Bedbug Bites

27 August 2010 at 17:56 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

Bedbugs might be a bit of a strange topic for a blog of this sort, but the media craziness surrounding these annoying insects begs for some commentary from this horror fan. First, some context: if you happen to watch the news on TV or pick up a daily paper, you’re bound to come across one of the many stories about the massive infestation of bedbugs. I’ve seen these in everything from the big-gun local paper to the alternative weekly to the New York Times. The media frenzy has gotten so out of hand that Jon Stewart weighed in on the Daily Show:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The media deserves the mockery that Stewart dishes out here. Bedbugs, though annoying, do not spread disease or cause you any grave harm. Like a mosquito, they suck out a little blood, creating itchy little welts that will eventually disappear. Still, the idea of something crawling in your bed is psychologically powerful and catches the eye when evoked in a headline.

Of course, there are other ways to think of insects, and Stewart’s inclusion of clips from Green Porno, a short video series conceived of by actress Isabella Rossellini, reimagine the insects in slightly different terms. Each entry in the series highlights the reproductive process of a different insect, illustrated by Rossellini herself in outrageous costumes. I especially appreciate the ways in which Green Porno raises questions about gender, nature, and the relationship between violence and sexuality. While the subjects of the videos may be insects, Rossellini’s anthropomorphizing of the insects suggests some connection exists between these creatures and us. Here’s another of those hilarious videos:

Psychologist Kevin Ocshner spoke about Rossellini’s video about bedbugs in relation to the media buzz, stating that he felt the video commented on the overblown nature of our fears by exaggerating the size of bedbugs (Click here to listen to the piece from NPR’s Talk of the Nation). Ocshner also discussed how the brain works when we imagine these bugs. Specifically, he says that the same parts of the brain that respond to actual threats, like a real bug in your bed, also become activated by strong thoughts of them. He connects this neurological quirk to the sensations we might get reading a thriller or watching a scary movie.

The power of insects (and other creepy crawlers) to trigger these fears might be one of the reasons that the surrealists used insects so often in their work. Below, a narrator explains Luis Bunuel’s likes and dislikes, and bugs come up several times (relevant portion ends at 3:17):

The prominence of insects is a trademark of Buneul’s films. In Un Chien Andalou alone, bugs form the basis of some of the most powerful compositions in the film, particularly this still of ants streaming out of a wounded hand:

In Bunuel's famous collaboration with Salvador Dali, Un Chien Andalou, insects appear frequently in unnerving images such as this one. Image taken from factoidz.com.

But while the surrealists engage the fear of bugs subtly, the contemporary horror film has exploited it for a more blunt effect. One obvious example would be Slither, a film I’ve yet to see but has always intrigued me with its campy critique of monogamy. Watch the trailer below and you’ll see what I mean:

Slither isn’t alone, of course: The Fly (both the original and remake), Arachnophobia, Mimic, all tap into the same fear of bugs currently being exploited by the news media. While the increasing numbers of bedbugs might be truer than the fictional representations just mentioned, the hysterical response seems based more on fiction than reality.

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Sucking It Up: Vampires Suck vs. My Sucky Teen Romance

15 August 2010 at 00:39 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

***Quick thanks to Kristen over at Act Your Age for cluing me in on Hagins’ latest project.***

After a wave of successful vampire books, films, and TV series, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see spoof versions of these texts coming down the pike. Most prominently, Vampires Suck has been heavily promoted with spots on TV. Here’s the trailer:

It’s also probably no shock that I’m not itching to see this one. As the Vampires Suck trailer demonstrates, the spoof genre has gone from a hilarious and even at times legitimately subversive form of social critique (a la Blazing Saddles) to a hodge podge of cultural references (Lady Gaga, Black-Eyed Peas, Jersey Shore), body humor, and over-the-top antics.

This already stale genre has become even more trite in the age of the internet. As Felix Vasquez of Cinema Crazed points out in his review of Vampires Suck, comedic parodies of the Twilight series already pervade blogs, YouTube, and comedy sites like Funny Or Die. Here are a few samples:

By all appearances, Vampires Suck fails to really say anything new or substantial about the vampire phenomenon, which is to be expected since the same crew brought us such slap-sticky schlock as the Scary Movie series, Epic Movie, Date Movie, and Meet the Spartans. Like those offerings, this film merely cashes in on viewer exasperation with current trends in the media. It also critiques fandom in a very gendered way: teenage girls wearing “Team Jacob” and “Team Edward” shirts duke it out with shovels–didn’t see that one coming! Such scenes, of course, play upon problematic stereotypes about the veracity of girls’ fandom.

I am far more interested to see how young filmmaker Emily Hagins tackles the trend in her upcoming film, My Sucky Teen Romance. Austin native Hagins filmed Pathogen, a full-length feature zombie film, releasing it in 2006 at the age of fourteen. Her efforts making the film became the subject of the documentary Zombie Girl: The Movie, raising Hagins’ profile in the Austin film scene and beyond. Below is the trailer for her film and for the documentary.

