Monday, 24 February 2014

Carrie (1976) and Carrie (2013): Tragedy or Revenge Flick? I decide.

All pics and vids in this post of original 1976 Carrie

You’d be forgiven for thinking, if you read my Evil Dead original and remake post, that that was my favourite horror film.  Actually, I have about 10 favourite horrors and they cycle about depending on what mood I’m in at the time. 

Carrie (1976) is the one I might possibly come back to more than any other, for a horror film that has soul.  I could go as far as to say it’s the most emotionally intense horror someone like me could watch.  As in: every girl who grew up unpopular and lonely and wanted to hit back should watch this.  Its most famous scene will fill you with the utmost satisfaction.  But not for long.  Because Carrie is also just one of the saddest and most inevitably doomed characters ever to hit horror cinema.  The whole idea of the original is that she did have a small chance – just for a tiny while, due to a weird conflagration of circumstances; but due to malice it was taken away.  Even then, possibly a shining tiny speck of hope for her left, if she had been treated with love when she got home after prom.  But no.  Religious nuttery ends what teenage cruelty began.

The original never fails to instil in me a sense of empty head shaking loss.  It’s also a beautifully shot film, rich with pale soft focus colours, hazy blues, minty greens, palest pinks.  Whoever did the camera direction had a great sense of rhythm and pace; really complimenting the way Brian de Palma likes to literalize the telling of a story, to point up your exact visual focus.  And Pino Donaggio on the soundtrack…the film would not be what it is without that soundtrack.  I’ll come back to these points.

My first reaction at ‘they’re doing a remake of Carrie’ was, sigh, why?  I thought I might not watch it.  Then in one of those weird lightning moments my head has, I changed my mind and decided it might be really interesting – what on earth can they do with a film that in my mind has NO flaws?  (I can think of flaws, they just aren’t flaws to me e.g. all the final year schoolchildren don’t look 16-17, they all look at least 25!  When I first saw the film at 11, that made no difference to me whatsoever and it still doesn’t.)

The first thing to note about the remake is that it isn’t all bad.  I can see that some (insert word here that doesn’t mean unintelligent but also, you know, does) people might need a timeless classic updating to reflect modern mores and social constructs, to re-relevise it.  If that’s what they wanted, that’s what the remake has done.  Its very now – it has mobile phones, and YouTube and threats of litigation. 

Sadly, it also has a very blah soundtrack (except for one very nice little theme when Carrie is in the library looking up TK on the internet).  It’s not an offensively epic operatic soundtrack (thank heaven), it has its own character…but its still, not quite powerful enough to deal with the visceral themes the film handles: religious fundamentalism, mental instability of parents and its effect on children, gang mentality and what happens to the odd ones out.  It’s pleasant and appropriate – but I didn’t feel like it added anything much to the film.  So that’s one whole element of the film quietly standing off to the side, texting and not participating.  Not sure whose fault that might have been.

It also has some very blah choices for key characters.  Chris Hargensen (head of bitch pack) is still played as a slutty spoilt brat, but somehow with so much less presence, and weirdly, an awful lot more fake tan (why is she so very orange, I was puzzled).  Her infamous boyfriend Billy (of the pig killing scene) is not played as an ignorant, stupid and easily manipulated thug – but as someone who has the potential to become a really nasty criminal: a very interesting idea, were he actually given more than 3 minutes of screen development time, which he wasn’t.  Billy also bears a remarkable resemblance to Tommy Ross, Sue Snell’s pretty and goodnatured boyfriend, he of the Death By Bucket at the end.  In this version, Tommy looks almost just like Billy, only more blurry of feature.  But he’s just some jock.  Sue Snell, a pivotal moral character in the original (she’s the moral the story spins on), is a tall blonde girl with a bit of presence but not that much to do, despite her part being increased – there’s a whole extra section of her and Carrie interacting at the end, and a whole other plot strand.  Julianne Moore as Carrie’s insane fundamentalist mother, hmmm.  Julianne Moore gives her a damaged self harming intensity that is different to the serenity of Mad Certainty Piper Laurie gave the original.  Julianne Moore’s mother is sadder – she loves Carrie more.  But she is also strangely faded.  The only one who actually comes off well is Carrie mark 2 – this actress gives Carrie a lot more facial expression, she verbalises things you can imagine the first Carrie might have been thinking and wanted to say (mayyyybe).  She has a haunted doe thing going on that did make me worry for her.

But it was almost impossible to FEEL this remake the way I felt the first film.  The first film was vivid, melodramatic, and yet simple.  It had quirks that I really liked.  And that are going to be almost impossible to explain, except to someone who knows every dot and comma of the original as I do!  It was almost impossible to watch the remake, especially with its adoption in places, of an almost word for word dialogue lift for whole scenes, without the original playing on top, in my mind.  If you’re going to re-do it, do it a bit different. 

