The first two articles in this section have a de facto thematic relationship: Noël Carroll's "Nightmare and the Horror Film" (1981) and J. P. Telotte's "Human Artifice and the Science Fiction Film" (1983). That science fiction and horror film genres intermix and overlap—and not for the first time in Alien (1979)—is perhaps more widely accepted now than it was when these articles were written. Thus both articles discuss Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde , and Invasion of the Body Snatchers , among other films. What most sharply differentiates the articles are their theoretical orientations, and how these organize the arguments of each.
Carroll notes that the horror and science fiction film are currently in the ascendance because they correspond to a moment of American history in which "feelings of paralysis, helplessness, and vulnerability (hallmarks of the nightmare) prevail." He proposes to extend some points made by Ernest Jones in On the Nightmare (1951) to the imagery of the horror/science fiction film. Noting that nightmare has long been associated with horror literature and film, he points to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein , Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto , and R. L. Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as works whose genesis was "fitful sleep" or outright nightmare. Carroll does not adhere to psychoanalysis as a general hermeneutic method, but finds it applicable here because "as a matter of social tradition, psychoanalysis is more or less the lingua franca of the horror film and thus the privileged critical tool for discussing the genre." (Thus Carroll arrives at a Freudian method by way of something like Hume's reliance on social convention.)
Jones argues that the object seen in the nightmare is frightful or hideous because the underlying wish is not permitted in its naked form, so that the dream is a compromise between the wish and the fear belonging to its inhibition. Carroll sees this conflict between attraction and repulsion as corrective to approaches that emphasize only one side of this duality; allegorical readings of
horror films, for instance, tend not to acknowledge the repellent aspects of the genre. Nevertheless, Carroll "modifies" Jones, whom he calls "a hardline Freudian," by studying the nightmare conflicts embodied in the horror film as "having broader reference than simply sexuality." (It should be noted that since writing this piece, Carroll has abandoned the use of a psychoanalytic framework for dealing with this material and has approached it through the cognitive theory of emotions as set forth in his book The Philosophy of Horror .)
Telotte focuses on "the number of recent films that take as their major concern . . . the potential doubling of the human body and thus the literal creation of a human artifice." These include the remakes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing, Blade Runner , and Alien . These films reflect uneasiness about human identity, and what makes us human, in an era of cloning and other technologies of human duplication. Telotte begins his survey with the destructive android look-alike of Maria in Metropolis and then proceeds to the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers , in which individuals are duplicated "cell for cell, atom for atom." Frankenstein , subtitled The Modern Prometheus , points to the presence in the genre of a Faustian drive for knowledge or power, a dangerous impulse behind the fascination with the power of science. (There is a split between good and bad science in some of these films.) Telotte makes a fascinating point concerning the "lingering Cartesian dualism" between mind and body, thinking and feeling: the fashioning of other bodies, other forms of the self, only reinforces that split and reasserts the hegemony of mind over body.
He sees the monster in Alien , invulnerable to normal human defenses, as metaphoric of "some flaw within man." John Carpenter's The Thing , which can imitate the form of any human, entails what René Girard discusses as the "close scrutiny" that reveals man's double to be monstrous. When only a black and a white character remain at the end of the film, each eyes the other with the conviction that he is a double fashioned by the alien, which points up the distrust and fear that mark modern society and particularly, of course, its race relations. Telotte's longest discussion, which carries his exploration of the artificial doubling of the human to its farthest point, concerns, not surprisingly, Blade Runner .
In "The Sacraments of Genre: Coppola, DePalma, Scorsese," Leo Braudy contrasts André Bazin's definition of neorealism with the orientation of the three Italian-American directors of his title, whose commitment is to genre, which the author calls "the prime seedbed of American films." Concerning an unrealistic but symbolically potent juxtaposition of rooms in Rossellini's Open City , Braudy notes that it is "an incantatory moment, a mode of suprarealistic
perception that I would like to call a sacramentalizing of the real, not so that it be worshipped but so that its spiritual essence, whether diabolical or holy, inflect what is otherwise a discrete collection of objects in space."
For all the differences among his three directors, Braudy finds in all of them a sense of the importance of ritual narratives, the significance of ritual objects, and a tendency to mine the visual world for its transcendental potential. Objects, people, places, and stories are irradiated by the meaning from within, which the directors seek to unlock. In the work of Francis Ford Coppola, the sense of genre is attached to a feeling for family rituals, including betrayals. As Braudy notes, "Always there is a dream of camaraderie, and invariably that dream turns sour." Orson Welles is Coppola's directorial antecedent, but, unlike Welles, he is unwilling to question his own role as director and Wunderkind . Brian DePalma's work is concerned with the interplay between the technological future and the mythic past; like Alfred Hitchcock, his principal inspiration, he is fascinated with significant objects, which in the younger director's work are close to icons. He is also concerned with the power of the mind to move objects, especially in Carrie and The Fury . His bright young people, like the computer whiz in Dressed to Kill , can never reach the greatness of the past, which they turn instead into a machinelike efficiency. Martin Scorsese explores the final and perhaps most pervasive aspect of the intersection of film with Catholicism—the structure of sainthood. Just as Mean Streets says you make up for your sins not in church but in the street and at home, so the director places "the performer/saint/devil" at the center of films such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull , and The King of Comedy . By casting himself in violent or subservient roles in these films, Scorsese also questions his own authority as director and makes himself complicit in the stories he tells.
Scott MacDonald's "Confessions of a Feminist Porn Watcher" is sacramental in name only—there is no quest for transcendence here. To call his participation in his account complicit does not begin to reveal its courageous, highly personal nature. But what the confessional mode masks is how much the article tells us about porn as an institution and a genre. For this reason alone, a second reading is advantageous. It does not dissolve the article's subjective cast, but reveals a good deal more information and insight through that framework.
The point of departure for the article was a screening of an anti-porn film polemic/documentary and several reviews of it, notably B. Ruby Rich's challenge "for the legions of feminist men" to undertake the analysis of why men like porn. MacDonald, in a remarkably thoughtful way, takes up the challenge. If, as the film said, porn reinforces male domination of women, why then do men pay for fantasy material to this effect; and why is there so much fear and
embarrassment about going to porn houses or arcades? MacDonald notes also that "direct sexual experience with a conventionally attractive woman is, or seems, out of the question for many men." Porn provides a compromise by making visual knowledge of such an experience possible. His most trenchant argument has to do with the "unprovoked leers and comments" that women complain of. MacDonald will go to considerable lengths to avoid intruding in this way, but "I have to fight the urge to stare all the time. Some of the popularity of pornography even among men who consider themselves feminists may be a function of its capacity to provide a form of unintrusive leering."
To David James in "Hardcore: Cultural Resistance in the Postmodern," the pornography which Scott MacDonald occasionally seeks out is "industrial" porn, which James also calls "commodity pornography," which he opposes unfavorably to The Best of Amateur Erotic Video Volume II , a compilation of four tapes, each fifteen to twenty minutes long, self-photographed and self-produced by middle-class, heterosexual, white couples. Although his article is anything but a confession, James does forthrightly admit that he finds the amateur erotic video compilation, which he greatly prefers on theoretical grounds, "less arousing and so less desirable than its industrial counterpart."
James's article begins with a bleak survey arguing the destruction or co-optation of working-class movements in the United States since the 1930s; the collapse of mobilization around Third World struggles of decolonization since the end of the Vietnam War; and, most recently, the politically effective rollback of basic Marxist concepts, even that of class. (The article appeared in Winter 1988–89.) The turning to art and culture as a possible refuge for utopian thinking has been a plausible resort at least since the Frankfurt School. The avant-garde film movement in the sixties was an effective refuge of this kind; this was followed by a brief period of alternative video, but later emanations of these movements and of every other potentially oppositional movement has been absorbed into the cultural industry. James identifies two possibilities for opposition: the amateur erotic video movement, which he contrasts favorably with commodity porn in a long, frequently brilliant comparison; and a genuinely local, self-produced alternative punk rock movement that is explicitly and blisteringly political. For those whose exposure is limited to MTV, he notes, this movement is an enormous and pungent surprise.
Nightmare and the Horror Film:
The Symbolic Biology of Fantastic Beings
Vol. 34, no. 3 (Spring 1981): 16–25.
Whereas the Western and the crime film were the dominant genres of the late sixties and early seventies, horror and science fiction are the reigning popular forms of the late seventies and early eighties. Launched by blockbusters like The Exorcist and Jaws , the cycle has flourished steadily; it seems as unstoppable as some of the demons it has spawned. The present cycle, like the horror cycle of the thirties and the science fiction cycle of the fifties, comes at a particular kind of moment in American history—one where feelings of paralysis, helplessness, and vulnerability (hallmarks of the nightmare) prevail. If the Western and the crime film worked well as open forums for the debate about our values and our history during the years of the Vietnam war, the horror and science fiction film poignantly express the sense of powerlessness and anxiety that correlates with times of depression, recession, Cold War strife, galloping inflation, and national confusion.
The purpose of this paper is to examine the basic structures and themes of these timely genres by extending some of the points made in Ernest Jones's On the Nightmare . Jones used his analysis of the nightmare to unravel the symbolic meaning and structure of such figures of medieval superstition as the incubus, vampire, werewolf, devil, and witch. Similarly, I will consider the manner in which the imagery of the horror/science fiction film is constructed in ways that correspond to the construction of nightmare imagery. My special, though not exclusive, focus will be on the articulation of the imagery of horrific creatures—on what I call their symbolic biologies. A less pretentious subtitle for this essay might have been "How to make a monster."
Nightmare and the Horror Film
Before beginning this "unholy" task, some qualifications are necessary. Throughout this article I will slip freely between examples drawn from horror
films and science fiction films. Like many connoisseurs of science fiction literature, I think that, historically, movie science fiction has evolved as a subclass of the horror film. That is, in the main, science fiction films are monster films, rather than explorations of grand themes like alternate societies or alternate technologies.
Secondly, I am approaching the horror/science fiction film in terms of a psychoanalytic framework, though I do not believe that psychoanalysis is a hermeneutic method that can be applied unproblematically to any kind of film or work of art. Consequently, the adoption of psychoanalysis as an interpretive tool in a given case should be accompanied by a justification for its use in regard to that case. And in this light, I would argue that it is appropriate to use psychoanalysis in relation to the horror film because within our culture the horror genre is explicitly acknowledged as a vehicle for expressing psychoanalytically significant themes such as repressed sexuality, oral sadism, necrophilia, etc. Indeed, in recent films, such as Jean Rollin's Le Frisson des Vampires and La Vampire Nue , all concealment of the psychosexual subtext of the vampire myth is discarded. We have all learned to treat the creatures of the night—like werewolves—as creatures of the id, whether we are spectators or film-makers. As a matter of social tradition, psychoanalysis is more or less the lingua franca of the horror film and thus the privileged critical tool for discussing the genre. In fact horror films often seem to be little more than bowdlerized, pop psychoanalysis, so enmeshed is Freudian psychology with the genre.
Nor is the coincidence of psychoanalytic themes and those of the horror genre only a contemporary phenomenon. Horror has been tied to nightmare and dream since the inception of the modern tradition. Over a century before the birth of psychoanalysis Horace Walpole wrote of The Castle of Otranto ,
I waked one morning, in the beginning of last June, from a dream, of which all I could recover was, that I had thought myself in an ancient castle (a very natural dream for a head like mine filled with Gothic story) and that on the uppermost bannister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour. In the evening I sat down, and began to write, without knowing in the least what I intended to say or relate. The work grew on my hands and I grew so fond of it that one evening, I wrote from the time I had drunk my tea, about six o'clock, till half an hour after one in the morning, when my hands and fingers were so weary that I could not hold the pen to finish the sentence.
The assertion that a given horror story originated as a dream or nightmare occurs often enough that one begins to suspect that it is something akin to invoking a muse (or an incubus or succubus, as the case may be). Mary Shelley's
Frankenstein , Bram Stoker's Dracula , and Henry James's "The Jolly Corner" are all attributed to fitful sleep as is much of Robert Louis Stevenson's output—notably Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde . In what sense these tales were caused by nightmares or modeled on dreams is less important than the fact that the nightmare is a culturally established framework for presenting and understanding the horror genre. And this makes the resort to psychoanalysis unavoidable.
A central concept in Jones's treatment of the imagery of nightmare is conflict. The products of the dreamwork are often simultaneously attractive and repellent insofar as they function to enunciate both a wish and its inhibition. Jones writes, "The reason why the object seen in a Nightmare is frightful or hideous is simply that the representation of the underlying wish is not permitted in its naked form so that the dream is a compromise of the wish on the one hand and on the other of the intense fear belonging to the inhibition." The notion of the conflict between attraction and repulsion is particularly useful in considering the horror film, as a corrective to alternate ways of treating the genre. Too often, writing about this genre only emphasizes one side of the imagery. Many journalists will single-mindedly underscore only the repellent aspects of a horror film—rejecting it as disgusting, indecent, and foul. Yet this tack fails to offer any account of why people are interested in seeing such exercises.
On the other hand, defenders of the genre or of a specific example of the genre will often indulge in allegorical readings that render their subjects wholly appealing and that do not acknowledge their repellent aspects. Thus, we are told that Frankenstein is really an existential parable about man thrown-into-the-world, an "isolated sufferer." But if Frankenstein is part Nausea , it is also nauseating. Where in the allegorical formulation can we find an explanation for the purpose of the unsettling effect of the charnel-house imagery? The dangers of this allegorizing/valorizing tendency can be seen in some of the work of Robin Wood, the most vigorous champion of the contemporary horror film. Sisters , he writes, "analyzes the ways in which women are oppressed within patriarchal society on two levels which one can define as professional (Grace) and the psychosexual (Danielle/Dominque)."
One wants to say "perhaps but . . ." Specifically, what about the unnerving, gory murders and the brackish, fecal bond that links the Siamese twins? Horror films cannot be construed as completely repelling or completely appealing. Either outlook denies something essential to the form. Jones's use of the concept of conflict in the nightmare to illuminate the symbolic portent of the monsters of superstition, therefore, suggests a direction of research into the study of the horror film which accords with the genre's unique combination of repulsion and delight.
To conclude my qualifying remarks, I must note that as a hardline Freudian, Jones suffers from one important liability; he over-emphasizes the degree to
which incestuous desires shape the conflicts in the nightmare (and, by extension, in the formation of fantastic beings) and he claims that nightmares always relate to the sexual act. As John Mack has argued, this perspective is too narrow; "the analysis of nightmares regularly leads us to the earliest, most profound, and inescapable anxieties and conflicts to which human beings are subject: those involving destructive aggression, castration, separation and abandonment, devouring and being devoured, and fear regarding loss of identity and fusion with the mother." Thus, modifying Jones, we will study the nightmare conflicts embodied in the horror film as having broader reference than simply sexuality.
Our starting hypothesis is that horror film imagery, like that of the nightmare, incarnates archaic, conflicting impulses. Furthermore, this assumption orients inquiry, leading us to review horror film imagery with an eye to separating out thematic strands that represent opposing attitudes. To clarify what is involved in this sort of analysis, an example is in order.
When The Exorcist first opened, responses to it were extreme. It was denounced as a new cultural low at the same time that extra theaters had to be found in New York, Los Angeles, and other cities to accommodate the overflow crowds. The imagery of the film touched deep chords in our national psyche. The spectacle of possession addressed and reflected profound fears and desires never before explored in film. The basic infectious terror in the film is that personal identity is a frail thing, easily lost. Linda Blair's Regan, with her "tsks" and her "ahs," is a model of middle-class domesticity, a vapid mask quickly engulfed by repressed powers. The character is not just another evil child in the tradition of The Bad Seed . It is an expression of the fear that beneath the self we present to others are forces that can erupt to obliterate every vestige of self-control and personal identity.
In The Exorcist , the possibility of the loss of self is greeted with both terror and glee. The fear of losing self-control is great, but the manner in which that loss is manifested is attractive. Once possessed, Regan's new powers, exhibited in hysterical displays of cinematic pyrotechnics, act out the imagery of infantile beliefs in the omnipotence of the will. Each grisly scene is a celebration of infantile rage. Regan's anger cracks doors and ceilings and levitates beds. And she can deck a full-grown man with a flick of a wrist. The audience is aghast at her loss of self-control, which begins fittingly enough with her urinating on the living room rug, but at the same time its archaic beliefs in the metaphysical prowess of the emotions are cinematically confirmed. Thought is given direct causal efficacy. Regan's feelings know no bounds; they pour out of her, tearing her own flesh apart with their intensity and hurling people and furniture in every direction. Part of the legacy of The Exorcist to its successors—like Carrie, The Fury , and Patrick , to name but a few titles in this rampant subgenre—is the fascination with telekinesis, which is nothing but a cinematic
metaphor of the unlimited power of repressed rage. The audience is both drawn to and repelled by it—we recognize such rage in ourselves and superstitiously fear its emergence, while simultaneously we are pleased when we see a demonstration, albeit fictive, of the power of that rage.
