Science Fiction Studies

# 62 = Volume 21, Part 1 = March 1994

 

 

REVIEW-ESSAYS

BOOK REVIEWS


Peter Fitting

Analysis and Interpretation

Sevastakis, Michael. Songs of Love and Death: The Classical American Horror Film of the 1930s. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press (800-225-5800), 1993. xvii+209. $49.95.

Schelde, Per. Androids, Humanoids, and Other Science Fiction Monsters: Science and Soul in Science Fiction Films. NY: New York UP (212-998-2575), 1993, ix+279. $35.00.

Too Much Analysis, Not Enough Interpretation. As Michael Sevastakis reminds us, the early classics of the American horror film were made during a brief five-year period at the dawn of the sound era--Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1932), The Mummy (1932), The White Zombie (1932), The Island of Lost Souls (1933), The Invisible Man (1933), The Bride of Frankenstein(1935), Mad Love (1935), The Devil Doll (1936), and Dracula's Daughter (1936). His examination begins with a review of the literary sources which provided the plot materials for these films. He then turns to the individual films, "by asking specific questions ...concerning the characters...their blocking within the frame, dialogue, camera placement, and the mise-en-scene in order to illustrate how the conventions are employed by the filmmaker" (xiv).

Through his careful analysis of key sequences to show how such techniques as cutting and camera movement are used to create the desired effect, the author provides us with an interesting (if at times rather dry) close reading of some important films. The purpose of these readings is to produce a certain number of basic "conventions," grouped according to Plot, Characterization, Film Technique, and Mise-en-Scene. This gives a catalogue of 105 conventions which are simply listed in the very short Conclusion. They range from vague generalizations--"Sometimes the area of morality (at least in the beginning of the film) is neither black nor white but gray"--to more crucial features: they "follow literary gothic conventions by dealing with characterization over action," or they "play on distortions of religious myths, for example, the vampire is a symbol of eternal life and incarnate evil." These conventions cover the full range of filmic techniques, including dialogue, plot, music, setting, characterization, mise-en-scene--an inventory which cries out for some explanation and (semiotic) elaboration, especially when the apparent difference between this study and a book like Michael Brunas, John Brunas and Tom Weaver's Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931-1946(1990), which covers much of the same ground in far more detail, lies in the fact that Sevastakis is making an argument about the evolution of the conventions of the genre, rather than simply describing the film in all its details (sources, production, themes, etc).

This paucity of explanation is even more striking in the 4-page introduction. There is no explanation of the choice of films, although admittedly these eleven films are important. I would at least like to know why other horror films by the same directors in this period were omitted, e.g., Whale's Old Dark House, Browning's Mark of the Vampire, or Hillyer's Invisible Ray. In the case of the first two, at least, a partial explanation might lie in their more comedic approach to the material, but this is not explained. But Browning's Mark of the Vampire (1935) was a remake of his silent (and now lost) London after Midnight with Lon Chaney--the actor Browning was planning to use for Dracula but who died in 1930. Because this is a vampire movie, it does raises the question of why Sevastakis chose to focus on the literary origins of these films while excluding the filmic antecedents which often seem more relevant than the original literary sources. (And how would Sevastakis explain Freaks, arguably Browning's masterpiece?)

Here is Sevastakis's description of his approach:

Each chapter examines literature ranging from Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Gregory Lewis in the eighteenth-century to Maurice Renard and Abraham Merritt in the twentieth, depending on applicable stylistic elements, themes and the source of the film's plot, and then closely investigates the individual films.... (xiii-xiv)

I have no quarrel with this method per se, and the book provides a useful description of many of the literary sources for various themes. My objections stem from his conclusion, in which the list of conventions are presented as the distillate of his analyses of the films and their sources.

We can trace the pleasure derived from horror back to gothic conventions.

Noel Carroll's keen insight into the horror film [in his 1990 The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart] locates the focus of pleasure in the genre on the narrative itself, saying that horror films revolve around the existence of the abnormal and the importance of the narrative is the confirmation of the monster's existence. I would like to add that what makes the confirmation of the monster's existence and the narrative around which this confirmation takes place appealing are the conventions within the genre which have evolved through the decades. (181-182, my italics; this is the only reference in the book to Carroll or to the pleasure of horror).

