“Nostalgia for something that you love had been a really personal thing for a long time…and this is me speaking as a kid pre-internet…people coming together and thinking “I love [movie] too,” and that’s how these things would emerge. And studios have caught onto that and now, all of a sudden, that’s what all the movies are: Taking this genuine love of something you had and using it to sell you the same thing over and over and over again because they don’t trust you to love anything else.”
-Katey Rich, January 2015
“Many of our problems began when we started giving nerds what they want.”
-Richard Lawson, October 2017
“The history of cinema has been a history of men photographing women.”
-either Jean-Luc Godard or Jacques Rivette, 1960s
The nerds wanted Twin Peaks and Mr. Show to come back. The nerds wanted Star Wars to come back. The nerds wanted a live-action Ghost in the Shell. The nerds wanted remakes/reboots/whatever of the films that John Carpenter, Paul Verhoeven, et al made for studios in the 1980s. We’ve reached the point where studio products exist merely as fan services rather than as actual narrative films, assembled rather than written, operating on an infinite feedback loop as comic book properties do. This is what happens when nerds become ‘filmmakers,’ since they have no imagination of their own, and can only obsess over the cultural products they consumed in their youth, and want to consume the same thing over and over again. This is the kind of behavior we used to see only in small children. The key to the success of the children’s show Teletubbies, for instance, was that they would repeat the same short segments over and over again -this was based on a fundamental understanding of the psychology of infants and toddlers: once a story is over, a toddler typically wants to hear the exact same story again.
“Is it the same as before?” a character in this film asks.
Of course it isn’t. And the overwhelming majority of these properties are quickly, justifiably, forgotten. I liked Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner when I was 12, but at 37 I’ve long since moved on to other things, while it seems that a certain demographic of people from both my generation and the last two -primarily men in their 20s and 30s, many now starting to enter their 40s- want to live out a perpetual childhood through movies, video games, and comic books. This is a demographic that needs to:  grow up and let the past be the past,  be more careful what it wishes for, and  get off the internet and go outside, go for a walk, volunteer for something, make a new friend, take a trip somewhere, find a hobby where you actually create something (that isn’t derived from something else), anything that keeps you from obsessing over the minutiae of whatever insignificant pop culture ’staples of childhood’ that only you care about.
Because I promise you, nobody else cares. How else to explain the weak box office performance for this film other than that the demographics simply aren’t there. It performed well only with older men -who, being the self-righteous nerds that they are, took to the internet and tried to explain away the weak box office to the tune of “Well, obviously this isn’t going appeal to the masses. Only smart, thoughtful, intellectual people like me will get it.” They tried to pull the same nonsense with Aronofsky’s mother! last month, oblivious the fact that they are merely consumers on the receiving end of Adorno’s culture industry -which has fooled them into thinking otherwise. And it will never end, primarily because it provides so much employment to whichever itinerant computer animation companies put in the lowest bids with studios to create more and more CGI mush for people to look at.
I read somewhere the other day that within two internet-based generations, nerd culture has developed into its own pseudo-fascist state. Between the generally poor reception of the deluge of remakes of 1980s films in this decade; the ugly truth that has emerged about the people running Cinefamily, Alamo Drafthouse, and elsewhere; the behavior of Rick and Morty fans at McDonalds; and self-referential nerd culture reaching its apex with creatively bankrupt fiction like Ready Player One or Pride and Prejudice with Zombies; 2017 is turning out to be the year when people decide they are no longer willing to tolerate nerds or legitimize their bullshit…or at least I’m no longer willing to.
As for the film itself, it’s fine. There’s better interpretive writing elsewhere. Comic book artist Sarah Horrocks points out how ridiculous and happenstance much of the plot is, the best formal review of the film is perhaps by Aaron Bady in the New Inquiry, and an online acquaintance Monika alludes to something unpleasant that’s become a lot more prevalent in science fiction in the last few years (whether it’s 2049 or Ex Machina…or The Stepford Wives or Logan’s Run or the Sennentuntschi myth): Not just the notion that if we had the wherewithal to develop a simulacrum of a human being -hologram, robot, or otherwise- the nerd imagination can see no further than acting out the (largely male) fantasy of building/possessing/fucking a ‘perfect’ woman who is programmed to always fawn over you, but also that men would prefer that to a real woman. In general, I think the film is what you would expect from a fan service product: Current Director mostly does an impression of Original Director (until the last third where it becomes a Steven Spielberg movie). It routinely references the original film in obvious ways -cameos, music cues, etc. It’s unnecessarily long; several scenes are not just unnecessary but downright boring. Roger Deakins gets a pass, it looks great, fine, whatever. In the end, who cares?
At the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival I was fortunate to be able to see my three most anticipated films -which turned out to be my three favorites. What that says about me, who knows: Bruno Dumont has grown on me tremendously (as I think he does on most people), I’ve admired Andrei Zvyagintsev since 2004 when I saw The Return on a whim in a cinema in New York knowing nothing about it, and Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani seem to have sensibilities similar to my own when in comes to mid-century genre cinema (it was tiresome listening to industry people refer to this as ‘elevated genre’ throughout the festival though). I knew what to expect, and they delivered. The real surprises for me, though, have always been with the Vanguard and Wavelengths programs. TIFF eliminated Vanguard this year, which left us with ‘elevated genre’ films or works that often straddle the line between ‘arthouse’ and exploitation awkwardly placed in the Discovery and Contemporary World Cinema programs. As a result, I noticed many more walkouts than in previous years: people who thought they were getting a nice pastoral Quebecois drama and instead got a zombie film, and so on. TIFF also missed some opportunities in that they did not screen the new films by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Sharunas Bartas, Antoinette Zwirchmayr, and Philippe Grandrieux.
The following films are ranked.
