Monday, 24 November 2008

Shocking Representation

Much like Joan Hawkins's Cutting Edge, this is one of those academic studies of the horror film that seeks to position the genre in a more central, less peripheral position within film studies and to challenge some commonly held distinctions around high and low cinemas.

Whereas Hawkins focused on the intersection between horror and avant-garde cinemas, Lowenstein's focus is simultaneously both broader and narrower, insofar as he is looking specifically at moments of historical trauma within horror cinema but thereby engaging with the distinct field of trauma studies.

The intersection between his selection of films – Franju's Eyes Without a Face, Powell's Peeping Tom, Shindo's Onibaba, Craven's Last House on the Left and Cronenberg's Shivers, each the subject of one chapter – and trauma studies comes through a dissatisfaction with the kind of binaries that pertain in both disciplines and the desire to seek an alternative approach that goes beyond the limitations of this kind of thinking.

In trauma studies, the key binaries are identified as those of melancholia and mourning, acting out and working through, historically irresponsible and responsible, and of the realist and modernist representational modes. In each case the former part of the pairing is ascribed a negative value and the latter a positive one.

In film the corresponding binaries are those of genre and art cinema and of popular and national cinema. Here Lowenstein notes the tendency for certain art house directors and movements to come to represent their nation internationally with a concomitant marginalisation of the actual popular (we might also say vernacular) cinema that the majority of cinema-goers within the nation actually go to see.

Something of the intersection of the two discourses is represented by serious critical reactions to Lanzmann's Shoah compared to Spielberg's Schindler's List. The representational strategies of the former mean that it is an authentic work that demands to be taken seriously, whereas those of the latter render it less authentic, incapable of being taken as seriously as its director would like.

Lowenstein's key alternative to the binaries that have come to dominate trauma studies and which have hitherto limited its application within the cinema to canonical art cinemas is the notion of the shocking allegorical moment, derived from the German-Jewish thinker Walter Benjamin, that exists as an image without a fixed meaning and between poles.

One weakness in Lowenstein's argument is that at times he introduces binaries similar to those he critiques earlier, albeit at a considerably more specific level. This is most evident in discussion of Eyes Without a Face where, again drawing from Benjamin, he develops the idea of two somewhat distinct surrealisms, one associated with Breton and tending towards the interior world of dreams and the other, which he favours, associated with Bataille and emphasizing towards the external material world; in his earlier discussion of Benjamin, Lowenstein likewise emphasizes the baroque allegory over the romantic symbol and historical materialism over historicism.

This said, it can also be noted that the background against which Lowenstein situates the film is in terms of its own impurity at a time when the Gaullist project was one of reconstructing a true, authentic, pure vision of French national identity as a means of overcoming the historical trauma of occupation in World War II.

Crucially, this project found its cinematic analogue in Truffaut’s manifesto cum essay A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema, in which he argued for the essential / existential falsity of the existing Tradition of Quality and the need for a new true, genuine national cinema to replace it – a cinema which he and his New Wave colleagues would soon supply.

Though Lowenstein’s discussion here gets a bit muddled, insofar as he sometimes situates Franju with the Left Bank filmmakers against the New Wave and at others separates Franju out from both movements – movements which are often, we must note, frequently amalgamated into one, thus minimizing their differences – the basic point that Franju offered a challenge to the New Wave’s ideals in his impure, mixed cinema, is well made.

If Lowenstein makes no mention of Bazin’s writings in defence of a mixed cinema, perhaps because Bazin here represents the negative side of realist theory against Benjamin’s friend Siegfried Kracauer, the contrasts he makes between Franju’s disturbing, disquieting, decentring representation of Paris and Truffaut’s far more reassuring one is also well made. (I also suspect here that a detailed consideration of Bazin’s The Cinema of Cruelty, with its Artauldian title, might add further complications here as well.)

A similar pattern is evident in Lowenstein’s readings of Peeping Tom in relation to The British New Wave, specifically Room at the Top, in relation to post-war class anxieties, and Onibaba in relation to the Japanese New Wave and the legacy of Hiroshima: The analyses of the films are hard to fault, though one feels that there is the occasional striking omission. Thus, being more familiar with the British than the Japanese cinematic context here, I noted that whilst Lowenstein comments on Hammer and the figure of the Teddy Boy, he fails to note their conflation in the studio's The Ugly Duckling, with its Teddy Hyde figure.

A difficulty some horror fans may have is that the horror films Lowenstein discusses, while perhaps marginal in relation to the non-horror national cinema type films they are paired with, occupy rather more central positions in relation to the genre itself.

A notable point of contrast in this regard is Bob Clark's Death Dream, which Lowenstein uses to further illustrate the idea of an allegorical moment that crosses and confuses conventional categorisations, but then passes over in favour of Last House on the Left in relation to Vietnam-era trauma in the USA in his fourth chapter.

While his analysis of the marketing of Craven's film is illuminating – I had never realised that the “It's just across the street from Joe” line on the famous poster referenced another film of the period dealing with the gap between the dominant and counter-cultures – there can be few horror fans unawares of Last House's relationship to Bergman’s The Virgin Spring.

Similarly, while it is true that Deliverance is a respectable, non-horror, rape-revenge and culture-clash film, it is also rather closer to mainstream Hollywood than the three films discussed in the previous chapters. The issue, one feels, is that the US lacks a national cinema in the same way as other nations, as its national cinema is in fact Hollywood.

The final chapter is also different in this regard, though more satisfactory. Lowenstein presents Croneberg as something of an exception to the general divisions found in the previous discussions of trauma cinema, highlighting the way in which he has become internationally recognised as an auteur and as the most famous and influential director to come from Canada's despite the consistently trangsressive qualities of his films. Here Lowenstein compares critical reaction to Shivers, Night of the Living Dead and Crash, noting how Robin Wood's contrasting evaluation of Night as a progressive text and Shivers as a regressive one might be challenged, in suggesting that it is precisely Cronenberg's embrace of radical possibilities inherent in his 'new flesh' and transgression of the art/genre and national/popular cinema distinctions that represents his greatest challenge.

Though this review has perhaps accentuated the negative somewhat, I must conclude that Shocking Representations is a thought provoking book and one that I can see influencing my own readings of certain Italian films by Argento and Leone in my academic work.

Yet, insofar as I am opting for these filmmakers over the less respectable / more obscure / cult likes of Fulci, Di Leo, Bava and Lenzi as providing allegorical moments within Italian cinema, it could be argued that I will end up similarly rescuing some popular, genre filmmakers whilst condemning others to underserved obscurity.

My defence would be that one has to start somewhere, with the relatively low-hanging fruit, before moving on to them pair the Nazisploitation film with its more respectable – if still transgressive – Salo. In the spirit of self-criticism, however, one does wonder if the greatest challenge would be to begin rather than end with the apparently indefensible, and that Leone and Argento just represent a pragmatic choice of far enough out there to shock dominant sensibilites, but not so far as to seem completely other.

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