Tuesday 31 October 2023

Don't have nightmares

It's Halloween, which seems an appropriate time to ask, what's the most scared you've ever been watching a film? I don't mean unsettled, or (incoming awful Americanism alert) grossed out, or spooked, or startled, but actually, properly, physically and mentally scared?

Slasher movies, gore, teenagers going into woodsheds, they don't do much for me, to be honest, never have. In fact, I'd go as far as to say I generally find them faintly ridiculous. No, for me it has to be a film that gets in your head as well as under your skin. Psychological horror, subtlety, atmosphere, tension and the uncanny or unnerving - these are the things that do it for me.

Back in 2010, when this blog was still in short trousers and most of you weren't reading it (except Rol, he was an early adopter), I wrote a Halloween post about my top thirteen unsettling films. Number two on that list was The Others, a 2001 vehicle for Nicole Kidman, and to this day the film that has scared me the most on first watching. I was going to enthuse about it again, but I can't improve on what I wrote about it thirteen years ago, which was this:

Like The Omen, The Others had such an effect on me because of the circumstances in which I watched it. Dispatched to the Big Smoke for a week to do a training course, my evenings in a soulless corporate hotel were boring beyond words. What better way to while away the evening than watching a movie on the old pay-per-view? After all, the company Amex was paying, right? Down went the lights and on went The Others... so it's late, it's dark, and I'm away from home, all alone, in unfamiliar surroundings. At one point, I had to get up and make a cup of tea to break the tension (you know the scene, it's when you think it's the little girl all dressed up under that veil). I had to put all the lights back on for the end, I was that unnerved. I know, almost as big a scaredycat as my sister. But not, because this film is unsettling in the extreme. What could be worse than laying awake in your darkened bedroom, only for unseen feet to thump across the floorboards and unseen hands to fling back the curtains? And Christ, how would it feel to realise all your hired help are dead? Not great, I'm guessing. Oh, and there's that scene where our heroine tries to escape into town only to be stopped by (quite brilliantly added digital) fog, and then she bumps into her long-absent husband... only he's not quite right, is he? And with good cause. I've tried to get my partner to watch this on a number of occasions, and she just won't. Tells you all need to know about the goosebump-inducing, dream-disrupting, lights-back-on-please qualities of this excellent chiller.

I still think The Shining, which topped my list, is a better, more unsettling film but for sheer heart-racing fright The Others, and the all-important circumstances in which I first watched it, still takes some beating. Here's that scene I mentioned in my chart-rundown review.

Tip the authorNot so scary out of context, I guess, and maybe even less so now we all know the plot twist. But back then, on first watching... oh boy. Anyway, as Nick Ross used to say, don't have nightmares ... or do. It is Halloween, after all. Maybe turn the lights off and watch something frightening tonight...

Sunday 29 October 2023

The last Sunday in October...

...is when the clocks go back in the UK. British Summer Time ends and we return to Greenwich Mean Time, a temporal and seasonal shift for which this feels entirely appropriate.

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Wednesday 25 October 2023

Anything is hard to find, except self-loathing

I've been writing this post in my head for nearly two weeks now, trying to wrangle what I want to say into some form of words that someone (anyone!) would want to read. However, I've failed repeatedly, to the extent that this is only going to materialise if I start typing ... so here goes. Don't worry, I'll embed some embarrassingly predictable songs along the way - I know that's all you're really here for, after all.

In part, this is inspired by Rol's exceptional Self-Help For Cynics blog series. But mostly it comes about following a conversation one Sunday evening that took an unexpected turn. I'm not going into details here, suffice to say that the person I was talking to revealed that they had done something unwise, one result of which was a very low mood and even a degree of self-loathing. I sympathised of course, because no-one wants someone they care about feeling that way. But I empathised too. After all, anyone can make a mistake...

It's not necessarily the size of the mistake that's the issue, of course, or even the conventional consequences, although they can both be factors. No, the pertinent issue, both in this case and in my own past, is the nature of the decision or action. Specifically, these are mistakes, for want of a better word, that make you question your own sense of self - who you think you are, at the most fundamental level. And that line of questioning is, from my experience, a shortcut to depression and self-loathing. Go directly to jail. Do not pass "Go". Do not collect £200.

