillCheadle, one of the musicians featured in Metal Cats, came up and showed me where his picture was with Matika. Then he was kind enough to sign me and my sister’s book—addressed to our cats, of course.

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Look What I Got in the Mail Today!

This crawled into my mailbox today from littlest K, another Horrorfeminista.

Cockroach Letter 1We sent her some swag for her birthday.

IMG_0739And unbeknownst to us, she had a surprise coming our way—our cockroaches ended up crossing in the mail. This is the other side of her paper roach with legs that stick up and eyeballs.

Cockroach Letter 2Its wings and body open up into a letter.

Cockroach Letter 3Now I need to figure out how to display it. It’s a 3-D piece of art, and I want to be able to see its legs, wings, and eyeballs, and open it up to read the letter once in a while. The fridge doesn’t seem like the right place to put it. Any ideas?

The Life and Times of a Phone Psychic

I bought my first deck of tarot cards when I was nineteen from a B. Dalton bookstore, I believe. I’m not even sure if those stores exist anymore; I think they’ve been taken over by Barnes & Noble. This deck came into my life during a precarious time—that brink between high school and college, kid and adult—and the idea of divining the future appealed to me. It still does, really.

The deck was a simple Rider-Waite, probably the most common, and I can remember feeling jealous of a friend’s deck that had what I thought were more superior illustrations. Now, I’m happy with my Rider-Waite deck; the images are iconic, and if I see the High Priestess, in a flash I get the card’s story, its positive and negative meanings, and how that might affect a querent. That’s what the person who’s asking questions is called in tarot-speak: the querent.

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In college, many of my friends read tarot, and sometimes we’d sit around in a circle and give each other readings. I learned a lot from that: setting the stage, analyzing the cards and matching them up to what I knew of my friends’ experiences, and getting the story rolling. It’s like therapy, doing everything you can to make your querent feel comfortable so they’ll start revealing their worries and secrets. You’d be surprised how accurate I could be in a reading. I’ve always liked to think of my cards as mirrors, and because I knew my querents, I could give them a worthy reflection of who they were and what they wanted to be. It’s not lying; it’s weaving a story between what the cards represent and what I knew was going on in my friends’ lives.

I also would read for myself, which usually happened when I was scared, stagnant, or not sure of what direction I was going. It’s comforting shuffling the cards that are almost too big for my hands, making me stretch my palms, the sound of slapping them down on my bedspread in the shape of the celtic cross, my favorite layout. (I’ve tried more exotic layouts at times, but I always go back to the celtic cross.) I know every crease of my cards, can almost pick out which one is which without looking at its face. That’s how much I’ve used them.

My deck got quite a workout when I moved to Portland, Oregon, and couldn’t get a job for months. My friend Susan was my roommate, and she told me about how she had worked once as a phone psychic. At the time her schedule was erratic and working as a phone psychic fit since she could log in whenever and take calls. The company sent her a check every month, and though it wasn’t big money, it was money.

She’d just had a baby and couldn’t work a regular schedule, and with my dim prospects, we decided we’d start up a psychic hotline and work it together, using a combination of astrology and tarot cards. We rented out a house with four or five different roommates, so we had a separate phone line installed in our basement, where we could have some privacy. Susan scrounged up a phone—probably something that a past resident had left behind; it was clear plastic showing different-colored wires and it lit up when it rang.

Suz and I set up our work area on an abandoned futon frame and put down carpet squares beneath that. Then we had our assorted astrology and tarot books spread out around us so we could easily consult them. Before we opened up our business, we drilled each other on the quintessential celebrity for each star sign. Kurt Cobain was our classic Pisces while Madonna worked for Leo.

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Our psychic network work space.

When we had time and were ready to work the psychic hotline, we logged into the system, letting the powers that be know we were available, and calls started being forwarded to our extension. Our ranking on the hotline was based on how many calls we took and how long we could keep a querent on the line. We were encouraged to keep people talking as long as possible because after the special rate, or first free three minutes, the charges really started to pile up.

