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2015/04/26

The Babadook

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless


“Life is not always as it seems,” Samuel, the young son in The Babadook says, quoting a magician from one of his favorite DVDs. And indeed, watching this official selection of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, I was kept on the edge of my seat, never entirely sure about whether what I was seeing was “reality” or not.

After seeing a trailer for it, I’d been waiting to check The Babadook out, and got excited to find it on Netflix. I’d mostly seen it billed as a horror movie, and while I’m not a huge fan of that genre, the few glimpses I’d gotten from the trailer seemed to set it apart as not just another horror film following a tired formula. It definitely has some horrific scenes, but most of the terror is psychological, created through skillful filmmaking techniques, cinematography, and great performances. Based on Monster, a short that writer and director Jennifer Kent had previously done, Kent developed The Babadook script, and the movie was released in Australia in May of 2014, with international release following in the fall of 2014.



It opens with a surreal dream sequence, immediately setting a mood. Amelia (played by Essie Davis) is a widow whose husband was killed as they were driving to the hospital for her to give birth to their child. Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is now six years old, and spends time creating elaborate weapons to protect himself and his mom from a monster, and devising plans about how he'll keep them both safe. Sam’s behavior is taking a toll not only on Amelia, but is straining the relationship they have with his Aunt Claire (Hayley McElhinney) and cousin Ruby (Chloe Hurn), and causing issues at school. When he pulls a creepy pop-up book titled Mr. Babadook from the bookshelf one night for a bedtime story, Amelia questions where the book came from and tries to reassure him that the Babadook isn’t real, but Sam is convinced otherwise. (Kudos to the people responsible for creating the actual book that’s used in the film; the spooky details on the pages up the ante, adding lots of apprehension.)

There were a few things about the movie that struck me right from the beginning, but one of the biggest ones was the way the set is used. A lot of the film revolves around Amelia and Sam’s house, and it’s used to great advantage. The outside is more or less plain and drab, and then, once inside, it doesn’t get much cheerier. The color palette is mainly muted, darker colors, giving a feeling of melancholy and even oppression. The same is repeated in much of the costuming; there aren’t a lot of bright colors to be found. There’s also the placement of certain props that look like just ordinary things found in any household, but become more sinister as the plot progresses and the tension builds.

During the film, Amelia and Sam do take some trips around town, but with so much happening within the relatively small box of their house, I felt very “in” the movie and immersed in their experiences.


Samuel (Noah Wiseman) and Amelia (Essie Davis)
Another thing that hit me immediately was the exhaustion on Amelia’s face and in her demeanor. I won’t be able to say enough good things about Essie Davis’ performance, but the way Amelia’s fatigue and stress slowly builds and the subtleties that Davis uses to accomplish that are beyond fantastic. My heart was breaking for Amelia as I watched her struggle, and it was clear that she was shouldering too much and could use someone to step in and help. There’s a scene where she gets a break from work and a moment to herself, and I felt a sense of relief for her. Unfortunately, even that slight moment of respite is ruined. Noah Wiseman deserves a lot of praise for his role too. For such a young actor, his range is impressive: he goes from temper tantrums to terror to brave determination and a whole gamut of other emotions in between with skill that makes Sam a believable, somewhat "typical" kid, even in an extraordinary situation.

Using Amelia’s exhaustion, frustration, grief, and relative isolation, there’s a definite sense of an unreliable storyteller driving the narrative of the story. Things are seen mostly from Amelia and Sam’s point of view, and this is where the label “psychological thriller” fits far better than “horror film.” There’s a slow escalation of events that build along with Amelia’s frame of mind, so I was left questioning almost everything that was happening. This is further enhanced by the use of dream sequences and dream-like techniques, like camera shots focused on Amelia and Sam sheltered under a blanket and fast-motion filming.

And the events that start taking place after Amelia reads Sam the Babadook book are as creepy as the pop-up volume itself. One of the precious few bright spots in their lives is their loving older neighbor, Mrs. Roach (Barbara West), who at one point tells Amelia that Sam “sees things as they are.” (Robbie [played by Daniel Henshall], one of Amelia's coworkers and a potential love interest, is another bright spot, but, somewhat puzzlingly, the character essentially drops from the storyline partway through.) When lights in the house start flickering--which, as anybody who’s seen horror movies or paranormal shows knows, is a classic marker of supernatural activity--and Sam’s more convinced than ever that something is in their house, I was on edge, again questioning the things that were happening.