Jeannette: L’enfance de Jeanne d’Arc by Bruno Dumont. I saw my first Dumont maybe 15 years ago (L’humanité) and I hated it. Twentynine Palms was the next one and I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not. I eventually saw Hadewijch, Hors Satan, and others. In my experience he’s a director who grows on you as you get to know him. Jeannette lands in all the ways I’ve come expect from Dumont: the ‘ordinary’ (at times grotesque) appearance of the performers, the body language vis-a-vis the landscape, the desolate landscapes themselves, the affectations, the deadpan humor, etc. Another current in Dumont’s cinema is that he, despite being an atheist, takes organized religion -particularly Catholicism- seriously, and while he may critique it he never portrays it in an ironic sense. All these things make Dumont, I think, eligible for comparison to Pier Paolo Pasolini.
This is a stagelike film to say the least, a kind of minstrel show set to anachronic doom metal that on the surface probably registers as silly but matches Joan’s passio if the viewer is to believe what Joan allegedly claimed (the headbanging could easily be interpreted as ablution or baptism). I feel like Ken Russell or Straub and Huillet would have enjoyed it. I kind of loved it, but you probably shouldn’t let this be your first Dumont. Not to be the dickhead who says the audience I was in ‘didn’t get the movie,’ but the audience I was in didn’t get this movie. About a third of the audience walked out by the end and another third laughed at it, so I have to wonder how familiar they were with the director. The awkward singing/dancing, the discordant music, et al are intentional. Dumont has been making films for decades; he knows what he’s doing.
Loveless by Andrei Zvyagintsev. A Russian variation on Scenes from a Marriage. In a way it kind of reminds me of L’avventura in how it observes the characters’ response to a disappearance -which is largely informed by their bourgeois status (those apartments looked pretty nice) and, in this lot’s case, bitterness. Everybody wants to get married, nobody wants to be married. Everybody wants to have children, nobody wants to raise them. Several things happening at once having to do with Russian society/institutions (police bureaucracy, volunteer search and rescue, the effects of the country’s belated entrance to capitalism/consumer culture, etc.) viewed in the micro narratively and on the periphery, but suffice it to say that this is easily the darkest and most upsetting film Zvyagintsev has made. The use of Arvo Pärt’s music is perfect.
Laissez bronzer les cadavres by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. These two get better with each film they make. Takes its cue ostensibly from Italian westerns but actually operates in the register of the canonical crime films of Duvivier, Clouzot, and Melville (this is by far the rawest and most violent film they’ve made to date). You could easily see Jean Gabin or Jean-Paul Belmondo in these roles had it been made 60 years ago. And as with their previous films, the sex-violence dynamic roasts just under the surface and emerges in painterly digressions. Solid genre film. Delivers. Also, Elina Löwensohn and Marc Barbé together after twenty years in another film with bizarre lighting.
Wasteland No. 1: Ardent, Verdant by Jodie Mack. I had only ever watched Mack’s films on a laptop and now I want to see all of them projected. Completely different experience.
Good Luck by Ben Russell. “It’s always night here.” “You’ve put blood on the earth.” Flashlights, tunnels, mud. The roar of power tools, landscapes decimated by chemicals and machines, a rendition of ‘Heart of Gold’ thousands of feet underground. Immersive cinema in 16mm.
Rose Gold by Sara Cwynar. I think I’d like to see the longer version of this that existed in the beginning but no longer does, since this apparently began as a longer text and was condensed to the point of a schizophrenic dialogue. Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty don’t lend themselves to brevity. It looks really nice though, kind of twee maybe, but it resembles Sacha Vierny’s color cinematography from the 50s-60s: Chant du styrène, Muriel, et al.
Phantasiesätze by Dane Komljen. Made me think of the last ten minutes of L’eclisse. Unsettling primarily because of the music; without it you’d have something resembling Emigholz’s architecture films.
Dragonfly Eyes by Xu Bing. To my mind a film that is as much about process as it is about content, and by extension the unseen/’unremarkable’ content. I kept picturing the editors spending countless hours watching nothing happen in surveillance footage only for something completely out of the ordinary to happen, apropos of nothing that’s happened beforehand. Exemplifies the adage of cinema as “life with the boring parts edited out” but also the idea that images of destruction -a plane crash, a roof collapsing, a mudslide, street violence, etc.- are cut from the same cloth.
Thelma by Joachim Trier. If Daphne du Maurier wrote a two-part episode of the The X-Files. Takes its cue from a lot of American models from the 1970s –The Exorcist and Carrie specifically- but is done in a classic, old-fashioned, ‘psychic thriller’ mould -like The Eyes of Laura Mars or Audrey Rose. Loved the first half, though after the business with the broken window you begin to see where it’s all going. The third act is satisfying nevertheless, and I can see a lot of people enjoying this.
Valley of Shadows by Jonas Matzow Gulbrandsen. Narratively goes nowhere because it doesn’t really come from anywhere and has nowhere to go. I get it -it’s about the boy’s grieving process/’aesthetic autonomy,’ folklore, journey into memory, slow burn, contemplative, mythic, etc. I love fog and bare trees; we all do. It was shot on 35mm and it looks nice, but so what? Music by Preisner is nice too in and of itself in a new-agey/world-music way I guess, though it’s literally all over the movie and occasionally takes you out of it. Wanted to see more of the myth/folklore story elements. Can’t entirely hate it though…
Samui Song by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang. Straightforward noir suspense thriller stuff with only the occasional inkling that Ratanaruang directed it. It’s almost too conventional? It tries on some (pointless?) meta/ambiguity at the end that didn’t do much for me.
Les affamés by Robin Aubert. Everything you need to know about this is contained in the first two scenes: The first is a field in the middle of nowhere covered in a mist, some figures slowly emerge, Unsettling-Low-Vibration-Noise™ swells. The second begins abruptly with a loud noise, startling you with car engines, then shows a zombie running after and screaming at a victim.
I liked parts of this, like the mound/cairn structures (which in the end constitute the only real horror or mystery to the story), scenes where characters stare out at nothing in the woods, and the pastoral setting (the director apparently used his own ranch and horses). The rest is just an exercise in CGI splatter and gore. The constant zombie yelling became annoying after a while. The attempts at humor weren’t great (though my audience was cackling away so what do I know); I would’ve 86ed the whole arc with the guy in the military uniform because it’s stupid from start to finish.
