From the Mind of Mikel

A University of Worcester Film Studies Blog

Nine Lives of “The Black Cat”

It has been awhile since I last posted on this blog. Not that I’ve been research inactive or anything like that. It’s just the work I’ve been doing has been for publication rather than the blog-verse. So I thought I’d upload a couple of the essays I’ve written in the past few years that were published in the booklets included in Blu-ray packages. Of course, I’ll always give credit to where these essays first appeared.

Black CatsThis essay was produced for Arrow’s special package, Edgar Allan Poe’s Black Cats: Two Adaptations by Sergio Martino & Lucio Fulci; this special edition appears to no longer be available via the Arrow webpage, but at the time of writing it is available via Amazon here.  Where ever possible, I will link to the producing company’s webpage, but reference to any other films will link to Amazon. Here’s the essay…

Lucio Fulci’s The Black Cat (Il gatto nero, 1981) has been unfairly maligned, even by Fulci MV5BODMxNzQxMjMtMjdlMS00NDQwLWE0N2YtMzFmYmEyMzA1NWMyXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTQxNzMzNDI@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_fans, as “a minor work” (whatever that means). The film emerges in a period of tremendous success for Il Maestro: Zombie Flesh Eaters (Zombi 2, 1979), City of the Living Dead (Paura nella città dei morti viventi, 1980), The House by the Cemetery (Quella villa accanto cimitero, 1981), and The Beyond (L’aldilà … E tu vivrai nel terrore!, 1981) all appear in the same period as The Black Cat. Actually The Black Cat was the first of Fulci’s films to receive Italian release in 1981 [the order of Italian release in 1981 goes Cat, The Beyond, and then House]. What may have hindered The Black Cat’s reception by fans is that, even in this period of the director’s most loved films, Fulci holds back on the excessive gore, in favour of suspense and comedy. With a little gore.

But here, in this essay, I want to explore how Fulci’s The Black Cat is situated among other film (and one television) adaptations of Poe’s original story; from mainstream Hollywood to the American underground, from the Cartesian logic of the giallo to superstitions about the supernatural, and finally to American cable television.

Edgar_Allan_Poe_daguerreotype_cropEdgar Allan Poe first published his short story, “The Black Cat” in The Saturday Evening Post magazine in 1843. In the story, recounted in the first person, the narrator tells the tale of his torture and murder of his wife’s beloved cat. And, over the next few paragraphs, I want to explore how this particular story has inspired filmmakers, and in the variety of ways that inspiration has been shown cinematographically.

There are several key motifs – story points – in “The Black Cat,” which filmmakers have drawn upon, modified or ignored outright over the years.  These include, the cat (obviously), who is sometimes named (and sometimes not); Poe names him Pluto (after the Roman god of the Underworld), evoking a hellish association for the kitty. The unnamed alcoholic narrator of the story mutilates Pluto by carving out one of his eyes with a penknife, and then hangs the cat by his neck. A fire usually breaks out which destroys the protagonist’s home, and in the charred remains, a scorch-mark remains which looks like the lynched cat. The cat comes back the very next day with a white mark on his neck; Poe likens it to an image of the gallows. Pluto continues to terrorize the now-delirious narrator until he can take it no longer and in attempting to murder the cat accidentally buries an axe in his wife’s head. In order to cover up his crime, he inters his wife’s corpse behind a newly fashioned wall in his cellar and congratulates himself on the perfect crime. When the police come to investigate, they are drawn down to the cellar by the sound of a cat’s meows; and behind the still-fresh wall, the wife’s body is discovered along with the cat which was accidentally trapped inside. The narrator is then usually dragged out by the police raving like the mad-thing he has become.

When The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934) was released, Universal Pictures was on a bit Black_cat_poster.jpegof a winning streak after Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931), Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1933). In their search to expand their monster movie cache, producers turned to American-born Poe as a potential source for horror movie entertainment. The first of these was also the first on-screen teaming up of Dracula star Bela Lugosi with Frankenstein star Boris Karloff. The opening credits of The Black Cat (1934) note that the film is “suggested by the immortal Edgar Allan Poe classic” (emphasis added), and with the exception of the film’s title, Ulmer’s film avails itself to none of the story motifs from the Poe original. The vaguest connection to justify the use of the title is that Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi) suffers from ailurophobia, the fear of cats, and his nemesis, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), keeps a black one. Universal pictures revived the title again in 1941 with even less of a connection to Poe (although Lugosi appears in a small role, thereby connecting the film to the 1934 Black Cat instead). What these two Universal Pictures productions demonstrates is an awareness of “Edgar Allan Poe” as a reference to dark, ghoulish and frightening (and American) tales, even if it was unlikely that audiences knew enough about Poe’s original story to balk at the liberties the film takes. “Poe” exists as an idea, an association with horror literature, well beyond the actual writer’s fame.

Strangely enough, the year Ulmer’s The Black Cat was released, so was Dwain Esper’s way-over-the-top Maniac (1934), which according to the Internet Movie Database 51Eoxfq8cqL._RI_SX200_( cost about $5000 to produce. Maniac uses much more of the Poe story than some of the films which cite “The Black Cat” as its source.  In Maniac, washed up impersonator Don Maxwell (Bill Woods) works for the insane Dr. Meirschultz (Horace B. Carpenter) on his experiments for bringing the dead back to life. Maxwell kills Meirschultz and takes over the doctor’s experiments, passing himself off as his now-dead employer. Back in the day, most homes had a cat to catch mice (hence any Tom & Jerry cartoon), and Meirschultz has a black cat named Satan. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the now-insane Maxwell (still posing as Meirschultz) pops out one of Satan’s eyes and eats the eyeball, in what is the first on-screen depiction of that particular motif from Poe’s original story. And true to form, Maxwell walls Meirschultz up in the cellar, accidently traps the cat, and the cat’s meows alert the police to the location of the body, as one would expect. Maniac is surprisingly faithful to the Poe original. Elsewhere in the film, one of Meirschultz’s patients, Mrs. Buckley (Phyllis Diller – but not that Phyllis Diller, the American comic), compares her husband’s mania with the orangutan in Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841). It is an incidental moment in the film, but it name-drops Poe explicitly, and demonstrates that Esper and his screenwriter-wife Hildegarde Stadie have actually read Poe, unlike anyone at Universal Pictures.

Continuing his Poe-inspired series of films, Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror (1962) 61LK7WTOlIL._SX342_features a screenplay from acclaimed writer Richard Matheson. Tales of Terror adapts three(ish) Poe tales – “Morella” (1835), “The Black Cat” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845) – and it is the middle section which concerns us here. Matheson fuses “Black Cat” with another Poe story, “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846). In the Tales of Terror version, Montresor Herringbone (Peter Lorre) is the drunk and abusive husband of the lovely Annabel (Joyce Jameson); and she has a cat which Montresor loathes.  While out on the tear one evening, Herringbone comes across a wine-tasting event and there meets Fortunato Luchresi (Vincent Price).  Herringbone brings Luchresi home with him and introduces his new friend to Annabel. Luchresi and Annabel begin an affair behind Herringbone’s back.  By the time the drunkard figures out why Luchresi is so happy to send Herringbone out for his drunken escapades, fully paid for by Luchresi, it is too late to save his marriage. Herringbone kills Annabel, and walls Luchresi up with her body in the cellar. Again, cat is accidentally trapped and leads police to discovery of the bodies. While Matheson’s adaptation of “The Black Cat” certainly holds more fidelity to Poe’s original, although with much sanitized along the way, he draws comparisons between this story and “Amontillado”. In “Amontillado”, the narrator of the story is Montresor, while Fortunato and Luchresi are two different characters – rival wine experts. Matheson also blends Fortunato’s character into Montresor by making the narrator a drunken fool, “a motley” as Poe calls him. And like the unnamed wife in “The Black Cat”, Fortunato is also walled up in the wine cellar. Matheson also borrows from Poe a name for the wife, Annabel, taken from Poe’s 1849 poem “Annabel Lee”.  Herringbone, as a name, is Matheson’s own invention.

The exceptionally low-budget The Black Cat (Harold Hoffman, 1966), like Esper’s Maniac, black_cat_1966_poster_01is surprisingly faithful to the Poe story, unlike the grander Tales of Terror or Ulmer’s Black Cat.  Firstly, Pluto, the name of the titular cat, not only keeps fidelity to the original, but the cat is listed in the opening credits.  Celebrating their first anniversary, writer Lou (Robert Frost) is given Pluto as a present from his doting wife, Diana (Robyn Baker). In Poe’s original, the unnamed narrator claims to be a devoted animal lover (thereby creating juxtaposition with the alcoholic monster he becomes):  “I was especially fond of animals, and was indulged by my parents with a great variety of pets” (Poe “The Black Cat”).  Lou also is a devoted animal lover with his own menagerie, and Pluto fits right in. Hoffman keeps Poe’s transformative juxtaposition, from animal lover to animal torturer, including the nasty motif of cutting out one of Pluto’s eyes.  Returning home drunk one night, Lou hangs Pluto with a frayed electrical cord which sets the house on fire.  It turns out that Lou’s deceased father, who never had the family home insured, may have returned as Pluto the cat in order to drive Lou crazy. Lou is admitted to an asylum for several months where he is given electroshock therapy that clears away his delusions and returns him to mental health. When he is released from the hospital, Diane is there to pick him up and they drive off to their new beginning as the music crescendos lulling the audience into a false sense of closure. Once he is back home, Lou begins drinking again and returns to his paranoid and violent ways. An identical cat, complete with missing eye, begins hanging around his house, tormenting the man. True to form, Lou murders Diane accidentally with an axe and walls up the body in the cellar, with the cat. Hoffman has one last surprise for us; while the meowing cat draws the attention of the police who then discover the body, Lou escapes and drives away. As he is zooming away from the police, he sees one-eyed Pluto on the road and swerves to avoid it, only to fatally crash his car, losing his own right eye in the process. It’s a lovely ironic touch. While “The Black Cat” has always been a gruesome story, it appears that only the lowest budgeted shlock filmmakers – like Esper or Hoffman – are able to do justice to Poe’s story. By sanitizing the story, as Universal and American International Pictures (who produced Corman’s Poe films), that vitality is lost.

Your Vice is a Locked Door and Only I Have the Key (Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave, Sergio Martino, 1972) is “loosely based on the short story” by Edgar e7457f98-bba0-4fa5-bc08-39c398c3ee0dAllan Poe (in Italian, “liberamente tratto dal racconto “Il gatto nero” di E. A. Poe” – “liberally” adapted).  Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli) is a drunk brutish writer with “mama issues” living on his family’s estate. He frequently holds bacchanals with the local young hippies at his home, which enables his philandering, while also humiliating his long-suffering wife, Irini (Anita Strindberg). Mostly the Vice is a standard giallo, or Italian murder mystery film; several young women are found carved up by a sex maniac and suspicion falls on Olivieri as the prime suspect. Enter Olivieri’s niece, Floriana (Edwige Fenech), who has grown in to a gorgeous woman since he last saw her, and who functions as a distraction for both Olivieri and Irini. Irini and Floriana are plotting to get their hands on Aunt Esther’s jewels; Irini plotting with her lover, Walter (Ivan Rassimov), to murder the young women and try and pin the crimes on Olivieri by hiding the bodies in the cellar of the villa.

In this version, the cat, here called Satan (echoing more the associations Poe intended with calling his cat Pluto than any suggestion of a connection with Esper’s Maniac), was Olivieri’s mother’s cat, and he dotes on it. Irini hates the cat and tries, repeatedly to get rid of it (the cat also has certain psychological interpretations as a replacement for Olivieri’s mother, whom Irini is trying to replace).  Continuing the parallel, Olivieri plays with Irini much like a cat plays with a mouse or bird before he kills it. Irini therefore takes her anger out on the cat as a surrogate, instead of lashing out at Olivier or his dead mother.  In one particularly brutal sequence, the neighbour, Mrs. Molinar (Nerina Montagnani) catches Irini trying to stab Satan with a pair of scissors.

By the end of the film, Irini murders Olivieri in a delirium mistaking drafts of his latest novel as an actual plot to kill her. She stashes his body, along with the other victims behind a make-shift wall she quickly plasters over. And poor Satan also gets trapped. The police are alerted by Mrs. Molinar on animal cruelty charges and when they come to investigate they discover where the bodies are stashed by Satan meowing.  Vice, while a “liberal” adaptation, manages to play with the narrative destabilizing the genre expectations of both the Poe story and the giallo by reversing the gender of victim and killer.

 Lucio Fulci’s The Black Cat (Gatto nero, 1981) is not considered one of the maestro’s best d54f829b-fd68-477c-951f-3ca5df1090ecfilms, but it is still a solid film worthy of note. Again, the opening credits note that this is “freely adapted”, and bears little in common with Poe’s story. In an unnamed English village, a black cat seems to be stalking the villagers, murdering them with its powers of mesmerism. Professor Robert Miles (Patrick Magee), who seemingly “owns” the cat (one can never truly own a cat), is investigating the possibility of audio recording voices from beyond the grave. An American photographer, Jill Travers (Mimsy Farmer), visiting the village becomes interested in Magee’s studies, while also seconded over to the local police as a crime photographer investigating a series of strange murders. From Poe’s story, Fulci includes the cat (here unnamed), the attempt by Miles to hang the cat, the fire which burns down one house and nearly destroys another, and the film’s dénouement with Jill standing in for the wife to be bricked up behind the wall and the tell-tale cat’s meows alerting the authorities. Beyond these few motifs, Fulci’s The Black Cat is much closer to a classic giallo with the cat as the chief suspect; even his paws are black, echoing the classic black gloved giallo killer. Fulci includes audacious “cat-cam” shots, subjective camera angles from the perspective of the cat itself, suggesting the killer point of view shots in so many gialli.

The connection between Professor Miles and the cat is made explicit in the film; somehow they are connected. They both share the powers of mesmerism, the ability to control other people’s minds. Fulci’s frequent editor, Vincenzo Tomassi, intercuts between close-ups of Miles’ eyes with an almost identical shot of the cat’s eyes; this editing pattern established (for us) the connection between the two. Miles describes them as “bound by hate;” certainly the cat seems to resent the link as he attacks Miles every chance he gets. The central question of the film is who is controlling the cat? Is it witchcraft, suggesting the belief that cats are witches’ familiars? Is the cat controlled by the spirits of the dead who resent Professor Miles disruption of their eternal rest? (Sgt Wilson (Al Cliver) suggests to Jill at the beginning of the film that the dead don’t like people interfering with them.) Is the cat just an embodiment of evil? Miles notes that “cats take orders from no one,” as if thereby explaining the kitty’s malevolence.  As in any good giallo, the mystery must not only reveal the solution, but also demonstrate that we’d been staring at it from the beginning, unable to realize its importance. In The Black Cat, we’ve been led to believe Professor Miles is a victim of the cat, but it is Miles’ powers of mesmerism that is controlling the cat. The cat’s vicious attacks on Miles occur when the link is broken and the cat can express its resentment at being controlled by Miles. The answer to the mystery had been staring us in the face from the beginning.

71vBuBgteRL._SL1139_I’ve always had a soft-spot for Dario Argento’s contribution to Two Evil Eyes (Due occhi diabolici, 1990), the portmanteau film that he and George Romero created based on two of Poe’s tales. Argento made a “Black Cat” as bonkers and over the top as he is; not the least of which are the numerous references made to other Poe stories.  Rod Usher (Harvey Keitel) is a crime photographer who we first meet photographing the body of a naked woman cut apart by a pendulum-like device. Annabel (Madeleine Potter), Usher’s common-law girlfriend, finds and adopts a stray black cat. From the beginning, Usher and the cat do not get along, and their animosity towards each other is quite mutual. This version of the story is relatively conservative and (you’ll pardon the pun) by the book: Usher gets jealous of the cat, his drinking becomes out of control, he strangles the cat, he sees the image of a gallows in the white fur on the otherwise black cat’s neck and finally murders Annabel with a meat cleaver (instead of an axe) and hides the body behind a bookcase along with the cat. Argento adds (perhaps unnecessarily) that the cat was pregnant and the kittens have been feasting on Annabel’s dead body.

But when we take a closer look at Argento’s “The Black Cat” it becomes increasingly derivative. Any literary adaptation is going feature commonalities from one adaptation to another due to the shared source material; that’s logical enough. The remit of Two Evil Eyes is to adapt (and appropriately modernize) two Poe stories, and so we would expect to see strong narrative similarities. But it is the close resemblance of stylistic and textural aspects of the adaptations which concerns me, not their narrative correspondences.  Most of the “cool stuff” in Argento’s version has been plagiarized from other filmmakers, specifically Fulci’s The Black Cat. Both Usher and Jill Travers are crime photographers (and therefore give them logical – or at least plausible – access to the gory set pieces), and the use of cat-perspective subjective shots (“cat-cam”) is right out of Fulci’s film.  Giving the girlfriend the name Annabel is likely lifted from Tales of Terror, for in Poe’s story, you’ll recall, she, like the protagonist narrator, are unnamed. The case could also be made that, by refusing to give the cat a name in either Corman’s or Fulci’s film, Argento and co-screenwriter Franco Ferrini, don’t know what to call the beast and therefore construct a strange bit of business whereby Annabel says the cat whispers its name to her so Usher (and us) are left in ignorance. This suggests that, despite his publicly expressed adoration of Edgar Allan Poe, Dario Argento hasn’t actually read the stories themselves, and instead swotted up by watching Tales of Terror and Fulci’s Black Cat.

51UYtNVxUNLPerhaps the most inventive adaptation of “The Black Cat” was by Stuart Gordon for the Masters of Horror television series (ep 2.11, 2007). In this version, Edgar Allan Poe (Jeffrey Combs) is struggling with making money from his writings while his young wife, Virginia (Elyse Levesque), slowly dies from tuberculosis. The episode suggests that “The Black Cat” is based on Poe’s own experiences with his wife’s cat, Pluto. We see the key motifs of the story included: Poe’s alcoholism, the cutting out of Pluto’s eye, the strangulation and lynching of the (black) cat, the burning down of the house, the accidental murder of Virginia with an axe, interment behind a wall, and the cat’s cries bringing the authorities. Even having these events happen to Poe reflects the first person narration of the story; the story’s “I” is Poe himself.

Beyond the narrative conceit of having Poe himself be the episode’s protagonist, Gordon’s “The Black Cat” is remarkably faithful to the historical accounts of Poe himself.  He was married to his younger cousin Virginia who was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1842, the year before “The Black Cat” was written. She died a few years later, and Poe was dead by the end of the decade.  He was an alcoholic who raged and fought against the popularity of his “tales of mystery and imagination” and really wanted to be paid for his poetry. Publisher George Graham, who did what he could for Poe’s self-destructive tendencies, also appears in the episode; as does Poe’s chief rival Rufus Griswold. The historically accurate grounding of the episode creates a “perfect storm” of chaos in Poe’s life which then matched the delirium of “The Black Cat’s” first person narrator; this enables us to slip into the story itself. It is a very clever episode.

So, what have we learned from this whistle stop tour of the various film adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 short story “The Black Cat”? Poe’s works were sufficiently known (if unread) that “Poe” became shorthand for the macabre and horrific. Due to the horror and violence in the original story, exploitation cinema, which could “get away with” more graphicness in their films, was better situated for faithful adaptations than (more) mainstream companies like Universal or AIP. The Italian filmmakers, not beholden to the same censorship regulations as American cinema, were able to take some of Poe’s ideas and play with them; exploring connections between different cultural understandings of the “cat” as symbol.  Finally, I think, what all of these adaptations suggest is that the original source material (any original source material) is but a template for filmmakers; and these adaptations of “The Black Cat” demonstrate the different ways that template can be imagined.

Returning once again to Lucio Fulci’s version, The Black Cat stands as not the worst adaptation of Poe. Actually, Fulci keeps to the spirit of the short story more so than either Universal Pictures or AIP do. And, as a “minor work”, the film featured sufficient innovation that Argento felt it was worth cribbing from for his own version.  To give Fulci his due, his Black Cat may be “minor”, but its effectiveness sneaks up on you, like Carl Sandberg’s Fog, “on little cat feet”.




On The Walking Dead: THAT Episode (probably spoilers)

Recently (actually yesterday and today), I’ve been in a Facebook argument with a friend (I hope he’s still a friend – maybe not so much now…) about the first episode of Season 7 of AMC’s The Walking Dead. He pissed me off by using the phrase “torture porn” and I went for the jugular. Overnight, he countered and this morning I wrote him a (very!) long reply. And I thought I’d share it with you (cause I thought parts of it had merit). Feel free to comment below.

To back up his points, my friend sent me two articles which backed up his position. I shall link to them now:


Sam Adams, “In its season premiere, The Walking Dead‘s brutal violence finally went to far” in Slate.

