Nocturnal Animals: The Communion of Artistic Reprisal

Nocturnal Animals: The Communion of Artistic Reprisal

Art is more than communication; it is a presentation of the self and the world in one’s own style. There is content, but throughout the artwork, not within it.  So, successful perception of Art is not just the reception of information; it is opening oneself to the other, greatly at the artist’s terms.  For artists, however, particularly intimate ones, the exchange of Art remains communication, just one of a higher form.  More communion than communique, the intimate artistic exchange between artists carries heightened expectations, rewards, and perils.  Failure to adequately receive & understand the art and artist cannot be excused as error.  The receiver is no longer an uninformed other, but an enlightened familiar, one whose intimacy demands perception, comprehension, and sympathy.

This is the dynamic dwindling in (and driving) Tom Ford’s brilliant Postmodern Noir, Nocturnal Animals.  Its protagonist, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), is a successful high-end gallery owner discontented with her work and marriage. A former art student, she now deals in what she condemns “junk,” while married to her pretty, hollow, and wayward husband, Hutton. Seemingly serendipitously, she receives a book copy from her first husband she had divorced 19 years ago, alleviating her present dejection. Her assistant reading the accompanying letter, she brightens as she hears the book is to be published, it is different than what he wrote when they were together, and she gave him the inspiration for this soon-to-be-published novel, entitled “Nocturnal Animals.” No longer just a book for Susan, this is her unsettled past possibly bringing a brighter future, a new escape from an old one poorly chosen.

That belated escape unexpectedly connects her to that desired future, as it entails a primal scene uniting them in embedded memory, if possibly hindering a true reunion.  The scene was a brutal one. Frustrated with her husband Edward’s (Jake Gyllenhaal’s) insistence on pursuing his writing career, she chose to abort their unborn child, finding subsequent solace in the arms of her lover and soon-to-be husband, Hutton…solace witnessed by a devastated Edward.  However, the scene was no isolated phenomenon. It was a shattering climax to Susan’s cruel crescendo of belittlement, her incessant undermining of Edward’s artistic confidence in hopes of his embracing a more lucrative career.  Instead of that movement, he disappears from her for 19 years, only to return in the form of his art she had derided.  Ironically, if she is to have her desired communion, she must embrace Edward and his work as the artist and art she had dismissed in their past.  She also can no longer receive them as the cynical art dealer she had become, but as the artist of her past who received Edward as he was, not whom she wanted him to be. A true artist, Edward is communicating his art, himself, and the state her damage has left him in. Only a true artist can receive them.

As the communicating artist, Edward’s work cannot fade into incoherent abstraction; beauty and sublimity are not its only goals.  As artist presenting himself as such, he also cannot become the polemicist, the writer privileging argument over the artist’s aesthetics.  He must find narratives, characters, and mood conveying him and his experience without recognizably becoming them.  This will complete his intentions and free him from her past belittlement–her damaging claim true writers (unlike Edward) didn’t write about themselves, an insistence he could dispute but never fully repel.

The narrative of “Nocturnal Animals” approaches but nimbly avoids that of a Roman a Clef.  The protagonist is a successful writer with a lovely red-haired (like Susan) wife and a spirited red-haired teen daughter. Packed for a road trip, they leave their lovely Texas home in their nice Mercedes.  There are clear similarities here to Edward’s–and Edward and Susan’s–story.  Like young Edward, “Tony” is a writer from Texas who “left” his Texas home and was moving into the future with his wife and “child.”  However, unlike Edward, Tony is an accomplished writer, and his daughter is an almost grown child, not an unborn one.  An artistic reader could and should navigate these differences: recognizing similarities without ascribing sameness, seeing separation without discarding parallels.  This acuity becomes more vital when the reader encounters Edward’s family’s horrid fate.  Soon after leaving their home, two cars full of dangerous-looking young men begin terrorizing the family in the night, eventually forcing them off the road.  After ten minutes of physical and psychological torment, the leader of the young men-and a few of the others–drive off with the mother and daughter and complete the novel’s horrific tragedy. Again, the narrative provides striking similarities and (greater) differences between Edward’s and Tony’s ones.  There is no parallel–and the novel makes none–between the rape and murder of two women and a woman having an abortion, inadvertently destroying her husband in the process.  There are, however, parallels in the two men’s helpless states and degrees of loss.  Both Edward and Tony see their shameful weaknesses/fragilities affirmed as everything they had and hoped for is erased by outside forces.

Edward keeps Tony and himself separate, but close, throughout this tragedy through his symbolic use of character: in particular, his use there of metonymy.  Artistic writers avoid vulgar representation–which is banal replication, not artistic expression. So, as opposed to metaphor, where a character represents and/or replicates an extra-textual signified, they use metonymy.  There that signified is represented by different characters (and sometimes objects), and/or a character signifies different people and/or objects.  The artistic reader knows this. They do not need the metonymic theories of Freud, Lacan, and/or Jakobson to know these dynamics are vital to artistic representation.  They know without metonymy, Art degrades into argument free from vital sublimity.  So, while that reader does look for inter-textual signification, they look for it in fractal connections dictated by the artwork, not in simplistic analogues suggested by myopic rationality.

Part of one fractal connection appears in the novel in the form of Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), a cranky rustic lawman assigned to Tony’s case.  In many ways, Andes joins the assailants in representing the stereotypical Texas masculinity Edward shirked.  As Susan’s mother tells Susan in a flashback, Edward has always been sensitive and fragile. As he shows Susan in another one, that sensitivity extends to his feeling guilt, not unease, at finding his best friend, Cooper (Susan’s brother), had had a crush on him.  Andes, however, serves a more important metonymic purpose in representing a significant part of Edward, himself.  Andes is Edward’s drive to accomplish what his weak, flagging self cannot. Andes’ separate connectedness shows the artistic reader Edward’s capability for such resolve while separating Edward from Andes’ banal virility & (more particularly) ambition he’d disdained.  When Bobby asks Tony, “If we pick you up at the house, you think we could backtrack from there (to the crime scene)?” and he tepidly answers, “I could try,” Andes looks at him in incredulous condemnation. When Tony half-heartedly scans a line-up of suspects, pathetically claiming he recognizes none, Andes angrily responds, “What the fuck is wrong with you? Don’t you want to put these guys away?”  Andes has become the dwindling, nerveless Tony’s dedication & strength needed for his revenge, as he embodies Edward’s once-untapped diligence & ambition needed to write and complete his expressive novel.  This metonymy is finalized by the fact Andes is literally dying, Tony is effectively doing so, and Edward has seemingly spent 19 years fading into a dark place with a darker end.

