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Archive: September 2004

Identity Crisis: The Locked-Room Mystery

Mystery stories may be classified along a spectrum of emphasis placed on puzzle-solving in the plot. In some stories—the Sherlock Holmes stories, e.g.—much of the narrative consists of an investigation in which clues to the solution of the mystery are presented to both the protagonist detective and the reader, and the reader is encouraged to try and solve the mystery before the detective does. In other stories, the puzzle-solving aspects of the investigation are downplayed. (As an extreme example, Raymond Chandler was so disinterested in puzzle-solving in his detective fiction that he was famously incapable of keeping straight the plots of his own books.) Puzzle mysteries are usually concerned with who committed the crime, and sometimes moreover with how the criminal pulled off a seemingly physically impossible crime. The latter are generally called “locked-room mysteries.” The basic puzzle is, how did a murderer get into and out of a room whose entrance was locked from the inside, without breaking in or unlocking the door? Although the puzzle doesn’t necessarily involve a locked room—the puzzle might be something like figuring out how somebody was shot to death even though nobody in hearing distance heard a gunshot.

With that brief explanation of locked-room mysteries behind us, we may now establish that Identity Crisis appears to be a locked-room mystery. Solving the mystery hasn’t been the sole focus, but the investigation—complete with clue-gathering and encouragement of the reader to solve the puzzle—has been prominent enough that I think we can say the logical procedure of solving the puzzle is an important part of the story. The heroes investigate, they gather clues, they narrow the list of suspects. Author Brad Meltzer seems to be putting some effort into making the mystery soluble. Or maybe only apparently soluble? Let’s see.

There are two major questions involved in the puzzle:

  1. Who is the killer—and why is the killer impersonating other villains?
  2. How does the killer bypass the JLA’s amazing security measures to get to his (or her, or [giving Hal Jordan the grammatical benefit of the doubt in issue #4] their) victims?

Now let’s see how the superheroes’ investigation is going so far…

From Identity Crisis #2 (unfortunately, this book’s pages are not numbered):

Dr. Mid-Nite
The bad news is that, two days ago, Sue Dibny supposedly died by carbon monoxide poisoning brought on by her third-degree burns.
Dr. Mid-Nite
And under that scenario—beyond what else the autopsy’s showing—she would’ve breathed so much soot into her lungs, he bronchi and trachea should be black.
They’re not?
Dr. Mid-Nite
I’m staring at them right now. They’re pink.
Wait—so Sue’s lungs…
Dr. Mid-Nite
…Didn’t have a black spot on them. I know it sounds insane—I ran other tests too—but by the time those flames hit her skin, Sue was already dead.
Oh, god—so you think the League…
Dr. Mid-Nite
I’m telling right now, they’re going after the wrong person. Sue Dibny wasn’t killed by Dr. Light.

Assuming Dr. Mid-Nite’s rejection of the previously assumed cause of Sue Dibny’s death based on his autopsy results is valid (but see Identity Crisis #2: A Medical Review on Polite Dissent for why it’s not), does his new information and the conclusions he draws from it discount Dr. Light as a suspect in the investigation? Only if we make the extremely arbitrary assumption that Dr. Light cannot kill people without using his powers.

From, issue #4, as Mr. Miracle, Green Arrow and Superman investigate the scene of Jean Loring’s attempted murder:

He used a bowline knot.
Green Arrow
A what?
A bowline knot—to tie the end of the noose to the door. They call it a bowline knot, though he added a Dutch marine twist.
Green Arrow
And you recognized that?
It’s a common boy scout knot.
Green Arrow (narrating)
I love him and hate him in the same breath.
Green Arrow
Boy scout. Right. Oracle, can you—?
Already on it. Bowline knot with a Dutch marine twist.

It’s not entirely clear, but Oracle apparently then finds the suspect, Sliptnot, in her Database o’ Villains by searching for former boy scouts known to use bowline knots with Dutch marine twists when he hangs people. I say “he” because the heroes are convinced the killer is male—Jean saw the killer’s boots, which were brown work boots. Women never wear brown work boots, right?

