Friday, December 25, 2015

Quiet Silence

Merry Christmas, my darlings! Despite the hot, humid weather and the general atmosphere of disillusionment, Dead River is kicking up with the annual festivities. As much hype as there is surrounding Mardi Gras, I've never seen anyone in a Mardi Gras parade get their wig slapped off so the Dead River Christmas Parade wins that special place in my heart.

I've gotta finish baking my jalapeno cornbread because tonight, is Otis Calhoun's annual Christmas party and by all means, it's going to be really disgusting so I can't miss it. Otis has his the trailer all decked out like a Christmas wonderland, but it's just too bad he leaves those lights up all year round. Anyway, Otis started throwing a party every year instead of spending the holiday with his family because most of the Calhoun clan is locked up in Angola or Hunstville or Lieber and it's pretty hard to sneak eggnog into any of those places. His brother Lyle is going to try and make it if he can steal a car.
But before that, Audrey Reynolds is always a little down around this time of year because it's pretty hard to have a family Christmas when your mama's been committed to a psychiatric institution. However, re-watching ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST gave me the brilliant idea that the whacko-basket is the perfect place for a Christmas Party.  Butch Walker's law office partner, Henry Campbell, realized that his mother is actually in the same institution as Audrey's so you gotta love what a small world it is. So me and Henry and Butch and Audrey decided to dawn our gay apparel and go sing some Christmas carols for the good folks at the behavioral health institute who could use a little tidings of comfort and joy.
Marie Janisse is going to dress up like a Christmas elf and bring her all-girl punk-psychedelic acid metal-zydeco band, Satan's Chanteuses (email me if you'd like a copy of their Christmas CD), along too.

Henry said that ghost stories used to be a Christmas tradition but fundamentalist French-fryheads have to ruin everything, so after caroling we're going to head over to his house, put too much Peppermint Schnapps in the cocoa and watch THE SHINING.

And speaking of neurosis and mid-sized city debauchery, I have a special Christmas treat for you, gentle readers. Today I'm talkin' 'bout one of my favorite books of all time, featuring one of my favorite female protagonists of all time and that's MORVERN CALLAR written by ALAN WARNER.

Morvern is a taciturn 21-year-old woman working at a dead-end job for slave wages at a supermarket in an unnamed Scottish port town ("The Port"). On Christmas Eve morning, she wakes up to discover her novelist boyfriend has committed suicide on the kitchen floor, unthoughtfully leaving her with quite a mess to clean up before she heads in to work.

"He'd cut his throat with the knife. He'd near chopped off His hand with the meat cleaver. He couldn't object so I lit a Silk Cut. A sort of wave of something was going across me. There was fright but I'd daydreamed how I'd be."

Morvern prepares for her day (comically jumping over her boyfriend's body to go about her routine), unwraps her Christmas presents (including a leather jacket and a Walkman from her deceased boyfriend which she will carry with her throughout the novel) and leaves for work. After her shift at her hated job, she heads over to The Mantrap, a local bar and dance club, with her hedonistic gal pal Lanna, then to a Christmas party where she and Lanna engage in group sex with two young men.
She remains in a dissociative state before finally returning home and reading the suicide note her boyfriend has left on the computer.
He has also left his completed novel along with instructions to have his work published.
But instead, Morvern does the unthinkable: she dismembers her boyfriend's body in the bathtub, wraps the pieces for disposal on a camping trip and puts her own name on his novel.
She then uses the money in his account to book a trip to a rowdy Youth Med Resort in Spain, bringing Lanna along with her. However, disillusioned by the manufactured non-stop partying and her disintegrating friendship with Lanna, Morvern leaves once again and travels further up the coast to explore the serenity of the landscape and the rave scene.

MORVERN CALLAR is essentially a coming-of-age story and a story of a young woman finding her voice. The book has often been superficially compared to TRAINSPOTTING as they are both darkly humorous, often grotesque and depict the plight of the working class in Scotland. However, I think this would be a better companion to Shirley Jackson's HANGSAMAN as both are strange coming-of-age journeys of an observant female protagonist, dissociative from trauma as they drift through a strange landscape populated by stranger characters. Through her observations and relations with others, Morvern displays a keen intelligence and insight, but as a member of the Scottish working class, she has been denied the opportunities granted to others. She describes the traps she has fallen into as she does everything else - with quiet detachment:

"Cause of tallness I had started part-time with the superstore when thirteen, the year it got built. The superstore turn a blind eye; get as much out you as they can. You ruin your chances at school doing every evening and weekend. The manager has you working all hours cash in hand, no insurance, so when fifteen or sixteen you go full-time at the start of that summer and never go back to school."

