Watch: My Life as a Swedish Pop Star: The ABBA Videos of Lasse Hallström: A Video Essay

Watch: My Life as a Swedish Pop Star: The ABBA Videos of Lasse Hallström: A Video Essay

[The script of the video essay follows.]

Agnetha, Benny, Bjorn, Anna-Frid: their initials spell ABBA,
a nonsense word, childish, almost preverbal, as much a brand name as a
band.  Their distinctive image,
indivisible from their sound and their success, was in large part crafted by Lasse
Hallstrom, a director better known for his quirky comedies, like My Life as a Dog, What’s Eating Gilbert
Grape, Chocolat
, and The Hundred Foot
. Hallstrom was getting his start as a television director in
Stockholm when he was approached by ABBA’s manager, Stig Anderson, in 1974. Anderson
wanted Hallstrom to produce a series of promotional spots for the group.  He would go on to direct over thirty ABBA
videos. These videos created an indelible pop image and documented the
super-group’s meteoric rise and tragic fall. 

Before MTV, music videos were a novelty.  Elvis’ fifties musicals and Richard Lester’s
films for the Beatles in the 1960s established many of the conventions of the
genre. Swoony close ups, rhythmic jump cuts, and intimate, casual footage of
the band goofing off captured the experience of listening to the music, and
indulged the audience’s fantasy of hanging out with the group. Singers like Nancy
Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood filmed television specials that ran like mini-movies,
juxtaposing performance with narrative film-making, setting the singers against
exotic landscapes, creating fantasy visions of the songs’ lyrics.

Then along came ABBA. 
After struggling for years as solo artists, the members of the group
began looking beyond the shores of their native Sweden for popular
success.  They first gained it with their
victorious performance of Waterloo at the Eurovision song contest in 1974.  Already the band’s signature elements are in
evidence: Anna-Frid’s imposing perm, Agnetha’s flowing mane, glowing Swedish
complexions, and costumes that look like they were made by two teenage girls
left for an afternoon in the attic of their stage-actress grandmother.  By the time they approached Hallstrom,  their charming smiles and unaffected pleasure
in performance were so irresistible they almost disguised the rudimentary
choreography. Also, the singers’ sex appeal nearly made up for their goofy
looking male cohorts. ABBA may have been the first video stars in pop history.

Hallstrom’s earliest videos for the group were all seemingly
shot in a day in the same studio, with costume changes between songs. The
videos laid down a basic visual vocabulary that perfectly complemented the
music’s elegant simplicity.  Camera zooms
in, mascara, lipstick, dazzling smiles fill the screen; pan right, taking in
the whole band, swaying with the music’s rhythms; quick cuts in time with the simple
four/four beat.  The men, fixed in place,
rooted to their instruments, lend a visual anchor for the minimal movements of
the women, by contrast making them seem dynamic, vibrant.  And through it all, what costumes: flashes
of David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Gary Glitter, but always with a quaintly home-made,
theatrical quality that made ABBA approachable, and silly, but in a good way.

One of Hallstrom’s visual signatures came from an unlikely
source.  In Persona, fellow Swede Ingmar Bergman juxtaposed the faces of
actresses Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson in dreamlike sequences suggesting the
gradual merging together of their identities and the mental and emotional
confusion that follows.  Hallstrom
employed this motif in a humbler context to create a visual counterpart to the uncannily
sympathetic voices of the band’s two singers.

Eventually Hallstrom took the band out of the studio,
setting them against landscapes that complemented the band’s Nordic image;
frozen tundra, sunset at sea, eagle over mountains.  As their songs began to take on more esoteric
topics, Hallstrom created mini-films that dramatized their peculiar lyric
narratives.  It’s easy to forget how
preposterous it is for two Swedish women to be reminiscing about some long-ago
revolutionary battle with the song set against a roaring fire, Bjorn strumming
away on his acoustic guitar…at least until the camera pans back to reveal an
obviously fake starry sky above.  The
video for their most successful single, “Dancing Queen,” avoids disco glitz for
a decidedly more downmarket club experience; the dancers all seem to be
underage, underscoring the song’s wistful nostalgia, as the singers look across
the generation gap at a girl having the time of her life. 

As the band continued to climb international pop charts,
Hallstrom responded to their global fan base with videos that allow us to hang
out with ABBA, strolling down the streets of Stockholm, even sharing
breakfast.  These intimate moments made the
band resemble the most successful double date in pop history. 

But this happy intimacy wasn’t to last.  In January of 1979, Agnetha and Bjorn
announced their plans to divorce. 
Anna-frid and Benny followed in 1981. 
Although they’ve repeatedly claimed that “The Winner Takes it All” was
not autobiographical, the video begins with a montage of the band in happier
times, before cutting to Agnetha, her curls hanging limply, mascara smudged,
face pale from crying: this is one of more nakedly honest images of despair
ever shown in a music video.  Hallstrom’s
lighting is natural, intimate, the editing restrained, with only the occasional
freeze frame to suggest the happier moments are snapshots of a time now

“One of Us” is even more abject, portraying Agnetha
unpacking alone in a new apartment.  The
lighting is stark, the contrast harsh; this is ABBA’s first film shot on actual
videotape, and the colors seem drained of all their former vibrancy.  For one brief moment there is a splash of
yellow across the screen, recalling happier days, brighter costumes. 

Played from beginning to end, Hallstrom’s videos for ABBA
can be watched like one of his wistful comedies, youthful eccentricity and
goofy innocence giving way to bitter experience. Beyond telling us more about
one of the great pop bands than any of the numerous documentaries and tell-all
biographies that followed the band’s last performance, these small films created
a visual vocabulary for the video era that followed.

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and
content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films
usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as
the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which
boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A
Prehistoric Value System." You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

THE BABADOOK as Fairy Tale Therapy: “Committed to the monster theory”

THE BABADOOK as Fairy Tale Therapy: “Committed to the monster theory”

nullThe Babadook opens
with an enigmatic, dream-like sequence depicting a car crash with one fatality: Oskar, husband and father to Amelia and Samuel, the film’s protagonists.  This traumatic event haunts them, as mother
and son try to make sense of their loss. 
Like the film itself, they have recourse to those age-old narrative
structures we call fairy tales, whose major themes run like red threads through
the often-maligned horror genre.  This is
the first film by Australian director Jennifer Kent, and with it she boldly
reclaims horror as a nuanced and imaginative structure for working through the
deepest of psychic traumas, enfolding us in an uncompromising and original
vision that is at the same time disturbingly familiar.

After the opening car-crash sequence, we see six-year old
Samuel waking his mother to tell her, “I had the dream again.” She helps him
look under the bed for his imaginary assailant, and then she reads him a fairy tale
in which the Big Bad Wolf is destroyed. 
“Did they really kill the wolf, Mom?” Sam asks.  “I’m sure they did,” Amelia replies.  Then a strange look comes over the boy’s face
as he says, “I’ll kill the monster when it comes and smash its head in.” Fear
at the unexpected violence of this outburst passes briefly over Amelia’s face
before she rearranges it into a motherly smile. 
Then Sam demands she read the story over again and Amelia wearily

This early sequence establishes the tensions in this
mother-child relationship with remarkable economy and vividness.  Intriguingly, the fairy tale is as much a
soothing force on Samuel’s psyche as it is a weapon of manipulation.  In the sequences that follow, Amelia struggles to keep it together while her boy goes from one disturbing
outburst to the next, alienating friends and family.  The ostensible cause of these outbursts is an
imaginary monster who Samuel feels compelled to slay, in order to protect him
and his mother.   At one point he speaks
to the imagined presence of his father, assuring him that he’ll protect Mum,
underlining the Oedipal dimension of this obsessive narrative. Yet, as in the
Big Bad Wolf scene, this monster narrative is used as much against his mother
as for psychic release.  “Acting out” is
how a child therapist might describe Samuel’s behavior, a cliché that
inadvertently reveals the abiding role of drama and narrative in the troubled
mental lives of children, as well as adults.