The investigation has proceeded so far as follows:

  1. Sue Dibny appears to have been murdered by Dr. Light. Dr. Light has a motive: he’s unconsciously seeking revenge because some superheroes magically lobotomized him after he raped Sue. The apparent method fits Dr. Light: Sue was burnt to a crisp. But Dr. Light cannot have been the murderer, because Sue’s longs carry no trace of carbon monoxide.
  2. Jean Loring appears to have been almost murdered by Slipknot. She was hanged, and Slipknot is known to have hanged his victims. He is also a former boy scout who invariably used a bowline with a Dutch marine twist to anchor his nooses—the very knot used to anchor Jean’s noose. but Slipknot cannot have been the murderer, because he was in prison at the time of the murder attempt.
  3. The killer was male, because he wore large brown work boots.
  4. Dr. Light and Slipknot are both associated with the Suicide Squad. Some JLA members want to investigate the Suicide Squad, but Batman knows this is a waste of time: the Suicide Squad has no motive.

With the exception of Slipknot’s innocence (his alibi is really airtight), this investigation is an absurd collection of arbitrary conclusions drawn from ridiculous data. All the characters involved, including the so-called World’s Greatest Detective, demonstrate the worst possible investigatory behavior. These superhero detectives don’t suspect anything—they know. As soon as they get a clue that contradicts what they know, they know something else.

It’s generally considered bad form for a locked-room mystery to have a supernatural solution—it’s a cheat, and it’s only fair to the reader trying to solve the puzzle that the puzzle follow clear rules. If the answer is that the killer used a magic spell to teleport into and out of the locked room, that’s a bad puzzle. Setting a mystery story in a superhero universe is like the apotheosis of bad form. Superhero universes (by which I mean the huge universes best represented by the properties of DC and Marvel) have no rules—anything can happen at any time, for whatever bullshit reason the author of a story can come up with. This causes basic rules systems like logic and causation to break down or explode messily when they come into contact with a superhero universe. Solving a mystery in the DC universe is impossible, because there is an effectively infinite number of possible explanations for anything. Green Arrow is right to dismiss the investigation as a waste of time, and Batman is right to focus on motive in his investigtation: in the absence of a riddling villain who deliberately leaves clues to lead the heroes’ investigation, motive is the only aspect of a mystery that might not have infinite possible solutions. But Batman is still guilty of the sin of expressing undeserved certainty.

Ian Brill, writing about audience expectations, reminded me of something I should say in this post. I expect that Identity Crisis is a spectacularly failed attempt to set a soluble puzzle mystery in the DC universe, but maybe something else is going on. Absurdity, arbitrariness and lack of elegance are violations of a puzzle-mystery aesthetic. But is Identity Crisis’s corruption of its apparently attempted aesthetic a failure—or is it a springboard for some tricky thing that has yet to be revealed? We’ll see.

Madrox #1

In Peter David’s new Madrox miniseries, the characters, including Jamie Madrox, talk like there’s a Jamie, and then there are a bunch of duplicate Jamies. Like at one point, Jamie says, “…last night I waffled on staying in or going out. So I sent a dupe out to have a good time for me,” as if the Jamie who stayed home last night had more claim to Madroxness than a mere “dupe.” How does this work? Are dupes mere copies who are somehow imperfect, so that it’s obvious which one is the real Jamie? Does the real Jamie have a special, intangible quality of Madroxness that the dupes lack? Or do they simply agree to arbitrarily select one of the Jamies to act as the “real” Jamie for convenience? I can see how it would get confusing if you had several separate physical bodies, with no psyhic connection between them, and every body thought of and talked about himself as “I,” and also talked about every other body as “I.” Or “we”? It’d certainly be confusing for people who had to talk to or about more than one of you at once, but it would also have to fuck with your own sense of self. Most superheroes have a dual identity, but Madrox the Multiple Man may embody the identity-based conflicts of superheroes more than any other character.

I also wonder where the X-Men get the cool t-shirts with their logos on them. Jean Grey-Summers wore a Phoenix shirt for a while in New X-Men, and now Jamie has one in Madrox. Do the X-Men have these shirts custom-made for them, or can you buy Phoenix and Multiple Man shirts at Hot Topic in the Marvel universe?

(Speaking of Hot Topic, they have a back-to-school sale on school supplies at their store right now. Hot Topic having a back-to-school sale on school supplies has got to win a Hilarity Prize.)

