Repulsion’s Inversion of Psycho, or: The loss of narrative concern and the cracks in Polanski’s Code

By Daniel Spada

Just five short years after Alfred Hitchcock changed the discourse on the horror film with the release of Psycho (1960), Roman Polanski responded with a film containing more explicit sex and more explicit violence, not to forget an ending that was equally as disturbing but in a wholly different way. Repulsion (1965) was his first English language picture (as well as Catherine Deneuve’s), released by Compton Films, a small British film company specializing in soft-core pornography. At the time of its release, critics noted its surface similarities to Psycho, including Kenneth Tynan, writing for Life magazine, who said, “The difference between the two pictures is that Repulsion is Psycho, turned inside out. In Hitchcock’s film we see a double murder through the eyes of the victims–in Polanski’s our viewpoint is the killer’s” (22). There are parallels to be drawn between the oft-analyzed dinner and shower sequence in Psycho and the scene with the landlord near the end of Repulsion. Norman and Carol’s vulnerability is turned outward and manifest in explicit acts of violence. Polanski understands this eruption of violence as consequential of a prolonged withdrawal from society, from oneself – this is reflected in his homages to Hitchcock, expressed in his ideological underpinnings, thematic preoccupations, and film form.

The other similarities between Repulsion and Psycho are very clear: the opening shot of Deneuve’s eye matches up with the shot of Marion’s after she is murdered, they are both blonde (which brings to mind the image of the “Hitchcock blonde”), there are two murders that occur throughout the duration of each film (Colin and the landlord in Repulsion, Marion and Arbogast in Psycho), and they both end with a “secret” being revealed to a community of people (a secret which brings great discomfort to each community in different ways[1]). Their differences are also easily noticeable: while Psycho could, and has been read as a mystery-thriller (the killer’s identity kept a secret until the end), Repulsion cannot be read as such (or in a similar way). There is a certain lack of narrative concern in Polanski’s film that does not exist in the world of Psycho, not to mention Polanski’s refusal to lighten the affair and offer a baseline diagnosis of Carol’s illness.[2] In both films, physical space is important (both of the major set pieces act as a literal and metaphorical prison, containing the action and the characters): Carol and Helen’s apartment in Repulsion, the Bates Motel in Psycho.

Although Kenneth Tynan is accurate in his description of Repulsion as an inversion of Psycho, it is only at a very basic level of narrative detail. His assertion that Polanski, “simply presents it [his heroine’s behavior], and if we choose to identify with her fears and her irrational ferocity that is our business, not his” comes off as resoundingly false if we look at the particulars of Polanski’s film form, and how he posits Carol as, what Ivan Butler calls, “authentically tragic” and “herself the most pitiable victim of the evil she does” (78). It is almost as if Tynan has completely overlooked the shots that bookend the film: the first, starting from such a close-up on a human eye (Carol’s) as to be indistinguishable until the zoom out, and the final shot, an extended zoom-in on a family photograph, the light cutting the photo up and a parallelogram enclosing a small girl in the background, until it zooms in all the way on her face, and then the darkness in the corner of her eye overtakes the frame. Throughout the film, the audience experiences all of Carol’s hallucinations with her, thus creating empathy for her character, even if it is simply the illusion of empathy. It is impossible not to identify with Carol, and it is absolutely Polanski’s job to make this identification possible.

There is rich thematic and visual analysis to be gleaned from the bizarre dinner and shower sequence in Psycho and the scene at the end of Repulsion with the landlord; there is even richer analysis that can be read between the lines when comparing and contrasting the two. Rather than extending an invitation to enter Carol’s personal space (unlike Norman, who requests Marion to eat dinner with him, quickly bringing her to his lair filled with taxidermied animals), her landlord unlocks the door, forcefully moves her poorly constructed blockade (a single piece of wood), and begins to roam around the apartment, quickly happening upon Carol in a white dressing gown cowering in the doorway to her living room. Throughout the scene Carol does not say much, other than insisting her landlord to not open the window curtains, and in this way, it is dissimilar to the dinner and shower sequence in Psycho. Polanski’s restless camera is constantly following the landlord as he wanders around the apartment, unlike Hitchcock’s mostly stationary camera.

As for similarities between the two films, Marion’s comment about institutionalizing Mother parallels Helen’s boyfriend’s comment about Carol seeing a doctor, to which Helen responds “She’s just sensitive, that’s all.” There is a hint of understanding in her response to him (she even gets a little defensive), a hint that this might be the way Carol has always been. Norman’s response to Marion is much more defensive, before it devolves into him talking about how Mother needs him and how she just “goes a little mad sometimes.”

There is a moment of resistance in Psycho when Norman enters the house and stops at the stairs for a second, then goes into the kitchen and sits at the table, in deep contemplation. This is mirrored in Repulsion when Carol stays seated on the couch up until the landlord has attempted to sexually violate her. Then, when she sees his second attempt coming, she does strike him, many times, hunched over like an animal with a razor blade in her hand, slice after slice, blood everywhere. The music becomes intense, like that in Psycho’s shower sequence and the camera cuts back and forth between Helen and the landlord, like the camera cutting back and forth between Marion and Mother.

Seeing is essential to cinema; both Repulsion and Psycho utilize the gaze, which ends up creating distinct graphic matches between them. There are two prominent instances of this, the first being in Psycho with Lila’s tracking gaze up to the Bates estate and in Repulsion with Carol’s walks around London’s South Kensington area. The second pronounced illustration of this gaze match is when Norman looks through the peephole at Marion undressing and when the landlord comes to Carol’s apartment to collect the money. These scenes, looked at against each other, show Hitchcock’s influence on Polanski, and their shared preoccupation with seeing and the gaze.

Hitchcock and Polanski alike refuse to make a conclusive statement on their characters’ conditions. Unlike Hitchcock, Polanski does not offer any solace in explaining away Carol’s behavior, even though the ending of Psycho alludes to a gender instability more frightening than the one espoused by the psychiatrist.

