What’s So Interesting About Serial Killers Anyways?

A look at Tobe Hopper’s 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and why we are so intrigued by serial killers, blood, and gore.

5223249-posterWhy is blood and gore so intriguing? It’s a question that plagues me whenever I am confronted with blood, guts, and the visceral on-screen. Even more so during this time of the year because this is time when The Walking Dead comes back into my life. Why do I let it come back though? Why do I want to see how many different ways a zombie’s brains can be splattered over Rick and the gang?

I’m going to attempt to answer this question by looking at the classic film Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I will, of course, focus on the original released in 1974. This is perhaps THE most gruesome film I have seen and hopefully this post will reveal why.

Carol Clover has observed, “…the emotional terrain of slasher films is pre-technological.” With this statement, I believe she is referring to weapons of choice in slasher films. For instance, we are more likely to see someone pick up a knife, or a hammer, or even use their bare hands to enact and satisfy their killer craving. In Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Leatherface chooses the chainsaw as his weapon of choice. However, the only appearance the weapon makes is a short scene in which Franklin is chopped in half. But in this short instance, we don’t get the blood and gore we expect (or want). Instead, we get our satisfaction earlier on in the film from the Hitchhiker picked up on the side of the highway (never a good idea, especially if you’re in a horror movie, but that’s another topic for another time). We get to see the Hitchhiker violate the body by slicing open his hand, letting blood flow past that invisible barrier. I believe the killer in a slasher film, in this case the Hitchhiker along with Leatherface, serves the role of breaking the barrier between the visible and the unseen for the audience. In the role of mediator, the killer breaks that taboo fascination humans have with what is hidden beneath our skin. 

Franklin is awestruck, showing a lingering intrigue about the Hitchhiker’s act of violence. Clover remarks that Franklin is, “fascinated by the realization that all that lies between the visible, knowable outside of the body and its secret insides is one thin membrane, protected only by a collective taboo against its violation.” This shared fascination serves as a sort of link between the killer and victim in this film. Although deemed an outsider from the very beginning, Franklin is not the typical victim the audience would sympathize with. But the focus remains on Franklin, the audience relies on him to confirm their fears or revulsions towards the killer. But as Franklin is not so different from Hitchhiker, the definition of who is the killer and victim in this film to come into question.

The comparison between Franklin and Hitchhiker allows the line between killer and victim in Texas Chainsaw Massacre to be blurred. If Franklin represents “normal” society in this comparison, their similarities would suggest that both sides could take on the role of the victim, with Franklin as the victim of the cannibalistic Leatherface clan and Hitchhiker as the victim of the slaughterhouse industry (again, there is a lot more to be said here, but let’s save it for another post).

The State of Modern Day Hollywood Cinema: It (2017)

21bca83912c14ddb6a1e925b1e3d3366

This new iteration of a cult classic horror film is certainly representative of the overall dilemma of Hollywood films these days: a decent concept, great talent, and a terrible plot.

However solid your cast is, there’s still a lot of moving parts that don’t seem to be prioritized the way they really need to be. A story is what carries a film along and keeps audiences involved and interested. But it seems as though a plague has swept over Hollywood that is causing films to be nothing more than mediocre at best.

To illustrate this claim, I want to turn to the recently released reboot of It.

First of all, this film is in the same vein of many films these days, a reboot or sequel to a predecessor removed by a decades. I do think reboots and long forgotten sequels are decent concepts to follow, there is a disconnect in rebooting films to appeal to a modern audience. In It, the film is set in the 1980’s, something which I believe holds back the entire story. Each of the kid actors lives up to stereotypical representation prevalent in 1980’s films, even calling out this fact with a “Molly Ringwald” reference to the only girl in the group who is in fact an homage to the Pretty in Pink star. Setting the reboot in the same decade the original Stephen King novel was released limits the potential of diversity of representation or anything really “new” that could be adapted into the reboot. Why are we seemingly stuck in a 1980’s plot line?

