Thursday, November 15, 2007

Air Ducted

As Agent Dana Scully explores the Eurisko building's ventilation system, as detailed in the X-Files episode "Ghost in the Machine", we witness a special instance of three personal pet peeves coinciding in a single moment.

1. Air Ducts
Have you, valued reader, ever been in an air duct? You have not. Don't get confused by hazy memories based on a pazillion movies and TV shows, but have you ever really seen such an air duct? You've probably never fired two guns at once, been attacked by a killer you presumed was dead, or dangled off a building, either, but at those exciting action/adventure cliches are fun in the moment, and based on recognizable real-world objects and events you have witnessed. But look around the room. Do you see an air duct? Do buildngs, even offices, military instalations, or abandoned factories converted into cocaine manufacturing plants have air ducts large enough to house a full-grown adult? While we all posess some small degree of latant claustrophobia, is it thrilling to watch people wriggle around in these imaginary silver tubes, which seem to have no correlative?

I hate air duct scenes.

2. Killer Computer Episode
Every fantasy, sf, or horror program will get around to the Killer Computer episode, if left to its own devices long enough. There's nothing inherently wrong with contemplative sf asking tough, orginal, informed questions about AI... but obviously most Killer Computer episodes fail the basic driving test. As Mr. S.L. Jackson once said, I hate this hacker crap, and worse, I hate hearing fake compu-gobbledygook. "Ghost in the Machine" brings up the important issue of "what if a computer was like a crazy panther and when threatened, started biting people?" The answer is: Scully would have to climb into an air duct.

The X-Files managed to squeeze one in by episode seven! At least Buffy the Vampire Slayer was refined enough to hold off till episode eight. "Ghost in the Machine" is fair-to-poor as the show finds its sea legs, and chock-a-block with rips from 2001 and Gremlins 2 (including... AIR DUCTS!), but sadly is only the first of The X-Files half-dozen Killer Computer episodes in nine seasons. Snore-baiting as the surfeit of demonic microprocessors may be, for sheer numbers it runs well behind such X-Files Mad Libs episode templates as Revengy Ghost (easily the winner), Supernatural M.O.'d Serial Killer (also uncountable), Idyllic Small Town Where Something Isn't Right and its frequent twin Occult Murder Club Confidential. This brings us to...

3. Mytharc Vs. Monster of the Week: How to Watch The X-Files
This one's X-F specific. The strong public preference for the scarier, less-convuluted MOTW X-Files is evident once more, as news/discussion/indifference spreads of the impending second feature film spin-off. Conventional wisdom is that either the Mytharc episodes - those detailing a baroque government conspiracy and its connection to various and sundry UFO-stuffs - were either boring to begin with, or eventually became coy with their secrets, jumbled in logic, or petered out due to poor planning. And therefore the stand-aloneish episodes are superior. And nearly every fan-favorite list will be populated by the same two dozen highlights of the scariest, funniest, and most innovative episodes.

But that's just the peeve that I've gotta pet. Conservatively, the Mytharc is a third of the series. Realistically, the continuing mystery of the Consortium, the nature of alien phenomena, and the quest for Samantha Mulder is what fueled the popular frenzy over the program for the first several years, and set it apart from the pack as more than a handsomly photographed Kolchack: The Night Stalker variation. It is the heart and soul of the series narrative. Undeniably botched and confusing as the yarn became as it tangled into unrecognizable knots, the mishandling of the Mytharc is symptomatic of the entire series. Character arcs became illogical, plot points were dropped or revised, storytelling was mud-clear as a matter of course not just over the Mytharc, but during dozens of individual episodes, including Monster of the Week installments. For every beloved "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'" and "War of the Coprophages" there are two "Sanguinarium"s. Two "Ghost in the Machine". You say you don't like the Mytharc, and you're denying yourself the operatic heights of "The Red and the Black", and "The Sixth Extinction" and the most intimate character moments of "One Breath", "The Blessing Way", and "Gethsemane" - some of the best writing the series has to offer.

The Myth, see, it isn't just about keeping track of alien factions and wondering what the hell happened to the morphing bounty hunters. That story, as a story is irresponsibly handled. They broke it, if you buy it, try not to cut your fingers on the jagged edges. Instead, focus on the moment-to-moment, the only way The X-Files can hang together, and see the whole nine-season thing is Mytharc. In the end, Mytharc episodes are just as stand-alone as any other; the show is crafted to work scene to scene, act break to act break. It's about how thrilling, suspenseful, intriguing, funny, scary or sweet the moment can be, even if it's to be negated in the next scene. The MOTW episodes reenforce the Arc, because it's about the characters on what passes for a journey, beat to beat. So those romantic moments where Scully and Mulder sit on the rock together in the middle of a lake and talk about Moby-Dick in "Quagmire", a fine Low-Rent Loch Ness Monster of the Week: that's Mytharc in a sense. The Arc brought them there.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Performance and Image/ Circle and Diagonal

Strange visual resonance found on the covers of two upcoming Criterion Collection releases.

What can it mean? Will you close your eyes and refuse this disconcerting correlation? Or like the churchgoers faced with the mural of destruction in The Seventh Seal, will you look and think upon it until it becomes more frightening? The bottom image appears when the two covers are laid upon one another. Otherwise polarized, the nodes where the photos connect allow both covers full 360-degree transformation. The motionless wet-wool blanket sky of the Bergman set (fast inside, slow outside), the sickened buzz-blur of the Two-Lane Blacktop landscape (slow inside, fast outside). Both fine snapshot summaries of the respective films, now both images roil and fuzz out, with the friction of their opposite approaches to the same existential conundrum. The sea and pavement become rippling solid. A man perches atop a spinning wheel. The '55 Chevy points off to contemplate an empty

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Echo Chamber - Antonioni Moving, Reflecting, Passing

Our place in the world is unnecessary. Roving sparks of dying energy, bouncing like aimless, dimming embers against the cold, hard planes and the streaming seas of numbers that comprise the planet's surface. Retracting into ennui, or reaching out in desperation, humanity makes its own mysteries.

Michelangelo Antonioni's films document those deepest mysteries of human existence; what space lies beyond a draped picture window, behind each pillar, around each corner; the inability to leave imprint where we have walked, loved, quarrelled, wept, moved. The mystery of L'avventura is not an unresolved disappearance but the unresolved continued existence of everything, of form and of void. The puzzle of Blow-Up is not a beguiling amateur sleuth story, but a genre implosion, demolishing the entrance and exit points of detection drama.

Not anti-mystery: ur-Mystery.

If we say Antonioni died on July 30, 2007, or was born September 29, 1912, it is to trace a narrative with selectivity. It speaks to a compulsion to give shape to a matterless tour through one plane of sight, sound, experience. But the sands of a red desert are at once unintegrated granules, restless and shifting, and members of a vast, open, sun-blasted expanse; the unified field image of a photograph at once the objective frieze of a moment in time and space, and a death-mask reproduction, built of microscopic chemical blobs, depthless, unmoving. The harder we insist on giving them shape, imbuing them with meaning, the greater the margin of slippage, until, indeed, in the fluoroscopic light off the eclipsed sun, it may be said that Antonioni was never here at all.

The master image of Antonioni's filmmaking is the glacial mask-face of Monica Vitti, staring into some middle distance, beyond herself, and back into herself. Feeling too much (Red Desert) or too little (L'avventura), the space she occupies simultaneously a non-space hole where a woman was-not / is soon to not-be, and the inside-out nexus of her body, molecules in continuum with the architecture, the landscape, the universe, the net of maths stretched into the infinite. What moves behind those black eyes, what world can be shut out by the drawn draperies, what fracture can there be between lovers, when they are all isolated, but intrinsically connected? Like the subatomic push-pull that unites/tugs at all things, mirrored large scale by the bind of gravity, the looping orbit of astronomical objects bound on track but never meeting , the affirmation of 1, negation of 0, Antonioni pierces the illusory continuity of a life-as-narrative, of the character as collected traits moving to resolution, of the cinema as the device to capture a world in motion, and finds beyond the veil, a deeper continuity; mystery surviving resolution, unresolvable.

Mastroianni and Moreau on the flat, ordered stage of a golf course in La Notte, wander the corridors of their marriage, and land in the soft, disordred hazard zone of a sandtrap. She reads a love letter, plucked out of a lost pocket in a version of their story that could-have-been. He asks who wrote it, and she tells him: "You did," and they are lost and found, all possibilities and dead threads of their story before and continuing beyond the film at once preserved, and gone in the loose doom of the sandtrap.

The all but wordless romantic breakup that opens L'eclisse is the death of a relationship, but to join the stream as it closes existence indicates it once existed. Alain Delon and Vitti in languor, posed in pain, moving only long enough to freeze once more, but the undulating trees outside the window, the oscillating electric fan, signal invisible movement the audience cannot see or feel: air, moving in time, around the eroding bodies and objects on the motion picture screen.

Monica Vitti sat on this sofa. This street lamp stood upon this corner. This loaf of bread filled this movie screen in Zabriskie Point. Michelangelo Antonioni was born 1912, died 2007. These grains of sand surrounded this pool of oily water in this desert. And BOOM, they were gone. Some were chosen for documentation as they passed through, but none were Truer than the others. Which caused the others? Which stories are over? Where are they now? To isolate the image, movement, object, life, drains it of context; to imply its place in even an unfathomably large whole is to superimpose a beginning, end, solve it, reduce it, conscribe it to history. To say Michelangelo Antonioni is gone is to say : Michelangelo Antonioni was here, and thus always here. Time shuffled the molecules of Michelangelo Antonioni into form, and pressed outward on that form until they dissipated once more.

Saturday, July 21, 2007


Here's the sitch: The Watchers' Council is Exploding Kinetoscope's newly designated slot where I'll be holding forth at length about Buffy the Vampire Slayer-and-Angel-related topics. Why would someone give themselves a column in their own undernourished free-form blog? Because that's how we do things around here. It also lets you know that whether review, exegesis, analysis, or op-ed, Watchers' Council makes assumptions of fan-level fluency.

This installment: Buffy Season 8: The Long Way Home. The first chapter in the Dark Horse comic book series is complete, with issue #4. The arc will be assembled in a collection on November 14, 2007, along with the more stand-aloney issue #5, but as of this writing, second printings of all issues are available at fine comic shoppes everywhere. Here's a first take on "Long Way Home".

"The thing about changing the world... After you do it, everything is all different." Nobody could quite put it like Buffy Summers, whose opening line to Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Season 8: The Long Way Home packs a lot of layers, some she does not intend, into that silly attempt at profundity. It's wistful on one hand, because Sarah Michelle Gellar is not saying the words, however clearly we may hear her voice. The medium, thus the world, well, it's different. Thrilling as it is to have new canonical Buffyverse stories, it is also a little sad. The story of how Buffy changed the world had an ending. A beautiful, important ending, probably TV's greatest ending. Now, as they said in Sunnydale, not so much. Because Season 8 shifts to Dark Horse comics, even if creator-guy Joss Whedon says they are Officially For-Reals Season 8, the series ending isn't undone. It can't ever be undone, from the perspective that BtVS was the collective endeavor of its writers, cast and crew: they built that world. Now, in comics, it is re-created by Georges Jeanty's pencils, and even with Whedon personally writing the first arc of the series, it's all different. Question becomes: can you deal?

