Menu

W.C.U.N Pittsburgh!!

TOWARD A NEW SPLATTER AESTHETIC

In Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, she posits that all film is subject to the Male Gaze, a psychoanalytical reading of film text that states the narrative of cinema is overwhelmingly presented from an empowered male perspective. A perspective that objectifies women and that breaks down into either a sadistic form of voyeurism that the audience participates in, a type of wish ful-fillment for our collective desire to watch others, especially women without fear of being discovered, or a fetishism that becomes about the reinforcement of narrative and archetypes in our daily lives. There have been several challenges to Mulvey’s essay over the years that claim the Male Gaze is too narrow in its definition not taking into account the sexuality, ethnicity or social status of the viewer. It also does not take into account the Gaze present in other styles of film-making beyond the American Hollywood narrative such as Experimental and LGBTQ Cinema

Interestingly, commercial cinema in the new millennium has seen a rise in another style that often lies outside of Mulvey's theory. Typically associated with the foreign art film, the poorly monikered Contemplative or Slow Cinema is that genre chiefly concerned with the experience of time, tone and atmosphere over plot, character and action and whose practitioners are mostly devout cinephiles owing their style to the masters and pioneers of this aesthetic; Tarkovsky, Bresson, Ozu, Akerman, et.al.  As a lifelong fan of these directors and their films, I have often asked myself why practitioners of such a style tend toward character studies, emotionally resonant, philosophic and existential quandaries and not, say, the genre film? Why are such techniques, once cutting edge in their own way still used only in the service of dogmatic social dramas, character meditations, and neo-seventies styled American realism and not the latest Slasher film? And moreover, why can’t the Horror film be concerned with the above themes? 

Obviously, the quick answer is that there do exist films of this particular cross breeding especially of late in the Horror genre, but they are almost all surface explorations. In films such as It Follows we are seeing a co-opting of art house techniques in an effort to build atmosphere and dread, but in some cases, these techniques are being used rather disingenuously to elicit critical praise by association alone. This almost entirely surface effort in commercial cinema is not solely without merit. Films like Von Trier's Antichrist (dedicated to Tarkovsky) and Egger's The Witch are great examples of directors successfully blending these genres and techniques, but ultimately the Horror film does not easily lend itself to interpretations of existential and philosophical issues, nor does the average horror audience seek such examinations, whereas the so-called art film and audience often do. The hidden implication is that in the period drama or character study there is more to consider, more to take in and more to reflect on. The subject of say, a French house wife’s daily routine is in the minds of the cineliterate of far more value than whether or not the latest Final Girl will dispatch her stalker. I strongly disagree with this reading but it is common, considered such a given that the average cinephile never even questions it. The Horror film after all and this is true for even the cheapest of exploitation films, is ultimately about our relationship with death and how we as a collective choose to deal with this deepest of anxieties. It is unfortunate then, and perhaps indicative of the inherent dismissal cinephiles harbor for Horror that a significant, and thorough grammar has not been developed for the Horror film beyond the Final Girl visual tropes and the cultivation of shock and suspense. A fact, I imagine that has everything to do with the inherent content – who among us really enjoys contemplating death, the ruin of our body, the rot of the grave? And so this collective investigation known as the Horror film has increasingly taken on the form of entertainment. A progression that says much about, not only our global culture’s penchant for simultaneously confronting and negating the disturbing questions of our existence through entertainment, but which seems to this viewer a neutering of one of our most powerful venues for the examination of the self and our relationship with our own and each other’s bodies. 

Unlike the Male Gaze of Horror cinema, the gaze in Art cinema is more often than not an objective, omnipotent gaze, the equivalent of say, the omniscient narrator in literature, a God Gaze if you will. Typically removed from sexual politics, this gaze is often devoid of fetishism, sadism, and eroticism but by no means is voyeurism absent. In fact, it appears to be the purest of voyeuristic engagements as it is the voyeurism found in scientific observation, unencumbered by opinion, or artifice, at least as much as fiction filmmaking allows. This slow aesthetic by its very nature then is a style tailored to such serious subjects as the meaning of life, death, love and any number of other moral, religious, and philosophical questions we have as human beings. The idea of using that aesthetic in service of genre, artifice, and provocation, if truly even possible, is often either seen as pretension of the highest order or practically heretical. It is the marriage of art and trash as Pauline Kael might have remarked but to what end? Is it simply another fracture in an already fractured set of genre tropes? Another style, or trend? Another clever reworking of long-established stylistic choices that ultimately provide nothing more than an a ha moment for the astute viewer? 

