If I had the ability to do so, I'd spend about eighteen hours a day blogging about Stephen King. Not every single day; I'd do that on about ten of the fourteen days of the week, and set aside the others for
some of the other topics near and dear to my heart. But yeah, for sure on ten of those days, I'd get out of bed, have a spot of breakfast, go exercise, read King books/stories (or view movies) for nine hours or so, have some food, go exercise some more, and then write a blog post of some sort for about nine hours. Eat me some dinner, catch up on my shows, sleep for twelve hours, get up, and do it all over again. Not sure how many hours the day'd need to be, but that's mere details.
Yessir, that's the life for me.
Unfortunately, I'm stuck with this one. What that means, in terms of The Truth Inside The Lie, is that I'm perpetually backlogged with things I'd like to be writing about but can't find the time for.
Among those: I've got a number of books about King's works (or about adaptations of that work) that I have not yet made time to read. I hope to knock a bunch of those out before the end of the year, and it seems natural to review each of these as I go.
In that regard, the first domino has fallen:
Published in 2011 by Centipede Press, Joseph Aisenberg's Studies in the Horror Film: Brian De Palma's Carrie is a not-entirely-uncommon breed among books of film criticism: a book I enjoyed greatly despite frequently disagreeing with it.
The book, I regret to inform you, is long out of print. If you're a big fan of the movie, it might be worth your while to track one down. Copies can be pricey, but Amazon has one in what seems to be good condition for $15. It's certainly worth that if you're a fan of the movie; Aisenberg is very passionate on the subject, and devotes well over three hundred pages to analysis of its every nook and cranny. His method is to match through the entire film, one scene at a time, talking about basically any aspect of it that seems worthwhile. The emphasis is on the psychological content and on De Palma's masterful grasp of cinematic language, but Aisenberg also delves into behind-the-scenes issues of casting, filming, etc. He's interested in it all, and it shows.
He's also openly disdainful of many aspects of King's novel, which is where the average King fan might find the book to be a challenge. Aisenberg is also a bit sycophantic on the subject of De Palma, which is where I personally found it to be a bit of a challenge; but nevertheless, I feel like I learned to appreciate both this movie and De Palma's overall style more fully as a result of Aisenberg's passion for De Palma's films.
The bottom line is this: while I might quibble with some of Aisenberg's viewpoints and conclusions (and, indeed, his biases), I had an absolute blast reading this book. Every movie worth seeing ought to have a companion volume written by a fan as passionate and articulate as Aisenberg. If I could manage to get on that fourteen-day-week, eighteen-hour-day rotation, I'd aspire to crank out an entire series of these books myself. And frankly, I'd hope to be able to it half as well as Aisenberg does it here; if I managed it, I'd feel I'd been successful.
That said, parts of Aisenberg's book alienated me or put me on the defensive. For example, he spends a decent amount of time toward the beginning cataloguing various quotes given by King over the years and comparing the ways in which one contradicts another. The implication is clear: King is a liar, and not to be trusted.
As a hugely-invested King fan, that sort of thing chafes me. That said, I must confess that it's difficult to argue with the thesis that King has not always been consistent in the stories he's told about . . . well, about his stories. So I don't know, maybe it's totally fair to conclude that King is a stone-cold liar. Aisenberg doesn't go so far as to state such; and even the implication feels more like a journalistic-cataloguing impulse than an editorially-opinionated hit piece.
My take on it is that one trusts the explicit word of a born storyteller at one's own peril. One is best advised to seek -- if you'll pardon this meta-dramatic flourish -- the truth inside the lie. And after all, it may be possible for one's memories to change over time; discrepancies of the sort Aisenberg points out need not be purposeful mistruths, but could instead be the result of a fault memory. And anyways, Aisenberg doesn't restrict himself to King when it comes to pointing out stories that change over the years; Sissy Spacek comes in for a bit of examination in that regard, as well.
I'd like now to plow through the notes I took about the book while reading it, and touch on some of the things Aisenberg brings up.