BtVS ends properly with Buffy directly addressing some problems with Slayerdom as a female empowerment metaphor (e.g.- why's she got all the powers? Don't other girls need powers?) spreading her abilities to any girl in the world who needs strength. From a writer's perspective, it does not leave the Chosen One or her world in a ship-shape spot for telling stories of the nature it was designed. From the perspective of fans of the program satisfied by the daring ending, maybe we should not have more stories. Whedon Storytelling Rule #Made-up-Number goes that the artist has a responsibility to give the audience not what they Want, but what they Need. We may want this to go on and on forever, but deep down, that may not be good for us.

Conflicted as we may be about the cruel lonely weight of Slayerdom having been thrust upon Buffy, it is doubtful anyone has been itching for tales of a Slayer army. It's the one funny, resilient blonde girl we like, not a sea of anonymous faces; if the fan ambivalence over Season 7's surfeit of Potentials taught us anything, it's that too many Slayers spoils the cake. Or some mixy-metaphor like that. One facet of the Slayer metaphor has always been that those teen girls with magic kung-fu powers that place them difficult positions represent how we all choose to use our agency and power, or abuse it, as we walk alone through the world. So it's an aspect of the Chosen One left in the cold by "Long Way Home"; it was lost at the end of "Chosen", but sacrificed to a greater good, for the more central, specifically feminist message... which was also okay because after the last episode, no writers or actors need Buffy to be a singular presence anymore.

Here is the Buffyverse Unleashed. No limits on budget and scope, restrained only by Whedon and Jeanty's imaginations. Jo Chen's striking portrait gallery of cover paintings, stylized, idealized, mythic-toned visions of the Scoobies, are a beautiful wrapping and properly indicate the best qualities of the contents: heightened, and fantasy-rich. The ability to visualize creatures, battles, mystical realms and Willow in tight leather pants without a platoon of technicians is a double-edged axe-stake-thing. BtVS, as borne out by the slicker, more sophisticated filmmaking of Angel, intentionally restrained its scope, in exchange for intimacy. It was the right choice, for there is little in the woolly, globetrotting adventures of "Long Way Home" as emotional, poignant, or even character-oriented as the TV show. Bluntly, there is nothing in the first comics arc to make one weep, and BtVS was Cry Central Station for seven years. Season 8 did not have to be an action-driven comic. Comics, hand-held, a one-on-one interface that must be undertaken alone, with images able to be pored over, is the perfect medium for intimate storytelling. A choice was made, and the choice was to use the opportunity to tell the over-the-top monster-ass-kicking superheroine stories that could not be told on TV. Now: can you deal?

Buffy is a military general now, for all intents and purps, which sort of means she's failed to live the normal life she always wanted. So score one for the fight against Evil-doers, and one against the California girl who wants to go shopping. This is both disappointing - are Buffy fans really into military strikes? - and feels right. The Chosen One remains surrounded by people who care, but essentially alone. That maddening skill for shuttling between self-reliance and self-pity makes the girl tick. It's partly what draws Buffy to Angel and also what drove them apart. These notes obviously focus on the stingily parcelled out character drama, so, crucial moment in "Long Road Home": Buffy waxing wistful in soliloquy that she misses sex and churros.

Xander has moved into Command Central as the Slay Squad's de facto Watcher, which maintains his place as Buffy's Eyes and/or Heart. But sadly the action is now so perilous, the Everyman is relegated to watching a bank of video monitors in a Scottish castle stronghold (?). Willow has apparently been MIA for a year, not even bothering to call her BFFs, and can click between her world-destroying dark and light powers with as much consequence as flipping a light switch. This seriously steps on the toes of Willow's series arc, in which she learned to find healing strength in herself and her friends, not to use black magicks to avoid emotional pain. It was arguably a botched story on the show, but "Long Way Home" make mincemeat of Willow's journey from nerd to goddess nerd. So far. Because again, the last moment we had with her, that was her Ending. She'd Become. That's how Willow's story was supposed to end, and damn it, damn it, I miss her too. But it's want versus need. Can you deal?

"I used to be a Watcher," reflects Giles in his brief appearance. Now he sort-of trains unprepared Slayers, but the rules are so changed, the world so new, that Buffy knows more about preparing the girls for battle than Giles. He cannot love them all like daughters, and they do not need him to. Giles used to be a Watcher, but that seems a million years ago, in a town that is dead and buried. What is he now? Giles now has more Slayers to "watch" than ever, and is possibly feeling more useless than he did when he left Sunnydale way back in "Tabula Rasa". Hands full, but slate blank.

Dawn Summers, having likely lost her virginity to some magical being called a Thricewise, finds her growing pains have literally inflated her to giant size. Dawn's supersizing is one of Whedon's fine metaphors-made-flesh. The greatest point of pain in "Long Way Home" comes when Dawn refuses to confide in Buffy, instead pining for Willow to return: "I don't mean to slam you... But Will's like a mom to me." Ouch. Score another one against the Buffster. The younger Summers girl's perpetual whining is grating, but it is, all things said, the Definition of Dawn. No matter what sacrifices are made for her - and Buffy has literally died for her sister - Dawn never appreciates it, never believes or remembers it, never feels loved. Dawn's put herself in trouble's path? It must be Tuesday.

It is, however, a BtVS tradition to begin the season in an uncomfortable, unfamiliar place: Seasons 1 and 2 with Buffy disoriented and arriving in Sunnydale, Season 3 with Buffy reluctantly reclaiming the Slayer mantle, Season 4 with an alienating, intimidating entry into college life, Season 5 a battle with Dracula starts silly and becomes frightening, plus the shock-reveal of Dawn, Season 6 with Buffy dead, and Season 7 with everything turned upside down. Bearing this in mind, the slippery footing on which "Long Way Home" begins is probably intentional, and why it begins with the epigram about newly changed worlds. We want Sunnydale, but it's gone. It was nothing but a zone of trouble for Buffy, but there she is, looking out over the Scottish moors and wishing she were back in demon-infested So Cal.

However disconcerting, those season openers are stories in carefully pitched tone. So what's the story here? It's difficult to say, as like all BtVS season arcs, it's a slow build, with a surplus of misdirects. For e.g.'s.- a race of giant reptilian demons is on the rampage, but that's too rote as a Big Bad. More compelling but even less exotic, it seems the U.S. military has declared war on the superpowered teen girls. The military-industrial complex, in the form of the Initiative, got squarely roundhouse-kicked in the jaw by the supernatural way back in Season 4. In real world logic, it's only natural the government would reopen the X-File on the Slayer after she, say, demolishes an entire city. In story logic, it may feel like you've Been Here Before. Or maybe that's what "Long Way Home" means. This plot could play out as a snappy/complex head-on engagement of patriarchy vs. female empowerment issues that the series skirts around, toys with, or grapples on an ideological level, but rarely allowed to crystallize in the drama. "Long Way Home" is too busy playing catch-up with the cast to elaborate, but that's a forgivable choice when any and every reader cares about these characters so deeply.

Reemergences of Ethan Rayne, Amy Madison, and, frustratingly, Warren Mears, are momentarily thrilling for the long-haul fan, but are all problematic. Whedon dispatches the no-goodnik Chaos magician Rayne with a prosaic bullet to the brain, as if to add heft to the new Big Bad military man General Voll, but it is an inglorious end to a long-long-time favorite minor menace. Not that Ethan Rayne has a destiny to complete, but he dies with no final showdown and/or reconciliation with Giles, which seems sloppy and let-downy. Though he assists Buffy by guiding her through her own brain's dreamspace while she's gone Briar Rose-snoozy under Amy's enchantment, it's hard to get warm fuzzies from Ethan's change of heart, because unless rationale is forthcoming, it comes out of nowhere. Whether his motivations become clear later in the season, it is still Ethan's implied history with Giles, not Buffy, which lends him any mystique, and links him to the core story in a meaningful way.

Amy Madison's Long Way has been intertwining with the Scoobie Gang's since the very thirdest episode, "Witch". Her slow ascendance into powerful villainy from victimization has struck some Season 8 readers as desperate recycling, but it can also be seen as a natural story to tell, picking up one of the few loose threads left accessible in the cataclysm at the end of "Chosen". The rest of those threads are just buried under too much rubble.

The resurrection of Warren Mears is a different matter altogether. Yanked out of the Hellmouth, and striking a deal with General Voll, Amy lures and incapacitated Willow to her new paramour's lair. Whedon gives the undead, still skinless S6 Big Bad a killer entrance, and a truly great monologue. Warren asks Willow, whom he's strapped to an operating table, and about to go Injury-To-The-Eye-Motif on with a scalpel: "I wonder... are you 'bored now'?" reminding the witch of her cavalier blow-off as she once had him bound and pleading for his life. But the crux of the problem is that Warren needs to be dead. Willow needs to have killed him. Whatever esoteric magical explanation may be in the wings, likely that he's "technically still dead" in some way (Warren gives a lovely poetic explanation: "her magic is my skin"),the metaphor and Willow’s terrible act of murder are partially undone. Divisive as it may be, the power of the controversial sixth season is in the inexorable slide into despair and the difficult crawl back to the light. To earn the strength she finds in "Chosen", Willow needed, in storytelling, emotional and mythic terms, to have killed Warren. It is the ultimate transgression against her religion, power, her friends, the memory of Tara, and Buffy's duty; Willow murdering Warren is the climactic moment of losing the girl we loved. This resurrection nonsense has Buffyverse precedent, of course, with Anya being ultimately "let off the hook" after getting sworded in "Selfless", with Angel's return from Hell, with Spike's rematerialization on Angel, to say nothing of the Slayers' own life sacrifices. While it is hard to begrudge those slights-of-hand, because they provided opportunity for fine stories, all those Lazarus tales work at the expense of definitive moments of the series. But frankly those characters weren't truly finished; Warren's tale was well-served by his ending but the troubling thing is how it subtly twists Willow's journey over the series.

Warren's greatest function was as illustration of the banal but real evil that is waiting line with you at the comic book store or sitting in the basement playing video games: petty, small, juvenile, unexotic misogyny and violence. That's why he was a startling, great villain. Now he's running around with powers and no skin and a souped-up tech-witch girlfriend. In the emotional math of story construction, Warren Mears' death was the balancing of an equation in the tale of The Worst Thing Willow Ever Did; while grief-blind Willow thought (didn't think exactly, but felt) she was righting the scale of cosmic justice for Tara, that's not what was going on. The universe was repossessing on a debt Willow owed for resurrecting Buffy. It happened all Season 6 long, as Willow fled down dark alleys to avoid emotional pain, and ironically caused nothing but worse, fresh agony in her wake. It's scary and fucked-up that Willow killed a man in cold blood. We don't want it to have happened, but we needed it.

Whedon is investing the kind of personal attention in the comic he should have given the last years of the show, so S8 could be a perfect opportunity to sort out some of the damage inflicted on the stories and characters in the flummoxed Season 7. Or it's a chance to throw whatever he doesn't like into the crater where Sunnydale used to stand. It was never possible to judge a BtVS season until it was complete, so it goes with Season 8; serialized fiction is only a serial the first time through. Unable to nail down what plot points are mysteries and which are dump-areas, or how the shape of the season looks from a balcony vantage, issue to issue, some moments are hair-raising, some frustrating, all tantalizing enough to keep one antsy for the next installment. There are enough interesting irons in the fire to expect good things of the finished season, but the comics structure is All Different from television. Thus far S8 hasn't dipped into the kind of self-contained chapters and episodes within/working toward a season arc that made BtVS such a structural marvel. Issues 1-4 feel like maybe two "episodes" - or one of the two-parter season openers - though the massive battle action, beasts, and army of zombies in kilts blow two seasons of budget, including Gellar's salary, on special effects alone. Series editor Scott Allie reports there could be fifty-plus issues comprising Season 8, originally announced as only 25. That sounds like a canvas as ample as any 22 TV episodes, though one prays publication can be sped up, because commercial breaks between acts are one thing, and multiple month gaps are quite another.