Obviously there were differences: after Carrie is sent to the office for the dismissal slip and the Principal repeatedly gets her name wrong, instead of the ash tray spinning off the table and smashing on the floor, a glass watercooler smashes instead.  Of course.  Because you can’t smoke in a school nowadays.  The boy weaving in and out of the trees saying ‘Crazy Carrie Crazy Carrie’ before she glares him off his bike is now a kid just randomly in front of the car she’s in who falls down.  He’s just an event, a very small one, instead of a whole beautifully shot incident, a motif the film carries (spinning, weaving).

This Carrie is less of a victim in some ways – she argues back convincingly and strongly when she gets home from school, and her mother starts to shriek at her for getting her period, the famous “first sin was intercourse” scene.  Carrie argues she did not sin – and not in the sad and lost tones of Sissy Spacek, but with eye contact and a strong voice.  Then the film loses some of the interest it gained there by making the horrible little Christ figure in the praying closet just a normal statue.  She hallucinates that it bleeds…but that’s no where near as scary as the glowing eyes of the malevolent original (just that little statue alone sums up for me, what fundamentalism does to religions, how it takes a symbol and warps it).

It had to happen: in this version, the getting your period ‘plug it up’ scene of the beginning, is filmed on Chris’s mobile, and put up on YouTube.  During the detention scene, the original PE teacher hits Chris for her rudeness – a step almost too far even in the early 70s, and you can see it on her face, she knows it – but it this version of course she can’t hit her!  Litigation!  Instead, she keeps the swearing of the original and is then caught up in the Principle’s office with Chris’s father threatening a lawsuit for ‘verbal abuse’.  The PE teacher counters, equally modern, that college applications and The Daily Show will *love* a video like this and the person who took it…she effectively gets Chris to back down, and loses her her prom ticket.  Prompting, back on track, the revenge that Chris decides to take on Carrie…

There’s also some interesting extra allusions in the remake – Chris suggests that Sue Snell isn’t the nice girl she appears in the first film, who has done a bad thing but repents and tries to make amends (getting her boyfriend to take Carrie to prom), but that Sue only goes this far in her amends because she really and truly doesn’t care about Carrie, that she cares about prom far more, that she’s been dreaming of it her whole teenage years – that’s why she puts up with the detention when Chris does not.  Chris comes off as more principled, here!  Sue, thus guilted, only gets Tommy to take Carrie to prom to prove Chris wrong.  It’s a power play, caused by Chris in this version; rather than someone trying to genuinely correct a mistake.  Is that, I wonder, a development of the character of either Chris or Sue?  To make Chris that clever and cynical, and Sue that easily manipulated?  Do we only believe in cynicism now, not in simple attempts at amends?  I don’t know, just asking.

Stanley walked past at this point and asked where the PJ Soles character Norma is (she’s on his Laminated Card after all).  She isn’t, is the big shocker.  There are no truly important secondary subsidiary girlfriend characters in this remake.  There are Chris’s other friends – but apart from some creepy identical twins, none stand out or have any memorable lines.  I wonder why they got rid of Chris’s best friend and lackey?  She was a good character, and everyone knows the bully usually has a right hander, was true in my school as in many others I’m sure – bullies do not usually roam alone, they have packs and they have pecking orders; and there’s always a second.  Not in this film.  Stanley wanders off, piqued, bored.

That’s the thing.  One of the major failures of the film is its lack of a feel of menacing gang mentality.  If you grew up a loser (like I did), you KNOW the jungle feel of the playground.  You know that even the usually disparate groups can transiently unite against you before flowing away (if you mess up at sports for example – in Carrie, this is what the remake and original start with, Carrie misses a shot in volleyball: “You eat shit” is what she gets hissed at her).

Also, some of the relationships in the remake are expanded, whereas others are woefully undeveloped.  Carrie and her mother have more of a feeling of tortured tenderness about their interactions here (in the original it was respect, fear and bonkerness).  Whereas Chris and Billy…in the original, there’s the whole funny scene in the car which tells you everything you need to know about the power structure and motivations behind their relationship (he wants sex and class, she wants power and a bit of rough); it also tells you about their great command of English, the major lines of dialogue being “You stupid shit” (her) and “You fuck!” (him).  It’s one of the many realistic yet comic scenes in the original, the ones that lighten the tone just enough, for just a second, so that the film isn’t wholly depressing.  In the remake, that scene is gone, and there’s nothing like it in its place.  Except maybe the pig killing scene where you can see the new Chris is drawn to the new Billy because both of them have quite a psychotic streak – in this version, the pig killing is his idea, and they do it together (he bangs, she bleeds).  It’s not funny.

There’s other humour in the original, for example, the scene where the boys go to get their tuxedos and the tall gangly guy Doesn’t Want Ruffles.  They speed up the speaking, have stupid music, fun music.  It ends with a cut to Carrie sewing her dress, her mother praying, rocking back and forth.  Fun to menace, the music changes, it’s full of wait and see, makes you lean forward.  This version has a silly dance scene when the boys try their clothes on…but it’s not funny and it doesn’t really provide a great contrast with anything after it. I don’t quite see why the film decided to be so similar to the original in so many ways, but without so much of what makes the original classy and different and original.  This remake kept some of what was good (notably most of the script) and jettisoned anything else that gave it character.  I am very puzzled by this decision.  Why make it a horror film like so many others?  We have All Those Others…?

