This week, Project Silverscreen is inspired by the video release of Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods. The originally intended subject was Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, but instead of prattling on like I have an inkling of authority on the Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction, this week I focus on satire. It’s pretentious!
“Society is binding,” stoner-philosopher Marty posits to his archetypal friends as their RV rolls toward the Cabin of the titular Woods. “It’s filling in the cracks with concrete.” Like so much of Joss Whedon’s future occult classic, Marty’s reflections double as cushioned jabs at the complacent horror genre. Marty, a soothsaying fool in the Shakespearean sense, is the film’s voice of reason; he’s exhausted by humanity’s tropes and wants to give someone else a shot: “Society needs to crumble. We’re all just too chicken shit to let it.”
Yeah, much of what The Cabin in the Woods has to say about the state of horror echoes the groundwork laid out by 1996’s Scream. Cabin’s creators aren’t regurgitating the same reflexive study for a new generation, though: while The Cabin in the Woods is an affectionate celebration of horror’s history, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s loaded dialogue and blunt metaphors offer a bleak premonition of the genre’s future and present a counterpoint to Marty’s own prescription of complete paradigm shift. The cycle of blood has churned for centuries: interrupting its flow could bring dire consequence. For example, colossal, eldritch hands might erupt from an arcane fissure and seriously devalue your vacation home.
There’s a lot to love about The Cabin in the Woods. Unfortunately, its major twist is also commercial poison. The subtext and sub-terrain that lurks beneath its teen slasher packaging doesn’t translate well to a mass market. Scream, in addition to belonging to a generation of pop culture that was ostensibly more eclectic, had a stylish, sexy aesthetic that practically oozed from its poster, the residue of which would fuel an explosion of video sales, successful sequels and Ghostface masks. The Cabin in the Woods, left to collect dust on the Lionsgate shelf after its wrap in 2009, never had the benefit of shrewd marketing. In addition, its invigorating mélange of ideas can’t be summarized conveniently in a trailer; commercials for the film could only make vague allusions to its depth. One theatrical poster depicts the film as a Rubik’s cube. The Cabin in the Woods has many mysterious cracks on its facade; like a Rubik’s cube, it wouldn’t function without them.
“Filling in the cracks” is also a good way to describe America’s current aversion toward satire. Classically, satire–the boring, words-on-a-page type stuff including Voltaire’s Candide and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, dating all the way back to Petronius’s Satyricon–presents a world of fantasy undermined by the truths of reality. It’s a genre of comedy that’s all about the gaps: what is said and what is meant; the vehicle and the tenor. The Cabin in the Woods is a fun slasher where horror tropes are bandied about like razor blades in a 1970s Halloween bucket; it’s also, like Scream, a study of the genre’s formulaic tendencies; it pecks at the cash-grabbing cynicism of production companies like Lionsgate; and yet, it warns against recklessly abandoning these tested waters, a meditation on the commercial and human ramifications of eschewing the genre’s primal appeal. A considerable portion of Cabin‘s audience will only appreciate the first interpretation; another chunk will write it off entirely and groan that it “isn’t even scary.” When I talk about America’s aversion to satire, it’s that last, prevailing group I’m concerned with. Yeah, I’m talking about stupid people.
But not you, esteemed reader. Them.
So, you shouldn’t take offense to anything I’m about to say. Stupid people are ruining everything I love, including satire, and these are the reasons why:
Stop being so genuine. Sure, you can take everything at face value, say what you mean, act how you want to be treated and be a generally decent dope for the rest of your dim life. I’ll be first in line to steal your wallet and spit in your latté and you can bet I won’t be the last, because humanity is inherently awful. You don’t want spit in your latté? Spit in their latté. You know: Them. Those fucking hipsters that probably drink lattés.
To reflect your new, intellectual lifestyle, you need a new, intellectual pop culture. What better way to simultaneously expose your freshly gnarled core and silence Them into reverent submission than by completely betraying your previous musical tastes in favor of something harder to enjoy? Here’s a quick guide:
- Avoid “hooks” or “choruses” or “melodies.”
- Do you know of anyone who likes this artist or album? Does this artist or album have the capacity to be liked? Avoid.
