Saturday, February 16, 2013

Excision: Healthy Minds, Healthy Bodies

I went to high school with this guy named Mark. Mark was well over six feet tall, probably pushing 300 pounds, and as near as everyone could tell, he never bathed and was riddled with volcanic acne. He stank, his greasy hair was matted to his head by a bandana, and he carried a backpack full of Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks with him everywhere. He was the prototypical pariah. As insecure as I was, I could look at Mark and say "yeah, but at least I'm not him." Now, conventional wisdom says that as ugly and repulsive as he was on the outside, this had to be the vehicle for a soul of gentle kindness. Real beauty lies on the inside and all of that. Only Mark made a point of leaning over to the girls seated next to him in class and apparently whispering indescribably disgusting things he'd like to do to them in their ears until such time as the teachers would seat him in the far corner of the room, away from everyone else.

The point being that sometimes - just sometimes - people who look freakish and fucked-up on the outside are actually freakish and fucked-up on the inside, and maybe it's worth keeping an eye on them. This is, after a fashion, the moral of the warped, cracked fairytale that is Excision.

Pauline is unapologetically ugly by any conventional standards. Her hair falls in front of her face in lank curtains, her complexion is terrible, she has an almost defiant disregard for grooming, her clothes are shapeless and drab, and her posture almost simian. She speaks up in class to say totally inappropriate things, doesn't understand personal space, and seems really obsessed with disease. Needless to say, people don't like her - the other kids don't like her, the adults don't like her, even her own mom struggles with the idea that this is her daughter. In any other movie, Pauline would be the ugly duckling waiting to become a swan, the ungainly girl with morbid interests who grows up to be a stunningly beautiful doctor, the first glimpse of whom we get during a senior prom transformation montage. Beautiful on the inside, you know.

Fortunately, that's not what we get. Pauline looks like every other gross, awkward, ugly weirdo on the outside, but her inner life is something else entirely - a nightmare kingdom of flesh, blood, and viscera, in which she is a surgeon queen, performing rituals of cutting and scooping and extraction to the adoration of her attendants. She wakes flushed, toes curling. Boys don't really interest her that much, girls don't really interest her at all. The flesh interests her. She may be the class weirdo on the outside, but on the inside, she's the ruler of an endless kingdom of blue tile and stainless steel, sort of like Carl Starger's nightmare world in The Cell, if The Cell invested more in its characters and weren't so pleased with itself. She's not misunderstood - she's even more disturbed than people think.

Not that anyone outside of Pauline's head would notice - the world in which she lives is a riff on the sort of suburban fantasyland depicted with varying degrees of irony in movies like Donnie Darko and Welcome to the Dollhouse. Everything is pretty and perfect and people are happy and popular and everything is just so. Nobody here lacks commitment to Sparklemotion. Or, it would be if it weren't for the cracks showing. Not the usual sort of cracks - like "oh it all looks perfect but it's really all corrupt" because that all seems sort of facile and boring now. Oh, sure, the attractive popular kids do shitty things, but they're realistically shitty things instead of high-school Dangerous Liaisons type shit . No, the cracks here are cracks in the idea of this as a fantasy. The stylized exterior doesn't hold - it sputters and flickers, with real feelings and problems and issues poking through.

Pauline has a little sister named Grace, who is pretty and sweet - not just to other people, but to Pauline too. She's actually a nice kid with her head on straight, but not more straight than you'd expect at her age. She also has cystic fibrosis, where Pauline is physically healthy. Pauline gets neglected a lot in favor of Grace, but she doesn't blame Grace for this. Their mom is the standard uptight suburban mom who wants Pauline to be pretty so she can get a good husband and cares what the neighbors think and thinks that Cotillion is an important part of every girl's life, but the strain of having Pauline and Grace for daughters means there are moments when she stops being that person and her humanity comes through. She's tired, her nerves are frayed, and she's haunted by the idea that her own upbringing means she's making the same mistakes with her own children that her mother made with her.

The tension in Excision lies both in the difference between Pauline's fantasies and the real world, and the differences between what the real world wants to be and what it really is. The overall feeling of fracture is nicely disorienting, like reading a fairytale where fairies and princesses have to worry about divorce and unemployment. Just as everything starts to feel a little unreal, something happens to bring it crashing back to Earth, and ultimately, there ends up being a terrible cost for paying attention to some fantasies more than others.

Finally, the look - oh my god, the look of this movie. Muted, beige interiors interrupted with splashes of bright, unnaturally bright color. Pauline in everyday life is ugly, pimpled, greasy. Pauline in prayer (her conversations with God serving as interstitial moments of, well, not clarity, but something outside everyone else's madness) is simple, cleaner, but not prettified. Pauline in her dreams is sculpted into goth-sexy bondage medical-fetish material, hard and alluring, covered in blood. The dream sequences owe a lot visually to Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle, and to a lesser extent the emphasis on flesh, movement through space, and transformation from those same works. And it's damn well not every day you get what is ostensibly a horror movie cribbing from Matthew Barney, so big ups on that.

Maybe horror is the wrong word here - it's nightmarish, disturbing in its particulars, but it's less a scary movie than a sad one that refuses to look away from terrible things. Pauline wants to do good, her parents want to do good, even the institutions of the town want to do good, but none of them are really equipped to do so in a way that will actually benefit anyone, and ultimately everyone is to blame. Pauline at her most horrific is Pauline at her most triumphant.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available from Amazon Instant Video
Not available from Netflix

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