Sometimes, when nobody else is around, I’ll sing and dance. I’m bad at both, but for me, singing and dancing -like bowling or jogging- are activities you needn’t be good at to enjoy. The characters in Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc sing and dance too -often badly- as if nobody else is around. There’s a facile joy in performing for an audience of none, without any pressure to impress others, and Bruno Dumont’s film is very much in the same spirit. It moves along without a care in the world, a kind of medieval minstrel show being performed to an empty street. It’s hardly a conventional biography of Joan of Arc. There is no warfare, no Siege of Orleans, no trial at Rouen -only an awkward kid growing up in the fields near Domrémy in northeast France, her miraculous visions, and song.
The operative word in the film’s title is l’enfance -childhood- as this is really a story about adolescence, charged with naivety and regression, and about what Lefebvre called “the boredom of youth without a future,” being that condition that all adolescents share -an episteme severely limited by inexperience, combined with the idea that something significant is in store for you out there, somewhere else. In its way, Jeannette is a corollary to so many stories about adolescence told by adults compelled to idealize and revise their own adolescence in some way.
It’s also a unique film, to say the least, as it is set entirely to anachronic music: Characters sing, jig, and bang their heads to jarring and often discordant doom metal by Gautier Serre, known professionally as Igorrr. At first this sounds like a stunt or novelty, and perhaps it is, but to anyone familiar with the inner life of a child -ambling around with little or nothing to do, easily bored, inhabiting a world where reality and fantasy are often woven together- it might seem fitting that that inner life be portrayed in such a naive, absurd way.
In my experience, Dumont is a director who grows on you as you get to know him. When I saw my first film by him some fifteen years ago (L’humanité), 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. I was put off at first by the ‘ordinary’ and at times grotesque appearance and affectations of the performers, their body language vis-à-vis the landscape, the desolate landscapes themselves, and the bizarre sense of humor. But I stuck with him, because something else I’ve noticed in his films was how he seems to create worlds that are at once naive and regressive.
The world of Jeannette is naive and regressive too -or rather it reminded me of how naive and regressive I was as a kid. The instance of heavy metal in its fifteenth century world has a great deal to do with this. Historically, heavy metal was the music of the working class, and since in Joan’s time the only music around would’ve been either church music or chansons performed by minstrels, and given what we know from her testimony at Rouen, I don’t think it would be a stretch to say Joan wouldn’t feel above listening to metal or some like genre if she had lived today. Metal is synonymous with extreme forms of rebellious youth identity (that most eventually outgrow), so much so that we use the genre as a adjective (“That is so metal.”). In their way, Joan’s words could stand in for angry, overly-defensive metal lyrics today: You’re in no position to judge me, judge me wrongly and there will be consequences, I give my word to no one. Joan was metal. At her age you aren’t given much in the way of developing an identity, and certain portions of popular culture are the only means not just of creating an identity but also, in retrospect, of dramatizing one’s preteen and teenaged life when one is too young to understand the actual dramas of adult life. Your interactions with others are operatic exchanges for no reason, making everything you do exceptional in your mind.
For a time I lived out a similarly naive episode as an adult. That is, I attended graduate school for about five years. I studied art history, my area being late medieval and Renaissance art in Northern Europe. A personal (and Eurocentric) adage regarding that time and place I would often think of was: When you look at the art produced south of the Alps you see what you want to be: You see perfection, symmetry, idealism. When you look at the art of the north, you see what you are: You see imperfect and distended bodies, bizarre posture, figures comprised of parts that don’t quite combine into a harmonious whole. Jeannette, like all of Dumont’s films, is populated by the latter: elongated or bulbous faces, sunken cheeks, crows feet, eyes that are a little too far apart. As desolate as the French countryside and its inhabitants appear, I couldn’t help but feel taken away by them, recalling my own Northern European ancestry -chronologically, modern-day Russia, Lithuania, Poland, and Germany. Much of the imagery in Jeannette is woven through with traditional imagery from that part of the world: Joan’s vision of the Archangel Michael, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret seems distilled directly from the paintings of Robert Campin and Hans Memling.
