A Basic Pleasure Model: The Artificial Female as a Theater of Adolescent Male Fantasy in Science Fiction

“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).

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Pygmalion and Galatea (Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1890)

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.

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Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)

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.”

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Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)

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.

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Her (Spike Jonze, 2014)

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.

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Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2014)
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Olympia (Édouard Manet, 1863)

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.

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Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017)

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.

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In the Year 2049

“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: [1] grow up and let the past be the past, [2] be more careful what it wishes for, and [3] 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?

In the Margins of Cunningham’s Friday the 13th

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.

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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.

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Adrienne King on location at Sand Pond, Warren County, New Jersey

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.

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Being watched in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Dario Argento, 1970)
killervision not killervision
From being watched to being regarded in Friday the 13th

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.”

Screen Shot 2017-06-12 at 9.37.46 PM

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.

fade to white

fade to white

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.

marcie

sand pond

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.

On Contemporary Film Criticism, Continued

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]

The Age of Imitation: A Primer of New American Nostalgia, 2007-2017

“…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.

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Magnet Releasing Film’s VHS screener for House of the Devil.
vultra it follows
Vultra Video’s Fake April Fool’s Day advertisement for a VHS cassette 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.

itc benguiat choose your own adventure
ITC Benguiat in The Cave of Time (Edward Packard, 1979)
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ITC Benguiat in Starry Eyes (Kolsch and Widmyer, 2014)

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.

FARRAH FAWCETT-MAJORS
ABC Network publicity photo of Farrah Fawcett, January 1976.
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Greta Gerwig in a simulacrum of December 1983 in House of the Devil (Ti West, 2009).

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.

from beyond pastels
From Beyond (Stuart Gordon, 1987)
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Beyond the Gates (Jackson Stewart, 2016)

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.

Poison of Truth: Taboo and Abject Experience in the Films of Marina de Van, 1996-2002

“…filth and the sacred are adjacent to each other.”

-Letter from Julia Kristeva to Catherine Clement, May 1, 1997

“…à la limite du réel, mais pas en tant que choc, ni dans le fantastique, mais peut être dans le malaise.”

-Marina de Van, 2002

Taboo and the abject emerge in the cinema of Marina de Van throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s -a taboo being an act forbidden by a particular social group and avoided in conversation between members of that group, and the abject being an instance of disgust. De Van’s films and collaborations with Francois Ozon are unique among her contemporaries in that they will often move past simple portrayal of taboo and provocation of disgust and toward a onscreen dissection of the two.

De Van’s arrival to cinema coincides with the emergence of ‘New French Extremity,’ the de facto ‘movement’ of transgressive films produced in France at the turn of the twenty-first century (de facto in that all seemed to have similar content as far as images of violence and sexuality were concerned but did not seem to have any unifying sociopolitical element). Most literature on Extremity from the latter half of the 1990s seems to favor Catherine Breillat, Philippe Grandrieux, and Gaspar Noe over De Van, who often appears as a sidenote. An exception is Tim Palmer’s 2006 article on De Van which included her film Dans ma peau (2002) -together with Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001), Breillat’s Romance (1999), Dumont’s Twentynine Palms (2003), and others- among what he called ‘cinema du corps,’ a corpus of films that dealt “frankly and graphically with the body, and corporeal transgressions.”

A perfunctory list of keystone films of New French Extremity would be disparate at best and ultimately unfair to the filmmakers themselves. There was never a strong ideological connective tissue, for instance, between such diverse filmmakers as Denis or Dumont: Trouble Every Day and Twentynine Palms indicate a newfound interest among established filmmakers for bodily transgressions, whereas De Van seems to have had a propensity for such subjects from the beginning. While Breillat’s portrayal of sexual content in Romance is relatively explicit vis-a-vis that in her Tapage nocturne (1979) and Sale comme une ange (1991), it is in keeping with what have been her ideas regarding female sexuality for decades. Thus it would make sense to approach De Van’s films up through Dans ma peau as a corpus of works rather than situate Dans ma peau as a flagship film in a loosely-defined ‘movement.’ Extremity is merely a useful shorthand.

