Archive for February 2011

Most are familiar with the story of the original sin. According to psychiatrist Thomas Szasz’s interpretation, Adam and Eve, in their infinite innocence, sampled critical thinking from the Tree of Knowledge. Preferring His creatures to be foolish and subservient, God promptly evicted them from His heavenly Garden. Szasz, however, identifies a second sin committed by humanity later in its history: having become critical thinkers, humans began to accumulate more and more knowledge, elevating themselves, along with their Tower of Babel, to godly altitudes. Jealous of this, God sabotaged humans’ intellectual ascent by confounding the one language they spoke at the time: the language of critical thinking. As a result of God’s interference, language was muddied and humans forgot how to speak clearly.

In The Second Sin (1973), Szasz reclaims the type of plain language that God and other authority figures—religious leaders, psychiatrists, politicians—so despise, by dedicating an entire book to the clear and simple discussion of a wide variety of human-related topics. Divided into thirty-four sections, The Second Sin features a collection of razor-sharp and often humorous aphorisms regarding subjects such as marriage, ethics, emotions, law, psychiatry and mental illness. Its sequel, Heresies, was released in 1976. Defining “heresy” as “being right when the right thing to do is to be wrong” (p. 1), Szasz continues to expose the truth behind topics historically distorted by so-called authorities.

In a way, The Second Sin is less about what is said, and more about the way it is conveyed. Indeed, the book is an experiment, an exercise in plain writing. To be sure, its goal is not to simplify, but to not complicate.

There are many advantages to speaking clearly. Szasz quotes 1984 author George Orwell, who explained: “If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself” (1973, p.  xxi). However, Szasz adds, “[when] a person speaks or writes in political, psychiatric, or sociological jargon, he expresses himself with a certain indirectness and ambiguity; and like the hysteric, he dramatizes what he says as something profound, although it may be trivial” (p. 24).

This inappropriate use of language is dangerous, as the more language is used improperly, the more confusion ensues. And therein lies its power, for as confusion arises, so does the opportunity to dominate, since confusion incapacitates defenses. Indeed, “[in] the animal kingdom, the rule is, eat or be eaten; in the human kingdom, define or be defined” (Szasz, 1973, p. 20). In life, the opportunity to define embodies a rare commodity. Unfortunately, the most powerful among us have the ability to force the rest of us to adopt their definitions (even if these are one of many possible working definitions). In fact, “[those] whose social defenses are weak […] are most likely to contract invidious definitions of themselves” (p. 23).

This is not to say that there cannot be advantages to choosing to not speak clearly. The misuse of language can appease uncomfortable states, such as the angst inherent within the difficult questions of existence. For example, the concept of mental illness is often used to explain troublesome and seemingly incomprehensible breakdowns in individual and social human behavior. Indeed, “[mental] illness is a myth whose function is to disguise and thus render more palatable the bitter pill of moral conflicts in human relations” (Szasz, 1973, p. 98). Since mental illness is simply a metaphor meant to help us make sense of behavior, it is crucial that we do not confuse the metaphor with reality. However, the metaphor does confuse and distract: “[It] is precisely the technical idiom of medicine and psychiatry that stands in the way of recognizing and remedying these moral problems” (p. 30-31). (For more details on Szasz’ views regarding mental illness, see The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct, 1961).

If the rhetoric of medicine and psychiatry is not appropriately suited for the task of describing humans and their experiences in accurate and constructive ways, which type of language should we favor? It is interesting to note that Szasz uses religious terminology to title both books: The Second Sin and Heresies. This begs the question: could we use the language of religion? On the contrary, psychiatry merely perpetuates the mistakes of religion: the former medicalizes (unacceptable behavior becomes mental illness) whereas the latter mystifies (unacceptable behavior becomes sin).

Indeed, in many of his books (e.g., The Myth of Psychotherapy: Mental Healing as Religion, Rhetoric, and Repression, 1978), Szasz observes that psychiatry appears to have replaced religion in modern society: we no longer kneel at the altar of God, but at the altar of Mental Health. (Some of us, of course, hedge our bets on both sides of the God/Mental Health spectrum.) Both concepts, incidentally, are symbolic representations of the same thing: the ideal human situation. In other words, religion presents a picture of ideal moral behavior, whereas the mental health system presents a picture of ideal healthy behavior. Yet, for some reason, we prefer to avoid labeling these behaviors simply as “ideals,” preferring instead to couch them beneath extraneous layers of meaning.

