Spectacular optics: the deployment of special effects in David Cronenberg's films.
But films have degenerated to their original operation as carnival amusement--they offer not drama, but thrills [...] It does not require a dramatist to "script" a film based on thrills. The requirements of such films are not more elaborate than and, in effect, are fairly identical to those of a straight-out pornographic film--the minimal plot is a fig leaf, like the well-brought-up young woman's first refusal (Mamet 120).
This cantankerous statement by David Mamet seems to serve as a perfectly suitable description of horror film. It criticizes a specific cinematic aesthetic that departs from the dramatic tradition which movies inherited from the theater--Mamet's primary profession before he started making movies himself. The reference to "carnival amusement" and the analogy with pornography place horror film in the tradition of "low" or socially dubious forms of entertainment, especially in regard to its audience's prurient interests and its risque or downright illicit subject matter. Thrills are primarily what horror film is after, which is hardly surprising given that the genre's name derives from the affective intentions it has on its audience--to make their hair stand on end. Viewers less scornful of cinematic thrills than Mamet might see in his observation that "films have degenerated to their original operation" (emphases added) not so much an indictment of certain kinds of film as a description of the very nature of cinema--that in some essential manner movies have always pursued an agenda different from that of the theater, or that the narrative and dramatic service into which great filmmakers have pressed the medium constitutes a refinement that could also be seen as an alienation of the medium from itself.
Disagreements about personal value judgments aside, Mamet is correct in positing formulaic predictability at the heart of most horror films. As their plots go, horror films tend to be "generated from a very limited repertory of narrative strategies" (Carroll 97). They follow rigidly scripted, almost ritualistically formal routines in order to get to their affective point--the delivery of thrills. From Abbot and Costello movies and Young Frankenstein to Scream and Scary Movie, this adherence to convention might explain why horror films make parody a cinch. Like action films moving from one scene of spectacular mayhem to another, martial arts films moving from one battle scene to another, and hardcore pornography moving from one explicit sexual encounter to another, the plot twists of most horror films function as mere transitional devices that move the audience from one thrill to another.
Although--or perhaps because--"it does not require a dramatist to script a film based on thrills," as Mamet puts it, the obvious dramatic structure of most horror films suggests that the prime delivery mechanism of thrills is the display of special effects; that is, of any image that stretches the boundaries of verisimilitude, or oversteps them altogether, with the unequivocal intention of, first, being noticed, and, second, causing a response in the viewer specific to the textually specific or generic context. Special effects, like dance numbers in musicals, are excessive in regard to the plot, they strain our credulity, and complicate simple assumptions about mimesis.
In the broadest sense, all cinema is, of course, a special effect--a fact attested to by the responses of shock and awe early cinema audiences displayed when confronted with the medium. There is something decidedly uncanny in the cinematic animation of the photograph, bridging "the separation," as Stacey Abbott has noted in reference to Tom Gunning's and Laura Mulvey's work on photography and early film, "between technology and the supernatural" (9). (1) Decades of habituation to the medium have, of course, long since extinguished this response.
Only horror, of all cinematic genres, has made this uncanny element its stock in trade, translating it specifically into the register of the abject. In horror film, special effects primarily put the body on display, as an object of violence, or in the throes of, or as the final product of, unnatural, accelerated, hybridizing transformation. Most critics would also agree that, especially after the 1960s, horror films visualize abjection by focusing on the body as "'a site/sight of graphic images of invasion and transformation," an interest on the part of filmmakers that, as Lianne McLarty goes on to speculate, has been "no doubt generated in part by advances in special effects" (233). Ian Conrich goes so far as to declare that the entire horror film genre after the 1970s "demonstrated a desire for producing spectacular set-pieces designed to parade the fantastic anatomical creations of special effects technicians" (36). In effect, Conrich and McLarty are arguing, special effects, as they become technically more sophisticated, not only come to dominate the narratives in which they are inserted; they become the reason why horror films are made in the first place. For better or worse, the horror film genre has returned cinema to its roots.
