AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
THE TIME MACHINE
DEATH IS THE ONLY IMMORTAL
by Harlan Kennedy
Movies make an almighty boast of transcending Time. We've grown up with appraisals of cinema that paean its ability to be a magical continuum, to defy age and decay, to catapult the past into the present. Timeless! Ageless! Immortal! – read most thumbnail gushes to famous films or famous film stars and these are the top honorifics. Garbo is ever young and beautiful in Camille, Gable ever macho and gallant in Gone With The Wind, etc.
No other art flaunts such a seeming triumph of the final effect (the now we see on screen) over the realities of creation (the then of the production process). Books are a continuous present but of our own imagination, clothing a semantic notation in fresh subjective detail. Music is ever changeable, differently alive with each performance or interpretation. Theater (and opera, ballet) is self-proclaimed, evanescent, physically circumscribed artifice. Poetry, sculpture, and still photography are pieces of moment-in-time immobility, deep-frozen art to be thawed out imaginatively by each new spectator's response.
Films alone – being at once animate, graphic, realistic, and unchanging – seem to have Time conquered. Yet the most obsessive love affairs the cinema has had have not been with Time's conquerors but with its victims. Movies direct their passions not to Utopian celebrations of immutability but to the horror, pathos, or comedy resulting from human pretenses of immutability.
From Citizen Kane to I Walked With A Zombie, from Last Year at Marienbad to The Nutty Professor, age and change and the folly of trying to cheat them are ever-present themes. It's as if the cosmetic denial of Time in moviemaking has merely consigned the reality of Time to a feverish subconscious that has annexed whole territories of cinema. Film, the art that "transcends" time, is also the art most obsessed with it.
The most stand-up-and-beg-to-be-noticed examples of this obsession are in the horror and fantasy genres. In grand guignol tales that play with the themes of immortality and immutability, the audience lives out its own anxiety responses to the faked time conquest of movies as an art. Zombies and vampires purport to transcend time, but their condition is gnawed at by sickness and evil. Zombies walk with a metronome automatism that is the badge of their inhumanity. It's like a slow-motion flicker – the Undead's equivalent of 24 frames-per-second. Vampires, like movies, thrive in the dark and are put to flight or oblivion by daylight. Though folklore and literature invented these picturesque examples of the undead, it took the movies to give them mass exposure and popularity. Why? Because they were a mirror held up to the nature of cinema.
The vampire lives in a dwelling as oversized and fantasticated as the earliest movie theaters (and sometimes with a Mighty Wurlitzer to boot). He plays looming, luminous host (like the movie) to a sequence of awed and vulnerable visitors (the movie audience). And often there is a butler (the usherette) to open the door and show the visitor to his room.
But the main link to cinema is in the vampire story's overriding fascination with age and time. The Hubris of agelessness is invariably linked to evil, of course; otherwise we might all begin to like the idea too much. And it is also linked to the vampire's own tragic last-act Nemesis, which often takes the supremely apt form of a sudden accelerated aging process. (Or rapid-reverse face-lift.) This is most memorably instanced in Terence Fisher's 1959 Hammer Dracula, where, thanks to trick photography, Christopher Lee establishes the world speed record for becoming a pile of ashes; and in Tony Scott's 1982 The Hunger where, thanks to elaborate makeup ingenuity, David Bowie ages by the second in a hospital waiting room.
In vampire films the punishment for time-cheating fits the presumptuous crime. In zombie films the iconography of l'immortalité maudite changes. Zombies, unlike vampires, "come not single spies but in battalions." This is chiefly because they are less charismatic as protagonists, lacking the wit, suavity, and dress sense of the vampire, and therefore best rendered interesting by totemic multiplication. The zombie is often not his own master, furthermore, but in the far-off grip of some greater cosmic or earthly force.
As with vampires, the manner of destruction for these creatures often changes from film to film, but the reason never changes. Like cinema itself, they flaunt the sinister, overweening pretense of eternal life and must receive due corrections – from voodoo exorcism in White Zombie, 1932, to a bullet in the head in George Romero's 1979 Dawn of the Dead.
With zombies belong another picturesque manifestation of the undead popular in movies. Egyptian mummies are risen corpses who walk again in a hostile world. And they carry twined about them the very insignia of artificial preservations: the embalming bandages wrapping them from top to toe. They are as inscrutable, macabre, and charismatic as a movie star under her face-pack. And fittingly, mummies didn't come from literature, they jumped almost straight into movies from the springboard of real life: the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1920 and the subsequent mysterious loss of life among the discoverers.