Christopher Lasch has argued that the neurotic personality of our time vacillates between fantasies of self-loathing and infantile delusions of grandeur. The strength of The Exorcist is that it captures this oscillation cinematically. Regan, through the machinations of Satan, is the epitome of self-hatred and self-degradation—a filthy thing, festering in its bed, befoulling itself, with fetid breath, full of scabs, dirty hair, and a complexion that makes her look like a pile of old newspapers.
The origins of this self-hatred imagery are connected with sexual themes. Regan's sudden concupiscence corresponds with a birthday, presumably her thirteenth. There are all sorts of allusions to masturbation: not only does Regan misuse the crucifix, splattering her thighs with blood in an act symbolic
of both loss of virginity and menstruation, but later her hands are bound (one enshrined method for stopping "self-abuse") and her skin goes bad (as we were all warned it would). Turning the head 360 degrees also has sexual connotations; in theology, it is described as a technique Satan uses when sodomizing witches. Regan incarnates images of worthlessness, of being virtually trash, in a context laden with sex and self-laceration. But the moments of self-degradation give way to images that express delusions of grandeur as she rocks the house in storms of rage. She embodies moods of guilt and rebellion, of self-loathing and omnipotence that speak to the Narcissus in each of us.
The fantastic beings of horror films can be seen as symbolic formations that organize conflicting themes into figures that are simultaneously attractive and repulsive. Two major symbolic structures appear most prominent in this regard: fusion, in which the conflicting themes are yoked together in one, spatio-temporally unified figure; and fission, in which the conflicting themes are distributed—over space or time—among more than one figure.
Dracula, one of the classic film monsters, falls into the category of fusion. In order to identify the symbolic import of this figure we can begin with Jones's account of vampires—since Dracula is a vampire—but we must also amplify that account since Dracula is a very special vampire. According to Jones, the vampires of superstition have two fundamental constituent attributes: revenance and blood sucking. The mythic, as opposed to movie, vampire first visits its relatives. For Jones, this stands for the relatives' longing for the loved one to return from the dead. But the figure is charged with terror. What is fearful is blood sucking, which Jones associates with seduction. In short, the desire for an incestuous encounter with the dead relative is transformed, through a form of denial, into an assault-attraction, and love metamorphoses into repulsion and sadism. At the same time, via projection, the living portray themselves as passive victims, imbuing the dead with a dimension of active agency that permits the "victim" pleasure without blame. Lastly, Jones not only connects blood sucking with the exhausting embrace of the incubus but with a regressive mixture of sucking and biting characteristic of the oral stage of psychosexual development. By negation—the transformation of love to hate, by projection—through which the desired dead become active, and the desiring living passive, and by regression—from genital to oral sexuality, the vampire legend gratifies incestuous and necrophiliac desires by amalgamating them in a fearsome iconography.
The vampire of lore and the Dracula figure of stage and screen have several points of tangency, but Dracula also has a number of distinctive attributes. Of necessity, Dracula is Count Dracula. He is an aristocrat; his bearing is noble; and, of course, through hypnosis, he is a paradigmatic authority figure. He is commanding in both senses of the word. Above all, Dracula demands obedience
of his minions and mistresses. He is extremely old—associated with ancient castles—and possessed of incontestable strength. Dracula cannot be overcome by force—he can only be outsmarted or outmaneuvered; humans are typically described as puny in comparison to him. At times, Dracula is invested with omniscience, observing from afar the measures taken against him. He also hoards women and is a harem master. In brief, Dracula is a bad father figure, often balanced off against Van Helsing. who defends virgins against the seemingly younger, more vibrant Count. The phallic symbolism of Dracula is hard to miss—he is aged, buried in a filthy place, impure, powerful, and aggressive.
The contrast with Van Helsing immediately suggests another cluster of Dracula's attributes. He does appear the younger of the two specifically because he represents the rebellious son at the same time that he is the violent father. This identification is achieved by means of the Satanic imagery that contributes to Dracula's persona. Dracula is the Devil—one film in fact refers to him in its title as the "Prince of Darkness." With few exceptions, Dracula is depicted as eternally uncontrite, bent on luring hapless souls. Most importantly, Dracula is a modern devil, which, as Jones points out, means that he is a rival to God. Religiously, Dracula is presented as a force of unmitigated evil. Dramatically, this is translated into a quantum of awesome will or willfulness, often flexed in those mental duels with Van Helsing. Dracula, in part, exists as a rival to the father, as a figure of defiance and rebellion, fulfilling the oedipal wish via a hero of Miltonic proclivities. The Dracula image, then, is a fusion of conflicting attributes of the bad (primal) father and the rebellious son which is simultaneously appealing and forbidding because of the way it conjoins different dimensions of the oedipal fantasy.
The fusion of conflicting tendencies in the figure of the monster in horror films has the dream process of condensation as its approximate psychic prototype. In analyzing the symbolic meaning of these fusion figures our task is to individuate the conflicting themes that constitute the creature. Like Dracula, the Frankenstein monster is a fusion figure, one that is quite literally a composite. Mary Shelley first dreamed of the creature at a time in her life fraught with tragedies connected with childbirth. Victor Frankenstein's creation—his "hideous progeny"—is a gruesome parody of birth; indeed, Shelley's description of the creature's appearance bears passing correspondences to that of a newborn—its waxen skin, misshapen head, and touch of jaundice. James Whale's Frankenstein also emphasizes the association of the monster with a child; its walk is unsteady and halting, its head is outsized and its eyes sleepy. And in the film, though not in the novel, the creature's basic cognitive skills are barely developed; it is mystified by fire and has difficulty differentiating between little girls and flowers. The monster in one respect is a child and its creation is a birth that is presented as ghastly. At the same time, the monster is made of
waste, of dead things, in "Frankenstein's workshop of filthy creation." The excremental reference is hardly disguised. The association of the creature with waste implies that, in part, the story is underwritten by the infantile confusion over the processes of elimination and reproduction. The monster is reviled as heinous and as unwholesome filth, rejected by its creator—its father—perhaps in a way that reorchestrated Mary Shelley's feelings of rejection by her father, William Godwin.
But these images of loathesomeness are fused with opposite qualities. In the film myth, the monster is all but omnipotent (it can function as a sparring partner for Godzilla), indomitable, and, for all intents and purposes, immortal (perhaps partly for the intent and purpose of sequels). It is both helpless and powerful, worthless and godlike. Its rejection spurs rampaging vengeance, combining fury and strength in infantile orgies of rage and destruction. Interestingly, in the novel this ire is directed against Victor Frankenstein's family. And even in Whale's 1931 version of the myth the monster's definition as outside (excluded from a place in) the family is maintained in a number of ways: the killing of Maria; the juxtaposition of the monster's wandering over the countryside with wedding preparations; and the opposition of Frankenstein's preoccupation with affairs centered around the monster to the interest of propagating an heir to the family barony. The emotional logic of the tale proceeds from the initial loathesomeness of the monster, which triggers its rejection, which causes the monster to explode in omnipotent rage over its alienation from the family, which, in turn, confirms the earlier intimation of "badness," thereby justifying the parental rejection. This scenario, moreover, is predicated on the inherently conflicting tendencies—of being waste and being god—that are condensed in the creature from the start. It is, therefore, a necessary condition for the success of the tale that the creature be repellent.
One method for composing fantastic beings is fusion. On the visual level, this often entails the construction of creatures that transgress categorical distinctions such as inside/outside, insect/human, flesh/machine, etc. The particular affective significance of these admixtures depends to a large extent on the specific narrative context in which they are embedded. But apart from fusion, another means for articulating emotional conflicts in horror films is fission. That is, conflicts concerning sexuality, identity, aggressiveness, etc. can be mapped over different entities—each standing for a different facet of the conflict—which are nevertheless linked by some magical, supernatural, or sci-fi process. The type of creatures that I have in mind here include doppelgängers , alter-egos, and werewolves.
Fission has two major modes in the horror film. The first distributes the conflict over space through the creation of doubles, e.g., The Portrait of Dorian Gray, The Student of Prague , and Warning Shadows . Structurally, what is involved in spatial fission is a process of multiplication, i.e., a charac-
ter or set of characters is multiplied into one or more new facets each standing for another aspect of the self, generally one that is either hidden, ignored, repressed, or denied by the character who has been cloned. These examples each employ some mechanism of reflection—a portrait, a mirror, shadows—as the pretext for doubling. But this sort of fission figure can appear without such devices. In I Married a Monster from Outer Space , a young bride begins to suspect that her new husband is not quite himself. Somehow he's different than the man she used to date. And she's quite right. Her boyfriend was kidnapped by invaders from outer space on his way back from a bachelor party and was replaced by an alien duplicate. This double, however, initially lacks feelings—the essential characteristic of being human in fifties sci-fi films—and his bride intuits this. The basic story, sci-fi elements aside, resembles a very specific paranoid delusion called Capgras syndrome. The delusion involves the patient's belief that his or her parents, lovers, etc. have become minatory doppelgängers . This enables the patient to deny his fear or hatred of a loved one by splitting the loved one in half, creating a bad version (the invader) and a good one (the victim). The new relation of marriage in I Married a Monster appears to engender a conflict, perhaps over sexuality, in the wife which is expressed through the fission figure. Splitting as a psychic trope of denial is the root prototype for spatial fission in the horror film, organizing conflict through the multiplication of characters.
Fission occurs in horror films not only in terms of multiplication but also in terms of division. That is, a character can be divided in time as well as multiplied in space. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the various werewolves, cat
people, gorgons, and other changelings of the genre are immediate examples. In the horror film, temporal fission—usually marked by shape changing—is often self-consciously concerned with repression. In Curse of the Werewolf one shot shows the prospective monster behind the bars of a wine cellar window holding a bottle; it is an icon of restrained delirium. The traditional conflict in these films is sexuality. Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde is altered in screen variants so that the central theme of Hyde's brutality—which I think is connected to an allegory against alcoholism in the text—becomes a preoccupation with lechery. Often changeling films, like The Werewolf of London or The Cat People , eventuate in the monster attacking its lover, suggesting that this subgenre begins in infantile confusions over sexuality and aggression. The imagery of werewolf films also has been associated with conflicts connected with the bodily changes of puberty and adolescence: unprecedented hair spreads over the body, accompanied by uncontrollable, vaguely understood urges leading to puzzlement and even to fear of madness. This imagery becomes especially compelling in The Wolfman , where the tension between father and son mounts through anger and tyranny until at last the father beats the son to death with a silver cane in a paroxysm of oedipal anxiety.
Fusion and fission generate a large number of the symbolic biologies of horror films, but not all. Magnification of power or size—e.g., giant insects (and other exaggerated animalcules)—is another mode of symbol formation. Often magnification takes a particular phobia as its subject and, in general, much of this imagery seems comprehensible in terms of Freud's observation that "the majority of phobias . . . are traceable to such a fear on the ego's part of the demands of the libido."
Giant insects are a case in point. The giant spider, for instance, appeared in silent film in John Barrymore's Jekyll and Hyde as an explicit symbol of desire. Perhaps insects, especially spiders, can perform this role not only because of their resemblance to hands—the hairy hands of masturbation—but also because of their cultural association with impurity. At the same time, their identification as poisonous and predatory—devouring—can be mobilized to express anxious fantasies over sexuality. Like giant reptiles, giant insects are often encountered in two specific contexts in horror films. They inhabit negative paradises—jungles and lost worlds—that unaware humans happen into, not to find Edenic milk and honey but the gnashing teeth or mandibles of oral regression. Or, giant insects or reptiles are slumbering potentials of nature released or awakened by physical or chemical alterations caused by human experiments in areas of knowledge best left to the gods. Here, the predominant metaphor is that these creatures or forces have been unfettered or unleashed, suggesting their close connection with erotic impulses. Like the fusion and fis-
sion figures of horror films, these nightmares are also explicable as effigies of deep-seated, archaic conflicts.
So far I have dwelt on the symbolic composition of the monsters in horror films, extrapolating from the framework set out by Jones in On the Nightmare in the hope of beginning a crude approximation of a taxonomy. But before concluding, it is worthwhile to consider briefly the relevance of archaic conflicts of the sort already discussed to the themes repeated again and again in the basic plot structures of the horror film.
Perhaps the most serviceable narrative armature in the horror film genre is what I call the Discovery Plot. It is used in Dracula, The Exorcist, Jaws I & II, It Came From Outer Space, Curse of the Demon, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, It Came From Beneath the Sea , and myriad other films. It has four essential movements. The first is onset: the monster's presence is established, e.g., by an attack, as in Jaws . Next, the monster's existence is discovered by an individual or a group, but for one reason or another its existence or continued existence, or the nature of the threat it actually poses, is not acknowledged by the powers that be. "There are no such things as vampires," the police chief might say at this point. Discovery, therefore, flows into the next plot movement, which is confirmation. The discoverers or believers must convince some other group of the existence and proportions of mortal danger at hand. Often this section of the plot is the most elaborate, and suspenseful. As the UN refuses to accept the reality of the onslaught of killer bees or invaders from Mars, precious time is lost, during which the creature or creatures often gain power and advantage. This interlude also allows for a great deal of discussion about the encroaching monster, and this talk about its invulnerability, its scarcely imaginable strength, and its nasty habits endows the off-screen beast with the qualities that prime the audience's fearful anticipation. Language is one of the most effective ingredients in a horror film and I would guess that the genre's primary success in sound film rather than silent film has less to do with the absence of sound effects in the silents than with the presence of all that dialogue about the unseen monster in the talkies.
After the hesitations of confirmation, the Discovery Plot culminates in confrontation. Mankind meets its monster, most often winning, but on occasion, like the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers , losing. What is particularly of interest in this plot structure is the tension caused by the delay between discovery and confirmation. Thematically, it involves the audience not only in the drama of proof but also in the play between knowing and not knowing, between acknowledgment versus nonacknowledgment, that has the growing awareness of sexuality in the adolescent as its archetype. This conflict can become very pronounced when the gainsayers in question—generals, police
chiefs, scientists, heads of institutions, etc.—are obviously parental authority figures.
Another important plot structure is that of the Overreacher. Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde , and Man with the X-Ray Eyes are all examples of this approach. Whereas the Discovery Plot often stresses the short-sightedness of science, the Overreacher Plot criticizes science's will to knowledge. The Overreacher Plot has four basic movements. The first comprises the preparation for the experiment, generally including a philosophical, popular-mechanics explanation or debate about the experiment's motivation. The overreacher himself (usually Dr. Soandso) can become quite megalomaniacal here, a quality commented upon, for instance, by the dizzyingly vertical laboratory sets in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein . Next comes the experiment itself, whose partial success allows for some more megalomania. But the experiment goes awry, leading to the destruction of innocent victims and/or to damage or threat to the experimenter or his loved ones. At this point, some overreachers renounce their blasphemy; the ones who don't are mad scientists. Finally, there is a confrontation with the monster, generally in the penultimate scene of the film.
The Overreacher Plot can be combined with the Discovery Plot by making the overreacher and/or his experiments the object of discovery and confirmation. This yields a plot with seven movements—onset, discovery, confirmation, preparation for the experiment, experimentation, untoward consequences, and confrontation.[*] But the basic Overreacher Plot differs thematically from
the Discovery Plot insofar as the conflicts central to the Overreacher Plot reside in fantasies of omniscience, omnipotence, and control. The plot eventually cautions against these impulses but not until it gratifies them with partial success and a strong dose of theatrical panache.
In suggesting that the plot structures and fantastic beings of the horror film correlate with nightmares and repulsive materials, I do not mean to claim that horror films are nightmares. Structurally, horror films are far more rationally ordered than nightmares, even in extremely disjunctive and dreamlike experiments like Phantasm . Moreover, phenomenologically, horror film buffs do not believe that they are literally the victims of the mayhem they witness whereas a dreamer can quite often become a participant and a victim in his/her dream. We can and do seek out horror films for pleasure, while someone who looked forward to a nightmare would be a rare bird indeed. Nevertheless, there do seem to be enough thematic and symbolic correspondences between nightmare and horror to indicate the distant genesis of horror motifs in nightmare as well as significant similarities between the two phenomena. Granted, these motifs become highly stylized on the screen. Yet, for some, the horror film may release some part of the tensions that would otherwise erupt in nightmares. Perhaps we can say that horror film fans go to the movies (in the afternoon) perchance to sleep (at night).
Human Artifice and the Science Fiction Film
J. P. Telotte
The human artifice of the world separates human existence from all mere animal environment, but life itself is outside this artificial world, and through life man remains related to all other living organisms. For some time now, a great many scientific endeavors have been directed toward making life also "artificial," toward cutting the last tie through which even man belongs among the children of nature. . . . There is no reason to doubt our abilities to accomplish such an exchange, just as there is no reason to doubt our present ability to destroy all organic life on earth.