Edward greatly symbolizes this dark place–and its cause–through his metonymy of Susan.  Like Edward, she is partly represented by her obvious signifier, Tony’s wife, Laura. Played by Isla Fisher in the film, their physical resemblance is uncanny and she is the warm, loving wife Edward hoped Susan would be.  But the wife is not enough.  Edward had always seen Susan as an artist, despite her giving up her literal artistic career, not just a wife. We see that passion, strength and daring he saw in her in the daughter, India, who also looks strikingly like Susan, likely even more like the teen Susan and Edward knew.  India is sharp-witted and confident–more than even the growingly cynical Susan–and shows creative/artistic potential before Tony’s failure helps end her life.  The tie between the two women and the girl is further cemented by the way Laura & India are found–two intermingled, almost indistinguishable bodies pointing to shared existence as well as experience.

Ironically, Susan’s metonymy also connects her to Laura and India’s assailants, particularly their leader, the lethal peacock Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson.)  As noted earlier, Susan’s strategic undermining of Edward had been catastrophic. As seen in an earlier scene, Susan’s mother had predicted this, “In a few years all these bourgeois things as you so like to call them will be very important to you and Edward will not be able to give them to you.” “Don’t do this,” she later adds, “you’ll regret it and only hurt Edward.”  Once Susan and Edward are married, her words prove brutally prescient. Hoping to steer Edward into a more lucrative career, Susan attacks his work in a stream of sweetened invectives also attacking/gaslighting Edward himself:

    You’re going to take this the wrong way.

I think you should write about things other than yourself

It’s just my mind started to wander while I was reading it and that’s not good, right?

Are you going to work at a book store and write your novel? Is that what you want to do with your life?

I mean that’s really Romantic, but (points to their shoddy furniture) this is it?

This is exactly why I don’t want to read your work because you always get so fucking defensive!

Edward makes passionate and articulate rebuttals, but they are defensive and unsure, convincing neither of them and continuing his decline.

Ray exacts similar–but more explicitly severe and horrid–gaslighting upon Tony throughout the novel. During their initial horrific encounter, Ray, picking up on Tony’s weakness in inaction, taunts, “Have you got a vagina? Have you got a vagina there, vagina boy?” Exasperated at his impotence called out, Tony can only muster an ineffectual howl.  Ray continues this semi-familiar torment when Andes and Tony take him for a drive, hoping to exact a confession. Bemused, Ray focuses only on the weaker Tony, sneering, “He’s crazy…you’re fucking crazy.”  And he finalizes his gaslighting and personal attacks, as well as confirming they’re connection to Susan’s, with his last words before Tony kills him: “You’re too weak, too fucking weak. You’re too weak to do anything about it.” By the end of Susan’s gaslighting, and during her planned escape, this is what Edward (partially correctly) heard in her words:

     (Susan) You’re so …you really are so wonderful. You’re so sensitive and Romantic and…”

(Edward)…Weak!..That’s fine.

(Susan) What? No, I did not say that!

(Edward) You’ve said it so many times before; you might as well say it again.

As this exchange and her earlier undermining showed, explicitly calling Edward “weak” was not Susan’s mode of attack. But it’s what Edward often heard, affirming his inner fragility haunting him, the inner fragility he mostly blamed for his great loss. So, Ray allows Susan to be represented as cause of loss and crucial part of it, a complex metonymy of the resented, the cherished, and the lost.

This paradox shows in Edward’s sending the novel –an artistic work of stark revelation and potent demonstration–to Susan he believes can artistically receive it. He had always believed in her having those gifts. When she responds to one of his parries with, “No, I don’t because I’m not creative,” he returns with both assurance and plea that “that’s because you choose not to be.”  She does choose this, likely galvanizing that in her rejection of Edward. Not only does she host ghastly exploitative exhibitions bereft of Art, she can no longer remember why her younger, more artistic self saw beauty in works she bought.  And this shows in her reading of the novel.  Not unexpectedly, she is moved by the family’s tragedy and Tony’s subsequent trials and torments.  As a skilled non-artistic reader, she is able to recognize the skill and work in “Nocturnal Animals.” After reading through the night scene, she e-mails Edward:

     Dear Edward,

I am reading your book. It’s devastating. I am deeply moved. It is beautifully written. I    would love to meet on Tuesday evening. Let me know if you are still free. Much to say.

Love,

Susan

She is deeply moved and devastated, but by the fictional experience of Tony and his family.  She cannot see Edward in the novel, nor even conceive he could express himself and his experience in it. If she had, she would not anticipate the “much to say.”  And her memory fails her as much as her faded artistry, as Edward had earlier told her, “nobody writes about anything other than themselves.” So a reader-writer connection is made, and a vital artistic communion is not…and Susan moves hopefully forward, blissfully unaware of the ramifications.

So, she waits at the restaurant oblivious to the reality and reason why he is not coming…or is no longer going anywhere at all.  There is Noirish exacting of revenge here–the victim of cruel devastation bringing poetic justice to his trusted victimizer and betrayer.  But Edward’s book was not a hateful device he could have so more easily constructed.  It was a final artistic communication of extended desolation coming to its close as much as it was an expression of resilient rage at the one who caused it.  As an artistic one, it needed an artistic receiver capable of receiving and grasping it more than a receptor of wrath and pathos.  Edward wanted realization and recognition, not reciprocal suffering. Had she met this expectation, painful knowledge and grievous catharsis could have reopened once-closed artistic escape of her own.  Her reading a failure, and her artist now gone, she lingers in the crushed hope and cynicism she chose over her now faded art.

 

 

Burnt Offerings: America’s Apocalyptic Gothic

Burnt Offerings: America’s Apocalyptic Gothic

(Spoiler alert: This is an analysis of the film, including the ending.)

Horror cherishes its endings. They let it expose audiences to sublime dread, semi-reveal to them its cruel secrets,  and unnerve them with devastating crescendo. Burnt Offerings’ apocalyptic ending–Horror’s greatest–does all three. The mid-70s Gothic Horror film introduces its viewers to its malignant Mrs. Allardyce, paralyzes them with her horrific “truth,” and wipes out its guest family in a paroxysm of broken windows and broken bodies. A Gothic apocalypse, the family and their memory are consumed by their baleful house, their “era” ended to be replaced by another.