Ok.  The Prom Scene.  The heart of the film.  About 3 minutes long, like the original. What can you do with it that’s different?  Well.  A thing with the bleachers, that’s ok.  A thing with blood rising off her arms, that’s interesting.  A thing where instead of mimicking that stock still held in place only head moving rigid with shock and rage pose that Sissy Spacek did – you do a strange sinuous snakey movement, as if unleashing your telekinetic abilities has made you reptilian…Reminded me of the way Aaliyah moved in Queen of the Damned (2002), lovely creepy movement.  It didn’t work for me, but it was memorable.  About the most theatrical image in the film (possibly barring Chris’s eventual death).  You could …NOT kill everyone. 

Very disappointing.  The whole point of the retributive nature of Carrie’s rage in the first film was that the innocent died along with the guilty, she Lost It, she became as mad as her mother in that moment, and she killed everyone in the room; everyone in the school.  It’s so saddening and shocking, because she was driven to such madness and she had the power to back it up.  You lessen the power and consequences of her rage and the tale it tells about our society if she starts releasing people [the PE teacher], and showing conscience in her moments of insanity [Sue is ejected from the house at the end, because she’s pregnant].  The thing is – this nice ing up of Carrie at this moment is unnecessary: we know from the way Sissy Spacek acted her in the original that she is a nice, under educated, bullied victimised girl who goes temporarily mad in a moment of incredible strain –you don’t need her at base goodness underlined.  The contrast to her goodness of her callous behaviour in the Prom Scene is what Makes The Message Of The Film…why couldn’t they see that??

Anyway.  So, remake Carrie flies out of the gym (yes, I did say that), and wanders away (while lots of people stumble about outside having survived).  She still does kill Chris and Billy in their car as they try to run her down – having been the one of the only people in the original who did escape the gym (Sue by being locked out by PE teacher at a vital moment, and Chris and Billy by hightailing it out the backway as soon as they dropped the bucket of blood).  Only in the remake, she plays with the car a little more and throws Chris through the windscreen by the face, so she gets stuck.  Whilst this is a nifty little piece of gore, it feels cold, unnecessary and why bother to give her a conscience to save the good people if you are also going to then give her an urge to torture her persecutors.  She hasn’t gone mad at all, in this version.  She simply got angry and got even.  It’s not sad, it’s just…an immature idea of justice.  It’s a whole different film, when you think about it.  It feels almost pathetic, pointless, her actions here.  She doesn’t look like it even makes her feel better.

So she goes home, to the scene that most people forget – where her mother tries to kill her for being a witch.  In the original, the music of Biblical inspired doom starts playing the moment she gets home, and there’s churchy candles in profusion everywhere.  Doom doom doom spells the atmosphere.  Oh no, you think.  In the remake, she goes in, no candles, she has the bath, she’s sad, no great music, just some music, and she has a hug with Julianne Moore who then stabs her and she falls down the stairs and then kills the mother with the many knives in a very slightly different but not that much way to the original film.  Did I just suck all the possible atmosphere out of it with the one sentence there?  That’s how it felt watching it. And then there’s the extra bit where Sue comes in and tries to talk to her and is pushed out of the house as its falling down.  Unnecessary, again, I felt.

The remake ends with Sue’s bad dream, except the hand from the grave is now a hand from her womb, as if Carrie has her baby (maybe pointing the way to a sequel, if anything).  Oh yes: subplot – Sue’s pregnant in the remake.  And then it just ends.  Cue some music.  It lacked all the intensity the original has.  It was a real missed opportunity.

Now the thing is, I didn’t mean this to be a very negative review of the remake – I liked it better than the remake of The Evil Dead, for a start.  Perhaps it’s the fact that Carrie (1976) has always been a film of atmosphere and soul for me.  And whilst the remake updated itself quite nicely, it seemed to lose quirks and atmosphere as it did so.  It seemed to lose that sense of inevitability ramping up – the hope of what could have been the beginning of Carrie feeling better about herself squaring up against what was awaiting her when she got home.  The first film is a tragedy.  The second is only a teenage revenge flick.  The first is timeless in the way it organises its themes; the second feels very now, which I think may cause it to date very quickly.

Ok, think of it like this: the Prom Scenes in the original, the whole thing. Tommy and Carrie never got to stop off at the Beehive for a couple of minutes after they left Prom.  The feeling I keep getting on rewatching it, is of what could have happened, but didn’t.  Pathos!  Stanley commented, when I was talking about this earlier, as he wandered past again, “I don’t think she would have gone out with Tommy Ross again, she would have understood it was help.  But that one night, it could have set up her self esteem for the rest of her life – she would have had that one night to contrast against everything else, she would have known things can go right sometimes…”, and he shook his head and wandered off again (probably because I was watching the original by that time but there was no PJ Soles in her cute hat in that scene).  