Psycho and Repulsion deal with the idea of sexual repression, but in very different ways. While it is explained that Norman’s sexual repression is somehow indebted to Mother, Carol’s is never explicated upon, but only shown visually. Norman and Carol are both incredibly lonely characters, their loneliness reflected in their living spaces. Norman’s maintenance of the ever vacant Bates Motel passes the time, but also traps him. With Repulsion, Polanski frequently shoots Carol’s apartment in a way that shows what a big empty space it is. Carol’s apartment is both that which is eating her alive and that which she cannot escape: the sound of her sister making love, which assists the audience in understanding her sexual repression at a deeper level, and her hallucinations of hands emerging from the walls and a man attempting to attack her are ways for Polanski to show her gradual mental disintegration.

It could be argued that both Hitchcock and Polanski subscribe to the Foucauldian conception of madness as changing and historically situated.[3] When the psychiatrist makes his speech at the end of Psycho, it is almost as if Hitchcock is poking fun at the idea of madness being eliminated on the basis of a principle of explanation or reduction external to the psychological dimensions of madness. With the following scene of overlapping a highly feminine voice and Anthony Perkin’s calm veneer, Hitchcock is drawing attention to the absurdity of that idea. Normality, in relation to mental illness, is less reflective of psychiatry or psychology than philosophy. Polanski’s approach to Carol’s condition is less clear because he never offers an explanation of her behavior, thus making the ending and film as a whole disturbing in a completely different way than Psycho. This refusal to diagnose her and also the refusal to explain her past could be an indication of his agreement with Foucault’s conclusion that psychology can never master madness.

The subversion of audience expectation is a tactical maneuver employed by both Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski. With Psycho, it was killing off its star, Janet Leigh, within the first hour of the film and the refusal to restore order. With Repulsion, it was an aversion to the classic narrative structure, the lack of a character arc, and, like Psycho, the refusal to restore order (or even offer a baseline explanation of the chaos that ensues). Repulsion is clearly indebted to Psycho, however, it can be seen as bringing the horror film into a new direction: from the outside to the inside.

[1] In Psycho the community believes they understand Norman and his condition (as per the diagnosis by the psychiatrist), while in Repulsion there is no intervention by a doctor so there is an even greater discomfort within the community.

[2] Something I found particularly confounding when doing research for this essay was how more often than not critics and theorists alike did not understand the function of the psychiatrist’s explanation of Norman’s condition in Psycho, mis-characterizing it as “glib”, “hasty”, “tacked-on”, etc.

[3] How ironic that for my birthday this past October a friend got me Foucault’s Madness: The Invention of An Idea. Who could have known I would be using it for this comparative essay between Repulsion and Psycho, really?

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The Intersection of Theory and Practice in Yvonne Rainer’s “Privilege” (1990)

By Daniel Spada

Playing with the So-Called Truth Value of Documentary and the Authenticity of Identity[1]

The filmic image evokes an affective response that is pointedly different than one aroused by the reading of text on a page. As Jean-Paul Sartre said, in an introduction to Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, “Writing is an erotic device. The imaginary gaze of the gentle reader has no function other than to give the word a new and strange consistency. The reader is not an end; he is a means, an instrument that doubles the pleasure, in short a voyeur despite himself” (25). Likewise, the viewer of a film, be it a fiction or documentary production or a combination of the two, feels around the crevices of the composed images like a child discovering itself and its relational embodiment to the outside world, giving it meaning through an active participation that is both psychical, in the active linking up of image and sound, and physical, in the simple act of opening up to this specific, singular experience.

Film is demanding and special in the sense that it relies on that capacity to construct meaning out of the connection of image and sound; films that mark themselves or are marked by their makers as functioning within the documentary spectrum of film production require a criticality that is both more immediate and easily overlooked. Is what we are being presented with the (definitive) truth on a particular subject, or case? While most social issue documentaries encourage a participation that is embedded within dominant social structures that requires a special form of forgetting – a forgetting that entails a lack of acknowledging positionality and intersectionality in their complex realizations – others are constructed with a more holistic approach in mind and execution, one that takes to task not only the demonstration of ways in which theory and practice interact, but also integrating theory insofar as it enacts the process of constructing itself within which a functional analysis of relationality occurs.

An ongoing analysis of being in the world, creating, and being created in the image of others, Yvonne Rainer’s Privilege (1990) offers numerous ways to deconstruct and reconfigure the production of knowledge, truth claims, and the creation and perpetuation of social inequities by deploying structural techniques including: the film-within-a-film; reenactments and multiple direct addresses therein; the combination of archival footage, interviews, and scripted segments with professional actors; and the use of text on screen. Through the implementation of these varied stylistic methods, a narrative, however experimentally played out, emerges – a narrative that instigates a scrutiny of the power of myths, the reality of differing and intersecting levels of privilege, and the liberation to be wrought from the intersecting forces of theory and practice. A critical analysis of Rainer’s prior choreographic and dance work’s influence on her film trajectory is necessary, while a close look at the interviews within the film, as well as an inquiry into one instance of evidence blindness, the qualifications of an essay film, and attention to critical reception will lead to a fuller study of the film on all accounts.

Keep Me Running, You Keep Me Running[2]: Rainer’s Choreographic and Dance Work’s Influence on Her Film Trajectory

The aforementioned Sarte quote extends itself beyond a simple application to general film viewing when discussing Rainer’s work. Renowned in the avant-garde world for her choreographer work in the 1960s and 1970s, Rainer’s dance work explicitly influenced her film work during the 1970s all through the 1990s, both ideologically and, by extension, formally and structurally. In an overview of her work for Senses of Cinema’s 27th issue of Great Directors, Erin Brannigan cites Peggy Phelan and Jonathan Walley as two of a longer list of film writers who emphasize her questioning and criticality of “spectatorial positions within the film text and the corresponding functions of narrative” (par. 5) which can also be found in her choreographic work. Brannigan comments in a footnote on the influence of John Cage,[3] a composer and collaborator, accentuating a move away from habitual ‘hard-wired’ movement and toward a minimalism that discarded dramatic elements.[4] She makes clear in her composite analysis of Rainer’s move from dance to film that it was a “reaction against the minimalism and Cagean traditions that had informed her choreography” (par. 5). Previously indicating that “her influences were from outside the experimental film scene” of the work of such filmmakers as Maya Deren (whom she does reference later on in her career as an influence), Stan Brakhage, and Kenneth Anger, Rainer says she was primarily struck by Cage’s music ideas and 1960s art practices (par. 3).

