11/29/09

Bedtime stories: Paranormal Activity


It says a lot about my age that I spent much of Paranormal Activity admiring the haunted couple's house and thinking that if I had their two-storey three bedroom in San Diego* I'd make peace with the entity and maybe plant more things in the garden. At the very least, Katie and Micah could change sides on the bed or sleep with the door shut so the nameless thing would have to walk around the bed to get to whichever one of them it's after.

That the pair do not is the fly-on-the-wall POV equivalent of a Halloween teenager going outside at night to see what's making the noise in the pines. Lack of common sense is the basis for good horror movies. Katie and Micah have none but are proficient in the ways of video editing and digital sound enhancement.

In the old days of The Entity or The Exorcist scientific detection of a ghost required calling in experts from a university: even the kids in the first Nightmare On Elm Street had to check into a monitored sleep clinic. Now all victims need to do is go down to Radio Shack, assuming the software didn't come bundled on their PC. The nagging problem with Cloverfield was that no modern amateur camera man would be using a device without shake correction, let alone cut away from a shot of the monster itself. Paranormal Activity's unblinking hi-def monitoring of the supernatural is not only credible but mandatory for modern audiences.

When Micah does capture the entity's sounds and Katie and her sister regard the technology he is using without comment, I became distracted by the level of technological sophistication I was witnessing. If both the characters and the audience understand how digital sampling can catch a ghost, will spooks become rationalised to the point when they are never scary again? This in a way is the movie's theme: tech is the protagonist and evil -- as represented by Micah flicking through the pages of a book of woodblocks and engravings of devils -- is the antagonist.

A truly creepy moment in Paranormal Activity is Katie's never-discussed hobby of threading beads to make dream catchers: a buried hint that she may be in communication with the spirit world, or that her family has some connection to playing with such entities and thus "opening the door" to them. Katie's sister has also witnessed to the scary phenomenom, and when the two women sit to have "girl time" they weave dream catchers together - another red light.

These scenes reminded me of The Blair Witch Project at its best, such as early in that film when the documentary makers interview a local eccentric who reports seeing a women with strangely hairy arms, or local accounts of a woman who crosses a running stream with her feet slightly above the ground. The images were clues to witch folklore and resonated in our Jungian unconscious at a deep level. That the audience had to create them in their own imagination, making up for the fictional and real filmmakers' lack of budget only added to their effectiveness.

Paranormal Activity has a more professional structure than Blair Witch, which makes it less scary overall: because there's none of the wandering we trust the filmmakers to scare us at certain points, which they do. The attractive young couple's lack of friends and neighbours requires suspension of disbelief and as the story progresses and the manifestations become more literal they become less frightening but the movie is still a ripper, particularly when the couple's disharmony literally invites bad things to happen. Simple is scary, but making things scary is not simple. The best technology is always well-buried.

*Nobody knows what it really means.

11/25/09

I want your ugly, I want your disease


I love pop music because it inspires me to lesser things. To wit, the red dwarf of Lady GaGa, neither stellar nor a black hole, and the luxuriously boxed but boxed nevertheless 'Bad Romance' which opens a bit amyl and Gatecrasher but kicks into Wham Vogue and stays there, in French. The French and the catwalk talk will get it into fashion shows and the remarkable video (did anyone think videos would ever be interesting ever again, like, ever?) will sell it on iTunes. She's a worker, a songwriter who deduced that she needed her own brand to make money, and an introvert who disguises herself with the loudest clothes possible. It doesn't matter if it's GaGa under all that digital slap (it is) or if she can play (she can) and as long as her songs can be ProTooled into ringtones they don't need to be beautiful (but they are). GaGa lifted from Roisin Murphy and Miss Mosh, in the same way Roisin lifted from Portishead and Mosh lifted (licked?) Boop and Betty Page, but really Lady GaGa is the pop future Kraftwerk promised us: sexual, detached, romantic, efficient, modular, universal.

11/8/09

Faceless

My 200-plus friends want me to come back to Facebook. I know this because three have emailed me. The rest of my Facebook friends have not. They don't know how to get in touch with me, because I'm not on Facebook.