De Van’s films are a vessel through which she evinces numerous taboos. In her own films and her performances in two films for Ozon (to which she she also contributed writing), De Van routinely explicates events relating to bodily functions, sex, and incest (‘breaking taboos’) in both onscreen action and dialogue. A scene between De Van and Evelyne Dandry in Ozon’s Sitcom (1998), alludes to her doing so: De Van’s character Sophie blatantly suggests to Mother that Father is a homosexual. Mother responds. “You’re filled with poison,” and De Van answers: “It’s the poison of truth!” The viewer might keep in mind the social context in which De Van explores her subjects, since her films are most often set a middle-to-upper-class world. De Van herself is the daughter of a musicologist and a lawyer, and a graduate of the University of Paris and La Femis. Her characters work in white collar professions, own property, engage in polite conversation, and can afford luxuries such as high-end clothing and psychiatrists (in her short film Alias from 1999, a woman who works for an upper-class family emulates their lifestyle by wearing their clothes). In viewing De Van’s portrayal of taboo, one may or may not consider Susie Orbach’s notion of the female body as a commodity, the condition of bodies in De Van’s cinema thus functioning as a kind of statement of displacement or discomfort with a relatively privileged social positions.

bien sous primal scene
Three siblings witness the primal scene in Bien sous tous rapports (Marina de Van, 1996).

In recent years, the word ‘abject’ has entered the popular lexicon among Anglophones and acquired several arbitrary meanings. While the word is used popularly -somewhat carelessly- as an adjective interchangeable with ‘extreme’ or ‘severe’ (“abject poverty”), and in other instances used mistakenly as an adjective meaning ‘objective’ (vis-a-vis ‘subjective’), here one should think of ‘abject’ as Julia Kristeva did in her 1980 work Pouvres d’horreur. Kristeva’s definition of the abject and understanding of the abject’s bearing on the human psyche are complex, but suffice it to say that for the purpose of interpreting the human experiences in De Van’s cinema, one can describe the abject as Kristeva did in a 1980 interview with Elaine Hoffman Baruch: “Abjection is something that disgusts you, for example, you see something rotting and you want to vomit -it is an extremely strong feeling that is at once somatic and symbolic, which is above all a revolt against an external menace from which one wants to distance oneself, but of which one has the impression that it may menace us from the inside.” The protagonists in De Van’s films often experience the abject in that they engage in and feel repulsed by acts that are meant to register dramatically as ‘disgusting,’ but who also themselves the site and source of their own disgust.

The viewer can interpret much of De Van’s depictions of taboo and abject experience through the lens of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of the body, which acknowledges the body as the only vessel though which we experience the world -visually, aurally, tactilely, and so on. De Van describes the nature of corporeal experience of her character in 2002 film Dans ma peau in a manner similar to Merleau-Ponty: “…if the body becomes an object of doubt there are no more connections. Everything vanishes. Because all the concrete situations in which my body is involved become dubious and don’t concern me. Because the body is the anchor in relationships [and] in the world.” Further, the script for Dans ma peau originates in a childhood injury where De Van was run over by a car. She has described the resulting injury (her bone protruding from her leg) as Merleau-Ponty might have described a steak: “I saw my leg as just another object.” It would make sense, then, that De Van often appears as the protagonist in her own films, due to what she described as a ‘narcissistic curiosity’ about her own body. The characters written and/or played by De Van -specifically those in Bien sous tous rapports (1996), Retention (1997), Regarde la mer (directed by Francois Ozon, 1997), Sitcom, Psy Show (1999), and Dans ma peau– extrapolate taboo subject matter and the body’s variations of abject experience by way of Merleau-Ponty’s ‘double sensations’: If one hand touches another hand, each hand is at once ‘touching’ and ‘being touched.’ Thus the way in which the body experiences sensations brought upon itself -such as mutilation, physical violence, or paralysis- is distinct from the way in which it experiences the same sensations taking place outside of the body. You cut another body, another body cuts you, you witness a body cutting another body, you cut your own body. These are four different corporeal experiences of the same thing: a body being cut. Yet the last instance is fundamentally different from the first three in that it is the only experience wherein the body is simultaneously ‘cutting’ and ‘being cut.’

Taboo

The incest taboo forms a significant portion of De Van’s oeuvre, particularly in scenes in Bien sous tous rapports and Sitcom. In the former, a daughter and her two brothers (played by De Van and her two biological brothers, Adrien and Thomas) watch their mother fallate their father. This is after the family watches and critiques video footage of the daughter fellating her boyfriend. The latter alludes to incest between Sophie and her brother Nicolas (again played by her biological brother Adrien) in a scene where they sit together nude in a bathtub. Sophie asks Nicolas to describe the experience of having sex with Mother, and is later inspired to proposition Father.

sitcom bathtub
Biological siblings on- and offscreen in Sitcom (Francois Ozon, 1998).

