Monday, November 30, 2015

Penn & Teller: Social Comedy and Edutainment

This past week, I was in Las Vegas, Nevada for the National Communication Association conference. I participated in a great pre-conference on sustainable communication, saw fabulous panels in rhetoric, religion, and science, and was honored to see a former student shine at her panel on material space and architecture. In the evening, I was able to explore some of Las Vegas's shows and strip night life. I attended Penn & Teller's show at the Rio Saturday night and knew immediately that I wanted to write a post about it. In this post, I will discuss some of my favorite tricks from the show and also my thoughts about the political, social, and scientific commentary that highlighted for me the importance of educational entertainment. I do not mean to give "spoilers" or to ruin the magic for anyone, so read at your own risk.

Retrieved from this site.
My first observation of the show was how honest and open Penn & Teller were about the art of deception. Many times, they blatantly told us what they doing and yet we were still bamboozled and confused. For example, Penn gave a speech condemning "psychics" who use tactics of cold reading to make audiences think that they have supernatural powers. Penn called out John Edward and Sylvia Browne, for example, for capitalizing on people's pain and misery in giving false hope through magic masquerading as messages from people who have passed. Penn has prepped us then, that what he is doing is really a trick. But, he does the readings so quickly and so spectacularly, it's really a wonder how he does it at all. In fact, being prepped and reminded about how the show is entirely full of tricks elevates one's awe and wonder because it has a natural explanation. If the answer is supernatural, then it is the supernatural power that is impressive, not the artist.

Retrieved from this site.
One of the themes of the show was represented on a sign that Teller held up during one of the tricks: "We aren't doing the trick you think we are doing." He flat out tells the audience that deception is occurring and Penn & Teller cannot be trusted, and yet the audience still falls for the trap, time and time again. My favorite trick was relatively simple in its set-up. Teller chose a woman from the audience and gave her a coin jar. He then began picking water drops from a fish tank and turned them into pennies which he placed in the jar. Even though I was in the very back corner of the mezzanine, I could still see and understand the tricks easily as they happened. The trick ended with Teller picking up a handful of pennies and dumping them back into the water. Instead of the pennies turning back into water, however, they sank to the bottom while dozens of goldfish appeared in the tank - it was truly incredible.

Retrieved from this site.
Part of what I was not expecting was the prevalence of social and political commentary in the show. Penn & Teller are widely known as libertarians and Penn is an outspoken public atheist. One trick included a short speech by Penn about airport security using a TSA metal detector. The trick was, again, amazing, but it also gave the audience an opportunity to reflect on the sacrificing of values and the usefulness of the TSA. Penn noted that the audience member chosen to come up on stage had as much training as a real TSA agent. They also showed how inaccurate and thus unnecessary many of the practices are. My favorite part of the sketch was Penn summarizing that we should all think about how our temporary security is often valued more highly than our eternal liberty. This is the type of comedy that reminds me of Lewis Black, where the jokes are purposeful and cause us to reflect on larger social issues.
Retrieved from this site.
This activism-comedy was also apparent in Penn & Teller's card trick. Teller performed sleight of hand magic while Penn played a guitar and told a story about "The Atheist's Deck of Cards." Based on a song by Tex Ritter, Penn & Teller tell the story about an audience member (Teller) who interrupts a physics lecture by Lawrence Krauss (who helped them write the song) and then tells a story using the cards to justify having them at the lecture. I was blown away by the amount of scientific information (which my partner, who is earning his PhD in Cosmology confirmed for me was accurate) packed into the song. From the four fundamental interactions in nature, the cosmological constant, and the size of the universe, the audience were learning about physics while also being mesmerized by Teller's sleight of hand.

Retrieved from this site.
I highly recommend Penn & Teller's show at the Rio. I'm not trying to advertise for them nor am I getting any reimbursement for this review. I am simply hopeful that Penn & Teller, along with other types of "edutainment" can help everyone learn more when they are not expecting it and give audiences chances for reflection and advocacy. Entertainment has aspects of education and can be harnessed to create a more active, engaged public. In a city known for its debauchery, sinfulness, and extravagance, I felt the simplicity and insight of Penn & Teller's show a welcome change of pace.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Sexual Anxieties and Horror: Crimson Peak

This is the final installment of my three series set on horror films and sexuality. My first two posts examined Teeth and It Follows. Each of these films embraces female sexuality in different ways that I think deserve scholarly attention. Teeth creates a monstrous feminine that frames female sexuality to be a tool for empowerment that is often suppressed by male domination. It Follows neutralizes sex as an equalizer between the sexes and removes the stigma of promiscuity from female sexual interactions. In this final post, I will unpack the sexual anxieties present in Crimson Peak (2015). As with the last two posts and my other posts about horror films (e.g., The Visit, The Purge: Anarchy), this post will have spoilers and detailed analysis about the film's key ideas.