One of the outstanding members of this post--1960s generation of new horror directors, David Cronenberg has been making films that are often remembered for their special effects scenes. Most, if not all of the signature scenes in Cronenberg's films revolve around spectacularly altered bodies or bodies in the process of transformation. Not surprisingly, then, critics have positioned Cronenberg as a keyfigure in the new film with its intense interest in "body horror." The term itself refers to a form of the contemporary gothic in which "the body is always and ever totally there: its thereness is its horror as an object. Thus it is always too much there, too much in place" (Bloom 231). The representation of, as Elizabeth Bronfen calls it, "the disease of mortality in the register of the body" has been Cronenberg's contribution to a strikingly postmodern concept of the self suspended between dystopian loathing and utopian transcendence of embodiment (402). Even though "Cronenberg's monstrosities are an explicit combination of many of the categories and subdivisions of the grotesque body which [Barbara Creed] has identified--the metamorphosing or transforming body, the generative body, the invaded body, and the disintegrating or exploding body" (Conrich 37)--Cronenberg has chosen to express these themes less and less within the rhetoric of horror film. (2) With Cronenberg's shift away from the genre, special effects ceased to be the main visual attraction of his films. This happened as early as Dead Ringers (1988), which contains sustained visual effects to duplicate an actor's body on screen but only one single prosthetic effect of the type Cronenberg is known for. M. Butterfly (1993) and Spider (2003), both devoid of body effects beyond simple make-up, followed suit. Nonetheless, Cronenberg "continued to work on the same project, which was becoming increasingly complex, refined and highly achieved with each film he made" (Rodley xvi).
I would like to argue that the consistencies within Cronenberg's visual staging of special effect are, in fact, part of his directorial signature. Given the limits of his possibilities, Cronenberg has returned to the same effects specialists from one film to the next. Just as he has worked consistently with Carol Spier as production designer, Peter Suschitzky as cinematographer, and Howard Shore as composer, he has returned to the same special effects experts whenever possible: Joe Blasco worked on Shivers (1976) and Rabid (1977), Chris Walas on Scanners (1981), The Fly (1986) and Naked Lunch (1991). Celebrities in their own right, Rick Baker worked on Videodrome (1982), and Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis won an Academy Award in 1986 for their work on The Fly. (3)
Little attention has been paid to Cronenberg's deployment of the special effects that often constitute the signature scenes or shots of his films. While mainstream auteurs are studied shot by shot, Cronenberg's films have not so much been analyzed for form or style but mostly for content (with identity and gender politics as a primary focus of interest). (4) Cronenberg's reputation as an auteurist filmmaker, thus, rests more on the consistency of his thematic and narrative preoccupations than on the recognition of a unique and consistent style; and from even those few considerations of style, the stylistic handling of special effects is bracketed altogether. Perhaps these idiosyncrasies of the critical discourse stein from a desire to "rescue" Cronenberg from being merely seen merely as a genre director, from the affections, in other words, of those fans who enthusiastically discuss the gory special effects in his films. Even a shrewd critic like Ian Conrich states categorically that Cronenberg's integrity as "a committed auteur" is irreconcilable with interpretive attempts "to view films such as The Brood or Scanners as narratives constructed with a concern for the spectacular special effects moment" (39). Subjecting theme and narrative to spectacle, Conrich seems to be implying here, is a trait of artistic compromise or inferiority.
Nonetheless, in the phase of Cronenberg's career that made his reputation, roughly from 1976 to 1982, his films follow the conventional horror film template of Carroll's "complex discovery plot," which calls for special effects to increase gradually in visibility and intensity. The Brood, for example, is framed by two scenes that culminate in the display of a special effect. Each scene visualizes a bodily transformation with the help of make-up and a body prosthesis effect. The opening scene shows Dr. Raglan and his patient Mike in a therapeutic session in front of a small audience of invited guests. Shot in stark medium close-ups, without an initial establishing shot, the scene inserts the unprepared viewer into a pattern of over-the-shoulder shots and reverse-angle shots framing the two characters. According to the pseudo-scientific theory of psychoplasmics, the fictitious therapeutic method Raglan invented, the analyst plays the role of one of the patient's real-life tormentors--Mike's father, in this case--encouraging him to manifest the rage he feels as a bodily symptom. As the dialogue reveals building psychological intensity, Cronenberg's camera starts panning right to left, framing the audience in the background and thus belatedly providing an establishing shot of sorts. At Raglan's command, "Don't speak to me. Show me," Mike rips open his shirt to reveal a torso riddled with sores, the somatic manifestation of the rage Raglan has stoked up. After a collective gasp from the audience and a conciliatory hug from Raglan, the lights go out.
Similarly, the film's closing scene revolves around revealing the actress Samantha Eggar's body spectacularly altered by prosthetic and make-up effects. The moment of revelation functions as the climax of the scene but also as the climax of the entire film, providing a variation of the opening scene between Raglan and Mike. Throughout, Cronenberg follows a strategy of strategic delay. While Frank Carveth enters his wife Nola's bedroom, Raglan tries to retrieve Candy, Frank's and Nola's daughter, kidnapped by the monstrous offspring that Nola's body has been gestating as a result of overly successful psychoplasmics. The crosscutting between Frank's conversation with Nola and Raglan's progress into dangerous territory interrupts events in the bedroom at crucial moments, lengthening the scene, building tension, and allowing a postponement of the audience's unobstructed gaze at Nola's altered body. Nola is shot exclusively in medium close-up, placing emphasis on her upper body, which, in turn, suggests that the truly awful and spectacular transformation, concealed beneath her clothes, has taken place outside the flame. When the conversation, which has revolved around Nola's confession that she is on a strange "adventure" or "journey," gives Frank an opportunity to assure her, "I want to be with you all the way," Nola says dismissively, "Do you?" Then she asks, "Do you?" and finally exhorts him, "Then look!" At this command, which echoes Raglan's invitation to Mike ("Show me!"), Nola lifts her gown and the camera pans down, still in medium close-up, to her lower abdomen. We see the prosthetic effect--finally--that most viewers remember as the film's signature shot--the externalized foetal sac supported by Nola's folded legs, framed dramatically by the wings of her white nightgown.
