What Makes “Good” Art?

For some reason, I have been watching haunted house movies recently. Specifically, I watched Aftermath and Things Seen and Heard. Aftermath has so many good elements… But it’s about 30 minutes too long, and the ending is so terrible, they should just use this movie as an example in writing class of why you need an appropriate ending for your work. Things Heard and Seen was great – the spirituality stuff and attempt to provide resolution didn’t really work for me, but the unfolding of the full horror of what Seyfried’s character Catherine goes through is so well done. So today I am going to analyze what made one of these movies so terrible I was angry when I was done watching it. Next week, I will analyze what made one movie so great, I was able to ignore the stuff I didn’t like. Because both movies had positive and negative features – so why do I only consider one of them to be a good work of art?

Aftermath is almost good. A young couple is struggling in their marriage, and as a last resort, decide to start over in a new house when they happen upon a good deal (which the husband has discovered through his work, and because something absolutely terrible occurred in the house). There is a loss of trust between the husband and the wife – she has been unfaithful at some point in the past, and he is not sure if he can trust any longer. But she’s Ashley Greene, and even though she probably doesn’t possess her Twilight character’s psychic powers, she is hella pretty, so… you know, he’s trying to figure out if he can keep that ass on tap, so to speak. (Also, they love each other and all that mushy stuff. #cooties)

So they buy a house — because nothing helps a couple bond like entering into an investment they probably can’t afford even though it is a really good deal — and immediately, shit starts happening.

The primary witness to the weird shit is Ashley Greene, a fashion designer who works from home while her husband is out cleaning up murder scenes during the day and taking night classes at the local college. So a good part of this movie hinges on the concept of whether or not the house is actually haunted or Ashley Greene is going crazy, as well as, if she’s not crazy, will her husband eventually believe her, given that they already have trust issues and there is no evidence to support her possible hallucinations.

For those who are not aware, the inspiration for this movie comes from a real terrorization of a couple who purchased a home in San Diego. If you are aware of this real-life story, a lot of the things happening to the couple will seem familiar – though that doesn’t mean that the movie won’t make the source of the crazy shit different. I would say the first 90 minutes of the movie are solid. There’s drama from the couple’s marital tensions, there’s drama and terror from what is happening in the house, and there’s the question of, since I assume something is actually happening because this is a horror movie, is it supernatural or is it man-made?

I was really enjoying this movie, with it’s good actors and solid build-up. And then the last 28 – 30 minutes happened, and I. Got. Pissed.

[Seriously – I’m going to delve into specifics of Aftermath that could adversely impact your viewing if you decide to watch this shitshow, because you will know where it is headed. Read at your peril! #duhduhduhn]

*SPOILERS BEGINNING* So – it turns out that the couple was suffering from more than one tormentor. One was doing more mundane torture, like ordering magazine subscriptions the couple didn’t want and trying to get the wife raped and shit. The other was pulling a creepier-than-Edward-Cullen that included lurking over Ashley Greene to watch her sleep. The first was just some dude with debt who was relying on his wife taking longer to sell the house and allowing him to get out of the hole he had dug himself into with it. The second – a dude named Otto, who is only semi-explained, is completely unnecessary, and is illogical as well as slightly insulting to the viewer.

To explain this shitshow of an ending further, I guess I’ll have to delve into some of the backstory. Because while no one *loves* exposition, it is absolutely necessary to how they decided to end this story, despite the fact that the way they did it doesn’t really make sense.

The house was built by the couple who die at the beginning of the movie. Jay, the husband, built the house based on his wife Erin’s design. Jay and Erin also suffered from infidelity issues – basically, Jay didn’t know how to keep it in his pants, which pissed off Erin, so she ran off and slept with someone else to “get back at him.” This is all explained to Ashley Greene by Jay’s heartbroken sister, the lovely lady who sold them the house, who ends her tale with: “That bitch was up to something.” According to sister, there was something different about Erin’s affair, but she wasn’t sure what it was.

It turns out that what was different about Erin’s affair was that she decided to build a secret room in the bowels of their house where her lover, Otto, would live under her husband’s nose. Which is weird, because, like – if you’re that pissed off, can’t you just get a divorce like a normal person, and not turn this into a weird scenario that makes people question your viability as an actual adult? How did this woman successfully interact with the world?

Especially when you meet Otto – a painfully thin man with skin paler than brand-new white bedsheets and nails that are sharp as claws who towers over other people. If you were going to cheat on your husband, shouldn’t you be going after some young guy with a six-pack? Otto is a very unusual man, who ends up kidnapping Ashley Greene and chaining her to his bed (which supposedly Erin was doing to him, I guess?). He seems to have extremely limited verbal skills – like, worse than my children’s speaking ability at 1-year-old. He is freakishly tall, and also crazy strong. I just don’t understand where the attraction there is – he’s not super hot, you can’t have a conversation with him, and he’s potentially mentally ill if that wasn’t the result of this chick Erin chaining him to a fucking bed to keep him hidden in the walls of her house so she could have sneaky sex with him while her husband is gone?

