Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Children of Paradise

I've begun reading Joan Hawkins's Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-Garde (Minnesota, 2000), on the recommendation of a student I used to work with.  Hawkins teaches at IU, which is no doubt how my friend knows her.  The book even includes a photo of our independent cult-cinema video store, Plan Nine Video, in its original basement location.  Cutting Edge is pretty good as academic criticism goes, with some good insights, like her takedown of Susan Sontag's weird complaint about watching movies on video at home.  In "Decay of the Cinema," Sontag wrote:
To see a great film only on television isn't to have really seen that film.  It's not only a question of the dimensions of the image: the disparity  between a larger-than-you image in the theater and the little image on the box at home.  The conditions of paying attention in a domestic space are radically disrespectful of film.  Now that a film no longer has a standard size, home screens can be as big as living room or bedroom walls.  But you are still in a living room or a bedroom.  To be kidnapped [by the images] you have to be in a movie theater, seated in the dark among anonymous strangers.
I find this amazing, especially since the movies are only a little over a century old, and so many things about them and the experiences involved in viewing them have changed in that time.  Not everyone in the world, or even in the US, has always had access to movie theaters.  (Especially in the US there was for a long time this institution called "the drive-in.")  Movies often were shown on sheets hung outdoors, in crummy 16 millimeter prints projected by a generator-powered projector set up on the bed of a truck.  And even in a theater, you weren't necessarily among anonymous strangers.  (Though they could be a bonus.) You might be with your family, or with a gang of friends, and in a small town theater you might know everybody else at the show.  There might not even be seats on the main level, as in the Indian theaters Steve Derne wrote about in Movies, Masculinity, and Modernity (Greenword Press, 2000); moviegoers mill around, paying attention to the film intermittently, but they're there as much to socialize as to see the movie, which they've seen many times and know by heart anyway.  Hawkins writes about the emergence of high culture as Lawrence W. Levine traced it in Highbrow / Lowbrow (Harvard, 1990), and especially the notion that art or entertainment is supposed to be experienced silently, with hushed reverence, as if you were in church.  That's never been the majority experience.  It may describe Sontag's own experience as a teenaged devotee of high culture, at a time when movies weren't even regarded as high culture.  It's definitely a "You kids get off my lawn!" performance.

But the main thing is that I don't believe you have to be sitting in a darkened movie theater to be "kidnapped" by a movie, any more than you have to read in a special holy reading room to be carried away by a book.  (Or, come to think of it, that sex can only be rapturous in a bedroom with one's lawful partner in missionary position.)   I admit that I often get extra pleasure watching films on the big screen, as I wrote after seeing the 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still at the IU Cinema.  (I think that Hawkins may have been the professor who introduced that showing.)  But I've been swept away by movies I've watched on TV, even the small (15 inch?) one I got in the mid-80s and used for several years.  It's a matter of concentration and attention, not the size of the screen or where it's located.  When I was in Korea during World Cup in 2010, I saw a crowd of people looking over one man's shoulder on the subway as he watched the game on the 2 or 3-inch screen of his digital player: they all jumped and cheered with him when the Korean team scored a goal.  Were they "kidnapped" by the game?  I think so.

Hawkins does a very good job in Cutting Edge of demolishing easy binaries: a lot of the book is devoted to the connection between avant-garde and art cinema on one hand, and horror movies on the other.  This shows up in widespread uncertainty about classifying certain films, such as Georges Franju's Eyes without a Face or Tod Browning's Freaks, both of which have been pigeonholed in either genre in different places and times.  She also shows how much confusion there is about the role of movies as art or entertainment, or both, or neither; but then, it's not really clear what Art is, or what distinguishes it from non-Art.  What gets taken seriously changes over time, and movies aren't the only insecure upstart: remember that the European novel was widely devalued for its first century, and that Shakespeare's plays weren't written with publication in mind, let alone canonization.  Early Greek tragedy began as a religious rite connected to Dionysos, but it was a fairly raucous rite at first, only settling down and taking itself (too?) seriously later on.  It's not certain how representative the surviving tragedies are, and the theater has always been suspect, especially since the rise of Christianity, as fostering "immorality."

So I was pleasantly surprised by Cutting Edge.  I went to it with the expectation of getting some more insight into horror movies, as I had with Carol Clover's Men, Women and Chainsaws (Princeton, 1993), and I got that, but I also got some useful ideas about movies and art in general.  I doubt I'll ever be much interested in horror or ultraviolent films, but I got a lot of perspective from Hawkins's discussion.