Could be "Long Way Home" is supposed to come out of the gate, hooves pounding, eyes popping and snorting fire. It's been four years, after all, so some heraldry, trumpets, kilt-zombies may be in order. Otherwise, Whedon's got the superhero comics writing knack, knowing you can Do Anything. So besides just action spectacle, he plunges us into demon dimensions, multiple mystical non-corporeal planes (yipes, what is this, Angel or somep'n?), and beads out smart page and panel breaks and reveals: funny cutaway panel of Andrew bored at a Slayer slumber party, surrounded by nubile super-teens in teddies... and an already-notorious splash panel torn from inside a sex dream far more insane than any Angel/Spike/Buffy three-way fanfic you've ever read. Mostly because there's a nurse uniform involved. Here's to hoping the pace can slow, and characters can begin sharing real scenes, not just a few panels. Promising story leads in this direction: Gojira-Dawn's problems are already more interesting than anything she's done since Season 5. Apparently Kennedy sorta-died off-stage, straining her romance with Willow, which gives one hope. Xander's got a mutual bone on for Renee, one of the Slaylings, though it's hard to tell where his heart's at right now. It is all breathless-fast and vague, but most intriguing is a complicated subplot romantic-mystery involving Buffy receiving a magic wake-up kiss of True Love (no, for real), tell-tale cinnamon lip-gloss, and Satsu, a Japanese Slayer (finally), who is obviously in love with the boss-lady. It's adorable. It plays out over a handful of panels through the story thus far, so delicate casual readers may not notice. And it is about minutia and people painting themselves into emotional corners. Y'know: the stuff Buffy is about.

In "Long Way Home"'s final moments, Buffy is told that from the military's perspective, she and her Slayers-in-Training are at war with the human race. That from General Voll's vantage, they are in effect no longer human beings. It is a question that has been a long time coming. The Slayer line was produced by inhumane means and for questionable purpose: a prehistoric girl, bound hand and foot to the Well of the Slayer, raped by the essence of a demon, all of it engineered by the first patriarchal Watcher prototypes, the Shadow Men, too chickenshit to fight their own battles, foisting the blessing/curse on the unwilling heroine. Human in physiology, mind and soul, or not, the calling of the Slayer is to protect the human race. If Buffy has renegotiated all the other terms of her contract, why not this one, too? Voll tells her "it's you against the world." Taken aback, she bleats "Oh..."

She thinks about it for a beat, darkens, and finishes: "'Kay."
Well, nobody could quite put it like Buffy Summers.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The COBRA WOMAN Codices: Drafting a Psychic Map of Cobra Island

The Door

A soft blue rectangle beyond a door in High Priestess Naja's orange chambers indicates the sky outside. The door leads to a balcony, and perhaps is only a window when seen from the opposite side. The balcony overhangs a courtyard in the palace. The courtyard is sometimes open to the public throngs, but impossible to access once inside the building. Outside, sometimes it is night, sometimes day, but in the orange room the sky remains perpetually powder blue. The menacing environs of the jungle island outside and the dangerous royal intrigues within are separated and/or united by the irrational, impossible space between, leaving nowhere in the geography of Cobra Woman as safe ground.

Set in a thick forest of matte paintings, projected ocean waves and secondary-color keyed slabs of curlicue set dressing, loomed over by a tiny-huge volcano that exists in eternal midday, the terrain of Cobra Woman is seared by dream-fever, coast to coast. Native Indian sidekick Kado (Sabu) feigns sleepwalking to eavesdrop on his pal Ramu (John Hall)'s plans to visit Cobra Island, but a day later indicates he was really in thrall of a visionary dream. Has he ever truly awoken? Has the spectator?

The Somnambulist

A small rocky hill is, in the eyes of Kado, a great black wall enclosing a lost world — the same he encountered in his dream — but it grows between shots to a pointed yellow mountain. As Kado and Ramu scale the peak, the rock bends like rubber to leave Kado dangling precariously, though strong Ramu is able to suspend his companion's weight while bent at the waist and without tumbling down the precipice. Where these yellow-black wall-mountains are located cannot be surmised. Though they render the island inaccessible in the unreliable dialogue, travellers during the film and in its unseen backstory go to and fro with little difficulty. Fire Mountain, omnipresent punishing god/volcano, is visible at the same angle from every window of the palace. Ramu is advised not to voyage to Cobra Island by his future father-in-law MacDonald (Moroni Olsen) but in the same conversation MacDonald shows him exactly where the lost world is located on a map, in close up.

The twisted DNA-bound saga of separated twins Tollea and Naja (Maria Montez, Maria Montez) locked in power struggle over the title of High Priestess of Cobra Island has infected the land, the sea, the air, the people and animals, the celluloid itself; the sparks between the sisters fly off, creating new aberrant twins wherever the fire lights. This is the logic of the double-traced map of Cobra Woman: everything has its twin, identical but reversed, sharing space with itself. Every character, prop, setting, line of dialogue, event, operates while cooled in the shadow of its opposite; often these twins are created by throwing all gears in reverse, negating their own existence. Hava (Lon Chaney, Jr.), mute flunky of the Cobra Island queen, feigns blindness as he travels to Tollea's village though his plan does not require it, and the blind-Hava that should not exist on seeing-Hava's mission tips off Kado that something is amiss. Hava's task is to abduct Tollea, but is in more properly to re-abduct her to her forgotten birthplace, Cobra Island; in effect to remove her from her home that he may bring her home. By the climax, Fire Mountain erupts, only to be declared permanently dormant seconds later.

The Sisters

If Tollea/Naja embody splits between unwitting savior and gleeful murderer, between skeptic and religious zealot, between, simply, nice and mean, they are also divided by strength and weakness, for nothing Tollea specifically does, short of show up on Cobra Island against her will, actually contributes to Naja's downfall. Theirs is not simple a dichotomy of good and evil, but of will and circumstance, too. The high priestess even causes her own death as she backs over the unlikely balcony wielding a spear in Tollea's direction, a blurred defensive/offensive posture. To complete the proper opposition of forces, Naja's bloody dictatorship does not give way to benevolent rule by her twin, but dissolves into off-screen anarchy: in the coda, Tollea flees the throne to return to her man, leaving Cobra Island with no leadership.

Like the omnipresent Fire Mountain, the pliable rock walls, and the mutable courtyard space, which all bend to the necessity of situation, the populace of Cobra Woman's world find themselves shuttled from location to location by means none can explain. Kado arrives with much effort and swinging from ledges at precisely the correct dungeon window where Ramu is being imprisoned, though there is no way to identify the chamber from outside the palace. The entire plot hinges on the backstory conceit that infant Tollea was smuggled off Cobra Island aboard MacDonald's boat, when he chanced to visit the island at the same time the baby was supposed to be put to death. But the tale goes that MacDonald was knocked unconscious and woke up on his vessel with the Cobranian stowaway. Who placed her there, when, and why are subjects never broached. Ramu steals the robes of High Priest Martok (Edgar Barrier), and walks undetected past palace guards, but how he locates Naja's quarters in the vast building cannot be known. Friendly chimp Koko materializes inexplicably on Cobra Island, but the tale of her journey from India by separate means from the Hava/Tollea and Ramu/Kado boats is never to be told. Duty calls, and so: there they are, just as one may look up anywhere on Cobra Island, and see Fire Mountain, smoldering against the blue sky. There it is.

The Mountain

Here then is Cobra Woman as the genre theorist's perfect text, in which characters' movements, the shape of the universe, and order of events to not stem from internal motivation of free-willed characters, but are at the mercy of the unyielding dictates of external story, diamond hard, immobile in place, before the players took the stage. Why do they keep coming? How can so many continue to arrive on the rocky shores of this forbidden, secret home to a lost civilization? Cobra Island draws all fish into its golden net. There is no resisting its irrational pull.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Defier of Reason: THE WIZARD OF GORE (2007)

"What is a magician? A person who tears asunder your rules of logic? And crumbles your world of reality?!"
-Montag the Magnificent, 1970

It must be love. No other force on earth could motivate a remake of Herschell Gordon Lewis' 1970 warp-brained The Wizard of Gore. The Lewis film is possessed of one of the gore god's strongest premises: the blood and gut show illusions of lunatic magician Montag later come true as his audience volunteers die later, of identical wounds, far from the stage. But the camp-tinged title and cult-audience name recognition provide very little cache. If anything the Lewis pedigree is something remake director Jeremy Kasten and screenwriter Zach Chassler have to fight against, in their film's crackpot desire to be taken seriously. Love, of course, frequently misguides us all.

Lewis' Wizard is structured around a series of grotesque stage illusions, as Montag (Ray Sager, in a ham-and-cheese performance for the ages) hacks up victims on stage, tricks which appear bloodless to the in-house audience, but are revealed as bloody messes to the filmgoer. Not that there is anything coy about the rest of his work, but if most of Lewis' horror pictures are stories built backwards to justify graphic scenes of dismemberment mayhem, Wizard of Gore proudly declares itself: we're all here for the blood. A subplot - or is it truly the plot? - as TV host Sherry Carson (Judy Cler) investigates, leads back into itself, a mystery trail laid in the shape of a question mark. There is no answer to the riddle of Montag's powers, of his motive, his means of evading authorities, or significance of his weird rituals; in baroque philosophical stage patter, direct to the movie audience, Montag insinuates that perhaps we are dreaming, not watching his stage show, not watching a film, perhaps that we've never been awake, dreaming even that we wake and dream. Like a Zen kōan, there is nothing to "figure out" about H.G. Lewis' Wizard of Gore, no secret kernel hidden in its gory heart. Lewis' film continuously worms in and out of metaphysical conundrum with a thick, stoned confusion, as if the story has surprised itself.

So while the rough timbers of the plot are good material for an H.G. Lewis movie, it may well be that the story is unfit for any other use. The Wizard of Gore 2007 keeps the icky magic show its deadly consequences, but reverses the spectacle: the jaded underground clubgoers in Montag's audience are misdirected to believe that the magician is actually brutally hacking apart Suicide Girls models as he delivers loopy life-advice speeches. When they flee for the exits, the bloodless reality is revealed... and later that night the audience volunteers turn up roasted, gutted, dismembered, etc, ad nauseam, literally. In these vicious main attractions Wizard of Gore fires all chambers at once. Presided over by Crispin Glover in pristine white and immaculate pompadour, Montag reborn as blood and thunder tent revival preacher, his stage patter berates the audience of glum hipsters, slouched on folding chairs in a moldering cathedral warehouse, for the sins of ennui, of cynicism, of casual misanthropy, of joyless hedonism edging into misogyny and brutality. Equally self-righteous and self-loathing, Glover is magnetic/pathetic as he squeaks terrible lies and more terrible truths, as he mimes the mutilation of beautiful flesh, and whirls the blame back at his audience, pleading "did you feel something?"

The greatest slight-of-hand in the exploitation filmmaker's repertoire is to pay lip service to important issues and charges critics may level against the film, creating an impossible tangle of politics and potential complications. Are Africa Addio auteurs Jacopetti and Prosperi racist or have they made a career of pointed social criticism? Is Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust a circumspect investigation of man's inhumanity to man, or pandering and hypocritical? Is Lucio Fulci's New York Ripper profoundly conservative, humanistic, hateful or satiric? Do a few cathartic moments of horrifying, violent vengeance by victims transform I Spit on Your Grave, or Mother's Day - or Death Proof - into a feminist statement? Or are they all just dishonest? Jungle-dense ambiguity or cheap parlor trick? If the artist is bluffing, is it wise to dignify the insult by responding in a civil fashion? What is reality? How can you know that you are really sitting there in your chair, and not asleep in your bed, dreaming that you are here?

