Published on September 28th, 2018 | by Padraic Coffey0
My Favourite Things – Kristy Puchko
Kristy Puchko is a film critic based in New York. She is also the managing editor of Pajiba.
Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992, Carol J. Clover)
When I was in college, Brooklyn College, in the early 2000s, I took a class on horror films in my film studies course. It was taught by Professor Hirsch, who was so intelligent that he used words I’d only ever read in books. Sometimes he would say something and it would take me a second to realise what he’d said, because I’d been mispronouncing it in my head. It was amazing, and challenging, and scary, especially because I was on a scholarship and I had to keep my grades up. His classes were hard, but I always learned a lot. I’d always loved horror movies, but his class changed how I thought about them. It cracked them open and showed me what they were saying, not just within the film, but what they told us about the time they were made, and what the evolution of those genres told us about our society. It was an incredible class.
I don’t think it was assigned reading, if I remember correctly, but he gave us a list of books, and you had to read three of them over the course of the class, and write papers on each. I picked Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, by Carol J. Clover. It’s a study on what it means when we have a slasher. I was blown away by how Clover talked about horror movies, and particularly how she used footnotes. I was learning to write in college, and I had so much I wanted to say. Outlines frustrated me because I would get to the point where I would have two things I wanted to say, but they weren’t related to each other, despite both being related to something else. I would have to pick whatever had more to do with what I was talking about overall, which is just how writing works, but I felt so pressured.
What Clover did in her book was create footnotes with additional information. They weren’t just for citing references. It kind of felt like Easter Eggs, the way you used to be able to toggle over certain websites or DVD extras and information would pop up, like bonus content! I was so ravenous about the way she wrote the book that I started to write all my college papers that way. Thankfully, my professors were okay with that, as long as it didn’t interrupt the flow of the argument. The class made me think about the messages behind the movies, but this book made me evaluate genre, and look at slasher films and the theory of the ‘final girl’. It literally changed my life, and the way I regard horror movies. I learned stuff reading that book that I still write about weekly.
Jaws (1975, Steve Spielberg)
I know it may sound like a cop out, because everybody loves Jaws, but I love Jaws. The last time I checked, I owned four different copies of it, because any time they did a re-release on DVD there was different behind-the-scenes content and I wanted all of it. I was a kid when I saw it. I don’t remember how old, but I think it was at a babysitter’s house. Her son was a little older than me, and he liked to watch monster movies. We watched all the Godzilla movies together, and then he showed me Jaws. It was definitely something I was too young to watch at the time because it may as well have been a documentary to me. It was all very real, but what I love about the movie is that it’s a great horror movie. It’s about a small town where they’re so concerned about their tourist season and the money they’re going to make that they’re ignoring a huge threat that’s putting people’s lives at risk. There’s an interesting context to that, but as a kid it just scared me. It was fun and exciting, and as I got older, and started falling more and more in love with movies, I wanted to understand why it scared me, because I realised we don’t see the shark that much. It’s almost counter-intuitive, and I had to figure out why that was.
I learned about the editing, and about Verna Fields, who told Steven Spielberg, “if we stay on the shark too long, it’s going to be obvious that it’s not a real shark, so we need to cut away.” I started learning all the stories about Jaws, and to me, it’s a movie that still functions amazingly well. It doesn’t matter how many bad sequels it had. It’s still powerful, and I still jump every time they find the head floating in the boat. It’s this perfect suspense machine, and the fact that everything around it made the movie almost impossible a bunch of times kind of romanticizes it even more. You can look back now and see that the movie was a big hit, but it’s insane that it was a big hit. There’s actually a podcast called Inside Jaws that had even more stories I still hadn’t heard. I love that I’ve known this movie since I was child, this movie is decades old, and people have written about it up, down and sideways, and there are still stories you can find about it. But also, I love it because, any time it’s on, I will sit and watch the whole thing.
I’ve had people argue with me that it’s not even a horror movie. I mean, it’s a monster movie about a giant shark that eats people. It’s 100 per cent a horror movie! But it’s not just a scary movie. It’s a movie that invests itself in the Brody family, so that we’re emotionally invested. It’s not just “look at this scary shark!”. There’s an amazing scene between Brody and his young son, where his son is mutely mimicking everything he does at the table. It’s such a quiet moment. You can easily see the studio saying, “What do we need this for? Cut this! It’s nothing to do with the plot! It’s not exciting!”, but that tender little moment still works. It’s really about humanity, and about this connection that makes us feel bound to these characters. That makes the final sequence so terrifying. It’s not just that a man’s going to die in the ocean, it’s that Brody is going to die, and we think about his boys and his wife back home. We’re totally wrapped up in that world, because of the way Spielberg let us into their home.
Beautiful Freak (1996, Eels)
I’ve been thinking about this, and what it means that Beautiful Freak is my favourite album. I fitfully listen to music, and I tend to listen to music that somebody recommends. I used to get mix-tapes from boyfriends and CDs from my sister when she was in college, so I have a hodgepodge of listening habits. I don’t even listen to albums necessarily, I just listen to songs that people pick out for me.
When I was in middle school, I used to tape movies that were on in the middle of the night. That was when HBO would play independent films. I lived in a small town, and that was the only way I was going to see them. I would go through HBO’s programming schedule, which came printed out, with a highlighter. I would tape all these movies and watch them later, when my parents weren’t around.
One of them was called Dream for an Insomniac. It was a little independent movie with Ione Skye from Say Anything, and Jennifer Aniston playing her best friend. It’s basically a movie about a girl who can’t sleep, and dreams of, quote/unquote, “the perfect guy”. It’s a love story, and I haven’t seen it in years and years, but I think it opens on “Novocaine for the Soul” by the Eels. I was so taken about by that song. I’d never heard anything like that before, and I loved Mark Oliver Everett’s voice, so I started seeking out the album, and again, this is a time before iTunes and Napster and all that stuff. I couldn’t just order it. I started going to record stores and looking for it, but it was a song by this small band in a tiny movie, and I lived in a tiny town. I just couldn’t find it, and then one day, on the way to the fancy mall a couple of towns over that was bigger than mine, my friends decided to make a pit stop at this used record shop near Pittsburgh. I darted inside, and they had a CD of Beautiful Freak for about $7. I was so elated, because I had no other way to listen to stuff, other than when the Eels would occasionally be played on MTV 120 Minutes. I had no other way to access it.
When I found that CD it was like a little miracle. The whole album is just so sad and beautiful, and I think really speaks to feeling like an outsider. I was a smart teenager in a small town who had dreams of moving to New York, so I felt that, and I used to listen to it every day before I went to school to kind of prepare myself. It was like my armour. It made me feel like maybe here I was a freak, but somewhere out there were people that were going to get me. I don’t listen to it very often because that time was so emotionally raw for me. When I listen to it now, it’s so easy to feel taken back there, but the songs are still beautiful. The Eels are really popular with filmmakers. Occasionally, their songs pop up in movies and stuff, and I always feel like everyone’s looking at me when any Eels song comes on, which is insane. It’s almost like Roberta Flack’s song “Killing Me Softly,” it feels like someone else is singing about your private pain, and everyone knows it’s you. That’s what listening to Beautiful Freak felt like to me. It used to feel like armour, and now it feels so vulnerable to me. It was the album that got me through some tough times, because it was beautiful and it made me feel like I wasn’t alone.
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