Saturday, July 14, 2018

horror films, mothers as monsters, and a bifurcation of mother-as-mother and mother-as-artist

I am not always sure that professional artists, defined in so broad a sense as to perhaps be useless, can entirely appreciate the enormity of time it takes to be a parent.  Or, rather, I get that Anglo-American artists do get that parenting is a huge responsibility but I'm not sure they are reconciled to that.

I saw a review or two of the recent Charlize Theron film and one headline gave away the premise by saying that the film was the best horror film about motherhood since The Babadook.  Ah, another film in which the gritty realism of mothers wanting to kill their own children is considered real and gritty.   Horror movies can't be considered realistic for obvious reasons, the sheer frequency of supernatural story elements that are considered unrealistic in our day and age at a literal, critical level.  But horror films and horror stories tend to be considered true at a psychological level--a horror movie is expected to reveal something true about ourselves that we prefer to not recognize at the level of cultural scripts.  If the cultural script is that motherhood is a sacred and beautiful duty the horror movie script is the photo-negative of how motherhood is a life-ending responsibility in which whoever you were before you became a mother has died, is dying, and that you find yourself tested and failing to rise to the impossible standards of ushering in a new living soul into the world.

South Park had an episode dedicated to, among other things, satirizing sex education classes.  A teacher explains to the girls of the class that the worst sexually transmitted disease they could ever get was ... pregnancy. People might want to have sex but the horrifying reality that among straight people sex would, inevitably, in many cases, lead to babies, is the basis for horror.  As liberating as being able to find a sexual relationship is expected to be right up to the point that living human beings are born from it, the entertainment industries of various brows seems to embody a riff on Oscar Wilde's old joke that every comedy ends with a marriage and every tragedy begins with one--perhaps every comedy culminates in a sexual relationship and every drama or horror film somehow grapples with the aftermath in which some new person's life depends on the people who had sex raising the resultant baby.

A sweeping generalization, of course, but since journalists love to make sweeping generalizations, especially when writing about horror films and about things like motherhood it seems the ground has been seeded with a context in which to observe the ways in which sexuality-as-liberation and motherhood-as-imprisonment has become normative in Anglo-American film criticism and literary musings.

So we get Hereditary.  I haven't seen it, it could be a great film.  I have seen The Babadook, though, so I have some context for why the theme of murderous mother might keep coming up.

https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/07/hereditary-and-the-monstrousness-of-creative-moms/564815/

But it seems as though one of the tossed off bits of background for The Babadook that could be more front and center is ... what ... exactly was the mother's day job?  Yes, the titular character became a gay icon and there's writing about that but ... what was Amelia's job?  I can only dimly remember it being something fairly routine for these kinds of films in which writers write stories about writers.  It wasn't exactly The Dark Half stuff, but it can seem that writers write stories about writers whether or not that's statistically normal.

Which is me wondering about whether the belief that motherhood and artisthood are incompatible is taken as a given when it's not entirely necessary.  It's possible that the working definition of motherhood is wrong (possible) in Western post-industrial culture or that the definition of what is entailed in being an artist is wrong (which, honestly, seems to be the more probable explanation).  It can seem as though there is a script which says that you can either be a parent or an artist but you can't "really" be both. 

But some of the writing about The Babadook has riffed on grief rather than the identity-devouring elements that some writers feel is endemic to motherhood.
 
 
Those lucky enough to have already seen the movie, which the director of The Exorcist called the most terrifying film he'd ever seen, quickly realized it wasn't quite about the titular boogeyman itself, nor was it about his evil book-vessel that haunts Amelia and her son Sam, whose father was killed in a car crash while driving his pregnant wife to the hospital to deliver him. Many reviews noted how the film gave form and voice to the unspoken horrors and pains of parenting, specifically motherhood, through the metaphor of an insanity-inducing demon.
 
First-time feature director Jennifer Kent admitted as much to Rolling Stone, saying "It really was connecting to that woman and her journey towards staring something nightmarish in the face. As the film progresses, you start to realize: Oh my God, the kid was right—and that's where the fear is for me."

There's some interesting stuff about how children and adults grieve in different ways but within the film itself one of the questions that comes up for Amelia is why she didn't feel she could find a new man half a decade after her husband's untimely death in an auto accident (I think it was) on the way to the delivery f their son Sam.  There's a lot of set-up that's required for these films to execute their premise and while The Babadook was okay I felt it was a bit oversold.

But as films go which imagine that a woman can be an effective artist or a literally decent mother go it seems there' a consensus that you can only pick one of these.

Why?

I don't think an answer is necessarily going to be found because I'm just not sure about the nature of the question.  Rather than put things in terms of heteropatriarchy since plenty of writers are already doing that, what if we consider the economics and class issues at stake.  It seems that this horror dichotomy of the woman who can either be an artist or a mother is a middle class thing.  Women in these stories are born into just enough financial security that they can choose one of the two paths but cannot choose both at the same time.  So this kind of Hereditary/Babadook/Tully horror set-up can't even really happen for a woman who can't afford to hire nannies or servants (i.e housecleaners and babysitters and so on).  Which is another way of getting around a more blunt point, which is that in order for this sort of horror movie set up to work the woman at the center of suh a story has to be able to consider the mere possibility of being an artist, and being an artist in a way which by very definition excludes motherhood from the realm of its possibilities.