Melissa Leon, “The Walking Dead just isn’t fun anymore”in The Daily Beast

Here is what I wrote to him:

Let me say outright: I am not defending the show. I feel that episode moved into an area of discomfort for me that I wasn’t happy with. I have contemplated not watching it anymore, but, as a show I’ve enjoyed for six years so far, I’m not prepared to write it off based on one episode. But, and I think this is quite interesting in itself, the sequence which disgusted me wasn’t either of those sequences everybody is running around like Chicken Little decrying as “torture porn”.
“Torture porn” is NOT what many people think it is. Just because Melissa Leon says it is, does not make it so. Just because a blog like The Daily Beast says this is “torture porn” does not make it so either. It’s a journalistic shorthand (a sloppy shorthand at that) used indiscriminately to cover a wide range of cinematic and televisual offenses. I am not defending any so-called “torture porn” films. Nor am I defending this episode of TWD; I was deeply (and, to serve the ball back to you, spiritually) disturbed by certain cards the episode played.
You make a few assumptions here which need disabusing.
1. That if a source you trust, or a writer you trust, says something, it must, therefore, be truth writ large. I’d never suggest you don’t critically read an issue of Screen. Or Sight & Sound. Or even the great scholars, some of whom we both deeply respect. I was at a conference last year with Richard Dyer and he disagreed with me on a particular point; I in-turn disagreed with him on his interpretation of my point (perhaps, I just didn’t make it clear enough at the time). But no harm. No foul. This is what we do. We read critically. You do like your pantheon of unassailable authorities. Accepting something as true because it was in The Daily Beast does not prove your point, it merely points out what you’ve been reading. And that’s no disrespect to The Daily Beast. It does not claim to be the word of God. Nor should it be treated as such.
2. The articles you sent reveal deeply problematic assumptions about fan-culture. The assumption is that the authors (both authors in this case), as cultural gatekeepers, can read this episode better than the drooling hordes of cretins who watch this show baying for more blood. I find it odd that this particular canard is still circulating (but then again, “torture porn” is also such a canard). While I don’t doubt there are some people who may “get off” on these images, they are in such a minority as to be unworthy of consideration. I also know that you put me in their ranks, which is rather unkind, and speaks of an essentialist elitism that has always perplexed me coming from you. But that’s by the by. Read Matt Hills‘ work on Fan Cultures, and the distinction between Fan-Academics and Academic-Fans. The horror fans I’ve hung out with, and studied as a good quasi-anthropologist, do not get off on superficial images of carnage. In fact, most of them have a better and more well-rounded film education than either you or I. They can speak appreciatively of Chaplin or Welles as they can of Cronenberg or Romero. Their (mine as well) interests in the genre have to do with a wide assortment of concerns ranging from the social-political to the religious-spiritual. They are not going to “get off” on a guy getting his head based in with a barbed-wire baseball bat. Descend from the pulpit and talk to the parishioners. Don’t assume they’re too stupid or unsophisticated to understand what you’re saying.
3. I agree, there are lots of fans leaving the show, and as I said above, I may be one too (but we’ll see). This is not due to the gore-factor – the show has always been gruesome. It has to do with killing off one of the most likable characters and is a violation of the relationship one has with a television show. Since (almost) the beginning, there has been a warning from certain fans that if the show kills off Darryl, they walk. I’ve never really understood the affection for Darryl, but it’s there and I don’t judge. The gore factor may be what’s more easily expressed, but we, as cultural scholars of many ilks, cannot be grasping for any superficial straw to hang our emotions on. Like I said above, this is a canard, and we need to stop using them to justify our own-and-personal reactions to the series.
3. Aesthetically, yes, Nicotero overstepped his joyful glee at making more and more outlandish practical effects. It is what Stephen King calls the gross-out, or the “wanna-see-my-chewed-up-food” factor. And even King, who also readily admits to using this factor himself, admits that it’s not big and its not clever. It is juvenile, immature, and (under the right circumstance) fun. By “fun” I do not mean it is fun to imagine bludgeoning to death actor Steven Yuen, or to imagine such violence on a much loved character, or even on imagined empathy by the televisual audience. The fun is pushing the envelope. Of seeing how far you can go before someone (the responsible adult) reels you back in. And in a show like TWD, which is so successful, no one reeled Nicotero in. Maybe they should have. Maybe not. This is not up to me to decide or judge, beyond switching off if it offends.
4. What I found interesting in the episode, and for whatever reason neither Leon nor Adams really explore (perhaps it is too soon and too frightening to touch on), is that Tegan represents the new brutality sweeping the States. I’ve always been perplexed by the ideology of TWD (although I’ve not done close textual analysis on the series – and I know I should – so I recognize that my reading of the show is – at present – superficial). There seems to be a Republican variety solipsism to the show; that we can only trust our nearest and dearest, and assume everyone else out there is our enemy. Maybe it isn’t even GOP, but outright Libertarian in its politics. Like I said, much more textual analysis needs to be done on the show for any kind of distinct perspective to be ascertained. But that TWD may resist such such interpretation is also the point – exploitation cinema, like horror movies (and zombie movies in particular) play with a politics of ambivalence. They resist both liberal and conservative conclusions as totalities. NotLD is a great example: there are just as many arguments for the film’s progressiveness as to its conservatism. Although knowing, or reading about, George Romero’s politics kind of nips that in the bud. The point still stands: exploitation cinema plays with ideological ambivalence. And I’ve seen (again probably superficially) TWD doing the same thing. But “that episode” struck me as different: here we see a violent, psychotic demigod and his pack of drooling thugs destroying any chance of a meaningful dialogue between different factions. Rick may often have to shoot his way out of precarious situations, and you can’t reason with zombies, but under Tegan there is no room for discussion. His is a fascist way of life. A brutal dictatorship. (Although, at the end of the episode, when Rick and remaining company are released to collect goods for Tegan for his return in a few weeks, reminded me more of A Bug’s Life or Seven Samurai). Tegan’s brutality (and perhaps Nicotero’s excess in bringing that brutality out in the episode) is fully in keeping with the brutality I’m seeing in the American elections and on the streets of your cities.
What horror cinema can do at its best, is not to terrify or confound the emotions, but to turn its distorting mirror back on society and show you what you refuse to see for yourself: you may want to be Rick (and Darryl), but you’re quickly becoming Tegan.

CFP – Monsters, Demons and the Jewish Fantastic (Special Issue of Jewish Film & New Media) [Deadline: 1 October, 2015]

Please forward this to anyone who might be interested.
CFP: Monsters, Demons and the Jewish Fantastic (Special Issue of Jewish Film & New Media) [Deadline: 1 October, 2015)
Oy! Have We Got a Monster for You!
Monsters, demons and the Jewish Fantastic
Special Issue of Jewish Film & New Media
Guest editor, Mikel J. Koven (University of Worcester)
Autumn 2016
The Journal of Jewish Film & New Media invites submissions for a special issue on Jewish horror and fantasy in film, TV and new media productions.
Jewish Film & New Media provides an outlet for research into all aspects of Jewish film, television, and new media and is unique in its interdisciplinary nature, exploring the rich and diverse cultural heritage across the globe. The journal is distinctive in bringing together a range of cinemas, televisions, films, programs, and other digital material in one volume and in its positioning of the discussions within a range of contexts—the cultural, historical, textual, and many others.
This special issue, planned for Autumn 2016, may include essays discussing any form of (broadly interpreted) Jewish horror or fantasy in film, television series (or episodes), or other digital material. Topics may include, but are not limited to,
·         Representations of Jews in horror and fantasy films, TV series and new media productions
·         Horror & fantasy films, TV series and new media productions made by Jewish producers – i.e. Steven Spielberg, John Landis, Roman Polanski, Larry Cohen, etc.
·         Jewish spectatorship and audiences
·         Jewish folklore monsters in film, TV series and new media productions – specifically golems and dybbuks
·         Jewish parodies of horror and fantasy films, TV series and new media productions
·         Israeli horror and fantasy films, TV series and new media productions (an article on Kalvet/Rabies would be particularly appreciated)
Submissions should be 8,000-10,0000 words in length following Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition. Submissions should be made (electronically) to Dr. Mikel Koven ( by 1 October, 2015. Informal enquiries and correspondence regarding this special issue should also be sent

The WTF Cinema of Andrea Bianchi

Andrea Bianchi is one of the most marginalized of the Italian exploitation filmmakers; perhaps deservedly so.  His reputation is based on two key films: the giallo Strip Nude for your Killer in 1975 and the 1981 zombie flick, Burial Ground.  While fellow Italian directors like Umberto Lenzi and Sergio Martino were making several films a year throughout the seventies and eighties, Bianchi managed to make about one film per year between 1972 and 1993, and most of these are barely watchable. Jay Slater refers to Bianchi as “a hack director”; a label that seems cruel as Bianchi aspired to be a hack director but never quite made that cut.

Bianchi’s films are a sleazy mixture of explicit sex and gore; and while for many, such is sufficient to deserve adoration, his films often include moments of the bizarre wherein one is shaken out of a bad-movie-numbness momentary to ask “whtatthefuck?!” We look around at the other people we’re sharing this movie with – friends, family, significant others (or even just at the empty spaces where friends would be if we had any) – to see if they too were struck by the films’ moments of strangeness. 1186006_518262951588140_512413961_nDid I actually just see that?! Italian cinema expert Peter Bondanella suggests that Bianchi might be a misunderstood master of parodying the exploitation genres’ conventions. Or maybe, as Donato Totaro diplomatically puts it, a “lesser-skilled craftsman”.  To try and discover whether Andrea Bianchi is a misunderstood auteur or the “Ed Wood Jr.” of Italy, I want to go on a bit of a journey through a handful of Bianchi’s films – some well-known and others … not.

p37034_p_v7_aa I want to start with one of Bianchi’s first films, What the Peeper Saw (originally titled Diabolica malicia in 1972; also known as Night Child and even Night Hair Child – I don’t even pretend to know what that last one means).  Bianchi is directing under the pseudonym Andrew White (a common enough practice among European exploitation directors) alongside British director James Kelly; seemingly Kelly was responsible for the English language print and Bianchi the Italian print.  The film has a reasonable cast for a European b-movie in the early 1970s – former Hitlerjunger Hardy Krüger plays Paul, a wealthy remarried widower, now married to the lovely Elise (Britt Ekland), awaiting the arrival of his deeply disturbed son Marcus (former Oliver star, Mark Lester). Early on in the film, Elise and Paul are at a party, and Elise moves through the kitchen to the outdoor patio to catch some air. The sequence takes no more than 20 seconds of screen-time. But in the background we see some very bizarre behaviour from the other guests: both men and women have a naked Black woman on the table and are molesting her with handfuls of fruit. This activity is not commented on by anyone, nor do we return to the action. Nor am I sure the fruit molestation is consensual. It’s an offhand moment, but certainly very

Elise and Marcus begin a series of mind-games over the actual fate of Marcus’s mother: was it an accident in the bathtub or was it murder? In one sequence, Marcus threatens Elise with a cricket bat by swinging it in front of him as he moves towards her answering her questions about his relationship with his mother. We also find out that Marcus is a Chelsea supporter – I’m not sure what’s more frightening.  But by far the strangest moment in the film is the game of quid pro quo Marcus plays with Elise: he’ll answer her questions truthfully while she takes off her clothes in front of him. The sexual mind-games notwithstanding, from the very beginnings of his career, Bianchi appears to be obsessed with incest; it’s a theme he keeps coming back to again and again across his films. Perhaps this is where some of the evidence of Bianchi’s authorship lies, in the inscription of this taboo played out with uncomfortable graphicness; a refusal to turn away or further repress those incestuous urges within us all.

Cry_of_a_ProstituteCry of the Prostitute (originally titled Quelli che contrano, 1974) stars Henry Silva as Tony Aniante, an American mob hitman brought in to find out who is stuffing dead children’s bodies with heroin for trafficking across the continent. Aniante does this by playing Yojimbo with the two warring families sparring off of each other. In one particularly bizarre sequence, Don Cantimo (Fausto Tozzi) invites Aniante over for dinner with him and his wife Margie (Barbara Bouchet). Dinner was apparently too banal for Margie, as she tries to seduce Aniante under her husband’s nose, by fellatiating a banana. “Lola”, the cross-dressing rapist in Exciting Love Girls, also deep throats a banana – apparently, Bianchi has a thing for fruit.  Not put off by the hitman’s rejection, Margie surprises our anti-hero in the pantry later that night, naked except for the luxurious fur coat she’s wearing. Aniante takes her roughly from behind, having violent animal sex up against an eviscerated pig carcass. Despite the absence of incest themes in Cry of the Prostitute, Bianchi still offers us some bizarre visuals bringing together the separate themes of sex and violence. And having animal sex, up against a pig carcass, with someone in a fur coat, may very well be bordering on the satirical.

Even by the standards of Italian crime films, Cry of the Prostitute is extremely violent. During a particularly bloody gang-war shoot out, the Casemi matriarch, Carmela (Patrizia Gori) puts the head of one of the Cantimo soldiers into a band-saw, with appropriate splatter effects across her face. The film ends with a beaten and bloodied Aniante standing off against the Casemi clan in a sequence which has more than a little bit of the spaghetti western to it. What this sequence demonstrates, at least to me, is the strong connection between the spaghetti westerns and the Italian crime films; if the action was contemporary, it was a crime film; if the action was set 100 years earlier, it was a spaghetti western – but the scripts and iconography were almost inter-changeable.
Nude_per_l'assassinoMade in 1975, Strip Nude for your Killer (original title Nude per l’assassino) tries to up the ante for sex and violence in the giallo film. A series of gruesome murders around a fashion photographer’s studio is investigated by one of the photographers and possibly chief suspect, Carlo (Nino Castelnuovo) and one of the models, who is likely going to be one of the victims, Magda (Edwige Fenech). Strip Nude seems to polarize critics: Peter Bondandella refers to the film as “first-rate” and notes

… by the time Bianchi shot the film, the giallo conventions established by Bava and Argento and elaborated upon by a number of directors in the early 1970s had become well codified. Strip Nude for your Killer makes the often implicit connection between the thriller and the ‘sexy’ film very explicit and deals with a number of themes (abortion, lesbian sex, frontal nudity) that were treated much less openly than in other earlier thrillers (Bondanella, 2009, p. 403).

Danny Shipka, on the other hand, refers to Strip Nude as “one of the sleazier gialli out there,” and notes “the film is only meant to titillate, which shows how far the subgenre had sunk by the end of the ‘70s”.

There’s a sequence, about the middle of the film, where the owner of the studio, Maurizio (Franco Diogene), tries to seduce one of the models, Doris (Erna Schurer) in his apartment. When she resists his advances, he hits her and throws her onto the sofa and begins to rape her.  Doris acquiesces and consents for a quickie; but Maurizio can’t achieve an erection. Doris tries her best to help him, but she eventually just starts to get dressed and calls for a taxi. Maurizio is embarrassed, not because of the attempted rape, but because he couldn’t get hard, and tries to give her money for a cab. She refuses the cash, as she’s not a prostitute, and leaves. Maurizio, sad and dejected, wanders over to a set of drawers in his apartment and pulls out an inflatable woman doll, who apparently is the only woman who “understands” him. Now, either this sequence is the epitome of violent misogynist cinema, or a very clever commentary on pathetic Italian machismo. Bondanella seems to suggest the latter as he notes “a certain sense of humor in the script”.  Either way, Bianchi gets to return to his beloved incestuous themes here: the killer was in a lesbian relationship with her own sister.strip-nude-for-your-killer1

Confessions Of A Naked Housewife UK QuadBianchi’s follow up to Strip Nude, 1976’s Confessions of a Frustrated Housewife (originally titled La Moglie di mio padre) returns the director to the incest themes more centrally. In fact, the Italian title translates better as “The Wife of my Father”, reflecting the romance between a frustrated Laura (Carroll Baker) and her step-son Claudio (Cesare Barro). Laura’s wealthy husband, Antonio (Adolfo Celi), claims impotence, but is still able to function with his many mistresses. And in frustration, Laura begins to look outside the marital home for sexual pleasure. Antonio even suggests that Claudio and Laura spend more time together, so he can have more fun playing around himself.

250fullIf Confessions of a Frustrated Housewife seems rather tame for the director of Strip Nude for your Killer, he more than made up for it with his 1979 erotic-gothic possession film, Malabimba; a picture Danny Shipka refers to as “a sick little puppy [of a film]”.  Bimba (Katell Laennec, in her only film role) is the teenage daughter of the Karoli family, a decaying aristocratic clan. During a séance at their castle, the evil spirit of Lucretzia is contacted and begins to possess young Bimba. Before the young girl goes full-on Linda Blair, Lucretzia has fun possessing Sister Sofia (Mariangela Giordano), the family nun, and teaches this “Bride of Christ” how to masturbate.  Lucretzia’s main purpose in the film is to give sexual licence to the various Karoli women, particularly young Bimba. At one point in the film, Bimba makes an appearance at a cocktail party, like Regan does in The Exorcist, but instead of urinating on the floor, Bimba flashes all the guests her body.

The biggest WTF moment in the film, however, comes when Bimba seduces her paralyzed uncle, Adolfo (Giuesspe Marrocco). As was typical of the time, Italian erotic films would be produced in both soft- and hard-core editions; that is, special inserts (you’ll forgive the pun) were filmed of hard-core penetration and cut into the existing film to make a hard-core edition. If the cultural mores in a particular community or from a specific board of censors viewed pornography negatively, the softer edition would be distributed instead. Bimba’s seduction of the paralyzed Adolfo begins to have an effect, and Adolfo begins to become aroused (probably for the first time in years). Bimba begins to fellatiate her uncle – and this is where the hard-core shots are inserted, most likely filmed elsewhere and with different actors. A blow-job from a teenage niece is too much for the elderly Karoli, and his heart gives out. But he does die with a smile on his face. While the incest between uncle and niece is certainly explicit, more implicit is the affection between Bimba and her widowed father, Andrea (Enzo Fisichella). Malabimba seems to suggest that the various possessions Lucretzia is responsible for – Sister Sofia and Bimba – merely awaken and exploit existing desires, including Bimba’s desire for her father. Perhaps I can extend this idea further, suggesting that Bianchi, like Lucretzia, is merely exploiting the desires in our society; that it is us who are sick – mala – not just Bimba in our repression of incestuous and carnal desires.  Or not.

220px-Burial-groundAnd this is the context in which Burial Ground was made in 1981 (originally titled Le notti del terrore, and also known by the direct translation of the Italian, Nights of Terror); Bianchi’s own contribution to the zombie filone or cycle of Italian exploitation cinema. And, love it or hate it, even without Strip Nude for your Killer or any of Bianchi’s other films, Burial Ground is so outrageous as to cement Bianchi’s reputation.  The film opens with Professor Ayres (Renato Barbieri), opening up an Etruscan tomb and reciting an ancient prayer that awakens the zombies.  Donato Totaro observed that the dry Etruscan dead owe much of their appearance to Armando de Ossario’s Blind Dead Templar Knights from a series of Spanish films ten years earlier.

George (Roberto Caporali) and Evelyn (Mariangela Girodano), along with their son, Michael (Peter Bark), have recently bought the villa under which the Etruscan graves were excavated by Professor Ayres. Joining them for the weekend are two other couples and a skeleton crew of domestic servants. With no phones installed, when the dead start attacking the villa, these nasty bourgeoisie have no place to go or get help from. Burial Ground is a full bodied bloody gut munching film, which is probably what its reputation is based on; and the dismemberment and disembowelment starts surprisingly early in the film, with little extraneous plot.   The maid (Anna Valente), for example is slowly decapitated by scythe-carrying ghouls. Leslie’s death (Antonella Antinori), looks almost like a shot-by-shot recreation of Lucio Fulci’s famous eye-splinter sequence from Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979), almost as if Bianchi is challenging Fulci suggesting that anyone could do that.

Fulci's Zombie - eye splinter

Fulci’s Zombie – eye splinter

Burial Ground - eye splinter

Bianchi’s Burial Ground – eye splinter

But beyond the gore, Burial Ground is most notorious for the creepy Oedipal incest between Evelyn and her ten-year old son Michael; Peter Bark, who plays Michael, is clearly much older than ten, and of restricted growth, to give him the height of a much younger boy. In a sequence which is probably the nadir of Bianchi’s incest motifs, Michael wants to suckle at his mother’s breast and even tries to run his hand up her dress.  Michael accuses Evelyn of not loving him anymore as he runs off to his doom.  At the film’s end, as zombie Michael approaches his mother, she gives him her breast to suckle and he bites a massive chunk out of it. As Johanna Vuckovic notes, “What else is there to do during a zombie apocalypse but make sexual advances on your mother”?

Oedipus Schmedipus!

Oedipus Schmedipus

Jay Slater, noting that Burial Ground is “a particularly unpleasant film to watch”, also suggests that the film is “simply a tasteless excuse to show people ripped to pieces and eaten at a time when it was popular at the box office”. But I’m not entirely convinced such a dismissal is warranted: Bianchi’s confrontation of the incest taboos, throughout these films, suggests a direct problematizing of these repressed desires in our society (well, his society of 1970s Italy). And along with that, as Johanna Vuckovic notes, the film can be read as “revenge of the dead against the living in which the ragged, plebeian zombies overthrow the decadent, libertine bourgeoisie”. And that’s always fun to watch.

download (1)I want to talk about one last film, as it touches on many of the points I’ve already mentioned, Bianchi’s 1983 film Exciting Love Girls (original title Giochi carnale, a much better title, as it translates as “Sex Games”). For most of the film, we follow two scuzzy guys who drive around looking for female hitchhikers to pick up and rape. Miche, one of the rapists, needs these experiences so he can play them in his head while he has sex with his fat and unpleasant wife, Maria. His buddy and partner-in-crime, has the brilliant idea to cross-dress as “Lola” so they cruise around as husband and wife to get a better class of hitchhiker to rape.

Parallel to this plot is the story of Dr. Daniella Mauri (played by Sirpa Lane, in her final role; she died in 1999), an angry feminist emergency doctor who is disgusted by the constant stream of rape victims she is treating. Eventually, the two stories come together and Dr. Daniella is abducted by Miche and “Lola” and brutally raped. While the two rapists are sleeping it off, Dr. Daniella retrieves her medical bag, and uses her surgery skills to anesthetize her attackers, removing their testicles, and dropping them in glasses of champagne for when they awaken.  And there the film ends.

Bianchi’s Exciting Love Girls is a deeply uncomfortable film to watch; the sequences of rape are brutal and pornographic. When Dr. Daniella is raped, she appears to enjoy it, or at least that’s the impression she’s trying to give to her attackers. Like the pathetic Maurizio in Strip Nude for your Killer, we are invited to identify with (or at least follow) these repulsive characters; but then the film seems to hold them up for ridicule and condemnation. It is as if we are invited to enjoy these sequences of sexual violence, only for Bianchi to turn on us, challenging his audience to recognize that we are the disgusting ones watching this junk. Before the film’s final credits, we are presented with two titles cards; one informing us that “What [we] have just seen has really happened. We just portrayed it on film” and the second one noting that “The Doctor was sentenced for 8 years. The rapists for 4”. One cannot be unmoved by such an ending; the “real” Daniella sentenced to twice as long as her rapists. At one level, Bianchi may be playing with a stereotypical misogynist warning – that castrating rapists might look like a good idea, but the law will punish you twice as severely. Or do we get a glimmer of Bianchi turning the visual pleasures of trash cinema against us, rubbing our noses in the gender inequity of women’s actual exploitation.

We’re faced with the quandary of what to make of the cinema of Andrea Bianchi. Is he an unsung genius directly confronting our own hidden desires and moral failings while his films seem to glorify them? Or is he so completely inept as a filmmaker, we need to read into his films some kind of moral justification to validate the time spent watching and discussing this trash? Truthfully, I don’t know. But what I do know is that we’re still talking about his films, thirty plus years after they were made. And many of them have the power to outrage, disgust and befuddle audiences still.


Film Festivals as Spaces of Meaning: Researching Festival Audiences as Producers of Meaning

This is a paper I wrote a number of years ago. It appeared in Worcester Papers in English and Cultural Studies 6 (2008): 43-60.  I’m putting up here on the blog because I’m collating some readings for a module which looks at Film Festivals and I thought this would be a more accessible format for my students. I originally wrote this piece almost 10 years ago, so much more has been written on film festivals since; but the paradigms outlined haven’t developed, nor has the ethnographic study of film festivals. And maybe this piece, published on a blog, might generate a bit of discussion (which I always encourage).

MJK, 06-09-13


The “film festival” is a global phenomenon. According to Julian Stringer, there are over five hundred film festivals around the world in any given year (Stringer: 137). Some of these festivals are mammoth, star-studded gala events that are widely covered by the international press, like the Cannes film festival, while others like Edinburgh’s Dead by Dawn or The Toronto Jewish Film Festival, barely register on the global market. To experience either of these extremities, by attending or watching the media coverage of such events, is to experience two very different kinds of events; different in terms of status, wealth, visibility, but more importantly differently organized for very different purposes. This is not to suggest that Dead by Dawn should be more like Cannes, or Cannes like Dead by Dawn; I am not arguing for any single form of ideal festival form, but need to recognize, at the outset of this survey, that the term “film festival” is a generic term given to a variety of media events, and whose similarities are superficial. In order to understand what film festivals are, we need to go beyond the designated kind of event (film festival) and attempt to understand what the event itself actually is. I will propose, towards the conclusion of this paper, standard media, film and audience researches into film festivals do not begin to understand the film festival as an event in its own right.

This paper is designed as a critical survey of the existing literature on film festivals; not only to take stock of the work so far produced on this cultural phenomenon, but also to attempt to identify where that research has been found wanting. Finally I propose, if not a new methodology for studying film festivals, one which has not been utilized sufficiently, the ethnographic approach.


The Festival Report

The single most prevalent form of discourse around film festivals is the festival report; a journalistic “review” of a specific film festival, noting the significant films screened and hypothesizing what new trends in world cinema are thus observable. Robert Sklar, in a report on Cannes in 1999, succinctly summarizes not only what he sees as the critic’s job at a film festival, but furthermore lays down the critical template most festival reports follow:

… the critic’s most important task is to identify good films and do whatever can be done to help as many people as possible to see them. … My experience of Cannes after attending the festival for the past four years is that, year in and year out, there are always half a dozen or more films that merit the kind of critical support that can make a difference in their finding an audience (Sklar 1999: 27).