Second, if Pennywise the Dancing Clown is supposed to represent and feed off of fear, then why limit the story to only focus on this group of pre-defined, stereotypical nerds and outcasts (or “Losers” as they lovingly refer to themselves as)? The fears of these kids are so limited to this very specific group of kids, who are great representations of 80’s kids (according to audience reaction and some jokes being lost on the younger audience). Why not branch out to explore characters who have not been given a voice yet? The original novel has already been adapted into a film once before in the 90’s, so let’s modernize the story and setting to allow for more potential and maybe even a better story for new audiences.

With all this said, It still has some strengths. The talent, for instance, is very solid. All of the kid actors did a great job, in my opinion, with pulling off each of the personalities of their characters. I’m not sure if it was just great casting choices or if this young talent is actually just that impressive, but their performances were quite believable, something I don’t usually find myself saying about kid actors. And we can’t forget Bill Skarsgard’s terrifying performance as Pennywise. Honestly, my favorite parts of the film were any scenes where Pennywise makes an appearance in because of the way the kid characters are written and how their side plot lines are quite boring in comparison. I would rather explore what each of their fears are and how Pennywise pulls from their more personal experiences, making the manifestation of their fear all the more real.

Since these are just a few initial thoughts I had, I would be interested to hear what others have to say about this new reboot. How do you feel about the very idea of reboots these days? Does It pull off the reboot concept well? Were you just as annoyed with the incessant penis jokes pervading the entire film as I was?

Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: Part 1

I recently stumbled upon an awesome documentary series about the tumultuous and exciting 20th century. Dr. James Fox’s narration takes you on a journey through the century, stopping at three different cities that exemplify the radical changes taking place.

cover_Bright_Lights_Brilliant_Minds

I will be posting some brief summaries of each of the three episodes. There’s not really any “spoilers” warning I can give because this is history, but I highly recommend watching these 50 minute episodes for yourself. The show provides some great film and imagery of what each city looked like during the specific year. You really get a sense of what life was like throughout the 20th century. With shots from modern day as well as recovered historical footage, you are able to be swept away into the world of Vienna in 1908, Paris in 1928, and New York in 1951.


Vienna, 1908

  • Hitler attempted to pursue a career as an artist, got cold feet, applied for art school, got shot down, turned to politics (influence by Karl Lueger’s antisemitism; “I decide who is a jew”); & the rest is history
  • Hapsburg Empire: the largest and oldest empire in Europe; everyone thought it would last forever (pre-WW1); 1908 was the Emperor’s Diamond Jubilee
  • Gustav Klimt premiered his world-famous painting The Kiss, Dr. Fox claims that the doubt surrounding the optimism of the era is evident in this painting because of the “ambiguous embrace”Gustav Klimt - The Kiss - 1907-8
  • Adolf Loos’s Ornament and Crime manifesto was published this year; theories and ideas from the manifesto culminated in the Raiffeisenbank/Looshaus commission, which was marked as the first modern building
  • Vienna is seemingly trapped between the past and the future, transitioning from the world of empires and monarchies to a modern society; 1908 had the highest recorded suicide rates
  • Fabulous Freud introduced his Oedipus Complex Theory, and the world went crazy over it; although, in 1908 Vienna, this wasn’t the craziest idea to be suggested
  • Artist Egon Schiele was developing a new expressionistic figural style, evident in a self portrait

    schiele-01OPT
    Self-Portrait by Egon Schiele
  • Arnold Schoenberg joined the expressionist art movement as a composer; his most well-known work is the Second String Quartet, which experiments with atonality

    800px-Schiele_-_Bildnis_des_Komponisten_Arnold_Schönberg_._1917
    Portrait of Schoenberg by Egon Schiele
  • Social issues were prevalent to say the least; prostitution (the dark underbelly of middle class men was called out by author Else Jerusalem in her novel Red House), poverty and homelessness was so severe people started taking up shelter in Vienna’s sewer system (documented byEmil Kläger & Hermann Drawe)
  • October 6, 1908: Bosnia Herzogovnia/Balkans were annexed, which would lead to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914

