The Dream of Solidarity

A Nightmare on Elm Street Part III (Chuck Russell, 1987)

Popular culture relies on repetition with difference and there is perhaps no subgenre that is quite so repetitive as the slasher – the crime in the past, the discrete/isolated setting, the gender ambiguous and curiously mobile villain and their double the gender ambiguous final girl, the increasing number of unmissed teen victims… A Nightmare on Elm Street Part III (Chuck Russell, 1987) sees Wes Craven’s return to the franchise, along with Nancy (Heather Lagenkamp) and Donald Thompson (John Saxon). Craven’s initial suggestion was for the film to be about a supernatural menace on the set of a slasher movie, but clearly that would never fly. Instead the scene shifts to an asylum.

As the first two films in the franchise show, the most significant ideological crucible of youth is the family home, followed closely by the school. For those who don’t conform there is a fate worse than death — the army, the police station (and cells), the prison, the hospital, the asylum. In the construction of the norm as sane, law-abiding, healthy, clean, heterosexual, there are heterotopias to which the abnormal may be exiled. Here we have a group of traumatised teens, all children of Krueger’s killers, fearful of sleeping lest he come after them. Nancy arrives to help them, suggesting they band together to fight back.

Each of the teens has their own secret identity, their ego ideal to fight against Freddy’s id, and at times it is unclear whether the film is laughing at or with them. Meanwhile a doctor (Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson)) and an ex-cop (Saxon) act as policing forces to give Krueger’s corpse a proper burial with what will pass for a proper rite.

There’s a moral here about collectivity and solidarity, although perhaps this can still be seen as trumped by patriarchy, whether in the form of the good doctor or the bad father who needs to be redeemed.

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Heteronormativity Strikes Back

The politics of such films as Near Dark, The Silence of the Lambs, Hellraiser (I, II, and III), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula may be understood in part as emblematic of capital’s ongoing attempts at refurbishing its democratic facade by acknowledging the cynicism of the population while simultaneously emphasizing an ersatz liberalism, and by making use of a variety of progressive discourses current in academe that inevitably appear transmuted within the commercial entertainment industry.
Christopher Sharrett (1993) “The Horror Film in Neoconservative Culture”, Journal of Popular Film & Television,  21(3), p. 100.

A Nightmare on Elm Street Part II: Freddy’s Revenge (Jack Sholder, 1985)

Popular culture relies on repetition with difference and there is perhaps no subgenre that is quite so repetitive as the slasher – the crime in the past, the discrete/isolated setting, the gender ambiguous and curiously mobile villain and their double the gender ambiguous final girl, the increasing number of unmissed teen victims… A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984) postdates the Halloween and Friday the 13th franchises and adds a degree of the supernatural or fantastical which is not in the other franchises in the same way.*

Craven didn’t want to work on a sequel so we have a new director depicting a new family who have moved into the Thompsons’ house, including a teenaged boy, Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton). The slasher film tends to have a female protagonist — although it can take a while for her to act — on the one hand resisting the Mulveyan male gaze structures of identification, on the other hand feeding a male sadistic gaze for violent spectacle. But here — although we do sort of get a Final Girl — there’s a male protagonist who is a Jesse.

Coughs.

Freddy Krueger is clearly an equal opportunity sadist, as happy to play with Jesse as he was with Nancy; the temperature rises in the Walsh household, their pet birds pay homage to Hitchcock, a party catches fire and a swimming pool boils. Krueger increasingly seems to be an uncontrolled id, his sadism clearly sexualised. The worrying thing for Jesse is his increasing sense that he is Freddy, that he is causing the murders.

The big set piece of the film is a nocturnal wander or dream where Jesse ends up at the town’s gay bar (with a large lesbian clientele) and bumps into the bullying Coach Schneider (Marshall Bell). Schneider then forces him to run laps of the gym and take a shower; meanwhile the coach is attacked by a load of balls in his office, dragged to the shower by skipping ropes, strung up and slashed to death. Jesse finds Freddy’s glove on his hand. What is Jesse’s dark secret?