Rainer’s critique of the performer/spectator relation and her conflict against the narcissistic/voyeuristic model of dance performance, reflected in her No Manifesto, redistributed attention and negated spectacle, realigning the positionality of the spectator through the structure of the dance performances. Walley is of the opinion, as Brannigans denotes, that this is a failure on Rainer’s part, thus impels her move towards narrative performance and film. Brannigan debates him on this point, finding her breaking trends within contemporary avant-garde film and exploring the structural problems inherent within art, on an ideological level, characterized by problems with mediated power and authority that were already present in her choreographic work. As Brannigan says, “The various combinations and contradictions of figural movement, image, spoken or printed text, sound and spatial perspective, and the relation of this on-screen material to audience expectation, is an area for constant interrogation in Rainer’s film” (par. 7). A case study of Privilege seems particularly apt as Rainer’s deconstruction and critique seem particularly pronounced in this film.

Privilege “by Yvonne Rainer and many others” vs. Privilege “by Yvonne Washington and many others”: Beginning Again[5]

The first few minutes of Rainer’s Privilege are misleading, and intentionally so, insofar as they set up audiences’ expectations and lead the viewer to believe that with the rest of the running time they will be presented a definitive statement on the experiences of women who have gone through menopause,[6] in the process divesting the power of authoritative knowledge from doctors in the creation of images and control of bodies. While the film does this, it also analyzes cultural constructions and self-embodiments of race, class, and sexuality, and the influence they have on one another and the construction and perpetuation of social inequities, always occurring simultaneously and resulting in differing effects relational to the subjugated subject and the diffuseness of power.

The following two parts of the film introduce the characters of Helen Caldicott, an actual person that is played by Rainer herself, and the black signer, both of whom are dropped thereafter. In an interview with Gabrielle Finnane for The Australian Journal of Media & Culture, Rainer states that the beginning is “deliberately confusing” and alludes to the inclusion of Caldicott as the introduction of a performance piece. She comments on the reversing of a center and margin, with the black signer filling up the frame and Caldicott minimized in an oval in the left right hand corner, and the establishment of the theme of race which will run throughout. In an interview for The San Francisco Cinematheque with Kurt Easterwood, Laura Poitras, and Susanne Fairfax, Rainer says that the Caldicott speech “introduces the sexuality motif with the lipstick” and the signer also gives Yvonne Washington, the black alter-ego interrogator of Rainer and fictional documentary maker of the film-within-a-film, “the opportunity to make a comparison of medical attitudes to deafness and menopause via their presumed status of ‘disease’” (235).

The way Rainer initially films herself as Caldicott, center frame and then applying the lipstick to an extent beyond that which it is intended while “My Funny Valentine” plays on the soundtrack, is the first example of representational subversion, in conjunction with the previous classic films clips that contradict the interviews with the women that have gone through menopause. Gwen Raaberg speaks to this aspect of the film in her essay “Views from ‘The Other Side’: Theorizing Age and Difference in Yvonne Rainer’s ‘Privilege’” for Women’s Studies Quarterly, saying, “The image effectively ruins expected cinematic representations of women and conventional modes of viewing,” going on to say that it “directly confronts a culture saturated with representations of women as unreal objects of sexual desire. This is no object amenable to the consumerism of the gaze.” She proceeds to declare that the image insists on expressivity, not effacement, and that it acts as an entryway for the audience into the “carnivalesque realm of the film, where the calculated chaos of Rainer’s experimentalism subverts hierarchies, questions cultural codes, and provides a space for presenting alternative perspectives and voices” (122). It is both ironic, in the soundtrack’s effect on the image, and foreshadows the way Rainer will conduct her discourse throughout the rest of the film.

Middles and Ends: Shifting Pronouns

Throughout the rest of Privilege, the viewer is presented with a fairly accessible fictionalized narrative of the past, told by a present day fictionalized version of Rainer herself, named Jenny (played by Alice Spivak), who is being interviewed and, moreover, cross-examined by friend and filmmaker Yvonne Washington (played by Novella Nelson)[7], also a stand in for Rainer, for a documentary on menopause. Included in this narratives are monologues, sometimes disguised as dialogue, delivered by the actors, in character, the original source of which Rainer then cites via text on a computer screen. Using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house,[8] Rainer invokes certain conventions, as she says in her interview with Finnane, “to better tear them apart,” while situating the action of the film around realistic characters encourages critical awareness and analysis on the audience’s part of the ways in which the theoretical and poetic addresses throughout the film play out in everyday life.

While Raaberg is of the opinion that “Rainer’s strategies effectively block the prevalent tendency of audiences to become engaged with the narrative or empathetic with a central character; by contrast, they enforce distance and enhance the viewer’s critical capacity” (122), Finnane finds there to be an “oscillation between identification and disengagement or detachment” and that that “was increased because of the initial fictional identification with the characters.” I find Rainer’s approach to align more with the latter interpretation. An identification with Jenny’s character, and the other characters in the films as well, is simply one way to engage with the film on a narrative (as well as subsequently analytical and theoretical) level. However, it is important to remain critical of that identification, paying close attention to both her blind spots in relation to her status as privileged in some senses (her race and class), while markedly unprivileged in others (her age and gender), and our own.

Rainer’s deployment of different structural documentary techniques is disruptive insofar as they lift the viewer out of the narrative and expose the social hierarchy that at once seemed foundational to all narrative structures. In the interview with Finnane, Rainer points to the theorizing done on the idea of the narrative structure as an analogue for social hierarchy, and sees her own disruption in this sense to point towards “possibilities for a more fluid and open organizing of social relations.”

The different techniques being placed alongside one another also contributes commentary and demands a more active participation on the part of the viewer. This includes the interviews with the women going through menopause and the archival medical footage of doctors delivering what is thought to be, although is clearly proven not, authoritative knowledge on the subject. The objective knowledge claims made about women’s bodies by doctoral (read: patriarchally defined) authority is juxtaposed next to these confessional interviews, and repetitively so, to make clear one of the arguments Rainer is making, and the way the processes of image (and subject) construction actually occur in this society and culture. This is not to say that the interviewees experiences are the be all end all truths, but, as Raaberg notes in her article, identity simultaneously constructs itself and is constructed socially (124).

The Interviews: True/False, Fake/Real[9]

One of the hallmarks of documentary or nonfiction filmmaking is the interview. The interview is a technique in which the director allows an outside party, or even her or himself (in Privilege Rainer surfaces via the fictionalized form of Jenny), to tell what is presumed to be the truth about a certain topic or event. With Privilege, Rainer plays around with the assigned truthfulness of interview in documentary film.