Examining the Role of an Artist

Jacques-Louis David’s The Coronation of Napoleon commemorates Napoleon’s self-coronation on a grand scale. The painting depicts Napoleon crowning his wife Josephine in the presence of his family, court, and Pope Pius VII. The meticulously crafted work was made to appease Napoleon’s wishes to have the painting serve as political propaganda[1]. However, a closer look at the painting will show how David’s role in society, the dominant subjectivity of the time, and the organization and representation of figures influences the construction of meaning that is not directly apparent.

La Coronacion de Bonaparte

An analysis of The Coronation of Napoleon can be made through the use of ideas presented by Linda Nochlin in her essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” T.J. Clark’s introductory chapter to his book Image of the People, and Michel Foucault’s chapter on the painting “Las Meninas” from his book The Order of Things. Nochlin reconsiders 19th and 20th century art in terms of the social conditions present during those times. Although Nochlin uses this approach in reference to feminism, specifically female artists, it is also useful in considering the role of male and female figures within paintings as well as the role social conditions play in the influence on artists. Clark’s analysis of Courbet’s art and life attributes the artist’s success to the social and economic forces of the revolution suggesting that his greatness is relative to and dependent on external forces. Clark approaches Courbet’s work by looking at the social forces in history that the artist engages with to produce his work. Taking this sociohistorical insight into consideration will prove useful in understanding and contextualizing The Coronation of Napoleon. Foucault’s notion of representation stems from his rejection of the concept of “context”. In his visual analysis of Las Meninas, Foucault gives a detailed account of how specific statements become possible through the painting as a representation of representation. By applying this approach to The Coronation of Napoleon, the structure and form of representation David employs provides another layer of meaning to the painting.

Approach #1: Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”

The dominant subjectivity of a culture or society influences the way people will perceive the surrounding world. Whether stated or unstated, it will have an effect on the thinking of the general public. For example, when Europeans began exploring the New World, they set off with the mindset that their subjectivity, or experience of reality, was acceptable so that anything differing from their way of life was seen as alien, incomprehensible, or hostile. The domination of one point of view has caused a distortion in the viewing of anything else. The influence of the dominant subjectivity shaped the way the explorers perceived any culture outside of Europe or European influence.

In art, a viewer’s experience with a painting is dependent on what they bring to it. To consider Nochlin’s essay, she examines the question presented in the title “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Nochlin discusses how this question is already problematic because of the assumptions that are already present in the question. Scholars will then try to answer this question by comparing female artists to male artists of the same time[2]. However, male artists during David’s time were privileged to more artistic resources than women were. For instance, female artists were not allowed to draw from nude models, thus denying them the opportunity to develop their skills at depicting the human body. Having a knowledge of the human body, especially during the Neoclassical period, was important in being able to create historical works of art in which their was an abundance of nude figures[3]. Nochlin observes, “Thus the question of women’s equality…devolves…upon…the very nature of our institutional structures themselves and the view of reality which they impose on the human beings who are part of them” [4]. Because of David’s privilege as a male artist, he was able to more accurately portray male figures in The Coronation of Napoleon, which far outnumber the female figures present in the painting.

Another contrasting note in gender depicted in The Coronation of Napoleon can be seen the arrangement of the figures. The men are at a higher level than the women. This is especially emphasized by Napoleon and Josephine, who are the main attractions of the spectacle. Josephine is shown kneeling in front of Napoleon, waiting to be crowned. Her passivity is juxtaposed to Napoleon’s active position as he holds the crown above his head. Similarly, all of the figures surrounding Napoleon are male and are placed above the women in the painting. The women, the majority of which appear at the left-hand side of the painting, all appear docile; they are all standing behind Josephine and even have to hold her robe as she kneels. The dominant subjectivity imposed by institutions of David’s time led him to be able to depict the male figure more proficiently thus he was able to convey the power of Napoleon over France, as well as women, through his active position contrasted by Josephine’s inactiveness.

