The art of becoming : performance, temporality, and the composition of the filmic body in contemporary cinema
Film & Television Actor
Warner Brothers / Crown Media
A small child is getting ready for school. His mother dresses him, pulling his jacket over his shoulders. He tries to hug her, emitting a satisfied sigh; she pushes him away. “Don’t do that!” she cries.This sequence occurs at the beginning of Jennifer Kent’s horror film, The Babadook (2014), a film that perfectly embodies contemporary horror’s capacity to critique postfeminist mothering through its use of affect and the Final Mom figure. Although the horror genre’s conventional representations of motherhood portray the institution as monstrous and abject, as in Carrie (1976) and The Brood (1979), a recent spate of horror films has demonstrated a morenuanced approach to mothering. Drawing from Carol Clover’s seminal Final Girl figure, this thesis locates a powerful and critically productive figure in these films: the Final Mom. This figure, though dissatisfied with mothering and domestic life, must defend her family against a threatening force, often with no help from others. These figures exist in a postfeminist world where New Momist parenting is expected and celebrated. This form of parenting demands thatall mothers fulfill a contradiction: give yourself over completely to mothering (sacrificing one’s individual identity), while remaining sexually attractive and achieving success at work. This thesis explores how the horror genre’s new Final Mom figure critiques postfeminist mothering’s impossible expectations through mobilizing negative maternal affects. Employing a tripartite model of affect theory, in which affect is seen to travel between narratives, character bodies, and film form itself, this thesis argues that Final Mom horror films use negative maternal affects to critique and denaturalize postfeminist mothering structures. Irritation occupies a critical role in The Babadook, while envy will be discussed in relation to We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011). These under-discussed, unpleasant affects will provide in-depth cultural critiques ofcontemporary mothering’s unfulfillable expectations, proving their politically productive potentials. What’s more, unpleasant affects like irritation and envy are emphasized as natural components of mothering, rather than shameful. This thesis exposes the Final Mom’s potential to celebrate mothering’s “bad” feelings, to accept these affects as natural to all mothering experiences.
The Other operates as a figure of inherent transgression: A manifestation of the repressions necessary for the sustenance of dominant ideology. As the Other lurches in from the sidelines to threaten and frighten before being neutralized through assimilation or death, dominant ideology is upheld and confirmed by being set against the abnormality and monstrosity of difference. In feminist film theory, otherness has been foundational as a means of describing women’s marginalization within patriarchal society. Where Man is constructed as subject, Woman is constructed as Other. As such, the female Other tells us far more about patriarchal constructions of Woman than it does about female subjects in the world. Feminist film theory demonstrates a pronounced investment in the need for spectatorial identification with female characters, conflating the roles occupied by character and person, and thus the female Other has traditionally been theorized as staunchly misogynistic—the embodiment of patriarchal and phallic fears of female monstrosity and lack. Against this tradition, I propose that the female Other is not always and necessarily an anti-feminist figure. Iterations of the Other that foreground character opacity and thus disrupt empathetic and identificatory methods of spectatorship productively disturb processes of ideological comfort. By refusing to subject the Other to an epistemological narrative structure, one which poses the female Other as mystery to be demystified, and by denying a resolution that destroys the Other and thus the threat that they represent, the films analyzed in this thesis demand an alternative methodology to account for the radical alterity of the female Other. The two case studies offered in support of this thesis are the melancholic Other, with the example of Justine in Melancholia (von Trier 2011) and the posthuman Other, as exemplified in Under the Skin (Glazer 2013) and Ex Machina (Garland 2015). Rather than occupying the traditional role of the female Other as monster, these characters threaten the integrity of the human precisely because of their revelation of the human monstrosity that lies at the heart of patriarchal masculinity.