The film’s visual and symbolic hook is an evil pop-up book, Mr. Babadook, that magically appears on
Samuel’s bookshelf, and which, of course, he forces his reluctant mother to
read to him.  Both are frightened yet
fascinated by the book’s sinister, black and white images of a top-hatted, trench-coated
figure who occasionally smiles with evil, three-dimensional glee.  This dramatic figure provides Samuel’s vague
monster a more palpable identity, and his obsession with slaying it becomes increasingly
urgent and violent.  When his cousin
mocks him for believing in monsters, he pushes her out of a tree-house and
breaks her nose.  The fanciful, Goonies-like weapons he builds in the
basement to defend himself against Mr. Babadook are eventually turned on his
classmates.  When they seek help from a
therapist, he observes that Samuel is “committed to the monster theory.”

As Amelia and Samuel grow increasingly isolated, they both
become committed to this theory, and the figure of Mr. Babadook serves as both
an externalization of their fears and a weapon to be used against one another.  Through intimate close-ups emphasizing the
pair’s uncomfortable proximity, and agonizing shouting matches and screaming
fits, mother-child tension builds to the point where the horror sequences
actually serve as an emotional release.  Kent
has said that in the film she wanted “to explore parenting from a very real
perspective. Now, I’m not saying we all want to go and kill our kids, but a lot
of women struggle. And it is a very taboo subject, to say that motherhood is
anything but a perfect experience for women.” How do mothers cope with such
feelings, in a culture where they are expected to be consistently loving and

The Babadook makes
a persuasive case for horror films as a form of therapy.  Relentlessly kept awake by Samuel’s outbursts,
an increasingly insomniac Amelia seeks escape by watching television, but the
shows that seem magically to appear become visual manifestations of her mental
life.  Kent displays an extensive
knowledge of the history of horror, and of the fantastic in film
generally.  One sequence portrays Amelia
watching some particularly haunting sequences from early film master Georges Melies,
featuring dancing devils, tentacled monsters, and flying body parts.  Out of these black and white sequences from
the early age of film emerge images of the Babadook, at once an homage to one
of the director’s inspirations as well as an uncanny merging of personal demons
and public domain.  The pop-up book,
which later reappears after Amelia tore it up and threw it out, takes on a
stop-motion animated life of its own, in sequences that deftly combine the
visual styles of figures as diverse as Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak, Jan
Svankmajer, and F. W. Murnau. 

The Victorian-styled house in which Amelia and Samuel live gradually begins to look
more like the black and white illustrations of the book, and the realistic
elements of the narrative gradually fall away to plunge us into a realm of
utter horror.  With nods to the lurid and
dream-like European horror films of the 1970s, by directors like Mario Bava,
George Franju and Roman Polanski, Kent creates an imaginary realm in which the
commonplace becomes fantastic, as the domestic sphere draws in like a noose on
mother and child.  In a clear nod to
Polanski’s agoraphobic masterpiece Repulsion,
Amelia becomes obsessed with a scratching sound coming from behind the
refrigerator.  As she moves the appliance
away, she sees cockroaches crawling from a slit in the wall, which she worries
until it becomes an ugly gash, at once wound and vagina. 

The Babadook addresses
difficult issues from a uniquely feminine perspective, and the female-led
production is able to take us into areas where few films have been able to go
without falling back on clichés and stereotypes.  Essie Davis turns in a harrowing performance
as increasingly unhinged mother Amelia, and Kent’s careful direction just
manages to keep this character from becoming a caricature of the hysterical
mother.  At one point she watches Lon
Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera on television, and Davis shows a similar
capacity for physical transformation, at times recalling Faye Dunaway’s
exploitation-camp meets Kabuki-theater wildness of Mommie Dearest.  From mousey,
beleaguered mother to vengeful monster, Davis shows an astonishing range,
inhabiting the many personae horror films and fairy tales have to offer.

If Amelia begins as the damsel in distress of Samuel’s
boyhood fantasies, she eventually becomes the evil stepmother of fairy tale
myth.  But this, too, is only a role, and
whatever constitutes her true identity remains elusive, hidden.  The monstrous figures and harrowing
narratives of horror, like the fairy tale, can serve as a means of imaginative
self-actualization, as psychologist Bruno Bettelheim famously argued.  But The
suggests that they can also become traps, enclosing us in vivid
fictions that cunningly replicate our repressed mental lives.  Or, in the words of Samuel’s pop-up book, “If
it’s in a word, or it’s in a book, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

Children in Horror Films: The Kids Are Not Alright

Children in Horror Films: The Kids Are Not Alright

nullYour life is going along normally, and then it happens: you
or someone you love suddenly finds that something is growing inside, a life
form that feeds.  In the morning you are
nauseous, and as it grows you shift uncomfortably through the night, struggling
to sleep.  You feel it moving inside you,
shifting, kicking, altering your moods, influencing your thoughts.  And then, finally, after nine long months, it
wants to get out.  You want this too,
desperately, but the emergence is violent, excruciating, prolonged.  After what seems like days of pain, you hear
a cry, a wail, from the just opened mouth of a being who is at once a part of
you and utterly alien.  As it grows, it
begins to do things, without warning, without discernible motive: knocking a
juice glass off the table, pulling kitty’s tail, hitting another child on the
playground.  When scolded, it cries, and
you feel guilty for being so harsh, until later, with little provocation, it
breaks into a fit of rage, screaming, kicking. 
Gradually, you become isolated, a veil drawn between you and the friends
you used to see; you sleep poorly, awakened by cries; even your spouse seems
far away, separated by the daily and nightly routine of caring for the
child who has taken over your life.

Is it any wonder there are so many horror movies about
children?  We regard children with pious
adoration, yet lurking just beneath this reverence is a sense of dread, an
awareness of how little we really know about our kids.  And for every family sitcom or melodrama
celebrating the wonders of parenting and childhood, there is a horror film that
dwells in the child’s dark shadow.

The mainstream rebirth of the horror film in the seventies
happened through a child.  Linda Blair’s
uncanny performance as the possessed twelve-year-old Regan McNeil in The Exorcist (1973) remains one of the
iconic moments in the genre’s history, making audiences squirm as they watch
a loving daughter turn into a bile-spewing monster.  The transformation is so horrifying because
we first experience the parental love of Ellyn Burstyn’s Chris through
touchingly candid moments of mother-daughter laughing and cuddling.  As Regan is taken through a nightmarish
battery of painful tests to discover why her personality is changing, we
experience these horrors from both mother’s and daughter’s perspective.  Yet when Regan goes entirely over to the dark
side, she becomes another being altogether, one that we have only glimpsed in
isolated moments.  Although the tale is
one of demonic possession, it works because we have all seen such isolated moments
of uncanny child behavior—talking to no one, staring into the distance,
inexplicable bursts of anger—and wondered what it meant.

Before The Exorcist
there was Rosemary’s Baby (1966),
which focused on how a child can take one’s life over even before it’s
born.  Roman Polanski’s vision is a
powerfully feminist one, as the narrative focuses on the ways in which a
woman’s body can be appropriated by men. 
John Cassevete’s Guy Woodhouse essentially sells his wife’s womb to the
devil in exchange for a boost in his acting career, and while the supernatural
element is strong, his betrayal serves as a metaphor for all of the selfish
reasons men might have for wanting children—either for public prestige or for
want of an heir, a kind of immortality. 
As Mia Farrow’s Rosemary grows increasingly ill, however, we enter the
special hell that for some women is the experience of pregnancy.  Stymied at every turn as she seeks personal
and professional help, the film frustrates our and Rosemary’s need to discover
whether her fears are real or only in her head. 
Yet when she finally discovers the truth, Rosemary’s acceptance of her
child is at once touching and repulsive, and we are left with the feeling that
the mother-child bond is something unknowable, uncanny.

