Women having tentacular sex:
Possession (1981; dir. Andrzej Żuławski)
The Guardian (1990; dir. William Friedkin)
La región salvaje (2017; dir. Amat Escalante)
Women having tentacular sex:
Possession (1981; dir. Andrzej Żuławski)
The Guardian (1990; dir. William Friedkin)
La región salvaje (2017; dir. Amat Escalante)
Here’s a section of the Erskine Caldwell chapter of Literary Obscenities that I regrettably had to cut down considerably due to the length of initial versions of the manuscript. I’m reproducing it here along with the chapter’s original title, which was itself excised because of concerns expressed by PSUP‘s (excellent) graphic design team regarding its damn awful cumbersome wordiness.
In Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism (1995), Walter Benn Michaels surveys a heterogeneous mix of discourses (modernist prose and poetry, Congressional acts, Presidential addresses, etc.) to tell the story of how Progressive-era logics of naturalization and assimilation all but evaporated in the face of U.S. nativist ambitions in the 1920s to invent cultures in which racial identities and the “fact” of racial difference itself could be put to work in re-determining collective identities more broadly, especially national ones. The commitment to identity and what such a commitment might thereby entail are what link nativism to U.S. modernism in this period, according to Michaels: if the goal of nativism in American life is for the American to be “American,” then the aims of American modernists at this time was to produce “American” modernism.[i]
In both cases, identity is an achievement and not simply a tautological given because, Michaels argues, the issue of American and cultural identity had undergone a double disarticulation by this time. No longer tied either to citizenship or to beliefs and practices, the meanings of “American” and “culture” had become a nationwide project whose solution (the replacement of racial identity with cultural identity) was merely the most ingenious “way of reconceptualizing and thereby preserving the essential contours of racial identity” (13). For Michaels, although the move from racial identity to cultural identity appears to replace essentialist criteria of identity (who we are) with performative criteria (what we do), the commitment to pluralism requires in fact that the question of who we are continues to be understood as prior to questions about what we do. Since, in pluralism, what we do can be justified only by reference to who we are, we must begin by affirming who we are; it is only once we know who we are that we will be able to tell what we should do; it is only when we know which race we are that we can tell which culture is ours (13-15).
Our America thus seeks to disembed and then track the paths through which a naturalized America became a racialized America under the aegis of pluralism. In connection with Erskine Caldwell’s early novella, The Bastard (1929), however, Michaels’ polemics against pluralism are less relevant than his discussions of the faulty formal solutions which nativist modernists tested before “discovering” the provisional solutions offered by culture itself. Early in his book, Michaels foregrounds “the position of the family as bearer of what [he] will call identitarian claims” (6). “The significance of the family,” he contends, “is that it was in terms of familial relations (as opposed, say, to economic relations or regional or even generational relations) that new structures of identity were articulated” (6). Furthermore, “What’s at stake in the desire to keep someone in the family is thus the sense that what is outside the family is also outside the race” (7-8). Essential though the family may be to the project of figuring nativist identities, Michaels is nevertheless quick to delineate its impasses. If the family is in fact the bearer of identitarian claims, and if, moreover, all exogamous or non-incestuous unions necessarily threaten to contaminate those claims, then the only solutions seemingly on offer in the effort to keep the family from producing half-breeds are those of incest, sterility, and homosexuality. The truly all-American family in the nativist imaginary, then, assumes three fundamental forms: the incestuous family (Michaels’ primary examples here are the Compsons from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury ), the solitary castrated male (as one might expect, the discussion here turns in part to Jake Barnes in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises ), and the homosexual family (heavy weather is made of the all-male family in Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady ).
Insofar as it strictly enforces the incestuous imperatives of American nativist modernism as described by Michaels, The Bastard makes its obscene potentials dependent upon collective identitarian projects of the 1920s, something which even the most cursory catalogue of the book’s narrative events amply demonstrates. Implicitly on the trail of his harlot mother, Gene Morgan (the titular bastard) meets a stranger who has a photograph of a scarred prostitute with a nippleless left breast who may or may not be Gene’s mother. This stranger goes on to tell Gene some stories involving a stunted pony, twenty-seven men, and a woman who also may or may not have been Gene’s mother. We learn that Gene remembers having seen his mother only twice before in his life and that during the first such encounter he picked her up “in a burlesque theatre in Philadelphia: in a hotel on Twelfth Street he spent the night with her, but she did not know he was her son, or if she did know she didn’t care.”[ii] After arbitrarily murdering the stranger and disposing of his body in a nearby river, Gene goes on a binge in an undisclosed city. Subsequent chapters follow his return to Lewisville, the not-so-sleepy Southern cotton town of his birth, where Gene gets work at the cottonseed oil mill, sleeps with or rapes a number of local women (black and white), befriends and moves in with the sheriff’s son, aids and abets the sheriff’s son in the murder of an African-American worker at a local sawmill, murders the night watchmen at the cottonseed oil mill while in the midst of bedding that night watchman’s wife, and falls in love with a young woman loitering outside the Lewisville high school. This woman, Myra, shares a last name with Gene, and throughout the novella the narrative refers fleetingly to the possibility that the two are in fact half-siblings. Soon after their first meeting, the pair leaves Lewisville and strikes out for the North. In Philadelphia, Gene settles down and finds work as a truck driver to support his new family. Eventually, they have a son who is physically deformed and developmentally challenged to a monstrous degree: “Little Leon was now nearly two years old, and, while his body had lengthened, his skin was still loose and dry and, most important of all, he could not coordinate the movements of his body. Still he required the same attention from his mother as he did when he was a week old. He was horrible to look upon, even through the eyes of his mother and father” (169-70). Gene and Myra subsist fitfully for a time before The Bastard concludes with Gene drowning their son (although this scene is not directly represented) and abandoning his wife.