The whole is homoerotic, seasoned with BDSM and homosexual panic, with Jesse clearly as a confused teen. Frederik Dhaenens suggests that “the film deconstructs how heteronormativity
disciplines individuals who experience same-sex desires, [but] it depends upon its audiences to read this film in terms of queer resistance. Furthermore, by victimizing the potentially gay boy, it reinstates the heterosexual male as the real hero” (p. 110). Perhaps this is being over generous to the film — of the three non-normative characters one is a sadist who preys on boys, one is a serial killer and one is a teen who may be killing people or fantasising about doing so. Certainly the plot rescues the latter from the horrors of homosexuality — in the early years of the HIV crisis homosexuality is equated with death even more than usual.
Note

* As I watch/rewatch the rest, we’ll see how true this is.

Sources

Frederik Dhaenens (2013) “The Fantastic Queer: Reading Gay Representations in Torchwood and True Blood as Articulations of Queer Resistance”, Critical Studies in Media Communication, 30(2).

Christopher Sharrett (1993) “The Horror Film in Neoconservative Culture”, Journal of Popular Film & Television, 21(3).

An American Problem?

I had a pun all ready for use — well, the beginnings of one. I don’t think it is appropriate. I shall censor myself.

Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014)

This is an astonishing and moving account of the events around the 1965 Selma marches that deserved to have won an Oscar over the single continuous take of Birdman. David Oyelowo deserved shortlisting for the Oscars for Martin Luther King, but able-bodied playing disabled is always a fair bet (as is straight playing gay). I’ve not seen more than an episode of Spooks, so I don’t know Oyelowo’s work (although he was the principal in Interstellar). He’s surrounded by a host of British actors — Tim Roth as Governor Wallace, Howard Wilkinson as Lyndon B. Johnson, Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King. Everyone seems to be giving their all. An uncredited Martin Sheen, meanwhile, as federal judge Frank Minis Johnson, seems to be channelling President Bartlet.

That being said, there are a couple of places where they didn’t quite hold their nerve.

It’s telling that there’s quite a large disclaimer at the end of the film noting that it isn’t documentary — which is on top of the usual no-intended likeness clause. Well, duh. Toward the end of the film we see King smoking — I think this may be almost the only time characters do so in an era when many more people did (I didn’t notice because I wasn’t looking earlier, but his smoking did stand out). In context the moment is there to show how much is at stake — he is nervous about what lies ahead. I didn’t quite believe it. One reporter seems to ask all the questions and offers the commentary. No biggie. There’s a couple of white guys that get beaten up and killed — were these guys real or just representative? I guess they stand in for any ally who lost their lives. More problematic is the placing of LBJ as supportive to an extent and whether King would have been able to be so blunt to a president without being shown the door. On the one hand, it’s dramatically right (did he fly? how could he afford such visits? how long would it take?), on the other, a generation will take their understanding of King and LBJ from this movie — which is why I felt little wish to see the version of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game.

There are a few of moments of, “As you know, Martin” dialogue, so that we know enough historical context, but I think in general that is handled as well as it might be. It’s fascinating to watch the sheer self-awareness of their tactics — they know how the protest will work and what kind of impact they will get. It’s tempting to think of the past as more naÏve than it clearly was. Malcolm X (Nigél Thatch) has a low-key cameo, the more militant figure historically speaking, but again aware of the game being played (and let that use of the word “game” not undermine how serious all of this was).  King repeatedly refers to himself as a marked man, foreshadowing the assassination that you know lies in the future — although the action is focused on 1965.

The violence is, as it should be, distressing. From the frankly terrorist explosion in a church to the police charges around the Edmund Winston Pettus bridge, with whips, truncheons, barbed wire wrapped night sticks, smoke bombs and more, it is too unbearable to watch but too important not to. Obviously, I felt my buttons being pressed, the cameras are placed in such a way that you identify with the marchers, but it needs to be witnessed.