Identity Crisis: Exploitation

Identity Crisis is not misogynist. (I’m assuming somebody actually claimed it is. I’m sure somebody did. I said [in “Brief Reviews of Comics”] it was stupid that all the characters are obsessed with supervillains raping and murdering their girlfriends or wives (or ex-wives, although the Atom keeps referring to Jean Loring simply as his “wife” for some reason) (including Green Arrow worrying about Black Canary) but nobody is even a little worried that supervillains might rape and murder the women superheroes’ boyfriends or husbands. Well, I’m sure everybody’s very worried about the boyfriends and husbands as well, probably even about Ma and Pa Kent, but somehow nobody mentions these other people while blathering on about how supervillains are targeting their wives [or ex-wives, but nobody in the story ever remembers Jean Loring is an ex-wife].) Identity Crisis is not misogynist. It’s exploitative. It exploits every male comics reader who think it’s his duty as a man to protect women. It exploits the sort of man whose response to learning of a female friend’s assault is to want to injure or kill the attacker. It exploits the sort of man who believes women shouldn’t serve in the military because the male soldiers will be too worried about protecting the women to do their own jobs right.

Not every story that deals with these themes is exploitative—take Animal Man. Grant Morrison deals with the exploitative nature of the themes. I don’t have access to Animal Man right now so I can’t quote directly, but in issue #26, Morrison admits to Buddy Baker that he only killed off Buddy’s wife and children because he’d run out of good ideas and hoped to pump some excitement into the series. (Not that I believe Morrison had really run out of ideas, but he claimed to have for the sake of a good story.) Buddy and Ellen were an ideal couple for producing gripping narrative: their relationship was taut with tensions waiting to blow up into engaging conflict, mostly about Buddy’s idealistic and self-absorbed twin hobbies of superheroing and animal-rights activism. When Buddy finds Ellen and their children dead on the kitchen floor, all the possibilities of those conflicts are cut off, to be replaced by the narrow conflict of the revenge fantasy.

The revenge plot is easy to churn out: hero has a loved one, villain kills loved on, hero (kills villain / brings villain to justice / beats villain to a pulp before bring him [or, less often, her] to justice). There are nuances and opportunities for more interesting stories, but writers who’ve yoked themselves to the revenge plot rarely use them—it’s so much easier to stick to the basic formula. Loved ones of the hero killed off too soon to be defined beyond their relationships to the hero are an early warning sign of a creatively bankrupt story.

“Why do I look like a mutant in photographs, anyway?”

I finally read Lost at Sea a week ago, and I haven’t known yet what to say about it. It’s Bryan Lee O’Malley’s first graphic novel, and like many first novels it’s about finding yourself. Raleigh, the protagonist and narrator, has just graduated from high school and taken a trip to California, where she finds herself getting a ride home to Canada with some other kids she knew vaguely from school. And so she’s stalked by cats and searching for her soul and her other half (and her original half, really) and the link between an ambiguous past and a frighteningly open future. And it’s about me, at least when I read it. It’s one in a long series of books that have seemed to have mystical import, to get at some truth of how I see (or, in this case, saw) the world, and in some sense that’s what Lost at Sea is really all about. It’s not a harbinger of doom like Bridge to Terabithia seemed to be when I was a short-haired 9-year-old who already had built a Narnia in the woods with my fundamentalist neighbor, not something where the details match. It’s more like an antidote to The Catcher in the Rye, which I hated as a teenager because it seemed so unrealistic. Holden Caulfield wouldn’t just start out by owning up to his own phoniness. After all, what made being a teenager (and, ok, sometimes being me now) so painful was not that everyone else was phony but that they were phony and still managed to be more authentic than I was. And Raleigh understands this, and her carmates, Stephanie, Ian and Dave, seem to have some sort of understanding themselves. But I never found myself on a road trip before college and my mother certainly didn’t sell my soul when I was 11 (although that was the year that whatever I had instead of a soul fell apart) and I’m forced to admit that Lost at Sea can’t be a story about me. What it is, though, and what may have kept it from being commercially successful, is a story about “I.”

Oh, there’s a “you,” too, and there always is in these sorts of stories, right? It’s never entirely clear who “you” is, whether it’s just another version of “I”/Raleigh or “I”/Rose/reader or the “you” Raleigh wants to address and wishes she could address with the depth he deserves. Am I being oblique enough? I hope so, because Lost at Sea is a story about the unknowability of everyone and everything. It’s about connections that seem superficial but turn out to be vast and tight and about connections that seem meaningful despite their superficiality, like my insistence that Raleigh is a sort of me despite the fact that nothing that happens matches. The story is an epic of subjectivity, told unerringly in Raleigh’s voice and with her limited and self-restricted perspective. The one place it falters is on the last page, as Raleigh (or perhaps O’Malley) steps back too far and thinks that she (or he, of course) can see things as they are enough to sum up at least the uncertainty. It’s an unnecessary concretization, but not an uncharacteristic one, because Raleigh began the book with strong predetermined notions about herself and her life and she ends it with changed views, but she’s only leaving on another trip somewhere into her future, and she’s got plenty of time to grow up. (And so do I, I hope.)

Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, published a mere eight months after Lost at Sea, features a brash hero who doesn’t seem as introspective as Raleigh, who isn’t constrained by imaginary boundaries and doesn’t even seem to realize real ones. I adore Scott Pilgrim, but I never thought he was secretly me. I’m sure a lot of this has to do with gendered personality differences, but I’m convinced it’s also a function of narration. Unlike Lost at Sea, Scott Pilgrim is a third-person story. Scott is the protagonist but not the “I” of the story; its “I” is the reader, who gets a little help from my good friend focalization. We don’t see what Scott sees, but we get plenty of opportunities to experience how he sees his world.

Scott Pilgrim meets Knives.

This, too, is a subjective story, but unlike the empty eyes Raleigh sees and her worried musings about her surroundings and background, Scott’s world is vibrant and dramatic. Scott doesn’t narrate his life so much as stage it, and Scott Pilgrim is a prime example of the way comics, like films, can focalize powerfully. Everything we need to know about Scott’s understanding of himself as he meets Knives is encapsulated in this image that isn’t a god-view but a non-view, a skewing of the events in a way no one saw them but instead as Scott (and, at least in his mind, Knives) experienced them. This is third-person twisted storytelling, not limited by the range of what Scott knows and tells, but blown open by the lack of limitation he finds in his experiences. We readers can be Scott without being inside him, see how captivating but also how thoughtless he can be while realizing that he’s aware only of the first of those traits. This simultaneous flexibility and distance is really a strength, I think. Raleigh’s insistently idiosyncratic voice could put off readers unlike me, readers who found her immature and self-absorbed in a way that didn’t make them think of themselves, because there’s no way out, no alternative to her view from the back seat. Scott, on the other hand, isn’t the only persona strong enough to get an angle on his story. Would he be the one to focus on the apartment ownership chart? (Well, maybe, actually, but Wallace is presumably well aware of the unequal distribution of labor and resources.) His highschool girlfriend Knives takes the initiative to kiss him and to worship his band, and if Scott ruled the world those things wouldn’t happen, but his is a contested reality, with another subjective look at the world always threatening to seep in. And really that’s what Ramona is, not a dream personified or deferred, but a person with views and a past whose very presence upsets Scott’s daily (and nightly) world. Really all the women in his life are potential strange attractors, strong characters with a lot of pull and depth, but perhaps gender is best left for another day.

For now I’m more interested in what seems like a leap in sophistication from Lost at Sea to Scott Pilgrim, although that may not be a fair characterization. They’re such different works with different perspectives and looks, although both address similar quests and worlds. Raleigh is like Knives and her friends, excited but inexperienced, ready to break out into a world of passion and danger, while Scott thinks he’s lived that all already. But each is about how difficult it is to come to terms with ourselves and all that that means. For Scott, the best fighter in the province, this may mean becoming a knight who battles for the honor of his lady, although I imagine what he learns in the process will be more interesting than the fights, cunningly staged as they may be. For Raleigh, personal change means not becoming more disciplined but opening up, being willing to trust people to be people rather than just what she expects them to be. For me, it’s something in between. Like Raleigh, “I look in the mirror and think I don’t belong there.” Like an embarrassed Scott, I sometimes think, “I’ll leave you alone forever now.” But all I’m really trying to do is create some kind of sense and meaning out of the world and myself as much as I can, and I know that’s not the kind of story that has an end, and that’s the kind of story I like best.

Words and Phrases You Should Never Use

  • “X does not a Y make” or “X a Y does not make”

    Why not? Because you sound like a pretentious asshole. Also because you probably sound stupid, because it’s very hard to get the meter of the sentence right. “Illiteracy does not make a good electorate” sounds fine, “Illiteracy does not a good electorate make” is clunky and clumsy.

    Exception: You’re Richard Lovelace.

  • “Methinks”

    Why not? Because you sound like a pretentious asshole. Alternately, because maybe you think it’s funny to talk like a pirate for no good reason, but it’s actually not.

    Exception: You’re really a pirate.