Anyone who has been stuck in a dead-end job without benefits and no means of escape will be able to relate. Morvern knows she has no future to look forward to, only being dehumanized at the invisible hand of corporate greed and being trapped in a town filled with poverty, drunken debauchery and violence. A woman's role in the society Morvern occupies is mainly to be a victim of abuse. At a night at The Mantrap, Morvern's friends relate the casual acts of violence they have been subjected to at the hands of men:

"That's nothing to what men will do, says Lanna, and told about Pheemy her pregnant sister who lives up the stair from them in The Complex. Lanna heard another argument so she ran up and let herself in. The brother-in-law had her sister's face in the scullery sink. He gave up and threw her on the lino shouting that if the dishes had been done like a decent wife should, the water would have been deep enough to drown her properly."

Morvern's quietness is remarked upon by the other characters and in fact, while in Spain she is told her name means "quiet silence." Deprived of educational or financial opportunity and trapped in a chaotic, oppressive environment, Morvern has in fact been denied a voice. Morvern's silence is the silence of all those that live in quiet desperation.

"Quiet silence" also refers to Morvern's remoteness. She serves as a guide for the reader through this strange landscape, but she always remains at a distance from the community she occupies.
Though Morvern grew up in The Port, unlike her cohorts she was not born there and has little knowledge of her biological roots as she was an orphaned girl raised by a foster family.

"I told about a day in geography when we all had to do a talk about the village where we were born. When my turn came I'd goes that I didn't know what village I was born in so the whole class laughed and the teacher scolded me."

Whether in her hometown or away, Morvern is always a silent observer, the perpetual outsider looking in.
With her perceptiveness and sharp wit, if she had received the educational foundation she deserved she would have been a writer herself.

Like most young people, Morvern attempts to escape through movies and music. Through much of the novel, Morvern immerses herself in music and lists the tracks of all of her compilation tapes for the reader. She also spends a lot of time watching horror movies, which I always did to cope with my environment too. After long, dreadful work hours she looks forward to escape through drinking, partying, dancing and sex. However, she realizes that any escape will only be momentary and once her youth is gone, she will only have to look forward to pension and death.

Some reviewers of the novel labeled Morvern as a psychopath and that makes me want to smack the stupid out of them. The literary establishment doesn't know about much beyond trust funds and sitting on their own aerobicized asses. While Morvern's reaction to her boyfriend's suicide is an extreme one, I think it's understandable given her desperate and hopeless circumstances. It is telling that one of the movies Morvern watches is THE PASSENGER, in which JACK NICHOLSON's character feels so disillusioned he trades identities with a dead man rather than return to his old life.
She also views DESCENT INTO MADNESS favorite MS. 45, another story of an abused, traumatized young woman who finds her voice through extreme actions.
Her detachment does not come from a lack of feeling. Morvern is not only an orphan and therefore tacitly displaced from the community that she inhabits, she also lost her fostermother as a pre-teen, an age where its particularly difficult for a young woman to lose her mother. The loss of her fostermother is mentioned several times throughout the novel, but rather than happy memories of her it is always about her fostermother's funeral or the island where she is buried. She is never given a name (much like Morvern's deceased boyfriend) and it is the loss of her that is pronounced.
Though her fosterfather appears to be a loving and supportive parent, he is also detached by his own grueling work experience, lost hope and grief over his wife's death.
Morvern has become accustomed to living a life of sadness and hardship with little in the way of comfort so she has, like many victims of trauma, detached herself from her emotions in order to survive. Grief, anger and sadness are reduced to "a wave of something came over me."

Morvern also has been dehumanized herself through the demeaning conditions on her job so that dismembering her boyfriend's body becomes no different than carting around packages of meat at the grocery store.

"I used to work in meat. You cleaned up each night. Afterwards you smelled of blood and it was under your nails as you lifted the glass near your nose in the pub. You pulled the bleeding plastic bag of gubbins, cut open by bones, to the service lift. Blood spoiled three pairs of shoes. You were expected to supply your own footwear."

Those that have dismissed her as a psychopath have also missed that Morvern is always attempting to connect with others throughout the novel. There is gentleness and empathy as Morvern relates to her fosterdad, an engine driver on the railroad nicknamed Red Hanna, and Lanna's grandmother, Couris Jean. She sees herself in them, in their struggles and in their soured dreams.
At the resort, Morvern comforts a grieving young man who has just lost his mother. She tries to connect physically through sex, but also tries to connect emotionally by telling him about her fostermother's funeral.
Morvern is not a psychopath -- Morvern is a survivor.

