ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

Mecha Medusa and the Otherless Child - Page 2

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Sherlock Jr.
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Purple Rose of Cairo - poster
What better place to start our examination of "dream screen" penetrability and social castration than Buster Keaton's surreal 1924 feature, Sherlock Jr.? The story of a sleepy theater projectionist (Keaton) who dreams himself up onto the screen and into the action, the underlying message of Sherlock Jr. is practically a commercial for moving the dreams of discontented minimum wage earners lock stock and barrel into the two dimensions of the upscale movie screen. The message--which would be taken up in more vivid terms later in Woody Allen's similarly permeated-screen comedy, Purple Rose of Cairo--is that the world of cinematic fantasy is vastly superior to reality. The privileged position of napping against the dream screen breast is something that knows no class or gender discrimination: all ticket prices are the same. Unless you're at a press screening, no seats are reserved, and the poor man doesn't have to move from a middle aisle seat if a rich man asks him to. In the dream screen, we're all as rich or poor as we like.

In the film's outer story, Buster's penniless projectionist character is heartbroken over being framed for stealing his girlfriend's father's watch. In the inner (film within a film) reality he's endowed him with superior intellect and financial heft to best the bad guys. And when he wakes up, his old reality has been much improved by his absence: his girlfriend has solved the mystery and cleared his name all on her own. If he was awake to help her he probably would have bungled the job! Thus--the subtext implies--dreaming in the cinema solves problems in the real world.

Uncertain how to make a romantic move on her as thanks, he begins taking cues from his silver screen alter-ego, kissing her as the onscreen self kisses his girl, etc. This turns out to be a slippery slope that leads him from the kiss directly to being the father of twins. The sudden appearance of a baby onscreen bewilders the projectionist Keaton; he looks into the camera in the perplexed manner of any child trying to unravel the mystery of their own birth when their parents have left all the gory details on the cutting room floor. If he could read, he'd see the danger sign written on the wall: Suck not from the silver screen teat lest it in turn suck thee (i.e. getting "sucked in" to the narrative, roped into domesticity, in the Ring's case, never to return.)

Dan Georgakas points out that the monkey-see-monkey-do-monkey-get-monkey-pregnant ending of Sherlock Jr. illuminates Hollywood's knowing hand in influencing social norms: "Film instructions obviously involve much more than examining the propriety of holding hands, the acceptable size of gifts, and when and how to kiss," they also reflect "the dominant culture as defined by its most prosperous classes." (138) By associating abundance with the dream screen, capitalism slyly uses cinema the way religion uses the afterlife-- as a carrot before the proletariat horse. The viewer is simultaneously conditioned to accept his meager lot and to not care if others are getting rich off his labor, because a better reality is to be had in dreams/at the movies, anyway; and unlike religion, one does not have to wait until after they die to experience the divine light. They can get a precursory tour for the price of a ticket. Thus the fantasy of temporary annihilation becomes the ultimate commodity, with the subject assured that there's no need to get on the merry-go-round as the big gold ring is theirs already, in simulacrum form.

Canadian horror director David Cronenberg interrupts the mamma ex machina feeding begun with Sherlock Jr. some 60 years later with his 1986 film, Videodrome. Instead of a bumbling but sweet projectionist we have upgraded to a sleazy Toronto TV producer named Max (James Woods) who becomes obsessed with a bootleg torture video captured on some remote TV signal. Max is turned on and also horrified by the violence of the show: he can't look away. He experiences what Steven Shaviro calls a "Bataillean ecstasy of expenditure, of auto-mutilation and self-abandonment. Neither Imaginary plentitude nor Symbolic articulation, but the blinding intoxication of contact with the Real."(54) This is what dream cinema is all about, the shedding of ego construct to re-merge with the abject other, even better if it is in the form of an image and hence at least on some level subject to Mulvey's brand of control. As Buster Keaton's projectionist and James Woods' TV producer are male, the representative other is naturally female. Lianne McLarty's writes that "the (Videodrome) signal is associated with female characters from the outset." Nikki Brand (Deborah Harry), the sexy radio talk show host who Max falls for, becomes "increasingly associated with Videodrome itself." (239) Whereas Buster Keaton dreams he climbs inside the screen to become two-dimensional, Max's relative sexual maturity leads him in the reverse direction; he expands into a virtual third dimension within the post-modern space of the film's outer frame, physically crawling out (or in) to the slime and cathode tubes, breaking the wet seal on human/media sexual interaction. At one point, Max sticks his whole head into a giant close-up of Nikki's glossy red lips on his TV. Here the feminine image quite literally devours Max. He doesn't hop into the screen like a limber young acrobat, he kisses his way in. Later he puts a VHS tape in a slot like opening in his stomach, thus letting the media penetrate him as well.

