Powell, Anna. Deleuze and Horror Film.
Anna Powell's study seems an unlikely mash-up, combining the free-wheeling musings of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze on art cinema with the visceral frisson of an oft-despised genre, but the combination proves surprisingly fruitful. Powell begins with the firm belief that both art-house cinema and horror present valid fields for analysis, something that may be less controversial now that popular culture has made such well-traveled inroads into the hermetic world of academia. However, while mainstream scholars have studied horror film to reveal the secrets of subconscious drives or to expose political and cultural trends, only a minority of film scholars view horror films with an appreciation for their aesthetic accomplishments. Powell is a welcome addition to our ranks.
In applying Deleuze's insights on art-house film to horror, Powell faces an uphill battle--both in presenting the complex world of Deleuze's thought and in wresting the genre from the clutches of psychological analysis. I would argue that she succeeds more in the latter endeavor than in the former and anyone familiar with Deleuze will guess why: The theorist's critiques of the academic mainstays, Marxist and psychoanalytic approaches, are complex and require the use of his specialized vocabulary. With this hurdle in mind, the book's ambitious introduction, "New Directions in Horror Film Studies," explains many of Deleuze's central concepts before turning to chapters that explore those concepts. Chapter 1, "From Psychoanalysis to Schizoanalysis: An Intensive Voyage," lives up to its name as Powell invites the reader to plunge into the altered state of the horror experience. The second chapter, "Becoming Anomalous and the Body-Without-Organs," brings a new lens to the body-horror genre through its focus on the "becoming" experience of the horror film, reminding us of our participatory status as embodied viewers. The third chapter, "The Movement-Image: Horror Cinematography and Mise-en-scene," analyzes Deleuze's appropriation of Henri Bergson's concepts of perception and aesthetics. Then, in the fourth chapter, this Deleuzian/Bergsonian link continues with a discussion of "Horror Time," that peculiar phenomenon of elasticity where time can be infinitely dilated or precipitously collapsed so that the past can intrude on--and haunt--a present never fully achieved. Powell concludes with "Living Horror: Thoughts on our Nerve-Endings" which includes an exhortation to recognize the richness of interdisciplinary approaches to film studies, the embodied experience of cinematic viewing, and the importance of the largely neglected study of sound in film (particularly in the horror genre).
At first glance, the gap between Deleuze scholars and horror film fans might seem too wide to bridge, but Powell makes an admirable attempt to unite them with her introductory chapter. Casual readers will want to refer to the "Glossary of Key Terms" at the back to familiarize themselves with Deleuzian and Bergsonian terms before beginning the introduction; unfortunately, those unfamiliar with these philosophers may still find the discussion a discouraging uphill slog. The concepts of the "body-without-organs" and the "machinic" nature of interactions are essential to Powell's analysis of the affective and embodied experience of the horror film but will be complex hurdles for the newcomer to Deleuze's world. Those who brave the climb will be rewarded with a fresh perspective that seems well-suited to the genre, but it is easy to imagine that many will simply give up in despair without realizing that the concepts receive a more developed exploration with examples in the successive chapters. If so, they will miss Powell's enthusiastic discussion which springboards from the theorists whose work she describes as "primarily lifeaffirming and politically progressive" (9). In celebrating her own tastes, Powell writes, "I have chosen the horror cinema because of my own engagement with it as a fan and academic, and because I want to assert the genre's aesthetic complexity" (8). Too many scholars cannot get beyond viewing horror as a disease on screen and if they in fact are fans of the genre, find their own enjoyment as suspect rather than celebratory.
Powell brings together these disparate strands first through Deleuze's engagement with films that also straddle the divide between the art-house and the grindhouse. German expressionist horror films like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922) have long been celebrated for their aesthetic glories by scholars who brushed off the significance of their generic associations. In her analysis, however, Powell situates them squarely as producers of terror and dis-ease that are the markers of the genre and extrapolates from Deleuze's own scrutiny of their affective nature. In this way, Powell seeks an analytical stance that avoids the abstracting tendency of psychoanalytical and Marxist approaches and one that embraces the immediate and affective experience engendered by horror film.
