Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Monstrous Mother in House

It seems that we have examined House from every possible angle in our class discussions, from talking about the historical and cultural problems of post-war Japan, manifest through the generational tensions and the conglomerated appearance of traditional Japanese culture and western cultures, to discussions of the carnivalesque, abjection, and the monstrous feminine.  I find that Creed's use of abjection in discussing the monstrous feminine to be the most interesting way of looking at the women, both monsters and victims, in House.

Kristeva's understanding of abjection is rooted in her discussion of what she calls the "semiotic" which in Lacanian terms is the imaginary, the pre-Symbolic phase in which the infant has not yet been differentiated from the mother. Women therefore, according to Kristeva, have a greater opportunity to re-access the pre-Symbolic. They are also more closely linked to the abject through menstrual blood and the birthing process. One notion of abjection then becomes the "confrontation with the feminine" which hearkens back to the son-mother incest prohibition. This confrontation with the feminine (and Kristeva notes that we regard as feminine anything that is seen as other "without a name, which subjective experience confronts when it does not stop at the appearance of its identity" Maybe we can retire the word "feminism" and use "otherism"?) is the "coming face to face with an unnamable otherness" (59). This confrontation with the feminine/unnamable otherness/abject is according to Creed a significant element of horror film watching: "Viewing horror film signifies a desire not only for perverse pleasure (confronting sickening, horrific images/being filled with terror/desire for the undifferentiated) but also a desire, once having been filled with perversity, taken pleasure in perversity, to throw up, throw out, eject the abject" (10). The key word that ties all of this together is the desire for the "undifferentiated" which, if we bring yet another person into the discussion, Bataille would argue is the obliteration of the self that happens in death and sex. Confronting the monstrous/abject feminine therefore threatens obliteration, and this threat is desirable because, as a viewing audience, we are able to confront it and overcome it, thus solidifying our own sense of subjectivity.

Now, applying all of this to House. There are several scenes that support this idea of becoming subsumed back into the pre-Symbolic world of undifferentiation.   The most obvious for me is the scene where the cat is spewing bloody liquid into the house, drowning and dissolving Prof in this amniotic fluid, drawing her into the space of pre-Symbolic and undifferentiated state of being, an obliteration of both her body and subjectivity.   We also see it when Gorgeous sees herself, her aunt, and her mother in the mirror before she burns up and is subsumed by house.

Gorgeous, however, plays a different role from Prof because she is not only dissolved and consumed by Auntie, she is incorporated into her to the point where we are unsure of the boundary between Auntie and Gorgeous. She maintains her appearance as Gorgeous, and becomes the consuming mother with Fanta. Is she Gorgeous? Is she the Auntie? We may even see her as her own mother, especially in the last scene where she kills her father's new bride. Rather than a lack of boundaries, however, we may see these women all existing within the same abject boundary, undifferentiated from each other,but separate from the rational world.

The Vomiting that Protects Me: Abjection and the Uncanny in Audition

It's clear from the first ten minutes of the film that Audition was about family and home. The film starts off with the death of Aoyama's wife. He is left to raise his little son, who after 7 years urges him to start dating and find a new wife. Several innocuous comments are made about how nice it would be to have a woman around the house to cook (even though they already have a maid) and to take care of them. It was this moment that I knew horrible things would happen in the domestic space, and I was not surprised when at the end of the film Asami shows up at the house to perform her womanly duties.

The German word for "uncanny" is unheimlich which literally means "un-homely" and this definition has always struck me. He talks about the uncanny as something that is familiar, but has been repressed or rejected, and then returns to the surface in some way. It's home, it's familiar, but it's also other.  Perhaps Kristeva argues that the abject is not the uncanny, but I would say that the uncanny often occurs as a result of coming face to face with the abject. Kristeva also argues that the abject is not familiar, it is wholly other: that shit is not me, that corpse is not me. And yet, it must be familiar to some degree because it is recognizable, and no matter how other we make it, it remains us. The corpse is not me, but I will become a corpse. That shit is not me, but it comes from my body. Therefore, the uncanny, the un-homely, may occur when we are faced with something wholly other that is at some level familiar.

