What Makes “Good” Art, Part II

Last post, I looked at a movie that had such a terrible ending, I was angry at myself for watching it when it was all said and done. Today, I will be analyzing a haunted house movie that I thought was, overall, extremely well done. Things Heard & Seen is the haunted house movie that I would recommend, and that I would consider “good” art, despite the things about the movie that I did not much appreciate.

So, what makes Things Heard & Seen “good” art?

Well…. for one thing, I have my own unique experiences and perspective, and I like it. Concepts of “good” and “bad” are entirely subjective, and while I think you’re wrong if you don’t agree with me, I am a technically biased person who thinks her taste in media is pretty damn good. I’m also unflinchingly honest, and will tell you if I personally like something but I don’t think it’s very good and don’t necessarily recommend.

So let’s get to our story – FYI, this post will be replete with spoilers, so if you have not seen the movie yet or are averse to discussion that includes spoilers for some reason, feel free to just “like” my blog post and go live your life.

One thing that Things Heard & Seen does really well is take a seemingly normal situation and make it absolutely horrific. There are some supernatural aspects that make the movie a true “Haunted House” movie (unlike the movie we talked about last week), but the actual horror in the movie is not because of the house. It is because of the evil that can exist within people, and that does exist within one specific character in the movie.

The movie opens with George Claire pulling into the garage to have blood drip onto his car. You know it’s a haunted house movie, so you wonder if ghosts are fucking with him, but don’t really know for certain. He walks into the house, and comes upon his daughter, who is standing and looking out of the window, bathed in ethereal light, which is creepy, because let’s face it – children are terrifying. The scene cuts to George fleeing the house, holding his daughter in his arms.

What a fucking clever beginning.

The beginning immediately pulls the viewer in, and brings up so many questions. What is going on? Is the house haunted? Is the daughter okay? It creates the lens that George is the hero of the story – a man living through the presumable terror of the haunted house, and protecting his daughter when things get out of hand… who doesn’t root for that?

A monster, that’s who.

No, of course not. As it turns out… George Claire is.

The way that the writers subtly bring out truths that slant the story in a completely different light is so well done. What at first seems to be simply a dysfunctional marriage that is likely either going to be resolved or end in a bitter divorce when the family experiences the haunted house turns out to be something else entirely.

After the intriguing beginning, the movie jumps back in time, and we meet the third member of the Claire family – wife and mother Catherine. The compliment on her thin figure, the fact that she barely eats any cake, and then throws it up, initially makes it seem as though Catherine has an eating disorder. We see her working a dream job for someone with an art degree – restoring some beautiful artwork in a church, and talking to her friend about how she needs to support George, who has given up so much for her, by moving out to the country (Saginaw, which I think in this movie is still supposed to be in NY and not the Saginaw I think of in MI). And as the viewer, you’re scared for her and her family, because they’re moving to a haunted house, and you’re thinking, “Man, if you weren’t moving to a terrifying haunted house, this would be the right move for you, because you’re obviously stressed or something and getting away from this negative influence will be good.”

As it turns out, as the viewer, you are so, so wrong.

#sowrong

In a phone conversation midway through the movie, Catherine’s mother mentions that she is “so lucky” that George “did the right thing by her…” It has already been established by this point that Catherine was raised Catholic, so… we know what that means. But it gets worse. George takes one of his classes on a field trip to a museum (he’s teaching art), and one of his previous professors starts asking questions, like “Why are they calling you professor?” and “I was surprised you got this position, given that I refused to write you a letter of recommendation” and something along the lines of “you were blacklisted for inappropriate behavior with a student…”

Suddenly, the fact that Catherine avoids taking food or drink from her husband, when at all possible, takes on a completely different light. It helps that this movie takes place in the past – people would like to think that the ’80s is modern enough that domestic violence and date rape were looked down on… but actually, while people didn’t necessarily advocate for either of these things, most people just ignored it or looked the other way. Cops back then just stayed out of it, even if they were called, because it was a matter for the family to resolve. So a woman being drugged by the man she was dating, ending up pregnant, and marrying the asshole because her strict Catholic upbringing says that is what she is supposed to do if he is willing to “do the right thing” is a lot more terrifying because it is a lot more believable. I’m not saying this situation couldn’t occur today – but an open-minded woman like Catherine is going to have a lot more resources in 2021 as opposed to the 1980s, where a “he-said/she-said” is probably going to favor the “he,” unless this is an episode of 21 Jumpstreet where Harry was erroneously accused of knocking the girl up because she thought he was just some guy her age who had moved out of town and couldn’t be found.