The bit where she dances with Tommy, to the song ‘Someone like Me’, a sweet and simple loving song.  Soft focus lights, he kisses her; the camera swirls round and round them (spinning is a bit of a recurrer in the original).  It’s as if Carrie’s head is spinning: with hope, and love and possibilities and overwhelm – “and tonight there’s only me” the girl sings, “I never dreamed someone like you could love someone like me”…So happy, for an instant, for a short while.   Here, see for yourself (and, incidentally, the person who is first in the comments beneath and makes a case for why Tommy should not have kissed Carrie is 100% on the button with his reasoning – this film gets people riled!):

That’s why it’s so sad.  This night, this experience could have changed her life, carried her forward.  But it was never going to; because she had a lunatic mother at home waiting to attempt to kill her…Carrie never stood a chance. 

The story is a tragedy from the start.  But it’s told softly, with occasional humour and some lush and beautiful photography (I wonder: is tragedy porn a genre?).  People often say Brian de Palma owes a massive inspiration debt to Hitchcock and its so: the whole business of Tommy and Carrie dancing, is switched to Chris’s hands tensely holding the rope that leads to the bucket so skilfully, back and forth – the music cues change too, the mood is constantly switched. 

Music carries the whole scene – the rope jerks under Sue’s hand at the side of the stage, the camera follows it under the stage to Chris and Billy fighting…Sue in slow mo now tries to see where the top bit of rope leads, edges out from the side of the stage…why am I telling you about this scene?  Watch it.  What you’re looking for is not only the skilful use of slow motion to heighten and delay, and the electric feel of mood change when Carrie shuts the doors and turns the lights red, the use of split screen rarely bettered in any film; but the way the sounds take over during the massacre scene.  Its soundtrack, but it’s not music – its pure nasty atmosphere.  You can buy the soundtrack and this scene’s mean synthy sound has been successfully used in documentaries – from Adam Curtis talking political paranoia, to Charlie Brooker talking our societies inanities – but they all use it to be the background to things which scare us, losses of control.  See:

The other thing is – that Prom Scene isn’t about gore – I always thought PJ Soles’s Norma deserved a much worse death than getting knocked out and getting a bit wet; but you forget that everyone burns to death.  Carrie is the only one to leave that scene, the doors close softly behind her – but with a sound like they aren’t opening again.  This is horror, but its horror of the enormity of what she’s done and why she did it.  You’re thinking, not just saying – ‘Wow! Cool death effect!’  

I wanted to link you to the mother’s death scene when Carrie gets home too – but I can’t find a YouTube video of that scene, except one with the dialogue removed and only music.  That would be useful for film students to study, of course, but not for the purposes of my showing you what a powerful scene it is – how the insane mother, after such an endless death – all those spinning shooting knives, all that wailing (undeniably sexual sounds in dying from that repressed woman who hated herself so) – falls into position looking so incredibly peaceful.  In the exact crucified position of the little nasty Christ figure in the praying closet.  Except the mother looks in death how the little Christ figure should have looked – loving, eternal, parental.

Despite the fact the biblical judgement/deluge music has started and the house is folding up around her, there is still one last strange comedic moment – the thwump sound as Carrie tries to pull her mother away from the wall where she has pinned her and the knife pulls out.  She pulls her mother into the prayer closet and the house falls down over them: Carrie’s terrible distress at killing her mother causes her powers to be completely uncontrollable – she is killed as the house disintegrates.  The last you see of the inside of the house is the nasty little Christ figure, with its glowing eyes: presiding over the death its faithful’s belief’s have caused.  Chilling.  And god, so sad.

Then it’s the famous last scene with Sue’s dream.  What none of the clips I found on YouTube showed, was the brilliant contrast between the lulling  music of Sue going up to the grave to place the flowers, the famous shock of Carrie’s hand coming up to grab her, Sue waking and screaming (she is SOOOO not going to be alright)  - but then the beautiful last cut to the music the film started with: its got the most peaceful feel.  The screaming and yelling and distress followed by that music is like closing the door on a wild storm: it gives you breathing space.  Your shoulders relax, ‘whoa’ you think…but if you remember where the music came from first, the shower scene, where the whole mess started, women running about in slow mo, Carrie showering, discovering her period for the very first time and her powers being activated by that, the late onset of puberty…it’s a false calm, an uneasy calm.  If you’ve only seen the film once you probably felt uneasy at the end and didn’t know why – it was the repetition of that music, which presaged trauma and the whole plot to begin with.  Clever. 

You rest, as the credits roll up – black screen, red letters, peaceful music…but are you peaceful?  I don’t think so. 

This is what the remake lacks – a violent sense of injustice and unease.  And an iconic set of camera work and musical score.[1]  And the feeling that you want to cry.  Powerful film making.

[1] I’m a massive Brian de Palma fan.  If you liked original Carrie, you could do a lot worse than follow Amy Irving onto The Fury [1978] (where the telekinetic girl does NOT die – my god, it has a satisfying end, that one!), and Dressed to Kill [1980] (follow Nancy Allen who played Chris in the original Carrie – this one is weird, but well worth watching: again, beautifully designed).