Vol. 36, no. 3 (Spring 1983): 44–51.
"I know I'm human," the protagonist of John Carpenter's film The Thing asserts, as he frantically searches for a threatening alien presence among his comrades. Taken out of context in this way, such a declaration sounds almost pointless, like an assurance of something that should be evident to the gaze of those around, as indeed it seems to the movie viewers. The very need for such an assertion, consequently, hints at an unexpected uncertainty here, even an uneasiness about one's identity and, more importantly, about what it is that makes one human. It is an uneasiness, moreover, which cannot be dispelled by a simple gaze, the means by which we typically evaluate our world, others, and ourselves. I call attention to the character McReady's predicament because it makes overt a specter which has continually haunted the science fiction film genre. Periodically throughout its history, but increasingly so in recent years, this formula has taken as its focus the problematic nature of the human being and the difficult task of being human. And as Hannah Arendt makes clear, the former concern seems to pose an ever greater barrier for the latter.
In this context, we should note the number of recent films which take as their major concern or as an important motif the potential doubling of the human body and thus the literal creation of a human artifice. Among others, films like the remakes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing, Blade Runner, Alien , and even Star Trek explore some aspect of this motif, but especially a welcome or threatening capacity which inheres in this cloning or copying of the self, cell for cell, and which promises to make man both more and less than he already is. Not simply a current development, though, this motif runs throughout the history of science fiction film. Viewed from the perspective of their "mad scientist" themes, the numerous Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde films represent paradigms of this tendency; in fact, the enduring confusion in the popular imagination that attributes the single name of Frankenstein to both a monster and its creator underscores the effect of this doubling pattern. One of its earliest and most characteristic treatments, however, occurs in a film that many see as
the prototype for the genre, Fritz Lang's Metropolis . The modeling of the heroine Maria into a destructive android look-alike serves as the narrative's centerpiece and prompts its greatest display of scientific gadgetry—that which we have come to expect to be the very core of the science fiction film. Visually indistinguishable from the real Maria, the android threatens to unleash dangerous desires in the human community and thus bring about disaster. Because she is both alluring and potentially destructive, the artificial Maria well represents the disturbing implications of that capacity for doubling and artifice which man's science has attained.
Probably the landmark treatment of this doubling motif occurs in the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers , which focuses precisely upon a threatening possibility for perfectly duplicating the human body, "cell for cell, atom for atom," as one character explains. In this case, it is an alien life form that uses nature wrongly, to grow seed pods which will deprive man of his own true nature, as they duplicate his body, "snatch" his intellect, but deprive him of all emotional capacity. While films had previously presented such duplication as a threat, the product of human aberrance or some misguided science, Invasion added a disconcerting note and also laid open a desire which has frequently moved just beneath the surface of these films, by pointing up a subtle attraction at the heart of the doubling process. The bloodless victory of the copy, of the pods, is actually lauded by those who have been subsumed into this emotionless community. This reaction suggests an elemental desire in man for the security and tranquillity which the sameness of duplication promises; as another character notes, this transformation permits man to be "born into an untroubled world" and to abdicate from the many problems of modern life—problems posed, it is implied, by the very advances of science, especially in the field of warfare, which, on the surface, usually seem a basic concern of these films.
Don Siegel, director of the original Invasion , admits that he sought to inject this challenge of attractiveness in response to a widespread desire he noted to abdicate from human responsibility in the face of an increasingly complex and confusing modern world. To this end he
purposely had the prime spokesman for the pods be a pod psychiatrist. He speaks with authority, knowledge. He really believes that being a pod is preferable to being a frail, frightened human who cares. He has a strong case for being a pod. How marvelous it would be if you were a cow and all you had to do is munch a little grass and not worry about life, death and pain. There's a strong case for being a pod.
It is this "strong case" that has been repeatedly and increasingly stated in films since the time of Invasion. The Stepford Wives , for instance, plays not just upon the threat of a gradual, insidious replacement of the women in a small town by
mindless, dispassionate androids—apparently the perfect housewife—but also on the terror implicit in their similarity to what is held up as a cultural ideal and in the fact that this duplication is obviously desirable to those closest to the women, their own husbands. Perhaps because of our increasing concern with the potential for cloning and genetic research, such possibilities no longer seem so far-fetched, hence the recent spate of films exploring this complex proposition. They all emphasize man's fascination with knowledge and science, as has always been typical of the genre, but they link a single-minded pursuit of knowledge with that disconcerting desire to duplicate the self—or unleash the unknown power of duplication, as in The Thing —and its consequent rendering of the self almost irrelevant. In sum, they suggest how the human penchant for artifice—that is, for analyzing, understanding, and synthesizing all things, even man himself—seems to promise a reduction of man to no more than artifice.
This paradox also sheds some light on a subtle distinction which the science fiction film has typically sought to make in its depiction of man's attitudes towards science. As critics have frequently noted, the genre often seems to juxtapose a good and a bad science, white and black magic, as it were, with the one working to serve man and the other to threaten his position in the world. We might recall the novel Frankenstein 's subtitle, The Modern Prometheus , for it can help us to discern an even more telling distinction at work in the film genre. In its recurring manifestations, the doubling motif denotes a Faustian drive for knowledge or power, a dangerous and even self-destructive impulse behind that fascination with the power of science or some select knowledge to enable man to duplicate himself artificially. This Faustian impulse, however, typically tries to go masked as a Promethean one, that is, as a desire to bestow
significant boons upon man. Of course, it is in the nature of those boons—not light but likeness, and not the potential of fire but its destructive force—that we eventually perceive the Faustian persona beneath the Promethean seeming that science and the scientist usually bear in the genre.
Why this seeming, however, and why should its ultimate expression take the very shape of seeming, namely the doubling or copying of the self? The persistence of this theme hints at a certain hubris of the mind with which the genre is concerned: a pride in a science which is seen as seeking to accommodate all things to the self, ultimately even the self, which, because of a lingering Cartesian dualism between the mind and body, thinking and feeling, has become associated with both the internal life of the mind and an external world of otherness, the not-mind. The fashioning of other bodies, other forms of the self, only reinforces that split between mind and body and reasserts the hegemony of the former over the latter. What I would like to suggest, following Arendt's lead, then, is that we might see in this doubling motif the indication of a science turned inside out, a drive for knowledge and control become a desire for oblivion, although it is a blind desire, as the self unwittingly turns upon itself, even while apparently engaged in a process of valorizing the self through the ability for replication.
The full paradox and threat inherent in this artificing of life lurks just beneath the surface of a film like Alien . In fact, the film's central horror, a monstrous presence that thrives on man, yet is apparently invulnerable to his normal defenses, seems metaphoric of some flaw within man, perhaps the Faustian drive that increasingly seeks expression. The murderous alien is brought into the spaceship because the company sponsoring the flight has established a primary directive for the crew to gather any information on life forms that might prove valuable. Arguing for this directive, and thus directly precipitating the alien's murderous rampage among the crew, is an android, a replica of man so perfect that he fools his fellow crew members. A perfect example of the danger behind this doubling pattern, he has been programmed to ensure the mission's knowledge-gathering activities, regardless of any danger which might accrue to the human component of the expedition. In the film's most startling scene, the alien creature that has embedded itself within one of the crew members suddenly bursts through his chest, killing the human host. Born from within man, this creature metaphorically embodies the monstrous potential of the double which has made its life possible. In short, the alien represents the displaced terror and true frightening aspect of that desire for knowledge which, also arising from within man, has begun to produce life-threatening doubles. It is only through this perspective of displacement that the complex plotting of Alien , and especially the discomfiting relationship between android and monster, comes into proper focus. In his discussion of the nature of man's proclivity for doubles, René Girard predicts just such a link and connects the desire for doubling to
man's most violent impulses; as he notes, there is "no double who does not yield a monstrous aspect upon close scrutiny."
The new version of The Thing specifically emphasizes this "close scrutiny," that is, the visual problem posed by the double. When a scientific research team stumbles upon and accidentally unthaws an alien creature embedded in the polar ice for thousands of years, they unleash not simply a monstrous creature, one that threatens those discoverers, but a figure that seems to summarize the problems of doubling located in both Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Alien . As one character notes, this creature "wants to hide inside an imitation" and it possesses the power to "shape its own cells to imitate" any other being in its environment. That this capacity for perfect mimesis is not simply a protective mechanism, like a chameleon's color adaptation, but a very real threat to man is underscored by the gruesome scenes of possession and transformation for which the film has been scored on occasion. In fact, The Thing seems to draw on Alien 's "chest-buster" sequence as a model for these scenes—a connection which underscores the importance I have here attached to that previous scene and one which hints at an internal component in this alien doubling. What The Thing particularly adds to the previous formulations of this doubling motif is an emphasis on the contagiousness of this tendency, and thus its more than individual menace. As the doctor among the group calculates, at its current rate of assimilation of man, the alien polymorph could take over all of humanity in "27,000 hours from first contact." It thereby threatens rapidly to reduce man's world to a realm of imitations, to make everyone simply an extension of that alien presence.
With the awareness of this threatening possibility, an equally devastating potential also emerges, one which inheres in every act of doubling. Because man is possessed of an absolute desire for certainty or knowledge—at least, so the science fiction genre argues through its emphasis on the compulsion for knowledge—he can easily become prey to an almost debilitating anxiety in the face of whatever stubbornly resists his attempts at formulation. And when the enigma is his own double or potential double, the anxiety may take even deeper root. Almost frantically, therefore, the men at this isolated outpost reach out for some answer, some assurance, even "some kind of test," as one of them puts it, which might detect this alien presence in their midst and thus assure them that they are all just what they appear to be, truly men. Significantly, however, this task of detection and inquiry into the visible world quickly transforms into a suspicion of the human society in which they are immersed, even an uneasiness about the self; as one man asks, "How do we know who's human?" It is a question that betrays a deep-seated fear, normally kept hidden yet essentially commonplace, of all that is not the self. Calling attention to this rapid breakdown of human society which the alien visitation has precipitated, McReady notes
that "Nobody trusts anybody now." What such a comment also bears witness to is an alien potential which resides in man, ever ready to be triggered by circumstance and to raise a disturbing suspicion not only about one's fellow man, but even about the self and its relationship to that human world it must inhabit.
What The Thing locates, therefore, is a certain thing -ness within man, an absence or potential abdication from the human world which can only be made present or visualized in the mirror furnished by the doubling process. The confrontation with which the film ends, as McReady and a black man, the only other survivor of the group, eye each other suspiciously, each equally sure that the other is only a double fashioned by the alien, metaphorically points up the distrust and fear which already typically mark modern society, and particularly its race relations. Of course, the doubling process which the alien initiated promised to render everyone the same, each an extension of that single intruder, and in their mutual fear of the other McReady and his comrade have already fulfilled that promise after a fashion. Moreover, that threat precipitates with both men a retreat into the private space of the mind, the one stable ground upon which they feel they can still stand. In effect, the mind is thus seen as the true repository of the self, protectively questioning all about, while asserting with ever decreasing conviction one's own humanity, as we have already seen McReady doing. If that phrase, "I know I'm human," seems to ring hollow, it is because the narrative, through its visitation of this disconcerting doubling, has managed to undercut all certainty, all dependable knowledge, certainly all reliance on appearance. Consequently, at the film's conclusion even we are unsure if one or neither of the survivors is indeed a copy, just waiting his chance to spread his mimetic reign into the outside world. Indeed, we are left to question the very future of man's life on earth, just as Arendt does.
In another sort of investigation into the nature of our modern culture, Loren Eisely has attempted to trace out the process by which "man becomes natural," that is, how he came to see himself as a part of nature and its historical processes, rather than as a strange occurrence and an intrusion into the natural world. "Before life could be viewed as in any way natural," he explains, "a rational explanation of change through the ages" was needed; man had to acquire a thorough knowledge of the patterns of evolution. The recent film Blade Runner dramatizes the logical consequences of this mastery of evolutionary principles. The development of this understanding, the film suggests, serves as the springboard for the current concern with the possibilities of genetic engineering, which, in its turn, has generated a potential for scientifically controlled evolution: the creation and programming of perfect replicas of man, gifted with unusual beauty, strength, or intelligence, and made to serve their human creators. As a result of this original step in "becoming natural," however, apparently something has also been
lost. As Eisely points out, while "man has, in scientific terms, become natural . . . the nature of his 'naturalness' escapes him. Perhaps his human freedom has left him the difficult choice of determining what it is in his nature to be." The problematic nature of human nature is precisely the topic on which Blade Runner with its formulation of the doubling motif attempts to shed some light.
As in The Thing , a sense of uncertainty and the anxiety which attends it seem to color the very world of Blade Runner and to derive in large part from the fascination with doubling which it chronicles. The futuristic environment the film describes seems perpetually dark and rainy, as gloomy as that of film noir—the conventions of which Blade Runner does in fact draw on. In this bleak atmosphere we can see mirrored an interior darkness that afflicts the characters here and seems brought on by the problems arising from a culture practically predicated upon the possibilities of duplication. In this future world, man has progressed to such a point that he can genetically design and reproduce virtually anything that lives; thus we see mechanical birds, snakes, dogs, and especially people—or "replicants," as they are here termed—all of which are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. They have been fashioned by man's science in order to satisfy his various desires, to free him from labor and the dangers of combat, or simply to amuse him. And yet in spite of these benefits, no one seems truly happy in this society; in fact, those who can do so readily abandon this world in favor of one of the "off-world colonies," doubles of the earth itself which, like so many of the copies here, are apparently perceived as being better than their original. We thus see a vision of man not only no longer at home with himself, but no longer at home with his home; and the human doubles promise to increase the level of anxiety by refusing to remain in their servile roles and demanding instead a life like that of their creators and models.
As is typically the case in the science fiction genre, then, a kind of monstrous creation has transpired, but it has gone masked as scientific advance. In the place of Frankenstein are two geneticists—Dr. Tyrell, master designer of replicants, and J. F. Sebastian, his chief genetic engineer. Both appear to have given that Promethean impulse free reign, pushing the desire to fashion a copy of man to its extreme in their specially designed androids for every task and every distraction. The ostensible project of providing for human needs, however, has clearly been submerged by a pride in the process of doubling itself. Tyrell, it seems, is moved solely by his fascination with creating ever more perfect copies, replicants which can defy those tests for humanity which have developed in this future world—just as The Thing predicts. And with the girl Rachael, whom he addresses at one point as "my child," he has nearly succeeded. Sebastian has turned his engineering skills to no less subjective end, the task of filling his lonely life with manufactured "friends," albeit small, misshapen, flawed figures—apparently various reflections of his own flawed body, which suffers from "premature
decrepitude." In sum, these scientists have turned their capacities for creating copies to their own ends, and in the process have endowed their creations with a certain reflexive capacity, Tyrell's figures mirroring his own desire for perfection, beauty, and transcendence of mechanical limitation, Sebastian's reflecting not only his own defects, but also his flawed view of himself.
In these projections of the self, moreover, both have already created the conditions that must eventually render them irrelevant. Because they have programmed their replicant creations with memories of a life that never was—even providing them with photographs of supposed relations and friends—and thus tried to convince them of their humanity, these engineers have erected a potentially dangerous bridge between the human and android realms. In fact, they have succeeded too well, for they have unleashed a synthetic but powerful desire for real life, one which—as is the case in films like Frankenstein, Invasion of the Body Snatchers , and The Thing —initially places itself in opposition to the possessors of normal life, mankind. In attempting to return to Earth from the off-world colonies, the group of replicants with whom the narrative is concerned have already killed 23 humans; and after finding their way back, they predictably turn their attention to their creators, particularly Tyrell and Sebastian. What they quest for is the secret of their programmed lives, and particularly, after the fashion of men through the ages, the means to a longer life. In effect, they have embarked on a Promethean search of sorts, seeking the archetypal fire of life itself, but in that murderous trail they leave behind, we see the clearest signs of that violence which, as René Girard has noted, usually goes masked by the doubling process.
An even more telling measure of the ambiguity which attaches to this doubling process is found in the absence of a sure anchor for our own sympathies in this situation. That is, in the absence of the more typical monstrous presence and as a natural outgrowth of the desire for a nearly perfect mimesis which has produced these doubles, our concern shifts uneasily about between the world-weary, alienated bounty hunter Rick Deckard and those replicants whom it is his task to hunt down and destroy. Another and equally compelling reason for these shifting sympathies, of course, is that, as we quickly recognize, both man and android here essentially share the same—a doubled—fate. Like Sebastian, the replicants suffer from their own form of premature decrepitude, a programmed mortality which ensures their inevitable death after four years of service. As a consequence, these androids face the same sort of disconcerting knowledge that man has always had to abide with, that of an inescapable and onrushing death. Fed up with his work as a bounty killer, meanwhile, Deckard meditates on the nature of his quarry and, in turn, begins to wonder about his own place in this confusing welter of being wherein everything, perhaps even himself, seems to have its double or be itself a copy. Thus
he comments at one point, "Replicants weren't supposed to have feelings; neither were blade runners" like himself. It is a complex mirroring pattern which has resulted from the doubling process, as men and androids begin to see themselves in each other and, discomfitingly, prod the others into a questioning of their very nature.