Film performances have long served as a point of contention in Film Studies. The elusive nature of the art form is often overlooked, and consequently approached via history, star studies, or in reducing a performance to the mise-en-scène. The aim of this thesis is to theoretically root film performances by deviating from classical performance analysis, and focusing on the abstract qualities that demarcate the practice of becoming other. To do this, I turn to the works of Gilles Deleuze (and Félix Guattari) when confronting the unique relationship between the actor’s frame and process to suggest that film performances are necessarily informed by the body and time. The film body is a doubled body, belonging to both actor and character. It serves as an aesthetic platform for the medium, and a technical substructure that maintains artistic cohesion. In investigating this interaction across cinema’s fractured temporality, we can address not only the implications of the film actor’s art, but art more generally.In What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari argue that “composition is the sole definition of art,” and “what is not composed is not a work of art” (1994 191). Not only are film performances composed for the sake of the medium, they are bound by their own compositional structure. This calls for a negotiation between the materiality of a physical body and the potentiality of a screen body that embodies otherness. In this project, I emphasize the film body’s ability to house and negotiate Deleuze and Guattari’s technical and aesthetic planes of composition. In doing this, the film body navigates the before and the after, the self and the other, and the interior and surface throughout the duration of a performance. With the increasingly popular wave of body-centered cinema emerging post-twentieth century, we can draw explicit parallels between the performative process and the physical conditioning endured prior to shooting – particularly in portrayals of pain, suffering, and emaciation. In navigating this compositional interplay, I seek to illustrate how the art of the actor is not so much dictated by the character she becomes, but rather, by the process of becoming.
Sexual violence in war can no longer be ignored by contemporary American war cinema. There is a responsibility to bring to light what can be described as an epidemic of sexual assault within the American military and in times of war. This thesis looks at how the lack of representation of sexual violence in American war cinema rewrites history, and erases rape and sexual assault from public memory of military history. Due to the limited representation of wartime sexual violence, not only within American cinema, but also academically and historically, I focus on the lack of resources and cinematic depictions in order to posit how inadequate representations of sexual violence renders victims invisible. In order to provide a comprehensive overview of sexual violence in American war cinema I draw upon historical as well as academic sources. By looking at examples of sexual assault in military history I am able to detail the ways in which American war films ignore the reality of wartime sexual violence in order to rewrite history. This rewriting of history, I argue, not only erases the truth of rape and sexual assault in America’s military history, it also glorifies the white, American, male soldier. I have chosen to look at this issue from three perspectives. First, I explore what literature exists on wartime sexual violence, and where the lack of representation is in historical and academic sources. Second, I look at the Vietnam War where I discuss the films Casualties of War (dir. Brian de Palma, 1989) and Platoon (dir. Oliver Stone, 1986) in relation to their problematic depictions of rape. Third, I investigate sexual violence in the American military and its representation in the films The General’s Daughter (dir. Simon West, 1999) and G.I. Jane (dir. Ridley Scott, 1997), while drawing upon the statistics given in the documentary The Invisible War (dir. Kirby Dick, 2012). With the combined information discussed throughout this thesis I shine a spotlight on a difficult, yet important topic, in hope of helping to remove the invisibility of victims of wartime sexual violence.
French critic-cum-theorist André Bazin remains a central figure in discourse concerning cinematic realism. A prolific film commentator during the postwar period, Bazin advanced a theory of realism that took resemblance to be the apogee of film aestheticism, a radical departure from the then-dominant views held by Soviet film theorists that cinema's "essence" as an art form hinges on techniques that dissociate it from reality (via montage, for instance). A one-time favoured approach, in the 1960s and 1970s Bazin's theories were lambasted in the wake of an intellectual paradigm shift that came to view cinematic realism as an ideological subterfuge, lulling passive viewers into accepting bourgeois "realities" driven by inequalities and capitalist motivations. More broadly, Bazin's perceived faith in the objectivity of the image was labelled naïve and empirically dogmatic, an antiquated notion founded on Catholic mores that had no place in the modern, secular world. Today, the residual negativity from these criticisms still mar the reception of Bazin's realism, resulting in facile summations that neglect or misrepresent the more sophisticated, nuanced version he presents.Situated within the larger reappraisal of Bazin's work taking place in film studies – known collectively as "neo-Bazinianism" – this thesis acts as a much-needed corrective to the near-ubiquitous view of Bazinian realism as being ontologically contingent upon the photographic medium, and "indexically" connected to an antecedent reality. I argue that, given his proximity to the leading figures of French existentialist and phenomenological thought – namely, Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty – Bazin advances a theory of realism based, not on the objectivity of the camera's gaze, but the intersubjectivity of embodied experience, having recognized in the image a perceptual engagement with the world analogous to our own. It is the concept of the "image-body" that is crucial here, a self-coined term that anchors the thesis around the central assumption that, if Bazin's realism offers us recognizable representations of the world onscreen, and it is our perceptual bodies that make manifest this world, then the "realistic" image must in someway share with us an embodied, enworlded state.
