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Life of Mary MacLane

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In Which We Ransack Minnesota For The Murderer

Dark Boy


I Am Not A Serial Killer
dir. Billy O'Brien
104 minutes

John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) lives above a mortuary with his mother (Laura Fraser). His father was a gregarious nincompoop who beat his mother and bailed on the family structure. He and his mother are awakened at all times of night to service the various dead of the small Minnesota town they call home. They pump bright pink embalming fluid into the bodies in order to prepare the corpses for viewing. It is a virtual certainty that after the first twenty minutes of I Am Not A Serial Killer, opting for cremation will be the first thing on your mind.

Records has a natural affability that on the surface makes him a strange choice for a role as sociopath. Whenever he gets a violent urge — like wanting to tear someone's head from their body, or torch a cat — John has a simple rule that gets him back on the golden path: he pays the person who is angering him a compliment.

His therapist Dr. Neblin (Karl Geary) loves birdwatching, the kind of eerie pastime that suggests perhaps he is the man making all the bodies turn up dead in the mortuary. Whoever is doing the killing is removing particular organs from the deceased, and Cleaver wants to put together the pieces of the puzzle. What is the killer doing that he doesn't have to do? he wonders to his soon-to-be ex-friend Max.

The answer is quite a lot. Max quickly begins to suspect his neighbor Mr. Crowley (Christopher Lloyd) of the crimes. He plants a GPS in Crowley's car and discovers him impaling a drifter with a strange weapon on a frozen-over lake. Yes, it is self-defense, but why doesn't Crowley report the situation?

In high school, Cleaver is mostly ostracized except for the attentions of Brooke (the promising young actress Lucy Lawton). He is not much of a target for bullies whoever, who he threatens and frightens with dismemberment. They become the bullied ones, and report his language to the school. His mother tries to discipline him, but she can't think of any punishment he would either not enjoy or isn't already meting out on himself.

It is actually hard to believe that Cleaver is a sociopath, since he is aware that he does not have the feelings he should, which means on some level he is actually experiencing the correct response to events. He is utterly baffled at Brooke's attentions and can think only of what her head would look like on a stick.

Dan Wells wrote the novel series that the film of I Am Not A Serial Killer is based on. He couldn't wait to get his central character out of high school, since even he seems uncomfortable with the idea of a cold-blooded murderer around all these helpless children. I Am Not A Serial Killer is surprisingly uncontroversial for being a story which could push so many buttons in the contemporary climate. It almost feels like John Wayne Cleaver is the guy who went up the beanstock.

The novels themselves are sadly pretty terrible; without spoiling what Christopher Lloyd is revealed as being, it is a revelation that works a lot better in this adaptation than it ever did in the books. I Am Not A Serial Killer never becomes the slightest bit scary or threatening; it is the most feel good story about a sociopath hunting another serial killer ever conceived.

Maybe that's all for the best, as this lack of tension allows second-time director Billy O'Brien to focus on the more subtle moments. How Cleaver approachs and feeds a fire, talks to his mother, sister and aunt are all given far more time than they would in the Hollywood version of this. O'Brien does a fantastic job making I Am Not A Serial Killer look like a first class production despite working with the equivalent of the catering budget on a Dwayne Johnson movie.

Christopher Lloyd himself makes a big difference. His casting in the Back to the Future series was in some sense a shame, since he was just 47 when he played Doc Brown and he was only cast as an old man for decades afterwards. As Crowley, Lloyd is clearly having great fun lurching around, making his movements just unnatural enough to where he becomes entirely alien and yet nowhere near as threatening as the protagonist himself.

For his birthday Cleaver's father sends an mp3 player but forgets to fill it with all the songs of John's childhood. He is really upset by this, and tries to think of what personal rule against violence he can break. He never goes through with it, never scares us by doing anything a sociopath actually would. He's the dark boy who cried wolf.

Ethan Peterson is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in New York.


In Which Neil LaBute Uses All His Friends

Undead Girl


Van Helsing
creator Neil Labute

Sometimes I think of all the things I have said about the Syfy network - you know, how every property they touch turns to shit, how their production standards are reprehensibly low, how they never hire good actors or take chances on writers with actual talent or IPs that might cost actual money to acquire - and I feel bad.