Susan and I would log into the system and tag team as calls started coming in. The one on the phone would get the necessary information to construct a star chart and start laying out the tarot cards while the other consulted sources and drew up a rudimentary star chart that was used to supplement the reading.

We were just barely scraping by money-wise at the time and knew the value of a buck, so when people called and just wanted a quick reading, we aimed to please. Our reasoning was that they would be repeat callers, requesting us as their personal phone psychics, and we’d quickly climb the ranks. Susan and I had a steady stream at first.

I was very nervous when we started taking calls, and during my first few sessions, my voice would quake. I can remember a pushy woman from the East Coast who was concerned about if a check was in the mail. There were Pentacles in her reading, but not an immediate money card. Though I tried to tell her this, she kept saying, “So the check’s coming—it’s in the mail.” It wasn’t a question; this was what she wanted to hear.

Finally, I said with guilt, “Yes, looks like it.”

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We coached each other through the calls and were learning more about astrology and just plain human nature through the stories we heard. Really, a lot of what we did was counsel people through dark times—a bad relationship, conflicts at work—but with a kiss saying that the universe had ordained it.

I answered a call from a woman addicted to drugs who wanted to know if she should get off them. I knew the obvious answer, but I shuffled the cards, used my soothing voice, and dealt out ten cards.

“You have Death as the heart of the situation.”

“Death?! I’m not going to quit if I’m gonna die.”

“No, that’s not what Death means here. It means a complete change, transformation.”

I tried more and more to calm her down, to guide her to the realization that it was time for a good change, but between her interpretation of death and worrying about when her boyfriend would get home, it was hard to keep her on track.

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I think the scariest call Susan ever took was from an immigrant woman who was pregnant and suffered many miscarriages before; she called the psychic hotline when she started having some troubling symptoms. Suz ended up with the Hierophant in that reading and told the woman she saw a doctor in the cards, recommending that she seek out medical advice. The Hierophant represents authority usually interpreted as religious, but it can be a healer or assistance, too, and that was what her querent needed to hear.

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These were the calls where we weren’t really qualified to help, but at the same time, through an ad on TV, we were who these people chose. Who knows if they would seek out help in any other way.

During one frenzied session, Susan and I did so many readings that our two tarot decks got mixed up together. I went to put my deck away in the dove-gray silk shirt that I’ve kept my cards in forever and discovered that I had two Eight of Cups. We separated out the cards so we each had a complete deck, but for sure I have some of Susan’s cards and she has some of mine. Sometimes I think that’s why we’ve been bonded together so long. I’ve known her for more than twenty years, lived in five different states with her, and seen her raise her daughter from an infant to the sixteen-year-old she is now.

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Eventually our rating in the psychic network dwindled, and sometimes when we logged on, we wouldn’t get a call at all. Giving customers a good deal didn’t count for much with the company. We both found another job that would pay the bills, and I haven’t read cards for money since then. But it’s a skill I still cling to, thinking, If the editing work ever dries up, I’ll just become a full-time psychic. Right now, that’s my retirement plan.

Hannibal Degrades in His Earlier Years

I just finished Silence of the Lambs, a reread for me, but it was a read that came after the movie—my absolute favorite. For a long time, I thought the novel by Thomas Harris was one of those rare cases where the movie surpassed the book, but it’s probably because the movie is filtered through the female viewpoint, psychological horror where the female protagonist solves the mystery and is the hero. I enjoyed the novel, but it was nowhere near the level of the movie with its two famous portraits of evil (Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter and Ted Levine’s Jame Gumb) and the two strong ladies who are determined to overcome it (Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling and Brooke Smith’s Catherine Martin). The movie version condenses events, rearranges them, and makes Lecter like Jaws—a menace getting about ten minutes of actual screen time, but the one who also underpins the entire story.

