The Conversation

Mystery & Misty Halos of Moonshine

I'd wanted to respond to Hayward's and Sexton's thoughts on mystery and horror earlier this week.

Mainly I just want to say I completely agree and nodded vigorously at everything these two guys said. The minute I heard an explanation of Michael psychopathy, for example, I knew that Rob Zombie wasn't quite the fan of Halloween that he claimed to be. I'm not sure how he could have missed the point of Dr. Loomis' mystical explanation of Evil -- the whole point was that here was a doctor, a Man of Science, pronouncing that Michael Moore was beyond science's ability to explain. To turn Moore into an extremely conventional broken-home-sexual-frustration psychopath misses the point of the character. The film was called Halloween -- with all the invocation of dark magic that word implies -- not Psychiatry Appreciation Day.

A book on screenwriting notes that it's often a good idea to leave certain elements to dangle in  movies.   The production head of Twentieth Century Fox ordered that a unexplained, offscreen gunshot be inserted into the sound reel at the end of The French Connection.  What did it mean?  Did something happen we hadn't seen?   He explained it would give people "something to talk about" on the way out to the parking lot.  Hitchcock himself included some elements for the "icebox talk," discussions to take place later while getting food from the refrigerator.*

This sort of thing, just throwing out a question without an answer, relies a bit on the sophistication of the audience to understand that questions are usually more interesting than answers. One of my favorite movie images from my youth was the huge skeleton of some dead land-beast in the sands of Tattooine. No one ever explained what kind of creature this was; no one even verbally acknowledged the bones' existence. Not only did that give us kids something to talk about on the way out to our (parents') cars in the parking lot, but it suggested that the universe we were seeing had more going on in it than just those things strictly necessary for the plot -- that is, it suggested that while we were seeing part of the story's universe, there was a lot going on outside the range of the movie's cameras. A recent movie, Dread -- which was a lot savvier than I expected to be, and a lot savvier than it needed to be -- understood that sometimes explanations just ruin cool stuff.

Early in Heart of Darkness, Conrad notes that the viewpoint character Marlow agreed with this idea:

The yarns of seamen are have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illuminations of moonshine.


* Cf. "fridge logic" -- when an aspect of plot or a commentary on the world is never actually explained in the movie but which hits someone hard later, when they're raiding the fridge.


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