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ProfileRobin Griffiths is a Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Gloucestershire, where he specializes in avant-garde, experimental and queer film and video. He is currently completing a PhD in Queer Performance at the University of Bristol, and researching a forthcoming book on New Queer Cinema. --http://www.cult-media.com/issue2/Rgriff.htm [Oct 2005]
Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-Garde (2000)Review
Joan Hawkins, Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-garde (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 326pp. Pb. ISBN 0-8166-3414-9, £14.00.
Reviewed by Robin Griffiths In Cutting Edge, Joan Hawkins offers a long overdue and highly provocative discussion of the subversive boundaries between “trash aesthetics”, “body-genres” and “avant-garde” practices of post-war “paracinema” culture. Focussing upon traditionally contentious distinctions between high and low culture, Hawkins makes a number of insightful observations that demonstrate the radical implications of both “low body-cultures” and avant-garde art cinema in “challenging the formally constructed notion of mainstream good taste” (p.30). Her “composite body-text of horrors” (p.169) explores the common themes, tropes and imagery that are characteristic of both exploitation and art cinema, but which have a tendency to privilege ideas of a “high” culture that is vehemently protected from the types of moral and social critique commonly directed towards the “low”.
Beginning with an overview of the idiosyncrasies of horror fanzine culture and their erratic mail-order video catalogues – which Jeffrey Sconce has called “paracinema” – Hawkins provides a detailed discussion of how such texts achieve a radical “levelling of cultural hierarchies” by transgressing usual binary categorizations. Where such binaries differentiate between high and low genres, fan cultures favour a more sophisticated and eclectic strategy that “encourages a kind of dialectical cultural reading” (p.21); a structural strategy that intriguingly places elitist works by Bunuel, Godard and Pasolini indiscriminately alongside the more notorious “classics” of Eurociné-trash. Thus “the categorical difference between low and high genres, body genres and elite art – both inside and outside the cinematic beltway – is difficult to define” (p.7). For Hawkins, what seems to unite paracinema culture under the rubric of “the horrific avant-garde” is the “operative criterion” of affect, in that the films directly “engage the spectator’s body” (p.4) and situate themselves in opposition to the hegemonic and normatizing oppressiveness of Hollywood Cinema.
To demonstrate the central thesis of Cutting Edge, Hawkins effectively highlights a number of cross-over films that occupy this “double niche”, from Tod Browning’s much maligned Freaks (1932) to Paul Morrissey’s camp-trash classic Flesh for Frankenstein (1973). However, whilst such works as Georges Franju’s shamefully neglected horror classic Eyes Without a Face (1959) can be seen as occupying the same contested critical site as Bunuel’s avant-garde classic Un chien andalou (1929), the “poetic” and “surreal” moments forming part of Hawkins’ detailed argument for the former’s elevation to “art-horror”, can also be found in most “mainstream” horror films of the twentieth century. Hawkins’ claim for a dual function in Franju’s rather formulaic work tends to be sited primarily in its “frenchness”, as accentuated by her continued use of the film’s more Euro-chic French title Les yeux sans visage.
Similarly, such cult Euro-trash horror auteurs as Jess Franco appear to play a vital role in this art-horror movement despite being “clumsy” and “numbingly dull” (p.89); and whilst Franco’s distinctively idiosyncratic oeuvre exhibits the “criterion of value” required by Andrew Sarris to achieve the status of auteur, it is questionable whether or not these Euro-horror icons would receive the same level of critical attention from within the less Europhilic context of their own culture. Due to the inherent inflections and aesthetics of a commonly revered notion of “European Cinema”, non-European critical readings tend to automatically elevate such work to the higher realm of “art-house”, irrespective of whether they are stylistically or ideologically a product of the avant-garde, trash cinema or the mainstream.
This implicit geographical bias to Hawkins’ analysis is seemingly evident in her response to more “home-grown” American works such as Yoko Ono’s rarely screened pseudo-vérité Rape (1969), or Michael and Roberta Findlay’s infamous splatter-fest Snuff (1976). Whereas Franco can easily be “considered one of paracinema’s important auteurs” (p.89), Hawkins finds a far more “troubling” affect in the darker work of American art-horror auteurs of the period, that “ultimately perpetrate the very behaviour [they] purport to critique” (p.159). From within the intense ethical context of the mid-seventies, Hawkins offers an engaging analysis of Ono’s “perverse artifact of cinematic culture”, which unlike the lyrical poetic surrealism of Euro-horror “consistently violate[s] the separation between fiction and reality, the separation between representation and incitement that informs traditional theatrical and cinematic work” (p.118). In a fusion of direct cinema and cinema-vérité, Rape actively incites and participates in the victimization and psychological torture of a real woman on the screen: “the camera ‘demonstrates’ rape to us, the viewers, and cinematically commits it” (p.122). However, rather than provoking the kind of media attention and feminist backlash that the Findlays suffered upon the release of their more directly exploitative and therefore “lower” film Snuff, Ono’s deeply sadistic “documentary” was shielded from a similar reactionary response by its cultural status as high art. Even though both films focus attention upon ideas of cinematic pleasure and the moral implications or “investment we have in watching women suffer on-screen” (p.138), the central binary oppositions that structure and define such debates on high and low art consistently protect the more clearly “labelled” avant-garde works from the same ethical and political judgments.
Overall, Cutting Edge makes a valuable contribution to contemporary debates surrounding the subversiveness of art-horror in destabilising common assumptions of taste and the ironic strategies of paracinema culture. Perhaps at times Hawkins is rather limited and overly discriminating in the works and film-makers selected for the book, with a number of valuable art-horror directors such as Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Herschell Gordon Lewis frustratingly overlooked. Nor is the reason for limiting such a potentially wider analysis to the sixties and seventies fully addressed, except generally as “an era when the political and social stakes involved in the regulation of culture have become ‘less subtle’, ‘more direct’” (p.31). Nevertheless, the book proffers a challenging and accessible discussion of the radical potency that paracinema possesses in deconstructing the limited and contradictory regimes of “normative” cinema culture.
Sarris, Andrew, “Notes on the auteur theory in 1962”, Film Culture, 27 (1962-1963): 1-8.
Sconce, Jeffrey, “Trashing the academy: Taste, excess, and an emerging politics of cinematic style,” Screen, 36. 4 (winter 1995): 371-93.
Robin Griffiths is a Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Gloucestershire, where he specializes in avant-garde, experimental and queer film and video. He is currently completing a PhD in Queer Performance at the University of Bristol, and researching a forthcoming book on New Queer Cinema.
-- Robin Griffiths via http://www.cult-media.com/issue2/Rgriff.htm [Mar 2005]
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