- Aisenberg reveals -- and this information is likely available elsewhere, although I believe this is the first time I'd encountered it complete with a name -- that De Palma initially wanted to hire Betsy Slade for the role of Carrie White. This was largely on the strength of her performance in a television movie called Our Time. Screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen was less enthusiastic, though, and production designer Jack Fisk was campaigning heavily for Spacek (his wife). Cohen agreed, as did King, and De Palma eventually came around. Here's a photo of Slade in Our Time, in which I have to say that she has a look that would potentially be right for Carrie:
|In any case, Spacek got the part, and Slade's career was restricted to one-off television appearances for the next couple of decades.|
- There is plenty of useful information about what differences might have existed if De Palma had stuck entirely to Cohen's screenplay. (Or, more correctly, to his screenplays [plural due to there being multiple drafts].) For example, the film was not always intended to begin with either the volleyball sequence or the shower sequence. At one point, it would have begun with a flashback to Carrie's childhood, which then gave way to Carrie going to school on the morning of the shower incident. On the way to school, she would have been harassed by the same boy on a bicycle who gets a comeuppance later. The scene in the English class that includes Tommy's poem was also originally intended to take place before the volleyball game and shower incident, not on the next day, as the final edit establishes. Film, this book will help you understand, is a medium in which the story and the timeline of that story is often very different in the end than in its original conception. Never let anyone tell you that editing is anything but crucial.
- "Laurie and Spacek walk a thin red line between grotesque humor and genuine drama without ever making a misstep," Aisenberg gushes. "Their achievement is as disturbing and indelible as something from one of Ingmar Bergman's worst religious nightmares, but with an American Pop patina." The implication being that the patine of "American Pop" (whatever that is) is inherently less worthwhile that Bergmanesque religiosity. Having never seen an Ingmar Bergman film, I suppose I'm unable to actually speak to this; but it does make me reflexively grumpy. And also, I'd stop well short of saying that either Spacek or Laurie never make a misstep in their performances in this film. Both are great; neither is perfect.
- Aisenberg points out that the sign marking the empty lot next door to the Whites (which reads "For Sale, Paxton Realty") was a tip of the cap toward legendary-character-actor-to-be Bill Paxton, a friend of Jack Fisk's who assisted the production designer on Carrie. Paxton has long been one of my favorite actors, and while I knew about his involvement with this film, I'd forgotten about it. He also found the pig-farm where that sequence was filmed (including that wonderfully weird mural). Paxton never appeared in a King film, but his contributions to Carrie make him an honorary King-dom figure in my book.
- Aisenberg points out a couple of things I don't think I'd ever considered regarding the "Carrie White Eats Shit" graffiti on the gym doors: first, that Chris is almost certainly the artist; and, second, that it might be this graffiti that has Miss Collins in such a rage and leads to the girls' punishment. The former seems almost entirely likely, but the second strikes me as being unlikely. Was the tampon-throwing not sufficient? It certainly was in the novel. But, as we've established, Aisenberg is disdainful of the novel. An example of this attitude comes in the form of his assertion that while the graffiti comes straight from the novel, it is there written on a desk instead of scrawled on a wall. Aisenberg asserts that in the novel, this is "a throwaway detail without the same dramatic suggestiveness it has in the movie." There's no such thing as an incorrect opinion, but if there were, this would be one. At best, it's a misreading and underestimation of the novel; at worst, it's home-field refereeing from a De Palma fan. Let's break to a separate bulletpoint and continue:
- In the novel, the phrase appears as an epigraphical piece of evidence. I quote directly: "Graffiti scratched on a desk of the Barker Street Grammar School in Chamberlain: Carrie White eats shit." What Aisenberg seemingly fails to notice is the crucial detail in that quotation: that the anti-Carrie sentiment was found on a grammar school desk. Aisenberg, if I'm not mistaken, is British (the way this book is written -- "Mr" instead of "Mr." as one example -- leads me to believe that is the case), and if so, he may simply not realize that "grammar school" commonly (in America) means grades one through five. So in other words, some classmate of Carrie's scrawled that sentiment on a desk when she was somewhere between the ages of six and twelve. Whichever end of that spectrum is the case, the graffiti implies that this disdain for Carrie is an old thing, and that Carrie has been living with it for a long time. Do you get that from a single volleyball game? I don't think you do. I think that's okay; you don't necessarily need to get more than that for the movie to work, especially since the movie has no easy way to imply what King was able to imply in a mere sentence. Lacks the same dramatic suggestiveness it has in the movie, eh? You're right about that; it's got quite a bit more than the movie has, at least in this specific instance of comparison.