One should know that the behavior in Dans ma peau is not rooted in any one source “like a unhappy childhood or dissatisfying sexuality,” in De Van’s words. The clinical term for Esther’s condition would be Non-Suicidal Self Injury, or NSSI. Self-injury among adults differs from that among adolescents in that it is most often not associated with suicidal behavior (despite her compulsion, Esther in Dans ma peau doesn’t betray any signs of suicidal or risk-taking behavior), and is often understood as a source of distraction from distinctively adult responsibilities.  The portrayal of NSSI in Dans ma peau lends itself to taboo in that self-injuring adults typically experience shame as a result of their actions (‘it’s something young people do’), and therefore perform the act in private and hidden from public view.

Between 2010 and 2013, experiments conducted by Harvard psychologists suggested that there are emotional benefits to NSSI. The experiments revealed that self-injurers would endure physical pain for a longer time period than those in control groups. While both groups reported feeling relief after a physically painful experience, self-injurers reported what the researchers called ‘pain offset relief,’ or a feeling of euphoria after a painful stimulus, and over time the self-injurers paradoxically associated pain with relief. Dans ma peau portrays the ‘trancelike’ relief state associated with self-injury by cutting between a medium closeup shot of De Van’s face staring offscreen and out-of-focus shots of the middle distance from her POV, suggesting a euphoric or excited mental state and the giddiness of anticipation that is symptomatic of a compulsion.

dans ma peau euphoria
Euphoria in Dans ma peau (Marina de Van, 2002).

Dans ma peau also appeals to the viewer’s instinct to conceal acts considered taboo. A scene that takes place about one third into the film features a group of men attempting to throw Esther into a swimming pool. It is at this point that De Van makes it clear that the viewer must be complicit with the protagonist’s actions -we do not want her wound to be discovered but rather for the narrative to continue without intervention from the supporting characters. Further, two distinct scenes depict Esther cutting herself in hotel rooms, narratively suggesting an adulterous affair. After her first hotel room session, she stages a car accident in order to account for her new injuries to her husband.

Abject

De Van’s cinema addresses abject experience through a Freudian-Kristevan collapse of the oral and anal (food and scatology, respectively), paralysis and the absence of limbs, and pleasure derived from self-injury and mutilation in adults. The patient (Jean-Francois Gallotte) in Psy Show recalls eating lunch while at work, comparing the experience of eating in the cafeteria food to eating waste: “…I didn’t like the cafeteria food. They made us eat filth. I once took some garbage out of the bin. It was rotten, with a bug in it. I hate it right there at the table, to prove it was no different.” Sasha (Sasha Hails) in Regarde la mer is taken aback when she sees Tatiana (De Van) lap up her plate when she finishes eating. The viewer later sees the inevitable result of Tatiana’s eating in a scene where Sasha discovers Tatiana’s feces left in her toilet. This is after Sasha has unknowingly ingested the same feces orally by brushing with a tarnished toothbrush. In another dinner scene, Tatiana provokes Sasha to imagine the abject during a conversation about childbirth by mentioning tearing that can occur between the rectum and the vagina: “Some people shit out the pussy afterwards.” Feces is largely the subject of De Van’s Retention, in which she portrays a woman sauntering around her apartment and refusing to rid herself of her own waste. Because fecal matter is something that one typically removes from one’s body and then immediately removes from one’s sight, De Van views it as an object in the world interchangeable with anything else. Human waste in Retention, like the flayed pieces of skin in Dans ma peau, is kept close and preserved.

regarde la mer eating
Eating in Regarde la mer (Francois Ozon, 1997).

De Van’s characters experience the abject in the form of displacement of bodies or paralysis to the body. In Psy Show, a patient enters an office, lies down supine on a cot, and begins to speak to the psychiatrist (Philippe Laudenbach), who all the while periodically repositions his chair across the room. The patient notices this and eventually insists that the psychiatrist is moving his chair, and the psychiatrist sits stoically, shaking his head. While the film at first seems to be about a doctor gaslighting his patient, the manner in which he does so brings about a disorientation that is often part and parcel with disgust. A shot later in the film depicts the patient’s forearm and hand reaching out into an empty space is if to grasp matter that isn’t there. The patient’s experience is abject in that there is no body where the patient expects to see a body. There is an expectation that the psychiatrist is there listening, but he is not.

psy show phantom limb
Psy Show (Marina de Van, 1999).

