“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

The English Patient
(Ralph Fiennes & Kristin Scott Thomas)

                   

“Let the darkness transform into rock
across the wilderness of my memory” ~ Liu Xiaobo, from “Fifteen Years of Darkness” (trans. Jeffrey Yang)

Monday night. Stuffy outside, humidity. Seems like storms are looming but not actually becoming.

Count Almásy and Katherine Clifton Dancing Cheek-to-Cheek

Memory is a tricky thing, as I’m sure I have said before. The same memory can at times be nostalgic, conjuring a bittersweet longing for a return to the moment of conception. And then later, that same memory can be so fraught with emotion that tears are the only possible response.

For example: Last night I was flipping through the channels rather aimlessly. I happened upon a showing of The English Patient, a movie that has held the number 2 spot in my all-time favorite movies for well over a decade. (It was formerly in the number 1 spot, that is until the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and well, there is no surpassing that). As I noted the listing, I paused on the channel, thought that I would probably move on to something else, but never changed the channel.

This was a mistake.

I know that I have to be in the right frame of mind to watch The English Patient, and I wasn’t in that frame of mind. But by the time the credits rolled, I was in full emotional meltdown. I pulled my soundtrack off the rack, popped it into the computer, and waited for morning.

“The rapturous notes of an unendurable grief, of isolation and terror,
the nearly impossible to sustain slow phrases of the ascending figures—
they drifted out over the dark water
like an ecstasy.” ~ Louise Glück, from “The Balcony”

The English Patient
Naveen Andrews & Juliette Binoche

I first saw that movie upon its release in 1996, which was a very, very bad year for me. A friend of mine at the museum had recommended the Michael Ondaatje book to me the previous spring, but I had promptly forgotten about it. Immediately after watching the Anthony Minghella-directed movie, I did two things: I bought the soundtrack, and I bought the book. I didn’t look for the best price, or a sale, I just bought them, which, if you know how I shop, is very uncharacteristic.

In 1996, my marriage to my ex was quickly declining, for a multitude of reasons. I had been laid off from the Museum because of the massive deficit, and I was in a very dark, lonely place. My relationship with Mari, one of the bedrocks of my life, was also in rapid decline, for reasons of which I am still not fully aware. But I went to see this movie with her, and, as it turns out, with her young amour, the person who would be responsible for completely changing her.

But I digress.

We went to the Naro, an old renovated theater in the heart of downtown’s Ghent section. The sound in this particular theater is incredible, and from the opening notes of the first song I was totally enthralled.

“We have understood nothing of life until we have understood that it is one vast confusion.” ~ Henry de Montherlant, from The Bachelors

Almásy in the Desert

If you are unfamiliar with the movie (which holds very closely to Ondaatje’s book), I will briefly recap chronologically what is shown in two different timelines: Count Almásy (played by a then rather gorgeous golden Ralph Fiennes) is part of of a Royal Geographical Society archeological expedition in the deserts of Egypt and Libya in the 1930s. Katherine (played by a blond Kristin Scott Thomas) and her husband (Colin Firth) join the group. An affair ensues, hearts are broken, promises are broken, WWII breaks out, Almásy trades important maps of the desert with the Germans in exchange for a plane and fuel so that he can keep his promise to return to Katherine, a plane crash follows, the Count is burned beyond recognition, loses his identity and simply becomes the English patient, Juliette Binoche, Naveen Andrews, and Willem Dafoe enter the picture, hearts are broken, betrayals occur, the war ends.

It all sounds so clinical when spelled out like that. It is anything but.

The cinematography is breathtaking. The music is heart-wrenching. The acting is impeccable. So how could something that I consider to be so good hurt me so bad(ly)? To provide a true answer to that would take a lot more time and space than this little forum.

