Before mercury, my blood used to fill thermometers.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The ruin of many a girl: Julia Hatmaker and I watch American Horror Story.

Last week, Julia Hatmaker and I watched the premiere of American Horror Story: Coven together. For the sake of context: Julia enjoyed the first season, which I hated virulently. She saw and did not like the second season, which I have not seen.

This is the conversation borne of the footage that precedes the opening credits:

Kari: The editing contributes to my overall inability to abide AHS. The story jumps into a preface, set in the late 1800s, complete with iris wipes and ragtime piano. No matter what era in which a scene is set, AHS finds a way to fight the set design and the actors' potential with noise and movement. Everything on the screen is in conflict right away. None of the parts that make up a filmed scene harmonize in any way. If the acting was dismal and the sets lackluster as in B- or Z-movies, then the quick cuts, the whiplash-inducing pace, and failure to let anything shine could be something the audience would understand and enjoy being complicit in. As it stands, this really slights the audience, the beautiful quality of the production, AND the actors, among whom this season — in this first scene — is Kathy Bates. This is no good!

Julia: When it comes to the editing, I completely agree. The iris wipes gave the opening a cartoony and comedic feel, while the topic matter was anything but funny. The first minutes of any show or movie are supposed to set the tone and that's a rule that AHS flat out ignored. That, or Ryan Murphy is confused and thinks he's writing a comedy.

Kari: Bates plays IRL monster Delphine LaLaurie, who, in a Bathoryesque measure to keep up Confederate-flavored appearances, treats her face with the blood of black men. LaLaurie, in life, did torture her slaves. The character refers to the man she drains, who has been seduced by her daughter, a "beast," and turns him into a minotaur as she exclaims, "Now I have one of my very own." It is one thing to stoke an open wound like racially-motivated violence. It is another to use it as set-dressing. This all prefaces the opening credits and occupies less than ten minutes of the hour-long premier, but it typifies what I do not like about AHS (that is only driven home later; we'll get to that). While I won't excuse racist content, I am willing to concede that the show does effectively probe the concept of "horror."

Kari (cont.): My profound disappointment in the show when it aired for the first time in 2011 came from its failure to live up to my expectations, the foundations of which were for suspense, for insecurity about my own safety, for a strong indictment of the shadows people hide in today and the relationship that behavior has to things we can look back on and see were opportunities for evil to appear throughout history. Instead of feeling like I was watching Psycho or Rosemary's Baby, two horror canon entries referenced heavily in season one, I felt like I was watching people get tortured in Abu Ghraib. I do not look at that forced glance into the abyss as an achievement because the ability to observe an act of violence, mediated by technology, is itself a horrible contemporary phenomenon. The failure of AHS to understand that the way horrible things that used to be kept hidden now can make a vast audience accomplice to it is a pandemic contemporary evil is made so plain by the end of the episode; I had little confidence in it to begin with, and by the end of this episode, I lost all hope that the minds behind AHS know enough to make anything genuinely challenging or even treat with excitement and respect what good the show has going for it.

Julia: I loved the first season. To me it was a compelling narrative, I wanted to tune in every week to find out what happened next. I was attached to the characters – although granted much of that is due to the charisma of the actors and my overactive imagination, not the script. I was invested in the twisted and doomed romance between Violet (Taissa Farmiga) and Tate (Evan Peters). That being said, I was psyched when I saw Farmiga and Peters were back. More on that later, I'm sure.

Kari: The other major factor of this show's crisis being that it doesn't do anything with the talent it has. Nowhere else on cable TV can you see characters brought to life by the likes of Jamie Brewer and Gabourey Sidibe — much less both of them alongside Angela Basset, Bates, Patti LuPone, and AHS superstar Jessica Lange. I am happy to see Frances Conroy paying tribute to Grace Coddington as the character Myrtle Snow (billed in the main cast, so I hope we see way more of her than the cameo she makes here). It was the only aspect of the premier that purely delighted me, and only for sentimental reasons. This entire episode is lost on someone unaware of how awesome Grace Coddington is.

Julia: The script of AHS is never the show's strongest points, but it gives a lot for actors to play with. As an actress (albeit not a famous one by any stretch of the matter) I get the appeal of having that kind of creative freedom. You can see Jessica Lange really shines in that kind of environment. That's why I tune in to AHS, to marvel at the actors who manage to make me care, even if the material isn't the best.

Kari: Before going at length into the story of the episode, I want to make note of the opening sequence: same music, new images. I was really spellbound (ugh, Kari) by the teasers for this season featuring witch-trappings, solemnity, the seductive aspects of uniformity (this is funny considering all the mutant parallels later and a lot sexier than AHS's previous incorporation of S&M iconography — all those small girls in heels versus the looming Bates, Bassett, and Lange) and a rendition of "House of the Rising Sun" I would listen to on its own. I was disappointed not to see those images in the opening credits. Instead there were a different variety of figures in pointy hats. It really upset me, and it took me a while to sort out why I felt a lot of outrage and dread — besides the fact that, you know, Klansmen. I am a horror fan. Why do I experience a different set of feelings when confronted by something as horrible as the Klan? Because one of the things about horror that intrigues me as a subject is the way it pervades, its reasonlessness, its relationship to human nature. I do not believe you can stop it: part of life is engaging with the ongoing negotiation of it. But racially and sexually motivated violence comes from a stupid, petty, infuriating place inside people and inflames a stupid, petty social and cultural sore. The results of it are horrible. But the sources are impossible to ignore.

Julia: I'm with you on the Klan comments. The Klan doesn't terrify me, it disgusts me and it depresses me. Seeing a Klan member on the screen is almost a sure way to get me to turn something off and the use of them in the opening sequence took me out of the story completely. Also, it didn't make a whole lot of sense. New Orleans in particular wasn't a KKK hub. It had its own racist society, the Knights of the White Camellia, which was filled with prominent individuals in society. The White Camellia group, according to the Encyclopedia of Louisiana, didn't wear robes – they used their actual faces to terrify their victim. You can imagine the horror of finding out your tormentor was actually a state supreme court justice (because founder Alciblades DeBlanc was). That to me is a much more powerful storytelling tactic – that evil doesn't hide its face – than using the KKK image. It also plays into the AHS story, which seems to center around young witches as they struggle with their powers and the desire of Supreme Witch Fiona (Jessica Lange) to not hide her powers anymore.


The episode ends with one character raping another to death. I'm hesitant to say something on this show can be enjoyed for the wrong reasons because I think it would chafe at the notion of being enjoyed for the right ones — a contrarian ethos dictates, happily, I think, the whole production — but I did enjoy the transparent references so many moments made to iconic sci fi. Julia counted two whoppers: Taissa Farmiga's Zoe discovering her capacity to witch-out in the exact same way Rogue discovers she's a mutant in the X-Men movie, and Sarah Paulson's Cordelia and Jessica Lange's Fiona precise imitation of Dr. Xavier and Magneto (respectively) when they discuss the fate of their charges at Miss Robichaux's Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies — which is such a shameless rip-off of Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters that it makes me pine for the shameless rip-offs of seasons past. At least those moments lifted straight from media I enjoyed (I like good horror); I am not a fan enough of X-Men to be happy to see it where I'm not expecting it.

I can't watch the show every week — nothing about it excites me, but I was grateful and happy to engage with Julia, a very good friend and fabulous coworker, on something so singularly bizarre.

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