Cinema & Revulsion
I have a conflicted relationship with modern horror cinema because, to be honest, I’m a bit squeamish. Maybe this has something to do with my cinema upbringing—in Indian film history, horror has never been a strong presence.
The Indian film market as a whole is composed of three categories: ‘A’ (large cities, where I grew up); ‘B’ (towns); and ‘C’ (rural areas, where the majority of the Indian population lives). In my teen years, the ‘70s and ‘80s, horror films did exist, but they were low-budget films made mostly for the C market. These were films marked by a double disreputability: not only did they contain explicit violence (although nowhere near the extent that their low-budget Western counterparts of the period did), they also had strong sexual overtones. Overt sexuality in Indian films was taboo for a long time; even kissing on the lips didn’t appear on Indian screens until the mid-‘80s. For these reasons, horror films didn't circulate much in A and B markets because producers were nervous about provoking widespread middle-class moral outrage in urban centers with high concentrations of educated bourgeois.
So, being barely familiar with the genre, when I moved to America as an adult and wandered innocently into The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the first time, the damn thing hit me like a truck. It took me 10 years to return to it, gingerly, and then I quickly recognized its genius.
I find that sometimes I need more than one exposure to such a film in order to surmount my revulsions, to try and push back the limits of my squeamishness. Cinema can be a source of rarefied emotions and spiritual edification but ultimately it’s much more than those things: it deals with the entire gamut of human experience and sensation. To be truly curious about art in all its variety also means opening oneself up to that wide range of experience and sensation. This is the rationale, the mantra I repeat to myself when trying to work on my squeamishness problem.
And sometimes it can be hard. Horror films make special demands on us, even if they ‘reward’ us with special sensations. In her famous, much-anthologized essay “Film Bodies” (1991), Linda Williams speaks of the three genres that have never attained respectability: horror, melodrama, and porn. All three deviate from the norms and economy of classical realist narrative cinema with displays of excess. They strike audiences as gratuitous, viscerally manipulative, and unseemly. Importantly, they collapse the ‘aesthetic distance’ that makes the spectator feel comfortable and safe.
Williams points out that there’s something else these three ‘body genres’ have in common: they create a spectacle of excess that is enacted in the film upon the human body (violence in horror; emotion in melodrama; and orgasm in porn) but they also induce in the spectator a mimicry of these effects (fear for horror; tears for melodrama; arousal/orgasm for porn). In other words, these films brush ‘aesthetic distance’ out of the way and act viscerally upon the spectator’s body. The spectator doesn’t watch these films calmly, but instead convulses with them. Which can result in a certain hesitancy, a squeamishness on the part of the viewer due to the excess of physical and emotional investment these films demand.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject. Are there certain films or filmmakers you will not watch because they gross you out or disturb you too much? Over the years, has your tolerance/threshold for graphic horror gone up or down? What, in your opinion, are the difficult-to-watch films that are nevertheless rewarding and valuable? And what has been the effect of time: do you approach or process horror films any differently now than you did when you were younger?
-- Adrian Martin at Filmkrant on Armond White's piece in the New York Press, "What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Movies": "In the field of film criticism, White is against everyone: reviewers, promoters, bloggers, cinephiles. They are not merely myopic, in White's estimation, but 'wilfully blind' to the truth before them on the screen and in the world, because of ideological bias, or their desperate need to flee reality. But what is that truth, this reality? In his essay, White spontaneously offers 'ten current film culture fallacies' - ranging from 'Gus Van Sant is the new Visconti when he's really the new Fagin, a jailbait artful dodger', to 'Only non-pop Asian cinema from J-horror to Hou Hsiao Hsien counts, while Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou and Stephen Chow are rejected'. That list is Armond White in a nutshell: it's all dubious assertion (only 'non-pop' Asian cinema is acclaimed?) and even more aggressive counter-assertion (Van Sant is a phony), in a non-stop, strident loop. There is no argument, no development, no depth in this writing - for the simple reason that White is always dancing on the surface of ideas, a polemical 'moving target'. His modus operandi is confusion, as in this thumbnail account of Apichatpong Weerasethakul: all critics (except White) apparently ignore the 'fundamental terms', 'the facts of his Asianness, his sexual outlawry and his retreat into artistic and intellectual arrogance that evades social categorisation'. So is he for or against the filmmaker? Who can tell?"
-- In Artforum, a tribute by several writers to Alain Robbe-Grillet.
-- The summer season at Cinematheque Ontario features the following series: Robbe-Grillet & Alain Resnais; Jean Eustache; Luchino Visconti; Marcello Mastroianni; 24 Japanese Classics; Peter Lynch.
-- Michael Sicinski takes up Serge Bozon's La France, Craig Baldwin's Mock Up on Mu, Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues and Nanouk Leopold's Wolfsbergen.
-- Filmblog discovery of the week: Max Goldberg's Text of Light.
-- David Phelps (previously David Pratt-Robson) on "returns, escapes" in Rivette and Feuillade.
-- Michael Guillen on Joseph Campbell.
-- Danny Kasman's Cannes wrap-up piece with links to his reviews, at The Auteurs' Notebook.
-- via Joe Bowman at Fin de Cinema comes news of upcoming region-1 DVD releases: Demy's The Pied Piper and Jayasundara's The Forsaken Land. Also, picked up from Cannes were the new films by: Lucretia Martel, Arnaud Desplechin, the Dardennes, Leos Carax, Olivier Assayas, Steve McQueen, and Ari Folman.
-- Michael Wood in the London Review of Books on three Bresson films.
pic: Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977).