Mrs. Roach (Barbara West); something may, or may not be, lurking in the shadows
I raved about the set and use of props before, but as the film continues and the fear starts to build, there are subtle, “old school” techniques that are, to me, far more effective than any CGI. Shadows are used incredibly well, as are different methods to create suspense. I didn’t have to necessarily see certain images onscreen to be scared; my imagination did that work for me exceptionally well. Kept to a minimum, too, were the music score and sound effects. When they were included, it was purposeful and only added to the foreboding that was starting to form a knot in my stomach.

Another creative tool that enhanced the mood of the film was the use of television footage as things escalate in Amelia and Sam’s home. Usually a source of diversion for both mom and son, the images start to take on a different undertone as the movie continues.

As the Babadook became a bigger threat, I began to lose my sense of time. Caught up entirely in Amelia and Sam’s experiences now, I didn’t know if only a couple of days had passed, or if it had been weeks. A slight feeling of disorientation had been building as reality was questioned and mother and son stopped leaving the house, so paired with that, the confusion about the timeline added a whole new layer to my experience.

One of the most important things the film does is leave the mystery of the Babadook to the viewer. I have my own ideas about what it could be, but even as the credits rolled, I still felt like there were holes in my theory. In one scene, there’s (what I feel is) an important clue that possibly explains where the book may have come from; this bit of information wouldn’t seem to really fit into the storyline otherwise. Even so, not knowing if we can really trust the events as we saw them leaves the identity of the Babadook somewhat ambiguous. And while I spent most of the movie nervous, unsettled, and on edge, by the time it ended the mood had shifted considerably, yet another accomplishment that Jennifer Kent, the cast, and crew can add to their long list of well-deserved accolades. The film has won awards from various film festivals in Spain, the US, the UK, France, South Korea, Australia, Canada, and other countries, and both Davis and Wiseman have been nominated and/or won awards for their performances.

A campaign was started to produce the pop-up "Baba-book" that was in the film, and was a success with 6,200 pre-ordered books being sold. Unfortunately, at this time, no more orders are being accepted.

The Babadook writer & director, Jennifer Kent
There’s a great website for The Babadook film at www.thebabadook.com. And, for those with a silly sense of humor, there’s also a spoof on the Babadook’s “catch phrase” over at Funny or Die: www.funnyordie.com.



2015/04/19

The Hairs In My Nose by Aram Boyajian

by John Bloner, Jr.

Illustration: JB. Based on the art and characters of Rudolph Dirks and Harold H. Knerr
In 1973, the Armenian/American filmmaker and poet, Aram Boyajian, published his only collection of verse with the chapbook, "the man who wrote the world's longest haiku," priced at two dollars through the since-sold small press, The Crossing Press, of Trumansburg, New York.

The slender, saddle-stitched volume contained 24 poems, some of which had been seen in so-called "little magazines" like Heads Up (see right) and in the anthology, New American & Canadian Poetry, edited by John Gill, which brought my attention to Boyajian through his saucy poem, The Hairs In My Nose.

Boyajian is not a polite poet. Read no further if you're easily offended. He offers no odes to nature, unless bodily functions are included. His work is the literary equivalent of underground comics and Tijuana Bibles.

While the Tijuana Bibles of the Depression era placed characters like Blondie, Betty Boop and Barney Google in, literally, compromising positions, Boyajian does something similar with Hansel & Gretel and the Greek poet Homer.

Poem excerpt: Aram Boyajian  Comic by JB

Art: Zevi Blum
The poem "The Hairs In My Nose" is prefaced with a black-and-white etching by artist Zevi Blum, whose humor aligns with Boyajian's own. (See left)

Here's the first stanza of the poem, set beside Blum's artwork.

I think of God
as an old man with a white beard
sitting on a fluffy cloud
with a long finger pointing out of it
and creating on the 7th day
the hairs in my nose

Over the course of 12 stanzas in "The Hairs In My Nose," Boyajian swerves from a depiction of the Resurrection ("They found no trace/except a memory of wings/and the hairs of his nose") to a couple at a porno theater who are turned on by an actor's nose hairs. When they go home, they leave on all the lights in order to show each other the hairs in their noses.


Nose hair doesn't seem suitable as a subject matter for a poem, but author Robin Gill, through her study of Japanese poetry, has found that "nostril hair, far from romantic, is loved by haiku poets, not as a figure of speech but as a reflection upon age and loneliness."  Take this one for example:

autumn clouds
let's have no tears
over pulling nose hair

Check out this one, too, an example of kyoka, comic Japanese poetry:

forgetting yourself the whole night long, besotted by the moon
soon she'll read your nostril hair and you will play her tune!


Since the time I first encountered Boyajian's poetry, I've transformed from a boy with a Bobby Goldsboro mop to an old fart with gray strands showing from my ears and my nose.