Larry Cohen’s masterpiece It’s Alive follows a similar arc, as Frank and Lenore Davis are
initially repulsed by, but gradually learn to love, their monstrous
progeny.  The film begins with one of the
most horrifying portrayals of childbirth ever filmed, with a delivery room strewn
with gore, and as the fanged, clawed child escapes, the body count grows.  Desperate for sustenance, he attacks a
milkman, feeding on fresh meat along with that more traditional baby food, milk. Indeed, a
stream of milk and blood flows from the delivery truck, a raw image of the fluids with which mothers have always sustained their children.  Yet somehow out of these horrors comes love. As Frank comes to understand and even embrace the creature he produced, the
film miraculously transforms into a moving meditation on the strange powers of
parental affection.

For the record, I must confess that I have never had such
feelings. My wife and I remain happily childless, and have no urge to change
that.  The topic came up when we got to
the ticket counter to see George Ratliffe’s criminally-underrated Joshua (2007), and the usher asked, “Um,
do you have kids?”  “No,” I replied.  “Are you thinking of ever having kids?”
“Definitely not,” said my wife, laughing. 
The usher smiled and said, “Then you’re going to love this film!”  And certainly nothing I have seen better
expresses all of the reasons one might not want to have a child.  Vera Farmiga gives a magnificent performance
as a mother who tries, but fails, to love creepy son Joshua.  As she nurses their second child, a girl, the
older boy’s behavior grows increasingly strange, as he asks questions about
embalming techniques and hovers around his baby sister’s crib in the dark.  Sensing his parents’ growing fear of him, he
digs out old videotapes of his childhood, and discovers that as a baby he
nearly drove his mother insane with his incessant crying and screaming.  As his behavior grows more disturbing, father
Sam Rockwell begins to unravel, and Joshua knows just how to push him over the
edge without incurring any blame.

The precocious monster theme is fairly prevalent in child
horror films, but most compelling is the apocalyptic subgenre that imagines
such children taking over the world. 
Perhaps the best example is Village
of the Damned
(1960), which manages to conjure a fully realized alternate
world of dread in merely 77 minutes. 
Everyone in the quiet English village of Midwich simultaneously falls
asleep, after which unexplained event all of the women of childbearing age
discover themselves to be pregnant. 
Later, they all give birth on the same day, to children with golden eyes
and pale blonde hair, somewhere between alien humanoids and Nazi youth.  Their uncanny mental powers place them in the
realm of science fiction, yet the fears they evoke—of our growing obsolescence
and eventual replacement by a new generation, better adapted to a changing
world—are very real.

More subtle and ultimately more troubling is the
slow-creeping apocalypse imagined in the Spanish horror film, Who Can Kill a Child? (1976), in which a
young English couple on vacation make the mistake of visiting an island where
the children have violently seized power from the adults.  Director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador cunningly
opens the film with a montage of black and white photographs of child-victims
of war, juxtaposed with data recording the number of children fallen victim to
the world’s major conflicts.  Although we
share the English couple’s horrified point of view as they struggle to survive
against the malicious onslaught of a new breed of children, we have also been
shown how little right we have to the sovereign power of adulthood.  The film lays bare the naked self-interest
and condescension that lies beneath our sentimental reverence of childhood and
self-aggrandizement of parenthood, as we discover that the real answer to the
question asked by the film’s title is: adults.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

Of Scalpels and Synthesizers: The Music of THE KNICK

Of Scalpels and Synthesizers: The Music of THE KNICK

nullThe latest series from director Steven Soderbergh begins
jarringly, with an uncomfortably intimate, front-row seat view of a disastrous C-section
operation.  This widely discussed scene
set the tone for what has evolved into a consistently disconcerting and
uncompromising show, one that immerses viewers in the grimy, gory, greedy world of a
turn-of-the-century New York hospital. 
Soderbergh has said that he wanted to give a vision of the past that was anything but nostalgic, and in this he has certainly succeeded. 

One of the more jarring manifestations of this
anti-nostalgic vision is the show’s innovative synthesizer score, composed by
long-time Soderbergh collaborator, Cliff Martinez.  After a steady diet of Ken Burns
documentaries, one might have expected to hear the stately rhythms of ragtime
or perhaps the Irish folk music or Italian opera that one could reasonably have
expected to hear blaring from the New York bars and music halls of
yesteryear.  Instead, the images of
horse-drawn carriages and gaslit streets are accompanied by the kinds of sounds
we might associate with dystopian visions of the future.  The combination of old and new is both
unsettling and revelatory.

Martinez has worked with Soderbergh for some twenty-five
years, ever since he composed the score for the director’s explosive debut, Sex, Lies, and Videotape.  Since then he has continued to hone his
signature sound: a taut, tensile aural web where melody and rhythm are
inextricable.  Sequenced melody patterns
emerge and evolve slowly, like a Philip Glass symphony, adapting to the
changing dynamics of the film.  Martinez’
music does not so much accompany scenes as insinuate itself into them: what begins
as a barely heard rhythmic tapping may slowly blossom into vast, crystalline
sound structures, as in his mesmerizing soundtrack to Solaris; elsewhere, a subtle heart-beat will mount in tension along with
scraping industrial noises before fading to lurk in the background, as in Contagion.  His masterpiece may be the score for Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive, where his brooding urban nocturne takes on a presence as substantial
as that of any of the film’s characters. 

The soundtrack for The
does not stand apart from Martinez’ previous work so much in its
sounds and melodies as in its relation to context.  We first hear it in the sequence leading up
to the disastrous C-section operation, where we see Dr. John Thackery waking in
an opium den, calling a horse-drawn cab, and surreptitiously shooting up in the
back seat before ascending the steps of Knickerbocker Hospital.  We’ve certainly seen similar seedy dealings
in previous portrayals of turn-of-the-century life but never with a soundtrack
so jarringly modern.  Combining elements
of house music and old-school German electronica, The Knick’s opening number wouldn’t sound out of place in a hipster
bar or a zombie film soundtrack; in the context of 1900s New York, it is so
blatantly anachronistic as to risk undermining any possible suspension of
disbelief the director might have achieved through the show’s painstaking set
design and costuming.  And this may well
be the point.

Consider The Knick’s
premise: a once state of the art but now struggling hospital finds itself in
thrall to its major donors, and unwittingly involved in a host of illegalities
thanks to its double-dealing financial manager. 
Head surgeon Thackery copes with the mounting pressures of his job
through chronic drug use.  In a bid for
racial progressiveness, the hospital’s chief benefactor pressures them into
hiring a black surgeon, who must struggle against the entrenched racism of the
medical institution.  In short, nothing
central to the show’s premise requires that it be set in the past: all of these
elements unfortunately remain part of American life in the twenty-first
century.  Indeed, one might even regard
the show as timely, given its depiction of the greed running through the
medical industry, and the reluctance of even its most enlightened members to go
against the status quo.  While the show’s
portrayal of race is necessarily one that involves more blatant forms of
oppression and disenfranchisement than we typically see now, to regard the
problems it portrays as a thing of the past would be disingenuous or naïve.

Given the show’s contemporary resonance, then, it is
somewhat baffling to hear director Soderbergh say, as he did in a recent Rolling Stone interview: “Your
overwhelming sense watching the show is one of happiness that you’re living in
2014. I wanted to make sure that’s what people were feeling.”  The overwhelming sense I get, which for me is
a central appeal of the show, is that not much has really changed since 1900,
and that the messed-up health care system we have is the product of decades of
greed and failed ambitions.  Ambulance
drivers in the show are paid a bounty according to the number of injured or
sick patients they are able to bring to the hospital.  Though presumably this doesn’t happen any
more, is it really any more shocking than doctors getting money from drug
companies for peddling their wares to patients, regardless of whether these
products are going to do them any good? 
Though doctors might not shoot cocaine with silver-handled needles
before going into surgery, some very possibly take painkillers pilfered from the
pharmacy’s stock before scrubbing up. 

