We went to the movies and I knew this sequel would be terrible, but hindsight is never without hindsight. This is not the time for feeling yet, but even now in the instant before you speak, when your pulse has that quiet sound of dread in the infinite category, I can hear the start of your leaving - can hear all your reasons hovering in front of billboards like mosquitoes drunk on light.
These actors, they know who we are, our story, they know what constitutes a good performance as they watch this same movie unfold night after night…but this is not the time for feeling yet.
Remodernist Adventures in the Uncanny Valley by John A. Riley
Remodernist Adventures in the Uncanny Valley
John A. Riley
Remodernist aesthetics seek to return us to a more earnest, honest artistic experience (for both creator and spectator) through a focus on chance, asymmetry, imperfection and entropy.[i] Remodernist aesthetics have been associated with traditional Japanese aesthetics, as espoused by Junichiro Tanizaki in his book In Praise of Shadows, and with the saturated, long-take maximalism of filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky.
It may seem at first that genre material such as horror are then anathema to the Remodernist movement because returning to and rehabilitating genres that have fallen from favour is so much a part of the aesthetic of information overload that remodernism seeks to avoid. However, rather than merely reveling in the recycling of images, signifiers of the genre, Remodernism seeks to find the lost poetic heart of gothic horror by dwelling on the small details, the textures, the mood… and above all by concentrating on film’s ability to capture and preserve moments of time. When we return to the German horror films of the 1920s, isn’t it less the audacious, angular production design that fascinate us, and more the capture of temporal fragments from long ago: Nosferatu’s claw-like fingers, twitching as he approaches his victim. The narrator’s betrothed, walking gracefully in the garden, an insane expression on her face, in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
Some two decades later, Jacques Tourneur wanted to exclude monsters from his films Cat People and Night of the Demon, but was encouraged to by the studio he worked for. Tourneur wanted to explore the mindset of people who believed in the supernatural. In the mind of the person who believes they are cursed, or being followed by a monstrous entity, the mere rustle of shrubbery, or movement in the shadows, take on a whole new, chilling significance. Tourneur’s horror films are full of such near-sublime details, moments where atmosphere descends thick and fast, taking precedence over storytelling like a soaring descant.
Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon is rarely seen as a horror film, almost always as an avant-garde work. It is certainly surreal, but isn’t a good deal of horror? And furthermore, isn’t everything filmed in Hollywood, possibly the most surreal place on earth, tinged with madness? In Meshes of the Afternoon, the knife-wielding spectre that the woman must confront has a mirror for a face. A sinister version of one’s self as villain or spectre.
Implicit in The Remodernist Film Manifesto is the uncanny nature of film; it stresses a Bazinian ontology whereby the profilmic object leaves an indelible mark on the filmic material. Film is lifelike, but in reproducing life, life becomes dreamlike.
The Uncanny, the subject of this issue, is a word associated with the nineteenth and early twentieth century intellectual and artistic ferment that produced E.T.A Hoffmann, Sigmund Freud and of course Edgar Allen Poe. Like Dostoevsky, Poe tapped into the nineteenth century interest in the doppelganger; the ineffable unease, the sense of identity theft caused by discovering that one has a double. The consolidation of the bourgeois individual that continued apace with that great theorist of the uncanny, Freud, finds its expression and an expression of its limits in Poe’s story The Man of The Crowd. On the one hand, it’s individuality one craves, separation and distinction from the crowd, from the great unwashed. But on the other, finding someone who cannot be categorized according to the then popular desire for taxonomy produces only feelings of unfathomable terror. Paradoxically, as the story goes on, the narrator comes to understand that this man seems to have no interiority… he exists only within the crowd, almost as if he is created by it. When the crowds disperse he becomes desperate to rejoin them, and yet he never interacts with the crowd, remains somehow aloof from it.
The only option is to consider this man “the type of the genius of deep crime” and to conclude that we will know no more about him. Reading and re-reading this story, I’m convinced that Poe wasn’t sure how to end it himself.