It’s also really unclear – why did Erin chain him to a bed? The premise seems to be that she needed to do that to keep him in the house, in which case, you have to ask yourself, what part of this affair is consensual? Then again, from the creepy picture collage Otto managed to put together, it also seems he was obsessed with Erin, making it seem he would have stayed in the house without being chained. This idea is corroborated by the fact that he continues to stay in the house after he has killed the married couple there previously (because Erin “chose her husband” over him), presumably pining after his lady love until he found a new pretty lady to obsess over.

So Erin definitely had an inappropriate reaction to not liking her husband sleeping with other people, which ranged somewhere between taking advantage of a mentally ill person to kidnapping and raping that person, who happened to get Stockholm syndrome.

#totesnorm

This line of thinking is dumb and convoluted. It makes me think extremely poorly of Erin, whom I would normally presume we are supposed to feel sympathy for since she is brutally killed at the beginning of the movie, but… given this backstory the writers give us, honestly, I have no idea what they’re going for here. It’s hard for me to feel sorry for Erin, who has done horrible things. Basically, Otto defended himself against someone who was torturing him in one way or another. Do you feel sorry for John Wayne Bobbitt? Only if you’re a monster or don’t know the whole story.

Then, there’s the question of what the fuck is going on with Otto? It seems that he’s supposed to be a real person, given that Ashley Greene and her husband kill him in self-defense at the end of the movie. And like, yeah, they had to stop him – he was going to kill them. But also – I still kind of feel bad for him. It’s not his fault that he has limited speaking ability, or that he’s super tall and super thin. He also probably didn’t ask to be tortured by Erin, who seems to have been taking advantage of someone who is mentally ill in a best-case scenario. What is the point of Otto? It feels… insensitive, like the movie goes about systematically destroying a mentally ill person. Maybe all Otto needs are some drugs or some positive attention (because I’m not going to call whatever Erin was doing positive attention). Or maybe he needs to be institutionalized, because he doesn’t get the way the world works. I don’t know. I do know that I don’t think he deserved to get kidnapped, raped, psychologically tormented, and then stabbed with scissors.

My final point, and the reason I think so poorly about this ridiculousness that the writers hurled at us is that it is completely unnecessary. The average running time for a movie is approximately 90 minutes. If you had ended the movie with the husband and wife discovering that something was, indeed, happening, and it was due to the all-too-real broke-dude, that would have been a good movie. Then, you just need to give us some closure about this marriage, even if it’s Ashley Greene going: “Dude, you didn’t trust me, and I don’t think this is going to work. I need to find myself a fresh dick that won’t leave me alone in a house to be tormented and nearly raped.” Just closure – I’m not necessarily asking for an HEA here. You could end the movie like that, and have a complete movie with a solid ending. But no, instead we get this sordid soap opera which basically seems to involve mocking a mentally ill person. *SPOILERS ENDING*

In other words, Aftermath doesn’t add up.

Awhile back, I mentioned that I had read Sue Miller’s Monogamy, and that a post would be forthcoming. From the first glimpse of this book, I was intrigued. I mean, they say not to judge a book by it’s cover, but look at that cover:

This book left me transfixed – I liked pretty much everything about it. To save you from my babbling fan-girling, I thought you might prefer a succinct list.

  1. The writing – Miller’s actual word choice and sentence structure is eloquent – generally simple word choice arranged in a pleasing order that conveys the information succinctly and connotes the feelings and impressions readily. There is a difference between writing simply and using each word carefully. Miller doles out words precisely, resulting in a book filled with beautiful writing.
  2. The characters – No Mary Sue’s in this book! Miller’s characters are real. In reading this book, you are delving into the intimate thoughts and feelings of people who do amazing things, and love fully, who reminisce, and feel betrayed, and make mistakes, and live (or don’t) complicated lives. To be completely honest, this book doesn’t have a ton of plot, but if you’re a character reader, reading this book is the culinary equivalent of biting into a warm slice of apple pie.
  3. The marriage – Probably not shocking, given the novel’s title, Monogamy analyzes a marriage. The good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly, and the questioning. What does it mean to tether yourself to another person in a civil and/or religious ceremony? Is it possible to remain in love with the same person for the rest of your life? Can you ever really know the people you are with, even the ones you are very close to? As someone who is married, this novel resonated with some of my own thoughts. I don’t think you need to be married to appreciate this thoughtful and in-depth analysis of one, but since I am married, to be fair, I may be wrong.
  4. The creativity – As a vein running throughout this book is the idea of creativity. Annie, one of the main characters, is a photographer who has had some success. Graham, her husband, founded a bookstore. Both of them interact with other artists – writers, musicians, painters, etc. The book itself is a work of art. Reading this novel was inspiring to me, personally, and reminded me that art can be difficult, but if you feel fulfilled by creating something, then it is worthwhile.
  5. The setting – Miller writes about the town of Cambridge, Massachusetts, wherein much of the novel takes place, with love but not so much detail you want to throw the book across the room. I’m not the biggest fan of exposition, but reading this novel makes me want to visit Cambridge. Being stuck at home due to COVID-19 could be a factor in this desire, as well, but at least part of the credit goes to Monogamy.

