KIN, by Kealan Patrick Burke: The Story After the Story

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With some degree of variation, almost every slasher movie ends with the same scene.  It’s a scene that we’re all too familiar with.  A climactic moment that has been permanently etched upon our collective subconscious.  It’s a a common trope, a sequence that has become so familiar that even those who’ve never watched a horror movie know this scene by heart:

Once the carnage is done and all of her friends have been killed, the lone survivor – always a girl, usually a virgin, usually covered in blood and either sobbing or desensitized – stumbles away from the defeated killers, and she finally escapes from the horrific place she’s been trapped in.

That’s how all slasher stories end. It’s how they always end.  The basic formula has varied little since Tobe Hooper’s classic ending to the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and one of the more recent movies in that franchise – the 2006 prequel, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning – pulled out a surprise ending by deliberately subverting the audience’s familiarity with this famous sequence.  Still, for the most part, slasher movies tend to follow a pretty steady formula.  Sure, sequels happen, but these sequels will usually repeat the same formula with little connection to the prior entry, and usually with a brand new cast of teenagers for the killer/s to slaughter.  Lather with blood, rinse, repeat.

There’s a lot to recommend about Kealan Patrick Burke’s excellent 2012 novel, Kin.  It’s terrifying, moving and uniquely put together, with masterfully-worded prose and a storyline that absorbs the reader’s full attention like a sponge.  But the immediate thing that sets Kin apart, from the very beginning of its opening paragraph, is its take on the famous bloody girl running away sequence.

Unlike most slasher films, which end on this sequence, Kin makes the intriguing choice of setting that sequence at the very beginning. 

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Burke’s novel opens up with Claire Lambert, the only survivor of her friends, who after being tortured by the Merrills – a psychopath family with cannibalistic tendencies, ala Texas Chainsaw‘s Sawyers – escapes from their clutches half-dead, naked and bloody. She stumbles into the road, where she is picked up by a boy and his father – a father all too aware of the potentially dangerous consequences of his actions, but unable not to help. Now, tensions are ramped up. The Merrills know they have to get out of town fast, but first they have to quickly kill anyone who could testify against them.

As all of this goes on, Kin also introduces two parallel storylines that eventually tie into the main narrative. In one, a waitress with a dark past is brought back to her old life by an unexpected visitor. At the same time, a soldier—fresh out of Iraq and plagued by PTSD—finds out this brother was one of the victims of the massacre that Claire escaped from, and he readies himself to engage in a vengeful war against the Merrill family.

Kealan Patrick Burke, author of Kin.

Kealan Patrick Burke, author of Kin.

Kin begins where other stories end—after the slaughter, after the war, after the pain has already been inflicted—and it tackles the questions that any such violent incident would undoubtedly raise.

Seriously, what happens after the girl gets away from the psychopaths? What happens to the homicidal, cannibalistic family that accidentally let her escape, now that she’s surely going to tell the cops? What happens to the girl, who would have to be pretty damn traumatized by this point? What happens to her family, who now has to take care of her? And what happens to the innocent people who picked her up and saved her? If the family wants to get rid of all the evidence, are the father and son also at risk?

By asking these questions and placing this post-slasher scenario inside what is essentially a Southern Gothic novel, Kin brings new depth to a tired genre. It shakes up the format, explores characters that could’ve been stereotypes, and brings a full scope of emotions to the proceedings; yes, this novel is scary and yes, it’s violent, but it’s also a novel that isn’t afraid to create characters that the reader deeply cares about. It’s a book that can both grab your heartstrings and then rip them out in the next moment.

At its core, Burke’s Kin is a novel about the pain, stress, anxiety and devastating grief that follows a traumatic event. It shows what happens after the scars are inflicted, and how the pain of trauma has a residual effect that trickles down through one’s life and impacts one’s loved ones. Every violent action has consequences, and Kin pulls back the curtain on the aftermath.

The Man, the Animal, THE WOLVERINE (2013)

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What kind of man calls himself the Wolverine?  Is he a hero?  A mercenary?  A psychopath?  Is he a diamond in the rough—or do his sins run deep enough that, once his external trappings are removed, the world’s favorite X-man is revealed to be nothing more than an animalistic killer in a hero’s clothes?

