RIP, Wes Craven
Wes Craven has died. I admit, when I heard the news I immediately checked to see how others in his generation of horror directors were doing. John Carpenter. George Romero. Tobe Hooper. Dario Argento. Morbid? Perhaps. But artistic movements come in generations, and generations age (by the way, all are doing well, as far as I know). Eventually, people whose films we remember seeing in theatres are spoken of in the past tense. And when that happens, it shakes us. Like any celebrity who passes away, I never knew or met or otherwise have any means of judging Wes Craven on any basis than his art. That I feel such a loss today is all that needs to be said about the power and reach of art.
There is no denying Craven’s place on the pantheon of all-time great- and important- horror filmmakers. The Last House on the Left shook the genre to its core in 1972. It has been imitated so many times over that it perhaps has not held up as well as some of the less narratively straightforward horror films of the era (like Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Argento’s Suspiria) but to watch it again today is to peer into a time capsule, when films that raw, that uncompromising, that willing to showcase unfettered evil, were simply unheard of. It’s an unpleasant film, and one that had to be for the genre to evolve.
Few horror directors have been such stylistic chameleons as Craven. When sweaty grim slaughterhouse movies of the 70s gave way to the slicker, post-Halloween deluge of slasher films, Craven stayed ahead of the curve. In a genre of increasingly nondescript villains defined by the body counts in their wake, A Nightmare on Elm Street swooped with and gave us perhaps the most iconic horror villain of all time, and for good reason. How many horror movies characters have been as quotable as Freddy Krueger? Hell, how many non-Nightmare horror movies do you have to come up with to equal the number of Freddy’s memorable lines?
Craven’s sense of humor and ever-increasing skill reached their apex with Scream, a massive hit in 1996 (almost a quarter century after The Last House on the Left). Scream wasn’t just popular; like his debut film, it was a game-changer. Whereas Last House shocked audience’s sensibilities, Scream subverted their expectations. It was a horror film about characters who knew they were in a horror film. It had a blast cracking jokes about the tropes of the genre while still delivering goods with scares that relied on those same tropes. It was a daring tightrope dance for Craven, but he didn’t just pull it off- he excelled. Scream was a cultural touchstone that remains every bit as entertaining almost 20 years later.
I didn’t know Wes Craven. The outpouring of tributes to him from his actors and colleagues are evidence that he was a lovely person. I only knew his art. His art was important to me. And in a genre that I love dearly, he was one of the most important figures ever to work within it. That’s a connection that will never be lost. Rest in peace, Wes.
I have anxiety. I have been battling it for a long as I have been capable of worry. Usually it manifests in inexplicable, low-level worry that just sort of sits there, wisps that never really disappear. Over the years I became good at masking it. Sometimes, anxiety takes the form of days of truly crippling worry. I think of it as a fog. It sets in and I can see nothing else, just a blinding sea of thinking about every possible thing I can worry about.
Oh, it has gotten bad at times. The fog can roll in very quickly and unpredictably. In his book “Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety”, Daniel Smith describes it as fear of “existential ruin”. He describes how a slight worry that his anxiety is stopping him from concentrating at his work can create an explosive chain of absurd hypotheticals culminating in mortal terror that he is going to die of AIDS. If that seems absurd to you, trust me, I know exactly what he is talking about. There were times where I spent days indoors afraid of leaving the house. I have gone to the movies and cried for two hours in my seat consumed with worry that my life would be ruined because I pirated a film. Yeah, it’s that level of plausibility. It’s easy to look back and laugh, but the fear as I was rocking back and forth in my seat weeping during “The Chronicles of Narina” (I imagine the other moviegoers assumed I just really disliked the movie) was very real. Once the fog cleared, I would think “well that was stupid” and try to move on. I thought that since I was rarely worrying about plausible things, I could deal with it. As a teenager I developed insomnia. In my early 20s, I suffered regular full-fledged anxiety attacks. Now, I go to therapy. I try to maintain routines. It can be a challenge. Routines can lead to complacency if I’m not careful. Complacency can let anxiety trickle back in, just enough to keep me looking over my shoulder. I try to vary my routines to avoid that. My therapist helps me sort things out. I’m better than I was before. I no longer have insomnia, no longer live in fear of anxiety attacks. I manage pretty well.
Before I go on, let me tell you about Yasujiro Ozu. Trust me, I have my reasons.
Yasujiro Ozu was a filmmaker of endless empathy. His stories are about people, families, marriages, gentle sadness, quiet contentment, conversations where the silences between words contain all the meaning. His style was unobtrusive, conversational. His camera stays low, imitating the point of view of someone kneeling on the floor, in the traditional manner of Japanese homes. Characters regularly speak to the camera, looking right at you. The camera does not move. Objects linger in the corners, sometimes moving from shot to shot in defiance of continuity, as if Ozu just wanted them there. Every film features a teapot as a subject in at least one scene. When he began making color films in the 1950s, every shot contained the color red. Often it was the teapot. Every shot says exactly what it means to. Every scene says everything there is to say.