Effectively, what Caldwell’s novella offers its reader is the critical literalization of at least one of the all-American families (the incestuous family) that nativist modernism tacitly projected by making the family the site for collective identity formations in the 1920s. The Bastard thus “normalizes” sexual relations only through the implied kinship of the two partners involved: Gene Morgan’s propensities for violent intercourse and disregard for racial boundaries in his sexual couplings are made to disappear almost inexplicably once he meets and elopes with Myra Morgan. That the only meaningfully sustained monogamous marriage depicted in the book is incestuous calls attention to the ideal that such a union posed for keeping the American family pure at this time. The only “good” family in the world of The Bastard is that of a brother and sister joined in marriage. What perhaps distinguishes Caldwell’s novella within—if not exactly from—nativist projects of the era, however, is its obstinacy in following the reproductive illogic of incest all the way to its nasty conclusion. Using the incestuous union to keep the Other out of the family nevertheless produces an inassimilable alterity within the family unit itself, with the result that this hideous intruder must be murdered and the incestuous union itself shattered. Incest, therefore, is shown to be a manifestly false solution to nativist identitarian projects. Furthermore, Caldwell’s novella does not succumb to the modernist temptation of The Sound and the Fury to make the word become the thing (as when Quentin Compson declares, “I said I have committed incest, Father I said” [iii], but rather follows the more material logic of making the thing itself be the thing it always promised itself to be. After all, although the novella never comes right out and says Myra and Gene are half-siblings, Leon nevertheless demonstrates that this is indeed the case. Incest cannot help but be a failed means of nativist reproductive futurity, and not so much because your sister will run away from it, as Caddy Compson does in Faulkner’s novel, but rather because your sister and you will necessarily produce dysgenic stock that will not have much chance at reproducing itself thereafter. The Bastard thus presents the incestuous imperatives of nativist modernism as a potentially extinction-level event in the construction of a new American identity.[iv]
Accordingly, in its awkward fascination with gruesome acts of violence and coerced sex pursued by the socially dispossessed, as well as in its feigned neutrality in presenting characters with an apparently innate predisposition for brutality and rapine, The Bastard evinces nothing so much as atavistic naturalism. What differentiates Caldwell’s novella from earlier novels by Frank Norris or Jack London, however, is its studious subtraction of those two hoary old coordinates of literary naturalism, milieu and familial history, from the composition of Gene Morgan’s story. The Bastard instead presents Gene as a hereditary case through the accumulation of increasingly sordid incidents and actions rather than through details pertaining to family background or setting. The frequent violence of Gene’s actions indicates a compulsive predisposition in his character, yet the novella’s narrator obstinately refuses to “explain” Gene through either environmental conditions or hereditary pressures. In fact, so little effort is made to account for Gene and his behavior that the barest intimations of a lurid family history given in the book’s first chapter start to accrue an unsustainable explanatory weight by the middle of the narrative. In short, Caldwell dramatizes adverse hereditary forces by evading direct statements as to their determinate powers as such. The Bastard self-reflexively invites naturalistic explanations for atavistic behaviors even as it reduces them to rumor, hearsay, and intimation. In the course of presenting his readers with a series of character reactions utterly incommensurate with their accompanying stimuli, Caldwell thus composes a naturalistic world shorn free of the discourses and theories that would seek to motivate it causally.
Though they tend to elude being codified into hard-and-fast forms, naturalistic texts often remain identifiable as such by the degree to which they thematize tense interrelationships between free will and compulsive determinism, effectively blurring boundaries between text and life.[v] At first glance, then, naturalist texts would appear to resist processes of aesthetic autonomization. For one thing, Zola’s emphasis on determinism as opposed to fatalism in “The Experimental Novel” (1880) had implied that the phenomena acting and acted upon in human life worlds were not only observable but masterable as well. By submitting the naturalistically composed novel to experimental processes of observation and careful modification, “we shall construct a practical sociology,” he argued, “and our work will be a help to political and economic sciences.”[vi] The naturalist novel of Zola’s programmatic essay, then, was to help reduce life to caused effects that legislators and other “men of affairs” could thereafter subordinate, develop, and direct.[vii]
Though the extent to which Zola’s literary practice actually carried out his theory has been the subject of much subsequent debate, that theory nevertheless continued to prove formative in early twentieth-century U.S. naturalist fiction, which sought to thematize—descriptively and prescriptively—the social forces from which readers could not except themselves. The reduction of a character’s will to almost null in a naturalist novel thus tends to assert the determinate and determining powers of human will in general. In keeping with such a vision, Caldwell’s best defense against the county attorney’s charges was to insist on The Bastard’s constitutive relationship to its social contexts, thus confirming the compositional necessity of the “obscenity” in that text itself.