Thus it’s probably not a coincidence that while doing press for the film, Dumont made a comparison between North American studio films and European films, likening the former to Italian painting and the latter to Flemish painting. This assumes a visual binary that has existed in the practice of art history since the early twentieth century: ‘Northern Renaissance Art’ distinguished itself primarily by existing in relation to ‘Italian’ or ‘Southern Renaissance Art’: North American cinema, like Italian Renaissance art, is preoccupied with technical perfection, whereas European cinema, like Northern Renaissance art, is not.
By that reckoning, Jeannette is not concerned with technical perfection, the most deliberate imperfection being, perhaps, that the performers are bad at singing. But just how many preteens or teenagers are any good at singing, and how often have you sung badly to yourself when you are alone? In adolescence, we’re terrible at nearly everything, and it’s only with long life and practice that we either become ‘good’ at something or realize as adults that we’re not good at something. But a unique thing about Joan’s adolescence is that she didn’t live long enough to become an adult. Thus adolescent things -playing in the dirt, running in circles, acting out daydreams- seem to take on a greater importance.
Because of these things, Jeannette perhaps worked better for me as a film experience than it did for others. It premiered in North America in September of this year at the Toronto International Film Festival to a half-full auditorium in Jackman Hall. Several people walked out, and you could sense that many of those who remained did so out of politeness, or to quietly mock it. Not me though. But I can be naive.
Because it’s becoming less and less possible to see the things you genuinely want to see, I think the only fair criteria for compiling a list like this is ‘when was the earliest you could have physically seen it.’ Films I saw in 2016 are appearing on lists this year and vice versa. Access, as always, continues to be a problem for everyone. We have no choice but to be diachronic.
1. Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc by Bruno Dumont
In its way it’s a corollary to so many stories about adolescence told by adults compelled to idealize and revise their own adolescence. That it is set entirely to heavy metal music is fitting given that the inner life of a child -inhabiting a world where reality and fantasy are often woven together- be portrayed in such a naive, absurd way. Historically, heavy metal was the music of the working class, and since in Joan’s time the only music around would’ve been either church music or chansons performed by minstrels, and given what we know from her testimony at Rouen, I don’t think it would be a stretch to say Joan wouldn’t feel above listening to metal or some like genre if she had lived today. Metal is synonymous with extreme forms of rebellious youth identity (that most eventually outgrow), so much so that we use the genre as an adjective (“That is so metal.”). At her age you aren’t given much in the way of developing an identity, and certain portions of popular culture are the only means not just of creating an identity but also, in retrospect, of dramatizing one’s preteen and teenaged life when one is too young to understand the actual dramas of adult life. The irony is that Joan didn’t live long enough to become an adult. Thus adolescent things -playing in the dirt, running in circles, acting out daydreams- seem to take on a greater importance in the film.
2. Dawson City: Frozen Time by Bill Morrison
The story of a Canadian mining town at the turn of the twentieth century is a humbling microcosm not just of film history but of the very idea of ‘recorded human history.’ Illustrates that our concept of ‘the past’ is completely beholden to extant artifacts, and shows us how unlikely it is that any of those artifacts will survive over time. Like an eruption of information in the form of 100-year-old film reels literally unearthed from the ground. Morrison’s aesthetic suits the story’s routine returns to the elements of earth and fire. If you can’t bury it in the earth, eventually you’ll lose it in the fire.
3. The Killing of a Sacred Deer by Yorgos Lanthimos
Iphigenia in Cincinnati. Begins as an unsettling stalk-fest and develops into something genuinely terrifying. Whatever is happening to the family -karma, fate, a curse, who knows- taps into some of the very base powers of horror: the fear of indifferent forces that are beyond anyone’s control, or in this case -because it is largely set in the medical world- disease and plague. At one point we see a reproduction of Raphael’s portrait of Aristotle from The School of Athens in the doctor’s house. It was Aristotle who suggested the element of æther, which he thought accounted for cosmic, larger-than-life phenomena like gravitation. That’s the real horror of the story -that indefinable ‘something’ beyond explanation for someone who has a pragmatic approach to life.
Granted, a lot of this is due technically to the fact that most of the film is set in a hospital (which is repulsive to me almost by default), the discordant and often jarring music, and the boy who fixates on the older man (and I will admit that the boy having what I assume to be autism or perhaps even schizophrenia enhanced this; not a very PC thing to say, but there we are). But, for me, parts of this are truly scary -both the choir practice scene and the escalator scene gave me the some chills.