Approach #2: T.J. Clark, “On the Social History of Art”

In a general summation of his approach to art historical analysis, Clark states,

“The making of a work of art is one historical process among other acts, events, and structures—it is a series of actions in but also on history. It may become intelligible only within the context of given imposed structures of meaning; but in its turn it can alter and at times disrupt these structures.”[5]

To consider an analysis of a work of art a knowledge of the historical processes that influenced and were influenced by the work is necessary. A painting may construct a view of history that is not at first evident, but it may also be a response to historical events as well.

For instance, David’s status as official court painter is useful in understanding the structure present in The Coronation of Napoleon. David was appointed to be Napoleon’s official court painter once his Empire was established in 1804. Prior to that, David and other artists struggled under the state system of the arts when up until 1789 when France was a monarchy. In 1789, the French Revolution broke out. At that time David began supporting numerous reforms to the training and careers of artists. David was also elected to the legislature where he remained active as an artist creating many works of art that supported revolutionary causes[6]. David’s service to Napoleon as court painter allowed him to thrive as an artist. Due to the fact that he was working for the Emperor of France, who was also a major component of the French Revolution, permitted him to most likely be treated more respectably.

David has constructed The Coronation of Napoleon as an ode to Napoleon’s power. He had his own ideas about how to paint the scene, which consisted of a more realistic portrayal of the event such as excluding Napoleon’s absent mother and depicting Pope Pius VII as an unenthusiastic participant[7]. However, he has to modify this to suit the wishes of the Emperor. Instead, Napoleon’s mother can clearly be seen sitting in one of the balconies above Josephine. And David repainted Pope Pius VII to show him raising one hand in blessing of the self-coronation. David’s revolutionary ideals, of allegiance to his country, influenced his cooperation with Napoleon when executing a work that is fictional in some parts, but also a work of political propaganda.

Approach #3: Michel Foucault, “Las Meninas

Foucault replaces the factors that motivate or cause a statement from the viewer with a detailed account of how specific statements become possible. He demonstrates this in his analysis of Las Meninas as showing representation. For instance, the simultaneous acknowledgement and dismissal of the viewer is made evident through the represented Velazquez. The attentive gaze of the artist reaches out to a point that Foucault takes to be the position of the implied spectator that converges with that of the implied actual painter, and with that of the model being painted by the represented artist[8]. This gaze sets up an oscillation between signifier and signified.

To examine The Coronation of Napoleon through this approach it would, again, be helpful to consider David’s role as the official court painter to Napoleon. David has constructed a scene that is similar to the one in Las Meninas. Due to his role as court painter, David was expected to attend Napoleon’s coronation in order to make sketches and to witness the overall grandeur of the occasion. David has even included himself in the painting, and can be seen in the balcony above Napoleon’s mother. Because of the large size of the painting, measured at 6.2 x 9.8 meters, the figures appear life size. This, like the artist’s gaze in Las Meninas, both acknowledges the viewer, by giving them the opportunity to physically relate to the painting, and dismisses the viewer, through a degree of separation created between reality and the canvas, The Coronation of Napoleon is given the capability of becoming timeless. Napoleon clearly wanted viewers to experience the painting this way otherwise it would not have been completed as we see it.

Through the use of varying approaches from Linda Nochlin, T.J. Clark, and Michel Foucault, David’s role as the artist responsible for creating The Coronation of Napoleon is able to be better understood. The dominant subjectivity present within artistic institutions of the time influenced the portrayal of male and female figures within the painting. David’s role as a political activist led to the creation of The Coronation of Napoleon as political propaganda in favor of Napoleon. Also, David has created a scene that both greets and dismisses the viewer in order to represent an experience Napoleon wished the viewer to have. David’s role as the official court painter as well as in society led to The Coronation of Napoleon to be constructed in such a way that reflects his views as an artist meshed together with the wishes of the patron who commissioned the painting.