Nor is this emphasis on context simply a self-serving defense made up on the spot. The Bastard in fact already offers a striking version of it in a brief interlude at the Lewisville cottonseed oil mill. Fairly early in the novella, a carnival comes to town, and the men working the night shift at the mill engage a performance by a “hooch dancer” for their midnight lunch hour. When the break whistle blows, Gene hurries along with the other men to a shed on the mill property:
Already a dozen men were perching themselves on the seed oval, already impatient at the delay. Down in the mouth of the crater, where the cotton seed had been scraped from the floor, stood the woman who was to furnish the body for the dance and the body for the men. Standing there in the centre of the circle of men she was the target for handfuls of cotton seed and the vulturous words from their mouths. Over her body she wore a thin cloth of orange silk. Under the garment rose swelling thighs and unstillable breasts. She was talking to one of the several men beside her, her words broken under the pelting shower of flying cotton seed. (52)
After collecting a dollar from each of the gathered men, the woman begins her hip dance on the floor of the cotton seed crater:
Even before she was nude the shed was in an uproar, and by the time she had thrown the garment beside her pocketbook the din was headsplitting. She smiled forcedly around the circle and began her hip dance. The motions and effect were purely sensual, studiously calculated to inflame the lust of the men. The woman was an accomplished dancer it was quite evident, and placed amidst finer surroundings she would no doubt have achieved with the motions of her hips and breasts an effect not quite as crude and obscene. (53)
Following the dance, which climaxes with small photographs of her child falling from an unclasped locket hanging from her necklace, the woman retires to the shed where the men line up to pay her another dollar to sleep with her, and the chapter ends as this “line closed up” (55).
Despite the surprise and disgust feigned by Caldwell in his broadside, the hooch dancer episode in The Bastard already offers a pointed elucidation of her potential for obscenity and the novella’s as well. Characteristically, little effort is made in the passage to represent the woman’s dance beyond direct statements as to its abstract coordination of cause and effect. “The motions and effect [of the hip dance] were purely sensual” because the one is assumed to be capable of fully (i.e., sensually) determining the other; the art of inflaming “the lust of men” is subject to studious calculations that can be embodied in imagined performance, if not by the novella’s text itself. At the very least, The Bastard attempts neither to imitate the hip dance nor to strive for its effects in the formal and syntactical composition of its words. Instead, in keeping with the novella’s critical instantiation of naturalistic methods and premises, the dance itself is merely the occasion for asserting a fairly strong and prescriptive determinism (these motions lead to these effects) without the exhaustive presentation of the causal networks that would make the operations of that determinism possible in the first place.
Moreover, the narrator complicates this assertion as to the strong determinism of obscenity by insisting that it is subject to its milieu. The same dance “placed amidst finer surroundings” than that of a cotton seed pit supporting twenty-five to thirty riotous men “would no doubt have achieved . . . an effect not quite as crude and obscene.” There is no such thing as obscenity in and of itself, it would appear. Instead, there is only potential obscenity, which depends upon milieu and class because obscene effects are not something that can be readily achieved “amidst finer surroundings” than those afforded by a cottonseed oil mill pit.[viii] Contexts of production as well as those of reception are thus vital for recognizing obscenity, a term the narrator of The Bastard defines as the creation “of beauty or rhythm . . . by the actual indulgence of artificially generated lust” (53).
The hooch dancer comprises more than just a verbally represented emblem of The Bastard as a text that was proscribed on grounds of obscenity. In The Heron Press edition of the novella, Ty Mahon’s illustration of her hip dance at the cottonseed oil mill appears on the leaf facing the title page, highlighting the significance of the scene for those who would read The Bastard for its obscene potentials. Lazily angling bare calves, torso, arms, and head, the hooch dancer in Mahon’s visualization of the dance episode appears at first glance to be more luridly posed than artfully arrested in “purely sensual” motion. Unlike the men whose split-pea eyes leer from the circle around her, she is free of excessive shading. Whereas the cartoonish features of these men gathered about her seem to be seen indistinctly through a curtain of hasty vertical and diagonal marks (perhaps an attempt to visualize Caldwell’s spermatic “shower of flying cotton seed”), the predominant feature of her illustrated version is arguably the virtual absence of features: musculature, jaw, chin, belly button, and digits appear indistinctly on the page. Mahon also excludes not only the dancer’s pubic hair but also her locket, a detail that preoccupies Caldwell enough for him to momentarily violate the novella’s point of view, which until this point has been third-person limited to Gene.[ix] Within the white space expelling the murky torrential shadings of the millhands, the hooch dancer emerges as if from the nub-end of an eraser, and the ultimate effect of Mahon’s illustration is arguably less qualified than the ones pursued by Caldwell’s text.