What is most challenging about the series is the way it
makes us ponder the relationship between present and past; the soundtrack fosters
this.  The synthesizer itself is a
complex signifier: long used in film to conjure sounds and visions of the
future, it has also taken on a retro patina through its association with
nineteen-seventies progressive rock and disco. 
Martinez’ soundtrack exploits the disjunction, as he shifts from his signature minimalism
into more brazen territory, alternately evoking the soundscapes of 1970s Berlin
and 1990s British rave culture.  It is also
telling that one of Martinez’ signature instruments is an arcane construction
called a “baschet cristal” that makes sounds from vibrating rods and fiberglass
plates.  Used by mid-century avant garde
composers who saw it as an instrument of the future, now it sounds more like a
relic from some long-lost world’s fair exhibit. 
Martinez’ music occupies a similar aural twilight zone.

Notwithstanding Soderbergh’s own observations regarding the
distance between past and present, The
offers one of the freshest manifestations of what dramatist Bertolt
Brecht called “defamiliarization,” in which the audience is reminded that what they
are watching is a performance.  Brecht
achieved this effect through epic dramas, often set at epochal moments of the
past, which the audience gradually came to recognize as a defamiliarized
version of the world in which they were presently living.  The
also seems to traffic in what has been called “hauntology,” where
forgotten or unrealized visions of the past are felt to linger on, ghost-like,
into the present.  For Jacques Derrida,
the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 left unrealized communist utopias to
wander like specters through the Wall Streets and shopping malls of
capitalism.  When we watch The Knick we might wonder whether black
doctors like Dr. Algernon Edwards really operated secret hospitals for black
patients in the bowels of white institutions, and whether these secret locations might have
offered a more positive model for health care than what we have now.  By scoring Soderbergh’s series with such a
rich array of musical anachronisms, Cliff Martinez helps to raise challenging
questions about present and past; a lesser composer might simply have
offered ragtime.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

VIDEO ESSAY: Our Scary Summer: 1979

VIDEO ESSAY: Our Scary Summer: 1979

[Jed Mayer’s script for the video essay follows.]

The cover of the June 1979 issue
of Newsweek featured an image of
Sigourney Weaver from Alien. The
caption read: "Hollywood’s Scary Summer." I was thirteen. The horror movies
released that summer would form a grotesque
carnival that mirrored my own and the world’s anxieties.  Earlier in the
spring there was the disastrous nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. That summer, major oil spills polluted the Gulf of Mexico
and the North Atlantic Ocean. This year, oil prices doubled, Margaret Thatcher
was elected, and the Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power.   I slowly came
into awareness of the political and environmental degradation around me that
year. The films I watched reflected that, as well as my own thirteen-year-old desires
and fears .

As tag-lines go, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead sports a pretty good one: “When there’s no more
room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth.” I stared for weeks at the lurid
poster bearing these ominous words. It hung in the front windows of the
Maplewood Mall multiplex.  Looking back,
I think a more fitting tag-line might have come from a speech given by President
Jimmy Carter later that same summer: “Often you see paralysis and stagnation
and drift.  What can we do?”

Carter was addressing what he described as a “crisis of
confidence” in America. His July 15, 1979 address has been called “the malaise
speech” for its focus on the country’s financial woes and lack of
direction.  Like Romero’s film, the
speech offered a disturbing vision. It showed a world drained of vitality and

What better setting for such a vision than a mall, where the
film’s protagonists hide out to weather the zombie apocalypse?  And what better place for me to have seen
this film, in the mall where I was to spend so many pointless afternoons,
wandering the aisles and riding the escalators like Romero’s zombies?

1979 was also the year when my family decided we needed
solutions to our own paralysis and stagnation. We sought it through family
therapy, proudly airing our co-dependencies and dysfunctions, along with many
other American families caught up in the family therapy movement. 

Few films expose the limitations of therapy narratives more
ruthlessly than David Cronenberg’s The
.  Cronenberg explored the
psychosexual demons haunting the individual human psyche in Shivers and Rabid. He then anatomized the late-70s zeitgeist by turning his attention
to the monsters lurking within the fractured family.

The poster advertising John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy featured a grotesque image of a
monstrous fetal creature wrapped in its placenta. I responded to this image with
equal parts fascination and horror.  After
seeing the film, however, I discovered that horror could help me to make sense
of the era’s toxic events.  With Prophecy, Frankenheimer wanted to create
an environmentally-conscious horror film that would raise the ethical stakes of
popcorn fare.  It can hardly be said that
he succeeded in this goal—the director has blamed his own alcoholism at the
time, as well as production issues, for the film’s relative failure. However,
the film did succeed in presenting images and settings that managed to distill the
toxic environments of the 1970s, at least for one young filmgoer. 

Star Wars was
predicated on an escapist premise that used science fiction conventions to
blast us into a galaxy far, far away. In the universe of Alien, on the other hand, space
is confined, claustrophobic.  It is a
universe very much like our own, subject to the laws of supply and demand.  As we watch a complex mass of space-borne
metal slide slowly across the screen, a superimposed text tells us this is the
commercial towing spaceship Nostromo. The
ship is hauling a refinery and twenty million tons of mineral ore.  Space, the final frontier, has become, like
all frontiers, a resource to be exploited. 

Although I wasn’t yet old enough to have a driver’s license,
like everyone in 1979 I was highly conscious of rising gas prices and their
effects.  I watched those daily images of
gas station lines so long they looked like shanty towns with a grim fascination.
They closely resembled the conjoined images of excess and destitution common to
those post-apocalyptic films I loved from that era. Films like The Omega Man, Damnation Alley, and Soylent
seemed half in love with the world’s death.  What did the earth that the Nostromo’s crew
were trying to return to actually look like? 
Probably something much like the one depicted in these films. The images
I watched on the nightly news seemed to be offering a disturbing preview of
that world.

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content
creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually
contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the
London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW
which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A
Prehistoric Value System." You can follow Nelson on Twitter

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

Apes vs. Zombies: New Skin for the Old Apocalypse in DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

Apes vs. Zombies: New Skin for the Old Apocalypse in DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

nullMatt Reeves’ Dawn of
the Planet of the Apes
echoes George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead in more than just its title. Both films are concerned
with the end times, and both films explore the nature of what it is to be human by
thinking about the nonhuman.  Both films
are also part of larger franchises, Apes being
the second installment of a reboot that is, astonishingly, superior to any of
its antecedents. Dead, likewise, is the
second installment of a series that would spawn countless imitators, most of them as
mindless as the zombies they portray. 
Like the fictional diseases that create them, zombie films are a virus,
and like a virus they need a powerful antibody to destroy them: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes might
just be that antibody.