Movie poster retrieved from IMDB.

To be frank, Crimson Peak was an awkward film to see with my brother. The film addresses incest and the blurred lines of familial love and familial violence. I will discuss the use of incest in the film as well as the romantic aspects of this horror film. I think Guillermo Del Toro has created another horror masterpiece. I do not know if it will stand up to the classics of Pan's Labyrinth, the Devil's Backbone, and The Orphanage, but it does embody an aesthetically pleasing and intoxicating horror story. The main character, Edith, is a timid virgin that falls hopelessly in love with Thomas marries him, and goes to live with him in England. Edith can see ghosts, namely the ghost of her mother, and writes ghost stories inspired by her supernatural abilities. This power is at first terrifying as she finds deformed, blood-soaked ghosts wandering her new home. It becomes clear, however, that these ghosts are warning Edith about her fate and imminent death at the hands of her new spouse and his sister, Lucille. It is revealed that Thomas and Lucille are lovers and have conspired to murder Edith for her father's money. Fighting and blood-stained snow occurs before Edith manages to escape the clutches of the incestuous pair. In what follows, I will bring up a few important points where I find female sexuality explored in interesting ways and sexuality's role in horror. I first briefly address the use of romance in the film, examine the taboo nature of incest, then the character of Lucille, and finally the role of women and traditional gender roles.
Lucille, Thomas, and Edith movie poster. Retrieved from this site.
In Edith's first rejection letter from a publisher, the editor laments that her ghost story does not include enough romance. This small scene was brilliantly added by Del Toro because it sets up the entire rest of the film for the audience to expect romance and not horror. Although Del Toro is the King of Horror and the film was marketed as such, this nearly throwaway line redirects the audience's attention from the ghost story to the romantic plot line. The film is really about Edith's love and, arguably more so, about Lucille's love. The two women have competing love stories that tie them together in a fight to death. Yes there are ghosts and yes there is blood, but the story's forward progress is not fear or anger, but love. Love is also an uncommon theme in horror films; more often it is lust, obsession, revenge, and sex that drives the character's actions. In this move, I think Del Toro does a great service to horror films by reminding contemporary audiences that fear and catharsis is but one aspect of a good story. Indeed, his film's often have the unique ability to incite both fear and awe, horror and hope, anger and sadness.

Del Toro immediately sets up the film so that we are suspect of Thomas and Lucille's intentions. There are secret meetings, unscrupulous attempts to raise money and to blackmail others, and an air of suggestive closeness between the two. At first, I thought perhaps they were married and were using a ruse of being siblings to attract dowries from Thomas's future spouses. The audience's mind, even though offered that they are related, first attempts other explanations to explain their lingering hugs, sideways glances, and Lucille's jealousy. When it is revealed in more explicit detail that Thomas and Lucille are sleeping together, Edith at first cannot believe it and shouts that she knew they were not brother and sister. Lucille responds, "but we are!" Confronted with the information directly before her eyes with knowledge of their deformed child, Edith still reconciles her perceptions with anything but incest. Incest becomes the twist, the plot point that was in front of our eyes the entire film, but we could not yet believe it until it is confirmed by Lucille. Incest is a sexual taboo not often addressed in horror films. It emerged in Here Comes the Devil, another film with a Spanish director, but is not a common media trope. Dysfunctional families and families undergoing trauma are often fodder for horror films, such as We Are What We Are, The Devil's Rejects, Red Dragon, The Babadook, and, of course, Psycho. Del Toro's use of incest and elevating the dysfunctional family to the level of incest draws forth interesting thoughts about how society differentiates between sexuality and love. If Lucille had simply loved her brother without having sex with him, perhaps the implications of their relationship would not be so terrifying.

