Month: April 2011

American Pessimism and the Cultural Implications of “Night of the Living Dead”

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George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is a film that, upon its release, flew almost entirely under mainstream audiences’ radar. An independent production with characters played by no-name actors, the film opened gradually in drive-ins and rundown theaters after being rejected for distribution from AIP  because it “lacked a romance and had a down-beat conclusion” while Columbia Pictures declined to distribute it because of its grainy black and white style (Merritt 237). Though the film was written off the mainstream map before it was even unleashed, its impact within American society was felt as the film connected with audiences and film scholars alike through various aesthetic elements and symbolic cultural implications upon its release. Through its newsreel and cinema verite-esque visual associations as well as its depiction of a group of “normative” and societal “others” thrust together in an ill-fated apocalyptic setting, Night of the Living Dead represents both the countercultural movement and atypical 1960s culture as self-implosive entities within a hopeless era of American pessimism.

The countercultural movement in the United States arose as a byproduct of the suburbanization of 1950s American culture. Initiated as an “opposition to the war in Vietnam and embracing tolerance, free love, and common property,” the countercultural youth revolution of the 1960s functioned as a rebellion against normative cultural standards established in postwar American society (Phillips 82). The anti-establishment social climate of 1960s counterculture stemmed from a “generation that grew up, largely, in the protected and isolated environment of 1950s suburban culture…” where “…the desire for liberation and experimentation became almost an obsession” (Phillips 86).  Night of the Living Dead stages a narrative which mirrors the countercultural societal climate within which it was produced, depicting a massive and fear-inducing challenge to “normative” life in the form of an assault by “ghouls.” In the case of the film, this is overcome by simply surviving as one of the “living” (not subdivided into “minorities” or “others” just yet) and not assimilating into the group of counter-normative monsters.

The social dissolution and hopeless social mentality which pervaded 1960s American society is codified in Night of the Living Dead first through a scene which depicts a young woman named Barbra fleeing from a ghoul and stumbling upon a secluded house in rural Pennsylvania where other survivors have taken refuge. The scene reflects the notion that the film is essentially a parable about Americans consuming themselves (Merritt 238). As Barbra enters the home (which is prim, tidy, and well-kept in terms of its décor) the mise en scene drastically alters to reflect increasing social anxieties in 1960s society concerning the traditional American household. A deafening score mirrors Barbra’s anxieties as quick-paced shots juxtapose her progress with that of the ghoul’s pursuit. But, as Barbra enters the house the score immediately cuts out, replaced by the stark silence of the stagnant, seemingly empty home. The lighting setup shifts from the brightly-lit exterior shots (ironic because the supposed threat exists “outside”) to a chiaroscuro effect, highlighting the foreboding interior atmosphere which eventually facilitates the deaths of everyone inside. The American home, typically represented in 1950s media (such as “Leave It to Beaver,” etc.) as facilitating healthy familial relations, is instead ominously alluded to through the foreboding and moody mise en scene as a trap for interpersonal conflicts.

In Hollywood: From Vietnam to Reagan…And Beyond, Robin Wood describes horror films as generally representing a normative society threatened by a monster which results from the repression or oppression of certain aspects of the Self (66). Wood indicates that the repressed/oppressed entity of the Self is often represented, in horror, as the “Other,” or “that which bourgeois ideology cannot recognize or accept but must deal with…” (65). The “Other” is often represented by women, ethnic groups within the culture, and children (Wood 66-67). In Night of the Living Dead, the group of people Barbra encounters in the house is comprised of a mix of “Others” (a black man named Ben and a single woman named Barbra) as well as people who fall in line with what Wood would describe as “boringly constant” normal societal institutions (a heterosexual couple named Tom and Judy and a nuclear family, the Coopers, comprised of a father, mother, and young daughter) (71).

In order to facilitate the group’s survival, Ben takes on the role of barricading the house’s doors and windows with wooden boards, hoping to keep the ghouls from entering the house. In a scene that literally and figuratively deconstructs traditional societal notions concerning the familial living space, Ben disassembles a dining room table to use in the barricading process. A long shot shows Ben entering the room, which the mise en scene indicates was once used as a traditional dining space (seeing as the table is adorned with an elaborate tablecloth on which a serving dish delicately rests) for the family who once lived there. Ben proceeds to systematically deconstruct the table, first removing the tablecloth, moving the chairs away from it, flipping the table over, breaking the legs off, and tearing it to shreds. The camera alternates between medium shots of Ben, hacking away at the table, and Barbra, who clings to the discarded tablecloth as a child clings to a blanket. This symbol of the “safe” haven of the American family, which she rubs over her neck and face, provides Barbra with comfort in the midst of a grim situation; she clasps the blanket as if grasping the only connection she has to the now tarnished “normal” life which preceded the ghoul invasion.

As the group eventually finalizes a plan for escape which involves Ben and Tom exiting the house to pump gas into a getaway vehicle (a truck stationed just outside the house), Judy expresses her concerns for her boyfriend’s safety as he is about to embark. For Judy, Tom represents her “normal” half, seeing as she is part of a heterosexual couple. If Tom should die,  Judy becomes the “Other” without him to complete their heterosexual union. Women were already condemned by Harry Cooper, who speaks of them with contempt when discussing their escape plan. He notes that the group has three anchors weighing them down in the form of “two women, [with] one woman out of her head.” Because Judy does not want to be left alone as a single woman, she decides to go with Tom as he runs out of the house. Her decision ultimately leads to both of their deaths as the truck catches fire and explodes, leaving their bodies for the ghouls to devour in graphic detail. While heterosexual couples are generally a stable normative societal institution and not a part of Wood’s list of “Others,” it is the second of such social institutions (“Other” or otherwise) to meet a grim end in Night of the Living Dead (the first death being that of another social institution, Johnny, a heterosexual male). The fact that the heterosexual couple meets such a gruesome end before the “Others” mirrors the violent happenings (such as John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam War, etc.) in an increasingly pessimistic 1960s America (Phillips 81).

The violence and brutality that is present throughout Night of the Living Dead also has cultural implications beyond the scope of its own narrative context. In Projected Fears, Phillips discusses the shifting attitudes of the American counterculture from peaceful opposition to violent rebellion, stating that “…in the face of the long list of assassinations and escalations, the movement became violent and divisive. Violence, indeed, became an almost defining characteristic of what had been a largely peaceful cultural revolution” (89). Since both representatives of normative social institutions (such as Tom and Harry) and social “Others” (like Ben) resort to extreme acts of violence in the face of their slow-moving foes, Romero shows his audience characters who are united by their dominant expressions of self-preservation instincts which manifest in acts of violence. Scenes that exemplify this include one towards the beginning of the film where Ben, after stating that there are only two ghouls outside, ventures outside to beat them repeatedly. Tom also hacks away at a ghoul’s hand as it reaches through an already well-barricaded window, knocking off fingers and flesh in the process.

