Sunday, August 21, 2011

Dark Water(s), Withholding, and Point of View

For whatever reason, I decided this past week that I really needed to see both versions of Dark Water. (Maybe because it's been so rainy lately?) I picked up both Hideo Nakata's 2002 original and the 2005 American remake.

Watching these two different approaches to the same story turned out to be really helpful for me in terms of thinking about how character point-of-view can add to or detract from horror in storytelling.

The Hideo Nakata version of Dark Water allows the main/mother character (Yoshimi, played by Hitomi Kuroki) to see the ghost and interact with it far earlier than Walter Salles' version allows Jennifer Connelly's Dahlia to. Yoshimi sees the ghost about fifteen minutes into the film, whereas Dahlia doesn't see anything supernatural until almost the very end. Instead, Salles has her little girl, Ceci, see and interact with the ghost for most of the film, which has several unfortunate side-effects. First, allowing the child a privileged POV vis-a-vis the ghost is something we see all too often in horror films, and therefore feels hackneyed and trite. Second, it doesn't necessarily pay off in the specific context of the film. This is supposed to be Dahlia/Yoshimi's story, so to rob her of agency by not allowing her to see the ghost lessens its impact overall.

By contrast, confining the ghost to Yoshimi's POV in the J-horror version calls her mental stability into question in a much more effective way than Salles/Connelly's dull, repetitive neurotic shriekings at, say, an unfinished load of laundry. The audience has far more empathy for poor Yoshimi, who is seeing horrifying visions, than it does for Dahlia, who merely comes off as alternately whiny and strident for most of the film because essentially the only thing that's really bothering her is a drip in her ceiling. Oh, yes, and her flashbacks to her childhood.

Which brings me to another point: these flashbacks, as well as some other really obvious scenes in the Salles film, hammer home their points a little too hard. In the Hideo Nakata film, we are told obliquely that Yoshimi had a neglectful mother; in Salles' version, we are told this explicitly, and repeatedly, as though he doesn't trust his audience to make any connections for themselves.

Finally, one last little gripe I have with the writing in this film is that it is riddled with missed opportunities. The writers let things be far too easy for Dahlia. For example, when she is late to pick up Ceci from school because of a job interview, there are absolutely no consequences. She shows up late and kindergarten teacher Camryn Manheim cheerfully says, "Oh no worries, we put her in the after-school program." Little Ceci is happily reading a story with her fellow future latchkey kids. Phew! Good thing that scene ended comfortably! I'd hate for there to be any conflict in this story. In Nakata's version, the child's father ends up taking her home from school, and a bitter parental fight subsequently ensues.

Everything just comes so easily to Dahila. In her job interview she is hired on the spot. Yoshimi runs out of the interview to pick up her child and doesn't find out until later that she actually got it anyway. Oh, and a little reality-based nit-pick? Dahila is a former copy-editor who gets a job as a lab assistant at a radiology clinic. With absolutely no medial training. "I've always been interested in medicine." "You're hired!" Sure, why not? I mean, maybe in the heady pre-recession days of 2005 you could just waltz into a doctor's office and demand a job, I don't know. Seems to sound a bit of a false note to me. Anyway. Minor gripe. But it does relate to the writers' total inability to allow Dahlia to feel anything really serious at all for basically the first hour of the film.

Which brings me back to the concept of POV, and withholding information.

Why do Salles et al not allow Dahlia to get into anything honestly frightening for such a very long time?

I think perhaps they were trying too hard to create atmosphere and maintain suspense, all at the expense of storytelling.

As a writer, I find I am very often afraid to give too much away lest I undercut the Mystery of It All. The writers of Salles' Dark Water seemed to suffer from this same insecurity. Certainly withholding some information is necessary for suspenseful storytelling, to an extent, but so then is revelation. Let them see the bomb under the table for goodness sake. By withholding so very much in the first hour of the film, the American version just ended up boring the pants off me.

Extended scenes of Dahlia and Ceci on the Roosevelt Island tram, at the lawyer's office, at school, in the apartment, etc. began to wear me down. The scene where they view their potential new apartment seemed to be filmed in real time. Without an ounce of exaggeration, I've seen actual New York City apartments in less time than it took John C. Reilly to show us the one in Dark Water (his best lines in this scene: "There's the stove. There's the dishwasher."). As a result, the pacing in this film suffered terribly. Which is a shame, because the last 45 minutes of the movie actually weren't bad. It's amazing how easily I can see this in someone else's story and yet I commit this same error constantly while writing my own. Scene after scene of exposition and atmosphere-establishing clog the beginnings of my stories despite the fact that I must have been told to start in medias res about a thousand times.

Suddenly it became clear to me how POV and info withholding (and by extension, pacing) are intimately entwined. If you deny your main character access to the world of the story by overly restricting his/her point of view, you'll end up excessively withholding information, and a delayed story-start will be the inevitable consequence. Yes, you can certainly give secondary characters information and integrate them into the storyline but you've got to remember who your main character is and not lose sight of that.

Again, I think the temptation with writing horror is to withhold excessively out of fear of losing suspense or coming off as unsophisticated. But the alternative -- a boring 60 minutes of watching Jennifer Connelly on the phone with her landlord -- is much, much worse.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

When You Reach Me

I just finished reading Rebecca Stead's thrilling YA novel, When You Reach Me. It's a bit of a genre-bender, starting out as a mystery and becoming more science fiction-y by the end of it, with plenty of the best kind of YA coming-of-age tenderness and poignancy all mashed up in there. I have kind of a pet peeve with really maudlin coming-of-age stories (I'm looking at you, Bridge to Terabithia) so I doubly appreciate a book that makes me cry while never stooping to manipulation. When You Reach Me walks that fine line ably, with such spare, unsentimental prose that the emotional effects of it cut that much more deeply. I kept having to stop whilst reading it on the subway and pretend to look up at something verrrry interesting and invisible on the ceiling.

With finely woven mystery elements, exquisite attention to detail, and some superb characterization, even in the minor characters (like Alice Evans, the shy-bladder girl at school), When You Reach Me doesn't drop a single stitch. Stead's obvious geek-girl fandom of Madeleine L'Engle is endearing, too, since it puts the reader in the place of sharing some collective memory -- what girl aged ten-to-twelve was not enraptured by L'Engle trilogy? -- and creates a kind of instant intimacy with Miranda, the protagonist. A vintage NYC setting only helped matters in my mind, as did the wonderful character of Miranda's mother, a frustrated, artsy type forced to toil humiliatingly in a law office. Next time I go to work I may wear purple and black striped stockings.

P.S. I found the image here.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Sprucing up the old homestead

I hope you like Spinster's re-design. I'm rather fond of it. It works in tandem with my new site, A.J. Sweeney, which I am now using as a semi-official "author site" to showcase my pretty little tales of death and murder, most of which were written under that pen name, and has had an awesome new face-lift, courtesy of the kickass web-designer Oleg Jelezniakov at OJ Works. Spinster Aunt will remain, as ever, a place for me to get cranky online. I feel positively modern.