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Friday 19 July 2002

Reading Films

by Claude Lalumière

  • Science Fiction/Horror: A Sight and Sound Reader, edited by Kim Newman (BFI Publishing, 2002)
  • Horror, The Film Reader, edited by Mark Jancovich (Routledge, 2002)

Kim Newman's Science Fiction/Horror is the fourth volume in BFI Publishing's A Sight and Sound Reader series. Most of the contents of these books are culled from the pages of Sight and Sound magazine, including a wide variety of film writing: interviews, reviews, thematic essays, in-depth analyses of specific films, commentary by filmmakers, etc. In this volume the accent is on reviews and essays, reflecting editor Newman's preferences:

Less interesting in the long run, I feel, are interview-based pieces ... It strikes me that no matter how much critics may flounder when confronted with a challenging movie, they manage on the whole to contribute more to an understanding of it than any statement by the director, writer or stars.

I don't agree with that statement, and Jim Hillier's American Independent Cinema: A Sight and Sound Reader (2001) certainly proved how a multifaceted approach — rich in contributions from both critics and filmmakers — provides an exceptionally vivid portrait of cinema. Nevertheless, Newman's anthology is an exciting foray into fantastic cinema, filled with articles both illuminating and frustrating. In other words: this book is provocative reading for anyone who has strong opinions on fantastic cinema (or cinema in general, for that matter); it's a cornucopia of clearly written and articulated critical writing, a treasure for anyone wanting to delve deeper into a number of key science fiction and horror films and into the history of these related film genres.

The first section, "Themes", includes most notably two relentlessly intelligent contributions by J. Hoberman — "When Dr No Met Dr Strangelove" and "Paranoia and the Pods" — both superlative analyses blending a deep knowledge of cinema with a keen eye on American history and politics. The weakest pieces here are Iain Sinclair's self-indulgently "poetic" musings ("London: Necropolis of Fretful Ghosts"), whose connections to fantastic cinema are tenuous at best, and Howard Waldrop's "A Summer Place, On the Beach, Beyond the Sea" (original to this volume), a memoir that would certainly be interesting to Waldrop's devoted fans but which is lamentably devoid of cinematic insights.

The highlight of Section 2 ("Films") is a string of short pieces on Michael Tolkin's brilliant (and sadly underappreciated) 1991 film The Rapture — including the book's only contribution by a filmmaker: Tolkin's candid reflection, "Ecstatic States". This is otherwise a very strong section, filled with captivating essays: Peter Wollen's complex exploration of Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960), Linda Williams's historically contextualized look at Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), Marina Warner's intriguing take on David Lynch's baffling 1997 film, Lost Highway, which made me eager to see it again, and Kim Newman's consideration of Robert Wise's 1944 Curse of the Cat People (a sequel to Newman's 1999 BFI Classic volume, Cat People) are the cream of a deliciously good crop. Still, there are a few stinkers: both Leslie Dick's "Desperation and Desire" (on Nicolas Roeg's 1974 Don't Look Now) and Jonathan Romney's "It's a Wonderful Life: The Dark End of the Street" teeter on the brink of sophistry in order to justify the meanings the essayists have personally invested in the films being discussed. And, while I can't help but applaud Amy Taubin's enthusiastic endorsement of David Fincher's Fight Club (1999), I find it regrettable that her misreporting of several elements (most notably that Ed Norton's character is called Jack in the film itself) weakens her argument.

Section 3, "People and Stories" is even stronger: each piece, without exception, is insightful, convincing, and informative. The most memorable article here is Ken Hollings's detailed retrospective of the Godzilla movies, "Gojira Mon Amour" — a jewel among gems.

The final three sections are labelled "case studies". First up is "Teenage Postmodern Horror", opening with Linda Ruth's thoughtful and intriguing essay on John Fawcett's Ginger Snaps (2000). The rest of the section is devoted to reviews of the string of horror movies launched by two 1996 films: Andrew Fleming's The Craft and Wes Craven's Scream. The postmodern, video-generation take on the slasher genre holds as little interest for me as did the previous incarnations of slasher horror cinema, but these reviews were so passionate, knowledgeable, and informative that I read each one with eager — and amply rewarded — enthusiasm.

The second case study, "Gameworlds and Rubber Reality", involves a diverse group of films, encompassing, among others, Peter Weir's The Truman Show (1998), Steven Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), Harold Ramis's Groundhog Day (1993), David Cronenberg's eXistenZ (1999), M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense (1999), and Paul Anderson's Mortal Kombat (1995). Newman unites this wide-ranging group of films by stating that they all present "worlds constructed around the rules of games". I wasn't fully convinced by the classification, but still, this kind of speculative taxonomy is a big part of the fun in the game of criticism, and it's always intriguing to explore unusual categorizations and groupings. Nevertheless, I object to the inclusion of two films here: Christopher Nolan's Memento (2000) and Mike Figgis's Timecode (2000). While both clearly belong to Newman's "game" category, neither of them fall within the scope of either horror or science fiction. As such, they don't belong here.