The message of mummy movies, again thundering darkly against the horrors of immortality is: Respect death, all you living humans, and do not disturb its peaceful finality. They wag a blanched and bandaged finger at cinema's presumptuous exhumations of the past, and at filmmakers taking a rash and arrogant spade to the inviolability of time.
The zombie and mummy figure are potently combined, though without the gift of immortality, in a figure from the Gothic nursery cupboard who pre-dates both: Frankenstein's monster. Ineluctability; ghastly pallor; cocooning bandages; enslavement to a hubristic Greater; rolling, stiff-jointed walk; the sense of a clockwork power that won't stop coming on. This image of a pale and potent automatism, with a hint of ponderous flicker in its gait, is so close to the character and aesthetic impact of early movies themselves that it's hard not to detect a rhyme between the oneiric, mechanistic stridings of these Gothic creatures and the macabre-and-magical rhythms of film as a form. Remember: Electricity is the power that made possible both Frankenstein's monster and the cinema.
Frankenstein's moer was also the most notable forebeaer in a line of semi-indestructible hulks, stretching right down to our age, culminating in Darth Vader and his cohorts and the faceless killer in the Halloween films. The latter, though apparently gifted with a suprahuman immunity to most known weapons, boasts the eerie attribute of walking everyday streets in everyday clothes and seeming (almost) like one of us.
In the 1980s we don't need folkloric seals of approval from the official Union of Non-Humans and Immortals (vampires, zombies, and mummies being chief members) to quake at the notion of indestructability. It's horrific enough – it's more horrific – when the death-defying creature who won't lie down appears to be a normal homo sapiens.
Androids, for example, have been eating up the screen in recent years, in movies like Alien, Blade Runner, and Android itself. The sinister thing about this line in superhuman non-humans is that we can't tell them from the real thing. In the old days you didn't need a diploma in sleuthing to identify a vampire. He (or she) could be reliably expected to sport formal evening wear, look somewhat pale around the gills, and be extremely long in the incisors. Zombies were equally upfront about their identity: the deathly pale, the limbs akimbo, the staring eyes, The Walk.
But today, how could you know that David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve were vampires in The Hunger, unless you had been formally introduced to them as such? Or that the townspeople of Santa Mira in Halloween 3 were androids? Or that Ian Holm in Alien or Joanna Cassidy in Blade Runner were androids?
The reason for the change is clear. In the early decades of cinema the theatrical, high-contrast primitivism of the movie form was matched by an equally high-contrast, theatrical, and primitive line in grand guignol indestructibles. Today, when movie resources can create an image virtually flush with real life, the new immortals and meta-humans have adapted their colors to the new cinematic environment. You can't pick them out. But though styles have changed, what hasn't changed is the continuous interactivity between the immortality theme in cinema fiction and the nature of cinema itself; and the darkly urgent warning that no dream changes more swiftly into a nightmare than the dream of cheating time and death.
BAROQUE AROUND THE CLOCK
No American filmmaker has plugged into the theme of time more obsessively than Orson Welles; and no European filmmakers more than Jean Cocteau, Alain Resnais, and Nicolas Roeg.
Welles' protagonists are distantly related to the Gothic indestructibles lined up above. They tend to live their whole lives like the last seconds of the Nemesis-visited vampire: in a surreally accelerated spurt through the stations of age and aging.
Kane's aging process is on the face of it preposterous: not as representing a real life-span but seen as a spectacle contained within a two-hour movie. It's virtually a time-lapse guide to senescence – almost each scene adds a new wrinkle, a new white hair. But these surreal telescopings of time, this very preposterousness, becomes part of the film's tragic thrust. In The Magnificent Ambersons, the story's single giant mythic given is age. Anything can happen to anyone, but the one thing you can't stop is the onward stomp of aging. And in The Immortal Story, every character is – physically, metaphysically, or vicariously – clutching at youth.
Again, Welles' work is as much about his response to cinema as it is about the apparent real-life territory he has marked off. In Kane the kaleidoscopic narrative is inspired by the instant-memory impact of newsreels – a uniquely 20th-century phenomenon whereby bits of a man's youth or middle age can suddenly rear up at him in ellipses and éclats as quick and bright as lightning flashes.