In the character of Rachael, Tyrell's nearly perfect replicant, this increasingly blurred distinction between man and the copies with which he has become obsessed finds its clearest example. Accepting the testimony of his own experienced eye, Deckard is initially fooled into believing her human, and he finds himself mysteriously attracted to her. What is more unsettling is that his fascination continues even after he administers the Voight-Kampff Empathy Test, which reveals that she is a replicant. The precise meaning of those test results quickly seems to evaporate in light of Rachael's manifest "humanity," however: her love of music, desire for affection, concern for others, and apparently a love for Deckard. Her response to the test's conclusions, asking Deckard, "Did you ever take that test yourself?" only compounds his quandary; it causes him to
reflect on his own humanity, on the nature, that is, of a hired killer. As a result of this reflection, the subsequent order to kill Rachael along with the other replicants prompts a marked shift in the blade runner's attitude, a questioning of that which usually goes unquestioned, namely the humanity of those who create—and destroy—these artificial lives. He thus refuses the order and instead runs off with her to spend whatever little time her short, engineered life leaves them together in a different world, as a last shot indicates, a realm of light, greenery, and life, rather than the dark, rainy cityscape which has produced them both. In effect, Deckard takes Arendt's warning to heart, abandoning "the human artifice of the world" in favor of a natural environment in which man might regain his truly human nature.
If it seems ironic that a replicant or double should provide the stimulus for such an awakening to the self and a proper sense of humanity, it may be a telling indication of how far modern man has come in his fascination with artifice and how much he has lost in exchange for that knowledge of how to double the self. No longer viewed simply as the abnormal desire of aberrant types, as in the numerous films which have focused on mad scientist types, doubling has here become the very hallmark of society, something its members take for granted—but like many things we take for granted, it is also a pernicious influence. As Blade Runner suggests, when this abiding fascination with doubling becomes a dominant force in man's life, he clearly runs the risk of becoming little more than a copy himself, potentially less human than the very images he has fashioned in his likeness. Man's scientific advances, in sum, threaten to render him largely irrelevant, save as an empty pattern within which knowledge might be stored and through which it might extend its grasp, further increase its capacities, and expand the realm of artifice.
At another level we should find it most fitting that a double should spur an awakening to a sense of self. In essence, another form of the doppelgänger archetype, the replicant might be expected to serve the sort of salutary function that other archetypal patterns do. In explaining the effect of archetypal images on the psyche, psychologist James Hillman notes that "reversion through likeness, resemblance," affords the mind "a bridge . . . a method which connects an event to its image, a psychic process to its myth, a suffering of the soul to the imaginal mystery expressed therein." In such "resemblance," he claims, there is located a path to a psychic truth which we have forgotten or lost sight of amid the welter of modern-day experience. Because of its reflective dimension, then, the image of the double, android, replicant, or copy holds out a great promise, even as it seems rather threatening, for it carries the potential of bringing us back to ourselves, making us at home with the self and the natural world almost in spite of ourselves. We might view the combat between Deckard and the android Roy Batty in exactly this context. In the middle of their fight, Deckard slips from the
top of a building and dangles precariously in the air; only the outstretched hand of Batty, grabbing Deckard at the last moment, stops his fall and brings him back from the brink of death to a possible life. It is precisely the sort of saving potential or "reversion" which always inheres in the image of the double and which may ultimately best explain the continuing fascination it holds for us.
In attempting to map out the large territory of fantasy narratives, Tzvetan Todorov identifies a singular tension at work in the form which reflects the fundamental experience of its audience. Both reader (or viewer) and protagonist, he asserts, "must decide if a certain event or phenomenon belongs to reality or to imagination, that is, must determine whether or not it is real. It is therefore the category of the real which has furnished a basis for our definition." As a result of this indeterminacy, we experience "a certain hesitation" as we try to "place" the events of the narrative within a known field of personal experience or reservoir of knowledge, just as the story's characters do. In this moment of hesitation, we should be able to discern the problem of representation which lies at the genre's very core, for we hesitate because of an immediate challenge to our usual system of referents, the stock of images which lived experience normally affords. At the same time, of course, that hesitation achieves a valuable purpose in prompting this stock-taking and thus starting a most subtle reflective experience.
In its recurrent concern with a doubling motif, the science fiction film thus draws on one of the fantastic's deepest structural patterns. In those images which fall outside of our normal lexicon, the film genre admits to a mystery or enigma that is at its center; and in bracketing the image of man—through those copies or replicants—within this enigmatic category, it admits of a puzzle to which we too are a part. Even as it limns the progress or potential of science, reason, and knowledge, therefore, the genre also acknowledges an underlying mystery and ambiguity, certainly in the approximations with which our mimetic impulse has always had to content itself. The fact that these disconcerting copies are in our own shape reminds us how little science has yet learned of substance about man, how little, in essence, we know about the most alluring of models for mimesis. As Arendt noted—and as our accomplishments in genetic engineering every day point up—we already possess the potential which science fiction films have so frequently described, that for crafting artificial versions of man. What these films hope to forestall is the dark obverse of this capacity, that for making human nature artificial as well.
Confessions of a Feminist Porn Watcher
Finally, here's a proper subject for the legions of feminist men: let them undertake the analysis that can tell us why men like porn (not, piously, why this or that exceptional man does not), why stroke books work, how oedipal formations feed the drive, and how any of it can be changed. Would that the film [Not a Love Story] had included any information from average customers, instead of stressing always the exceptional figure (Linda Lee herself, Suze Randall, etc.). And the antiporn campaigners might begin to formulate what routes could be more effective than marching outside a porn emporium.
B. Ruby Rich, "Anti-Porn: Soft Issue, Hard World,"
Village Voice, July 20, 1982
Pepe Le Pew was everything I wanted to be romantically. Not only was he quite sure of himself but it never occurred to him that anything was wrong with him. I always felt that there must be great areas of me that were repugnant to girls, and Pepe was quite the opposite of that.
Chuck Jones, "Chuck Jones Interviewed," by Joe Adamson,
The American Animated Cartoon, Ed. Danny and
Gerald Peary (New York: Dutton, 1980), 130
Vol. 36, no. 3 (Spring 1983): 10–17.
For a long time I've been ambivalent about pornography. Off and on since early adolescence I've visited porn shops and theaters, grateful—albeit a little sheepishly—for their existence; and like many men, I would guess, I've often felt protective of pornography, at least in the more standard varieties. (I know nothing at all about the child porn trade which, judging from news articles, is flourishing: I've never seen a child in an arcade film or videotape or in a film in a porn moviehouse; and though I've heard that many porn films involve women being tortured, I don't remember ever coming in contact with such material, except in Bonnie Klein's Not a Love Story , a film polemic/documentary on the nature and impact of porn films.) On the other hand, I've long felt and, in a small way, been supportive of the struggle for equality and self-determination for women; as a result, the consistent concern of feminist women about the exploitation and brutalization of the female in pornography has gnawed at my conscience. The frequent contempt of intelligent people for those who "need" pornographic materials has always functioned to keep me quiet about my real feelings, but a screening of Not a Love Story and a series of recent responses to it—most notably the B. Ruby Rich review quoted above—have emboldened me to assess my attitudes.
As I watched Not a Love Story , the film's fundamental assumption seemed very familiar: pornography is a reflection of a male-dominated culture in which women's bodies are exploited for the purpose of providing pleasure to males by dramatizing sexual fantasies which themselves imply a reconfirmation of male dominance. And while one part of my mind accepted this seemingly self-evident assumption, at a deeper level I felt resistant. The pornographic films and videotapes I've seen at theaters and in arcades are full of narratives in which women not only do what men want and allow men to do what they want, but effusively claim to love this particular sexual balance of power. Yet, given that males dominate in the culture, why would they pay to see sexual fantasies of male domination? Wouldn't one expect fantasy material to reveal the opposite of the status
quo? Further, if going to porn films or arcades were emblematic of male power, one might expect that the experience would be characterized by an easy confidence reflective of macho security.
For me, however—and, I'm guessing, for many men who have visited porn arcades or film houses—these periodic visits are always minor traumas. While there is an erotic excitement involved in the decision to attend and in the experience itself, this is mixed with considerable amounts of fear and embarrassment. From the instant my car is carrying me toward pornography, I feel painfully visible, as if everyone who sees me knows from my expression, my body language, whatever, precisely where I'm going. The walk from the car to the door—and later, from the door to the car—is especially difficult: will someone drive by and see me? This fear of being seen has, in my case at least (as far as I can tell), less to do with guilt than with a fear of being misunderstood. Even though the frequency of my experiences with pornography has nothing at all to do with the success of my sex life—I'm at least as likely to visit a porn arcade when I'm sexually active as when I'm lonely and horny—I always feel the power of the social stigma against such experiences. Unless the people who see me have been in my situation, I'm sure they'll deduce that my visit to the arcade reflects my inadequacy or some inadequacy in the person I'm living with, that either I "can't get any" or I'm not satisfied with what I can get. As a result, I try to look at ease during the walk to the door: any evident discomfiture on my part, I warn myself, will only fuel whatever laughter my presence has provoked.
Once inside an arcade or a theater, this anxiety about being seen continues, though with a different slant: will I run smack into someone I know? Of course, anyone I would run into would be unlikely to misunderstand the meaning of my presence; but such a meeting would interfere with what seems to me the most fundamental dimension of going to a porn arcade or moviehouse: the desire for privacy and anonymity. Meeting someone I know would, I assume (this has never happened to me), force us to join together in the phony macho pose of pretending that our interest in the pornographic materials around us is largely a matter of detached humor, that we've come for a few laughs.
The concern for privacy determines the nature of the interaction of the men (I've seen women at porn theaters, but never in porn arcades) involved with porn. Of course, theaters are constructed so as to impede the interactions of members of the audience (I always feel a pressure not to look at people on my way out), but the structure of arcades makes some interaction between strangers almost inevitable. In retrospect, the nature and apparent meaning of this interaction always seems rather poignant. Because of our shared embarrassment about being in this place together and, perhaps, because of our awareness that our presence is a sign of an erotic impatience our casual stances
belie—for whatever reason, the men I've seen in porn arcades seem to allow themselves a detached gentleness with each other. For my part—and, judging from my limited observation, I'd guess my experience is pretty standard—I move in an unthreatening way; I am careful not to make eye contact with anyone. When eye contact is unavoidable, I put my mind on erase. When I walk out of a porn arcade, I take with me no functional memory at all of the particular faces I saw there, though each visit has confirmed my feeling that in general the faces are those of quiet middle-class men pretty much like me.
I've always assumed that, essentially, those of us who co-exist with each other for a few minutes in porn theaters or arcades share the embarrassing awareness that we're there for the same thing: to look for a while at forbidden sexual imagery which excites us and, finally, to masturbate. In my experience, the masturbation itself seems less important as an experience than as a way of releasing the excitement created by the imagery. Even though most men seem to look rigorously frontward in porn theaters and even though porn arcade booths are designed so as to provide enough security for masturbation, the idea of being seen masturbating has always seemed so frightening to me (and, I assume, to others: I've never seen or heard anyone masturbate in an arcade) that I've never felt free to get deeply involved in the act the way I can when I have real privacy. Usually at a porn arcade I keep myself from masturbating for ten or twenty minutes, until I'm ready to leave; the act itself rarely takes more than fifteen or thirty seconds, and as soon as it's over, I'm on my way to my car. I move quickly because, often, despite my confidence that the other men I see have much the same experience I do, I leave terrified that someone will enter the booth I've just left, see the semen on the floor—impossible in the dimly lit booths—and yell after me. I've never masturbated in a theater (though on rare occasions I've seen others do so), but only later, outside the theater, in the privacy of a car or a men's room.
Since the reason for braving the kinesic complexity of the porn environment is exposure to the pornographic materials themselves, it's important to consider what these materials really are. Over the years I've developed what I hope is a generally accurate sense of the motifs that dominate standard porn fare directed at heterosexual men; and I've thought a good deal about why these particular motifs seem so pervasive. I'm speaking of "motifs" here rather than of "films" because the films seem centered (both in terms of the time allocated to specific imagery and in terms of the viewing gaze) on specific configurations, "acts." Even though there's always a skeletal narrative, this is so obviously a function of the need to create a context for the motifs, that one doesn't need to pay particular attention to it—except insofar as it raises the adrenaline by slightly withholding the awaited imagery. The empty nature of the porn narratives is confirmed by the booths, which, in my experience, have all presented Super-8 films
in loops, usually two or three films to a loop. Since each quarter, or whatever the fee is, buys only 30 seconds or so of film (then the film stops until another quarter is deposited), one doesn't automatically see a film from start to finish. The motif structure is also reconfirmed by the announcements on booth doors of the particular acts which are featured in particular booths.
For me the obvious amateurishness of the production values, the acting, and the writing has generally added to the titillating mood, since what the characters do to and with each other is all the more outrageous because it's so patently done for the camera. In fact, some acts appear so uncomfortable and pleasureless for the actors that the camera's presence seems the only possible explanation. Our consciousness of the films as films is maintained by the camera angles, the length of shots, the lighting, all of which are usually (or at least this is how I remember them) overtly functional, providing a clear view of the sex acts between the actors and between their close-up genitals. In most films "aesthetics" are rigorously avoided in service of clarity.
The motifs themselves have generally involved a relatively limited number of sexual interactions. Sexual intercourse in a variety of poses is nearly inevitable, of course, but it's rarely the clincher in a film. Judging from my limited experience, blow jobs (especially ending in ejaculation into the woman's mouth or on her face) and anal intercourse seem the present-day favorites. Sometimes they involve more than a pair of partners (two men have intercourse—one vaginally, one anally—with one woman; two women provide a blow job to one man; a woman gives a blow job to one man while another has intercourse with her) and/or a mixture of ethnic backgrounds. While the women involved seem to mirror conventional notions of attractiveness, the men are frequently quite average-looking: nearly any man will do, apparently, so long as he has a large erection.
No doubt the psychology of wanting to view sexual performances on a movie screen is complex, but over the years I've been aware of two general functions of the experience: one of these involves its "educational" value, the other its value as psychic release. When I was younger, my interest was in seeing just what the female body looked like and how it moved. Sexuality, as I experienced it as an adolescent, was something that usually occurred in the dark, in enclosed spaces, and under the pressure of time. Often I was more engrossed in the issue of "how far I was going to be able to go" than with really seeing and understanding what I was doing. In those days (the fifties) there were no porn films or arcades, but newsstands were beginning to stock Playboy, Nugget , and a variety of other girlie magazines; and my hunger to see women's bodies—and to be able to examine them without the embarrassment of being observed by the women—resulted in periodic thefts of magazines. These thefts were serious extralegal transgressions to me; I was terrified of being caught,
arrested, and made an example of, until I developed the courage to try buying magazines from drugstore owners. These early magazines seemed a godsend to me, and they provided the stimulation for countless hours of masturbation. But they were also carefully censored: the focus was on breasts, though there were frequent side views of demurely posed buttocks; and all vestiges of pubic hair were, for some strange reason, erased from the photographs. (I didn't realize this until I was 17 and had the shock of my life during a heavy petting session.) One can certainly imagine a culture, like that of the Polynesians, in which the bodies of members of the opposite sex would not be visual mysteries, where we could be at ease with seeing each other. But though that has never been the case here, men continue to grow up under considerable pressure to know "how to handle" women sexually: we're supposed to know what's where and how it works. Looking at girlie magazines may seem (and be) a callous manipulation of female bodies, but its function was never callous for me. I was powerfully drawn to women, but my complete ignorance of them frightened me; the magazines were like a nightlight: they allowed me to know a little more than I otherwise would have and they allowed me the fantasy (I always knew it was an illusion) that I'd "know what to do" the next time I got to see and touch a flesh and-blood-woman.
The functioning of pornographic imagery as a means of allowing men to examine the bodies of the opposite sex seems an important aspect of porn films and videotapes, which are full of extreme close-ups of cocks thrusting into cunts. The ludicrous lack of romance in such imagery is often mentioned in condemnations of pornography, but the function seems more scientific than romantic, more like Muybridge's motion studies than a Hollywood love story. And it seems to me that the value of this visual option continues to be defensible, at least in a limited sense, given this society's pervasive marketing of rigidly defined standards of attractiveness. For one thing, direct sexual experience with a conventionally attractive woman is, or seems, out of the question for many men; and yet it's come to be one of the definers of a life worth living. Pornography provides a compromise by making visual knowledge of such an experience a possibility. Secondly, many men feel supportive enough of women to take them seriously when they complain about the invasion of privacy implicit in the unprovoked leers and comments they continue to endure on the street. I'll go to considerable lengths to avoid intruding in this way, but I have to fight the urge to stare all the time. Some of the popularity of pornography even among men who consider themselves feminists may be a function of its capacity to provide a form of unintrusive leering.