Kasten's film walks this interesting line for a little while, as one Edmund Bigelow (Kip Pardue), trust fund slacker with a late '40s retro fetish that puts cartoonist Seth to shame, sets about writing a review Montag's show for his zine. Edmund finds himself and/or loses himself in an amateur murder investigation that begins to point to his own involvement in the crimes. Or are there crimes? The plot unfolds in double bind flashback, and a theme throughout is not to trust one's eyes. With cinematography that coats every surface in a slimy sheen, enough jittery negative-flash-frame editing for a mid-'90s alternative music video marathon, canted angles and screwy characterization from the opening frames, there can be no sense of mounting unreality or a man losing his grip. A frenzy of exotic plot points are announced in every scene, each wilder than the last, none disguising or relieving the fact that the story is essentially a man wandering around LA, sweating, and obsessively watching a magic show every night. What's going on, and what's real is up for grabs at any point, so take your pick from an escort service for sadists, CIA MK-Ultra-style brainwashing experiments, Oriental psychotropic neurotoxins, newspapers printed in human blood, gore-soaked sex dream sequences, spontaneous combustion, shark attacks, paper bag chemical huffing, Alice in Wonderland allusions coupled with L.A. strip club in-jokes, spams of electrical flashes that seem to reveal the Tron set or the Matrix code or something beneath the walls, signaling either virtual reality, Edmund losing his mind, or whatever. Depending on one's generosity, the voyage down the rabbit hole is either established or botched from the beginning. Either way, it all reads more interesting than it plays.

And either way, the remake, as seriously as it takes itself, comes up with no greater statement on reality and illusion than the crazy H.G. Lewis original. Without the brazen/stupid flare that buoys Lewis' movies, Wizard '07 just isn't any fun. Too chic to be unnerving, too banal to be horrific, the film's desire to freak itself out goes utterly splat, because it's too busy making cute to go bonkers.

By the time Wizard '07 reaches its climactic revelations and everything we've seen is not what we've seen - or, as Montag would have it, the trick began before the audience entered the theater - there is no bottom to drop out from under the audience. While striving for the puzzle-box psychodrama mystery of Lost Highway or Memento, The Wizard of Gore can achieve only low-rent mind-fuck of Hellraiser: Inferno (2000). Inferno, a fellow mish-mash-mush of horror noir, and Wizard both end up as films about sadistic murderers who have built walls of fantasy around themselves to protect their mean old brains, but eventually get their comeuppance when the appearance of otherworldly forces (Pinhead and Montag respectively) tears down the safe-zone, and reveals a private hell. Both films' main strategy for creating mystery and surprise is to exasperatingly withhold information, spring twists that only work because the audience has been lied to, and makes its dippity-doo reveals in undercooked page-long expository speeches. When a magician employs a skillful misdirect, part of the trick is in not pointing out that there's a trick.

Setting horror films among the Manic Panic and neck tattoo set never really flies. For as much as the subculture's aesthetic owes the history of horror film and literature, the posturing self-made freaks of 2007's Wizard of Gore look dour, silly and too big for their britches next to Herschell Gordon Lewis' inspired stilted, tacky, gleeful madness. When you promise to bring the weird, you gotta be able to bring the weird. The Wizard of Gore '07 has Jeffrey Combs as Montag's sideshow geek opening act, sticking a handful of wriggling maggots to his tongue. It has Brad Dourif as a mad acupuncturist who helps bleed all the brain-control drugs out of the antihero's body and walks around with leeches stuck on his back. It has these cult-favorite spaz-specialist actors, going through Jim Rose Circus Sideshow paces.

The Wizard of Gore 1970 has a guy wearing fake white eyebrows and a top hat telling everyone they aren't really there, then cutting off his own head with a guillotine. For no real reason. At the beginning of the movie. Which one is truly, bafflingly, unforgettably Fucked Up?

"That's some nice misogyny you got going there," snaps Edmund's nagging girlfriend Maggie (Bijou Phillips), when he enthuses about Montag's layered and electrifying magic show. During this lover's spat, as Maggie and Edmund back-and-forth about whether Montag's act is trash or High Art, there is a brief glimmer of a larger fish beneath the Wizard of Gore remake's stagnant pond. Grasp for it, and realize: this is how Mr. Kasten hopes his audience will quarrel about his film later.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Know Thyself

The capstone image in Wes Craven's Scream is a a densely layered but starkly composed and giddy-edged moment when horror movie fanboy Randy (Jamie Kennedy) slumps drunk and alone on a sofa before a television, groaning advice at Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) in Halloween, as he is being lurked by Scream's own resident serial killer. Though he has ranted about the "rules" which govern slasher movies, and is aware off the structural contract of the genre to move from murder setpiece to murder setpiece, and the apparent puritanical ideology that designates victims — Do Not Drink, Do Not Screw, Do Not Be Alone — Randy finds himself inevitably caught in the mesh of the slasher genre chess game, drunk, and alone, and eventually attacked. He survives on a technicality — by his estimation, it is "because" he is a virgin — but his self-awareness as a genre expert does not afford Randy extra agency within the story's machinations, merely a heightened sense of impending doom. Jamie Kennedy mumbling intoxicated advice to Jamie Lee Curtis slurs "Turn around Jamie, turn around," but neither one does, neither is meant to, and it is almost as though neither can. Indeed, the tragedy of Cassandra figures, unable to alter the fate they foresee, becomes an explicit theme of Scream 2 and there Randy meets his death, seemingly punished for his inflexible insistence that sequels suck and horror sequels especially suck.

On its release in 1996, the Randies of the real world began grumbling that perhaps the celebrated metafictional conceits of Scream were not so original, and Kevin Williamson's screenplay had cribbed from the 1991 independent horror comedy There's Nothing Out There. A 2001 profile of TNOT auteur Rolfe Kanefsky in Femme Fatales magazine (?), reproduced on the buggy DVD of the minor cult item, passive-aggressively implies the same thing. In There's Nothing Out There a carload of overaged high schoolers vacations in an isolated house in the woods, and is set upon by a globby space-toad which picks them off, one by one. Among the fresh batch of alien-meat is obnoxious, wisecracking neurotic Mike (Craig Peck), who has "rented every horror film on video" and constantly warns his fellow irritated victims-in-waiting that they're walking into certain death, not to wander off alone, and correctly surmises given a few clues that they're facing a space beastie rather than escaped mental patient. Mike eventually masterminds the plan to defeat the monster and escape with the survivors — and advises them to boot an alien-impregnated hitchhiker out of the getaway van — vindicated in his belief that it's entirely possible that the party crew has wandered into a horror picture.

Whether Craven, Williamson, or any personnel connected with Scream had seen There's Nothing Out There is beside the point. Scream is the scarier horror movie, funnier comedy, and richer statement on genre storytelling. The films share a common deconstructive sensibility, even if superficially, Scream tugs at the seams of slasher movies while TNOT is a violent monster movie spoof. "The story is different," Kanefsky explains, "but the gimmick is the same." The film geek characters both recognize signals that artificially imposed Movie Rules are at play, and it's a toss-up who has the edge as a devotee. Mike spots early warning signs as his friends drive past cops investigating the scene of an earlier monster victim, notices mysterious rustling bushes, growls that some interloping skinny-dipper bikers are clear "foreshadowing," and is incredulous when he falls victim to the time-honored Cat Scare ("I love how these animals just fall out of nowhere, right into your hands!"). But Randy has the upper hand in deconstructing the horror genre's thematic underpinnings. Mike fails to warn anyone of the dangers of drink, sex or being an ethnic minority. No matter, for neither horror fan is able to channel their awareness to extricate themselves from the situation, or avoid those pitfalls they know are coming. Mike notes both that the scenario reminds him of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and that in the other film, the invaders are not stopped. He fortifies his bedroom and arms himself, but is continually foiled by his nonbelieving friends who lock him in the basement, helpless. Randy rants to anyone and everyone (including the murderers), and is laughed off and ignored in short order. Even once the boundaries are discovered, all characters are still beholden to the laws of the genre; their self-awareness gives them no real leg-up on less savvy characters. Regardless of the film history knowledge that got them there, Mike and Randy simply become recasts from the same mold that popped the teens in The Blob and Dr. Bennell in Body Snatchers. No one listens, no one believes, and their expertise lapses into impotent frenzy.

Randy and Mike belong to two close family lines, with a history of crossing and merging: the genre-geek expert and the lineage of characters aware of meta-fantasy unfolding around them. Neither Randy nor Mike press outward against the celluloid to commit the ultimate breach and meet their creators. Other adventurers through the metafictional fantastique have braved the leap: She-Hulk, Animal Man and Cerebus have in comics, Roland the Gunslinger in Stephen King's Dark Tower, and Freddy Krueger in Craven's own New Nightmare (1994). The almost uniform result is a humbling revelation that the creator-god-artist feels his own hand is being forced as well. There's Nothing Out There, in a throwaway sight gag, allows a character to Tarzan-swing off a low hanging boom mic, but otherwise Randy and Mike never pierce the Fourth Wall sharply enough to run smack into a film crew, confront the audience, return to their trailers or escape the films. It is as if the skin of the genre is too tough to burst. They see the horror movie around them, but another world outside is opaquely glimpsed at best. As casual horror scholars and horror characters both, they've become interpolated into the genre so thoroughly they resist their own salvation with something like magnetic repulsion. Randy doesn't leave Woodsboro until the murders end, Mike doesn't call a cab and get out of the woods. They both end up alone, with the bear at their backs. As Ro-Man might put it, "I cannot!... Yet I must!"

In the pre-Scream, much-lacking Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994), the only intriguing scene concerns a mutual sympathy between characters played by Renée Zellweger and Marilyn Burns, last woman standing in the 1974 film. The two Final Girls look at each other across the span of four Chain Saw movies, across 20 years, and mourn the loss of ability to escape the genre's constraints, even as they understand the function of their stories to tell audiences something about terror. In The Next Generation, the story itself has been engineered by some vague possibly-government/Freemasons/aliens conspiracy, the muddied point being that when we enter into contracts with the fantastic tale, we shake hands, and everybody's hands are tied.

"Horror," Stephen King used to be fond of telling interviewers, "Is as conservative as a three-piece suit." The theory going that the genre's foundation is the invasion of the familiar by the unfamiliar, in tales where the reaction is fear, disgust or disquiet. The theorem also might imply a tradition of formatted rules, plot points and unforgiving schematization. Randy and Mike may be genre experts, but perhaps because they insist upon the limited choices available to genre characters, in the end they are in essentially the same position as the hapless Chain Saw girls. They all survive their nights of torment, but it is largely by being lucky enough to shift into one of the few available Designated Survivor slots.

King himself laid the rest of the groundwork for Mike and Randy, horror afficionados who find themselves in a horror story: 12-year-old Mark Petrie in King's 1975 novel 'Salem's Lot, his bedroom a shrine of Aurora monster models, is an outsider oddball whose insider monster expertise — and enthusiasm — actually does him some good once vampires begin bringing the sick soul of his small town to light. The monster kid hero is vindicating wish fulfillment for all the Mark Petries of the world, ostracized for the stack of E.C. comics under the bed, but triumphant when the monsters arrive on Maple Street. In King's universe, Shock! Theater is a basic training educational filmstrip for survival, and variations on the theme are threaded through his work, from It to Creepshow to Dreamcatcher and beyond. The more one leans toward good-natured geek conversant in fantasy scenarios, the better the odds of survival. The liberation available to self-aware horror buffs continues through Return of the Aliens: The Deadly Spawn (1983), The Monster Squad (1987), and resonates through Joe Dante's Gremlins diptych.