Fortunately, you don't have to pay anyone to use Dracula. When I think of the best vampire stories ever told I think of Lucius Shepard's Beautiful Blood, George R.R. Martin's Fevre Dream and that's about it. Nothing great has ever been done in the genre, although the general concept of The Strain did have its moments. When I found out that for some reason playwright Neil LaBute, the original satirist/proponent of white misogyny's cultural impact, would be showrunning Van Helsing for Syfy I nearly spit out my Skinnygirl protein shake.

I was recently privileged to watch the debut of this series, and I take back everything I said about Neil Labute's recent output. Sure, some of his recent movies were kind of a shit factory, but directing was honestly never his strong suit. He burst on the cinematic stage with his classic comedy about two men trying to humiliate the same deaf woman, In the Company of Men. For this review, I rewatched the movie in its entirety and while it is definitely still amusing, making fun of people's cruelty is a lot less unexpected now and the whole project takes on a completely different tone.

Far better was LaBute's unacknowledged masterpiece, 1998's Your Friends & Neighbors. Showing off LaBute's unique talent for dialogue and using actresses like Nastassja Kinski and Catherine Keener in roles that would define or redefine their careers, Your Friends & Neighbors is the rare satire of white people that still holds up decades after it was originally written.

Since then LaBute has tried his hand at other genres with varying results. Television seems to suit him on a number of levels, even if we did not necessarily expect a series set in the apocalyptic future where vampires roam the earth from him. As per usual with most Syfy production, you will recognize precisely none of the cast. Vanessa Helsing (Kelly Overton) is the show's true relevation. She spends most of the show's pilot in some kind of coma, protected at a military installation by Axel (Jonathan Scarfe). Both actors are so much better performers than are featured on any other show this crumbling network has to offer.

Overton's experience on the stage suits LaBute. Van Helsing is extremely dialogue heavy, and it immediately feels so different than other serials in that every single scene depicts some kind of conflict or furthering of an agenda. In modern American life, this can seem somewhat farcical, since people are not always trying to get one over on each other, but applying LaBute's moral philosophy to this fantasy environment gives it a noir feel that is sorely missing from other depictions of the undead concept.

A group of survivors led by John (the brilliant David Cubitt) looks for refuge at the installation, where John seems to have previously served. Sabotage of the base's exterior defenses allows a group of vampires to reduce the group's numbers, and Helsing is attacked as she lays prone on the table. This act wakes her to consciousness, and she figures out that she is the reason the group has come – to offer her to Dracula dead or alive.

Because of my current resemblance to Dracula, I have been waiting for him to be portrayed in the fashion to which I have become accustomed: hagiography. LaBute was constantly being misunderstand in his plays as he tried to push the bounds of satire. Slaying the kind of bourgeois inanity required a more extreme approach — the entire point of the stage is push our boundaries of what is possible. If LaBute can bring this perspective to series television and a popular myth, he will have a show better than any Syfy has featured in its history. Heck, he already does.

The best part of vampire lore is the castle. It is the most nuanced form of satire the genre has to offer, where man must directly choose whether or not he is a slave to something greater or an independent creature. Lucius Shepard's great invention in his cult novel Beautiful Blood was to explain what exactly human beings receive from vampires, so that we can understand the story as less than a master/slave allegory. In the book's most powerful scene, the vampire protagonist agonizes over all the different types of love he has experienced as a human and undead, forcing himself to choose the most appealing kind.

While parts of Van Helsing are still kind of cheesy-Walking Dead esque survival motifs, there is a hint of something darker once Vanessa Helsing reveals she can turn vampires back into human beings through the manifestation of her own blood. This leads to several complications, the sort of disturbed emotionality that we are used to seeing LaBute unpack so expertly. Sometimes you try to tell a new type of story and you get Mel Gibson's Christ disaster, but other conflations of genre are absolutely innervating.

Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to this Recording.


In Which Frida Kahlo Is Divorced From The Moment


Spine and Back


When Frida Kahlo was three, the Mexican Revolution arrived in full force. Her father was a European Jew, a photographer who fled his home country after his father married a reprehensible woman. Young Guillermo Kahlo suffered from frequent seizures in his new home of Mexico City.

Her mother, Matilde Calderon, was Guillermo Kahlo's second wife; his first had died in childbirth. Matilde did not love her husband, but she was already 24 and suitors were not exactly at the door. For the first few years of their marriage Guillermo was a taciturn, unhappy man. He never wanted to be in Mexico.

The girl's real given name was Magdalena. She went by Frida from the very first, spelling her name in the German fashion, Fride, until the Nazis came to power. Her older sisters were her primary caregivers. 

