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KEN CHEN
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The Ring
Film review, Bridge 7/8 - Fall 2003


Poster
So what exactly is The Ring anyways? The movie poster suggests that it’s an archetypal loop—a sort of apocalyptic eclipse or thorny ringlet as imagined by your run-of-the-mill medieval witch-burner: a bleak and fiery loop, godily mysterious and gaudily spare (and, you gradually notice, just a little bit hairy). Perhaps, the film occasionally suggests, the ring is just a shape—the eye of a horse, the closing lid of a well, or the wet imprint left by the bottom of a cup? Or maybe a ring is only the sound a phone makes. This title pun—whose ambivalence implies both a common household appliance and Wagner—belies a movie that is willing to be at once more clever and more stupid than it actually is.


Movie Trailer
So my mom took me to see The Ring, a new, thoroughly creepy horror movie whose tagline admonishes, “Before you die, you see the ring.” We’re supposed to be terrified, but the first fact—that the person trail-blazing into the theater was my mom, with me trailing behind her—is actually far more shocking than the second. In one corner, you have my mom, a vegetarian who collects beanie babies and cute dogs; her favorite movie is The Burmese Harp, an anti-war meditation about a Buddhist monk who vows to bury all the dead left over from the second World War; her favorite religion is a combination of Buddhism, Christianity, and whatever form of compassion she can invent today. In the other corner, you have The Ring, a movie about a videotape that kills you if you watch it. The two main characters must unearth the tape’s unearthly secrets before their own time runs out!

So why did my mom want to see The Ring? While we were going back home from the theater, going back and forth as per the usual post-movie car commentary, she mentioned that the commercial for The Ring reminded her of Sixth Sense (The Ring, incidentally, has a similarly superficial fascination with numbers—the characters have seven days to live after watching the tape, almost as if to one-up its predecessor). The images in the commercials, she said, seemed striking—almost artistic. Her answer is telling: The Ring is a movie about both of these things: our familiarity with Sixth Sense and our understanding of images themselves.

It is also a movie about moms.


Feature Attraction
The movie begins by dropping us, seemingly in media res, in a bedroom straight out of the increasingly decrepit genre of the teen thriller. There, of course, we see two boringly catty teenage girls—pretty but never really glamorous—who talk about guys and inevitably find the usual terror in phone calls at night, kitchens bereft of mom and dad, and the sort of narrative hoaxing so common in these types of thrillers (The creepy phone call? It was only mom!). One girl tells another that she’s heard of a video tape that kills you if you watch it. The tape is watched. The creepiness ensues. This is just like Urban Legend, your brain says (assuming that your brain would think of a specific movie rather than the entire foggy genre itself). Luckily for us (and unluckily for them), the movie quickly forgets these girls—almost as if to imply that it is leaving their genre (the teen thriller) and its undignified twistiness behind. This kind of genre-surfing is The Ring’s favorite kind of bait-and-switch. The movie is actually about the other side of the switchboard—not the teenage girls (whose horror and social life are inextricably tied to the cordless phone) but the nagging voice on the other end of the line. That’s right—The Ring is a teen thriller whose main character is mom!

This opening scene foreshadows two aesthetic facts that will come to dominate and even overwhelm the film. First, the way The Ring begins by signifying one genre and ends by signifying another shows us that it’s not just a horror movie—it’s also a kind of opera of the sign, a movie whose main talent isn’t scariness but in throwing out complex webs of interconnected meanings. The second—and more aesthetically interesting—of these facts is the aforementioned mom: The Ring stars the surprisingly beautiful Naomi Watts—by which I mean that you are always surprised by her prettiness; her good looks are inexplicable: unlike most Hollywood actresses, Watts gives you the simultaneous awareness of how glamorous she is and (though occasionally over-glamorous) of how much she seems just like the assertively normal yet always abnormally distressed character she plays. How do these two facts tie together?