Many theories have been advanced as to why zombies have
become such a cultural obsession. Though several theories are plausible, I would
suggest that their popularity is largely due to our abiding fear of nature. Not the nature of majestic trees, rolling
hills, and rippling streams, but the nature of
germs, bugs, and putrefaction. The nature we don’t like to think about but that increasingly rules our lives.  Zombie films are essentially about what
happens when the drugs don’t work, when we no longer have a means of controlling
these unmanageable mounds of flesh we call our bodies.  On those rare occasions when they focus in on
this weird biology (as in World War Z)
or on its larger societal impact (as in 28
Days Later
), the model of the zombie film can make for surprisingly thoughtful pieces of
horror.  More often, however, the zombie
premise serves as a cheap device that enables a select group of alpha males to act
out their survivalist fantasies.  A
potentially radical premise for exploring what we’re made out of, and what
bodies mean, generates instead an endless mashup of Soldier of Fortune with The
Book of Revelations

And this is why we need a new take on the old apocalypse.  Anyone who’s paying attention knows that the human species is well nigh fucked, and since our politicians are largely in denial
of this, we depend on artists like filmmakers to tell us stories about the
world we’re soon to be living in. 
Science fiction helps us think about the future, and hence it is always
political. You can either tell a story about how people work together to make a
bad situation better, or you can tell about how a few tough guys kick ass.  As the zombie genre seems to have devolved
into the latter, it’s time for a new way of talking about the end.  Enter the ape virus.

Rise of the Planet of
the Apes
ended with the spread of a virus that kills humans while making
apes smarter.  Remarkably, this felt less
like an apocalypse than a fresh start. 
Humans in that film, with the possible exception of James Franco, are portrayed as sadistic, slippery, and selfish, while apes are
compassionate, candid, and cooperative.  Humans
manipulate nature for their own ends, while apes live in harmony with it.  I can’t think of any other film where you feel like cheering when another species takes over the world.  By comparison with the famous conclusion of the
original Planet of the Apes, with
Charlton Heston venting his anger at the remains of the Statue of Liberty, the
ending of Rise is not so much “Damn
you!” as “Damn, you!” as the audience cheers on our successors to the top of
the food chain.

Dawn of the Planet of
the Apes
does its predecessor one better by asking us actually to think
through the moral and philosophical implications of a post-human world.  Rise
offers an escape valve for human excesses that evades broader questions of
culpability, while Dawn suggests that
our limitations as a species are not so easily evaded.  The central moral revelation of Dawn comes when Caesar realizes that his
former belief that apes were better than humans was false, and that the
similarities between the species are as important as the differences.  This revelation is actually a much deeper one
than the hackneyed “Can’t we all just get along” premise, since Dawn is honest enough to recognize that
mutual understanding will inevitably exist alongside mutual loathing.

So the conflict of Dawn
is less between apes and humans than between compassion and
intolerance.  While apes tend to exhibit
more compassion than humans, they hold no more of a monopoly on it than humans do on intolerance.  The good guys
of the picture are those who recognize kinship across the species barrier, the
bad guys those who want to exterminate the "other."  On the human side, the genocidal position is
embodied by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who rebuts pleas for mercy toward the apes
by saying “they’re only animals,” and who fights not so much for the survival
as for the supremacy of the human race. 
More complex is the character of Koba (Toby Kobbell), a bonobo tortured
for most of his life in a laboratory, and consequently a passionate hater of Homo sapiens.  While it might be argued that hatred is
effectually implanted into this otherwise peaceful creature by inhumane
science, it is also likely that as our nearest evolutionary relations, great apes will share
many of our worst, as well as our best, characteristics. 

Like the science of primatology, the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise looks at
apes as a means to think through the nature of what it is to be human.  Apes tell us where we came from, and thus
they might provide us with some clues as to where we are going.  Judging by the conflicts that emerge in Dawn, the news isn’t good. However, unlike
most zombie films, this apocalypse does provide some meaningful solutions in response to
the humanity’s destructive tendencies. 
The most important of these is a message that film is uniquely suited to
delivering: look into the eyes of the other.

An inordinate amount of screen time is given over to
close-ups of Caesar, played with astonishing veracity by Andy Serkis.  What makes this performance so compelling is
that we are never allowed to forget that this is an ape, even as we see
aspects of ourselves in his troubled gaze. 
Philosopher and Holocaust survivor Emmanuel Levinas famously argued that
morality begins when we gaze into the face of the other.  For Levinas this meant recognizing the
radical difference of another being as well as the sense of kinship we are
capable of feeling for that being. 
Unfortunately, Levinas’ philosophy fell short of embracing other
creatures who might also be said to have faces, dismissing them with the same
disdain as Gary Oldman’s human-centric Dreyfus displays when he says, “They’re only

The virtue of Dawn of
the Planet of the Apes
is that it gives us an apocalyptic narrative in
which we are asked to confront the other in ourselves, and ourselves in the
other, to look across the species barrier and see something more than just an
animal.  This is essentially what is
lacking in the old zombie apocalypse: when we look in the eyes of a zombie, we
see only decay, or a mockery of our meaty selves.  Gazing into Caesar’s eyes, we see difference
as well as well as kinship, and we realize that our relationship with other
creatures on our planet is a complicated one, and that we might better use our remaining
time in considering the other rather than indulging in fantasies of mutually
assured self-destruction.

And that’s why I say, long live the Ape, the Zombie is dead!

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.



nullIn May of 1979, six-year-old Etan Patz went missing.  Soon after his disappearance, images of his
face began to appear on lamp posts, store windows, newspapers, and
television.  Later, his face became the first to appear on a milk carton, spearheading
a campaign by the National Child Safety Council which was to expand through the
following decade until leading psychologists discovered that the images were
causing children grave emotional distress. 
Anyone growing up at that time knows that there was something uniquely
haunting about those milk-carton photos: poorly reproduced images of smiling
faces that resembled a mockery of their likely fate, they stared at you from the
other side of your cereal bowl, as you began each day with an oblique warning
about the dangers lurking just outside the door. 

The 70s was a scary time for anyone—nuclear disasters,
political revolutions, oil conflicts—but it seemed a particularly disturbing
one for kids.  Besides being inundated
with images of violence and death—from Vietnam to Son of Sam to
Jonestown—children seemed particularly threatened.  The year that began with the highly publicized
disappearance of Etan Patz ended with the deaths of eleven concertgoers at a
Who concert in Cincinnati, crushed by a stampede of fans when the general
admission gate opened.  I remember it as
a time when subcultures began to separate teens from one another, creating
gulfs wider than those of race or class. 
I remember 1979 as the first year I was scared to leave the house.

By the 1980s the films of John Hughes, Amy Heckerling, and
Cameron Crowe would transform teen angst into popular entertainment.  As entertaining as these films were, they
didn’t come close to capturing the violence and anxiety of being a teen in
those years.  Although its gritty urban
setting was a far cry from the tree-lined, Midwestern suburban streets where I
grew up, Walter Hill’s The Warriors was
the first film I remember seeing that captured the sense of division among
young people at that time.  Although the
film became notorious for allegedly sparking acts of gang violence following
its 1979 debut, its narrative is positioned squarely from the
victims’ point of view. 

When the gangs of the five boroughs hold a summit in a
vaguely post-apocalyptic New York, their plan of uniting their forces against
The Man turns suddenly into a witch hunt in which the Coney Island gang called The
Warriors is singled out and pursued across the city.  Despite its sensationalistic, comic-book
trappings, what struck me most about the film was the way it captured the everyday,
matter-of-fact experience of scapegoating and persecution that are so much a
part of youth culture.  I believe it was
around this time that our junior high English teacher made us read William
Golding’s Lord of the Flies, but as
powerful as that book is, it somehow misses the banality of evil in children,
its atavistic narrative of tribal regression masking the effortlessness with
which young people can mark each other out for victimization.  I would argue that The Warriors became an instant cult classic not only for its
depiction of young people engaging in casual violence, but more for its
capturing of the experience of being at the wrong end of teens’ destructive

Closer to home (or my home, rather) in terms of setting and sensibility, Jonathan Kaplan’s Over the Edge sets its tale of teen
persecution and rebellion in a suburban community where the planners have ignored
the interests of their children, with disastrous results.  Set in the imaginary planned community of New
Granada, Colorado, no film more accurately captures the experience of growing
up bored in the 1970s.  The identical,
faux-rustic, board-sided ranch homes and artificial lakes looked exactly like
those of Croixwood, the planned community going up a few miles from our high
school, where my classmates and I would later skip classes, spending the
afternoons watching TV and getting high in a series of interchangeable sunken
living rooms. 