These are the questions asked by the surprisingly existential 2013 comic book film, The Wolverine, directed by James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma).  Putting aside much of the futuristic, superpower-heavy, highflying theatrics of previous X-Men films—aside from a new noteworthy action scenes and a sci-fi heavy finale—The Wolverine is, at its core, a character study of its title character.  It’s a film that sets out with the ambitious task of showing us who Logan is, explaining who Logan was, and redefining what Logan can become.

Unlike X-Men Origins: Wolverine, this film isn’t really an X-Men movie; hell, it’s almost a stretch to even call it a superhero movie, and that’s exactly what makes it so intriguing.

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Art by Frank Miller.

Taking inspiration from the classic 1982 Chris Claremont/Frank Miller limited series—often described by fans as “the Japan storyline”—The Wolverine largely moves away from the mutants vs. humans, segregation and anti-prejudice themes that have dominated the X-Men up until this point.  Instead of trying to win the audience with cool mutant cameos, The Wolverine instead puts its focus squarely on Logan.  The film places us in the role of an Anubis, weighing an ostrich feather against Logan’s heavy, heavy heart; it forces us to judge the soul of the man we’ve spent so many movies rooting for, to decide whether this animalistic killer with adamantium claws is really the damaged hero we hope he is—or whether he is a lost cause.

The comic books have often tackled the issue of Wolverine’s morality, most recently in Jason Aaron and Renato Guedes’s Wolverine Goes to Hell.  In fact, it was the aforementioned Claremont/Miller series that first revealed a deeper side to the character.  Before then, the depth of Wolverine’s inner torment—the idea of him being a failed samurai, instead of just a scrappy antihero—had never been fully examined.  However, The Wolverine marks the first time that this issue has been explored on film, other than occasional hints of it in X2: X-Men United.

Who is Logan?  Does he have any honor?  What drives him?  What defines him?

Art by John Cassaday.

Art by John Cassaday.

Over the course of the last decade, Wolverine has become one of the most popular comic book characters of all time—and this has resulted in a certain level of overexposure, which in turn has led to him often being written incorrectly.  To understand the complexity of Wolverine’s character—to grasp what turned this feral wild man into the breakout star of the X-Men franchise—it’s important to get away from any misinterpretations and go back to the beginning.   The first thing to understand about Wolverine is that he’s not in any way the archetypical action hero that his critics might try to pin him as.  He’s also not the stereotypical gruff, angry badass with a heart of gold, who always has a plan, and always gets the job done.

No, at his core, what makes Logan so interesting is that he’s a failure.

The original teaser poster for X-Men (2000).

The original teaser poster for X-Men (2000).

Yes, a failure.  This is a man who, in a lifetime that spans over a hundred years, has failed at essentially everything he’s ever set out to do.  Almost every woman he’s ever loved, from Rose to Silver Fox to Jean, has died a violent death.  He’s a man who desperately needs to have a purpose, a man who has a clear idea of the noble figure he wants to become, but who is continually overwhelmed by his base urges.  He’s a man who wants to escape from the senseless violence that has always defined his life, but whose bestial instincts are so powerful that he’s never been able to overcome them, no matter how hard he tries.  Wolverine can never quite expel his violent tendencies, he can only direct them at the right people.  The Weapon X project—the terrible science experiment that turned him into a living weapon—was merely the tip of the iceberg.

This is the ultimate tragedy of the character, his terrible Achilles Heel, and the very essence of what makes us root for him.  Wolverine, when written correctly, is not the unemotional, brutish, arrogant powerhouse that critics often try to portray him as—if anything, he’s exactly the opposite.  Logan is a deeply vulnerable, highly passionate creature, a traumatized loner who struggles to balance the terrifying rage inside him with his deep desire to do good in the world, and to help others.  He knows that he’s a failure, and his efforts to find purpose (and momentary happiness) in a harsh world form the backbone of Wolverine’s best stories.