In a discussion with Susanne Fairfax on the subject, Rainer delineates the three kinds of experiences presented through interview. They are, “the traditional professional talking head (the doctors who represent authoritative kinds of speech); the so-called ‘real’ interview–with their ‘spontaneous’ speech–which have been highly selected from hours of material; and the ‘fake’ documentary in which Yvonne interviews Jenny” (235). She says that these all play on each other and that, although she makes distinctions between them, there is not a system of prioritization being consciously enacted.

Evidence Blindness, or: and a Self-Proclaimed Missed Opportunity

One problem within feminist methodology is evidence blindness.[10] Evidence blindness is the phenomena of not taking evidence into account. While this has been explained away by multiple competing viewpoints as a cognitive incapacity (as per Anthony Appiah) and cognitive immunity in relation to the conception of the sociology of knowledge (as per Karl Mannheim), evidence blindness still flourishes within diverse disciplines, skewing data and sometimes making it unusable.

While Rainer makes connections between relations of privilege according to race and gender in her film-within-a-film and her discourse at large, she does not asks the black interviewees about their race in relation to their aging and menopause. This is noted in her interviews with Finnane and Fairfax. Rainer states in the Fairfax interview that she was asked a question by a dark-skinned woman at a Melbourne screening that enacted a self-realization about her own assumptions about documentary that went unchecked during the making of the film. The woman asked why she “treated in documentary form women speaking about menopause whereas the material dealing with issues of race is only treated in this didactic fictional form” (235-6).

Rainer justifies this visible exclusion in two different ways. In the Fairfax interview she says that if she had asked about how race functioned in relation to their aging, menopause, and treatment by the medical establishment, she “would have gone at these interviews with some preconceived agenda that they would have had to fall into” (236). This explanation does not stand the test of scrutiny because, as her film-within-a-film shows, there was already a preconceived agenda present with the analysis of race and gender in relation to one another. Likewise, in her interview with Finnane she also justifies this exclusion on the grounds that “the fictional conceit is that it’s a documentary film about menopause,” but this does not adequately address the problem. While she reconfigures social hierarchies with her disruption of narrative cohesion, she also reinscribes this particular one with the absence of authentic speech voicing issues of race. An admittance of missed opportunity and the aforementioned justifications do nothing to absolve the invisibility of these essential voices.

Is Privilege An “Essay-Film”?

A question that naturally arises from a viewing and critical analysis of Privilege is of its classification in relation to cinematic genre: does it fall under the rubric of the “essay-film”?[11] Louise Spence and Vinicius Navarro’s discussion of the filmic essay in their book Crafting Truth: Documentary Form and Meaning is borne out of an analysis of the “meeting between nonfictional representation and experimental aesthetics” (149). They say, “the essay assumes a comparable dialogue between the subjectivity of the essayist and the themes discussed” (150), and Privilege surely qualifies in partaking in this type of exploration. They go on to comment, “the essay film contradicts, for example, the assumption that the world can be known in a definitive way. It shifts the focus from the end product of the investigative effort to the process by which knowledge is created” (151). If we are to go by this understanding of the qualities of an essay film, Privilege surely fits the bill in its obfuscation of epistemological expectations regarding the documentary film. The confounding beginning is understood better in relation to what Rainer discloses as her main preoccupations throughout the rest of the film.

However, other films critics, naturally, have different views on what marks a work as an “essay-film” – one of those critics, Phillip Lopate, is critical of Privilege‘s induction into this filmic categorization. In an article for The Threepenny Review entitled “In Search of the Centaur: The Essay-Film,” he rails against the status of the film, referring to it as a “collage film” in reference to its experimental deployment of various film techniques: the dramatized scenes, the found footage, the faked interview, the written texts, etc. In particular, he criticizes Jonathan Rosenbaum’s defense of the film as an essay. His issue with the film lies in its narrative incohesion (noted before as being an intentional deployment on Rainer’s part). He sees this, along with his own lack of understanding regarding Rainer’s argument, as negating its status as an essay film.

Privilege certainly has essayistic qualities. It tackles highly theoretical issues such as gender, race, class, sexuality, and age in and through different experimental forms. Its narrative configuration plays with the so-called truth value of documentary, and the authenticity of identity, thus making it incomprehensible to some – but to others, easily falling into the category of the essay film.

Locating an Audience

In his interview with Yvonne Rainer for Film Quarterly, Scott MacDonald asks about the response to the film elicited from African-Americans. He proclaims that in Utica the audience was only 20 percent African-American, and Rainer responds that she has had “very little response from nonwhites so far.” She cites a showing at the Frederick Douglass Institute of African American Studies at the University of Rochester where she expected at least a 50-50 balance of racial diversity in the audience, however finding that “it was an almost totally white crowd” (29).

Rainer’s remarks on the absolute need of hers to find the black audience is important, as is the actual act of the film being seen by black audiences. Like one of the interviewees mentions in a discussion about the lack of experiential knowledge regarding menopause within male doctors, a discussion with a black audience is crucial insofar as they have experiential knowledge regarding race, from the subjugated position (the “other side” of privilege, so to say), that white audiences simply do not.

Momentary Utopias

One aspect of the film that has been noted by several critics and interviewers is the inclusion of the wrap party at the end of the film that runs throughout the end credits. This comes back to the inclusion of the aforementioned “and many others” in the beginning credits which indicates the actuality of film as a collaborative effort and process. In the introduction to his interview with Rainer in which he later asks her about that inclusion, MacDonald expresses the belief that “we get a sense of the private world or at least the social milieu out of which the public event of the film has developed” (20). He asks her if the line “UTOPIA: the more impossible it seems, the more necessary it becomes” that we see during the end credits is a marking of the wrap party as “a kind of momentary Utopia” and if the process of making the film is her attempt “to model Utopian interaction,” to which she responds, “Yeah,” and, “why not document what was already going to happen” (31).

In her discussion with Rainer, Laura Poitras also asks about the quote at the end of the film and the function of the wrap party’s inclusion. Giving a more fleshed out response than with MacDonald, she says, “I liked the idea of showing all those people socializing with each other. So there is a utopian cast to it” (241). She responds to criticism of a conscious invoking of the American melting pot fantasy by saying she intentionally put the scene into context “as some kind of dream, or a utopian gesture, along the lines of all tensions and social conflicts momentarily forgotten or maybe at some time in the future, resolved, a coexistence with no racial conflicts” (242).