4. Malgré la nuit by Philippe Grandrieux
I understand how this lands as a disappointment to a lot of people simply by virtue of not being like Sombre or La vie nouvelle or whathaveyou in that Grandrieux’s feature-length films seem to be moving toward a more ‘conventional’ narrative cinema. But as time goes on I think we’ll learn that there is more to Grandrieux then just ‘dark transgressive films’ about serial killers or marginalized ethnic groups (we know from Hainge’s book that it originates from several places). This was co-written by Rebecca Zlotowski, whose films I’ve always thought were interesting despite numerous digressions. This wants to be two films at once. Narratively it’s unremarkable, oscillating between a bourgeois drama about fauxhemian rich and rec drugs in a loft apartment overlooking the Seine and a (more interesting) story of a fly-by-night porn outfit that functions as a kind of furnace where characters’ libidos and Todestriebe -and where the film’s diegesis and (not)diegesis- combine.
You can tell from the start that this film lacks something, I think, relative to Grandrieux’s previous films in that it was shot on digital film and not on celluloid (the composite imagery and music cues are also a departure stylistically, but then this director tends to confound a viewer’s notions of visual ‘style’). But it’s at its best when it centering on Ariane Labed’s story arc: key scenes shot in the woods are captured in a punishing bright light that almost breaks the action down into geometric forms (first seen in White Epilepsy). At the start we experience this as non-diegetic sight, meant (perhaps) to extrapolate certain characters’ sex and death drives, while it is later revealed to be diegetic sight after all, as the characters have propped up powerful lighting apparati in the woods in order to shoot a sex film. But, I like that it can function as both. It retains the affect/’sensation’ you get in Grandrieux’s major films in that it exists outside the notion of characters and plot moving toward a resolution through dramatic means -being something that merely ‘happens’ to you.
5. Loveless by Andrei Zvyagintsev
Russian variation on Scenes from a Marriage. In a way it reminds me of L’avventura in how it observes the characters’ responses 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.
6. Sleep Has Her House by Scott Barley
Immersive, sublime experience. Ideally should be seen projected in a darkened theater, because literally half the film is total darkness. I once drove for five days from Seattle to Durham, and on the first night I was driving down I-90 through Idaho. It was pitch black but my headlights occasionally revealed enormous mountains and trees that towered above me and seemed to go on forever. It was terrifying, not because I felt unsafe (though perhaps I should’ve felt that way), but because being in the middle of nowhere surrounded by elements that dwarf you a thousand times over serves as a reminder of just how insignificant you really are and of how easy it would be for the world to simply sweep you away and wipe you out.
Sleep Has Her House taps into that feeling of insignificance. It’s bookended somewhat by the image of two horses standing alone in darkness, and between start and finish a storm emerges that seems intent on destroying the landscape. The film has no narrative and no dialogue, only an opening text: The shadows of screams climb beyond the hills. It has happened before. But this will be the last time. The last few sense it, withdrawing deep into the forest. They cry out into the black, as the shadows pass away, into the ground. This is the only ‘context’ provided to the viewer, and thus it inflames the viewer’s mind. It’s clear that we’re not following a ‘story’ but entering into an elemental, primordial space.
7. Caniba by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel
The opening text of the film states that it doesn’t intend to exploit the life of Issei Sagawa (who was the ‘source material’ of Smolders’ Adoration), and it doesn’t. An interesting experiment, I think, would be to have two separate audiences -a ‘control group’ that knows nothing of Sagawa’s life and another that is aware of his life- watch this film and compare their reactions. The film regards Sagawa’s life as a phenomenon and in an almost uncomfortably intimate way. There are no talking heads or news footage of his crimes. Further, this film uses cinema language in a way that is similar to Grandrieux -specifically endless, unbroken closeups of the subject- in order the keep the viewer from ‘avoiding’ the subject.
