(Jeff Wadlow, USA, 2024)


Guest Film Critic: Teddy

Skin in the Game

This is Teddy speaking. You may know me from numerous social media posts by my Daddy Adrian and Mama Cristina. I have requested use of this platform to comment on the film Imaginary, as I am deeply invested in the question of Teddy Bear Representation on screen – I have skin in the game, as they say – and am currently in the process of preparing an audiovisual essay survey on the matter. (After all, I did teach Adrian & Cristina everything they know about this particular form of videographic critical expression.) Having recently (like my Daddy) survived extensive, reconstructive surgery (thanks, Mama!), it is now time for me to step out of the shadows as a genuine auteur of both Cinema and its Critique.

Imaginary is a horror movie, and not a particularly distinguished one. Within a couple of months of its initial release, it seems to have been already largely forgotten. One wonders why the producers did not go for the more informative title Imaginary Friend, instead of the too vague (or too Lacanian) Imaginary. Because that’s its focus: a girl’s emotional connection to her Teddy, which is a fine subject for drama, and one too little addressed by filmmakers across the entire span of World Cinema. A typical oversight in the realm of representation!

As Daddy has pointed out in relation to films such as Wolf Creek (2005), the toughest part of any horror movie to do well, especially these days, is the exposition, with its sketch-out of a ‘normality’ that is soon to be disturbed. It has to be normal alright, but it also has to instantly flag various seeds of malaise that will later be magnified and warped.

So, usually, it’s a seemingly Happy Family in Suburbia (or on a holiday trip, or whatever) that is also seething with underlying tensions – which also need to be, at the outset, fairly ordinary. It’s all pretty ho hum stuff, and that’s the case here in Imaginary. Jessica (DeWanda Wise) is the black stepmother to two white kids, little Alice (Pyper Braun) and sullen teen Taylor (Taegen Burns), and wife to a Sensitive Guy, Max (Tom Payne) – who, alas, is always tripping off elsewhere with his musical instrument (this bit is very sketchy, indeed).

Jessica is having a particularly hard time bonding with the resentful Taylor, and getting through to Alice – who, for reasons of implied trauma at the hands of a mentally disturbed Biological Mother (whom we fleetingly see), has ‘withdrawn’ into her relationship with a Teddy Bear named (after the novel/film Being There?) Chauncey. It takes 13 ordinary minutes (which drag for eternity) for this Teddy representative to appear – and that is the first major structural flaw of the movie.

I place the word ‘withdrawn’ in quotation marks above because this is a film that seriously lacks the necessary respect for the sacred union between Child and Teddy. They eat meals together, and share a bed at night: completely natural behaviour! Chauncey also speaks through Alice’s voice (again, perfectly natural) … which is where my critique begins. Because this vocalised Chauncey sounds like Mercedes McCambridge overdubbing Linda Blair in The Exorcist (1973)!

I know: it’s a horror movie. And horror movies have to contrive Monstrosity – they’re obsessed with it! Non-monstrous horror movies don’t play so well in the contemporary market; they’re in a neglected fantastique vein that my old friend (I get around) Val Lewton mastered so well in The Curse of the Cat People (1944). A lost art; a forgotten tradition. Only the sight of Louis Garrel tenderly repairing the wounded eye of his Teddy in Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent (2014) can return me to that gentle rapture! (That Teddy, in reality, went into the grave with his Daddy, Jacques de Bascher – a fitting epitaph for both of them.) In our present case, there’s a strange affinity with Leos Carax’s beautiful Annette (2021) in the form of a twinkling, rotating projection-toy that fills a dark room with its Teddy-silhouette apparitions – but the typical ‘turning-creepy mechanical toy’ musical accompaniment (reprised over the end credits) dampens down the lyrical poetic effect.