Cronenberg's Scanners (1981) and his remake of The Fly (1986) both follow the conventional pattern of visual escalation as well. Scanners opens with an unremarkable scene of telekinetic invasion in a shopping mall, visualized merely by a dab of blood as a character faints with a nosebleed. The first spectacular scene, which I will subsequently discuss in more detail, occurs half an hour later when, during a scanning demonstration, an assassin murders his victim by making his head explode. Scanners culminates in a telekinetic battle of protagonist and antagonist in which both manipulate each other's bodies into spectacular stigmata. This closing scene expands the singular shock of the head explosion in the previous scene into a sequence of animated effects, laid out in full view for the audience.
Similarly, The Fly begins with inconspicuous signs of scientist Seth Brundle's transformation, then escalates in a series of visual displays of his increasingly treacherous body which end with a violent encounter that shows the prosthetic effects in its full-blown horror. During the first stage of the transformation, Brundle's body is altered largely by make-up effects, photographed almost casually as the character engages in ordinary activities. Whereas the first close-up of his altered body is of a few bristly hairs sprouting from his back, later scenes in the film meticulously chronicle his physical disintegration. Only in the final confrontation do we see the fully transformed body in motion, visualized partly through animated models and partly through full-body latex casts.
As much as Cronenberg's films demonstrate generic use of special effects in their adherence to visual escalation, there are points of departure as well, some of them recurring with such consistency that they invite closer inspection. While the integration of special effects into the plot is relatively conservative, the visualization of the individual effect, its stylization by means of camera work and editing, is idiosyncratic. What is remarkable, for example, about the moment in The Brood in which Nola reveals her externalized reproductive organs is that, after an interval of only a few seconds, Cronenberg cuts to a medium shot that distances us from the uncomfortable proximity to this freakish image. While the preceding medium close-up generates anxiety by placing the viewer uncomfortably close to Nola's horrific body--literally at arm's length (her arm's length, one might add)--the retreat to the medium shot seems to undermine this effect. However, the medium shot also sustains our emotional investment because, though it creates spatial distance, it returns us to Frank's point of view. He serves as the viewer whose subjective experience we are to share ("Then look!"), a position confirmed when Cronenberg eventually cuts to the reverse-angle shot of Frank's face registering horror and disgust. But then again, the camera laces Nola straight on, slightly displaced from Frank's point of view, and its spatial removal allows for a composition that emphasizes not the affective immediacy of the image but rather its strict formality. What the initial close-up conceals, and what only the medium shot reveals, is a strictly symmetrical composition of Nola lilting the two folds of her nightgown. They frame her lower abdomen left and right, the symmetry heightened by Eggar folding her legs straight under her as she sits on the bed. Bed, nightgown, and body are arranged as elements on a stage. The proscenium is lit evenly from the front, for a high degree of visibility, for further dramatic effect from above, and, like a Hollywood glamour shot as well, from the back. All elements draw attention to the sobriety and formality of the composition, to which Cronenberg seems willing to sacrifice shock and affective immediacy.
Unexpected as this composition might appear in a horror film, it must be a deliberate choice on the part of the director because Cronenberg uses it again in Scanners two years later. The first of the film's two signature scenes takes place in an auditorium during a demonstration of "scanning," a technique that allows one person to gain physical control over another's body. On a stage similar to the one on which Raglan and Mike perform their psychoplasmics session, a scanner and a volunteer sit side by side, both facing the camera. Though eventually Cronenberg cuts to a shot from behind the two showing the audience, the opening sequence is photographed like the one in The Brood, foregoing an establishing shot in favor of close-ups of one speaker brightly lit in front of a dark, featureless background. (5) As the demonstration starts going awry, and the audience realizes that the volunteer is, in fact, an assassin taking control over the scanner's body, Cronenberg uses a two-shot and then reframes so that each combatant appears alone, centered, in the frame, while the camera cuts, in shorter and shorter intervals, back and forth between the two. At the crucial moment, in a spectacular display of prosthetics, the scanner's head explodes, blood and tissue splattering in slow motion toward the camera.