Revenge by Coralie Fargeat.It’s entertaining enough as an exploitation film I suppose. The color schemes are kind of nice, as is the Phoenix/Lazarus imagery (though incredibly on the nose). But genre filmmakers today really need to take their Ritalin and get over this cartoonish MTV aesthetic that still seems to be everywhere even after 15 years. It’s not exciting. It’s boring.
Also, since it’s inevitable that this will come up in conversation: You would think that this film would have distinguished itself somehow in that it was written and directed by a woman (and whoever buys/distributes this commercially will undoubtedly use that to sell it to the public) but that can’t really be the case if the female writer/director apes all the genre conventions/cliches established by and for men -instead of subverting them in some way, in any way. Practically half the film is comprised of shots of the girl’s half-naked body…oh but it’s supposedly ‘feminist’ because instead of simply portraying a scantily-clothed woman you want to fuck, it portrays a “strong”/armed scantily-clothed woman you want to fuck. Retarded.
Again, it’s fine as just straight-up exploitation and delivers on the splatter/gore, but there’s nothing more to it. Just watch Ms. 45 again -that’s the film to beat in this game.
Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980) is hard to evaluate. It’s not particularly suspenseful or frightening, mostly because the viewer understands the slasher formula as a ‘closed system’: You know exactly what will happen and how. Most readings of the genre fall into two camps. The first and probably most common being that the genre connotes and critiques the American sociopolitical climate of the 1980s: deregulation and militarization in the west, a kind of generational conflict between liberal and conservative values, rural and urban lifestyles, Baby Boomers and their children. The second is largely structuralist-feminist and examines the genre’s tropes: naming conventions such as one-syllable unisex names, the ‘final girl,’ female neurosis, etc.
Both camps are valid -because there is certainly something to be said about the cathartic aspects of violent and abject images in a slasher register from a Freud-Kristeva perspective- but the two camps also focus heavily on ‘meaning’ rather than on the actual experience of watching the film. I don’t mean ‘experience’ in the sense of a ‘nostalgic experience’ but in the sense of a phenomenological one: Not only is the attribution of ‘meaning’ contingent on content, but at the same time a film’s content isn’t by necessity relevant to the overall viewing experience of a film. Therefore, like giallo or rape-revenge films or otherwise, I think it’s necessary to parse a film’s content from a film’s style. Slasher films are, for the most part, exploitation films: part of the intention is to deliver on violence, blood, sex and nudity, content-wise.
Friday the 13th is of course an exploitation film that was made, ostensibly, in order to capitalize on the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). Yet according to Richard Nowell’s book on the emergence of the slasher film in North America (and contrary to popular belief) no major studio or financier wanted to replicate the success of Halloween, primarily because studios -who in the late 1970s were beginning to come out of bankruptcy- didn’t want to tarnish their reputations with critics and with the MPAA with overtly violent films (this is ironic given that these studios had made their fortunes back with American New Wave directors who used the language of genre and exploitation to create ‘legitimate’ films loved by critics -Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Friedkin, et al.). Keep in mind that the only way one heard about new films at the time was either by word-of-mouth or by media channels controlled by professional critics: radio, television, and newspapers. The genius of the slasher film -like most exploitation films- is that it is largely ‘critic proof,’ which critics of course hate because this undermines their attempts to shape demand with audiences.
Most histories of the slasher subgenre cite either Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) or Halloween (1978) as the ‘prototype’ of the subgenre, but the slasher template originates, arguably, with Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939), wherein a group of people are ‘isolated’ from the world and killed one by one by an unknown assailant. Mario Bava loosely adapted Christie’s story into a giallo register, Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970), and a year later, again taking his cue from Christie, ‘created’ what we understand to be the slasher when he combined the explicit sex and violence of the European giallo film with a whodunit mystery in A Bay of Blood (1971). Theodore Gershuny’s Silent Night, Bloody Night, shot in 1970 though not released until 1972, is arguably the first film produced in the United States that resembles the 1980s slasher. Like Christie’s story, Friday the 13th is set in isolation at a summer camp, where a group of young counselors are stalked and eventually killed by a mysterious figure.
The origins of Friday the 13th are largely unimportant to the film proper although one might keep in mind that Cunningham’s film has more in common formally with the ‘ancestral’ slashers of the 1970s, with which one might include John D. Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971), Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and David Paulsen’s Savage Weekend (1979). Like those films (and unlike the films that succeeded it), parts 1 and 2 of Friday the 13th have a distinct sense of setting and environment.
There is a genuine sense of economy or simplicity in the film’s construction, which is mostly accomplished with extended wide shots and handheld shots. Certain scenes contain shots that linger on inconsequential action long after most films of this kind would cut away. Consider a scene where Ralph (Walt Gorney), after appearing out of a pantry and warning the kids that they are ‘doomed,’ rides away on his bicycle and eventually out of frame, another where Annie (Robbi Morgan) is dropped off outside a rural cemetery on her way to the camp and walks completely out of frame, and another where Mr. Christy (Peter Brouwer), after having been dropped off near the camp by a police car, slowly walks out of frame despite the rain (the car then slowly drives away and eventually out of frame in the same shot). Scenes such as these indicate, arguably, the film’s use of the production’s small budget to enhance the film’s sense of remoteness and isolation from the world.
A common positive critique of this film that I agree with is the comparison to a documentary: It ‘sometimes feels like you’re watching a documentary,’ or ‘has a documentary-like quality,’ and so on. What these comments refer to is not realism or mimesis (given what takes place) but a sense of immediacy and of the film simply ‘happening’ to you. It’s in the scenes where no sex or violence takes place where you get that sense of being immersed, and I think this is due largely to the fact that the first two films were shot entirely on location in the northeast United States (the first film was shot in Warren County, New Jersey, the second in Litchfield County, Connecticut). There is a ‘lived-in’ quality to what are essentially superfluous scenes: characters sitting around a fireplace, walking along a dock, etc.