One counter argument might be that this level of self-awareness, of considered introspection, must be a positive thing, along the lines of "Well, you might feel bad for doing X but the fact that you're questioning why you did it, can't even believe you did it, shows what a well-rounded, reflective character you are, making personal progress that should offset any regret or self-loathing." And maybe that's true, to a degree and in retrospect, but try telling someone that when they are in the midst of self-directed angst. Because I'm not just talking about plain old regret here:

We're talking about things that make you question who you really are, at the most basic level. After this conversation, I reflected that in my adult life, there have been four things I have done that made me question my very sense of self in this way, actions that I couldn't reconcile with who I thought I was. Don't get me wrong, I'm no saint: there have been many, many other mistakes, misdeeds and generally awful / horrible / reprehensible behaviour. There have been plenty of things I'm not proud of, in other words: people I've treated very poorly, bad decisions I've made that not even hindsdight can justify, all of that. But all those things I can square up in my head with who I think I am. In all but those four cases, I can see how I got to where I did, why I did what I did, and why I reacted (or didn't ) to it afterwards. But those other instances, those four things... There's a disorientating effect to not understanding yourself, to not recognising actions as something you'd do. It can be horrible, truly. And if, like me, you have a simmering baseline level of self-loathing at the best of times, it can plough you into a very dark place.

There are two options then, of course: you either get over it or you don't. And if that sounds like I'm over-simplifying, I'm sorry, because that's not my intention. Getting over it doesn't mean forgetting it, or leaving it behind, after all. As I have tried to show, there is a difference between doing something you're "not proud of" and something that actually causes you active personal, inward, private shame. When you do something that leaves you sorrowfully thinking "I can't believe I did that", then getting over it means coming to terms with the fact that you did. In my experience, this is impossible to do completely, to the extent that "getting over it" actually just means accepting what happened, accepting yourself and finding a way to carry on being the revised edition of yourself. At first, you think about it every waking moment, then a few times a day, then a few days a week... Eventually you can go so long without thinking about it that it's almost like it never happened, and you really are who you thought you were. But only almost. For whilst time is a great healer, when something happens that prompts a recollection of your secret personal shame, it's a fresh wound, almost as deep as the original cut.

I have been trying my whole life to accept myself. I'm starting to think that perhaps I won't ever succeed. I hope you have better luck, and I hope those actions, inactions and choices that give you cause to question your self-image are few and very far between. Be well.

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Thursday 12 October 2023

Every home should have one X

Reading Khayem's post today on the always-excellent Dubhed, regarding The Anchoress's cover of Enjoy The Silence, it suddenly occurred to me that I had somehow omitted a very important album from the EHSHO masterlist. Specifically, Depeche Mode's 1990 high watermark, Violator.

Since Khayem has already featured Silence, here's another example of what makes this album so bloody good.

And to prove that it's the very definition of all killer, no filler, here's another track from Violator but this time one that wasn't also a top twenty hit in the singles chart. Sweetest Perfection is, on the face of it, all about a doomed love for the perfect (but wrong) woman ... but is really bleaker still, a doomed love for a darker but equally addicting drug. It's all persistent minor chords, hammer-blow drums and jagged industrial synth noises - the brightly-suited, fresh-faced Basildon boys of Just Can't Get Enough are a distant memory.

I played Violator to death in the early 90s. I think it is Depeche Mode's best album, and thoroughly deserves its place in every home.

For completeness, you can find the Every Home Should Have One masterlist here. Tip the author

Monday 2 October 2023

Like water off an Argentinian racing pigeon's back

I love this sketch. You could argue that it brings the influence of more alternative comedy from the early and mid 70s into the primetime mainstream (it certainly owes a debt to Monty Python's dead parrot, and Fawlty Towers' pedigree Siberian hamster) ... or you could call it derivative. You might say it's a classic example of popular humour of the time ... or you might say that the popular humour of the time was only so popular because of the limited televisual choice. You might say that not one line of this script is wasted ... or you might say it's all predictable nonsense.

Me? I say it features two performers at the top of their game, with an enviable, easy, balanced rapport. I say that it bears repeated viewing, not least because there are so many good lines crammed into five and a half minutes. And most of all, I say it's funny. It just is. It might be a soft humour, by today's standards, because it's not trying to make a point, or criticise anybody or anything; it's not trying to shock, or subvert. It probably wouldn't even get made today, except possibly for children's television. But it's still funny, nonetheless.

And sometimes, some days, I just need a smile. You might too.

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