If not the language of religion, should psychiatrists simply adopt the language of their clients? Szasz counsels against this, arguing that either party’s attempts to impose his image of the world on the other is ultimately fraudulent because of their underlying motivations. In fact, a client’s claim that he will not venture outside his house because the world is a cruel place is no more accurate a description of his predicament than his psychiatrist’s contention that he suffers from something called agoraphobia.

Alternately, we could use anti-psychiatric language. Ironically, language that romanticizes mental illness (e.g., viewing “schizophrenia” as a transformative journey leading to untold insights) is as equally misleading as its psychiatric counterpart. Still, the romanticization of deviant experiences dates back centuries. In The 120 Days of Sodom (1785), for example, the Marquis de Sade details the sexual adventures of four libertine men, explicitly describing a wide variety of sexual crimes committed on a quest for hedonistic bliss. The resulting text is a narrative survey of different types and varieties of sexual behaviors, normal and deviant, in which people engage. By glorifying all that is sex, and doing so indiscriminately, De Sade infused sexual activity with meaning it does not inherently own.

Unfortunately, De Sade’s romantic take on sexual deviance was replaced 100 years later with psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s medicalized approach. In Psychopathia Sexualis (1886), Krafft-Ebing approached sexually deviant behaviors from a scientific point-of-view, attempting to survey, categorize, and explain them. By sanitizing and clinicizing all that is sex, Krafft-Ebing committed the same kind of crime against meaning that De Sade did. Approximately 80 years later, the anti-psychiatry movement, with psychiatrist R. D. Laing as its poster-child, attempted to reverse the tables on psychiatry by elevating the mentally ill to idealistic heights, much in the same way De Sade did with the sexually deviant. Resenting the suggestion that he is associated with this movement, Szasz rather affectionately titled his book on the subject: Antipsychiatry: Quackery Squared (2009).

In sum, the languages of religion, psychiatry and anti-psychiatry are equally unsuited for the task of describing humans and their experiences, adding extra layers of meaning that are not warranted and are potentially misleading. In regards to anti-psychiatric romanticization, however, I am inclined to think that its impact is less damaging than religious mystification and psychiatric medicalization: romanticization strips power away from the oppressor (i.e., the righteous, mentally healthy) and confers power upon the oppressed (i.e., the sinful, mentally ill), however misguided the exchange might be. While not perfect, at least this system of thought flips everything on its head.

Sadly, helping professions are wrought with misusers of language. This is not surprising, as modern psychotherapy is, to put it bluntly, the bastard offspring of the religious and medical schools of thought; as such, it is inevitable that its linguistic development suffered. Psychoanalysis is, in my experience, perhaps the biggest culprit, with its inscrutable layers of symbols upon symbols. Psychoanalytic language is also terribly conceited: when a client does not cooperate, we call it “resistance,” and when the client responds to the therapist the way he would to someone else, we call it “transference.” While not exempt from blame (think of the laughable term “cognitive restructuring”), cognitive-behavioral therapy fares somewhat better, limiting its range of terms to basic and more salient facets of human experience: cognitions, emotions, physiological reactions, and behaviors.

In his diminutive On Bullshit (2005), philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt explores the philosophy of bullshit in a suitably tongue-in-cheek fashion. According to Frankfurt, bullshitting is marked by an absence of concern for truth. The bullshitter, he explains, uses words to describe concepts without bothering to submit to rules of enquiry that may increase the accuracy of his descriptions. “[His] fault is not that [he] fails to get things right, but that [he] is not even trying. [The bullshitter]’s statement is unconnected to a concern with the truth” (p. 32-33). In this sense, the bullshitter stands apart from the liar because the latter is (at least) familiar with the truth; he merely chooses to misrepresent it. Indeed, bullshit may be objectively truthful; its supplier simply does not care.

Here’s a personal example: during a conversation with a colleague, she stated an argument as agreed-upon fact. When I asked if any research supported this perspective, she replied: “There must be.” That, readers, is bullshit epitomized. This is not to say that my colleague was wrong. In fact, she could very well have been right. Her argument was bullshit, however, because she did not care if her statements represented reality. What was more important to her in that particular moment was making her point.