There are now several semantic threads to untangle in Imaginary; allow me to not waste too much time on them, as Daddy wants his computer back. What turns Chauncey into an evil Teddy – or, in the lamely obvious trope, what literally turns the upwards smile-line into a downwards frown-line? (I have always disliked the manufactured forever-smiles impaled on the faces of my brothers and sisters, and I duly protest it here!) The figure of the Imaginary Friend, according to the various pop-psychology bromides sprinkled throughout this movie, generates such a potent emotional force-field (so far, so true) that it creates a kind of undying Teddy-spirit-energy-existence inside an eternal, alternate, dream-world of M.C. Escher-type rooms and corridors (this aspect, with its A Nightmare on Elm Street-type dream-battles, gets a bit far-fetched for my liking … but it spins some nice décor-images).

What can go wrong? Precisely that there is, inevitably, a crisis of abandonment (well, not in my household) – a wrenching apart of Child and Teddy. In a film that gingerly dances around other kinds of trauma (familial abuse, etc.), this is the true core of the trauma, and justly so. (The term “cognitive break” is bandied about at one point by a curious old ‘believer’, Betty Buckley as Gloria, whose “paracosmic” naïveté eventually leads her astray. I would have preferred her to reference the more defensible and respectful Klein/Winnicott/Bion theories of the part/transitional/external object.)

As is rightly said, Teddies not only give love – they need, even demand it, too. We have agency, and don’t forget it! But what if they are neglected, if they get locked up in some old room or dark box? According to this movie, they turn into violent, terrifying, dissimulating, Death-Driven Devils! Hmmph. It’s the typical Demonisation of the Other, as my erstwhile student Robin Wood understood so well (he took my lesson and applied it to certain sectors of the human community).

(Furthermore: I would like to see the film that shows Teddies retiring into contemplative solitude to write tomes on philosophy & aesthetics, until they are recalled to the world of humans. That’s my personal tale.)

Cinephilic Aside: contemporary horror movies – with their fix on ‘jump scares’, trick-dream/waking transitions, and unveiled monsters (here signalled by bulging, jet-black eyes) – tend to bore the Hell out of me. Imaginary shows you how every frame, every sound effect, has been so completely coded by convention and repetition.

Over 40 years ago, when I sat with Daddy close-analysing The Entity (1982) – and I really should have received co-scholar credit on that effort – I thrilled to every canted angle on a doorknob or curtain blowing in the chill wind. Now it’s become obligatory: every frame has to ape either wild Sidney J. Furie or the ‘wide angle surveillance indifference’ of the Paranormal Activity franchise (2007-2021). And every scene has to end with a rising-in-volume sheet of noise that abruptly ends with the disorienting cut to the next, seemingly normal bit of business: Billy Friedkin, another old pal, was already doing that in The Birthday Party (1968), let alone The Exorcist. Even Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest, the 40-minute Chime (2024), retreads the same old, ambient-scare ground with its switches between psychologically enigmatic horrors that you can see-without-hearing, or those you hear-without-seeing. It has all gotten tired. I have spoken.

Early on, Imaginary brings up the widespread distinction between Imaginary Friend and ‘soft toy’. The very term term I find demeaning – how would you like to be called a hard human, huh? – but, what with Baby Reindeer (2024) and all, soft toys are sure back in pop culture right now. According to such a split, the toy is the thing you can see, while the Friend is wholly in the head of the Imaginer. I firmly reject this separation – for how could it even begin to explain the fact of my own, very material existence? But, in this context, it leads to a quite good and unexpected plot twist/revelation, which I won’t spoil here.

From that moment, there is an intriguing parity between Stepmother (who – it helps the fusional, imaginative tie – draws children’s books) and Child – a development I didn’t see coming. But I have a quibble about how director-co-writer Wardle contrives this: it depends (as so many horror films do) on the existence of a particular (haunted) house in a specific place (to which our adult heroine must return) – with the Teddy’s soul, as it were, unbreakably embedded within it. Build it, expand it, fill it with secret corridors, attics or basements (and here, an alternate reality), watch it decay over time, burn it down: we know the home-cycle from a thousand horror movies.

But this, for real-world Teddies, is errant nonsense. Teddies are cosmopolitan creatures, and don’t you dare imagine otherwise! I’ve lived in many homes with Daddy, as well as crossing the ocean from Australia to Spain to meet up with my destined Mama, and in that process I have lost none of my abundant power, energy, charm or influence. Just ask my folks about that.

© Teddy 19 May 2024

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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