I've become conscious of a second aspect of this first function of pornographic materials, the "educational" function, during the past few years. Feminists have made us aware of the politics of staring at women, but the
culture at large—particularly the culture as evident in the commercial sphere—tells us constantly that looking at women is what men are supposed to do. Looking at other men continues to be another matter entirely. Of course, spectator sports, and other forms of physical performance, allow for almost unlimited examination of how bodies function, but knowledge of the naked male body continues to be a tricky matter for heterosexual men. In conventional American life men are probably naked together more often than women: in shower rooms, most obviously. And yet, as is true in porn arcades, the kinesics of the interaction between men in such places are very precisely controlled. Men certainly don't feel free to look at other men; our lives are full of stories about how one guy catches another looking at him and punches him out. Never mind that I've never witnessed such an incident: a taboo is at stake, and potential embarrassment, if not danger, seems to hover on the edge of it. This situation is complicated further by the fact that even if men felt free to look carefully at each other in shower rooms, or wherever, a crucial element of the male body—how it functions during sexual activity—would remain a mystery. Of course, I know what my own erection looks like, but so much stress is placed on the nature of erections that it's difficult not to wonder what the erections of other men look like (and how mine looks in comparison).
One of the things that distinguishes the pornographic materials available in porn movies and arcades from what is available on local newsstands—and thus, implicitly, one of the things that accounts for the size of the hardcore porn market—is the pervasive presence of erections. In fact, to a considerable extent theater and arcade porn films are about erections. The standard anti-porn response to this is to see the porn film phallus as a combined battering ram/totem which encapsulates the male drive for power. And given the characterizations of the vain strutting men on the other ends of these frequently awesome shafts, such an interpretation seems almost inevitable. And yet, for me the pervasiveness of erect penises in porn has at least as much to do with simple curiosity. The darkness of porn houses and the privacy of arcade booths allow one to see erections close-up. The presence of women has its own power, but in this particular context one of the primary functions of the female presence is to serve as a sign—to others and to oneself—that looking at erections, even finding them sexy, does not mean that the viewer defines himself as a homosexual.
A second function of the pornographic experience involves the exact converse of a number of cultural attitudes which feminists have often seen as subtly detrimental to women. Most people now recognize that the constant attention to the "beauty" of the female body, which has been so pervasive in the arts and in commerce during recent centuries, may involve more than a respect and love for
women—that it may be a tactic for keeping them more involved with how they look (and to a considerable extent, with pleasing men) than with what they do, or can learn to do. Further, the emphasis on a pristine ideal of beauty, as feminists have often pointed out, has frequently alienated women from their own bodies: real odors, secretions, processes have frequently been seen as contradictory of the Beauty of Womanhood. On the other hand, the same cultural history which has defined women as Beautiful has had, and to some extent continues to have, as its inevitable corollary, the Ugliness of men; women have been defined as beautiful precisely in contrast to men. Now, even if these definitions are seen as primarily beneficial to men, in the sense that not having to be concerned with appearances allows them more energy and time for attaining their goals and maintaining their access to power, I sense that the definition also creates significant problems for men, and especially in the areas of love and sex, where physical attractiveness seems of the essence. In recent years we've seen a growing acceptance of the idea that men, too, can be beautiful. The burgeoning homosexual subculture seems evidence of this, as does the popularity of body building. And yet, just as the pressure to see women as "the weaker sex" continues to be felt in a culture where millions of women dramatize the intrinsic bankruptcy of that notion, many men—I'd guess most men—continue to feel insecure about the attractiveness of their bodies.
Perhaps the most obvious aspect of male sexual functioning which has been conditioned by negative assumptions about male attractiveness is ejaculation. Even among people who are comfortable with the idea that men can be beautiful, semen is often (if not usually) seen as disgusting. Is it an accident that many of the substances that our culture considers particularly revolting—raw egg, snot . . .—share with semen a general texture and look? Accidental or not, I've heard and read such comparisons all my life. I remember the shock and fear that followed my first orgasm. Without knowing it, I had been masturbating in the attic of my aunt's house where I had discovered a pile of girlie magazines. The unexpected orgasm was astonishing and thrilling, but at the end of it, I discovered, to my shock, that my shirt and the magazine were covered with a substance I hadn't known existed. I cleaned myself up (even at that early point I was clear that for my relatives—especially for my mother and my aunt—the mysterious substance would be seen as a form of dirtiness), and I spent the remainder of the day walking around with my arms and hands in odd configurations in front of my shirt in the hope of avoiding detection. From that time on, I was alert to the fact that every indulgence of my desire for sex would produce evidence the discovery of which, I was sure, could be humiliating.
Now I'm well aware that to accept a mucus-like substance that comes out of one's own body is a different matter than accepting such a substance from another's body. I not only understand but can also empathize with the revul-
sion of many women to semen. Nevertheless, I suspect it creates the same problems for many men as the widespread squeamishness about menstruation has caused women. There are instances of course—in the midst of passion—where semen is temporarily accepted, even enjoyed by women, but these moments tend to be memorable exceptions. For the most part, even between people who love each other, the presence of semen is at best a necessary evil. Recently I mentioned this idea to a woman friend, who has had sex with many men and is proud of it, after she had indicated her contempt for men who were turned off by women's smells and secretions. "I think it depends on who you're with," she said. "If you care about the person, there's nothing disgusting about his semen." A few seconds later she added, "But who has to lie in it?" and laughed. Many women are concerned about the danger of "bleeding through" during menstruation, presumably because they feel, or fear that men feel, that menstrual secretions make them sexually undesirable; and dozens of products have been marketed to protect against such an occurrence. I feel a similar concern about semen, and must face a very special irony: the fact that it surfaces precisely at the moment of my most complete sexual abandon.
To me, the nature and function of pornography have always seemed understandable as a way for men to periodically deal with the cultural context which mitigates against their full acceptance of themselves as sexual beings. The fantasies men pay to experience in porn arcade booths and movie houses may ostensibly appear to be predicated on the brutalization of women. But from a male point of view, the desire is not to see women harmed, but to momentarily identify with men who—despite their personal unattractiveness by conventional cultural definitions, despite the unwieldy size of their erections, and despite their aggressiveness with their semen—are adored by the women they encounter sexually. Only in pornography will the fantasy woman demonstrate aggressive acceptance when a man ejaculates on her face. As embarrassingly abhorrent as it always strikes me, the hostility toward women which usually seems to hover around the edges of conventional film pornography (in the frequently arrogant, presumptive manner the male characters exhibit, for example) and which is a primary subject matter in some films, seems to be a more aggressive way of dealing with the same issues. In these instances the fantasy is in punishing resistant women for their revulsion. Of course, the punishments—usually one form or another of rape—often end with the fantasy woman's discovery of an insatiable hunger for whatever has been done to her. This frequent turnabout appears to be nothing more than a reconfirmation of the stupid, brutal myth that women ask to be raped or enjoy being raped, but—as sadly ironic as this seems—it could also be seen as evidence that, in the final analysis, men don't mean harm to women, or don't wish to mean harm to women: their fantasy is the acceptance of their own biological nature
by women. I've always assumed that porn and rape are part of the same general problem, though I've always felt it more likely that porn offers an outlet for some of the anger engendered by men's feelings of sensual/aesthetic inferiority, than that it serves as a fuel for further anger. But I'm only speaking from my own experience. I've rarely spoken frankly about such matters with men who use porn.
To try to understand the reasons for the huge business of making and marketing pornographic movies is not necessarily to justify the practice. One can only hope for increasingly definitive studies of how porn functions and what its effects are. But, however one describes the complex historical factors which have brought us to our present situation, the fact remains that in our culture men and women frequently feel alienated from their own bodies and from each other. Pornography is a function of this alienation, and I can't imagine it disappearing until we have come to see ourselves and each other differently. We don't choose the bodies we are born with; natural selection, or God—or whatever—takes care of that for us. And though we can't change the fact of our difference (and regardless of whether we choose to accept and enjoy this difference by being passionate about our own or the opposite sex, or both), surely we can learn to be mutually supportive about our bodies. My guess is that porn is a symptom not so much of a sexual need, but of a need for self-acceptance and respect. If we can come to terms with that need, as it relates to both sexes, my guess is that porn will disappear.
The Sacraments of Genre:
Coppola, DePalma, Scorsese
Vol. 39, no. 3 (Spring 1986): 17–28.
"An aesthetic of reality," André Bazin called the Italian neorealist films of the immediate postwar period, and the description has stuck. Whatever the changes in style and approach that directors like Rossellini, DeSica, Antonioni, and Fellini made later in their careers, there is still a critical tendency to root them in a film-making that stayed close to the stuff of everyday life. By respecting the integrity of the actors and objects within its gaze, it sought not to turn them into something thematic or symbolic, but to maintain their separateness and their unalloyed reality—if we take "reality" to mean that which is constantly evading our final interpretation and our subordination of it to our interpretive systems.
The now-aging younger generation of Italian-American film-makers—in which I include Francis Ford Coppola, Brian DePalma, and Martin Scorsese—at first glance could hardly be more different from the generation of neorealists in their style and preoccupations. Most striking is their commitment to genre formats in plot and style, an indication of their rootedness in an American rather than a European tradition of film-making. Genre has always been the prime seedbed of American films. The neorealists and the European school in general, with the great exceptions of the early works of the French New Wave and the more recent New German cinema, have usually treated the individual film as a work situated in the history of art, or in the eternity of nature, while even in the most ambitious as well as the most perfunctory American films it is the pressure of the history of film displayed in genre form that has been the most crucial factor. Neorealism particularly, at least in Bazin's account of it, is explicitly presented as a statement of freedom against the stylization associated with expressionist film (as part of an attack on German politics and Nazism as well). This kind of film, Bazin virtually argues, exhibits the "true" aesthetic of the medium, while the stylized sets, directorial control, broad-gesture acting, and melodramatic plots of film expressionism are a falsification of its essential nature.
This essay is dedicated to the memory of Dennis Turner
In such an argument, the films of Coppola, DePalma, and Scorsese, with exceptions I'll note later, almost entirely wind up on the side of the tradition that Bazin believes neorealism is attacking. They are fascinated with artifice—with genre plots, characters, and motifs that delve into the roots of popular forms—as well as with stylized sets, lighting, and an expressionist use of color that convey the emotions of the characters and the situations rather than the "reality" of the objects. In contrast to the neorealist and Soviet use of nonprofessional actors to energize the film with a "realistic" sense of character, these directors focus on both the self-stylized character and the character whose psyche film and popular culture has taken over—characters for whom all experience must be mediated by the shapes of film artifice. Instead of imitating the dynamic reticence of the ideal neorealist director, who lets reality unfold before his camera, these directors are drawn to the implications of directorial imposition and tyranny: the director as aesthetic master of his material, shaping it to his will. Rather than Renoir or Rossellini, Antonioni or DeSica, their heroes are the great independent stylists: Welles for Coppola, Hitchcock for DePalma, while Scorsese invokes the eccentric combination of Michael Powell and Sam Fuller.
Yet of course the neorealist ideal against which I am measuring the deviations of this trio of Italian-American directors who have become so prominent in the seventies and eighties is itself a myth. If there ever was a neorealist consensus, it was in the eye of the wishful-thinking observer Bazin. The operatic structures of Visconti and the directorial flamboyance of Fellini obviously also play paterfamilias to The Godfather and New York, New York , where realism is heightened rather than negated. Similarly, Bazin's too easy equation of neorealism and liberation on the one hand and totalitarianism and expressionist distortion on the other is belied by the fact that so many of the directors who came to prominence after World War II received their technical training and a certain amount of their aesthetic underpinning in Mussolini's documentary film office. In fact, the neorealist commitment to "an aesthetic of reality" was never so wholeheartedly polemical as Bazin argues. Rossellini is of course considered to be the one who strayed least from the fold, descending into neither Felliniesque bravura, Viscontian theatricality, nor Antonionian modernism. But from the first Rossellini himself problematized the "reality" he was observing with calculatedly stylized effects. I mention just one example here: the torture scene in Open City , set in a room that, with total spatial illogic and psychic logic, is right next door to the main office of the Nazi chief as well as to the clubroom of his dissipated pleasures. Such a juxtaposition creates a rift in the documentary discourse (with its assumption that what is observed is truly happening) and makes us aware instead of the perceptual variations on "reality" through which the film is constructed. It is an incantatory moment, a mode of suprarealistic perception that I would like to call a sacra-
mentalizing of the real, not so that it be worshipped but so that its spiritual essence, whether diabolical or holy, inflect what is otherwise a discrete collection of objects in space. Such a moment in Rossellini's early films connects them with preoccupations that appear with more elaboration later, for example, in his analysis of the signs of material status in The Rise of Louis XIV , or the signs of personal self-definition in such seemingly different films as The Little Flowers of St. Francis and General Della Rovere . The commerce between such moments of psychological or expressionist eruption and their surrounding documentary format can suggest as well a closer lineage between, say, Rossellini's generation of neorealists and the mingling of documentary and expressionism in Scorsese (Raging Bull, King of Comedy ) as well as the historical melodrama of Coppola's Godfather .
But my purpose here is less to argue (except by suggestion) the links to an older generation of Italian film-makers than to explore the different ways Coppola, DePalma, and Scorsese adapt to the special situation of the American film what I would like metaphorically to call a Catholic way of regarding the visible world. In varying biographical degrees, they come to film, I would argue, with a specially honed sense of (1) the importance of ritual narratives, (2) the significance of ritual objects, and (3) the conferral of ritual status. Unlike the Protestant (and often Jewish) denigration of visual materiality in favor of verbal mystery, such directors mine the transcendental potential within the visual world. Objects, people, places, and stories are irradiated by the meaning from within, which as directors they seek to unlock. Sometimes the meaning, as in the work of another Catholic director, Hitchcock, is beyond the visual. But it is still linked to an effort to make visual style a mode of moral exploration, an almost priestly urge to reeducate the audience in the timelessness of ritual stories, along with the attitudes necessary for their reinterpretations.
This process takes place, as I have said, within an American film context that has always stressed the armature of genre and of film history as the presupposition of every film. It is an aesthetic approach enhanced of course by the long-lived existence of a studio system. But even with the end of the studio system (or especially with its end), we find professed anti-Hollywoodians like Coppola and DePalma seeking to set up their own version of Hollywood and in essence beating Hollywood at its own genre game. All three of them, along with most other American film-makers of their generation, received their technical training at the same time that the auteur theory of film was a force of radical upending of the official system of value. "No more European films of the grand style and no more Hollywood films of pretension" was the battlecry. The great American director would be defined instead as a man of personal style and vision, often working in the lowliest ranks of the studio, turning out masterpieces of tension between studio demands and personal urge. "Art" here was not the
grand assertion of the European artist with his tradition of craft and guild connection on the one side and masterpieces and originality on the other. Auteur "art" came instead from a subversive use of the paraphernalia of studio complacency to articulate a personal vision.
All three of these directors did some or a good deal of their journeyman work with that institutionalized representative of the Hollywood anti-system, Roger Corman, whose stock-in-trade was taking marginal film genres like horror or the biker films and mixing them into an almost surreal concoction of flash and action. In the midst of Hollywood, Corman represented a knowing "bad taste" that simultaneously mocked Hollywood's own upscale liberal pieties even while it studiously learned all its techniques. Corman produced Coppola's first film, Dementia 13 , Scorsese's first substantial feature, Boxcar Bertha , and released DePalma's Sisters; he also offered a place where talented film-school graduates like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Jonathan Demme could learn their craft at low pay. The previous Hollywood generations of directors had come from live television (Lumet, Frankenheimer, Penn) or filmed television (Altman, Pollack) with its symbiotic relation to
New York theater (especially in the days of the blacklist). This new generation came out of the film schools—USC, UCLA, and NYU. If the California contingent of Lucas, Spielberg, and Coppola were more oriented to Hollywood genres and studio expertise, it came in part naturally from the prejudices of their instruction, which stressed the need to fit in, if not with the Hollywood system, then with the Hollywood way of doing things—melodramatic plots and technically advanced visual style. If the New York contingent of DePalma and Scorsese was more dubious about the ultimate uses of technical expertise and often included a questioning of their own precedures, it came naturally from their nurturing in the cinéma vérité documentary world of New York in the fifties and sixties, with its constant arguments over the nature of cinematic truth and its New Wave city-film ambience of street-theater strutting.