In the revolution the Kahlos supported the Zapatas, feeding guerrillas when they could, but in the new government, her father's photographic commissions disappeared.

The family's new poverty was handled exclusively by Frida's mother, who was a devout Catholic. "She did not know how to read or write," Frida remembered later. "She only knew how to count money."

At the age of six she contracted polio. "It all began with a terrible pain in my right leg from the muscle downard," she said. "They washed my little leg in a small tub with walnut water and hot towels."

When she recovered, the prescription of physical exercise inculcated her father's interest in her. He had no son, and encouraged her to play soccer, wrestle and swim. She shucked off her illness, but as a tomboy she was made into a social outcast.

The closeness between the two extended to Frida's growing knowledge about art. It was a form of taking control. Her father also painted, and his canvases were painstakingly realistic scenes.

In 1922 she entered the National Prepatory School, the most prestigious institution of its kind in Mexico. Girls had only recently been admitted to these environs, and Frida was one of 35 individuals in a school of 2000. Unlike other students, she always wore a backpack.

with her own students

She was also estranged from the other girls. They gathered on a second floor patio, she never gathered anywhere, just appearing unexpectedly like hepatitis. She found this new place fascinating and her photographic memory ensured she did not have to work very hard to pass her classes.

Diego Rivera had the run of the school. He was massively fat then, and she soaped stairs so he fell as a prank. She had some close boyfriends and wrote them letters as her primary means of communication. When she graduated, her job prospects were slim. Frida stayed busy, keeping accounts at a lumber yard to make ends meet.

Then, in an event that would alter every day thereafter, she was riding a wooden bus crumpled by a trolley, and she was subdued under the wreckage. It was a slow, bracing kind of accident, born of fundamental stupidity. Her "first responders" removed a handrail that had gone so deeply into Frida that it emerged from her vagina. She survived after a few days where her life hung in the balance, but her spine and pelvis were broken.

She recovered in a derelict Red Cross hospital, with a ratio of one nurse for every twenty-five patients. She briefly regained the use of her legs in 1925 until some undiagnosed spinal fractures put her back in a full body cast. To entertain herself she drew her accident, but only in pencil.

Frida married Diego Rivera, twenty years her elder, twice. He slept with other woman as a matter of routine, but seemed to view his wife in a somewhat different light. Her mother called Frida's new husband a "fat farmer." While she dealt with her first miscarriage, Diego enjoyed an affair with one of his assistants.

Expelled from the Communist Party, Diego and Frida took refuge in America. She found San Francisco an unfriendly place and struggled with her English. While Diego seduced the subjects of his portraits, she found consolation in the arms of women.

with Diego Rivera

Back in Mexico, Diego planned two houses in San Ángel, one for Frida and one for himself., that would be situated next to each other for maximum privacy and maximum closeness. (This dream was realized later.) The two came to New York in the fall of 1931 when Frida's husband received a commission from the Museum of Modern Art. Detroit, in contrast, was a "shabby little village" where Diego planned to paint the assembly line as some kind of Marxist exemplar.

She miscarried again at Henry Ford's hospital. Her series of lithographs about this, titled Frida and the Miscarriage, showed her at all her most vulnerable moments. Her mother died of cancer.


Diego wanted badly to stay in America, but Frida preferred to return to Mexico. Finally out of money they returned to their native country in 1933. Diego took Frida's sister Cristina as the primary model for his nude paintings, and eventually his mistress. When his wife found out, she cut off her hair, had her appendix removed, and then underwent an abortion.

Her drinking became increasingly obliviating. She made peace with her husband and her sister after thinking it over carefully. To retaliate she took up with other male painters. She even seduced Leon Trotsky by speaking in a language his dowdy wife did not know: English.

Their flirtation faded until he was murdered with an ice pick. Frida and her sister were interrogated for fourteen hours.

She divorced Diego and her work became the center of her life. Her shows in New York were helped by an admiring Julien Levy; in Paris she learned to hate Andre Breton with a passion unknown to her. She disliked being his pet.

Viewing her paintings now, they seem utterly divorced from the surrealist moment. They are not fantastical creations - they are instead perfectly reasonable realizations of her own life. She resided in all of these places, and when she herself could not be in them, there was another woman, resembling her in almost every fashion, who could be made to take her place.

Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in San Francisco. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about Marlon Brando.