  • “Pot, meet kettle” and other glib rephrasings of cliches

    Why not? Because you sound like you’re try way too hard to be clever, but everybody can tell you’re not really clever.

    Exception: The Black Adder theme song.

Street Angel #2-3

Street Angel in “INCAdinkaDOOM” and “Going Street to Hell”
Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca

Call me a curmudgeon, but I didn’t much enjoy Street Angel #2. It’s amusing, but the humor slips too far into pointless silliness. It reads like a creative-writing class assignment gone awry: pull five unrelated plot elements out of a hat and write a story about them. Some of it works—the Incan sun god Inti sending Cortez and his men to modern Wilkesborough seems like a fine premise. The Irish astronaut Cosmick is fun (and his linguistic training to prepare him for contact with extraterrestrial life is the issue’s funniest joke), but he begs (in the text itself, even) to get his own story. In “INCAdinkaDOOM,” he only gets in the way. Inti’s Incan African hip-hop/gangsta business exectuive act is unfortunate and inexplicable. That Cortez and his men are pirates, complete with peg legs, pirate hates and “Yars!” is unfortunate and inexplicable—even moreso in juxtaposition with Gangsta Inti. I think I see the creative reasoning that must have gone into the piratical conquistadors: Ninjas feature centrally in “INCAdinkaDOOM,” and I believe they featured centrally in the first issue of Street Angel. Given an apparent necessity of ninjas in Street Girl and the Incans vs. Cortez vs. Street Girl premise of this issue, it makes sense (well, not really, but let’s say it does for the sake of my point) to have the Spaniards be pirates to exploit the ancient pirate vs. ninja vendetta. Everybodys knows, right, pirates are funny, and ninjas are funny, and pirates vs. ninjas is funniest? Well, it was funny for a couple minutes the first time I saw the joke on some web site. It’s conceptually funny, you can see how somebody might do a funny joke about pirates fighting ninjas. Rugg and Maruca make the mistake, too tragically common among humorists, of referencing a funny concept and relying on the conceptual funniness instead of working it into an actual joke that’s funny in practice. Roger Ebert often says in his reviews of unsuccessful comedies that a character in a silly hat isn’t funny—but if the character doesn’t know she’s got a silly hat on, you have the potential for real humor. It’s a simplistic example, but the idea is sound: referencing a silly thing offers little entertainment until you place them in a situation that exploits it for a comic effect beyond the basic silliness. Street Angel says, “Look, pirates vs. ninjas—eh!” and the joke falls flat.

Incan African gangsta sun gods, jokes about the lack of female Incan virgins available for sacrifice, pirates, ninjas, Irish astronauts—maybe there’s some funny story to be told about all these themes together, but Street Angel simply piles one on top of the other senselessly. The whole is less than the sum of its parts.

“Going Street to Hell,” on the other hand, is lots of fun. The tone is different, darker and more ominous, but the core of the second issue’s sense of humor remains: Street Angel is dumped in the middle of a ridiculous supernatural battle and finds herself deeply unimpressed with all involved. Actually, what’s different this issue isn’t that the tone is darker, but that it has a tone at all—issue #2 had too much disconnected randomness from one moment to the next ever to develop one clearly. In issue #3, Rugg and Maruca confine themselves to one coherent and sensical premise—Christians vs. Satanists—which allows them to develop jokes that complement each other rather than distract from each other. Throwaway gags (including the valiant Bald Eagle, who becomes a literal throwaway gag) grow and send roots into the meaty heart of the story. Bald Eagle’s nightmare of soccer-playing sharks is as nonsensical as anything in issue #2, but it connects to the skewed Christian themes in “Going Street to Hell” and feeds on them until Bald Eagle takes on a life of his own and becomes a genuinely engaging character. Even the art looks better this issue—the stark black-and-white style, with many of the backgrounds hidden pure black, provides a strong visual foundation for the narrative to play off of.

As an interesting side note, John Jakala’s response to Street Angel is pretty much exactly the opposite of mine, at least w/r/t tone:

…Mastery of tone. In previous issues, everything “fit” no matter how odd or insane it seemed. In this issue, however, the humor feels out of place given the horrific elements that permeate the tale.

I haven’t read issue #1, so I have no idea how it relates to #2 or #3. “INCAdinkaDOOM” appears to be the work of artists with some good ideas but not enough control or discipline—and “Going Street Hell” appears to be the work of confident artists who know exactly what they’re doing. I have no idea what to expect from issue #4, then, but what I’ve read so far has convinced me to find out.