I feel like an old tree whose leaves are mostly gone, but whose root system continues to grow.


Image by Lorenzo Mattotti
Boyajian's book isn't all about nose hair, however. In the poem, "The World Is Really a Sugarplum House in the Forest," Boyajian retells the Brothers Grimm story of Hansel & Gretel. He manages to plunge even further into the already dark undercurrents of this tale, as he introduces sibling incest, attempted suicide, murder and pedophilia into it.

At poem's outset, Gretel is quickly dispatched after Hansel has his way with her. She may have been killed by her brother or by the witch in the gingerbread house.  In either case, the boy despairs:

Sometimes I think of the girl I came with
She's a picture in my mind
I become depressed
and put a cold steel gun to my head

In Boyajian's telling, no one is coming to rescue him. The witch plays sex games with him and mounts him like a hobby horse.

She gets on me
and rides like the wind
She leans and wets my face
and spittles closed my already closed eyes

While most of the poem is told from Hansel's perspective, the last two lines puts the reader inside the head of the witch in order to witness her demons, as she whispers to the boy:

"The world is really a sugarplum house in the forest 
But the forest--I sometimes wonder about the forest"

Suddenly,"The World Is Really . . ." becomes more than a fractured fairy-tale; it's a commentary on us. "We are all Hansel and Gretel diabetics," we learn. "Too much too rich too sweet." We are creatures of desire and monsters of anxiety. "There's that much selfishness," the poet writes. "To the very end."

Killing of a Vietcong operative by Saigon's police chief, 1968. AP Photo: Eddie Adams
Boyajian doesn't let up. The sad commentary leveled by "The World Is Really . . ." continues in the poem, "George Washington Goes To A Girlie Show."  In this work, the author (or his persona) visits an X-rated movie house where he watches "3 girls suck bananas/& wink their mascaraed eyes at me," but gains little pleasure from this scene.

He asks himself, "What am I doing here in the dark?", and phrase becomes a refrain, as the poet examines moments in his own life and the life of his country to which we should all feel shame.

my wife and I watch the news:
one Vietcong spy dead
shot in the head by a soldier

Boyajian's book was published in 1973, during a dark time in American history when the Vietnam War was still being waged and corruption in the White House was exposed. Richard Nixon was not George Washington, but Nixon never had his face on our money. And you know what they say about money?

. .  . a million heads of George Washington
one million heads with one million mouths
all saying to themselves together
hardly moving their lips
in a great incredible chorus
What are we doing here in the dark?

Filmmaker/poet Aram Boyajian
I have a love of chapbooks, these small-run publications, usually containing poetry, but also may carry family stories, sketches, flash fiction and prose poems. I found my copy of "the man who wrote the world's longest haiku" at Woodland Pattern Book Center, a nonprofit in Milwaukee, WI that houses about 20,000 titles you may not find anywhere else.

I don't know if Boyajian wrote more poetry than the 24 pieces found in his chapbook. I certainly hope so and that he continues to write it. In his 40 plus year career in filmmaking, he edited episodes of the TV documentary, "The Twentieth Century," hosted by Walter Cronkite. He also directed a documentary on the poetry of William Blake, in which fellow poet Allen Ginsberg read and sang Blake's words.

You can still find a copy of Boyajian's book at amazon.com, where it is selling for more than ten times its original price, but is still a steal at $25. Among the poems in this collection, you'll find one called "Tiredness Comes Over Me," and may think of of it on days when you've lost your way to Xanadu and no drug, man, woman or amount of money can take you there. At times like these, you're going to feel just like . . .


2015/04/05

Nintendo's Super Mario World

by Jav Rivera

It's hard to believe that it's been 25 years since Nintendo released their Super NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) video game console. Included with the SNES was one of their best-selling games, "Super Mario World". Over the years it remains one of the most beloved games and, in my opinion, the best Super Mario Bros. game ever (with Super Mario Bros. 3 coming in a close second). Keep in mind that I haven't played any of the Wii/Wii U Mario games, and they do look incredibly fun. I'm not a full-on gamer, nor do I own Nintendo's latest console (the Wii U). In fact, the last NES console I bought was the N64, which I no longer own. Fortunately, I own a device that allows me to play NES and Super NES games. And when I get in the rare mood to play video games, I tend to play my regular Nintendo favorites: "Mega Man," "Ninja Gaiden," "Raiden," "Donkey Kong Country," and of course the game that takes up most of my time, "Super Mario World."