This approach works most instructively when Powell contrasts the Deleuzian approach with better known psychoanalytic approaches like those found in Barbara Creed's The Monstrous-Feminine (1993) or Carol J. Clover's Men, Women and Chainsaws (1992). Clover's deeply flawed analysis of slasher films nonetheless began a shift toward considering the importance of the participantviewer because it narrates her own visceral reaction to the films. Creed's insistence on "castration anxiety as the central concern of horror film" (64) has in the past prompted my students to threaten to inflict "gaping wounds" on all Freudian theorists, but she does touch on the centrality of the bodily affect inherent in the genre. Powell uses Deleuze's frameworks to interrupt the hierarchical thinking of psychoanalytical thought and to shift to a cartographic approach where experiences "are superimposed in such a way that they evaluate 'displacements' of trajectories and becomings rather than seeking origins" (18). Rather than simply mapping our reactions onto the symbolic actors of family dynamics, this tactic recognizes the participatory nature of the visual, aural, and temporal experience of the horror film and our desire to cocreate the experience through becoming. Through this lens, desire is a productive and creative force, not simply a negation or lack we seek to fill. This is the artist as "schizo," what Deleuze and psychiatrist Felix Guattari idealized as "a free man [or, one hopes, woman], irresponsible, solitary, joyous" and which, Powell makes clear, "diverges sharply from the psychoanalytic view that the role of fantasy is to enable the return of the repressed and thus to engineer sublimation, and social consensus" (21). The aim is not to displace the psychoanalytic approach but to amplify it. The schizoanalytical method sees us not in terms of our neuroses, but in terms of our creative powers.
To demonstrate this approach, Powell travels through a number of horror films that range from acknowledged and much-analyzed classics to those well-known only to aficionados. These close readings will reward those who may have been intimidated by the earlier theoretical hurdles. While her experiments do not all succeed, these investigative snapshots offer productive reconsiderations of films that reveal the interpretive power of the Deleuzian approach. Psycho (1960), which has been endlessly dissected by psychoanalytic approaches (as has much of Hitchcock's oeuvre), takes on new life when analyzed as a schizo text. Powell explores the dislocating effect of Hitchcock's expressionistic lighting, Bernard Hermann's much-celebrated agitating score, and Norman's process of "becoming-bird," all of which contribute to inducing "schizo affect." Likewise her analyses of Alien: Resurrection (1997), Hellraiser (1987), and Videodrome (1983) contrast the conservative impetus of the genre (the return to "wholeness" and normalcy) with the open becoming of the Deleuzian schizo, even as "their affective extremity plunges the viewer into an intensive maelstrom that cracks molar frames" (83).
Throughout Powell's study, the focus remains on the embodiment of the viewer's experience. Powell reminds us that "Deleuzian film aesthetics emphasize the materiality of the film and body, and their common molecularity in the film event" (129)--our becoming the characters and sharing the sound and visuals of the film in the tactile location of the theater or living room. In the sensory overload of films like Argento's Suspiria (1977) or Franju's Les Yeux sans Visage (1960), the usefulness of Deleuze's focus on tactility proves expressive both of the filmmaker's skills and the aesthetic experience of the viewer. In her dissection of Wise's The Haunting (1963), Powell brings out the usefulness of Bergsonian/Deleuzian conceptions of time and motion in a film that "presents layers of the past that refuse to stay past" as it "drags its victims back, preventing them from continuing their own lives and experiencing the onward flow of time" (174).
For the serious horror film scholar, Powell's study offers a welcome addition to the existing theoretical works. For the serious horror fan who does not quail before academic jargon, the book will open up many favorite films to additional aesthetic perspectives. For Deleuzian scholars, it may well provide new insight into the usefulness of frameworks usually applied only to a rarified genre of films--it may even offer the opportunity to appreciate the complexity of the much-maligned horror genre. The book includes helpful tools for readers; in addition to the glossary, there is a filmography and a comprehensive bibliography of both film and theoretical texts as well as an index slanted toward the theory and its concepts. While I might quibble with the choices of films used in individual analyses, there's no doubt that Powell's work is both enthusiastic about the genre and rigorous in execution. It's worth repeating her concluding thoughts that "the value of Deleuzian film theory lies in its experiential aesthetics and its emphasis on embodied thinking" (208). I look forward to further studies in this vein.
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|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2008|
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