Geoffrey Long
Tip of the Quill: Archives
Critique: The Orphanage.

Tonight after work a bunch of us – Mike and his wife, Matt and Clara, Pilar, Talieh, Lana and our newest addition to the lab family Jesper Juul – caught a free preview screening of Juan Antonio Bayona's The Orphanage (or, in its original Spanish, El Orfanato). The film didn't disappoint, as it was as dark and creepy and poetic as I was hoping it would be. It's beautifully shot, and although I have some issues with the subtitles – while I don't speak Spanish I do recognize the repetition of syllables enough to realize when a character's saying something repeatedly when it's roughly summarized as "very" in the little white letters – I thought it was very well done. Fans of Pan's Labyrinth might mourn the lack of magic, but it's not a fairy tale, it's a ghost story, and a dang good one at that. It's also got an ending with a touch of the same ambiguity as Pan's Labyrinth, which had me wondering if that was a Spanish thing or a Del Toro & Friends thing. Matt suspects it's primarily European thing, although I'm not so sure. It's odd, because there is a little bit of a Hollywood sense to it, but painted in a more complex, nuanced light than something like Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar's The Others.

One thing I really enjoyed about this film, though, was how it scratched an itch I'd had for a while: I'd been wondering where all the really good modern ghost stories had gone. Sure, we've had a couple good ones here and there, but I would have thought that our modern day and age would be more receptive to ghost stories. My favorite scene in the film is one that reminded me of shows like Ghost Hunters and Paranormal State, two kinda-reality TV series dealing with the paranormal on cable: the frantic parents bring in a medium to connect with the ghosts haunting the orphanage, and she shows up with an entire entourage armed to the teeth with videocameras, microphones, and wireless headsets. The medium goes into a trance, and then the team (and the parents) follow her wanderings through the house from a control station downstairs. The result is something similar to the old Sega CD game Night Trap, with a touch of the same sense of voyeur-esque remote control. The team issues commands to the medium as she wanders through the house, interacting with a past spirit world that only she can see. The audience is as limited as the team, viewing the medium's progress in the grainy night vision tones and experiencing only the scratchy, ghostly whispers and cries picked up by the medium's microphone.

That's where I think the modern ghost story really has the most to offer – in its expressions of what happens when technology fails us, or ways in which technology can serve us in ways that we don't fully understand. McLuhan's understanding of media was as extensions of man, things that extended our senses in other forms of distance, physicality, or temporality. What happens, then, when our devices pick up things we don't understand? When they see things we can't? Like cats staring at the corner of a room with their hackles slowly raising, a radio crackling as it picks up a transmission that there's no way it possibly could... This is the stuff of B-movies, but also the stuff of great literature and cinema, depending on how it's handled. Back around Halloween I attended a screening of the Japanese film Kairo introduced by Alan Lightman, the author of Einstein's Dreams and a lecturer here at MIT. The film itself was grim, dark, realistic and utterly chilling – and, in true Hollywood fashion, it was largely lobotomized when translated into the Kristin Bell vehicle Pulse. The idea of the ghost in the machine can provide cheap thrills, as proven by Michael Keaton's White Noise, or even cheaper thrills, as proven by the direct-to-video White Noise 2: The Light, despite its having starred Whedon regular Nathan Fillion. Yet it certainly doesn't have to – what, after all, are extensions of man if not extrasensory perception? Media as ESP? "Unnatural" technology as supernatural tools?

This summer there's a conference in the Netherlands that I really want to attend called Uncanny Media; something tells me that there's definitely a paper in this line of reasoning. First the writing, then the submission, and then, if accepted, comes trying to scrape together airfare to Utrecht. Ah, the glamorous globetrotting life of the academic!

Long story short: The Orphanage was worth seeing. It might be the kind of thing better experienced in one's home theater, however, due to the ease with which a fat guy two rows back constantly scoffing and wheezing can spoil the delicious mood and suspense Bayona worked so hard to achieve. Still, the film is a creepy, extremely atmospheric piece with some truly interesting bits for fans of artful, techno-savvy ghost stories. Recommended.

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