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)
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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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From Beyond (Stuart Gordon, 1987)
beyond the gates pastels
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Phantoms, Anachronism, and Modernity in Kurosawa’s Daguerrotype

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Daguerrotype uses the binary of anachronism and modernity as a means of telling a ghost story. It does so primarily through its portrayal of photography as an artistic medium and to a lesser extent through its portrayal of technology at odds with organic life. It would make sense for the viewer to interpret the events in the film in this way, since photography has implications for how one understands modernity.

How one defines anachronism vis-a-vis modernity and the role photography plays in that definition is crucial. To consider ‘anachronism’ in fiction, particularly fictional films, is typically to identify a(n occasionally intentional) ‘mistake’ in the work’s chronology -a thing or event that cannot possibly exist in a particular time and place. An example would be a scene in Alex Cox’s Walker where a character reads a 1980s copy of Newsweek magazine, though the film is set in the nineteenth century. The portrayal of ghosts or obsolete cameras in Daguerrotype is not dissimilar to the portrayal of anachronism in fiction or elsewhere, and would fall in with Jeremy Tambling’s definition in On Anachronism: to consider anarchronism is to consider what exists outside of time, consequently making a ‘double perception of time’ necessary (an analogy he uses is the setting of one’s watch a few minutes forward in order to not be late).

This definition of anachronism also falls in with how Alexander Nagel defines photography as a medium in Medieval Modern, which is merely “…a new mechanical application of an old idea.” Photography as a phenomenon emerged largely as the result of Europe’s propensity toward material and technological progress in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, and was not the result of any particular social need such as that for the steam engine or the electric light. Although most historians connect the growing industrial demand in the west for reproducible images of products to the development of photography, lithography had been widespread in the west -in part for that reason- for centuries. In other words, there was no reason for photography to exist. Further, since it is largely a nineteenth-century invention, this argument defines ‘modern’ in part as someone in the nineteenth century might. The calotype and the daguerrotype both premiered in 1839 in London and Paris, respectively. Calotypes were printed on paper, and thus eventually provided the basis for all subsequent developments in photography. Daguerrotypes, by contrast, were short-lived as they were relatively impractical: they required large amounts of equipment, and were expensive and time-consuming to produce (the exposure time for Niepce’s famous ‘de Gras’ photo was eight hours). Daguerrotype‘s narrative follows Stephane, a photographer who specializes in the titular medium. Just as Stephane’s sensibilities lie with a process that is considered obsolete in the twenty-first century, that process was arguably obsolete from the beginning (it is perhaps not a coincidence that Daguerre was a painter by training).

The character of Stephane, by extension, represents a ‘revived’ interest in a medium that embraces the anachronic and disregards the modern. Since at least the 1980s, artists such as Garry Fabian Miller, Susan Derges, and Adam Fuss have used obsolete photographic methods in their work, and in doing so have drawn viewers’ attention to the binary between anachronism and modernity. Kurosawa’s film exploits the binary as well. The director has stated in interviews that he developed the idea for the film after seeing an art exhibit on antique photography, and being taken particularly by the specialized equipment used in the process that modern photographic technology has rendered obsolete.

The film depicts these anachronic objects as narrative devices that render living subjects temporarily ‘lifeless.’ In the case of daguerrotype photography, exposure time is much longer relative to other photographic methods. Therefore, if the subject moves during the exposure, the resulting image is tarnished. A narrative that incorporates such a photographic method brings the binary of stillness and movement among living subjects to the fore. Movement and moving images -connoting mortal life- are set against stillness and still images -connoting a state divorced from mortal life. A scene halfway through the film depicts Stephane’s daughter Marie incapacitated after having posed for his camera for an extended period of time: when Stephane undoes the harness, she falls out, practically ‘lifeless.’

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Conversely, consider the plants in Marie’s greenhouse as living subjects vis-a-vis an anachronic object such as one of Stephane’s cameras. Daguerrotype exploits the binary between botanical life and technology as it pertains to photography. Just as Stephane’s equipment renders Marie motionless, the large vats behind his house that store the chemicals used in developing the photographs eventually spill and leak into the greenhouse, killing the plants. One might compare this binary between technology and organic life to that in Kairo, which also situates fecund botanical imagery together with computer consoles. It is not unusual for technological imagery, such as photographs or computers, to be paired with organic imagery, such as plantlife. The earliest forms of photography developed by William Talbot took botanical images as their subjects. Perhaps in an attempt to impress Marie, Stephane’s assistant Jean photographs one of Marie’s plants as a test late in the film, which recalls Talbot’s ‘photogenic drawings’ of botanical subjects, made throughout the 1830s.

