Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Abstinence Teacher

My better- or rather, my vastly superior - half recently bought a copy of Tom Perotta's The Abstinence Teacher from Shakespeare and co in Paris. Since I had only brought How to Lose Friends and Alienate People along as holiday matter, I needed a new book, and stat (not because Toby Young's memoir is awful - it's not. It's just that it's one of those little pamphlets you can hoover up in more or less a single sitting: cf. those of Marcus Trescothick and Michael Atherton; I scanned the salient chapters--the crack-up, the Ashes--in various Borders around town). Anyway, I wheedled and pouted like a sad champion until I was allowed to read.

It's actually brilliant. I sort of knew it must be at least a bit good, since it had been hugely well reviewed just about everywhere. It's a nice question, therefore, why the book I never trained my voracious I MUST BUY THIS kleig lights upon the book for even a fleeting moment. Anyway. The book is about a sex education teacher in a small American town, whose turf gets encroached upon by an incongruously gamine Christian pushing her abstinence-only program into the school, and who also has to deal with her daughter's soccer coach who, after much drinking and drugging, is now born-again.

Apart from the brilliant interior voices of the assembled pastors, sad-sack teachers, ex-wives and husbands, defiant teens and jarringly perky Christians, what stands out is Perotta's compelling facility with dialogue and plot. Fantastic set pieces, such as the recalcitrant teachers having to relate a "sexual experience I regret" or the born-again convention, are powered forward by the smooth engine of the plot, all its part moving in lovely harmony as the book's smooth groove's crescendo hits a surprising note at the climax.


Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Some thoughts about the movie Antichrist, about which I hardly know what to think, which seems to me puts it three quarters of the way to greatness.

Now, heaven knows, it seems a lifetime since we had a honest-to-goodness movie scandal, an attempt by the redtops, in the name of all that is decent and holy, to foment outrage over what they would have you believe is some squalid awful little movie fit only for immediate banning, then the burning of all involved. Not so very long ago, when we were still being treated as innocent lickle bunnykins by the State, you only had to say "Cronenberg!" and the offending piece of celluloid would be removed from our sight, never to be seen again.

I remember in the early days of VHS coming into possession of strange almost samizdat catalogues that listed thousands of titles that I could never hope to see, with strange and impossibly exotic titles: Clockwork Orange; Straw Dogs; I Spit On Your Grave; Driller Killer; Last Half on the Left; Texas Chainsaw Massacre. What on earth did these titles portend? And when the original video nasty scandal got them all banned (I seem to remember Videodrome being held up as a paragon of all that was evil. Why?), naturally I became all the more curious. These movies all but promised to freeze my young blood, harrow up my very soul, make my two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres and, since we're on the subject, cause each particular hair to stand on end like quills upon the fretful porcupine. Fantastically scary shit, in other words.

Now, with every two bit video nasty finally released and detoxified and with even Cannibal Holocaust watchable over the webular intertubes, we've all got a bit blase. Who's gonna shake us from our slumber?

If the papers are to be believed, and there's a statement that needs strong shoulders, then Lars Von Trier's latest noisome concoction is just the thing to reawaken outrage muscles not flexed this millennium. The way the critics are telling it, Antichrist is little more than horror porn, Hostel or Saw taken to a shocking new extreme. Real penetration? Genital mutilation? This is one sick snuff movie that must be banned forthwith.

Actually, it's nothing of the sort. Rather, it's a beautiful and bleak film with a talking fox.

Yes, Antichrist is surpassingly strange and disturbing, a fever dream of a film. It reminded me of a more elliptic Whicker Man, with its obsession with rituals and symbols and the pagan heart of nature beating beneath a veer of Christian respectability; although it should be said that Antichrist made that film look like Carry On Pagan - there are no songs, or Christopher Lees or prancing virgins in this.

Rather we have a movie that spends its first hour in a sickly trance of anxiety, less film than a high gloss version of the DSM V. It's a case study of pathological and profound depression, as Charlotte Gainsbourg's unnamed character tries to get through the anxiety attacks that plague her since the death of her and Willem Dafoe's child. He's a therapist; he treats her; tries to get her off the drugs; has a therapeutic nostrum for all her symptoms. Gainsbourg is all too believable as she struggles with tremors and paralysis and numbness and his impotent rationalism. Von Trier says that he identifies with her character; the film was born from a period of profound depression he suffered. It's all up their on the screen.

At this point, Defoe wants the couple to go to the woods where Gainsbourg had previously attempted to finish her PhD concerning the torture of women (by women?) throughout the centuries, a thick tract entitled Gynocide, replete with photocopies of medieval woodcuttings and modern outrages. He wants her to confront her fears. It's fair to say that things don't go quite according to plan. From here on in, there's a great deal that's symbolic, referencing (I assume) animistic traditions, folklore and paganism, even shamanism. A constellation called the Three Beggars becomes important (even though, as the man points out at one point, "there's no such constellation"). Foxes, crows, deers. Ants and acorns. Nature as Satan? Sure. It's all in there.

I'm not at all sure what it all means. That's part of why I thought it was fantastic. Any film that features, in no particular order, beautiful ultra-slow motion black and white scenes of snow and sex soundtracked by Handel, a hand covered in ticks, a miscarrying deer, a hatchling bird being devoured by ants, an oddly unkillable crow, weird lensing effects, such that the forest seems to be a living and devouring thing, a most terrifying dead tree, the aforementioned fox with its terrible message, childishly scrawled titles, a classic "book that explains the madness" scene, and an epilogue that is both very moving and not entirely comprehensible, is worth the experience.

The genital mutilation? I closed my eyes.