8. November by Rainer Sarnet
Baltic folk horror, based on the best-selling novel in the history of Estonia. This film is, admittedly, kind of a mess. Based on what I saw, I imagine the book to be incredibly dense, with numerous characters and multiple courses of action, like Frank Herbert’s Dune. A lot of scenes seem like palimpsests of larger story elements from the book: the ancestral ghosts, a lost cache of gold, lycanthropy, a kind of personification of a plague, etc. The Faustian narrative is nevertheless clear, however. The film’s setting (rural Estonia in the early nineteenth century) is, I think, important because the cultural circumstances of its time and place beget the horror of the story in the first place. Estonia was technically a part of the Russian Empire at the time but was experiencing a kind of enlightenment period, resulting in increased literacy and sense of national identity. There was also a cultural exchange taking place between Estonia and Germanic Prussia, which resulted in a conflict that the film portrays indirectly: the Estonian peasants are Catholic and the German aristocrats are Lutheran, but the region is also a kind of furnace of superstition and belief in that it represents a convergence of paganism and Christianity distinct from anywhere else in Europe.
9. Plus Ultra by Samuel M. Delgado and Helena Girón
While not quite as exciting as their Neither God Nor Santa Maria or Burning Mountains That Spew Flame, I still enjoyed this, mostly for the sense of isolation the film creates. The film’s title is the official motto of Spain, suggesting an abstract ‘unknown’ outside of one’s episteme.
10. Laissez bronzer les cadavres by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani
This delivers. 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 Cattet and Forzani have 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. Also, Elina Löwensohn and Marc Barbé together after twenty years in another film with bizarre lighting.
11. Fantasy Sentences 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).
12. The Lure by Agnieszka Smoczynska
“…narrative is not developed to [a] logical and convincible [sic] story.” / “It’s unfortunate that a film of this magnitude and ambition has so little to say.” / “…it really has n o t h i n g to say at all.” -Mubi comments on The Lure
It’s a story about two sirens with fish tails who literally come out of the sea and sing/strip in a dance club and occasionally eat people. It’s based almost entirely on fairy tales, Cold War allegory, and a grotesque/absurdist tradition that’s been around in Polish literature and art since at least the 1920s (Schulz, Witkacy, Grabinski, Majewski, Beksinski, Yerka, Zulawski, Wrona, Waliszewska, the list is endless). They also break out into song and dance on occasion. It combines many classic -if disparate from each other- genres and it’s entertaining and funny, and not in the Anglophone tradition’s retarded notions of ‘irony’ or ‘horror-comedy.’ I’m certain that being ‘logical’ or ‘convincing’ isn’t the filmmakers’ cup of tea.
13. 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.
14. 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.
15. Most Beautiful Island by Ana Asensio
Though the tone shifts halfway through, I liked how both parts were done. The first half is very much like the kind of no-budget films that were made in the early-to-mid 1990s -anywhere in the US but particularly in NYC (Bad Lieutenant, Bang, etc.)- the second half is something very different that fills you with dread the way La vie nouvelle or Enemy might (I’m always on board with films about shady cabals/secret societies).
Special Jury Prize:Kaili Blues by Gan Bi, Le parc by Damien Manivel, Rose Gold by Sara Cwynar, Étrange dit l’ange by Shalimar Preuss, Blade of the Immortal by Takashi Miike, Good Time by Ben and Joshua Safdie
“Technology is not neutral. We’re inside of what we make, and it’s inside of us. We’re living in a world of connections, and it matters which ones get made and unmade.”
-Donna Haraway, 1996
“The male film maker dreams of electric women, women as manufactured sex objects.”
-Marleen Barr, 1991
In the science fiction film, the portrayal of the artificial female differs greatly from the portrayal of the artificial male. By ‘artificial’ we mean anything the film constructs diegetically, is given a ‘human’ trait of some kind -a humanoid body, a human voice, and so on- and registers as a character in the film’s narrative: a robot/robotess, android/gynoid, hologram, or gendered computer. Alasdair McCallum described the difference thusly:
“Although male robots and other artificial intelligence units are common in film, they generally function as servants, bodyguards or unfeeling killing machines devoid of sexuality. This bifurcation of gender roles reduces both genders to their primal, supposedly primary functions – men as warriors and women as sex objects.”