There is a theme of connection and separation throughout MOVERN CALLAR. Morvern takes her Walkman with her everywhere; she connects to the world around her through music, but also the act of walking around with her headphones on maintains her separation from the world around her. The same can be said of Morvern's involvement in the rave scene in Spain; the participants are connected through the music and the communal dancing but remain separated through the anomie of the club scene.
This theme is best illustrated in which a dissociative Morvern, walking through the dark night on Christmas Eve lifts her dress and exposes her legs to a man on a fishing boat:

"Just then a fishing boat came round the point, so close in I could see snow on the deck and the marks on the man's oilskin that was the orangey colour. I could have shouted easy. The man on the deck stared at me. I sumley supposed he thought I was bad luck or something cause a girl in black, like the dark water round his boat and the wet rocks where the saltiness had melted the snow. Quickly I lifted the little black number to show him the pale skin above the laddered stockings with the black lines of straps on my thighs. You felt the cold nip more. The boat moved into the bay till its engine was gone, the man still looking back as the wash melted snow off the rocks with a hiss. I covered myself up then used the goldish lighter on a Silk Cut."

The scene perfectly conveys Morvern's simultaneous detachment and vulnerability. Like the scene on holiday where she attempts to connect with a grieving young man, there is a mixture of sensuality with an aura of death.

Morvern does not only attempt to forge a connection with others around her but develops a connection to the landscape as well. She is happiest when on her own, surrounded by the serenity of nature:

"This place, it doesn't care, it's just here. It helps that this place is just a few hour's walk away. All this loveliness. It's just silence isn't it?"

In fact, her entire journey is a search for connection, a search to find a place where she can feel at peace.
Violence and depravity are not restricted to The Port, however; wandering across the European landscape, Morvern witnesses equally disturbing behavior among the holidaymakers at the resort (including a group of binge-drinkers who engage in self-mutilation for sport) and even in a news broadcast she watches featuring the torture of Yugoslavian children at the hand of soldiers. Though she enjoys participating in the rave scene in Spain, Morvern spends much more time observing and relishing natural wonders. In nature she finds a refuge from the cruelty, selfishness and greed that perpetuates mankind.

Morvern is contrasted to vacuous party-girl Lanna, who does not feel any appreciation for the beauty surrounding her. In fact, she invades Morvern's idyll camping at the foot of Beinn Mheadhonach, screaming as she rides down on her bicycle. Lanna is mostly self-centered, bouncing from party to party without Morvern's observation or insight. Unlike Morvern, she does not connect to Couris Jean and is not interested in the stories she has to tell. At the resort, Lanna revels in the empty hedonism of the other young holidaymakers, which repels Morvern. Lanna, in fact, proves to be a treacherous friend, alternating from Sapphic attraction to Morvern and intense jealousy to the point where she reveals she had slept with Morvern's boyfriend and at the end of the novel takes up with Morvern's fosterdad, scolding a now-returned Morvern that she simply wasn't there when he needed her.

Morvern, on the other hand is a heavenly creature. Couris Jean, in fact, refers to Morvern as "an angel come to earth" and having emerged from the midst of such a chaotic environment, Morvern is a real diamond in the rough.
Perhaps that's what drew her boyfriend to her, as Morvern reveals that they met when he walked in the store and handed her a bouquet of flowers. And what of her enigmatic boyfriend? He is never even given a name and the reader only learns a few things about him such as his father owned a hotel  and he has carefully constructed a model train set of his neighboring childhood village. I wonder if he was like JACK NICHOLSON's character in FIVE EASY PIECES, raised in a well-educated, artistic family but who felt alienated from the middle class but also an outsider among the working class.
WARNER emphasizes Morvern's specialness through Morvern's so-called "glittering knee": as a child, Morvern went running into the kitchen, slipped and cut her knee badly where she had been making Christmas cards on the floor. The glitter embedded itself deep in her knee and can still be seen right beneath the skin. The instance of trauma transforming into something unique and magical is the essence of what makes Morvern so wonderful. Morvern states that she never wants the glitter to fade, that it makes her feel special.
The ending of the novel implies that Morvern will always be a wanderer and that though there will be slivers of happiness and contentment that her journey may never really be over.  However, Morvern will always shine like a diamond.
And I'd love to spend time with her drinking Southern Comfort and lemonade, doing pedicures and watching MS. 45.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

