Sunday, October 16, 2016
If you're a writer, you're probably conscious of any number of words whose definition you basically know, but which you don't quite feel comfortable using in your own writing because there's that small part of you that doubts your nuanced understanding of the word.
One recent example of that for me is "glib." When I hear the word in context I basically know what it means, and it's a word I tend to like. However, when the opportunity arises to use it myself, I shy away, because of some lingering uncertainty that I'll be using it correctly. Well, I kind of got over it this week when I used the word in my review of Cafe Society, perhaps because I used it in a broader sense and talked about something that was not glib rather than something that was. If you're interested to see if I actually used it correctly, check out my review here, but either way, it felt like something of a watershed moment for me. (So, keep it to yourself! Heh.)
I may not have been as conscious of my lack of comfort with the word "baroque," but as soon as I heard it in a podcast on Friday, I mentally added it to that list. Great word; sort of know what it means; unsure about using it myself.
After watching Crimson Peak on Saturday night, I think I'm good with baroque now too.
It was my first "horror movie" for October, about two weeks out from Halloween. I put "horror movie" in quotes because those who defend the movie claim that we were misled by what it was supposed to be, and it's more like a gothic romance than a horror. After watching it, though, I don't really understand anything about the perspective of "those who defend the movie."
The dictionary definition of "baroque" is as follows:
"Relating to or denoting a style of European architecture, music, and art of the 17th and 18th centuries that followed Mannerism and is characterized by ornate detail. In architecture the period is exemplified by the palace of Versailles and by the work of Wren in England. Major composers include Vivaldi, Bach, and Handel; Caravaggio and Rubens are important baroque artists."
Definitions like this drive me a bit crazy. I'm a guy who likes to follow recipes to a T when I am cooking, so similarly, I worry about using a word like "baroque" unless I can be 100% sure that the criteria outlined in this word's "recipe," so to speak, are being met. But the word does cast a fairly wide net in what it can relate to, and it's the "characterized by ornate detail" part of the word that speaks to the way we should use it in a general sense. Though I think art that evokes that period was the way the guy was using it in the podcast (about a movie that I would not otherwise characterize as baroque -- maybe he was using it wrong?).
Crimson Peak is strangled by its use of the baroque. This movie has ornateness upon ornateness, but it's shot by Dan Laustsen in such a stagy way (with such oddly poor lighting) that it dies up there on the screen. It feels two-dimensional, digital. Perhaps some of the baroque central mansion, with its hole in the roof letting a constant snowfall through, is actually digital, which is why it looks so bad. Actually, no -- Guillermo del Toro built a mansion just for the occasion, I'm reading.
What's especially strange about the strained and stilted atmosphere of this movie is that I normally love baroque movies. I tend to gravitate toward period pieces, and I've even given my own name to movies featuring the type of production design we find in Crimson Peak -- I call them "wax stamp movies." The name is inspired by the appearance of a letter sealed by a wax stamp, and one such letter does indeed appear in Crimson Peak. That gave me hope, but the hope was soon dashed.
"Baroque" would probably extend to the much-criticized overblown acting style of Jessica Chastain in the movie, as well. And though someone really should have reined her in, Mia Wasikowska is also pretty bad here too. Her lack of agency seemed really disturbing and made it impossible to cheer on her character. But before you think I only have a problem with the women in this movie, I'll say that del Toro really needs to stop throwing work to the bland Charlie Hunnam. Tom Hiddleston probably acquits himself best in the cast, as you might expect.
Before this post just devolves into a spray gun approach to random criticisms of the movie -- of which there are many -- I'll try to get myself back on track.
If this were just a boring, over-long ghost story it might be one thing. But the rococo stylings of this movie just bludgeon you, making what could have been a neutral experience actively negative. It manages to be both overwrought and flat at the same time. Some achievement.
When I was a radio DJ back in college, we played a series of public service announcements about seatbelt safety that consisted of comedic repartees between two crash test dummies. I still remember that in one of them, there was an exchange about architecture where one of them says "Is it baroque?" And the other says "I don't know, did you ba-reak it?"
Crimson Peak is baroque-en indeed.