Works Cited

[1] “Napoleon’s Coronation.” Paris Muse. N.p., 2002. Web. 17 March 2013. <http://www.parismuse.com/news/napoleons-crown.shtml&gt;.

[2] Nochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays. New York City: Harper & Row, 1988. 147. Print.

[3] Nochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays. New York City: Harper & Row, 1988. 158. Print.

[4] Nochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays. New York City: Harper & Row, 1988. 152. Print.

[5] Clark, T.J. “On the Social History of Art.” Image of the People. 1st ed. Berkeley: University of California, 1973. 13. Print.

[6] Johnson, Dorothy. “David, Jacques-Louis (1748-1825).” Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. Ed. Jonathan Dewald. Vol. 2. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004. 109-111. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 17 March 2013.

[7] “Napoleon’s Coronation.” Paris Muse. N.p., 2002. Web. 17 March 2013. <http://www.parismuse.com/news/napoleons-crown.shtml&gt;.

[8] Foucault, Michel. “Las Meninas.” The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. 2nd Ed. New York City: Vintage, 1994. N.Page. Print.

National Cinema: The Blue Angel

blue-angel-05

Two methods for establishing a specific national cinema includes a comparison to other films and looking at a film in relation to what defines a pre-existing cultural identity of a nation. A nation’s identity can be seen as a set of ideologies and values, and, as scholar Andrew Higson claims, cinema acts as a sort of advertisement for the cultural standing of a nation. Cinema acts as a business, using a nation’s identity as a marketing strategy to set up expectations of a film. In this way, a nation’s film can then be defined by a comparison to other nation’s films. To paraphrase Higson, national cinema can be defined by what it is not. But this does not take into account a nation’s identity based on existing economics and cultures of that nation state. National cinema must then be considered in relation to the prevailing political, economic, and cultural identity and traditions.

Another way to define national cinema is to look at the consumption and production of a film. For instance, to look at where the film was made and who made it might give us insight into how the idea of a nation’s identity might be explored in a film. We can see this in Josef von Sternberg’s film The Blue Angel. Sternberg was an American director brought over to Germany to work on The Blue Angel under the German production company Ufa. The director’s background as a professional from Hollywood can perhaps be seen as an influence on the highly narrative structure of the film, focusing on the love story between Professor Rath and Lola. The film also draws on German film history, particularly Emil Jannings previous films, and Weimar culture. But the focus on the exploration of sexuality encompasses both American and German concerns during the 1930s.

blue-angel-movie-poster-1930-1010283892.jpg

Modernity, beginning in the 1920s, was marked by the increasing power of middle-class women, among other things. In her chapter on The Blue Angel, Patrice Petro claims that female sexuality became a prevalent marker of what was deemed the “new woman,” which was aggressively publicized by radical new fashions that drew attention to the female form. Marlene Dietrich’s character Lola exemplifies the “new woman” very clearly in the film. She is first introduced through the use of a postcard that the Professor’s students are crowded around. These young men are continuously drawn back to the cabaret club where Lola performs and flaunts her sexuality, which is made explicitly clear through the lyrics in her songs. Lola is often seen surrounded by her admirers, but she is always in the position of authority. She controls their movements, clearly shown when she takes the Professor’s coat and places him the seat next to her, and has the ability to dispel them from her dressing room. Lola is aware of her effect on the Professor in particular and seems to enjoy his discomfort by her sexuality. Lola as the “new woman” type places The Blue Angel in the context and history of urban entertainment and the increasingly non-traditional expressions of sexuality that was prevalent in both America and Germany.

The film also reflects on the issue of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Lola is able to exert her power over her male audience even when she is not present. The postcard that the Professor’s students admire draws them in to the cabaret club to seek out the authentic source. However, the source of the original is questioned when Lola is constantly confronted with her own image. The walls of her dressing room are covered with these postcards and posters, leading to the question of which one determines the other.