Monday, 17 February 2014

The Return of Things That Annoy Me!

I have been repeatedly asked recently, why there have been no more posts in the Things That Annoy Me series.  Who would’ve thought it would go down so well?!  The answer is, that LOADS of things continue to annoy me, but not sufficiently to write a whole post about. 

But just so you know I am genuinely as tetchy as ever – here is a quick list, written in about 10 minutes, of just a small slew of Things That Annoy Me (but not enough to do a post about):

Pet Hates and Irritations:
Ø      People repeatedly talking to me when they see if I have headphones on and am trying to work
Ø      People waking me up when I am sleeping or trying to sleep
Ø      People asking my advice and then totally ignoring anything I have said (I don’t mean they have to take it, just don’t ask if you aren’t even going to listen)
Ø      People standing about in a vaguely hover-y way in my line of vision when I’m trying to concentrate (pacing doesn’t bother me)
Ø      Things getting in my line of direct sight when I’m trying to do something (for some reason this happens a lot – like Fluffhead getting in the way of me with his head when I’m trying to help him on with his socks…)
Ø      People interrupting me; or talking over me
Ø      People who hate being interrupted then interrupt me constantly
Ø      Inconsiderate people who think they are considerate!
Ø      People correcting my grammar when I play with grammar on purpose
Ø      People being late and not caring they have wasted my time (its ok if they say sorry)
Ø      People not doing things when they say they will, or at least in a timely way
Ø      Bullying – and there’s more of it about as a grown up than you’d think
Ø      People talking down to other people because they think they are better because of breeding or money (Dragons Den)
Ø      People being pompous or condescending
Ø      Girls who totter in high heels and can’t wear them properly
Ø      Girls who have over inflated gestures – throwing their hair about a lot, emphasizing their beauty; posing off in any way
Ø      Girls who wear designer clothes and try and act like the label doesn’t really matter, it actually is made by a better class of Chinese sweat shop worker and they are superior for selecting this product of better quality
Ø      People who actually admit to thinking designer labels are better than regular clothes
Ø      People who say things like: ‘I’m incredibly intuitive’, ‘I’m completely in touch with my feelings, I’m SO self-aware’, ‘I’m a really positive/upbeat/honest person’ – the making of very obvious self judgements that need to be made by other people, they can’t just be declared – you can only say, ‘I try to be…whatever’ if you are being truly honest – don’t tell other people how you are and try to brainwash them as if they are stupid, by repeating these statements
Ø      People thinking because they are clever they are better than others – when they may not be as worthy as people
Ø      Judging people on academic qualifications as if life meant nothing
Ø      Judging others as if you have done no wrong yourself
Ø      Judging others on their music tastes alone
Ø      Judging people by what they read alone (in terms of books…er, must admit to judging people on reading things like ‘Hello!’  or ‘OK!’ all the time…who cares about these celebrities?!!!)
Ø      Bosses who shout at underlings because they have no social skills and think they are better
Ø      People who laugh at me for crying at films or books
Ø      People who get an idea stuck in their head then rant at me about it regularly; incapable of listening, yet thinking they are involved in a ‘conversation’ with me (Fry knows who I'm talking about)
Ø      Littering
Ø      People who think the earth is theirs and they can abuse it how they want
Ø      People who think their god is the only one, they are special, chosen - and they must tell you about it and tell you you are damned if you don't agree with them
Ø      Me when I get stuck in a bad, sad or isolated mood – how stupid am I at these moments
Ø      Not understanding something when someone is explaining it to me quite nicely
Ø      Feeling stupid or slow
Ø      Seeing signs of competitiveness in myself – or one upmanship
Ø      Not knowing how to deal with anger or depression in myself
Ø      People with loud annoying coughs/ laughs
Ø      People who keep snoring even when I turn them over onto their sides!
Ø      Treating celebrities as gods
Ø      Endless copying and flattery, mimicry of others
Ø      Being on hold with automated dialling systems
Ø      The annoying hold music on automated dialling systems
Ø      Being on hold for more than 2 or 3 minutes, and being charged for it, getting nowhere
Ø      I have listed stuff on Amazon for years and just the other day they decided to institute a policy of ‘restricted listings’, things they think may get counterfeited, especially DVDs.  I accidentally tried to list one of these the other day – they keep the list secret so you never know when you’ll be stopped from listing something.  I complained that I had many years of being a seller and impeccable 100% ratings, how do I get on the approved seller list?  They reply that I can’t.  I reply that this is shoddy, and some of the companies they are allowing to list these restricted items have only 80 or 90% ratings…They continue to fob me off and in a very high handed manner: “Thank you for contacting us today. As has been explained previously, you do not currently qualify to sell certain restricted DVDs and we are unable to provide any further information as to why. Amazon has set this policy in place to prevent counterfeit DVDs being sold on their website; however, this is not meant to be taken as an accusation that you are attempting to list a counterfeit item. We are not adding to the list of eligible sellers. We will inform you if this changes in the future.”  GRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!! I lose my cool and send rather spluttery over exclamation marked complaints and demands to speak to someone’s supervisor.  The saga continues.  Now – that ALMOST annoyed me enough for a post, but you must agree it’s very boring indeed, so I’ll leave it here on the list!
Ø      Fans of brilliant programmes like Star Trek or Dr Who (the old one not the new poo – apologies, lovers of the new poo, only my opinion), who actually, when you speak to them turn out to be insanely psychotic lunatics.  I find that not only annoying, but very weird – a lot of scifi is about world’s built on reason and being more balanced and advanced…and their greatest fans are…often mad and bad and not very advanced at all.  As the Americans will say: Go figure.
Ø      People who have masses of keys on their keyrings – and only ever seem to use one key; and they hold the keyrings and clink them a lot, as if to say, ‘oooo, look at my many keys’…why???
Ø      People who don’t understand that Stewart Lee is incredibly excellent and very funny (and before you say it, I also like Michael McIntyre and Lee Mack and Frankie Boyle – and lots of other comedians often placed in direct opposition to Lee by the press; not to mention they all mock each other something chronic – I could never be a comedian, my skin is far too thin…I clearly have no convictions…)
Ø      Trying to make a simple point and finding I have unforgiveably waffled and tangented and over explained it
Ø      Not seeing a fox in the garden for more than 2 days
Ø      The neighbours our house is attached to – god they’re annoying; always having parties till 4 in the morning where it sounds like they are unwrapping lots of surprise presents constantly: much loud and sudden ‘whooooaaaaaaaa’s…what ARE they doing??!
Ø      Finding that conversely, I have no parties let alone naughty late ones, and that I sit about curtain twitching and probably being a bit jealous of the neighbours (after all, I find it very strange that such annoying people have so many friends…)
Ø      Having lots of exercise videos and feeling absolutely no desire to do them – so they sit there, mocking me with their pristine unwrappedness (while I eat chocolate and cheese)
Ø      Finding I suddenly can’t access Windows Media Player anymore, so my playlists are held hostage and I can’t get them out – I spent Hours making those lists – Stanley calls them the 7 Dwarfs: Lonely, Moody, Angry, Tripsy, Joy, Drunk and Tired…I miss them.
Ø      Just getting my train of thought when I’m very tired and then the phone rings and it gets lost again
Ø      Not being able to afford coffeeshop coffee everyday – I always note it’s the first thing people trim from their budgets when they are cutting back – and yet its one of my favourite things and can totally lift my mood.  I don’t care that the mark up is ridiculous and the companies don’t pay their taxes properly – I love them anyway
Ø      That last statement.  I clearly have no convictions.  Life as a Self Aware Lefty is bloody hard – you don’t get to enjoy much, there’s so much torment and exploitation going on in the world.  Makes me occasionally toy with the idea of trying to be Tory (Americans: read Republican) – and then I could just cut a swathe through the world unthinkingly enjoying myself while destroying everything so there’s no planet left for our children…yup.  Can’t do that.  Joyless Lefty it is then.  Except for exceptions like Caffe Nero and Amazon – my 2 favouritest companies in the world.  Ehem.  I’m not perfect.
Ø      People who think WWE wrestling isn't proper wrestling therefore its rubbish.  Its supposed to be Sports Entertainment, the clue is in the quite obvious title.  Think circus performance; think skilled fit people throwing each other about and having silly hair (and currently, very ignorant beards) for your viewing pleasure.  This list is starting to be way too enjoyable to write, so I am ceasing to be annoyed enough!  That’s it for now. 