But I must return from this entire generation of new directors to Coppola, DePalma, and Scorsese in particular because I believe their Catholic upbringing, literally or metaphorically, makes them the most salient film-makers of that group, heightening a self-consciousness about all aspects of film-making that is already inherent in the historical-aesthetic moment in which these young directors began to work. Each of the three emphasizes a different aspect of film self-consciousness as his own. In Coppola it is the sense of genre, which for him is attached to a feeling for family situations and family betrayals, much as the latest genre examples turn against the past in the name of bringing that past to some higher perfection. Genre for Coppola is like the rituals of religion. But in the family context those rituals are poisoned by the shadows of death and ambition, just as the christening of Michael Corleone's child in Godfather II is intercut with the bloodbath wave of assassinations he has ordered. The old must die so that the young can move into their places, as Brando, sinking into the garden while making faces, gives way to Pacino and DeNiro, his inheritors and his younger selves. Fred Astaire in Coppola's Finian's Rainbow may still spryly head off across the fields, but his day is clearly over, and like Martin Sheen contemplating Brando's Kurtz in Apocalypse Now , it seems easier to kill him off than to fathom his meaning. In Godfather II Michael the inheritor is a cold avenger, whose sword turns finally upon those he has vowed to preserve. Hymie Roth, the old Jewish gangster, may be defeated, but by the end the family has disappeared as well and Michael sits alone, while the lost voices of Sonny and Fredo and Kay echo in the empty room.
I have been recounting those elements in Coppola's films that lend themselves to an allegorical reading of his own relation to Hollywood and his past masters: a deep homage along with a simultaneous effort to replace them with his own aesthetic family—his father the composer, his sister the actress, and of course all
his friends and coworkers at the (now defunct) American Zoetrope. Always there is a dream of camaraderie, and invariably that dream turns sour, often with a sentimental heaviness, for example in The Outsiders , where the bad boy Matt Dillon maintains his friendship with the younger boys to the point of sacrificing himself in a needless theatrical gesture. Much more than either Scorsese or DePalma, Coppola is committed to storytelling and narrative of an older sort, in accord with his commitment to genre and family ritual as structures of feeling that he wishes would still retain their ability to compel belief. But Coppola's commitment is undermined by his general unwillingness to question his own role as the director and Wunderkind who will pull all this together and make it work. Orson Welles is his progenitor and Wellesian control is really his ideal. But he lacks Welles's self-critical fascination with theatrical windbags and greedy fakes. In Godfather II Michael Corleone has clearly lost all the vitality of the past even as he has superseded it in efficiency and ruthlessness. Like Coppola's own grand projects that never quite work out—Apocalypse Now and One From the Heart —the recreation of past stories in order to squeeze them of all their possible meaning never quite gets to the core that gives them life. Too often they remain only stories, and even at his best Coppola is more a virtuoso stager of their gestures than an expounder of their meanings. Finian's Rainbow effectively ends one major musical tradition in film; Godfather II systematically dismembers and calls into question every feeling and value that animated Godfather I ; Apocalypse Now attempts to say the final word on the whole history of European and American colonialism; The Outsiders will be the ultimate "bad kids are really good kids" movie, etc., etc. Instead of being energized by his self-consciousness, Coppola too often is swamped by it. His detachment from his tradition leads not to analysis so much as to compendium.
The only film that Coppola made for the short-lived Director's Company (made up of himself, Peter Bogdanovich, and William Friedkin) is The Conversation , a smaller film than most of his, and one that intriguingly situates Coppola in relation to the earlier generation of Italian directors, as well as to Brian DePalma. Even though, as it has often been noted, The Conversation owes an enormous amount to the editing and constructive skills of Walter Murch, I will treat it as connected to Coppola's own interests because, as Michael Pye and Linda Myles point out, it proceeds directly out of an intellectual context at Zoetrope where Antonioni's Blow-up was constantly being discussed as a key to all the most intriguing questions about the film-making process and the meaning of film that the young film-makers were setting about to explore.
Blow-up was more appealing to the self-conscious young film-makers than any of Antonioni's earlier films because its theme is specifically the problematics of vision, particularly as seeing is mediated by the camera. Within a mystery plot featuring a Hitchcock-style innocent bystander who catches a glimpse
of a crime, Antonioni explores similarly Hitchcockian themes of moral entrapment, in which the bystander becomes culpable through his particular way of seeing and interpreting the world. Like those of Jeff in Rear Window , the flaws of Antonioni's Thomas come specifically from the impulses that animate his career as a photographer. Moodily alienated from fashion photography, in which he is clearly the master over fawning, posturing women, he seeks some moral exoneration by frequenting flophouses and surreptitiously taking pictures of the bums and outcasts who are their inhabitants. By this ambiguous penance he delves into what he considers to be the "truth" of life. And he shows the photos to his agent as part of plans for a new book that will supposedly allow him to be seen as a "serious" photographer.
With his unquestioned commitment to the morality of his own perspective and style of vision, Thomas is fair game for the events that follow. By accident, he photographs what seems to be a crime and then continues to blow up his photograph in search of the elusive, consummating detail that will reveal the truth—a detail needless to say that becomes more evanescent the closer he comes to it. In Rear Window the newspaper photographer Jeff is drawn into the lives of the people he thinks he observes with detachment. The crucial emblem of his involvement is his discovery that he has witnessed a murder without knowing it. But there is no problem of sight for Hitchcock except for its moral valence. You
have to pay for seeing; you can't be detached. In Blow-up , on the other hand, seeing is itself called into question, along with the minute amassing of facts that purport to lead to a solution. Unlike Hitchcock's, Antonioni's narrative does not follow even a pseudo-causal unfolding. Its story is more like a collage, a cubistic refocusing on the protagonist, who, like characters in Antonioni's earlier films, only sporadically follows his first goal. Hitchcock minimized the lost, strayed, or stolen object that was the pretext for so many of his plots by calling it the MacGuffin. But it nevertheless existed. In Blow-up the photographer tries to turn the pretext into a text and fails miserably.
Yet, although Antonioni goes beyond Hitchcock in questioning the sufficient reality of the visible world, he shares Hitchcock's final unwillingness to demystify the visual image and the director's privilege of presenting it. Thomas the photographer is not, I think, a surrogate for the director because Blow-up specifically characterizes the photograph as a still picture and so necessarily inferior to the cinematic way of seeing the world. By satirizing the fashion photographer's pictures of the down-and-out in a mockery of the naive neorealism that dwells only on the surfaces of reality, Blow-up especially implies that the photographic fetishizing of the visible is less "insightful" than that of film. Antonioni's perspective—as director —resembles a modernism of the Flaubertian and Joycean sort; God pares his fingernails while his characters squirm in their limited universe of immediacy. It keeps intact one of the most basic assumptions of film: that the directorial perspective is privileged, unquestioned, and almost by definition unquestionable. Hitchcock varies this assumption by making the audience, like himself and his characters, complicit in the strange goings on because of their own personal darknesses. But still it is the director who retains the edge of authority sufficient to demonstrate to us our moral lapses and epistemological blindnesses.
To return to Coppola and The Conversation , however, there the crime is real and the mystery can be solved—if one interprets the data properly. But Harry Caul, the sound man, who thinks that his equipment allows him to control and understand events, is in fact manipulated by his own belief in his godlike detachment. Much more than the photographer in Blow-up , he is a figure of the director, especially the director whose technical mastery has been his passport to success. The crucial sentence Caul has recorded he has also misheard, misread, and he had thereby totally mistaken who are the murderers and who are the victims—encouraged by his own outsider's desire to believe that the wealthy prey tyrannically on the innocent. His moral preconceptions, his belief in himself as a controlling intelligence through his expertise, and his manipulation of his technical skills themselves all turn into the agents of his failure.
Yet, despite its critique of the director's technological detachment, the fact that Coppola gave up effective creation of The Conversation to Murch indi-
cates that there is some sense in which he has himself tried to escape unscathed from the film's mea culpa . One wonders if the maker of One From the Heart , with its elaborate paeans to the technology of emotion, has really watched The Conversation with the attention it deserves. The similarly divided aims of Apocalypse Now , with its simultaneous satire of American technological warfare and its exploration of dark spiritual forces in the Vietnamese jungles, follows The Conversation in replicating Coppola's own division between the desire to control through technique and create through imagination.
I have called this interplay between the technological future and the mythic past in Coppola's films a tension, a dialectic, a Jekyll-and-Hyde split in his commitments as filmmaker and moral story-teller. But in the films of Brian DePalma, it becomes a prime theme on its own. Coppola is the genre story-teller, big daddy director, studio magnate. DePalma believes in the myth of Hollywood with a capital H and, according to all his interviews, loathes it. Yet he has become very successful making films that raise the ante in horror violence beyond even the Corman level, while mixing them with an irony about his own position as the outlaw little kid director now armed with all the technical resources and a good deal of the money of the big guys. Although brought up as a Presbyterian, DePalma acknowledges a strong Catholic cultural background. Of the three directors he is the most fascinated with significant objects, especially the knives and other instruments of cutting so favored by Hitchcock, which take their places in the rituals of the deranged. Neither Coppola nor Scorsese lavishes the attention DePalma does on a table or desk top with its array of objects that create a mood or express a personality. Objects for DePalma are close to icons, and one central icon in his films may
be the statue of St. Sebastian in Carrie's closet (not present in Stephen King's novel Carrie ), the Saint pierced by arrows just as Carrie will by the powers of her own mind later skewer her mother with every kitchen gadget available, murdering and sanctifying her at the same time.
In both Carrie and The Fury , as well as Sisters , DePalma celebrates the power of the mind and the imagination to move the otherwise inert objects of the world and thereby create its own reality. Telekinesis plays the same role in DePalma's films that genre references do in Coppola's and allusions to film history in Scorsese's: it invests the normal and the repetitive with the transcendent spirituality of ritual power. And DePalma particularly vests that imaginative power and strength of mind in a human being, a character, and invariably a young character at that. The young, in Coppola, can never reach the greatness of the past. They succeed primarily in turning it into a machine-like efficiency. The young in Scorsese are burdened immeasurably by their own desires for recognition and justification as dictated by movie stances and gestures from the past. But the young in DePalma have a kind of almost Wordsworthian energy that the adult world is bent on corrupting, not sexually so much as by its superior knowingness and its institutional absorption of their vitality for its own ends. The teen-age computer whiz in Dressed to Kill is going to use his own command of film technology to find out who killed his mother. The sound technician in Blow-Out is going to face down the entire police department and city government with his revelation of the criminality of a public figure. Carrie, the schlumpy teenager, falls into experience with her first menstrual period and becomes the butt of the more knowing girls around her. When she is
humiliated at the prom, she destroys everything in her path; there is no time for small distinctions about who was nice to her and who wasn't. It is personal power without an adult moral monitor, but also without the adult willingness to conciliate and beg off.
But whereas Carrie's natural magic and that of the young boy and girl in The Fury cause disaster to the evil (as well as a few of the good), the technical magic of the computer whiz in Dressed to Kill , and even more so that of the sound technician played by John Travolta in Blow-Out , really doesn't work. Both are more personally involved in the crime than either the photographer in Blow-up or the professional eavesdropper in The Conversation; neither has any illusions about the detachment their technology allows; both are using that technology for highly moral ends—to solve a murder or to reveal corruption. But both find their technical command to be fallible. The kid in Dressed to Kill , for all his minute tracking of the psychiatrist's patients, fails to understand that the killer walked out of the office rather than into it; his expertise is undermined by his youthful inability to imagine the adult depravity of the schizoid psychiatrist. The sound man in Blow-Out , even though he has witnessed the crime and has
it on tape, is powerless to prevent the killer's erasure of his taped collection of the world's most significant sounds, just as he is powerless to prevent the murder of the prostitute who has helped him and believed in him. All he can do finally is use her scream in a horror movie—her naturalness, youth, and energy swallowed up by his own now adult and affect-less purposes. The difference here is that DePalma himself—unlike Hitchcock, unlike Antonioni, and unlike Coppola—is not left out of the indictment. The prostitute is played, in perhaps a Godardian nod, by his own wife, Nancy Allen. And there is more empathy between himself and John Travolta's sound technician than there is dissociation. Antonioni at the end of Blow-up makes David Hemmings disappear, blanking him out of the frame to imply his own more inclusive perspective. But Travolta at the end of Blow-Out resembles DePalma, sitting in the studio, opportunistically putting together a film from everything at hand.
There are truths inaccessible to technique, the ending of Blow-Out seems to imply, and unmimeable by the seemingly lifelike creations of a spiritless technology. In DePalma, as in some Hitchcock, there is a sense that film technique, film style, the film way of seeing, can never penetrate to the real truth, which in essence is invisible. At best we have only symbols, significant objects, details, gestures, that at the crucial juncture reveal their emptiness as ways of explanation and modes of power. As Coppola hankers after the charisma of a Brando that abides technical firepower, so DePalma celebrates the psychic power from within, which technical mastery seems to corrupt or at least to stifle and to warp. He places the Hitchcockian distinction between moral control and aesthetic control further into doubt by bringing (again a bit like Godard) the film-making process itself in for some severe questioning—even of course as he glories in his manipulation of the audience as God-director. In a sense DePalma's aesthetic and moral vision is closer to that of Paul Schrader, the Dutch Calvinist, than to those of Coppola and Scorsese. But his sense of sin includes neither Schrader's moral reversal of established norms nor his puritanical preoccupation with the body and its messes. Instead it is illegitimate authority, aesthetic even more than political, that is the sin for DePalma—and at his best he does not exempt his own.
Every director solves the problem of authority, on the set and in the film, in a different way. And in the unwinding of that way is his or her sense of what constitutes a coherent story. I have been characterizing the approach of Coppola as filled with an anxiety about his own authority, drawn to genre and family rituals as gardens of nostalgia amid decline; and the approach of DePalma as mocking its own authority, especially its derivation from technical mastery, even while he celebrates a psychic energy that ideally makes an otherwise inert technology actually work. In this array, Martin Scorsese is the director who most thematizes his own authority even while he explores the
final and perhaps most pervasive aspect of the intersection of film with Catholicism—not ritual or significant objects, but the structure of sainthood. These distinctions are of course not hard and fast, and DePalma especially is fascinated by saint-like figures, especially the natural freak-marvels, while Coppola casts his melodrama of the generations with iconic stars like Brando. But Scorsese much more concertedly places the performer/saint/devil at the center of his films. As the first lines of Mean Streets insist, "You don't make up for your sins in church: you do it in the streets; you do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it." Like the saint in the church, the saint in the streets of Scorsese's films, so often incarnated by Robert DeNiro, makes the institutional forms into a personal order with an almost monastic fervor.
Scorsese's sense of film relies on film history and especially on the ways the film version of reality warps the consciousness of those without sufficient detachment. Saint-like in their self-sufficient isolation from the normal world, characters like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Rupert Pupkin in King of Comedy dictate their own actions and responses by a world of film melodrama. They are enlarged versions of the uncle in Mean Streets , who is watching Fritz Lang's The Big Heat almost for hints on how to be a gangster, while Johnny Boy, the DeNiro character, is outside being shot. Less willing even than Rossellini to separate the natural world from his perception of it, Scorsese places his characters at the center of his films, and the look of the film radiates out from them, just as their moral conceptions of reality and their self-constructions come from the films they have already seen. Like Rossellini, Scorsese is interested in the figure of the saint as a character who moves beyond "realistic" norms, transfiguring his marginality into a kind of transcendence. The extraordinary calm of the Franciscan emissary in The Little Flowers of St. Francis while he is being brutalized by the bandits embodies a divine spirituality that can subsume earthly violence. In the much more pervasively violent films of Scorsese (who first wanted to be a priest because his asthma prevented him from being a gangster), the stylization of the visual form becomes a kind of skin over the eruptions within, as if to demonstrate how much chaos the rituals of seeing and story-telling can actually subdue. In a certain sense, one can thus place Scorsese in a European line that stretches from de Sade to Pasolini, in which the stories of violence and death paradoxically point to the patterns of the form that contains them and the rituals by which they are distanced and turned into meaning. Like the Neapolitan paintings of Caravaggio and others, with their incessant heads of John the Baptist and Holofernes, their pin-cushion Sebastians, and their massacred Innocents, such works disrupt in order to re-establish, breach in order to heal and re-authorize.
But Scorsese, more than Coppola or DePalma (or de Sade and Pasolini, I would say), considers the formal self-questioning of his own authority and
complicity to be part of the story he tells. Perhaps, in delivering the sacrament, the individual priest has been made eternal in his role. But Scorsese, with a modern's sense of the ersatz sainthood conferred by the media, cannot stop there. In contrast with DePalma and Coppola, and even more sharply with the blithe, control-celebrating Lucas and the director-worshipping Spielberg, Scorsese continually characterizes himself in his films as an inciting force. In Mean Streets he is the killer who shoots DeNiro at the end; in Taxi Driver he is the murderous misogynist whose appearance triggers off Travis Bickle's breakdown; in Raging Bull he is the barely offscreen make-up man who is preparing Jake La Motta for his stage appearance reading Shakespeare; and in King of Comedy , he is the a.d. who mockingly tells Rupert to ask the director if he really wants to know what's going on.