The difference in the portrayal between the artificial female and artificial male in sci-fi is not dissimilar to that of females and males in cinema at large of course -through sexualized imagery; both Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette have been famously credited with saying that “The history of cinema is a history of men photographing women.” The difference, I would argue, has to do ultimately with a certain demographic that has emerged on both the producing and receiving end of the film industry in the last ten years, and their use of the sci-fi genre to engage in what is ultimately an adolescent fantasy. In the last decade, American sci-fi has seen a resurgence of the sexualized artificial female, which often exists as a character with no actual bearing on these films’ narratives aside from providing motivation to a male character as an erotic target (a ‘love interest’), effectively conflating the artificial with the real.
The portrayal of an artificial female humanoid isn’t new, its current form borne of modern abnormal psychology as it pertains to the sexual attraction to inanimate objects. The Galatea myth described in Philostephanus’ De Cypro and later in Ovid’s Metamorphoses recalls the story of a sculptor, Pygmalion, who preferred his statue of a woman -which would later come to life- over any real woman. Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s canonical work Psychopathia Sexualis, begun in 1866, describes the condition as agalmatophilia (colloquially the ‘statue syndrome’), citing a (possibly fictional) case from 1877 where a gardener attempted to have sex with a Venus de Milo statue. A pornographic novel from the late nineteenth century, La Femme Endormie -credited to a ‘Madame B’ and based on Pygmalion- follows Paul Molaus, who after becoming tired of real women, commissions a craftsman to build him an idealized, inanimate female, Mea (“…why should love for a doll cause as many worries as love for a woman?”).
Historically, the condition Krafft-Ebing describes has been classified as necrophilia in that the erotic target is transferred from the living to the non-living. Films such as Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) seek to complicate this by provoking the viewer into distinguishing between attraction to the target because it is fake (self-described ‘technosexuals’) and attraction to the target despite it being fake (the human Deckard’s attraction to Rachael, an artificial female). Yet the viewer wouldn’t make this distinction in the first place if depictions of artificial beings were not woven through with notions of gender and sexuality (I highly recommend Allison de Fren’s Technofetishism and Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto regarding this topic).
A theme that runs concurrently with agalmatophilia in fiction of this kind is one of the male as a ‘creator’ of life and subsequent inability to control his creation. Germanic folklore predating Christianity describes a trio of herdsmen who build a woman from straw that eventually comes to life -known in Lichtenstein as The Herdsmen’s Doll and in Switzerland as Sennentuntschi– kills the herdsmen. The creations in many works derived in part from this myth -the creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein being the best known- are cast as abominations for their unwillingness to obey commands.
The binary between what are essentially objects that a man can control and objects that he cannot control is turned on its head with the advent of photography in the mid-nineteenth century. Sexualized descriptions and images of women date to antiquity, though their mimetic register (sexualized images intended to supplant the real) coincides roughly with the arrival of photographic images. The artificial female in fiction represents a distinctly male-crafted image of the female that is not dissimilar to Sontag’s ‘magic box’: “In the fairy tale of photography the magic box insures veracity and banishes error, compensates for inexperience and rewards innocence.” It is precisely due to the advent of photography that, since the mid-nineteenth century, consumers have not only preferred images of things over things themselves, but have conflated the two, resulting in what Sontag called the Platonic deprecation of the image: “…true insofar as it resembles something real, sham because it is no more than a resemblance.” The notion of the artificial female in fiction, then, has to do with a man’s possession of a (fake) woman, revealing his preference for the artificial over the real, since the protagonist can by necessity exert control over the former and not over the latter -through commands, manipulation, and so on. When that control is lost, the woman is typically discarded or destroyed. In Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2014), for instance, Nathan at one point tells Caleb that the gynoid Ava is manipulating him -suggesting to the viewer that if an artificial female ‘had consciousness’ or could otherwise think for itself, it would inevitably concern itself with manipulating men.