“Once I conjugated every animal to sorrow . . . Even now it seems like every version of melancholy rescues a nocturne for the pallid sky. A type of permanent dusk. Fold down the bedsheet. The room has earned its sadness. Nondescript despite how we have rearranged ourselves inside it, undressing with cold hands. Us with our pilgrim hearts. Stationed fast to parentheses of sleep and winter.” ~ Allison Titus, from Sum of Every Lost Ship

Le me try a slightly sifted explanation in which the chaff has been mostly eradicated:

Final Walk to the Cave of the Swimmers

The love affair between Katherine and Almásy is epic. It is destiny. It is the kind of love between two people that those of us who are romantics firmly believe is possible, what we hope for but what we know we will never have. Even as she lays dying, Katherine offers her love a quiet peace within the last words she writes, and she writes these words even as the lamplight is dying, the air is chilling, and any hope of rescue is firmly quenched.

Later, as he lies in a foreign bed in a deserted house, Almásy spends his time daydreaming about the hours they shared. His copy of Herodotus is filled with love notes and personal commentaries on love and betrayal, overwriting the historian’s account of Greco-Roman history.

After watching the movie and then reading the book, I found a kind of running thread of words and phrases from both in the back of my mind at any given time during the day or night. I underlined passages. I wrote marginalia, the most telling of which was “I wish that I could find someone to love me like this.”

“Now and then, I remember you in times
Unbelievable. And in places not made for memory
But for the transient, the passing that does not remain.” ~ Yehuda Amichai, from “Little Ruth” (trans. by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav)

At that time in my life, I did not feel loved, or rather, I felt loved in the wrong way, if that makes any sense. Any sense of belonging that I felt came from outside my home. I felt stretched too thin, underappreciated, overworked, and mostly, mostly I felt hollow. So when I see this movie, all of those feelings come back to the surface. I remember exactly where I was sitting in the theater. I remember trying to tell my ex about the beauty of the movie, asking him to go see it with me (which never happened).

The English Patient Original Theatrical Release Poster

(Later that year, the owner of the Naro gave me the movie poster as he knew how much I coveted it. I still have it and am still waiting for that room of my own in which to hang it.)

The English Patient does for me exactly what Aristotle’s Poetics declared great drama would do to an audience: allow an empathy with the story so profound as to cause a purging of pity and fear. The mythos (plot) and ethos (character) of the movie combine to reopen old scars, leaving me stinging as if the scab has only recently been scratched, and then, a few days later, I am purged. But the reopening of the portal to that era in my life is not without consequences.

Or, to put it more simply, it’s an elevated version of The Way We Were, the Streisand/Redford collaboration of the 70’s that depicted two ill-fated lovers who loved too much, whose love was all-consuming, and consequently, couldn’t withstand time and circumstance. Of course, The English Patient won nine Academy Awards, and The Way We Were none. But the real point is this: Why is such passionate love always doomed?

But that’s a completely different entry.

More later. Peace.

Music from The English Patient, closing theme, composed by Gabriel Yared

                   

Light By Which I Read

One does not turn to the rose for shade, nor the charred song of the
redwing for solace.
This past I patch with words is a flaw in the silvering,
memory seen
through to.
There I find the shallow autumn waters, the three stolen pears,
The horizon edged with chalk, loose where the fabric frayed.
Each yesterday glacier-scored, each a dark passage illumined by a
honeycomb.

*

I begin to fathom the brittle intricacy of the window’s scrim of ice.
For years, I managed without memory—stalled, unnumbered,
abridged—
No more alive than a dismembered saint enthroned in two hundred
reliquaries.
Now, it is hard not to say I remember,
hard, in fact, not to remember.
Now, I hear the filament’s quiver, its annoying high frequency, light
by which I read.

*

River mist, mudbanks, and rushes mediate the dark matter
Between two tomorrows:
one an archive of chance effects,
The other a necropolis of momentary appearances and sensations.
One, a stain of green, where a second wash bleeds into the first.
The other time-bound, fecund, slick with early rain.

*

As if to impose a final hermeneutic, all at once the cicadas wind down.
The gooseberry bush looms like a moon: each berry taut, sour, aglow.
The creek runs tar in the cloud-light, mercury at dusk.
Then the frogs start up.
Clay-cold at the marrow. A hollow pulse-tick.
And it seems, at last, I’ve shed my scorched and papery husk.