Most of the essays in this section are solid and interesting, but not as penetrating as those of previous sections. Most lacking, especially in light of other various articles written on the subject over the years, was Philip Strick's sketchy article on the journey of Frank Herbert's Dune (1965) from print to screen.

Most disappointing is the final section, "Stanley Kubrick", comprising two pieces on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), one essay on A Clockwork Orange (1971), and, finally, two articles on The Shining (1980). While Mark Crispin Miller's "2001: A Cold Descent" provides some keen historical perspective and analysis on the 2001 phenomenon, on the whole, this piece, Philip Strick's 1968 review of 2001, and the two articles on The Shining all strike me as too uncritically fawning to provide any insight. Conversely, Kevin Jackson's "Real Horrorshow" fails to incorporate the proper historical perspective in its dismissive put-down of A Clockwork Orange, all because the film failed to electrify the author as much as an adult as it did when he was a teenager. He bemoans the film's slow pacing (one can only speculate that Jackson has now been won over by the cut-happy MTV style) and calls it "egregiously dull". The too-cute dictionary formatting of the piece fails to hide its lack of rigour and its condescending attitude. On the whole, an unfortunate final section.

As I've hinted above, there's plenty to argue about in this book, and that is certainly one of its greatest qualities. I found as much to disagree with (for example, why is there no consideration of Terry Gilliam's work?) as I did to agree with (The Rapture is an unsung masterpiece), not to mention elaborations on things I had only barely articulated and introductions to altogether new avenues of thought. In fact, had I agreed with everything, I would have been suspicious; Newman would not then have done the editing job that such a project requires. But he did: he enriched his book with contradictory viewpoints and a multiplicity of voices, to better reflect the range of possible readings of films through time, space, and culture. This book is an exciting contribution to an ongoing dialogue on film; it implicitly invites readers to contribute their own critical faculties to the project, to think about what they read and watch, and, ultimately, to enjoy cinema in a forever more stimulating and engaging manner.

Mark Jancovich's Horror, The Film Reader emphasizes and demonstrates what a wonderful job Kim Newman did on BFI's Science Fiction/Horror: A Sight and Sound Reader, regardless of how particular readers will agree or disagree with specific articles in Newman's book. Where Newman presented a multiplicity of perspectives, always making his own biases explicit in both the general introduction and the section introductions, Jancovich insidiously hides his agenda under a veneer of dense academese and pretensions of generality.

What is undisclosed, but quickly becomes apparent after reading a few articles, is that Jancovich, through the texts he chose to reprint, is pushing a Freudian interpretation of horror cinema. No heteroglossia here: everything is filtered through Freud's Victorian sexual neuroses, as if we all shared them.

It doesn't take long for all this talk of female penis envy and male fear of the vagina to get yawningly tiresome. I'm always surprised that anyone can still take such absurd notions seriously. The monopolistic dominance of Freudian sexual theory in this book to explicate horror cinema creates the false impression that it is an undisputed truth and the only way to look at horror cinema seriously (Freudian sexual analysis is absent from Newman's book, which limits itself to intelligent discourse only). The concepts of penis envy and vagina fear say much more about Freud's own dysfunctional sexuality than about the human condition or, more to the point, horror films.

Anyway, I could go on, but that's enough ranting. Suffice to say that I think that Jancovich's book is hypocritical and dishonest. It's an offensive piece of propaganda that's too cowardly to be explicit about its agenda, filled with outdated and insulting clichés about sexuality, society, and horror.

The essays in Horror, The Film Reader approach their subject from a reactionary viewpoint, an unholy marriage of Freudian analysis and conservative feminism. While there are certainly questionable agendas in, say, Reagan-era slasher films, the essays gathered here betray little love or appreciation for the larger genre of horror, but rather a condescending disapproval. In return, I vehemently disapprove of this book.

To discuss this column, and genre fiction in general, visit Claude Lalumière's Critical Speculations on the TTA Press message boards.

Claude Lalumière is a writer, critic, editor, and translator. "Bestial Acts", the first story in his Lost Pages cycle, was published in Interzone #178 (April 2002). He is coeditor (with Marty Halpern) of Witpunk: Stories with Attitude, forthcoming in 2003 from 4 Walls 8 Windows. His website features news and links to his online publications. Publishers: please send review material to 4135 Coloniale, Montreal, QC, Canada, H2W 2C2.

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