At a film festival, in a concentrated form, one can consume a significant amount of contemporary cinema in a relatively short space of time. This can lead to, what film critic David Sterritt refers to as “Festival Overload Syndrome” (FOS), where, deprived of any time to reflect and think about the films one has seen, festival films tend to blend into one another, and at best one can no longer tell what occurred in what film, while at worst one can no longer even stay awake (B9). Sterritt makes explicit the essentialness of risking FOS for the professional critic; as the role requires an extensive knowledge of the current developments within world cinema in order to comment on specific films (B9). But, and there is only anecdotal evidence to support this at the present, many festival audiences also overload on films at festival-time in order to experience films which in all likelihood, due to the corporate nature of cinema exhibition, they will never get the opportunity to see again. (Sterritt also notes this: B9). Therefore, like the professional critic, many film festival audience members attempt to recast themselves as experts within World Cinema by glutting themselves on films that in all likelihood, this will be the singular opportunity to view. This desire for the obscure, leads to a kind of “festival elitism”, wherein the popular is actively eschewed by some audiences, and the festival itself helps create this culture of vernacular film criticism.


Cinematic Tourism

The critical literature on film festivals is not extensive; even writings by established scholars who make reference to the film festival context, interrogate less the festival event, and tend to focus, like Bill Nichols, on the context as a means into a national cinema (1994a & 1994b). For Nichols, the Toronto International Film Festival acts as a conduit into an unfamiliar national cinema, in this case post-Revolutionary Iranian cinema. Where Nichols does address the context of the festival itself is in recognizing the frame in which he first encounters this national cinema. Nichols articles attempts, “like the anthropological fieldworker” (1994a: 17), to witness a small and representative corpus of (truly) foreign films (i.e. films from a culture the critic knows little about) by a variety of contemporary filmmakers as access into the culture of Iran itself. He uses these films as nativistic expressions of cultural authority and authenticity, through “submergence” into the voice of the colonized Other (1994b: 73). Nichols refers to this as cinematically “going native” (1994a: 17), extending his anthropological metaphor further. The film festival, for Nichols, constructs its audience as “cinematic tourists” wherein one is taken on (again, assumedly, nativisitic and authentic) travels through cultures our Western-biased cinemas do not tend to recognize. As Nichols notes, “Like the tourist, we hope to go behind appearances, to grasp the meaning or things as those who present them would, to step outside our (inescapable) status as outsiders and diagnosticians to attain a more intimate, more authentic form of experience” (1994a: 19).

Despite the immediate objections to such idealized and certainly naive assumptions Nichols makes about bringing these “authentic” insights into the colonized Other’s culture, certain aspects implicit within Nichols work needs enumerating, since they reflect various a priori assumptions made about film festivals. Firstly, within Nichols’ articles, beyond the filmic text itself, he is dependent upon the Toronto International Film Festival’s Programme Book to establish the context for seeing these films. Each year, among the various other categories and programmes the festival offers, the “Contemporary World Cinema” series, the largest single category within the festival, offering a miscellany of world cinema made, usually, within the last twelve to eighteen months – from Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania, North and South America. But there are also frequently spotlight series, separate from the “Contemporary World Cinema” programme, highlighting the past decade or so in a single nation’s cinema production, and the choice of which country to spotlight privileges those for whom their “national cinema” may not be known on the International (that is, Western) Cinema stages.  This is the context – within one of these “spotlight” series – that Nichols first encountered Iranian cinema.

As an indirect challenge to Nichols, Julian Stringer notes, this explicitly Colonialist game that some film scholars engage in: “As so many of the non-Western films that Western audiences are likely to be familiar with emerged as festival entries, scholars tend to approach them through the nostalgic invocation of those moments when non-Western industries were ‘discovered’ – that is, discovered by Westerners – at major international competitions” (Stringer: 134-135). Stinger takes this position even further, suggesting that these international cinemas do not get included within a World Cinema canon until they are (Colonially) discovered by the West, again usually through these film festivals (Stringer: 135).


In talking about a much smaller, more vernacular film festival, the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, A. G. Basoli, notes explicitly the difference between those Iranian films shown at the Human Rights Watch festival and those screened in big International film festivals like that in Toronto. The recent Human Rights Watch festival which Basoli is reporting on (like the festival reports noted previously) noted the screening of two political satires from Iran. Basoli notes that these films “marked a stark departure from the elegiac, official fare from the Iranian Board-of-Censors-approved filmmakers like Kiarostami, Majidi, or Makhmalbaf” (Basoli: 35), filmmakers which Nichols earlier had declared as “authentically” Iranian. Nichols agenda in his pieces on “discovering” Iranian cinema through the Toronto festival is to highlight that beyond perceived differences in culture and ideology, a pan-humanism emerges when filmmakers from different ideological camps can share in each other’s cinema:

the political will be refracted not only by our own repertoire of theories, methods, assumptions, and values, but also by our limited knowledge of corresponding concepts in other cultures to which we attend. (To want to know of foreign cinemas, for example, of their indebtedness to state control often betrays our own ideology of the free market and artistic license. We ask more to gain reassurance that this is a cinema like the one we imagine our own to be than to explore the intricacies of the relationship between culture, ideology, and the state) (Nichols, 1994a: 19).

By focusing on how, for example, Iranian cinema is different from Hollywood cinema, we not only see alternative ways of cinematic storytelling, but also those basic human traits Westerners and Iranians share. In addition, for Nichols, exposure to World Cinemas also calls into question our own taken-for-granted assumptions about artistic freedom. This, despite those films Nichols is basing this on, are exactly those films which Basoli characterize as culpable within the political climate of Iran. But whether or not we agree with either Nichols or Basoli, in either case, the nativistic insights into a culture we are presented with, like that of Iranian culture, are chosen and mediated by the Western agencies of International film festivals. Basoli continues noting one film in particular, Seven Days in Tehran, which was screened during the Human Rights Watch festival, when it was screened during the International Film Festival in Tehran, was presented as a French film, not an Iranian one, to avoid state censorship (Basoli: 35).  Less significant for this project is the extent of artistic repression in Iran; rather more significantly for our purposes is, as Basoli notes, there is an international film festival in Tehran. Reports on this festival are hard to come by, but at least we now know there is such a film festival.  So, at this first level of investigation, scholarship on film festivals use these events as useful starting grounds to begin insights into foreign and unfamiliar national cinema discussions. Regardless of whether the films being looked at are state-sanctioned or counter-hegemonic, both the Toronto International Film Festival and the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival are used as a kind of cinematic tourism wherein we are presented with the nativistic and assumedly “authentic” voices and images of the colonialized Other.

Perhaps it is worth noting parenthetically, that in informally talking to people attending the Toronto International Film Festival one also sees these cinematic tourists – although they may not refer to themselves as such. This kind of tourism enables people to have the illusion of these authentic cultural experiences while not leaving the comfort of Toronto, or incurring the costs of travelling. That being said, and again anecdotally, these Toronto cinematic tourists do tend to travel widely, and seemingly use a combination of the virtual and the first-hand experiences of other cultures to understand the world they live within, although one tends to inform the other; basing their acceptance of a filmic representation on their own experiences travelling in that region, while also travelling to areas they have seen on screen. However, these observations are currently merely anecdotal, and much more research needs to be done to develop this idea more.


Industrial Conferences

The film festival is also a site for marginalized filmmakers to come together. Both the work of Diawara and Gamson, although addressing very different concerns, see the festival as a space for filmmakers to display their work to each other. Diawara in particular, responding to the dynamic so advocated by Nichols previously, challenges Western film festivals proclivity towards cultural tourism in the display, if not fetishization, of cinema from the African continent. The focus of Diawara’s study is the Pan-African Film Festival in Ouagadougou (FESPACO) as a place where the interests of African filmmakers are directly addressed. Although recognizing the increased interest in the West, predominantly through events such as international film festivals, for African cinema, Diawara relates African filmmakers’ concerns that increasingly African cinema is courting these festivals excessively, making Western friendly cinema, at the expense of addressing their own cultural concerns.

Since the best African films are screened at these European and American festivals … filmmakers no longer look to FESPACO for the premiere of their films. These European and American film festivals also contribute to the ‘ghettoization’ of African films, because they only use them for the purposes of multiculturalism as required by their own citizens (Diawara: 386).

At the heart of Diawara’s concern is again the issue of cultural authenticity, regardless how it is presented. Western film festivals, the author concludes, and these festivals’ audiences, are less interested in the development of an authentic pan-African film industry, than having sufficient “ethnic” cinema to display in the spirit of a Western sense of “multi-culturalism”. Like Nichols’ naïve insights into Iranian cinema, Diawara is highly critical of how Western film festivals tend toward a fetishizing of the exotic text, rather than interesting themselves with the problems in countering Hollywood hegemony within African cinemas. This comes to the fore as Diawara discusses the concerns African filmmakers have about bringing their films to the West:

They do not want their films or themselves to be used for causes they do not understand or support. They are used to that, in France, Italy, and Canada, where people create well-paid jobs for themselves in the name of African film festivals. They have also seen their films disappear, or promises made to them withdrawn after the screening of their films. In other words, these festivals have served more to ghettoize their films than to open markets for them (Diawara: 396).

Unlike Nichols, Diawara sees the festival space as the site for filmmakers to interact with each other, meet filmmakers who work within similar circumstances (African cinema) and to engage in industrial related workshops. As Diawara notes,

[FESPACO] is only the film festival devoted to Pan-African cinema, a festival that takes seriously the task of nurturing, publicizing and celebrating African films. Ouagadougou is the place to meet filmmakers from other countries, compare notes on films, and exchange information on funding sources. FESPACO is also a homecoming and a family reunion for filmmakers, a chance to meet old friends in the same bars or restaurants and talk about the good old days. Finally, filmmakers come to Ouagadougou to discuss strategies for the decolonization of African screens, and the creation of an ever-elusive African film-industry” (Diawara: 386-387).

In addition to a celebration of African cinema, Diawara puts the emphasis on FESPACO as more of an industrial conference; the films themselves, their display, the generation of an African audience for African cinema (which is supposedly a strength Diawara sees in FESPACO over the display of African cinema in Western festivals) becomes secondary to the forum of mutual support for the impoverished African cinema.

However, within Diawara’s report on FESPACO, he notes the festival market which springs up alongside the film festival, but is not directly related to the event itself. This description is worth quoting at length:

La Rue Marchande is a discovery for many festival goers. Shaped in much the same way as the New York Book Fair, La Rue Marchande consists of several blocks closed off to traffic for one week, allowing vendors to set up their shops and pedestrians to fill the streets from sunup to sundown. La Rue Marchande is principally two streets intersecting each other, each approximately five blocks long, and crowded with more than five hundred vending stands, thousands of shoppers, and performance artists. There are millet beer vendors, tourist art merchants, vendors of original textiles from Burkina Faso …, condom stands, T-shirt stands, fruit stands, fashions from neighbouring countries and from France, musical instruments, lottery ticket booths, advertisement agencies, and booths for radio stations and political parties … La Rue Marchande is a metaphor for the market that has so far eluded African cinema and many industrial prospects on the continent. For one week, La Rue Marchande bustles with buyers and all varieties of merchandise. At the end of the week, the buyers disappear and the market with them. Similarly, African cinema realizes its dream of African audiences during the week of FESPACO. During that time, the crowd gathers in front of movie theatres, the international press talks about the films, and the streets are animated with discussions of individual films. At the end of the festival, the tourists go back home, Western and Kung Fu films resume their monopoly of the movie houses, and African cinema waits for two more years to be celebrated again (Diawara: 389-390).

Despite Diawara seeing this market place as a metaphor for the African film industry (a lovely metaphor, to be sure), he misses the significance of the Rue Marchande market in seeing FESPACO as a proper festive event, discussed below.


Festivals and Tourism

Janet Harbord’s chapter in her Film Cultures is one of two serious attempts at understanding the film festival as an event in its own right, rather than as a discursive context for other issues (i.e. new trends in World Cinema or the post-Colonial fight for recognition in Third Cinema). Recognizing the film festival as a multidimensional film exhibition context, Harbord identifies four central discourses: 1) like Diawara above, as a conference for independent filmmakers (Harbord: 60); 2) as a marketplace for film producers, distributors, and exhibitors (Harbord: 60); 3) like Sklar and others, as a preview for noteworthy upcoming films and the early identification of potential new trends in world cinema (Harbord: 60); and finally 4) as a cite of civic discourse on the public presentation of the city hosting the festival itself, providing “an intertext between the filmic event and the location” (Harbord: 60). It is this final discourse that Harbord focuses on with her eye, historically, on the development within Europe of a post-War cultural capital. In this respect, Harbord’s chapter has much in common with Marla Stone’s work on the Venice Biennale in the Fascist period. Both authors explore how by studying a specific film festival, a self-portrait emerges of how the official culture of the hosting society chooses to see itself (Stone: 294). As Harbord notes: “There is no doubt that film continues to be a significant cultural product for the nation in terms of representation, a production economy, tourism and as a symbolic asset” (Harbord: 72), and the film festival is the locus of that representation. Granted that Stone’s work is historical, reconstructing the image of cultural perception in the late Italian Fascist period, while Harbord’s is much more contemporary, but not much seems to have changed. Stone notes, referring to the organization of the Biennale: “Internationally staffed juries awarded prizes in the tense and staged ceremonies; the Festival’s premieres and closings were carefully orchestrated, and the whole of the event was tied to the glamour and fantasy of Hollywood” (Stone: 295). While Stone describes the festival as evidence of a Fascist aesthetic, her description sounds not unlike contemporary descriptions of Cannes or the Toronto festival.

Julian Stringer takes this idea even further: not only are film festivals post-War (European) re-inventions of the geographical/urban/modern self, but through a complex “festival circuit”, these festivals, and therefore these cities/spaces/selves, become ranked in importance (Stringer: 138). “Inequality is thus built into the very structure of the international film festival circuit” (Stringer: 138). The assumption here is that previously, film cultures were predicated upon the importance of the national film industries (American, French, Italian, German, etc), but that within those national contexts, local interests, based, as Harbord argues, on the relative strengths of the local tourist boards (Harbord: 68), shifted this nexus to a list of specific urban centres (New York, Toronto, Cannes, Edinburgh).  Stringer continues:

My argument is that it is cities which now act as the nodal points on this circuit, not national film industries. In short, I am asking that we pay as much attention to the spatial logics of the historical and contemporary festival circuit as we do to the films it exhibits. The circuit exists as an allegorization of space and its power relationships; it operates through the transfer of value between and within distinct geographic localities (Stringer: 138).

This battle for recognition, Stringer recognizes, is a fusion between the festival itself and the host city’s own self-image (often heavily mediated through the agency of the local tourist board and civil leadership infrastructures) (Stringer: 140).

But Stringer, like Harbord, are dealing with the large festivals – Cannes, Toronto, Venice, Berlin – and despite the applicability of their discourses to smaller city-based festivals (Edinburgh, London)  and their relative places within the festival circuit’s pecking order, this is not the whole picture. Stringer refers to a specific class of film festivals as “universal festivals”, large(ish) film festivals which exhibit a cross-section of contemporary world cinema to appeal to the widest possible audience, with the added attraction of the promise of celebrity attendance (Stringer: 141). The differences between the Toronto, Edinburgh, Cannes and Venice film festivals is really one of scale, based on where it appears in the circuit’s ranking of similar festivals. Our interest, however, lies less in these “universal festivals”, than in the smaller, community based film-festivals (we refer to these as “vernacular film festivals”, as they tend to emerge out of the hosting community itself), which Stringer more or less dismisses as handling a “specialized audience” (Stringer:141).


An Ethnographic Approach

Beyond Stringer’s “universal festivals” are those vernacular events which reflect the cultural interest in specific genres (i.e. horror film festivals, like Edinburgh’s Dead by Dawn), ethnic groups (like the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, cf. Koven, 1999), political groups (like the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, cf. Basoli), and sexual identity groups (like the Lesbian and Gay film festivals, cf. Gamson) to name but a few examples. The discourses on the “universal festivals” remain unsatisfactory in applicability to these more vernacular festivals. And yet, the scholarship on these other festivals often falls into the same intellectual paradigms as set-up by the discourse on the “universal festivals”. For example, Basoli’s article, like Skar on Cannes or Nichols on Toronto, explores those films the critic has identified as particularly significant within the context of the festival. Gamson, like Stone and Harbord (more so than Stringer), while situating the context within a larger discourse of collective identity (Gamson: 526), the article itself is more historical, chronicling the development of these festivals with the lesbian and gay communities of New York. Van Extergem, on the Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film (BIFFF), despite noting the participatory culture of the BIFFF as symptomatic of the kind of audience who attend fantasy films, situates the festival as a forum for the emerging respectability of the genre films themselves, rather than a study of the festival itself (Van Extergem: 216-217).

For me, the main failing of most studies on the film festival, “universal” or vernacular, has to do with a lack of engagement with the film festival “as festival”. In Koven’s work on the Toronto Jewish Film Festival (1999), he attempted to identify how film festivals, like more traditional festival celebrations (based on the anthropological definitions), were liminal experiences, and rooted within a sacred experience (of sorts) for the community to celebrate itself.

Van Extergem offers, however, a similar insight into the study of the film festival indirectly (much as Diawara did above). Van Extergem notes:

In large measure, every film is conditioned by ritual since it takes place as a communal act, partitioned from everyday life. A film festival, as compared to a regular movie screening, is even more detached from the everyday experience: it takes place but once a year, it presents films ‘for the first time’ and has extras such as the presence of guests (‘stars’) and the creating of a more communal, more festive and, in many ways, more significant context by way of animation, presentation and the simulation of a certain ‘ambience’ (Van Extergem: 224).

Although Van Extergem does not expand on this observation, there are several factors which need highlighting: 1) cinema going is communal, and regardless of any aesthetic appreciation of the filmic text, to watch a film with other people creates an ‘event’ and that event needs to be understood within the community is occurs within; 2) unlike normal cinema going, film festivals as annual events are not only more detached as special events, but they are “calendricised” – they become part of that community’s calendar and the event is anticipated each year, meaning we need to consider the festival within the cultural context of a community’s calendar of celebration; and 3) the inclusion of celebrity guests operates on two different cultural registers: on the one hand, as Van Extergem notes, it marks the event as “more special”, more outside of the everyday, since these guests’ presence partially erases the distinction between their on-screen illusion and the material reality of their being there, but also, particularly within the context of the vernacular festivals, underlines the shared commonality with the celebrity guest – that both the audience member and guest are Jews, or Lesbian, or horror fans, etc. and their presence at the festival enforces that commonality. Perhaps even with some of the “universal festivals”, the shared commonality for the local residents who attend these events, has a similar function, of having big-name celebrities in one’s home town.

What does Van Extergem mean when he refers to this sense of BIFFF feeling more “communal, more festive” and therefore “more significant”? How do we understand the communal and the festive? In the longer version of the paper Koven published on the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, which was a chapter from his doctoral thesis, he outlined how that particular festival could be seen as a “proper festival”, based on the folkloristic and anthropological definitions of such. Alessandro Falassi’s definition of “festival” is useful to understand film festivals, in particular, and the relationship between cinema and community in general.  Falassi defined “festival” as “a periodically recurrent, social occasion in which, through a multiplicity of forms and a series of coordinated events, participate [sic.] directly or indirectly and to various degrees, all members of a whole community, united by ethnic, linguistic, religious, historical bonds, and sharing a worldview” (Falassi: 2).

Can film festivals be seen in this folkloristic/anthropological way? Some anthropologists shy away from viewing festivals that celebrate popular culture, seeing instead a commercialization factor as replacing the expression of community itself (Stoeltje: 261-262; Abrahams: 171, and this is a point raised Stringer and Harbord too). Beverly Stoeltje noted “those events that do have festival in their titles are generally contemporary modern constructions, employing festival characteristics but serving the commercial, ideological, or political purposes of self-interested authorities or entrepreneurs” (Stoeltje, 1992: 261-262). At one level Stoeltje is correct, particularly with the larger festivals (Toronto, Cannes, BIFFF), but the more vernacular festivals tend to be more rooted within the lived experiences of the communities which host them. On the other hand, Stoeltje is perhaps too quick to dismiss the larger festivals, since, depending on how one approaches the bigger “universal festivals”, these too can be seen as rooted within an alternative perception of the community (FESPACO, for example, or the relationship between the host cities of Berlin, Toronto, Cannes or Edinburgh and how the local residents view the presence of the festival).

According to Stoeltje, a festival is made up of six types of acts: an opening ceremony, rituals, dramas and contests, feasts, dance and music, and finally a concluding event (Stoeltje, 1992: 264-265).  Although this morphology is considered descriptive, rather than prescriptive, a certain ordering of these acts and their respective inclusion is by design and self-conscious.  But what Stoeltje does raise is that ethnographic investigation into any kind of festival is essential in understanding its relation to the community who produce it, regardless of how that community is delineated. To ethnographically study a film festival, as I suggest to do with Dead by Dawn, is, to begin with, an attempt to identify some application of Stoeltje’s festival morphology: specifically what constitutes the festival’s opening and closing ceremonies? What delineates the opening of the festival and what marks its conclusion? As special events, of any kind, something must demarcate these poles, so how is that demarcation made special?  And then how does that demarcation reflect the cultural beliefs of the group?

Ritual, while rarely evident in the explicit religious conotation of the term, also needs noting. Van Extergem already noted what he referred to as the ritual aspect of going to a film festival film. Beyond that, however, Falassi, while like Stoeltje, categorically not referring to film festivals, expanded on the different kinds of ritual activities indicative of festival behaviours. For example, part of the opening ceremonies, for Falassi, are “rite of purification” where they cleanse the festival  space “… by means of fire, water, or air, or centered around the solemn expulsion of some sort of scapegoat carrying the ‘evil’ and ‘negative’ out of the community” (Falassi: 4).  Although, I am unaware of any such scapegoating rituals at any of the film festivals I have attended, certain kinds of cleaning and organization is required in immediate preparation for the event. At larger festivals, where opening night gala presentations require special guests requiring special treatment, red carpets are sometimes laid “ceremoniously”. Or the posters in the lobby will be changed to those more relevant to the event. Despite the seeming banality of these “rites of purification” they do underline that the event is somehow different to the everyday operation of the space wherein which the event will be occurring and the metamorphosis of the space is a highly symbolic gesture underlining the “sacred” nature of the festival. Part of the ethnographic project, of course, is not only to make the strange familiar, but also to make the familiar strange; and we need to problematize the assumptions we make about the special activities involved in ritualized preparations. These spaces of course are regularly purified through a ritualistic application of water, called “cleaning” (one hopes). What is the act of cleaning, but a ritual of purification?

230957_4596143340_9414_nFalassi also refers to various rites of competition (Falassi: 5), and any film festival which has films in competition falls into this activity. The sacredness of the awards given, while clearly of material value (in terms of increased box office, status, distribution deals) also evoke their sacred worth by their names – the “palme d’or”, “the golden bear”, etc. Even with the more vernacular festivals, like Dead by Dawn, which still grant “best films” awards, but instead of an elite jury who are separate from the main festival participants, the awards are granted by the public attending/celebrating themselves. Surely who is included in granting these “golden awards” is significant in reflecting who can lay claim to being part of these communities? And what about those festivals who do not have any competition amongst their films? What kinds of competitions exist amongst the festival participants?

The inclusion of the celebrity guests and the variety of consumable wears on display can be seen as functioning akin to Falassi’s rites of “conspicuous display,” which the author noted as “permit[ing] the most symbolic elements of the community to be seen, touched, adored, or worshiped; their communicative function [being] “phatic”; of contact” (Falassi: 4). The nature of the festival determines the phatic degree of the display of those “sacred elements” for that community: while the festival participant might be able to see (from a distance) or perhaps photograph a celebrity in attendance at the “universal festivals” like Cannes or Toronto, at the vernacular festivals like Dead by Dawn, the guests circulate among the audience themselves, thereby enhancing the sense of communitas. But these sacred relics of the community can also manifest itself, as Diawara seemingly unaware points out regarding the La Rue Marchande marketplace. Rather than seeing these market stalls as prima facie evidence of the commercialization of the event, we need to look more ethnographically at the function and actual use of these market spaces for the community itself. Falassi further notes that such “rites of conspicuous consumption” in addition to “conspicuous display” is equally a marker of festival behaviour (Falassi: 5).224092_4596148340_307_n

Finally, and probably most significantly, there must also be some kind of “rite of reversal”, which according to most scholars is the litmus test for a “real” festival.  Falassi notes that this rite “through symbolic inversion, drastically represents the mutability of people, culture, and of life itself” (Falassi: 4, emphasis added). As Bakhtin noted,

… all the symbols of the carnival idiom are filled with this pathos of change and renewal, with the sense of the gay relativity of prevailing truths and authorities.  We find here a characteristic logic, peculiar logic of the “inside out”, of the “turnabout”, of a continual shift from top to bottom, from front to rear, of numerous parodies and travesties, humiliations, profanations, comic crownings and uncrownings” (Bakhtin: 11).