Wicker Park

Rose and I saw Wicker Park this weekend—which, as you’ll see if you check out Rotten Tomatoes, is not generally loved by critics (22% of the reviews are positive). Nor, judging by the reactions of certain members of the audience with whom we shared our theater on Saturday (and I can confidently say that these certain members are representative of the levels of intelligence, maturity, and critical-reading ability cultivated by many if not most Americans), will the movie go over well with the general public. The row behind us in the theater held two young teenaged girls, their middle-aged mother, and a middle-aged man. The girls giggled helplessly through the entire movie—especially during the sex scenes, which they thought were “sick.” The adults managed to restrain themselves until the climactic scene, when they began making snide comments to cover their abject confusion at the movie. I don’t really blame these people for their bad behavior—they’ve probably all been stunted by too many viewings of The Rock and Jersey Girl. They simply don’t have the mental faculties to grasp movies that deal in ambiguity, thoughtfulness, and emotional complexity. Wicker Park demands the viewer consider and even sympathize with the perspective of people who do bad things, and these people were simply not mature enough to abandon the comfort of dividing the characters into heroes and villains. I don’t blame them for their sad stupidity (or maybe just intellectual laziness), but I do wish they’d stayed out of my theater and seen something more appropriate to their intelligence, like Without a Paddle.

(Not that I want to equate the critics who reviewed the movie with the idiots who watched it with Rose and me. Most of the critics listed on Rotten Tomatoes seem to have reasonably sophisticated reasons for disliking the movie.)

Anyway, Rose and I enjoyed the movie. It’s a remake of the French L’Appartement. Matthew is a talented advertising designer, engaged to his boss’s sister Rebecca, and about to fly to China to seal a deal with a Chinese client of the ad agency. This isn’t the life he wants, and he drifts through it with a sense of dissatisfaction. He’s still hung up on a woman named Lisa, who apparently dumped him and disappeared from his life two years ago. He moved to New York after Lisa left, but he returned to Chicago a couple months before the movie begins. Going to a dinner meeting with representatives of the Chinese client, he runs into an old friend, Luke, whom he dropped when he moved to New York. Luke’s reappearance in Matt’s life foreshadows another specter from the past: he thinks he hears Lisa in a private phone booth in the restaurant, but she runs away (from him?) before he can confront her, breaking her shoe on the way out. The lure of finally solving the Lisa mystery outweighs Matt’s sense of responsibility to his fianc????e and his employer—he cancels his plane ticket, calls ahead to China claiming he’s sick and will be a few days late, and soon is hanging out at Luke’s apartment and applying his amateur sleuthing skills to track down Lisa. He finds a hotel key where she dropped it in the restaurant, breaks into her hotel room, steals her compact, and promptly falls unconscious as some sleeping pills Rebecca gave him take effect. Eventually he tracks her to her apartment, where he spies as an apparent ex-lover slips his key to the apartment under the door along with a farewell note. Matt steals the key and replaces the other guy’s note with one of his own. Later, he breaks into the apartment to wait for Lisa to return. Lisa does return—but it’s not his Lisa. She was at the restaurant the other day, she did run out and break her shoe, she did have the hotel room Matt broke into, the compact is hers—but she’s not the right Lisa. Even though she looked (from behind, at least) and sounded exactly like the right Lisa in the restaurant. What’s going on?

Matt’s stalker-like mission to find Lisa is juxtaposed with flashbacks to his first meeting and early relationship with Lisa. He, in fact, met her when he began stalking her. His first sight of her was in a video tape he watched when he was fixing her video camera (he worked in a camera store two years ago). His second was when he accidentally caught her onscreen on the sidewalk outside the store while playing with a video camera. After that, he followed her to the studio where she practiced dance, then pretended to be a shoe salesperson to get close enough to ask her out. Alas, she was onto his stalkerish ways, but she agreed to go out for coffee anyway.

I don’t usually bother avoiding spoilers, but I’m reluctant to give too much of this movie away to anybody who hasn’t seen it. A lot of the fun of the movie is watching the clockwork of the plot tick along and gradually break down, and observing how deftly the story sidesteps predictability. (It’s not that the story is really unpredictable or surprising, but the twisty plot is so clever that it never lets you get comfortable knowing what’s going to happen. Anybody who complains about the predictability of the plot is probably being disingenuous.) So, given my reluctance to spoil the movie, I warn you now that I’m going to give away the answers to some mysteries.