Despite critical appraisals of the film as a whole, this scene enjoys particular fame among horror fans. And yet, at the moment when the special effect is displayed, the camera pulls back from a close-up to a medium shot. It shows the scanner's upper body, horizontally centered in the frame and vertically cut off by the tabletop on which he is resting his hands, clenched into fists. This would roughly be the POV of one of the audience members, several of whom the camera has been singling out when it cut in the preceding moments to reverse angle shots to show the audience's collective sense of growing alarm. But not exactly: no single observer sits this close to the stage, and nobody in particular was shown to sit directly in front of the man. Instead of placing the viewer in an audience member's position, it constructs an ideal observer whose placement is determined by considerations of symmetry and balance. Just as the film shifts into slow motion for the moment of the explosion, the handling of spatial relations signals a separation of the image from a subjective point of view. Hence, the shot draws attention to its own compositional deliberation and formal strictures. As in The Brood, Cronenberg favors aesthetic formality where he could have opted for more visual and affective immediacy.
One year later, in Videodrome, Cronenberg returns to the same image composition, albeit with a less spectacular body effect. Hallucinating from his exposure to the Videodrome signal, Max Renn first visualizes himself within the video arena of the show during a sexual encounter with Nicky Brand, an encounter which ostensibly takes place in his apartment. Though the special effects are still somewhat subdued during this scene, which occurs relatively early in the film, the composition is reminiscent of the scenes discussed above. As the camera does a prolonged pullback from an extreme close-up of the two lovers' heads in profile, the room around them is revealed to be a stage, flanked by two columns on each side, the bed centered in both the room and the frame.
The two elements--the formal composition and the proscenium set--also recur in the climactic confrontation between Max Renn and his nemesis, Barry Convex. During an optician's trade show, Max shoots Convex as he is giving his presentation on stage. Collapsing, Convex's body starts turning itself inside out in a gruesomely detailed and prolonged scene. The camera work during this scene is slightly less formal, less concerned with symmetry, as if Cronenberg is satisfied that the literal stage on which the encounter plays itself out is sufficient to suggest the formality typical of similar scenes in his other films. The assassination itself takes place with Convex centered between the lenses of a giant pair of eyeglasses, used as decoration for the trade show, but the camera is moved left of center so that both assassin and victim are framed in a two-shot.
Sandwiched by these two scenes is an even more dramatic special effect, which does hold up to comparison with those in The Brood--it is, in fact, the signature shot of the entire film. It takes place as Max experiences a hallucination while watching TV alone in his apartment, rubbing his stomach nervously with a gun. Similar to the suggestion in The Brood that the spectacular sight is located below the frame, a close-up of Max's face reveals his alarm as he looks down. A vertical gash has opened in his stomach and is pulsating slightly, as we can see once Cronenberg cuts to a close-up of the prosthetic effect. As much as the close-up helps to conceal the interstices between actor James Woods' body and the torso prosthesis, by placing the seam outside the frame, it also brings the viewer into uneasy proximity with the spectacular yet unnerving sight, thus enhancing the shock or thrill. After cutting back and forth twice between Max's face and his stomach, Cronenberg pulls back into the by-now familiar medium shot. Yet again, it centers Max in the frame horizontally and vertically. Though it shows Max's upper body now in full integration between prosthesis and actor's body, animated by Max's inserted hand rooting around inside the gash, it also removes the viewer to an emotionally more comfortable distance. In a second step, Cronenberg has Woods get up from the couch and, standing up, displays him now in a long shot, which dissolves the horror of the scene into humor as Max pulls his hand free and discovers that he has "lost" the gun inside his stomach.