Likewise did Falassi note this, and in turn, began to point towards meaning in this reversal: “if we consider that the primary and most general function of the festival is to renounce and then to announce culture, to renew periodically the lifestream of a community by creating new energy, and to give sanction to its institutions, the symbolic means to achieve it is to represent the primordial chaos before creation, or the historical disorder before the establishment of the culture, society, or regime where the festival happens to take place” (Falassi: 3). Van Extergem already noted, in some respect, how different film festival going is to everyday media consumption, but surely this is not sufficient to be considered a rite of reversal. Again, at this stage in the research, anecdotal evidence must suffice: in an informal survey of the 2004 Dead by Dawn participants, one of the most frequently cited reasons for their attending was to be able to gorge themselves on horror cinema for a few days before returning to their normal everyday lives.  Instead of seeing one, or maybe two movies a week, they will attend dozens – feature length and shorts, from all over the world, and if we consider the “all-nighter”, which begins at midnight on the Saturday (after a full day and evening of screenings), and runs through until 11:00 or so Sunday morning, a pattern emerges of “specialized” film attendance – a reversal of the normal patterns of cinema attendance. Again, this is a casual and superficial observation requiring much more detailed and in-depth ethnographic investigation, but even cursorily film festivals “reverse” the norms of everyday cinema going.

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Conclusions: Proposing Future Study

A larger project, of which this is but a first step within, is to ethnographically explore the film festival. My question is put succinctly: how can film festivals be considered as “festivals”, at least as the anthropological literature understands them? Although one could conduct an ethnographic study of one of the major “universal festivals”, such as Cannes, Toronto, the BIFFF or even Edinburgh’s International Film Festival, it the smaller, vernacular festivals that hold the most interest, for it is at these events where the community itself is on display as a public recognition of its very existence. And it is in this spirit that further research needs to be done.


Film Festival Bibliography

Abrahams, Roger D (1987).   “An American Vocabulary of Celebrations”.  Alessandro Falassi ed.  Time Out of Time: Essays on the Festival.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 173-183.

Bakhtin, Mikhail M (1968/1984). Rabelais and His World.  Helene Iswolsky trans.  Blooming­ton: IndianaUniversity Press.

Bangré, Sambolgo (1996). “African Cinema in the Tempest of Minor Festivals” in Imruh Bakari and Mbye Cham eds. African Experiences of Cinema. London: BFI. 157-161.

Basoli, A. G. (2002). “Redefining Human Rights: The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival” Cineaste 27.4: 34-35.

Chin, Daryl and Larry Qualls (2001). “Open Circuits, Closed Markets: Festival and Expositions of Film and Video”. PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 23.1: 33-47.

Christensen, Mads Egmont (2000). “Dogma and Marketing” p.o.v.: A Danish journal of Film Studies 10: Issue_10/section_4/ artc1A.html. Last accessed 04 January 2005.

Diawara, Manthia (1994). “On Tracking World Cinema: African Cinema at Film Festivals” Public Culture 6: 385-396.

Dwoskin, Stephen (1997). “Whose Festival?” in Ann Pointon with Chris Davies eds. Framed: Interrogating Disability in the Media. London: BFI. 222-223.

Falassi, Alessandro (1987). “Festival: Definition and Morphology.” Alessandro Falassi ed.  Time Out of Time: Essays on the Festival.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 1-10.

Gamson, Joshua (1997). “The Organizational Shaping of Collective Identity: The Case of Lesbian and Gay Film Festivals in New York” in Martin Duberman ed. A Queer World: The Centre for Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. New York: New YorkUniversity Press. 526 – 543.

Harbord, Janet (2002). Film Cultures: Production, Distribution and Consumption. London: Sage.

Koven, Mikel J. (1999). ‘”You Don’t Have to be Filmish”: The Toronto Jewish Film Festival’. Ethnologies 21.1: 115-132.

Kwon, Jae-Woong (2003). “[Interview with] Kwang Woo Noh, Coordinator of Korean Film Festival”. Asian Cinema Spring/Summer: 207 – 210.

Mendik, Xavier (2004). “The Fantastik Film Festival: An Overview and Interview with Magnus Paulsson” in Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik eds. Alternative Europe: Eurotrash and Exploitation Cinema since 1945. London: Wallflower Press. 232 – 235.

Nichols, Bill (1994a). “Discovering Form, Inferring Meaning: New Cinemas and the Film Festival Circuit”. Film Quarterly 47.3: 16-30

Nichols, Bill (1994b). “Global Image Consumption in the Age of Late Capitalism”. East-West Film Journal 8.1: 68-85.

O’Regan, Tom (2002). “Australian Cinema as a National Cinema” in Alan Williams ed. Film and Nationalism. New Brunswick, NJ: RutgersUniversity Press, 89-136.

Riskala, Tuomas (2004). “The Espoo Ciné International Film Festival” in Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik eds. Alternative Europe: Eurotrash and Exploitation Cinema since 1945. London: Wallflower Press. 228 – 231.

Scheighofer, Martin (2001). “Austrian Film between Festival Success and Market Constraints” in Willy Riemer ed. After Postmodernism: Austrian Literature and Film in Transition. Riverside, CA: Ariadne Press, 55-61.

Schwartzman, Karen (1995). “National Cinema in Translation: The Politics of Film Exhibition Culture” Wide Angle 16.3: 66-99.

Sklar, Robert (1996). “Beyond Hoopla: The Cannes Film Festival and Cultural Significance”. Cineaste 22.3: 18-20.

Sklar, Robert (1999). “Snobs and Snubs at Cannes” Cineaste 24.4: 25-27.

Staiger, Janet (2002). “A Neo-Marxist Approach: World Film Trade and Global Culture Flows” in Alan Williams ed. Film and Nationalism. New Brunswick, NJ: RutgersUniversity Press, 230-248.

Sterritt, David (2000). “How ‘Festival Overload Syndrome’ Affects Critics”. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 4 August: B9.

Stoeltje, Beverly J. (1992).   “Festival”.  Richard Bauman ed.  Folklore, Cultural Performances, and Popular Entertainments: A Communications-Centered Handbook.  New York: OxfordUniversity Press. 261-271.

Stone, Marla (2002). “The Last Film Festival: The Venice Biennale Goes to War” in Jacqueline Reich and Piero Garofalo eds. Re-Viewing Fascism: Italian Cinema, 1922-1943. Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press, 293-314.

Stringer, Julian (2001). “Global Cities and the International Film Festival Economy” in Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice eds. Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context. London: Blackwell. 134-144.

Van Extergem, Dirk (2004). “The Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film” in Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik eds. Alternative Europe: Eurotrash and Exploitation Cinema since 1945. London: Wallflower Press. 216 – 227.


Found-Footage Films & the Visual Rhetoric of the Legend Film

This was a paper I delivered at the annual International Society of Contemporary Legend Research (ISCLR) conference held in Lexington, KY in May 2013.

In “Legendry and the Rhetoric of Truth”, Elliott Oring (2008) proposes legend scholars need to address various rhetorical devices legend storytellers and audiences avail themselves to in performance. In many respects, Oring’s article is perhaps too essentialist and proscriptive to be useful to legend scholars themselves. What I am doing in this paper is to use Oring to develop a framework for a discussion of the legend-films, to look at the rhetorical devices film-storytellers use to convince us of the veracity of their narrative. The film text itself, rather than seeing it as a definitive artistic product, needs to be considered as a variant text; with sequels, remakes, and derivative films displaying both conservative trends within the filmmaking tradition it is self-consciously situated and dynamic variation in creating a ‘new spin’ on this tradition.

paranormal-activity-4-01The films I am discussing here are known as “found-footage” films; a term which is used to describe both artistic installations which use archival film & video footage as a montage and to a contemporary horror movie tradition which purports to be video footage of actual quasi-legendary occurrences. This latter tradition of mockumentary film making is currently very popular with four films in the Paranormal 0Activity series (2007-2012), two Grave Encounters films (2011-2012), and a whole slew of variations on this model. Nor is this tradition limited to American filmmakers: the Spanish [REC] series (2007-2012) and the British Zombie Diaries series (2006-2011) also follow this tradition. Of course, this kind of horror movie goes at least as far back as The Blair Witch Project (1999) if not further back to Cannibal Holocaust (1980).  Legendary topics explored in these films fall into two main camps: documents of the zombie apocalypse and of paranormal hauntings. Although some other variations include aliens (The Fourth Kind [2009] & Cloverfield [2008]), monsters (Evidence [2011]) and demonic possession (The Devil Inside [2012] & The Last Exorcism [2010]).  In discussing these films, my interest lies in how the film constructs its own claims to veracity; in other words, I’m looking at the films’ visual rhetoric, on how it presents its legend materials to convince us of its truth.

In Oring’s article, he divides his schemata into three parts: what he calls “Ethos” (131-138), “Logos” (138-157) and “Pathos” (157-158) [and significantly, not D’Artagnan], but which can be simplified (and made less pretentious) as the Teller, the Tale and the Affect. Each of these parts I shall be discussing in turn. While some of Oring’s discussion is less relevant to films than oral or written variants, I am adapting these ideas as relevant.

Rhetoric of the Legend-Film

The Fourth KindOring begins his schemata by discussing the legend teller, what Oring characterizes as “Ethos”, the “authority of the source”.  For this application to popular films, the question is modified slightly to ask where is the film coming from? The mockumentary style of most of these films opts for an immediacy of experience, of raw footage caught at the point of encounter, rather than having the narrative retold after the fact or second hand. We are dealing with a form of legend-telling that is presentation of the event/experience rather than a representation of that narrative. In The Fourth Kind, recreated docudrama footage starring Milla Jovovich and Will Patton is self-consciously intercut with purported ‘documentary’ evidence, to tell this story of alien abductions.

Historical docudramas, despite their recreation of historical events, often go out of their way to demonstrate the veracity of their production by evoking the historians or other experts who advised them. Sometimes this authority goes so far as to be witnesses to the events portrayed within the film. The case of The Fourth Kind is extreme: having the actors play their roles self-consciously intercut with faux-archival footage is uncommon. Mostly the authority of these films is ascertained by being the footage of the encounter itself. It (whatever ‘it’ is) happens in front of us, as it happened to the person holding the camcorder. We experience the legend narrative almost first hand; the distance to the event is minimalized as much as it can be (Oring, 2008, pp. 133-135). The distance of the narrator to the event is key in ascertaining the veracity of the encounter. In the Paranormal Activity films, for example, the film is a construction of primary video footage of a series of hauntings. When the camera is knocked over by ‘the ghost’, we receive, as experience, that physical assault; because the camera keeps rolling (and the inclusion of that footage in the final film), we have been knocked over too. The distance between tale teller and tale is minimized as much as possible; the technological equipment (the video camera) is the only mediation between us and the encounter.

Grave EncountersIn Grave  Encounters, the film opens with Jerry Hartfield (Ben Wilkinson), a reality TV producer who has the rights to the “Grave Encounters” video footage. Not only does Hartfield’s mediation of the narrative, as someone who is an expert in reality TV, authorize the showing of the footage, he fully admits that the viewers need to make up their own minds as to the veracity of the story. We are positioned as complicit with Hartfield in this narrative we are about to witness. Consider how many of these films presuppose the actual videographers deaths: Cannibal Holocaust, The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity [all of them], Grave Encounters and even Troll Hunter all work within the rhetorical strategy that the footage was captured at great personal risk to the camera-operator.  Risks which resulted in the deaths of whomever was holding the camera.


The bulk of Oring’s schemata justifiably pertain to the narrative itself; what rhetorical tools do the storyteller use to convince us that their narrative is true. Following suit, I want to look at some of the rhetorical tools filmmakers use to tell their stories. While Oring’s “Logos” is about the belief and commentary of the legend’s core, he also suggests (appropriately, I think) that these narratives are discursive; that they function to facilitate larger discussions about their accuracy than to offer essentialist acceptance or disbelief.

Grave EncountersTo begin with, these films are presented in a linear fashion; that is, the narrative progresses, prosaically, from event A to B and onwards. These films mostly avoid flashbacks, although the later Paranormal Activity films do include a few sequences out of order to connect the current film within the series. More significantly are the films’ lengthy introductions; these movies take a while to get going and are often filled with banal young people being horrid. However, as Oring noted, the extraneous details often included in legend narratives work towards grounding the story in our own worlds. These sequences within the film are therefore rhetorical strategies to link the film narrative within the lived experiences of the intended audience. These films are almost all R-rated, yet are focused on “younger” adults (late teens/early twenties). In Grave Encounters 2, the film opens with Alex’s experiences as a film student at university; presumably, this is the intended audience of the film – university-aged kids. Grave Encounters, focusing on the pilot episode of a fictional ghost-hunting show, is rooted within the cheesy posturing of actual ghost-hunting shows which, presumably, the filmmakers anticipate their audience will be familiar with.  In both of these examples, the “slow build” to anything paranormal happening are to give the narrative details that Oring identified in legend-telling rhetoric.

Troll HunterThe tone of the film is often crucial to the rhetoric of the truth claims. These films are almost always presented earnestly. The encounters chosen tend to be serious, rather than flippant – ghosts, aliens, zombies, etc. Micah, for example in Paranormal Activity, is largely incredulous to the haunting and exacerbates the events by openly challenging the presence for proof (including bringing in a Ouija board). In Paranormal Activity 3, Randy and Katie play “Bloody Mary” together and hope to meet Toby, the presence haunting this family across way too many sequels. Micah’s incredulity costs him his life, and Randy is so frightened by the encounter he quits his job and never visits again, much like the babysitter earlier in the film. Even in the almost parodic Troll Hunter, wherein fairy-tale trolls are discovered to live in the Norwegian north, the laughter in the film is of surprise and excitement, not mocking or dismissive of the discovery.  The cheesy ghost-hunting show “Grave Encounters” effectively turns the tables on these frauds by encountering actual ghosts in an abandoned insane asylum.  And the experience ends in all their deaths.

Paranormal ActivityOring identifies narrative framing particular to legends; he distinguishes between “words-as-words” and “words-as-worlds” (Oring, 2008, p. 140). When the narrative is explicitly told as a narrative, that is, its story-telling-ness is foregrounded, the account has less veracity than if the narrative attempts to present the world itself. Regardless of the accuracy of the account or the authority of the source material, a film’s veracity is diminished when its artifice is considered. In a docudrama, wherein actors are playing roles and sets are built (and in particular when special effects are used) there is a level of artificiality involved. When the film is presented as unmediated footage, the veracity increases. The Amityville Horror may be based on a true story (even if ultimately that story was discounted), but the 1979 film starring James Brolin, Margot Kidder and Rod Steiger, is a representation (rather than presentation) of the narrative. To demonstrate the opposite, despite Paranormal Activity being completely fictional, it’s apparent presentation of actual occurrences – including the absence of opening or closing credits – was sufficiently persuasive for my barber to assure me the first Paranormal Activity film was a ‘true story’.

Apartment 143Oring suggests that the apparent lack of artistry in legend telling, supports the narrative’s truthfulness; the story’s own logic and prosaic events resists aesthetic embellishments (Oring, 2008, p. 154). Certainly in the found-footage films, the cinematography is meant to convey prosaic truthfulness, not pretty pictures. These are ugly films because the aesthetics of composition are designed to only convey visual information. “Realism”, as an aesthetic concern, is received as inauthentic; the visual element in these films is imperfect to therefore increase believability. Probably half the shots in the entire film Apartment 143 are from overhead surveillance camera angles designed to show as much of the room as possible.

/ In The Devil Within, the opening few minutes of the film does several of these moves one after the other.

First of all, the Vatican denies the legitimacy of exorcism and the evidence presented in the film. Dates are given which specifies when the events documented took place. 911 audio, with on-screen transcription, is presented which seems to be authentic. The evidence of the 911 call is supported by what is reputed to be authentic police documentation of the murder scene, presented in unemotional distanced evidentiary manner.  Archival news footage of the events corroborates the police account. And finally, interview footage with Isabella Rossi, Maria’s daughter, further corroborating what happened, but offering an alternative interpretation on the events and including home video footage. Six different types of evidence are presented, each of which supports the previous one in some way. Even commentary from consulting neurologist Dr. Jeff Victoroff, apparently playing himself, suggesting that Maria’s case is one of mental illness not demonic possession works to uphold this discursive aspect to the legend-film. The Devil InsideThe Devil Within went so far to not only corroborate its own (fictional) narrative, but also, as part of that strategy, also to potentially debunk it. The first-person videography of the film counters any attempt at debunking by presenting raw footage of exorcisms; so we are either to believe the scientists who have only passingly diagnosed Maria Rossi as mentally ill or our own eyes. At the end of the film, viewers are encouraged to go to the film’s webpage ( for more information on how the investigation is progressing, combining fake pages about the film with actual links to discussions and documentation about possession and exorcism. Alas, at the time of writing, this webpage seems to have been taken down, probably by the Vatican in a conspiracy of silence against the truth.


The Rossi FilesFinally, we come to “Pathos”, by which Oring means the rhetorical devices used to evoke certain emotions and responses from the audience. Affect is of course different from effect; the former is the intended response while the latter is the actual response; so in this case, we are looking for what the filmmaker anticipates our reaction to be by the construction of the narrative. With the inclusion of the “Rossi Files” webpage at the end of The Devil Inside, the filmmakers not only intend for the film’s audience to go to the webpage when they get home, there is also a suggestion that the audience will be scrambling for a pen and paper in the dark of the cinema. There’s also the suggestion, as it happened with me, that seeing the film on DVD, particularly a DVD watched on one’s laptop, that one will instantly go and check out that page. The inclusion of that Internet address then suggests activity post-screening, regardless of the actuality of that activity.

Of course, with all these films, the intention is to frighten us. Oring notes that legends are “more likely to be regarded as true if it conforms to the … emotional … expectations of the audience” (Oring, 2008, p. 157; emphasis in original). The emotional expectation of these films is fear. Jump-scares and the build up of tension work to have this emotional affect on us. We judge the success of any of these films on whether or not it succeeds in creating those emotions; a good Paranormal Activity film is one which is scary. We can conclude from the number of films like these produced every year that they are sufficiently emotionally satisfying to warrant further production. To date, the fifth Paranormal Activity film is schedule for release in late (probably around Halloween) 2013. Last Exorcism 2A second Last Exorcism film is also scheduled for a late 2013 release. But there are other expectations suggested here too.

Oring notes that these narratives must meet the “cognitive … expectations of its audience” (Oring, 2008, p. 157); applied here reveals the logic of the film franchise. Broadening this idea out, understanding a specific “Robin Hood” story does not require previous knowledge of all the possible “Robin Hood” stories. Each legend-film must be able to stand on its own without reference to anything else. While a bifurcated audience, between those who have followed a series and those for whom this is their first encounter, is suggested, each delivering related but different rewards, these films must simultaneously stand alone and work in the series. Unlike other film franchises, where appreciation requires a full understanding of the narrative progression across several films, these films do both. This cognitive dimension to these films poses some problems for the folklorist studying these films: namely they violate their own belief traditions. Too much veracity is sacrificed for sensationalism in the films. For example, across the Paranormal Activity films, rather than simply a ghost haunting the house, Toby is a demon who can fling people spectacularly across the room. In The Devil Inside, rather than maintaining the ambivalence towards belief, the exorcism sequences feature the possessed able to crawl, spider-like, up walls and to pull out almost every possession-movie cliché since The Exorcist. Perhaps the most absurd moment occurs in Paranormal Activity 3, where the babysitter (and assumedly the audience) is freaked out by an actual sheet-wearing ghost.

[REC]The final rhetorical aspect suggested by Oring is regarding the “moral expectations of its audience” (Oring, 2008, p. 157); and it is here that these films apparently succeed for most of its audience, but fail for me. The zombie epidemic in the [REC] films is caused, not by chemical or biological weapons, but by demonic possession. In the American remake of the [REC], Quarantine, the demonic possession element is dropped in favour of a biological agent. There appears to be shift in the moral centre of these narratives; demons in one cultural context will sell, but not in another. In the Spanish Atrocious, a found-footage haunted house movie, ghosts mix with mental illness, but in the American Paranormal Activity films, a ghost isn’t as scary as a demon. AtrociousThe moral centre of these films, like in legend telling itself, is context dependent both geographically and temporally.  These films need their moral-centres to reflect what is anticipated the moral centre of the audience is going to be. But surprisingly, if that is true, then the moral centres of these films is not warning against playing with the supernatural, because you’re damned if  you do and damned if you don’t. The demon Toby in the Paranormal Activity films follows Katie specifically, whether Micah antagonizes him or not. The demonic presence in The Devil Within moves from Maria to Isabella Rossi, in what the filmmakers call “demonic transference”. In all these cases, including the Spanish films, the “kids” pay for their parents moral debts. The moral centres of these films seems to be, taken as an aggregate, the resentment of one generation for what the previous generation left behind; and are powerless to escape from it.


The found-footage films are an extreme example of legend-films, due to their mockumentary style of presentation. Currently, they are fashionable, particularly for horror movies (although there’s no reason why a romantic comedy couldn’t also use this style). However, I’d like to conclude by suggesting that the central question we need to ask of any legend-film is regarding what rhetorical devices are the filmmakers utilizing in order to convince us of the veracity of their narrative? We may ultimately discount the story as a fabrication – that’s not the point. What matters is that these filmmakers try in the first place to convince us that their tales are true.

Diary of the Dead

Works Cited

[Rec]. 2007. [Film] Directed by Jaume Balaguero, Paco Plaza. Spain: Filmax.

[Rec]². 2009. [Film] Directed by Jaume Balaguero, Paco Plaza. Spain: Filmax.

[REC]³ Génesis. 2012. [Film] Directed by Paco Plaza. Spain: Filmax.

Blair Witch Project, The. 1999. [Film] Directed by Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez. USA: Haxan Films.

Cannibal Holocaust. 1980. [Film] Directed by Ruggero Deodato. Italy: F.D. Cinematografica.

Grave Encounters 2. 2012. [Film] Directed by John Poliquin. USA: Twin Engine Films.

Grave Encounters. 2011. [Film] Directed by The Vicious Brothers. USA: Twin Engine Films.

Oring, E., 2008. Legendry and the Rhetoric of Truth. Journal of American Folklore, Volume 121, pp. 127-166.

Paranormal Activity 2. 2010. [Film] Directed by Tod Williams. USA: Paramount Pictures.

Paranormal Activity 3. 2011. [Film] Directed by Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman. USA: Paramount Pictures.

Paranormal Activity 4. 2012. [Film] Directed by Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman. USA: Paramount Pictures.

Paranormal Activity. 2007. [Film] Directed by Oren Peli. USA : Paramount Pictures.

Zombie Diaries 2. 2011. [Film] Directed by Michael Bartlett, Kevin Gates. UK: Bleeding Edge Films.

Zombie Diaries, The. 2006. [Film] Directed by Michael Bartlett, Kevin Gates. UK: Bleeding Edge Films.