The most obvious instance of this in Audition is when Asami maintains a very careful and considerate motherly relationship to those she is torturing. This is uncanny. She is un/familiar, un/homely. And she maintains this uncanniness through abjection. The most jarring scene that shows this is when she feeds her tied up "pet", the man she keeps in a sack, by vomiting into a bowl, which he then laps up like a dog. On one hand this is pure abjection. The vomit is wholly other from Asami, and yet it is then consumed by an other, who is at one instance wholly other and at another is being cared for and kept alive by consuming what was once inside of Asami. Her un/homely and un/domestic care is rendered both uncanny and abject.  If the uncanny is something that has been repressed which then resurfaces in some way, perhaps this moment also reveals to the audience the repressed memories of relying on the mother's bodily fluids for sustenance, and reminds us of our desire to differentiate ourselves in order to maintain our independent subjectivity. As Kristeva argues, "Along with sight-clouding dizziness, nausea makes be balk at that milk cream, separates me from the mother and father who proffer it." We reject the mother's milk (and Asami's milk), and leave the film purged of the abject and more fully human.

Taboo and Abjection in Imprint

First, I have to say that I could not believe Imprint was only 60 minutes long.  Miike is a freaking magician.

So, I've blogged about abjection before, but I don't think I can get away from doing it again when it comes to this intensely abject film.  Unlike the other blogs, in this one I'd like to focus in on a different element of abjection, shifting from the individual bodily abjection that maintains subjectivity to the social idea of abjection that works to maintain social order. Going off of anthropologist Mary Douglas, Kristeva argues that it is not "lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite." This of course extends from the personal to the public realm: "the traitor, the liar, the criminal with a good conscience, the shameless rapist, the killer who claims he is a savior" What is more, abjection is the "immoral, sinister, scheming, and shady: a terror that dissembles, a hatred that smiles, a passion that uses the body for barter instead of inflaming it, a debtor who sells you up, a friend who stabs you…" (4).

On one hand I try to find the social space of abjection (what Judith Butler calls the "zone of uninhabitability") to be a positive and powerful space because it disturbs order and I am always for questioning or disturbing order, especially if that order is unjust or unethical. However, the end goal is always to break down order so as to rebuild order, and therefore the abject will always be a necessary evil. Bataille argues that evil is not transgression, but is transgression condemned (127). It is abjected transgression, the transgression that we must thrust aside in order to live in a safe society. This is certainly not a given, and is something that may change and alter as a society works through its prejudices and superstitions, which transgression, the threat of the abject, is necessary in order for it to do.

So when it comes to Imprint, I see it as a film about the abject that is condemned, about sadistic evil, about the purely immoral. While in Audition I feel like we can justify Asami's actions because of her treatment as a child, it's more difficult to do so with the Prostitute in Imprint, particularly because she initially falls into the category of the "criminal with a good conscience...the killer who claims [s]he is a savior" and then secondly falls into the category of traitor, liar, "sinister, scheming, and shady" as well as the ambiguous and composite when we learn of her parasitic twin, who was the result of the taboo of incest. Finally at the end of the film she is merely the figment of the imagination of a lunatic who murdered his beloved, and we see him condemned because of his immoral act.  In any case, Komomo is the individual against whom the evil is perpetrated throughout the film, an individual who is good and kind and moral, despite her role as a socially abject prostitute. Her role as a prostitute is needed to maintain order, but she nevertheless disturbs that order. She is not "immoral" because her society places her there; the society, therefore, is immoral. In the case of the Prostitute as well as the case of those who torture Komomo, their immorality extends beyond the pale, beyond merely socially acceptable transgression. However, they do try to maintain their boundaries by harming Komomo's body in a way that will not disrupt her position as a prostitute.


In the end, Creed argues that the audience of the horror film takes part in the ritual of abjection in order to thrust aside the abject, the immoral, the sinister. In Miike's remarkable 60 minute film we come face to face with all kinds of evil and taboo, with the most wretched immoral behavior imaginable. We see it, it affects us, and as we leave the room to go on with our daily lives we reject it, it becomes the abject that is not us.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Enter Freudstein: Fulci, Freud and the Uncanny

It's true that, as we have discussed in class, Fulci's House By the Cemetery is possibly a pastiche of every horror film ever made, but perhaps we should take a more direct cue from the obvious references to Freud (Freudstein is the name of the monster) and his discussion of the uncanny. Freud's essay does not give any definitive answer to the problem of the uncanny, but instead explores many possibilities of what the uncanny can mean and how it manifests itself both in literature and in the lives of individuals. I would argue that House by the Cemetery is in keeping with Freud's discussion and can be read as Fulci's own exploration of the uncanny. We may even be able to argue that the film mirrors (or acts as the double of) Freud's essay.

