Saturday, October 15, 2011

American Horror Story 1-01: Pilot

To use a ridiculous generalization, making a great work of art involves ambition and skill.  With skill but not ambition what you have is something that's pleasant to watch, maybe a weekly comfort, but also something that will be forgotten soon -- something like this year's Lights Out, for instance.  With neither what you have is something that's assembly-line crap, a work of art that follows every trope in the book while tripping over its own feet.  Perhaps the most fascinating, however, is ambition without execution, creating works that seem to hunch visibly under the weight of their failed dreams, and make you vaguely wish you could watch whatever show the creators originally envisioned.  In more colloquial terms, it's a trainwreck.  American Horror Story falls firmly into this last category.

The pilot opens on what is probably its dullest segment, an unimaginative haunted house story in which two mean twin brothers enter an old house, vandalize it, and are promptly punished.  Series creator and my personal nemesis Ryan Murphy (Glee, Nip/Tuck) uses his usual archetype of inexplicably brutal youths, both here and in the later high school scenes, bringing one-dimensional children's show archetypes to ostensibly adult television.  Before the twins enter the house their vileness is established by having them mock a girl with Down's Syndrome.  This girl, who shows up later as an adult, is symptomatic of the appropriation of otherness seen on Glee: Murphy aligns himself with the opressed of society, from the handicapped to the racially or sexually Other, but does so only to prove the point of the show's own progressiveness while reproducing the most malicious archetypes associated with them and/or leaving them to the wayside while more acceptable main characters get the spotlight.  Here, the disabled girl instantly falls into the "creepy retard" slot, having some kind of eerie connection to the haunted house and constantly warning everyone they're about to die.  I think this is symptomatic of the weakness of predominant liberal morals: shows of tolerance are all-important, so important that  children (or so it is implied) deserve to be killed over it, but all this tolerance doesn't stop you from actually beleiving that the disabled are creepy and quite possibly Satanic.

After our evil kids have been dispatched, we cut to a time called "Today", which is surprisingly ambivalent.  The events it depicts are immediately followed by a time skip of something like six months -- so is the main thrust of the plot set slightly in the future?  This kind of temporal dislocation occurs throughout the pilot -- some plot elements would seem to take months to unfold (e.g. poor Connie Britton's character (I'm not going to use her ridiculous name) becoming pregnant and learning about it, her psychiatrist husband noticing a change in his patient's behaviour), but there's really no impression of time passing, and it seems ridiculous to have other plot threads be going on for months.  Managing temporal unity without the aid of clumsy title cards is one of those many invisible but crucial skills that every competent filmmaker needs, and since there are none of those involved with American Horror Story it's notably absent.

Of course, that falls under the invisible-but-essential umbrella of directing, which is also poorly done here.  One of the reasons really bad shows are instructive in that the baseline aspects that enable a coherent narrative to take place are exposed by their absence.  Pretty much anyone out of film school can do "invisible" directing, which presents the story in as straightforward a manner as possible and calls no attention to itself.  For an example of this, turn on your TV to just about any channel.  Of course, you can go beyond this to create compelling visual images, as you can see in most "arthouse" films or shows like Breaking Bad or Mawaru Penguindrum.  But when you try to go for this stylistic flourish and fall flat on your face... that's when truly bad direction is created.[1]

The direction in the pilot of American Horror Story, attributed to Murphy, is a natural extension of increasingly annoying trends in mainstream film and television over the past decade or so, mostly the use of faux-handheld "shakycam" and rapid cutting.  No shot lasts more than a couple seconds, and the camera is constantly in motion, an effect that is very noticeable and very nauseating.  While this technique could be used to create suspense in a tense scene, when used for the entire episode it's just visually repellent.  Even in the horror scenes, the scare comes not so much from anything on screen but the fact that we can't see shit.

For an example of this in action, here's a clip from the next episode I found on Youtube, although the hyper-cutting doesn't start here until about half a minute in.

The issue is basically that this quick-cutting prevents the viewer from having a stable perspective -- in the above clip we have no time to put ourselves in the shoes of poor Connie Britton peering through the peephole, or someone beside her, or someone out on the porch, because we're being rapidly shuffled between all of these positions.  There's also no time to linger over any distinct screen image.  It's ADD directing, pitched at a culture used to viewing and not thinking.

Of course, this might be for the best, because there's not much to be scared of even if we could see clearly.  Murphy, in his usual postmodern way of recycling and referencing popular culture, draws on a wide variety of horror films, sometimes going so far as to recreate a famous sequence shot-by-shot.  One could say that the hypercutting is an attempt to bring contemporary horror films into the mix.  But the root of the issue is that Murphy never really seems to understand or offer a critical perspective on these films and conventions, so much as piling them all into a blender to make a sour cocktail.  At the root of it, American Horror Story doesn't really know what it wants to be, but only what it wants to be like.  This is probably most visible (well, audible) in the music, an unending assault of cliche horror tracks and direct lifting from the soundtracks of better things.  As a result, when it is forced to deliver original scares and ideas, it trips over its feet.

A great example is the scene I screencapped above.  The main couple's troubled teenage daughter (who, of course, cuts herself, because why not?) is trying to get back at her bullies, existing in that bizarre space Ryan Murphy thinks high school is like (where the only thing stopping students from smoking in the school courtyard is the bitchy student council).  She turns to the psychopathic patient of her father, a teenage boy whose intimidation value is cut down by his boy-band looks and his penchant for Hot Topic t-shirts.  She lures the one-dimensional teenage bitch down to her basement with the promise of drugs (memorable dialogue includes "I want my goddamn drugs")[2] and surprises her with the psycho, who is presumably supposed to be scary here but is wearing a shirt that says "Normal people scare me" just like every smarmy goth from your high school.  No, really.  And then there's a bunch of flickering lights and the kid turns into some furry monster momentarily, but you can't really get a good look at it because if you did it would look stupid.  It's like when you were a kid and your sibling would mess with you by flicking the lights on and off, except this show is supposed to be pitched at an adult audience.

I could really write a blog post five times this length, maybe a full book, on the failures of this pilot and what larger significance it has.  I've left untouched the characteristic misogyny, the ridiculous number of plots stuffed in here, the rushed pacing, and the thin regurgitated characters.  Making fun of this show feels fun, and I'm wary of that -- this kind of shit can get in our bloodstream from both ways, making us ignore better things in our focus on the trainwreck.  So while I'm almost tempted to watch future episodes of American Horror Story just to watch this wreck unfold, I won't.  I don't have enough time to watch all the good TV out there, let alone the bad stuff.

Next Week: I give you a flashback to that time you watched Lost.

[1]"Directing", as a category of critical analysis, usually includes things like cinematography and editing that are done by people other than the listed director -- which is a big issue with auteur theory.  As troubling as it can be to lump all these elements together, I'm doing it here for simplicity's sake.  The Film Crit God will hopefully forgive me.

[2]You may also notice that no one in this scenario, or in this show, acts remotely like a normal person, especially the characters that are supposed to be normal.  Poor Connie Britton is trying to act normal, but it's a losing effort.

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