In an oft-told anecdote, Stanley Kubrick calls Stephen King late at night, out of the blue, to gab about ghosts. At some point in the conversation, Kubrick wonders if ghost stories, scary though they can be, aren't essentially optimistic. To Kubrick, the reality of a ghost implies the reality of an afterlife. By extension, the way at looking at the supernatural gives a sort of comforting logic to the possibly-unnerving illogical.

In this passing observation, Kubrick sort of inadvertently puts his finger on and fiddles with the linchpin of horror: we're scared by what we don't fully understand or perceive, but when we tell stories about these things we risk improving understanding and perception, diluting the fear. The problem persists: how do we talk about and describe something mysterious without demystifying it? How do we talk about ghosts without talking about the afterlife?

The yarns of old had it figured out. Take, for instance, the story of Hansel and Gretal. When those squirts wander out into the woods, it's taken for granted that a witch lives out there. Never mind why the witch lives there, she just does. Narratively speaking, this puts a lot of faith in the audience – a faith that's dwindling more and more – that something horrible is just there and has always been there. In the storytelling landscape we live in now, however, an entire movie would be dedicated to that witch's backstory. How she became a witch, how she came to live in the woods, how she acquired a taste for children. You could even devote a movie to the history of the woods. This love of unraveling backstory has become the bane of horror and suspense movies because all the mystery, and therefore all the threat, inevitably gets wrung out. 

As a horror or suspense movie The Babadook is good in a way that shines a light on why its contemporaries are so bad.

For this reason, The Babadook will be inevitably frustrating to fans of mainstream horror, but this is looking at it through the lens of the past thirty years of decreasingly scary scary movies. We're inoculated to movies where the source of fear has franchise in mind, and so inevitably becomes elaborate and awkward and thin, shining light on all the crannies where the legitimately frightening stuff hides. But Mister Babadook hovers in that ill-lit, classic spot between a literal and a psychological presence. 

Coming out of Australia, The Babadook is an objectively slight movie with an objectively big feel. Amelia is the widowed mother of Sam, an odd seven-year-old with an interest in magic and homemade self-defense weapons. He has the devotion of a knight, charged with protecting his mother. From what exactly, we don't know. On the surface, it would seem Sam is adopting the Man of the House roll on his lost father's behalf. What he's protecting against, however, becomes a bit more specific after an ashen pop-up bedtime book, Mister Babadook, pops up out of nowhere.

After the book appears – and then re-appears – Amelia and Sam's reality takes a pounding. But what is Mister Babadook, and where did book – as an object, it seemingly lets him into this world – come from? The thing's origins and intentions are never clear and its the fact that its reality is both obvious and obscure that makes it a palpable threat. Is this an actual, sinister being, or the psycological manifestation of inchoate grief? There's no easy answer. And this lack of easy answers sets The Babadook apart. Monsters become less scary the more literal they become. The more they become included in reality, the more they have to adhere to a logic. And logic is rarely scary.

At least anecdotally, The Babadook shares some commonalities with Kubrick's The Shining. For what's supposed to be ghost story, there are not clear ghosts in Kubrick's film. Almost – stress that almost – nothing happens that can't be explained by Jack's delusions. So too in The Babadook, what is supernatural and what is psychological is never clear. Kubrick's question to King can be read as a sort of an insult. In King's novel, the supernatural is literal – as dark as it might be, it's finally optimistic in Kubrick's terms. But telling that story with no certainty of ghosts dials up the tension and the horror, making possible the much more troubling story of a father twisted enough by his own mind that he'd slay his family. With a similar vagueness, The Babadook manages a similar, rare horror.



He pulls off such a sturdy performance in Foxcatcher that it seems unfair to compare Steve Carrell's role as John Eleuthère du Pont (ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist) to his character in The Office, Michael Gary Scott. But thoughts of the hapless manager of Dunder Mifflin's Scranton branch kept ghosting up while watching Bennett Miller's new film. The connection was cemented by one quote from Foxcatcher Wrestler Dan Mayo, interviewed on TV just after du Pont surrendered to police in 1996. "He was strange in some ways," says Mayo, "but he had such a good heart and he meant well, that you dealt with his different ways of dealing with things." Such a line feels like it could have easily come out of a talking head describing Michael Scott on The Office.