Frankfurt identifies advertisers and politicians as bullshitters. But how about psychiatrists? If they have looked into the veracity of their truths (especially the extent to which they stem from and involve the proper use of language) and are convinced of them, they are neither liars nor bullshitters. I submit, however, that those who have never bothered to investigate and instead mindlessly adopted their so-called truths during their training qualify as bullshitters. Indeed, such psychiatrists are probably not concerned with truth to begin with, for “[the] bullshitter does not care whether the things that he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose” (Frankfurt, 2005, p. 56). In the case of bullshitting psychiatrists, I suspect that purpose to be existential: they are unable to accept the drama of life, and wish to thwart its finality by elevating their life work (i.e., helping others overcome the drama of life) to the level of medicine, perhaps society’s most respected profession.

Following is an example of psychiatric nonsense: a psychiatrist teaching a course on psychopharmacology I completed during my own training once warned the class that psychotherapy, like medication, has its own side-effects. While this is metaphorically true, he said this without an ounce of lightness. He was, in fact, dead serious. That, to me, is bullshit. If that man had taken the time to think twice about what he was trying to say, he would have probably realized that beneath his metaphor laid a basic truth about relationships, such as the one between a therapist and his client: while some may prove helpful in overcoming difficulties, complexities inherent to relationship development may still obstruct the helping process.

If psychiatrists are full of (bull)shit, and clients’ own accounts of their experiences are potentially unreliable, how are we to describe clients and their experiences? Szasz (1973) proposes that “[a] dignified and humane understanding of man—his experiences and conflicts, his strengths and weaknesses, his saintliness and his bestiality—all this requires a rejection of the languages of both madness and mad-doctoring, and a fresh commitment to the conventional, disciplined, and artistic use of the language of the educated layman” (p. xx).

Thus, if I may be so bold to present my helping philosophy: when attempting to understand my clients and represent their experiences in my mind, I try to resort to the simplest terms possible. In addition to helping me better appreciate all that my clients are and want to be, refusing to add unnecessary levels of meaning helps me avoid confusing both myself and my clients. If my clients are not assaulted and incapacitated with deceitful language, they can correct me should my understanding be mistaken, affording them power and ownership in the process of reaching their personal goals. In the end, I believe my clients and I are better able to work together toward overcoming whichever difficulties trouble them. Of course, I am not immune to misuses of language, but I find it helpful to at least consciously strive to avoid committing semantic crimes. When one treads a thin line between sense and nonsense, he is often told: “choose your words carefully.” In an age when medicalized jargon has become the default, this maxim could not come more recommended.

Mikado is a Montreal institution, boasting several locations across the island. It was here before sushi became a craze, with new shops popping up every second street corner. As a child, I remember regular visits to the Laurier Avenue location with my family. That was when the restaurant was cooped up on the second floor of a building on the south side of the street. It has now moved across the street into a more expansive and better designed space.

For every Valentine’s Day, my boyfriend and I have celebrated at Mikado. Yesterday, we started with miso soup, overflowing with shitake mushrooms, seaweed, tofu, and tender chunks of fish and seafood. Next up was sunomono, a salad consisting of thin yam noodles, cucumber, seaweed, seafood (crab for me, octopus for him), and tangy rice vinegar dressing. We followed these with two lightly fried maki layered atop aromatic sauces: the Temp-Temp, filled with white fish, salmon, and shallot, and the Relax, filled with spicy tuna, shrimp, crab, cucumber, asparagus, and tobiko (flying fish row). For the sushi virgins among our readers, maki are seaweed and rice rolls filled with a variety of ingredients. Each of the maki here featured a perfect blend of tastes and textures. Still to come was our main course, a combination of nigiri and, yes, more maki. Nigiri are typically raw fish or seafood atop a ball of rice (which, at Mikado, was perfectly seasoned). Of particular note were the ama-ebi (raw sweet shrimp), hotategai (scallop), mirugai (king clam), uni (sea urchin), and Rising Sun (tobiko, hotategai, and quail egg). Each piece of nigiri and maki was carefully positioned across a small wooden vessel, and accompanied with mounds of naturally pickled ginger and wasabi (Japanese horseradish) mustard.

The quality of the ingredients on display at Mikado is unrivalled: freshness and taste abound each and every time we visit. This is not food-court sushi; the raw fish has flavour you may not have known raw fish could have. The presentation is exquisite. The meal, nicely and unhurriedly paced. The service, friendly, attentive, and cordial. And the space, simple and elegant. A meal will run you down 30 to 50$ per person, making visits for special occasions only. Because you can do no better than Mikado in terms of expertly-crafted sushi, however, you may just find yourself looking for special occasions to celebrate!

Note: Click here for more details on the restaurant and its menu. This review applies to the Laurier Avenue location only.