Regardless of whether it is considered a film essay or not, Privilege‘s capacity to make the viewer do work, and actively construct theory is a productive use and advancement of the documentary film form. Through the use of different stylistic approaches, Rainer exposes (and leaves open for discussion) connections between what would be thought of as disparate subjects. Bearing her one acknowledged missed opportunity, her call for a functional and intersectional engagement with such foundational ideologies surrounding and structuring the (self and socially) constructed categories of gender, race, age, etc. lays the essential groundwork for critical and perceptive dialogue on these topics to flourish.

[1] I take this phrasing from Yvonne Rainer’s interview with Scott MacDonald for Film Quarterly, where she states, “the film is very artificial. It continually plays with the so-called truth value of documentary and with the authenticity of identity. I’m split across any number of people in this film. You might say the whole films goes on in my own head” (29).

[2] I take this (repeated) lyric from British singer-songwriter Jessie Ware’s song “Running” (the debut single on her debut studio album Devotion, released in the UK in 2012 via PMR/Island Records and in 2013 in the US via Cherrytree Records, an imprint of Interscope).

[3] Although she is not the only to do so, as a lot of the writing I have come across on Rainer, even done by herself, points to these facts.

[4] We do see an inhabitation of drama with the reenactments, however minimal, that lie at the core of the film-within-a-film in Privilege.

[5] I take this phrasing from a comment by Rainer for The San Francisco Cinematheque. Laura Poitras asks her to explain why Rainer introduces the film twice in two different ways and Rainer responds, “I’ve always liked the idea of beginning again.”

[6] Which is also, ironically enough, is the conceit of the film-within-a-film being made by Yvonne Washington.

[7] In her interview with Scott MacDonald, Rainer states that Nelson had an input into the film – specifically pointing out instances in which she corrected Rainer’s grammar and in her response to Eldridge Cleaver (29).

[8] I take this phrasing from Audre Lorde’s famous essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.”

[9] I take these dichotomies from a song title by the American house group Hercules and Love Affair.

[10]  Mary Hawkesworth, professor of Women and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, devotes an entire chapter to it in her guide book to methodological issues within feminist scholarship, Feminist Inquiry (2006).

[11]  As it has been designated by numerous film critics (although a reductive New York Film Festival review of the film by the New York Times called it an art film as opposed to a documentary, as if a film couldn’t be both), including, but not limited to, Jonathan Rosenbaum, whose 1991 review for the Chicago Reader was taken to task by Phillip Lopate.

A studied behavioral experiment gets the lush cinematic treatment in Ruben Östlund’s icy, darkly funny “Force Majeure”

Written by Daniel Spada

Force Majeure [Turist] (dir. Ruben Östlund, 2014)

Seen at Hamptons International Film Festival on 10/10/14

US (limited) theatrical release: 10/24/14

An avalanche – a visual spectacle most of us are unlikely to see throughout the course of our lives, depending on our fondness of the slopes and our class position. This spectacle acts as the inciting incident of Ruben Östlund’s fourth feature, Force Majeure, collapsing the family unit at the center of the film and leaving some very emotionally unstable “adults” in its wake. The avalanche dually serves as a metaphor for the bourgeois Swedish couple’s matrimonial meltdown and the effortless challenging of gender roles’ basic foundation (not lack thereof per-se, but situatedness). Filled with credible performances and well drawn characters, especially the supporting ones, Östlund’s ideological inquiry is bolstered by an obsessive, formalist attention to detail – frames filled with etched-in meaning and musical cues used to jarringly effective ends.

We understand Tomas as a well-to-do, distracted, work-obsessed father from the first few scenes, in which he sneakily checks his iPhone in bed, and his wife Ebba tells her friend Charlotte at the lodge that they’re there on vacation because Tomas has been working so much. “So now he has five days to focus on his family,” she says. This, however, makes him no more or less an empathetic character. The scene that definitively rules him out as an empathetic character is the one in which, on Day 2, while having lunch with his family at a restaurant overlooking the slopes and reassuring them that the cascading snow they’re seeing is controlled, he sprints away to his safety (not without said precious iPhone), leaving Ebba to wrangle up the distressed kids all by herself.

The pressures of hetero-monogamous familial relationships hang heavy in the French Alps air, as Ebba persistently attempts to figure out her husband’s insistence on their two self-professed differing perspectives regarding the incident. At one point during a dinner with Charlotte and her English-speaking date, he offers the absurd rationale of not being about to run in ski boots. Östlund very cleverly holds the long shot of the both of them for several seconds past the point of excruciating embarrassment when Ebba repeats what he said to the couple. Ebba’s entirely believable patent disbelief and Tomas’ authentic humiliation and discomfort underscore the impressiveness of both Lisa Loven Kongsli and Johannes Bah Kuhnke’s performances.

In a later, private moment between Ebba and Charlotte, Ebba’s dissatisfaction with her current situation hits a peak when she inquires about Charlotte’s sexual escapades (it is important to note that she does have a husband and children). Charlotte’s questioning and challenging of the foundation of human sexual norms is cut and dry. Ebba’s response, however, is not. Her anger is paired with nothing if not a distinct curiosity about Charlotte’s line of thinking (and self-professed actual lived way of life), which regardless of whether it is a put on air or not, deeply rattles Ebba. Ebba is not let off the hook, as she is depicted as a bit jealous of Charlotte’s disposition, but also neither is Charlotte. Her nonchalance is undercut by hypotheticals, the answers to which it is possible even she is unsure although she speaks with certainty.

A key moment comes along after Ebba persists in telling the story, once again, to an old friend of Tomas, Mats, and his girlfriend Fanny. The tension rises as Ebba becomes increasingly emotional about what it means that Tomas ran for his life, and Mats and his girlfriend get more uncomfortable over time. Eventually, Mats begins a tepid but clear defense of Tomas and Fanny comes to Ebba’s comfort (it is unclear about whether Mats actually believes the absurdity that he speaks or just feels bad for Tomas, attesting to the power of Kristofer Hivju’s supporting performance). Fanny then proceeds to tell Mats that she doesn’t think Mats would save their children in a hypothetical situation, while an older generation of men would have come to the aid of their spouses. Fanny understands the changing nature of gender norms and masculinities, just like the genesis of the silly contemporary gendered attachment to such colors as blue and pink, while Mats is overwhelmed by her apparent lack of belief in his ideal masculinity and paternal instinct.

