a multimedia dialogue of original gothic horror short films, images and soundscapes. Updated monthly. Issue 1 THE UNCANNY debuts September 29th 2012.
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.
copyright 2012 John A. Riley