Friday, November 22, 2019

Bentley Little Was Right (Or, a Swan Song)

Bentley Little may be the smartest modern-day horror writer. When I interviewed him back in the early days of Dark Scribe Magazine, I was struck during my research that the guy had no official website, no social media presence, and did very little to no publicity or book signings when a new title was released. He’s written one book per year—on rough average—since his debut in 1990 with The Revelation. His latest, The Bank, releases in 2020 from Cemetery Dance.

One book per year over 30 years—give or take a year or two here and there.

No Facebook. No Twitter. No Instagram. No official author website. Hell, not even an email address.

Think about that for a minute: A working writer who maintains a substantial enough fan base to publish consistently for three decades (and counting). Anomaly? Most would argue yes. Yet Little’s conscious decision to eschew the conventional wisdom espoused by agents and publicists and publishers that a social media presence is necessary to peddle one’s wares warrants examination. And some degree of envy.

Imagine it: No emails to read and respond to. No time-wasting distractions on social media. No online persona to cultivate and maintain. No chance for misstep in the current era of cultural overcorrection. Imagine the hours given back to write. Or read. Or whatever creative endeavor eludes you because of the giant, time-sucking black hole of the Internet.  

Now some would argue—and they’d be correct in doing so—that life doesn’t have to be about extremes, that there are enough hours in the day to seek out and enjoy all that we desire, and that it’s really all about striking a balance. Finding one’s equilibrium sweet spot. Yin and yang.

True enough.

But I’d argue that the Internet—social media, in particular—isn’t like all the other boys and girls on the playground. No, its time-wasting properties are unique; it’s real-time, continuous and never-ending, with characters dropping in and out, and information flashing by at light speed. Miss a little, miss a lot. And therein lies its distinctively addictive appeal. I should know—I’ve been a social media addict for more than a decade now.

Like a functioning alcoholic, I’m a functioning social media addict. To the naked eye, I function just fine—I work, I socialize, I create, I eat and sleep. But over the years, I’ve noticed subtle changes as my social media presence and activity increased—from that first Myspace page in 2004 to joining Facebook in 2007, followed by Twitter and Instagram in the ensuing years. I’ve noticed that I live with a nagging sense of urgency to check social media, that I feel compelled to post about all manner of things that I do and opinions I hold. I’ve watched entire live concerts through my iPhone camera, obsessively needing to capture the experience instead of just living it. I realize, with a sickening sense that I’ve allowed myself to be swept up and away, that I’m often subconsciously trying to “keep up” with the Joneses, that I’m comparing myself (often unfavorably) with the social media personas of others. It’s brought a persistent rhythm of unease to my mind and spirit—unease that I’m a fraud, unease that I’m living life “wrong” or “not enough.” I feel like an imposter, that although I try to present myself and my accomplishments in a certain light that I know, deep down, that I’ve fallen short of my potential. Social media has become for me like a virtual game of fake it until you make it.

Mindless fun can be useful, therapeutic even. There is something restorative about letting go and indulging in something pointless and undemanding—the silliness of a slapstick comedy, revisiting an old cartoon or sitcom from childhood, flipping through home improvement magazines for inspiration, or rummaging through an old yearbook. But, truth be told, social media isn’t even fun anymore. Social media is full of extremes and extremists—people arguing with themselves and each other over everything from politics to social and cultural issues. There is very little in the way of substantive discussion to be found, with each party usually entering the fray with a predetermined and fixed mindset. Social media presents two choices in 2019: divisive and toxic or nonsensical and inane.  I’m guilty of contributing to both to varying degrees.

A steady diet of foolishness is not fun, and idiocy rules on social media. Yes, by all means, re-post that news story from six years ago and watch everyone else jump in with fury and righteous indignation until some poor sap actually opens the link and points out the date. Yes, please post about that celebrity’s death—you know, the one who died a decade ago. Yes, if you re-post this pretty picture of fuzzy bunnies frolicking beneath the American flag, Jesus himself will bless you with a lottery win. You bet me that the little girl with the cleft palette can’t get 100 likes on Facebook? Well, then, by all means—let’s share it even though your own page is private and that little girl (if she or anyone associated with her in real-life actually started the damn campaign) will never see your share, like, or comment. And despite the proliferation of information about fake news and clickbait and bad foreign actors infiltrating social media to sow discord, many continue to share this crap and engage with bots. Critical thinking is your friend, people—have it over for dinner sometime and get to know it.