Images of violence were not foreign to the general American public as a result of the Vietnam War. Romero’s use of a filming style reminiscent of newsreel films shot with hints of cinema verite style connects Night of the Living Dead to the vast amount of wartime images that circulated in the United States during the Vietnam War. Films shot in color were no stranger to the film industry by 1968. The fact that Night of the Living Dead is filmed on black and white stock aligns it with wartime images from the Vietnam era, most notably those which depict graphic realities of the violence occurring during the war. According to Caroline Brothers in War and Photography the Vietnam War brought countless shocking images of the realities of war (most notably in the form of news motion pictures) into the homes of millions of Americans, giving a wide audience “access to scenes of combat and [the media’s] vivid representation of it…” (202). Often the media broadcasted photographs or video documentations of the war in black and white, similar to images that show the conflict overseas (a photo showing General Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting a Vietcong soldier in the head) to the horrors unfolding as a result of countercultural war reactions on homeland soil (including photos depicting the shootings at Kent State war protests).

Night of the Living Dead employs a visual style similar to the grainy, black and white news documentation of the violent atrocities occurring as a result of the Vietnam War. Romero ultimately utilizes key characteristics of cinema verite style in a fictionalized context, most notably in the form of the static camera which lets events unfold directly before the viewer as if they were there (Pramaggiore 289). The images shown to the public on news stations broadcasting coverage of the Vietnam War were often explicitly violent and gruesome (similar to the shots of Ben’s body at the end of Night of the Living Dead), assaulting the audience with the realities of war and sparking a cultural opposition to the United States’ involvement similar to Romero’s use of shocking and assaultive violence in his film. While not a true cinema verite film, Night of the Living Dead’s visual style aesthetically aligns the picture with news documentation (photographs and motion pictures) of the war occurring at the time of its production.

By the film’s end, each of the original survivors (including Barbra, Ben, and the Cooper family) have succumbed to the ghouls’ attacks. As the core group of characters has died (the “Others” as well as normative social institutions such as the heterosexual couple and the patriarchal family led by Harry Cooper), the film cements itself as a reflection of and increasingly violent society where “the hope of a peaceful future seem[s] lost” (Phillips 86). While the majority of the film is spent observing the group’s interpersonal displays of dominance and assertion (generally on the end of the males) over one another despite their “Otherness” or complacency within their normative social role, the end of the film presents the audience with a void where each of the characters once existed, eradicating any point of familiarity with the fictional space, therefore implicating 1960s American society as one where hope for a better future was lost in the midst of social rebellion, war, retaliatory acts of violence, and a youth reacting against suburban confinement.

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Cited:

Brothers, Caroline. War and Photography: A Cultural History. London: Routledge, 1997. Print.

Merritt, Greg. Celluloid Mavericks: The History of American Independent Film. New York, NY: Thunder’s Mouth, 2000. Print.

Night of the Living Dead. Dir. George A. Romero. 1968. DVD.

Phillips, Kendall R. . Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005. Print.

Pramaggiore, Maria, and Tom Wallis. Film: A Critical Introduction. London: Laurence King, 2008. Print.

Wood, Robin. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan…And Beyond. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. Print.

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New Taiwan Cinema

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As artists around the world have proven within their respective cultures, a true artist’s function is to comment upon various societal elements from the society he or she functions within. Chinese cinema is no different. From the traditionally-bound (and stifled) women from films such as Yellow Earth and Ju Dou to the overtly (and traditionally) masculine characters in a film such as Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, various facets of cultural views concerning gender and its social function have been consistent aspects of thematic material present throughout modern Chinese cinema. Many Chinese films similarly touch upon such motifs as existential ennui and cultural disconnect as a result of the intense urbanization of China’s once dominantly-traditional population.  Various films centered in Taiwan have also commented on progressive gender roles and societal conditions within its populace. Kuo-fu Chen’s 1999 film The Personals explores various elements of traditional relationships versus modern sexual ideals, Ming-ling Tsai’s 1994 film Vive L’Amour paints a modern picture of Taiwan as an urbanized spiritual destroyer, and Ang Lee’s 1994 release Eat Drink Man Woman presents a family’s dysfunction as a result of their progressive function in an urbanized Taiwan. While each of these films presents different views concerning their respective society, a common thread  runs through each of them; Each of the films represents the increasingly-commercial, modern, and progressive Taiwanese city as an emotional, mental, or psychological “prison” of some sort.

The Personals presents perhaps the bleakest view of urbanized Taiwan out of the three aforementioned pictures. The film tells the story of a female doctor named Du Jia-zhen whom is helplessly (and hopelessly) searching for a husband amidst the backdrop of a massive urban locale that acts as a stage for which the film to present various facets of Taiwanese city life. Du places a personal ad for the husband she is trying to find. Each of the men (and sometimes women) who respond to her ad collectively reveal the antithesis (and reality) to typical societal norms that is suggested to exist in progressive Taiwan cityscapes.

Du indicates that she receives hundreds upon hundreds of phone calls from men in response to her personal ad, suggesting that the lack of personal connectivity present within a commercialized, busy urban location. The city is painted as a sort of empty shell (as indicated by long shots from the highway surrounding the city, making it look bare and desolate as the sun sets behind it) inhabited by these men and women seeking to bond with another human being in some way so much that they (as well as Du) resort to posting a personal ad instead of going out and meeting someone the “old-fashioned” way. If interpersonal connectivity were not an issue in the city, there would be no need to place or respond to a personal ad in the first place.

The responders also become representative of the progressive side of the urban, modernized Taiwanese populace. Each of the responders represents something very different that showcases the diversity (in terms of “alternate” forms of sexuality, mindset, world and societal views, etc.) that exists and comes out when a large group of people live together in a city. The responders also become indicative of repressed sexuality that exists beyond the false façade of “normalcy” in society. Through this depiction of various men and women responding to an ad that clearly states it is about marriage with their own views and agendas concerning outright sexual desires (because they assume that all personal ads are sexual in nature because a desire for companionship is understood, mutual, and stated outright) the film paints a picture of urban Taiwan as an inhibitor and a vast commercialized entity that stifles true feelings of sexuality and desire, compromising them in order to appear “normal” within society. For example, various characters throughout the film sacrifice a part of themselves to “fit in” within society. The visual element (or how one “appears” to be) plays a large part in being accepted in Taiwanese society, as emphasized by Du’s previous position as an eye doctor. Whatever comes across as appearing normal is generally accepted to be normal within society, and anything deviating from that norm is not considered “normal”. The gender-questioning photographer puts this idea into perspective more clearly, indicating that just because something is not white does not mean it is black. Du has a very hard time accepting that the fact that this person (who appears to be a woman) is actually a man, but the film challenges visual indicators of gender as well as traditional gender roles in society by embodying alternative views regarding the subjects within this photographer. The photographer says that she is a man, yet has the physical characteristics of a woman, and she is ultimately correct because it is her body and mind to make jurisdiction over, not society’s. Du insists that if she is not physically a man then she must be a woman and therefore a lesbian, but the photographer protests. Du does not understand that gender is entirely a societal byproduct also influenced by retail and other commercialized outlets; Men and women are “told” what to wear by fashion lines and retail outlets who indicate clothing departments as being for “men” or for “women”, therefore guiding ones perception about gender instead of leaving it up to the individual to decide what to wear. Since the photographer feels that she is a man and has the mind of a man, it should be accepted that she is in fact a man.