Wicker Park seems to follow the standard “breakdown of reality” narrative, as in stories like Vanilla Sky and many of Philip K. Dick’s novels: a regular, usually bland and mundane, protagonist sleepwalks through life, often vaguely dissatisfied, until he or she notices some little crack in reality, some small inconsistency or inexplicable oddness. Exploration of the crack leads to more and larger cracks, until finally the very foundations of the world shatter and the protagonist spirals down a vortex of insanity—or maybe finds a doorway and steps out into some new world. These stories usually offer a literal breaking of reality, on a cosmological level, but Wicker Park gives the formula a twist: there’s a seemingly mundane force behind the mysterious events tearing apart Matt’s life. Matt’s investigations, and the flashbacks to various important backstory events, suggest conspiracies and other sinister goings on, but it turns out that a woman named Alex who is in love with and/or obsessed with both Matt and Lisa has been manipulating them to keep them apart. Two years ago, Matt had asked Lisa to move to New York with him, and she wanted to go but couldn’t tell him in person (she had been selected to replace a famous dancer on a European tour and needed to leave immediately). She asked her friend Alex to deliver a letter to Matt, but Alex didn’t deliver the letter and told Lisa she found Matt in bed with another woman. Matt thought Lisa had dumped him, Lisa thought Matt had dumped her. Two years later, Alex is meeting Lisa in the same restaurant where Matt is meeting with his Chinese clients. Alex gets Lisa out of the restaurant with some quick maneuvering on a pay phone—but not before Matt thinks he sees her. The rest of the movie spans three days in which Alex insinuates herself into Matt’s life so she can manipulate both Lisa and Matt to keep them from finding each other. Her ruse finally collapses, though. She’s been dating Luke, at first without realizing the connection and later in order to keep tabs on Matt. By the closing scenes of the movie, the smooth clockwork of Alex’s machinations has transformed into a rickety love quadrangle that’s bound to implode on itself at any moment.

The answer to the mystery of Lisa’s disappearance is a case of mundane romantic obsession and manipulation, but the movie amplifies and skews it all until it takes on frightening proportions. It reminds me of The Usual Suspects, which takes a mundane activity (lying to cops to cover up a crime) and amplifies it until it becomes a horror story of a corrupted world, controlled by a man so powerful in his deceit that he might as well be the Devil himself, the Prince of Lies. Alex doesn’t achieve the terrifying power of Verbal Kint/Keyser Soze/the Devil in The Usual Suspects, but her deceit is nearly as devastating. The most important thing to realize about Wicker Park (something that entirely escaped the sadly stupid audience members behind us) is that she did fail—she’s only human.

The dominant theme in the movie, both visually and narratively, is perspective. What people see and why is central. Obviously, this is central to Alex’s plot: she strives to control what everybody sees. There’s a recurring split-screen visual motif used to show what people see. One half of the screen contains a character who is looking at something, the other half shows the object of observation from the character’s point of view. The split-screen motif is cleverly echoed in the flashback scene in which Matt first sees Lisa—he stands in the foreground aiming the camera, while the background is filled with TV screens displaying his tracking shot of Lisa. The movie constantly reminds us that the images on the movie screen are subjective, not objective. There are scenes shot from an objective perspective, such as one in which Matt and Lisa stand ten feet apart on a sidewalk and miss noticing each other by less than a second, but those scenes also emphasize the limitations 0f what we see.

There’s a more subtle use of the perspective theme in the narrative. Alex is superficially the bad guy of the story, Matt is superficially the beleageured hero, but only because the story is told from Matt’s perspective. He and Alex are both stalkers, but Matt’s stalking Lisa seems more harmless because nothing too bad comes of it. Stalking people you’ve never met to get close enough to ask them on a date, breaking into a hotel room and apartment you think belong to somebody you knew a couple years ago, and screwing your employer and dumping your fianc????e in an airport because you’ve rediscovered an old girlfriend you wish you’d never lost—these crimes of Matt’s are hardly less destructive and irresponsible than Alex’s. Matt and Lisa have a sweet reunion at the end of the movie, but it’s hard to be happy for them since the reunion occurs seconds after Matt cruelly and unceremoniously boots Rebecca out of his life. The movie makes Matt look like the hero by pushing the results of his destructive behavior to the margins, but a small alteration of perspective makes him as villainous as Alex.