Unlike the horror-fantasy movie axis, where immortality is presented in the changeless-continuous mode, immortality in Kane is a hall of mirrors where one catches sudden glimpses of oneself at different points in one's life. Kane's tragedy is not that he grows old, a loveless, disillusioned, and tyrannic egotist, but that – thanks to the black magic of cinema – he lives with the half-dozen other Kanes he was.
In The Magnificent Ambersons the newsreel is discarded in favor of a technique that's almost equally lethal: the family-album-cum-home-movie view of time. Scenes unfreeze from photo-album still pictures (like cinema being born from still photography), and the narrative has a juggernaut linearity that hangs the cyclical beauty of changing seasons on ever more forlorn and uncyclical human faces. The time-lapse effect on Kane is slowed down, but like Kane, the film says that every fluid or frozen memory we preserve from the past becomes something to mock us in the present. Photography and cinematography make us live with every one of our former selves – an immortality we can carry all the way to the grave.
Welles' brand of time-exploring Baroque finds an echo in two French filmmakers: Cocteau and Resnais. For Cocteau the mirror is the time-lapse symbol for human life. In Orpheus he takes the proverb "The eyes are the mirror of the soul" and rewrites it into "The mirror is the eyes of the soul." Through that reflective surface we see first ourselves and then into ourselves – first the older outward appearance we present; then, through the eyes (the one part of the face that doesn't change), we see into our timeless self and selves. Cocteau's Underworld, visited through mirrors, stands not for a specific Hell or Heaven, but for whatever within us is beyond the reach of obsolescence and the tyranny of time.
Where the Gothic immutables were locked into a tragic continuity and the Wellesian heroes into time-lapse contractions, Cocteau's time warriors have found the reverse button on the moviola. They can keep diving into themselves to find the past and out of that another world. Time isn't so much extended (as with Gothic) or baroquely re-rhythmed (as with Welles), as suddenly open to the possibility of furloughs from mortality. Once again cinema's own ability to escape from time is translated into the blueprint for a human escape from time.
And once again this presumptive flight of fantasy cannot finally go unpunished. Before the audience is released into the daylight, the filmmaker must show the dream of timelessness crumbling. So Orpheus is sent back to the real world, and the poet's Nemesis for the Hubris of falling in love with Death is the full restoration of prosaic reality.
Resnais' films put Cocteau and Welles in a blender, playing on Cocteau's elegantly fantasticated time dives as they personalize and poeticize the Wellesian kaleidoscope of time. Time in Marienbad, or Muriel, or La Vie est un Roman is shredded into a rainbow of ribbons that we can arrange in any order that seems most meaningful or flamboyantly dreamlike. There's often a reckless arbitrariness in the result which suggests that Resnais isn't concerned with grandstanding about human hope and tragedy in the face of the finite (as Welles and Cocteau differently were), but with free-form flights of conceptual fancy – showing how movie poetry starts where time's petty tyrannies end.
Marienbad is life seen as a series of wildly formal games, maneuverings, postures, and assignations, none of which has any traditional cause-and-effect narrative suspense but instead are gratuitous acts set in a giant eternity. Here Time has been pulled like a rug from under everyone's feet. What is the point of starting to seduce a woman if in the next few seconds you will find yourself warped back into a state of never-having-met-her? The exaggerated formality of the proceedings is not just because surrealists love formality (as mustache painters love the Mona Lisa), but because formality leaps into the giant vacuum left by Time.
In Resnais – as in Welles, Cocteau, and the horror genre – what is in theory a Utopian world of Time denied can quickly turn into a nightmare. But in Resnais it's a near-comic nightmare in which you still have to dress for dinner even though by the time you reach the table it may be breakfast. Life without time is content without form. So Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet (who wrote Marienbad) mischievously and deliberately stuff in the substitute form of manners, evening wear, gallantry, protocol. And the absurd social rituals and auto-pilot deportment continue, just as the humans in Mon Oncle d'Amerique carry on business as usual even when wearing rat-heads and inhabiting a giant cage. The idea is that, just like good suits and social decorum, Time is an exchangeable formality.
Resnais has discovered the surreal philosopher's stone offered by the movie editing process. If you take time apart, who says you have to put it together again? ... and in the same order? Resnais' characters thus become, in the best sense, weightless people enjoying their existential zero-gravity.
For a while, at least. Resnais knows that though the cinema has made nonsense of Time and we live with this platonic model for a timeless world right in our hands, we are no nearer to being able to live without time in the real world. So eventually disillusionment or punishment must catch up with us. In Providence a sour and tyrannical master puppeteer (author and father John Gielgud) is revealed presiding over all the apparently free-form droppings. And in La Vie est un Roman a pair of Mephistopelean look-alikes (Vittorio Gassman and Ruggero Raimondi) preside royally over the slipstreams of spontaneity going on in separate stories in 1914 and 1980s France.