 

Lecter’s scary, but there are so many other elements that work in the story, making it transcend the horror genre. One of the biggies are strong female characters who aren’t accessories for men. Clarice Starling is presented in both the book and movie as a steely recruit for the FBI. She’s ambitious but also vulnerable because of her inexperience and a difficult past. Foster says that Clarice Starling is still the best role she’s ever had and that’s something, coming from a woman who’s spent her whole life in the film industry. In the book, Starling is what puts the plot into motion after spurning the advances of Dr. Chilton, the man in charge of Hannibal Lecter. Harris captures Starling’s quick perceptions but also her awareness of herself as a woman and how she can use that in her career:

“She saw his bleak refrigerator, the crumbs on the TV tray where he ate alone, the still piles his things stayed in for months until he moved them—she felt the ache of his whole yellow-smiling Sen-Sen lonesome life—and switchblade-quick she knew not to spare him, not to talk on or look away. She stared into his face, and with the smallest tilt of her head, she gave him her good looks and bored her knowledge in, speared him with it, knowing he couldn’t stand for the conversation to go on.”

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This is glossed over quickly in the scene where Dr. Chilton is introduced in the movie Silence of the Lambs, and instead the movie’s heart lies in the twisted mentoring relationship that exists between Clarice and Hannibal Lecter. Lecter also can’t abide Chilton, who doesn’t have a medical degree and uses his proximity to the cannibal psychiatrist to further his own career (this first comes up in Red Dragon).

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Recently I started watching the TV series Hannibal with my sister, and I liked the first few episodes. It was interesting to see the period of time when Hannibal was practicing as a psychiatrist and perhaps committing the first few kills that would eventually land him in Chilton’s psychiatric hospital. But now the series is really starting to piss me off because it’s screwing around with the Hannibal Lecter canon and destroying the original character that Harris built.

At first, I was annoyed because each episode dealt with a new serial killer, and I found that completely unrealistic. If a story is set in a zombie apocalypse, I expect there to be a lot of zombies. But Hannibal is set in contemporary times where there are only supposed to be about forty or so active serial killers at any time in the United States. Yet every episode I’ve watched of Hannibal features a new serial killer that the FBI and Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) are dealing with. And these serial killers borrow heavily from the imagery associated with Hannibal’s later crimes; unless there is a plot twist from hell coming up, this pretty much makes Lecter look like a copycat.

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What Lecter does in Silence of the Lambs.

Another serial killer's work in prequel series Hannibal.

Another serial killer’s work in prequel series Hannibal.

 

The series also takes the great lines from Silence of the Lambs and repurposes them for the current story, saving nothing for later. Dr. Chilton has been brought in to work with the FBI when authorities would never have dealt with this bozo in the first place, according to the original canon. A pseudo Clarice has also been produced and almost immediately catches Lecter out through his sloppiness. All of these plot lines aren’t true to the characters as I know them, and I’m just barely halfway through the first season of Hannibal. I don’t see how the series can sustain itself much longer, and I know I’ve got to quit watching these episodes because I just get madder and madder with each one, turning into one of those comic book purists.

Hannibal’s creator Thomas Harris is one of those rare reclusive writers who doesn’t like to give interviews, but at some point he sold the film rights of Hannibal Lecter to Hollywood maven Dino De Laurentiss. Later, after Manhunter, Silence of the Lambs, and Red Dragon, De Laurentiss supposedly threatened to film a prequel to Hannibal’s story with or without Harris’s help, which spurred the writer to write Hannibal Rising.

 

I guess that wasn’t enough background for the character because now we have Hannibal the TV series. Dino De Laurentiss died a few years ago, but I see that his wife Martha De Laurentiis is attached as executive producer to the series. I don’t know if these film rights transfer or if Harris sold them again. Either way, I hope he’s getting good money for it. A writer’s got to eat, but I really don’t care for what’s been done to his characters.

2013’s Carrie Tries a Cyber Version of Stephen King’s Story

I’ve been jonesing to see Carrie since watching the previews in the movie theater early last year. The shower room scene in Stephen King’s novel and the original movie is a classic of how mean and out of control bullying can get, but the preview showed cyberbullying being introduced in the new version, and that’s something that excited me. Bullying has evolved, like everything else with the Internet, and where a kid might once have been able to get a little peace at home after a school day of harassment, they can now be haunted in cyberspace through Twitter, Facebook, or what have you.