Reflecting, I realize that I don’t even enjoy my own participation on social media much anymore. Post about a TV show or film you enjoyed and, within seconds, some armchair quarterback shows up to offer their unsolicited expertise as to why the opposite is true. When people aren’t giving in to their compulsion to crap on the parades of others, they’re posting graphic photos of animal abuse (you know, to bring attention to it) or taking a victory lap for their “brave” stand against this social evil or that from behind their keyboards and the comfort of their suburban sofas. The social justice warriors of social media have deluded themselves into thinking that they make an actual difference because they had the “courage” to pile-on in a thread already 300 comments long with people largely agreeing anyway. Social justice in an echo chamber; yeah, that’s effective. Social media has been permeated by a vitriolic hivemind that demands nothing but complete submission to the will of the masses, with swift and total annihilation to anyone who dares question, suggest, or temper such contentious debate with anything resembling nuance, a sense of pragmatism, or (the unholiest of crimes) the application of critical thinking skills. Motives will be ascribed, malfeasance charged. Those accused (of anything) are guilty until proven innocent on the words of the accuser alone, with the idea of supporting someone now conflated with a mandatory belief in what they’ve alleged. Proof? Proof is for pussies in the age of social media. Personal evolution? Nope—not allowed. You’re either “woke” or you’re not. Personal growth would just detract from the moral wrath —and then what would we be angry about?   

As many of you know, I’ve had something similar happen to me recently. It was an eye-opener, the proverbial slap to the face this social media addict needed to begin his recovery. I wouldn’t have wished the experience on my worst enemy. It was sobering—to see those “friends” who immediately bailed before I even issued the first rebuttal. There were those friends who offered words of support privately, less who went on the record publicly or defended me outright. There were those who stayed silent the entire time. I noticed and made mental note of who spoke up, who spoke out, who said nothing, and who jumped ship. Lesson learned, painful as it was.

Honestly, it’s all too tiring. I’m worn out, drained, and weary of it all.

To circle back, Bentley Little has now inspired me to rip a page out of his playbook and to log off. Time to drown out the buzzing rancor of social media. Instagram is gone, to be followed shortly by Twitter. Deactivating Facebook is in the cards, too—with the jury still out on it being a permanent versus temporary move. I may keep it after an extended break through the holidays to cross-post reviews from Dark Scribe Magazine and op-eds from my blog, which I’ll fire up again in earnest, old-school style. If I return to the land of Zuckerberg, it’ll be after a sharp culling of friends and followers. What Facebook was, it will never be again. At least not for me after recent events. I’ve given too much of my time and energy and attention to the white noise of social media—primarily to the detriment of my creative pursuits. Time to focus on getting back to my real life—viewing it through my own eyes instead of through an iPhone lens—and rediscovering my authentic self. 

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Claims of Racism

I was alerted yesterday afternoon to a post by one Chesya Burke, a fellow writer, that mentioned me, by name, and included allegations that I participated in an online discussion back in 2013 about Paula Deen and said something racist within the post. When I first read the post, horrified by Ms. Burke’s vague allegations, I immediately reached out, privately via FB messenger, to get more details because I genuinely didn’t remember such a conversation or what I allegedly said. Unfortunately, in her post yesterday, she simply stated:
"Vince Liaguno, another totally not racist because he's gay, writer also said some just so happen racist shit."
There were no direct quotes of what I allegedly said, nor was the link to a blog post she wrote in 2013 helpful since she didn’t name me—or anyone, for that matter—only referring to people by the color of their skin and sexual orientation. There were two exceptions to this—Anne Rice and her son, Christopher. There was really no way for me to evaluate her inflammatory claim since I didn’t have the actual social media thread in front of me, but there were clear contradictions between her own words written yesterday and those written in 2013 that made me wary. For example, in her blog she references someone invoking the name of the elder Rice—not odd considering the thread was about comments Anne Rice had made about a lawsuit filed against celebrity chef Paula Deen in 2013—and writes, “Eventually, for some reason, Anne Rice is linked to (as if he expects her to bring down her rain of truth on me) and her son is spoken to as if he’s commented (I have no idea if he did)…” Yet, in her FB post yesterday, her memory apparently sharpens after six years when she notes that “I just know that Anne Rice's son joined in at one point.” (Side note: He was never part of the thread other than in passing mention by another poster much later in the thread.)