~ Eric Pankey

(To see poem with original indents, click on link.)

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“We all go a little mad sometimes.” Norman Bates, Psycho

  

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“You don’t need eyes for where we’re going.”  ~ Event Horizon

 

“Oh Yes, there will be blood!” ~ Saw II

the-exorcistAfter I finished my favorite 100 movies, I began to realize that I couldn’t stop with just that one list. I felt that I really needed to do a list of my favorite scary/horror movies since I am such a big fan of the genre. Let me clarify, though. I don’t like slasher movies like the whole Friday or Nightmare franchises or Texas Chainsaw movies. I also don’t do zombies, with just a few exceptions. And in movies like Scream and I Know What You Did, I just couldn’t get over the silliness.

You won’t find a lot of movies on my list that you normally find on a best horror movies list simply because I like psychological scary more than gorey blood scary. I like ghost stories, and I really enjoy plots in which perception and reality are questionable. Some of the movies that I have included may not be considered horror movies to purists, but there was some element within them that gave me the willies. For example, The Exorcism of Emily Rose isn’t really a scary movie in the traditional sense, but since the plot was supposedly based on a real event, I was left with a definite feeling of discomfort after watching it. 

“Fear is only as deep as the mind allows” ~ Japanese Proverb

I am a big fan of Korean and Japanese horror movies, as well as vampire movies and movies about serial killers. I will warn you about a few of the foreign films that I have listed. Audition/Odeshon seems pretty normal and a bit slow in the beginning, but the last thirty minutes are absolutely horrifying and pretty graphic. In fact, I’m not sure that I would have watched it if I had known that beforehand. The same goes for the pacing of Ju-Rei: It’s slow in the beginning, the quality of the filming is not great, but it delivers in the end.

“Listen to them, the children of the night. What sweet music they make.”  Dracula, Bram Stoker’s Dracula

lost-boys-kiefer-sutherland
Kiefer Sutherland in "The Lost Boys"

Sometimes I have chosen the remake, and sometimes I have chosen the original. It may have to do with casting or effects. Can’t really explain that one. I do include some classics, like “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” which was pretty scary to me when I watched it as a girl. There used to be these creature feature fests on Saturday afternoon and Saturday night. That’s how I first became addicted to scary movies, and “Creature from the BL” was rerun several times.

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” ~ H. P. Lovecraft

Don’t ask me why I like to scare the crap out of myself because I really don’t know. I think that part of the reason is that watching these movies goes back to the old Aristotlean concept about audiences and tragedies. That is, people watch these sorts of things (of course, he was referring to plays) to purge their own emotions about pity and fear.

brad-pitt-seven
Brad Pitt in Se7en

That being said, Aristotle’s premise about why people want to see tragedies, including some of Shakespeare’s goriest plays (Titus Andronicus anyone?) is because as common people, we cannot experience tragedy on our own, so we empathize with the tragic hero/heroine, and thereby rid ourselves of our own pity and fear.

In true tragedies—in the Aristotleansense—the protagonist must be someone with power, influence or something that places him or her above everyone else; otherwise, there could be no fall. The fall comes from hubris, or conceit: that is, the hero believing that his life is untouchable, or the heroine believing in her infallibility.

The horror often came from the factors that actually worked to bring down the protagonist; for example, in the play Dr. Faustus, the audience was treated to the doctor being dragged down to hell because of his deal with the devil. Renaissance special effects.

Don’t really know what sent me off on that tangent other than my own reasoning for watching the things that I watch sometimes: If you watch a scary movie, perhaps you can get rid of your real-life fears. Of course, the opposite may be true: you watch something so scary that you are unable to leave it alone; it haunts you and keeps you up at night.

All righty then. So here is my list of horror/scary movies. Some are scarier than others, and some are campy scary. It goes without saying that you will probably not agree with my choices, but oh well. At least I tried. As always, please feel free to comment on my choices and suggest others, just remember, I’m not claiming that these are the best, just the ones that I like the most.