On the narrative level—at the risk of sounding rather “plot summary” about the whole thing—The Ring doesn’t really start until Naomi Watts walks on the screen. The two girls have watched the fateful tape (cf. first paragraph)—one dies and the other seems just about on the brink. Naomi Watts plays the aunt of one of the two girls and, in order to stuff her as full of motivation as possible, also plays an investigative journalist (this being Hollywood, she is of course a gutsy and glitzy journalist in the Lois Lane mold). Watts—or as the people call her onscreen, Rachel Keller—makes one of the those clever decisions without which horror movies would simply cease to exist: she tracks down the tape and watches it herself. The phone rings. She learns that she will die in a week if she doesn’t solve the puzzle of the tape. (Note, here is motivation number three: her life). Images from the tape slowly poke their way into her world. She sees a horse go insane and leap off the edge of a ferry. She sees a tree flame in red. The ominous omens pile on top of the main characters—their insistence can only signal Rachel Keller’s impending end. Keller’s investigations lead her to delve into the lives of a dead mother and her insufficiently dead child (hint: she’s the ghost that created the tape) and gradually the symbols stop seeming surrealist and begin seeming biographical, even Freudian. It is the protagonists’ job to find out what these symbols mean, how they mean. Rachel Keller, then, isn’t just a journalist—she’s a semiotician; and The Ring, then, is only superficially a horror movie. Sure, it’s sometimes perfectly willing to dispense with characterization if it has the chance to bash us over the heads and it always chooses to bash us with the usual accoutrements of Hollywood horror: the large clunky sounds; the camera slowly creeping in, as though to suggest the blandly ominous first-person perspective of the next scene’s monster creeping up; blue-veined faces; and, in one scene, unintentionally terrifying feet. All of these elements of direct horror occur only on the movie’s surface. In fact, the movie’s closest cousin isn’t Nightmare on Elm Street or Urban Legend—it’s Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49! Like Pynchon’s postmodern classic, The Ring centers on a heroine’s quest to track a symbol (the shape of a ring) by close-reading the world. In both works, the ultimate meaning of the symbol is either debatable or pointless—what matters isn’t the explanation (we are never told what the sign means or where it came from, in either works) but the idea of explaining it, the quest of tracing it back into some kind of meaning rather than the meaning of any symbol itself.

Watts became a star in a David Lynch comeback (Mulholland Drive) and now follows that up with The Ring, a David Lynch appropriation. If parody can be likened to a fun house mirror, an image that reflects another image while distorting it, then the shape of appropriation is more like a box. Like Hamlet, whose internal play paraphrases the play around it, The Ring is and is about a movie within a movie, a box within a box. That is to say, The Ring is two movies: the first is a film about good-looking actors looking intense and looking intensely at a scratchy film clip. The second movie is the clip they watch, stocked with images half avant-garde, half film school: centipedes scratching across a white floor, a girl (her head buried in hair) reflected in a hallway mirror, a woman jumping off a cliff. (The Ring slyly insulates itself from the more clichéd aspects of this tape through kitsch. It’s opening scene grounds the tape in a far more belief-suspending genre (teen slasher flicks) and when one character initially sees the film, he preemptively dismisses it: it looks kind of like a student film, he says.) The movie’s outside is Hollywood; its inside is David Lynch.

Unfortunately, no one bothered to inform the main characters about this. The two endearingly generic main characters are problem-solvers (Rachel Keller and her estranged husband), they are Hollywood characters who increasingly find themselves on the David Lynch side of the tracks, a world deformed beyond the simple two-part structure of problem and solution. These two heroes awkwardly collide with ficelle characters straight out of Dan Clowes’s Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron: an archive manager with his own slanted logic; the motel owner who seems somehow stoned; the surviving teenage girl sans make-up; basically, weirdoes who are suppose to be threateningly idiosyncratic, but lain against the more direct horror of bleeding phones and burning hands, they almost come off as quirky sitcom characters. The main characters don’t seem to realize it, but these interactions have the cross-paradigm awkwardness that occurs whenever two people from completely different ideologies accidentally bump into each other and struggle to find something to talk about (a liberal and a conservative on politics, a Christian and an atheist on religion, etc.). What is the main characters’ ideology? Reason.

As you would expect of a mystery, The Ring is a drama of reason. It is also a drama of unreason: the characters nail together clues and evidence, as in every year’s mystery, but find that their rickety construction leads nowhere. This is surrealism, Hollywood style, where what’s most terrifying is the possible fallibility of analysis: the ultimate shock doesn’t come from the grimace of rubber faces but from the realization that it is the clues that seem to stretch in the wrong directions.

The Ring is a movie of stretchy clues: the clues come from the rational deduction and pacing of a Hollywood mystery, the significatory stretchiness comes from the opposite—the dreamy terror, the anti-reason of the surrealists. The old surrealists—those who were earnest about their surrealism—shook us through the terror of signs: images that had no answers, riddles whose solutions had enigmatically vanished. Bunuel subjected us to a razor slashing open a human eye. Lynch’s Eraserhead taught us to watch a woman with a honeycomb-shaped head, dancing in a radiator. The visual shock of these images is exacerbated by how the images float out of nowhere, contextually adrift, and connect to nowhere. We expect the images to mean something but they never seem to signify outside of their own shock. We find ourselves unable to trace them back into their explanations. The Ring is somewhat less naïve: it says that we should be more cynical than to believe that images should lead anywhere, when, depending on the reader, they lead everywhere. The film’s most beautiful images (and it’s worth noting how few critics have noted how sleekly beautiful The Ring often is) seem surrealist: a ladder extending up to the second level of a barn (and it seems, to heaven); the evening light shooting through the red leaves of a tree, lighting up the interior of a cabin in reds; screws levitating out of the ground. (Perhaps to show off its surrealist street cred, The Ring seems to have lifted these floating screws out of an animated short by the American puppet-masters The Brothers Quay.) Each image is annotated by the reaction of the observing character, whose creased analytic brow functions as an asterisk to the following thought: What does this mean?