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‘Photogenic drawing’ by William Talbot, 1830.

Marie describes the growth of plants in her greenhouse as being a kind of movement that is so slow that the naked eye does not perceive it. Though living subjects, these plants register as ‘lifeless’ in that their growth and movement take place at a slow rate relative to other living subjects such as human beings. Likewise, the plants would register as still and lifeless if one were to photograph them with a contemporary digital camera -the exposure time of which could be a fraction of a second. Though the difference would be small and the image would be tarnished, the longer exposure time required by one of Stephane’s obsolete cameras would capture a plant’s movement. In the absence of any harness to hold the living subject perfectly still, anachronic still photography can render the subject ‘alive’ in an indirect way that contemporary still photography cannot.

It follows, then, that the titular daguerrotype retains a kind of spectral ‘life.’ This notion recalls the idea of the “always-already absent present” from Derrida’s Spectres of Marx from 1993: because the narrative sees the medium of photography as a kind of vessel or conduit for ghosts, and places a deposit of the past -an antique camera- in the present day, the past does not by necessity belong in the past. The characters are thus haunted figuratively and literally by, to use Derrida’s word, a ‘spectre’ of the past. Barthes iterates this with the same word in his Camera Lucida from 1980: “…the photograph represents that very subtle moment when, to tell the truth, I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a micro-version of death (of parathesis): I am truly becoming a specter.”

 

Thou Art a Wickedness: Myth and Alchemic Beauty in Refn’s The Neon Demon

“Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness,
Wherein the pregnant enemy does much.
How easy is it for the proper false
In women’s waxen hearts to set their forms!
Alas, our frailty is the cause, not we,
For such as we are made of, such we be.”

Twelfth Night, 1602

“Le démon, partout le démon. Ubique dæmon.”

La sorcière, 1862

Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, while ostensibly portraying the fashion and modeling industries, is a palimpsest of a larger, provocant narrative containing story elements that allude to human vitality achieved through alchemic means -specifically cannibalism and witchcraft. In relating the film’s story elements to the popular mythologies we’ve come to associate with them since antiquity, the film’s overall conceit emerges: the possession and pursuit of physical beauty.

A synopsis of the film suggests an ancient myth. The narrative follows Jesse (Elle Fanning), who has moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in modeling. She crosses paths with a makeup artist named Ruby (Jena Malone) and two models, Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee). As the film progresses, Gigi, an established model who has altered parts of her face and body through cosmetic surgery, passive-aggressively bullies Jesse, while Sarah, who is slightly older than Jesse, grows increasingly envious of Jesse’s youth. Ruby meanwhile is infatuated with Jesse, and attempts to seduce her. Jesse rejects Ruby, and the third act of the film portrays Ruby, Gigi, and Sarah cornering Jesse at Ruby’s house, killing her, and eating her. Gigi, whose body rejects Jesse, commits suicide by disemboweling herself. The film contains several other story elements that will remain unexplored here, as they have little bearing on the subject from which several of the film’s provocations emerge: alchemic beauty.

Since the filming of Bronson in 2007, Refn’s working method has been to shoot a film in sequence, which allows the filmmakers to alter or omit portions of the shooting script as they progress, and to improvise heavily. The story elements of witchcraft and alchemy in The Neon Demon become clear when one compares the film to its shooting script, written by Refn, English playwright Polly Stenham, and American playwright Mary Laws. This is especially true when one takes notice of content that is in the script and not in the film and, conversely, content that is in the film and not in the script.

Is it fair to use a film’s screenplay together with the finished film in order to form an argument if the screenplay and film differ so dramatically from each other? I would argue yes, if for no other reason than that just as source material can complicate or undermine an argument that is based on the adaptation of source material alone, the opposite is true. An example of this would be the various drafts of the script for Ridley Scott’s Alien from 1979, which originally featured a male Ripley.

The 2014 script of the The Neon Demon reads largely like an exploitation film or erotic horror film. Two major differences between the script and the film are the third act -which in the script contains a greater amount of explicit violence and gore (Sarah kills Ruby by slashing her throat and Gigi tears Jesse’s severed hand out of her stomach)- and the relationships between certain characters -which in the script are more sexually explicit (Sarah attempts to kiss Jesse in the bathroom; Jesse forces a photographer, Jack, to fondle her; and Jesse and Ruby have sex). The script also contains more dream sequences, and more allusions to the myth of Narcissus: swimming pools, mirrors, the ocean, and the color blue.

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The myth of Narcissus.