” To fear is one thing. To let fear grab you by the tail and swing you around is another.” ~ Katherine Paterson
 

My Favorite Scary Movies

1.   Event Horizon: Scared the crap out of me the first time and every other time

2.   Silence of the Lambs: Fava beans and a nice Chianti

3.   Saw 1-4: Where does he get those toys?

4.   Jaws: We need a bigger boat.

5.   Ju-On/Ju-On 2 (The Grudge, Japanese): Evil houseand woman crawling on walls; part 2 still has evil house

6.   Bram Stoker’s Dracula: Gary Oldman as Dracula in a visually stunning production

draculainterview

7.   Ryeong (The Ghost, Korean): Sometimes amnesia can be a good thing

8.   The Others: The entire mood of this one really got to me and stayed with me for a while

9.   Psycho: Hitchcock. What else needs to be said?

10. The Ring: Creepy, ultra creepy.

11.  Dusk ‘til Dawn: Vampires, Quentin Tarantino, Salma Hayek and a snake

12.  Ils (They, French): Come out and play?

13.  El Orfanato (The Orphanage, Spanish): Surreal and ultimately, heartbreaking

14.  Stir of Echoes: Kevin Bacon wields a jackhammer

frailtyechoes

15.  The Lost Boys: Young Kiefer Sutherland with fangs—too cool.

16.  Se7en: Gruesome deadly sins played out on screen with nothing spared

17.  The Grudge: American remake not quite as good as the Japanese version, but still jumped during the shower scene

18.  Dead Calm: The whole premise still gets to me.

19.  The Dark: Sean Bean and people jumping off cliffs in Wales

darkorphanage

20.  Rosemary’s Baby: Don’t drink the milkshake

21.  Misery: Don’t make Kathy Bates angry.

22.  The Birds: Oh man. This one gave me nightmares for days

23.  Underworld: Victor doesn’t like to be awakened before his time. One of the more stylish vampire movies to come along in a while.

24.  The Exorcist: First scary movie I almost saw when I was a teenager.

25.  The Shining: Heeeeere’s Johnny!

26.  Halloween: First scary movie I actually saw most of

27.  Hostel: I didn’t want to see but I couldn’t stop watching

28.  Interview With a Vampire: The vampire revue was bizarre, and Kirsten Dunst as perpetual child Claudia was truly disconcerting

29.  Stigmata: Gabriel Byrne as a priest and Patricia Arquette as the victim of stigmata. Religious fervor gone wild

abnormalstigmata

30.  Alien: Hate those drooling creatures, love Ripley

31.  Aliens: Paul Reiser as sleazy corporate guy in outer space. They should have listened to Ripley

32.  Sei mong se jun (Ab-Normal Beauty, Chinese): Girl likes to take morbid pictures

33.  I Am Legend: I know that it’s a remake, but I still liked it. In the end, sadder than I thought that it could be

34.  Ju-Rei (The Uncanny, Japanese): Slower paced, reverse action; different but still scary

35.  Carrie: Revenge is not served cold in this movie

carriepsycho

36.  The Strangers: Movies based on true events always freak me out, and masks take the scary factor up a notch.

37.  Ringu (The Ring, Japanese): Very scary with lots of long black hair

38.  Chello hongmijoo ilga salinsagan (Cello, Korean): Makes teachers everywhere afraid to fail someone

39.  Gawi (Nightmare, Korean): With friends like these, who needs enemies?

40.  The Abandoned: Woman returns to rural Russia to claim family farm but should have stayed home

41.  Frailty: A creepy Matthew McConaughey in an unexpected turn

42.  The Exorcism of Emily Rose: How did she get her body to do that?

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43.  Subject Two: Medical student gets involved in science project over and over and over again