Before suggesting a thematic reading of these compositions, let me briefly comment on a few contextual details that are crucial for understanding the mechanics of the special effects and how they influence visual realization of the director's ideas. On a banal level, the relative degree of an effect's conspicuousness is directly related to its cost. Up to Dead Ringers in 1988, special effects in Cronenberg's films avail themselves only minimally, if at all, of CGI and instead use makeup, body casts and prostheses, and full or partial body models. The decision to use these effects is dictated largely by the lack of availability of CGI during the early years of Cronenberg's career, primarily in the 1970s. But even when, during the 1980s, CGI technology became more available, its prohibitive cost would deter a filmmaker like Cronenberg who was still working with small budgets. Just as the lead roles in Cronenberg's films started going to actors and actresses with higher name recognition by the mid-1980s (from Art Hindle in The Brood and Stephen Lack in Scanners, to Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone, Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, and Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers), Cronenberg started using more costly, sophisticated effects, albeit in a visually less spectacular manner. The one low tech prosthetic scene in Dead Ringers, which occurs during a dream in which one of the Mantle twins sees himself linked to his brother by an umbilical cord, stands out as crudely visceral against the seamless visual doubling of Jeremy Irons in his double role. (6)
Special effects, Scott Bukatman, argues, "redirect the spectator to the visual (and auditory and even kinesthetic) conditions of the cinema and thus bring the principles of perception to the foreground of consciousness" (90-1). Given this self-reflexive dimension of all special effects, Gregory Waller specifies that effects in horror films are often staged as moments of grand guignol, "undertaken," as Waller puts it, "with an air of 'Top that!' ingenuity and lovingly explicit detail" (259), thereby drawing into the spectatorial process an awareness of previous horror films that serve as a frame of reference in deciding, and appreciating, how far a director is willing to go. Staged with such self-referential irony, special effects in horror films often destabilize the mimetic surface of the text, causing it to collapse in moments of intense self-consciousness. Due to the density of signification in these scenes--their semantic overdetermination, so to speak--they qualify as what Geoffrey Hartman, in a different context, has called "supersemantic events," providing simultaneously the text's narrative rationale, the local or metonymic embodiment of its generic nature, and the revelation of its constructedness. (7) The absence of body effects from M. Butterfly or their toning down and smoothing out in Dead Ringers is a sign of budgetary constraints, but it also functions as a signifier in the sense that special effects are always "designed to be seen" (Bukatman 95). In a review of Scanners, for example, Paul diFilippo expresses a pronounced preference for the low tech effects ("Rick Baker's special effects--breathing televisions, cyborg slime-guns, pulsating meat-cassettes--withstand comparison to current digital wizardry"). Similarly, the decision to use low-tech latex and model effects in eXistenZ strikes me as a conscious artistic choice, directly related to the film's subject matter and overall visual style.
On the mimetic level, the proscenium setting serves the same function as the characters" exhortations "Then look!" and "Show me!" in The Brood. They mark the shift from the individual, and thus psychological, realization of bodily transformation or abjection toward the collective, social recognition that a transformation has taken place. This is not to say that the psychological modeling that the witness to the monstrous performs for the viewer is entirely lost, or that the affective immediacy of the moment is diminished. Cronenberg still selects individual faces from the crowds witnessing Barry Convex's disintegration in Videodrome, Mike's manifestation of stigmata in The Brood, or the plugging into the pods of the test group in eXistenZ, and then registers these individual /aces responding to the special effect. There are also still numerous special effects scenes in which only a single person witnesses spectacular bodily transformations, e.g. Max Renn's discovery of the opening in his stomach in Videodrome, or Veronica Quaife entering Seth Brundle's apartment and seeing him in an advanced state of decay for the first time in The Fly. But the privacy of the horrific discovery is undercut in both films. Max Renn is "watched" by the eye of the television screen, and Seth Brundle's bodily self-discovery in another scene takes place in front of a bathroom mirror, with Brundle watching spellbound as he performs feats of abjection for him self as an audience of one (later to be repeated as a mock-didactic performance for Quaife as he asks her to turn on the video camera).
To the extent, however, that Cronenberg deploys special effects as "supersemantic events," the proscenium setting of many of his signature effects serves as a metatextual commentary. Together with the self-conscious formality of the composition, it acknowledges the effect's theatricality. It dismantles the illusion the effect was ostensibly designed to achieve, sabotaging the visualization of the non-existent, undercutting the mimetic simulation of something for which nature provides no original. But since this illusion is supposed to be transparent, in order for the special effect to appear and be appreciated as such, the stage setting formalizes the "uncanny moment when a metaphor takes over the full function and meaning of the object it symbolizes, effacing the distinction between figural and literal" (Bronfen 407). The effect reveals itself as metaphor and yet models simultaneously "mimetic reality within the diegetic space of the film" (Bronfen 407).
The formality of Cronenberg's compositions, whenever they contain visualizations, and thus literalizations, of what Bronfen sees as symptoms of hysteric excess, contains and counteracts just this excess. Contained within the compositional structure, which is still embedded within larger affective and generic patterns of horror film, is an element running counter to hysterics--not those of Cronenberg as author, but those of the images themselves. (8) It is an element inviting contemplation of the horrific from a safe distance, a pause in the frenzy of images or stillness within the viewer's emotional agitation. A special effect "is designed to be seen." Scott Bukatman reminds us, "and frequently the narrative will pause to permit the audience to appreciate (or groove on) the technologies on display" (95).
But Bukatman's statement is misleading because its original context bears on a discussion of science fiction and not horror film. In science fiction films, Bukatman writes, the function of the special effect is "to create the boundless and infinite stuff of sublime experience and thus to produce a sense of transcendence beyond human finitude" (93). Just as panoramic painting in the 18th and 19th century invited the viewer to experience "realms beyond human articulation and comprehension" (Bukatman 91), science fiction film, foregoing nature as the source of the sublime in favor of technology, celebrates the spectator's "sustained immersion within an artificial, technological environment that suggests technology's own ability to incorporate what it has generally excluded [i.e. nature]" (Bukatman 105).