- Abstract and incoherent lyrics imply that the listener inhabits an elevated mental plane. Imagist Ezra Pound once advised young writers to “go in fear of abstractions;” Ezra Pound doesn’t get your music. Warning: never offer your own interpretation of a song without first receiving and ridiculing another’s.
- Practice these phrases and try them out at the next social gathering:
- “Their new album is shit.”
- “Their old albums were better.”
- “I loved [album title] when it was new.”
Once you’ve calculated your taste, start drafting a new “taste profile” for next week. Avoiding definition is crucial: you are only consistent in your scathing hate for everything else. Don’t worry about contradicting yourself; critical thinkers will be too busy admiring your distracting mustache!
So, you’re a misanthropist now. You’ve extended the same wild scrutiny to every facet of your life and you’re simply miserable. Life has assumed a hoary pallor, alienated friends stare past you in glazed trances and your last living grandparent shuffled into 5 o’clock traffic to end your most recent phone conversation. You wake up at one o’clock PM and start drinking at noon. You spend half your waking hours groping a stolen fabric sample while conversing with an old Hieronymus Bosch poster. You begin to wish you could live inside that world with the other demons, blue skidoo right into its sanguinary hellscape and begin your penitence. You watch season three of Blue’s Clues instead. You won’t stop until you breach the underworld.
In the purgatory of cable (an endless procession of Kitchen Nightmares and Charmed), you see a trailer for a movie. It’s called The Odd Life of Timothy Green and it looks delightful.
The film is about a plant boy who sprouts from the discarded dreams of his barren mother and father. His cherubic smile pierces through your 19-inch TV and cleanses your being of impurity.
As His eyes train directly upon your soul, they twinkle with enough radiant sincerity to dissolve forty thousand civilizations into Nirvana. He whispers the antidote to suffering, but His eyes are deafening. You wonder how light can be so noisome.
The boy is not his own.
You squint. He is hollow. Inside his skull, blazing spiders weave into and out of the blackened husk of a wailing infant. The flames consume their flesh as they consume the infant. Their excrement coats the orphan in new flesh. You blink.
The TV screen’s snow frosts the walls of your apartment. As you rise to your feet, the crunch of a half-eaten churro invigorates. Like an old friend, your bristling cynicism has returned. Timothy Green is cloying bullshit, and everyone needs to know. Quickly wrapping your emaciated, Hanes-draped shape in the nearest Snuggie, you burst into daylight, truth seeping from the taut corners of your elated grin.
Yes, Timothy Green is cloying bullshit contrived by cynical bastards for the sole purpose of robbing a naïve audience desperate for life affirmation. You wouldn’t have it any other way.
Somewhere in California, a single tear navigates the tan crags of Dick’s cheek. The Disney executive exhales wistfully.
That brings me to my third point:
Satire isn’t meant to be universally perceived. Historically, it’s a loophole created to express opinions that you’d never dare to shout from your soapbox. A work can’t be good satire if everyone can parse its meaning. When Mark Twain penned Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it was Huck’s “unsivilized” antics that captured the American audience (composed of both admiring children and disgusted adults), not Clemens’s sly commentary on race, religion, and Southern values. Gulliver’s Travels sailed off the shelves instantly after publication, but not for its critique of humanity: it was adventurous, silly and written as travel literature, a colossally popular genre. Although the savvy reader or viewer may pick up on a comedy’s satirical themes and allegories, most are in it for the poops and farts. Who’s to say which interpretation is more satisfying?
It’s sort of like the fictional country from that book, Utopia: life seems ginchy until you realize everything runs on slavery. A universe of uniformly cynical assholes would be insufferable and just as creatively oppressive as this realm’s infatuation with innocuous schlock like the Timothies Green and Troubles with the Curves. Satire is culture’s big in-joke; it’s okay if you or someone you know isn’t into it. A distaste for satire doesn’t make an individual stupid; in fact, they’re probably more in touch with reality and better equipped to feed and groom themselves. If you are a lover of satire, congratulations: expect to be routinely misunderstood. Don’t sweat it. Just sit back, dim the lights and fire up that Cabin in the Woods commentary track for the third time.
Society will take care of itself.