What separates Mike and Randy from their younger geek ancestry? In their cynically comic stories they become a new guard of meta-genre experts. Scream is not a rip-off of There's Nothing Out There, but part of a longer tradition. Randy and Mike sit on the same branch of a common family tree, a darkened reflection of Mark Petrie, grown up, caught in a video feedback loop where a postmodern sense of intertextual play cannot save you. Don't you know it's no good to yell advice to the characters in a horror movie? They're going to open that door, walk into the woods, investigate the terrible house, go down to the basement, and get scared by the cat. They have to. They always had to. There was really never any other choice.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Mr. Lewis' Birthday Zap-In!

Now it's Prime Time to celebrate!
Ramses Catering made no mistake,
It was a long, hard one to decorate -
Have you ever had an Egyptian cake?

Grab a knife and let's get cutting!
A Taste of Blood - or is that just frosting?
The Big Blast band will play and sing!
The Colonel brought some thighs and wings!

The guests are here; hey, Lucky Pierre,
Stop peeping at Miss Nymphette's underwear!
The odor of Lysol and beef in the air?
Astrid, please get that tongue out of here!

Monster A Go-Go, you old killjoy,
Alley Tramp would dance, if you weren't so coy!
Don't touch the art, Jimmy, Wonder Boy,
The Adam Sorg paintings aren't a toy!

Those maniacs from Pleasant Valley
Brought homemade drinks; right up your alley.
This stuff'll kill ya... so fill 'er up!
Uh, Abraham Gentry, do you need two cups?

A toast! To Gordon Weisenborn,
To R.L Smith and Seymour Sheldon,
Hoist a glass to Armand Parys,
That man of many pseudo-names,

Hats off to Herschell Gordon Lewis,
King of All Arterial Spewage,
The Gore-Gore Boy, the Sultan of Splatter,
Happy Birthday, and thanks for the movies, Godfather.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

"This Is My Art, and It Is Dangerous": Sculpting Space in BEETLEJUICE

"My rap is that I can't tell a story. That's been a fairly common thread of criticism for me, so I've heard a lot that my films look nice." —Tim Burton, IGN Film Force interview

At first blush, Beetlejuice seems to unspool with free-associative comic setpieces, dream logic cascading over a strange if solid, and spare skeleton of plot. The greater contours of Beetlejuice’s story then, a hot-brained, frantic perversion of Topper, are not so difficult to grasp. The sweet but dull ("Nice and stupid, too") Maitlands (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis), newly married, childless and at peace in small-town Connecticut, are killed in a freak car accident, return as ghosts, have their home invaded by unctuous New York yuppies, the Deetzes (Catherine O’Hara and Jeffrey Jones). After failing to cut through the red tape maze of afterlife's mad bureaucracy, they enlist ne'er-do-well mercenary haunting expert, Betelgeuse. His methods are effective but violent, and Betelgeuse nearly destroys the Deetzes, before the Maitlands have a change of heart after bonding with alienated young Lydia (Winona Ryder, all dark eyes framed by glossy ebony hair). The rebel spirit is dispatched and the families learn to exist in harmony. That is the major furniture of Beetlejuice's plot, but the story seems confounded with an unheard of mass of clutter, carefully wrought but illogical detail, as if scrabbled together from curio shop elements with which Tim Burton could not part. The strongest cord among Beetlejuice's corkscrewing lines of plot, tracing a path for its lead characters similar to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, itself a restyled variation of the Orpheus myth, is the journey of Adam and Barbara Maitland. It is the story of sweet-natured squares, like Brad and Janet before them, adrift in a chaotic underworld that challenges their sense of order, affronts their morals and picayune view of the universe and its physics, and eventually transforms their cut-and-dried normality. The afterlife is imagined as a mazelike bureaucracy of incomprehensible rules and constant roadblocks, constructed of junkheaped illogic designed only to demonstrate that the afterlife is full of frustration and petty problems as life. Seeking guidance and how-to haunted house advice, the Maitlands venture into a waiting room of the damned, deal with surly desk clerk Miss Argentina, cope with bylaws about scheduled appointments, and help voucher allotments and are eventually led to a particularly un-helpful meeting with their case worker Juno (Sylvia Sidney). Because it is the pleasure of the plot to bedevil the Maitlands as they try to sort out a constantly shifting and expanding set of rules, it is by design that as the spectator hovers on the heroes' shoulders, we are constantly fooled, startled and thrown for a loop by whatever lurks around the next bend of Beetlejuice's carnival ghost house. It is a matter of production reality that the script began as a straight horror project, titled The Maitlands, with Wes Craven at one time attached, and that in present dark-ride comedy form, Michael Keaton as Betelgeuse was unleashed to improvise as he desired, ashcanning nearly all his scripted dialogue. So it may very well be that some alternate dimension Beetlejuice plays out in a more traditional three-act clear line of action and arcing character, or at least through a glass less-darkly. One step forward for a closer look, and the plot seems a jumbled stew, raising more questions than it offers answers. The governing laws of the fantasy story are never made explicit, though continually probed they never articulate themselves, but instead blossom into wild, dangerous new flowers. When the Maitlands step outside their home, they are transported to an alien desert landscape and threatened by skyscraper-sized double-mouthed Sandworms, but why? When she pulls Adam back into the kitchen, Barbara shrieks that he's been gone three hours, Juno blithely tells the couple they've been sitting in the waiting room three months... Why does time seem to ebb and flow inconsistently between spirit realms? Did Betelgeuse say the Sandworms live on Saturn? Why does Adam have a model of the town, Winter River, in his attic? Why does Betelgeuse materialize in the model, only to be stuck inside? Why do the other ghosts encountered in the waiting room — from choking victim Ferndock, to a big game hunter with a shrunken head — maintain the forms of their bodies at the moment of death, when drowning victims Adam and Barbara are not even wet? Why can Betelgeuse do so many tricks beyond the grasp of the Maitlands? Character motivations seem likewise arbitrary or driven by archetype. Why do the Maitlands have a sudden change of heart and invite the Deetzes to share their home? Is summoning Betelgeuse for assistance a bad or a good choice? What kind of peace is actually made between the Deetzes and Maitlands? Why do the Deetzes constantly hang out with their interior decorator? Apart from clearing Betelgeuse from Connecticut, how is the plot resolved at all? "I can't 'bring the ghosts', Dad, they're not here," moans Lydia. Sensing that no one can ever fully grasp the laws of Beetlejuice, Charles chortles in fear and embarrassment: "Every time she says that, the paint peels and some wild creature tries to kill us." Something carefully threaded and aliteral is happening beneath the hand-sculpted lumpy surface. We may notice it when interior designer Otho (Glenn Shadix) mentions in his first scene that he was once a paranormal researcher ("Until the bottom dropped out in '72"), and jokes in the dinner party scene that in the afterlife suicide cases become civil servants. Otho is kidding, and does not know better, but the only suicide case ghost we've seen, is indeed Miss Argentina, the irritable desk clerk in the social services office of the damned, who flashes her scarred wrists at the Maitlands to demonstrate Beetlejuice's only clear message: being dead really doesn't solve anything. Tim Burton, incapable, unwilling, or disinterested in adhering to the sleek construction of classical Hollywood cinema plots, eschews most rules of three-act structure and clearly delineated motivation. A different logic is at play, burying plot points and character shifts in throwaway dialogue, organizing information through free-association, the logic of a child at play, of Freudian dream-work. Tim Burton uses the rhyme schemes, rhythmic repetitions and motifs of poetic logic, and avoids rigid literalism and enunciated explanation. Connections, callbacks, fractured mirror-images crackle along underground cables connecting moments and ideas throughout Beetlejuice. One of the film's major concerns is the boundaries and shaping of physical space, how it defines us, how we attempt to dominate space, how space may be navigated, and its boundaries negotiated. The main characters, a menagerie of colorful types, personalities, and professions, are all defined by their relationship to and their desire to claim mastery of concrete spaces. Most of the characters actively practice the manipulation of space, through the plastic arts and photography, or careers and hobbies focused on real estate, homes, buildings and geography. Beetlejuice gradually reveals a universe of spheres of reality, but while happy to dip in and out of intersecting planes, never proposes to draw a map of its underworld. Instead, the concrete, familiar world of the living is systematically eroded by ever expanding and contracting, fluxing, strobing dimensions, until it loses primacy and stability. A hierarchy of power and importance to these dimensions, of micro or macrocosm is neither implied nor laid bare, and destabilization of the rules is truly the order of the day. Any attempt to chart the worlds of Beetlejuice as parallel, spirals, or nesting-dolls will fail, and the fussy need to schematize is exactly what the film has been designed to demolish. The effect on Adam and Barbara, and ultimately everyone who passes through their house on the hill in Winter River, is woozy hysteria; this pervasive sense of mad, disordered play ends up infecting the entire ordered universe of the characters. This methodology allows Burton to build an unstable, baffling universe for his players but ultimately provide them with a means of self-revelation. "Live people ignore the strange and unusual," explains Lydia Deetz, quoting the film's Handbook for the Recently Deceased. As the only character able to read and take to heart the dense truths of the frustrating book, she has made sense of this simple maxim, where Barbara could only fluster "'Can't' or 'won't'?! ... God! This book is so stupid!" The Maitlands refuse the knowledge of the book, because as it is for Antoine Roquentin in Sartre's Nausea, the glimpse behind the veil is not immediately liberating so much as disturbing. The interplay of scale, self-contained worlds, and wobbly geography between them, is summated in the opening shot(s). A helicopter-shot flyover of Winter River, Connecticut zips above the trees and quaint houses below, the big black, glowing superimposed credits distracting the spectator from two dissolves between shots. The view comes to rest on the isolated three-story house on a sandy hill on the outskirts of the small town, and for a moment, something subtly uncanny about the building is echoed on the soundtrack as Danny Elfman's oom-pah score belches out a death rattle. A massive brown spider stretches its legs over the peak of the roof, and for a few otherworldly frames, as Harry Belefonte's voice in diegetic music begins wafting over the scene, no one can be positive what we are seeing, whether the spider is supposed to be an outsized creature-feature beast attacking a detailed but quaint miniature effect, or something other. A hand enters the frame, gingerly assists the normal-scale spider from the roof, and draws it up to Alec Baldwin's curious face. He prods the spider, mutters "That’s a big fella. Woah!", carries it to the window, through which we may glimpse the town duplicated in the model, and gently tosses the tiny home-invader to the breeze. This introductory scene serves as an establishing shot of the Beetlejuice multiworld, the town's big map transitioning to the little map of the model, confusion of interior and exterior spaces to arachnid invasion to size-evaluation ("big fella! Woah!") to salvation to portal-crossing to death-plummet. It is in one sense an "establishing shot" of the town and house, but on reveal, occurs contained within the perimeters of the space it pretends to establish.
Nice fuckin model.