The surroundings of the hooch dancer do not seem as open to variability in this visual representation of the hip dance as they do in Caldwell’s verbal account, because the halo of white space draping her nude body demarcates not so much a zone of inapproachability as a covering to be punctured, either by the grasping paw of the millhand reaching toward her hips from her right or by the keenly staring man to her left, whose right arm and hand dip suggestively toward his own crotch. Poised literally between rape and the voyeuristically-achieved self-pleasures of ogling men on the leaf facing The Bastard’s title page, the illustrated hooch dancer appears to promise unmixed pleasures that the text itself either estranges or evades altogether. If Caldwell cannot make it through the scene without including digressions as to the mere potential of female bodies, given the right milieu, to promote “the actual indulgence of artificially created lust” in men, Mahon’s illustration seeks instead to interpose no such impediments beyond the depiction of a female body and what that body is to be used for by men (i.e., coerced sex or masturbation). The body for the dance can be nothing other than the body for the men in Mahon’s drawing, and it would seem that viewing this and other illustrations in the novella in this way caused the Cumberland County Attorney to declare the book obscene. Anticipating the infamous pronouncement of Potter Stewart in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964), he quite simply knew obscenity when he saw it.
Yet Mahon’s illustration is arguably as estranging as the coordinated causes and effects described by Caldwell’s narrator in the hooch dancer episode. Though momentarily warding off the imminent threat of a millworker’s hand, the halo of whiteness surrounding the dancer’s nude body also indicates the potential transposability of that body. More than just a tenuous protective covering to her body when surrounded by a crowd of aroused night-laborers, the negative space encircling the woman also implicitly facilitates the provisional cutting and pasting of her body into entirely different scenes and milieu altogether. Consequently, the illustration of the hooch dancer also represents the reduction of her body to an occasion for “the actual indulgence of artificially created lust” in this particular case; despite the fact that the drawing arrests the scene just before the moment this will no longer be the case—another second or two, and the hand of the millworker will seize the body of the woman—milieu, dance, and dancer do not necessarily reinforce each other in Mahon’s drawing. That is to say, the depicted uses of the hooch dancer’s body are contingent and subject to self-reflexive (and possibly self-cancelling) gestures that compliment similar representations in Caldwell’s text.
The mere placement of this particular illustration on the leaf facing the title page, however, is still another turn of the screw regarding the obscene potentials of The Bastard. Though plausibly supporting more complex interpretations than those given or presumed by the Cumberland County Attorney, Mahon’s visual emblem for Caldwell’s novella indicates a different genealogy for its mode of publication than the ones that most studies on modernist publishing practices have tended to offer. In fact, Rachel Potter’s recent work on modernism and the trade in salacious books productively ambiguates the significance of modernist limited editions and subscription lists for readers and state authorities in the 1920s and 1930s by asking us to reconsider what these authorities and readers actually saw when presented with works like Shakespeare & Company’s Ulysses (1922). Rather than follow the influential arguments in Lawrence Rainey’s Institutions of Modernism (1998) regarding the myriad uneven processes of commodification that modernist texts and publishing practices underwent in this period, she stresses instead legal and social features mentioned only in passing in his account. In addition to providing the means by which publishers in the 1920s could present Anglo-American modernist works to wealthy patrons as opportunities for speculative investment, subscription lists and limited editions were also publishing practices long associated with pornography. Since at least the nineteenth century, the use of limited editions and subscription lists had been a common practice in the publishing of pornographic texts that vexed legal distinctions between public and private. By pricing texts beyond the reach of those with low-to-average incomes and making such works available solely to those on a publisher’s mailing list, publishers intended to remove potentially suppressible texts from public domains and resituate them in presumably more private realms, helping to ensure that these texts would be safe from purity groups and nosy customs officials.[x] According to Potter, “If Rainey sees Beach’s use of subscription lists as part of an attempt to create Ulysses as a special, luxury commodity, he downplays the fact that such means of dissemination had a long and complex history. It is only in retrospect that the distinctions between Ulysses and pornographic texts, and the literary market and the pornography trade, are straightforward. It did not look so clear-cut to some lawyers, judges, Vice Crusaders, publishers, customs officials, typists, husbands of typists, daughters of lawyers, or others at the time.”[xi]
Consequently, The Bastard must have seemed a strange object indeed to patrons of Caldwell’s Longfellow Square Bookshop in Portland. Though priced and published in a way potential buyers would have associated with the pornographic book trade, Caldwell’s novella nevertheless appeared for public sale in a bookstore, and not for a more confidential exchange via the supposed privacy of a subscription list. Furthermore, though Caldwell defended the naturalist pretences of its words, The Bastard incurred the censorious attentions of the Cumberland County Attorney because of Ty Mahon’s illustrations of women in various states of undress and arousal. It is these illustrations which confirmed the pornographic implications of the edition’s scarcity and price, neither of which were sufficient in themselves to connote modernist publication practices of the sort commonly associated with either Shakespeare & Company’s Ulysses or the Hogarth Press’s The Waste Land (1922). In short, Caldwell’s public sale of The Bastard frustrated the modernist and pornographic implications of its mode of publication.