Hagins’ approach to the teen vampire craze differs dramatically from Vampires Suck. Instead of tweeking the Twilight premise, Hagins’ film takes place at a sci-fi convention. In that setting, actual vampires infiltrate the convention by hiding in plain sight amongst fans costumed as their favorite Twilight characters. As quoted by Slash Film, Hagins says:

“I want the characters to be real geeks– they know about Twilight and the teen vampire phenomenon. But these vampires are the real deal, and more than everyday teenagers can take on. The comedy comes from the awkwardness of regular kids dealing with monsters who have been over-romanticized in recent pop culture . . . This is a teen comedy written, directed, and acted by teenagers. It is a unique opportunity to capture the genuine teen experience.”

A still from My Sucky Teen Romance. Image taken from Slash Film.com.

Of course, it’s impossible to “capture the genuine teen experience,” but having an actual teenager writing and directing such a project gets you pretty darn close. What I’m more interested to see is how Hagins negotiates issues related to fandom. On the one hand, the description of the film seems to suggest a critique of “over-romanticized” vampires and their fans; on the other hand, Hagins uses these geeks as protagonists who fend off the monsters that they idolize in fictitious form. This seems like a more even-handed approach than Vampires Suck by allowing for a parody of fandom without dismissing it entirely. Such an inventive premise proves that Hagins is clever beyond her years, or at least beyond those who wrote Vampires Suck (admittedly, not a tall order).

To wrap things up, here’s the short promo for Hagins’ film:

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Beyond Film #5 – Living the Double Life

10 August 2010 at 01:16 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , )

It’s been weeks since I’ve posted anything, and while this is mostly due to my preoccupation with finding a job, it’s also because I’ve spent most of the last few weeks watching a lot of television. When you’re unemployed and have a lot of time on your hands, there’s nothing better than filling the time with some TV, especially with so many terrific options. But rather than seeking an escape, I’ve noticed that I am gravitating toward series that explore difficult subject matter. In particular, the theme of living a double life seems prominent in the shows I’ve been watching.

The series I’ve found most entertaining: Nurse Jackie. Starring Edie Falco as the title character, the series follows a nurse living and working in New York. While Jackie proves herself to be a competent and dedicated nurse practically every episode, she compromises her job performance and home life with her addiction to pain killers and other pharmaceuticals. Fiercely private, she takes off her wedding ring upon arriving to work, never mentioning her husband or two daughters to all but one coworker. This secrecy conveniently allows her to maintain an affair with the hospital pharmacist, Eddie (another Sopranos regular, Paul Schulze). The duplicity fueled by her addiction drives the plot forward with the question of how long Jackie can maintain her double-life hanging in the air. She drives you crazy with her dishonesty, yet you can’t help but sympathize with her.

This second season promotional poster effectively depicts Jackie as both saint and addict. Image from DaemonsTV.com.

Another Showtime series, Dexter, follows similar patterns in its exploration of the title character played by Michael C. Hall. Dexter’s vice, however, is far more grisly than Jackie’s. As a sociopath with violent impulses, Dexter channels his tendencies into ritualistic murders of individuals with the same inclinations all the while working as a blood-splatter analyst for the Miami Police Department. Dexter developed a code of ethics based on the advice of his late adoptive father, Harry (James Remar), who recognized Dexter’s sociopathic disposition during childhood.

The series, then, not only explores the conflict created by this moral paradox, but also examines the source of Dexter’s desires and his efforts to appear normal despite his inability to emotionally relate to people. To this end, the series uses effective voice over narration to contrast the charming Dexter we see with the hollow, compulsive killer we hear. The Dexter’s duplicitous nature, then, is not only reflected in the contrast between his professional life and his recreational activities, but also in his self-presentation and his inner thoughts.

Still, the most compelling series I’ve been watching that explores these themes would have to be Breaking Bad. This show, like the others previously described, centers on a primary character with a moral dilemma. The character, Walter White (played perfectly by Bryan Cranston), discovers he has lung cancer and must decide how to proceed with treatment. As a high school chemistry teacher supporting a family, he makes such a small salary that he also works at a car wash. The fact that his wife is unexpectedly pregnant raises the stakes. While Walter initially decides to forgo treatment due to the unlikelihood of success and the high expense, he ultimately caves in to family pressure. Still unwilling to burden his family with debt, he decides to cook meth in order to finance his treatment and save some money to support his wife and children in the event of his demise. Ironically, Walters’ attempts to take care of his family financially only seem to create more problems at home. Walter, like Jackie and Dexter, struggles to maintain a harmonious domestic life as a result of his participation in criminal activities.

Walter's criminal and domestic lives collide in this still from Breaking Bad. Image from poptheology.com.

But while both Nurse Jackie and Dexter certainly have social implications (doesn’t every piece of art?), Breaking Bad seems the most pointed in its critique of the current socioeconomic climate. Unlike Jackie and Dexter, Walter is motivated out of financial self-interest. With the astronomical cost of health care in this country and the paltry salaries we pay public school teachers, Walter’s plight reflects the sense of economic unease pervasive in this recessionary economy.

This social commentary is the reason that I’ve found Breaking Bad oddly comforting during my period of unemployment. While I’m lucky enough to have family support during this transition, I still feel concerned about my prospects in the job market and worry about my savings running out before I earn my first paycheck. The schadenfreude of seeing characters like Jackie, Dexter, and Walter, dealing with much bigger problems than mine cannot be underestimated.

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