Over the Edge is
marvelously matter-of-fact in its depiction of teen drug use, sex, and
violence, especially refreshing during an era laden with “topical” made-for-TV movies and
after-school specials depicting kids jumping out of windows on angel dust or
clawing their faces off on bad acid trips. 
The kids in Over the Edge were
so familiar that it might have been cast from my high school.  Their soundtrack was our soundtrack: Cheap
Trick, the Cars, and Van Halen, rather than the canned nonsense typically
inserted into teen films; their parties were our parties, with joints being
passed and beer drunk by kids standing around and talking, not all that
differently from at our parents’ parties; their violence was our violence, with
a pair of kids jumping another kid on his way home at night and pummeling him, with
no further consequences, no counseling sessions, no anti-bullying campaigns;
their motto was our motto, which was any kid who tells on another kid’s a dead kid.

And that’s where fear enters into the life of a teen:
friends can become persecutors with little warning, and violence has to be
endured in silence.  In my high school,
where virtually everyone was white and comfortably middle class, there were few
markers of difference.  Once punk and new
wave broke, which for me happened with the release of The Clash’s London Calling in 1979, music and fashion
became a new way of defining ourselves, but also of marking us out.  My friends and I were routinely pushed
around—tripped in the hallways, lunch trays flipped, gym shorts pulled down—but
it rarely escalated to anything major. 
That is, until one night when my friend and I went to a party dressed in
our version of punk fashion, which for me meant ripped jeans, a Stranglers
t-shirt, and a loud tie worn around my bare neck.  Pretty tame, and pretty silly, but for the
Skynyrd and Zeppelin crowd at Stillwater High School, it was an outrageous act
of provocation.  On our way home my
friend Stu and I were jumped by half a dozen drunken music critics and pummeled
until we could no longer stand.  I am
simultaneously proud and ashamed of the fact that we never told who did it.

When Carl, the protagonist of Over the Edge, undergoes a similar experience, he makes light of
the incident, telling his mother to simply “dump a bottle of peroxide on my
head.”  Despite its unflinching realism,
the film is largely reticent about the inner lives of its characters, and we
get little sense of what they are actually thinking and feeling as the story
spirals towards its riotous conclusion, when the kids lock their parents in the
high school auditorium during a town meeting while they vandalize and set fire
to their cars.  The closest we get to
knowing what Carl is feeling after he gets beaten up is when he puts on his
headphones and cranks Cheap Trick’s anthemic “Surrender.” 

That brief moment of interiority, with a teenager lying on
his bed and brooding, is essentially the point of departure for the strangest
teen film of that era, Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm.  It’s protagonist, Mike, is shown in several
scenes lying in a state between sleeping and waking.  These scenes typically end with the walls of
his bedroom suddenly transformed into a graveyard scene, where corpses erupt on
either side of him and try to pull him underground.  While The
and Over the Edge show
us the public side of teen life, Phantasm
depicts its dark unconscious.  The
streets where Mike spends his days and nights are strangely deserted,
fortune-tellers give him cryptic advice and offer strange tests of endurance,
and his parents are conveniently dead, replaced by the ominous patriarchal
figure of The Tall Man, who stalks the palatial funeral parlor overlooking the

fragmented, dream-like narrative centers around a sinister plot that reads like
a bizarre metaphor for growing up.  Mike
and his brother Jody, along with a delightfully eccentric ice cream man named
Reggie, uncover a ghastly slave trade in which dead bodies are shrunk and sent
to another planet to become zombie laborers. 
While the teens seem to defeat the forces of evil, the plot’s
circularity and fragmentation leave this in doubt.  Like my own experience of being a teen, fears
can become realities, just as certainties can become illusions. 
The only thing I knew for sure was that those kids on the milk carton
were missing, and wherever they were, they certainly weren’t smiling.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

OUR SCARY SUMMER: David Cronenberg’s THE BROOD and the Weirding of the American Family

OUR SCARY SUMMER: David Cronenberg’s THE BROOD and the Weirding of the American Family

nullI’d never thought of my family as hip, but for a brief time,
in 1979, it seemed as if we were on the cusp of a rising trend.  We were in family therapy, proudly airing our
co-dependencies and dysfunctions, along with so many other American families
caught up in the family therapy movement, reflected in the era’s
pop culture.  The prime-time soap Knots Landing debuted in 1979, setting a
new trend for dramas that favored pseudo-domestic realism and familial
dysfunction.  Oscar-winning films like Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and Ordinary People (1980) seemed to
underscore an increasing fascination with sifting through the American family’s
dirty emotional laundry.  The narrative
structures of these dramas mirrored that of therapy itself, as dysfunctional
behavior leads to crisis, followed by reflection and self-examination, and
finally healing and self-actualization. 
Seeing these films was like undergoing vicarious family therapy,
creating the illusion that we were facing, and then working through, our
collective neuroses.

Thankfully, the horror films of those years provided an
antidote to the kinds of facile, feel-good narratives that abounded in popular
realist dramas.   While we were being encouraged to work through
our problems, to process and move towards acceptance, a different kind of
advice was offered in the tag-line to the summer of 79’s big horror hit The Amityville Horror: “For God’s sake,
get out!”  While the Lutz family gets
away at the end, the conflicts and tensions that emerge through their harrowing
residence in a haunted house are never really solved.  The resentments and fears linger rather than
being “worked through.”  Growing up in
what I was soon to learn was a classically dysfunctional family, horror films
provided another mode of storytelling that served as an antidote to the vapid,
feel-good narratives of popular dramas and family counseling. 

Few films expose the limitations of therapy narratives more
ruthlessly than David Cronenberg’s The
.  After having explored the psychosexual
demons haunting the individual human psyche in Shivers and Rabid, the
Canadian director anatomized the late-seventies zeitgeist by turning his
peculiar attention to the monsters lurking within the fractured family.  The
reads like the rotting underbelly of Kramer vs. Kramer, a divorce/child custody drama in which monsters
proliferate rather than being put to rest. 
After a long and tear-jerking custody battle the Kramers resolve their conflicts
amicably, setting free what they love, while The Brood suggests that there is no such thing as emotional

Like Meryl Streep’s dissatisfied housewife, Joanna Kramer,
Nola Harveth (Samantha Eggers) is hoping to find herself.  Rather than fulfillment in a career, Nola seeks
self-actualization at the ominously named Somafree Institute, an experimental
therapy center headed by the bearish psycho-patriarch Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed).  Nola’s husband Frank is disturbed to discover
that their five-year-old daughter Candice has a number of bruises on her body
after having recently visited her mother at Somafree.  As he confronts Dr. Raglan, he is told that
Nola is undergoing a critical stage in her therapy, and can’t be disturbed by
accusations of physical abuse. 

We only see Nola in the context of the Somafree Institute, a
narrative choice that frames her identity exclusively in terms of the
therapeutic setting.  The architecture
and interior design resemble a modern-rustic 1970s spa or
ski resort, mingling recreational coziness with institutional chill.  This emotional ambivalence permeates Dr.
Raglan’s therapy sessions, which exhibit a disturbing combination of empathy
and disdain.  Large, A-frame windows
reveal the bleak, late-winter weather, reducing the outside world to an
emotional void, and reinforcing a need for shelter that the Institute only
partly fulfills. 