There are several recent films outside of the Horror genre that exist at this intersection of genre and art too. Most recently we can take Villeneuve's long-awaited Sci-Fi epic, Blade Runner 2049 as an example. The near dream-like quality of much of the film has as much to do with the time taken to tell a rather simple story as it does the editing and cinematography. Whatever your take on the success of the film, it is most definitely a surface cross-pollination of these styles but not the realization of a new aesthetic. It is what amounts to a curiosity at best and a gimmick at worst. That said, I do believe at this intersection, there does exist the potential for a truly new aesthetic, one, however, that first requires a new gaze.

For all the gorehounds that exist and the legion that have been created by the DVD and Blu-Ray revolution’s excavation of countless forgotten Gialli, Grindhouse and Slasher films, there appears to be a new gaze forming when it comes to on-screen violence. Well, perhaps not new, as it appears to already be reaching a tipping point in the collective conscious, a critical mass even. More and more the viewer of not only Cult, Underground and Independent but mainstream, commercial cinema is engaged in the enjoyment of the desecration of the human form, whether on a purely visceral, and thrill based level or on a more malign, sadistic level. This is ultimately a distillation of an aberrant aspect of the Male Gaze but there is another aspect present in certain viewers’ fascination with the method or magic of the violence, an appreciation of the artistry found in the special effects. There is something of the objective observer, a bastardization of the God Gaze, emerging and yet, there remains a reluctance to dwell on the meaning. Even the films themselves seem reluctant to stay too long on any one effect, the editing such as to hide the work of the effects artist, practically ensuring that the violence will be experienced, and forgotten in time for the next atrocity, a very limited and arguably unhealthy situation that keeps the emphasis on the shock, and the gross-out. Personally, as a viewer, I find it wearisome that each new horror film that comes along seeks to shock us with the same old ultra-violence. I am of the mind that we should feel violence in films. It should hurt and the only kind of violence that could be argued as dangerous is the kind of violence that can be easily consumed. The relationship between violence and the human form is ripe with possibilities beyond shock and disgust. Is it irresponsible of me to suggest that in this desecration, in the destruction of form there can be beauty? That ultimately there can be something both visceral and transcendent in on-screen violence?  

I believe the key to such an aesthetic lays in the relationship we as viewers have with our own bodies as well as the bodies on the screen. For if there is to be a new gaze to accompany our new aesthetic there must be a new body on which to gaze or if not a new body, then a new representation of the body beyond the narrow confines of how it now exists in cinema as either that which is coveted or that which is punished. I am not suggesting the simple application of the slow aesthetic to a genre film. As I have mentioned, this has been done enough already to varying degrees of success. I am suggesting the creation of a new aesthetic based on a new gaze, a gaze born of this intersection. The Death Gaze, a synthesis of the Male Gaze and the God Gaze achieved through the rendering of the human form through an abstraction of its place in time and its movement through space. Or to a finer point, the selective elimination of the 180-degree rule or fourth wall, continuity mismatches, and the role reversal of the animate and inanimate as they generally pertain to frame composition not to mention an active dis-location of the body from its surroundings as well as its fellow extremities. Giving an arm the autonomy of a body, the strained deltoid the close-up usually reserved for the actor’s face. This is not to imply that we should create a series of abstractions of the human form in service of a narrative but that we should perhaps redefine the composition of the human form in the classical frame as it services the story or in this case the tone of the emotions to be conveyed. 

It's simply a matter of presentation. In the case of the Horror film, most important in establishing this new gaze will first be the fetishizing, or eroticizing of the inanimate and of Mother Nature. Secondly, the un-wavering, lingering attention spent on the effects work and subsequently the acts they detail. We should not look away from Horror but look closer, deeper, like a Fulci zoom, but not for thrills and not for shock, but until the violence is an abstraction, and the body’s meaning within the frame is lost completely. Only then can it be re-defined. 

However, we return to the question; to what end? Why formulate, prepare, and execute such a design? To further glorify violence? To continue our cultural desensitization towards the perverse, horrific and indulgent? I can only say that it has nothing to do with a sadistic desire to dwell on violence for the sake of the gross-out, to turn stomachs or shock the audience and everything to do with facing the truth, establishing a new grammar of death, a new transcendent gaze rooted in the confrontation and meditation of and on our own mortality.

Go Back

Comment