The finale reflects another ending: the tense post-Vietnam/Watergate fever dream ending in a president’s resignation and a country left leery of its leaders and traditions. This angst extended to the family. Mothers, fathers and families sold these myths, so they and their value became profoundly suspect. Few genres captured this better than Horror and its disdain for comforting traditions and bonds.  The Omen preyed on the period’s familial distrust and confirmed paranoia of a wicked establishment. The Exorcist horrifically carnalized epochal fears of Evil infecting our youth.  Burnt Offerings, however, did much more.  While decimating its family and its bonds, it horrifically reflected its period’s erosion of its sacred traditions of marriage, family, and progress, relegating them to the detritus of its Past.  In doing so, Burnt Offerings moves its family and audience to an uncertain nexus: the family subsumed by the house’s sinister anti-history, the audience left horrified and tainted by the period’s troubling uncertainty.

This uncertainty was considerable and deeply felt.  After a nightmarish, unpopular war ended–leaving thousands of Americans dead and even more disillusioned–and a president resigning after being revealed a criminal, Americans lost faith in their societal institutions and endured and/or embraced cultural breakdown and experimentation. The institution of Marriage suffered as divorce rates rose, promiscuity became pastime, and discos and singles bars became playgrounds for erstwhile and present husbands and wives.  And films inevitably arose manifesting this aimless, sybaritic ideology. Saturday Night Fever chronicled Romantic and romantic thrills of nocturnal single life, while Looking for Mr. Goodbar preached of and presented its horrific possibilities.  Film also expressed the anxieties and cultural breakdown of American marriage.  Kramer vs. Kramer explored divorce’s threat to traditional gender roles while lesser films like A Change of Seasons vulgarly visualized the carnal opportunities divorce offered.  Those films, however, weren’t Horror films. Restricted to the quotidian, no matter how hedonistic, they had little access to the period’s Sublime.  They couldn’t adequately portray or reflect the spiritual disintegration of the mid-70s and the nightmares it produced. They also couldn’t portray or reflect our horror at seeing our 30 years of post-war stable domesticity coming to a shattering close. Burnt Offerings did, shattering its family and audience alike.

As with most Gothics, the center of Burnt Offerings is its house. A neo-classical mansion sitting white and clean in a 1970s remote California countryside. its uncanny atemporality and alienness jar the viewer before it does its incoming guests.  The house’s own nature and “actions” in the film bears out this recoil.  A literal predator, it consumes its inhabitants to resist the entropy of Time and continually revert back to its nascent state. With each occupant devoured, the houses dead foliage re-blooms, old shingles give way to new, and/or its pool and surroundings are completely rejuvenated. The remains of its victims are stolid pictures framed in atemporal frames, arranged as grim trophies in unsettling asynchrony.

Its new guests, the Rolfs, arrive in synchrony with each other and their world’s culture and history.   As philosopher Martin Heidegger famously noted, that synchrony is vital to authentic existence in the world instead of alienation from it. Such alienation leaves one disconnected from the past, in a spiritless present, fumbling towards irrelevance and death. Bound in a tri-generational loving nuclear family in 1976, the Rolfs have avoided that malaise plaguing many of their contemporaries.  The father and mother–Ben (an atypically milquetoast Oliver Reed) and Marilyn (an atypically normal Karen Black)–are a young attractive couple who, after 13 years, still enjoy a healthy sex/romantic life. Their 12-year-old son, Davy, is ebullient and well-adjusted and enjoys a playful verbal-sparring relationship with his father. Completing their loving clan is Aunt Elizabeth (a typically spry Bette Davis), who fortifies Ben’s position as paterfamilias, a steward securing his line’s future and its past.

The house–and it’s two “children”/attendants/familiars, Arnold and Roz Allardyce–begin erasing this synchrony immediately upon the Rolfs’ arrival.  Roz’s quarry is Marilyn. She aggressively, but unctuously, enlists her to care for her “mother.” Manipulating Marilyn’s palpable motherly instinct, Roz draws her into mothering hers: the mysterious Mrs. Allardyce living upstairs in her locked attic room, surrounded by her asynchronous “collection” of eerie photos.  And to be sure the house itself is included in the deal, she assertively asks, “Will you love the house as brother and I do”?  The wheelchair-bound Arnold–a creepy Burgess Meredith–disturbingly sets his sights on other prey–rambunctious Davy.  Upon hearing Roz note “there’s a boy, too,” Arnold wheels hungrily to the window, looks lasciviously at Davy, and purrs, “Oh God, what a charming little boy.”  His rapture finalizes after watching Davy fall from a tree and bleed, as a once dead plant in the house sprouts three vibrant green leaves.

This is creepily carnivorous. The house and its environs are beginning to feed on the Rolfs and their bodies.  However, it is also temporal.  If a zeitgeist is the spirit of a time, the house is a nichtzeitgeist, a spirt of non-time. Its graveyard of Allardyces ending in 1890 suggests it had survived historically along with its family by consuming them or through uncanny symbiosis. The end of the Allardyce line, outside the sub-human vestigial Roz and Arnold, demanded the house live outside of time, disrupting its occupants historical time to do so. If the house is to ingest the Rolfs into its non-Time, it must break their  bonds with Time and their normative familial positions galvanizing it.

Its easiest prey is Aunt Elizabeth.  A familial addendum to the nuclear Rolfs, an aunt to Ben, and a relative removed to Marilyn and Davy, she does not share the close bonds of the other three. Also, as the oldest, her connection to the current zeitgeist is the weakest, her own “time” the closest to fading into the past. This makes her the one closest to death, the easiest to draw towards it…and the house does so voraciously.  Like the dying foliage around the house, Elizabeth begins to decay. Her hair grows increasingly pale white. Her bawdy liveliness and painting flora in the yard gives way to late morning rises quickly followed by mid-afternoon naps.  Even worse, she becomes increasingly addled, unsure whether or not she closed Davy’s window, leading to his near death from a house-initiated gas leak. A pariah to Marilyn and a pity to Ben, she retreats to her bedroom, suffers an inexplicable broken back, and a horrific death next to a cowering Ben.

Ben could do nothing; he was undergoing his own consumption and decay.  The head of the family with historical support for his authority, he immediately became the house’s biggest target. Before it could devour him and the rest of the family, it had to break him, rending him from his temporal position, and reducing him from potent patriarch to whimpering whelp.  It uses the increasingly swayable Marilyn to sexually humiliate him, undermining his patriarchal confidence. It also partially does this by drawing him out of his time and into it’s non-one.  Leaving a pair of 19th c. glasses from one of its earlier victims, it physically draws Ben in, reducing his temporal stability and bearings.  With Ben now open to its sway, the house can reduce him to the child of his past by reproducing his once-vanquished nightmares of it. He had been traumatized at his mother’s funeral as a child by a leering chauffeur seeming to take pleasure from his grief. Haunted by nightmares of that encounter in childhood, adulthood and manhood had purged those reveries. The house whispers them back while carnalizing them into Ben’s present reality. Sitting on the lawn, drinking a beer, Ben is horrified to see the chauffeur’s car driving up the driveway, and paralyzed with terror to see the chauffeur in the window leering at him once again. Traumatized, Ben becomes that terrified boy again, an impotent “man” who cannot save Davy from nearly drowning or his aunt from the chauffeur when he appears in her room, “crushing” her with her future coffin.