What I think is at the heart of the uncanny for Freud is the sense of familiarity that is tied so closely to uncanniness, and that it is the emergence of what we have repressed that defines the uncanny.  He argues that the uncanny "is in reality nothing new or foreign, but something familiar and old-- established in the mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression. This reference to the factor of repression enables understand Schelling's definition of the uncanny as something which ought to have been kept concealed but which has nevertheless come to light" (12-13). Because the uncanny is the emergence of what has been repressed, or paraphrasing Kristeva in regards to the similar notion of abjection, what has been thrust aside in order to create the subjective "I", some patterns may be seen, but ultimately the uncanny is different for every individual. Simply stated, the uncanny is when the rational way of seeing the world breaks down and the superstitions and magic beliefs once held by "primitive" societies and repressed through rational subjectivity, which could be seen as a product of the Renaissance, break through in various ways.  Freud briefly touches on some of these patterns, as does Fulci. They include doubling, and on a related note, the automaton. This is evident in House by the Cemetery when May has the vision of the mannequin's head falling off, who we then see is a double of Anna the baby sitter. The doll May gives to Bob can be seen in a similar way as a double for May or even for Bob.  We also have the creepy sound of a child crying when Freudstein is nearby, thus creating another strange doubling effect.

Freud also points out that "One of the most uncanny and wide-spread forms of superstition is the dread of the evil eye" and indeed eyes play a significant role in both Freud's understanding of the uncanny and in Fulci's demonstration of it. Freud chooses to discuss Hoffman's story "The Sandman" in which eyes play a prominent role as the fairytale of the sandman who plucks out the eyes of children is doubled by the evil optometrist. Freud argues that the destruction of the eyes is similar to castration and is therefore especially uncanny. In House by the Cemetery the monster Freudstein has no eyes, and yet Bob sees several pairs of eyes in the basement.

Could Freudstein be a reconfiguration of the Sandman? I say yes. Especially because Fulci not only chooses to show the disembodied eyes in the basement, but cinematically he also focuses on the eyes, and the film contains several extreme close-ups of eyes. At one point the husband even tells the wife that maybe she needs glasses.  I'm not sure if we can say that Fulci agrees with Freud and the whole castration thing, but clearly Freudstein's lack of eyes in contrast with the abundance of eyes references Freud's discussion of the Sandman and the uncanny and may perhaps reveal Fulci's own fear of castration? At the very least I would call the film an homage to Freud. 

Totalitarianism Sublime in Argento's Susperia

This is a post I wrote for my International Horror class that I thought I would reproduce here for your reading pleasure. :) 

There is one scene in Dario Argento's Susperia that seems to be overwhelmingly disliked by the class, and it happens to be my favorite scene in the film. The scene in question falls at the end of a sequence which begins when the ballet school's blind piano player is kicked out by the fiercely German school master (whose sadistic grin during this scene has always disturbed me) because his dog allegedly bit the creepy little boy who hangs around the school. We follow him then to a traditional Bavarian drinking hall, and finally into a large neoclassical square where after several minutes of intense music and sweeping high angled shots, his dog attacks him and rips out his throat. Some people might have thought this was stupid, but I found the dog attack to be a tremendous and disturbing pay off to the intense sublimity leading up to the attack, and I would argue that this sublimity is achieved by Argento through his use of Nazi imagery combined with the several high and long distance shots taken from the perspective of lurking, swooping, and overwhelming entity of power.
 A distant high angle shot adds to the sense of a lurking sublime power

It is this sequence that is the most heavy handed in portraying the sinister images of Nazism: the sadistically cruel Arian school master, the nationalistic "traditional" Bavarian drinking hall, dance, and costume, and the neoclassical architecture reminiscent of the Reichsparteitagsgelände, the Nazi party rally grounds, in Nuremburg.  The blind pianist passes two police officers who resemble Nazi soldiers, and he is killed by his own dog, a German shepherd, a breed who because of its use by the Nazi party was officially renamed the "Alastian Wolf Dog" until 1977 (thank you Wikipedia!).  The scene also contains close up of an eagle atop the neoclassical building, another symbol of the totalitarian Third Reich. What I find most compelling, however, is the intense sublimity of the last scene, and how Argento uses the Nazi references to create a heightened sense of sublime power, which for me made the scene extremely effective, especially when the blind pianist's own trustworthy companion turns on him.  This final scene of the sequence is nearly a full four minutes long, which may seem drawn out, but I see its length as highlighting the sadistic nature of the omnipotent power, who is not content merely to kill the blind man, but must also frighten and disturb him, thus demonstrating its sublime powers. The audience, in turn (or at least me), is also swept up in the sublimity of the moment, which finally is resolved in the highly disturbing attack.

