This essay is intended as a series of case studies following the ideas I presented on the “Quixote Sub Specie Aeternitatis”. There, through a Heideggerian interpretation of the Quixote, I showed how the idea of an art that reflects upon itself is suggested on Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art if we read it through Quixotic lenses. This new kind of art represents a qualitative shift from all the other forms that came before it. While the art of the past unconcealed Worlds, transcendental art unconceals the structures of World building themselves. In this essay, I’ll analyze some films that are examples of this artistic phenomenon.
The Killer Camera (Black Christmas, 1974)
Directed by Bob Clark, this film is acknowledged as one of the first of the slasher genre. The latter is a subgenre of horror films where a violent psychopath stalks and murders a group of people. From the very start of the film we note its most innovative cinematographic device: the first-person point of view for the perspective of the killer. I’ll argue that this formal novelty is fundamental for grasping the film’s transcendental theme.
Synopsis: As winter break begins, a group of sorority sisters, including Jess (Olivia Hussey) and the often inebriated Barb (Margot Kidder), begin to receive anonymous, lascivious phone calls. Initially, Barb eggs the caller on, but stops when he responds threateningly. Soon, Barb’s friend Claire (Lynne Griffin) goes missing from the sorority house, and a local adolescent girl is murdered, leading the girls to suspect a serial killer is on the loose. But no one realizes just how near the culprit is.
As a first approximation to the film, let’s reflect on its title: “Black Christmas”. Christmas is usually white, not only because in the northern hemisphere December takes place in winter but also because white signifies purity. A Black Christmas will then be one marked by corruption, the perfect antithesis of a pure, white, Christmas. This contraposition informs the story’s spatial setting: what can be purer than a sorority house? Yet, the intrusion of the camera in this seemingly innocent place will immerse us in its intimacy and we will get to see all that it is supposed to hide. We’ll follow the housemother as she takes out booze from bizarre hiding places to appease her chronic alcoholism. The outdoor Christmas decorations are mirrored by similar ones inside with the exception that these hold little alcohol bottles. In sum, the intrusion of the camera will set afloat all the dirt that the surface of the innocently decorated house hides.
The dialectical opposition between purity and corruption also informs the characters: instead of a virgin giving birth, the protagonist of this Christmas is a girl who wants an abortion. Despite this seemingly conservative antithesis, the film clearly sides with the “corrupt”. The psychopath, who frenetically mumbles such words as “mommy” while killing the girls, is the advocate of purity. As shown on the film poster, he arranges the corpse of his first victim in a rocking chair and makes it hold a baby doll in a motherly way. It’s as if the killer demands a white Christmas, being disgusted by the modern ways of the women, without realizing that he is the one painting it all black. Although we do not learn about this in the film, the theme is further confirmed by the fact that the sorority house was supposed to be the killer’s childhood home.
As mentioned earlier, the film offers us a first-person point of view for the perspective of the killer. This turns the camera itself not only into a character but into the true antagonist of the film. The identity of the killer is never revealed but the only glimpse we catch of him is extremely revealing all we get to see is his eye. This perverse psychopath is then no other but the camera itself. We are the voyeurs that demand a disruption, a plot, from an innocent Christmas. It is this demand of ours which brings chaos to the otherwise ordinary life of the sorority house and we do so precisely because the ordinary cannot put forth a plot. The killer/camera’s longing for a white Christmas, as described earlier, can be read as our demand for a resolution. A restoration of the symbolic order that prevailed before the camera’s intrusion to the house.
The Destructive Power of Nitrate Film (Inglorious Basterds, 2009)
Picasso has famously said “Good artists copy but great artists steal” and no other director has been accused of stealing as much as Tarantino. Being a film erudite, his works are filled with references to their predecessors, turning his oeuvre into a permanent homage to the medium of cinema. In this case, we can trace one of Tarantino’s influences back to one of the early masters: Ernst Lubitsch. In his film To Be or Not to Be, Lubitsch presented us with a comedy where a group of actors manage to sabotage the Nazi operations in Poland, all through the sheer force of their craft. In Inglorious Basterds, this transcendental theme is echoed but here medium and content are perfectly fused, turning cinema itself into what could have (or rather, should have) destroyed the Nazis in World War II.
Synopsis: It is the first year of Germany’s occupation of France. Allied officer Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) assembles a team of Jewish soldiers to commit violent acts of retribution against the Nazis, including the taking of their scalps. He and his men join forces with Bridget von Hammersmark, a German actress and undercover agent, to bring down the leaders of the Third Reich. Their fates converge with theater owner Shoshanna Dreyfus who seeks to avenge the Nazis’ execution of her family.
Borges has said that “the devices of all fantastic literature are only four in number: the work within the work, the contamination of reality by dream, the voyage in time, and the double.” All four of these themes are inextricably blended in Tarantino’s masterpiece. Let’s begin with the film within the film. A Nation’s Pride is the work of a fictional Goebbels. Nazi propaganda is the archetypical pre-transcendental art: an appeal to myth that allows for the grounding of an ethno-political sense of belonging among the members of a community. This is the basest, though the text lends itself to such an interpretation, way to understand Heidegger’s stance that art founds Worlds. As Tarantino’s Nazi hero Frederick Zoller eloquently puts it, the showcase of A Nation’s Pride is intended as “A German night, a German event, a German celebration”. This event is what articulates the whole plot of the film. All characters revolve around the medium: Shoshana is the theater owner, Zoller is the actor, the appointed British spy is a film scholar. Even Brad Pitt has to do what he does best in order to succeed in his mission: act.