Both men fancy themselves leaders of men, use the rhetoric of inspiration, but are not themselves inspirational. They have nothing practical to impart, and ultimately feed off the effort and success of others and congratulate themselves by association. They clank around in the armor of platitudes, and one wonders what kind of spindley frailty is inside. The inner person found in The Office is ultimately endearing and redemptive; the occupant found in Foxcatcher is... Well, you'll have to see the movie.

Of course du Pont was a real man, and it's impossible to know the definitive guts of a human. But we know the outside, and can guess some at the inside. The du Ponts were old money, American royalty - "A Dynasty of Wealth and Power" - who made their fortune with gunpowder and kept the wealth in one place by arranging marriages between cousins. John du Pont was an heir to that wealth and power. His greatest achievement in life - other than penning a few bird books - was being born into that family.

He knows what achievement looks and sounds like, but no idea how to build it from the ground up. This is baldly obvious when du Pont takes on a gold medal-winning wrestler, Mark Schultz. A moving meat machine - played quietly by Channing Tatum - du Pont has no idea how to pilot Schultz. It's Mark's brother David - played so wonderfully and kindly by Mark Ruffalo - who has the learned, caring sensitivity to guide and inform him. Du Pont's attempts are so clueless but performed with such confidence that he can - like Michael Scott - pass as absurd, harmless, and - in the face of better judgement - charming.

When asked at the Film Society of Lincoln Centre what attracted him to the material, writer and director Bennett Miller said "I thought it was funny. Seriously... It was funny, except the outcome was horrible."

And this is the ongoing tension in Foxcatcher, the pall that darkens the large absurdity of a character like John du Pont, and the world and reality he builds around him at Foxcatcher Farm. Whether or not he's unsound, du Pont certainly doesn't know what he's doing, only how to try and make it seem, with speeches, with uniforms, like he knows what he's doing. "What does he get out of this?" David asks as he finds out about this blooming mentorship. Not sure about it himself, Mark responds cluelessly, but confidently: "America. Winning."

In my review of the exceptional documentary The Overnighters, I touched on the idea of American exceptionalism, that belief that Americans are inherently blessed, are predisposed for success. Arguably, there are two types of exceptionalism: passive and active. Active exceptionalism is fueled by the belief that America is blessed, but acknowledges that work is still required, that greatness needs to be renewed constantly. But a person who is passively Exceptional needs only to exist to be great. Their exceptionalism is inherited, victory is certain. 

When a person like du Pont, a proponent of passive exceptionalism, is forced to live in a reality that doesn't care about that inheritance, things won't end well. Foxcatcher, like The Overnighters - and like, excuse me, The Office - dwells on the broken promise of achievement that a person thinks was made to them. The chanting of "USA! USA! USA!" that closes Foxcatcher feels as damning as it does celebratory.


The opening shots of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining are majestic and haunting. The camera soars over water and mountain, finding a vein running through that wilderness, spotting a measly yellow VW Bug struggling along that road. A synthed-out Dies Irae ("Day of Wrath") plays and we know, without yet knowing anything, that something terrible will happen to whomever's in that poor Bug. It's a credit sequence, so we don't really question the shot. Most films open with establishing shots that locate their subject and telescope in. This soundtrack and swoop, though, suggest that this is a malevolent POV (point of view). The camera behaves like a bird of prey stalking Jack Torrence, finally taking him as he enters the Overlook hotel.