[i] Cf. the discussion of William Carlos Williams’ identitarianism in Walter Benn Michaels, Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), 83: “Just as in nativism the goal of the American is to be American, in Williams’ modernism the goal of the American poet is to produce American poetry.” Further references provided parenthetically.
[ii] Erskine Caldwell, The Bastard (New York: Heron, 1929), 15-16. Further references provided parenthetically.
[iii] William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury, ed. David Minter (New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994), 49.
[iv] Michaels also discusses at length the development of the “extinguished” or “vanished” family in the texts of nativist modernism in the 1920s as a marker of authenticity throughout Our America. At the end of the section of the essay discussing principally F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) and Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady, he observes, “The extinguished family is thus added to the incestuous family and the homosexual one as a repository of the ‘American’; the fact that it has ‘vanished’ counts as the proof that it is ‘ours’” (52). Cf. Michaels, 29-52, 63-64.
[v] For more on naturalism as the asymptotic quest for a form both adequate to its theoretical premises as well as assimilable to the novel as an historically bound mode of writing, see the criteria of literary naturalism discussed in Charles Child Walcutt, American Literary Naturalism, A Divided Stream (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956), 20-23. Walcutt also offers a concise account in this book of how “all ‘naturalistic’ texts exist in a tension between determinism and its antithesis” (29). For a dynamic and expansive re-casting of Walcutt’s antithesis into a variety of Greimas semiotic rectangles, see June Howard, Form and History in American Literary Naturalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985), esp. 36-69.
[vi] Émile Zola, The Experimental Novel and Other Essays (New York: Cassell Publishing Company, 1893), 26.
[vii] Ibid., 31.
[viii] In effect, Caldwell’s remarks on the hooch dancer’s dance in The Bastard anticipate developments in obscenity jurisprudence in America, Great Britain, and the Commonwealth by almost half a century. See the discussion of variable obscenity in Ian Hunter, David Saunders, and Dugald Williamson, On Pornography: Literature, Sexuality and Obscenity Law (London: Macmillan, 1993), 240.
[ix] It should be noted that in subsequent chapters, the narrator violates the novella’s point of view at least three more times to give the reader access to the interiorities and life histories of John Hunter (the Lewisville Sheriff’s son) and Myra Morgan (59-65, 152-54, 160).
[x] To underscore Potter’s point once more, this time with an example drawn from Caldwell’s career, I would point out that The Viking Press released Caldwell’s Journeyman (1935) in a limited edition of 1,475 copies because it feared obscenity prosecutions of the kind God’s Little Acre had faced in the state of New York upon the release of that book in 1933. Journeyman did not have enough artistic merit in the estimations of Viking’s editors and lawyers to justify a larger initial print-run, like the one afforded God’s Little Acre. For more on this decision by Viking, see Harvey L. Klevar, Erskine Caldwell: A Biography (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993), 147, 153, 157. For the New York City obscenity case involving God’s Little Acre, see People v. Viking Press, Inc., 264 N.Y.S. 534.
[xi] Rachel Potter, Obscene Modernism: Literary Censorship and Experiment, 1900-1940 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 101.
Here’s the lecture I gave on The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and Quatermass 2 (1957) during the British Horror Film course, for which I also dealt with Tod Slaughter and Scream and Scream Again (1970).
First an axiom: movies themselves interpret other movies fully as much as their respective audience members do. That is to say, films themselves participate in the process of determining what other films might mean, if they meant something. This becomes more or less clear depending on the degree to which a given film forces upon you the recognition that what you’re watching is in fact a movie that has itself seen other movies, some of which you, the present-day viewer, may or may not be familiar with. Now obviously such a forcing and such a recognition can be achieved in any number of ways, and it’s part of the function of our lectures to model for you a variety of approaches that you yourselves can make use of in putting this recognition of intertextuality or of allusiveness to work both in your own essays for this course and in your own thinking about the encounters you have outside the classroom and off campus with other visual texts, of which no doubt your daily lives are filled to overflowing.
There’s a particular urgency in confronting this issue of genre interpretation head-on because as of last week we are now in that part of the course in which issues of seriality are starting to exert pressures and demands on our attentions. That is to say, with the two Quatermass films last week and the first two Hammer Frankenstein films tonight and the first of the Hammer Dracula films next Tuesday night, we ought to be increasingly sensitized to the ways in which seriality constitutes as much an exercise in interpretation as it does in repetition. Another way of putting this would be to say that if you’ve been harboring doubts as to the utility of your undertaking something like genre analysis, then the various and supernumerary sequels to The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), and Dracula (1958) unavoidably confront you with the necessity of accepting and working through the fact that movies have seen, see, and will have always seen other movies. At the very least, you have to concede that Quatermass 2 (1957) has gotten around to seeing The Quatermass Xperiment; you have to admit that The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) must have watched The Curse of Frankenstein at some point; and you cannot help but cop to the fact that Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) has spent some time viewing Dracula just as Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968) has in its turn certainly watched Dracula: Prince of Darkness, otherwise the titular significance of Dracula’s having risen from the grave becomes opaque (How did Dracula get in the grave, after all, if Dracula: Prince of Darkness didn’t end by putting him there? we might otherwise be forced to ask).