‘Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied France’: History as Fairy Tale in Inglourious Basterds


‘Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied France’: History as Fairy Tale in Inglourious Basterds

I’d like to suggest, at the outset, that there are three key viewing positions for any “history film”; three positions a viewer may take in relationship to this kind of film.

Firstly, there is (let’s be blunt) The Naive Audience: the “Naive Audience” is entirely credulous. They see the information onscreen as absolute truth of what that historical period was like. Because they’ve seen, for example, Schindler’s List, they feel they know everything about the Holocaust.  This kind of viewing position receives all the historical information without any question about its veracity. After all, this person would argue, the filmmakers can’t say this is “Based on a True Story” unless it was, right?

Secondly, there is The Critical Audience. The “Critical Audience” views all films about any historical topic as suspect. Single errors (for whatever reason) will result in the entire films’ dismissal. The posts in the Coliseum in Gladiator were actually from the Circus Maximus and therefore the filmmakers didn’t know what they were doing. [I reviewed a collection of essays on Gladiator written mostly by Classicists and each chapter pointed that out to me!] In particular, the “Critical Audience” is worried about the “Naive Audience” response; they are concerned that there are people out there with “wrong information”. The “Critical Audience” congratulate themselves on their intellect and are concerned that those people who aren’t as smart as they are might believe the errors.

The third position is The Curious Audience. The “Curious Audience” is inspired by a film to know more about the topic. Maybe they’ll take university history classes. Or read a book by a historian. If their interest is peaked, they’ll read more. Engage in the topic. They will not let the film’s inaccuracies and dramatic licence deter them from their enjoyment of both the “actual” history and the films. Even if the “Curious Audience” doesn’t follow up on the history, they remain sufficiently sceptical to not “believe everything in the film is 100% accurate”; but still lack the overall cynicism to throw the film-baby out with the historical bathwater. Unfortunately, the “Curious Audience” tends to also be silent; or at least quieter than the “Critical Audience” who tend to be “shouters”.

The History Film  Audience

Thinking about Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film, Inglourious  Basterds we can situate much of the film’s criticism: the “Naive Audience,” who believes everything they see without question, will conclude that Hitler was killed in 1944 in a French cinema and that he was shot at close range repeatedly by a Jewish American commando. The “Critical Audience” responses are fury at such a crass fabrication of historical details and dismiss the film outright. They point to the “Naive Audience” wandering around like village idiots content in their “wrong beliefs”. The “Curious Audience” enjoy Tarantino’s fiction for what it is, and perhaps contemplate why Tarantino tells his story in the way he does.

The sad fact is, I don’t believe the “Naive Audience” actually exists. At least, I’ve never met “that guy”; “that guy” who is so incredulous as to believe any historical drama is a definitive and final word on a historical moment. “That guy” is an illusion, a chimera invented by the “Critical Audience” to justify their own self-congratulatory and sanctimonious superiority. I’m willing to suggest that most people fall into the “Curious” category, but we all know people who are members of the “Critical Audience,” and they’re usually pretty full of themselves. “Well, if you’ve read about the subject like I have…” The “Critical Audience” exists only to ensure that they are thought to be the smartest people in the room.

vlcsnap-2013-06-14-20h10m39s54I’m assuming we all fall into the “Curious” category; we shouldn’t be bothered by Inglourious Basterds historical inaccuracies, because Tarantino did not make a “historical film”. We know the film isn’t going to be historically accurate because of the title of the film’s first chapter: “Once Upon a Time … in Nazi-occupied France”.  By using the traditional opening of a fairy tale, “Once upon a time…” Tarantino outlines immediately the correct key in which to situate the film.

Back in 1997, Roberto Benigni attracted a lot of criticism for his Holocaust “fairy-tale” La Vita e bella; while Benigni’s film occupies a strange place between historically situated events and the elements of his fantasy, Tarantino allows no such ambiguity. Part of the criticism levelled against Benigni was that the fairy-tale mode was completely inappropriate for a film detailing an Italian perspective on the Holocaust. And in fairness to Tarantino, while the Holocaust remains perpetually in the background of the film, the industrialized extermination of European Jewry is never given centre stage.


The thing about fairy-tales is that everyone assumes they know what they are. Myths, legends and fairy-tales are all used mostly interchangeably with one another, despite actually being very different things with different functions. In order to understand how Inglourious Basterds works as a fairy-tale, we need to understand what fairy-tales are.

The American anthropologist William Bascom, back in 1965, published a simplified schema distinguishing the key three forms of “oral prose narrative” (as he called them): myth, legend and fairy-tale or folktale. Myths were a culture’s sacred stories, stories which defined the culture and explained the universe for them. Legends, on the other hand, could be sacred or secular, but unlike myths, took place in our recognizable world; there is a historical anchor to a legend that myths do not have. Myths, in contrast, take place in some kind of “otherworld”, before the world is as we’ve inherited it. Legends we can plot on a map. Rabbi Loew, for example, is the subject of legend because Prague exists and we can travel there to see it with our own eyes. In Prague is the Altneu Synagogue where, in the attic, the Golem is said to remain. The Garden of Eden, on the other hand, is a myth because there is no historical or archaeological corroboration for that story; it has been suggested that it probably referred to the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, but there is no hard evidence to verify the story in Genesis.   With both legend and myth there is a degree of belief involved; however this is not to suggest belief in the literal truth of the Golem or the Eden stories. Stories embody ideas and it is the cultural ideas that these stories embody which are important, not their literal truth or fictionality. Both legends and myths suggest a figurative truth: what does it mean to say that G-d lead the Israelites from Egypt? Did the Exodus ‘actually’ happen? The question is moot. What does it mean to say the Israelites are G-d’s ‘Chosen People’ and the discursive possibilities which open up with that question are what is actually more important.

Fairy-tales, on the other hand, are self-consciously fictional narratives; they are ahistorical and “a-geographic” – that is, they occur in a fictional time period in fictional places. The “Nazi-occupied France” of Inglourious Basterds is not the historical France during the Nazi occupation during World War II, but a fictionalized and idealized time and place. The magic words, “once upon a time”, like the Fairy godmother in Disney’s Cinderella and her ‘Bippity-boppity-boo”, magically transform a real place and time into a self-consciously fictional world.  Tarantino’s script effectively re-works the central story (in folklore, we’d call it a tale type) of Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen, and I’m unaware of much serious criticism of the earlier film for being fictional. Had Inglourious Basterds advertised itself as “Based on a True Story”, there would be grounds for dissent; but quite the opposite, Tarantino uses “once upon a time”. Parenthetically, it’s worth noting few films use “based on a true story” anymore and tend to use the woollier “inspired by true events” to allow greater creative freedom with the facts. So, it is worth repeating, it is not just that fairy tales are fictional narratives, but that they are self-consciously fictional narratives; that is, the tale teller and the listener agree what follows in the account will not be “true”.  How that signal is given is a fascinating study in its own right.

Before moving on to how one recognizes a fairy-tale film, it is probably worth noting that “fairy-tale” is problematic word, particularly in its colloquial usage. To anyone who has studied folk narratives (academically or as a fan) can attest to, very few of the so-called “fairy tales” contain any fairies at all; the term is a bit of a misnomer. The “fairy tale” is a 19th century invention where traditional and orally circulated fictional narratives were deemed only appropriate for bourgeois children; they lacked the sophistication of modern literature, but seemed to amuse the children and the child-like (i.e. the ‘peasants’ who told the stories).  Furthermore, folktales (i.e. the real ones collected orally from the “folk” and fill up archives around the world) were never intended exclusively for children. Fairy-tales for children is likewise a 19th century invention; mostly these stories told of adult concerns and adult fears. Scarcity of food, poverty, oppression, rebellion are not the topics of “children’s” stories, although they’ve become them due to Victorian bowdlerization and sanitizing the originals.

So “fairy tale” is seen by folklorists as a pejorative term. Bascom uses folktale, but recognizes that both myth and legends are also folktales, so the term doesn’t sufficiently denote this class of fictional narratives. Within Folklore Studies, the agreed upon term is the German Märchen, after the Brothers Grimm’s use in their Kinder- und Hausmarchen. Mostly I use “fairy tale”, simply because it is more commonly understood, even though problematic.

In theory, any fictional film could be considered a “fairy tale”, but indiscriminate labelling would lead to more confusion than clarity. At the level of fiction though, we can begin by exploring how and in what ways does a particular film recognize its own fictional mode? Ultimately, this is a function of visual rhetoric. Should a film try to convince us of its narrative veracity, then we are probably looking at a legend-film. If key images in the film convince us of larger, symbolic resonances, then the film may be trying to convince us of its mythic nature. So how does a third class of film narrative try to convince us of its fictionality? What, visually, does a film do to reassure us that what is being shown is not real?

Once the fictional nature of the “fairy tale” film has been identified, we next need to consider the purposes of that kind of narration. Most stories can be retold in different modes, in different genres. Why was this particular mode or genre chosen to convey those particular ideas? In other words, why tell a particular story as a fairy-tale? The psychoanalytic approach as espoused by Bruno Bettelheim, for example, posits that fairy-tales enable the child to become socialized. The horrific journeys fairy tale characters travel are psychological negotiations that children must make in order to grow into healthy and functional adults. Fairy-tales reflect children’s deepest darkest fears and Bettelheim warned that to deny children these fears risks potentially making them more susceptible in their adult years. Bettelheim notes,

In order not to be at the mercy of the vagaries of life, one must develop one’s inner resources so that one’s emotions, imagination and intellect mutually support and enrich one another. Our positive feelings give us the strength to develop our rationality; only hope for the future can sustain us in the adversities we unavoidably encounter” (Bettelheim  1999:269)

The theory, which is equally applicable to adults as it is to children, is that the violence and horror in vernacular fictions underlines and reinforces the idea that life itself, to quote Thomas Hobbes, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. And children shouldn’t be protected from this awareness, but, through the mediation of children’s fairy-tales, where often it is the littlest that defeats the ogre and saves the day. For adults, although Bettelheim doesn’t go there, we can extend this approach to consider how horror movies (for example) condition and recondition adults in much the same way. Adults too need the ritualistic dramas of grown-up fairy tales to progress through the daily charnel house that is modernity.   But this is something that the folk have known for hundreds of years.

The psychoanalytic approach to fairy-tale analysis has been heavily criticised by social historian Robert Darnton in his The Great Cat Massacre. For example, Erich Fromm interprets “Little Red Riding Hood” as being about adolescent sexuality based on analysis of the story’s key symbols. For Darnton, the problem with this analysis is that none of the symbols Fromm states as particularly salient occur in the orally collected narratives, they appear only in their literary and reified forms (Darnton 1999:281). Bettelheim comes across even worse: Darnton criticizes Bettelheim for treating fairy-tales as if they were patients on the analyst’s couch, ignoring the realities of oral collections as consisting of variant texts, not literary products (1999: 283).

Whilst Darnton recognizes the fairy-tale is a fictional genre, he notes that this does not preclude it discussing real issues facing the cultures which tell those tales. Eugen Weber also noted that folktales “can tell us a great deal about real conditions in the world of those who told and those who heard the tales” (Weber 1981, 96).  Weber continues, suggesting that the human emotions of the folktale should be read as real emotions of the folk themselves. “A careful reading of the [Grimm’s] collection reveals a number of recurrent themes: hunger, poverty, death, danger, fear, chance …” (Weber 1981, 96).

So, to summarize then, fairy-tales are self-consiously fictional narratives, which announce their own fiction textually (in the actual text itself).  They are not the same thing as myths or legends. These were never intended exclusively for children’s consumption and originally spoke of adult concerns and fears. While we may be tempted to read these stories psychoanalytically, such analysis often makes unsubstantiated claims about meaning which need to be taken with a grain of salt. That being said, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to interpret these narratives as ritualistic dramas which put the world to right by its conclusion.Finally, despite the genre’s fictional mode of presentation, fairy-tales often discuss real (adult) emotions and fears.


inglourious-basterds9Inglourious Basterds

I remember sitting in my office, sometime around January 2009, when I first saw the trailer for Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and my initial reaction to the trailer was that if Tarantino achieves even half of what he promised in the trailer, this was going to be one of the greatest films of all time. When I finally saw the film in August later that year (after 8 months of anticipation), the results far surpassed my hopes. And I do consider this to be a remarkable piece of contemporary cinema.

I also recall that around that time I read a criticism of Tarantino’s work which accused him of “grindhouse elitism”; that his films were only for that minority of people who were as “cool as he was” and could understand all of his exploitation movie references. I don’t have a problem with this, because apparently I am as cool as Tarantino; and I can live with that. I was thinking about that criticism when Inglourious Bastserds started. vlcsnap-2013-06-14-20h11m11s119This title card came up on screen: “Chapter One: Once Upon a Time … in Nazi-occupied France”.  The next image was the one on the left of the screen. I immediately had a bizarre connection in my mind with the image on the right, from Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. vlcsnap-2013-06-14-20h15m41s25Somehow my brain went from “Once Upon a Time” to Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, but the image echoed Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The shot on the right isn’t even the first shot of that film; it’s the first shot of the second section of the film, where we are introduced to Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes (“the Bad” of the title). vlcsnap-2013-06-14-20h32m20s11That initial connection was further suggested by the next few shots; both Landa and Angel Eyes are seen arriving from a distance in similarly composed shots. vlcsnap-2013-06-14-20h14m52s28The heart in both sequences is also echoed in that both are tense interrogation sequences: vlcsnap-2013-06-28-12h01m50s156Landa talking to LaPadite and Angel Eyes with the Mexican farmer.vlcsnap-2013-06-28-11h54m27s34 This opening sequence of Inglourious Basterds has a very strong Spaghetti Western vibe to it; [play clip] like the Italian westerns, there is very little dialogue (which is odd for a Tarantino movie, and which he more than makes up for once we’re introduced to Landa) and the music is quite evocative. The music in question comes from another Italian western, The Big Gundown by Sergio Sollima, also starring Lee Van Cleef. The Ennio Morricone score also samples Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” giving this sequence not only a Spaghetti Western quality, but a German on too.

While the Western genre is often associated with myth, at least from an American perspective, the Spaghetti Westerns, in their appropriation of this American mythos, becomes much less ‘authentic’. For it to be considered myth, these films must embody the most significant of a culture’s beliefs. A similar dynamic of mythic appropriation can be seen in the work of the German author Karl May’s 19th century Western novels. And like May, the Spaghetti Western filmmakers, in appropriating these narratives, transform them into fairy-tale-like fictions.  Sergio Leone’s use of “Once Upon a Time” in the title of his 1968 western reflects this fairy-tale quality.

This fairy-tale quality of “Once upon a time” adds a texture to the film wherein Tarantino is free to refashion Europe in the 1940s anyway he likes. By opening the film like this he creates a discursive resonance for the film; we need to understand what the Spaghetti Western did to American mythology in order for Tarantino to translate it back to Europe. Without understanding that flow of transnational cinematic histories, the film would become nonsensical (which for many it was). Tarantino avoids suturing us into a historical recreation of Nazi-occupied France with his magic fairy-tale words. Effectively, Inglourious Basterds does to the “War in Europe” what the Spaghetti Westerns did to “the Old West”. And like any good storyteller, Tarantino’s game of references winks to the knowing cineastes in the audience.

Echoes of The Searchers?

Echoes of The Searchers?

Inglourious Basterds has two key storylines, both of which connect up at the end. In one, Shoshanna Dreyfus, a French Jewish girl, narrowly escapes being massacred along with her family hiding in the cellar of a local farmer, Pierre LaPadite. Shoshanna reinvents herself as “Emmanuelle Mimieux” (a double wink, referencing both the erotic Emmanuelle film series and American B-movie actress, Yvette Mimieux) who owns a Parisian cinema and is, as they say, hiding in plain sight. The second storyline takes its inspiration from the Robert Aldrich 1967 war movie, The Dirty Dozen.  In case any of you are unfamiliar with Aldrich’s film, here is the original 1967 trailer.

Clearly, Tarantino has based his “Basterds” on Aldrich’s Dozen

Picture1Inglourious Basterds is meant to play like the guys-on-a-mission World War 2 adventure movies, not as a recreation of a specific historical event. While the fairy-tale allusions in the first chapter may be, I’ll grant you, obtuse – you need to know your Spaghetti Westerns to see the connections – the second chapter is classic Hollywood fiction. While the actors in “Chapter One” may be largely unknown to American audiences, and the Jewish-American soldiers in “Chapter Two” might not be household names, I would imagine that most people would recognize Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine. Some might even recognize Hostel director, Eli Roth, as Sgt. Donnie Donowitz. The casting of movie stars in movie star-type roles creates a fictional frame; while Pitt is an excellent actor (and very good in this film), we are always aware we’re watching Brad Pitt. He is too famous now to disappear in a role. Because we are watching Pitt chewing up the scenery in a self-consciously over-the-top performance, we are aware of the fictional mode of the story.

Picture2More traditional fairy-tales permeate the film as a whole. Shoshanna catches the eye of a handsome young German sharpshooter, Fredrick Zoller, who, for his valiant actions against the Allies, has become a hero of the Third Reich. The film based on his exploits (and in which he stars, playing himself) has just been made and Joseph Goebbels is in Paris to organize the film’s premiere.  Zoller insists that the film’s premiere be moved to Shoshanna’s cinema in order to attempt to woo her. With the highest ranks of the Reich due to be in attendance, Shoshanna conspires with her lover and projectionist, Marcel, to take full advantage of this opportunity and to burn the cinema down with all the Nazi brass inside. Tarantino reworks the traditional fairy-tale, so that the charming Prince has the ball at Cinderella’s place, and she uses the opportunity to extract her revenge for the enslavement of her people.

Picture6Col. Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz, in an Oscar-winning performance) takes on the role of the film’s Big Bad Wolf. Nicknamed “The Jew Hunter”, Landa has made his reputation on being able to root out hidden Jews throughout France, including being responsible for the massacre of Shoshanna’s family at the beginning of the film. Shoshanna is as much Little Red Riding Hood as she is Cinderella; always trying to keep one step ahead of this Wolf. For her big night, the night she destroys the entire Nazi high command, she dons a vibrant red dress to underline this connection. Tarantino, with seeming incongruity, has David Bowie’s title song from the Paul Schrader remake of Cat People playing on the soundtrack; a song conspicuously of the early 1980s, despite the faux-40s setting, further avoiding any chance of mistaking his intention for historical accuracy. Picture3Somehow, the Bowie/Cat People connection works: If Landa is the Big Bad Wolf and Cinderella is going to burn the ball down, who better than a Red Riding Hood Panther Lady to stop him?

Shoshanna’s story merges with the Basterds’ on this prestigious night; they too have infiltrated the premiere and also plan on taking out the Nazi big-wigs, including the Furher, who is in attendance. Neither knows of each other’s plot; neither knows the other at all. The Basterds were able to infiltrate the screening with the help of German movie star and spy for the Allies, Brigit von Hammersmark. Picture4In an earlier sequence, where VonHammersmark first meets the Basterds in a cellar bar in a small French town, what should be a quiet rendezvous turns into a massacre. In the melee, she loses a shoe. Just as Shoshanna is able to play both Little Red and Cinderella, Landa is able to play both the Big Bad Wolf and a (not so charming) Prince Charming, when he ascertains that the Allies’ spy he is looking for is the actress. In a scene right out the classic fairy-tale, Landa discovers the lady he’s been looking for by the shoe fitting (literally) the spy’s foot.


So What’s It All Mean?

I’m going to show a rather long clip – and warning, it’s incredibly violent. This is the Basterds in action, doing what they do.

Within the fairy-tale nature of the film, by setting this sequence in the woods, near an old bridge or aqueduct, the Basterds are like a vengeful seven dwarves. The music is, again, Morricone’s score for The Big Gundown. But in the middle of the sequence, intercut to fill us in, is a strange narrative segue into the story of Hugo Stiglitz. Picture7Hugo Stiglitz is the name of a Mexican born star of exploitation movies throughout the 1970s & 80s; who Tarantino honoured by naming this character after. The segue is made further strange by having it narrated by an uncredited Samuel L. Jackson, the font Stiglitz’s name is written in evokes a 1970s exploitation quality, and even the music segues into Billy Preston’s score for the Blaxploitation movie, Slaughter (starring Jim Brown, who was also in The Dirty Dozen).

Because we are never encouraged to read the film as historical reconstruction, we need to read it allegorically. By virtue of any fictional representation involving some degree of fantasy, understanding the unreality of the film requires consideration of that fantasy as an extension of what cannot be said effectively any other way. Fantasy gives voice to what cannot be stated otherwise. Inglourious Basterds makes manifest a re-empowering of historical Jewish victimization. It is hard to resist psychoanalytic interpretations sometimes – of seeing the scalping of the dead Nazis as symbolic castration in the name of revenge – but such an interpretation is hardly hidden, it is hardly subconscious. Tarantino’s film gives us World War 2 as we would have liked to have seen it; a revenge fantasy that recognizes Nazi anti-Semitism, but with no mention of the death camps.kucharski_a_poster

The French fairy-tales Darnton discusses, where in this fictional world, peasants win against wealthy landlords through guile and intelligence, where the smallest of children can bring down the mightiest of giants, are consciously inverted fantasies of their daily experiences. The problem with psychoanalysis (as grand theory) is that what is ascribed to be unconscious is usually very conscious. The folk were never fools, despite the number of fools in their stories. Contrary to Freud’s bourgeoisie, these peasant storytellers knew exactly what they were saying and why they were saying it. Any element in an orally transmitted story (folklorists would refer to it as a motif) could not persist across time and space unless it served a definite purpose. Otherwise, it would have been forgotten. What persists is what is important. So, as Darnton argues, to find out what a story means, often all one needs to do is ask the storyteller; they probably have a pretty good idea. If the storyteller is unavailable, because the story in question is from an archive, one needs to identify those aspects in the text itself which gives evidence to what the storyteller felt the story meant.

the_bear_jew_by_walkington-d36hf45In the same way that Tarantino constructs his World War 2 ahistorically and anachronistically, specifically through his use of music and other non-diegetic elements of the film, the horrors of the Nazi death camps, despite no specific references to them, is always in the background. The Basterds themselves, as a commando unit of Jewish-American soldiers, is recognition of this. When Donnie Donowitz, the Bear Jew, bludgeons to death Sgt Rachtman, he first asks of the sergeant whether or not he received his Iron Cross for killing Jews. The image of the Bear Jew in particular, in his muscle shirt carrying a baseball bat, is an image of Jewish physical strength and brutality to rival any Israeli Sabra. The carving of the swastika on the foreheads of those few the Basterds leave alive is a direct reference to, historically, how easily, after the war, Nazis were able to disappear or were even welcomed with open arms by the governments of the United States, Canada and many other Allied countries. If there really was an Aldo the Apache and Bear Jew carving swastikas onto the heads of all enemy soldiers they encountered, denying what one did during the war would have been much more difficult. As with all fairy tales, Inglourious Basterds puts the world to right.

This is the Face of Jewish Vengeance

The dénouement of the film is possibly the most controversial aspect of Inglourious Basterds. Shoshanna has locked all the doors to her cinema and taken her collection of nitrate prints behind the screen to be set alight. She has filmed a short insert which she edits into “Nation’s Pride,” the Fredrick Zoller film. Meanwhile two of the Bastserds, including Donowitz, are still in the cinema, with dynamite bombs strapped to their legs, trying to finish off their mission, even if it costs them their lives.  Warning again- this sequence is pretty violent

Having Hitler killed in this sequence, rather than the suicide in his bunker the following year,  while entirely ahistorical (and some critics have accused Inglourious Basterds of being “irresponsible” because of this), works within the film’s fairy-tale logic. History, in this case, is much less satisfying; this is how Hitler should have died, Tarantino seems to be saying. Donowitz not only shoots the Fuhrer at close range with a machine gun, we cut back to him, lying dead on the floor as Donowitz liquefies his face with bullets. Tarantino is not trying to rewrite history (another frequent criticism of this film), because the true magic of the film is its dialogue with history. Inglourious Basterds is not a replacement for history, and trying to dupe the “Naïve Audience” as such. The film only works if the historical record is equally known.