Anxiety has a way of interrupting my movie watching. I like to give my full attention to a film. Anxiety is the presence of worry where it shouldn’t be. Stories become difficult to follow. I love movies more than anything, but it becomes difficult to devote my attentions to fiction when my mind is constructing its own fictions and trying to tell me they’re real. The fog blocks out everything, even my favorite escapes. It’s one of the reasons, I think, I became such a fan of horror. Horror is sharp and deals heavily with anxiety-inducing subject matter. The best horror doesn’t simply frighten, it shoves the creeping feelings that ruin your day right under your nose. It lets me confront those feelings in a controlled space. But it’s temporary. Horror is a visceral genre, of the moment. It doesn’t make for effective lasting therapy. Besides, for a horror nut like me, horror ought to be fun. It’s best enjoyed when I am enjoying myself first.
There’s a moment in Ozu’s Late Spring I think of often. An old man sits in his living room. His daughter, in her late twenties, has just gotten married and has finally moved out. He is alone for the first time in decades. He sits, reflecting in his living room. He begins to peel an apple. He stops, suddenly, his head falling. Ozu cuts to a shot of waves crashing on the beach. There is nothing more to say. The shot of the man, his shoulders stooped, his head and hands just dropping, shows so much feeling without saying a word. The film has built to this moment, and it is so unassuming, so quiet, so pure, so sad. The fog can’t touch moments like this. So many films are clutter. Ozu is clean lines, meticulous arrangements, and gentle displays of humanity.
I remember when I realized I needed help. It was about three years ago. I’d gone to a bar, met some new people, had a very good time. A few days later, one of them texted me. They were hanging out at the bar again, wanted to know if I wanted to join them. Suddenly I felt terrified and confused. I felt miserable about both those things. But the fog had set it. All around me were questions. Were they trustworthy? Did they actually like spending time with me? Was this some sort of elaborate setup of some kind? The good feeling of the days before were replaced with a sudden onset of fog. I knew it was all silly, that it was absurd for me to worry, let alone feel distress. That’s how anxiety works. You run a red light and three seconds later you’re wondering if you need to assume a new identity. You pirate a movie and spend two hours crying in terror that you are going to prison for it. You meet some new people and instantly (and I mean instantly) consider every utterly silly scenario besides them actually having had a good time meeting you. These might range from “they felt obligated to text you but they really thought you were stupid” to “I mean none of them said they WEREN’T Hannibal Lecter, so do you want to risk it?”
I realized that somehow, through years of quietly trying to cope by myself, I was losing my ability to trust new people. This was new. This was scary. This was something I could not let happen. I knew, at last, that I could not deal with this alone anymore. I could not disconnect from humanity like that. The fog in my mind was becoming impenetrable. I needed to clear the haze.
There is a moment in Ozu’s Tokyo Story I think of often. A old man and old woman have had a visit with their grown children cut short. The children grew impatient with their parents, considered them a burden, and finally just sent them to a spa. The couple are trying to make the best of it. They try to enjoy the spa, try to see it as a generous gift from their children. But it becomes apparent that this is not a place for the elderly. The other spa-goers are young. They party late and loud into the night. We see a shot of young people dancing and drinking late one night. Then we see the old couple’s shoes, neatly placed outside their door. It’s a shot both sad and funny, as life often is. There’s no symbolism here, just narrative. We see this shot and immediately understand the situation and the people. Ozu has a way of telling us everything we need to know in a shot. I think a lot about visual language in movies. What filmmakers tell us without saying a word. No filmmaker was more a poet than Ozu. I latched onto poetry in college partly as a way of coping with anxiety. That’s what helps during an anxious episode, really. Not so much finding something happy to counter the sad, but finding something sharp and deep and true to cut through the muck, something sturdy to hold on to and ground you in reality.
Therapy has helped me. I mean that in the deepest sense of the word “help”. In practice, we often think of “help” as a mild sort of word, like offering a hand with chores or giving a few bucks to charity. But I needed help, and therapy has given it to me. I’ve managed to undo a lot of the toxic worry I’d been quietly fostering, letting build up into a sea of static in my brain. I still have a bit of a haze. Wisps that float by in quiet moments. I imagine I always will. But more than ever it’s barely visible. The fog made movies hard to enjoy. When it’s just a haze, movies help me, for a moment, clear it up completely. So does spending time with friends and loved ones. And sometimes, so does confronting the things that give me anxiety head-on. As I said, I manage. I’m doing better. The fog doesn’t blind me anymore.
There’s a moment in Ozu’s Floating Weeds I think of often. Two characters, a man and a woman, are sitting at a train station. Earlier in the film, they had an argument so fierce it seemed for sure they were dead to each other. But they sit there, quietly, both having since been through things bigger than their fight. They smoke cigarettes, and begin to talk. Nothing grand. Nothing life-changing. The man considers where he wants to go. She proposes to go with him. He considers, and accepts. They get on the train together, and drink sake. Two people who have inflicted much pain on one another, who have since been through greater pain, ride together on the train into the night. Ozu has no lectures to give us, no lessons to teach. Here are two people, and here is how they arrived at this point, and this has been their story. Their train pulls away from the station. The camera sits low, at ground level. The train’s lights slowly getting smaller as they disappear into the night. This moment brings tears to my eyes. There is no fog. No wisps or haze. Only the red lights of the train.