Dr. Raglan practices a peculiar method of therapy branded as
“Psychoplasmics,” in which the patient re-enacts traumatic emotional events in
order to externalize or actualize them physically as well as psychically. It is a process of self-transformation that
becomes grotesquely real, as patients manifest their mental anguish through
bizarre physical transformations. Psychoplasmics
is an apt word to describe the kinds of special effects Cronenberg would become
notorious for in future films such as Videodrome
and Scanners, which mingle the
organic and the synthetic in the director’s disturbing re-imagining of the
physical body. Cronenberg has become
known as a purveyor of “body horror,” in which the monstrous arises from within
rather than without. The Brood cunningly turns this motif
into a metaphor for psychotherapy itself, which seeks to dredge up and cast out
the monsters haunting the unconscious.  But in The Brood these
monsters don’t simply go away: they seek out our loved ones and prey upon them.

In this respect, the mind’s monsters resemble the practice of
psychotherapy itself, which in Cronenberg’s film seems to foster a parasitic relationship between therapist and subject in which one gains
strength from the other. Oliver Reed perfectly
captures the smugly knowing, seemingly empathetic but oppressively overbearing
quality of the seventies therapist guru. Chest hair spilling from his open shirt, asserting his masculinity while
implicitly inviting his patients to “let it all hang out,” Raglan leads his subjects
through emotionally-fraught role playing games in which the roles seem to
shift, but he is always the one in control. 

Drawn to the film for its sensationalistic elements, I was
disturbed to find in Oliver Reed’s character a dead ringer for William Braun,
the director of family therapy at the Minneapolis Family Center, or MFC, where
my family was undergoing ten weeks of intensive therapy.  My sister and I had renamed it KFC for what
we recognized even then as an artificial, pre-packaged brand of therapy, but
for my mother these ten weeks were going to save our family.  My father was an alcoholic, but we’d learned
that his problem was our problem, in a self-perpetuating cycle of co-dependence
that only MFC could break.  We would all
have to search ourselves and dredge up our psychic demons in order to create a
healthy family environment.

In the mornings we’d all be split up into separate group sessions
organized by age level and mode of substance abuse, which came in two brands,
dependent and co-dependent.  There’s
nothing like putting a bunch of thirteen-year-olds together in a room, overseen
by an adult mental health professional, for getting the kids to open up and
share their most intimate thoughts and feelings.  These sessions dragged on interminably, as
would the various group activities and role-playing games that would fill the
middle part of the day.  Most disturbing,
however, were the group family sessions, in which three or four families were
gathered together, each to address their issues under the shared guidance of a
professional therapist. 

My mother was ecstatic to discover that our group’s
therapist was none other than the actual director of the Center, William Braun,
who was reputed to have done great work for families of alcoholics.  While it took awhile for the parents to warm
up to the uncomfortably public nature of these sessions, after a few weeks some
of them really started to get a taste for it, and were soon vying for the burly
therapist’s attentions, especially the mothers. 
The teens in the room studiously avoided eye contact, as their parents
laid their emotions bare in sessions that routinely included crying jags,
shouting matches and tearful reconciliations. 
One session that I will never forget culminated in an impromptu exercise
in primal scream therapy, in which Braun and an emotionally distraught Mrs.
Knutson kneeled together on a large throw pillow, as he squeezed cries of
mingled anguish and ecstasy from the depths of her body.  I’m not sure what Mrs. Knutson got out of it,
but I had to sleep with the light on for several days afterward. 

Though I would go on to seek therapy in subsequent years, occasionally
with some benefit, I can’t imagine what treatment could have been more
effective at the time than seeing The
, which allowed me watch the same kinds of bizarre rituals I saw
enacted in family therapy, but performed in a way that acknowledged their disturbing
strangeness.  Though my motives in seeing
films like Cronenberg’s might not have been so different from those of other
filmgoers working through their issues vicariously, horror films, at least for
me, have always offered a more honest, less processed form of narrative than
realist family dramas, or, for that matter, institutions like KFC.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

OUR SCARY SUMMER: PROPHECY and the Toxic Environments of 1979

OUR SCARY SUMMER: PROPHECY and the Toxic Environments of 1979

nullDuring the first week of December, 1978, the covers of Time and Newsweek featured horrific images that would haunt me over the ensuing
year.  Both magazines bore the headline
“Cult of Death” superimposed over masses of dead, decaying bodies, victims of
the catastrophe at Jonestown, Guyana. 
Under the direction of their leader, Jim Jones, 909 members of the cult
organization calling itself the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project were
persuaded to commit “revolutionary suicide” by ritually drinking a sweetly-flavored
poisonous mixture in a senseless act of coerced self-destruction that spawned
the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid.”  At
the age of thirteen, I couldn’t really fathom this event, nor did I know where
Guyana was, but I was deeply impacted by those horrific magazine covers.  I would only begin to make some kind of sense
of these events by watching the horror movies that were released during what Newsweek would call “Hollywood’s Scary

By that summer I had already become a fairly seasoned
watcher of horror films.  More than mere
thrills and escapism, however, horror movies had come to serve as a reflection
of the toxic environments around me.  My
understanding of the world was shaped by violent and disturbing images, not
only in theaters but also on television and in magazines, thanks to the news
media’s increasing tendency to capitalize on the graphic shock value of current
events.  I suppose that after televising
Viet Nam, nothing was taboo, and there was certainly a political significance to
a nation’s being asked by its reporters and photographers to bear witness to
what its military was being ordered to do overseas.  But there’s no denying that
images of massed dead bodies displayed on the family coffee table could have a
dramatic, even traumatic, effect, especially on children and adolescents.  

The poster advertising John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy featured a grotesque image of a
monstrous fetal creature wrapped in its placenta, an image I responded to like
all such images in the media environment of the 70s: with equal
parts fascination and horror.  After seeing
the film, however, I discovered that horror could help me to make social and
political, as well as emotional and imaginative, sense of the era’s disturbing
events.  Several months earlier, on March
28, 1979, the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania experienced the
worst meltdown in the history of the U.S. nuclear power industry, releasing
radioactive material into the environment and alerting America to the
catastrophic risks courted by the industry. 
Less than two weeks before Prophecy
hit theaters, on June 3 the exploratory oil well Ixtoc 1 blew and began
spilling vast quantities of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, in a summer-long
disaster that would later be disturbingly reenacted in 2010, stage-directed by
British Petroleum.

With Prophecy,
Frankenheimer wanted to create an environmentally-conscious horror film that
would raise the ethical stakes of popcorn fare. 
While it can hardly be said that he succeeded in this goal—the director
has blamed his own alcoholism at the time, as well as production issues, for the
film’s relative failure—it did succeed in presenting images and settings that
managed to distill, at least for one young filmgoer, the toxic environments of
the 1970s. 

Dr. Robert Verne (Robert Foxworth) and his wife Maggie
(Talia Shire) leave their urban life for the Maine woods, in order to carry out
an investigation for the Environmental Protection Agency.  A native tribe has accused a local logging
mill of dumping pollutants into the Androscoggin River, pollutants that are
poisoning their land and people.  Verne
and Maggie find themselves trapped between the interests of Native Americans
and those of loggers, but gradually become advocates for the local tribe and
its environment once they begin to see the monstrous mutations spawned by the
mercury that the mill has been releasing into the environment.  Trouts the size of sharks, giant demented
raccoons, and tadpoles the size of overweight bullfrogs are just a few of the
initial signs that something weird is going on. 
Like the three-eyed fish that jumps from the river beneath Burns’
nuclear plant in The Simpsons
opening, these creatures are more a part of radiation lore than of mercury

And it’s precisely the indeterminate, hybrid nature of the
creatures that stalk, wiggle, and hop through horror movies that allows them
such a broad range of reference.  Those
who don’t get horror movies would cite the implausibility of such monsters as
undermining the film’s environmental message. 
But the indeterminacy of this kind of horror imagery
actually multiplies meanings rather than negating them.  It matters that the creature of Mary
Shelley’s Frankenstein is created
from the dead as well as the living, from humans as well as animals.  In his hybridity, the creature embodies a
plethora of anxieties induced by the rise of scientific culture in the early
nineteenth century, when the novel was first published, including concerns over
the use of human corpses in anatomical research, the use of live animals in
laboratory experiments, and the use of animal-incubated antitoxins in
vaccines.  While it would be rather a
stretch to compare Mary Shelley’s classic novel with John Frankenheimer’s
not-so-classic film, the latter does partake of this rich tradition of the
monstrous that is horror’s enduring legacy.