Lucille taking control. Retrieved from this site.
I think that Lucille could have easily been the hero instead of the villain of the film if her sexuality had been removed from the film by either being Thomas's sister and not having sex with him, or not being his sister. Upon reflection, many of Lucille's actions are ones of pure love and adoration - she murders those who might come between her and Thomas, sacrifices her temporary satisfaction in the relationship to help the family financially, and is jealous of those that compete for Thomas's affection. For example, in Del Toro's other films, we don't fault the mother in The Orphanage for jeopardizing her relationship with her husband in her search for her son. In Mama, we don't question the actions of the lead character for protecting her boyfriends nieces. These familial relationships are honored and understandable, but we do not perceive of Lucille in the same way. Instead, Lucille is evil because her brand of love is taboo. I do not condone incest; it's presence caused me to think about the lines that all humans draw through symbols and communication that separate the sacred and profane. Mircea Eliade argued that religious thought is rooted in human separation between what is sacred and thus revered and worshiped, and what profane or filthy. Much like eating cow if you are Hindu, certain actions and rituals are deemed off limits to remain pious to a particular order. I remember talking in sociology class about how eating human flesh and incest are as close to the two most universal taboo actions in human history, and still they are not universal. Incest is close enough to it, however, that its presence in a narrative immediately defines those who are good and those who are evil. I wonder if this particular sexuality were removed from Lucille, however, that we would hate her so much for her actions. She is fighting for the wrong, most profane, most taboo type of love, whereas Edith's virginity and purity are the foil.

Brother and sister. Retrieved from this site.
These two arguments unfold what I think is the most important part of the film - it's not about Thomas. Although he does receive a good portion of screen time, the film is a war between Edith and Lucille with Thomas as merely a chess piece. You are clearly told through the plot that Thomas has been overwhelmingly influenced by his sister to act as he does and you wonder if Thomas is responsible for any of film's terrors. The audience becomes sympathetic to him as he tries to reconcile his sister with Edith, the new woman he loves. Thomas has no control over the action of the film; even in death he is only a brief distraction that Edith uses to kill Lucille. The female leads trump the "hero" doctor, Alan, who comes to save Edith and only ends up a burden to her as she slowly walks his injured self back to town. The men are ancillary characters to the epic battle between empowered and strong women. They fight for their lives and also for love and normalcy. Unlike the traditional story line of multiple men fighting over a woman like an object, it is Thomas who becomes the target of the audience's gaze as he is pushed and pulled between the two women, unable to control his own emotions and unable to act to protect himself, Alan, Lucille, or Edith. Instead it is Lucille and Edith who take strong, decisive action - they break rules to explore passages, they murder men with their bare hands, they beat and chase each other, they sacrifice their own flesh and blood for what they want.

In these three horror films, I find fascinating and interesting themes about female sexuality and how it can be used as a source of power, can be normalized in everyday life, and can be used to invert traditional roles for women. As I've mentioned in a previous post, one aspect that draws me to the horror genre is its penchant for creativity. Many genres become pigeon-holed in cliche plots that never seem to vary from the boy meets girl or person saves someone from place they aren't supposed to be narratives. In horror, however, I find innovation, inversion, and inquiry into the very aspects of what makes us human, and the different ways that people deal with reality and the supernatural. Unlike other genres, I also think horror addresses sexuality and the line between life and death in unique ways. I'm hopeful that the genre will continue to innovate and push our expectations for what we expect films to do.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Sexual Anxieties and Horror: It Follows

Last week, I started a series of three posts about horror films and sexuality. The first week discussed "Teeth" and the complications of sexual purity, education, and consent. This week addresses "It Follows," a 2015 film with a unique and exciting "monster." I will first discuss the film as an innovative step forward in the horror genre. Then, I will praise the film's subtle but profound incorporation of female sexual empowerment. All three of these posts will contain detailed plot information and reflection, so those who do not want to be "spoiled" should skip these posts.

Movie poster retrieved from this site.
It Follows was simultaneously praised as an instant classic and creative horror endeavor. The plot is simple, yet immediately and strikingly unnerving. The film's "monster" is a shape-shifting, unidentified creature that slowly but adamantly walks directly towards its prey. Once caught, the person is ripped to shreds. The creature has no shape of its own; the monster is truly hidden in plain sight, hiding with the appearance of strangers, friends, or family. This set-up has the unique ability to invoke fear in the audience with scenes of people walking towards the camera in the background. What is normally considered an average part of everyday life becomes a potential and immediate threat. Without seeing the film yourself, it is hard to convey the silliness one feels at being completely terrified at a young girl or old woman walking slowly towards you. That is part of the genius of the film; the banal, everyday activities become risky, dangerous, and potentially life-ending. What actions do we participate in everyday, how many people do we cross paths with, that could alter our lives indefinitely? The film also conveys intense paranoia, where anyone approaching the main characters are met with skepticism and aggression before they can be identified. Even when the characters flee the town briefly and relax on the beach, there is an ominous aura that the creature will catch up eventually; any safety is only temporary.