In June 2009 a group of forum-goers on the popular culture website, Something Awful, created a monster called the Slender Man. Inhumanly tall, pale, black-clad, and with the power to control minds, the Slender Man references many classic, canonical horror monsters while simultaneously expressing an acute anxiety about the contemporary digital context that birthed him. This anxiety is apparent in the collective legends that have risen around the Slender Man since 2009, but it figures particularly strongly in the Web series Marble Hornets (Troy Wagner and Joseph DeLage June 2009 - ). This thesis examines Marble Hornets as an example of an emerging trend in digital, online cinema that it defines as “folk horror”: a subgenre of horror that is produced by online communities of everyday people—or folk—as opposed to professional crews working within the film industry. Works of folk horror address the questions and anxieties of our current, digital age by reflecting the changing roles and behaviours of the everyday person, who is becoming increasingly involved with the products of popular culture. After providing a context for understanding folk horror, this thesis analyzes Marble Hornets through the lens of folkloric narrative structures such as legends and folktales, and vernacular modes of filmmaking such as cinéma direct and found footage horror. The focus then shifts to the ways in which Marble Hornets’ digital folk context amplifies the classic horror conventions with which the series engages. Primary attention is given to three key components: the monster, the narrative, and the audience. Folk horror might be a new term, but it is an old concept, one that reflects the important role that community plays in the forging of fear. It has been suggested that the Slender Man is a tulpa, a creature brought into physical existence by collective thought. As such he is truly a monster for the digital age as he reflects the many faces—positive and negative—of the increasingly “connected” individual. Through the lens of folk horror we may not only witness significant developments in the horror genre, but also those of storytelling on a broader scale.
Emerging from the “quality TV” shows of the early 1980s, contemporary American television shows such as The Sopranos (HBO, 1999 - 2007), Lost (ABC, 2004 - 2010), Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011 - ) and Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008 - 2013) have been frequently praised by critics and scholars for their narrative complexity. However, often neither critics nor scholars define what narrative complexity specifically constitutes. That is to say, what are intricate plotlines? What distinguishes complex characters from “simple” ones? And in what ways do complex television narratives differ from complex feature films? This study takes a cognition-based approach to the topic and discusses the AMC series Breaking Bad as one of the prime examples of narrative complexity in contemporary television. The series revolves around Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a fifty year old high-school chemistry teacher, who is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and decides to team up with a former student of his to produce methamphetamine in order to secure a financial future for his family before he dies. Breaking Bad frequently uses “puzzling” narrative devices such as flashbacks, flashforwards, time-jumps or cold opens and aligns its viewers with a main protagonist whose actions are often morally objectionable. During the course of this study, which is primarily based on the works of theorists such as David Bordwell, Edward Branigan, Thomas Elsaesser , Murray Smith and Jason Mittell, I discuss how narration in visual media storytelling operates, what narrative complexity in the television medium constitutes, and how watching “Complex TV” has changed how viewers process television narratives on a cognitive level. In particular, I explore the ways in which contemporary television narratives have adopted trademarks of what Elsaesser has termed “mind-game” films and how engaging with complex characters over the course of several seasons of a series can influence our understanding of the narrative as a whole. However, the study of “Complex TV” has only begun and this work is primarily supposed to generate more discussion about a narrative trend that has left its mark on the current “Golden Age of Television.”