And then, in the closing credits, we get to the kind of music that troubled me a bit from the trailer  — in the kind of hypocritical not seeming historically-appropriate way. The track is called “Glory”, the work of John Legend and Common, the latter also appearing as John Bevel in the film. The song gives a kind of historical context:

Justice for all just ain’t specific enough
One son died, his spirit is revisitin’ us
Truant livin’ livin’ in us, resistance is us
That’s why Rosa sat on the bus
That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up
When it go down we woman and man up
They say, “Stay down”, and we stand up
Shots, we on the ground, the camera panned up
King pointed to the mountain top and we ran up

The Selma to Montgomery march was part of a wider campaign for voter registration in line with the US constitution and further fights for civil rights, one victory among many before and since. Anyone who has been watching the news over the last few years — the Rodney King beatings, the treatment of Barack Obama, the shooting of Michael Brown — must be aware of how a tension still runs through US culture. I wonder if we might have been trusted to make such connections ourselves?

I don’t know.

Clearly consciousnesses still need raising.

The Whimsical Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)

A number of years ago it occurred to me that Anderson was channelling  John Irving — the eccentric family and hangers-on, the tangled comedic plot, flashbacks, an unexpected moment of violence or atrocity,  a sequence in Vienna, a significant bear… I haven’t followed his work closely enough to confirm how right the thought was. I’m sure I spotted a bear in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The first thing to say is that it’s fun and the second is that it makes it less fun to write about. It’s a nested narrative — a young woman visits the monument to an author, an author lectures the camera, the author narrates a tale told to him, before we return, over precipitously, up the abîme. This is a tall tale, a very tall tale, it’s not necessarily the truth — and unconvincing model shots and matte paintings reinforce this. The titular hotel, in Republic of Zubrowka, has since been demolished and is owned by Zero Moustafa. Moustafa recalls a story of the hotel’s glory days in the early 1930s, when it was ruled over by the concierge, M. Gustave, who ministered to everyone’s needs, especially if they were blonde, rich and elderly. With the arrival of Zero as new lobby boy and the death of Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis, a conspiracy is hatched.

The plot is frankly ludicrous or, better, ludic, and has more twists and turns than a twisty turny thing. I suspect I had a grin on my face for much of the time; there was also a frown as I pondered … is that Tom Wilkinson? Isn’t that Tilda Swinton? Is that him — no, he was in The Man in the High Castle (2015), his brother’s called Joseph… Ralph? Oh, is that Keitel? Walken? No, Dafoe… An all star cast and you know Bill Murray is going to turn up. You have to swallow the whimsy, and not wonder too much about the eastern European politics and rise of Naziism that was contemporaneous with the setting.

Tintin and the Tintinnabulating Tinternet

Blackhat (Michael Mann, 2015)

  1. No coloured hats were worn during the making of this film.
  2. This film had four editors — one more than Fifty Shades of Grey.

The best part of the film is a pan across a cell wall of the lead character, Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), who has two books on his shelf: The Postmodern Condition and The Animal that Therefore I Am. Hathaway is a hacker, imprisoned for getting caught, who is briefly released to help good coder Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) track down the Evil Coder who has sent a Chinese nuclear power station into meltdown and stolen money on manipulated soy bean futures . Along for the ride, seemingly, is Dawai’s sister, Lien (Tang Wei), whom Dawai had been all-but-pimping to Nick. (When they get together, Dawai is all older borther possessive of her.) She does have computer expertise, but her job is look pretty and to be the reward for the hero.

For all its next three months futurism, this is old school, it’s Heat (1996) but less cool — and I still say L.A. Takedown (1989) was the better movie. We have phone calls arranging meets, we have corpses showing up when we go in search of suspects (and no one gives a fig about forensics), we have hails of bullets making holes in walls but fairly rarely the whitehats, we have devices placed on the bottom of cars, we have helicopter shots of men standing in half completed tower blocks. We have — dear Cthulhu no — the zoom-in on the pixels that takes us into the screen and along wires and down into the mean streets of the circuit board.