The film also challenges the audience’s perceptions of what is “normal” within Taiwanese society, seeing as each of the men are generally viewed as “creeps” or “perverts” by audiences who watch the film, yet those very labels become far too judgmental for the message the film is trying to convey. To lie and say that each person does not have a sexual fetish such as some of the men who respond to the ad is an outright denial of basic human instinct; each of us have sexual desires and things that turn us on, and the men and women who respond to the personal ad each have their own that results in their specific reasoning for responding to the ad. Simply because they represent the alternative to what is generally socially accepted they are often viewed as being “creeps” when in fact they are simply being true to themselves. In a certain sense, Du, whom the audience is to believe is actually “normal” in this situation, also has a fetish of some sort (the “ideal” husband to fit into her lifestyle). But because Du’s fetish is socially-acceptable and commonplace within Taiwanese society, it is viewed as “normal”. Despite each of the men being true to themselves and revealing hidden sexual desires (such as the man who wishes to make a porn with Du and the man who has a shoe fetish) each of them still revert to embodying the traditional sexual objectification (and therefore implied inferiority) of Du simply because she is a woman.

The most perplexing thing about the film and Du’s quest for a man lies within the fact that she still seeks out the perfect marriage and relationship despite being indirectly presented with evidence that suggests this is the direction she should not be taking on the path of life. She was previously having an affair with a married man, many of the men who respond to her personal ad are similarly cheating on their wives or looking to cheat on their wives, and even her close personal friend (Luo) is in a false marriage (he is gay and only married for a “normal” life). Du should be able to see that relationships based on false pretenses are not substantial enough to last. Each of the relationships within the film is seen as broken. The “face” of normalcy is the desire of these men and women in the film upon entering a marriage or relationship, yet the film ultimately suggests that these social norms are in fact not normal at all and result in behavior that is viewed as socially unacceptable.

A similarly bleak film regarding Taiwanese society is 1994’s Vive L’Amour, which utilizes the backdrop of a Taiwan city as well as various elements of gender and its social roles to highlight emotional imprisonment within an urban center. Director Tsai Ming-liang depicts Taiwanese  society as commercialized and populous yet ultimately an empty prison of emotion and love. The city is scrutinized for its emotionally-inhibiting, stifling society in the midst of commercial and urban progression. This commercial and urban progressions results in emotional and interpersonal regression, seeing as the central characters each choose to escape from their daily lives into an apartment that facilitates the “release” of their personal demons they could not normally do in public.

At least on a visual level, the film represents Taiwan as an overly-populated epicenter of commerce heavily influenced from outside sources (primarily America). When May Lin is walking around the city towards the beginning of the film, carefully-placed shots indicate the American influence on Taiwan, particularly evident in a shot where May Lin is dominated by posters for American films (of note is a poster with Julia Roberts on it, whose face completely dwarfs May Lin’s figure). Retail fashion is also seen as becoming influenced by American culture, seeing as May Lin’s hairstyle and clothing is representative of a woman from mid-90s America instead of more uniquely Taiwanese attire.

May Lin is followed around the city by a man named Ah-jung, framing the typical, traditionally-represented female endurance of the “male gaze”. May Lin is followed all the way back to an apartment she is in charge of selling (she is a real-estate agent) in a scene which almost implies that May Lin understands she is being followed and “allows” herself to fall into the desires of the male who is pursuing her. The scene of passion that ensues in particular indicates the progression of feminine sexuality within Taiwanese society. May Lin undresses Ah-jung, yet when he goes to undress her she brushes him off and undresses herself, indicating that she is taking control of the sexual situation and will only do things on her terms, in stark contrast to a film such as Ju Dou where the female was entirely at the mercy of her male sexual partner. There is also a scene in which May Lin is sucking the nipples of Ah-jung without Ah-jung’s face even in the frame, reversing the traditionally-accepted notion that males are turned on by a female’s breasts, reversing the roles as May Lin (seen as the “dominant” one in this sexual encounter) sexually objectifies a faceless male figure in a scene where a male would typically be doing this to her. This harnessing of feminine sexuality is seen as progression towards more female empowerment (at least on individualized terms) within Taiwanese society. The film also indicates that despite the progression of female sexuality in Taiwan that May Lin embodies, she is still objectified as a sexual object when in public. This is indicated by the way in which the camera frames May Lin as she hangs up flyers for the real estate properties she is trying to sell. The camera frames her legs and behind as she climbs on top of things to place the flyers on trees or light posts and in a later scene she is seen using the restroom with her pants down. This choice in framing her in such a way indicates that females are still under scrutiny and on the end of objectification in the eyes of males in Taiwanese society.

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Another important scene which (similar to the photographer’s scene in The Personals) questions societal gender roles occurs towards the end of the film in which another unofficial inhabitant of the apartment, Hsiao-kang, brings a dress and high heels to the apartment and puts them on. This scene questions the importance of visual gender identifiers within the larger picture of society. Hsiao-kang is perhaps only experimenting with his visual image (seeing as he is clearly tired of his stagnant self so much that he attempts suicide in an earlier scene) that he has long since grown tired of. His daily routine of selling chambers for memorial urns is a clockwork process that reflects the typical 9 to 5 jobs many in Taiwanese society endure on a daily basis. There is no diversity to his life and nothing that piques his interest, so he figures that experimenting with something vastly different from how he is “supposed” to look (as signified by his physical makeup/gender) will bring him a much-needed sense of diversity. Despite visually appearing different, the thought of violating social norms of gender-relegated fashion eventually creeps into Hsiao-kang’s mind as he is wearing the dress, prompting him to immediately revert to doing something he feels is “masculine” by doing countless push-ups on the floor in the dress. The film’s stance on an urban Taiwanese city as an inhibitor of individual emotions comes to a head in a scene towards the end of the film in which Hsiao-kang hides under a bed while May Lin and Ah-jung have sex. He masturbates as the bed above him jostles, indirectly joining in on a sexual act he knows he is not capable of initiating by himself. Hsiao-kang spent the entire first portion of the film forming a bond with Ah-jung, one that was structured on Ah-jung’s assertiveness over Hsiao-kang in an attempt to feel superior. Hsiao-kang simply envies the confidence, attractiveness, and seemingly free-spirited nature of Ah-jung, prompting him to kiss him as he sleeps in an act that does not indicate sexual attraction but rather desire to be what one cannot.