The house on the hill is the engine which drives of all Beetlejuice's drama, the struggle to possess and control it the central concern of the players, and it is a depot through which every dimension intersects and meets. Adam reads with exasperation from the Handbook the crucial statement on spatial power dynamics in Beetlejuice: "Geographical and Temporal Perimeters: Functional perimeters vary from manifestation to manifestation." This bears out and the ghostly Maitlands find themselves barred inside their home. That is the functional perimeter they defined for themselves in life, and it restricts them in death. Beetlejuice's is a universe of infinite, transmutable spaces, and the multitude of eternally shifting transition points between them. The core players, rather than reveling in this open-air existential freedom, trap themselves and others in the skein of time and space by their own attempts to tame the plasticity of space in plastic forms. Everyone is in a mad dash to stamp their ownership all over the house. In a remarkable sequence as the house is being newly remodeled, Burton telescopes between several distinct playing fields, implies their contiguity, then complicates it. Outside the house, the tidy green yard is transformed into a street fair of burly moving men and landscapers, officiated by Delia Deetz, a shrieking and pinwheeling blur of red, black, white. Inside an army of workers steam and scrape the wallpaper, turning the landing leading to the attic into a foggy corridor of hell. In the kitchen, Charles Deetz halts the movers from hauling his own possessions so he may enjoy the sanctuary of the home the Maitlands built and make a cup of tea. Restricted to the attic, Adam and Barbara attempt against all hope to maintain the illusion of control, Adam laboring on his model as Barbara hangs the wallpaper Adam gave her in their first domestic-bliss scene. Gradually, four portals open and connect these isolationist spheres. Lydia investigates these areas with her camera, passing unmolested through the mess, the only person with a natural curiosity as to why the attic is inaccessible (Charles will later scoff that there can't be ghosts in the attic: "Attic's locked!"). Jane Butterfield (Annie McEnroe), only known living associate of the dearly departed, rolls up in her sedan, and, tellingly, hands a skeleton key to Lydia ("that key will open any door in the house"). Lydia questions Jane, and her query, "what happened to the people that lived in this house?" makes the girl in black the first to care about the souls which occupied the space. Jane's daughter sneers "they drowned" and shutters herself into the car by squeaking closed the automatic window. Jane makes a final weak claim over the physical property — "I single-handedly decorated that house" — before driving off, out of the movie. In distant echo of Psycho's Detective Arbogast, invoked twice in Beetlejuice, Lydia makes her way up the stairs to the attic. As Adam and Barbara brace the door to their sanctum closed, the previously unseen television flickers to life and another portal opens. Betleguese appears to the Maitlands in a parody of grassroots local cable TV commercials, replete with chintzy flashing ad copy and moronic jingle ("I'll eat anything you want me to eat!/ I'll swallow anything you want me to swallow!"). Mesmerized by the apparition's claims to help those who "want to get rid of them pesky living critters", the Maitlands fail to recognize the soundstage on which Betelgeuse mugs and prances; the broadcast is coming from inside the model Winter River, the same stretch of space that falls between the attic door and the television is revealed by the screen/portal.
 How am I supposed to relax if you people won't leave me alone?

Just prior, Charles dangles a teabag over a mug in the kitchen, while outside Delia screams at crane operator who suspends one of her massive, spinal-cord shaped sculptures over the house. The jagged green stone shatters through the Maitland's window, disrupting the shuttered domestic space, the cozy curtains and sink invaded by the Deetz's objects. The sculpture falls to the ground, pinning Delia against the house, and from this cage of her own devising, she gasps "this is my art, and it is dangerous! Do you think I want to die like this!?" In the attic, the scene climaxes as Adam consults the Handbook, and draws a chalk outline of a door on the brick wall, which swings open to reveal a realm of streaming lime-green light. The light pours under the door cracks, illuminating the pale screen of Lydia's wide-eyed face, and the Maitlands step into its enveloping glow, disappearing for three months. As they stand before the light, they mirror the cover of the Handbook. The door slams shut. These four portal entrances — the attic window, kitchen window, television and door — all open by means of artistic apparatus: camera viewfinder, sculpture, filmmaking, chalk drawing. The subtle differentiation is that throughout Beetlejuice the plastic arts are depicted as commodified and petty attempts to circumscribe power — or at least depicted with ambivalence — while the peculiar ontology of photography lends it a more accurate index to the truth of space and form. In this extended sequence, Lydia probes with her camera, ears and eyes and a key, and makes her first visual contact with the Maitlands, only to be halted, cut off by the brute force of the car window, the attic door, a screwdriver. Charles, Adam, Barbara find themselves frustrated by interior decoration. Delia is nearly crushed by sculpture. The Deetz and Maitland conflict, by their perception, is first over the ownership of the house, then panic over the interior decoration plans, heightened by the contrasting Country Mouse/ City Mouse tastes of the pastoral New English couple and the yuppie New York interlopers. The Maitlands slowly accept that given their situation, they might be willing to share the home "with people more like you were", as Juno observes. The families are in the end not so dissimilar in their obsessions. They have all fetishized the house, and begun branching out in attempt to master the town at large. The understanding they eventually reach is sparked by the machinations of brooding angel Lydia / trickster demon Betelgues; these twinned characters force the Deetzes and Maitlands to confront their character deficits, return primacy to caring relationships, and exist comfortably in space and time. Before death, the Maitlands already use the isolated house on the hill to shut out the world around them; when their happy vacation alone is interrupted by Jane, who wants them to sell the house to a family with children, Barbara shoves Jane out the back door, and Adam closes the roller blind of a basement window in her face. When they find themselves unable to leave the house as ghosts, Adam muses that "maybe this is heaven." Prissily dressed in a tucked-in flannel shirt that turns his body into a black and white grid, and constantly cleaning his glasses, Adam models the town below his house, attempting to master the space by mapping it in miniature. The model is not an effort to preserve the quaint burg or better understand its history, and Adam exhibits marked disinterest in the actual Winter River except as it can be captured by the model. On a run down to his business, Maitland Hardware ("I need a part for the model!" is the motivation, of course), Adam can only convince Barbara to join him if the trip to town is brief, and he then ignores the rambling of Old Bill, the ancient townie barber who sits out front of the neighboring main street shop. Adam jogs in and out of the store as fast as he can, blocking out Old Bill's history lesson about laying of the hardware store's foundation in 1835, and an anecdote about the mayor's long-haired son. Old Bill could provide Adam a wealth of information about the buildings in town and the personalities that shaped them, but Adam pays no attention to anyone but himself and Barbara, in the process losing meaningful connection with the town. Barbara likewise is focused on domestic chores and homemaking, seen in life only washing dishes, dusting, and exchanging honeymoon gifts with Adam, wallpaper and wood-finishing Manchurian Tung oil, an arsenal for home decoration.
... having plummeted off the Winter River Bridge.

As the Maitlands make their winding way back to their fortress of solitude, Adam jokes/suggests leaving town for Jamaica, finally distracting Barbara's eyes away from the road. She closes her eyes to begin saying "There’s no place like—" and screams. As if the town rises up to assert itself, the couple crashes the car, and they are destroyed by the town's geography, plunging off the covered bridge over the Winter River. When they discover they are invisible to the living, Adam tries to comfort his panicking wife, telling her "Barb, honey, we're dead. I don't think we have very much to worry about any more." But the truism / joke at Beetlejuice's center being that death "solves" nothing, Adam's fussy and meticulous boundary mapping and replication of reality continues in death. He becomes frustrated that he cannot figure the proper placement for his and Barbara's headstones in his mini-cemetery. Homemaking is so engrained in Barbara that once dead, she refutes Adam's happiness at being trapped inside, since the vacuum cleaner is imprisoned in the garage: "It's impossible to clean anything properly! ... If it were Heaven, there wouldn't be dust on everything." Before the Deetz's grand entrance, they are alluded to when Jane raves to Barbara that she's gotten an offer on the house "from a man in New York City, who only saw a photograph!" pointing up the specialized nature of photography in the film ("Jane, don't send people photos of our house," sighs Barbara). The reason the affluent Deetzes want this hick town refuge is withheld till late in the plot — real estate developer Charles has suffered a nervous breakdown and needs a place to relax, dragging his daughter and second wife along to Connecticut — but Jeffery Jones' portrait of a shattered Type A neurotic trying to live the rural life conveys the data before it's explained. Charles has been mastered by the buildings he assesses and purchases, and he attempts to right himself by stepping into Adam's empty shoes. He not only buys the Matiland homestead, but convinces Delia not to remodel Adam's study, tries to dress in casual wear, and pretends to read Adam's homeowner magazines. He takes a stab at Adam's bird watching hobby, but finds himself confronted by a natural order that repulses him: through the binoculars, Charles sees the a woodpecker eating vile yellow goop, (the spider Adam chucked out the window?), and is repulsed by the life and death realities that haunt his new home and do not correspond with the Audubon prints he flips through, murmuring "hmm. Birdies!" The commidification of space which caused Charles' breakdown takes such deep roots that on entering the house, he plops in a rocking chair and vibrates nervously while sniffing that he's "perfectly at ease", and immediately makes plans to tear out the kitchen plumbing to enhance domestic comforts. He sets aside the study as a safe haven, but uses binoculars and telephones to reach beyond its walls. When bird watching fails, Charles trains the binocs on a nearby church and compulsively begins feasibility analysis — "bad roof... gooood parking!" — and calls real estate magnate Max Dean (Robert Goulet) to outline his plan: "We could buy the whole damn town!" Like Adam attempting to grip Winter River by duplicating it in his attic, Charles can never be perfectly at ease. Max Dean, patronizing his frazzled colleague, hits the crux of the issue on the nose without realizing it, and shoots back "Great. Now we got a whole town full of nowhere." Though his efforts to redefine himself and to simply chill out fail time and time again, Lydia sums him up when she meets the Maitlands face to face. Charles will never leave the house simply because he "never walks away from equity." It is surely greed motivating Charles, but too it is the need to feel comfortable in space which he believes he can only achieve through ownership and isolation. When he feels he's lost the house to Delia within moments of their arrival, he begs "let's just leave this room alone, OK?", and when Lydia knocks on the same study door, he groans "how can I relax when you people won't leave me alone?" Charles recognizes this kinship to Adam when he learns the house is haunted, and enters the attic for the first time. Of all the Deetzes, Charles is most awed by the model Winter River. "It's the whole damn town", he gasps in reverence, echoing his plea for Max Dean's financial backing. When the reinvigorated developer decides that perhaps he can use the haunting to increase his property value, he plans a new method of expanding his ownership of the town, intending to rebrand Winter River as a supernatural theme park and paranormal research center. For a presentation to Max Dean, he believes the experience of the town itself is not enough, and the occasion "requires a sense of presence!" The solution is to move Adam's model, now claimed by Charles, to the living room, snapping it in two in the process. In his sales pitch, Charles usurps Adam's role as store owner, as he exclaims "d-CON is on its knees to sponsor the Insect Zoo! Here! In the old hardware store!" The presentation speech also sees Charles praising an artist as "the genius who gave us the talking Marcel Marceau statue!" The Marceau and d-CON throwaway jokes point back to critical themes and plot elements in Beetlejuice. The image of insectoids entrapped in the fusty confines of the Maitland's lives is a condensation of Betelgeuse’s dilemma. The image of a quiet genius of movement bound in unhappy form by a sculptor invokes Lydia's. The battle waged is less about the house than the families involved believe. Delia Deetz, failing sculptor, in Beetlejuice’s endless catalogue of characters attempting to stake a claim on every concrete object they encounter, asserts her ownership of space by aesthetic domination. Her principle craft is sculpting, physically molding plastic objects. Though she pleads to her husband "you know I'm only truly happy when I'm sculpting," the activity is apparently not the joy of creation but of domination of forms and commodification of the arts; when a disinterested moving man cradles a piece resembling a three-legged brain, she spits "be careful, that's my sculpture! And I don't mean 'my' as in 'I bought it', I mean I made it. It's my sculpture." Her greatest panic episodes — and she is nearly always in angry panic — include the plaintive wail "do you think I want to die like this?" while pinned beneath her work: she does not want her art to assert its own power, she wants to command the object. The greatest affront to her dignity is when her agent, Bernard (Dick Cavett), informs her "I've consistently lost money on your work", which offends her more deeply than when he calls her a flake. Delia's sculptural impulse, rooted in power and money, extends to a passion for interior decoration that aligns with her sidekick Otho's, and is in practice less about decor than overhauling the space itself to bend it to her will. Moments after entering the house, confrontations with Charles reach a head, as he insists he's here to relax, "not to trash the place!", and Delia melts down and lays herself bare, shrieking "If you don't let me gut out this house and make it my own, I will go insane, and I will take you with me." As she tours the house with Otho, trading remarks confusing interior and exterior/ nested spaces ("Oh look, an indoor outhouse"), and inscribing her power on the walls by spray painting "MAUVE" in huge letters, the fey decorator tsks that the house allows "no organic flow-through", and Delia agrees. If the house is to be made palatable, Delia's method is to erase all traces of Adam and Barbara. This impulse is fundamentally at odds with her husband's desire to slip into the Maitlands' abandoned lives like a second skin; Delia would rather turn the country home into a major summer art center, recasting Winter River as SoHo. So when Lydia, alone in her bedroom groans "God, how can he stand that woman?", the answer is that no one can. In the adjoining room, Delia is passed out in a Valium stupor, and in the televised wrestling match — our glimpse of the screen shows a pair of hands kneading his opponent's face like clay or bread dough — on the bedroom monitor, the announcer shouts "WIN! WIN!", as if pep-talking the sculptor-social climber even in dreams. The reshaping of the Maitlands' home proves so severe that they cannot recognize it when returning from other adventures. Otho resculpts and reorders spaces in both his efforts as consultant on interior decoration and the paranormal. In mirrored scenes, Otho sniggers to Charles about payment for his services, first the remodeling: "You're lucky the yuppies are buying condos this year so you can afford what I'm going to have to do to this place", then spirit summoning: "if I'm properly motivated". Financial power and prestige motivate all the adult New Yorkers of Beetlejuice, but Otho's special perversity is to slice through resistant spaces at an angle; to exploit the blind spot, because he invariably fumbles a head-on approach. Otho's path of stylish demolition is to violate interior / exterior boundaries seemingly for the sake of doing so. He first enters the house through a living room window, netted in the blinds and flailing as Charles asks "why can't you come through the front door like normal people?" The front door, Otho explains, "is bad luck", though it is surely the designated point of entry, and the worming contrarian streak in his every movement begins to break down the structure of the Maitlands' world from the inside out. The ghost-story reversal high concept of Beetlejuice is that inoffensive Everyman spirits have their home haunted by strange living creatures. Otho refigures the house as the inside of a crypt, cool gray walls with stone-fleck paint effects on every surface. At the end of a critical dialogue between the Deetz parents on what to do with their haunted house, Otho enters in smoking jacket and shades. The camera steps back to reveal a new patio jutting from the side of the building, shielded by a single wall and window, as if the rest of the house had melted away, confusing the inner and outer spaces. When Otho finally agrees to produce the Maitlands' ghosts in visible form, Charles sneers a question that summates Otho: "What are you going to do, viciously rearrange their environment?" Otho, who attacks the boundaries between realms, tries to force entry but ultimately cannot dissolve the power of those spaces. When assisting Charles in relocating Adam's model town, Otho comprehends how it may be rent apart — "It's sectional! Get it at both ends!" — but just moves Betelgeuse into the midst of the party.
Open this door you dead people or we'll bust it down and drag you out by the ropes you hanged yourselves with!