To that end, the film uses hand-held shots to both immerse the viewer in its remote setting and to provide the viewer with a sense of the characters being surveilled -often in the same scene. Many of these shots have come to be known as ‘killervision,’ so named because the viewer allegedly sees the film’s victims from the killer’s point of view: The shot is usually hand-held, revealing one or more protagonists from a distance, as if they are being stalked or hunted. The notion of killervision is reductive, however, and was popularized among filmgoers in the early 1980s by critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, who in response to Friday the 13th devoted an entire episode of their television show to deriding the slasher film, arguing that the filmmakers of slashers not only somehow ‘introduced’ or developed killervision but did so in the hope that audiences would identify with a film’s antagonists rather than its protagonists. Their comments in that episode reveal their lack of (or withholding of) knowledge about genre cinema, particularly in Europe, where this visual device had existed much longer than they might have known. Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), regarded as a staple of the European giallo film and predating Friday the 13th by a decade, contains such a device.
Further, a hand-held shot that reveals a protagonist from a distance is not by necessity one that exists from the POV of an antagonist. Friday the 13th often toys with the audience by conflating POV shots with simple hand-held footage. One type of hand-held shot would be that of Annie walking through town on her way to the camp, which regards her from only a few feet away. Another type of hand-held shot would be that of the counselors swimming, which regards them from a distance and through foliage, thus suggesting that they are being watched. However, certain scenes combine the two types, such as one where the viewer at first sees Alice (Adrienne King) from a distance walking toward the lake to meet Bill (Harry Crosby). The scene ends with Alice practically walking up to the camera and eventually past it and out of frame, as if not being watched. Thus the ‘killervision’ is arguably not the point of view of the killer at all, but events being regarded as phenomena from a distance, as in a documentary, providing a handmade sense of onscreen events simply ‘happening’ rather than being ‘performed’ or staged.
By contrast, scenes taking place indoors are static, often filmed in unbroken shots, and tend to focus on characters doing ubiquitous things. Consider two shots of Alice in the cabin’s kitchen at the beginning and end of the film: The earlier shot frames Alice, Bill, and Jack (Kevin Bacon) from a high angle looking down at a light bulb that has just gone dark. The camera focuses on the light bulb and faces of the characters close to it, who eventually turn away and move out of focus. The later shot lasts two minutes and pans back and forth following Alice as she lights a gas stove, prepares instant coffee, and retrieves sugar from the pantry. Both shots establish the cabin as a three-dimensional yet enclosed space where motion is limited relative to what takes place outdoors.
Like the camerawork, the film’s characterizations have a similar ‘handmade’ quality, in part due to the cast being comprised of young and relatively inexperienced stage actors from New York. Late in the film, Marcie imitates Katherine Hepburn’s affected Connecticut accent to a mirror (she is played by Jeannine Taylor, who is originally from Connecticut). Ned (Mark Nelson)’s body language and physical performance appears largely improvised. Brenda (Laurie Bartram) lures Alice and Bill into a game of ‘Strip Monopoly,’ and the film later implies that she may be attracted to Alice. It is when Alice begins to remove her shirt that Brenda suddenly has to leave “…just when it was getting interesting.”
The characterizations in the first two Friday the 13th films largely undermine one of the most common readings of the slasher film at large, which is that the narrative typically follows a group of crass and callous teenagers whose deaths are a type of moralizing retribution for their behavior -usually sexual behavior (‘If you have sex, you die.’). This reading assumes, however, that a slasher film provides a mimetic depiction of human beings, which is arguably not the case. But assuming that that was the case, Friday the 13th negates that reading in that its young characters -at least in the first two films- come across as genuinely nice people who are no more or less sexually active than other young people. There is nothing cynical or mean-spirited about them, which makes certain murders in the first two films particularly cruel. According to Victor Miller, who wrote the original screenplay, Alice survives not because she is necessarily more ‘moral’ than the other characters. The film implies that Alice may have had a sexual encounter with Mr. Christy after arriving at the camp, and establishes Bill as a possible sexual partner.
Friday the 13th routinely uses film language to break down its images into elemental forms -primarily with film editing and spoken dialogue. A recurring transition throughout the film is the fade to white. In two scenes early on -both taking place after a murder- the image dissolves in this way. The first arrives at the end of the opening scene, wherein the camera slowly zooms in on a freeze frame. The image moves into an extreme close up of the face of Claudette (Deborah S. Hayes) to the point where the grain of the frame nearly abstracts the image. The second arrives after Annie’s murder, wherein she falls out of frame and the shot -an image of an uninhabited forest- floods with white. Visually, the fade to white is often indistinguishable from a gradual increase in film exposure where light eventually saturates the frame. One might compare the effect to the film’s various shots of the sun breaking through foliage. The fade effect thus provides an immersion for the viewer similar to the experience of walking through the woods.
The film’s dialogue also suggests elemental forms beneath surface images. A scene where Marcie has a monologue describing a recurring dream to Jack makes such a suggestion. They are framed in a head-and-shoulders shot as she recites it, there is no music, and the only sound is of the lake and the woods. She says: “I’ve had this dream about five or six times where I’m in a thunderstorm and it’s raining really hard. It sounds like pebbles when it hits the ground. I can hear it. I try to block out the sound with my hands, only it doesn’t work. It just keeps getting louder and louder. And then…the rain turns to blood. And the blood washes away in little rivers, and then the sound stops.”
Marcie pauses and then stares off-camera. They eventually both stand up and leave. The film then cuts to a series of shots of the area around the lake as a storm moves in: rowboats by the banks, wind rustling the trees, and so on. Aside from perhaps foreshadowing the film’s murders with the description of a forthcoming storm, the scene has nothing to with the narrative. Her speech alludes to water and blood -elements the viewer sees immediately following the monologue and throughout the remainder of the film, respectively.
