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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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.

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.

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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)
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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.

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.”

 

On Bates’ Excision

This film contains many things my seventeen-year-old self would have thought were really deep (fashionably cynical caricatures of suburban life, religion, and authority; shocking music video imagery; impossibly articulate, worldly, and self-aware teenagers; ‘subversive’ or ‘satirical’ humor; stunt casting; etc…and yes I probably would have crushed on this film’s protagonist a little). My older self knows better, or at least knows shallowness and low-hanging fruit when he sees it. These days, films that are supposedly made by adults but seem to have the limited sensibilities of an angry high schooler just aren’t my bag (and they seem to have only increased in number since the late 1990s when the Todd Solondzs and Wes Andersons of the world came on the ‘indie’ film scene, and reaching an apex in 2004).

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Explicit dreams of Pauline in Excision (Richard Bates Jr, 2012).

The line of defense for Excision would argue that I, as a viewer, do not have enough sympathy for the protagonist Pauline, and that the final scene in the film extrapolates the notion that she has a severe mental illness that everyone has ignored or dismissed as ‘teen angst.’ If the film’s intention is for me to sympathize with Pauline, why is she -and every other major character in the film- a caricature? Why am I seeing cameos from Ray Wise, Malcolm McDowell, and John Waters? Why is every other shot in the film designed to look like Another Quirky Sundance Movie? I know logically that the director included all of these things to try and impress me (and to make a name for himself at festivals and get a studio deal and so on), but from a viewer’s perspective (if I’m supposed to be ‘seriously’ watching a ‘serious’ film about ‘real’ people with mental illness) all he’s actually doing is distracting me. The film doesn’t earn its final scene because the director drowns out everything that happens before with kitsch and irony. I’m apparently not seventeen anymore.

On Siskel and Ebert’s Trashing of the Horror Film

I wrote the following in response to comments made by critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert on an episode of their show Sneak Previews, which aired in September 1980.

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I don’t know about other parts of the world, but in the United States, people have an almost irrational fear of going to a movie (or going anywhere or doing anything) alone. Horde mentality kicks in pretty quickly. The person sitting in a slasher film ‘cheering on the villain,’ as Ebert describes it, could be cheering to impress his friends. Perhaps he has no clue about how to behave in public. Perhaps the person is mentally retarded and believes that the characters in the movie can hear him when he speaks. Perhaps he learned the behavior from his parents. The behavior could be the permutation of several things. You’ll never know. To chalk up audience behavior with a blanket statement such as ‘the audience hates women’ is presumptuous, naive and stupid (how’s that for namecalling?). Saying that you overheard someone making comments at the screen is not evidence to support the claim that ‘slasher films are made by and for men who hate women.’ Ebert just sounds ridiculous.

When they speculate as to the cause of the large supply of slasher films in the last third of the 1970s, Siskel states: “I am convinced that it has something to do with the growth of the women’s movement in America in the last decade. I think that these films are some kind of ‘primordial’ response by some very sick people, of men, saying ‘get back in your place, women.'” Ebert states: “In a traditional horror movie, we often saw things from the victim’s point of view, but that’s no longer [sic]. Now, we look through the killer’s eyes. It’s almost as if the audience is being asked to identify with the attacker.”

With these statements, they completely ignore -or reveal their failure to understand- how North American film markets work. What Siskel and Ebert are seeing in the autumn of 1980 is a wave of American horror films attempting to capitalize on the success of John Carpenter’s 1978 film Halloween -a film that, ironically, both critics loved. Halloween was made for about $300,000 (a little over $1,000,000 today), and grossed over $47,000,000 (a little over $170,000,000 today) upon its initial release in the United States. Carpenter’s film popularized the ‘business model’ of horror and exploitation films with American studios. The studio system is ruled by market forces much more so than by cultural forces, whereas these critics claim otherwise, perhaps because it’s easier for a television audience to consume hyperbole than it is for them to understand basic economics. Nevermind that shots filmed ‘from the point of view of the killer’ are as old as the film medium itself.

More generally, the fact that both critics strongly disliked any slasher film that wasn’t heavily canonized (that is, any film that isn’t Psycho or Halloween) is well-known. They were speaking from their own personal bias against the genre. Both men were also populist critics who made careers out of ghettoizing certain genres. Watch the episode closely and pay attention to Ebert’s body language when he disparages the slasher film: He’s merely listing off some staples of the genre, but while doing so uses a dismissive and negative tone, as if the filmmakers in the genre are making films ‘badly’ or ‘the wrong way.’ He knows exactly what he’s doing.

For the two to blame a single genre for a much larger problem is narrow-minded, conservative thinking masquerading as heroic liberal thinking. It is narrow-minded and conservative in that when the two are presented with a problem, they do not suggest any possible solutions to the problem, but tell their audience who to blame for the problem (perhaps some other time I’ll talk about how in the early 1980s, Ebert lobbied to get various films he didn’t like banned in the United States -his idea of a solution I suppose). Again: What Siskel and Ebert said on their show is narrow-minded, conservative thinking masquerading as heroic liberal thinking. They’re witch hunters. They dress up their language to sound authoritative and impartial about the subject (“Today we’re going to examine the nature of this trend…”) but in the end they’re just voicing unsupported opinions.

I’ve said this before, but reciting platitudes and soundbytes about ‘where you stand on an issue’ doesn’t fix anything. It only further inflates your own narcissism. Unless you are actively working toward a solution to a problem, you’re just adding more noise. Again: If you are a genuinely progressive person, you would be out there working toward a solution. Whining in public is merely a ‘fashionably progressive’ activity.

[Originally written October 2014]