None of it makes any sense — this is a film that begins with a volcano but fails to work up to a crisis. The set piece finale felt more early seventies Bond, but with poorer acting. Our computer genius had to go to the spot in Malaysia to work out what the cunning evil plan was rather than using Googlemaps. We have no motivation for the Big Bad — I’m not even convinced we have more than a username. And he isn’t — spoiler — wearing a hat.

Publication: Chapter on District 9, Race and Racism

Ulrike Küchler, Silja Maehl, Graeme Stout (eds) (2015) Alien Imaginations Science Fiction and Tales of Transnationalism (London: Bloomsbury)

There is a moment in a review of District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009) when Joshua Clover anticipates that the film will be ‘a neat allegory of apartheid, with the marooned race of repulsive and sad-sack aliens standing for the dispossessed’ (2009: 8). Similarly, Eric D. Smith suggests that the film ‘at first seem[s] an allegory for the suspension of constitutional law during the officially declared South African State of Emergency in the latter days of apartheid policy (1985-1990)’ (2012: 149). In this essay I want to map District 9’s representation of inter-species hybrids within the complex situation of apartheid-era South African interracial relations and discuss some of the issues surrounding science fiction as allegory. I will consider “race” as being an ideological category and, following Julia Kristeva’s notion of the abject, a psychological construction that nevertheless has a material existence. I will be posing the question of to what extent District 9 is itself racist.

Alien Imaginations Cover

Ulrike Küchler, Silja Maehl and Graeme Stout (eds) (2015) Alien Imaginations Science Fiction and Tales of Transnationalism (London: Bloomsbury)

I got home from Eastbourne on Friday to find a package that I took to be some medium-awaited DVDs but was in fact a copy of Ulrike Küchler, Silja Maehl, Graeme Stout (eds) (2015) Alien Imaginations Science Fiction and Tales of Transnationalism (London: Bloomsbury). I have a chapter in it called “Human Subjects/Alien Objects? Abjection and the Constructions of Race and Racism in District 9“, which began from the sense that there was something racist at the heart of District 9 — the dangers of using aliens as metaphors for racial difference, made more problematic by the representation (with subtitles) of Nigerians. There’s an interesting couple of paragraphs in Adilifu Nama’s Black Space when he argues:

At its best, SF cinema is an allegorical site that invites the audience to safely examine and reflect on long-standing social issues in an unfamiliar setting, providing the possibility of viewing them in a new light.
At its worst, the process of allegorical displacement invites audiences to affirm racist ideas, confirm racial fears, and reinforce dubious generalizations about race […] without employing overt racial language or explicit imagery.

It’s a dangerous ploy. The episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (“Angel One” (25 January 1988)) that used gender to explore Apartheid is a case in point. Ouchy.

There was a point in writing this chapter where I hit a wall and needed something more — I confess to reading the chapter on race in Adam Roberts’s Science Fiction (2000) and the light dawned. I typed a keyword into the library catalogue and two articles on District 9 were the top results. I swear they had not been visible before. From there, thankfully, it flowed.

Oddly enough, on the train journey to and from Eastbourne I read Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon (2014), which is, among other things, a response to District 9 from a Nigerian perspective. I shan’t blog about the novel for now, but I know I will come back to it. Another chapter in the collection, I think Bianca Westermann’s “Meeting the Other: Cyborgs, Aliens & Beyond”, also discusses District 9 and comes to different conclusions, so I will be very interested to read that.

Fifty Shades of Hamearis lucina

The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, 2014)

Towards the start of the opening credits of The Duke of Burgundy, I spotted the name of executive producer Ben Wheatley. He directed the genre bending Kill List (2011), the rather baffling A Field in England (2013), a couple of episodes of NuWho and he’s working on High-Rise. I couldn’t help but see that there was an uncanny film at work — a hidden film. On the one hand, there’s the Peter Greenaway version, which would need a Michael Nyman score, more camera tracking and an organisational system (by genus of butterfly?). On the other hand there’s the horror film,  possibly sf. Clearly the credits sequence is meant to invoke 1970s low budget movies, a sexploitation or two, maybe even a hint at Hammer. In a recurring scenario — this film is so about its repetition — the camera pans along a crowd watching a talk on butterflies and moths and, among all the woman, there are a couple of shop dummies. Autons? Cheaper than  extras? A nod toward the artificiality of it all? Or do we have a body snatchers scenario and they’re all insects? As  Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) locates and opens a body-sized chest in the house, I wondered what horror we were to find in it. Later, briefly, there was an answer (as well as a longer answer).