 

At this point, I don’t think there are any spoilers in Carrie. It’s a Cinderella story that the brothers Grimm would approve of. Carrie White is the daughter of single mother Margaret White, a religious fanatic who chooses to keep her daughter ignorant about the facts of life, thinking she’ll remain pure that way. Carrie gets her period while showering after gym, and her classmates throw tampons and maxipads at her, yelling for her to plug it up. With the onset of her period, Carrie rediscovers her telekinetic powers. One of the shower room bullies feels bad about her role and, as compensation, makes her boyfriend ask Carrie to the prom. Carrie accepts and sees this as her chance to be normal, making and wearing a pretty dress, dancing. Another of the bullies, though, won’t let her get away with this and hatches a plan to drench Carrie with blood onstage. She doesn’t know about Carrie’s newfound powers and what she’ll do for sweet revenge.

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The original Carrie is iconic. When friends and I are feeling insecure, we’ll jeer, “They’re all going to laugh at you,” imitating Piper Laurie’s over-the-top performance as Carrie White’s mother, and laughter almost always results. But it is a different world now, and I’m okay with that line going to Julianne Moore, with a more understated tone of voice, who’s able to convey ultimate love for her daughter alongside crazy, masochistic religious beliefs. I don’t think I ever really saw that mother-daughter love in Piper Laurie’s version of Mrs. White. Carrie just seemed to serve as an audience for her ravings.

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The girl picked to be Carrie in this version, Chloë Grace Moretz, is very pretty. She doesn’t have the unusual looks of Sissy Spacek (the original Carrie), which made it easy to see how such cruel taunts started, but plenty of beautiful people are bullied. I’m thinking of the stories of Phoebe Prince, who was bullied until she committed suicide, and Daisy Coleman, a popular freshman cheerleader until she accused an upperclassman of rape and eventually had her house burned down by bullies.

Moretz plays Carrie White as a sweetheart who only wants to be a good girl, and it comes across as a little wishy-washy. Spacek’s Carrie had a witchy streak at times, so the ultimate destruction at the end of the movie didn’t come off as incongruous. Where Moretz might be a little more believable, though, is as a high schooler who hasn’t hit puberty yet. She looks very young and unformed in her plaid shirt and jumper next to sophisticated classmates in full makeup and hair, toting their iPhones. And her ignorance of the changes that a girl goes through as she becomes a woman is explained away with home schooling. I don’t think anybody could have bought Carrie having no knowledge of a period without this update.

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One thing I like in this movie is Judy Greer (Jawbreaker) as Ms. Desjardin. She brings a little something different to the character that King envisioned, I think, who is a former teen queen now teaching gym. Ms. Desjardin understands what motivates her students to humiliate Carrie White in the locker room because she’s closer in age to them than the rest of the teachers. And Greer brings a zany, goofball quality to the character that I haven’t seen before, making the role a surprise—one of the few in the movie. I’ve seen Brian De Palma’s Carrie so many times, that it ran like a loop in the back of my brain as I watched this recent remake of Carrie, and almost all of the performances in the 2013 movie came off as paler versions, except for the character of Ms. Desjardin.

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A big part of King’s Carrie, which carried through in the original movie, is the theme of how random events can quickly accumulate and snowball into something awful. The bullying, the late period, even Carrie’s conception—these small things all build to the ultimate showdown, and each fresh piece keeps the story rolling. This version of Carrie felt choreographed to me; there was a slickness to it like a Broadway production. The brutal shower room scene is videotaped and posted online, and it’s shown again and again and again, even played on big screens when the prom queen and king are announced and the bloodbath begins. The repetition takes away from the initial cruelty, and the scene just doesn’t seem that shocking by the time Act III rolls around.