The actual apartment the three focal characters sporadically inhabit acts as an antithesis to typical Taiwanese society. The space is dark, empty, and clutter-free (in stark contrast to the streets below), yet the apartment functions as a void for personal demons to break free from the stifling emotional prison the city and society places its inhabitants within. The inhabitants of the apartment ultimately become indicative of the larger picture of urbanized Taiwan in the sense that they technically coexist yet fail to really “see” each other both literally and metaphorically in certain scenes (various characters evade detection by the others by climbing out of windows, hiding under beds, etc.), as is the case with citizens in the broader social context of a Taiwanese city. In contrast to the urban scene which exists outside the apartment walls, however, lies the fact that the personal exploration that occurs within the apartment is not under as much scrutiny as it would be if displayed in public. Hsiao-kang would most likely not have kissed Ah-jung in public and May Lin would most definitely not have paraded her sexuality around in the streets, indicating that the apartment functions as the only place the characters feel comfortable enough to truly express themselves; an empty void. When May Lin finally feels comfortable enough to showcase genuine emotion as a result of her existential ennui (catalyzed by the urban environment around her) on a park bench, no one comforts or consoles her even though a man sits literally directly in front of her and undoubtedly hears her whimpering. This idea that the modern Taiwanese city functions as an emotionless, uncaring entity is consistently represented throughout the film. The reality of a populated space in Taiwan is equated to the tiny compartments Hsiao-kang sells to people for placement of crematorial urns; countless inhabitants coexisting next to each other yet ultimately “dead” on the inside and incapable of true interpersonal connection.

Ang Lee’s 1994 film Eat Drink Man Woman is perhaps the most optimistic of the three films, presenting familial imprisonment within an urban and societal repression, yet breaks free from those notions to give hope for its characters in the larger context of Taiwanese society. The film utilizes the art of cooking to highlight its comments about tradition, gender, and society in modern Taiwan. Chu is a master chef who utilizes his talents to prepare elaborate and intricately-detailed meals for his family that consists of three daughters. The idea that Chu delicately crafts this massive Sunday dinner for this family indicates that tradition is still alive within the urbanized, fast-moving Taiwanese city although it exists at a painstakingly difficult manner (as preparing food such as this is not easy). This tradition of preparing food is seemingly deep-seated in the cultural history of Taiwan and is consistently viewed as a means for Chu to bring his family together in a central place despite their fast-moving, chaotic lives that include careers, love, and other personal distractions that seek to deter them (particularly his middle daughter, Jia-Chen) from their traditional familial foundation. The food Chu prepares and the time the family spends together to eat the food codifies the traditional preparation as natural and connective, catalyzing the family’s revelations of personal secrets (in the form of “announcements”) that come to light only at the dinner table.

The idea that Chu is consistently at home preparing food also challenges traditional gender roles in the household, seeing as cooking is generally viewed as “women’s work”. Interestingly enough, Chu prohibited Jia-Chen from pursuing a culinary career because he wanted her to do something more “useful” with her life, so he made her go to college. Even though Jia-Chen is a talented chef, the idea that Chu forces her to go to school indicates the declining importance of traditional values as marketable in a commercially-dominated world of a Taiwanese city. The older generation harnesses tradition yet is hesitant to pass it down to their children because it is not feasible to market oneself as a female chef in an expanding commercial market such as Taiwan. Jia-Chen’s resulting life is one of independence and success not many other women (at least within the context of the film) experience in their lives. Her life is not static like Jia-Jen’s, nor is it wild and impulsively-driven like Jia-Ning’s. Her life is the picture of typical urbanized success within a commercial fortress (the Taiwanese city). However, Jia-Chen’s inferiority as woman is still touched upon, particularly evident in the way in which her boss talks to her about a possible promotion, telling her that even though she is a woman he feels as if she will succeed in the position. His superiority is assumedly accepted by Jia-Chen seeing as she does not say anything in opposition to his comments, further solidifying the idea that women (while gaining a greater independence in Taiwanese society) are still seen as inferior in certain facets of city life.

The film, similar to both The Personals and Vive L’Amour, presents an urbanized Taiwan as a commercial epicenter overwhelmed by its populace. The Wendy’s restaurant Jia-Ning works for is shown in stark contrast to the traditionally-prepared food her father makes on a daily basis. The food has become a byproduct of American influence around the world, the furthest thing from traditional Taiwanese cuisine possible. The food quality has also become compromised as a result of commercialization, seeing as one man even complains that what he was given by Jia-Ning is not chicken when in fact it is. This idea of food becoming unrecognizable is a clear comment on the compromised standards of food that come with American commercialization.

The film also chooses to comment upon feminine sexuality by presenting each of Chu’s daughters as chronological representatives of the evolution of feminine sexuality within Taiwanese society. Jia-Ning (the youngest) represents an active sexuality of free-will and pursuit on the end of the female that goes hand in hand with modern, progressive views of feminine sexuality and independence. Jia-Jen (the eldest) represents a more traditional form of feminine sexuality seeing as she shuts herself off from sexual encounters and relationships and allows herself to be pursued instead of taking it upon herself to harness her sexuality and truly understand it (although this changes by the end of the film). Jia-Chen is sort of a meeting in the middle of the two; she knows what she wants and is willing to express that, yet she ultimately settles for a familial relationship and a more traditional role near the end of the film.

The culmination of the film’s condemnation of living by typical societal standards is comes in the form of a scene in which Chu (surrounded by his family at the dinner table) expresses his love for Jin-Rong, a woman who is countless years younger than he. The family immediately protests, with Jin-Rong’s mother fainting and assuming that the union is only one of pure lust and exploitation on the end of Chu. Despite the characters’ initial opposition to the union, at least within the context of the film the pairing is seen as traditional heterosexual love and the “key” to happiness for both Chu and Jin-Rong. Chu is now able to “taste” again as he eats Jia-Chen’s soup, indicating that the relationship with Jin-Rong is a natural reconnection to the happiness he once had with his wife and children, indicating that it is possible to place oneself above the pitfalls of urban life and reconnect with tradition, family, and self.

Despite differences concerning the social outlook for their characters, the films The Personals, Vive L’Amour, and Eat Drink Man Woman all showcase various corrosive aspects of urbanized Taiwanese society. From the bleak emotional prison framed in Vive L’Amour to the debilitating and fruitless search for interpersonal connection and closure amidst a commercialized urban backdrop in The Personals, these films represent urban Taiwan as an inhibitor of basic human functions in the name of adhering to societal norms. Only the film Eat Drink Man Woman provides its audience with an optimistic outlook concerning the increasingly distant social mentality of Taiwanese urban dwellers through connection to familial customs and traditions that, as evidenced by The Personals and Vive L’Amour, are becoming overshadowed and forgotten in the midst of commercialization and urbanization in Taiwan.