44.  The Exorcist III: Legion: Based on a really good novel, and let’s pretend Exorcist II never happened

45.  Chakushin Ari (One Missed Call, Korean): Don’t answer that phone

46.  Conjurer: What is real and what is imagined?

47.  Shutter (Thai): Spirit pictures are not good things

48.  Rinne (Reincarnation, Japanese): Bad casting comes back to haunt director

49.  Orora-gongju (Princess Aurora, Korean): Little girl lost, mom loses mind; everyone pays

50.  Odishon (Audition, Japanese): Makes Annie in Misery look like a character from Walt Disney

auditionvoices

51.  Sinderella (Cinderella, Korean): That’s taking plastic surgery too far

52.  Resident Evil 1: Laser room had me yelling at the TV: Run!!

53.  Resident Evil II: Why don’t they just die?

54.  Blair Witch Project 2: Darker and more disturbing than the first

55.  The Descent: Caves, claustrophobia, creepy monsters. Enough said.

56.  Predator: Those dreads don’t do a thing for you, but you are better looking than the Alien creature

57.  Blade: Vampire half-breed with an attitude and über-cool leather coat

58.  Blade Trinity: Watch out for the Pomeranian

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59.  1408: They told him not to stay.

60.  Blade II: Daddy isn’t such a nice guy

61.  From Hell: Johnny Depp as drug addict takes on Jack the Ripper. Abattoir is an understatement

62.  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: I actually felt sorry for Kenneth Branagh for his folly

63.  Frankenstein (original): I always felt sorry for the monster when he tries to talk with the little girl

64.  Funny Games: Why are they wearing white gloves?

65.  Dead Birds: Crime doesn’t pay

66.  The Omen (original): Decapitation is never good

67.  Blair Witch Project: Original concept works as long as audience doesn’t leave thinking that it’s real

68.  End of Days: Gabriel Byrne as the Devil is very charming if you can get over that whole evil power thing

69.  What Lies Beneath: Harrison Ford plays against type as the unexpected bad buy

70.  Thirty Days of Night: Vampires everywhere and not a sunset anywhere

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71.  The Jacket: A cadaver drawer is not prescribed treatment for mental patients

72.  Creature from the Black Lagoon: I loved this movie when I was a kid

73.  The Sixth Sense: Psychological thriller that messes with your mind

74.  The Vanishing: That whole buried alive thing really bothers me

75.  Haunted: If she looks too good to be true, she probably is

76.  Silent Hill: The ashes should be the first clue.

77.  Dead Silence: Very creepy ventriloquist dummies

78.  Sleepy Hollow: Johnny Depp, hollow tree full of skulls, lots of blood

79.  Signs: Creepiest alien noises

80.  The Ghost of Mae-Nek (Thai): New couple buys old house; ghost included

81.  The Prophecy: Christopher Walken as an angel with jet black hair

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82.  The Hitcher(original): Why would anyone mistake Rutger Hauer for a safe passenger?

83.  Wind Chill: Don’t get lost in the snow

84.  The Mothman Prophecies: I’m scared, but I don’t know why

85.  Red Dragon: A tattooed Ralph Fiennes and Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter: great combo

86.  The Ruins: These plants are not for smoking.

87.  The Bad Seed: That is one scary little girl

88.  The Secret Window: Johnny Depp plays an eccentric who may be seeing things. Really?

89.  The Skeleton Key: Why doesn’t anyone ever pay attention to their best friend?

90.  House on the Haunted Hill: Whose party is this anyway?

prophecyhaunted-hill

91.  Hannibal Rising: Serious childhood issues and brutal forms of retribution

92.  Salem’s Lot (the original): Floating dead kids at the window

93.  The Reaping: Lakes of blood, locusts. Time to go now

94.  Spirit Trap: Student housing certainly has changed

95.  Constantine: Unique use of the electric chair

96.  The Craft: More campy than scary, except for the snakes.

97.  American Psycho: Black humor, Christian Bale, lots of plastic, and a chainsaw

98.  Flatliners: Young interns play with life and death, and Kiefer Sutherland sees things that aren’t there

99.  Near Dark: Vampires in love. Very campy

100. Taking Lives: Ethan Hawke has an identity crisis, or two, or three

You sleep well now. Okay?

ilsstrangers

More later. Peace.