Hoping for a response to address this with her, my mind was now preoccupied with finding the actual social media thread. Originally, I thought it occurred in a public thread of Anne Rice’s. After scouring through 2k+ comments, I typed in “anne rice paula deen” into the FB search engine and saw Mr. Rowe’s June 2013 post and the 100+ comments. This was on his FB page and a private discussion that only his friends could participate in. The post itself (and I’m paraphrasing here) was about Mr. Rowe’s agreement with Anne Rice’s assertion that the Deen situation was less about racism and more about the public’s bloodlust for celebrity teardowns, with Mr. Rowe noting at one point in the conversation that the public outcry had less to do with any authentic or righteous desire to actually cleanse America of its racism but more with its sick fascination with celebrity culture and people using a public figure like Deen to deceive themselves into thinking that they were fighting against racism without ever having to actually do anything but type a few words from their computers. Soft-targeting was the term he used.

The post was largely polite, with some dissenting opinion that rolled along without incident. Ms. Burke entered the conversation about halfway through, presenting her dissenting opinion, and suggesting that instead of defending Deen (which no one was really doing…in fact, more than one person clearly stated that her use of the “n” word was not to be condoned) that “we feel sorry for…” and listing all of the allegations from the Jackson versus Deen lawsuit. She ends her post with a link to the actual suit. Mr. Rowe points out that no one is defending her, reiterating his point of the hypocrisy of how so many other far more egregious acts of racism, homophobia, and misogyny are overlooked by the media but because this involved a celebrity, it was a “feeding frenzy.” Ms. Burke and Mr. Rowe go back and forth for a dozen or so responses. No one is called the "n" word in any of the posts I read and re-read last night at least a dozen times.

At some later point in the thread, I have clearly entered the discussion and respond to Ms. Burke’s assertion that those in the thread are characterizing Deen as a victim (she even goes so far as to throw out the word crucified, which no one has said anywhere prior) and that she’s actually done the things she’s been accused of in the lawsuit by asking her, directly, where in the actual deposition does Deen admit to these things, noting that these are allegations (capitalized for emphasis). This is the first of my three interactions with Ms. Burke:

She responds, I respond back:

One more volley back and forth:

She’s out, I’m out after that. Was our exchange a bit heated? Ok, sure, a little. Were we challenging to one another? Yeah, sure. But please point out where anything I said was “racist.” So now, after finding the six-year-old thread and reading and re-reading it—specifically my interactions with Ms. Burke—I’m even more dismayed that she’s publicly spreading something about my character that’s patently false. It was by then late afternoon/early evening and I found her email address on her blog. Since we are not friends on FB, I have no idea how or if connection to messenger works so I re-send my message, now with the added knowledge of having located the thread and noting that there are inaccuracies that I hope we can discuss and correct together. I’m purposefully choosing my words very carefully because I don’t want to intimate that she is lying—because I don’t believe she is. I believe that she remembers a six-year-old thread that she’s admittedly not had access to for many years in a certain way—a certain very real way to her. I’m trying to be empathetic to that while not allowing my character to be besmirched, with her post from yesterday shared 65+ times and seen by over 240 people. I send the message from my iPhone—immediately thinking that my email may likely end up in a spam folder.

Flash forward to today. No response as I’d hoped for from Ms. Burke, but then again, I’m skeptical of both methods I’ve used to send the message. I’m trying not to stoke any unnecessary fires by commenting on her public posts, so I wait until this afternoon (about 20 hours or so since I sent the original email) and I re-send the email from my AOL account (yes, AOL…I know, I’m a creature of habit.) My game plan at that point is to ride it out through the weekend, hoping for some response and discussion with Ms. Burke. Imagine my surprise, then, after taking great pains to handle the situation with some sensitivity and not taking it public without giving her the benefit of private discourse, to find my private email to her posted along with her response, complete with a refusal to engage and even an unnecessary F-bomb:

