Saturday, April 23, 2005

An Intro to My Blog, and the first subject: Mass Media as New Boogeyman

Hello everybody, welcome to my blog. And to start us off, I quote the illustrious Admiral James Stockdale: "Who am I? Why am I here?"

Good questions...

My name is John Muir. and I'm a published author who writes under the name John Kenneth Muir, not because I'm pretentious or anything (though I am...) but because - for some reason - there are a lot of writers out there named John Muir.

Specifically, there's the great American naturalist from the last century, and also a fellow who writes about fixing Volkswagens. Others too, I think. In the age of the Internet, I realized I had to distinguish myself a little for Google, Yahoo, Lycos, Ask Jeeves and other search engines, so for the record, I'm the John Muir (the John Kenneth Muir...) who writes about film and television for a living.

And I know nothing about Volkswagens, so don't ask...

To let you know a little bit about my work, I'm the author of fifteen published books and several articles and short stories. I live in Monroe, North Carolina and work out of my home office penning books on film and television.

You may (or may not...) know some of my titles. From
Applause Theatre and Cinema Books I've written: An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith (2002), The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi (2004), and Best in Show: the Films of Christopher Guest and Company (2004).McFarland, a publisher here in North Carolina, has published eleven of my books, including award winners Terror Television (A Booklist Editor's Choice, 2001), Horror Films of the 1970s (A Booklist Editor's Choice, 2002 and ALA "Best of the Best" Reference Book '03), and 2004's The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television.

I've written about prominent horror directors (Wes Craven: The Art of Horror [1998], The Films of John Carpenter [2000], Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper [2003]) and several TV series studies, including Exploring Space:1999 (1997), An Analytical Guide to TV's Battlestar Galactica (1998), A Critical History of Doctor Who on Television (1999), A History an Analysis of Blake's 7 (2000), and An Analytical Guide to TV's One Step Beyond (2001).

I've also written an original (licensed novel) based on the TV series Space:1999 called The Forsaken, from
Powys Media, and freelanced for magazines including Cinescape, Filmfax, Rerun, Collectors News, and The Official Farscape Magazine. On the web, my home page is here, and I'm the regular media columnist for the web-zine Far Sector, which features original fiction and great editorials and opinion columns. My column this month "It Boldly Went," discusses the need in our society for a show like Star Trek, and the cancellation of Enterprise. So that's my cv, and that's the experience I bring to the table.

That answers the first question, who am I?. The second question, why am I here? involves pop culture, film and TV. I hope I can utilize this space to discuss, debate and ponder trends in movies and TV programs. I'm open to all subjects - fantasy, horror, science fiction, Bollywood, musicals, you name it. Basically, I just hope to create an ongoing journal about contemporary and classic entertainment.

I wanted to start with this idea that has been consuming me ever since I first saw The Grudge on DVD a few weeks ago with my fifteen year old nephew, Austin. Watching it, the notion struck me that both The Ring and The Grudge (based on original Japanese source material) seem consumed with the notion of the mass transmission of suffering and horror. The pain of the few gets broadcast to many.

In The Ring, for example, a strange little girl named Samara broadcasts her anguish through a deadly videotape. You watch it and seven days later - like clockwork - you die. The only way to stop it is make a copy and pass the terror on. In The Grudge, a terrible and brutal murder infects a house in Tokyo. Everyone that enters the house is "exposed" to this horror, and will die too. Nobody escapes.

What interested me about these two films is that they both postulate the notion that just by showing up, just by being a spectator, you are fair game for evil. I believe this to be a shift in the tide of horror cinema. The old horror movies of the eighties (the era when I was fifteen...) had a different brand of ethos. Engaging in activities like pre-marital sex or smoking a little weed instantly called up the wrath of a machete-wielding maniac like Jason Voorhees in the Friday the 13th films. But at least in some way, there was a link between bad behavior and death. An action precipitated death.

But in these contemporary horrors, the would-be victims really do nothing to deserve their horrible fates...they're just accidental tourists. Relatively passive acts bring about their destruction. You pick up the tape at Blockbuster, watch it in ignorance, and you die. You go to that house in Tokyo, even if you are a kindly nurse trying to help out an old lady, and you die. And if you drag in your boyfriend/girlfriend, Mom, Dad or Boss, they're going to die horribly too. Just being exposed to this terror at all means that your whole calling circle is going to be decimated.

I believe firmly that art imitates life. So can there be any doubt that this new notion in horror, the passive receiving of another being's suffering, is really just a coded reflection of our world, and the ascent of international, 24-hour news cable stations? If you break it down, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC exist to broadcast the suffering of a few to millions, perhaps billions of people. There's a school shooting in heartland USA, and suddenly cameras appear on the scene like vultures, broadcasting the terror of young students to the entire country. Or through the magic of instant replay, we watch a Russian helicopter get shot down again and again on the nightly news until it becomes a spectacle, a real-life special effect. We see people humiliated and tortured at Abu Ghraib in the most despicable de-humanizing ways, in every broadcasting media available. Why, in recent years we've even seen Saddam Hussein's sons on TV - as bruised, bullet-ridden corpses. Purple, yellow and brown, they are forever etched in our collective media as dead men.