Shoshanna is able to have the last word, despite her actually dying in the projection booth after having been shot by Zoller. In many respects, with so much metacommentary on the part of Tarantino, one could posit the argument that cinema creates a kind of immortality. Much like the criticism of killing Hitler in this sequence, the true horror of Shoshanna’s vengeance is that she kills the Nazis in a Nazi-like method: by locking them in a closed building and setting it on fire. Shoshanna’s actions have an Old Testament aura of justice to them. Her vengeance isn’t just for killing her family, but in the ahistorical awareness of what the Nazis actually did to the Jews. Her face fills the screen-within-the-screen as it burns, literally sacrificed by fire: Holocaust. And as the smoke billows through the cinema, with the projector still running, Shoshanna’s projected face becomes three-dimensional and almost like the Great and Powerful Oz in the 1939 film.



Inglourious Basterds is a film which has been heavily pilloried for its historical inaccuracies, specifically killing off Hitler in 1944 in a Parisian cinema. But chastising the film for that is unnecessary; films like The Dirty Dozen, which Tarantino’s film is indebted to, were never made to be seen as anything other than fictions. As a fiction film, however, Basterds has many similarities with fairy-tales – not just fairy-tale motifs within the film, but fulfilling a function akin to fairy-tales. Namely, to offer vernacular entertainment which wears its anachronistic fantasy on its sleeve.

Perhaps the controversy is based on a cultural discomfort of publically expressing some of our violent fantasies at how we wished World War Two had happened. Like being caught playing soldier with oneself and then vehemently denying you were doing anything of the sort. I’m sure I’m not alone at having fantasied about what we’d have done if we had a time machine, or a machine gun, or a time machine with a machine gun. And the skills to use both of them. Playing Inglourious Basterds is a fantasy that partially expresses our own cultural frustration at feeling powerless to do anything in light of what we now know happened to European Jewry under the Nazis.  And is part of the frustration some people have with the film that a non-Jew so thoroughly realized our fantasy, almost as if he’d read our childhood diaries.

Finally, we also have to trust, and this is perhaps my most important point, that just as we know a particular film might be fictional, or only part of the story, or a poor interpretation of history, that we’re not the only ones with that information. We don’t have to be the “Critical Audience”; if we’re the “Curious Audience”, we facilitate discussion, not end it.


Works Cited

Bascom, William. 1965.The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives. Journal of American Folklore 78: 3-20.

Bettelheim, Bruno. 1999. The Struggle for Meaning. In M. Tartar (ed). The Classic Fairy Tales. London: W. W. Norton, 269-273.

Darnton, Robert. 1999. Peasants Tell Tales: the Meaning of Mother Goose. In M. Tartar (ed). The Classic Fairy Tales. London: W. W. Norton, 273-280.

Weber, Eugen. 1981. Fairies and Hard Facts: The Reality of Folktales. Journal of the History of Ideas,  42.1: 93-113.

Jewsploitation: Self-Stereotyping and Discursive Jewish Representation in The Hebrew Hammer

The Hebrew Hammer 6

Jewsploitation: Self-Stereotyping and Discursive Jewish Representation in The Hebrew Hammer

Jonathan Kesselman’s 2003 comedy, The Hebrew Hammer, advertised itself as the first “Jewsploitation” movie. The film follows the adventures of Mordechai Jefferson Carver (Adam Goldberg) – the titular “Hebrew Hammer” – who tries to stop Santa’s evil son, Damien (Andy Dick), from destroying Chanukah. While the film is a parody of the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, its exploding of classic Jewish stereotypes enables discussion about Jewish representations and the nature of Jewish identities.

images (1)What is “Jewsploitation”? Obviously, it’s a semantic parody of Blaxploitation, but if that’s all it was, the word wouldn’t resonate as much as it does. Blaxploitation was the name given to the cycle of Black-oriented American genre films produced in the first half of the 1970s (roughly 1971-1975). Films like Shaft, Superfly, The Mack, Black Ceasar, Foxy Brown all featured predominantly African-American casts, many using African-American screenwriters and directors, and made stars out of actors like Fred Williamson, Pam Grier and Richard Roundtree. The “exploitation” element of Blaxploitation did not refer to the exploitation of a Black work-force on these films; it referred to the marketing strategy these B-movies used to exploit contemporary social issues. They exploited an audience’s desire to see something different while still working within vernacular cinematic genres, like gangster movies, horror movies, action movies, etc. The draw for an audience was seeing African-American characters living like everyday African-Americans and dealing with social issues the Black community faced on a regular basis – drugs, sex industry, institutional racism, etc. Blaxploitation was about seeing Black people leading Black lives, but within a vernacular (exploitation) cinema context – that is, movies everyday people want to go and see.

Does this work for “Jewsploitation”? What kind of film would Jewish filmmakers produce for Jewish audiences?  Actually, the YidlYiddish-language cinema produced by Joseph Green (in Poland) and Joseph Seiden (in the US) throughout the 1930s fit the bill nicely – they were unique, low-budget, genre pictures (mostly melodramas or musicals), for a niche audience that either experienced or was experiencing similar social issues and changes. The difference between the Yiddish-language cinema of the 1930s and Blaxploitation of the 1970s is largely generational: the appeal of the Yiddish movies tended to be to an older audience, while Blaxploitation appealed to a younger demographic.  In this regard, The Hebrew Hammer is more of the latter than the former; more youth-oriented films, than films produced for an older audience – as are a number of the films I’ll be discussing in this talk.

The generational division is a significant one; interest in bubbe-movies (if I can coin the term) by younger generations of Jews appeal out of nostalgia, not contemporaneity. Nostalgia for old world Jewishness is popular, but it is almost always backwards looking. Judah Cohen noted the recent emergence of a generation of North American Jews which embody this idea of ironic Jewish exploitation – Jewsploitation:

The ‘new’ Jewish culture aimed specifically at instilling a sense of Judaism where such expression had traditionally been absent … Often using the term ‘radical’ to describe their activities … projected images, attitudes and sounds that simultaneously celebrated and subverted popular Jewish stereotypes. Urban-dwelling Jews in their twenties and thirties served as the main target: those seen to base less of their identity on the Holocaust, who married later in life, and who portrayed a sense of alienation from both denominational life and the existing Jewish infrastructure (Cohen 2009: 2).

For a number of North American Jews of a particular generation, myself included, who have trouble identifying with either the two key identity markers in “Received Judaism” – the Holocaust & Israel – there has been an ontological crisis of how one defines oneself as Jewish in the modern world. Cohen sees this generation’s actions as “youthful reactions to what they perceived as an ossified, even self-effacing Jewish identity” (2009: 3).  Such reactions include the creation of a kind of “American Jewish ‘hipster’ culture … [which is heavily] associated with blackness (African-American culture)” (2009:3). This generation of “American Jewish hipsters”, according to Cohen,

… also evidence deeper aspects of cultural activity attributed specifically to the Jewish experience: most notably a publically negotiated, bipolar sense of Jewish masculinity, as well as an often overt agenda aimed at transforming perceptions of Jewish tradition in order to preserve them (2009: 3).

Cohen continues with the suggestion that this “hipster” culture is a direct counter to the Israeli Sabra image as an embodiment of Jewish masculine virility (2009:4). Parenthetically, the Israeli Sabra image was created specifically as a counter to the “Victim-Jew” image that emerged in the post-Holocaust world.

you_dont_mess_with_the_zohan_ver3In the Adam Sandler comedy, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (2008), Sandler plays “the Zohan,” a super IDF operative who embodies the virile masculine Sabra. Despite his legendary status in Israel, what Zohan most wants to do is move to New York and become a hair stylist. Zohan is able to achieve this, working in feminizing hair industry while still keeping his virile masculinity intact. Here’s the opening sequence to the film

Zohan is created to be the ultimate Sabra; cool even by Israeli standards. He is self-assured, sexy, equally capable of winning a tug-of-war contest against a bull and barbecuing fish on the beach (naked!). Despite his abdication to New York and the world of women’s hairdressing, that hyper-masculinity remains in place. As enjoyable as Zohan is, as a movie, Sandler is not part of this “New Jew” movement; his Zohan does not directly challenge the image of the Sabra as an embodiment of Jewish masculinity. Zohan may be an exaggeration, but the Israeli roots of that exaggeration are never challenged.  Adam Sandler’s comedy in general, and You Don’t Mess with the Zohan in particular, merely extend the existing ontological paradigms which define Jewish identity.

Discourse Analysis

Discourse analysis emerges as a reaction – within philosophy – to traditional Marxist dichotomies, like truth/falsity, as simplistic and limiting (Purvis & Hunt 1993: 479).  Rather than ideology operating to impose a ‘false consciousness’ on an unaware populace, ideology operates “discursively”. That is,

… discourses impose frameworks which limit what can be experienced or the meaning that experience can encompass, and thereby influence what can be said or be done. Each discourse allows certain things to be said and implies or prevents other things from being said (Purvis & Hunt 1993: 485).

Rather than two binary opposite positions, whereby one either agrees or rejects, a multiplicity of interpretive strategies to make sense of the world exist. However, each of those positions has their own ideological concerns. Far be it from “everyone having their own opinion”, an ascription to a fictional idea of freewill, discourse analysis recognizes that only a finite number of interpretive strategies are ideologically allowed to exist, and each of those have their own ideological rules and obligations. The ontological problem of Jewish identity, of being caught between the Holocaust and Israel, is an ideological one; that those are the only two paradigms possible for Jewish identity to attach. The “New Jew” hipster image is an ideological challenge to those limiting paradigms, despite it having its own ideological problems too (specifically its American-centric, New York-centric assumptions). You Don’t Mess with the Zohan does not challenge those ideological discourses, but is complacent within them.

Discourse analysis recognizes that identities, positions and their attendant ideologies have a tendency to shift. They are not unmoveable or unchanging. To be either in agreement with/or react against any particular position ignores the fluid nature of such positions.

Discourse is constitutive of social relations in that all knowledge, all talk, all argument takes place within a discursive context through which experience comes to have, not only meaning for its participants, but shared and communicable meaning within social relations (Purvis & Hunt 1993: 492)

The question one must engage with, in any discursive process, is to identify and understand the context of that discussion particularly as it impacts on both utterance and reception of those ideas. I may appear more conservative to a left winger than when I have a similar conversation with someone on the right. I may appear more Jewish in my interactions with a non-Jew than I am in a Jewish context (where I probably come off almost Presbyterian). This flow of discursive positioning demonstrates the greater complexity than to (simply) dismiss me (or accept me) as a “left-leaning-Jewish-liberal”.

In Stuart Hall’s “Encoding/Decoding”, he advocates a discursive approach to cultural studies, by which he suggests begins with the realization that media texts do not present reality, but represent discourses about reality. Hall’s example is a typical evening news broadcast. While today we may be cynical about unbiased and factual reportage on Fox News, the same interpretations could be made about the revered BBC.  We depend on our news programmes to offer truthful accounts of what is happening around the world. What we see on the news is “real”. For Hall, rather than a presentation of reality, a news broadcast is a carefully constructed, ideological text. When watching the news, we aren’t given any information about what is happening in the world as much as we are given a series of narratives which tell us what is acceptable to know about what is happening in the world. This is not to level accusations of bias against the BBC (although such accusations are definitely possible), because no news broadcast can avoid all biases. The news does not present “truth” but representations of truth.  The repercussions of Hall’s approach can be applied to any and all communication – face-to-face or mass mediated.

The same discursive approach holds true for racial and ethnic images in film and on TV. The “sociological communication” model, which was popular in late 1970s tended to see racial & ethnic representations in overly simplistic binary paradigms: a representation was either racist or not.  To say a film is racist, or avails itself to racist stereotyping, is to fall into this analytical trap. Hall’s advocacy of a discursive approach – the so-called “Cultural Studies” model – recognizes the importance of context and constructedness of these representations. A film – whether fictional or factual – is not presentation of reality, but construction of discourses about reality.

Borat-Movie-Wallpaper-001Consider the Sasha Baron Cohen film, Borat. Here is a film which puts a fictional character into the “real world” with the intention of demonstrating specific discourses about American culture.  To what extent are these sequences contrived? Were there many problems with consent for using private citizens’ images in a commercial film? Were they paid? Was there a poor production assistant who ran after people to get their signature on a release form after Borat had done something to them? To what extent are people playing to the camera? What Borat represents is an erasure of that assumed line between fiction and factual. To say this sequence is real but that sequence is contrived is a meaningless game to play with the film. What can we say about the film’s representation of reality, of a ‘real America’? Each sequence of the film opens the discursive possibilities for public debate.

In the “Running of the Jew” sequence in Borat, we see Borat’s feature for Kazakhstan National Television’s coverage of what is purported to be an annual folk festivity. Clearly this is an anti-Semitic sketch. And yet it is still funny (I find it funny, anyway). Part of the discursive analysis of the sequence is recognition that Baron Cohen is a practicing Jew; so the anti-Semitism is unlikely to be actual. And yet it is there. To see the sequence as a commentary on anti-Semitism, specifically playing with Eastern European/Balkan stereotypes of peasant anti-Semitism, is to open the film up for discussion. The comedy is exaggerated to the point of absurdity – Mrs. Jew laying her Jew Egg, which the children need to crush before the Jew-Chick hatches – opening up a commentary on cultural ignorance in Eastern and Balkan European countries. But that commentary is extended to demonstrate, later in the film, how ignorant Americans are of the world to be taken in by Baron Cohen’s character.

Jewsploitation as Discourse

Jewish humour as self-deprecating (and potentially reflecting self-hatred and masochism) comes from Sigmund Freud’s Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious written in 1905. This is not the place to outline extensively the Orthodox Freudian theories of joke-telling, but what interests me is the seemingly ubiquitous acceptance of his theories on humour. Jews tell Jewish jokes due to a profound sense of shame and hatred that they are Jews. There is also a sense that Jewish humour beats the anti-Semite to the punch, by denigrating oneself before the anti-Semite denigrates the Jew further. Nor is this the place to outline the problems, fallacies and sheer errors in these assumptions.  If Freud (and others) were right, then the “Running of the Jew” sequence in Borat reflects a profound self-hatred in Baron Cohen; that the grotesque exaggerated Jews in the festivity are how he sees himself unconsciously. And when we laugh at that sequence, we are recognizing its truth for us too.

The criticism of Freud and others I do want to focus on, however, is the assumption of a unified and coherent “Jewish character” or “Jewish Mind” which can be understood as applying to most, if not all Jews. Such an existence is of course absurd. But contextualized within discourse analysis we can see the fallacy in assuming a single meaning or character to Jewish humour: the joke either is anti-Semitic and self-deprecating or it is somehow psychologically liberating. That there are only those two options which are generalized across all Jewish experiences is nonsensical. Discourse analysis, however, enables a more nuanced and complicated response to sequences like the “Running of the Jew”.

Jewsploitation then is the self-conscious reclamation of the stereotypes and exploding them to absurd levels. Rather than simply evidence of Jewish self-hatred, quite the contrary, these films celebrate the grotesquery of the stereotypes in order to frame them as stereotypes. The “grotesque realism,” to appropriate Bakhtin’s phrase, of the “Running with the Jew” is its exaggeration.  The exaggeration is funny because of its construction as stereotype. And it is through the stereotype that the discursive dimension opens; the image lacks any direct referent in reality other than other grotesque stereotypes. The stereotype becomes as empty as the papier-mâché “Jew-heads”. In a later sequence, Borat and his producer Azamat stay over in a B&B which they didn’t realise was run by Jews.

The stereotypes expressed by Borat and Azamat in reference to Jews are juxtaposed by the lovely and generous elderly Jewish couple who run the B&B. Discursively, the anti-Semitism expressed by Borat and Azamet are less reflections of reality and more commentaries on, not just their reality, but also anti-Semitism in the larger world; racist perceptions of Jews, the film discursively suggests, are equally absurd.

Harold_And_Kumar_Go_To_White_Castle__001Another area of Jewsploitation can be found in the “Harold & Kumar” movies: Harold and Kumar are a Korean and Indian “odd couple” friends who mostly of smoke dope and eat at the White Castle brand of hamburger restaurants. All three of the “Harold & Kumar” films are written by the team of Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Scholssberg, and feature two secondary characters Rosenberg and Goldstein (Eddie Kay Thomas and David Krumholtz, respectively), who are likely based on the writers themselves. Rosenberg & Goldstein are slacker figures who also smoke a substantial amount of weed.  When we first meet them in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), the apartment they share features some intriguing Judaica.

For the American Jewish ‘hipster’ that Judah Cohen discussed, Rosenberg and Goldstein subvert the normal stereotypes of Jewish characters: they’re dope smoking, sex obsessed, slackers. But it is the inclusion of the ‘girly’ mezuzah and shofar modified into a dope pipe that is particularly noteworthy. Both items (presumably manufactured for the film) subvert the norms of both artefacts. And Harold & Kumar 2yet, both the shofar and the mezuzah are at home in this Jewish household. The mezuzah in particular has retained its traditional/religious usage, despite being made profane with the naked woman.  The holiness of the shofar too is likewise subverted. And yet, both men’s heads remain covered. Seeing Rosenberg & Harold & Kumar 1Goldstein as discourse (including the intentional echoes of Shakespeare’s Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern from Hamlet) is to recognize traditional Judaism subverted potentially for greater relevance to those contemporary Jews who find it difficult to engage with the traditional “Jewish infrastructure”.

In the second “Harold and Kumar” movie, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008), our titular heroes are arrested as terrorists en route to Amsterdam. Rosenberg & Goldstein are brought in to be interrogated by Homeland Security due to their friendship with Harold and Kumar.

The folklorist William Hugh Jansen coined what he called “the esoteric/exoteric factor”. Esoteric, as most of us know, refers to insider knowledge; what a member of a particular group knows about that group. Exoteric, on the other hand, is a bit more slippery; it refers to what insiders think outsiders know about that group. This is not say exoteric is what outsiders actually know, but what insiders think outsiders know. Everyone with me on that? In the clip from Guantanamo Bay, NSA agent Ron Fox (Rob Corddry) thinks Jews are going to be easily interrogated if you throw loose change on the table. This is a Jewish perception (due to the screenwriters) of what (certain) American Jews think non-Jews think about Jews; this is an exoteric belief. It’s also such an obvious one as to be fairly uninteresting. Goldstein and Rosenberg’s collecting up the change at the scene’s conclusion is one of the key moments of cinematic discourse here; it opens the text up to question whether or not the film is holding up cultural stereotypes even as they’re being critiqued, or are they just being pragmatic, claiming Fox’s change, in partial recompense for the racist insult?

So far so obvious. There is another level to the sequence, however; a more subtle one which complicates both the film and its racial discourses. The fourth man in the room is Dr. Beecher (Roger Bart), a consultant working for the NSA who, throughout the film, is continually embarrassed by agent Fox’s behaviour. We can read this sequence (and the entire film) as American fears that the rest of the world views the US as if it were a nation of agent Foxes. Such is one of the film’s larger exoteric fears. Dr. Beecher’s presence in the scene seems to be a subtle recognition of an esoteric American view suggesting equal embarrassment by Fox. There may also be a not-so-subtle swipe at Fox News involved here too. Throughout the three “Harold & Kumar” movies, despite the slacker-stoner comedy façade, actually has quite a bit to say about race in contemporary America.  They are much more clever films in this regard than might be gleaned at first appearance.

In the third “Harold & Kumar” film, A Very Special Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (2011), Harold and Kumar meet up with Goldstein and Rosenberg in a New York White Castle.

Through Goldstein’s conversion to Christianity, screenwriters Hurwitz and Schlossberg are able to further play with the exoteric comedy in Jewish perceptions of how Christians respond to Jews. The exoteric factor is illuminating in an assumed refraction of cultural traits. Goldstein’s litany of Jewish attributes he is now free from as a result of baptism – Jewish neurosis, self-hatred – is a suggestive index of contemporary Jewish discourses. Suddenly, as a Christian, Goldstein can now go hunting, fishing and sailing, nor is he worried about bad investments. The gag that Goldstein still wants the 87cents for the bill, while a cheap shot, has a larger repercussion of whether or not it’s possible to erase one’s birth culture.  And like the two previous “Harold & Kumar” movies, Goldstein (and Rosenberg) still have their heads covered.


The Hebrew Hammer

Now we finally get to our feature attraction, Jonathan Kesselman’s 2003 film, The Hebrew Hammer. As I noted at the outset, the film is parody of the Blaxploitation films which were part of the American exploitation landscape in the early 1970s. Kesselman assembles a crazy quilt of Blaxploitation clichés and then replaces “Black” with “Jew” – hence the initial meaning of Jewsploitation. Here is how the film opens:

The first thing I want to draw your attention to are the words which first appear on the screen: “This film is dedicated to all the Jewish brothers and sisters who had enough of the gentile”. The message is a direct parody of the opening of Melvin Van Peebles pioneering film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song (1971), which read “This film is dedicated to all the Brother and Sisters who had enough of the Man”.


“The Man” in the context of early 1970s vernacular cultures, was the hegemonic forces which dictated racial and cultural inequality across the United States. In The Hebrew Hammer, “the Man” is replaced by “the gentile”, but that one gag is more discursive than first appearances might suggest. In a similar relationship to African-American resistance to white hegemony trying to “keep the black man down,” is the Jewish resistance to “the gentile” trying to “keep the Jew-man down”. From its very first moments, The Hebrew Hammer is opening up the discursive possibilities of “New Jew” cultural politics.

tumblr_md3h5lhT4b1qb9ambo1_1280In the flashback sequence to the nightmarish “Hanukkah Past”, well-meaning gentile teachers crudely mispronounce Jewish names and the Jew is made to feel like a complete outcast amongst his or her peers. I would imagine most North American Jews who grew up under gentile hegemony can relate to this sequence. This certainly could have described my memories of my own school days. Of course, when we think back as adults, most of our teachers (at least this was true for me) went to a great deal of effort for inclusion of all races, religions and cultures. And most of my friends from primary school were a racially mixed lot. So this sequence does not reflect a kind of historic reality to growing up Jewish in North America. What it does reflect is a strong emotional memory; of what it felt like to be culturally different and excluded from celebrating Christmas with one’s friends. From a more historical materialist perspective, of course any Jewish child dressed in Chassidic garb would have been going to a Jewish school to begin with; little Mordechai’s costume is more a reflection of how we felt others viewed us (the esoteric/exoteric factor).

The image of Santa stomping on the plastic dreidel (and I think I had that dreidel as a child) and flipping little Mordechai the bird as a segue into the “Hebrew Hammer” theme is a defiant rejection of victimization. Mordechai, as The Hebrew Hammer, becomes the protector of the Jewish community, almost like a golem.  Of course, the song itself is a parody of Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning theme song from Shaft. The song and opening credits function to illustrate the nature of the parody the film is developing.

In the film, Mordechai is brought in by the Jewish Justice League in order to prevent Santa’s evil son, Damien, from destroying Hanukkah. In this next clip, we are introduced to the Jewish Justice League.

In much the same way that Borat reclaimed Jewish stereotypes  and by exaggerating them rendered them relatively harmless, this sequence directly confronts another cache of Jewish stereotypes: Jewish media conspiracies, Holocaust documentaries to create good will towards Jews, overly sensitive to denigration, an absent “coalition of Jewish athletes,” Steven Spielberg, etc. Jewish actor Peter Coyote (and I’ll confess to a little Jewissance when I discovered he was a member of the Tribe) sports the Moshe Dayan eye-patch and tends to talk with a mouthful of cream cheese. By directly confronting these stereotypes, Kesselman is able to expose them as absurd despite the occasional kernel of truth. These stereotypes resist the simplistic lies/truth dichotomy.

