Wednesday, September 20, 2017

IN-FLIGHT MOVIES: When a Monster Calls

Honestly, it takes a lot for me to sit back and go "Sweet Jesus, that was one hell of a movie." In the good way, I mean. (Well, in a bad way, too -- the Netflix Death Note was really something.) When I'm in a mood to be entertained, I'm easily impressed; I don't demand perfection, depth, wokeness, or mind games. I just want to watch something a bit fun.

A Monster Calls had been on my list for quite some time, having evaded me in cinemas. It's written by Patrick Ness (Whovians will know him as the man behind Class) and features an impressively seasoned cast, including Liam Neeson as the aforementioned Monster. I wasn't sure what to expect. I only knew that, from what little I'd seen, it would likely be a surprisingly intimate movie, despite the presence of a literal giant destructive tree monster.

What I wasn't expecting -- frankly, what I never expect -- was a movie about the language of stories, and how we as humans are story-driven beings. Which is one of the things that resonates most with me in this life.

The Simple Story

Conor is a bullied boy. His mother is terminally ill. He may have to live with his grandmother, who doesn't understand him. His dad's off in California. And he's constantly having terrible nightmares about his mother dying. Everything is awful.

Then, at 12:07, a monstrous tree-beast comes to Conor. Why? To announce four future visits. During each of the first three, the monster will tell him a story. And on the fourth visit, Conor will tell his.

Conor's life goes on, for better or for worse, as he rages and grieves through his family's movements during his mother's hospitalization. The monster makes his visits and tells his stories. Then, as promised, Conor tells his.

That's the movie. Well, it's not the whole movie. We see more of Conor's father. Understand why Conor's a bit upset. Find out more about his relationship with his mother and his grandmother. And, of course, the monster tells his stories.

What struck me most is that the monster could have been extracted from the story and left behind the story of a mourning child attempting to grow up. It was that honest, that grounded. Without the special effects, it could have happened just up the road from any of us. But there would have been so much missing.

The Nature of Stories

We are, as I've said in other projects, creatures of stories. We have stories in our DNA. Despite the presence of imagery peculiar to cultures or families or geography, there are still stories that resonate across the world in times and places where that should be impossible. Every culture's catalog of origin stories can be cross-checked against each other at several key places. Certain folktales and fairy tales turn up in alternate forms in countries that were, at the time, unconnected.

We tell stories for a reason: to understand. Creation myths came about because people wanted to know where we came from and why things were as they were. Detaching ourselves from a hunt for any scientific validity, we can still find common threads in the most ancient stories of the world. Some choose to believe that that's because things happened quite literally as they were written down -- but a fairer explanation would be that the human animal is born with these hopes and fears, just as we're born with arms and legs.

Fairy tales and folktales existed to deal with the human condition. It's why so many stories full of death, deception, and other "adult" matter are directed at children. Whether the tellers intended it or not, they were voicing very uniquely human fears. What if I'm a failure as an adult? How does one find acceptance among others? What do I do when I lose someone? These threads run through all our longest-standing stories.

We're doing it again in modern times, too. Creepypasta, the folklore of the Internet, presents a new storytelling style -- first-person memories of loss, fear, or discovery -- that delve into very liminal and terrifying spaces. But all the ones that last have very similar themes: a loved one slowly changing due to a new obsession, and becoming an inhuman creature as our backs are turned. Unwittingly committing or taking part in heinous crimes because of deception or illness. Seeing something greater and more terrible beyond our everyday life and being powerless to fight it.

The mindset of a generation -- regardless of culture -- can be traced in the stories they produce.

This is a very, very long way of introducing the importance of Liam Neeson's monster in this film, and just how much he truly exists invisibly in our world.

A Healing Tree

In the case of A Monster Calls, we are presented with very specific stories, tailored to a very specific person. They have the nature of fairy tales, but play out more as subverted cautionary tales. The heroes and villains of the Monster's stories seem quite obvious at first glance, but listening through to his coda reveals that our read of his story wasn't quite right at all. More information is offered, expanding on the underlying truth of the otherwise simple story we've just witnessed.

The stories aren't pleasant, and Conor makes no secret of that. Who wants to hear the story of a brave prince who avenged the death of his lover by killing an evil witch, then find out that the prince was the "true" villain of the piece? It isn't until the third story, told in the midst of a public breakdown spurred on by bullies (a popular scene in previews), that Conor simply listens and accepts, allowing himself to related fully to the deuteragonist of the story rather than assign "good" and "bad" titles.

Ness doesn't shy from being very straightforward with the Monster's symbolism: he is a yew tree, a tree traditionally associated with healing. And in the true fashion of someone in need of healing, Conor immediately orders to Monster to fix something else. He, like anyone in a horrid situation, wants the simple fix: undo the thing that is bad so that we don't have to feel pain in the first place.

As the Monster reminds us, "bad" labels aren't so easy to slap on.

Healing Ourselves

If we are quite fortunate, we will never have to live through Conor's trauma. Many of us have, or have lived through something similar. Perhaps something "worse," based on where goalposts are. And in the current climate, Everything Is Terrible and Everyone Is Afraid.

I don't want to give away the ending because it's extremely affecting to see it for oneself -- and the lesson sticks that much harder. But in brief... the healing tree's uncomfortable lesson is that it is a rare situation where you can assign one hero to remove one villain and fix everything. Heroes masquerade as villains. Villains are mistaken for heroes. And both live equally inside our own heads, where we desperately try to fight off the thoughts and feelings we're ashamed of.

It's an easy lesson to get very, very wrong. It's awkwardly simple to turn it into a behest to never take people to task for their wrongdoings because Everyone Goes Through Stuff. Those are the misinterpretations that lead to the horrible after-school specials that say "be nice to bullies, they punch you because they hurt too."

It's impressive to see a writer get this very difficult lesson right: the idea of the good and the bad coexisting in all of us, sometimes visibly, and the need to own up to our capacity for both in order to understand ourselves. Too, the capacity for both to exist simultaneously in others. Bad people can do good things and vice-versa. People can fight against bad and still be bad themselves. And good, decent people can find themselves saddled with terrible thoughts they don't want to admit to, or they attempt to push away rather than address and work through.

If you can watch A Monster Calls, please do at your earliest convenience. It's a beautiful film, surprisingly quiet for a movie with major special effects in it, and has stunning artwork for the story scenes. And if you're a lover of stories -- and what stories mean in our lives -- you'll want to see this very much.
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