Ah – put a smile on my face writing all that, it did!  I’m sure I can do you some more if you still miss the full posts!  Just let me know!

(Almost made my migraine not hurt, but not quite.  On my precious child free day, I officially announce – I’m going back to bed.)

Monday, 10 February 2014

Why did you do that? - Cognitive Dissonance and Character Motivation

I’ve been struggling a bit this year so far. To say anything.  Aethelread posted a disturbing entry to his blog yesterday, filled with honesty at how he is feeling (great bravery and detachment), so I thought I could perhaps make more of an effort myself.  Time Traveller asked me if I was writing recently, and I replied something along the lines that I had very little time, hardly any focus and zero ideas.  This is true.  She seems to be barrelling along with a fury, which is righteous news, writing wise, as she’s so good. I hope for a barrelling period of my own sometime soon.

In the meantime…

It’s been biblical, the rain, here.  On and off, that 40 days and 40 nights.  I start to wonder if it’s washing me away, that being dry inside is some form of illusion.  I read a quote the other day by Orson Welles about the idea that you’re born alone, live alone and die alone, and only the illusion of friendships and family keep you sane…along those lines. I was really struck that he called friendship and family an illusion.  I’ve long been convinced of the born, living and dying alone bit.  If you’ve ever had a fit of depression or sadness you see quite clearly that you are utterly alone, that that is no illusion at all.  But I’ve never seen the friendships I’ve made as illusory.  They are real enough.  (And family – what trouble they can be – they definitely aren’t illusion!)