In one of the most entertaining sequences of the film, Tomas and Mats are relaxing on beach loungers and drinking beers after a tough day of skiing during which Mats attempts to purge Tomas’ guilt and shame by making him yell into the snowy void. Electronic dance music playing in the background, Mats encounters a younger woman who tells him her friend thinks Tomas is attractive. A short while later, she returns to recant her statement, saying that she meant someone else. Mats’ initial reaction is disbelief – he thinks they’re kidding around – and then anger, while Tomas stays laying in his chair, clearly a little embarrassed about the mix up. The two of them then proceed to laugh it off, which is what the audience has been doing all along.

In what seemed like a tidy way to end the film, the second-to-last scene offers Tomas a chance at temporary redemption. While an open ending at once seemed likely, the viewer is slammed with an ending that calls for an overall deeper examination into how this vacation has affected everyone involved. Not to offset the serious philosophic base of the film, Östlund’s finely spun yarn is undercut with amusing and humorous visual gags – a child’s toy comes crashing into a serious conversation, while a judgemental janitor appears out of thin air at the most untimely moments. Vivaldi’s “Summer”, used to emphasize the chaos and disorder of the family’s post-avalanche scare state parallels well with the crisp, uniform images of the ski slopes being prepared daily, attracting our attention to man’s need to control nature. When the avalanche hits on Day 2, it almost feels too real, and though we haven’t really been given enough time to invest in these characters, I felt like running for my life, not unlike Tomas. What is certain, though, is that the professional photographs they had taken on Day 1 certainly don’t reflect who they are as people now.

The House of the Devil

By Daniel Spada

Minimalism in horror films has the distinct possibility of undermining the genre altogether. Not so much the absence of such an approach, but the lack of popularity reflects the need for instant gratification that is so deeply embedded within our culture. The more recent iconography that defines the horror film genre emphasizes grandiose conceptions of evil and reveals the trouble and reservations with which Western audiences grapple when viewing such a film. Horror film directors whose intent is to reinvent or consciously revise the genre are scarce because audiences are content with simply acknowledging the classic iconography that this particular genus of filmmaking has evoked, and are privy to ironic tendencies that would certainly offset their appreciation or enjoyment of the film and make them wary to come back for more.

The simple title of Ti West’s The House of the Devil explicitly puts the ownership of the house at the forefront. It would be reasonable to assume that the audience is not totally unaware of the macabre hiding underneath the woodworks of said abode, but that they are more concerned with the physical representation of the evil that is clearly lurking behind those closed doors. The rhetorical underpinnings of West’s authorial style and play with realism (making this markedly an art-horror entry) show a reverence for the genre (at least in the classical sense), with nothing in the film hinting at a satirical or mocking tone. West is neither imitating nor parodying horror, but paying homage (akin to Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut’s engagement with the American genre films they so heavily revered)  and playing with the audiences’ expectations of what is appropriately categorized as horror. By doing so, he “implicitly critiques contemporary horror cinema” while also creating a new future life for the film genre commonly known as horror.

West begins the film strategically, with text on the screen that hints not only at the physical Satanic ritual that occurs at the end of the film, but also the theoretical underpinnings regarding beliefs in the existence of such cults. Therein lies part of the importance of the era in which the film takes place. In American culture, the 1980s were marked by a major rise in people who actually did believe in the existence of Satanic Cults so this is factually correct information supplied by Mr. West (he consistently refers to it as “Satanic panic” paranoia in interviews). However, there is no evidence to show that the events in the film are based on some sort of unexplained truth to which the text alludes. This is not uncommon with horrors film from the 1970s and 1980s; some of the most popular ones purporting fact-based events include The Amityville Horror and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  It is important to note that this is a just simple rhetorical device used on West’s part to engage with both the genre and the viewer.

The common horror genre tropes are all there: a haunted house, the presence of evil in some form, an innocent young girl (whose decisions, although some would call stupid, are realistically conceived and depicted), etc. It is also impossible to miss the iconography that defines the film as horror: the creaky and creepy Victorian house in which Mr. and Mrs. Ulman live, the extensive use of shadows and low-key lighting when Samantha is roaming around the house (knife in hand), and the discovery of evil at the climax of the story. Ti West reinvents and revises the horror film genre by skillfully emphasizing the cognitive response of the audience, in addition to the aforementioned movement towards realism and implicit critique of the current state of horror cinema (which acts as the cultural commentary of the film).

Before continuing on to what West achieves and how he does it in relation to the genre, it is important to consider The House of the Devil’s narrative framework, coupled with its aesthetic style, to give a sense of what exactly the audience is dealing with, because it directly relates to how they view the film and react to certain shots and sequences. The House of the Devil only partially follows the requirements of the Discovery Plot  — there is no talk about what Samantha might find in the rooms of the Ulman home, but there is that basic overarching narrative ploy of discovery and confrontation that defines the first two essential movements of the Discovery Plot structure. However, in The House of the Devil the discovery and confrontation are combined in the climax.

It is not until 39 minutes through the film that the first violent, bloody act occurs (and images henceforth depicted on-screen), the intention of which is to evoke a cognitive response of shock and awe in the viewer, although the act is not entirely surprising. The setup is a tip-off: a young woman driving through a cemetery stops to light her cigarette. When a young man comes up to her window with a lighter, seemingly out of nowhere, her fright is directly mirrored by the audience’s – it is a “jump” moment, but not in the manipulative sense. The gunshot is sudden, but not completely unexpected. The execution is perfectly calculated for optimum audience response. West states that the importance of it “was what it would accomplish to the audience’s emotional response for the rest of the movie.”  The viewer now explicitly knows more than Samantha, and possibly fears for her safety. The initiation of a sexual discussion by Mrs. Ulman puts her at unease (and the audience as well). From the moment that the Ulmans leave, to the point at which they are reintroduced, West lets his film breath, and simultaneously breathes new life into the horror film genre.