In the next clip, Mordechai attends a meeting at the Jewish Justice League, but as security precautions, he must undergo various trials to prove he is truly Jewish.

The stages of these trials, both literally and symbolically, create a discourse about Jewish identity: he must have a Hebrew name, be able to list all the elements on a Seder plate, demonstrate musical aptitude, be circumcised and be able to whine better than both a Buddhist and “the Dying”. While, again, these are all crude stereotypes, as an aggregate they suggest a definition of Jewish identity. But such a definition is not unproblematic; nor does it conform to the rules of Halakhah. Jewish law is here the unspoken template to which The Hebrew Hammer is playing with by suggesting a more experiential and vernacular discourse on Jewish identity.

The final clip I want to show you is probably my favourite sequence of the film.

The sequence in Duke’s underlines the fantasy of the parody, being able to walk into a bar, order a Manichewitz (Black Label), and with a “Shabbat Shalom, Motherfuckers” teach a gang of neo-Nazis to respect the Jew. And where can I get a pair of those Magen David spurs? But the central aspect of this sequence in the film is the elderly African American man Hammer speaks with outside the bar. It is Melvin Van Peebles, the writer-director and star of Sweetback, and his line “they bled your mamma, they bled your papa, but they won’t bleed you” is the poetic refrain of defiance from the film. Elsewhere in the film, Hammer teams up with Muhammad Ali Paula Abdul Rahim of the Kwanza Liberation Front, played by Mario Van Peebles (Melvin’s son and a director in his own right). To have both Van Peebles appear in a low-budget, independent film with a niche market at best, speaks to the film’s credibility.

What makes The Hebrew Hammer such a significant film is the cultural legitimacy is its parody of Blaxploitation on the one hand, but more importantly the discursive analysis which opens up about Jewish identity and Jewishness.   


Jewsploitation, beyond the marketing hook for The Hebrew Hammer, are contemporary Jewish comedies aimed at American Jewish ‘hipster’ audiences. These are not movies for our bubbes. They open the discursive possibilities, or reflect those discourses already being heard from the Jewish margins, about Jewish identity. While the crude stereotypes may overwhelm some with their vulgarity, Jewsploitation is a recolonizing of those discourses about Jewishness. The vulgarities of the representations are to explode the truth claim by making them, and their presentation, absurd and therefore harmless.  They may be stereotypes, but now they are our stereotypes; we own them and we can play with their meanings.

For those of us uncomfortable with “Received Judaism” and the cultural associations that accompany those labels, Jewsploitation is an ontological playground where we can test our identities. It is worth noting, at least in passing, that following on from Judah Cohen’s work on Jewish hip hop artists, that the Jewsploitation discourses are gender biased – there’s not a lot of evidence for women’s voices here. I don’t believe women are excluded, but more scholarship needs to be produced celebrating women’s roles within Jewsploitation. If, as Cohen noted, Jewsploitation enables new masculinities to be celebrated, so to do new Jewish femininities need to be encouraged. I don’t know what form that will take, but that is because it is not my place to define what those will be. I’m excited to see their emergence.

Discourse analysis, despite its advantages over traditional Marxist dichotomies, still reflects ideological struggles. Hegemony only allows certain voices (and in part, this may be why there is a gender imbalance in the scholarship).  Jewishness as discursive process has an advantage over traditional paradigms insofar as it embodies the potential for a multiplicity of voices to be heard. Those marginal voices may have to struggle and resist aspects of Jewish hegemony, but those absences and ruptures, resistances and defiance need to be accounted for.  No cultural text can reproduce reality; it can (and does) represent commentary on/about our cultural categories of “the real”.

A few years ago, I edited a special issue of the journal Shofar (25.4, 2007) called “Cool Jewz: Contemporary Jewish Identity in Popular Culture”. At the time, I saw Jewish popular culture shifting and the essays in that issue reflected aspects of those changes. Now, six years later, I think I finally understand this phenomenon. The Jewish legacy many of us inherited made (some of) us feel awkward and uncomfortable. Our identities were pre-decided and we were never consulted. “Oh, you’re Jewish. You must be this kind of person or that kind of person”.  As our generation ascended (and I have no doubt that the various phenomena I’m discussing is largely generational) and we began to make our own platforms, developing our own voices and our own complexities. Would that I could be so confident in my identity to define what a Jew is.  For me, and I don’t think I’m alone with this, the fact that our identities are discursive, prone to shifting, is actually liberating. We can communicate with one another in an almost endless diversity of expressions. And Jewsploitation is part of these discourses.


Works Cited

Abrams, Nathan. 2012. The New Jew in Film: Exploring Jewishness and Judaism in Contemporary Cinema. London: I. B. Tauris

Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1984. Rabelais and his World. London: John Wiley and Sons.

Ben-Amos, Dan. 1973. The ‘Myth’ of Jewish Humor. Western Folklore 32.2: 112-131.

Cohen, Judah. 2009. Hip-Hop Judaica: the problems of representin’ Heebster heritage. Popular Music 28.1: 1-18.

Freud, Sigmund. 2002. Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. London: Penguin Classics.

Hall, Stuart. 2009. Encoding/Decoding. In Meenakshi Gigi Durham & Douglas M. Kellner (eds) Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. London: John Wiley and Sons.

Koven, Mikel J (ed.). 2007. Special Issue: Cool Jewz: Contemporary Jewish Identity in Popular Culture. Shofar 25.4.

Koven, Mikel J. 2010. Blaxploitation Films. London: Kamera Books.

Jansen, Wm. Hugh. 1959. The Esoteric-Exoteric Factor in Folklore. Fabula 2.2: 205-211.

Purvis, Trevor & Alan Hunt. 1993. Discourse, Ideology, Discourse, Ideology, Discourse, Ideology … British Journal of Sociology 44.3: 473-499.

The Hebrew Hammer 2



Golems, Dybbuks and other Movie Monsters: The Search for a Jewish Horror Film

I am currently in Krakow, Poland as the guest of the Jewish Culture Festival who have brought me in to give a series of four lectures on Cool Jewz topics. I’ll put these lectures online here for folk to read at their leisure.

night-of-the-living-jews-horror-movie-posterGolems, Dybbuks and other Movie Monsters: The Search for a Jewish Horror Film

I’ve had this idea floating about my head for pretty much for the last 20 years. So I’m very excited to finally get around to playing with the topic for the Jewish Culture Festival. This lecture is going to be more ‘informal’ than my other three; that is, I want to take you on a personal journey through my favourite genre.

I’m a horror movie fan. And I have been for longer than I can remember. As a child, I saw every monster movie I was legally allowed to see – this was before home video changed the way we consume movies – whether on TV or at the cinema, if it was a monster movie, I was there. But as a Jewish horror movie fan, I became highly conscious of just how Christian-centric the monster movie world was. The metaphysical worlds depicted excluded me from believing in them. Even when the movies were directed by Jews, or written by Jews, or Jewish producers, studio heads, etc. all monsters challenged (and therefore frightened) the Gentile world. If I were to be scared by these films, then I would have to think like a Gentile, to believe like a Gentile. So what was a poor Jewish horror fan to do?
First of all, we need to look for Jewish, or quasi-Jewish, representations in horror movies. The history of Jewish representation in horror movies more or less parallels the representation of Jews across Hollywood films – to wit, that throughout the classical Hollywood period (roughly from the birth of sound in 1927 to the emergence of ethnic characters in the 1960s & 70s, or from The Jazz Singer to Funny Girl) was one of invisibility. Jewish characters were often in hiding, ethnicity erased to a bland American melting pot homogeneity. Recognition of Jewish representation in Hollywood movies often results in what Daniel Boyarin calls “Jewissance”; a play-on-words of the French jouissance, to denote intense pleasure (to the point of orgasm, really) – “Jewgasm” if you will. Within a Jewish context, Boyarin refers to the kind of intense pride Jews experience when a film or TV show allows Jewish images, characters or ideas to be expressed. Jewish viewers discover what Nathan Abrams refers to as “Jewish moments” in a film; moments when some kind of wink or nod to the Jewish audience creates this kind of connection. Within critical theory, the idea of jouissance has been suggested by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan to refer to those moments of intense pleasure that goes beyond the pleasure to the point of pain. Returning to the Jewish context of Jewissance, the pleasure of discovering a Jewish presence in a horror film is not only the pleasure of recognition, but also the painful awareness of this presence’s rarity. Although I guess that’s only painful if you’re a horror fan in the first place.

Picture1So, where do we see Jews in horror movies? I want to start with Roman Polanski’s 1967 comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers. In this film, a professor of the Occult and his schlemiel assistant travel though Eastern Europe (intentionally undefined) looking for vampires to stake. They stop in a small village which appears to be under the thrall of the local aristocratic vampire Count von Krolock. The movie as a whole is a parody of the British Hammer Horror films which were then sufficiently popular as to warrant parody. In particular interest for me, however, is the character of Shagal, the Innkeeper; a stereotypical Ostjuden, with payez, lusts after the busty wench Magda, and is the first of Count von Krolock’s victims we encounter. In probably the film’s most famous sequence, Shagal’s Jewishness is made explicit.

As Patricia Erens noted, in reference to John Landis’s 1981 An American Werewolf in London but is equally applicable to Fearless Vampire Killers, that “when ethnic additives appear in classic genres, the result is comedy” (Erens 1984, 375). Simply by including Jewish specificity into a horror film (or a Western, or an action-adventure movie) means that the film is automatically comic, so incongruous is any kind of ethnic specificity in these genres. The implication, to read backwards, is that Hollywood genre production is traditionally (normally) ethnically bland. Any alternative flavour added disrupts the genre irrevocably. I don’t necessarily agree with this, but wanted to throw it out there anyway.

american_werewolf_in_london_poster_04Now I want to turn to one of my favourite films of all time: An American Werewolf in London. The question for me is: is David Kessler, the films titular hero, Jewish? The actor who portrayed him, David Naughton, isn’t. And yet, for anyone who has seen the film, there is a very strong “Jewish vibe” to his performance. We also get this scene:


Most commentators, specifically Jewish commentators like Lester Friedman & Patricia Erens, make note of this exchange as some kind of evidence of David Kessler’s Jewishness, despite the refutation of the evidence’s conclusiveness: that being circumcised is no automatic sign of Jewishness. And yet, these commentators make no mention of this next clip – a dream sequence – where the Kessler family’s Jewishness is made explicit:

Did anyone see it? On the bookshelves in the back of the shot, there is a menorah on the mantel. That’s it.

American Werewolf in Lonodn
But now, consider the demons that attack David’s family. They’re wearing SS uniforms and helmets. Despite no visible swastikas, the sequence has very strong echoes of a Nazi attack on a bourgeois Jewish family’s home – the indiscriminate and meaningless of the violence, the massacre of the entire family, the consumption of the room in fire. There is particular irony in the sequence in that on the television, in an episode of The Muppet Show, Kermit and Miss Piggy are discussing on stage violence as theatrical tradition – in the guise of Punch and Judy – just prior to our witnessing ‘movie violence’ with Rick Baker’s Oscar winning special effects. But there is another level to the irony too: namely, that the SS-like monsters who attack the Kesslers are firing Uzis, the standard weapon of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) since the mid-1950s.

American Werewolf in London 2
Patricia Erens notes “[American Werewolf] plays upon the traditional role of the Jewish Victim. And what could be more appropriate than a Jewish monster, the ultimate outcast, who must die to preserve society” (Erens 1984, 375)? While I’m not sure David Kessler ‘died for our sins’, what American Werewolf does particularly well, or at least one of the reasons I respond to this film with such Jewissance is Kessler’s monster-as-tragic-hero motif. But Erens is correct in seeing Kessler as ‘ultimate outsider’, someone who will never be accepted by mainstream (that is, Gentile) society. Kessler’s monstrosity is his status as victim: because he didn’t die in the werewolf attack, he continues the curse. He’s blamed for simply surviving. And other than on a night of the full moon, he is a charming, nice and well-liked fellow, not a dangerous and bloodthirsty monster. His victims, who return as revenants to torment him into suicide, see only his monstrousness. An American Werewolf in London is a remarkable testimony to how it feels to be secularly Jewish in a Gentile world; how we can feel blamed and punished for circumstances beyond our control. This is not to say that secular Jews existing in the Gentile world are monstrous, but sometimes the Gentile world can make us feel that way.
imagesThinking about American Werewolf in London in this way brings me to consider another, more metaphysical point: what is the cosmology we inhabit within a particular horror film? Is the universe a Christian one wherein Jews function as Eternal Other for the righteous to compare themselves to? Or does a film’s narrative construction posit a Jewish metaphysics? One recent film which is very Jewish in this metaphysical way is the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man (2009) – but doesn’t really fit into my discussion here. Instead, consider the two iterations of Lt. Kinderman, the Georgetown detective who appears in both William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and William Peter Blatty’s Exorcist III: Legion (1990). Kinderman is the same character in each, but played by different actors – Lee J. Cobb and George C. Scott, respectively. While Blatty wrote the screenplay to the 1973 film (an adaptation of his own novel), Friedkin’s Jewishness and the casting of Cobb give Kinderman a different Jewish vibe to the character. When Blatty wrote and directed the 1990 sequel to the film, as an observant Roman Catholic, the performance of the character is different. Two clips – one from each of the films – first Lee J. Cobb in The Exorcist.

Firstly, the crucifix Chris finds under Regan’s pillow becomes menacing – a sign of unwanted oppression rather than spiritual redemption (reflected, in part, by the music in the clip). But it is the tone of rationalism and ratiocination which Cobb brings to the sequence that strikes me as implicitly Jewish. Kinderman is cool, logical, and scientific in his investigation into the mysterious death of Burke Dennings. And Kinderman’s calmness juxtaposes the supernatural hysteria which permeates the rest of the film.

Now consider George C. Scott in the same role: Kinderman here is given the opportunity to express his skepticism towards the Christian metaphysical world in his litany of secular evils he believes exist. But at the conclusion of that speech, he admits, almost against his will, that he also believes in (the Christian perception of) the Devil. Add to that, Blatty has Kinderman pinned against and up the opposite wall in a crucifixion position in a display of supernatural power. And at the sequence’s end, somehow the Devil is able to conjure up lightning inside the asylum cell which zaps the floor away which reveals either a portal to Hell, or the lighting fixture shop downstairs.

220px-The_seventh_signThe Jew-in-the-Christian-Metaphysics motif is also present in the 1988 film by Carl Schultz, The Seventh Sign, wherein a heavily pregnant Demi Moore tries to prevent the Christian Apocalypse. In this film, Moore’s character, Abby, is positive that her new and mysterious tenant David Bannon is breaking the Holy Seals outlined in the Book of Revelations bringing about the end of the world. In this first clip, Abby steals one of David’s strange parchments and looks to a Rabbi to help her translate it. 

It’s worth noting, at least parenthetically, that Rabbi Ornstein is played by Rabbi William Kramer, giving a touch of ‘authenticity’ to the film by association. Abby and Avi team up together to try and decipher the prophecies and prevent the world from ending. .

The Seventh Sign is problematic from a Jewish perspective because the metaphysical universe is clearly predicated on Christian belief, particularly in the truth revealed by the Book of Revelations. “The Jew” functions merely as an aid to assist Christianity. The literal truth of Christianity is presented on-screen within the film’s narrative; it is not an interpretation or a code of ethics. Like in The Exorcist III: Legion, the Christian mythology is literally true.

The script by Clifford and Ellen Green, writing under the pseudonyms “George Kaplan” and “W. W. Wicket” respectively, are difficult to track down. They appear to have only a few film credits to their name (according the Internet Movie Database). What they have worked on tends to be strongly religious oriented light-genre movies like The Seventh Sign (they also worked on Bless the Child and Three Wishes). In The Seventh Sign the story centres on the Jewish idea of “the Guf” – the well of souls in Jewish mysticism which will eventually be empty and thereby bring about the Apocalypse. Through Abby’s sacrifice of herself for her baby’s life, the Guf is refilled by the Messiah; Christ has returned and was actually her creepy tenant David all along. At the end of the film, Yeshiva boy Avi and David/Jesus pass one another in the hospital corridor and Avi is commended by Christ to be this story’s chronicler.


Despite the Jewish trappings, including the Guf, The Seventh Sign is a strongly Christian film which occasionally wears Jewish drag for legitimacy and authenticity. By recognizing the Jewish role within Christian mythology, films like The Seventh Sign use elements of Judaism to justify its own (and self-serving) “Judeo-Christianity”.

images (1)My initial intention with this presentation was to take a wander through Jewish folklore and look at some of the narratives and motifs which horror filmmakers have drawn on to explore Judaic monsters. As the research on this topic progressed, and as my own thinking on the subject developed, I began to see some more intriguing patterns than simply adaptations of Jewish lore. The commentary on Paul Wegener’s Der Golem, as a classic of German Expressionist cinema, is vast. Some of you might also be aware that the film we call Der Golem is but the third and final Golem film Wegener made (as it is the only film to have survived). In 1916, Wegener made, with his co-director Henrik Galeen, Der Golem; and it is only recently that a few meters of this film was discovered in someone’s attic.

The following year, he made the comedy Der Golem und die Tänzerin and the film we’ve inherited as Der Golem is his Der Golem: wie er indie Welt kam, made in 1920; and it is this film which tells the more traditional tale of Rabbi Loew and his monstrous creation.
MV5BNzA4MjAzMzQ0N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTMxMDAyMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR3,0,214,317_Lester Friedman, in an article on Jewish horror movies, spends a fair amount of time discussing Wegener’s Der Golem as a proto-Nazi Anti-Semitic film. Friedman notes that “horror films may contain powerful social attacks that ‘serious’ films cannot hope to duplicate and deliver their message to an audience not usually inclined to watch … social dramas” (50). In understanding the central theme of a horror film as “normalcy is threatened by the monster”, Friedman sees Wegener’s Golem to be evidence of a Jewish threat to Christian normalcy which must ultimately be destroyed. Friedman’s is a solid reading, to be sure; although I don’t think I entirely agree with it. One could easily read F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) as equally (if not more so) anti-Semitic. My problem with Friedman’s account is that it doesn’t allow for discussion of the issues of anti-Semitism; it is sufficient to say this depiction is racist, or that depiction is not. Tomorrow, I’ll be discussing Jewish self-stereotyping in some recent comedy films, so I’m not letting this issue entirely drop. The significance of the Golem story for Wegener, significant enough for this non-Jewish filmmaker to make three different films about the monster (with him playing the central role in each) is what interests me. What does the Golem mean?

As I’ve discussed elsewhere (in reference to The X-Files episode, ‘Kaddish’), the Golem stories ask us to mediate, to think about, the limits of our scientific knowledge. Rabbi Loew, in making the Golem, has created life; but it is life without a soul (as only G-d can bestow a soul – presumably from the Guf). So the legends of Rabbi Loew ask us to think about what separates us from ‘base clay’. What makes us human? The metaphysical repercussions of such questions are what need discussing. Significantly, James Whales’ 1930 Frankenstein owes much more to Golem legends than it does to Mary Shelly’s novel. And by extension, with Dr. Frankenstein being one of cinema’s first “mad scientist”, in many respects all those horror and science fiction films where science has gone too far harken back to this old Jewish legend.

Golem1936But the Golem variant I want to consider for a few minutes is the little-discussed French film made in 1936, Le Golem, directed by Julian Duvivier, who is probably more famous for directing Pepe le Moko the following year. Le Golem acts as a sequel to Wegener’s surviving Golem film: a generation after Rabbi Loew created his Golem to defend the Jews of Prague, his successor, Rabbi Jacob is confronted with an even greater threat to the community in guise of the highly paranoid Emperor Rudolph who has not quite recovered from encountering the Golem with Rabbi Loew. On his deathbed, the great Rabbi prophesized that only when the Jews most need defending, the Golem will awaken one last time. Unlike Wegener’s film, it is Emperor Rudolph who is surrounded by magicians and sorcerers trying to reproduce Loew’s Golem.
What makes Le Golem fascinating for me is less the Jewish horror element (which is relatively minor) than the artistic context of Duvivier and his cinema. Julien Duvivier, along with Jean Renoir, Jean Vigo and Marcel Carne are the key filmmakers of the French Poetic Realist movement of the 1930s. Strongly linked with the Popular Front and supporters of short-lived socialist government of Leon Blum, these films tended toward highly studio-bound and stylized films, but unlike German Expressionism which tried to visually articulate psychological states, French Poetic Realism attempted to explore real-world political and social issues through stylized filmmaking. When we put Le Golem into the context of Poetic Realism, the social discourse Duvivier is articulating come to the fore.

golem-1935-03-gFrench Poetic Realist films tend toward the allegorical, and with Le Golem it is possible to read Rabbi Jacob’s call for liberty and freedom to create a strong sense of “fraternité” among the French people of all races and religions against the aggression coming from Germany. The “Jewish nation” of the Prague Ghetto stands in for the French nation as a whole. France calling on the Golem to defend it against German oppression. In one sequence, Rabbi Jacob is tortured by Emperor Rudolph (echoes of Furher Adolph?); the young Rabbi is shirtless and bound almost in a crucifixion pose. To cast the Rabbi in a Christ-like, Duvivier suggests a bond between contemporary Jewish suffering and how all Christians, likewise suffered under the Romans (Emperor Rudolph also feeds his “Jews” to his pet lions). By creating the parallel between Jews and Christians, the film is trying to unite opposition (if not outright rebellion) against the decadent, corrupt and despotic Emperor. legolem1935At one point, Rudolph does an excellent impression of Hitler, angrily banging his fist on a table. Rachel, the Rabbi’s wife, is the one who awakens the Golem finally (this 1936 call for rebellion is nothing if not also fighting for greater gender equality), and rouses the Jewish prisoners to action with her call that “Revolt is the right of the slave!” There is a final sad coda to add to this discussion: With Rachel awakening the Golem for the last time, the creature is, of course, no longer able to defend the Jews any longer. Duvivier’s Golem seems tragically prescient in hindsight, and not entirely by accident I think.

From Golems to Dybbuks. There is a surprisingly diverse demonology within Judaism, although I’m in agreement with Gershom Scholem, that most of these “demons” were folk appropriations of various surrounding peoples and tribes. Scholem suggests that the various cultures ancient and medieval Hebrews encountered would often “Judaicized” the local beliefs, finding ways of incorporating local beliefs into forms acceptable to Judaism. Scholem also suggests that these appropriations were often “in name only” and were used metaphorically as poetic descriptions of psychological or natural forces. “Satan” for example, is not a cognitive spirit, but a personification of the forces of temptation which distract the pious from doing their good works. Later Kabbalistic traditions attempted to create a “systematized demonology” out of these inchoate beliefs; the results were less a definitive “Book of Demons” than an attempt to put the outside world and its beliefs into a Jewish world view. I’ll return to this issue in a moment.

A dybbuk, in its most basic form, is a possessing spirit; that is, should a pious individual be tempted from the righteous path, they run the risk of being possessed by an evil spirit or demon. If we’re dealing with metaphoric and poetic personifications of natural processes, then the innocent bocher who gradually loses interest in their studies in favour smoking weed and watching porn, clearly they’ve been possessed by a dybbuk.

DVD_DybbukI would guess that the most famous (or at least significant) dybbuk-oriented film is Michael Waszynski Yiddish-language film, Der Dybbuk, based on the stage production written by S. Ansky. Unlike the other dybbuk-films I’ll be discussing momentarily which have some appeal to mainstream and non-Jewish audiences, this Polish film from 1937 seems to be made for an almost exclusive Jewish audience. While there is certainly a supernatural realm in this film, the entities are less demonic than spiritual. The strange figure of the Messanger (an angel of G-d by definition) is only one of two supernatural entities in the film. The other, of course, is Chanon – the Yeshiva bocher who is denied the hand of Leah, the woman he loves, by her father. Chanon then turns towards the supernatural in order to possess her; an act which kills him. Leah, in her grief, asks for her dead lover to possess her so they will always be together.