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The cage fight scene in the first X-Men movie—the sequence that introduced Hugh Jackman’s Logan to the world—is a beautiful illustration of the character’s flawed nature.  In that scene, we’re shown a powerful, fiercely strong-willed man, wasting his life away in meaningless bar fights against truckers he could trounce in a heartbeat—and yet, he doesn’t pop his claws.

In The Wolverine, James Mangold displays a clear desire to go back to that Logan—to take us back to the man we saw in that cage.  It’s no coincidence that one of Logan’s first scenes is, once again, a bar fight.  Comparing the meaningless cage battle in X-Men with the driven, angry bar fight in The Wolverine—a fight that Logan initiates out of loyalty to a senselessly slaughtered grizzly bear—the audience is shown just how much Logan has changed since that time…but also how, even after his time in the X-Men, the same demons continue to haunt him.

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The Wolverine wants us to reexamine everything we think we know about Logan.  To achieve this ambitious look into Wolverine’s core, Mangold’s film essentially puts Logan on the operating table, cuts him open, and then removes every trait we normally associate with the character.  The idea here is to get at the truth of who Wolverine is, beyond the more materialistic aspects we generally identify him with.

So, what does this mean?  Put it this way—in The Wolverine, Logan’s status as an X-Man is gone, past history; evidently, the end of X-Men: The Last Stand left Logan a little bit of a wreck, and he’s suffered from nightmare after nightmare of Jean Grey—the woman he loved, the woman he killed in order to save the world—ever since.

What else?  Well, how about his distinctive hairstyle? That’s gone, too, replaced by long hair and a beard—though the classic hairstyle does return once he gets to Japan.  His costume?  Gone, and so is the familiar leather jacket that he’s worn ever since his first film appearance in 2000. But these things are minor points, overall.  Where The Wolverine really finds its voice—where it really cuts into Logan’s flesh like a carving knife—is when it takes away the one thing that has, until this point, defined Wolverine more than almost anything else.  The one thing that has always made Wolverine such a force to be reckoned with:

His immortality.

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The fact that the film tackles this issue is truly commendable; in the comics of the last decade or so, Wolverine’s “advanced healing” ability has often been over-exaggerated, used as a sort of deus ex machina to get him out of any tight situation.  But this film wisely steers away from that familiar course.  Instead, it’s brave enough to show us the downside.

See, here’s the thing that’s easy to forget; while healing from any injury might be a neat little trick to pull out in a fight, the whole “never aging” aspect tends to make for a fairly lonely life.

Remember, Wolverine has lived for over a century.  He’s watched every woman he’s ever loved die.  He’s never had a steady family.  He’s made a lot of enemies, fought for a lot of causes—but even when he does find a cause worth fighting for, as he did with Xavier’s X-Men, it’s only a matter of time before the battle is finished, and he has to move on once again.  As the world ages around him, he stays the same.

How could this not drive a man insane?

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So, in The Wolverine, Logan is given the chance to end his immortality, once and for all.  Unfortunately, the film doesn’t quite explore this issue as much as one might hope; the dramatic situation is such that Wolverine never really has the chance to consider whether he really wants to die or not.  The movie’s other big flaw lies in its conclusion—after such a compelling and down to earth first and second acts, the sudden futuristic sci-fi blowout feels a bit forced.

Still, exploring the inherent problems that Logan’s immortality causes for him is an intriguing route to take, and there’s a handful of brilliant moments.  One of the best scenes in the film is a slow, tranquil sequence about halfway through, where Logan—now powerless—quietly reflects back on a time that he was offered a man’s sword at the bottom of a well.  What this scene accomplishes is that, instead of telling the audience that Logan is immortal, it shows us; it captures, for the first time in this franchise, what it would really feel like to be this immortal being, filled with memories he can’t always access. It’s a character-focused moment that one would never expect in a movie like this, and scenes like this are what make The Wolverine stand high above many of its contemporaries.

Of course, a lot of the credit for this also goes to Hugh Jackman.  Having played Wolverine in six movies now, it’s amazing how he continues to bring the same energy and enthusiasm to a part that, by now, he must know like the back of his hand.  Really, what’s most surprising about his performance here is that it’s his best one yet; the Logan in this movie truly is the Wolverine from the comics, ripped from the page to the screen.  It’s the same tortured, angry, vicious—yet surprisingly noble—character that has fascinated readers since the 1970s.