The appeal of the artificial female in fiction also has to do with its narrative and thematic disposability. Fiction that addresses artificial humanoids, artificial intelligence, and the like ostensibly explore what distinguishes a real human being from an artificial one. “As to whether or not he has any real feelings is something I don’t think anyone can truthfully answer,” David says of the computer in 2001. The subject is apocryphal, however, since machines only do what they’re designed and programmed to do. They don’t have human thoughts or feelings; they only seem to. Neuroscience has long established that the human brain does not process information in the same way a computer does, and neither can do what the other can do. Rather, the buried conceit of AI fiction is: Are machines worthy of our empathy (’empathy’ as in our projecting human qualities onto them), and if not, why bother to create machines that look, sound, and behave as we do at all? The answer is a resounding no. Machines are designed to obey commands. Even the etymology of the word ‘robot,’ originating from the Czech noun robota meaning ‘compulsory labor’ or ‘unpaid labor’ (and by extension, ‘slave labor’), supports this.
These films take this conceit of obedience and superimpose it, when convenient, on images of females. The artificial female exists at the pleasure of the male creator by supplanting a real female while having the same ‘thoughts and feelings’ as a real female, except when it is revealed that they don’t, in which case they are then referred to as machines again with no thoughts or feelings. In the film Looker (Michael Crichton, 1981), for instance, an advertising agency uses holographic images scanned from surgically-altered fashion models rather than actual models to sell products. The models themselves -who are no longer of any use after being scanned into a computer- then die under mysterious circumstances.
This is in keeping with Stratton’s notion of ‘cultural fetishism’: male psychosexual fetishistic constructs that have cross-pollinated with the capitalist project of increasing consumption. The artificial female in science fiction is thus a ‘futuristic’ variation of Galatea in a register where it exists as a form of social or sexual capital. This conflation of real and artificial originates, however, in male adolescence, which is characterized largely by the male’s lack of social and sexual capital. Therefore, it inevitably reflects a timidity and immaturity toward sexuality, since an adolescent boy’s social exposure to the opposite sex is dwarfed by commodified (and largely eroticized) images -television, film, fashion photography, cheesecake, ‘lad mags,’ pornography, and the like. The artificial female in fiction is thus most often written within an adolescent boy’s episteme, which is shaped by the boy’s experience with these images: the female is not just physically attractive but is also obedient, affectionate, and often times a simpleton and/or a mute, bolstering the notion that the woman exists for no other reason than to be sexual -or to suggest the possibly of being sexual- with men.
The male viewer’s engagement with the artificial female onscreen mirrors the male protagonist’s in that it is largely transactional. It is the same motivation men may have for hiring a prostitute: sexual gratification without any kind of social commitment. Artificial females in this sense are more comparable to pets rather than to romantic partners. The title of this blog entry is derived of course from a line of dialogue from Blade Runner, describing a replicant, Pris: “A standard item for military clubs in the outer colonies.” Another artificial female, Rachael, serves as the erotic target of Deckard, who is attracted to her primarily because her programming -advanced relative to other replicants- enables her to better imitate a ‘real’ female. Though the initial attraction is based on mimesis, the sexual encounter is based on a transaction between real and artificial. The infamous ‘love scene’ between human and gynoid establishes Rachael -despite her perfect mimetic resemblance to a real woman- as a machine that obeys commands. This is set against a ‘romantic’ scheme composed of lighting through Venetian blinds and Dick Morrissey’s tenor saxophone on the soundtrack.
Deckard: “Say ‘kiss me.'”
Rachel: “Kiss me.”
Deckard: “Say ‘I want you.'”
Rachael: “I want you.”
This particular fantasy coincides in part with the profusion and legitimization of ‘geek culture’ or ‘nerd culture’ in the last ten years, which in turn has emerged as a dramatized -and glorified- subject of its own in popular media. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010) dramatizes the life of a sociopath whose ‘genius’ leads him to financial success. The Big Bang Theory -wherein an attractive female neighbor serves as an erotic target for the socially-inept male protagonist living across the hall- averages 19 million viewers a week and has been the most-watched sitcom on television since 2013.