I can't help objecting that by moving from the novel and/or stage adaption directly to the film, he has not only skipped a step in the film's formation (the earlier films), but in some cases, he has given a misleading description of the film's sources and, more central to his argument, a misleading account of the evolution of the conventions of the horror film. Apart from occasional references to expressionism ("the German expressionism of the 1920s found a home within the American fantasy film of the 1930s"), there is little acknowledgement of the close ties between these two groups of horror films. In his discussion of Frankenstein (the most famous of all of these films) for instance, Sevastakis discusses various literary sources, including Shelly's novel and the 1927 play which was extensively revised to become the script; but there is no mention of the German "golem" films, particularly the 1920 version which Whale screened before starting his film. (Moreover, various critics, from Halliwell to Phil Hardy, routinely describe Frankenstein as "mostly borrowed" from the Golem films, e.g., Halliwell 300).

Whatever impact the literary influences may have had, the omission of the influence of these films in a discussion of the development of conventions seems indefensible. Admittedly the silent versions of Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are inferior to the 1930s versions, but why are the plays more important to our appreciation of the conventions? What about the impact of Murnau's Nosferatu, a film which is usually considered superior to Browning's Dracula? Karl Freund's Mad Love is even more significant in this regard, not only because there was an earlier 1925 German version of the Renard novel (by Robert Wiene, the director of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the most visually important of Expressionist films), but because before Freund emigrated to the US in 1929, he worked as the director of photography on a number of German movies which directly influenced the horror films of the 1930s, particularly in their camera work, including The Golem (and he shares the photography credits for Metropolis with Gunther Rittau). One of the first films he worked on in Hollywood was Browning's Dracula, for which he was the director of photography. As I said, I have no quarrel with a study of the literary sources of these films; but if one is trying to explain the development of Hollywood conventions, as Sevastakis states in his conclusion, then these filmic crossfertilizations are essential to any adequate explanation.

This book reads as if the first and last chapters were tacked on to an earlier study of how gothic literary conventions survive in these Hollywood films and are transmuted by the nature of film. Instead the author claims to be doing far more and ends up doing far less.

Too Much Interpretation, Not Enough Analysis. After the careful readings of Sevastakis, it was a shock to turn to Schelde's study of the SF film, which opens with the assertion that "there still is not a book-length study of sf movies that is not a picture book or a picture-book history. The only exceptions are Focus on the Science Fiction Film (Johnson 1972) and Alien Zone, a recent (1990) publication edited by Annette Kuhn" (1). In English, several books come to mind, first among them, Vivian Sobchack's Screening Space (1986), Phil Hardy's Science Fiction Film Encyclopedia (1984) and John Brosnan's Future Tense (1978).

Of course, unfamiliarity with critical writing in a particular area is not necessarily detrimental; insights and new readings may be freed from the constraints of earlier arguments. Seeing him as the boy who realizes that the emperor has no clothes, then, I was momentarily tempted to think that Schelde's all-encompassing explication of SF film, in its very simplicity, might contain insights which more sophisticated criticism was unable to see. Tempting, yes, but not very helpful. He gives similarly simplistic explanations of the role of folklore and folkways, shoring up his argument with the accounts of established anthropologists (like Richard Lee's account of the !Kung or Robert Darnton's account of the "Great Cat Massacre") which turn out, when one actually reads their books, to be considerably more complex than his reductive overview. (His "simplifications" resemble rather the use of that term in Walter Miller's Canticle for Leibowitz.) Thus I find his overview too reductive to be of much assistance in our understanding of the genre, particularly since every film discussed is fitted into the overall thesis with little attention to detail, to how these themes are developed in SF literature, to their specificity as films, or even to the characteristics or history of the genre--as his definition of the SF film suggests: "For the purposes of this book an sf movie is defined as a movie that spotlights some kind of 'fictional science'" (25).