Most girls weren’t lucky enough to have an officer Judy Hoffs to help.

There are all of these tiny details sprinkled throughout the movie that add to the horror that is George Claire, and you really feel for Catherine, particularly when she discovers that the one thing she loved about her husband – his skill as a painter, which included these amazing paintings he has hung up in his office – is actually his gay cousin, who coincidentally committed suicide, because being gay is not always easy and it was even more difficult in the ’80s. So not only is her husband a rapist monster who has taken her away from her friends and family to a secluded community where she’s expected to perform only the womanly duties of cleaning and caring for their daughter; the way he caught any of her attention in the first place was the result of lies and purloined paintings.

His natural inclination to do whatever it takes to get what he wants is strengthened by the malevolent male spirits of other assholes who have lived in the house previously and whose wives “mysteriously died.” There are female spirits of the woman who were murdered, as well, and the inevitable result of living in the house comes to fruition in a brutal scene where Catherine is, again, drugged by her husband, begs the spirits to help her, and they explain to her that she cannot fight her fate, but they will supposedly get justice in the end…

This bullshit didn’t work so well for me – like, what about the women who have already been murdered in the house? The entire town knows they were probably murdered, but no one can prove it, and it seems their terrible husbands just continued to live until their terrible lives came to a fairly normal end. But for some reason, we’re supposed to think George will be caught, because he ran Catherine’s friend and his co-worker off of the road and the dead women of the house awake this friend/co-worker from a coma.

How is that “justice?” Is George going to pay by going to prison? Is that really balancing the scales of justice when he brutally murdered his wife with a fucking ax? Ooh… he doesn’t get to spend time corrupting his daughter with his terrible influence, he gets a roof over his head, and three meals a day, and fucking recess…. Yeah, he’s really going to “learn his lesson.”

Not to mention, the friend/co-worker didn’t really see much, so it is difficult to believe that her testimony is going to put anyone away in prison.

So what’s probably really going to happen is she’s going to be like, “I told George I was keeping an eye on him, and knew he was having an affair, and then I got run off the road. I’m pretty sure it was George.”

And the cops will say, “Oh, did you see George?”

And she will say, “No. But it has to be him.”

And the cops will say, “Oh… could you at least tell it was his car?”

And she will say, “Well… no…. I just saw headlights. But it was, for real, definitely him.”

And the cops will say, “How do you know it was, for real, definitely him? Keep in mind – you have a vagina, and the words you say only hold 32% of the weight of a person with a penis. And that’s high, because you teach in a college, you get a higher % because we kind of think you have some dude-like qualities.”

And she cries, because she’s terrified, and says, “I just do! Are you telling me he’s just going to get away with it after he tried to kill me?”

And the cops will say to her husband, “Ugh, can you take care of this? You’re wife’s getting hysterical!”

See?! Even Lady Justice is skeptical…

So, there was some bullshit in this movie, for sure. But overall, this movie is terrifying, not so much because the house is haunted, but because people can be monsters who trap innocent people in their web of lies and torture and terrify them before eventually ending them. I’m still spooked.

Books within Books: Novels Featuring Writers

Many writing teachers tell their students to “write what you know.” And what do writers know better than… writers? I love a good story about a writer, and so jumped at the chance to read ARCs of Joani Elliott’s The Audacity of Sara Grayson and Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot.

The Audacity of Sara Grayson

Synopsis:

What happens when your mother’s dying wish becomes your worst nightmare?

What happens when the world’s greatest literary icon dies before she finishes the final book in her best-selling series?

And what happens when she leaves that book in the hands of her unstable, neurotic daughter, who swears she’s not a real writer?

Sara Grayson is a thirty-two-year-old greeting card writer about to land the toughest assignment of her life. Three weeks after the death of her mother—a world-famous suspense novelist—Sara learns that her mother’s dying wish is for her to write the final book in her bestselling series.

Sara has lived alone with her dog, Gatsby, ever since her husband walked out with their Pro Double Waffle Maker and her last shred of confidence. She can’t fathom writing a book for thirty million fans—not when last week’s big win was resetting the microwave clock.

But in a bold move that surprises even herself, Sara takes it on. Against an impossible deadline and a publisher intent on sabotaging her every move, Sara discovers that stepping into her mother’s shoes means stumbling on family secrets she was never meant to find—secrets that threaten her mother’s legacy and the very book she’s trying to create.

