Wednesday, May 26, 2010

[Book Review] Tell-All

Tell-All, by Chuck Palahniuk, stinks.

Well, my copy does, anyway. I bought it as a preorder before Palahniuk's first stop on his book tour. When I got it home after the signing event, I noticed that it smelled like old women, but it wasn't until I actually opened it and started reading it that I realized just how potent the stink was. Apparently, Palahniuk hosed down all the preorders with Chanel No. 5 before handing them out, a move that's cute in its intent and annoying in its consequences. That phrase mostly sums up the novel, neatly enough.

Tell-All is narrated by Hazie Coogan, personal life assistant to Katherine Kenton, an obvious stand-in for Elizabeth Taylor (striking violent eyes, massive fame for headlining scores of films, roster of husbands that reads like the end credits of a big-budget movie in terms of both star power and sheer volume). Or, well, Hazie isn't Kenton's personal assistant, as Hazie keeps reminding the reader throughout the book. What role she actually plays in Kenton's life is more nebulous than that, expressed in a series of metaphors that make it clear that Hazie thinks that she's the power behind the throne of Kenton's fame.

Whether or not she's doing a good job of surreptitiously managing that fame is open to question, though. Katherine's career has completely stalled out, and the only social contact she has is attending dinner parties thrown by similarly antiquated relics of a bygone age, punctuated by humiliating lifetime award presentations in which the presenters invariably attempt to use Katherine's fame to catapult themselves into the public eye.

The novel's plot, appropriately enough, follows the classic Hollywood three-act formula. The first act sets up the dysfunctional but stable domestic relationship between Hazie and Katherine, and the second act introduces a dynamic disequilibrium into that relationship in the form of Webster Carlton Westward III, a young suitor who thrusts himself into Katherine's life with questionable motives for so doing. The novel climaxes in the third act in a bloody finale that traces parallels between the ridiculous Broadway show that Katherine finds herself cast as the lead of and the collapse of the sort-of love triangle between the three principals.

The second act suffers heavily from playing out like an aggressively formulaic television show, which makes less than perfect sense, given the lack of any mention of Katherine being involved in television. Repetition has always been one of Palahniuk's favored stylistic tools, and it's one that he usually employs to slowly reveal secrets of the personal mysteries that are his other hallmark. The problem here is that the mysteries are entirely transparent and the repetition grates rather than charms.

That latter shift is largely due to the nature of Hazie's character. Unlike Palahniuk's other narrators, Hazie is relatively articulate, which has the adverse effect of denying Palahniuk the chance to use the deliberately misused diction and abused syntax that characterize his other novels. That cuts away the weird allure of his usual voice, leaving us with only the tiny cultural and personal insights that he normally interweaves into his lists of gruesome and weird factoids. All of those are quite thin on the ground here, though, meaning that there's not much meat on the bone.

There's also a twist towards the end of the book, but it reads as less than half-hearted in its execution and its impact. Not only should it be obvious to anyone paying the least bit of attention to Hazie's tics long before it's revealed, when the reveal arrives, it seems bored with itself. Hazie herself describes it as heavy-handed, something that only a hack would bother to include in the story, given its obviousness.

It's not all awful. Palahniuk still has a great talent for humor that shades from dark to black, and he gets particularly good comic mileage out of employing the atrociously florid language of romance novels in the self-aggrandizing book Webster Carlton Westward III writes. Unfortunately, those bits of genuine humor are mostly buried beneath stylistic excess that doesn't support even the 179 pages that this story is stretched out over.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

[Review] High Tension

High Tension presents its audience with a story that it's almost certainly seen before: Two young women head out into the countryside, where they are menaced by a brutish cipher in the form of a lumbering, nearly faceless killer. They're forced to watch as people around them are slaughtered for no apparent reason. Some cat-and-mouse games take place, as these killers can inevitably detect the Protagonist Glow that the leads emit and decide to toy with those characters rather than killing them with the same efficiency that they've heretofore displayed. The leads suffer through various forms of abuse before enduring a final confrontation with the killer, after which there's a brief cool-down period before a final jump scare.

