Sunday, September 13, 2015

"The Visit," Race, and Disability

I recently saw a pre-screening of M. Night Shyamalan's "The Visit" at USC. I was excited to see the film because the trailer looked creepy and, as others have noted, this was potentially a epic comeback for the director. I am a fan of horror movies, so even without the hype, I probably would have gone to see it. I have to say that while it is better than many of Shyamalan's movies, I was very disappointed with the film. I am not going to "spoil" the cliché Shyamalan twist, but address the three main problems I had with the film.  First, I will address my small concerns about the flow of the movie and its stylistic choices. I also was concerned by its attempts to corner the "comedy horror" genre through racial appropriation. Finally, I find problematic the use of disability as the catalyst for shock moments. Although there are no spoilers, I will discuss some scenes of the film in detail.

The appeal of the first-person, found footage horror films has waned for me. Original uses, such as the Blair Witch Project, were pioneers in filmmaking style. Other films made great use of the medium, such as the V/H/S series. I also found that this style worked for the gritty and entertaining As Above So Below. For most movies, however, I feel that the found footage genre reduces the thrills that it tries to engage. The camera angles and the following of the drama is completely limited by one of the characters moving it or its placement in a fixed position. Thus, the camera is either a static frame or is missing a character. Because the camera reacts with the character, frightening sequences are often cut short. In The Visit, the two children often interrupt or come across their grandma in various aggressive or startling actions. The audience, however, gets barely a glimpse before the main characters run away in fear. What could be longer, thrilling scenes turn into brief "shock" moments where the music amps up and something flashes before the screen. This type of horror tricks seems quite overplayed, where there are far more intriguing moments of horror in present day films. I hope to discuss It Follows more in an upcoming post, but I will note briefly here that it makes fabulous use of every day activities and long scenes where there is immense building of terror and suspense. Another great contemporary example is The Babadook, where the female protagonist bravely encounters the ghoul in her home in long, terrifying battle, instead of a brief flash in a window or doorway.

Image retrieved from Wikipedia
Image retrieved from this site.

Now that I've indulged my pure opinions on the horror genre, I will now engage more theoretically motivated concerns. While I did find The Visit funny (Katy Perry!), the humor was mostly nested in appropriating black culture and the juxtaposition between freestyle culture and a young, white boy. The younger brother in the film, Tyler, adopts the style, mannerisms, and attitude of black culture for the purpose of comedic relief. Comedy and horror often go together. For example, the iconic Evil Dead series could seamlessly make you laugh while you were terrified and a bit uneasy. This is epitomized in the Evil Dead 2 (my favorite of the series) scene in which the items in the cabin start laughing along with Ash - frightening and yet you cannot help but laugh along. Another one of my favorite horror films, Cabin in the Woods, makes you pause for reflecting at our own fascination with horror. The office party scene epitomizes the movie's brilliant satire work (and its opening is delightfully Funny Games-esque). Instead, the comedy in The Visit is pure relief, with no purpose behind it but to distract from what we just saw (brief as it already was) or poke fun at the disabled grandparents. I will discuss more about the grandparents later, but first I want to further discuss Tyler's character.

Image of Tyler in The Visit. Retrieved from this site.
The character is quite sweet and has his vulnerable moments where he seeks his sister's comfort. More often than not, Tyler draws his strength through his impersonation of black culture. As The Wrap's review noted, scenes where Tyler raps about women and sex are "burp[s] of coarse comedy." They seem out of place and forced, as if the only thing funny about the situation is that a young white boy might imitate gangster culture. This imitation, however, appropriates a different culture and undermines its history and purpose. The scene where Tyler raps on the train next to a black men, who is a worker on the train, is truly cringe-worthy. Kenneth Burke called this "perspective by incongruity" - where a word is applied in a completely new context and given a new meaning. What was once a unique part of black culture is now applied in a different context - a juxtaposition that creates humor. The humor is crude and appropriates black culture and further distracts from what could have been intriguing horror scenes.

Terror - supposedly, from a scene in The Visit. Retrieved from this site.
More central to the plot of the film is the mental and physical condition of the grandparents. The mother, who they Skype with, frequently brush off erratic behavior as "old people problems" and nothing out of the ordinary. Incontinence, memory loss, confusion, and generally odd behaviors are boiled down to "normal" plights of the elderly. Natural, elderly bodies become a source of scorn and disgust because of there differing abilities. In one scene, Tyler follows his grandfather to a hut, where Tyler thinks he is hiding "secrets." To recall the horror of "what's in the box?" among this reveal is truly embarrassing. The hut does not contain dismembered bodies, secret writings, or clues to a great family mystery. Instead, it contains the grandfather's incontinent diapers. The thrilling sequence of entering the space and watching for the grandfather's return is let down by the "big reveal." At points, I felt quite bad for the grandparents, who were constantly pestered by the granddaughter, Rebecca's, video camera. In an interview with the grandmother, Rebecca repeatedly asked her what happened on the day Rebecca's mother left the house. The grandmother responded many times with sadness, confusion, and aggressive outbursts; this event had obviously caused her great stress and trauma. I felt pity where Shyamalan wanted me to be frightened. But, I wasn't. I wasn't frightened by the effects of aging and sometimes erratic confusion caused by people who may have Alzheimer's or another disorder.

The "evil" in the film is simply that: being old. There is no evil spirit, motivated killer, or other source of evil besides the mentally and physically disabled. And that is a horror trope I simply cannot support: that the elderly and differently-abled are a source of evil and horror. Shyamalan sets up the elderly as the "other"; the ones against which the main characters (and thus the audience) contrasts our identity. But, one day, we may all experience these same problems and I hope that we are met with comfort and appreciation instead of fear and isolation. For those who have seen the movie, I am aware that there is more going on than simple aging. Despite this fact, I believe that this film constructs a rhetorical framework that isolates the elderly and reifies ability as normal.

No comments:

Post a Comment