Urban Mausoleum; Loneliness and Dependency in “Lost in Translation”

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Sofia Coppola’s film Lost in Translation tells a story revolving around two people that form a deep friendship while visiting Tokyo, Japan. Various subjects contained within the film include those regarding marriage, romantic relationships, diversity between cultures, and the phenomenon of celebrity. The most prominent of subjects within the film deal with innate human feelings of loneliness and alienation as framed against one of the most densely-populated spaces on the planet. Through the use of cinema’s various aesthetic tools, Coppola conveys the thematic idea that any given person’s interpersonal connections can at once facilitate feelings of loneliness yet also allow such feelings to become altogether more bearable.

To set the stage for an analysis of the film’s thematic handling of the subject of innate human loneliness, it is important to first characterize such feelings that ostracize the film’s protagonists. The audience is introduced to Bob Harris scenes that characterize his feelings of alienation as complex byproducts of interpersonal connections through work, his life at home, and within his adaptation to new surroundings that radically differ from the American culture (and people) he is used to.

The first time the audience sees Bob he is sleeping in the backseat of a car. A close up shot frames his face against a backdrop of neon advertisements that are slightly out of focus but clear enough to be distinguishable objects. As Bob opens his eyes and adjusts to his surroundings, the shot is almost immediately replaced by a mid close up on the opposite side of the car window that reflects the neon advertisements in clearer focus that mirrors Bob’s initial adjustments to his new environment. An extreme long shot of the streets of Tokyo replaces the mid close up, establishing Bob’s minute location amidst the mass of dwarfing urbanity. The shot immediately characterizes Bob as an individual who is out of touch not only with this gaudy atmosphere, but also with himself seeing as the proceeding extreme long shot shows an advertisement with his face on it. Because the ad contains a picture of Bob, the audience understands that he is a famous figure of sorts; however, the text on the advertisement is entirely in Japanese. Seeing himself advertised amidst a barrage of foreign words contextualizes Bob’s sense of self; although he recognizes his own image, he cannot understand the literal meaning of what surrounds him. He is as disconnected from himself as he is from the Japanese language, culture, and setting he is currently immersed within.

Bob’s isolation from his surroundings is visible in another scene that relies heavily on mise en scene to speak to the viewer. Arriving at a hotel, Bob (a Caucasian male) is carefully placed at the center of an elevator car and surrounded by Japanese businessmen, each of whom stand a good foot shorter than him.  To say that Bob sticks out like a sore thumb amidst this crowd (as well as in the rest of Tokyo) would be an understatement. In fact, most of Bob’s interpersonal experiences towards the beginning of the film are those that convey his sense of culture shock as he adapts to a foreign culture radically different from his own.

It is eventually learned that Bob is an aging actor working in the city to promote a brand of whiskey, and he is further isolated from his surroundings in a scene that sees him filming a commercial for it. Sound plays an important part in this scene, seeing as a director who presumably only speaks Japanese barks orders at Bob’s translator, who relays the directions to Bob in English. The scene is composed in a fashion that never sees Bob and the director in the same shot. Simple shot-reverse shot editing conveys to the viewer that the director and Bob are in fact in the same room and part of the same conversation, but neither is really on the same page as the other, hence the lack of equating the men together in the same shot. Bob is being utilized for what he has built a career upon (the art of acting) yet is hindered by his inability to understand what the director wants from him. This lends itself to Bob’s increasing feelings of isolation; he now not only feels disconnected from the world around him, he literally can no longer interact with it. In similar fashion, a proceeding scene in which Bob shoots a print campaign for the whiskey brand sees him in various states of commercial fabrication; countless hordes of makeup artists and wardrobe stylists adjust his appearance to the point of perfection, caking makeup onto his aging face and placing heavy-duty clamps onto the back of his jacket to create the illusion that an ill-fitting jacket is the perfect size for him. It is all a trick for the camera, a fabricated version of reality to convey that Bob is a “perfect” human being. But the fact that the audience is able to see the work that goes into creating a “perfect” reality suggests that Bob’s sense of reality is merely a constructed one as well.

A motif that runs throughout the film involves that of nocturnal restlessness, connecting both of the film’s protagonists (both are experiencing this) through editing. The shot that precedes the introduction of Charlotte contains a close up of Bob staring wide-eyed at the ceiling from his bed. A jump cut shows Charlotte (presumably at the same exact time) similarly unable to fall asleep as she stares through a window. The motif of the pair’s separate (but shared) restlessness characterizes their loneliness and facilitates the personal bond (and its resulting mutual coping quality) that is to come.

Charlotte’s loneliness stems from a somewhat different place than Bob’s, although her various interpersonal connections also offset feelings of security as well as facilitating internal harmony. Charlotte is not alone on her travels to Tokyo; she is accompanied by her photographer husband on assignment in the city to shoot rock bands and models. Charlotte, although married to someone involved in the art and entertainment industry, is a self-proclaimed unemployed drifter of sorts, having graduated with a degree in philosophy but entirely unsure of what course her life will take. Charlotte aimlessly wanders the streets of Tokyo in search of some sort of spiritual enlightenment, but is overwhelmed by the intense visual onslaught of commercialized Tokyo as well as by the barrage of inner-city sounds (such as pop songs, car engines, etc.) that increase in volume (exaggerating her subjective perception of the city) as their containing shots become wider and wider, dwarfing her in a sea of urban chaos.

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Charlotte’s husband is physically alongside her at select times (primarily when the two are alone in their hotel room) and their relationship is often characterized through the film’s cinematography. A particular close-up shot towards the beginning of the film sees Charlotte as she looks out a window from her hotel room. The audience’s visual perspective sees the city that overwhelms her in clear focus, yet she is out of focus in the same shot. The city is all Charlotte sees, and the intense feelings of anxiety and uncertainty the city’s vast openness instill within her are mirrored by the incomplete image we see of her unfocused silhouette. Although offscreen, a door is heard opening and closing and accompanied by her husband’s voice as he enters the room. As his unfocused silhouette embraces that of Charlotte’s, a rack focus brings the couple into focus and the city skyline out of focus. This suggests that although Charlotte feels isolated and out of place in her new surroundings, her husband brings an internal solace that grounds and comforts her, providing a momentary distraction from the internal discord the city produces within her.

Although Charlotte has a relationship with her husband that provides a sense of comfort, another character offsets her feelings of stability within her marriage. A particular scene begins with a medium shot of Charlotte and her husband embracing as they walk down a hallway. They are very affectionate, fondling each other in a public display that conveys their attraction to each other; however, the couple stumbles across a blonde woman named Kelly, who is revealed to be an acquaintance of Charlotte’s husband (as well as a famous starlet). Kelly is immediately contrasted with Charlotte through costuming; Charlotte wears a frumpy grey sweater whereas Kelly wears a revealing, fire engine red top that aligns her as an object of sexual desire for Charlotte’s husband. As a conversation strikes up between the two, Charlotte is positioned in the middle instead of on the same side as her husband, whom has taken an intense interest in Kelly that renders him completely indifferent to his wife’s frustrated expression now that she is no longer the center of attention. Charlotte has become an afterthought instead of the object of desire for her husband, whom is completely wrapped up in the bubbly Kelly’s outward display of vapidity and stereotypical “dumb blonde” hilarity that is undermined by her prominently-displayed bosom. As the conversation ends and the “real” couple walk away, a long shot views their departure from the hallway as separate entities devoid of interpersonal affectation. The couple entered as one and leave as two, separated by the husband’s obvious attraction to Kelly which upsets Charlotte and sets forth an imbalance in her internal state that is further facilitated by his announcement that he is leaving for a few days to complete an on-location shoot. For the first time since the audience has been introduced to her, Charlotte will be without a companion in an environment that overwhelms her.