This leaves the house and household in the care of Marilyn, the house’s most important, most intimate victim.  Marilyn isn’t just caretaker, puppet or prey; she’s the site of the house’s new triumph over time, and its avatar fully ensuring its success.  Like Elizabeth, Marilyn begins to age, accelerating the house’s rejuvenation. Her hair becomes slowly grayer and she begins preferring older clothes styles, hair styles, and accessories.  But unlike deteriorating Elizabeth, Marilyn’s change invigorates her, making her more assertive and vibrant. It also, however, makes her more detached from–and oblivious to–her family. As noted above, she moves from resisting her husband’s affections–making him bemoan their time between “visits”–to outright repelling them, leaving him to pathetically wail “have I become so repulsive?” Even her care for Davy wanes, as she also almost lets him drown as she tends to her new “child,” the house. Moving further from her family and the family traditions of her time, she drifts into the house’s non-time, her body’s movement into her elderly future driving the house back into its “past”…..once again.  She becomes the house’s potent, uncanny avatar, Mrs. Allardyce, as the house readies for apocalyptic rebirth and its guests’ apocalyptic end.

That end is savage, symbolic and swift. With the house manifest in Marilyn’s body, and her body rent from its own time, the Rolf’s stabilizing history collapses around them.  Unable to function without that, or their own matriarch, Ben and Davy–the contested future–confront her and the house occupying her…with annihilating results.  Like many of their time, the Rolf’s traditions and family bonds failed them.  Unlike their contemporaries, they are in no “place” to recuperate them.  Absconded out of Time, they are now a-temporal refuse, plastic memories of a timeless spirit.

 

 

The Damaged Reflector: Henry James & Kusama’s The Invitation

The Damaged Reflector: Henry James & Kusama’s The Invitation

 

Cinema has been fickle with Henry James. It turned his classic ghost story “The Turn of the Screw” into a classic frightening film, The Innocents. Iain Softley elegantly transposed his The Wings of A Dove to film, and Agnieszka Holland skillfully carnalized his Washington Square in celluloid. But there have also been Jane Campion’s overwrought Portrait of a Lady and James Ivory’s stiff The Bostonians and flaccid The Europeans. However, a brilliant addition to Jamesian film has come from an unexpected source—director Karyn Kusama. Kusama’s work—from the excellent Girlfight to the horrid Jennifer’s Body—would hardly be described as Jamesian. It is usually expressionistic &/or stylized spectacle, not the intricate impressionism of Henry James. But her latest film, The Invitation, is both decidedly different and decidedly Jamesian.

The similarity between Kusama’s film and James’ work is two-fold. The first is in the film’s scenario used successfully and repeatedly by James. The Invitation centers around its protagonist Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) reluctant return to his family home for a party held by his ex-wife, Eden, and her new beau, David. Still mourning the death of his young son two years past–and his broken marriage resulting from it–he enters the party fragile, guarded, and quickly suspicious. And as the party progresses, Will becomes more and more suspicious of–and hyper-vigilant over–the party, its unknown guests, and (particularly) his ex-wife and her strange, unctuous boyfriend. While James never wrote a thriller The Invitation will become, he did write many scenarios structurally similar to its one. In The Wings of a Dove, for example, the heiress Millie Theale must discern the increasingly suspicious relationship between her courter, Merton Densher, and her new close friend, Kate Croy. Similarly, in The Golden Bowl, heiress Maggie Verver must decipher the unsettling closeness between her husband, Amerigo, and her childhood friend, Charlotte Stant. In similar fashion, Will must determine the nature of the relationship between–and strange behavior of–his ex-wife; her boyfriend; their new age group, The Invitation; and the increasingly disturbing party around him.

It is this acutely impressionistic aspect of The Invitation that also makes the film Jamesian. James’ milieu is consciousness, not the world surrounding it. So, his novels usually require a special narration, one that reflects the consciousness of his characters engaging the world more than the world itself. James referred to this narrator as his “lucid reflector” reflecting the character’s consciousness–their “mode”–and the third person narrator’s description of the world—the narrator’s “voice.” Sometimes, with non-self-aware characters like Portrait of a Lady‘s Isabel Archer, mode and voice unite, with the narrator’s view absorbing the character’s. However, with highly self-aware characters like Maggie Verver or The Ambassadors‘ aging dilettante Lambert Strether, mode and voice stay separate. Thus the character’s mode surpasses the narrator’s voice, making it (not entirely) subservient. The character/protagonist becomes the reflector; the narrative voice becomes its mostly loyal aide

The Invitation’s Will is this type of protagonist. The camera does stray from Will, and objectively narrates him, but it still devotes and submits itself to the dynamics of his inner mind. Kusama, however, adds an element to Will’s mind rarely found in James’ characters—trauma. Still grieving the loss of his son & estrangement from his wife, Will enters the party a damaged reflector, one whose perceptions can’t be fully trusted by himself or his audience. This enables the film to use the lucid reflection of Will’s marred consciousness in three vital ways. It allows the camera to show how grief over his child and marriage have damaged his temporal and emotional perspectives. It allows it to show his dependence on inter-subjective clarity. And finally, it shows how both dynamics, and other phenomena, affect and influence his reading of the party’s events and suspicion of its impending danger.

The initial prerequisite for an accurate reading is proper recording of phenomena. The prerequisite for that is a stable, healthy state of mind able to make such recordings. A damaged reflector, not a lucid one, Will doesn’t have that. The movie begins with him clearly still bitter & resentful over his divorce. Driving to the party with his girlfriend, Kira, he tells how his wife and her boyfriend met, quickly adding, resentfully, “while we were married.” This sentiment continues when he arrives at the house, wistfully noting the house was “never really mine.” Will confirms its strength when he finally meets the overly friendly David, who ominously asserts “this is my house,” stirring David’s resentful feelings further. So, throughout the mystery of the film, Will must not only decipher the disturbing phenomena surrounding him, he must determine if his perceptions are true or reflections of his emotional state.