I joined the social network in 2007 for the same reason I first logged on to the internet in 1994: I like talking to people and discovering how new things work. I never want to be the guy who can't program -- well, I won't say "the VCR" because that technology has come and gone, but you get my drift. I'm a novelist who works from home and the web is indispensable. I have a site, a blog and accounts with Yahoo, Gmail and YouTube. I chat, video conference, bank, book flights and back up my work online. Memes, 4chan: it's all good. If I squint, I can almost see the point of Twitter.

But Facebook? You couldn't drag me back.

I liked it at first. I joined and was quickly "friended" by an ex-colleague, then a real-life friend I hadn't seen in years, and a fan of my novels. I connected with mutual friends, people in media, journalists and other writers. Over the next year I noticed the circle widen as less tech and more "everyday" friends came online. I viewed their holiday snaps and uploaded my own, including scans of the good old days when I would have killed to be this connected.

I didn't "friend" strangers or celebrities. My fan and I enjoyed a single exchange ("When's your new novel coming out?" is a question a writer can only answer every two years) but one of her friends was an editor whom I friended, and suddenly I had placed a short story in his collection. I was making money off this thing.

More old friends joined. Fellow clubbers. Drinkers. Exes. Persons from whom I had become estranged. Sometimes there was a frisson; other times a frank exchange. Working alone in my study I knew that even if my email fell silent there would always be a conversation waiting on Facebook. The more trivial the better. Five Albums That Changed Me! The Lesbian Test! If a conversation became boring, I could come back to it later. I was connected, I was in control.

There were professional issues. To wit, would the photograph of you at the BDSM party negatively affect your future employment prospects? It seemed like a no-brainer to me. Don't post what you don't want people to see. This issue was as old as the Internet itself.

I even remained sanguine during the infamous March 2009 redesign in which Facebook's interface was tweaked to act less like a group of social pages and more like Twitter, the short message network that has been described as "Facebook on crack".

Now, rather than a ruminative tangle of Top Fives, amusing profile images and cryptically funny bulletins, the newly emphasised news feed encouraged users to constantly update their status. Out went the philosophical non-sequiters, in came banal minute-by-minute updates. ("Having a coffee." Who cares?)

In fact, I was relying on Facebook even more. Having moved to the UK I was using it to stay in touch with friends back home and people I was meeting for the first time. Londoners introduce themselves via (in order) their mobile phone, Facebook and (quaintly) their business card. I was using the site to arrange business meetings, social events, email friends and family and publicise my work. Facebook had become indispensable.

At which point, Facebook became totally useless.

There's a difference between staying in touch with your friends, and telling all of them the same thing at once. With my closest friends, I'm totally open. If I'm miserable or angry, they know. But I don't want to communicate that to an ex. And I don't want to talk about them to my new friends, and I don't necessarily want to bore my new friends about my work.

My stepsons were friends, as were my nephews. But I'm meant to be setting some kind of an example to them, and knowing about their social lives was about as appealing as peeping into a stranger's window. As for my editors and readers: I write fiction. The point of novels is to filter out that stuff. Like the movie actress whose skirts fell down on set, I felt like I had lost my mystique.

Facebook isn't socialising: it's broadcasting. Addressing these different groups was like being on a podium. My status updates had become as cautious as press statements. How could I say I'd seen Friend A when he was arguing with Friend B? How could I say I'd been out drinking with Friend C when I'd blown off a date with Friend D? As for professional complaints - forget about it. Add a journalist friend to that mix and you have a prairie fire.

I froze. I became frustrated. I tried using the site less but couldn't because it had become so central. It was all or nothing. I deleted all of my data and closed the account.

After a few weeks, three people wrote me emails saying they missed me. While 200-plus friends couldn't keep me on Facebook, those messages tugged at my conscience. And why wouldn't they? Real friends stay in touch.

(From The Age, September 2009)
Postscript: The above article, originally published in Australia's The Age generated the following online discussion: Parlance's blog on the evolution of language, Words All Around discussed the use of the word "friend" as a verb; Jesse Sommer discussed the article on Small Fried Chips of Thought and Brenda Chillingworth discussed it on her blog about journalism.