Jackman has truly embodied this character on the big screen, to the point where it’s hard to imagine anyone else ever wearing the claws; now that he’s set to make a seventh appearance as Wolverine in next years Days of Future Past extravaganza, it looks like Jackman isn’t going anywhere, and thank God for that.

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So, then, we return to the same question; what kind of man calls himself “Wolverine,” and is that man a hero?

The film’s answer to this question, then, is a resounding yes—yes, Wolverine is a hero, but he’s a deeply flawed one.  However, as this movie’s total deconstruction of him proves, the reason that he’s a hero has nothing to do with his external traits.  Wolverine’s heroism doesn’t come from his costume, nor his adamantium skeleton, his healing factor, nor even his famous claws; no, what defines Wolverine is the fact that he’s a flawed man, a damaged man—with emotional wounds that don’t heal like his physical ones—but a man with good intentions, who fights for what he believes in.  Wolverine is the sort of hero who leaves a mess in his wake, a hero who often messes up, but in the end, he’s driven by a powerful sense of nobility, a strong sense of morals, a compelling urge to fight for a good cause.  That is what defines him.

Wolverine truly is a ronin—a samurai without a master.  That’s who he is, and that’s why The Wolverine, even with its flaws, is finally the Wolverine movie that we’ve always wanted.

-Nicholas Conley

Art by John Romita, Jr.

Why David Lynch’s “Dumbland” is Smarter than it Looks

I’ll admit, about two minutes into Dumbland—the 2002 web series/”cartoon” by David Lynch—I almost turned it off.

Of course, I was already wary of the series before even starting; it’s a bit difficult to watch something with a ridiculous title like “Dumbland” without at least some trepidation.  I mean, Dumbland?  Seriously?

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However, I’ve always been fascinated by the work of Dumbland creator David Lynch, as I stated in my coffee blog.  From Eraserhead to The Straight Story, Lynch is a remarkably unique filmmaker; his meditative, Dada-influenced approach to films is compellingly absurd, and his work—while often highly uncomfortable to watch—has a way of carving a permanent scar upon the viewer’s subconscious, branding the viewer’s memories in a way that resembles the lingering discomfort we experience after an especially bad nightmare.  In fact, Lynch’s films operate much on the same level as a nightmare; his perverse creations seem laughable at first glance, but the actual experience of watching those creations is inexplicably disturbing.

Though some might resist labeling Lynch’s work as “horror,” Lynch’s twisted sensibilities get right to the essence of what horror is supposed to be.  His films are frightening.  They’re unnerving.  They make the viewer uncomfortable, sometimes for days on end.  While many horror films might give you a couple jump scares, Lynch’s horror is the kind that never leaves you.

As an artist, I admire Lynch.  I admire his approach, his unflinching honesty, his darkly sincere voice.

So despite my apprehensions—and despite my immediate disdain for “Randy,” the unlikable main character—I  gave Dumbland a chance.   I stuck it out.  I stuck it out through all of the coarseness, all of the crude animation, all of the nauseating repetition, all of the (seemingly) exploitative profanity…and in the end, I was surprised to realize that despite its crudity, Dumbland proved to be a highly worthwhile viewing experience.

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Watching Dumbland certainly isn’t enjoyable, but that’s the entire point; Dumbland is a razor-sharp, darkly satirical commentary on the perversity of contemporary suburbia.  It’s a critique of Western culture.  A critique so harsh and so relentlessly vicious that it would make South Park blush—and it gets away with all of this by carefully cloaking itself in the masterful disguise of “just another stupid internet cartoon.”