This thesis is an attempt to formulate a systematic framework for ‘silence studies’ in the cinema by defining silence in pragmatic terms and suggesting different forms of filmic silence. As an illustration of my model, I examine the variety of silences in the works of Abbas Kiarostami, a notable figure of Art Cinema. The analytical approach suggested here can further be applied to the works of many other Art Cinema auteurs, and, by extension, to other cinematic modes as well, for a better understanding of the functions, implications, and consequences of various forms of silence in the cinema.Chapter 1 provides a working and pragmatic description of silence, applicable to both film and other communicative forms of art. Chapter 2 represents a historical study of some of the major writings about silence in the cinema. Chapter 3 introduces, exemplifies, and analyzes the acoustic silences in the films of Kiarostami, including the five categories of complete, partial (uncovered; covered with noise, music, or perspective), character/dialogue, language, and music silences. Chapter 4 introduces the concept of meta-silence and its trans-sensorial perceptions in communication and in arts, and then defines the four categories of the visual, character/image, narrative, and political silences in Kiarostami’s oeuvre. In the conclusion, some of the powers of silence in the cinema of Kiarostami are discussed. The narrative, ethical, philosophical, and aesthetic dimensions of silence in Kiarostami make it possible to define his cinema as one based in, and dependent on, silence.
Non-simulated penetrative sex, graphic sexual violence, gore, cannibalism, murder, incest, and necrophilia: excessive violence and explicit sexuality characterize European new extremism, a contemporary arthouse film movement that challenges audiences through its visceral interrogations of the body. Affect and embodiment are at the heart of the discourse concerning new extremism. Although approaching the movement from different frameworks, scholars agree that these films are transgressive in terms of style as well as content: they foreground the ways that cinema is able to impact the body, rather than the mind, of the spectator, and in doing so challenge traditional notions of spectatorship. This thesis examines new extremism in light of the work of contemporary French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, whose ontology of the subject provides a fresh perspective on the confrontational and occasionally traumatic cinematic experiences offered by these films. Nancy is a philosopher of limits: he argues that metaphysics has reached an impasse, and the way forward is to figure these limits in order to gesture towards what is beyond our ability to signify. He characterizes this excess in corporeal terms, arguing that there is always an excess in our material experiences that cannot be constrained to a system of thought. Using films such as Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day (2001), Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void (2009), Philippe Grandrieux’s Sombre (1998), and Marina de Van’s In My Skin (2002), I explore the ways that new extremism illustrates and exemplifies Nancy’s argument that the body is in excess of our understanding. The subject for Nancy constitutes itself, and in so doing divides itself from its body: this results in paradoxes and contradictions that are inexorable to our metaphysical thinking. But these paradoxes are suspended over the groundless non-essence of reality, a reality that we make images of through art and language. Nancy argues that art and existence are predicated on violence and cruelty, forces that he characterizes ambivalently as giving rise to the possibility of both abhorrent brutality and radical creation. New extremism touches on this ambivalence, using its central interrogation of the body to expose what is at the limit of our understanding.
The predominance of romance, exoticism and mystical powers of the supernaturalembodied onscreen by the character of the vampire has created both allure and apathy inviewers. While vampires have been portrayed in a large number of films since the early daysof cinema, there has recently been a considerable modification in their depiction. Rather thanthe demons of Nosferatu (Murnau, 1922) and various other Dracula adaptations, or theromantic figures of Interview with the Vampire (Jordan, 1994), Twilight (Hardwicke, 2008),and even the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series (Whedon, 1997-2003), a selection ofcontemporary vampires are informed by a postmodern reconfiguration of the monster. Thisthesis examines the global and hybrid nature of these films by establishing a select groupbased on the character of the postmodern vampire. These postmodern vampires aresympathetic and de-mystified, exhibiting symptoms stemming from a natural illness ormisfortune.Over the course of this thesis, both narrative and stylistic patterns emerge,emphasizing the way these films stray from pre-established conventions of vampire films.This thesis first investigates onscreen portrayals of sympathetic female vampires throughrecurring depictions of melancholy and isolation in The Addiction (Ferrara, 1995), Let TheRight One In (Alfredson, 2008), and Trouble Every Day (Denis, 2001), followed by theplacement of South Korean film Thirst (2009) within Park Chan-wook’s oeuvre as afilmmaker notorious for graphic depictions of violence and revenge, and finally the sociopoliticalcontext of Hong Kong film Mr. Vampire (Lau, 1985), which reflects the growingtension of the state in the years leading up to its 1997 return to China. The portrayal of thevampire as a sympathetic figure allows for a shift away from the conventional focus on mythand the exotic, toward a renewed construction of the vampire in terms of its contribution togeneric hybridization and cultural adaptation.