So, now I’m done. Ms. Burke’s experiences with racism in her life do not give her a free pass to irresponsibly toss around character-damaging claims of such—no more than my experiences with homophobia give me a free pass to recklessly level such claims against someone. I’ve found my interactions with her in that thread from six years ago and have screenshot them with my iPhone for all to see. As far as the rest of the thread, since she’s so adamant and sure of who/what/where/when from a single interaction in 2013, then she doesn’t need me to post anything else. It’s not my FB page and I’m not going to presumptively do so. My words to her speak for themselves and can be in no way construed as “racist.” There were 16 other people in that thread, at least one of whom is a quite well-known and well-regarded author, yet only three gay men (one of whom wasn’t even in the thread) are singled out.

As I said last evening on my FB page, I will harbor no lasting ill-will toward this woman. I couldn't imagine for a moment what it's like to walk in the shoes of a black woman, no more than others could imagine what it's like to walk in the shoes of a gay man who came of age during the AIDS epidemic. But my empathy for her doesn't give her a free pass to spew false memories. I will not allow anyone to level such a serious charge as racism at me with no proof and (in their own words) a "six-year memory lapse" without rebuttal, which is what I have tried to do here.

Let the hivemind do what they will. I’m not responsible for what others who don’t know me think. I’m responsible only for my own actions and words—and I would never speak derogatorily to a woman of color in racial terms like the vague ones ascribed to me by someone I have no connection to. Those who know me know that I’m the first with an apology if I’ve screwed up, the type of person who tries to evolve as a person. But I can’t—and won’t—apologize for something that I simply didn’t do to make someone else feel better. I meant what I said in my FB posting and comments yesterday:

"There is enough hatred in the world without me unknowingly contributing to it with some offhanded comment I may have made either in ignorance or one that was misinterpreted within the discussion. In either case, or even if she has incorrectly ascribed to me a comment I never made, I would very much like to set the record straight on this. Regardless, this incident made her feel terrible at the time, and for that I have tremendous sorrow for the pain it caused her." 

I have done and said all I can and am going to with regard to this matter—the public record of what I actually said, how I tried to handle the situation, and this blog post will either suffice or it won't. I would ask that none of my friends (real-life and virtual alike) make any derogatory comments about Ms. Burke or this situation. Any such comments will be deleted without hesitation. Time for self-care and healing.


Addendum to my original post:

I was alerted by more than one friend and colleague that there was something wrong with the formatting of the post on Thursday and, depending upon what device you were attempting to read it, it either appeared blank except for the four photos of the screenshots or you had to highlight the blank areas to read the text. I had written this on two different laptops and then copied/pasted it into the "compose" mode of my blogging platform, which did something wonky to the formatting. I took the post offline last night and have attempted to fix the issue by switching to HTML mode, but (admittedly) I'm not great with HTML code so apologies if anyone is still having difficulty reading this. The web version should now appear with white font against a blue background; the reader view (if reading from an iPhone) should be black text against a white background. My apologies for the technical issues.

Since originally posting this, Michael Rowe has responded on his own blog, far more eloquently than I. I think both Mr. Rowe's account (including an in-person apology he made to Ms. Burke that same year and a corroboration of what I said above that at no time in the offending FB post was the "n" word directed at, used with regard to, or about Ms. Burke or anyone else nor was it used "at least 50 times" as originally alleged) and Ms. Burke's response add much-needed clarification and texture to the original claims still circulating. I encourage you to read both.

I've also disabled comments on this post. After receiving notification that there were comments awaiting moderation, I read two—the first I will address below. The second was from an anonymous user that read (and I quote verbatim, poor grammar included): "Its amazing in this day and age that an unclean faggot like you would call a woc a n****r [the poster spells out the word]. Your Aids diseased ass should know better." I deleted all comments after that, having no desire to absorb that kind of uncalled for vitriol.