“It is of course, however, no surprise that most critics –ranging from Lynch cult fans to structuralist cinephiles– totally miss the point of the series’ much necessary raison d’être. While structuralists attack the “crudeness” and alleged “pointlessness” of the series, using the infamous accusation of “weirdness for weirdness’ sake,” supposed Lynch fans simply relish in that alleged “reasonless weirdness,” without care or respect to any sort of real artistry or social commentary. Both camps of critical reception seem to be oblivious to the true brilliance and intensity at work here, and even more oblivious to the message, as well as Lynch’s origins: the Camus-inspired Theatre of the Absurd, the movements of Dada and Anti-Art, and the overall surrealism Lynch is perfecting, following of course in the footsteps of Buñuel and Dali. There is a lot of progression, sincerity, satire, and stark beauty in Lynch’s work –all of which impatiently ignored by critics, under the pretense of “incomprehensibility.””

– David Durnell, Sisyphus and Suburbia: A Contextual Study of David Lynch’s Dumbland

The “perversity of contemporary suburbia” is one of Lynch’s most recurring themes, especially in both Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, but the quirky filmmaker has never tackled it in quite so scathing a manner as he does here. The setting of Dumbland‘s eight episodes is simple; in the armpit of suburbia there lives a bald, violent, idiotic man named Randy, who seemingly never leaves the confines of his front lawn.  As a result, Randy’s life is hopelessly boring.  He spends most of his time throwing around his son and wife; on the rare instances when “intruders” from the outside world enter Randy’s domain, he responds to them with violence.  The only exception to this is when his “friend” – a character resembling the cowboy from Mulholland Drive – comes over, and the two of them have a “friendly” conversation how much they enjoy hunting and killing things.

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The result of this is that even though Dumbland bombards the audience with a slew of irritating burp, fart and violence jokes – jokes which at first seem characteristic of a bad Adult Swim cartoon – it soon becomes clear that these “jokes” aren’t supposed to be funny.  Once the bleakness of Randy’s world becomes fully visible, Dumbland quickly becomes a terribly depressing, even nauseating series to watch.

Randy is hopelessly stupid.  He possesses no ambition, no drive and no motivation to improve himself. His attraction to violence is so great that, in the absence of victims, he even becomes violent toward himself.  Randy frequently hurts people.  He’s constantly confused, disoriented and angry.  He passively watches his child’s gums bleeding, torments his wife and generally shows little understanding of anything around him.  He abuses everyone near him, and is utterly oblivious to the damage he causes; in the world of Dumbland, it appears that Randy’s behavior  has been tolerated and accepted for so long that he sees nothing wrong with it.

His narcissism is best displayed in the episode “Get the Stick!”, when a nameless man choking on a stick in his mouth suddenly breaks into Randy’s yard.  At the desperate urging of his son, Randy tries to “help” the man – but instead of simply removing the stick or cutting it in half, he instead effectively pulverizes the man into oblivion, at which point the ruined man wanders into the road and is run over.  The only reply to this that Randy can muster up – his barbaric feelings on the horrible murder he’s just committed – is to be irritated, because in his words, “The fucker never even said thank you.”

But Randy, despite his ignorance, isn’t happy with his life; he’s intensely miserable, frustrated and angry, with no outlet to express his feelings other than his frequent acts of violence.  He’s a pathetic man, and the disturbing hopelessness of his character – and his isolation from the world surrounding him – demonstrates what Dumbland is really all about; when a doctor inspects Randy in the third episode, the doctor revealingly diagnoses the sociopathic man as being “perfectly normal.”

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Randy is symbolic of the overall infantilization of society.  He’s the gruesome portrait of a puerile, solipsistic contemporary man; a burping, farting, shallow character, a character who truly believes himself to be the center of the world.  His absurd fate at the end of the series – which is illustrated with Lynch’s usual unflinching eye toward the darker and more bizarre areas of our psyche – brings the series full circle, as Randy’s violent tendencies finally catch up to him.

I don’t believe that David Lynch is a cynic.  The giddy idealism buried within such movies as Blue Velvet is fairly evident, once one looks past the dark surface.  However, I do believe that Lynch is a creator who isn’t afraid to open up the most evil parts of his own mind and display them to the world, which is why much of his work is so uncomfortable; we recognize the truth in it.  Dumbland, despite its cartoony appearance, is possibly one of the darkest works that Lynch has ever created.  It’s certainly not the best introduction to Lynch – for that, I suggest something more like Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive – but for those of us who already understand Lynch’s work, Dumbland is an absolute must-see.

-Nicholas Conley