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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Monday, October 22, 2012

FINAGLING THE FOCAL PRESENCE

       As I’ve commented numerous times on this blog, there are times when the viewpoint character of a given story is not the imaginative center, the focal presence, of that story.  Rather, the center can easily be some phenomenon to which the viewpoint character bears witness—the wonders of the Center of the Earth in the Jules Verne novel, or even a manifestation of non-sentient radiation, like the “Crazy Ray” of the 1925 Rene Clair film or the magnetic phenomena of 1953's THE MAGNETIC MONSTER.

But what about “fake phenomena?”  My NUM theory outlines ten tropes through which it is possible for a fictional work to suggest the affective tenor of the metaphenomenal even if the phenomenality of that work does not breach cognitive causality.  Among these tropes I include that of the “phantasmal figuration,” in which a given phenomenon has suspicious underpinnings.  Often this means that some human agency has faked the phenomenon.  However, I also include within this trope such works as HAMLET, where one is not precisely sure whether the protagonist has witnessed the true ghost of his father or, as Hamlet himself says, something sent by the Master of Lies.

One of the best known examples of the phantasmal figuration is Washington Irving’s 1820 short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  The story strongly suggests that the supernatural figure in the story, the Headless Horseman, is purely a creation of Brom Bones, rival to Ichabod Crane, and that whatever spectre Ichabod sees is merely Brom in disguise. 
 
 
 

And yet, despite the fact that the story gives readers the dominant impression is that the Horseman is merely an illusion, I would still say that the Horseman is the “focal presence” of the story.  It is this illusion that the reader cares about; not the ignominious defeat of Ichabod nor the triumph of Brom.  In most “phantasmal figuration” works, the illusion takes precedence.

One interesting variation on the “phantasmal figuration” appears in the 1935 Tod Browning MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, reviewed here.  In this film, it appears as if two vampires—Count Mora and his daughter Luna—have arisen from the dead and are vampirizing the locals.  It's eventually revealed that Mora and Luna are merely actors pretending to be vampires, and that there is a merely human agency behind the bloodlettings.  However, the "real vampire" has not created the illusion of the two vampires as a cover for his activities, as the Horseman is created by Brom Bones.  Rather, the vampire-actors are hired by a policeman.  This officer hopes that the presence of phony vampires will “catch the conscience of a killer,” so to speak, and cause the real murderer, one "Baron Otto," to out himself—which, however improbably, he does.



So are Mora and Luna still the focal presences of the MARK story, even though they are not the creation of Otto, the way the Horseman was the creation of Brom Bones?  I would say so.  The two vampires, even though their illusion proceeds from the detective’s finagling, still offer a parallel to the nature of the mundane “vampire” of the story, as I noted in my review regarding the repeated incest-theme.
 
As David Skal comments in THE MONSTER SHOW, the original script by Endore included a backstory for the long-dead count: that he and his daughter had an incestuous liaison, after which they both perished in some sort of suicidal pact. Or possibly Mora killed Luna, since Luna's character shows no death-marks, while Mora sports a bullet-wound in his temple to depict how his persona perished by his own hand-- a wound left unexplained in the diegesis, since MGM didn't allow any direct reference to incest.

       Yet, in an interesting psychological twist, the Browning-Endore script does manage to put across a quasi-incestuous motive for Otto's crime, for late in the film he reveals that he, guardian and implicit replacement for the late patriarch, coveted Irena for himself. To the extent that Otto incarnates the Freudian myth of the "bad father" who covets his own daughter, the essence of the Mora-Luna relationship does make it into the film in displaced form.


    The example of MARK OF THE VAMPIRE serves to establish that there need not be a one-to-one correlation between the illusion and the one who creates the illusion.  Inspector Neumann is responsible for the illusion, but he remains a supporting rather than a central character.  In the end he functions largely as a stand-in for the persona of the script's author, who constructs the story of   
Mora and Luna to reflect that of the real villain Otto.
      

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