To bring this back to The Ring, it's fascinating to compare the Videodrome videos with Samara's deadly 'found art' videotape: both have a mysterious place of origin (Samara's haunted VHS tape was made when some boys tried to tape a ball game from aerial TV in their rented cabin) and the ability to function as an optically transmitted hallucinogenic toxin. The place of the signal's origin is--as usual with all things evil--Hell, or its simulacrum (any pit will do). In Videodrome, the location of the signal is traced to the aptly named "Pittsburgh" (which Nikki disappears into, never to return except as an image). In The Ring's case, the source of transmission is an actual pit, a forgotten well boarded up below the cabin floor. In both films the viewer is initially led to believe that the tapes have a mappable point of origin, which can and will be located in the cinematic landscape. In her search for the origin of The Ring tape, Rachel discovers Samara's whole horrible childhood history: confinement in psych wards, barn attics, and a horribly prolonged death at the bottom of a well. We begin to think that the video-related deaths will stop if the abuses Samara suffered at the hands of her parents are exposed. Videodrome's Pittsburgh location hints at an S/M cabal filming in some  forgotten warehouse dungeon nightclub operated by a snuff ring that can be raided by the cops and justice done once Max heads down there to investigate (he never does).
 
Such imagined outcomes are the equivalent of a child's comfort in knowing a familiar bedtime story’s ending in advance. In fact these are false leads, meant to relax us into expecting a certain narrative chain of events, awaken a sense of sadistic control that will then be revoked, slapping the noose around our little pre-natal masochistic inner neck  the moment it timidly emerges from its shell. The very next day after she's found and laid to rest in a proper burial, Samara pays her seven-day wake up call on Aidan’s father, Noah, crawling out of the TV to claim him. We never identify with Noah, (he is way too pretty and self-absorbed) but it seemed that he was going to step up and be responsible for his son after all the ghostly events that occurred, and so his death is shocking and horrible from the point of view of a pre-Oedipal masochistic viewer watching the male gaze other become a blood sacrifice to what Camille Paglia would call the Dionysian or cthonic forces of the female. As with so many characters in horror, right at the point that he would be sympathetic, he is killed.

In Videodrome, it turns out the snuff/torture videos weren't unscrambled from a satellite feed at all; they were made specifically for Max, a Trojan horse of  emasculating media that turns his own stomach into a vagina dentata. Steven Shaviro notes: "The self-possession of the 'male gaze' gives way to the intensely ambivalent; and ambiguously gendered; pleasures of an all-too-vulnerable flesh." (143)
 
This could also be said of the 1980s cultural landscape as a whole, wherein public disillusionment with the patriarchal social order-- signified by the counterculture, Vietnam, and Watergate--had become pervasive enough as to make the gaze self-conscious. Men were trained to be ashamed of their possessive nature: "Male chauvinist pig" was the catch phrase during this dawn of the PC regime of the 1970s and early 1980s and strip club-style swinger behavior like Max's became the stuff of parody, as in NBC show Saturday Night Live's "Two wild and crazy guys!" To look at a woman with desiring eyes became a punishable form of sexual harassment, with the look doing its own punishing. The result was a deluge of painfully sensitive English lit majors like myself, deluded nice guys that Camille Paglia had to school back into being aggressive enough to be sexually desirable via her miracle book, Sexual Personae.

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Videodrome

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Videodrome

To get back to The Ring, let's examine the film's ingenious use of the perpetually rainy Pacific Northwest. Seattle is still maybe one of the few places where Paglia's message hasn't reached, and sensitive white guys still mope around without a trace of self-effacing humor, so it fits that in The Ring, the male characters are almost all sheep. At the start of her investigation, Rachel's boss at the Seattle Intelligencer tries to fire her, but she won't "let" him, curtly dismissing him with a wave of her hand, not even looking up from her typewriter. Similarly, the meek hotel clerk at the cabins where she finds the tape tries to impress her with a card trick, but it doesn't work. Even her ex, Noah, ran out on her and their son, and all he can think of to say when Aidan asks him why he left is "I guess I didn't make a very good dad."

Throughout The Ring, we see men trying to get in Naomi Watts' good graces through genuflection and nervous tics. To get back to the idea of Mulvey and the creep in the raincoat behind her in the theater, we could say that the big awakening for both Noah in The Ring and Max in Videodrome is that they are the creeps in the raincoat, destined to be petrified when their sadistic gaze is rsuddenly returned. If you are to imagine "what sick fuck would want to watch this? Who is it made for?" the answer is invariably you, Kafka. We are all (hopefully) horrified to imagine there are enough psychos out there that something so twisted as a snuff film would find an audience, and meanwhile here we are watching it. And then comes the realization: there is no one else in the theater. The video was made for us.

