Sunday, December 14, 2014

come right out and say it

It’s not just feminism that birthed the slasher film. I’m reminded of CNTV 393 at USC, particularly September 27, 1994.

Jess’ announcement—“I’m pregnant”—we only hear from outside the window. We are only in the room in time for Peter’s reaction. Essentially, we are with him, not with her. Not right then.

That day in class we watched Ten North Frederick, starring Gary Cooper. I barely remember the movie and only generally recall the notion of “male melodrama.” But, fret not, because I still have my notes. Not the quality of notes I might have from more recent forays in the college classroom, but there’s some useful information. For instance, Professor Casper defined the male melodrama as a movie that “traces a series of adventures, professional labors, and sexual episodes of a male protagonist through which the male comes to some understanding about the meaning of life, usually involving spiritual values.”

The movie is, on the surface, not about Peter, yet we are with him again—without Jess—when he performs his recital, and again when he destroys the piano because said recital didn’t go well. The movie may deliberately be trying to focus on the women—as Nowell (2010) puts it, “the Pioneers behind Black Christmas aimed to make their film marketable to female youth by featuring young women as protagonists” (p. 72)—but it just can’t avoid giving Peter a storyline to weave through everything else. It’s something you might not get in a similar film in more recent years... for example, I watched the 2006 remake of Black Christmas last night after watching the original (which was after watching Silent Night, Deadly Night—it was a night of Christmas horror) and that kind of storyline wouldn’t fit. Oddly enough, Clare’s father (who barely does anything in the original) was replaced with Clare’s sister and is nearly the Final Girl in her importance and lasting power.

Casper (1994) said melodrama generally relied on coincidence and thrived on excess. Regarding the latter, Black Christmas in general does not have much—the murders are not really shown and there are a lot of quiet moments. The remake is full of excess; a lot eye gouging, for example. And, the in-between-make, Silent Night, Deadly Night (the original American release title for Black Christmas was Silent Night, Evil Night, by the way), had a whole lot of blood and nudity, so plenty of excess.

Let us assume that Peter is the killer for a moment—the I-camera, then, is making this even more of Peter’s story. Effectively, we become Peter, traumatized as he is by Jess’ news that she wants to terminate her pregnancy—or in larger terms, we are American men traumatized by the notion that women are allowed to do that, that they are allowed to make important life decisions without a man approving of it. Clover (1992) tells us that the I-camera forces us, “the logic goes, to identify with the killer” (p. 45). To make this just a little more political, for a moment, though, I wonder how much of the audience watching this movie would consider Jess a killer. Peter clearly does. Note, though, that Clover doesn’t completely agree with the logic of “point of view=identification.”

Melodrama, Casper (1994) says, though, melodrama is “emotional rather than logical.” So, the idea of identifying with the point of view doesn’t have to make sense. Clover (1992) cites Jaws—a shark—The Birds—a bird—and even Little Shop of Horrors—the tonsils—as evidence that, if the logic is always accurate, “the viewer’s identificatory powers are unbelievably elastic” (p. 45). I wonder if her examples are not a bit too on-the-nose in making exceptions, on the one hand. And, on the other hand, if, in terms of how we experience the moment in question, that shark really is a shark for us, whether or not that bird really is a bird for us, and whether or not that tonsil shot in Little Shop of Horrors is not just an amusing way of getting us, somewhat literally, inside the patient’s head to let our odontophobia act up. On the topic of the I-camera, Nowell (2010) credits Magnum Force as the source Black Christmas is aping, though he does acknowledge roots in Peeping Tom and Psycho as well; he says that Black Christmas combines “the moving subjective shots that had first been used in Michael Powell’s 1960 thriller Peeping Tom... with the arresting site [sic] of the shadowy slasher that had come to prominence in Psycho“ (p. 69). But, specifically, he describes the way the killers in Magnum Force “are positioned largely beyond the borders of the frame or are represented by subjective shots as they knock off various underworld figures” (ibid).

Peter’s emotional breakdown (really his third or fourth, depending on how you count them) over the phone is interesting. In that moment, he is in the same position as the killer (assuming now that the two are not one and the same), a disembodied voice to go with the disembodied point of view of the I-camera. Outside the basement at the climax of the film, Peter also becomes a shadow, much like the killer. It is understandable that Jess believes Peter to be the killer, that she believes him to be dangerous. Especially, when he breaks the window. Peter had no legitimate reason, right then, to break the window. Thinking about the 2006 remake, I might say that if Peter is not solely the killer, maybe he is the Billy to some other Agnes or the Agnes to some other Billy.

Now, backtracking a bit, regarding the coincidence on which melodrama relies, consider the sheer number of coincidences going on in the film as presented. Jess, who is pregnant and planning to abort her baby just happens to be one of the young women living at this particular sorority, and just happens to be one of the few who stuck around for the holidays, and so she just happens to be the one who answers the phone more and hears from “Billy” who talks about a baby. Or, maybe the point is that this is not a coincidence. The fear that came with the sexual revolution came on the heels of the numerous studies telling us that college students were having sex, that “the pill” was not just useful but vital for college girls because sex was happening. Maybe the point is not that Jess is unique but that being pregnant and having to deal with that while in college and working toward one’s dreams was becoming more common. Jess is not an individual, per se, but all college girls, with new freedom and a new attitude. And Peter is every college boyfriend, dealing with a loss of some of the old paternalism. He lashes out at her because his emotions are raw and he doesn’t know any other way. It was World War II before, then Korea, and now Vietnam—young men sent to their deaths, or forced to confront the same, now brought back to live regular lives. What was masculine had been torn open, just a little bit, just a tiny wound, but the sexual revolution, feminism, women’s liberation—these things were picking at that wound. What were men to do?

Works Cited

Casper, D. (1994, September 27). The trend toward realism in the arts and media. Male melodrama. Cinema-Television 393g: The American Theatrical Film. Lecture conducted from University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA.

Clover, C.J. (1992). Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Nowell, R. (2010). Blood Money: A History of the First Teen Slasher Film Cycle. New York, NY: Continuum.

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