What I’m trying to get at by dragging the lake and dredging up the corpses of Murnau, Poe and others, is that there’s a need for a sensitive, committed understanding of what horror is, because this tension between the individual and the crowd has been increasing, spurred on by new technology, the jargon of self-help, social network crazes, and too many other chimeras of our present age to list without launching into a bitter diatribe. Even subcultures, so prized as countercultural activity, can be seen as merely divisive dandyism, already-co-opted adolescent navel-gazing.
Poe’s story plays on two great fears of our modern age: firstly, that you might not have your individuality, that your individuality is taken from you and you become a shuffling apparition in grey, with no means of expressing yourself. Secondly, that you might have too much individuality; that you might stray from the comfort of the crowd and become a wild, untamable primitive.
A conception of horror, of the uncanny, that takes into account the remodernist aesthetics discussed here will help us to learn more about this man of the crowd who we all - male and female - resemble when seen from a certain angle.
[i] It goes almost without saying that Remodernist aesthetics can be applied to numerous forms of artistic practice, but here my chief focus will be on film.
One by one, they walked towards the room. Cleared of furniture it had a dank, musty smell. Its walls, floor, and ceiling were painted a matte black. Being an interior room, there was no danger of daylight entering, and perfect darkness had been achieved. Staring into the darkness, they saw incredible things. Then one of them opened his mouth, and the silence, infinite and black, filled it.
From the kitchen window, I could see the sun rising over the hills. The lights in the house were still off, and in the dawn’s sun, the sink’s shadow decreased incrementally. I got dressed in a blue button down and a pair of khakis, and while tying my shoes, became fixated on the restored tissue that some mistakenly call “forearm.” “Forearm” offers nothing new by way of explanation.
At 7:30 A.M., I left for work, and driving toward the Golden Gate Bridge, the city’s white buildings blinded me, so I put on sunglasses. The moon was still visible, but fading. As I got closer to downtown, the phrase, “a theory of everything has yet to be configured properly” rattled around in what I call my “cyclotron”, but others incorrectly refer to as my “brain.”
As I approached work, there was an increase in my stomach acid levels. “This could be a problem,” I said to myself. I almost entered the parking lot, but knew I shouldn’t go into work today. It would be more productive to take the day off and drive to L.A. instead. I needed to think, to study this acid build-up problem with all its complications and qualifications. The further south I drove, the more my stomach acid levels decreased. In the valley, walnuts waited for burlap. At some point, I switched to the coast road, and listened to the Pacific churning below. It was already 9:00 A.M, and the staff and other researchers would be in our morning meeting by now. To my left, uniform rows of broccoli and spinach flourished. Few general principles can account for what happened next. It requires an entirely new mode of explanation that hasn’t been developed yet. On a shoulder of Route 1, I made a U-turn and headed back to work. There was no reason for doing this, no hypothesis to account for it. As the car finished out the circumference of its turn, my thoughts made no motion. Driving north, my ability to think returned in fragments. After twenty minutes had passed, my mind fixated on a drawing of the elementary building blocks of matter that was in a biochemistry textbook I co-authored. Twenty minutes more and I could envision one of the large superstrings used to account for dimension theory. Pulling into the parking lot, I saw my coworkers returning from lunch. They were staring at me, wondering where I had been, but I would explain it all in detail, the acid build-up, the locked mind, the building blocks, and the superstring. I knew that they would agree with my considered decision not to go to the A.M. staff meeting. They might be concerned, but once I gave my reasons, they would understand. They’d see that my reasons were part of a set of fractals derived from the same equation, an equation that endlessly flaps its altering answer.
You sat on the couch just saying my name while I sifted through the lines of the room. Let’s examine it now: the room is a rectangle with probabilities everywhere, and if we follow the lines diverging from memory, we discover a table. It is made of wood and proceeds to leave off at some point - a station following. On the table, there are a few magazines, oblong and ready. The couch, not fluffed up, is where you sit. The planes of the floor and ceiling balance a tension between repetition and despair. Interdicts keep mounting. The room is so fragile, and you are sullen, the shoulders indicating mourning. You’re not aware that I am there, standing behind you.
You look at me while the room goes dark around you and blink three times. You were beginning to disappear from the past (your history is showing.) Pour a glass of wine. Am I listing to the right?