High Tension is a mostly standard slasher film with a Big Twist. I won't reveal what the details of that twist are, but I had somewhere stumbled across knowledge of it before I watched the movie. Knowing what I did gave some of the scenes a slightly more interesting, multilayered resonance than the by-the-numbers rote that makes up the rest of the narrative. Good twists make you want to immediately go back and watch a movie again, so you can pick up on the double meanings and hints that you missed the first time through, but the reveal here wasn't enough to make the film worth watching a second time. Mostly, the twist comes across as the filmmakers' attempt to add some cleverness to a subgenre that's known for a complete lack of same, rather than either an organic consequence of earlier events of the film or as an original reason to write the narrative in the first place.

The twist is also used as a commentary on the tropes of the slasher film, and as an attempt to add some internal consistency to the notoriously shaky mythology of how the narratives in that subgenre normally play out. Unfortunately, the twist opens up as many plot holes as it seals. The twist also endeavors to try to explain why the killer gets up to his crazy shenanigans in the first place, but instead adds a layer of nastiness that I think was wholly unintended on the part of the filmmakers. It doesn't jibe at all with the grime-and-gore aesthetic of the rest of the movie, and instead seems to be striking a wholly random blow against a subject that the rest of the movie only hints at.

I wouldn't have thought that a movie could be both unpleasantly nasty and boring at the same time, but High Tension manages to pull that off. I didn't care about what was happening on screen, excepting a morbid curiosity regarding how the plot would contrive to throw more bodies into the way of the walking meatgrinder that is the antagonist. Simultaneously, the tone of the film is so uniformly misanthropic that there was no fun to be had from the kinds of goofy/squirmy exploits of the American slasher icons that I'm more familiar with.

Transgression was obviously the highest item on the priority checklist of the makers of this movie, but rather than using transgressive imagery to challenge the audience in any way, it was crafted purely for its own sake. The closest similar film I can think of that I've seen was The Devil's Rejects, which also made me feel like someone spent its length puking into my brain. The difference between the two, though, is that though both present entirely loathsome characters and force the audience to draw some unsettling conclusions about the nature of a world without any kind of morality, personal or otherwise, Rejects also deals with themes that couldn't have been confronted without the use of the transgressive shocks that it employs. Though it's both crueler and more porny in its presentation of those shocks, it also has a terrific thematic payoff that Tension entirely lacks.

Tension is, in some ways, a very beautiful film. The cinematography uses a subtle, well-considered progression from medium shots to shots which are framed increasingly tightly. This does an excellent job of mirroring the psyches of the characters, who are themselves being backed into progressively smaller corners, both physically and emotionally. This is an old technique from the noir films of sixty years ago, but it's one that I'm always surprised isn't employed more often in horror films, which are a natural home for it. There's also a gorgeous filter-dissolve sequence in which the camera follows a woman running through a forest, unlike any other use of dynamic filtering that I've ever seen elsewhere.

The score does a fantastic job of evoking a sense of mechanical, inhumane dread, mostly through the use of nearly inaudible drones which resemble the sound of industrial machinery more than any musical cues. The sound design is especially striking; the noise of the killer's galoshes as he plods about, carving personal abattoirs out of every environment he enters, was easily the most unsettling element of the film.

Technically, there's a lot to recommend here. It's too bad that the filmmakers weren't able to translate those technical accomplishments into anything more noteworthy. The most depressing aspect of Tension is that it turns out to be nothing more than a slasher with some pretensions to art, and those aren't nearly as meaningful as they're trying to be.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


[insert boilerplate first-entry blog text here]

You know how this normally reads, so pretend you've read it.

The important thing to take away is that posts tagged [Review] will be as spoiler-free as I can make them, and posts tagged [Analysis] will assume that the audience has read the book or seen the movie already. (Music reviews won't bother with either, since there's nothing there to spoil.)