In addition to simplifying beyond recognition the work of the various critics to whom he refers (from Arthur Kroker to Michel Foucault), his study is based on a complete disregard for the SF film as film; all that matters are its themes and characters. Yet he is not interested in written SF:

First...[because it] has already received a fair amount of scholarly and critical attention. Second, [because] despite appearances, sf movies and sf literature have little in common and appeal to very different audiences. Science fiction literature is, at its best, not afraid of experiments, of intellectual speculation.... Science fiction literature has a distinct and fairly limited audience--mostly consisting of intellectuals and science buffs.... (2)

there is an additional difference: sf movies contain, contrary to the case with sf literature, the seed of a rebellion against science and the powers that control science.... Sf literature is most often so blatantly uncritical of science and technology that it comes across as either inherently reactionary of as science worship. (21, n6)

SF film's relationship to folklore lies in their mutual resistance to the status quo:

Basic to folktales is the fact that they are protesting a reality which the people who created them have, in effect, no power to influence....Folktales are both maps to a cruel reality and statements of protests against a rigid social order "hidden" in the guise of fantastical events and feats....

The science fiction film is the same kind of muted "dream"-protest. The truth of the matter is that ordinary people...are as powerless vis-a-vis the ongoing "progression" of science and technology as were the users and producers of fairy tales in the past....That the implicit protest is vague and irrational--which makes scientists and literary sf enthusiasts tend to dismiss it--does not, however, mean that it is unfounded. Sf, like folklore, is first and foremost designed to be entertainment...but it is also a mirror of the lives and reality of those for whom it is made. (8-9)

In his conclusion, however, he is much more restrained about the potential for resistance in SF film:

Sf shows a world where the artificial neon lights are about to outshine the sun, where we will be forced to live in perpetual "spiritual" darkness, while our soulless body-machines are bathed in the searchlights of the corporate police and move about like decapitated chickens, devoid of inner life.

In that sense sf is a protest, a cry of despair from those who have no other avenues for venting their discontent with the status quo. But sf shares with folklore also its main weakness, the dream-like escapism....

Sf's main function is to allow people to let off steam, to vicariously fight off their oppressors for a couple of hours before going back to the grind.... In the end sf becomes point man for the Brave New World: the movies get us accustomed to the dystopia. When the police state is in place, we will recognize it and be almost relieved because we were expecting it. (242-244)

Schelde's study, as the sub-title suggests, is very much shaped by a particular thesis.

The main argument is that science, as depicted in the movies, threatens not only to destroy the physical world as horror movies such as Godzilla suggest, but, more to the point, science and technology are slowly invading our minds and bodies, making us more mechanical, more like machines. Science is robbing us or our humanity, metaphorically expressed as our soul; it threatens to replace the individual, God-given soul with a mechanical, machine-made one. (9)

In total, the author discusses 65 films spread over as many years, from Metropolis (1926) to Total Recall (1990). Although this is meant to provide a global view of the genre, his selections reflect to some extent his search for films which fit his argument; while he includes many of the classics (and some not-so-classic films like Blood of Heroes, Maximum Overdrive, Parts: The Clonus Horror, The Terror Within, and Twins), he does omit a number of important films, particularly at the more intellectual or artistic end of the spectrum (Alphaville, Dr. Strangelove, Solaris, Stalker, Things to Come, and La Jete) as well as some more popular films like the Star Trek movies, the Planet of the Apes series, Barbarella, Them, The Man who Fell to Earth, the Quartermass films, and even King Kong.

These omissions are indicative of his reductive, ahistorical approach: "The sf genre is static; the themes introduced in the earliest movies, such as Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Metropolis, are repeated over and over with only minimal variations" (12).

His argument would have been modified or enhanced by an at least passing knowledge of the literature of SF, particularly since he often digresses to discuss contemporary issues from racism and sexism to new reproductive technologies. But this disregard for the basic tools of criticism, this blurring of the differences between folktale and film, the lack of interest in the question of whether the SF film has changed or evolved, or whether SF films are in any way determined by the different historical or national situations in which they are produced--all this is beyond the author's generalizing concerns. While there are certainly many statements about specific films with which we could all agree, and indeed while there is certainly an argument to be made about our collective fears and hopes when confronted with new technologies (although he only seems to consider the fears), there is surely more to criticism than such generalizations. Since at one point he mentions that "the supermarket tabloids...are repositories of modern folklore" (89), I think that he might have done better to turn his efforts there.

WORKS CITED

Halliwell, Leslie. Halliwell's Film Guide, 4th edition. NY: Scribner, 1983.

Hardy, Phil. Science Fiction Film Encyclopedia. NY: William Morrow, 1984


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