That's the part that seems hard to believe.  My friends and relatives who are mothers are every bit as creative as any of the writers or artists I have met.  Often, to be blunt nad mean about this, they are necessarily more creative and out-of-the-box because they have to live in the real world and recognize it in a way that writers can sort of ... not do in the same way.  I can think of a few mothers who are writers and artists and it seems in the real world people ive with the fact that their attentiosn are necessarily divided.  Take away this real world concession about the gap betwee n"vocation" and activity and the foundational premises of horror stories like The Babadook or Tully or Hereditary might just wither on the vine.  For instance, had Amelia remarried within a few years of the death of her husband key elements of her social isolation and inability to deal with her son's emotional and mental disturbances wouldn't incubate the crisis of the Babadook in the same way.  The metaphor is so patently  obvious that although it does "work" at a narrative level the fact that it works highlights all the more starkly that the screenwriter chose the set up precisely so as to give the monster every opportunity to grow.  As Bill Watterson quipped in reply to complaints about Calvin's behavior, we all know how entertaining good role models actually are.

People arguably waited until years after Fred Rogers was dead to decide it was time to actually celebrate Mr. Rogers.  It might be another moment in which to somewhat cynically ask why the film industry waited until the era of Trump to celebrate Fred Rogers' legacy just as one could ask why it was only after Hillary Clinton lost the electoral college vote in 2016 that Harvey Weinstein's decades of alleged predation became a subject for the public sphere.  The predation could very well have been real and if it was, in fact, real, the question becomes all the more salient why Hollywood as an entire industry looked the other way for decades.  Necessarily they looked the other way for decades when someone else in the film industry at a more peripheral level was reportedly doing sleazy and terrible things, too.  There might be no more flamboyant case of pots calling the kettle black than people in the entertainment industries denouncing the current president for a history of sexual predation and harassment.  Denouncing those things is necessary, no doubt, and yet it can seem as though 2016 was, to go by available cases, the decision of voting for a perpetrator or an enabler and while one could argue that's invoking "false equivalence" it might tell us something unsettling about the nature of the United States that those were the two options. 

I think it was Steven Grant who once wrote that people misunderstand tragedy and take it to be the triumph of evil over good.  What tragedy was historically considered to be was when the tragic hero chooses the lesser good over the greater good and often lost the lesser good along the way, too.  Horror movies seem to be the flip side of what seems to be a temperamentally anti-tragic American culture industry.  Although I've seen more than a few easy quips about Puritans and triumphalism I don't think the Calvinism is the explanation half so much as the postmillennialist legacy.  If you believe you're part of a society that will in essence hand the world to Jesus on a silver platter when Jesus returns this is a mentality that permeates the red and blue alike in American cultural discourse, the left and the right respectively.  Americans and Brits can't let go of some narrative, even if vestigial, in which they get to usher in the new era of global utopia.   Whether we're looking at Dominionists or theonomists on a religious right or Trekkies on a secular left the core philosophy of history isn't necessarily different in practice.  It's an anti-tragic conception of history.

It may be that the only way these sorts of societies and social groups can countenance the mere possibility of a tragic rupture between ideal and actual history is through the horror genre.  The social or individual sense of potential failure has to be as catastrophic in scope as the optimism of entitled triumph.  White Western artists steeped in what Jonathan Haidt called WEIRD praxis seem to have to imagine that they can engineer heaven or hell on earth.  That doesn't seem to be how it is actually playing out in reality. 

It doesn't seem to be how things are allowed to play out on film and that may say less about the realities of motherhood and artistic activity "on the ground" as about what dualities and dualisms permeate what Adorno used to call the culture industry.  Artists making art in a market dynamic can imagine either committing entirely to the art thing or the parenthood thing but struggle to imagine that tentatively embracing both is possible.

That any journalists and film critics would regard Brad Bird's The Incredibles 2 as "regressive" in its sexual politics because Bob and Helen Parr wanted to be to be parents, love their children, and show that they're open to ending their superhero careers for the sake of their children says a lot less about Bird's films or views than it seems to say about the journalists who would regard Bird's work as somehow "regressive" because in as absurdly fantastical a story as The Incredibles Bob and Helen recognize that they have to divide their time and attention.  We're too far past any supposedly residual "Puritan" legacy to imagine that the obsession with art as vocation is informed by some nebulous Protestant work ethic.  No, if anything it seems more plausible to propose that a post-Romantic deification of the artist and art as an art religion makes more sense.  That explains more plausibly than some residual alleged "Puritan" legacy of "vocation" or a "Protestant work ethic" why in post-industrial Western film horror films imagine that a woman can choose motherhood or being the proverbial "art monster" but not both, because Moloch does not have to, so to speak, only be about industrialism or capitalism.  The potency of the metaphor from Lang's usage up until the present day is that there is some god you could sacrifice lives to and that legacy-god could be all sorts of things. 

But this bifurcation between woman as mother and woman as artist, as I was musing above, seems to be a function of class rather than something inherent to the life of women in general.  Perhaps one of the potential flaws of these kinds of cultural riffs is that the class delineation of these horror movie premises don't get examined as much as they could with respect to the class considerations--it may be easier to imagine that these films about middle to upper middle class women are about things to do with patriarchy but if no men impregnated women could these stories of mothers-as-monsters even happen?  For the time being the answer tends to be "no".  It may be that there's not much more to all of this than observing the simple tension between a steady sexual relationship as a liberation in the collective mind of the film industry on the one hand and an ever present anxiety about how to live with the most probable consequences.  This may always be a conundrum for the middle class because working class people can't easily imagine having to choose between making art and building a family and because if you're too high up on the social and economic strata in the top twenty percent or the proverbial one percent the tension doesn't exist there, either. 

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