ELSEWHERE IN EUROPE
Robbe-Grillet in his own movies as director (from L'Immortelle to La Belle Captive), Raul Ruiz in L'Hypothèse du Tableau Volé or La Ville des Pirates, Joseph Losey in Accident or Monsieur Klein, all suggest the metaphysical earth tremors that can happen when Time's plates are allowed – or encouraged – to slip deep beneath the ground.
Nicolas Roeg gives us even stronger, more continuous tremors, and occasional outright quakes. Roegs movies are fiercely undecorative. There is none of the parlor-game aestheticism embraced by French or Latin directors like Cocteau, Resnais, Ruiz. If Roeg is baroque in his treatment of time, he's at the hard end of baroque, where muscular expressionism hasn't yet leaned toward swoony rococo.
Yet the message of Roeg's films is close kin to theirs. Every Roeg character swarms with different selves, like a diamond flashing in a beam of light. Cinema has to find a way to show all these different one-character selves in symbiotic existence. This is something the novel can do by patient exposition, the painting by an accumulation of expressive detail which the viewer can pore over at leisure. Roeg insists always that cinema must find its own way. So imitating a novel or a painting, as many filmmakers do by piling on verbal exposition in the one case, or in the other by holding closeups until the face has registered every nuance required – won't do. Roeg prefers to take the instrument unique to cinema, the editing machine, and exploit its ability to tell a story by darting about through space and time.
So a character or a relationship always exists in simultaneous triplicate with Roeg: as what has been; what is; and what will be. An initial trauma or cataclysm (a father's self-immolation in Walkabout, a daughter's drowning in Don't Look Now, the discovery of gold in Eureka) creates a splintered, kaleidoscopic compound-time that simultaneously holds the longed-for past, the painful present, and the feared but mystically alluring future.
All these directors – Welles, Cocteau, Resnais, Roeg – have created an art of spider's-web intricacy spun out of the material of cinema. Cinema's technical possibilities have given us the vision of a poetic world where time can be stopped, reversed, cut up, accelerated, slowed, scrambled, and denied or defied ad libitum. But the real world doesn't accommodate these flexible variants on Time. So the filmmaker is left dangling between Heaven and Earth: trying to find sense and meaning in the tension between the fantastic possibilities of movie time and the intractable reality of worldly time.
And here again, as in the horror genre, the pattern forms itself into one of Hubris and Nemesis. The pretense of imperishability, or the artful dodging of time, nearly always meets it's comeuppance: in Welles with the grim march of ineluctable decay; in Cocteau with Orpheus' doomed rescue attempts from Death; in Resnais with the macabre puppet master figure who hides behind the veils of time; in Roeg with the notion that time's disequilibrium is the result of trauma, a chaos of the mind and spirit that must eventually seek a reconciliation with reality.
Camp was born, at least as an articulated and celebrated concept, in the age of cinema, and it is intricately bound up with the tensions between real time and cinematic time. Camp is about posture and façade. It feeds on datedness, it loves flamboyant obsolescence, and it is predicated on a wild disproportion between resilient style and perishable content. It is what remains behind on the cultural seashore when a new movement of New Wave has ebbed right back and left idiosyncratic deposits no one perceived at the full flood: aesthetic algae, stranded starfish, baroque and dry-docked flotsam.
Camp is created by cinema's unique power as a recording machine. Unlike other "live" art (play productions or concerts or opera performance) which before the cinema only survived in report and legend (Edmund Kean's Hamlet, or Mrs. Siddons as Lady Macbeth), cinema has always survived as both text and performance. The core of camp is florid gestures and emotionalism built around themes people do not take seriously, or have stopped taking seriously. And it depends for its finest flowerings on the survival of all the evidence: hence on cinema as a medium.
In movies the pretense of timelessness makes the datedness of a star or a style or a story especially poignant or comical. A star's efforts to hold back time can result in a fixed totemized identity that takes on a zombie-like quality (as with Joan Crawford or Marlene Dietrich). It is the rictus of high glamour. It's camp because concentrated Style – the fortifications of makeup, of exaggerated élan or luminosity – have had to replace what was formerly natural personality, beauty, youth. Because cinema lasts forever, and because a star's youthful presence is always available to the spectator, on film or on cassette, cinema's creatures have a special imperative not to be seen to change and decay. This is the Sunset Boulevard syndrome. The zombie or vampire – and Norma Desmond was a conflation of both – is alive and well and living in Beverly Hills.