In most cases, the answer is that the images mean many, often contradictory things. For all its moodiness, The Ring is a thoroughly ironic movie and it has a terrifying ambivalence: it says one thing and means another. It does this in two ways. First, the film swings back and forth syntactically, changing its structure from one genre to another. Secondly, on a semantic or ‘specific’ level, the film continually alters the exact meaning of its own vocabulary: an image means one thing in one scene and then suddenly another in another scene.

The previews themselves—as my mother noted—already work on the first, structural level: they address our memory of clichéd narratives. When the previews show us the prerequisite spooky child delightfully informing us that “Everyone will suffer,” you’re almost inclined to snicker or even throw back your head, laughing, as if to say “Didn’t we get over this in the late Eighties?” But what makes The Ring compelling is how it’s built on the terror of intimation, not intimidation—it scares us with metaphors rather than monsters. If this sounds familiar, then you’re right to think of Sixth Sense, the M. Night Shyamalan film that The Ring rips-off, parodies, and finally deconstructs. Sixth Sense discovered that mood could be as affecting—as terrifying—as any of the spectacles we traditionally associate with horror movies. This is why Sixth Sense feels secretly anachronistic and slightly European: it’s a horror movie whose closest precedent is Henry James. “We are tired of violence; we suspect mystery,” Virginia Woolf wrote. “Henry James’s ghost stories have nothing in common with the violent old ghosts—the blood-stained sea captains, the white horses, the headless ladies of dark lanes and windy commons. They have their origin within us.” (Woolf, Virginia. Rainbow and Granite. 67, 71.) A horror movie about a child with his own psychologist and a tough guy who’s no longer able to talk to his wife, Sixth Sense reminded American movies of an universal commonplace: the terrors of the family are far more existentially unnerving than the terror of terror itself. As a result of this realization, Sixth Sense sketched out a new kind of supernatural threat—an image of human sorrow rather than supernatural evil, a particularly East Asian sense of a ghost, one might say, rather than a Western sense of a devil:

When we read that (the late Tang Dynasty poet) Li Ho was called a kuei ts’ai, a ghostly or daemonic genius, and notice his apparently familiar constellation of pessimism, voluptuousness, aestheticism, and an imagination haunted by dark forces, it is tempting to read him as a nineteenth-century Satanist. But the Western sense of evil of course assumes a Christian background, and the kuei of Li Ho’s poems are generally not devils but ghosts, sad rather than malevolent beings. (Graham, A.C. Poems of the Late T’ang. 91-92.)

The ghosts in Sixth Sense are almost fleshless; their scariness is not in their physical manifestations but in their emotional ones. They are not so much devils—like Freddy or Jason—but humans who are mourning their own deaths. If these ghosts scare us, it’s because they are half human rather than half horror—the scariest thing about them is how they are doomed to be themselves. These question of ghosts can only be solved not through violence and heroism but through the far quieter art of empathy.

Seemingly sleepwalking in the wake of Sixth Sense, The Ring has mastered all the symptoms of a Sixth Sense-type movie: the mood is spooky and the walls are green; the underlying rift in its world seems to be the main characters’ divorce as much as the ghostly premonitions. (The film mirrors the family structure of the three heroes with the more tragic family revealed in the newspaper clippings, as if to suggest that the only way to overcome a ghost is to wall it off with a family. In fact, in another example of tricky re-signification, Rachel Keller’s son draws a picture of a mother and father holding hands with a son. We are led to believe that this first refers to the son’s longing for family. We later learn that the scribble is only documentary: it is a picture of the ghost’s family.) And, like Sixth Sense, these two parents are so stuck in their world of deadlines and career opportunities, that they seem to miss an entire otherworldly domain of intuition, a world accessible only to their child (who like Haley Joel Osment in Sixth Sense has been puffed up with all the relevant spookiness). The underlying punchline of this movie is the same as in the opening scene: The Ring signifies one kind of movie and then swiftly becomes another. It tells us that it is Sixth Sense, rather than Nightmare on Elm Street—a movie of classy suspense, rather than shock. It tells us that we are dealing with Chinese ghosts rather than Western demons. And then it pulls the rug under us.

