Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Horror Movies

This doesn't count as Brenda's Forcening (TM-Thefted Material) pick, since it was just a straight-up recommendation. She discovered Gemma Files and fell in love, and I couldn't resist, so I picked up Experimental Film.

There's a darkness to this book that really belies almost anything you can say about it.  The story is about a woman, Lois Cairns, whose cobbled-together career as a teacher of film history and a critic of art films has pretty much stagnated.  She has an autistic son, a truly great husband, and a loving but critical mother. Lois is an abrasive person, and in a lot of ways she struggles to get along in the world.

At a screening of an experimental film, she recognizes the imagery in some of the old footage the filmmaker has used. As she starts to research the source material and the filmmaker, she realizes she might be on the trail an undiscovered artist, the first female Canadian filmmaker. But she also learns that the woman's life was plagued with troubles that hit close to home with Lois herself, and get stranger the more she learns.

I don't always like books with unlikeable narrators, and Lois is someone I particularly wouldn't like in real life--she has no patience for fools or for sensible people who contradict her; she is endlessly frustrated with everything around her; she experiences chronic health problems but does not attempt to address them or take care of herself.  I would never expect to like this character. 

But she carried the story so well for me.  I can't quite figure out why--maybe it's because she actually did run into so many fools and it was cathartic to watch her strip them down to the bone.  Maybe it's from watching Simon--who is endlessly patient, but also smart and perceptive and somehow in love with Lois. Or maybe it's her awareness of her own fallibility. Whatever the reason, I felt so much more sympathy for her than I would expect to for a narrator who's this much of a crank.

As with many good horror novels, the first third is mostly about a real, normal world, but I will say, that may be the darkest part.  I picture the entire first half of the book taking place at night, in a cold rain.  The fact that the glaring noonday sun is the pervasive imagery here doesn't take away from the sense of darkness gathering at the corners of everything.

One thing that I found both rough and appealing was all the information about art and film and Canadian experimental film in particular.  There are a lot of references, whole passages that explain how this character's work reminds her of the aesthetic of Artist X and the sensibilities of Filmmaker Y, none of whom you've heard of.  The claustrophobia of the tiny, intimate world in which she operates--partly elite and partly irrelevant--adds to the sense of creepiness, but you're not going to get the references, and you just have to coast over them and let them form a rich background for you to not look at too closely.

As the horror gets deeper, it gets stranger, and honestly, I feel like Lois comes to terms with the unreal situation she's in faster than I would have.  But she also has such an authentic voice, she's such a real person, that I felt like I was right there with her in the story--even when that was a creepy as hell place to be.

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