The cyberbullying that I thought would add a fresh element to the movie ends up being clunky. I have a hard time believing the big baddie Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday) would be so stupid as to leave evidence of the taped shower room scene on her phone, which screws up an important plot point. (She’s supposed to be whip smart, torturing others for her own entertainment.) Also, such a contrast is set up between the tech-savvy, sophisticated high schoolers and the rube Carrie that one of the most important scenes comes off badly. Chris Hargensen’s boyfriend, Billy Nolan, is supposed to kill a pig for blood. The modern version shows Chris and Billy menacing pigs in a sty, and it comes off as silly. The characters haven’t looked or acted like farm kids through the entire story, so just when did they learn how to kill a pig? YouTube? If only that had been shown.

Flynn Gets Creepy in Dark Places

I gulped this book down in about two days, completely unprepared for it. I loved Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, such a nasty treat, and meant to read her other novels, but the wait list is long at the Brooklyn Public Library. I didn’t even know what Dark Places was about, but when I started flipping through the opening pages listing the reviews that compared it to In Cold Blood, I knew the novel had to go to the top of my book pile. In Cold Blood has to be one of the most reread novels in my house. I had to retire a copy because the cover came off and it started flaking off pages one by one.

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While I don’t know much about Kansas and the area where the Clutters were killed (the murder that’s the focus of In Cold Blood), I do know Kansas City, Missouri, and the low-rent satellite communities that surround it. I did a year of high school in Grandview, Missouri, and it was terrifying. I can remember the mean poverty surrounding me in a land of plenty, and it was a marked contrast after coming back from Germany, where my father had been stationed. Flynn recreates this setting in the most creepy and delicious of ways, and I think she gets it right: “He led me around the corner and down a hallway of former offices. I crunched broken glass, peering into each room as we passed: empty, empty, a shopping cart, a careful pile of feces, the remains of an old bonfire, and then a homeless man who said Hiya! cheerfully over a forty-ounce.”

The characters populating the story are as much of a knockout as how Flynn captures the Missouri setting. Unlikely protagonist Libby Day is in a precarious position. She’s now in her early thirties, the only other survivor besides her brother of her family’s brutal murder that happened one night in January 1985. Libby’s brother was accused of murdering her two sisters and mother; only Libby survived, after running away, though she sacrificed some toes and half a finger to frostbite.

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Charlize Theron will play the adult Libby in the movie version of Dark Places.

With Libby’s testimony, her brother is now serving a life sentence in prison and she has been living on money put up by strangers long ago in a fund in her name. Not having a job for most of her life, she’s burned through almost all of it, even when supplemented by a ghostwritten self-help book capitalizing on her story.

Libby has incomplete memories of the time the murders happened, but she starts thinking back on those events after a strange man approaches her, offering money for any mementos or recollections. She’s made her apartment and bed a cocoon from the rest of the world and would rather go back to that defining moment of her life and make money from it than to acquire new skills and go out into the world. Libby is still a brat as an adult, seemingly stuck at the age when tragedy struck, but she has her sweet moments, too.

Flynn is a master of suspense and skillful at balancing the two story lines of Dark Places. She alternates going between the events that built up to the multiple murder in 1985 and what is happening to the adult Libby as she starts recovering her memories of that time while going outside of her comfort zone and meeting new people. Flynn’s able to keep the tension mounting in both story lines until they meet and the mystery is revealed. The smallest details contribute to the major revelation at the end, but they’re not clumsy and never give the story away. I never saw the real story behind the multiple murder coming, yet it didn’t come off as implausible.

Still from the movie Dark Places , with Chloë Grace Moretz playing the meanie.

Still from the movie Dark Places, with Chloë Grace Moretz playing the meanie.

 

Flynn is one of the authors that I try and press friends to read, and when my sister was looking for a good book, I insisted she read Dark Places. She couldn’t guess the ending either, and she’s usually really good at it. We have a game we play when watching episodes of Law & Order: SVU where she has to guess the perpetrator in the first five minutes, and she almost always pegs it right. Not this time.