But Welles has a point.  I don’t think any relationship is what you think it is, as you can’t see into other people’s heads.  Even if you sat down with your best friend, or your partner, and had a brainstorming session where you swore to be utmost honest, and made ground rules for your relationship where you both by the end, have some sort of list and are on the same page with core values and beliefs, assumptions, basic ways of viewing the world; so that even if you disagreed with one another, you would at least understand each other…I still maintain you would likely not have a clue at all as to what’s truly going on in your friendship or relationship.

I was talking to Fry yesterday.  He is walking a torturous winding way and has been for sometime.  It’s a shame you cannot save your children from the pits you fell into, that people cannot learn lessons at second hand.  Still.  Fry postulated that most of my friendships and all my relationships have worked along a pattern whereby I think in my head that its ‘us against the world’.  A unit.  Two freaks together, navigating an uncertain and scary world, but together in seeing the joy, having moments of wonder.  And that if someone then does something contrary to my idea of them, it breaks my ‘siege mentality’ and throws me completely.  Leaving me lost.

That has happened twice in close friendships recently.  It leaves me feeling a bit like an idiot, a bit disillusioned and unclear.  Mixed signals flying about all over the place.  I'll give you an example of one of the incidents.  Someone being nice to me in quite a genuine seeming way though they know they have done something that has really upset me.  I expressed it, fully and clearly – and got…practically zero reaction.  I’m really not sure what I’m supposed to do with little explanation, hardly any expression of remorse, and being left with the feeling, due to another’s calmness, that I am merely having a tantrum by myself.  Instead of a legitimate reaction to ( a repeated) wrongdoing.  I then start twisting myself into a pretzel trying to understand why the person did what they did, what their state of mind could have been.  I try to understand.  I try to understand the lack of reaction, of talking.  I make little lists in my head – doesn’t want confrontation, feels explanation won’t be listened to, is very angry and doesn’t want to say something that will be regretted, or conversely, actually doesn’t really care much at all about the issue and thinks I’m making a storm in a teacup, so the best way to blow over it is to just act all business as usual.  Which would explain their being as nice to me as usual – as if I hadn’t just expressed great upset and disquiet.

The person in question isn’t usually a game player either.  If anything, they are sometimes in ignorance of their actions’ consequences for others.  I don’t suspect (I think) any great masterplan to freak me out or control me via withholding of reaction – as if I’m an actor performing to a mannequin and getting nothing back to work with, no two way street.

In a way, this is all great writing stuff.  My total confusion at other people’s motivations and actions, my attempts to understand.  The contradictions of someone knowing I am angry with them and not seeming to care enough to address it at all, but being perfectly pleasant as they usually are – as if nothing at all had happened.  Bit of cognitive dissonance there on my part for sure.  I remember saying ages ago that I was going to do a post about cognitive dissonance and I never did.  Maybe this is a quick post about that, then.  Not a proper one, as I don’t feel in the mood to relate any experimental examples.

Cognitive Dissonance was proposed by Leo Festinger in the late 1950s.  It’s basically the sense of acute mental discomfort you experience when you experience or do something that is contrary to your beliefs or expectations.  Something did not turn out the way you thought it would.  That’s a massive over-simplification, but here’s a very ordinary example so you see what I mean, one that’s happened to me and probably some of you in the past –

"Imagine that you prepared at great length for a dinner party at your home. You constructed the guest list, sent out the invitations, and prepared the menu. Nothing was too much effort for your party: you went to the store, prepared the ingredients, and cooked for hours, all in anticipation of how pleasant the conversation and people would be. Except it wasn't. The guests arrived late, the conversations were forced, and the food was slightly overcooked by the time all of your guests arrived. The anticipation and excitement of the great time you were going to have are discordant with your observation of the evening. The pieces do not fit. You're upset, partly because the evening did not go well, but also because of the inconsistency between your expectation and your experience. You are suffering from the uncomfortable, unpleasant state of cognitive dissonance."
(Cooper, 2007)[1]

Now, Festinger went on to state:
"Festinger's insistence that cognitive dissonance was like a drive that needed to be reduced implied that people were going to have to find some way of resolving their inconsistencies. People do not just prefer eating over starving; we are driven to eat. Similarly, people who are in the throes of inconsistency in their social life are driven to resolve that inconsistency. How we go about dealing with our inconsistency can be rather ingenious. But, in Festinger's view, there is little question that it will be done."
(Cooper, 2007)[2]

He thought that people could not exist with the uncomfortable feeling of knowing things were not as they thought or needed to think they were, with themselves. E.g. man thinks of himself as environmentally friendly, buys car he believes is sound to these principles; later finds out it does not do good mileage and will harm the environment more by excessive use of fossil fuels (ah, should’ve got electric car, he kicks self, knows that now…but he took price into account, oh dear oh dear).  Festinger would say that in order to square the man’s view of himself with his actions and their unforeseen consequences, he is going to have to find a solution.  He can’t just leave it as it is.  He’ll have to get another car, along with all the time, loss of money through part exchange and general hassle this will cause.  But he will likely endure this discomfort because he wants to stay true to the principles he has chosen for himself: it’s important to feel consistent, authentic to self, true. 