Male characters have let women and children down throughout the history of horror films, each male character is doomed to embody only a few strengths and  a lot of weaknesses. Monsters can be great lovers but are too violent and uncouth for polite society. Older, wealthy, mad scientists are breadwinners and noble but too obsessive, always locked up in their labs, and often coded gay or impotent. The wimpy romantic leads try to be sensitive to a woman's desire for aid and succor, but then faint at the first punch, proving themselves worthless as protectors. Noah is beautiful to look at, but he knows it, so is annoying. None one type of man can really hack it as a signifier of a strong, positive patriarchal order (the square-jawed scientist or military man of the 1950s bug movies who always took time to tend to his girl being a notable, and long since absent, exception).

Instead, these dysfunctional males are avatars of what Todd McGowan terms the "emerging society of commanded enjoyment." Hedonistic pursuit takes the place of self-sacrifice; men start running out on their families in droves, and the dad that stays buys motorcycles and jet skis with money once scrimped aside for a college fund. The Lacanians call this guy the anal father; a "thoroughly modern phenomenon," which McGowan notes has increased with "the leveling of traditional authority... (and) the development of global capitalism." (50)

With this new imperative to enjoy comes the paranoia that one is never enjoying oneself enough to please the anal father. The overall effect is one of suffocation. The command to enjoy--originally a tool to increase corporate revenue--snares the subject in a feedback loop which eventually obscures whatever original standard of life may have been in his master's mind. Shaviro notes that in Cronenberg's films, "Mutations whose original function was to serve corporate or bureaucratic power take on a sinister life of their own once they have been implanted in the bodies of their hosts/victims." (143) As a sociological example of this, one might think of the 21st century school kid with a cell phone literally glued to his hand as he exchanges a constant flow of text messages with his friends; his levels of anxiety paradoxically rising via the constant flow of reassurance from his peer group.

Writes McGowan: "What's missing is any notion of a beyond; there is nowhere to escape to. Without the explicit prohibition, this beyond begins to disappear, and more importantly, all distance and depth disappear with it." (75). The screen (be it cell phone, laptop, TV, or cineplex) becomes  the onlyreality and the three dimensions of life outside begin to appear dream-like. Baudrillard terms this "The Ecstasy of Communication," a moment when there is "no longer any transcendence or depth, but only the immanent surface of operations unfolding, the smooth and functional service of communication." (12)

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Noah composites Rachel's maternal double
Cinema in 1924 and cable TV in 1986 were both still new enough that Sherlock Jr.'s screen-breeching projectionist and Cronenberg's hallucinating cable magnate could be read as pioneers, astronauts of virtual space. Rachel's adventures in The Ring, by contrast, are totally retro: she's a newspaper woman (for a print newspaper) tracking down a story that leads her not into the dream screen but out of it, or at least to an awakening where she is cognizant that she has always been inside of it, a simulacrum represented by the "Emerald City," Seattle.

But there is no escape.As it turns out, she must learn instead to accept it, to roll with the punches and adapt to her role as a representation of the devouring mother. Spreading the virus, showing the tape to others, becomes the only way to pass the mortal buck--the essence of human sacrifice. Rachel saves herself by sacrificing Noah, and saves her son by sacrificing you, the viewer. In Videodrome, Max must make the ultimate sacrifice and kill himself. Like Buster Keaton imitating what his onscreen representation and winding up with a pair of twins (the death of his former single self), Max shoots himself after watching an instructional video of himself shooting... himself.

Ingmar Bergman's Persona (1966) and William Friedkin's the Exorcist (1974) both operate along a line similar to The Ring in offering a narrative where female artists interact without the presence of a male authority figure, thus luring the male gaze into attempting an imagined takeover, and then eviscerating it in a bloody sacrifice. Employing the theory of the cinematic gaze as male--as an assumed owner of that upon which it gazes--the female artists in these films are able to behold (and therefore embody) Medusa ex machina, (or Mecha-Medusa to use the Godzilla terminology), as such they join Samara as artists who exist inside the image they create. If men try this, they turn to stone. Even confined to her bed or a remote island (or the bottom of a well) this female artist, casting her stony glare --can calcify the impotent few remnants of the social order, frozen pitifully in their seats, cokes in hand.

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Samara - the outsider artist with the stony stare in THE RING

Available DVDs of recommended films discussed in this article

all photos c. their owners. Article c. 2007 - Acidemic

C. 2013 - Acidemic Journal of Film and Media - BFG LCS: 489042340244