The other comment I did read came from a woman named Ann, and I apologize for not having noted her surname before deleting all the comments—no disrespect intended. She mentioned my use of the phrase "there is not a racist bone in my body" that I used in a FB post, which I had briefly made public but returned to my standard private because I didn't want to create an online environment where my FB friends felt the need to defend me and, thus, fanning more flames of animosity. As I said above, my intention this entire time since first reading Ms. Burke's allegations was to handle the matter respectfully with the person who made them. Ann rightly pointed out to me the problematic nature of that statement, which negates the fact that all of us are influenced by the racism that permeates our culture and to make such a statement denotes that I've somehow managed to avoid all cultural influences. I humbly concede that point and will refrain from using that phrase again.

As I sit and write this addendum late into the night, it is clear to me that my participation in Mr. Rowe's FB thread of 2013 deeply offended and hurt Ms. Burke—regardless of what I actually wrote then and or feel about it viewing those three interactions now. She was hurt by the thread and my participation in it, and for that I am unequivocally sorry and apologize. There is just too much hurt and pain out in the world, and I regret that I played any part in adding to it. I also know that words are cheap and actions matter so there are two things that I would offer, in apology, to Ms. Burke as an olive branch: First, that I will earnestly try to consider my responses in sensitive cultural matters such as the one we engaged in together back in 2013 and weighing the importance of needing to make a point in the larger context of how someone might feel at that time. Second, I will make a donation to any charitable cause of Ms. Burke's choosing as a small reparation for the hurt my participation in this has caused her. Although she has asked that I not contact her privately—a request I will respect—she has my contact information and is welcome to email me the name of the charity of her choosing. If she prefers not to designate a specific charity, I will wait one week from today and then choose one myself and make a donation in her name.

Final addendum to original post (posted 11-15-19):

Last week, I committed to making a good-faith attempt to make a gesture of reparation to Ms. Burke for my participation in a FB thread in 2013 that caused her much hurt by donating to a charity of her choosing. Today marks one week since that pubic commitment. In the absence of a charity designated by Ms. Burke herself, I've opted to donate in her honor to the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice. With a mission to "address the lack of funding, specifically for lesbians and women of color," the foundation awards a variety of grants to individuals and groups, much of it in the world of the arts. The foundation has an overall score of 93.72 and four-star rating from Charity Navigator. Although this small gesture does not negate or erase the anguish Ms. Burke felt in 2013 and continues to feel today, I hope this action is viewed as a respectful attempt to redress a painful and deeply-regretted occurrence that caused someone unnecessary offense and distress.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Hilarity and Murder Afoot in ‘Knives Out’

There is a sweet spot where the classic whodunit (think: Deathtrap or Gosford Park or The Cat and the Canary or Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap) meets comedy (think: Murder by Death or Clue or Private Eyes). And it’s writer-director Rian Johnson’s great affection for and shrewd understanding of that intersection between murder and laughter where audiences will find him in his cinematic wheelhouse, as evidenced by the brilliant Knives Out.

On the morning following his 85th birthday celebration, bestselling mystery writer Harlan Thrombey is found dead in his study—the victim of a seemingly self-inflicted throat slashing. But when renowned,  idiosyncratic private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) shows up on the scene, it’s quickly established that he suspects foul play, with each member of the immediate—and pathologically dysfunctional—Thrombey family and household staff suspect in his murder. Flanked by local law enforcement—the straight-shooting Lieutenant Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan)—Blanc questions each member of the Thrombey clan, during which  murderous motivations aplenty come to light as each spins a web of self-serving lies. Like a well-worn Agatha Christie paperback, clues are uncovered, red herrings misdirect, and the suspect list grows—then narrows—then grows again, with Johnson skillfully turning narrative tables before the big drawing room denouement.

The acting ensemble—a virtual who’s who of several generations of reputable Hollywood actors—includes Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Ana de Armas, Katherine Langford, Riki Lindhome, Jaeden Martell, and the venerable Christopher Plummer, who—despite his early demise—has much to do in the film’s ample flashbacks. Even veteran character actors K Callan and M. Emmet Walsh show up for memorable bit parts, as does actor-director-puppet voice actor Frank Oz in the role of Harlan’s attorney. It’s enormous fun to watch these actors let loose onscreen with each other as evidenced to no greater effect than the “Eat Shit” scene that went viral from the film’s first trailer.