The current state of horror cinema is largely characterized in part by throwing victims into horrific scenarios and showing how they deal with them. What sets The House of the Devil apart from present trends and its predecessors is that it is rich with characterization. Throughout the film, Samantha becomes an empathetic figure. We watch her stress over money (a familiar problem with college students, which plays toward the realism of the film) and become apprehensive when Mr. Ulman tells her that there is no child she will be watching after. We watch her explore the house, dancing around to the The Fixx’s 1983 hit “One Thing Leads to Another” on her giant Sony Walkman. The audience becomes concerned with her wellbeing.

The film, in essence, is not very suspenseful because the audience is aware of information not available to Samantha. Since Samantha is the main character and the bulk of the film is filled with sequences of her doing mundane human activities, like watching television and eating pizza, the viewer is forced to either accept said circumstances or reject them (the most common backlash thrust upon the film has been people calling it “boring” or “slow”). What makes West’s technique so effect is the contrast between the disparate sources of fear: Samantha walking around an ominous empty house versus Samantha surrounded by a Satanic cult and a deformed figure pouring blood into her mouth; the horror of not knowing versus the horror of discovery and confrontation; finally, routine versus ritual.

When the strobe lights and flashing kicks in around the one hour and 17 minute mark (with less than 20 minutes left remaining), the viewer is plunged into a disorienting state – the same state which Samantha is surely in. Samantha’s “felt agitations” are reflected in the audience’s “analogous emotional state”  as a distinctly physical response. Samantha’s physical state and reaction to being tied up (trying to break herself free) is caused by her fearful cognitive state. Samantha’s response is one of fear, disgust, and repulsion. It only worsens when her vision clears and she sees the deformed figure standing above her (she is situated on the pentagram at this moment) who is about to cut its own wrist and pour its blood into a skull as a sort of funnel going into her mouth.

Samantha’s response to the Satanic ritual she was the unlikely participant of and the deformed figure’s impurity partly define The House of the Devil as an art-horror entry. Samantha’s repeated flashbacks to the deformed figure after her escape from the pentagram, and the subsequent slowing down of her ultimate escape from the house, shows a preoccupation with its monstrous façade (which she, undoubtedly, will never forget). Her complete aversion to its physical being creates a tension within the viewer.

Critics of the last 20 minutes of the film cite the change in tone and pacing to be problematic. This analysis shows more about them than it does West. The switch from meditations in a minimalist setting emphasizing minimalist actions to maximum intensity (but still in a minimalist style) is done in a way that draws attention to itself – and that is exactly the point, to stress and heighten the contrast. By the time the Satanic ritual begins, we care enough about Samantha to root for her. We want her to shoot Mr. Ulman at the end. We want her to get help and get away.

The conditions under which Samantha’s character is built are believable and realistic, which make the last shot all the more sad and terrifying. Being a college student in need of cash is not a foreign prospect, especially in today’s economy. She likes pizza. She enjoys listening to music on her walkman and dancing. She isn’t averse to snooping around a house that is not hers. She is a curious, intelligible young woman who just needs money to make rent.

The fact that the monster (well, monsters if you consider Victor and Mr. & Mrs. Ulman) of the film is both more human than expected (and much less “big” than what Western audiences, if they do, usually conceive of the devil or evil) and does not appear until the last 20 minutes is a testament to the will of Ti West’s filmmaking. He realigns what we fear (implication versus reality), how we fear it (cognitive versus physical), and makes us challenge the actual fear itself and how we conjure it up. The movements of the film are dissimilar insofar that what we have been told about meaning in horror films is a cop out: what usually has meaning (the physical presence of evil or the devil, violence, blood and gore, etc.) is comparable to what usually doesn’t have meaning (mundane human activities, what precedes the physical presence of evil or the devil and the violence, blood and gore, etc.). This strategy is barely, if ever, used effectively in the horror film genre.

The lack of dialogue is supplemented by Jeff Grace’s piano and orchestral heavy score. The mix of quiet piano keys and orchestral music (the intensity of which rises throughout to the climax of the film) carries a certain power that parallels the action. The score becomes a language unto itself, not unlike the language of the cinematography or editing. West again tips his hat to some of the forefathers of the genre and the bygone era in which the film takes place: the opening credits (shot in 1970s/early 1980s style, using the zoom instead of the dolly and yellow-font title credits over by freeze frame shots) echo the electronic synthesizer music of John Carpenter and Goblin (who frequently collaborated with the master of Italian giallo films Dario Argento).

Extended long takes are efficiently used to show Samantha performing aforementioned mundane human activities and they are effectively used in the sense that they show her at a remove (akin to the perspective of a documentary) and enhance the realism of the film. The house of the title itself looks like any old Victorian home you might find Upstate.  However, the way the film emphasizes the temporal (interior and exterior) space of it adds to the eerie atmosphere already been established.

The theme of innocence is explored in a way unlike most horror films today. Since the viewer spends so much time with Samantha, we are much more in touch with her innocence than if she had just been thrown into the Satanic ritual right at the onset of the film. In an inversion of expected genre conceits, it is the adult talking about sex rather than the adolescent (Mrs. Ulman rather than Samantha, who is not very receptive to the conversation at hand – and there is rarely talk of sexual interest or identity even between Samantha and Megan, only a fleeting mention of a boy Megan is seeing and Samantha’s roommate having sex). This aspect of the film shows discipline and reserve, with which most horror directors struggle (sex is so commonly exploited in horror films it seems commonplace and natural).

The House of the Devil also subtly engages with sub-genres of horror, in particular that of the slasher film and the haunted house film. Characteristic of the slasher film (which was popularized in the late 70s and early 80s by such films as Black Christmas, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, etc.)  is that of a younger generation being the target of an older generation, the showdown between the main character and the force of evil (usually a killer, but in the case of The House of the Devil it is a Satanic cult), and the eventual freedom of the protagonist, which the audience later finds out is not truly freedom (in Samantha’s case she is impregnated with Satan’s child). On the other hand, the haunted house genre has been around since the advent of the horror genre itself, most popularly seen in The Amityville Horror (1979), The Shining (1980), and the more recent, independently made hit Paranormal Activity (2007). The House of the Devil maybe a little too obviously lends itself to the haunted house genre, especially when reflecting on West’s exploration of the interior and exterior space of the Ulman’s house and its surroundings.