The most important interpersonal connection in the film is that between Charlotte and Bob. The two eventually begin their relationship after exchanging casual glances in a bar they mutually frequent. Charlotte sees something in Bob that he also sees in her; a magnetism exists between the two thanks to the paralleled comparisons and motifs the film has been building between them (being alone, nocturnal restlessness, observing the city through windows, etc.). Their comfort with each other is reflected in a scene that relies on calculated mise en scene and sound elements to cement their relationship as one of mutual comfort. Bob and Charlotte, alone and with nothing better to do, go out to a bar only a few days after initially meeting. The bar provides a much-needed, dimly-lit escape that facilitates a recreational release both desperately needed. As the pair mentally unwind and become comforted by the other’s presence, the camera movements drastically alter, shifting from static to hand-held. The scene also utilizes lighting to characterize their increasing comfort with each other and their surroundings, seeing as a medium shot of Bob shows him standing in front of a screen projecting fireworks onto a wall for decoration; the projection now resides on Bob’s face, for once allowing him to finally blend in with his surroundings and not become overwhelmed by them. The sounds of the bar increase in volume as the night progresses, allowing both Bob and Charlotte’s voices to blend in with the crowd, sharing a sense of “fitting in”, if only for a night. As the sequence of their night out progresses, a graphic match recalls the aforementioned scene in which Bob observes Tokyo through a car window for the first time; however, instead of Bob looking out the car window it is now Charlotte who observes the city, her face framed in a close up that conveys a sense of wonderment and amazement with the city she has rarely experienced before, almost as if being with Bob inspires a fresh perspective on life for her. These feelings contrast with how the audience has seen both Bob and Charlotte interacting with their surroundings in previous scenes; a feeling of isolation and loneliness no longer exists so long as Bob and Charlotte share the same diegetic space.

Bob and Charlotte are established as a connected pair through various shots that proceed their initial night of bonding at the bar. Their discussions come to revolve around topics of love, life, and the pressures of marriage and family. As Bob and Charlotte become increasingly entangled within each other’s similar dissatisfaction with life, their relationship becomes deeper. A particular scene towards the end of the film characterizes their relationship through cinematography as well as its mise en scene. Bob and Charlotte are framed in a high-angle medium long shot as they lay on a bed. A medium shot of a window shows their reflection in the glass cast over the illuminated nocturnal skyline of Tokyo, indicating that this is a friendship formed by, within, and facilitated by the city and the feelings of alienation it evokes (which ultimately brings them together). Charlotte’s voice punctuates the somber image as she informs Bob that their friendship would never be the same if they returned to the city under any other circumstances, reaffirming what the image implies; their relationship is given a context and becomes immortalized within the city. A cut to the aforementioned long shot endures throughout the scene, only shifting to shot-reverse close up shots towards the climax of the conversation as their discussion becomes more intimate. Proceeding the shot-reverse close up shots, a cut returns the audience’s perspective to a high angle above the bed where the couple lays. Bob awkwardly reaches out to stroke Charlotte’s foot as it just barely touches Bob’s side. The couple is not positioned to suggest sexual attraction, but rather to suggest their comfort with their newfound friendship and the strength it inspires within them, seeing as they both fall asleep amidst shots towards the beginning of the film that suggest they could not fall asleep on their own.  As Bob and Charlotte’s relationship progresses into a deep friendship, the film works to “correct” these previously-established motifs that characterize their feelings of loneliness and isolation. Another example would be a scene that sees Charlotte visiting the spiritual center of Kyoto where she observes a Japanese couple being married in a traditional ceremony. The sequence recalls an earlier scene in which Charlotte views Buddhist monks chanting and praying that she proclaims to have felt no emotion while observing. As Charlotte observes the wedding ceremony, close up shots convey her perspective to the audience; as the ceremony goes on, Charlotte begins noticing smaller and smaller details (close ups show the couple holding hands, exchanging glances, etc.). This suggests that she is finally “feeling” something after meeting Bob as opposed to feeling “nothing” as she observed the Buddhist monks before she met Bob.

The conclusion of the film sees Bob whispering something into Charlotte’s ear. What is said is unheard by the audience, seeing as it is drowned out by the intentional increase in volume of the surrounding noises of the city. The exchange functions as a pseudo consummation of their fleeting relationship. Through various aesthetic techniques the film has established this relationship as a positive one for both parties. From the “correction” of certain negative motifs to the paralleling of Bob and Charlotte with other inferior (at least from an audience perspective) characters previously throughout the narrative, the film enunciates its point clearly enough; while the audience may not be privileged enough to hear these intimate words between close friends, the film has spent enough time aesthetically establishing their relationship as one that made each of their feelings of loneliness altogether more bearable.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Two Eras of Terror: Comparing “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “The Thing”

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The term “genre” (when used to describe a certain type of film) is usually intended to encompass many different filmic aspects into a singular descriptor. Immediate recollections of spaceships and alien life forms come to mind when referencing a film of the science fiction genre, whereas supernatural happenings and grotesque images of monsters have evolved into stereotypical signifiers of horror films. But these two genres encompass far more than such superficial (and sometimes altogether unsubstantiated) elements most audiences have come to associate with them would suggest. Throughout the different periods of Hollywood film production, both of these genres have produced films that extend into thematic and/or aesthetic territory commonly associated with the other. The science fiction/horror hybrid films The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Thing (1982)reflect various aesthetic and thematic elements which set them apart from their contemporaneous genre brethren; however, both films ultimately rely on classical components to craft linear narratives for their respective audience.

The narrative of 1956’s The Invasion of the Body Snatchers initially functions as an ominous mystery. The residents of the fictional town of Santa Mira begin to notice minute, intangible disruptions in their relationships with friends and family; a young boy begins to violently oppose contact with his parents while a young woman claims that the uncle she has been living with for years is simply (and unexplainably) not the same man any more. Each of the townsfolk confide within the local doctor, Miles Burnell, who initially seems to think little of the strange wave of paranoia sweeping the population. As the film unfolds it is revealed that pods from outer space have taken up residence alongside the inhabitants of Santa Mira, craft physical duplicates of the townspeople, replace their “real” bodies as they sleep, and ultimately create a new breed of humanlike beings which feel no emotion.