Of course The Shining has little-to-nothing to do with Birdman. I've just seen Alejandro González Iñárritu's ceaseless stunner the once, and get the feeling that it'll take another few viewings to suitably unpack the thing, bulging as it is with ruminations on celebrity, art, fulfillment, the self, reality. At its core is Riggan Thomson, an actor who made his nut as a superhero before anyone cared about superhero movies. Riggan's washed up and attempting to get people to see him freshly with a stage adaptation of the canonical Raymond Carver story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." At the forefront of Riggan's mind now is his reputation, how he's seen. He may have superpowers and he definitely communicates with his albatross, Birdman.

There are no cuts in Birdman. A shot in a contemporary movie will last a few seconds, and there are thousands of them. Done well, you don't really notice the cuts, they accrue to form a spacial, detailed reality. A shot in Birdman is all of Birdman. Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark is the only film I can think of that is truly done in a single shot film, because of course Birdman's continuity is cheated, à la Rope, though pretty seamlessly. In a century of film, the idea of the cut, the assemblage of reality, has become subliminal. We forget that we're not passively seeing something so much as we're being actively shown something. The frequency of cuts in movies today tells us just how far film has gotten from live theatre.

What cutting also lets us do is be in the moment, but not necessarily of it. However, with a single sustained shot, as with live theatre, we're sort of trapped. One of the reason that I'm having such a problem articulating my reactions to Birdman is there aren't really any moments of pause. It's a difficult film to take notes during. Like live theatre, it doesn't stop moving until it's over. And while early films were often just a wide shot of what's effectively theatre, Birdman is full of close-ups. The actors stress the frame. They feel sometimes like their trapped in the consistent shot. It's live theatre. They can't leave.

There's a duality to live theatre that film doesn't have. With film, you're watching a record that's been severely monkeyed with. These performances happened, a guy cried or a car flipped, but any initial reality ends up being mostly chopped out and reassembled into an experiential fiction. But with live theatre, you're watching something fake and something real all at once. The pretend moment and the actual moment rest on top of one another. Keeping one fluid shot, Birdman - a film very interested in the relationship between performance are reality, character and person - maintains that special tension of the live performance better than anything I've ever seen. It's not really live performance, but it has something of its essence.

Another effect of the cut - the cut to scene coverage, or the cut to an object - is it implies a visual ubiquity. The camera becomes an omniscient 3rd person narrator. But with no cuts, the camera becomes a fixed point of observation. An individual view. The only time we ever really see this POV used in movies is in horror movies, when the omniscient camera briefly enters the killer's view, usually hiding in the bushes. This becomes unsettling because the viewer is now seeing the action from a specific vantage, from a specific character. And if we don't know who's doing the seeing, it's all the more disturbing.

And so it begs the question: who's doing the seeing in Birdman? The camera roams freely through the backstage of the theatre, glommed on to the characters. I want to say it was Roland Barthes that stressed we, as readers, always have to ask who's narrating. In film, the camera is the closest thing there is to a narrator, and so the question becomes ever more pressing as the film goes on. To whom or to what does this single view belong to?

I thought back to that opening helicopter shot in The Shining. How that shot is/has a personality. Of course that shot, that POV, is The Shining. It's the story itself that hunts down and scoops up the characters. A point detractors make about The Shining is that Jack Nicholson is too broad, that there's no descent into madness. But what transition do we need? As soon as the POV gets a bead on the Bug, Jack is trapped in the narrative just as he and his family will become trapped in the Overlook. He becomes an actor forced to play out the same scenario over and over. But the POV is also us, the audience. We trap the family. We wouldn't be watching the movie if we thought it was about a struggling writer who takes his wife and son to hotel for the winter and gets all his work done and has a fun time in the hedge maze. We maybe don't want to see him hack up his family, but we sure came to see him try his best.

 I said before that, with the single camera so close, the characters in Birdman seem trapped. And indeed they are. They're trapped like the Torrence's are. They're trapped in the machinations of a fiction. They're trapped like the titular bit players in Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, they're trapped like "the shadows" of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The characters are trapped in their roles, as the characters are trapped on the stage. As it's we, the audience - gawking at them from our single POV - that cages them, until they've gone through the meat grinder of human drama we came to see. After it's done, after we've left, who knows where they go.