Interestingly enough, in the successive interplay between Scorsese and DeNiro, there is also a gradual emptying of the main character's moral pretensions and physical courage. With each step he turns more and more into a media figure, hungering for his place in the public eye. In the contemplation of the Italian-American director, there is some irony to be mined from the fact that in the year of Taxi Driver , Sylvester Stallone appeared in Rocky . Stallone/Travolta are an intriguing contrast with Scorsese/DeNiro: the mainstream vs. the outsider Italians, the middlebrow vs. the highbrow film-makers. The most relevant contrast to draw here is the unproblematic quality both of Stallone's thematizing of success and his celebration of winning through the self-conscious creation of a great body. True, Stallone admits that success has its pitfalls, and bodies age. But somehow those problems will be overcome. Scorsese's vision of both fame and physical fitness is much darker. In each of his films there is a progressive defacement of DeNiro—the mohawk haircut in
Taxi Driver , the bloated weight-gaining to play La Motta in Raging Bull , and the odd shot of hands wiping across a window-reflected face in King of Comedy , the implied and actual mutilations in After Hours —introducing a film that explores the tangle of recognition and personal identity. Raging Bull particularly seems to be a direct response to Rocky , similarly contemplating the boxer as a figure in working-class and lower-middle-class Italian-American culture. In contrast to the sweet color melodrama of Rocky , it is shot in a lusciously harsh black-and-white neorealist documentary style. Unlike Stallone, Scorsese does not blandly approve the benediction of visible success. In the figures of Bickle, La Motta, and Pupkin there resides instead a sense of the gaping uncertainties of public appearance and the desire for personal fame, along with a raging iconoclasm toward the performer—as if Scorsese wanted to undermine his own inclination to trust too much in the substantiality of images.
All such characters in Scorsese's films are saints of a sort, but saints as heroes manqués . In a way they are reminiscent of Rossellini's false General Della Rovere, the common man who becomes a hero because others think he is. But Scorsese's saints have an urge to be different and to make a difference that has been totally warped by the culture of visual media in which they try to find themselves. In Rupert Pupkin's fantasy wedding, television has become the church. As Scorsese has said of Travis Bickle's more malevolent version of this urge, he's "somewhere between Charles Manson and Saint Paul. . . . He's going to help people so much he's going to kill them." Scorsese's exploration of such upside-down spirituality is part of his own particular inclination toward the performer as the key to a social and cinematic vision. But it is the performer not in the sense of Coppola's ritually murdered Brando, but the performer as the lightning rod for all the crazy pressures on the effort to construct a self in America today. Johnny Boy and Jake La Motta are specifically Italian; Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin are not. But all four, like Alice in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore , as well as many minor characters in Scorsese's films, are infused with the desire to be somebody. That desire, as perhaps it must be in film, is predicated specifically on being seen and paid attention to by an audience. Johnny Boy dies among friends. But Jake La Motta leaves the film to greet a waiting audience, his career now revived, while Travis Bickle's insane shooting spree is turned by the newspapers into a heroic vendetta, and Rupert Pupkin emerges from prison for kidnapping the talkshow host to discover that he has become a celebrity, and Paul Hackett in After Hours is finally turned into an absurd art object himself. In Taxi Driver and King of Comedy especially, such endings are presented as part real, part fantasy, like the ending of Murnau's The Last Laugh , the director's salvation of characters he has otherwise presented as doomed by their own obsessive despairs. The transcendences in Taxi Driver and King of Comedy , though, are specifically examples of a media grace, as false and as true as the spotlight for
which the protagonists in such different ways always longed. In Taxi Driver the saint has become the scourge; in King of Comedy he is a stand-in for all those in the audience who want to be celebrated merely for being themselves.
What I have been arguing here may perhaps be extended and deepened by a consideration of the role of actual ethnicity in the works of these directors. But I'm not sure. In many of these films the ideology is not ethnicity or religion per se so much as it is the way in which those social and psychological forces are mediated by and even subordinated to visual style. The crucial issue is not ethnicity but the representation of ethnicity by members of minority groups whose particular angle on the world has been nurtured by the world of films that they now choose to influence in their turn. In a sense, these directors and their films may therefore signal some final stage of actual ethnicity in the interplay between a specifically Italian-Catholic sensibility and the general cultural system of American film history. Instead of taking a more sociological view of evolving ethnicity, I have chosen instead to explore the possibility that the three most prominent young American directors of Italian background have a common set of aesthetic preoccupations (and therefore thematic ideology) that may be at least metaphorically considered to invoke traditionally Catholic attitudes towards the visible world. The neorealists in great part wished to step away from a cinema of stylization and control that Bazin, Rossellini, and others identified with political tyranny. They sought to create films closer to nature and thereby to natural truth. Even in their moments of stylization and artifice, they attempted to preserve the connection of their people, places, and things to a world without mediation (or at least without the mediation of the past). But the past for these young directors cannot be avoided. There is no liberation and little resistance. In this way they are simi-
lar to other directors of aspiration ever since the New Wave. The American directors especially are bound up in both the pressure of contemporary media and the need to come to terms with a film past. There is no question of being freed from history, only how to gain control of it (Coppola), mock it (DePalma), or meditate upon it and revise it (Scorsese). Thus Coppola, like Lucas, gives aid and comfort to the greats of the past (Welles, Kurosawa), Scorsese busies himself with committees to discover ways of preserving film stock and color dyes, and DePalma gives interviews denouncing Hollywood.
At the pure moment of neorealism described and idealized by Bazin, the God of nature was appealed as an escape from the devil of History. But history is now less God or devil than it is an accumulation whose compulsions can be deflected but not avoided. The only final authority is therefore not outside but within the work. Again unlike the so-called "invisible" style of the neorealists, style here is the necessary signal of personal vision. But each of these directors, in contrast with Lucas and his northern California lack of an ethnic self distinct from movie myths, has a fruitful guilty conscience about the assertion of style and the usurpation of divine or parental authority it implies. It is just that guilty conscience—that sense of the gap between secular metaphors of ritual, sainthood, authority, and their religious counterparts—that generates so much of the aesthetic and ideological richness of their films. Like so many other artists these days, Coppola, DePalma, and Scorsese are more entrepreneurs and explorers of entrapment than of freedom. But from their very best works we nevertheless emerge to puzzle out endlessly what key it was that so lavishly allowed our release.
Cultural Resistance in the Postmodern
. . . (think of punk rock or pornography).
Vol. 42, no. 2 (Winter 1988–89): 31–39.
With the destruction or co-optation of working-class movements in the U.S. since the thirties, opposition to capitalism has increasingly been mobilized around Third World struggles of decolonization. But since the end of the invasion of Vietnam, cultural practice in the West has lost even this focus of resistance and become increasingly collusive and administered, mirroring indeed a depletion of working-class self-consciousness so devastating that it has allowed an unprecedented currency for attacks on the tenability of basic Marxist concepts, even that of class. Here, in the Baudrillardian hyperspace of the postmodern, cultural resistance seems so impossible that we are all but persuaded to rewrite the entire history of modernism around that impossibility. In the dismal glitter of our time, when the emblems of the Russian Revolution decorate our T-shirts and the Cabaret Voltaire is an only mildly fractious dance band, we wonder indeed if a real avant-garde ever existed. Despite this suspicion, we nevertheless still recognize that postmodern culture is integrated into the corporate state to an unprecedented degree. Today (and now I return my epigraph to its context), "although postmodernism is . . . offensive . . . (think of punk rock or pornography), it is no longer at all 'oppositional' . . . indeed, it constitutes the very dominant or hegemonic aesthetic of consumer society itself and significantly serves [its] commodity production" (Jameson, 1984:196).
For film and television history, a narrative form of this doxa would trace the termination of the great efflorescence of sixties avant-garde film at the end of the Vietnam war, and then a shift from film to video as the preferred high-art motion-picture medium. Though the social energies that produced the sixties avant-gardes did temporarily sustain video practices more or less modelled on structural film's exemplary negativity, they were so weakened that by the late seventies artist's video had collapsed into the backside of the beast. In short, television—video and broadcast television together—is the postmodern mutant form of film, and in it both illusionist narrative and its discontents, both the entertainment industry and opposition to it, are subsumed in the same hegemony.
Disdaining attachment to social contestation or even disaffiliation, the tropes of high modernism linger only as reflexive signs that constantly defer extra-textual engagement.
While accepting this account as generally true, I want to propose some contrary instances to what Jameson considers spurious and illusionary resistance. I argue that in the early eighties certain extremely marginal forms of punk and pornography did in fact sustain opposition to the aesthetics of the hegemony and to commodity culture. Marking a survival of sixties utopianism, these forms of erotic and music video (which I link but do not equate in the epithet "hardcore") constituted a survival of the project of the classic avant-garde—the turn of cultural practice against the status of art in bourgeois society as defined by the concept of autonomy and against the distribution apparatus bourgeois art depends on (Bürger, 1984: 22). Their demonstration of the cultural possibilities and also the limitations of the present is particularly sharp since the sixties American avant-garde film, arguably the most powerful oppositional art since World War II, was itself directly constructed upon a parallel documentation of illicit sexual and musical practices.
Simultaneously avant-garde and documentary in a way matched only by the early Soviet cinema, Underground film emancipated itself from Hollywood by reproducing in the filmic the properties of the aberrant or proscribed sexual and musical practices that preoccupied the profilmic. The quasi-vérité documentation of jazz musicians in films like Shadows and Pull My Daisy allowed improvisation, performative virtuosity, spontaneity, and the other compositional procedures of jazz to be enacted in film shooting and editing. Similarly, the transgressions of the codes of sexual representation that followed amateur documentation of domestic sexuality by, for example, Jack Smith, Stan Brakhage, and Carolee Schneemann supplied the avant-garde's formal excess and "sterility" (Lyotard, 1978), the promiscuous visual surplus to the narrative economy of industrial features.
As the New Hollywood of the late sixties appropriated sanitized forms of these innovations, so the social and aesthetic transgressions of their origins were absorbed by the culture generally. Afro-American guitarists replaced Afro-American saxophonists as the dominant influence on youth music, and the marginality of jazz gave way to the very different social dynamics of rock, which eventually became the single most important mechanism for incorporating youth dissidence. At the same time, explicit sexual representation, including a new spectacularization of the male body and more or less overt homosexual iconography (as for example in Sylvester Stallone's films), was thoroughly integrated into the entertainment and advertising industries.
While these assimilations of sixties recalcitrance do exemplify the postmodernist closure, nevertheless the industrial functions they sustain do not to-
tally occupy the cultural field nor entirely preempt popular alternatives. During the same period, unincorporated minority video practices of musical and sexual documentary emerged—partially in reaction against them and partially negotiated in the space they have made available—which do figure resistance and perhaps even utopian alterity. In these, as in sixties avant-garde film, the formal qualities of the video-text and its social uses refract and elaborate the conditions of the music and sex they document, producing formal and operational differences from the hegemonic televisual modes. Their textual offensiveness mobilizes their challenge to both the entertainment industry and also the other institutions integrated with that industry, various journalistic and academic systems, including the one element in the postmodern hegemony that, while it has silently been speaking here, has not so far acknowledged itself: film theory.
While it may be argued that postmodern theory sustains a form of Adornian negativity lost to art proper, it is equally plausible to regard it as a symptom of the very closures it purports to diagnose. The mutually sustaining philosophical, critical, and journalistic discourses that have developed in the tow of post-structuralism and a revived Culture Criticism display a conceptual and terminological density, reminiscent of the "difficulty" of modern art, which marks their resistance to easy consumption. Yet, in the insatiable market for text, itself floated on increasingly "pure" information, these discourses themselves become commodities. Lacking any affiliation with working-class movements, they are easily institutionalized and assimilated into consumer society in general. The imbrication of allegedly radical art history in the world of corporate finance via the apparatus of museums and gallery-supported magazines is the most glittering form of this collusion; but other cultural writings have their own form of it, film criticism especially. And ever since high-modernist literature became undergraduate texts, the academy itself has been a prime agent in the construction of postmodern culture; we academics welcome a plethora of previously taboo practices with a broadmindedness that was not available to the sixties avant-gardes, certainly not to sixties film.
A crucial figuration of the incompatibility of the sixties film and the academy is preserved in a locus classicus of the Underground innovations I have mentioned, Jonas Mekas's Lost, Lost, Lost . The crisis of this film (and we inherit it as the documentation of one of the half-dozen paradigmatic shifts in the practices of cinema) occurs when Mekas and Ken Jacobs take prints of Flaming Creatures and Blonde Cobra to the Flaherty Film Seminar at Brattleboro in 1963. These two films, previously recognized by Mekas in Village Voice articles as "impure, naughty and 'uncinematic'" (Mekas, 1972:95), films "without inhibitions, sexual or any other kind" (ibid.:86), are refused entry to the conference, and the cinephiles are obliged to spend the
night outside in their cars. But next morning, as they shoot home-movies to document their exclusion from the seminar, Mekas discovers what will hence-forward be his signature improvisational style, his own form of "blowing as per jazz musician" (Kerouac, 1958:72) in film, and returns to New York and to his life's work of creating the institutions of an independent film culture.
Some 25 years later Lost, Lost, Lost is beginning to have a place in academic film criticism (though Flaming Creatures and Blonde Cobra do not). But given what is at stake in the film, this and similar instances of theory's openness to the avant-garde may be as discomforting to those of us who have most desired it as it is to those who have most resisted it, if for quite different reasons. If we understand the avant-garde as being of social rather than merely formal importance, we must wonder whether this new legitimacy signals the evaporation of the very alterity to which we made our commitment. On the one hand we fear that the toleration of our enthusiasms indicates their historical supercession or only an illusory offensiveness that is in fact functional within the postmodern hegemony. On the other hand, we must ask, if indeed there were a video practice today as radically innovative as the Baudelairean cinema was in its time, could—or should—we be any more receptive than the Brattleboro seminar? Would we be able to see it? And if we could see it and talk about it, what would that imply?
Questions like this forewarn me that I should not be surprised if the search for the unsayable leads to the unspeakable.
The Best of Amateur Erotic Video Volume II is a compilation of four tapes, each 15–20 minutes long, self-photographed and self-produced by middle-class, heterosexual, white couples. In three of them, the couples have intercourse, while in the other first the woman and then the man masturbates separately. Each section is prefixed by a title giving the participants' first names and an identification number, usually with some form of invitation; "Debra and Earl from California," for instance, request "correspondence from anyone viewing their tape." The tape as a whole and its separate sections are briefly introduced by an unseen woman speaking for "Susan's Video," the distributing agency. The tape is available by mail without charge in direct exchange for a tape of your own sexual activity for inclusion in future collections, though it may also be obtained by purchase.
As text, the compilation differs sharply from commodity pornography. Since the tape shamelessly proclaims erotic representation as its raison d'être , it is not obliged to disguise itself as either narrative or documentary. The sexual encounters are not motivated by spurious narrative intrigues; without a plot, there can be no assumption of character, no role-playing which would justify the sexual activity as the representation of the behavior, deviant or not, of some other persons. Nor, apart from the minimal introductions noted, are
the sexual encounters or the video photography of them framed by any normative meta-discourse that would justify their introduction as anthropological data or evidence of pathology. As a consequence of this self-sufficiency, the tape displays a diegetic steadiness, quite unlike industrial pornography's ontological tensions between fiction and the sheer vérité presentation of sexual activity, and its parallel formal tensions between a propulsive narrative and the interludes of its retardation.
While recent technical advances in home-video equipment allow an image quality at least as good as that of the average sixties 16mm stag film, photography and editing are rudimentary and clearly nonprofessional, with a stationary camera and deep-focus long takes being the norm (though the woman's masturbation scene is shot by her partner with a very energetic hand-held camera that suggests a direct erotic interchange). There is little use of close-ups and no intra-sequential editing, no parallel montages between genital contact and the facial response shots which register its effect. The grammatical primitiveness of this uninflected, non-suturing style culminates in a signal absence of one of the most bizarre but nevertheless ubiquitous tropes of pornography, the close-up on the man's ejaculation and the organization of patterns of formal crisis and resolution around it. Finally where (except in very specifically bracketed situations) pornography effaces its own production, here the performers recognize and address the apparatus, frequently making eye contact with the camera or watching themselves on a monitor, and comment on the fact that photography is taking place.
Distinguishing the amateur erotic video from industrial pornography, these formal differences mark the tape's deficiencies in the latter's terms, its failure to provide intensely focussed visual eroticism or to generate a compelling play of excitement and frustration. I find it less arousing and so less desirable than its industrial counterpart. But they also trace substantial differences in the social relations that the tape constructs and the activities it promotes, particularly as these realign the priorities between the pleasures of sexual contact itself and those of its optical or technical mediation and social broadcast: (1) Where in pornography the performers' pleasure is subordinated to their instrumentality in commodity film production, here those pleasures are primary and themselves determine textual organization. (2) Where in pornography the implications of observation and the consequent pleasures of exhibitionism must be repressed, here they are foregrounded. (3) Where in pornography the sexual activity depicted is always categorically unavailable to the spectator—the price of scopophilic delight is the absolute impossibility of physical contact between the performers and the spectator—here the text proposes such contact; it proposes itself as the means to it and as the means to a social network of pleasure that includes but is not limited to looking.