I really think 2014 is going to be Flynn’s year. Both Gone Girl and Dark Places will appear as movies (according to IMDb), with excellent casts attached, exposing more people to her work. Now, if only I had another Flynn novel to look forward to because I’m down to the last one.

Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn

Hunger Games Catching Fire: the Marketing of a Girl

Catching Fire picks up a few months after the Hunger Games left off. Katniss and Peeta have arrived home to District 12 and now live in elegant digs compared to what they had before taking part in the Hunger Games. Peeta’s sulky because the romance he dreams of with Katniss has not taken place offscreen, and Katniss is suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome. President Snow, the creepy and elegant Donald Sutherland, visits Katniss right before her Victory Tour, telling her she has to sell this romance and make it believable. Signs of dissent have spread throughout the Capitol and surrounding districts, and Snow is even seeing the results in his own household, when his granddaughter (Erica Bierman) appears at the breakfast table in Katniss’s trademark braids, telling him, “All the girls wear their hair like this.” This girl from District 12 has become a symbol of something he doesn’t want, but everybody else likes, even loves, her.

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For going against the rules and inspiring others to question their drudge of a life, Katniss must be punished. And Jennifer Lawrence’s acting is a gem here, as she pretends to be a bad actress while on the Victory Tour, all hammy, SNL skit-like with eyelash batting and fake smiles, alongside Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). President Snow is not pleased with the results, and with Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), he decides she must be eliminated. The Quarter Quell is upon them, a special edition of the Hunger Games that comes about every twenty-five years, and the twist this year is to reap past Hunger Game winners from each district and make them repeat the games with the best of the best.

I found this installment of the movie much more emotional than the first, now that the main characters have been established and people have gotten over their Fatniss fixation. There were so many times I felt my heart in my throat, especially in the scenes with Katniss and Peeta showing real love for each other, in contrast to what they faked during the Victory Tour. Though Katniss doesn’t have the love connection with Peeta that she does with Gale (Liam Hemsworth), he is the only person who understands what happened to her during the Hunger Games. And he loves her desperately, though she doesn’t understand why.

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There are very few changes between the book Catching Fire and the movie, and most are those of omission. Peeta tries to save Katniss from entering the arena again by dropping a baby bomb, which isn’t described as such in the novel but the term is adopted in the movie, and I like how parallels are drawn between our celebrity-driven culture and these bloody games. A baby bump becomes a complete game changer, and while Katniss cannot avoid the Quarter Quell, she’s able to manipulate the sympathies of viewers and possible sponsors.

The omissions, I think, help heighten the tension, so viewers aren’t bored and easily able to figure out what’s going to happen in the end. And maybe that’s good for those who have read the trilogy as background before going in to the movie, but I watched it with two who had not read the books, and they both felt like they were missing important information. Then I watched Catching Fire again with my nine-year-old niece when I was visiting for Christmas, and she needed information to process what was going on on-screen. I answered her questions in whispers, trying not to piss off the people in back of us, and when she got it, her face lit up with pure pleasure, enjoying the story of tough ladies and guys trying to make it out alive.

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Afterward, she wanted to play Hunger Games, using characters from the movie Catching Fire. She didn’t want to be Katniss, who she deemed too nice. Instead, she invented her own character Catty, who had Katniss-like traits with a little bit of Johanna mean. Johanna’s mean streak intrigued her (a standout performance by Jena Malone), but my niece didn’t feel like she could act out those parts so I was assigned her character. It made me happy that instead of one girl part, my niece had several female roles to choose from—a healer, a genius, a warrior, etc.—to see what fit her personality.

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Our playacting brought to mind one of the press junkets the Hunger Games cast did for the first movie. One of the questions given was which character would the other actors liked to have been, and Jennifer Lawrence mentioned how nobody ever chooses Katniss. I think it’s because we already envision ourselves as a Katniss, a hero who is brave and loyal, but we would like to try on brutishness or vulnerability, traits that aren’t usually interpreted as heroic.