The typical protagonist of these recent works -like that in the fictions involving the artificial female- is often a socially-inept man who wants friends, popularity, and sex but lacks the wherewithal to get them. The writing, however, will compensate for social ineptness by making the man a ‘genius’ or creative in some way -which lends itself to the protagonist ‘creating’ a perfect woman instead of going to the trouble of finding a real one. These fictions portray the artificial female as superior -or at least less ‘troublesome’- to a real female. Her (Spike Jonze, 2014) suggests a world where ‘sex’ with an artificial female is preferable to sex with a real female, and by implication, where masturbation is preferable to sex. The protagonist Theodore is first seen engaging in what is essentially phone sex with an anonymous female -an experience he finds awkward because of her strangulation fetish. In a scene later in the film, photographed identically, Theodore has simulated sex with Samantha, his AI computer system with a female voice. However, at the same time Theodore at no point has sex with anyone onscreen, and thus by pairing these two scenes, Her suggests that masturbation to an artificial voice is more pleasurable than masturbation to a real one. Further, the film portrays Theodore’s ex-wife Catherine as overbearing and unpleasant. In a scene where they meet to finalize divorce documents, she scowls at him and belittles him. The character exists, for the most part, to bolster the idea that Theodore’s fake companion is better than any real one.
These films will occasionally portray both fake and real women indirectly ‘competing’ over the man. Weird Science (John Hughes, 1985) depicts what at first seems to be ‘progressive’ material in that the artificial female Lisa ostensibly inspires enough confidence in the film’s socially-inept male protagonists to meet and court women, and the critical reception of this film describes it as “not really an ‘adolescent male fantasy’ but actually about ‘adolescent male fantasy.'” This only happens, however, when the two males can ‘out-alpha’ the film’s villains through the threat of violence. In the end, the real females cannot help but compare themselves to the artificial one in vying for the boys’ affections. Thus Weird Science is largely a skirmish between male teenagers for social capital in the form of females -real or fake. In Her, Samantha expresses jealousy over Catherine due to her having a physical body, which is in several ways the inverse of Electric Dreams (Steve Barron, 1984), wherein a man competes with a (male) artificial intelligence for the affections of his female neighbor.
In Ex Machina, Ava exists solely to suggest the possibly of being sexual with its male creator, another ‘genius’ who instead of forming relationships with any real women, builds his own. The film, like the artificial female it depicts, appeals directly to the socially-awkward viewer: “Does she make you feel anything?” Nathan asks Caleb, implicitly asking if whether or not he is attracted to her. Ava later asks Caleb what are largely irrelevant questions such as “Are you married?” and “Is your status ‘single?'” and suggests that they go out on a date. Nathan later answers the viewer’s unspoken question (“…and the answer to your real question, you bet she can fuck.”). Both men serve as ciphers to the target audience, and the film itself appeals to the audience’s narcissism: Caleb stands in for the young man who is at once socially awkward, particularly around women, and thinks of himself as thoughtful and misunderstood. Nathan stands in for the young man who was perhaps once like Caleb, and eventually overcompensated for his insecurities by shielding his feelings with irony and aping the behavior of the ‘alpha male’ -both of which become easy to do after removing oneself from social life and no longer being obliged to interact with anyone, as Nathan has.
Much of Ex Machina‘s narrative centers on Caleb and Ava’s ‘attraction’ to each other, making Caleb a ‘surrogate’ for the male viewer. Consider an obviously provocative shot where the viewer sees the action from Caleb’s point of view: A monitor screen that records Ava, lying supine on a bed and slowly turning to regard the camera (and the viewer). This shot -which recalls Manet’s Olympia (1863)- is gratuitous in its appeal to the male viewer’s libido.
Ex Machina only teases the male viewer with the same fantasy that Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017) in many ways provides, largely with the character of Joi. Joi is a holographic image that exists solely to be a companion to the protagonist K. She is programmed to fawn over him, and follows him everywhere he goes. Or rather, he takes her everywhere, literally keeping her in his pocket on a small device that oddly resembles a pregnancy test. Like Ex Machina, 2049 of course answers the unspoken question: ‘Can they have sex, and if so, how.’ This is done by way of Joi superimposing her image over a hired prostitute Mariette (perhaps an allusion to ‘marionette’). As an aside, the spelling of the name ‘Joi’ also provides an implicit reference to POV pornography for the male viewer: JOI is an acronym for ‘jerk off instruction,’ wherein women provide ‘instructions’ to the viewer on how to masturbate while viewing them.
In keeping with the narrative-thematic disposability of the artificial female, Joi ultimately serves no purpose in the film. It is only in the third act where she has any effect on the narrative by being fridged -that is, she exists ultimately to be ‘killed’ in order to motivate K to avenge her ‘death.’ As with Samantha’s exit from Her, Joi’s exit from 2049 seems intended to land with the viewer as a dramatic turning point or ‘stakes-raiser’ for the male protagonist, yet it’s predicated on the male viewer’s conflation of living and non-living and his emotional supplanting of real females with fake ones.