The rules which force the dead into different planes may be arbitrary and perhaps there is no hierarchy of where one is Supposed To Be, and so it is for the living. In Beetlejuice’s system, matter and energy cannot be destroyed, and when bodies are forced out of one space it is to be squished into another, like toothpaste back and forth. Being dead doesn't solve anything because the question of escape is stymied: you can leave, but wherever you go, there you are. Adam and Barbara are required to spend a century haunting their house, and in the meantime if they leave, are sent to Saturn. If eaten by a sandworm, one ends up back in the afterlife waiting room. The Deetzes cage the Maitlands on the top floor, and from there they may be forced out the window, where they dangle when the attic is invaded, or run for cover in the green light behind the brick door, or squeezed into the tiny-huge world of Adam's model. Barb and Adam are given a behind-the scenes peek when they move through a crazy-quilt tiled hallway lined with infinite doors, doors of all size, shape, doors with twisted bars, with handles and swinging double doors. A similar image in The Matrix Reloaded, a power-corridor of backdoors into the worldwide computer simulation of The Matrix implies a freedom of limited choice that may be exploited to solve problems, numerous secret passages popping out into the same giant room. There is no telling on what dimension, time or reality a door will open into from the underworld corridor of Beetlejuice, but entering it is certain to solve nothing. The Maitlands see behind only two doors, one leading to the Deetz-ravaged house, another to the Lost Souls Room. "A room for ghosts who have been exorcised. It's death for the dead... It's all in the Handbook. Keep moving," instructs the janitorial staff. What happens in the Lost Souls Room, what torments one undergoes, if there is a way out, are mysteries Beetlejuice never deigns to reveal. What is key about this mournful sidetrack is that it makes explicit the endless tail-chase of anyone looking for an end, an escape hatch. Being dead really doesn't solve anything, and the sign in the waiting room reads NO EXIT. The two lighting rod characters of Beetlejuice's plot are Lydia and Betelgeuse, and if the adults squabbling over the house are playing out their control issues over prime real estate, the girl and the ghost are in their separate ways trapped by the spatial manipulations of others. Whatever other family instability and understandable dislike of Delia she may be feeling, Lydia frequently demonstrates that she does not share her parents' lust for bending space to her will, does not equate ownership with the ability to be comfortable in a space. Lydia repeatedly expresses understanding and empathy for the ontology of spaces. She enters the house on a rolling platform, presumably shoved by moving men, as if she is a possession the Deetzes are relocating. Lydia, camera in tow, looks about admiringly at the house, soaking in the spirit of the place, while her parents immediately discuss ripping it apart to feel comfortable. That night, she will be one to chime in "I think we should keep it the way it is." Her angst certainly does not come from moving away from home, as Delia notes that Lydia was miserable in New York "and you can be miserable out here in the sticks. At least someone's life hasn't been upheaved." Everyone's life has been upheaved in Beetlejuice, everyone has tried to resolve a sense of anxious rootlessness by literally and figuratively investing in property. Charles' attempt to cheer up his daughter is naturally to offer her property of her own, and promises a photography darkroom. Lydia, in celebrated gloom-slogan, explains her internal life in relation to a cloistered space, and photography paraphernalia: "My whole life is a darkroom. One. Big. Dark. Room." Shut-in pale and sleepless, Lydia is misunderstood because being perceptive is an anomaly. When she explains that she can visualize the spirit world because she is strange and unusual, Barbara just blinks and shoots back a bewildered "you look like a normal little girl to me." While Delia seeks to "gut out this house" and Charles intends to tear out the plumbing for starters, and to load the furniture trucks with everything the Maitlands owned, Lydia takes one admiring look at a black spider, spinning its web on the staircase banister, and evaluates: "Delia hates it. I could live here." How are these ideas linked, spider/ Delia hates it/ I could live here? Lydia is not merely tickled by the gothic touch of the spider, or taking joy in seeing Delia miserable, but identifying with the spider, which has constructed its own web within the perimeters of the staircase railing. She relates to a creature bound inside the structure, which creates its own space within the space. This admiration for the craft of living within a confined space, sympathy for others bound inside makes Lydia instantly attractive to both the Maitlands, and to Betelgeuse. The girl bonds with the Maitlands, first spotting them through her camera from outside the house, then in her bedroom, as she snaps Polaroids off Adam and Barbara wearing sheets, thinking she is documenting her parents doing "weird sexual stuff" and ordering them back into their own bedroom; but the photography reveals the truth ("No feet!"), or at least a revealing perspective on the truth, and asks if they look like the ghouls of Night of the Living Dead, implying that a motion picture, even fictive, could provide a better reference point for reality than the sheets that are essentially sculptures capturing the Maitlands' forms. Though Lydia is impressed with the effort of Adam's model ("You did this? You carved all these little houses and things?") it is likely that she defends Adam's work — when Charles plays with a toy car on the tiny street, she sighs "Dad, don't!" — because she recognizes it is the life labor of a fellow shut-in with problems: it is when Barbara tells her that they haven't left the house since the funeral that Lydia finally gasps "God! You guys really are dead!" It's not the funeral itself so much as the severely restricted geographical perimeters. Betelgeuse, spastic, elastic, earthy and exhibitionistic among this carnival of repression, possesses utter irreverence toward all familiar rules. "Come to think of it," he chortles, "I don't have any rules!" While Betelgeuse is able to fully manipulate plastic objects, including his own form, disobey gravity and proportion, and interact with the living seemingly at will, he is not limitlessly powerful, and is no less restricted than the rest of the population. Betelgeuse makes it clear that something else is binding him, that the rules hold sway even if we would rather they did not. His feats, which elude the Maitlands, terrorize the Deetzes and nearly drive Lydia to suicide, only occur in the confines of the spaces in which he has been granted permission to perform. The Ghost With the Most is an ectoplasmic hand-grenade to lob into enemy territory, and the rest of the time is trapped, helpless, and elsewhere. What is Betelgeuse’s natural state? Where has he spent most of his millennia? The scant backstory Juno provides the Maitlands does not say, but she hints at his imprisonment, explaining that he can only be "brought back... by saying his name three times", and cautions that "he's been sleazing around your cemetery." But Juno does not indicate the Winter River cemetery. She glances at Adam's model. Betelgeuse’s first physical appearance in the film is underground in a litter-strewn, candlelit tomb, revealed in a tilt down from a hovering matte-shot of the house and hill at dusk. Given the free-floating perspective of the obvious special effects shot and the eye-warping bait-and-switch of the opening credits, when Betelgeuse appears, there is no definitive way to know where we are at the time. As Adam will cautiously deduce when the Maitlands finally brave the invocation of Betelgeuse’s name, only to be sucked into a new world, "I think... we're in the model." Betelgeuse spends most of the film in the model, as if caged by the sheer will of the little town's repressive energy, a binding dam against the tidal wave. When unleashed, he takes elaborate, inventive forms, giant snake, flying and pretending to ride an invisible motorbike, switching outfits at will, possessing Barbara, and projecting a dozen knife-spikes from his torso, but Betelgeuse’s most intense display of personal frustration and loss of control is directed at his capture in space. Adam and Barbara chicken out of employing him after a manic job interview, and ditch the scene of the model, Barb, throwing a tantrum in unfamiliar terrain, shouts "home, home, home!" Betelgeuse, screaming up to the sky, calls the would-be god-sculptor of his tiny prison a loser, kicks over a model tree, and kinda-sorta proud of himself spits "nice fuckin model!" When he punctuates by honking his crotch like Harpo Marx's bicycle horn, the effect is like a flailing insect sinking into amber. Trapped. Betelgeuse and Lydia are the catalysts for change, and their meetings cataclysmic. Opposite in extreme, he is sanguine, she is melancholic, but Betelgeuse and Lydia share mutual longing to cross thresholds and be set free. After setting eyes on her, Betleguese evaluates "the only one I can deal with is Edgar Allan Poe's Daughter. I think she understands me!" While visiting the attic to hand-deliver her suicide note, Lydia finds Adam and Barbara absent, and the room occupied only by the miniaturized incarnation of Betelgeuse. In one of Beetlejuice’s more sober moments, Lydia considers Betelgeuse’s offer to teach her the secrets of how to cross over into the spirit realm(s). The ancient ghost begs her assistance to escape, the girl looks to some indistinct point on an imaginary horizon, and wistfully sighs "I want to get in." Betelgeuse’s self-interest dissipates for a split-second, and they connect across worlds, but he can only ask: "WHY?" Betelgeuse wants out, because he is stifled and wants to disrupt others, Lydia wants to move to a space where she feels she Belongs. Their motivations are reversed, but the desire is the same, the self-help failure known as a geographical cure. Lydia even intends to commit suicide at the same map locale as Maitland accident, and plots the point of her death on a threshold structure that spans the river and road, as she plans to throw herself from the covered bridge These two travelers into unwelcoming territory begin the avalanching chain-reaction resolution of Beetlejuice. The Maitlands leave Juno's office for the last time, heading for home down the corridor of possibilities, having received their assignment to resolve the plot, halt the violence to order which they've set in motion by releasing Betelgeuse, and reveal themselves to the Deetzes. But having been spun through the trials of at least a dozen planes of reality — Winter River and its model, the house in two configurations, Earth and Saturn, the waiting room and the attic, the Lost Souls Room — and dealt with all the spatial manipulators, the Maitlands have gathered all the steam they need. In the hallway, their faces twisted into mutant shapes to become the monsters that the ghost community demands, Barbara instead accepts the parental role that she rejected at the beginning of the film. “Adam, I want to be with Lydia,” she says, and this is suddenly more important than corking Betelgeuse’s bottle or retaking the house, or preventing the Deetzes from revealing the truth about the afterlife to the living world. “Can’t we rebel or something?,” she asks, calling into question how important the established order had been before the adventure began. The perimeters have been broken. Otho steals the Handbook, Charles has stolen Lydia’s photos of the ghosts, Max Dean has arrived from New York, and so on. The solution the Maitlands strike is not to reestablish whatever restrictive boundaries exist, but to move across them with experience and a sort of wisdom. They learn, essentially, to take advantage of the ripples in reality that Betelgeuse exploits, but without the bio-exorcists’ defining disconnection with humanity: to coexist in space. With the plethora of strangely criss-crossing spaces, Adam and Barbara begin to think laterally across all the spaces they have inhabited.
Mystery Slot.