An early scene in Dans ma peau features Esther waking up to realize that her arm is incapacitated. She must move it with her other arm. One can compare this scene to another in Sitcom featuring Sophie, who experiences paralysis from the waist down after jumping from a high window. When Sophie’s boyfriend provides oral sex, she tells him ‘I feel nothing’ even though sex organs are not connected to nervous system. Though brief, these scenes both feature De Van’s examination of abject state inherent in losing a limb and in the inevitable decay of the body, the inverse of William James’ studies of amputees in the 1880s. In certain cases, James’ patients stated feeling the limb weeks, months, or years after amputation, and would often forget momentarily that an amputated hand or foot was missing and carry out physical movements they performed repeatedly before those limbs’ amputation.

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The viewer will notice De Van’s contribution of dialogue to Regarde la mer. While that film’s structure resembles a roman noir or film noir, the film explores both the abject and taboo that exist on the periphery of the narrative in a scene halfway through the film where Tatiana asks Sasha to describe the experience of childbirth -specifically the physical pain experienced. Rather than being repulsed by the abject, Sasha smiles while describing it:

Tatiana: Did it hurt?

Sasha: Of course.

Tatiana: Did you have an epidural?

Sasha: No.

Tatiana: Why not?

Sasha: It was my first. I wanted to really experience the pain, know how it felt.

Tatiana: Did you like it?

Sasha: Yes, I think I did.

Dismemberment and decay are central iconographically in Dans ma peau. In what is arguably the film’s best-known scene, Esther attends a business dinner where she pounds three glasses of wine in order not to be rude to her clients. The alcohol instigates the compulsion. The viewer then sees images of Esther’s disembodied forearm and hand on the dinner table, recalling Bunuel’s disembodied hand in El angel exterminador (1962). In a sense, the film depicts the arm as Merleau-Ponty may have, transforming it into an object indistinguishable from silverware or food.

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To a degree, Dans ma peau uses the film language of pornography as a means of portraying abject experience. Consider the film’s first hotel room scene, while Esther has checked in in order to escape her business dinner. The film’s framing of her face against her arm and leg is the same as it would be against another body. She ‘fucks’ herself. The scene ends with her own blood spraying on her face, not unlike what the viewer sees at the conclusion of filmed heterosexual sex. By that rationale, the film also compares self-mutilation to other taboo act, masturbation, both implying that she derives sexual satisfaction from the act.

dans ma peau climax
Climax in Dans ma peau (Marina de Van, 2002).

Esther at once enjoys and is repulsed by the act of self-mutilation. A scene late in Dans ma peau where she sifts through her wallet in front of an ATM and finds pieces of her flayed skin that gave blackened and died dramatizes her repulsion. The film holds on a closeup of her face. Suddenly aware of her body’s inevitable decay, she is saddened and disgusted. Most sociological and philosophical studies of disgust (and most dramatic portrayals of it) associate the feeling with the onset of decay or contamination in organic matter. This scene extrapolates the ubiquitous though practically invisible presence of infection and decay in everyday life, which is no less ubiquitous than using an ATM machine. Just as De Van’s character did in Retention, Esther confronts her own organic matter, implying similar confrontations that happen on a routine basis: The source of most dust in one’s house is from dead skin cells, viruses and bacteria are transferred from person to person by placing hands on doorknobs, and so on.

dans ma peau disgust
Disgust in Dans ma peau (Marina de Van, 2002)

Esther’s experience of disgust and pleasure simultaneously onscreen mirrors those in reality. An experiment at UCSF in 1983 recorded the heart rate and hand temperature of human subjects while they were asked to relive past experiences that incited one of six specific emotions: anger, fear, sadness, happiness, surprise, and disgust. The experiment found that disgust is the only emotion of the six that decreases both your heart rate and your hand temperature. While there is no direct correlation between heart rate and blood pressure, the two tend to rise and fall together, and therefore interpretations of the experiment state not just “the feeling of disgust can lower one’s blood pressure,” but also “the feeling of disgust is actually pleasurable relative to some other feelings.”

Disgust, therefore, is in its way a key to watching De Van’s cinema. Her films reveal indirectly why the viewer may care to watch incestuous allusions in Bien sous tous rapports, scatologies in Retention, or decay in Dans ma peau. Abject and forbidden images seem to be woven through with euphoric components associated with physical pain and disgust -which begin and end with the human body as the platform for both their production and consumption. They are, as Kristeva would have it, cathartic experiences.