I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I enjoy the living shit out of Frazer Lee’s film work. His films are like really good music – you wonder why in the hell people are buying shitty pop music when they could have something that actually kicks ass (likening films to underground music is now my metaphor for life). The man knows how to go for a scare without being gory, which is, sadly, an art form that is underused. I find that his work borders on Gothic without being emo; again, a tough chord to strike in the modern age of the “don’t blink until you puke” method of film-making. Most endearing to my little black heart: there seems to be an undercurrent of subversion when it comes to authority and trust. On Edge had it in spades when it came to socioeconomic class and entitlement. Red Lines has it as well, though it goes after something a tad different than the doctor authority figure: this one uses a teacher to drive home the notion that we’re breeding free will out of our children in favor of a rigid school system intent on destroying any non-conformity to its rules, particularly that of its female students.
Since this one is short, I’ll post it here if you haven’t seen it. We need to chat about this one. At just over six minutes, I think you can spare the time.
First off, a shout out to a technical aspect that is by no means easy to pull off, and has relevance to my case: the omission of music from the bulk of the action of a horror film. We get some music at the credits (mostly piano, which… yeah, pianos are deliciously creepy when played well), but for the most part, zip, zilch, nada. Silence/absence of music can be tough, but has a huge pay off if we get some sounds interspersed. We get the sound of writing, the ticking of the clock as Emily languishes in detention, the mimicry of a heartbeat to the sound of a second hand. The employment of this technique adds to the jarring sound of the ghost’s appearances; I’ll admit that the first time I saw it, I jumped (so grateful I wasn’t eating anything or else I would have choked). No music except the bookends of the film, really. It was well-done. Here’s the fun part – what’s the first thing that gets cut in the school budget? The music program. Nevermind that music can improve grades, emotional/behavioral mechanisms and a whole host of other developmental aspects. There are arguments galore about how the stripping of music can be detrimental for students. I found this to be quite fitting in a film set in detention. I have to wonder if this is a deliberate poke at the creativity-killing aspect of the modern educational system. If it is, that’s brilliant. If not… well, it was total serendipity.
So, let’s get to the meat of this one – Emily and her ability to act. I’m not talking about Kirsty Levett, who was very good – I’m talking about the actions of the teenage character, particularly her obedience to directives. When we first meet her, she’s slouching, with her hair in her face and her sweater pulled over her hands (still guilty of this myself when bored); she’s your typical teenage rebellion that’s been busted. When her teacher walks out of the room, she sticks her tongue out, though this action is rather brief. This seems significant because it establishes a pattern of doing what she’s told: Emily has that slight instance of rebellion, then immediately sets to work. Here is what I consider a stroke of genius on Lee’s part: her task is to copy the lines, “I MUST NOT RUN.” All capitals, and very specifically worded. Lines as detention is an art form because you make sure that what the student is doing is so tedious and long that they never want to come back. In the grand scheme of copying lines, this one is very feather-weight (I speak from experience – of the detentions I gave, let’s just say I never had a repeat offender). What I find entertaining is the wording of it: if you’re not paying attention to the semantics, it’s easy to miss. Emily is in trouble for running in the halls, yet she’s only writing “I must not run.” It’s not a directive to stop running in the halls, which would have been longer and a more painful detention; no, she’s directed not to run. Ever. At this point, we start to see that Emily is getting direction to obey her fate as a victim; it’s a type of training, a subliminal brainwashing if you will. She changes obedience to this directive once the ghost appears and gives her a new one: “RUN.” At this point, she tries to escape, then gives up very easily at the locked door. Again, our ghost shows up to direct her to the drawer of trophies (quick sidenote: how fucking clever is Lee for selecting a symbol of both fertility and strength, with the nice child-like bow tied around it – that’s a creepy rabbit hole I won’t jump down this time, but oooooh was that a fun one). What does Emily do? She goes back to her desk and flips through the notepad, presumably to continue copying lines to demonstrate to her teacher that she had been performing the task set in front of her. She wants to maintain the semblance of adhering to the rules so that she is not injured. This backfires, and instead of running away, fighting – anything to avoid being murdered – Emily accepts that her teacher is going to kill her, crying and covering her face when she sees the tarp and rope.At this point, there was a hot debate going on in my head between two options:
A.) This is a horrifically weak female character that wasn’t developed, which is a damn shame.
B.) This was totally intentional and a complete slam against the brainwashing of total compliance of students, particularly that which is expected of girls.
I tend to think it’s choice B. What I know of Lee’s work… it’s not sloppy, and it often has an undercurrent of both caution and subversion. There’s always something else being said, to the point of muttering, “Ow, burn” to yourself because it typically goes after pieces of bullshit you encounter every day. Exhibit A: the battle against entitlement and blind trust in On Edge; Exhibit B: the scathing warning against online transparency and face-saving public lies in Panic Button. Again, the proof is in the semantics and actions: the teacher explains at the start of the film, “You only have yourself to blame for this detention, you know… The sooner you begin, the sooner you’ll be finished.” Blaming her and then foreshadowing her fate places blame squarely on the future victim, as though she deserves to be killed for her transgressions. The teacher is clearly the one in charge because his words get the most authority – for fuck’s sake, even the female ghost is unnecessarily polite in her “PLEASE RUN” directive as opposed to the dominant, “I MUST NOT RUN” of the teacher. While Emily obeys both sets of directions, she places far more weight on adherence to her male teacher’s words. The message of not running does sink in, and as her fate is confirmed, she’s silent and does not resist – she covers her ears, covers her face with her hair, cries quietly and does not make eye contact with her aggressor. The last time we see her, she is actively looking down at the ground in subservience. Ladies and gentlemen, this is someone that’s been beaten down and does what is expected of her. In most schools, this type of submission is expected because it makes the day go by faster for the teacher and engineers an adult that will conform rather than ruffle the comfortable system. This is very, very bad because in following said rules, we get an example of a girl that does not have the ability to fight back because she’s expected to obey. This is a kid that does not have the ability to critically think let alone save herself. We watch a girl sit back and accept her death because she has been conditioned to not have the will to function outside of a rigid rule system. As a woman, I cannot tell you how raw of a nerve this one struck. Women are instructed from a young age to follow the rules, from how to dress in a socially acceptable fashion to how to speak and all other facets of behavior. That we see this dynamic in student-teacher form – from the dictation of the verbiage to the fact that the teacher has the literal keys to escape – speaks to what our children are expected to indoctrinate themselves into; we’re asking them to stop thinking to the point of blind obedience and, to an extreme extent, be willing to die in the name of following the rules. Throw in the genders of the characters, and it becomes an even more chilling message that females face on a daily basis: don’t rock the boat, just go with it, don’t be a bitch. Don’t think too hard about it – be a good girl and do as you’re told.
While more subtle than his other works, Red Lines is nonetheless damning of the impact of the expectations of obedience upon the ability to self-preserve. It begs some difficult questions: while the rules are in place for safety, can we really expect perfect submission, and at what cost? Should we have gotten to see more of fight, as most others (especially yours truly) would have done? Is this really what we want for our kids – particularly our girls – in terms of their ability to think and act? In short, are you willing to die to avoid pissing off the man in charge? The ending stays with you, and not just because it’s a creepy ghost story involving a serial killing authority figure and a silent, jarring ghost in the midst of a world devoid of music. It stays with you because, once you strip away the scenario, it can easily become a real-life horror story of how unthinking adherence to the rules cripples not only thought, but the ability to keep oneself alive.