There are passages through the worlds of Beetlejuice through which we never pass. A truck-flattened office worker, suspended from cables in the social work office disappears into a mysterious black slit in the wall, constructed only for him, and leading to areas unknown. The myriad doors in the checker-tiled corridor remain closed. The space most frightening, for it appears to be no space at all, is the Lost Souls Room, infinite free fall up, down, every which way but defining form. These are the stakes, when Otho begins the exorcism in the narrative climax. A trinity of dangerous rituals — sacrifice, exorcism, and marriage — are the crisis points ending the film, all designed to trespass over the boundary which most deeply divides Beetlejuice, the trench between life and death. The constant disorientation of shuttling between shrinking, growing worlds, strange passages between kitchen and other planets, the conflict with the Deetzes and Miss Argentina’s warning that "if I knew then what I knew now, I wouldn’t have had my little accident" snowball into the Maitlands’ rescue of Lydia. Intervening before she frees Betelgeuse who has promised to instruct her to the other side, Barbara shakes Lydia from her death wish: "Being dead really doesn’t make things any easier." "Listen to her on this one, Lydia, this is something we know a lot about," Adam agrees, as he struggles to warp his face back into a palatable shape. On their first visit into the model to meet with Betelgeuse, the Maitlands must dig below the surface of the artificially built world, as they quite literally exhume Betelgeuse from the pint-sized graveyard. Wielding shovels and caring through layers of textured rubber grass, corkboard, cardboard and Styrofoam, Adam is forced to investigate the materials on which his psychic reality is constructed. There may be nothing so mundane as "lessons" buried down there, but the Maitlands are given first-hand experience in the film’s metaphysics. Whatever space one inhabits has its own very real stakes. Action and object in one space may cross over and affect another. e.g. – Betelgeuse lures a Winter River housefly into his Tiny Town grave with a wonky-scaled Zagnut bar, and eats it. Barbara picks up the mini-geuse to scold him for turning into an Alaskan pipeline-sized snake and finds he can still fight back by popping blades from his body. The ghosts in the waiting room, burnt to char, cut in half, dangling sharks from limbs, all carry into the afterlife the scars of their lives. The cover of The Handbook for the Recently Deceased depicts a family of travelers, in the style of 1950s roadmap, self-help or religious pamphlet graphics, on one side of a divide, looking to the clouds and sun on the other side. Armed with this span-leaping guide, Otho’s ritual zaps Adam and Barbara out of the attic and onto the dining room table, sculpting them back into corporeal bodies, which promptly begin to rot. The spell he recites contains, for our purposes, an important verse pertaining to the tension between the value of creating forms and destroying them: “As sudden thunder pierces night / As magic wonder, mad affright / Rives asunder man’s delight / Our ghost, our corpse and we rise to be.” This is the path to the Lost Souls Room, forced into a space, and into a shape where one cannot abide, and does not belong. And there the Maitlands begin to putrefy and die in their wedding clothes. The mad plexus of Beetlejuice arrives at this point, where to stop Otho’s exorcism and save the Maitlands, Lydia has to marry Betelgeuse. Pause and consider this apparent impasse, which is everyone’s fault, including the rules of the berserk universe. A bargain finally struck for his services, about to unleash his wrath, Betelgeuse smoothes his hair, dusts his sleeves, shoots his cuffs, and announces into the camera that it is finally "showtime." The forth wall is nearly rent apart. Like a deus ex miniature Betelgeuse rises from the model already reshaping his form as an amalgam of musical mobile, carousel, carnie barker and midway game. He lambastes the Deetzes infestation of the town, shouting "Welcome to Winter River, Connecticut, museum of natural greed!", and makes short work dispatching Max and Sarah Dean by blasting them through the roof off a freshly materialized Test Your Strength contraption. Where they have gone, where the holes in the ceiling lead, none can say. Impressive before as he played with the free-associative possibilities of objects, transforming the staircase handrail into a coiling serpent body, Betelgeuse unleashed is virtually a force of vengeance in the name of tortured objects. To capture witnesses to the ceremony, the ghost enlists Delia’s sculptures themselves, which wriggle to life, coiling like living shackles around the Deetzes bodies. Betelgeuse remolds the fireplace simply by winking his eye in its direction, and it shrugs into a cockeyed trapezoid as a squat ghostly priest steps through the new portal. The groom unloads a torrent of sight gags from his musty pockets, and in his final display of power to utilize well-placed portals makes his last error. As the Maitlands attempt to stop the wedding, Betelgeuse casually banishes them to less-convenient spaces. Adam is transported into his model, and given an opportunity to redeem its creation. Barbara, who began the journey most frustrated by a lack of clear-cut Heaven and Hell organization to the afterlife, is sent to Saturn. Sidetrack: in an earlier moment, Adam and Barbara watch Lydia show her spirit photography to Delia, who isn’t buying it. "Those are pictures of ghosts?" and taunts the girl because she hasn’t been the subject of a status-confirming Vanity Fair cover photo – if one photo tells the Truth over another, it is a matter of personal truth. Adam is confused as to why Delia can shrug off the images. "Adam," Barb chides, "you had a photo of Bigfoot." He stares at her seriously. "My photo of Bigfoot is another story." Back inside the model, Adam enters a toy truck, the truck Charles earlier flicks across the model tooting "beep beep!", and barrels down the street. The man who died in the 1:1 scale version of the town drives the car straight off the table, successfully spanning the space between two worlds, bending the borders between spheres, and surviving the automobile drop that killed him. The truck slams into Betelgeuse’s foot and bursts into flame. As he hops around with a transdimensional hotfoot, Betelgeuse looks to the ceiling and shrieks. Barbara, riding atop a sandworm, plunges through the roof, busting a hole through at least three worlds – Saturn to the house on the hill and back to the waiting room, where Betelgeuse is returned when the worm consumes him – as the Maitlands inventively traverse the spaces that have trapped them.
Our Ghost, Our Corpse, and We rise to be. The bride throws her bouquet.

It is because Tim Burton has constructed his screen space so clearly that this rich nonsense may be free to run on its own internal, infernal logic. A celebrated sequence in Beetlejuice, in which the Maitlands possess the Deetz’s dinner party and force them to sing "Day-O", see-saws across the axis of action, creating a disorienting sense that something is going terribly wrong with the space itself. The one-sheet poster depicts a massive Betelgeuse sitting on the house, or a half-sized Betelgeuse and tiny Deetz family inside the model... or something, but clearly the hallucinatory sense of space and scale is key to understanding Beetlejuice. The story does not unlock an answer to every problem it poses. Beetlejuice proposes that the universe is built on principles that will forever frustrate our very natures. So being dead, after all, really doesn’t make things any easier. But in the upbeat coda, the Maitland and Deetz families have found strategies to make it more bearable, perhaps the best they could ask. The house, now shared, is shown in a state of decoration flux, possibly being restored to Jane Butterfield specifications, possibly not. The Maitlands remain stuck indoors for a century, but Adam’s model, now relocated to the living room, provides a way out. Lydia ventures into Winter River to take photos of the new town hall for Adam’s reference, and picks up paint. With his surrogate daughter’s assistance expanding his formerly solitary hobby, Adam appears to recognize that he misses the community he was replicating in the first place. Upstairs, Charles peruses not a homeowner magazine, but a new volume by the Handbook authors, titled The Living and the Dead. He cheerily echoes Adam’s earlier lament that it “reads like stereo instructions!” Charles has at least in this glimpse, found a means of empathizing with the Maitlands rather than buying their lives and slipping into the den. Our last peek at Delia is unveiling a new sculpture, which terrifies her husband into a backwards tumble. Her only figural piece depicts Betelgeuse in snake form. In self-fulfilling prophecy, Delia has finally frightened someone with her sculpture, but for its power as an object of art. This final reordering of domesticity is capped by Adam’s benevolent display of all the power Betelgeuse displayed and arguably misused. Where Betelgeuse, as Juno explains, does not work well with others, for the Maitlands, human relationships have returned to the center, not the structure around them. As a reward for getting an A on her math exam, Adam levitates Lydia by the stairwell, pumps the happy, booming voice of Harry Belafonte singing "Jump in the Line" through her frail, pale form, manipulates the pottery and chairs to beat a rhythm, and tearing a special portal through worlds, transports a team of green, ghostly football players as backup dancers.
Already perfectly at ease.

This piece focuses on just a few of the movie's throughlines, but Tim Burton's vision is filled to bursting, and the spectator has a choice of which to pick up, among the bright festooning of ideas, images and curios, littering the film; among its chief preoccupations, Beetlejuice uses characters' musical and fashion tastes as plot points. The film has a Gnostic fixation on the power of naming and mysticism of words. It is concerned with concepts of the American nuclear family, the process of growing into adulthood, reality and representation, and with art movements versus art trends. It inverts and toys with various ghost story traditions. All of these paths eventually point back to the same concerns: how we make sense of life and death, the strange continuities, miserable, joyful and riotous, between their borders. Lydia, home at last, surrounded by people who care about her well being more than a house, as Mr. Belafonte says, goes up in the air, and down in slow motion.