The film displays various elements of both the horror and science fiction genres, yet neither characteristic identifies the film as a generic whole. Cited within Steve Neale’s Genre and Hollywood, Christine Gledhill describes the horror film as (at its basic core) rooted in the filmmakers’ attempt to essentially horrify the audience, and various aesthetic elements of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers lend the film to that notion (93). Purely from a visceral standpoint, the film creates an unsettling mood through its use of lighting and non-diegetic music to characterize any given narrative action as ominous or threatening, allowing such scenes to become externally horrifying on the basis of audience perception alone. For example, many scenes within the film involving the discovery of human replicants within the pods are accompanied by subdued lighting which casts long shadows, shrouds corners in darkness, and ultimately creates a frightening tone that correlates with the narrative action (Hantke 193). The primary characteristic of the horror film remains the idea that its reception is intended to be a frightening one, and while The Invasion of the Body Snatchers does provide ample subject matter that can be viewed as frightening (death and alien invasion) the film more predominantly displays characteristics of the science fiction genre (Hantke viii).

Vivian Sobchack asserts that the science fiction film generally depicts “society and its institutions in conflict with each other or with some alien other” and that the conflict generally takes place inside a community with a large populace (30). The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is explicitly about an invasion of earth by, as one character states, an alien form of life. The film depicts the conflict that arises between the humans and the alien-made replicants, which lends the film to one of the most common characteristics of science fiction narrative. The interesting thing about The Invasion of the Body Snatchers becomes its reliance on the fact that the invaders of the planet essentially look exactly the same as the humans they are replacing, allowing the film to become much more implicit (and socio-politically critical) in terms of its depiction of the “monstrous other” classically represented in science fiction film (Neale 102).

In terms outside of genre-specific classification, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers fits in with various tropes of post-classical Hollywood cinema while at the same time retaining its hold on classic form in narrative and through its representation of 1950s society. Thomas Schatz outlines the classical Hollywood film as being comprised of the “exposition, complication, and resolution [which] provide the basis for classical ‘three-act’ construction” (47). The Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ narrative unfolds in such fashion that reflects the classical style; a peaceful town exists in harmony, is plagued by mysterious happenings which prompt the protagonists’ curiosity, and ultimately succumbs to the invading alien force. The characters in the film can also be viewed as byproducts of classical script construction in the sense that they are what Schatz would describe as “static narrative agents who activate and finally are subordinate to the workings of the plot” seeing as their development as characters (aside from a subplot involving romance between the two) never takes precedence over the invasion (62). The conclusion of the picture also adheres to classical narrative form, yet can also be viewed as inconsistent with classical style due to its violation of the “happy ending” rule. The classical “happy ending” provides a sense of closure for the film’s narrative, tying up loose ends in a manner that leaves nothing unclear for the audience (Schatz 64). The Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ ending provides a diegetic result as opposed to concrete closure for the audience. The ending involves mass amounts of pods being driven in truckloads to other cities, a direct address to the audience (McCarthy points into the lens and screams “You’re next!”), and overall implications that the invaders will succeed in world domination, giving the words “The End” that appear over the last shot dual meaning for the audience (the film is over) and the characters (their world is now over). The ending provides closure in the sense that it depicts a clear enough distinction between which characters have trumped the other. In this case the “bad guys” are implied as superior in opposition to the “happy ending” result which would most likely have involved the real humans defeating the invaders.

The film presents the diegetic world as one in which only two types of characters exist; those who are human (and therefore inherently “good”) and those who are inhuman (therefore inherently “evil”). Similarly, the sense of morality displayed by the characters is not situational; it is universal seeing as certain people can “feel” the difference in the replicants since they are implicitly of sound mind and heart.

The world of the classical Hollywood narrative must also (in some sense) correspond to the audience within which the world inhabits, and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers adheres to various social norms throughout its course while subverting certain attitudes as well (Schatz 62). The film’s representation of women is, in the most general sense possible, an unfavorable one; various female characters are seen as panicky, paranoid, over-emotional (particularly Teddy), weak, and literally bogged down by feminine materials (particularly Becky, who decides to run through the hills of Los Angeles wearing high heels and a sun dress, exhaustedly collapsing every ten steps or so). The societal role of women is apparent simply through examination of various other scenes, including one in which Dr. Bennell’s secretary (Sally) picks him up from the train station. Both characters retreat back to a car that Sally undoubtedly drove to the station in order to pick Dr. Bennell up, yet before he can even reach the car Sally opens the passenger door and climbs in; her place as a passive female is therefore assumed by her as well as the audience.

Although such representations of women are superficially unflattering, Errol Vieth describes women in science fiction pictures as vessels to convey certain traditional opinions that “clearly [indicate] the values of the status quo regarding marriage and the position of women” (143). Becky also represents a variation of the traditional woman as represented by Hollywood in the sense that she is not traditionally married nor is she single; she is twice divorced. Seeing as portions of the Production Code barred filmmakers from including any immoral acts (as defined by conservatives, some of the Catholic Church), the inclusion of a divorced woman as the heroine in a film violates certain traditional standards (Pramaggiore and Willis 316).

In similar opposition to classical Hollywood, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers works as a postclassical social metaphor, in this case interpreted alongside the contemporaneous communist scare that swept the United States through the 1950s (Sherman 103). The film is essentially about a threat to the public that is unseen or in the very least sense unintelligible from stranger to stranger on the street, which reflects its Cold War undertones concerning communists as seemingly “normal” people infiltrating American traditions and values just like the invaders in the film (Schatz 88).

26 Years after the release of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, John Carpenter released The Thing, his filmic adaptation of Who Goes There?, a literary workby John W. Campbell. Carpenter’s film similarly combines various aspects of the horror and science fiction genres within a narrative that depicts a team of researchers in the Antarctic battling an alien creature that has invaded their camp. Similar to the invaders in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the creature in The Thing replicates life forms on earth. Instead of replacing living things with replications, the creature in Carpenter’s film violently ingests its prey and genetically alters itself to resemble what it has consumed.

Like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Carpenter’s film utilizes certain aspects of the horror genre (including the aforementioned tropes of viscerally frightening imagery, dramatic lighting, etc.) and fuses them with aforementioned elements of science fiction (such as the invasion of an alien “other”, amongst other things). The end result is a film which draws on traditional elements of classic science fiction and horror films like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers yet also displays postmodern flair in the fact that it is a “splatter film”.