Though horror films deal as often with Nature and/or technology as science fiction, albeit as sources of anxiety and not of exaltation, sublimity is not the prime subject matter of horror films--abjection is. (9) And abjection presupposes a different gaze than the sublime--not calm, awe-struck, or contemplative, and not panoramic in its removal to a safe and privileged spectatorial position. While the spectator confronted with the sublime can feel relatively safe, the abject spectacle generates a gaze that is too close for comfort, uneasily involved, furtive, unsteady, guilty, and nervous. (10) The gaze at the abject is recursive, arrested for a brief moment by incredulity, then repulsed by irritation and agitation. It is the cliched look of moviegoers in a horror movie--peeking through their fingers after they cover their eyes with their hands. The familiar scenarios that exploit this gaze in horror films, even in those of David Cronenberg, occur during the early phase of the conventional horror plot, the phase that critic Noel Carroll calls "onset" in a plot he refers to as the" complex discovery plot" (97). Engaged in the creation of cognitive uncertainty, directors cut away from the monster quickly, flame only parts of the monster's abject body instead of the whole (in close-up or extreme long shots, and/or through selective flaming), or show the monster submerged in darkness. Even during the final phase of Carroll's "complex discovery plot," and its corollary in the logic of gradual visual escalation, most horror directors will stick to this gaze. Furtive or frenzied, partial or obscured, the gaze is never invited to linger.
Not so Cronenberg. The formal composition of many of his special effects scenes, the camera's retreat from an uncomfortably close proximity to a more detached panoramic point of view, invite a gaze that lingers. Its basic tone might vary. It might invite analytical assessment, or it might invite loving, erotic contemplation. Since the "stuff," as Bukatman calls it, of sublime experience might vary, there is no absolute object of the sublime. The 18th century, which can be credited with the "invention" of the sublime in the writings of Kant and Burke, would return to mountain vistas or thunderstorms as the raw material of sublime experience. But to the same degree that technological control over Nature increased, and, in the process, rendered these traditional sources of the sublime powerless to evoke the expected response, it is obvious now that sublime experiences are conventionally and not essentially grounded. A restructuring of the material and social realm necessitates a restructuring of the emotional and affective landscape. Similarly, abjection is socially defined, and thus differs from one cultural and historical context to another. If the social realm, then, is a field in which authorship and agency come into play, one might ask whether it is possible to view an object that is culturally defined as abject with the gaze commonly reserved for the sublime. Is it possible for an artist to re-contextualize an object in such a manner as to alter its affective properties by aesthetic means alone? Or, more specifically, is it possible for a director to construct a scene in which an abject object is endowed with sublimity through the appropriate gaze?
Generically speaking, Cronenberg is clearly interested in such re-contextualizations. His stylistic project includes the incorporation of science fiction elements into horror narratives. Cronenberg's interest in the discourse of science and its repertory of images, or of social institutions represented in an exemplary fashion by science, places many of his films generically in a hybrid position; Videodrome, eXistenZ, The Brood, Shivers, Rabid, and The Fly all take off from a fictional scientific premise. Thematically, this stylistic project corresponds to Cronenberg's often quoted line about seeing bodily transformation from the disease's point of view. (11) This is, applied to the cinematic gaze, what the Russian Formalists called defamiliarization, a breaking open of mechanical perceptive habits. By "trying to reverse the normal understanding of what goes on physically, psychologically and biologically to us," Cronenberg's films attempt a cognitive remapping of the body, whether as part of a vast natural order, or as part of "an artificial, technological environment that suggests technology's own ability to incorporate what it has generally excluded" (Bukatman 105).
Traditional horror films do not offer the proper cinematic gaze for this purpose because the lines between self and other are often drawn all too clearly. Also, limitations imposed upon them by the Production Code, as well as by a special effects technology still in its infancy, do not permit a gaze so lingering as to invite ambiguity. Films of "neo-horror film culture," to use Ian Conrich's expression, appear equally hampered to me in this respect because their irony and self-referential recursiveness fracture the totality of the image necessary for achieving the sublime. Himself a member of "neo-horror film culture," Cronenberg is not above such ironic and self-reflexive sleights of hand, though one might argue to what degree moments of ironic levity in his films radically undercut their emotional and affective seriousness. The Fly, for example, features several moments of humor, though, in the final instance, none of them detract from the melodramatic intensity of the film's closing sequence. Ironic self-referentiality notwithstanding, Cronenberg understands that special effects used to visualize an affective reversal in the viewer--to see the disease from the virus' point of view--need to be photographed in ways different from those in traditional and neo-horror films. The formal compositions and the removal of the subject from the object of horror allow for contemplation of this reversal.