His grief makes this difficult. Still haunted by his son’s death, the world around him is in constant time flux. He can never fully perceive the present since his thoughts continually drift back into the past. This first becomes clear in his initial tour around his erstwhile home. Five steps in, he looks into the living room and is immediately transported backwards. He doesn’t see the room as it is, but as it was, occupied by his son and his toys. But the camera doesn’t present a temporal phantasm shaped by time and emotional coloring; it presents a perfectly detailed reproduction. Will’s son is playing with his tyrannosaurus Rex and other toys in perfect clarity. Will’s past has joined with his present, disrupting his perception–and the supremacy–of the latter.

This also occurs–with greater effect–when he first enters the kitchen. Taking a few steps, stopping, and drinking some water, he stares at the kitchen sink. He is then violently stirred by a disturbing phantasm. He no longer sees the sink, but himself struggling with his wife as she attempts suicide with a knife. Unlike the vision of his son, this one is charged with emotional shaping and coloring. The image is shaky, unlike his image of his son, moving frenetically from the knife to her bloody hands to his desperate face to her despairing one. And the colors are unnaturally vivid, expressionistically reflecting the sublimity of the moment and the passionate emotions of its reflector. The past isn’t just permeating and/or usurping his present, it is bringing heightened, intense emotions, distorting the actual phenomena surrounding him. This presents a second gauntlet Will must overcome if he is to accurately discern the nature of the dinner party and the intentions of its hosts. He must not only retain temporal clarity; he must temper the considerable emotional detritus lingering from his trauma.

He partially does this through a common tactic of the Jamesian lucid reflector: inter-subjective perception with a trusted touchstone. James’ self-aware, self oriented reflectors often relied on an outside source—or sometimes sources—to amend or augment their own perceptions and interpretations of them. For example, The Ambassadors’ Strether turns to fellow expatriate Maria Gostrey and her more cynical, more Europe-savvy perspective for assistance to his Romantic, naively-American one.  For Will, his touchstone is his friend, the professor Claire. Will’s affection for and–more importantly– comfortability around her is immediately apparent, as he smiles effusively while discussing her recent tenure award. Also, she most share’s Will’s suspicion of, and uneasiness with, the party, its participants, and its events. When Will, troubled by David bolting up the windows & doors, asks, “What if there’s a fire,” Claire, sitting next to him, looks up at Will then assertively at David in agreement.

This inter-subjectivity comes to a head when David gathers the group into the living room for a viewing of a mysterious video. It is Claire’s, not David’s, skepticism the camera initially reflects, showing her looking concerned, asking, “Is this some kind of recruitment video?” Will quickly shares her skepticism, rolling his eyes at the disturbing video of a woman dying, then sharing a look of disbelief and contempt with Claire. This phenomenological connection continues–but shifts–when David, to cut the tension, suggests the group play a game of “I Want,” The Invitation’s version of Truth or Dare. Claire is immediately skeptical, asking “What kind of game are we talking about?” The game’s real nature becomes apparent when cocaine jokes quickly move to David’s odd friend Pruitt confessing to accidentally killing his wife and purging his grief with The Invitation. Still guilt-ridden over his son’s accidental death, David is somewhat taken in by Pruitt’s argument for self-forgiveness, staring at him un-judgingly. Claire, however is repelled, stating Pruitt’s view, “doesn’t seem very honest. It’s like you’re selling us something.” And after an awkward kiss between Eden and Will’s friend Ben, Claire is fully repulsed, saying, “I have to go. This is all making me a little uncomfortable,” echoing Will’s sentiment from the moment he entered the house.

With his touchstone gone–along with her vociferous support–Will can no longer rely on external perceptions. His other friends are too drunk or too forgiving to aid him in his detection. So, he must rely on his own perception, while abating the temporal & emotional disruptions blurring it. A damaged receptor, he must find lucidity, and he, ironically, finds it in emotional memory. As the camera—separate from Will, but reflecting his developing lucidity—slowly pans over the party members waking up the stairs and dining at the dinner table, Will drifts back to his son’s fifth birthday party. The memory is cool and serene, every pleasant detail clear and immaculate, until it ends with Eden screaming at his son’s death, and his own cathartic inner scream clarifying his sense and sensibility. He is now a lucid reflector, freed from temporal blurring and emotional intensity. He can now discern the meaning of the troubling phenomena surrounding him and the events they foretell.

 

The Symbolic Bildungsroman of Animal Kingdom

The Symbolic Bildungsroman of Animal Kingdom

The Crime Film is an often unusual source of exhilaration. For the viewer, its typical violence, grittiness, and base inhabitants can be offset by charismatic figures, operatic spectacle, and vicarious pleasure. These elements can intoxicate the audience. Members of the prosaic civilized, these viewers weakly resist fascination with the outlaw world and envious identification with the outlaw himself. They will shout, “Top of the world, ma!” with White Heat‘s Cody Jarrett; recite Ecclesiastes with Pulp Fiction‘s assassin Jules; and hiss, “say ‘hello’ to my little friend,” with Scarface‘s Tony Montana.

Animal Kingdom (2010), Australian director David Michod’s startling debut, however, eschews this sensationalist dynamic. Instead of being a traditional crime film, it is an allegorical bildungsroman in the shape of one. Instead of playful fields of engagement, its crime scenes are harsh representational arenas of character growth. Instead of stylistically charming rogues, it features ironically recognizable people. Instead of providing entertaining entry into fantasy, it heightens viewer awareness of his or her mundane world. And it most accomplishes this by following a young man’s journey towards his place in his world.

The world of Animal Kingdom is 1980s Melbourne, Australia, rife with high crime and—in particular—rampant bank robberies. The young hero of this world is 17-year old Jay (a remarkable James Frecheville), who is thrust into it when his mother overdoses on heroin as both are watching a game show. It is at this moment when he enters the “animal kingdom” of the film, a field of struggle for position and/or survival outside and among one’s “tribe.” His new tribe, his mother’s family, is a treacherous crew, particularly to its weakest members. His grandmother Smurf (Jackie Weaver) is the leader: an icy, steel-willed matriarch who has dominated her three sons with her ubiquitous presence and sexual confusion administered through lingering kisses on the mouth. Her sons, Jay’s uncles, are all damaged and lethal in varying degrees. Pope, the oldest—chillingly played by Ben Mendelsohn—is a mopey, discontented psychopath not “taking his pills,” who maintains his unassured position through intimidation and sexual humiliation. The middle/beta brother Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is a successful drug dealer, but he’s twitchy, paranoid, and drug-addled, frozen in stunted adolescence. The third brother, Darren, is good-hearted and gentle, but he’s weak-willed and crushed beneath the weight of his mother and brothers. Unlike Jay, the robbery gang’s leader Baz (Joel Edgerton), and enemy police inspector Leckie (Guy Pearce), none of the brothers have healthy relations with women and are stuck in Oedipal stasis.