So Evelyn (there’s an echo of Angela Carter there) arrives at a house, knocks and is admitted, being told off by Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) for being late and for sitting down without invitation (I confess my first thought was she had not been given permission — a Pavlovian training from my own childhood).  Evelyn is set to work, cleaning the study — a space full of dead butterflies and larvae — and doing the laundry. When, as is inevitable, she fails to please her mistress, she is punished, behind a closed bathroom door, and possibly by a method that the British government recently criminalised on streaming video. If the acting seems a little off — well, think of the acting and dubbing in Dario Argento films if you haven’t (as I haven’t) seen Jess Franco films, and the fact that it is All More Complicated than you think it is.

It is obviously less explicit than that other film, Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), for the most part at least, and we would do well to avoid falling into an old value judgement about pornography and erotica. Here’s Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian:

Peter Strickland’s new film, The Duke of Burgundy, is different: it is a labour of love, whereas Fifty Shades of Grey was a labour of money.

Whilst clearly a budget of some significance was thrown at the other film, it has made pots of money and the original texts were bestselling adaptations of bestselling novels, this rather begs a question about Sam Taylor-Johnson’s artistic intentions in making the film alongside all the other crew members and the cast. Strickland, presumably, didn’t get a fee? Srsly? Whilst clearly I wasn’t a fan of that better known film, it is very easy to be snide about materials that a large female audience has enjoyed.

Obviously there are ambiguities to navigate. I’m inclining to the sense that it’s an exaggeration of the kind of materialistic relationship that many straight women enter into in capitalist society and that it isn’t necessarily endorsing it. This is not quite the same as suggesting that it’s a dramatization of the kind of abusive relationship that too many women (read: any non-consenting abusive relationship) are in or that women have the freedom to choose their sexual activities even if these are masochistic in nature (and, indeed, that’s so none of my business). Whilst clearly we could say the words Internalised Misogyny, we have a novel by a female ur-writer transformed by a female novelist adapted by a female screen writer filmed by a female director. Compare, say, Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976), where a male novelist is adapted by a male screenwriter is filmed by a male director. It’s not my place to label, but which one seems more likely to be feminist? One of them is a female vision of (some) female fantasies and the other is a male vision of (some) female fantasies. The fact that both characters are female makes a difference.

So, whilst it has to be noted that the entire cast of The Duke of Burgundy appears to be female, Peter Strickland, director and screenwriter, is a bloke. The BDSM scenario may be a representation of female empowerment, but it’s a male vision.  Clearly the film passes the Bechdel Test, but that’s no guarantee it’s feminist. (I note, again, I have no authority to issue such a label.) At points I found myself pondering whether entomology is part of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) and the problem of a narrative in which the abuser has apparently been “seduced” by the victim. (“She made me do it.”)

I was particularly disturbed by the sequence when the camera zooms in on the darkened crotch of Cynthia and goes on an extended fantasy riff — in both the sexual and non-realist sense — before pulling back again. Is this, I wondered, a misogynist fear of what all those women get up to when men aren’t around? Perhaps not even women, but Insect Things? Where are all the men? Victims of preying mantises?

But the actors do what they do well, and it is beautifully shot and designed the hell out of — there’s a perfume credit, a long list of butterflies and very detailed annotations of the field recordings used in the film. It deserves to do well so that BFI and Film Four investment can be repaid. To say this is a better film than Fifty Shades, however, is probably not a useful judgement; I’m not even sure that I’d be more likely to rewatch it. I do want to seek out Katalin Varga (2006) and  Berberian Sound Studio  (2012) though.