Festinger would call this trying to achieve consonance, recalibrate his internal sense of who he is, what he does, what he’ll accept.  If he can’t change the car, he’s going to have a problem, he’s going to have to find somesort of rationalisation about it.  If there’s no money to do a further change, he’ll possibly have to try and be philosophical – I have learnt my lesson here, I’ll do better research next time, this experience isn’t wasted, I’ll make sure my next car (in 10 years or whenever) is highly efficient and environmentally friendly.  In the meantime I’ll try and use this one as little as possible, and …recycle more, or something.  I am a good person, I am I am.  See the sort of thing I mean?

I am experiencing cognitive dissonance myself here, as a person was not the way I thought.  And I am having a troublesome time trying to achieve consonance about it.  My own feeling of a sort of sad subsiding into a sense that I will never know, because I think they just are not going to want to explain themselves.  That apparently I’m not worthy of explanation.  That creates one of my usual steady sinkings into a good bit of unhelpful self loathing. On the other hand – I could rationalise that I am merely allowing myself to be upset[3].  I could take a leaf out of the other person’s book, they who briefly apologise with very little explanation indeed and simply move along; knowing that if I choose to remain friends with this person it is (highly) likely (I would say) that this behaviour that upsets me will be repeated at some point in the future.  But that they have other good points that I am also taking into account.  So maybe I choose to remain friends as I really and genuinely value these points.  Let they who are sinless cast the first stone etc etc.  I’m not perfect either.  In fact, as we all know, I’m a bit of a pill most of the time. 

I could say all that, in an attempt to recalibrate.  I’m not sure if it feels true yet though. I feel like the whole situation needs more investigation.  But I don’t think the other party wants to play ball with my desire to analyse or understand.

Which brings me back to Welles.  The illusion of friendship??  Maybe some are illusory, no matter of how longstanding.  Or maybe parts are illusory.  Maybe no matter how much we try to be awake to our own preconceptions, and biases, our own wishes and casting of people around us partially into roles of saviour or sinner or martyr or gogetter…no matter how complex we try and allow for them to be, as complex as ourselves – perhaps we simply can never have a proper friendship with someone because we just do not know what they are really about.  So any or all parts of the friendship will be built around houses made on sand.  Illusion.  Pattern making filling in the blanks.  Likely erroneously.  Cause for dissonance.

And as Fry said, breaking my siege mentality leaves me saddened and quiet, and alone.  But it’s nothing I didn’t know, right?  It is highly possible I knew about this flaw (its happened before in a smaller way) but didn’t want to know it again, so allowed myself to forget, spinning myself my little tales of solidarity and sisterhood, togetherness, likemindednness.  Which were only partially true.  Maybe I was half asleep.  Foolishly.

I wish I was strong enough to be awake all the time, and to not be saddened by the actions of others when they do not turn out to be as I fondly thought.  I wish I could just say – ok, you can’t be trusted on that issue, or, you’ll always be a loose cannon where that’s concerned, though reasonable and kindly in other ways.  Like someone who’s nice when they aren’t drinking.  Or your old granddad who’s really nice apart from those really nasty inappropriate racist/homophobic comments he comes out with sometimes.  I wish I could separate people’s bad points from their good ones and yet accept the whole.  Not be surprised by either.  I suppose it’s a goal.

And in the meantime – I have some interesting character stuff to write about don’t I?  We all have people we know that we don’t understand half as well as we think we do.

The trick would then be to put the detachment hat on and actually be capable of writing about it.  Instead of feeling sad and alone and sitting here simply relating the matter slightly evasively.  I haven’t learned that trick either – though I did used to have it, so its there somewhere.  I used to be able to fictionalise anything that happened to me to be able to make sense of it.  In one way or another.  Annoyingly, I think this would take more time than I have in this case.  So these preliminary notes will have to do.  And I shall continue to sit here, confused, rather sad, and very quiet.  In a state of dissonance.[4]

[1] Cooper, J. (2007). Cognitive Dissonance: 50 Years of a Classic Theory. London: Sage Publications. 
[2] I think some forms of depression are strongly linked to being in a perpetual state of cognitive dissonance: you can’t make any rationalisation that feels good enough as to why things aren’t as you thought they were (or imagine they should be).  You can’t marry it up, so you remain confused, and for some people, in a state therefore of perpetual internalised self rejection…a sort of mind dysmorphic disorder (whoa – I’m making up my own helpful pyschobabble labels now!).  Just thinking aloud.
[3] One of my past partners was a master at telling me all my upsets with him were a result of this: me ‘allowing’ myself to be upset.  He was never even 10% responsible for anything that ever went wrong between us.  Couple this with a stance of ‘you mental patient, me caring psychiatrist’ and you can kind of see why that relationship didn’t make it to the truly longterm…
Try this very good link if you want to read more on the subject than I’ve had time to tell you about today.