To make an object that is ordinary and common into something that should be approached with apprehension and even “fetid disgust”  is an incredible feat which Mr. West accomplishes. Pizza, now known as some sort of qualifying college cuisine, becomes a harbinger of doom. This should make the viewer reflect on the ontological root of fear and consider the multifarious possibilities of where it may hide (unconsciously), including what we need to survive (food).

About the writer: Dan Spada has a Bachelor’s in Women Studies and Film from Hunter College. He currently works for Tribeca in the Acquisitions Department. Dan was on the Pre-screener Committee for the Hampton’s International Film Festival taking place this October (2014) and was on the selection committee for this year’s Rooftop FIlms Summer Series.

Abject Bodies and Gender Instability in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960)

By Dan Spada, originally published on Raving Through Dark Nights. Republished with permission.

The way performance functions in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” reflects a deep, abiding preoccupation with gender roles and the truth economy that is generated therein. The oscillation between masculine and feminine, and the instability of gender is depicted in the construction of characters that do no satisfy ideal, conventional roles regarding sex and gender, but rather expose a profoundly unsettling inconsistency in respect to bodies, both abject and normalized. The gender role reversal in Psycho is blindingly obvious, particularly in the scene where Lila goes to explore the house and find Mrs. Bates, while Sam acts as a decoy to distract Norman. This scene and the following one, in which it is revealed that Norman has been preserving the skeleton of his mother and dressing up in her clothes, stress the transience of gender, and how it is not always in sync with biological sex. Sam’s aggressive homo-social taunting of Norman in this sequence, and Lila’s exploration of the house, leading up to the discovery of the skeleton and Norman’s performance as his mother, all hint towards an inherent gender instability within the characters of the film and a masculine/feminine malaise that is developed throughout the course of the film.

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Before Lila begins to look for Mrs. Bates and Sam distracts Norman, they search through the cabin one for any clues. They find a slip of paper Marion wrote on regarding the stolen money (just numbers and equation signs) that missed the toilet when she flushed the rest down. Lila becomes desperate to search the house and speak to Mrs. Bates, and Sam fulfills the typical role of male protector by saying, “I don’t like you going into that house alone.” This dialogue is in line with the heterosexist ideology of the time, and an ideology that Sam’s character clearly held true. He sounds resigned when he says that he’ll find Bates and keep him occupied.

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It is important to note that Sam’s gender performance, like everyone’s inside the world of the film (and outside, according to feminist and queer theorist Judith Butler), is a failure. He cannot provide for Marion in the way that she wants and needs him to (as evident from the first scene); ironically, right after Norman watches the swamp swallow the car with Marion’s body in it, Sam is seen writing a letter to Marion professing that he doesn’t care if they are poor, cramped, or miserable – at least they’ll be happy (and alive). This could be why he overcompensates when in pursuit of the truth about what really happened to her, and this overcompensation comes on particularly strong throughout the scene in which he keeps Norman occupied. His hyper-masculinity in this scene is almost to be expected, especially with someone as weak as Norman.

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However, Sam’s hyper-masculinity does not surface until after they enter the office. Norman is already suspicious of the couple, and Sam is clearly nervous, at first (before entering the office), to be diverting Norman’s attention. He knows that he is a potentially dangerous person, although he is not yet sure in what way. The sexual tension between the two is immediately felt in Norman’s body language. His confidence (both in body and speech) when he asks, “You looking for me?” slowly begins to dissipate shortly thereafter. His body then enters a visible state of unrest, and Sam’s teasing line, “I never can keep quiet enough for her, so I thought I’d look you up and talk”, with all its erotic undertones, hints towards a fluctuation between homo-social and homoerotic interaction – that also begins to dissipate after those few seconds.

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Sam then begins to try to bully the truth out of Norman, which, although it does not work (in regard to what he wants to hear – about the money and Marion), puts him in a progressively more distressed state over the duration of their conversation. It seems that Hitchcock implies that when Sam says “Buy a new one, in a new town, where you won’t have to hide your mother,” when talking about the hotel and the money, that Norman is actually thinking about himself and his gender identity. Hitchcock is also suggesting the possibility of Norman thinking Sam is aware of his secret, which makes him noticeably tense up – his jaw muscle begins to contract faster, and his speech begins to tremble.

In the office scene, the frame is split perfectly in two. Sam inhabits one side (the left – customer), Norman the other (the right – owner): one proper body, one abject; one (normalized) heterosexual identity, one (shamed) queer; one searching for what he will not find, and one hiding something everyone is looking for – but also the opposite, something no one expected to find. Lila exploring the house while Sam distracts Norman also could be looked at as a gender role reversal – why is it Lila exploring the house while Sam distracts Norman? Shouldn’t they use Lila’s female sexuality to keep Norman’s attention while Sam (born explorer, essence of man) searches the house? Or were they already unsure about Norman’s sexuality? They certainly were not given any clues to his gender trouble at that point.

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The revelation of Norman as Mrs. Bates is a different kind of performance when looked at against those outlined by Judith Butler. Butler offers drag as the ultimate portrayal of gender instability. However, almost always, drag offers some sort of comedic edge (whether it be inherent in the participants/the performance or reactionary from the audience) and her syllogism that if one understands drag as a portrayal of gender instability, then they must believe gender to be socially constructed, is reductive and unrealistic. With Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock offers his character’s gender trouble in a less deductive and more effective/affective way: Norman is not a sideshow, a circus act for the people from within the film or the audience to laugh at (up until the end, when a feeling of camp arises). Hitchcock is not setting it up so that once the audience witnesses the wig falling off Norman’s head in the big reveal that they will instantly be convinced of gender’s contingent foundations. Hitchcock is, however, offering a deeply troubling ambiguity that confounds the characters within the film, and finds the audience feeling a deep unease in regards to what they have just seen. It’s the slippage between masculine and feminine, the undeclared sexuality of Norman that is emphasized by Hitchcock and felt by the audience; it is that uncertainty which functions as the crux of the film and is the key to its understanding. With drag, you only get the performance. With “Psycho”, you get more: the visage of the boy next door and the spirit underneath the skin of Norman Bates – the creation of a monster a little too human for our liking.

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About the writer: Dan Spada has a Bachelor’s in Women Studies and Film from Hunter College. He currently works for Tribeca in the Acquisitions Department. Dan was on the Pre-screener Committee for the Hampton’s International Film Festival taking place this October (2014) and was on the selection committee for this year’s Rooftop FIlms Summer Series.