If we expected it to be anything more than formulaic, the movie wouldn’t work: it has sneakily used our overwhelmingly low expectation of Hollywood movies against us—it already assumes that we will underestimate it. This is aesthetic camouflage in both directions—The Ring is both a surrealist art house film slumming as a Hollywood flick and a reliably creepy Hollywood movie that pretends to be more than it actually is. Most cunningly, it reminds us that the characters in horror movies only resort to helping ghosts out of self-interest: it isn’t so much that they want to converse with spirits—doing so is merely the most efficient way of staying alive. Once we know this, we realize that, in movies like Sixth Sense and The Ring, the plots and emotions are almost as fake and computer-generated as the ghosts themselves. The ease with which The Ring deconstructs the Beyond The Grave Therapy school of horror (started a decade ago by Ghost, revived by The Sixth Sense, and consolidated by The Others), makes it a movie that is more knowing, but more shallow. That is to say, The Ring is shallow in the way that a movie like The Usual Suspects is shallow: it wants to be as cool as a plot twist, rather than as deep as a wound.

A plot twist is the most amusing form re-signification—it says that one signified future will be replaced by another less overt future, the way a train crossing might switch the curve of a track so the train proceeds on suddenly altered rails. The Ring’s plot twist works because it gets us used to a Sixth Sense-style drama and then delivers an old fashioned schlock fest in the final scene. The Ring also tricks us on a smaller more semantic level—the level of specific images rather than entire genres. This is a movie that’s creepy at a distance and is about that distance—not just the distance between the main characters and their deaths, but also the vulnerable space between what metaphors signify and the metaphors themselves. TV sets suddenly turn on all on their own, like echoes that echo no original sound. We never find out what show the ghost wanted to catch so badly, but when Naomi Watts wonders, lip-bitingly pensive, what foul creature would want to send out such nightmarish images into the world, we are tempted to think she’s describing the horrific images of The Ring itself.

Its images scare us by unlinking a signified from one signifier to another. Rachel Keller, for example, finds herself scribbling out the faces of photographs without even noticing she’s doing it—almost as if she’s possessed. The scribbled halo initially seems to be an emanation of death; later we learn that the images are a repressed memory: the pencil marks aren’t an abstract symbol of annihilation but wet hair clinging to a drowned girl’s face. In another scene, a character is about to die and the phone rings in the background as loud as a stock horror movie cliché. It is of course only Naomi Watts on the other end of the line. To the character being called, the phone call is ringed with connotations of horror movie creepiness. The character who is calling, however, believes that she’s making the action movie call that saves the day, the governor’s last second ring to death row. Their problem isn’t ghosts—it’s genres! That is to say, their problem is in attaching two conflicting signifieds to the same signifier.

The movie echoes with other small descriptions of sign wackiness. Those who have watched the tape—and are consequently marked for death—find their faces smeared out and distorted in photographs, as though only the photographs’ incorrect significations are honest enough to represent the characters’ encroaching ghostliness. In one scene, a fly creeps out from a television screen and into the air, suggesting that supernatural powers are all it takes to get unstuck out of signification and into a signified. The movie ends with Rachel Keller copying the tape to show to someone else. I would like to suggest, tongue-in-cheekly, that this finale, a scene on the ethics of seeing, is basically the most chilling warning about video piracy ever put to film. And what is video piracy but the re-signification (copying a video) of something that is already a signifier (a video)?

The Ring’s sign language—tangled up like old yarn—makes one wonder how we ever manage to find any clear meaning in life. Contrary to the surrealists, who avoided signification altogether, the creepiest images in The Ring scare not through their overt mystery but through their overabundance of possible meanings; they are clues, portents and omens, and the irrevocability with which they suggest the protagonists’ own fate seem to weigh down each scene. Unlike the surrealists, The Ring has not declared war on meaning—it merely knows meaning so well that it dreads it. The links lead everywhere, overwhelming ubiquitous and their complexity seems to overwhelm human logic. The Ring’s terror is the realization that, even in the moments the count the most, we will not be able to differentiate between a symbol that means nothing and a symbol that means everything.


Commentary
We got home and my mom started cooking dinner in the kitchen. I went to the other room to check my e-mail and when I came back through the living room, I found the TV on to an early play-off game. I went into the kitchen and said to my mother, who was stirring something pasta-like into a pot: “So are you a football fan now?”

“What do you mean?”

“The TV. It’s on.”

“No,” she said. “I thought you were watching.”

“Oh. It must have just turned on by itself.” I paused and then smiled. “It’s just like the movie!”

“Don’t say that,” she laughed. “You’ll scare me!”

In The Ring, it is the scariness we know that makes us laugh.

 

All content, unless otherwise noted, (c) Ken Chen, 1998-2006. Ken Chen can be reached by email.

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