- I take Aisenberg to task at times, but he's also got boatloads of insight that only a fool would ignore. And he's not entirely uncritical of the film. Put those facts together and you get his observation that at a certain point a "logical problem starts to creep into the film, a slip, a blurring, or a mistake of sorts. As things play themselves out, it becomes clear Sue was completely uninvolved with Chris's plot to humiliate Carrie. The question then is, how did Chris know Tommy was going to be taking Carrie to the prom?" It's a great question, and one that I had never considered. I think the most logical answer is that either Sue or Tommy would have told at least one or two of their friends, who then (presumably) would have told dozens of people in a fit of aghast pique. The film does not address this, but that's okay; this explanation makes enough sense to suit me, and anyways, no explanation is really needed. Aisenberg, I think, would agree with that; he merely finds it to be interesting that the fact is unexplored.
- Aisenberg also spends a decent amount of time debunking the notion that Sue was a willing and active part of the conspiracy against Carrie. Which, apparently, is a thing some people actually think. I can theoretically imagine a future remake changing the story to make that a part of it; the story could easily accommodate such a change. But I don't know how anyone would watch the movie as it exists in De Palma's version and get that from it. People are really fuckin' stupid sometimes, I guess.
- As can be found on the DVD supplements, Betty Buckley had a key improvisation in the prom scene when she tells Carrie the story of her own prom-night experience. This brings to mind for me a mild problem that exists for critics who wish to see Carrie as purely a Brian De Palma film; or, for that matter, as purely a Stephen King film, purely a Lawrence D. Cohen film, etc. I'm not saying no films can be looked at as the product of a single auteur, but I am saying that if one believes any film can be viewed that way, one is so far off base as to be living on Phobos. What's fascinating is how well a film like Carrie hangs together despite the abundance of evidence suggesting that key bits were contributed purely by people other than De Palma, King, or Cohen. This is the magic of collaborative art. It can, and often does, produce atrocities; but it's just as apt to produce something inspired and cohesive despite being largely a product of happenstance. I refer to movies as "magic" not in a casual sense; I think that they are indeed quite magical in many instances, Carrie being one of them. That said, I think that fact tends to make the all-encompassing reverence for a director like De Palma feel a bit overblown and restricted. He did great work; inspired work, even. But an anecdote like Buckley's proves that he is by no means the be-all/end-all of this particular film.
- I've never seen The Bridge on the River Kwai (almost certainly a mistake on my part), but Aisenberg makes a hugely convincing case for it being a key inspiration for De Palma's staging of the scene leading up to the bucket of blood being dumped on Carrie. Maybe this is immediately evident to anyone who is familiar with both films; but it struck me as a bit of a revelation.
- Similarly, the imagined -- ? -- laughter Carrie experiences seems to come straight out of the F.W. Murnau film The Last Laugh. This is not one of my favorite bits of the film, and learning that its origins lie in silent cinema might not wholly change that, but it definitely intrigues me.
- Aisenberg is in top form here, analyzing Margaret's impaling: "After a cutaway to Carrie looking at her mother's dead body, the camera returns to Margaret and she's changed. Her face seems to have been tilted up slightly and lit better so we can see more of her creepy, peaceful expression. The camera then slowly pulls out, revealing Margaret's crucified body in its entirety: every strand of hair, every fold of her nightgown has been carefully (telekinetically?) arranged to make her resemble a renaissance portrait of St Sebastian, one far less tacky than the thing with the glowing eyes in Carrie's prayer closet. What exactly this means in difficult to say. Has Carrie deliberately inflicted the punishment on her mother as a profanation, or did the method simply spill out of her subconscious under duress, as has been usual with her up until the prom? And which idea is more disturbing to contemplate?" A very good question. Aisenberg has no answer, and I'd speculate that he doesn't really want one. I don't blame him; sometimes, ambiguity is far more rewarding than clarity. This is one of those times.
- Aisenberg veers into subjective wrongness again toward the end of the final chapter. "Carrie is one of the few movies that gets us to care about the characters and refuses to let them or us off the hook," he states. Fair enough; I don't agree that this is as rare a commodity as Aisenberg wants to make it seem, but I can roll with it. He continues, "It doesn't try to leave audiences pondering the kind of unnecessary fluff a movie like The Exorcist apparently felt it had to pile on, banal ideas about courage in the face of evil, the transcendence of love and tenderness, which are really just a way to assure us the filmmakers didn't mean all the horrible things they put on screen." Wait. Huh? First of all, that's a rather random dig at The Exorcist, which has played no role in this narrative and is perhaps only related to Carrie in that the success of the novel and film might have helped King's book reach publication. Second, did Aisenberg see some other movie called The Exorcist than the one I've seen numerous times? That assessment does not match my understanding of that film, even of the subpar Director's Cut, which has a more optimistic and cloying climax that might match some of what Aisenberg is saying. and surely a formalist critic like he seems to be would deign only to speak of the original edit of Friedkin's film. Then again, Aisenberg consistently spells Scorsese as "Scorcese" throughout this book when his name comes up, so maybe we need not place that much stock in his knowledge in certain areas.