When one regards it at face value, one ultimately sees in Friday the 13th the connective tissue between the last vestiges of the 1970s horror film -based largely on urban legends, cautionary tales, and campfire stories- and the slashers of the early 1980s -steeped primarily in youth culture and youth markets. What makes the film unique despite itself is that it would still have value if you omitted the exploitative content. Absent of that content, various elements of film language emerge that generate a distinct sense of environment or atmosphere -specifically a sense of economy in the film’s construction and a sense of the elemental in its form.
At this point, most paid critics are merely part of either the production machine or the website clickbait machine. Whether they are established critics who work for major newspapers or magazines or ‘freelancers/writers-at-large/etc’ who work for ‘independent’ web publications (which really aren’t), they are in one way or another beholden to market forces. Studio/Distributor X produces/distributes Film Y (or Production Company Z produces Film Y which is then bought by Studio/Distributor X), and a critic from Publication W is assigned to review it. X and W are more than likely owned by a parent company or corporate entity with profit motives. Sometimes they’re owned by the same company, and when that happens it’s not in W’s interest to give Y a negative review. That’s an oversimplification of course (most reviews are moot since most films produced by large studios in North America lose money domestically and are made for overseas markets), but my point is that the criticism-review cycle is merely part of the distribution process, at least with domestic distribution. And it’s win-win: X gets to flaunt ‘critical praise’ from W, and W gets to see his or her byline in a trailer or on a poster made by X.
With that in mind, a lot of film writing/criticism is just clickbait journalism that writers have peppered with pseudo-academic language in order to lend it some legitimacy. How did that happen? The introduction (and overuse/misuse/abuse) of academic language into popular film criticism is likely the result of a surplus of film studies majors and film school graduates (a surplus by definition: the supply has exceeded demand) who for whatever reason didn’t successfully place into the industry, had sour grapes, and began to write criticism instead. But, they’ve learned quickly that there’s no real success to be had as a critic now without clickbaiting. Most reasonably intelligent people understand how clickbaiting works: It’s easier and more profitable to appeal to readers’ emotions rather than to their intelligence or common sense. Instead of trying to understand the filmmakers’ ideas or artistic intentions, you extrapolate an issue (or failing that, superimpose an issue arbitrarily on the film) and scrutinize it through the lens of a simplified, pet form of an ideology (an ‘ism’) that is often distorted in a way to make the ideologue believe that his or her feelings are more important than facts. In short, you politicize the movie rather than critique it.
That’s not to say that this kind of writing doesn’t belong in film criticism; of course it does (at its core, it’s merely ‘persuasive writing’ like anything else). But the current monetized structure of internet-based publication -where payroll and survival of the publication are contingent on the amount of traffic the website receives (the ‘number of clicks’)- has forced writers to make increasingly more ridiculous, polemical, and polarizing arguments about films while getting further and further away from the filmmakers’ intentions and the components of the medium itself. In a way, you could compare modern critics to politicians who don’t want to argue policy and only want to engage in character assassination and say that bad policy is the other guy’s fault (’playing the blame game’).
As a result, film criticism isn’t really ‘criticism’ anymore. Critics no longer meet the artists halfway, and are less interested in the art than they are in what the art ‘represents’ (that is, how the art benefits or hurts the sociocultural capital of either the author or a certain demographic in some abstract way). Listening to film podcasts and reading web ‘content’ borders on a surreal experience now. Why would someone in the 2010s take a film made in the 1930s completely at face value and make no attempt to contextualize it in any way? It’s too easy (and frankly a cheap shot) for someone in 2017 to call a film made in 1937 ‘racist,’ ‘sexist,’ and all the rest of it. It looks progressive and intellectual but, again, a reasonably intelligent person will see through this. The criticism is just as myopic as the film it targets.
As for critics’ relationship with ‘lesser’ genre films (horror, exploitation, etc.), the former has been systematically ghettoizing the latter since at least Roger Ebert, who not only popularized the notion that the average person could be a film critic but was also famous for disliking horror (again on the grounds of various pet ideologies), and even made efforts throughout the 1980s to get certain genre films banned in the United States under the guise of ‘progressive’ politics. Thankfully, horror and related genres have experienced a reappraisal since the 1990s with analysis from authors like Carol Clover, Barbara Creed, Mikel Koven, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, et al.
[Originally written February 2017, from a conversation with filmmaker J.P. Diaz]
In January of 1944, the famed Hungarian photographer Oskar Benedek disappeared. Olivier Smolders’ La part de l’ombre (‘A Share of Shadows,’ ‘The Shadow’s Share,’ ‘A Story of Shadows’), made seventy years after his disappearance, brings together Benedek’s photographs, archive footage, and interviews with acquaintances and colleagues in an attempt to solve the mystery behind that disappearance. Not only does Smolders explain the mystery, he indirectly reveals that that explanation is an invention, because Oskar Benedek is not a real photographer and La part de l’ombre is not a ‘real’ documentary.
La part de l’ombre is faux documentaire -fiction staged as a documentary- or a false documentary. Practically every false documentary one sees has been filmed with a tongue-in-cheek component. Watching This is Spinal Tap, the viewer knows logically that the footage is not a real documentary, however the comedy is predicated entirely on the fact that what you’re watching is real when it is in fact not real at all. La part de l’ombre is not a tongue-in-cheek. Smolders not only creates an entire life for Benedek but also an entire mythology surrounding that life. Smolders films the subject with absolute earnestness as if Benedek were a real person -through staged interviews, fabricated archive footage, and other coded staples of the genre.
La part de l’ombre originated in Smolders’ intention to make a film entirely from still photographs -taking its cue from Marker’s La Jetée (1962)- with photographs by Jean Francois Spricigo, whose works ‘play’ Benedek’s photographs in this film. The resulting film is comprised of a combination of both still and moving images. The viewer sees footage ostensibly from the mid-twentieth century -which was obviously not filmed in that time and doctored to appear as such. It is with this footage that Smolders draws the viewers attention to a ‘reproduction’ of sorts of the mid-twentieth century onscreen.