Each member of the cast is in top form—thanks in large part to Johnson’s astute ability to write good characters and snappy dialogue. Craig and de Armas are, arguably, the film’s leads and do much of the heavy lifting, their characters and performances serving as nice contrasts to each other. Craig is all wild-eyed energy and an oversized southern drawl—think a chicken-fried facsimile of Christie’s Hercule Poirot—while de Armas earnestly plays the more subdued moral center of the film as Marta, Harlan’s doe-eyed private nurse and surprising confidant. The rest of the cast, although largely relegated to the kind of supporting roles common to the ensemble whodunit, are each put to good use, with Johnson giving every single actor in his troupe some juicy material to work with—two, in particular.

Evans—in a nice change of pace from the do-gooder action hero roles that have largely defined his career in recent years—goes full-tilt rogue as Harlan’s trust-fund grandson, Ransom. He’s smarmy and snarky, swaggering and sneering throughout the film with gleeful abandon. Curtis also gets to flex her acting range nicely as Harlan’s eldest child, Linda, a driven real estate mogul who envisions herself as family matriarch in the wake of her father’s passing. She’s all business—crisp, and cutting right to the point—yet Curtis manages to use the character’s no-bullshit gravitas to great comedic effect, reminding audiences that she’s a deft comedienne who knows how to deliver a funny line. I’m also going to give a well-deserved shout-out here to Segan, who really proves himself to be a scene-stealer several times in the film, with genuinely funny outbursts that find his giddy superfan to the late mystery writer extraordinaire at odds with the dignified reserve required of his occupation.

From the opening scene—a wide shot of Thrombey’s stately (if not slightly sinister) mansion nestled in an autumnal-hued wooded countryside setting that’s accompanied by Nathan Johnson’s dramatic orchestral score—Johnson aims for a grandiose and archetypal cinematic composition. Setting is integral to Johnson’s visual storytelling, with the Thrombey family mansion dripping in an old-world New England neo-gothic aesthetic that’s almost a character onto itself. “The guy practically lives in a Clue board,” observes Stanfield’s Detective Elliot at one point in the film. Indeed, the house is cluttered with old-fashioned flamboyances like antique dolls and overstuffed furniture, ornate moldings and stained glass windows, and a writer’s study on the attic floor that will make any author—established or aspiring—drool. There’s even a spectacular chair made of knives that not only illustrates the film’s title but perhaps not-so-subtly suggests the deadly power grab at play à la Game of Thrones. Hats off to production designer David Crank, aided to immeasurable extent by David Schlesinger’s impeccable set décor, for a set design that really pops and saturates the film with much of its visual ambiance.

But the biggest star of Knives Out is Johnson’s masterful, slyly subversive script, which transcends the typical wink-wink, slapstick genre spoof. It’s fiendishly funny while remaining true to its classical drawing-room mystery roots, with a cunning labyrinth of a plot that never weighs it down or insults the audience’s ability to keep up. Johnson expertly toys with his audience’s narrative expectations—especially in the film’s second act when the reading of Harlan’s will drops a bombshell and the proverbial knives come out—allowing him an opportunity to layer in some razor-sharp commentary on upper-class entitlement and Trumpian politics. In one of the film’s funnier satiric threads, for example, the Thrombeys inability to remember Marta’s Latin American country of origin—despite their demonstrative declarations that she’s a member of the family—cuts to the bone of current national discourse on immigration. That Johnson’s able to take such shrewd political potshots without the heavy-handedness that might otherwise detract from the simple pleasures of the film’s popcorn entertainment pedigree is the true masterstroke of Knives Out.

The game is afoot, dear readers, and in Knives Out it’s best to surrender to being a pawn masterfully manipulated by Johnson’s ingenuity and adept juggling of his byzantine plot. By removing the stodgy seriousness of the standard whodunit without sacrificing its familiar conventions, he repositions and deconstructs the genre without descending into parody or losing sight of the source material that inspired this supersized romp. In the end, though, Johnson proves that people—like a poison-filled syringe—can be just as toxic.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

'Self' Progress: First-Quarter Report

Those of you who follow me on social media know that every year—at least for the past few years—I compose an annual New Year’s themed blog post in which I lay out my resolutions for the coming year. Why do I do this? Mainly, to hold myself accountable in the public square. I’ve learned over the years that resolutions kept to oneself are easier to take shortcuts around, gloss over, or just conveniently forget altogether. Each year, I establish at least three goals, laid out within the holistic framework of mind, body, and soul. This year’s post can be found here.