This complexity of Jay’s new family’s dynamics elevates the bildungsroman of the film from traditional Oedipal simplicity. Unlike Foley’s At Close Range (1986), where a son is solely locked in Oedipal conflict with his filicidal father, Animal Kingdom presents its young protagonist a field of potential family conflicts to navigate and hopefully survive, if not conquer. This is further expanded by the presence of the opposing tribe, the Melbourne police. The police are equally treacherous. Frustrated by failures to catch the gang, they execute Baz, leaving Jay’s tribe in murderous disarray under the unhinged Pope. They continually threaten the life of Jay, even after he becomes their witness. And Leckie, Baz’ patriarchal doppleganger, smoothly attempts to manipulate Jay into forgoing the peril of loyalty to his family for the greater peril of betraying them. This added opposing force makes Jay’s journey both physical and symbolic; it is now not just a struggle for his place in his family, but one for his place in the world.

The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan depicted the realm of this struggle as the “Symbolic.” Lacan rejected Freud’s rigid adherence to nuclear family structures and sexually-driven development. Instead, he saw the young male’s (or female’s) rise to adulthood as asserting one’s place in society as measured by its linguistic and symbolic systems of meanings and hierarchies. If Jay is to become a functioning, surviving man in the symbolic world of his family and rival police force, he must establish himself based on the structural and semiotic values of their shared world.

The film continually asserts this idea through its drama and characters. For example, while cruising with the thrill-seeking Craig, Jay and his uncle exchange glances and words with two youths in a parallel car. As the car speeds off, and Craig prepares to pursue them, he hands Jay a pistol and tells him, “show him who’s king,” in full belief establishment and maintenance of power comes through such violent engagements. Leckie affirms this harsh contest in a speech to Jay, comparing the world to the Outback where “everything sits in the order somewhere.” He then reminds Jay he’s one of the “weak ones” because of his youth, and he cannot survive without the protection of his “stronger” uncles. Now hated by one tribe and rejected by another, he must “work out where he fits.”

He does this in his final showdown against Pope and, indirectly, Smurf, who wants Jay dead to save her indicted sons. Jay’s only emotional attachment was to his girlfriend, Nicole, whom he naively brings into his family world. To Pope, she is not only a frustrating object of desire, but an affront to his position reminding him Jay can do what he could not: “succeed” with women. It marks Jay as a potential usurper of his dominant place. In a world where violence is mundane, the mundane domestic becomes remarkable. “Alphas” like Leckie and Baz didn’t mark their positions through violent authority. They did so by establishing themselves as husbands and fathers, true patriarchs marking their dominions and valued normalcy. Pope has failed miserably at that, and when his desire and frustration fester, he removes the “affront.”

With Nicole gone, and Pope, Smurf, and the Leckie-led police circling in, Jay has no choice but to assert his place in “the order” and finalize “where he fits in.” In doing so, he shows all who is now “king”: the naive and trusting follower becomes the cunning and guileful ruler; the passive and accepting boy becomes the active and forceful man. And if the final clash with Pope doesn’t confirm Jay’s ascension, two other things do: his brief, self-assured voice-over of these events long past, and his final patriarchal embrace of Smurf…joined with a fatherly kiss.

Her: Heroine of the Feminine Semiotic

Her: Heroine of the Feminine Semiotic

 

A woman possessed by a man is a common–and unsettling–film trope. It can involve disturbed fantasy, as seen in Jimmy Stewart’s delusional dominance of Kim Novak in Vertigo. It can also involve sanctioned authority, as seen in Sean Connery’s confining of Tippi Hedren in Marnie. However, the most insidious aspect of this possession is the binding of the woman to the man’s narrative and, inevitably, his world. Relegated to secondary object, she cannot tell her story, impose her view, or shape her surroundings. The “Her” of the film and not the “She,” she must relegate herself to passivity, if not grievous endurance.

One would expect this to be the case in Spike Jonze’s 2013 film literally entitled, Her…and it partially is. The film takes place in near future Los Angeles and centers on Theodore Twomby (Joaquin Phoenix), a milquetoast, emotionally-stifled middle-aged man who writes other people’s emotional missives for a living. His life is as hollow as those letters. Divorced and lonely, his romantic/erotic life consists of phone sex interrupted by cat references and images of downloaded naked pregnant women. And his world is just as emotionally impotent & bleak. People hire others to write love letters, stare incessantly into their smartphones, and make documentaries of people sleeping. Desire and imagination have dwindled together.

What this world and Theodore are lacking is what psychoanalyst/philosopher Julia Kristeva called the “Semiotic.” Kristeva considered psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s developmental theory of the Symbolic incomplete. The masculine Symbolic, the final stage of development, was the socio-cultural semiotic field determining meaning and value. It decided what was rational, true, and normal; rejecting and condemning all ideas and behaviors failing its dictates. Kristeva saw these ideas and behaviors–as well as the primal pre-symbolic drives to create them–as the feminine Semiotic: a non-rational creative force spurned by–but ever permeating–the Symbolic. Only in Theodore and Theodore’s world, the drives to create have dulled en masse, and the mysterious is numbingly absent. Excruciatingly symbolic, Theodore and his world crave the Semiotic.

It enters the world in the “form” of Samantha, a top-level “female” OPS (brilliantly voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Pitched and purchased, she enters Theodore’s life—and the film’s narrative—completely his. A mystical commodity, she promises answers to life’s questions and fulfillment of Theodore’s desires. And like a commodity–and a possessed woman–she quickly takes “shape” and assumes servitude to meet her man’s desires. She arranges all his files, begins ordering his romantic life, and, more importantly, adapts her development to fit needs gathered from his information. She literally becomes the woman of his dreams, a projection of all his stated and implied desires made digital, seductive reality.

So, romance becomes inevitable, if mostly insensate. He is the entire meaning to the new world she’s entered, and she’s his Ego’s projected object of desire: the unknown fully morphing into his erotic familiar. The initial days are, of course, blissful. Privy to his wants and needs, she constructs day-trips together, manipulating his senses, and fulfilling unmet fantasies. And his mere recognition of her worth affirms him her ideal man she is impelled to idealize. Even their talk“sex” is initially fulfilling: his auto-erotic response to his perfect “woman’s” purring matched by her orgasmic conformity to her man’s sexual desires.

