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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, June 20, 2016


In Part 1 I chose to address two subjects-- that of the forms of narrative violence, and that of the four myth-radicals-- with reference to my conceptual word-pair "centric and diffuse force." In the next two essays I'll give each topic separate consideration.

In Part 1 I wrote:

For instance, I've written numerous times about the disparate effects of different forms of violence, particularly "functional violence" and "spectacular violence." Either one of these can be centric in the formal sense: that the climax of a narrative depends on one form or the other, and in fact in this essay I contrasted two films which both had violent conclusions, though only one showed enough sense of "spectacle" to be labeled "combative." I stress "sense" of spectacle because the combative film displayed the intent to produce spectacle even though the execution of said spectacle was lousy.
The gist is that the conflict expressed through the narrative will of one story is functional at the core, while for the other story it's spectacular at the core, despite poor execution. But neither of these obscure films is ideal for illustrative purposes.

Most horror-films concern themselves with one megadynamic presence in the film, against which characters of lesser dynamicity must contend. In 1931 two films, DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN, set the pattern for monster-oriented horror films in the era of sound films. Each film must find some way for lesser mortals to extinguish the source of horror and thus provide narrative closure for the viewer. Both films were patterned upon the scripts for stage-adaptations of the respective prose novels, but directors Tod Browning and James Whale chose very different approaches to the material. Though the film medium was capable of depicting violence in much greater detail than anyone could manage on a theater-stage, Browning chose to follow the example of the Dracula stage-play, keeping the depiction of violence to a minimum. To be sure, the extremely muted conclusion, in which the camera watches Van Helsing execute the vampire from across the room, may have been an instance where the studio bosses would not allow the spectacle of staking, for fear of critical reprisals.

Whale, despite having had experience directing on the stage as well as on film, seems to have done as much as he could to emphasize cinematic spectacle, often focusing on images that would have been difficult or impossible to put on screen.  For instance, the climactic confrontation of Frankenstein and his creation in an old mill shows them squaring off in an old mill.

Following which they look at one another through the mill wheel, as if one were the funhouse-mirror reflection of the other.

And though the scientist can't stop his creation, the aroused populace can, by the spectacular effect of burning down the mill with the creature in it.

Now, I'll reiterate the judgment I've pronounced elsewhere: as in the majority of horror-films there is only one megadynamic presence in both of the films, neither can participate in the combative mode. However, the narrative center of FRANKENSTEIN is to show the viewer the monster's rampage and his resultant destruction in the most spectacular manner possible, and so all the "centric will" of the narrative expresses spectacular violence. This does not mean that every violent act is necessarily spectacular: Karl's whipping of the chained Monster is merely functional, as is the mid-point scene in which Frankenstein and his colleague Waldman subdue the monster with the help of a drug-injection.

In contrast, all of the violence in Browning's DRACULA must deemed functional because most of it is intimated. (Allegedly Browning didn't even want his vampire to appear on-screen, only to be suggested by the reactions of other actors.) The most violent moment in DRACULA comes near the conclusion, when the vampire thinks himself betrayed by Renfield and so breaks his pawn's neck. But if even one wished to deem this a moment of spectacular violence, then it would belong to the diffuse will of the narrative, since the centric will focuses upon functional violence. By the same token, the moments of functional violence in FRANKENSTEIN are diffuse while those of spectacular violence are centric.

The principal exception to the "rule of one powerful presence" in most horror films is the "monster mash" film. The mere existence of more monsters means more potential for spectacle, as well as for the possibility of spectacular combat between two or more monsters.

Of the four "monster mashes" that emerges from Universal in the 1940s, 1943's FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN and 1948's ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN   are the only two in which some sort of "monster-battle" takes place.

Short though it is, there can be little doubt that the conclusion of FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN satisfies the requirements for not only the same spectacular violence found in FRANKENSTEIN, but also its expression in the combative mode. Violence that is both spectacular and combative forms the core of the film's centric will.

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN-- in which the comedians meet not only the Monster but also the Wolf Man and Dracula-- is another matter altogether. All three monsters are megadynamic presences, and so the script might have chosen to have two or more monsters fight each other in the midst of the comedians' antics. But clearly the script chose to emphasize the humor of having the beleaguered protagonists constantly running from the three "titans of terror." The closest thing to a monster-fight is when Dracula and Wolf Man have a shoving-match, with Costello-on-a-gurney in between.

But the two monsters don't have a real encounter, as Dracula mostly runs away from the lycanthrope. There are moments of spectacular violence here, like the Monster punching through a wooden door.

Or the creature's demise, just as fiery as his first cinematic death in sound cinema.

But as with my example of Dracula's brief moment of violence in the 1931 film, these spectacular moments represent diffuse will because the narrative's core is the use of violence in a functional way, to provoke humor as helpless humans run for the hills at the mere suggestion of megadynamic monsters. To be sure, the Monster's death comes about because the pier he's standing upon is set ablaze by a square-jawed hero-type, but this character is strictly peripheral-- and therefore diffuse-- to the dominant will of the narrative.

More later.

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