For next Tuesday you’re being asked to read Sven Lütticken’s essay, “The Planet of the Remakes,” which very cogently (if nevertheless contentiously) lays out both the impasses and possibilities that get opened up by this Hollywood-enthralled cultural logic of repetition and difference, so I don’t want to anticipate too much of what you’re going to read there. What I am about to say about these two Quatermass films is in the interest of laying the groundwork for issues and concerns that we’re all going to start talking about together in earnest these next few weeks. Therefore, rather than try to have your wrap your heads around a bold speculative claim or two regarding these films, I want instead to do something a bit simpler but no less important, which is to say I want to slow things down and do something like a comparative analysis of the first two Quatermass movies. That is to say, I want us to close read what The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass 2 mean in light of their differences from and similarities to each other, and I want to try to do this by just examining the respective ways they begin, for it is in their openings that these two films perhaps most affectedly overlap in ways that perhaps prove more generative than you might otherwise have expected.
Let’s start with The Quatermass Xperiment and, in particular, with a scene that you’re all probably sick to death of by now, but you’re going to have to tough it out at least one more time. Here goes:
[PAUSE AT KISS] You’ll have noticed (either now or previously) that the diegetic noise of Quatermass’ falling rocket doesn’t kick in until this roll in the hay starts to become a real roll in the hay. The idiotic and mutual laughing fits of these two game rustic mates in the film’s first three shots start to take on all the quasi-ethnographic force of a bucolic mating ritual, in which the game or the task at hand is to see how much each partner can get away with and for how long (note that the laughing young woman lets the laughing young man stop her at the fence and then lets him start to move in for an embrace before she leads him on a hysterically abbreviated chase into the haystack, putting that embrace into brief parenthesis until she lets the young man push her into the hay).
This has the effect of making sex (or simply just its prospect) subject to a negotiatable set of scripted behaviors or comportments. That is to say, getting someone to be willing to roll around in the hay with you isn’t something you need verbal language to accomplish, or at least that’s what the opening shots of the film suggest; instead, all you need is someone who’s up for laughing when you laugh, for running when you run, and for falling in a haystack when you fall in a haystack.
So until the sound of the rocket intrudes upon their lives and on the film itself, the young rustic couple looks an awful lot like Victor Carroon, insofar as the pair up to this point share (even revel) in the sort of pantomime-performance that goes a long way into the making up of Carroon’s harried existence in this film. Reduced to a set of groans and grunts, shambling lurches and slime-trailing crawls, Carroon fitfully subsists throughout The Quatermass Xperiment by ostentatiously expressing himself through his non-verbal behavior, even though that behavior doesn’t seem to be conveying much to anyone else—it is as if Carroon never quite manages to escape the silent movie that Quatermass develops and then watches of the events that unfolded on the rocket in space after it lost touch with the ground crew on Earth.
Unlike the courting couple, therefore, Carroon’s pantomime performance doesn’t appear to be subject to the norms of communicative action or behavior that seem to be at work in the opening scene up to this point, and in fact the absence of such norms makes him the victim of the explanations and projects of all sorts of people who mean him no good and who all ultimately leave unexplained just what it is Carroon wants and just what it is he is becoming exactly. Into this silent world of seduction, however, Quatermass’ rocket (with the suffering Carroon in it) descends, abruptly cutting off the pantomime and brusquely inserting our courting couple back into a world where verbal language and speedy communication prove exigent, especially when something unknown threatens to impale you and your partner in the haystack in which you happen to be rolling around. [RESUME CLIP]
[PAUSE AT TRACKING SHOT] Here we have a pretty interesting instance of repetition, insofar as the amorous courtship chase into the haystack gets repeated here as a frightened flight away from the haystack and toward the distant farmhouse. The camera even repeats an earlier set of movements that it used in the haystack chase. In the third shot of the film, you’ll remember that the camera followed the young lovers in a pan shot that focused on the young man first before the camera started to track in pursuit of both the man and the woman as they landed into the haystack in the midst of one of their giggling fits. In the fearful chase, the camera again reproduces a pan shot, but this time the pan starts by following Maggie before the young man begins to catch up with her, at which point the camera again starts to track in pursuit of both the fleeing lovers.