Pornography demands that the actors sacrifice their pleasure to the procedures of film manufacture and to the text's manipulation of its future spectators' desire. The rhythm of copulation is interrupted by the requirements of the camera set-ups, the lighting apparatus, the shooting schedules, and the other exigencies of production. Indeed, the better the pornography, the more the actors' actual satisfaction is displaced into the most visually titillating display of it; the signs of sexual pleasure have a higher priority than the performance of it. Subordinating the somatic to the visual, and the experiential to the spectacular, the commodity function is thus inscribed in the photographic and editing conventions. Its demands are epitomized in the male's obligation to allow the camera to see his climax; at the point where his satisfaction would reach its fulfillment, he must withdraw; his need to make his orgasm visible obliges him to sacrifice its most pleasurable form. Some of this obligation to the filmic and the industrial tropes that accommodate it are present in the amateur tapes: the performer/photographers occasionally attempt genital close-ups and they do adjust their positions for the camera. But in general the tapes reflect the phases and drives of the performers' own activity in a less mediated way; pace and construction are dictated by their pleasure rather than by aesthetic and generic requirements or the spectators' needs, and in only one instance does the male withdraw to ejaculate; in fact Susan's guide for contributors specifically recommends that this be avoided (Meredith, 1982:83).
The performers' orientation around their own rather than the spectators' pleasure allows them both to acknowledge the apparatus and to engage the particular pleasures of exhibitionism and narcissism it allows. In pornography, which takes over the illusionist pretensions of the commercial feature film, self-consciousness is normally proscribed unless it is intradiegetically narrated in stories about film-making. Since the actors' market value depends on the conjunction of their actual unavailability to the spectator and the latter's imaginary encounter with them that the text affords, they may not admit that they are being observed by the camera, by the people on the set, or by the future spectator. But since the purpose of the amateur tapes is to introduce—perhaps even physically—the performers to the spectators, bridging the division between producer and consumer that commodity culture depends on, the vehicle of their contact may be acknowledged. The different economies correspond to different psychological states: the voyeurism of pornography depends on concealed observation, while here the performers' self-consciousness allows them the pleasures of exhibitionism, of seeing themselves reflected back by the monitor or by the more extended gaze of the tape's social distribution. Their blatant self-display releases them from guilt and invites a similarly shameless gaze for the spectator, whose participation is implicit throughout (though it is especially clear in the woman's direct address to the camera in her masturba-
tion scene). The acknowledged visual intercourse between performer and spectator allows the tape to figure the possibility of transcending the commodity relations of pornography by adding video to one's own erotic activity and by joining the tape network as a producer.
Thus, though the sexual activity is so conventionally that of the heterosexual couple that it appears to reinforce sexual conservativism, if not the nuclear family itself, the tape implies other, more properly promiscuous, scenes, not only the "kinkier" material that the voice-over introduction mentions as being available, but the expanded circuits of promiscuous sexual adventure. The tape's final function of sexual advertising, of making sexual pleasure more available rather than repressively channelling desire into administered forms, marks then the limitations of any approach to it as representation; finally it cannot be evaluated apart from the sexual encounters it occasions, even though the crucial phases in this process, the video-taping of domestic sex acts, is textually recorded.
What are the implications of introducing video into lovemaking? Initially my Luddite technophobia is checked by my inability to draw a logical line that would differentiate video from mirrors or just looking in the enhancement of erotic pleasure. But my discomfort at this mechanization of vision—my fear that sooner or later sex without Sony won't do it anymore and that this is only a last and hyperbolic instance of a culturally pandemic supplantation of the real by the simulacrum—reads it as a final step in the internalization of the ubiquitous apparatus of surveillance. As a form of autosurveillance, it completes the industrialization of the body, continuous with the total penetration of the spectacle and the corporation, the incorporation of desire itself.
These ambiguities are the ambiguities of the apparatus and so those of video in general, and they register an important difference between the epochs of film and television. Though home-movie equipment was available as early as the 1920s, the medium's development almost exclusively as an industry allowed the sixties avant-garde to be understood correctly as a liberation of the apparatus; conversely the alternative systems of distribution—the alternative cinemas—of the sixties were dogged by the cost of film and the unwieldiness of the machines (dependence on labs, the bulkiness and fragility of projectors). But video's popular availability, its cheapness and its ease of reproduction, means that the subcultural self-representation and the extra-industrial circulation of representations that the sixties political cinemas could only dream of are now realizable. Nothing prevents us from shedding corporate aesthetics by becoming producers rather than consumers of television except the residual prejudices of commodity art production and the internalization of industrial production values. Over the past ten or so years, this internalization has resulted in so-called artist's video, as the form of appearance of its own assimilation, fetishizing industrial-quality image manipulation. In this context,
rejection of such values with willful video brut can inscribe a more general ideological rejection, as indeed in its early years artist's video defined itself against broadcast television in a negative aesthetic, partially derived from structural film's critique of the illusionism of the commercial feature. This negativity disappeared from film and television practices of all kinds as its social preconditions evaporated in the mid-seventies; but the same aesthetic model revived almost immediately in the field of music as the axiom of punk.
Since one of punk's determining strategies was its deliberately rude infraction of aesthetic and social norms, the use of the terminology of the obscene and the illicit was entirely logical; the onomastic continuity of the term "hardcore" recalls early punk's use of bondage and fetish iconography, the use of pornographic films in punk concerts, the use of punk iconography in industrial pornography (e.g., New Wave Hookers ), and more recently, certain pornographic films made within the punk subcultures (e.g., those of Richard Kern). More precisely, "hardcore" was a purist style of the music developed initially in Washington, DC, and Southern California in the early eighties. This, the music's essential, its "classical," mode, mounted a deliberately anachronistic attempt to sustain early punk's negativity against its diffusion and assimilation by the music industry as various forms of new wave. The entirely recalcitrant music provided a besieged subculture with the basis for defensive rituals in which the sonic (and other forms of) violence and the obstinate antiprofessionalism that signalled rejection of overproduced corporate rock also informed strategies of negation and antigrammaticality for everyday self-presentation and the other cultural practices. Crucial in these intertwined social and aesthetic developments were fanzines, largely reader-written magazines which provided musical information and social exchanges of all kinds. Contributing not just to the documentation of the subculture, but also to its formation and dissemination, fanzines provided a participatory forum, necessary as a defense against misrepresentation in the establishment media and against regular police rioting.
The most important fanzine in Southern California was Flipside , established in 1977, which in 1984 began to distribute compilations of concert footage as Flipside Video Fanzines . Number Nine, "When Can I Sleep In Peace," for example, has 19 cuts by 11 commercially unprofitable bands, none of whom had corporate recording contracts. The songs all employ a brutally reductionist and visceral musical style, whose masculinist values are summarized in the priorities, "Faster, Louder, Shorter." When they are intelligible, the equally aggressive, blatantly agitational lyrics blast the religious right, the military-industrial complex, the government, and the police, making explicit a categorical opposition to the corporate state; their ideological field is announced in the songs' titles: MDC sing "Corporate Death Burger" and "Church and State"; the Dicks sing
"Sidewalk Begging," "Hate the Police," and "No War"; the Dead Kennedys sing "Moral Majority" and "Chemical Warfare"; BGK sings "Vivisection" and "Arms Race"; and Conflict sings "From Protest to Resistance."
Like the music, the videos flaunt scorched-earth production values. Featuring live, unenhanced sound, they are shot in 1/2" with home cameras that lack color adjustment so that the light is not balanced and the color not always correctly keyed. They consist of rudimentary edits of footage shot at concerts simultaneously by two cameras, one placed among the audience fronting the stage, the other shooting from the side of the stage to include both performers and audience together within the frame. They contain no image manipulation, close-ups, or special effects except for the occasional superimposition of synchronous footage from the camera covering the band and that covering the audience; this trope has great symbolic weight since it figures the ritual passage of the audience over the stage and their contestation of the band's position on it and reproduces the breakdown of the distinction between audience and band that is central to punk's alterity to corporate culture. The tape does contain some other material; it opens with a crude collage of television commercials and news violence (a juxtaposition which summarizes the music's attack on consumerism and state violence) and some songs are illustrated with simple cutaways; accompanying the Dicks' "Sidewalk Begging" are shots of the homeless, while the photography of BGK's "Vivisection" is interpolated with anti-vivisectionist publicity stills. Otherwise, the tape is as raw as the music itself.
The tapes are not collectively produced and they are sold, and so in respect to the social relations their consumption mobilizes they are less radical an intervention than the erotic videos. But the commodity relations they generate are minimized; they are very cheap, costing little more than enough to return production costs and allow further compilations. Production is anonymous and since no individual authorship is announced, the art-work remains within the subculture as its autonomous self-representation and self-expression. Produced and consumed entirely within the subculture, it promotes a radically amateur aesthetic that refuses the industrial distinction between artist and market. As far as the material conditions of the medium allow, then, the fanzine reproduces in video the negative determination and positive strategies of hardcore music as well as its aesthetic and social values; denying the consensus and refusing the socialization which industrial culture merchandizes, it resists corporate assimilation and so preserves a space for social alterity.
As they document and sustain the music's resistance to the commercial functions of new wave, hardcore video fanzines define themselves generally against the panoply of corporate film and television appropriations of popular music, and specifically against the two primary forms of that appropriation:
music videos in their summary form of MTV, and feature films about punk, including ostensibly sympathetic documentaries. These industrial forms of the music correspond respectively to what Dick Hebdige noted as the two forms of recuperation of punk in general: music videos to "the conversion of subcultural signs . . . into mass-produced objects (i.e., the commodity form)" and the documentaries to "the 'labelling' and redefinition of deviant behavior by dominant groups—the police, the media, the judiciary (i.e., the ideological form)" (Hebdige, 1979:94).
Music videos' internalization of the values of industrial culture is evidenced in the correspondences between their grammar and that of television commercials, their recurrence to the most insipid and unchallenging pleasures, their exploitation of sexual stereotypes, and their flaunting of extremely expensive production values in both mise-en-scène and special effects. The best of the documentary films (such as Penelope Spheeris's Decline of Western Civilization and Lech Kowalski's D.O.A ., both of 1980) may be closer to the subcultures; but their mass culture function of representing punk culture to the general public obliges them to frame the others' discourse in their own. The various interview techniques establish a hierarchy of discourses in which the normativity of the film's own interpellates punk's as deviant. A summary instance of such framing, which is inevitably even more grotesque as it is narrated in mainstream Hollywood films, is the Bad Brains sequence in Scorsese's After Hours (1985). While this is one of the few occasions in which anything like hardcore's intensity was captured on film, the narrative denigrates the performance as aberrant, a bizarre miasma in a nightmare of irrationality.
In contradistinction to these, respectively the appropriation and the containment of punk, Flipside Video Fanzine places itself within the culture, sustaining and ratifying it from inside. Celebrating and enacting the aesthetic of punk music, it rejects any reconciliation with the industrial media or with the ethics of the corporate state of which those media are an integral part. This larger political contestation, implicit in the tape's form and made possible by the mode of its production, is clearly articulated in the songs' lyrics. The singer directly addresses the audience as a commonality, unified in their defiance of state militarism, and, as noted, the songs explicitly reject the domestic and foreign policies of the Reagan administration. Though all their ideas must be expressed negatively (for the aesthetic system does not allow affirmation), the songs give voice to contestation with a clarity and vehemence such as has rarely been found in American culture since the thirties. This opposition to the corporate state is most focussed where its violence is most immediately experienced, in the local police.
For example, in the introduction to the Dicks' "Hate the Police" the vocalist spells out a crude syllogism; the next song, he tells the audience, "makes you
a fucking Dick" because "Dicks hate the police." The outrageous puns spin language, sexuality, and the law into Möbius strips of irony: only those who lack the phallus may be the phallus or, taking the pun on "dick" in the opposite direction, only those who hate the police can be the police. As he launches into his song, warning the police to stay clear of him because he has a gun, general slamdancing mayhem among those of the audience who share his logic and recognize themselves as Dicks ensues. The next clip is from MDC, a polysemous acronym variously elaborated as "Millions of Dead Cops," "Millions of Dead Children," or "Multi-Death Corporation." It begins with the singer chanting "Dead Cops" and grasping his crotch as he mimes pissing on the cops' graves. His song, "Blue By Day," is a vitriolic attack on multinationals, and on "all the stinking rich people" who "run the police departments" and "start all the wars." The indictment of state terrorism galvanizes the audience, precipitating a frenzied but thoroughly eloquent ritual in which they climb on the stage, struggle briefly with the stagehands, perhaps share the microphone for a chorus, and then somersault back into the crowd.
Their logic is sublime: struggle violently to achieve a place in the spectacle, dance briefly in its glare, and then dive out of it, all the while celebrating resistance to authority of all kinds. But to those who are outside the subculture—those perhaps who enjoy "good" TV like "Hill Street Blues" and "Cagney and Lacey" that legitimizes state violence by representing its agents as neurotic bourgeois subjects besieged by "criminals" and the problems of "life"—to these the tape will appear as infantile and regressive as the performances it documents.
Since everywhere in postmodern culture regression is exploited for that frisson of the forbidden which creates an appearance of resistance while in fact renewing consumption, it is especially necessary that merely collusive forms of it be distinguished from others that are not reducible to corporate uses. In industrial culture, a "repressive tolerance" administers regression, channelling it to serve state interests by framing it in equally administered ideological structures (the Rambo films again or nubile pre-teenagers in advertising). But both the domestic erotica and the punk concert tapes do not so easily allow for vicarious or touristically secure visitation, and indeed retain a truly minatory edge to their attraction. Their threat is partly a semiological consequence of their difference from ordinary documentary, which always presents its content, its profilmic, as a curiosity different from and other than itself. But these tapes refuse that difference; the various forms of identity—ideological, environmental, functional—between the video-text and the events it records tend to collapse the signifier into the signified, the text into its context. Consequently, in both cases, one's response to the tape as art-work is overwhelmingly determined by one's assessment of the social events it depicts and incites. Since this
content is unlawful, for those outside the tight subcultural circle (in which the producers and consumers are largely the same) the tapes themselves can be approved only at the cost of a double apostasy, a rejection of dominant social mores and of dominant media. Endorsing the renegades depicted or recognizing any kinship with them, which is virtually a prerequisite to liking the tapes, also commits you to a video aesthetic whose primary axiom, its raison d'être even, is rejection of all other regimes of television—a position which puts in crisis the discursive practices of the dominant socio-aesthetic system. And so commentary on them becomes difficult. If you don't like them, you will abruptly dismiss them as pathological. But if you do like them, especially if you really like them, you will be moved not to words but to action, to fucking or slamdancing. The difficulty proposed to humanist discourse, however vertiginous, is not unprecedented in cinema.
The issue has best been approached in psychoanalytic terms by Christian Metz. If cinema's pleasures are intrinsically those of the imaginary, then the theoretician's work in the symbolic, the work of distinguishing the symbolic from the imaginary, is always in danger of being "swallowed up" by the imaginary—the sliding of the "discourse about the object " into its opposite, the "discourse of the object " (Metz, 1982:5). This attraction is specifically (though surely not exclusively) a filmic one; but if its basis is in the constitutive Oedipality of the cinematic signifier (ibid.:64), how much greater must it be in texts which engage the sexual drives so directly, without sublimation. Such is the case with these, with their massive affective overload, their overt pandering to the desire to see and the desire to hear. Do the erotic videos fulfill cinema by showing us the primal scene itself instead of that allegory of it which is the reference of all other films (films which it thereby violates, invalidates, and renders redundant); or do they destroy cinema by abrogating the voyeuristic precondition of such films, "a pure onlooker whose participation is inconceivable" (ibid.:64)? Similarly, is the nihilistic utopianism of hardcore—a primal scream to the other's primal scene—one that destroys music or a Dionysiac apotheosis of it? Until we have a psychoanalysis of television or punk or pornography, we won't know.
But the issue is also political. The resistance these tapes propose to theory only reiterates their resistance to theory's privileged objects—bourgeois culture. As the contemporary avant-garde film has come to resemble nothing so much as broadcast television (Arthur, 1987:69), as artist's video looks more and more like broadcast television, as theory becomes a circuit in the global economy of television, whatever defines itself as not-television can only be talked about in reservations within (or outside) sanctioned discourse, as a rupture in its syntax. If theory can think it, it will only be (as in Jameson's remark) parenthetically.
List of Works Cited
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Eder, Bruce. (1986) "Mail-Order Video." Village Voice , 16 December, 57–58.
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Meredith, Raina. (1982) "The (Amateur) Shtup Tapes." Village Voice , 23 November 1982, 82–83.
Metz, Christian. (1982) The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and Cinema . Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
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