House of Neurotic Women

'Tis the season to be jolly, folks! Streets are bustling with shoppers, families gather together and smile around a sumptuous Christmas feast, people gleefully wrap presents for their loved ones and Christmas carols about good tidings and joy fill the air.  However, despite all the peace on earth and good will towards men yakkety-yak this is the time of year where Americans descend upon shopping centers like rampaging Vikings and kick one another's faces in to get a better deal on a Blu-ray player. All the while the wealthy sit back and sneer at the desperation of the lumpen proletariat and hapless middle class to dismember one another over half-priced electronics.
And the mayhem doesn't end after the holidays have passed either. As someone who once worked seasonal retail, I now have a morbid fear of elderly women who line up at eight a.m. the day after Christmas just so they can claw one another's eyes out over discounted wrapping paper and Christmas cards.
DAWN OF THE DEAD ain't got nothin' on that.
This is also the time of year you may be subjected to some Ned and Maude Flanders types who think it'd be cute to go caroling, a tradition started by marauding drunks, and inflict their neighbors with a bunch of tone deaf Christmas songs. Therefore, I have a nice vat of boiling oil ready and I'm not afraid to use it.
Christmas is also the time of year where one is supposed to enjoy the company of their loving family, but if you're like me, family gatherings are more like a game of Pin the Tail On the Personality Disorder.
For those facing a lack of familial support, financial means and whose fragile emotional state cannot handle being bombarded by all the mass-manufactured holiday cheer, 'tis the season to hang yourself by the chimney with care.
For any readers crawling into this dark corner - have no fear! Your hostess, Madamoiselle Macabre is bringing you some mad, macabre and neurotic Christmas treats to pick up your spirits.
And you don't really need store-bought presents in pretty wrapping or a loving family to make your holiday. The maudlin swill distributed by those money-grubbing greed swine so we'll feel inadequate enough to mindlessly buy the useless garbage they're peddling is right in one respect and that's that the spirit of the holiday is in your heart.
Celebrate Christmas doing what makes you happy and to hell with tradition.
I've already witnessed a drunk Jimmy Gillespie beating a Salvation Army Santa over the head with his own donation bucket and if that doesn't holler Christmas spirit, I don't know what does.
So, get yourself all warm and cozy while I present to you the ultimate dysfunctional family Christmas, the made-for-TV proto-slasher melodrama HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (1972) written by PSYCHO (also a Christmas movie)-scribe JOSEPH STEFANO and directed by master of television horror JOHN LLEWELLYN MOXEY (THE NIGHT STALKER).

The Morgan Sisters (Sally Field, Jill Haworth, Jessica Walter and Eleanor Parker) in HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (1972)

On Christmas Eve, the Morgan sisters - dependable surrogate mother Alex (classical Hollywood leading lady, ELEANOR PARKER who we all remember as the Baroness in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, but who earned her place in my heart for her portrayal of the tortured protagonist in LIZZIE), neurotic pill-popping alcoholic Freddie (JESSICA WALTER of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT and PLAY MISTY FOR ME), acerbic-witted, multiply-divorced party-girl Jo (played with deliciously bitchy relish by British horror mainstay JILL HAWORTH) and ingenuous grad student Chris (soon-to-be SYBIL SALLY FIELD) - return to their childhood home where their estranged father (WALTER BRENNAN) lays dying. And during an appropriately atmospheric Gothic thunderstorm to boot. And anyone who grew up in a dysfunctional family knows that any family reunion is a chance to set aside old resentments and recriminations so we can move on and create new resentments and recriminations.
To say there are many old wounds to be reopened and unfettered bitterness is an understatement. "I swore I would never set foot in this house again, even to have the pleasure of seeing his coffin closed," Jo sneers.
But in addition to this, the Morgan family patriarch confides to his daughters that he believes his former mistress and second-wife, Elizabeth (JULIE HARRIS, THE HAUNTING) is poisoning him to death. Though she proclaimed her innocence, ol' Liz was tried and convicted for poisoning her first husband's hot toddy.
Now Paw insists that his daughters celebrate the joyous reunion by killing their stepmother before she can kill him.
Aren't the same parents who provide absolutely zero love and support for their children always the ones that make the most demands?
However, as the storm rages outside and washes away the road to town, a pitchfork-wielding killer in a yellow raincoat begins picking off bickering family members one by one...