There’s probably a lot to be said about this doubling of pans and tracking shots, but all I want to point out here is that heteronormative courtship and mortal fright are made to look an awful lot like each other here, at least in terms of how the film is representing those two things for you. Another way to put this would be to say that The Quatermass Xperiment is already interpreting itself for its viewers, insofar as these two strikingly similar shots show that the film is itself interested in something like recursive or self-referential development. Alternatively, if you don’t buy this recursive reading because it treats these scenes in too-abstract a fashion, then you could productively note instead that there is something very Victor Carroon-like in the film’s repetitious deployment of pans and tracking shots in these opening scenes. The film here seems to be reproducing out of itself that which it happens to come across. Extrapolating from this observation a bit more, we could note further that a reading like this would probably see in the film’s use of cinematic devices the formal expression of particular bits of its monstrous content. These early doppelgänger shots appear to preemptively translate Carroon’s cactus hand and his octopoidally undulating mess of a body at the end of the film into the structure of the film itself from the very beginning. [RESUME CLIP]
[PAUSE AT FATHER] Quick question: how long do you suppose that man has been watching Maggie and her suitor out there in the field? [RESUME CLIP]
[PAUSE AT COLLAPSED ROOF] As was pointed out Thursday, Quatermass’ rocket not only interrupts a romantic encounter in a field but also lays waste to hearth and home as well, which would have had all sorts of obvious (if nevertheless still potent for all that) resonances for British post-war audiences who had either experienced the Blitz or (in the ten years since the end of the war) become accustomed to seeing all sorts of representations of it in British cinema and on the telly. The strange thing here is that German planes and V-2 rockets tended to target more militaristic locations (like RAF airfields, airplane factories, and sites essential to ground infrastructure) as well as more urban settings (like London), a point that the 1953 BBC series version of The Quatermass Experiment more obviously picked up on because in that series the rocket is shown to have crash-landed into a tenement flat in Wimbledon, London, and not a field somewhere in rural England. In this view, then, Quatermass’ supposedly failed rocket experiment looks more like a successful extension into the British countryside of the Nazis’ terror rocket attacks. The symbolic resonance of Quatermass’ failed rocket experiment, therefore, makes him look a lot like Wernher Von Braun, chief rocket engineer to the Nazis and (after the war) to NASA in the United States (so this linkage is far from spurious). To repeat another of Marsh’s observations on Thursday, sixty seconds into The Quatermass Xperiment, Quatermass already looks an awful lot like one of those science fiction film allies who is also happens to be an aggressive dominator. [RESUME CLIP]
[PAUSE AT DOOR] It’s worth noting that this is probably the first and last time in the movie that a Brit is going to feel capable enough to try and face-off alone against the threat that Quatermass either poses or makes possible. That is to say, the fantasy that all you need in order to successfully master the danger presented by whatever it is that landed in your field is a shotgun and a working phone gets blown up pretty quickly. Take a look: [RESUME AND CONCLUDE CLIP]
We finally get the reverse shot here that we perhaps rightfully expected a good deal earlier in the haystack scene when the two rustic mates began pointing fearfully at the thing coming out of the sky. Instead, of getting the expected reverse shot then, however, we’ve had to wait until the rocket has firmly rooted itself in the earth before the film gives us what we’ve waited to see all along, though what we get here is perhaps a good deal more obscene, phallic, and pronged than anything we might have foreseen or envisioned.
The punctual explosions accompanying this big reveal mark the climax of the film’s opening and should cause us to pause for a moment and consider the degrees to which much of what happens from here on out simply repeats the narrative of this opening. That is to say, in these opening scenes, Quatermass quite literally interrupts the prospects of the sort of activity that can lead to human reproduction. As we well know from how the rest of the movie plays out, Quatermass never quite gives up this role of interrupter either. Instead, he seems hell-bent on convincing everyone throughout the movie that the real danger posed by Victor Carroon is that of Carroon’s dangerous self-reproductive efficiency and abilities (abilities that I have linked to the formal structure of the film’s opening scene above, you’ll remember). In this view, then, the climax of The Quatermass Xperiment would appear to repeat the climax of its opening scenes, insofar as what Quatermass thinks he is doing at Westminster Abbey is violently interrupting a scene of reproduction (or, more exactly put, of its prospect), which is something we have already seen him doing (albeit inadvertently and from a much greater distance) in the opening part of the movie. At the very least, the tacit linkages I rehearsed earlier regarding the pantomiming lovers and the pantomiming Carroon seem to be borne out by these overlaps between beginning and ending. Moreover, Quatermass’ dictatorial refusal to allow Judith to visit Carroon in the hospital also starts to resonate with all this, we might be tempted to notice as well.
Keeping all of this in mind, let’s turn to the first shots of Quatermass 2, which eschew opening credits in order to dive right into the action, which ought to come down to you now in a haze of familiarity.
[PAUSE AT “The burn—we’ll get it fixed”] When you first watched this scene last Tuesday night, you might have wondered what Judith and Victor Carroon were doing in the sequel to The Quatermass Xperiment. At the very least, these shots of a woman driving her silent, brooding, and (as we find out later) alien-possessed lover (Chris) away from a threat somewhere behind them carry a resonance we can’t really ignore. In other words, Quatermass 2 shows from the very beginning that it is going to pick up on the sex and relationship stuff that was so recursively developed in the first Quatermass film.