Burke argues that whatever "is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger...whatever is in any sort terrible...or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime" (36). Terror is the key word here. I've always understood that terror is associated with the flight instinct and is caused by something overwhelmingly other and incomprehensible, not unlike Kant's understanding of the sublime as a pleasure in confronting that which overextends our capacity to reason.  Horror, on the other hand, is usually associated with abjection and disgust and is more of an inward disturbance. This particular scene in Susperiais more concerned with creating that overwhelming sense of power, the power which the witches possess, the power that creates the emotion of terror, of an outside force that confounds our reason. Argento ties this power to the totalitarian power of the Nazi party, using their symbols, and the cultural European memory of the war and its aftermath.  

Monday, July 9, 2012

homesickness and a bunny

I've been homesick for two years now. It all started when I graduated with my MA from BYU and decided on a whim that I would move to New York for an indeterminate amount of time, just to see if I could make it. The jobs I had set up for me before I went all fell through and I felt like the city was trying to eat me alive. So I came home.

By that time I knew the PhD program at the University of Louisville was an option for 2011, but I didn't know what I could possibly do for the year in between. I certainly didn't want to stay in Utah and work. So I applied on a whim for the London Consortium. They called me for an interview on an early July morning, I could hardly understand what they said, but I bullshat my way through it and the emailed me 3 hours later to say that I got in. I had 2 months to sort out my visa and get everything set to go. London was supposed to be my dream come true, but again I was far away from my family and alone in a big city and had even fewer friends than in New York. But at least it was London and that mostly made up for all of the loneliness and sadness.

I came home from London in the middle of last July and had one month before moving myself to Kentucky. It was a miserable month. Getting ready to move to Kentucky is not half as fun as preparing for a year in London. Plus I was reading The People's History of the United States and the last place I wanted to go to was a city where the major parks were named after native American tribes that were destroyed by the American government. There were some days when I just curled up on the floor and groaned because the world was so horrible and I didn't want to leave home again. My mom was infinitely patient with me on those days.

So I left home again on the 15th of August and came to yet another foreign city where I didn't know a soul. Fortunately every person I encountered on that first day and the following week was tremendously kind and helpful, and I'm certain that if they were not so lovely I would not still be here now. I fell into a pretty heavy depression that fall, always wishing I were back in Utah, and missing all of the people I love that are so far away, despite all of the people that I'm learning to love here. The pain was overwhelming and physical. I miss my mountains. I miss my people. I miss my desert.

To counter this depression and homesickness I made some goals at the beginning of the year. I decided to pick up some hobbies and I bought a little fish, something to take care of, and I decided that when I was in a bit more stable place and my own apartment I would get a bunny, which I've always wanted. So I just signed a lease for a new apartment and bought a bunny to celebrate. Even though this was part of the plan, I'm not sure if I was actually ready to take on an animal that needs so much attention and care, which I didn't realize how much attention and care when I got him. He needs 3 different kinds of food and space to run around which means I have to bunny proof the apartment and make sure he can get his exercise. I'm worried about him chewing on the walls and eating paint chips that might have lead in them because it's a really old house. I'm worried that the air conditioner will stop working and he'll over heat. I'm worried that he won't get enough of a variety of veggies. And most of all I'm worried about leaving him when I go home, which throws a wrench in my plans of going back for a month over Christmas and for all of next summer, which I desperately want to do. I'm sure I can find someone to watch him for the week I go back in August, but not for two or three months next summer.

I was telling this to a friend tonight and he said that that's what happens when you have to take care of another life. Your decisions mean more because that other life depends on you. Is it such a terrible thing to only go home for one or two week visits? Part of me wants to say definitely yes. I want to be home. Now. But then I realize that maybe I need to just knock this off and BE HERE. I can't be in Utah and I can't be pining and counting down the days to get there. I can't drop everything I'm doing here to go back home and play for three months. I have work to do here, and now I have a bunny to take care of.

So, in conclusion, for the first time in a while I don't feel homesick tonight. I don't feel that pain in my chest. Maybe some day I will go back to Utah, but I need to realize that I'm in this for the long haul. At least three more years. Maybe this bunny will give me the chance to make a home here as I settle into my new apartment and set up his space. Maybe I should have a little bit of faith and not always demand my needs and wants to be satisfied immediately. I was religious for a pretty long time, I should know something of faith. I have faith that I'll be able to spend time with my family and my friends and my mountains, so I don't need to have anxiety over the fact that it is not happening immediately. I am here doing a job and taking care of this sweet little life, and I think I can live up to those challenges. The goals I set at the beginning of the year were to help me grow up and enter into the adult world of responsibility. And this cheeky bunny might be a little guy, but he's kind of a big deal. He might live up to 10 years, which means he'll be with me for the three years I spend in Louisville, and hopefully he'll be able to move with me where ever I end up next.