Written and directed by Denis Villeneuve, Incendies is this year’s Canadian contender for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Best Foreign Language Film Award. Based off Wajdi Mouawad’s play, Incendies proceeds like a detective story. After having read their mother Nawal’s (Lubna Azabal) will to them, notary Jean Lebel (Rémy Girard) hands Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) two sealed envelopes. According to their mother’s instructions, one is to be handed to their father, who they thought was dead, and the other to their brother, whose existence they knew nothing about. The film subsequently follows Jeanne, and later Simon, as they make their way through an unnamed Middle Eastern country, attempting to find their long-lost relatives. While Incendies features capable performances and beautiful cinematography, it does not offer much more.

The storytelling on display in Incendies is best characterized as lazy. The set-up is contrived. We are never really sure why the characters behave the way they do because we are never given the time to know them; as such, we don’t much care for them. The film also relies on a sequence of hard to believe coincidences to push its story forward. For example, toward the end of the film, Nawal is made to realize something about her life in a way that is utterly implausible. The ending itself is preposterous. It is meant to come as a surprise, but astute audiences will see it coming from about halfway through the film. I, for one, was desperately hoping the film would not stoop so low. After all, this is Oscar-worthy material right? Unfortunately, it would, and does. Because Incendies relies so completely on its ending, once we come to expect it, the film ceases to have anything to offer. Certain valuable themes are introduced (logic and religion), but the film is so busy setting up its end payoff that it completely forgets to build on these. If Incendies had faith in its material, it would have revealed its “surprise” at the very onset, or by the middle of the film at the latest.

One reason stories often fail is because their characters are not written in ways that inspire compelling turns of events. Roger Ebert coined the term “idiot plot” to describe “a plot that requires all the characters to be idiots. If they weren’t, they’d immediately figure out everything and the movie would be over.” In line with this, director/screenwriter Michael Haneke explains, in an interview about his dastardly wicked Funny Games (1997), that he always gives his characters dispositional substance, so they may have the best chances of overcoming obstacles:

As an author, you should always give everyone, all the characters you create, all the resources that you have. I hate writers who think they’re more intelligent than their characters. That doesn’t interest me. There are very famous writers who write in a way that I find disgusting. They think they’re God. They show their characters and they laugh at them in a cynical way. I always try to give each one of them everything that the situation allows them to have. That means giving them your intelligence, your depth of feeling, and all that.

Unfortunately, the characters of Jeanne and Simon seem to have been shortchanged here. This is a real possibility, as several events surrounding their conception and gestation may have compromised their intellectual development. Although Simon proposes that the letters be opened to put a stop to his mother’s nonsense, he quickly forgets the idea. Jean proceeds to provide a ridiculously convenient excuse for why the letters cannot be opened: posthumous wishes, and a notary’s promise to uphold them, are sacred. In this way, the film treads an uncomfortably thin line from beginning to end, threatening to fall apart at several points in between. Then again, if the characters simply went ahead and opened the letters, and were clever enough to interpret their meaning, there would be no story. That is, there would not be the story we get here. Had Villeneuve endowed his characters with wits and had them do the obvious (i.e., open the letters), it would have effectively forced the story forward into more inspired directions. Indeed, when a screenwriter supplies his characters with intellectual and emotional substance, uninteresting or nonsensical plotlines are naturally eliminated.

In a way, Incendies focuses on its least interesting characters. Jeanne and Simon are painfully ordinary, and do not really seem to care about what is happening to them. Indeed, by the end of the film, they appear to have learned nothing except what directly concerns them. This, despite the fact that they have traveled to and back from a country rich with history, history tainted with political turmoil in part brought about by their own mother. Yet, both the children and the film itself conveniently overlook this. The country and its history are just a backdrop, and we are told just enough to sustain the mystery. Regarding the children’s stagnant development throughout the film, I suppose it is hard to change one’s worldview when you are too busy running around trying to make your dead mother’s wishes come true. Notwithstanding this, the most interesting characters in Incendies remain the peripheral ones: namely, Nawal and the recipients of her letters. However, because these characters are merely tools servicing a surprise ending, we are not given the opportunity to know them or engage in their experiences beyond what is necessary for the big reveal to not fall flat. We assume that these characters have feelings and motivations, but the film is too worried about the mystery to make us care.

