Friday, 26 December 2008

Film, Folklore and Urban Legends - some thoughts

In Mikel Koven's latest book, Film, Folklore and Urban Legends, he applies folkloristic methods and readings to a variety of films including The Wicker Man, the zombie film and Weekend at Bernies and its sequel.

As a book for the folklorist, I found it relatively hard going compared to his more film studies based analysis of the giallo as a vernacular cinema, though his references to Walter Ong's work provide something of route in.

In again referencing Ong, I think Koven also inadvertently point to one of the differences between the Argento giallo and many of its imitators, namely the extent to which we can engage with the text multiple times:

'Films that demand rewatching, rewinding, and replaying are more “literary” in that in order to experience the narrative to its fullest, one needs to understand its overall structure. From a literary perspective, this demand is more “sophisticated,” more like “quality literature.”'

Again, however, this is also something which makes the Argento text less vernacular, or at least more open to different reading strategies. It also, I think, points to a difference between the more successful early Argento gialli – here I would include The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red and Tenebre – and the less satisfactory Cat o' Nine Tails. This is that Cat lacks many moments that require a re-reading or re-viewing in the same way as Bird's Gallery scene or Peter Neal's remarks in Tenebre.

As to the book itself, I found the chapter on The Wicker Man to be more successful than that on the zombie film, largely because the former is clearer in its focus.

Koven emphasises the way in which, in using J G Fraser's The Golden Bough, or at least a specific earlier version of it, as the source for The Wicker Man's mythology, Schaffer and Hardy took second-hand conjectures and commentary as truth. The result is something unsatisfactory from a folkloristic perspective, even if it may make for good cinema. Whilst there is perhaps nothing particularly revelatory here, inasmuch as the combination of pagan – or neo-pagan – practices depicted within the film has long been recognised as somewhat syncretic, Koven's analysis is impressive in its specifics and detail.

The chapter on the zombie film, by comparison, seems to suffer somewhat from an uncertainty over exactly what the zombie is and represents, specifically around the distinction between the traditional voodoo zombie and the Romero / post-Romero flesh eater, and what seems an – admittedly necessarily – selective reading of the corpus of films.

In a way, however, this also emerges as part of the point when we also consider Koven's analysis of the Weekend at Bernies films. It is more convincing in showing the value of Koven's vernacular approach when dealing with genuinely vernacular cinema that lacks a degree of self-consciousness about what it is doing. To put it another way, whereas Fulci and his collaborators on Zombie likely had voodoo in mind as a means of distinguishing their film from Romero's – even if maybe somewhat post-hoc and selectively, depending on who was asking – the authors of Weekend at Bernies were operating at a less conscious level, using folkloristic tropes without necessarily being aware of so doing.

An interesting read thus far...

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