My thoughts:

Joani Elliott knows how to write! Well crafted novel with a realistic depiction of the art of writing — the insecurity and hopelessness and futility and accomplishment, cycling in an endless, introspective loop. If you think the story synopsis above sounds interesting, the book storyline should be right up your alley. Elliott’s writing is empathetic, and feels uplifting, in a real, truthful way. As someone who dabbles in writing, I found much of this book inspiring. I definitely recommend if you are a writer. You will love Phil, because he’s the best.

The book also has a couple of adorable and believable romances.

My only issue with this book (which, unfortunately, is a big one), is that we spend the majority of our time with Sara Grayson, and Sara Grayson is… kind of awful. Whiny, full of excuses. Literally everyone she knows is like, “Your writing is so good! You need to do this! Also, you’ve been unhappy. Trying this new thing may help you realize what you want and feel fulfilled.” And she doesn’t trust herself, she doesn’t trust those she loves, and she’s fucking annoying about it. It’s probably realistic, but it’s very difficult to spend so much time with her when she’s insufferable, and, like, not in a fun way.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 typewriters

The Plot

Synopsis:

Jacob Finch Bonner was once a promising young novelist with a respectably published first book. Today, he’s teaching in a third-rate MFA program and struggling to maintain what’s left of his self-respect; he hasn’t written–let alone published–anything decent in years. When Evan Parker, his most arrogant student, announces he doesn’t need Jake’s help because the plot of his book in progress is a sure thing, Jake is prepared to dismiss the boast as typical amateur narcissism. But then . . . he hears the plot.

Jake returns to the downward trajectory of his own career and braces himself for the supernova publication of Evan Parker’s first novel: but it never comes. When he discovers that his former student has died, presumably without ever completing his book, Jake does what any self-respecting writer would do with a story like that–a story that absolutely needs to be told.

In a few short years, all of Evan Parker’s predictions have come true, but Jake is the author enjoying the wave. He is wealthy, famous, praised and read all over the world. But at the height of his glorious new life, an e-mail arrives, the first salvo in a terrifying, anonymous campaign: You are a thief, it says.

As Jake struggles to understand his antagonist and hide the truth from his readers and his publishers, he begins to learn more about his late student, and what he discovers both amazes and terrifies him. Who was Evan Parker, and how did he get the idea for his “sure thing” of a novel? What is the real story behind the plot, and who stole it from whom?

My thoughts:

Thriller novels are difficult, in that they rely on either:

  • creating tension/suspense that causes the readers to avidly keep reading out of desperate need to find out what happens/get resolution;
  • have a twist that changes the lens by which the story has been viewed;
  • have writing so amazing, that even if the twist is predictable, the reader doesn’t care, because it’s so fun getting there.

I applaud Jean for the work that she put into this book. The concept is interesting, and writing a book is a lot of work.

However, I was able to see the “surprise twist” about 20% of the way through the book, the writing was fine, but nothing that particularly filled me with wonder, and given that I knew where everything was likely headed (and I was correct), lacked the tension/suspense I would generally want from a thriller.

My rating: 2.5 out of 5 typewriters

Sharpen Your Claws

In San Antonio, Texas, the Torres sisters live with their father. Ana, Jessica, Iridian, and Rosa are four beautiful roses blooming in the muck of death and decay that is their house. Unlike most roses, they have legs, and are desperate for escape – some day, some way – from the existence they are experiencing on a daily basis.

This existence doesn’t necessarily end when they die.

The Torres sisters are spied on by the boy who lives across the street and his three friends. Stalkers who hesitate to interfere with the girls after their actions ruin an escape attempt, and so, they just watch. Filtering the lives and personalities of these girls through their male lenses:

  • Ana, the beautiful enigma
  • Jessica, the angry and slightly inept
  • Iridian, the introvert who brings a novel and a notebook with her wherever she goes
  • Rosa, the old soul

Reflecting on their inaction after the fact, and realizing that they could have offered friendship to these girls, which may have been more helpful than obsessive semi-worship.

Because they are girls, of course, there is plenty of conflict and abuse to content with – their father is neglectful, their mother is dead, so these girls are mostly on their own. Boys suck. Most people suck. Add grieving to the mix, and these poor girls go through a lot.

Samantha Mabry’s Tigers, Not Daughters is well-written and mysterious. The story is sometimes magical, sometimes realistic, and sometimes it is difficult for the reader to discern whether the events are occurring or being interpreted in an elevated way by the characters. If you like well-written fiction, multiple points-of-view, hot climates, stories that center around smart women, and magical-realism, I would highly-highly recommend.

Have you read this novel, or do you plan to pick up a copy soon? Let me know in the comments below!