In The Sweet Hereafter (1997), a film I encountered recently and which is considered by some to be the best Canadian film ever produced, director Atom Egoyan dealt with tragedy in a remarkably honest and non-manipulative fashion. Incendies, on the other hand, is self-important and calculating in its approach. Bringing to mind a Greek tragedy, the film is very theatrical, which is to be expected as it is based on a play. However, Villeneuve’s approach is too melodramatic. Indeed, Incendies amounts to no more than a soap opera. While it would have made for a fine TV movie of the week, it makes for a weak Oscar contender. If you are shopping around for an Oscar-nominated film to go see this weekend, I suggest you treat yourself to Sylvain Chomet’s delightfully quirky The Illusionist instead.

Note: Haneke’s full interview is available on Kino International’s DVD release of Funny Games (1997).

Humans love stories. In fact, we love them so much that we have been attempting to make them more like real life since the late Paleolithic era. First came pictures, than much later motion, followed by sound, and eventually color. For the last few decades, we have, with varying degrees of success, attempted to add a new feature to this list: an extra dimension. As many of you have probably noticed, 3D is making a comeback, with many new releases coming out in “exciting!” and “eye-popping!” 3D. Yet, I cannot help but wonder: does the extra dimension contribute anything more to the experience than the usual combination of (2D) picture, motion, sound and color? Indeed, should we strive to produce movies that are completely physically immersive, with additional tactile, gustatory and olfactory stimulation? Would this embody the ultimate in storytelling? While I may very well bite my tongue half a century from now, I am presently inclined to say no. Not at all.

3D is both praised and maligned: some, like Hollywood executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, espouse its wonders, whereas others, like movie critic Roger Ebert, struggle to find any redeeming feature. I consider myself part of the second camp. In order to settle the score, however, I propose that we develop a new field of study, called Cinematic Science. The first research project would be to show a variety of films that combine the core elements in every different way possible: moving/still images, sound/silence, color/black and white, and 3D/2D. (For the scientists among our readers, yes, this is a 2x2x2x2 research design.) Subsequent to each viewing, we would assess each participant’s level of engagement with the film. At the end of the experiment, we would be able to determine the degree to which each feature and combination of features promotes engagement. My hypothesis: the combination of moving images, sound, color, and 3D or 2D will contribute significantly more variance than any of these features alone; however, I expect no significant difference between 3D and 2D. In other words, I suggest the combination of these basic elements can together draw in an audience, but 3D is by no means a useful tool for increasing audience engagement.

As far as I am concerned, movies achieved perfection when they became, as their name implies, moving pictures. The addition of sound and that of color, while revolutionary, were merely add-ons, much like the addition of an extra dimension. The difference between sound & color and an extra dimension, however, is that sound & color open up doors toward more artistic possibilities. Imagine Walt Disney’s experimental Fantasia (1940), for example, without any music or colors. Inconceivable, right? Now imagine Fantasia, only in 3D. I would hardly call this new version an improvement. After all, 3D merely adds an extra layer of depth; artistically speaking, there is not much you can do with that. You can throw things every which way at your audience, but that is hardly the mark of art. In fact, many critics claim that 3D amounts to no more than a gimmick meant to distract moviegoers from the declining quality of movies. While it is true that most movies coming out in 3D are not Oscar contenders, that accusation does not represent a fair assessment of the true value of 3D. The question is not: can 3D make a poor movie excellent? The real question is: can 3D enhance an already excellent movie? From an artistic point of view: no. But what about from an experiential point of view?

Proponents of 3D contend that it promotes audience immersion (i.e., engagement). As reflected in my hypothesis, however, I believe that what contributes the most to this factor is good old-fashioned storytelling, in the form of capable screenwriting, directing, cinematography, scoring, editing, and so on. Walter Murch, reputed film editor and sound designer, recently wrote to Roger Ebert, pointing out the limitations of the 3D image. In his letter, he also describes how well-told stories cause us to become emotionally and intellectually invested, immersing us in a fully dimensional imaginative experience. Murch explains: “3D films remind the audience that they are in a certain “perspective” relationship to the image. It is almost a Brechtian trick. Whereas if the film story has really gripped an audience they are “in” the picture in a kind of dreamlike “spaceless” space. So a good story will give you more dimensionality than you can ever cope with.”

Indeed, no amount of added dimension will ever make Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988) sadder, Zucker’s Rat Race (2001) funnier, Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) scarier, Zemeckis’ Back to the Future (1985) more thrilling, DeBlois and Sanders’ Lilo and Stitch (2002) more endearing, Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure (2008) more thought-provoking, or Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) more perfect. Ever. And with the risk of biting my tongue twice, I guarantee it.