Smolders begins with the faux documentaire gimmick and ends with a thought on the exploits of faux documentaire -and by extension, the nature of photography itself. If photography documents a remnant of the past, keeping it in the present, the inverse holds for La part de l’ombre. Thematically, the film has much in common with Ivan Zulueta’s Arrebato (1979) or Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Kairo (2001). Like those films, La part de l’ombre portrays parasitism between technology and its users -video cameras in the former and computers in the latter.
The practice of photography thus functions as a kind of parasitism -erasing life rather than preserving it. Said Smolders in a 2014 interview:
“Photography is a weapon with which we defend ourselves from the hardness of reality. But what if it were otherwise? And if the image was on the contrary as destructive of the past as it is of the present, eating away at the imaginary, relationships, life? Because it lies, because it reduces reality, because it absurdly stops things. It’s a question that deserves to be asked, in this time of millions of screens around the world constantly vomiting billions of images.”
Indirectly, the film’s portrayal of technology’s effect on reality (photography taking life rather than preserving it) seems to signify how the viewer ‘wants’ to believe that what they’re seeing in a false documentary is real. An analogy would be hiring a magician or palm reader to ‘perform’ at a party, or on a larger media scale, consuming news analysis or a televised speech. To that end, many viewers believe (or want to believe) the events of La part de l’ombre are real (mistakenly or not, both Facebook and Pinterest credit Spricigo’s photographs to Benedek). The film thus causes the viewer to confront his desire to believe, or at least to be manipulated or taken advantage of, by something that is obviously fake.
“I panicked and started running. When I got to the end of the street, the tower was there waiting for me. I turned the corner, saw it again. I kept running, taking different turns, but whenever I looked up, I saw the tower. Whichever way I ran it was always in front of me. I got home and collapsed onto the bed, but when I closed my eyes, I saw the black walls of the tower staring back at me. They got darker and darker…”
When I was very young, our family would routinely drive across our town to visit an aunt in the next county. On the way there, you could see a very tall microwave tower in the distance. It was a sinister-looking, intimidating structure. It had two enormous dishes at the top that made it look like a giant insect standing upright. Worse, as we drove, the tower seemed to ‘follow’ us, moving very slowly. It was terrifying. At one point my father drove me several miles out into the middle of nowhere to show me the base of the tower and that it could not actually move.
What I experienced was kinematic motion, from the Greek root kine, meaning ‘movement’ (this is where we get the word ‘cinema’): Stationary objects will appear to move when seen from the point of view of a moving object. Close stationary objects appear to move away from you, while distant stationary objects appear to move ‘with’ or toward you.
John Smith’s The Black Tower reminded me not just of being five years old and seeing a structure that seemed ‘alive’ because it appeared to move but also of how ubiquitous objects can frighten us from their appearance alone, or of how forms adumbrate themselves, to use Husserl’s word. A child’s view of the world is largely phenomenological in that the shape and appearance of objects, structures, built environments, etc. has some bearing on whether they perceive them as a threat or not (a piece of furniture, a tree, etc.).
I don’t respond emotionally to films very often (I don’t watch them in order to do so; I don’t consider ‘sympathizing’ or ‘identifying’ with what happens very important and I’m not really interested in films that capture human experience in any mimetic way), but I loved this. This one seems as if it was distilled directly from my memory in that it’s a good example of how my memory works: homodiegetic narration against unpopulated scenes, structures and spaces are more vivid than people, ‘post-human’ narrative, etc.
“…the more it’s around […] the more I feel like that it doesn’t work anymore…now that nostalgia is everywhere, now that the past never goes away, you don’t have the chance to be nostalgic for it.”
-Katey Rich, Fighting in the War Room, January 2015
“We get it, you’ve watched a bunch of movies. Congratulations, dick.”
-Easton Dubois’ MUBI comment on Grindhouse, July 2011
Numerous films produced in the last ten years have intentionally imitated genre films popular in the 1980s. These films range from mere surface imitations to works of intentional homage to works that use nostalgia as a platform for narratives that seem to exist ‘outside’ of time. To disclose, the title of this essay is a variation on L’Ère du soupçon (“The Age of Suspicion”) an essay by Nathalie Sarraute from 1956. Sarraute, who in the 1950s originated the nouveau roman (‘new novel,’ or ‘anti-novel’), describes in The Age of Suspicion an “immeasurably expanded present” in fiction. Conscious imitation of the past in the present thus represents an ‘absence’ of time. These films, which I will call ‘New American Nostalgia,’ are in a unique position with regard to how a certain generation of filmmakers and audiences engage in nostalgia for the 1980s. The way in which this generation engages in it differs dramatically from how previous generations did.
Nostalgia takes many forms, so I will focus on films that attempt to immerse the viewer in an experience comparable what one might have had while watching genre films in the 1980s, rather than on films that merely recreate the 1980s. An example of the latter would be the show Stranger Things. The first scene of Stranger Things takes place in a rec room basement. In the background, the viewer can see a theatrical one-sheet for John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) on the wall. The function of this poster is twofold: First to indicate to the viewer quickly (together with the clothing and furniture) that the story is set in the early-to-mid-1980s, and second to inform the viewer of the filmmakers’ awareness of The Thing‘s popularity and influence through the late 2010s, despite being a financial disappointment and being reviewed negatively when it was originally released in the summer of 1982. In other words, it is far more likely that the poster signifies the show’s creators’ admiration for The Thing in the 2010s than it does the show’s characters’ admiration for The Thing in the 1980s. Because of this (and other reasons), I would qualify a scene such as this as a ‘non-immersive’ experience. The appearance of the poster represents a ‘revisionist’ history of sorts on the part of the filmmakers, and carries with it over three decades of discovery and rediscovery on home video and television airings (I first saw it on a late night airing sometime in the late 1980s), development of a devoted following, and reassessment by critics. The presence of the poster in the scene speaks more to the popularity of Carpenter’s film in the present than it does to its mere existence in the past, and reveals more about our desire to reimagine popular culture than it does about popular culture as it actually was.