Camp is the tragicomic punishment that swoops down upon the crime of a pretense of agelessness. The "poignancy" of a figure like Judy Garland is based on the viewer's sympathetic shudder at the merciless dictates of cinematic timelessness (and its zombie-masters, the producers), which tries to turn human beings into obsolescence-proof artifacts, with the inevitable emotional havoc wrought upon the human being. When the attempt to preserve the star in all his or her pristine charisma starts to crack or fissure, the cinema finds its real-life equivalent of the Frankenstein fable.
Movies themselves are seen as vulnerable to this process as their individual stars. When we giggle at Plan 9 From Outer Space or luxuriate in the wackier sentimentalities of a Douglas Sirk movie, it's because one age's portentous sincerity – made, like all cinema, for time – is coming humanly apart at the seams, creating exactly the capricious serendipity of response that cinema, the dream machine, often tries to deny or transcend.
In themselves, vitality and passion, talent and personality are timeless. But the particular works of art into which these energies may be channeled are all too tuneful. Camp movies happen when passion gets out of synch with fashion. When Bette Davis in Beyond The Forest ejaculates "What a dump!", we see a whirring machinery of mannerism and histrionic élan working full out on a line of idiot banality. Of course the lines weren't intended to be banal; it was once a cry of Hollywood Bovaryism, the ennui-eaten heroine spitting out her hatred of domesticity. But time has washed all that après-Flaubert pretension away, leaving the style high and dry without the content. The passion remains after the fashion has changed. In Camp, flamboyance and vivacity and charisma all work in time-defying harmony; it's only the kitschy message that's gotten out of synch. Thus, Time once more wreaks its vengeance on the "timeless" art.
To die beautifully. In the genre of the love story, early deaths are much prized. This is the gift-wrapped obeisance of romantic fiction to the proverb "Quit while you're ahead." It's also the cinema's riposte to the campy dangers of aging. The bloom still hangs on the cheeks of Ali McGraw in Love Story or Margaret Sullavan in Three Comrades or Garbo in Camille or Debra Winger in Terms of Endearment. The cinema has power not only to prolong life's sentences but to shorten them, to find the perfect romantic period. And stars who die young in real life, like Valentino or Dean or Monroe (or even who exit young from the limelight like Garbo), preserve their legends forever in amber.
This particular form of apotheosis –self-enhancement by destruction or self-exile – has been with us in art and myth at least since Sophocles' Antigone. But it's especially germane to cinema, since it says two things about the art. First, it proclaims that, despite the magical continuity of the movies and their power to synthesize youthfulness or to keep a young image before us in the aspic of old films, Nothing Is Forever. Secondly, it says that beauty that trusts itself to the Pygmalion of the picture business is offering itself up as a human sacrifice. Cinema has a tendency to keep stars looking as young as possible as long as possible, and when it can no longer do that, their wrecked charisma is cut up and thrown into whatever gruesome casserole the industry thinks fits.
Sometimes, as in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, the very attempt to preserve youth is gleefully parodied. At others, a star will play an over-the-hill mirror image of his or her younger self, as Vivien Leigh did in Gone With The Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire.
So to die young and beautiful is to pick the moment, not to have it picked for one. Robert Altman's Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean explores with a cunningly curdled romanticism the time-slips of cinema and the time-denials of movie fans. The mirror is the way back to the past here, as it was in Cocteau; it's also an analogue for the movie screen. It combines the twin lures of narcissism and nostalgia. The characters in Jimmy Dean aren't looking back to the youth and beauty of Dean but to their own youth and beauty: and hope. In the very same breath that cinema eternalizes our idols (with the paradoxical help of a well-timed death) it gives us a thumping, graphic reminder of our own age and decay. The grapes of timelessness are flourished Tantalus-like before us, but we're grimly, salutarily reminded that we can never partake of them.
The only genre in which death (alias Time) seems to have no place in the cinema is in the cartoon – and in the more fantastical outposts of slapstick comedy (Frank Tashlin, Jerry Lewis, 1941). Cartoon animals and slapstick heroes bounce back from destruction more often and more successfully even than the resurrected bodies reverse-motioned into life in Cocteau's Orpheus.
