Thursday, July 13, 2006

107. Also, I See It Not Always

I guess I should've known all along, but Film Comment just indirectly informed me--and let me apologize in advance to Vivian Sobchack--that I'm an old lady afraid of having her body violated. Sobchack writes about seeing "contemporary horror films" and states that explicit gore and shock make her turn away from the screen in a "literally biased physical position in relation to cinephilic spectatorship." She arrives at what is for me sickeningly familiar territory: a "fierce love," an "'unpleasure'" that is compelling but "awe-filled (awful?)." Terror, then, can be sublime, Sobchack notes,* and to feel such terror--of death, naturally, but more pervasively of the body's fragility--is a kind of pleasure: that of being "alive," as she italicizes.

But Sobchack also insists that she had a stronger stomach for this kind of thing when she was younger, that her dread has increased as her "body has become increasingly sensitive to visceral images of its imminent potential for violation." So, more precisely, it seems I have been an old lady since I was a child, losing my fear-dotage for a while in my 30s, but regaining it in my late 40s. As I've written elsewhere on this site (back in February), "as a little kid [a horror film] was 'entertainment' only in the Sadean sense, as I rubbed my own nose in my primal fears. I can recall even later, as a high schooler 'watching' The Exorcist, that I focused mostly on the lower-right-hand corner of the screen, the only bit of the frame that was not piled high with a steaming helping of doom. This was 1973; was I really that terrified at sixteen?" Yes, I was; and am growing so again, as I realize "with some sad relief [that] I still know, as our good but scary friend Hannah Arendt tells us, that 'Fear is an emotion indispensable for survival.'"

I'm a bit uneasy that, now 49, I have resumed looking away from the gruesome and the grotesque; it hints that I, too, am feeling the "imminent potential for violation," which I suppose will only increase as I grow older. But I'm more concerned for that little kid I once was, even that halting teenager, both of them as frightened as a senior citizen feeling a sharp pain at 3 A.M., certain that eruptions are inevitable, knowing that the freshly ploughed field and newly dug grave have the same smell--"man's smell," as G. M. Hopkins called it. He should have been stronger, that little kid, that frail teen. He should have waited a while before fearing that smell.

Or not; as I write, I begin to suspect that such aversion is not merely a response to encroaching fragility. Sobchack asserts that she didn't used to be so squeamish (read: aware of the terrible seismic capabilities of the sublime) around horror films, but I doubt her as she writes, "in my youth ... I felt my body and psyche invulnerable and could watch anything (well, almost)"--because there it is: that "well, almost." What couldn't she face, even wearing the armor of youth? In her essay, "The Leech Woman's Revenge" (1994), she writes about watching horror films in the 1950s: "I never found those early horror films all that horrible or really scary, although I did find them incredibly poetic, and I almost always identified with the monsters, whatever their gender (assuming they had one)." In this earlier piece, she focuses on an image that conveys for her a great deal of autobiographical power: "the middle-aged woman who is both scared and scary," the Baby Jane, the Norma Desmond, the parody of youth combined with the agony of aging, an "excess woman" who, like the Wasp Woman, is "prepared to die but not to look lousy for the next forty years." Sobchack tells us, "There was a period in my middle age when I felt dried up and experienced an aridity that had nothing to do with a postmenopausal lack of vaginal lubrication. Rather, the phenomenological truth of this sense of desiccation ... was grounded in what seemed a forced exclusion from the sexual economy, from the sensual, a deprivation of the caresses from another that make one sensitive to one's own skin." Her 1994 essay culminates with the Leech Woman herself: "The story here is about aging, desire and the body, and its moral charge is derived from the double standard ... that elicits a complex of engendered emotions from both the women and the men who bear it: fear, humiliation, abjection, shame, power, rage, and guilt." In passing, she mentions Death Becomes Her as a latter-day sign that such concerns persist; again, though, I'm drawn to the (for me) disturbing confluence of my own childhood responses and her middle-aged ones. She asserts that young people are disgusted by the thought of adults indulging in youthful behavior: Baby Jane's rouged cheeks are simply obscene indicators of sexual desire slouching into decrepitude, raw and jeering. But, although she makes no mention of it--and I assume she would have had no opportunity to have seen it at the time of its release--I (hesitantly) offer as a film that bridges her brave assertions of youthful (near-)invulnerability and my admissions of youthful craven terror: Les yeux sans visage (1959), which I also did not see when I was young, but that may best explain why I turned away from horror films when I was a child and why Sobchack turns away in middle age. It literally superimposes the ideal of beauty--with medically horrific detail--on the grotesque damage done to beauty--and done not by age, but happenstance: the girl is disfigured in an accident caused by her plastic-surgeon father, who peels away the faces of other young women to restore his daughter. It is not simply age or ugliness, but life and beauty, that threaten us in horror films--and worse, the randomness of catastrophe, and the subsequent ironclad logic leading inevitably to The End. And when we watch, we see that threat, and we turn away--again, as Arendt argues, as a survival impulse--despite our intent to gaze.