A phrase such as ‘New American Nostalgia’ takes its cue from James Quandt’s now largely maligned but essential essay “Flesh and Blood: Sex and Violence in Recent French Cinema” which first appeared in Artforum in 2004. This article coined the phrase ‘New French Extremity,’ which was at the time a disparaging remark made by Quandt on the state of French cinema. Yet it has come to be known as a shorthand term when referring to certain violent and often subversive films produced in France at the turn of the millennium (regardless of whether or not one’s opinion of those films is positive of negative). What I propose is the phrase ‘New American Nostalgia,’ which, unlike Quandt’s original intention with his phrase, one might use without regard to one’s opinion of those films.
New American Nostalgia is a trend that has come and will eventually go, since trends (or as cinephiles prefer, ‘waves’) are by definition short-lived. They are also not specific to any time or place: American westerns and musicals in the 1950s, European giallo films in the 1970s, French cinema-du-look and American slasher films in the 1980s, Japanese horror resurgence and New French Extremity in the late 1990s, and American ‘found footage’ horror in the 2000s are a few examples. New American Nostalgia coincides, roughly, with a similar trend that exists in Europe: Cattet and Forzani’s Amer (2009) and L’étrange couleur des larmes de ton corps (2013), Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012) and The Duke of Burgundy (2014), Basset’s Horsehead (2014), and others either emulate or take aesthetic cues from the European fantastique tradition begun by Vadim, Bava, and others.
However, by contrast, New American Nostalgia is woven through with the sale and purchase of nostalgia itself, the kind David Brooks describes in his 2000 book Bobos in Paradise. In that book, Brooks proposes that a new liberal elite emerged in the late 1970s that combined capitalist enterprise with 1960s counterculture, resulting in subsequent generations of consumers being sold products that were popular with previous generations. An example of this would be the Volkswagen New Beetle, which was introduced in 1997 and discontinued in 2011. Consumers who drove the VW Beetle throughout the 1960s eventually became executives of companies such as Volkswagen in the following decades, and developed an ‘homage’ to the decade in which they came of age by re-branding a cultural staple.
While homage itself isn’t new, it depends largely on Derrida’s ‘always already absent present’ -the notion that what constitutes the present is by necessity comprised of elements (a ‘spectre’) of the past. Thus a work of fiction recalling the past cannot carry out the author’s intention without the viewer having some knowledge of that past. For decades, homage has been a platform for some of the most successful American films. George Lucas made his fortune on works of nostalgia for pulp fiction of the 1930s: Star Wars (1977) cannibalizes Flash Gordon serials while Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) cannibalizes Republic serials.
No discussion about New American Nostalgia is possible without acknowledging Quentin Tarantino. There are dozens of things one could say about Tarantino, but for better or for worse he is largely responsible for mainstreaming this kind of film with North American audiences. Tarantino’s films had always been works of pastiche, cannibalizing story elements from -to use Peter Strickland’s word- ‘disreputable’ (or at least minor) genres that no longer exist: the yellow novel, blaxploitation, wu xia, westerns, and so on. The implicit acknowledgement of Derrida’s ‘always already absent present’ begins, arguably, with the ‘double feature’ of Grindhouse in 2007 in that it was an attempt to ‘recreate’ the viewing experience of a double feature of disreputable genre films -fake previews, old filming formats, etc. This desire to recreate a mid-century viewing experience reaches its apex with his 2015 western The Hateful Eight, the production and promotional campaign for which relied heavily on a gimmick: The film was shot in Ultra Panavision 70-millimeter film and was to be screened in a limited number of theaters retrofitted with anamorphic projectors for a 2.76:1 aspect ratio, a process that had not been done since 1966. Superficially, Tarantino is also responsible for the notion of stunt casting and for retrofitting certain technical elements found in a film -primarily cinematography, typography, and music.
Nostalgia specific to the 1980s doesn’t account for the countless films made since the late 2000s that have functioned as an homage of a kind to genre films from the 1960s and 1970s. Anna Biller’s Viva (2007) and The Love Witch (2016) recall European sexploitation films such as Camille 2000 (1969) and midcentury studio comedies such as Bell Book and Candle (1958), respectively. Ted Geoghegan’s We Are Still Here (2015) cannibalizes Fulci’s ‘gates of hell’ films from the 1970s. Mickey Keating’s Darling (2015) is a composite of Polanski’s Repulsion (1967) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth (2015) and Sophie Takal’s Always Shine (2016) have narrative and stylistic precedents in Bergman’s Persona (1966), Altman’s ‘dream’ films from the 1970s, Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1973) and Paulsen’s Savage Weekend (1979).
What, then, distinguishes nostalgia specific to the 1980s? There are unique differences between the generation of filmmakers that produced Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark and the generation that produced House of the Devil and It Follows. The latter generation is the last to grow up watching films on videocassette and the last to know what life in North America was like before the arrival of the internet, which allowed unprecedented and practically unlimited access to films not available anywhere on magnetic tape or disc. Before this, viewers were limited to watching films via physical media: film projected on a screen in a cinema or VHS. It is also the first to experience ubiquitous use of DSLR -which throughout the 2000s largely supplanted physical reel film as the medium of choice among filmmakers in the US. Nostalgia for the 1980s is also rooted in the arrival of DVD in the late 1990s, a medium that eventually rendered VHS obsolete (the last videocassette was produced in 2004). Despite this, VHS currently has a status among enthusiasts comparable to that of vinyl records. An element of pageantry is inevitable under a business model that re-brands nostalgic objects such as Volkswagen Beetles and vinyl records, and distributors have re-branded VHS cassettes for niche markets under the guise of nostalgic pageantry. In 2010, Magnetic Releasing Films sent VHS promotional screeners of House of the Devil to journalists. On April Fool’s Day in 2015, Vultra Video, a Syracuse-based video distributor, posted a fake advertisement for a limited edition VHS release of It Follows.