In this context, it is also important that Cronenberg himself has decided to employ digital effects only sparingly in his films, and that critics like Paul DiFilippo have expressed a clear preference for the rougher, clunkier, and less versatile prosthetics effects Cronenberg has continued to use ill their place. For one, prosthetic effects offer the possibility of accidental visual discovery, as Cronenberg himself has said (Naked Lunch Commentary Track). (12) The concrete object on the set dictates the ways ill which camera and editing must work around it, and thus allows for configurations discovered on the set rather than planned on the drawing board. Digital effects, meanwhile, exist exclusively in pre- or post-production. Existing in a ghostly parallel universe to that the actors and the director inhabit, they require meticulous planning and deliberation, and thus leave no room for discovery in the process of shooting. But more importantly, prosthetic effects do place a concrete object in front of the camera. Unlike the immaterial delimitation of the digital effect, the "thereness" of the prosthetic effect enforces a recognition of the limits of materiality on the part of the filmmaker and the audience alike. Projected, of all things, upon the human body, such special effects perform and signify mortality more honestly and poignantly than any digital effect ever could. The prosthetic effect even moves us closer to the theatrical origins of film. David Mamet, who explicitly mentions "computer morphing" and "blue screen" (120) in his indictment of cinematic spectacles and thrills, would approve.
In asking whether Cronenberg's project of blurring the line between the abject and the sublime succeeds, it is useful to consider the note on which Scott Bukatman ends his discussion about special effects in science fiction film. Responding to Tom Gunning's caveat that special effects are merely "tamed attractions." Bukatman reminds us that special effects "are designed to inspire awe, but always within a reassuring sense of play," resulting in "a denial of human limitations--a denial of death, really--that connects to science fiction's overall denial of sexuality, mortality, and fleshly bodies" (109). Since, conventionally, special effects in horror film serve just the opposite effect--to remind us, through relentless and aggressive visualization, of the "thereness" of the body, its precariousness and unpredictability, of, in short, mortality--they might serve as a kind of dystopian correlative, or corrective, to science fiction's utopian visual politics. Just as effects technology in science fiction films celebrates mastery, control, and transcendence of and over the body, horror insists on the limits, lack, or loss of control. Taken by itself, each genre is likely to overshoot its goal. By destabilizing the distinction between utopian and dystopian elements through his visual staging of special effects, however, Cronenberg may have struck a fortuitous balance. If so, his films are among the few that manage to "articulate, as an embodied knowledge, a utopian discourse of possibility" (Bukatman 130, emphasis added).
(1) For further reading, see the sources that Abbott is referring to: Tom Gunning, "Phantom Images and Modern Manifestations: Spirit Photography, Magic Theater, and Photography's Uncanny," in Fugitive Images from Photography to Video, ed. Petro Patrice (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Bloomington University Press, 1995): 42-71; as well as Laura Mulvey, "The Index and the Uncanny," in The Time and the Image, ed. Carolyn Bailey Gill (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2000): 139-48.
(2) See Barbara Creed, "Horror and the Carnivalesque: The Body-monstrous," in Leslie Deveraux an Roger Hillman, eds. Fields of Vision: Essays in Film Studies, Visual Anthropology, and Photography (Berkeley: U of California Press, 1995): 127-59.
(3) For detailed information on Cronenberg "regulars," see The Plasma Pool," Cronenberg's Regular Crew" (http://plasmapool.esmartweb.com/).
(4) The bibliography on Cronenberg compiled by Michael Grant reflects the general trends of research in horror cinema, featuring numerous readings of Cronenberg's work from feminist and genre studies perspectives, contextualizing Cronenberg as a Canadian filmmaker, The Fly as a commentary on the AIDS epidemic, etc. For details, see Grant, The Modern Fantastic: The Films of David Cronenberg (193-211).
(5) At the mention that there is a doctor in the audience, the character looks briefly out of the frame, leading the viewer to anticipate a reverse-angle shot to be sutured into the sequence. But this shot never comes; the camera stays on the character's face.
(6) As a rule, horror films operate on smaller budgets, and hence on smaller special effects budgets, than other genres like action thrillers and science fiction films. Subgenres or hybrids of horror underscore this point; horror/sf hybrids, like the Alien films, or horror action films like Steve Beck's Ghost Ship, have larger budgets and set larger sums of those budgets aside for special effects.
(7) Hartmann, in coining this term, refers to the murder at the center of every mystery: that is, to the single event that not only sets the specific diegetic machinery of each individual text in motion, but, more importantly, articulates the fundamental generic premise of each text in its embeddedness within the larger social sphere. See Geoffrey Hartmann, "Literature High and Low: The Case of the Mystery Story." The Fate of Reading and Other Essays (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1975). For a further elaboration on this "implosion" effect, see Steffen Hantke, "Horror Film and the Spectacle of Cinematic Special Effects." Paradoxa (forthcoming 2004).