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Postmodern American “splatter films” generally utilize graphic depictions of violence and gore (as The Thing undoubtedly does) in order to elicit a visceral response to the imagery; therefore, through various depictions of grotesque images (primarily involving a monstrously contorted alien creature) The Thing harkens back to 1950s monster movies that exploited similarly repulsive subjects (Arnzen, vol. 21). Within Postmodern Hollywood, M. Keith Booker discusses a primary characteristic of postmodernism which involves the use of nostalgic aesthetic elements (such as music, imagery, and setting) to connect the film with time periods of years past, particularly the 1950s (47-49). An example of this within The Thing comes in the form of a scene in which the alien invader attempts to ingest one of the researchers’ dismembered heads, fuses it with its own genetics, and morphs into a spider-like monstrosity that still bears resemblance to its human prey. The scene elicits a visceral reaction to the transformation at once because of its explicitly violent content as well as its depiction of a subject that is meant to be feared despite its clear retention of physical human qualities. This notion lends itself to Thomas Schatz’s observations concerning a string of classical 1950s science fiction films (including The Invasion of the Body Snatchers) within which a trend of the genre emerged; the fear of the “other” ultimately translates into fear of humanity itself through antagonistic invaders taking on physical human form (154). The film therefore nostalgically adheres to certain postclassical representations of “the growing indistinguishability [sic] of the monstrous from the human” within science fiction and horror films of the 1950s (Cumbow 113).

The overall sense of morality created within the diegetic world of Carpenter’s The Thing reflects a rejection of the classical moral homogeneity of something like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a film within which the “good” (humans) are clearly represented as the only alternative to the “bad” (the alien invaders). The Thing undoubtedly presents the audience with a monstrous alien “other” meant to be viewed as an intrusive (and grotesque) opposition to human beings, yet by the end of the film the humanity (or lack thereof) displayed by the protagonists calls the audience to question the characters’ moral stature. The film establishes the group of researchers as members of a group that coexist yet share little interpersonal connection aside from their shared geographical location. The alien invader functions as a catalyst for their feelings of isolation and disconnect to manifest (complimented by the mise en scene involving an isolated Antarctic location). Robert Cumbow observes that “the creature is a metaphor for the already deteriorated condition of human interaction: deception, dishonesty, [and] distrust…Carpenter’s The Thing is about the ineluctable isolation of the individual” (114). The men must come to terms with their own instincts of self-preservation amidst a group of others who could possibly be the alternative to what they physically represent; since the alien invader can take the form of the human body, paranoia becomes a byproduct of the men’s desire to survive. Each of the scenes proceeding the revelation of the alien’s shape-shifting capabilities is tinged with paranoid undertones, particularly one which involves the “testing” of each man’s blood. The test involves placing a hot wire into a Petri dish of extracted blood. Since the alien’s blood will supposedly disperse in an attempt to protect itself from harm (it is apparently comprised of self-preserving organisms) the test will reveal who amongst the group is literally the alien “other”. The sense of anti-classical morality is therefore situationally-based on the diegetic occurrences. If one member of the group fails the blood test, he is killed. If a member of the group acts suspiciously, he is treated as an “other” despite no proof that he has done anything wrong. The sense of paranoia within the group provides a basis for their situational judgments, essentially eliminating classical clear-cut depictions of diegetic homogeneity, morality, and black-and-white binary oppositions.

Despite these non-classical elements, the film is ultimately structured in a classical format. The aforementioned classical three-act structure ties the film together through causal organization of events; the film establishes the research base, establishes the problem through the intrusion of the alien, and resolves it through the death of the intruder. Invisible editing also dominates the film’s narrative, providing a concise and unobtrusive viewing experience for the audience. The film’s ending, similar to the ending of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, provides a result of action in favor of narrative closure; the alien invader has been killed (although it is not confirmed, rather it is implied) but the act of killing it requires a complete destruction of the research base, leaving the two surviving protagonists without shelter from the harsh Antarctic weather. The ending, also similar to that of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, plays on the aforementioned classical “happy ending” in the sense that it provides an action which should constitute as “happy” (the implied death of the alien) but is marred by the impending doom which surely awaits the protagonists.

While The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing share similarities in terms of aesthetic and thematic characteristics of postclassical and postmodern styles respectively, both films differ from each other in various ways as well. For example, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a film which strays from the depiction of overt violence whereas The Thing largely fits in with the aforementioned “splatter film” through its repeated use of explicitly violent subject matter.

The most glaring difference between the two, however, is each film’s contrasting mise en scene (particularly setting) and its complimentary narrative function. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers diegetic world consists of a densely-populated suburban California landscape. The Thing presents its narrative within the confines of an isolated, remote Antarctic research station completely disconnected from the rest of humanity. Each film uses its setting highlight its respective representation of the shared subject of alien invasion. Both films seek to alienate their protagonists from the world around them. Dr. Bennell and Becky in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers are isolated from the population around them due to their willing rejection of the invaders’ dominance whereas the researchers within The Thing have already been separated from a human populace. The researchers are, however, confined within close proximity to each other and (eventually) the alien. They are not subject to the expansive threat that the outside world of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers presents in terms of other people; rather their anxieties result from the confined, paranoia-inducing settings of their claustrophobic, monotonous interior space. The Thing contains cinematography which emphasizes the vast emptiness of the world around the researchers and juxtaposes such shots with those reflecting the confined living space for which they inhabit. Close ups and medium shots are favored during the interior spaces whereas long shots and extreme long shots dominate the exterior scenes. This characterizes the external setting as one of hopeless isolation and internally as stifling to interpersonal connections. The Thing works largely on this basis alone, and if placed within the setting of something like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers would not work in a thematic sense. The Thing draws on its tones of isolation to create a fear of helplessness whereas The Invasion of the Body Snatchers uses the mentality of a mass population pursuing the protagonists to create a sense of forced conformity at the hands of the overwhelming majority.

Both The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing are examples of horror/science fiction hybrid films which display various elements of stylistic ideals in their respective right. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers combines contemporaneous political undertones with alternative representations of 1950s societal traditions to create a narrative tinged with postclassical highlights. The Thing utilizes the shocking exploitation tactics of the “splatter” film to nostalgically connect itself with classic monster movies of the 1950s in a postmodern fashion. Both films, however, are ultimately tied to classical aesthetic principles concerning clarity of narrative including invisible editing, causality, and the three act structure.

Cited:

Arnzen, Michael A. “Who’s Laughing Now? The Postmodern Splatter Film.” Journal of Popular Film & Television 21.4 (1994): 176-79. Print.

Booker, M. Keith. Postmodern Hollywood. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007. Print.

Cumbow, Robert C. Order in the Universe: the Films of John Carpenter. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1990. Print.

Hantke, Steffen. Horror Film: Creating and Marketing Fear. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2004. Print.

Jancovich, Mark, Joanne Hollows, and Peter Hutchings. The Film Studies Reader. London: Arnold, 2000. Print.

Neale, Stephen. Genre and Hollywood. London: Routledge, 2000. Print.

Pramaggiore, Maria, and Tom Wallis. Film: a Critical Introduction. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2008. Print.

Schatz, Thomas. Old Hollywood/New Hollywood: Ritual, Art, and Industry. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research, 1983. Print.

Sherman, Fraser A. Screen Enemies of the American Way: Political Paranoia About Nazis, Communists, Saboteurs, Terrorists and Body Snatching Aliens in Film and Television. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. Print.

Sobchack, Vivian. Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2004. Print.

Vieth, Errol. Screening Science. Lanham: Scarecrow, 2001. Print.