Only the cinema can show a cat being flattened like a pancake by a ten-ton garbage truck and then in the next shot show the same cat restored to unscathed life and charging full-throttle after the mouse of the day; all as if it were happening before our eyes. When Jerry Lewis is flattened by a collapsing door or a stampede of students in The Nutty Professor, we're not at all surprized to see him walking about hale and hearty and sound of limb in the next scene.
Time isn't being reshuffled here; it's being given an indefinite license for renewal. Each crisis moment that crowns a comic crescendo in cartoons or slapstick movies (say, the Coyote's boomeranging ing murder attempts on the Road Runner) marks a cut-off point. Then we simply go back, or forward, and pick up Time at a point where what has just happened never happened.
At first this looks like the Utopia we've been searching for – where the cinema can happily represent a world totally independent of real time, and go unpunished for this presumption by any last-minute Nemesis. But the Catch-22 of these films is that just as physical renewal is on indefinite license, so is physical injury and punishment. Each time Bugs Bunny or Sylvester the Cat or Julius Kelp (Jerry Lewis) bounces back from the dead it is to meet another maelstrom of insult and injury. This isn't Utopia, Hollywood: it's catastrophic frustration on a 24 fps treadmill.
WHERE SEQUELS DARE
On the battlefields of Time, filmgoers will probably never give up the quest, through the magic of movies, to find eternity in a finite world. The modern-day manifestation of this urge is the epidemic of sequelitis.
The distinctive feature of Star Wars and Rocky sagas, for example, is that despite token bows to chronological progression there is virtually no sense of development in the characters or story from film to film. Not only do the protagonists refuse visibly to age, but each story is almost nakedly a rerun of the last one. The individual details may change but the main stations of the narrative are identical. In Rocky we must have the semi-reluctant comeback, the big-brute antagonist, the sweetly keening wife and the pulverizing prize fight. In Star Wars we must have the scattered forces of Good brought slowly together from picturesque trouble spots so that they can be flung at the villains in an expIosive last-reel team effort.
In the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties the filmgoer's appetite for continuity was satisfied chiefly by the star system. It was enough to see the same beloved star return in film after film, and most other kinds of series were otiose (or else relegated to Saturday matinee fare). But when the star system began to crumble, another form of continuity was needed and it became the continuity of the series. Beginning with the unstoppable Bond (born to movies in 1962), it went on to encompass Airports, Rockys, Jawses, and Star Warses, plus Burt Reynolds chain-Smokeying in redneck America, a brace of Godfathers, a hecatomb of Dirty Harrys and a tandem of Travoltas dancing the neon night away as Tony Manero.
The biggest non-stop saga is Star Wars – a series devised with a built-in reverse button. Recall that, before decay can possibly affect the characters or the plot, after parts IV, V, and VI (ending with Return of the Jedi), we will whizz back to Part I and begin again pre-natally. Meanwhile, though they have been subjected to every danger and injury from light-swords to giant walking tanks, not a single one of the leading human characters has lost his or her life; even Sir Alec Wan Kenobi is on permanent consultative recall.
In the cinema of wish-fulfillment, death has no dominion. Yet human beings cannot sit idly by and watch these celebrations of immortality go unchecked and uncounterbalanced. The flipside to Star Wars is the relentless and prolific wave of horror sagas (the Halloweens, Friday the 13ths, and their ilk) which hoist high the spectacle of death. Here the mantle of immortality, or at least superhuman resilience, is conferred on only one character: the killer, Death itself. And who could deny that Death is the only immortal?
Popular taste in movies, though many critics would have you believe otherwise, is never in the last analysis arbitrary or meaningless. Star Wars is a Utopian fantasy of what we would like life to be: a saga of endless renewal in which wounds magically re-heal, knowledge and wisdom are on permanent tap, evil is always defeatable, and Death can somehow always be postponed.
Friday the 13th, Halloween and company are what adult filmgoers have demanded as a counterweight: Death is the only "force" that keeps coming back for more. By the unlikeliest and shlockiest of back roads, the low-budget horror movie, cinema has found a way to reconcile its own miraculous imperishability with a statement of our own perishability. Which is where, in an appropriately timeless loop, we came in. The creatures of the horror film – from zombies and vampires and the rest of the gang to the never-say-die killers of Camp Crystal Lake and elsewhere – are embodiments of our refusal to allow the immortality machine, the cinema, to pretend to us that we ourselves can transcend Time.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN FEBRUARY 1984, THE 100th ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.