Cinema has been called the art of the ellipsis because of its unique capacity of manipulating time in favor of the narrative whole. Yet, this film takes cinema’s power to bend time further, breaking away with the conventions involved in depicting historical themes. Tarantino offers us a voyage into an alternate past in which Hitler isn’t afforded to live past 1941 or to end his own life away from allied hands. In Inglorious Basterds, cinema is the very substance of reality and, as such, its omnipotence does not lend itself to the heresy of reducing the medium to propaganda. Hitler’s visit to the film theater, his intrusion into holy lands, awakens the wrath of god. The very materiality of cinema (the nitrate film, the enclosed space of the theater, the sound of shots that mirror and hide the actual bullets that are fired behind the film projector) allow the medium to rebel itself against its improper usage. As the screen burns, the medium is released seeking its freedom, form and content fuse, and the chains that tie art to myth are broken just as the chains of oppression are cut loose in the relentless march of human freedom. Given that reality is not as poetic, Tarantino blends the liberation of man and the liberation of art in one single event.
When Film Turns Against Itself: Haneke’s Anti-Film (Funny Games, 1997)
Michael Haneke is one the few directors to have been awarded the prestigious Palm D’Or twice at the Cannes Film Festival. While his deeply cerebral films blur the line between art and political preaching, Funny Games resists this objection as it is not meant to function as a film but rather as a challenge to the viewers who become more like test subjects in a social experiment. A critique of violence in film is achieved through a disruption in the mechanisms that allow this kind of films to exist. The result is a film that disrupts the conditions of its own possibility, giving lead to what may be called an anti-film.
Synopsis: An idyllic lakeside vacation home is terrorized by Paul (Arno Frisch) and Peter (Frank Giering), a pair of deeply disturbed young men. When the fearful Anna (Susanne Lothar) is home alone, the two men drop by for a visit that quickly turns violent and terrifying. Husband Georg (Ulrich Mühe) comes to her rescue, but Paul and Peter take the family hostage and subject them to nightmarish abuse and humiliation. From time to time, Paul talks to the film’s audience, making it complicit in the horror.
If we repeat the semiotic method we applied to Black Christmas and reflect upon this film’s title, we’ll see that the concept of games is what articulates the themes of Funny Games. This is specially noteworthy if we remember that Gadamer, in his appropriation of Heidegger’s aesthetics, takes the concept of games as descriptive of the fundamental relationship that there is between a work of art and the subject who engages in it.
In the first scene, we are presented with a couple killing time with an innocent guessing game while they travel to their summer house. Yet, when they arrive, they’ll be forced to take part in a not so harmless one. What the psychopath killers can’t distinguish, what makes them so dangerous, is the fact that they can’t tell fiction from reality, a game from its players. The last conversation between the two of them presents this clearly: one of the killers talks about a film he saw where two levels of reality are in play. One is a computer-generated fiction and the other is the reality of those who craft that fantasy world. However, as the other killer points out, both realities are equally fictional and, as such, equally real. In a film, he argues, we would see both actions that take place with equal force on the screen. When we play a game, we suspend certain beliefs that we all have in regard to our reality. We stop seeing the other player as a friend or as a wife to see them, in the strict bounds of the game, as an adversary. Yet, this suspension of belief is denied to us in the case of this film. The killer looks at the camera, he breaks the fourth wall. He asks us to participate in a bet on who will survive: the killers or the family. He mockingly says, “come on, you sure are on their side”. He lastly, when he is faced with the loss of his partner, takes a remote control to reverse time and thus breaks with the implicit rules of the game that a film’s plot may consist on. We feel cheated.
The reference of the killer to the film he saw introduces the device of “the work within the work”, a central theme of transcendental art. This theme implies that a level of reality is contraposed to a fiction inside a fiction. Yet, any author with a glimpse of clarity realizes that this supposed reality is just as fictional. This leads to curious interplays between fantasy and reality that Borges deems powerful because they open the radical possibility of the reader or the audience being in fact as fictional as the work of art they contemplate. In Funny Games, Haneke cuts this dream short by breaking the implicit rules of the fictional game. The world that we are presented with can’t be equally fictional to ours nor can we be equally fictional to it. Our suspension of belief is denied and the violence displayed is laid bare of any narrative that would justify it. By baring violence of any veil, Haneke displays it in its purity and expects the viewer to experience the disgust and disapproval that one would feel if presented with such violent acts in reality. Compare this with Tarantino’s highly unrealistic and stylized violence which aims at the complete opposite effect. Haneke’s anti-film then reveals the mechanisms that make violence pass as entertainment when it is presented in the form of a game such as in a racing competition, a film or a video game. Whether the depiction of violence in fiction has deleterious consequences or not is for each to judge. This film’s value resides in making us a more critical audience, more wary of the contents we are exposed to. By crafting a game that cheats its players, Haneke forces us to reflect on the nature of rules.