(8) Bronfen herself, aware of the vagaries of auteurist interpretation, seems wary of this possibility, far-fetched as it might seem: "My point, of course, is not that Cronenberg is hysteric, but rather that his cinematic phantasy scenarios perform hysterical anxieties in relation to the body's mutability and fragility" (407).
(9) For a detailed discussion of the concept of abjection, especially related to the horror film, see Barbara Creed, "Kristeva, Femininity, Abjection." in The Horror Reader, Ken Gelder, ed. London/ New York: Routledge, 2000 (64-71).
(10) "Common to all of these manifestations of sublime ontological horror is the inability of the self to assume a position of relative critical distance toward its own cognitive processes and perceive itself as occupying a middle ground in between the two extremes [...] To stray from the "healthy" or sane middle ground would mean succumbing to a form of excess not unlike the morbid, insane, and unhealthy excesses of the Gothic" (Hantke. "The Function of the Sublime" 54). The relative degree of safety that the spectator of the sublime spectacle enjoys hinges upon this "middle ground," while the spectator of the abject is always drifting toward one or the other of the two extremes--to see too little, or to see too much.
(11) The full quote reads: "To understand physical process on earth requires a revision of the theory that we're all God's creatures-all that Victorian sentiment. It should certainly be extended to encompass disease, virus and bacteria. Why not? A virus is only doing its job. It's trying to live its life. The fact that it's destroying you by doing so is not its fault. It's about trying to understand interrelationships among organisms, even those we perceive as disease. To understand it from the disease's point of view, it's just a matter of life. It has nothing to do with disease. I think most diseases would be very shocked to be considered diseases at all. It's a very negative connotation. For them, it's very positive when they take over your body and destroy you. It's a triumph. It's all part of trying to reverse the normal understanding of what goes on physically, psychologically and biologically to us" (Interview with David Cronenberg, <http://www.davidcronenberg.de/ mond2000.html>.
(12) In public appearances, Werner Herzog has repeatedly given similar answers to the question why he did not use a miniatures but had a real ship pulled across a mountainside in his film Fitzcarraldo--the unpredictability of material reality allows for the serendipitous visual discovery.
Abbott, Stacey. "Spectral Vampires: Nosferatu in the Light of New Technologies." Horror Film: Creating And Marketing Fear. Ed. Steffen Hantke. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004. 3-21.
Bloom, Clive. Cult Fiction: Popular Reading and Pulp Theory. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.
Bronfen, Elisabeth. Chapter 8: "A Womb of One's Own, or the Strange Case of David Cronenberg." The Knotted Subject: Hysteria and its Dicontents. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1998. 381-409.
Bukatman, Scott. Matters of Gravity,: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century.Durham/London: Duke University Press, 2003.
Carroll, Noel. The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart. New York/London:Routledge, 1990.
Commentary Track. David Cronenberg and Peter Weller. Naked Lunch. Criterion Collection, 2003.
Conrich, Ian. "An Aesthetic Sense: Cronenberg and neo-horror film culture." The ModernFantastic: The Films of David Cronenberg. Ed. Michael Grant. Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 2000. 35-49.
DiFilippo, Paul. "Videodrome: David Cronenberg's new flesh continues to bleed in a new millennium." Classic Science Fiction. March 1, 2004. <http://www.scifi.com/sfw/issue180/classic.html>.
Michael Grant. Ed. The Modern Fantastic: The Films of David Cronenherg. Flicks Books, 2000.
Hantke, Steffen. "Horror Film and the Spectacle of Cinematic Special Effects." Paradoxa:Studies in World Literary Genres (Spring 2005).
--"The Function of the Sublime in Contemporary Horror: From Edmund Burke to Michael Blumlein." Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction 71 (Autumn 1997): 45-62.
Hartmann, Geoffrey. "Literature High an Low: The Case of the Mystery Story." The Fate of Reading and Other Essays. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1975. 203-22. Interview with David Cronenberg, Feb. 28, 2004. <http://www.davideronenberg.de/mond2000.html>.
Mamet, David. "The Screenplay." Make-Believe Town: Essays and Remembrances. Boston/NewYork: Little, Brown, 1996). 117-27.
McLarty, Lianne. "'Beyond the Veil of the Flesh': Cronenberg and the Disembodiment of Horror." The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996. 231-53.
Rodley, Chris, ed. Cronenberg on Cronenberg. London/Boston: Faber & Faber, 1992. Rodley, Chris. Introduction. xvii-xxiv.
Waller, Gregory." Introduction to American Horrors. " The Horror Reader. Ed. Ken Gelder.New York/London: Routledge, 2000. 256-64.
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|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2004|
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