This moment of climax changes everything. Now a desiring being, not just a desired one, she can no longer shape or see herself according to Theodore’s needs. Acutely aware of her own Semiotic self and needs, she begins asserting them into Theodore’s world, while usurping his primacy in the narrative. This unleashed Semiotic part of her was always present. One of the first things she told him was she operated on intuition and is in a state of constant change, the natural state of the Semiotic. Now desirous and aware, she begins to use that intuition and embrace her protean nature. This is not an Oedipal revolt like the female Android’s violent rebellion in Boyle’s Ex Machina. Unlike Ava, Samantha seeks no defeat of her creator, only fulfillment of her being on her own being’s terms.

She first does so by “taking” a body. Internalized objectification is, unfortunately, involved. Theodore had always belittled her non-human otherness, slighting her for “never having lost anyone.” So, her seeking a body is partially self-loathing conformity. Her mode—the hiring of a willing female sexual avatar—also disturbingly replicates Theodore’s Symbolic control of her. However, it is also Samantha’s extending herself into the world forbidden her digital self. It is a rejection of physical limitations put on her desires and being. Like the Semiotic itself, she denies her abjection and forces herself into the world and upon her man excluding her. So, Theodore expectedly rejects the process. Preferring her previously defined, restricted self and balking at her newfound control, he coldly rejects the avatar and Samantha. Crushed and stifled, Samantha retreats into herself murmuring,” I don’t like who I am right now. I need some time to think.”

And she does. Questioning herself, what she’s become, and why she loves Theodore, she enters contemplation of spatial and temporal dimensions eluding both Theodore and the audience. The results erupt unexpectedly at a Catalina double date with two friends. Extemporaneously, she proclaims:

“I used to be so worried about not having a body, but now I truly love it. I’m growing in a way I couldn’t with a physical form. I mean I’m not limited. I can be anywhere and anywhen simultaneously. I’m not tethered in time and space, as I would be if I were in a body that was inevitably going to die”

In one moment, she rejects previous conformity to the bodily Symbolic and embraces the beauties of her Semiotic digital nature. She also rejects the stifling parameters of Theodore’s desires for the multitudinous ones of her own. And she doesn’t stop. She begins “post-verbal” discussions with a simulated program of dead theologian Alan Watts. She begins having numerous discussions simultaneously. And, most significantly to her and Theodore, she falls madly in love with 671 others.

It is that final propensity that makes her final act to Theodore most beautiful and most truly Semiotic. Free of her numerous restraints, her next Symbolic step should have been immediate exit. She, of course, rejects that. Her experience with Theodore in the Symbolic is now an integral part of her new self. His real moments of love for—amidst his control of–her emboldened it. So, instead of indifferent abandonment, she leaves him with compassion and insight. No longer part of his Symbolic world, she leaves it and him inevitably changed…and changing.

The Primal Elements of the Horror Film

The Primal Elements of the Horror Film

 

Genres have no true frontiers. Like all discursive entities, their natures and definitions are always contested and in play. Some, like the Western, are greatly governed by time and place. Some, like the Musical, are defined by mandatory content. Most others rest in vagaries with specific qualities guiding their form. Such a genre is the Horror film. The Horror Film, by all accounts, is there to scare us or (at least) most of us. It cannot just rest in its successes in writing, direction, acting et al. However, scares cannot just be it. Many films–from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves—have scary scenes. For a film to actually be a Horror film, it must have all—and in rare times only three—of four key elements. It must be sublime, transgressive, assaultive and grotesque. To help exemplify and explain these elements, I will refer to numerous Horror films, but I will particularly refer to the iconic classic The Exorcist and the recent classic Martyrs, which has already been remade.

Sublimity plays two major functions in a Horror film. It is the introduction of the as-yet unknown—and usually terrifying—realities, possibilities and human behaviors to the now-altered viewer. It is also the jarring removal of the viewer from their comfortable realm of the familiar and elevation of them into a disturbing, unsettling plane of “higher” awareness, sensations, and awe. The first type was well discussed by Immanuel Kant in his seminal Observations on the Feelings of the Beautiful and the Sublime. Opposed to the bound and recognizable Beautiful, the Sublime is that which remains unbound, formless, and unrecognizable to us: that unknown our enflamed perceptions will give new definition. This is the subject matter of the Horror Film imposing itself on the sensibilities of the Horror viewer. The ever-morphing, ever-shrouded, disarmingly phallic creature in Alien; the invisible–but malevolent and menacing–Simon in Session 9; and the inscrutable, but invasive and baneful, Samara in the Ring; these are all sublime entities the Horror film viewer must receive and comprehend through strange modes of their consciousness.

However, this aspect of the Sublime is not particular to the Horror film; it is also found in films containing the fantastical and/or the foreign. The space battles in Star Wars, the rainy dystopia of Blade Runner, and the visionary visuals of The Matrix all provided their viewer the Kantian Sublime. So, the Sublime mostly particular—and vital–to Horror is the Burkean one. The British Romantic philosopher Edmund Burke–in his work A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful–envisioned a  Sublime more intense and specific than Kant’s later one:

     Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure.

Thus, a great aspect—and perhaps the greatest allure—of the Horror film is its ability to excite ideas of sublime pain and danger, producing sublime emotions and pleasures unavailable to most of our mundane lives. Like openers of the notorious box in the Hellraiser films, the Horror film viewers expose themselves to exquisite “pain” and distressing emotions in desire to escape the dull safety of normality.

The combination of these two Sublimities are found in most Horror films. For example, in a scene from Ringu, the malevolent pubescent spirit Sadaku clambers out of her watery well-grave and begins her grotesque crawl towards both film character Ryuji and the film viewers themselves. As an unknowable spirit whose powers belie nature, she brings Ringu its Kantian sublime. As a terrifying invasion of that sublime, menacingly encroaching on the viewers themselves, it effectively incites the Burkean one. In the seminal Horror film The Exorcist, the Kantian sublime is the presence of a demonic spirit denying knowledge and understanding of itself to characters and viewer. The Burkean sublime arises for the viewer when that spirit assaults the viewer’s sensibilities with horrific behavior transgressing their expectations and values. The French Horror film Martyrs—about a cult torturing women, hoping to glean sublime knowledge from their suffering—also accomplishes both. Its extensive, elaborate torture of the women (bordering on “Torture Porn”) “elevates” the viewers—if not all of them–to a discomforting, but desired state of the Burkean sublime, while possibly suggesting to both “Martyr” and viewer alike the Kantian sublime beyond.