For this year’s mind-centric resolution, I set out to drastically limit political postings to my Facebook wall and have tried to refrain from commenting on political threads elsewhere. Three months in to 2019, and I’d deem progress on this goal well underway. One scroll through my social media feeds and you’ll see a tremendous (dare I say, “bigly”?) reduction in the number of posts about our current administration. Yes, there are a few—times when I simply can’t contain the myriad thoughts that pour out of my mind onto the keyboard, times when I feel like I really have something of value to add to the conversation. And, yes, I’ve succumbed to the demonic pull of commenting on others’ political posts on occasion, try as I might not to. But, overall, vast improvement noted in this area. I’ve also continued the strides made in the year-prior’s slate of resolutions, continuing to limit my news sources, filtering out biased sources in favor of more unbiased, legitimate ones.

After tanking both of my 2018 body-related resolutions—re-gaining forty of the fifty pounds lost in 2017 and failing miserably to decrease my psychological reliance on Starbucks coffee—I’m proud to say that Stella’s got her groove back in this area. After a shaky start in January, I’ve now dramatically decreased my Starbucks consumption—the iced Cinnamon Dolce latte and accursed bacon, egg, and gouda breakfast sandwich were my mainstays—to once per week, down from daily. I went cold turkey, suffered through the psychological withdrawal and am now no longer dependent on that daily fix. In addition, after failing last year to recalibrate following Oprah’s tinkering with the Weight Watchers’ successful SmartPoints program by adding the nonsensical “freestyle” element, I’ve finally found my way through the program’s changes and lost just over 15 pounds over this first quarter (and, really, more like since the middle of February when I finally re-grouped enough and got serious). That puts me at 25% of my 60-pound year-end goal—exactly where I should be. More than enough to declare first-quarter success on my “body” goals for 2019!

Lastly, regarding those soul/spirit-centric goals I’ve set for myself in 2019, I’m also off to a solid start there as well. I’ve already accomplished my priority this year: Completion of my first poetry collection(!). While it resides with a select handful of beta readers who I trust to offer unflinching feedback, I will next begin to scout out an appropriate publishing home for it. I will now commence completion of that handful of unfinished short stories I mentioned in my New Year’s post and find fitting homes for those while I await word on the one that was submitted to a very cool themed anthology earlier in the year. I also set out to perform more acts of kindness this year, with a goal of performing one random act of charity/kindness per month. Although the acts have been small, I’ve kept kindness on my mind through the first three months of the year—and will continue to do so. Good progress on the “soul” goals!

So, enough about me. How are YOU doing on your goals for 2019?

Friday, March 8, 2019

Revisiting 'Amityville'