There are numerous differences between the script and the film regarding witchcraft -most of which are found in scenes taking place at the house in the film’s climax. Consider an unscripted scene where Ruby draws on a mirror with lipstick. The image she draws resembles a sigil, which is an improvised hand-drawn symbol used in magic, the function of which is to ensure success in a certain task. Given the context of the scene, which takes place immediately after Jesse has rejected Ruby’s sexual advances, Ruby’s purpose in drawing the sigil likely has to do with killing Jesse.  Certain characteristics of this shot also suggest both Ruby’s sinister intent and a supernatural or magical event: As Ruby draws the symbol, the light behind her dissolves to a deep red, and while mirrors and reflections appear throughout the film, Ruby’s reflection in this shot is unique in that it is distorted.

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Ruby draws a sigil.

Another scene features Ruby topless as she waters the house’s plants, her torso revealing numerous tattoos. Ruby’s tattoos recall Margaret Murray’s (now disproven) writings on witchcraft, which argue that the ‘witch’s marks’ on women’s bodies -used by Christian church authorities in the seventeenth century as evidence identifying them as such- were actually tattoos that identified someone as a member of an archaic pagan religion.

Two consecutive scripted scenes not in the film make the strongest case, however, for Ruby as a witch. In the former, Jesse helps Ruby steal a cockatiel from a pet store. Jesse later asks if they are expensive, and Ruby responds “They wouldn’t sell him to me,” suggesting that she has a troubled history with the pet store. The latter scene contains pointed iconography establishing Ruby as someone seasoned in witchcraft and magic, including a framed quote from occultist Aleister Crowley’s paraphrasing of the Stele of Revealing (“The light is mine. Its rays consume me.”) and Crowley’s Holy Book of Thelema (in the script, a quote from Crowley’s Law of Thelema, “Do what thou wilt,” appears as graffiti in the nightclub bathroom scene).

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Draft of The Neon Demon (2014)

Both the script and the film contain a striking sequence where Jesse finds a large wildcat inside her room at a resident motel. While the appearance of the cat is never explained, its relevance to witchcraft is significant: One could interpret the cat as a ‘familiar,’ which according to lore is a spirit that typically appears to people as an animal who assists a folk healer or witch in practicing magic. The script describes various daydreams and visions experienced by Jesse after she first sees the wildcat, which contain images of dismembered body parts and of the “wildcat’s yellow eyes.” The house also contains several taxidermied cats not dissimilar to the one that appeared in Jesse’s room. Together, these scenes suggest that Ruby had somehow utilized a wildcat as a ‘familiar’ to observe Jesse and infiltrate her living space. One may notice that immediately after the wildcat roars, the film cuts to Jesse, whose expression is not one of fear or even surprise, but of suspicion or doubt.

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Wildcat.

The house used in the film is the famous Paramour Estate located in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. The house is large and luxurious both in reality and in the film. It’s doubtful that Ruby would work as a makeup artist and live in such a house, and while the film establishes through dialogue that Ruby is housesitting, this is the only exposition that supports the notion of the house not belonging to Ruby. The script contains a scene where a neighbor delivers food to the vacationing people who live there, and references them by name, further suggesting that the house does not belong to Ruby. This is omitted in the film, however, and when one considers the omission of that scene together with the omission of the scene taking place at Ruby’s apartment, it suggests that Ruby lives at the house and is lying to Jesse when she tells her that she is housesitting. In the film, when Jesse asks Ruby what the owners would think about her being there, Ruby replies: “Stay as long as you like.”

Jesse’s death and cannibalization is the only major story element that is in both the script and the film. Iconographically, the depiction of cannibalism in Neon can be traced back to Greek myth. The best-known myth is of Cronus, the Greek Titian who ate each of his children as they were born, fearing that they would eventually overthrow him. Perhaps more relevant to Refn’s film, however, is the story of Lamia. According to Greek myth, Lamia was a queen of ancient Libya who Hera transformed into a monster condemned to a life of capturing and eating children. From this story, a group of mythological creatures known as lamiae developed, often depicted as having a serpent’s body with a human female head and arms. Greek folklore attributes the sudden death of children to their being “struck by lamiae.”

Thematically, the depiction of cannibalism in Neon is almost interchangeable with its other occurrences throughout early modern history, specifically in accounts of people eating their enemies’ internal organs in ritual acts of demoralizing them or ‘absorbing their strength.’ There are accounts of Catholics killing, cooking, and eating the flesh and organs of Protestants in sixteenth-century France during the wars of religion, for instance. As the writing of Richard Sugg states, as late as the eighteenth century, many Europeans believed human flesh and blood to have medicinal properties (blood was often consumed to supplement iron, to relieve epilepsy, etc.). Francis Bacon and King Charles II were both proponents of cannibalism toward that end.