As a thirteen-year-old, I was captivated by these creatures,
and horrified by the most dramatic of the film’s monsters, a giant mutant she-bear
that the natives regard as an avatar of their totemic nature spirit,
Katahdin.  But I was even more affected
by Katahdin’s grotesque cub, which Maggie tries to rescue, in a harrowing
sequence that remains one of the film’s most effective moments.  Early in the film we learn that Maggie is
pregnant, a fact that she keeps secret from her husband until she discovers
that the fish they been eating from the river have been poisoned by the same
substances that have produced Katahdin and its brood.  She knows her own child will suffer the same fate,
and consequently regards the mutant cub they find with a displaced motherly
affection.  As she swims through the
river, carrying it in one of her arms, the cub grows terrified as it hears its
biological mother howling in the narrowing distance of pursuit, and begins
biting and tearing at Maggie’s throat. 
She drowns the cub, as she will presumably abort the mutant fetus growing
inside her.

This scene stayed with me for several months after seeing
the film, for reasons I couldn’t quite place, until one weekend, bored during a
visit to my grandmother’s, I pulled out a collection of award-winning
photographs from Life magazine that
had I had often perused before.  There I
came upon an image that had long horrified and moved me, and the connection
between it and the scene from Frankenheimer’s movie instantly clicked.  The image was taken by W. Eugene Smith as
part of an expose on the mercury poisoning caused by the Chisso corporation in
Minamata, Japan.  It showed a mother
tenderly bathing her adult child; the young man’s limbs are bent and twisted at
unnatural angles and his face is distorted in an agonized grimace, the result
of mercury exposure.  In this grotesque
pieta, the mother supports him gently in the tub, and gazes upon him with a
look of steadfast love.  The image was
taken in December, 1971, a fitting emblem for the decade to follow.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

OUR SCARY SUMMER: DAWN OF THE DEAD and the New American Malaise

OUR SCARY SUMMER: DAWN OF THE DEAD and the New American Malaise

nullAs tag lines go, George Romero’s seminal zombie epic sports
a pretty good one: “When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the
earth.”  As a thirteen year old, I had
repeatedly stared at the lurid poster bearing these ominous words in the front
windows of the Maplewood Mall multiplex in the weeks before the film was
released in the summer of 1979.  But like
most tag-lines, these were grossly misrepresentative of the film they
advertised.  The notion of an overfull
Hell spewing forth its denizens is too mythic, too Dantesque, by comparison with
the abjectly modern and mundane world the film depicts.  A more fitting tag-line might have been taken
from a speech given by President Jimmy Carter later that same summer: “Often
you see paralysis and stagnation and drift. 
What can we do?”

Addressing what he described as a “crisis of confidence” in
America, Carter’s July 15, 1979 address has been called “the malaise speech”
for its focus on the country’s financial woes and lack of direction.  Though neither provide answers to the
dilemmas America experienced at the end of the 1970s, both Carter’s speech and
Romero’s film offer disturbing visions of a world succumbing to “paralysis and
stagnation and drift,” visions that clarified and vitally shaped my own
perception of the world, then and now.

Now that we are inundated with zombies, in the movies and on television, it’s hard to remember
how off-the-wall Romero’s film seemed at the time.  There was something both funny and disturbing
about seeing monsters that looked more or less like ordinary people, though well
past their “sell by” date.  Massed
together in vast hordes, these creatures, stupid and slow-moving on their own,
collectively assumed the contours of a nightmare, one that hadn’t been realized on such an
expansive cinematic canvas before. 

Yet despite of all its originality and strangeness, Dawn of the Dead made sense to me,
largely due to the fact that much of its action takes place in an enclosed
shopping mall.  As a Minnesotan, I grew
up in the land of malls.  The Mall of
America may be the most massive example of my home-state’s mall obsession, but
Southdale was the first mall of America, opened in 1956.  Many others followed, including the Maplewood
Mall, where my family and friends experienced their own version of the uniquely
American malaise evoked by Carter, and where I later saw Romero’s film.

“Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but
by what one owns,” said Carter. “But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things
does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material
goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”  For all his failings, it’s hard to imagine a
President since Carter having the guts to offer such an honest criticism of our
country, verging on sacrilege against major tenets of the American commercial
gospel.  This description of vacuous
consumption is an apt description of zombie appetites—joyless and never
satisfied—as well as of the situation in which the four human protagonists find
themselves in Romero’s film. 

Holed up in the Monroeville Mall of Pennsylvania, an odd
collection of refugees from the zombie apocalypse gradually form a community
based on escapism and greed.  Sadly, escapism
and greed are also at the core of the uninspired “solution” offered by Carter
to our national dilemma.  Reducing the “growing
doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose
for our nation” to our dependence on foreign oil, Carter advocated using more
coal, building a pipeline, and conserving what we’ve got until something better
comes along.  At least Romero had the
insight to foresee what the end result of this shortsighted thinking would be,
as the horizon of possibilities gradually closes in on the film’s protagonists.

It’s easy to forget about the larger world when you’re in a
mall, which offers a virtual environment catering to seemingly every consumer demographic.  The Maplewood Mall had two bookstores, three
record stores, two hobby and gaming stores, eight cinema screens, and two video
arcades: these so fitted my limited needs and consumer choices as a thirteen
year old that I could hardly imagine what more the world could offer me.  It took me some time to realize that my
consumer desires were not being catered to so much as created by the Mall
itself.  As with the protagonists of Dawn of the Dead, what began for me and
my family as an escape turned into a lifestyle. 
The walkways were lined with trees and shrubs to create an illusory
natural environment, and the utopian vistas of its vast central court, crossed by gently
rising and falling escalators, resembled the sets of seventies sci-fi films like Logan’s Run, Futureworld and Rollerball.  In my eagerness to live in a virtual reality,
whether through video-games, films, or malls, I somehow missed
the point that these visions were meant to be dystopian. 

Watching the film now gives me a strange frisson
Those muted earth tones, those defunct store-fronts with their period fonts,
those broad lapels and flared pants worn by the mannequins: they resemble the
lost iconography and ambient set-pieces of my youth, brought uncannily to
life.  The film’s soundtrack consists
largely of commercial background music of the period, what came to be called
“library music”—LPs that could serve as a ready source of musical interludes
to be played in the background of low-budget films, commercials, or educational
videos.  The genre has become a popular
one for collectors, largely because these virtually anonymous musical pieces
provided the sonic backdrop of our collective past.  An unofficial soundtrack release collects
many of these from Romero’s film, and for anyone who grew up in the 70s,
listening to it is the aural equivalent of watching a super-8 movie of an
average, anonymous day out of the past.

Dawn of the Dead is
less a horror film to me than it is a distorted snapshot of my youth, one into
which I still sometimes escape.  As the characters
frolic through the Monroeville mall, indulging their consumer whims while
zombies menace them from behind glass doors, I find the premise disturbingly
seductive even as I recognize its abject futility.  It’s a fantasy I could never really experience,
since even if there was some version of a zombie apocalypse, I wouldn’t want to
be holed up in some mall of the twenty-first century: I only want to be alive
in the mall of the 1970s.  The final
irony is that my own response to the New American Malaise has been to retreat
into nostalgia, but what I discover in watching films from the 1970s is an
America hardly dissimilar from the one from which I’d hoped to escape.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.