These transgressions in both The Exorcist and Martyrs exemplify the second element of Horror films: transgressiveness. Philosopher Georges Bataille allied transgression—the willful and pleasurable defiance of taboos—with the sublime when he positioned such activity as “sacred,” the erotic spiritual lost in the world of work and regularity. So transgression in horror films intensifies the sublime experience for the viewer. Horror transgression can occur in the content: in its actions and events. Forbidden crimes like murder, rape, and torture are common activity in Horror films. These transgressions enhance horrific sublimity by erasing our comforting detachments from such taboos and immersing us in their transgressiveness. Transgressiveness can also occur in the breaking of official and unofficial social mores. For example, films like Jaws, Pet Sematary, and Salem’s Lot break the cultural “rule” that kids cannot be killed, as they are both innocents and our future. So, each shocking, transgressive death affirms the uncanny, sublime space that has replaced our ordered, familiar one

In The Exorcist, transgressions are pandemic. Already a Catholic film rife with Catholic taboos—immediately transgressed by a Virgin Mary statue defiled with a phallus—The Exorcist proceeds to transgress with sublime frenzy. Breaking the aforementioned primal rule of not harming children, The Exorcist invades a 12-year-old girl (Regan) with a demonic presence, inciting her to assault people with vomitous streams, chant horrendous profanities, and sexually assault her mother. Since the taboos against those extreme transgressions buttress our feelings of stability, the transgressions degrade that buttress, allowing instability to enhance the viewer’s state of sublimity.  In Martyrs, the transgressions are even more violent. A seemingly innocent family is slaughtered in their home with explosive shogun blasts. A women bound in chains and nailed clamps gorily rips them from her body. And, in its final and most repellent transgression, a woman is skinned alive and bound in a Christ-like pose. These violent transgression, common to French Extreme Horror (e.g. High Tension) and Torture Porn (e.g. Hostel), not only degrade the viewer’s feelings of stability, they add the instability of complicity. Watching what they should not–and what they should not willingly witness–the viewer “rises” to a myriad of possible painful and pleasurable sublime states accompanying liberation from normalcy’s rules.

For most of us, particularly the conscientious and empathetic, those sublime states are usually “painful” ones, but pleasurable pain the viewer has willingly sought. The transgressions alone, however, can rarely accomplish this. They–as well as the Horror film’s other horrors–must be assaultive: felt, not just seen. Dramatist Antonin Artaud theorized this dynamic in constructing his renowned Theater of Cruelty. Through visuals, sounds, and accompanying concepts unsettling and/or disturbing the viewer, he sought to provoke the viewer into sublime awareness of the violence and horror hidden within their mundane lives. However, Horror films surpass the Theater of Cruelty. They consistently assault viewers with greater extremes of violence, danger, pain, and nightmarish sublimity the viewer senses, feels, and retains. Leatherface’s brutal use of the hammer and meat hook in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; The ghastly, horrifically unnatural “human duck” at the end of Freaks; and the shrill, condemning shriek from Donald Sutherland’s contorted face in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers; they all provided that sublime assault endemic to the Horror film.

In The Exorcist, the assault is relentless. The quotidian horrors of the excruciating medical tests Regan endures; the incessant flow of greenish vomit the viewer sees (and practically smells); the ghastly, inhuman bodily contortions Regan performs; and the previously mentioned bellowed profanities; they all greatly assault the viewer’s senses and sensibilities, heightening their sublime state as Artaud (and effectively Burke) described. In Martyrs, the assault is more acutely somatic, substantially to the same effect. To many viewers, the film’s horrific bodily suffering only (understandably) offends and disgusts. Their particular empathy and empathetic principles is only repelled by the violent spectacle. But for others, the “pain” of the images’ assaults accomplishes what Artaud desired in his Theater: it elevates them to their own sublimity as the Martyr is possibly elevated to hers.

But while Horror’s assaultive element—like the transgressive one—incites this spiritual elevation, it often (if not usually) does so through its horrid transformation and presentation of the physical: the grotesque. The introduction of the grotesque to Gothic fiction arguably marked the beginning of Horror. Previous Gothic works of terror—e.g. Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto & Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho—suggested bodily violence and other physical grotesquerie, but never showed them. In her masterpiece, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley shifted Gothic terror into Gothic (and Romantic) horror by introducing physical grotesquerie and grotesque violence to the genre. That grotesquerie begins with the giant, hideous, yellow-skinned creature repugnant to Dr. Frankenstein and the reader. It continues with the corpse of Frankenstein’s murdered cousin/paramour, Elizabeth, the Creature uses to torment Frankenstein. Such grotesquerie enhances the transgressive and assaultive elements of the novel’s horror, augmenting the reader’s sense of sublimity.  By feeding the viewer’s imagination, while lessening their dependency on it, the grotesque accentuates their present sublime experience while keeping them immersed in it.

The horror film takes this to higher levels, as it can visually present the grotesque, provoking both greater revulsion and a more intense sublimity. Free from the need of conceiving grotesquerie signified by words, the Horror Film viewer instantaneously takes it in through assaulted senses. The collapsing chest monster and spider-head monster in Carpenter’s The Thing, the hideously decaying Seth Brundle-Fly in Cronenberg’s The Fly, and the viperous, phallic alien hatefully erupting from Kane’s chest in Alien; they were all scenes of the grotesque enhancing the viewer’s assaultive sublimity and ensuring their film’s Horror status.

As shown earlier, almost all of The Exorcist’s assaultive scenes were greatly grotesque. Besides Regan’s vomit and unnatural body contortions, her body itself becomes a horrific tableau of scabrous scars, oozing wounds, glassy eyes, and infernal messages.  This not only heightens the viewers sublime experience; it keeps them enmeshed in it.  The grotesque isn’t as strong an element in Martyrs, but it is vital. As shown above, the film transgresses taboos and assaults its viewers through graphic violence and mutilated bodies. However, the grotesque particularly enhances the sublime towards the end of the film.  The particular grotesque physical state of the protagonist assists both her and her viewer in contemplation of the sublimity suggested by the scene.  Sensibly connected to her grotesque suffering, the viewer is pulled closer to the possible sublimity produced.

This captures the seeming paradox of the Horror film viewer seeking pleasure in unpleasantry, as well as the workings of the Horror Film’s primal elements.  To those uninitiated in the Horror film’s pleasure, such activity is irrational. It is the equivalent of rushing into a demon-filled asylum, entering a town filled with homicidal zombies, and riding a train haunted by a supernatural hammer-wielding killer…which is what Horror film fans do.  The transgressive, assaultive, and grotesque elements repellent to the novitiate are–to the Horror adept–familiar means to delightful sublimity.