Among the sequel craze that started in the 1980s with Halloween and Friday the 13th, many might be surprised to learn that the modern-day horror film franchise with the most films to its name is The Amityville Horror. With a canon of 21 associated films (including sequels, reboots, and in-name-only knockoffs), The Amityville Horror franchise has eclipsed both Halloween (with 11) and Friday the 13th (with 12).
So it might come as a bit of a surprise when noted genre veteran Daniel Farrands—whose credits include screenplays for Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers and the 2007 adaptation of Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door, directorial work on a number of notable documentary features on film franchises like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, and Friday the 13th, and numerous producer gigs—would mine the Amityville archives for his feature film directorial debut.
The Amityville Murders, which Farrands also wrote and produced, goes back to the real-life events that led to the original horror: The six gunshot murders at 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville, carried out by Ronald DeFeo on the night of November 13th, 1974. DeFeo, in court testimony, claimed that voices coming from within the house drove him to kill every member of his immediate family. Although DeFeo was sentenced to (and remains in) prison, a mythos developed around the house itself when the Lutz family, who moved into the titular residence in late 1975, fled after less than a month because of the alleged supernatural events that served as the source material for Jay Anson’s bestselling 1977 book of the same name, which was based on about 45 hours of tape-recorded recollections from the Lutz family. The book became the ’79 film starring James Brolin, Margot Kidder, and Rod Steiger that went on to gross $86.4 million on a $4.7 million budget. In one of the longest-running acts of source material cannibalism, The Amityville Horror story has been artistically excavated, twisted and reconfigured, retold, and expanded upon for nearly four decades—with varying results.
Enter Farrands. Wisely, he opts to return to the scene of the crime—literally and creatively. Rather than add to the convoluted Amityville mythos, he chooses to revisit the story of Ronald DeFeo in what amounts to a proper prequel to the ’79 film. Diehard Amityville aficionados will note that 1982’s Amityville II: The Possession also attempted to loosely prequelize the pre-Lutz events, but Farrands’ outing is a more faithful retelling, coated with a nice period piece sheen.
The 1974 DeFeo’s are a suburban Long Island family whose outward picture-postcard success belies the dysfunction within. Patriarch Ronnie (an excellent Paul Ben-Victor) is the quintessential abusive husband and father, offering intimidation and beatings in private and paternal hugs in public. Wife and mother Louise (Diane Franklin) is that typical abused spouse who walks a fine line between trying to keep Ronnie’s rage at bay while facilitating some semblance of normalcy for her children. Eldest son Ronald (nicknamed “Butch”) is a directionless slacker and drug user while eldest daughter Dawn (Chelsea Ricketts) is smart, pretty, and protective of her older brother. There are three other siblings—Alison, Marc, and Jody—but they’re largely relegated to the periphery here, with Farrands choosing to focus his narrative on the DeFeo parents and their two oldest offspring.
Farrands spends time painting his cinematic picture of the DeFeo’s and their dysfunction—from Ronnie’s shady mafia dealings to Ronald Jr’s drug use and the especially volatile relationship between the two. At some point early on, both Lainie Kazan and Burt Young (who, in a nice wink to franchise fans, was also in Amityville 2 with Franklin) show up as Louise’s parents—with grandpa Brigante gifting Ronald and Dawn new cars on their shared birthday and Nona getting her hackles up when Louise casually mentions a possible West Coast relocation. “You’re going to sell my house?” she asks, practically drooling ill-omen. These early scenes are outstanding, even if the Long Island accents are a tad too exaggerated and the family’s Italian-Americanness bordering on caricature at times.
It’s revealed that Ronald Jr. and Dawn also mess around with the occult down in a little basement crawlspace with red cinderblock walls (aka the infamous “Red Room”). At some point, the dark forces within the house (it’s purported to be built upon land where the local Shinnecock Indian tribe had once abandoned their mentally ill and dying, an idea rejected by local Native American leaders) start their whispering through the walls and take possession of Ronald Jr. that culminates in the murders. The supernatural foreplay is effective although most of the visuals and set pieces will ring familiar to anyone who’s seen a Paranormal Activity film. Recycled but competent scares abound as the tension escalates.
Overall, The Amityville Murders hits its marks. Caveat: I’ve not seen a single Amityville film since the three-dimensional third so I may not be as jaded or franchise-weary as many reviewers seem to be. Farrands’s direction is solid, his pacing tight, and he really knows how to strikingly frame his shots. He also gets some major props for giving Diane Franklin a role befitting her talent. She’s been too-long relegated to shorts and subpar material in recent years for an actress of her stature and talent.
The standout here is John Robinson who does most of the film’s heavy lifting as Ronald Jr. He convincingly portrays a man slipping into madness, seamlessly shifting from anger and rage to vulnerability and melancholy with all the requisite raw emotion. It’s actually in considering Robinson’s performance where one might realize that Farrands missed a golden opportunity to muddy the waters a bit and aim higher with his franchise contribution. Instead of presenting the audience with a predetermined supernatural origin to Ronald Jr’s slip down the rabbit hole, layer in some ambiguity to suggest it might have been the drugs or PTSD from years of mental and physical abuse or even an undiagnosed mental illness like schizophrenia (the onset of which would correspond with the character’s age)—perhaps a combination of all these internal and external factors. When you make a movie based on real-life events and your audience knows the story’s ending from the outset, you need something else to make your mark. Leaving the audience pondering—and ultimately deciding for themselves—the origin of Ronald DeFeo’s eventual murderous snap would have added a decidedly cerebral element that would have elevated The Amityville Murders beyond the limits of its well-trodden zip code.