I will now discuss the sexual elements of the film. The "creature" follows individuals based on their sexual partners. The origins of the creature are left quite murky, but, in short, the creature follows whoever the person it was previously following has sex with. Jay, the lead female character, has sex on a date and catches "It." Her sexual partner was kind enough to explain the creature to her and warn her to pass "It" along quickly or else it will kill her. There are certainly undertones of sexual anxiety here. Any sexual partner could result in an STD or pregnancy, which is an obvious metaphor for "It" that silently follows but has the potential to kill. This metaphor breaks down, however, when one thinks of passing the creature to others so that one could be rid of it themselves. STDs are reciprocal and cannot be erased by sex with others. Indeed, this type of thinking is indicative of myths where sex with virgins can cure AIDS. Some have called It Follows as an exercise in sexual fear and anxiety, because of the potential consequences and risks one takes when engaging in sexual activity, especially casually so. Despite these potentially shaming interpretations, I see positive and productive scenes that sexually empower women. I will discuss three of them: when Jay is originally passed "It," the discussions the main characters have about destroying the creature, and the act of following and stalking.

Still from It Follows retrieved from this site.
There is a long-lasting myth that women use sex for power, money, and ulterior motives. The stereotype is that men require sex more and women less, so women can dangle sexual relief as a bargaining chip. I feel no need to explicate why these stereotypes are just that, stereotypes with little practical application. Given this assumption and other sexual myths that circulate in popular culture, I find the scene where Jay is passed the creature by Hugh a welcome inversion. Hugh, a male, is the one using Jay and sex for a non-sexual purpose - to pass the creature along. He dates Jay and acts with a motivation unrelated to the relationship and having sex. Instead, he has sex out of the need for self-preservation, out of fear, not unlike a victim of domestic assault. Instead of the female using sex maliciously or with ulterior motives, Jay enjoys her casual, sexual encounter and we feel no animosity towards her. Instead, our scorn is directed towards Hugh, however briefly, the man who has sex to save his own skin and endangers the main character's life. Sex becomes a betrayal of her consent; Jay got far more than she expected from the encounter. Unlike current arguments about abortion and birth control, we don't feel that Jay's consent to the sexual encounter makes her somehow "deserving" of this fate.

Image retrieved from this site.
After Jay convinces her friend of the danger she is in, they discuss how to kill it. Jay decides and consents to sex with a member of the group to pass the creature along to buy them more time. There is the implication that the male may be better able to protect himself, or simply that this is Jay's sexual preference. Either way, his brutal death confirms for the group that there is no safety based on one's gender. Everyone is equally susceptible to the actions of this creature. Perhaps it is time or death itself that marches towards all of us. Later in the film, Jay has sex with another male friend, who quickly has sex with a prostitute. Sex, in the film, is removed from its traditional, romantic settings. Instead, it becomes a normal part of life that may be engaged in for many reasons besides love. Although we might condemn Hugh at first for his actions, we become accustomed quickly to the idea that if sex is the way "It" operates, sex may also be the solution to defeating it. Jay and Paul have sex from a platonic, friendship type of love, concerned for Jay's safety. This sexual act blossoms into romantic love, but this was not its roots. It Follows presents an alternative view of sex. Unlike Teeth, sex is not dangerous or shameful. There are potential consequences to its engagement, but the danger of "It" is separated and distinct from the sex itself. Sex is a more normalized, everyday activity that holds no more or no less threat than other daily activities. Sex is not given the importance that is provided in Teeth and thus removes the common sex-shaming in horror films and  the "sluts die first" mentality.

Catcalling video mentioned below.

While watching It Follows, I couldn't help but be reminded of the video where a woman filmed herself walking along in New York City for a day. The simple act of walking, of being followed, is a fear that women every day fear. As someone who has been followed from a bus to a Metro being taunted by a man, and on a separate occasion been grabbed by someone approaching from behind (in addition to numerous verbal assaults), the fear and uncertainty of being followed is well communicated in the film. Everyone may not immediately recognize the potential danger in stalkers or people following, but the film illuminates this potential danger. Anyone walking behind the main characters is noticed and understood as a threat. I don't believe that everyone is a potential threat, but it is clear that everyone has the potential to be. Unexpectedly, strangers (and sometimes even friends) can become risks to one's self-hood and safety. And it may begin with a simple act of following.

Image retrieved from this site.
It Follows quickly became one of my favorite horror films. I applaud the interesting and exciting decisions made about the actions and appearance of the creature and greatly enjoyed the sexual themes throughout the film. No film is perfect, and indeed I may have changed a few elements of the film to further its cohesion and consistency, but It Follows communicated a positive, inclusive message that I hope will be furthered in future horror films. Films have the power to influence public opinion and insert educational messages in an entertaining way. The normalization of sex and the empowerment of female sexuality are productive trends in the journey towards equality and sexual freedom.