Moreover, this continuation of concerns from the earlier film does not seem to consist of the cynical recycling of content but rather of the reworking of that content. Stuff that was a problem in the first film remains a problem in this film but (and this is the key point) without remaining a problem in the same way necessarily. The second Quatermass is not caught up in a Walter Craig-like nightmare of eternal return because (unlike Dead of Night ) the same stuff returns but in a different set of relationships, associations, and combinations. That is to say, something like history or change is intervening here, and the opening of Quatermass 2 represents this for us in a particularly nifty way because instead of having our game rustic mates and/or Judith and Victor Carroon running way from that which Quatermass has wrought, Quatermass 2 gives them the chance to do to Quatermass what Quatermass seemed hell-bent on doing to them in the first film. [RESUME CLIP]
[PAUSE AFTER NEAR MISS] Instead of nearly getting impaled by Quatermass’ rocket, our fleeing lovers nearly t-bone Quatermass’ car. [RESUME CLIP]
[PAUSE AT “They burned him, mister”] In many respects, a lot of what’s happening here is by its very nature simply just an efficiently paced example of up-front exposition, of an info-dump meant to bring you, the audience, up to speed without too much fuss or time wasted. Interestingly, however, this is an info-dump that immediately puts Quatermass in a position to which he is not accustomed, at least not based on our viewing of his actions in The Quatermass Xperiment, for in that film it is in fact he who imperiously hurls speculative exposition like bricks at other characters, not the other way round. Not only do the young picnicking lovers get a chance to (almost) run over Quatermass, but also they get to put him in a position to which he is not much used to, which is quite simply that of us, the audience members, who badly need to be brought up to speed and quickly.
Alternatively, we could note that if Quatermass got to ride roughshod over the local authorities in the field at the beginning of The Quatermass Xperiment because he was the authority figure most responsible for that rocket being firmly rooted there, then here he has to play the role of just another civilian interrogatively gawking at the fall-out from someone (or, rather, something) else’s rocket launch. Leaping ahead from here to later sections of the film, we realize that technocratic authority and the implacable impersonality of those holding such positions of authority remains very much a problem in Quatermass 2, but it’s no longer a problem that Quatermass symbolizes or is symptomatic of all on his lonesome. The problems that come with the expression of such technocratic control over civilian populations have become vertically integrated and thoroughly bureaucratized to such a degree that all this cult of personality stuff surrounding Quatermass’ bad behavior starts to look so downright quaint that we might start to nostalgically long for its return in light of the impasses thrown up by the structural nature of the enemy authority in Quatermass 2.
That is to say, how do you successfully overcome a life-threatening encounter with alien life-forms when those very same alien-forms have infiltrated and are in fact in command of the institutions of your recently socialized country? (To be sure, the solution thrown up by the film’s narrative seems to be simply that of nuking the aliens’ Quatermass, who is presumably up there in the alien spaceship on the dark side of the earth, but the problem—which again is a structural one—doesn’t go away for all that because removing the head of a bureaucracy doesn’t make that bureaucracy go away.) I would also note in passing here that if the crux of the matter in The Quatermass Xperiment seemed to be sexual reproduction, here in Quatermass 2 the problems seem to be circumscribed more fully by the problems of mass production—that is to say, with a change in the figure of technocratic authority, we get a correlative change in the object whose significance characters will spend most of the movie struggling to specify the meaning of.
Obviously, there is more to be said on this point, but I will leave it for the Q&A for us to get back round to saying what that more is or what it might be said to consist of. For now, let it suffice for us to notice that immediately (and without Quatermass having to tell us about the talking down he got in London following a recent rocket launch that turned into a nuclear explosion) Quatermass 2 gives us a Quatermass who is no longer occupying the position of authority. As always, he’s put out by the behavior of those around him (and as always, he reveals himself to be something of an unreconstructed misogynist—“Go organize me some coffee”), but as this opening encounter demonstrates those around him can no longer be said to be under him or entirely under his control, which is something that the woman here very tacitly (if nevertheless categorically) demonstrates in her refusal to accept Quatermass’ offer of a ride, as if she always already knew that he means bad news to young courting couples and (in particular) to young women ever and always. [RESUME AND CONCLUDE CLIP]
I want to wrap things up by comparing this final pan up to the seemingly empty night sky to the reverse shot of the downed rocket in The Quatermass Xperiment because ostensibly both shots give us the apparent cause of all the fuss that happens at the beginning of each film. If in The Quatermass Xperiment, this cause is flamboyantly visible (and few things in this series are as flamboyant as that there steaming rocket), then in Quatermass 2 the cause with which we are presented in this final pan upward is a good deal more subtle for it is presented to us between the lines as it were. In fact, we could be forgiven for not thinking to look for a cause in this final pan because what it shows us doesn’t seem to be very much at all. In other words, the hypervisibility of Quatermass’ rocket gets responded to in this sequel with the invisible shot of the aliens’ spacecraft, which is presumably somewhere up there above the dark side of the earth, making it a perhaps not unfitting emblem or symbol for the film’s “real” threat, which seems to be that of the faceless violence perpetrated against putatively helpless civilian populations by the bureaucratic institutions of a recently socialized state.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that the staggered, wavy overlay of the film’s title-card (Quatermass 2) onto this image of the unseen malevolent alien force somewhere up there in the night sky ought perhaps to have us laughing like the lovers at the beginning of The Quatermass Xperiment because the filling of that alien absence with Quatermass’ name and with that sequential numeral is perhaps meant to console us (if only momentarily) with the proposition that this film is just going to give British audiences another dose of ugly Americanism.
If only it were that simple.