- "Unfortunately," he writes a few sentences later, "after Carrie's success, such gotcha endings" [as the one here in which a dream Carrie reaches up from the grave toward a dream Sue] "quickly became a tiresome convention. Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1979), which initiated a huge self-cannibalizing cycle of slasher films, took things a step further. Each sported an unstoppable, bloodthirsty killer who kept on coming back for a final scare and the promise of sequel after sequel." That's a severe misreading of Halloween, and arguably of Friday the 13th as well. Michael Myers in Halloween is not necessarily revealed to be "unstoppable," but if he is, it's not a done deal until the final few moments of the film. And that scene is not similar to the end scene of Carrie in any way, (pardon the pun) shape, or form. It's designed to provide a long-lasting chill rather than a quick jolt; and it works. Should the sequels' misuse of this idea be held against it? I think not. The end of Friday the 13th does indeed seem to be drawn from Carrie, but so what? Carrie itself drew from Deliverance, and Friday the 13th is evoking that film, as well as De Palma's. So Aisenberg, who also goes on to rail against the Nightmare on Elm Street films, has lost the plot here.
- The book is rounded out by a couple of interviews Aisenberg did with De Palma and Cohen. These are well worth reading, especially Cohen's, but they are fraught with a bit too much ego on the author's part. He seems intent on proving to De Palma how smart he is, how perceptive, just how much he gets the movie. De Palma comes off as being barely tolerant of some of this, a fact which Aisenberg, in a brief explanatory forenote, passes off as being due to audio problems necessitating editing out parts of the transcript. Okay, sure. I'd have probably just not included the interview if it was going to make De Palma seem as cranky as he seems here, though. For example, when Aisenberg asks the director about the notion that Sue wrote Tommy's poem, he's not content to simply leave it there; he also wants to know if we are "supposed to take that as ironic" and "as a retro characterization of Sue." De Palma's enjoyable unimpressed response is, "I think you're digging a little deep there. It was in the screenplay."
- Maybe even worse than that, Aisenberg then tries -- ill-advisedly -- to compare the kids assing around in the English-class scene to the volleyball players. "I noticed the kids are throwing a ball of paper around that vaguely harkens back to the volleyball game," he declares. "What about a piece of paper?" comes the response from De Palma, sounding like a man who moments before had been intently checking his watch. Aisenberg attempts to press the issue, and De Palma says, "I don't recall making anything analogous to the volleyball game." I've read Hitchcock / Truffaut, and you, Joseph Aisenberg, are no Francois Truffaut. That being the case, I'd suggest not trying to lead the conversation with a genius director; you're apt to end up looking silly, as is the case through parts of this interview. Much of the rest of it is quite good, though. He takes it too far on occasion, but Aisenberg does know his stuff, and in some places De Palma does seem to be charmed by his clear reverence for the material.
- The Cohen interview is better, although Aisenberg simply can't keep his anti-King sentiments to himself. He does his best to get Cohen to join in, but doesn't have a whole lot of luck on that front. That doesn't result in the explosive repudiation of Aisenberg that ideally would have resulted, but we can't have everything, can we?
Anyways, lest those last few bits make me sound more sour on the book and its author than I intend, let me restate that I thoroughly enjoyed reading this edition of Studies in the Horror Film. (Other volumes in that series include both Salem's Lot and The Shining, the former of which I reviewed in 2014 and the latter of which I will be reviewing soon, as it is the next book I plan to read. There's also one on The Exorcist, but the only copy on Amazon is priced at $2649.94, the vendor of which can suck my dick AND balls. Fucking limited editions, man; they are a goddam scourge.) Whatever issues I may have with it, Aisenberg crafted a highly readable, passionately argued, and generally knowledgeable long-form critical study of an essential film.
You CAN ask for more than that, I guess . . . but if you do, you're being awfully greedy.