Released in 1991 in the United States
Just a few weeks ago I got in the mood to once again play "Super Mario World". When I realized how many years it had been since it was first released, I wondered to myself, "What makes me keep coming back to play this game?" And as I started thinking about my answer, it was clear that I had several answers to that question.
 
Yoshi in action!
"Super Mario World" is the first Super Mario Bros. (SMB) game released on the Super NES console. The first SMB game was released on the original NES in 1985. Its sequel, which had a very different gameplay, was released in 1988. And the third, which was released in 1990, reverted the gameplay to be more like the original. It also featured the ability to fly for the first time, among other new features.

"Super Mario World" combined elements and characters from these three games, and included several new abilities, most notably from a new character named Yoshi. It's no doubt that gamers will agree that Yoshi is invaluable to the game, and some levels cannot be completed properly without him.

By this point in time, I had already become a fan of the SMB world and its main characters: Mario, his brother Luigi, Princess Toadstool, and Toad. Even the bad guys (King Koopa/Bowser, Bullet Bill, Koopa Troopa, Goomba, and so many more) are kinda likeable. That, as many will say, is vital to the longevity of a game franchise. If gamers love the characters, then they will always want more.

And fortunately for all of us, Nintendo didn't simply create the same game over and over. Even though most of the SMB games have similar plots -- to save the Princess -- each game introduced new abilities, more loveable characters, and expanded lands. The graphics also continued to develop, and this has always set the bar very high for other Nintendo games. If you look at the graphics for "Super Mario World," they actually still look great, despite it being only a 16-bit game. They make great use of this technology, especially compared to other 16-bit games.

Donut Plains (example of yellow, red, hidden, and "Star" levels)
But what struck me as amazing about "Super Mario World" is how much more fun it is to replay. Although the goal of most gamers is to reach the end of the game and beat the main boss, this is only a small part of the fun. The most enjoyable aspect for me is finding all of the hidden levels and hidden areas within the regular levels. As fans will already know, levels on the map are shown with either a yellow or red dot. The yellow dots signify that there is only one way to beat that level. Red dots, however, have more than one way (usually two). The second method is typically hidden with a key and must be discovered by the player.

Sometimes these alternate endings are only accessible after beating other levels or gaining items such as the yellow, green, red, or blue switches. These help reach areas that Mario cannot access without first retrieving the switches. There are also hidden and bonus "Star" levels throughout the map. Some of the hidden levels are nothing more than just a means to get power-ups (mushrooms, fire flowers, cape feathers, extra lives, or Yoshi).

Yellow Switch
Other levels can be extremely challenging and provide gamers an opportunity to get really frustrated. I admit there have been many times when I stood up with controller in hand and a desire to punch randomly at the air. The worst part is that sometimes you lose a level for the simplest reason and you want to yell at the game. Of course, there's a flip side to that. Once you beat those kinds of levels there's a sense of victory that only a gamer can fully appreciate. You feel like a king, even if just for the briefest of moments. There's nothing quite like that feeling.


One of the best aspects of hidden areas within levels is the opportunity for gamers to practice new moves on easier levels. Doing this helps build confidence and skill for the much more difficult levels that require specific moves or abilities. But even better is the fact that replaying these levels can be a nice break from the more challenging levels. Personally, when I can't beat a hard level, I take a break and fool around with the easier levels. Sometimes it's good to get away from something difficult and use the easier levels to regain my determination. This is also a great opportunity to replenish my extra lives and power-ups.

Whether or not the programmers actually planned that, it seems unlikely that it was by accident. I'm fairly certain this was intentional; after all, this is the same game that knows how to create anxiety by speeding up the music when there's only 99 seconds left to beat the level. And boy-oh-boy does that change in tempo work. I can actually feel my heartbeat thumping louder and my hands get tingly and a little sweaty. On really hard levels I've learned to mute the sound just to get through it. I think it's quite genius on Nintendo's part.

Mario and Princess Toadstool surrounded by various versions of Yoshi
So why do I keep coming back? It's easy to say that it's because of a combination of the characters, the graphics, the music, the discoveries, the playability, and even the frustration. I could also get into the nostalgia of it all but, honestly, there's not enough time to fully answer that question. It's just a great game, and having been addicted for the last few weeks, I think I may finally have to upgrade to the Wii U so that I can try out the latest Super Mario Bros. games. What's your favorite Nintendo game?

Princess Toadstool, Toad, and Luigi
For more information on Nintendo, visit their official site: www.nintendo.com

TRIVIA: In North America, Princess Toadstool's name was eventually changed to Princess Peach in 1993. Her name change made its first appearance in the game "Yoshi's Safari". Additionally, in Japan her name was always Princess Peach.