Yes, kiddies, it's soap opera melodrama (produced by AARON SPELLING, no less) mixed with proto-slasher panache and like chocolate and peanut butter, they're delicious together. And in '70s made-for-television format that's like putting chunks of caramel brownie in the mix too (mmm...caramel...). JOSEPH STEFANO's script is packed with sharp dialogue (particularly when the tart-tongued Jo is speaking) and wrings every last drop of claustrophobic atmosphere out of its limited setting. The lightning illuminating close-ups of faces in rain-spattered windows, the omnipresent thunder, the blood droplets dripping from the portrait of Mother, the candlelit dinner, the winding staircase and the sound of ornaments clinking as Chris dashes past the Christmas tree fleeing her attacker are all perfect. I'm not surprised to learn that SEAN CUNNINGHAM wanted to cast SALLY FIELD as Alice in FRIDAY THE 13TH as her chase scene through the woods is the thing slasher movie dreams are made of. The marvelous cast takes the drama up another notch, lending a gravitas to the melodrama. It does not hurt that pretty much every cast member is a veteran of portraying female neurosis.

Jill Haworth as Jo Morgan in HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (1972)

Having to contend with dysfunctional family relationships during the holiday is never easy and HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS mines this dark terrain as the wealthy Morgans are one of those families where interaction is built less on love and emotional support than on shame, blame, recrimination and unmitigated hostility.
In exploring the melodrama of the Morgan family, the film delves into the dangers of emotional needs as every character is a prisoner of them in one way or another.
There is no love lost between the Morgan daughters and their father. The film implies they were always made to feel unwanted by him because he would have preferred sons and even designated masculine nicknames to each daughter. His brazen affair with his current wife, Elizabeth, may have even driven their already fragile mother to suicide.
He has even gone so far to disinherit his daughters. His reunion with his girls is not a joyous one, as he regards each of them in a patronizing, ridiculing manner before revealing he has called all of them home not to rebuild their relationship but for completely selfish reasons.
Steadfast Alex is overly-responsible and selfless; she is the support her sisters run to when they are in trouble. However, this is at a cost to herself and there is clearly resentment bubbling underneath the surface.
"I once told Chris I thought we were all your emotional prisoners," Jo tells Alex. "But she said, 'wouldn't it be funny if it were the other way around?'...if you were our emotional prisoner. Are you?"
Alex is not a daughter or sister, but a safety blanket that is discarded once demands are met.
Alex has sacrificed her own needs and well-being for her sisters and has become their prisoner and victim as a result.
Freddie suffers from feelings of worthlessness and a need to be loved that she drowns in addiction. Her devotion to her dead mother (whom she resembles) stems from a feeling that her mother was the only person who ever loved her.  Freddie's dependence on the support of others and unfulfilled needs ultimately lead her to self-destruction.
Jo's tart tongue and hedonistic lifestyle are barriers she has erected to protect herself from the needs of others; one can assume one of the reasons she has been divorced multiple times is that she denies the emotional needs of others. Except for Alex, she is not dependent upon anyone, but she has also built a prison for herself in order to keep others out.
Upon being asked why she is unmarried, Chris replies that she needs too much and scares men away. Chris, seemingly the kindest and most well-adjusted of the Morgan sisters, is also childish for her age and has never become self-sufficient and her emotional demands are exhausting for others to fulfill.
The last words of the film are in fact, "Take care of her" and are spoken in regards to Chris. Chris may remain an emotional prisoner in that she will always be dependent.
Elizabeth, the not-so-wicked stepmother, became a literal prisoner after being accused of poisoning her husband and ostracized by the townspeople.
Once freed, she is again a prisoner on an isolated ranch in a loveless relationship with an unyielding and demanding husband with no other sources of support or comfort.

Jessica Walter as Freddie Morgan in HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (1972)

I will not spoil HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS's ending here, but there are two close-ups of two different female characters at the end of the film, both finally alone with strange half-smiles on their faces. Society constantly barrages us with idea that it is somehow wrong to be alone and that the perfect family or perfect relationships are what we need to make us whole. This is only intensified for women, as women who remain single and childless are often viewed as defective and deviant.  Perhaps HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS posits it is better to be alone, at peace and free to take care of yourself than embroiled in toxic relationships with family and loved ones.

It's always more entertaining to endure fictional familial dysfunction than your own, so for all of you gentle readers having to deal with screwed up family or are spending the holiday alone because you are avoiding your screwed up family, fix yourself a nice hot toddy and have Christmas with the Morgan family as you can watch HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS for FREE on YouTube!
God bless us, every one.