Through the characters of Ruby, Gigi and Sarah, Neon implies not so much a health benefit but a cosmetic benefit to consuming human flesh. Consider the change in appearance of Sarah’s eyes before and after eating Jesse. Throughout the film, Sarah’s pupils are dilated (the script describes Sarah’s eyes as ‘black’ in the bathroom scene immediately after having tried to consume Jesse’s blood). In the scene at the beach house late in the film where she proclaims to have eaten Jesse, Sarah’s pupils are constricted, revealing a more piercing blue.

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Dilated.
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Constricted.

On the consumption of blood specifically, when the viewer isolates the story arc of Ruby it bears a likeness to the exploits of Elizabeth Bathory, a Hungarian countess who at the turn of the seventeenth century killed hundreds of young girls. According to popular myths which first emerged in the seventeenth century, Bathory -known colloquially as the ‘Blood Countess’- bathed in and consumed the blood of virgins, as she believed it helped her keep a youthful appearance.

The script suggests that Ruby knows how Gigi and Sarah can pursue and possess beauty by alchemic means, and establishes the two models’ motivations for doing so. Dialogue between Ruby, Gigi, and Sarah establishes Gigi’s need to find a different means of appearing young. Given the context of the scene where this takes place (they have just eaten Jesse), the script implies that it is through the consumption of flesh that Gigi will be able to avoid further cosmetic surgery. The script also contains a subplot involving a romantic history between Sarah and Jack that bolsters Sarah’s motivation to appear younger, and a scene at the end where Sarah tells Jack: “I ate a young virgin because I thought it would make me beautiful.”

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Draft of The Neon Demon (2014)

None of this is in the completed film. Neon’s iconography nevertheless suggests a contemporary version of Bathory. If the viewer accepts the notion of Ruby as a type of twenty-first century ‘Blood Countess,’ it would make sense that she would work in an occupation that routinely draws young women -the modeling industry. Ruby’s perverse nature and attempts at seducing Jesse mirror Delphine Seyrig’s Bathory (also modernized) in Harry Kumel’s Les levres rouges from 1971. After Jesse’s death, the viewer sees Ruby channeling Paloma Picasso’s Bathory from Borowczyk’s Contes immoraux from 1974 by lying in a bathtub filled with what is presumably Jesse’s blood, and watching Gigi and Sarah shower. This scene does not appear in the original script, which featured Ruby, Gigi, and Sarah in the shower together. Further, Jena Malone pondered in an interview with Jarrett Wieselmann that Ruby is 300 years old and has killed some 80 women.

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Bathory infatuated with Valerie in Les levres rouges, 1971.
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Ruby infatuated with Jesse.

Neon’s cinematographer Natasha Briaer claims that certain colors signify specific concepts or feelings in the film. According to Braier’s color scheme, the appearance of the color red signifies danger or menace, and the color appears in every scene featuring Ruby, be it as an article of clothing or as light. A scene late in Neon features Ruby lying in an open grave, presumably intended for Jesse’s remains and surrounded by planted pink and red flowers that perhaps mark the graves of other victims. The name ‘Ruby’ itself derives from a gemstone of the same name, which of course is dark pink to red in appearance.

Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, literature and graphic art in Europe developed a particular iconography associating witchcraft with cannibalism -specifically the eating of children and of the young- for propaganda purposes. The association between witchcraft and cannibalism later appears in European folklore in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with the stories of Baba Yaga and Hansel and Gretel, both of which feature a sinister witch who preys on and attempts to eat victims lost in the woods. One could compare these narratives to that of Neon, where the urban, sophisticated girls view the naive and provincial Jesse as easy ‘prey.’

To that end, Refn’s mise-en-scene often suggests the sinister preying on the lost. Consider the body language and lighting scheme in the nightclub bathroom scene, where Ruby, Gigi, and Sarah ask Jesse about her sexual habits. Although the dialogue is meant to establish Jesse’s intimidation (she lies about not being a virgin), it is nearly irrelevant as the trio corners her, all standing with the posture of a fashion model and backlit by violet light. Jesse fidgets and looks to the floor while the same light hits her face.

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Apex predators.

It is perhaps by comparing the events in the film to popular myth that the theme of pursuing and possessing physical beauty emerges most clearly, since among the most common occurrences in mythology and folklore are predation and physical transformation -often with the aid of magic or alchemy. While this is commonplace in myth, strangely they often register as provocant and even taboo to a contemporary audience. The Neon Demon is distinguished in its use of traditional ‘horror’ film elements such as witchcraft and cannibalism toward that end.