Of course, my perspective on this book is biased, and not everyone can have the correct (i.e., my) opinion. Monogamy, the ARC I am woefully behind on posting about, has now been available for sale since September. Have you had a chance to nab a copy and read it? Do you agree/disagree with my assessment, or possibly have your own points to add? Please let me know in the comments below; would love to hear your thoughts!

Mr. Fox Takes a Wife


Write a story about or containing a fox.

Writing Prompt for The Waking Forest FFBC Tour

Mr. Fox walked into the bar, smoothing down his fastidiously-trimmed moustache with one hand, while the other clamped down on the wooden cane that he stamped upon the ground with every other step, making a loud thump in conjunction with the light taps of his patent leather clad feet. He ordered a scotch, neat, from the waitress who appeared at his table, and surveyed the establishment with an appraising eye. He was on the hunt for new prey; it had been too long since he had been with a woman, and he was growing weary of returning to an empty home each evening.

The problem with living in a small village, he thought to himself, was that the women were all too quickly known. It was hard to be excited that little Molly was now grown up, having seen that curly brown hair in unruly pigtails, and those fair cheeks smudged with some unidentified sticky substance. And while it was impossible to deny the beauty of Katrina, it was also impossible to forget about her sister’s disappearance, which darkened those lovely green eyes with tragic shadows.

It was the same with all of the women his eyes skimmed over. They were all known. Boring. Predictable.

And then, he espied a new crop of burnished golden curls. Large blue eyes. Creamy skin. A female he had never seen, small and delicate as a porcelain doll. It had been awhile since he had hunted someone young and virtuous; his long, slender fingers stroked the trimmed beard on his face, grey streaks breaking up what had once been a full, red chin of hair. He would rather enjoy being around someone malleable.

He sent a drink to her table, a pink cocktail with too much sugar that hid the taste of alcohol. Her pale cheeks flushed with surprise and delight, her pink lips opening in an “O” of surprise, morphing into a smile and a mouthed “thank you” directed to him once the waitress disclosed him as benefactor. He waited until she was nearly finished before ordering another cocktail that he delivered himself. “You looked like you enjoyed the last one, so I got you another. I hope that’s all right.”

“I am very thirsty,” she responded.

“Care if I join you?”

“Of course not! Thank you, again, for the drinks. Is everyone so nice here in Forest Green?”

He laughed. She thought he was nice. He responded: “Who could resist being nice to a pretty little thing like you?”

Two months later, she was walking towards him in a white, silk dress, her hair fetchingly arranged in an updo festooned with flowers, a coy, pearl-encrusted veil shielding her face. He gazed in wonder at his demure young bride, who was everything he had hoped she would be, as she joined him at the altar. They said their vows, and the food and revelry that followed passed in a blur as both bride and groom anticipated their wedding night.

He was not expecting the collar she slapped around his neck, soon as he had taken off his shirt. Strong black leather, studded with metal, to which she affixed a linked metal leash to keep him in bed. Not only was the new Mrs. Fox not the innocent virgin he had anticipated; she was also well aware of the dungeon that still contained Mr. Fox’s previous wives, including that of the beautiful Katrina’s sister. She deftly plucked the large, ancient brass key from his bureau, and led the townsmen to the cool underground room with its’ blood-spattered walls and stink of decay.

Was she really so clever, so good an actress? Or was he just getting old? Possibly allowing his imagination to make someone what she most certainly was not? He did not have long to ponder on the conundrum, but it filled his mind in the time he had left.

A mere week later, Mrs. Fox walked into the bar, protected from the chill air by a luxurious fur wrap. “Thank you; it’s fox, of course,” she responded to the exclamations of admiration from her female compatriots. She joined a group of them at a table, and ordered a round of drinks, obtaining for herself a scotch, neat. She sighed with contentment at the first sip, then began surveying the establishment for a suitable male companion. The hunt had been long and arduous, and it had been too long since she had enjoyed the company of a man.