Note: If you want to spend your extra dollars on a fully 3-dimensional entertainment experience, my boyfriend recommends you buy a ticket to one of your local playhouses, which have all been retrofitted for 3D capability since 1836. Just make sure you avoid one of those shows where the actors come into the audience. This tactic, sadly, is the theatre equivalent to cinema’s 3D.

UPDATE (09/16/2012): In my post, I propose a new field of study, which I call Cinematic Science. Little did I know when I first wrote and published the post, such a field already exists. In fact, I recently came across The Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image (SCSMI), which has been promoting research on the psychology of moviegoing since the late 1990s.

Have you ever wondered what George Cukor’s The Women (1939) would be like if it were remade into a horror film? Well, look no further than 2005’s The Descent, a film that bears much resemblance to Cukor’s film in that both feature an all-female cast dealing with mostly male-related difficulties. Of course, the former tries to tickle your funny bone, whereas the other tries to scare you witless. Directed by Neil Marshall, this British film is a brutish one. It tells the story of six daredevils who, in search of their next adrenaline rush, have traveled to North Carolina to explore the caves that course below the Appalachian Mountains. At first unaware that one of their own has selected an unmapped system as the site of their next adventure, the group ends up lost deep inside the bowels of the earth and threatened by cave-dwelling creatures.

The Descent features no male characters, with the exception of a short-lived appearance by one in the prologue. Although there are no human males in the film, the majority of the subterranean creatures appear male-like. At first terrified by their assailants, the women eventually find their bearings, band together, and turn against them. In this way, The Descent is permeated by an implied, but never explicit sense of “female power.” Indeed, you might find yourself humming Helen Reddy’s I am Woman as the women fight back, even if the film wouldn’t stoop so low as to play it on the soundtrack. Still, it is odd to feel invigorated and empowered at the same time as feeling scared stiff and hopeless. Perhaps, then, the male-populated, labyrinthine caves in which the female protagonists are trapped are meant to symbolize the maze of patriarchal nonsense that women must traverse daily in order to be recognized as equals.

I am not a fan of horror films. Many of them amount to cinematic swill. They are often poorly constructed and typically struggle to elicit well-deserved frights within audiences. As in any genre, however, the genre itself is rarely to blame; instead, the execution is at fault. I believe (at least in theory) that any premise could become the subject of a great movie, provided it is adapted properly. (Yes, that includes a live-action adaptation of Yogi Bear. Did not a bunch of toys just earn an Oscar nomination for best picture?) Having said this, The Descent does not let its audience down. Indeed, this film exemplifies the best of what the horror genre can offer. While its premise is not as ingenious as, say, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the film takes full advantage of its straightforward plot and single setting. Indeed, an otherwise simple premise is so brilliantly executed that it becomes inspired.

From a technical standpoint, there are many elegant visuals on display. Cinematographer Sam McCurdy rises to the challenge of working within a dark, constricted setting by ingeniously utilizing lighting in ways that effectively texture the film. Conferring an ominous tone onto the journey, light, emanating from a variety of sources, alternates between white and more off-putting colors like green, purple, and red. Also, dabs of light are often surrounded by pitch darkness, which helps foster a sense of claustrophobia.

The Descent is not for the faint of heart, amounting to 99 uncomfortable minutes of squirming and repeated cries for mommy. The fact that I was terrified out of my wits while watching it on my magnormous 22-inch television is a credit to its effectiveness. I must embarrass myself further by confessing that one scene in particular haunted my dreams for well too many nights. At one point during the film, the women are submerged in total darkness. We hear one of them reaching around for her video camera. As soon as she finds it, she enables the night-vision feature. Spinning around, she focuses on one of her friends. It is then that we are treated to the very first close-up shot of exactly what the women are up against. The composition of the scene is unsettling: there stands the creature, leering motionless over the poor, unsuspecting girl. It is a momentary and almost static scene, but its impact is lasting. Indeed, shivers riddle my body just writing about it.

Some may consider The Descent’s ending slightly manipulative. Nonetheless, it serves to highlight one of the most prominent emotions felt by the characters during their ordeal: despair. Just in case we hadn’t felt it during the beginning and middle acts of the film, the ending makes sure we do. Indeed, the ending packs so much of an emotional wallop that American audiences were spared from it during the film’s original theatrical release. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), we are treated to the original ending on the uncut DVD. Should you find yourself brave enough to watch The Descent, one word of advice: when night falls and slumber beckons, think plenty of happy thoughts before crawling into bed and diving into the cavernous depths of your subconscious.

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