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Monday, May 17, 2010

Reaction to Cinematical's Genre Wars...or What is it good for? Absolutely nothin'

So, according to Cinematical, the war is over, and Sci-fi has won. At least it has bested horror as the genre of choice for audiences.

This is not a defense of a genre. Because horror is not just a genre.

Every film ever made is both a horror film and a documentary.

Everything else, the "plastics," the genre establishments, the stylistics of the art film and its American cousin the prestige picture...all of the tropes of cinema are merely different ways of trying to obscure that fact.

How is this possible? A film is always a document of a time, a place, of people, and of an acting out of certain events. Staged or not (then again all documentaries are staged; even a film like Warhol's Empire, a static frame for 24 hours, didn't show what was to the left, to the right, or behind the frame it is filming), they are lived events which are documented and preserved for examination. This is an argument that has been made somewhat frequently elsewhere, so I'll skip to the other half of it.

But how is every film ever made also a horror film?

Films are ghost stories. They are documents of the dead, of the decay of the human body, of the disembodied.

These are not just ephemeral connections. Film is a medium, and was devised as such. As Casper Tybjerg points out "the fantastic and film art were synonymous in early cinema." Given the connection of Edison to other works, such as trying to find a way to communicate with departed spirits, and the sudden influx of these new technologies at a time of neo-romanticism, in the early days, film was just another technology that could be a medium and a Medium.

And think of the title itself: all other genre names are based on either narrative structures (Comedy, mystery, romance), on collective settings, characters, conflicts, etc. (the war film, science-fiction, the western), or on the unique nature of the stylistic semantics (the musical).

The Horror film is the only genre based not on any sort of content or structure but rather on a feeling. Sure, there is the suspense film, but that is a "secularized" term that grew out of a type of horror film.

What is this feeling of horror? It cannot be terror or dread. In fact, it cannot be any subjective feelings, because not all horror films will or can instill these feelings on all of their viewers. Rather, a better definition is given by philosopher Robert C. Solomon who wrote that:
"Horror consists of a...recognition that things are not as they ought to be, which in turn requires an implicit comparison...horror is detached action which distinguishes it from fear."

This definition facilitates the notion that the movie-going experience is, in itself, a horrific one. Watching absent-present bodies on a larger than life screen, where sound comes from around you and not voices, instills an implicit feeling in the spectator that something isn't as it "ought to be." It is interesting to note that attempts to make a more horrific film experience were facilitated not by changing the content of the film, but rather to extend the screen to the audience, or the sensory experience of the film: be it the early uses of sound, the classic shot introducing the monster which implicitly broke the fourth wall (Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein), or the ballyhoo of William Castle. Each time 3-D has attempted to re-establish itself, the 50's, 80's, and currently, horror films have been some of the first to (re)adopt the technology.

This fascination on the sensory experience on the audience via an experience at the movies, and not in the content of the films, is central to the view that horror films are not quite genres, in that tropes and motifs can be made more explicit and extreme in order to enhance or challenge the audience. Whats more is that all of these sensory experiments are done outside of the frame of the film proper, making the film secondary to the experience, and doubly artificial. These re-assert the detachment of the audience, and remind them of their inability to experience the narrative inside of the film in an objective space. This is not a weakness, but rather an acknowledgment; a conceit that horror films are trying less to pretend they are not films. It doesn't matter if you do repeat to yourself that Last House... is "only a movie," because there is so much that is "not as it ought to be" in that film, that you're still going to be horrified;most notably Craven's contrapuntal soundtrack which I've written about elsewhere. That film also provides another example of artificiality working to achieve horror in it's final shot, one of the most horrific in cinema that is a freeze frame, a very physical interruption of space/time in the world of the film.

Solomon's definition of horror is far more congruent with the classical version of the horror story, from the fantastic of the fairy tale or folk tale, to the Greek and Shakespearean tragedy, to Poe, to Kafka, to the modernist expansions of the foundations which they formulated, by writers as diverse as Lovecraft, Borges, and Beckett.

In his criticism of the contemporary "Weird Tale," as he prefers to call them after the seminal pulp magazine stories in the early quarter of the last century, ST Joshi criticizes modern horror writers, most notably King, for substituting actual horror for grotesque soap operas. The difficulty is that writers like King, Straub, and Rice, and while lesser in the literary sense but more acutely in the film world Blatty, have influenced the modern idea of the horror film. These stories, nearly all middle-class, white, and puritanical (Blatty's presence complicates this, however, his horror finds itself more puritanical, while other Catholic filmmakers have created a more decidedly "Catholic" type of horror cf. Ferrara, Kawalerowicz, Del Torro, etc.), beg readings like Wood's, where horror is suddenly interpreted as bodily, difference, and above all sexual.

Viewing horror as a genre for a moment, if viewed as such, its down turn was in the 1990's. Make-up effects had allowed new levels of explicit gore, but audiences seemed disinterested. The films which re-ignited the horror genre were the Blair Witch Project, a film in which nothing is seen and its impossible for the audience to have a privileged sight, and the Scream series which recognized the artificial nature of the horror film, while re-invigorating it.

One of the problems is that there are horror films and Horror films. Those that go by the description of their generic elements, the Stephen King type films, and those that are actually horror films in which they cause the sensation of horror facilitated by the film, not by a self-sustaining, isolated film dictating the experience. In this sense, once again, the viewer is privy to the creation of the film as the deception of the representational models of film presentation and reception are bypassed or subverted.

In other words, there are two types of films going by the name horror. Those generically qualified, and those which are horrific film experiences. These were one in the same at the beginning of film, but have since become disconnected. Perhaps the closest the two have come since, as far as connecting, were in the late 70's with the films of Argento, and his artificial sound and space, and Lynch, who's inspiration of Deren and Anger (also makers of horror films) brought the American Avant-Garde to a more structured textual body. Even more interesting is the fact that nearly the entire corpus of Art-cinema is made up of horror films: essentially all of Bergman's oeuvre, Bunuel's works, films of Tarkovsky, Fellini, Resnais, Kurbrick, Godard, Coppola, Polanski, the Czech new wave, the Coen brothers, etc.


Davey Morrison said...

Excellent piece, Jacob. I've noticed that I consider myself a fan of horror movies, but I tend to avoid most movies that market themselves as Horror Movies. As you say, horror is not really a genre (though there are sub-genres that work as "actual" genres--haunted house movies, zombie movies, etc.). Horror Movies are often crappy, and this will probably always remain the case. But a pretty big chunk of the best movies from the last ten years (or from any time period) I'd definitely consider horror movies (some I'd also consider Horror Movies, some I wouldn't, and all are worthy of repeated viewings and analysis).

I've been wanting to make a list of my favorite horror movies recently, but the intangibility of horror as a genre has made the task seem a bit overwhelming.

Th. said...


Jump scenes and gore are tiring. But I agree: some of the greatest movies ever made are horror movies.