These ubiquitous and highly disturbing images hang in the ether of the mainstream media, take on a unique life of their own, and even perpetuate themselves (with ancillaries like newspapers, the Internet, etc) - and what is the cumulative result on our psyches? Can we know how such images will effect every individual who comes across them? Will the depiction of evil on the news foster evil in real life? These are interesting questions, and I believe that The Ring and The Grudge entertain them with wit, humor, and chills.

Does the mass media, by revealing such horrors on such a routine basis, inure us to the suffering of others? Are we so disconnected from our common humanity that we must witness the horrible suffering of others to stay engaged with our emotions? The Ring and The Grudge seem to suggest that "being there" -- the act of watching -- is enough. We don't have to commit the atrocities we see on the tube ourselves to be held responsible for them. When we watch them - just by flipping on the boob tube (or in the case of The Ring, pressing the play button on our VCR) - that's enough to hold us accountable. The horror touches us as surely as it did those who "suffered" in the transmitted event.

It's an interesting notion and it would be fascinating to study how and why this manner of subject matter first became so popular in Japan. What is it about that culture that gives this idea such currency today? Any thoughts? And why does it find currency here, too? Whatever the reason, The Ring and The Grudge cause me to have great optimism about the horror genre. They remind me of the great days of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when horror films really related to the dreads of the day. Films back then dealt with issues like Vietnam (Night of the Living Dead), Women's equality (The Stepford Wives), even abortion (It's Alive), and I strongly believe that one can make the argument that The Ring and The Grudge speak to us in this time, the early 21st century. They focus on a world where one person's pain has the capacity to be shared with billions; where an ugly day in an Iraqi prison can catch the eye of whole continents, where evil spreads like lightning from boob tube to boob tube or across the world wide web.

Once again, through films like The Ring and The Grudge, I think that the horror film is proving itself an efficient and valuable art form, one that has meaning and purpose within our society but which, unfortunately, many critics still don't appreciate.


  1. Just getting caught up with your work here, so ...

    Even though the horror film is not one of my favorite genres (more of a Hitchcockian thriller guy myself) I am intrigued by all these critically-lauded scary movies all of a sudden.

    I (and I suspect, you) grew up in the 80's, and while there were some seminal horror flix at the time, I mainly remember all the ubiquitous, cheap knockoffs. Every holiday had a horror movie. "Silent Night, Deadly Night!" "Happy Birthday To Me!" "Arbor Day!" I think. Wasn't there an Arbor Day? Long time ago.

    Didn't Cronenberg's "Videodrome" cover similar thematic territory to "The Ring?" I haven't seen either one, incidentally. I'm just curious.

  2. I did grow up in the 1980s, so I remember the best and the worst of the horror movies of that time. You're right about the holiday template. Valentine's Day had "My Bloody Valentine," there was "Happy Birthday to Me," "Bloody New Year," "New Year's Evil," even "April Fool's Day." I didn't think there was an "Arbor Day." I'll look that up!!!

    You know, "Videodrome" featured this idea of the "new flesh" and becoming one with the media/TV, which - you're absolutely right - has something very much in common with "The Ring." Cronenberg's "Existenz" in 1999 was also a variation on that theme.

    I think you'd like "The Ring" and "Videodrome," both are pretty solid flicks and S C A R Y.

  3. Well, I expect to watch 'em one day. Gotta be in the mood, if you knowwhatImean.

    Can you elaborate on what the heck you mean by an "efficient" art form? This idea intrigues me. What is the value of "efficiency" in art?

    Or did I just blow your mind?

    (On a side note, I am soooo drunk on cheap Merlot right now, so feel free to ignore this post as I'll probably regret it in the morning.)

  4. Maybe a better word choice would have been "effective." Basically, I think that art has a duty not merely to entertain, but to - in some fashion - expose or illuminate aspects of the human condition. I think the horror film has proven on many occasions that it is just the avenue (or genre) that can do this best, because by its very nature, its need to "scare," it taps into universal fears and dreads, especially those related to the bigger context (politics, sociology, racism, sex roles, etc.) Horror is more efficient at reflecting life than other kinds of film (say, a straight drama like "Mississippi Burning" or something) because it cloaks its meaning. It isn't overtly didactic; the deeper meaning emerges through imagery, film grammar, and other "stealth" ways. So to me, the horror form is a very efficient way to get the artist's point across without seeming like a sermon. Not too on the nose; open to interpretation; illuminating and thought-provoking, and downright enjoyable. I dunno...

  5. There were also movies that wrapped themselves , however loosely around specific times , such as Prom Night , Final Exam , and Hell Night !!