But can one turn away completely and still "watch a movie"? Sobchack in Film Comment writes about looking at her lap, at other spaces in the theater aside from the screen. But she also mentions the aural cues, the throb of light--and we are back to the problem--OK, my problem--of reconciling her adult-onset aversion with my childhood strain of the affliction. So to "solve" the problem--or maybe just exacerbate it, as horror tends to do--I will move one year after Franju's film, to 1960 and Peeping Tom, its howl of outrage at voyeurism practiced askance worse than Norman Bates' returned gaze in the same year, because Michael Powell refused to exhibit Hitchcock's taste; no, he perched his Raven of a movie somewhere between William Castle and Herschell Gordon Lewis, a seedy little creep as sublime in its terror as a tell-tale heart--and as telling, in its expose of the dread of the direct gaze that Sobchack feels--and I'll wager always has: her current resistance may be merely to the CGI verisimilitude horror films can manage, straight out of the operating room. But this marks the simple drawing away from the visceral--which splatter-fans do not experience, I think because either they do not work hard enough to suspend disbelief (that is, they lack actual imaginations) or--closer yet to the faulty heart of sublime terror--they cave in and revel in the masochism of watching and, in a safe remove from direct sadism, enjoy watching others' bodies sacrificed to protect their own.

And so maybe in the end it is not a generational issue, but, as Sobchack has often written, a gender one--Sobchack begins her FC piece by recounting her experience of seeing two "cool" "female" horror films with a fan-boy who assures her she will love them, with their imagery of wombs and "'extreme motherhood.'" (Of course, it sounds like the guy simply was luring her with gender-studies-speak.) Sobchack rejects the female-ness of the movies she obliquely watched--Isolation and Descent--but I think there is still a gender issue going on here, in the distinction between the "male" amour fou of the gore-fest and Sobchack's "female" dread of "body violation."

This, though, leaves me literally odd man out. Whence my own "female dread"? Why do I shrink from the cinema of the grotesque? And again, to misappropriate Wordsworth, let's recall that I have done so as child, and now as a man, and so it shall be when I grow old, or let me die. And that last--my need to "live until I die," despite all terror--may be the clue: While men stereotypically enjoy a good dismemberment--so often themselves pitching rather than catching, so to speak, in the act of rending (pardon the imagery)--women stereotypically choose life, wholeness with possibility. And, as slippery as this slope might be, I can use such stereotypes to define as well as deconstruct the proper response--at least for me--to horror films: "male" attraction combined with "female" repulsion, a kind of indulgence that, as Shun liang-Chow--discussed in the note below--argues, is "playful" but grotesque, and illuminative of our yearnings for generation, for what will be; it is a wish-fulfillment dream of eventual completeness. The central horror film image, then, is not simply one of birth blasphemed, but of growth sustained, as awful/awe-filled as that growth might be. (I leave to another day a discussion of David Cronenberg's The Brood/1979.) Shun deals with grotesques in art, those man-woman-plant-animal hybrids one can see in paintings and engravings, in architectural details and decorations, the epitomes of the "incongruous." And I think horror films share the impulse to make their own hybrids of the mundane and the extreme. So maybe it is not merely a cookie-cutter solution, a young/old, female/male concern, but a bit of both, and woe to the man who cannot turn away from--or the woman who gazes too cooly at--the outer limits of visual grotesquerie. I know it sounds like I'm trying to weasel out of the image of myself as a frightened old woman, but I hope that instead, with the help of writers like Vivian Sobchack and Shun liang-Chow--and with every effort to gaze directly at the grotesque--I'm getting closer to the truth, as multifold as it may be. I'll have to think about this. Preferably at 3:00 AM, but with the light on.

*While Sobchack does not in FC need to cite sources--perhaps if only for the sake of space, for these literary fish swim far and deep--the academic in me is compelled to mention, via a rewarding article by Shun liang-Chow of University College, London, that the linkage of the sublime--a "stunning burst of passion," as Shun puts it, paraphrasing Longinus in the first century C.E.--and the terrible--for Shun, the "grotesque"--was made by the early Romantics. Shun mentions the seventeenth century English poet-critic John Dennis, who asserts, "no Passion is attended with greater Joy than Enthusiastick Terror, which proceeds from our reflecting that we are out of danger at the very time that we see it before us." And Shun's article does not, of course, forget Edmund Burke, who argues that terror "is in all cases, either openly or more latently the ruling principle of the sublime." And Kant as well, who notes that "the sublime moves"--the beautiful, on the other hand, merely "charms." So, if terror rules the sublime, and is more moving than the beautiful, then Poe has been right all along, as he encloses us in that narrowest space, again and again, where terror bears down on us, nose to nose, and we are moved as we both fall into and stand apart from terror in the sublime space of the cinema; except when little old ladies like Sobchack and me look away--as we must, since how much sublimity can one take? It's the "Stendahl Syndrome" as applied to horror films.

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