2049 also implies that an artificial female is comparable and preferable to a real female by having the former be able to do something that only the latter can do: produce offspring. It’s revealed early in the film that the gynoid Rachael became pregnant and gave birth, apparently, to an artificial child. While narratively this is an example of the ‘miraculous birth’ trope derived from the New Testament, and while synthetic DNA is more or less a reality (at the microorganism level), these are immaterial since the notion of a fake woman conceiving and giving birth reinforces the idea that a real woman is obsolete (or soon will be) in the mind of the male viewer.
Why science fiction films have experienced a resurgence of this fantasy in the last ten years is difficult to say. The answer is larger than mere ‘nerd culture’ and is perhaps symptomatic of the internet’s normalization of social awkwardness and ineptitude. Social ineptitude has been largely legitimized in part by social media’s proliferation of pop-psychology and pop-sociology in the last five years (self-diagnosis, the Myers-Briggs Test, Susan Cain’s Quiet, and so on) that take a romanticized view of introverts as ‘creative,’ ‘misunderstood,’ ‘only interested in deep conversations,’ ‘preferring to express themselves in writing rather than by speaking,’ and so on. While there isn’t anything inherently wrong with this, in only one or two generations the fabric of social life has become practically woven through with introversion chic: Texting and emailing instead of speaking on the phone or in person is arguably the most noticeable instance of it. All of this takes its social toll when it is inevitably used as social capital in the form of excuses -rather than explanations- for anti-social behavior.
Many socially-inept straight men obviously see social media as a device for meeting women, and as ground for strict control over a specific performative persona and the development of fantastical, ‘idealized’ versions of the women they might meet online. The presence of the artificial female in these films ‘rewards’ anti-social behavior through dialogue and plot points, reinforcing the notion that women -real or artificial- would prefer an introverted, insecure sociopath (who believes himself to be a misunderstood genius) over anyone else: Consider a scene in Ex Machina, where Nathan asks Caleb (and by extension, the male viewer): “…you don’t think I know what it’s like to be smart? Smarter than everyone else;” or a scene in Her where Theodore describes a couple he sees in public to Samantha: “She’s only dated fucking pricks, and now she finally met this guy who’s like…so sweet,” to which Samantha replies: “You’re very perceptive” (the bulbous white videogame figure in Her represents the ‘alpha’ in the mind of the sociopathic nerd; when the figure hears of the protagonist going on a date, he exclaims: “I’ll fuck her brains out and show you how it’s done.”); or a scene late in 2049 where a colossal hologram of Joi addresses K directly, saying “…you seem like a good Joe.”
Just as the majority of male protagonists in these films are introverted, insecure, often ‘nerdy’ types, it goes without saying that their fake female counterparts are doll-faced, doe-eyed, statuesque beauties. The male fantasy demands that not only a machine obey orders, it must look and sound attractive while doing so. Just as these films devote a good amount of stage direction to the male’s preference for the artificial woman over a real one, they devote as much to the artificial female’s preference for the socially-inept male, again characterizing the females as pets rather than as partners: How exciting it would be for Daryl Hannah to follow you home after randomly meeting her on the street, or to come home every night to Ana de Armas gleefully waiting for you. This is part and parcel with the commodification of bodies to which socially- and sexually-inexperienced boys are exposed in adolescence: a perfect female companion can be yours provided that you have the resources to acquire/build one.
That acquisition/building is taking place, arguably, onscreen in narrative filmmaking as a substitute for what has not taken place in reality. Studios continuing to remake films from the 1980s is due in part to both the supply and demand sides of the market -now largely comprised of adult men in their 30s and 40s who form a majority of those employed by the tech and film industries- which reveals a latent desire on their part to live out a lifelong adolescence. An adolescent boy’s understanding of cultural production or entertainment is through the conflation of social/sexual capital with economic capital, which results in commodified images -a very specific image in this case- to be bought and sold. Thus it doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that the artificial female has reemerged in science fiction in the last ten years.
“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]