While certain films may not intend to ‘recreate’ the 1980s genre film, they contain specific design motifs that recall the 1980s genre film. Motifs such as typography and music function as a mnemonic ‘shorthand’ of the past in this case. They appear briefly and register quickly for the viewer, standing in for a larger image world. Adam Wingard’s The Guest (2014) features a character who creates a mix CD comprised largely of songs from the mid 1980s, including tracks by Love and Rockets and Clan of Xymox. The end titles of The Guest are comprised of the Albertus typeface, which John Carpenter has used in all of his films beginning in 1982 with The Thing. The end titles of Kolsch and Widmyer’s Starry Eyes (2014) are comprised of the typeface ITC Benguiat, created by Ed Benguiat in 1978 and appearing in numerous media targeted at young children throughout the 1980s. Both typefaces seem designed to recall popular culture of that decade.
Going further than surface design, certain films adopt entire narrative and stylistic schemes popular in 1980s genre films. Not only does Ti West’s House of the Devil (2009) feature typography and diegetic music from the 1980s, it is set in 1983. The film gives careful attention to visual culture -articles of clothing, hairstyles, decor, objects ranging from wax cups to rotary phones, etc.- from the first half of that decade. Keeping Derrida’s always already-absent present in mind, the viewer will notice that the image world depicted and implied is not exclusive to the year 1983, but is the culmination of all years leading up to 1983, or at least stylistic precedents from the previous decade. Consider the character of Megan (Greta Gerwig), who in the film exists as a college student in 1983, but whose baseball shirt and teased hair suggest those of Farrah Fawcett, who appeared on Charlie’s Angels from 1976 to 1981. In other words, the production design is not predicated on the idea that everyone in North America woke up the morning of January 1, 1981 and decided that the visual culture would immediately change and suddenly ‘look like the 1980s.’ Noticeable stylistic change is gradual. One might compare West’s film to J.J. Abram’s Super 8 (2011), which is in several ways its opposite in that it goes to great lengths to remind the viewer that the film takes place in ‘the late 1970s’ with little regard for any popular or visual culture that existed before that time: Coca-Cola’s ‘Have a Coke and a Smile’ campaign, the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown in March 1979, no popular music released before 1976 on the soundtrack, and so on.
Going beyond the adoption of entire narrative and stylistic schemes, certain films use those schemes as a platform for modernist genre cinema. David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014) is such a film. Mitchell’s film forges new imagery and narrative out of Derrida’s spectre of the past. While the titular ‘it’ that follows the protagonists is not unlike the shape in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) or the robot in James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), Mitchell’s antagonist becomes an allegorical signifier for the protagonists’ own aging and dying -bolstered by literary references to Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot and Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and not dissimilar to the medieval allegory of Death and the Maiden. While the image world of It Follows is distilled in part from photography by Gregory Crewdson and the mid-1980s pastels of Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Mitchell’s film also complicates its temporal setting by placing furniture and technology from the 1980s -such as cathode ray televisions and rotary telephones- with articles of that are contemporary to the time of the film’s making and even imagined technology. An example would be the film’s imagined ‘clamshell’ electronic reader device used by Yara to read The Idiot.
Further, while the color schemes of Jackson Stewart’s Beyond the Gates (2016) mimic those of Gordon’s From Beyond (1987), and while its narrative recalls that of Takacs’ The Gate (1987) and is bookended in a manner similar to Barker’s Hellraiser (1987), the film conflates nostalgia for the 1980s horror film with a particular tactile experience of watching a film -specifically watching films in one’s house on videocassette. The narrative of Stewart’s film has to do with the two sons of the owner of a video rental shop, and the opening credits are shown over the spools inside a VHS cassette player. Like It Follows, however, Beyond the Gates is set in an undisclosed time -characters reminisce about VHS and VHS board games (distinctive to the late 1980s and early 1990s), though the film does not have much regard for modernity vis-a-vis the reminiscence of VHS itself. The film is set in what appears to be the ‘present,’ yet the narrative proceeds according to the trappings of an 1980s genre film due the always-present past in the form of a videocassette.
In creating image worlds that exist ‘outside of time,’ Mitchell and Stewart not only acknowledge the spectre of the past that never goes away, but distill new narratives from it. This is not unlike what Edmund Burke implied in his 1757 treatise A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful regarding likeness and newness: “When two distinct objects are unlike to each other, it is only what we expect. Things are in their common way, and therefore they make no impression on the imagination. But when two distinct objects have a resemblance, we are struck, we attend to them, and we are pleased. The mind of man has naturally a far greater alacrity and satisfaction in tracing resemblances than in searching for differences, because by making resemblances we produce new images…”
While filmmakers and viewers can play stylistic match games to no end, the ‘immersive’ experience is in part predicated on simulacrum -the difference between merely reimagining events from the past, as Super 8 or Stranger Things do, and recalling experiences from the past, as House of the Devil or The Love Witch do. House of the Devil and Biller’s films are shot on 16- or 35-millimeter film. With DSLR having supplanted photographic film and with the arrival or high definition video television in the last twenty years, cinema and television practically resemble each other a majority of the time. Since very few feature films are now shot on film, one could see the nostalgia of Biller’s films or House of the Devil as a means of parsing and distinguishing film from television, given the increased viewership of television, greater use of streaming services, and drops in North American box office every two to three years since 2005 (yearly box office totals for the United States increased steadily from 1992 to 2004, and have either dropped or remained stagnant ever since). In this sense, New American Nostalgia is not dissimilar to the introduction of wider aspect ratios for cinema in the 1950s, which was done in order to compete with television. Surprisingly, the number of feature films that are shot on 35mm each year is increasing -from about 40 in 2014 to 64 in 2015, though these are mostly shot by an older generation of loyalists.
Watching Beyond the Gates, however, is not the same experience as watching The Gate or From Beyond. I remember seeing The Gate at a multiplex in eastern Pennsylvania in 1987 and watching From Beyond sometime in the mid-1990s on VHS, which are two experiences distinct from the viewing experience in 2017 -on both the front and back end. The viewer does not see events that occurred on the set and were photographed in the 1980s, merely a simulation comprised of props, photography and music. Screening House of the Devil on a DCP projector in a theater with stadium seating and surround sound derails attempts at recreating the experience of seeing a film in the 1980s.