As I have been arguing all along, monsters – whether ghosts, Golems, werewolves or vampires – are some kind of metaphor or poetic image to discuss larger social, political, psychological issues that may be difficult, if not impossible, to articulate in any way other than the symbolic. As a profoundly religious and spiritual play, Ansky’s The Dybbuk is much less a horror story, than a morality play warning Yeshiva bochers to not be seduced by magic and witchcraft, and a warning against excessive mourning the loss of a loved one and wanting to selfishly possess them. Just as Channon possesses Leah literally, she equally possesses Channon in her refusal to let him go – either to marry who her father has chosen, or after her lover has died.

images (2)Within the past few years, two mainstream Hollywood horror movies have been produced which touch, in some way, on the Dybbuk belief traditions, although they do so very differently. In writer-director David S. Goyer’s The Unborn (2009), Casey Beldon discovers a different variant on the dybbuk story. Unlike in Ansky’s play, the possessing entity is not the ghost of someone Casey knew and couldn’t let go of, but is a preternatural evil presence which incarnates in babies waiting to be born. What The Unborn nicely demonstrates is the combination of traditions which screenwriters draw upon when fashioning a “new” screenplay: the Dybbuk tradition which I’ve been discussing so far is only one of the narrative traditions Goyer is exploring. And as a screenwriter (who also co-wrote the Christopher Nolan Batman movies), Goyer can pick and choose from a variety of traditions, although hopefully his choices won’t violate any of the traditions he’s playing with. First, here is The Unborn’s definition of a dybbuk.

Before continuing on, I want to draw your attention to a couple of the traditions Goyer is playing with. Firstly, in addition to the Jewish dybbuk tradition, Goyer is equally rooted in what I call “mall-horror”; recent horror movies which are designed to give teenage audiences enough of a fright so they’ll cuddle up in the cinema seats, but nothing too extreme that mummy & daddy will write to the cinema about to complain. As a horror fan, “mall-horror” is antiseptic and bland, despite the large amount of marketing and publicity these films receive. Part of the cultural logic of “mall-horror” is that, unlike earlier horror and supernatural films, which require you to pay attention to storytelling involved in order to fully understand the narrative, “mall-horror” repeats its salient points continuously to ensure everyone in the cinema understands what is going on, no matter how many times they’ve gone to the toilet or checked their phones. Effectively, Goyer is operating in two main traditions in this film: the Jewish dybbuk narrative and the Hollywood “mall-horror” tradition. The sequence keeps certain aspects of Jewish lore – dybbuk by name, disembodied spirits (not demons), familial dedication – but integrates these with “mall horror”-movie clichés.

In trying to understand whether or not The Unborn is a Jewish horror movie or a horror movie that has appropriated its Jewish trapping as a kind of ‘drag act’, we need to consider the cosmology within the film. Is this a Jewish cosmos? I’ve demonstrated (hopefully) how films like The Exorcist, Exorcist III: Legion and The Seventh Sign use Jewish content to tell distinctly Gentile narratives. I do not have a problem with strict adherence to a particular legend core – is this an ‘accurate’ or ‘authentic’ dybbuk story? I’m happy for a film narrative to play with its ideas and potentially to add to the tradition it is building upon. But the overall logic of the universe must be consistent. Eschatology in The Unborn is discussed, but never committed. While the malevolent spirit in the film is never dismissed as a demon, neither is it named. Also, while the film references the Sefer ha-Marot, a fictional mystical book, its title is authentically Hebrew, translating as “The Book of Mirrors”; if such a mystical volume existed, it probably would be called the Sefer ha-Marot. Writer-director David S. Goyer has done his research. Consider this next clip – a lengthy one, I apologise: Casey has found the Sefer ha-Marot, but it is in Hebrew and consults a Rabbi (played by Gary Oldman) to help her with an Exorcism.

An ecumenical minyan is formed including an Episcopal priest (Idris Alba); the spirit is thought to be ancient and preternatural. Slowly the “mall-horror” clichés are creeping back in; while the universe never fully reveals itself to be a Christian one, it does appear to be a chthonic one. This pre-religious entity and the ecumenical exorcism effectively remove any Jewish specificity from the narrative. While this may not be a Christian cosmology, neither is it a particularly Jewish one.

6a00d83451d04569e2017c31c6b6f4970b-500wiThe Possession (2012) is purported to be a true story. In 2001, Kevin Mannis bought something described as a ‘wine cabinet’ from an estate sale that had belonged to a Holocaust survivor. When he opened it up, he discovered several strange artefacts inside. But then he began to be haunted by bad nightmares, his mother suffered a stroke, light bulbs exploded anywhere around this box, and electrical equipment failed. By opening the box, Mannis appeared to have released some kind of spirit. Famously, he sold the box to a couple of university students on Ebay, but when then similar strange events began happening to them too, they sold the box on to a medical historian, Jason Haxton, who wrote a book about the object called The Dibbuk Box (2012).

The film itself uses the idea of the ‘Dibbuk Box’ to tell a story of this haunted wine box, bought at a yard sale by a young girl. When she opens the box, she begins to become possessed by the evil spirit. As a possessing spirit, the entity is by definition a ‘dybbuk’. Despite the family at the centre of the film narrative being non-Jewish (no definite faith or ethnicity is actually defined), young Emily’s father, Clyde, contacts a young Hassidic man, Tzadok Shapir (played by Hassidic Beat-Box and Reggae superstar Matisyahu) for help in exorcising the entity out of her.

What interests me about this film is how it reverses the paradigm of some of the pseudo-Jewish horror films discussed here. Instead of Jews living in a Christian cosmos, here the (nominally) Christians have to contend with a Jewish cosmos, or at least a Jewish folk cosmos. Awareness of arcane Jewish mysticism impacts directly on a modern Gentile family.

Unlike the ecumenical exorcism in The Unborn, the exorcism in The Possession is specifically Jewish. [And watch for Matisyahu’s particularly rhythmic davening!]

vlcsnap-2013-06-21-21h18m19s79The possessing spirit may very well have responded to a Christian, a Muslim or a Buddhist exorcism – as Rev. Wyndham noted in The Unborn, the exorcism rituals are all pretty much the same due to these spirits predating religious codification. But Christianity isn’t given a look in this film. Which is odd by its very inclusion, particularly since neither director nor screenwriters appear to be Jewish. What protects the innocent young WASP girl is the Jew’s tallis, wrapped around her. And the twisted malevolence of the dybbuk is nicely rendered in CGI.vlcsnap-2013-06-21-21h17m57s126

The last point I want to make regarding these two films is a fascinating example of how these films seem to echo one another. The image of the dybbuk’s hand emerging from the mouth of the possessed was used to advertise The Possessed. One of the more famous images from the film is early on, Emily feels like she’s choking and explores her mouth only see two fingers creeping up her throat.


The dybbuk’s hand fully emerging from Clyde’s mouth before the spirit fully crawls out of him is central to the film denouement.

vlcsnap-2013-06-23-21h12m17s56This central image or motif is what The Possession is built around and yet does not appear to be part of the “Dibbuk Box” narrative. The motif appears to come from what is apparently a medieval woodcut of a Jewish exorcism which features this ghostly hand emerging from the mouth of the possessed.


Now, unless anyone can direct me to a source for this woodcut and can verify its authenticity, I’m pretty sure it was a creation for The Unborn, as this is where I’ve taken the screengrab from.
I hope my description above of The Possession reflects how the film is “based on a true story” in so far as the existence of this mysterious wine box which has been given the name ‘dibbuk box’ by Kevin Mannis. The film keeps the box and its purchase at a yard sale (I think the contents of the box are also reputed to be authentically reproduced), but that is the extent of the film’s veracity. Now, not wishing to cast too many aspersions on the legend of the “dybbuk box”, but Haxton’s book was published in February of the same year that the film was produced. And two days before the film was released in the US, the SyFy channel’s Paranormal Investigations series did an hour-long documentary on this story featuring interviews with Kevin Mannis, his mother, student Iosif Neitzke, and medical historian Jason Haxton along with dramatic recreations typical of this kind of documentary programme. What emerges from this documentary is a demonstration of what medical folklorist David Hufford refers to as an experience-centred approach to belief: various and similar phenomena are experienced around this wine box. Mannis, who is Jewish, refers to it as a ‘dibbuk box’, a term he apparently coined to describe the box on EBay; that is Mannis names the phenomenon through his own cultural (Jewish) lens. The name sticks to the item and those who encounter the box likewise keep the name (whether they’re Jewish or not). Enter the film producers to use this story as a basis for their horror movie, but build on the ‘dibbuk’ aspect. And like Scholem argued with regards to Kabbalistic attempts to fashion a coherent demonology within a Jewish frame of reference, so too did Mannis attempt to describe the phenomena around this haunted wine cabinet.
Hostel- Part II Wallpaper 2I want to talk about one last film; a film which is highly controversial and, I think, the most Jewish of any of the films discussed so far – Eli Roth’s Hostel Part II. While Abrams’ otherwise excellent book focuses on the central character of Beth as a strong Jewish woman fighting against these murderous sickos – she is one if his “New Jews in Film” – he is less developed about “New Jew” filmmakers, like Roth. Both Hostel and its Roth directed sequel (there is a third Hostel film, but not directed by Roth), young Americans vacationing in Europe are abducted by a secret society who sell young people to the rich for torture and murder. The opening sequence of Hostel Part II – the first images we see in the film – are of the personal effects of the victims being sorted through. Valuables in their luggage are appropriated while clothes, photographs and other identifiable materials are burned in an incinerator. From a diegetic perspective, within the storyworld, this is simply the menial staff hired by this club to cover up their victims’ disappearance. But the echoes of the concentration camps are too obvious to ignore. Europe, specifically Eastern Europe, is a killing field, the locus of atrocities hitherto unknown in humanity’s history of atrocities. And the evidence of these crimes is being burned up – literally consumed by fire. Even the setting of an old abandoned factory has visual echoes of the Nazi death camps’ architecture.Hostel 2
Hostel Part II in particular develops the wealthy libertines who try for entry into this society in the guise of brothers Stuart and Todd; Stuart is meek and mild, while Todd want to make a man out of his nebbish brother through torture and murdering another person. Stuart embodies Hannah Ardent’s ‘banality of evil’ figure. Stuart becomes intoxicated with brutality, loving the freedom of being one of life’s victimizers, rather than a being a perennial victim. What Roth has produced in this film is to give a human (and banal) face to these Nazi-like monsters, instead of, for example, Landis’ Nazi-like demons in American Werewolf.

I think there is a further, and more profound, dimension to Roth’s films: both Hostel movies play on the fear of tourist safety. We assume, when we travel, that we are safe; although this might be a particularly North American assumption. In the Hostel films the protagonists are (fatally) betrayed by those who they have trusted. People who you thought were your friends are in reality selling you to others who want your slow and agonizing death. Of course, this is not the “reality” of world travel, but it does reflect a “cultural truth”, and “emotional truth”. A persistent suspicion and paranoia. Which, given the history of Eastern Europe, is kind of a Jewish head-space to be in.

I’d like to conclude with a series of interpretive question; that is, questions which, rather than definitively answer the problem, suggest further questions and (hopefully) facilitate discussion.

What is a Jewish horror movie?

• Are there “Jewish moments”; a sense of “Jewissance”?
• What are the impacts on the film by inclusions of ethnicity?
• Despite what the film says, is the cosmology shown in the film Jewish? Is it a Jewish universe? Or is this a Christian film in Jewish drag?
• Is the film based in Jewish folklore?
• What are the traditions woven into the film’s screenplay? Are those traditions Jewish?
• What is the impact of a “Jewish reading” of a horror film? What does reading a horror film through a particular cultural (i.e. Jewish) lens open for interpretation?

Each of those questions suggests further questions. And not everyone will derive the same answers. But by beginning to discuss, in this case, horror movies, from some kind of Jewish perspective(s), a greater understanding develops not only about fantasy cinema, but also ontological questions about what it means to be identified as a Jew.

Works Cited

Abrams, Nathan. 2012. The New Jew in Film: Exploring Jewishness and Judaism in Contemporary Cinema. London: I. B. Tauris

Boyarin, Daniel. 1997. Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Hetreosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Erens, Patricia. 1984. The Jew in American Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Friedman, Lester. 1982. Hollywood’s Image of the Jew. New York: Ungar.

Friedman, Lester. 1984. The Edge of Knowledge: Jews as Monsters/Jews as Victims. MELUS 11.3: 49-62.

Haxton, Jason. 2012. The Dibbuk Box. Kirksville: Truman State University Press.

Hufford, David. 1989. The Terror that Comes in the Night: an Experience-Centred Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Koven, Mikel J. 2000. “Have I got a monster for you!”: Some thoughts on the Golem, The X-Files and the Jewish horror movie. Folklore 111.2: 217-230.

Scholem, Gershon. 2008. Demons, Demonology In Jewish Virtual Library [online]


Corbucci Unchained: Tarantino and the Discursivity of Exploitation Cinema

This past week I attended the amazing Spaghetti Cinema academic conference and film festival, organized by Dr. Austin Fisher (University of Bedforshire).

As I presented a paper at this conference, before I revise it for publication, I thought this might be a good place to post the paper along with some pretty pictures.


Sometimes, I can be an idiot; specifically when I propose to present a paper on how Quentin Tarantino draws upon spaghetti westerns in his latest film Django Unchained before I actually get to see the film in question. You see, Tarantino’s film, while it evokes this – perhaps most famous of – filoni by its title, the actual film is much more rooted in the codes and conventions of Blaxploitation cinema than Italian westerns. As Homer Simpson might say, “Doh”! However, closer analysis of Tarantino’s film actually opens dialogue between these Italian westerns, the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, and contemporary Hollywood.


It is easy to label Tarantino as ‘post-modern’ and his films as ‘post-modern pastiche’; Tarantino’s filmmaking draws upon decades of exploitation cinema – both American and International; and Django Unchained explores how the alternative canon of paracinema Tarantino valorises, directly calls into question the myth-making predilections of the Hollywood western. Such a pretence of artificially and fusion of high- and low-culture in order to question the plenitude of the original genre, is of course, postmodernism proper. But the term has become so ubiquitous that its usage has almost drained it of any meaning, as in Kim Newman’s recent feature in Sight & Sound noted, “On the one hand, these borrowings add layers to the referentiality which is always an element of Tarantino’s postmodern genre cinema; on the other, it feels a little like cheating – shoring up an audience’s feelings for the present movie by reminding them how much they liked something else” (Newman, 2013, p. 35). For a critic like Newman, postmodernism is not much more than a game of ‘spot-the-references’ or a self-indulgent mnemonic.

DjangoUnchainedIn an interview which first appeared in The New York Times, Tarantino cites, specifically for Django Unchained, the influence of Sergio Corbucci; not only as the director of the Italian western which Tarantino’s title directly references but that “his was the most violent, surreal and pitiless landscape of any director in the history of the genre” (Edwards, 2012, p. 8). Based on that interview, and Tarantino specifically citing Corbucci’s influence on his latest film, this was where I decided to start my investigation.

The cinematography and over-all ‘look’ of the film is not particularly Italianate despite Tarantino’s use of snap-zooms typical of Italian vernacular cinemas, including the spaghetti westerns. Towards the end of the film, as King Schultz is awaiting the bill of sale he has just procured in his purchase of Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Hildy, for short), he flashes back to an earlier point in the film where he watched an escaped slave set upon by dogs at the command of Calvin Candie, the film’s main villain. While Schultz recalls the incident, we see intercut within the images he sees in his head of the brutal reality of slavery. This use of flashback, while not unique to Italian westerns, does reflect the kind of visual poetry and economy of representation which characterize vernacular cinema.

Interestingly enough, despite the genre’s reputation of being particularly gory  and violent, the hyper-violence of Django Unchained ruptures the homage rather than supports it. While the body count of the average spaghetti western is quite high, it rarely showed blood splattering in slow motion in the way Tarantino likes to use it.??????????????????????????

Unpackin’ the Signifyin’

To begin to unpack the Corbucci references Tarantino is drawing from, the most logical place to start is with the character of Django Freeman himself. His first name obviously is an intentional allusion to Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 (and arguably his most famous) film, Django. While Django inspired a lengthy series of unofficial sequels, Tarantino is not really drawing upon those films for his own. There is little comparison to make between the characters played by Franco Nero in Corbucci’s original and Jamie Foxx in Tarantino’s film. There is one ‘geekgasmic’ moment when Foxx and Nero meet at a bar and the two ‘Djangos’ are face to face. It’s a cheap gimmick, but for fans of the genre, it is the equivalent of a ‘money shot’. But the point is that there are many character names which Tarantino could have availed himself to instead of Django. Ringo, Sartana, Trinity, Sabata  – all had their own serial narratives in the genre.

Django meets Django

King Schultz gives Django a surname, something none of the Italian directors do; as now that Django is effectively bought by Schultz (and it was common practice for slaves to take the surname of their owners), he gives him the name ‘Freeman’ to indicate his freed-man status. Schultz buys Django because, as a bounty hunter, Django is able to identify the wanted Brittle Brothers and Schultz needs Django’s help in identifying them. The bounty hunter theme is a particular trope of the Italian westerns (Bondanella, 2009, p. 341), and, as I discuss below, prevalent in the Corbucci’s films. The two men hit it off and hit the road as bounty hunters, at least as long as it takes for them to find where Django’s wife, Hildy, has been brought and plan her rescue. While rescue plots are less prevalent in the spaghetti westerns, the vengeance plot is everywhere (Bondanella, 2009, p. 342). La vendetta is somewhat reflected in Django’s identifying the cruel taskmasters he remembers from his earlier servitude, the Brittles, but only in a minor way. Vengeance spurs Django on as he returns to the Candieland plantation after Schultz has been killed, but he is equally motivated by the desire to rescue Hildy once and for all.  So although we can read la vendetta in some of Django’s actions, unlike Corbucci’s anti-heroes – Navajo Joe, Silence or even his Django – it is not his primary motivation. But it does function as a useful plot mechanism to allow Django to become a bounty hunter.


As  both a freed slave and bounty hunter, Django operates in the shadow world of 19th Century America, in those grey areas of legality (particularly in the ante-bellum South). Django inhabits a world where Caucasian-Americans are in control, and prone to killing a black man, legally or not. Big Daddy and Calvin Candie, both plantation and slave owners, are the law in their respective communities. Django, riding in on his horse alongside Schultz in his cart, are viewed as provocations to these racist landowners. It would not be entirely inappropriate to see Tarantino’s Django as a trickster figure, much like the B’rer Rabbit figure from African-American folklore; Django is able to talk himself out of most situations, as he does with the LeQuint Dickey Mining Company employees. Tarantino has shifted the Django character, quite specifically, away from the spaghetti western themes and into the world of Blaxploitation, where ‘stickin’ it to the Man’ (in this instance both Big Daddy and Calvin Candie can be seen as ‘the Man’) and being a fast-talking trickster figure are the norms. While not central to the genre, a few Blaxploitation westerns were made; if Blaxploitation was hybridizing and (post)colonizing traditional American genres like the crime film, the gangster film, and the horror movie, why not also (post)colonize the western?  Films such as The Legend of Nigger Charley (Martin Goldman, 1972), The Soul of Nigger Charley (Larry Spangler, 1973) and Boss Nigger (Jack Arnold, 1975), all starring Fred Williamson, weren’t the most popular of the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, but at least these filmmakers were trying any and all hybrids imaginable. I digress with this only to arrive at Take a Hard Ride (1975), a western which featured a Blaxploitation dream-cast of Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Jim Kelly and Charles McGregor but directed by Antonio Margheriti and also featuring spaghetti western superstar Lee Van Cleef. This digression was to suggest that the inclusion of an African-American cowboy within a spaghetti western, while not common, is still in keeping with the aesthetics of spaghetti westerns in general. Tarantino’s Django, in fact, has much in common with Corbucci’s Navajo Joe (played by Burt Reynolds); a Native-American out for vengeance against the blood thirsty White men who massacred his village and killed his wife. Corbucci’s Django is also bent on revenge for the murder of his wife. And like Joe, Tarantino’s Django is hung upside down by his ankles and tortured. Not beholden to American archetypes, the spaghetti western filmmakers were free to provoke and exploit the genre by featuring racially Other anti-heroes.


I’ve already mentioned that Tarantino’s Django is motivated by his love for his wife and quest to rescue her (like Siegfried to Brunhilde, to which the couple are compared); while this is not a common theme in the Italian westerns (despite how bloody this quest turns out to be), Tarantino doesn’t appear to know what to do with this particular female character. She is loosely based on Pauline, from The Great Silence, played by Blaxploitation leading lady Vonetta McGee (in her first role). Again making that connection between spaghetti westerns and Blaxploitation movies.

Dr. King Schultz is a different case altogether. While the casting of Viennese actor Christoph Waltz as a German dentist on the frontier is in keeping with the Italian western’s international casting obligations (due to the complex international investment in these films), most notably Klaus Kinski in several. The character of Schultz appears to be a fusion of Kinski’s villainous bounty-hunter, Tigero, in Corbucci’s The Great Silence and Franco Nero’s Swede in Corbucci’s Compañeros. From the latter, Schultz is suave, polite, and overall good humoured, and sporting some truly impressive facial hair. The combination of Schultz and Django also echoes the teaming up of the Swede and Vasco. From Tigero, Schultz too is a bounty hunter, but both men also store up the bodies of those they kill until they can collect the bounty on them. I’ve already alluded to Schultz as a man of conscience, particularly when he has had a bellyful of Candie’s crass degradation, and breaks his and Django’s cover by shooting the plantation owner in the carnation over his heart.  Such a shot is also how Jack Palance’s Curly is killed in Corbucci’s The Mercenary (1968) (Frayling, 2000, p. 236).


The final observation I want to give you is suggested by Christopher Frayling’s identification of the key theme in Corbucci’s The Hellbenders (1967), “the erosion of Southern chivalry” (Frayling, 2000, p. 42). While slavery in the ante-bellum South is not going to be glorified, particularly by a director with such an affinity for African-American culture as Tarantino, he evokes the venal, ruthless, violent and often the stupidity of White Southerners. The sequence in Tarantino’s Django which features Big Daddy’s proto-Klu Klux Klan (listed in the credits as ‘Bag heads’) attack on Django and Schultz draws its inspiration from Corbucci’s Django, wherein Major Jackson’s own klan of ‘bag-heads’ try to gun down our hero. Despite the pseudo-French affectations of Calvin Candie, his true nature is revealed by his hobby of buying slaves as fighters for competition; notably ‘Mandingo’ fighters (the toughest of the tough). This practice is also the centre of Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo (1975); another film which, not unproblematically, has also been aligned with the Blaxploitation genre.

Tarantino's 'Bagheads'Major Jackson's 'Bagheads'


The Blaxploitation-spaghetti western connection was also made concurrently with the films themselves. The Black Panthers were understood to be particularly fond of these movies for their anti-Imperialist/anti-American positions (Hoberman, 2012, p. 38). In Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972), Ivanhoe Martin (Jimmy Cliff) goes to see Django at the Kingston Rialto and sees the film as defining his own struggle against ‘the Man’. It is the film which plays in his head as he is finally gunned down by the Jamaican police.. As Austin Fisher observed:

… that the militancy expounded in some of the Italian films found an apt bedfellow in the very milieu of grindhouse cinema mentioned above. In the ‘blaxploitation’ genre, violent action similarly rubbed shoulders with belligerent ideological discourse in independent film aimed at audiences marginalized from mainstream culture (Fisher, 2011, p. 181).

The connection between spaghetti westerns and Blaxploitation is not a particularly new one

Despite the title of his film being a direct invocation of the spaghetti western, Quentin Tarnantio’s Django Unchained is equally rooted in Blaxploitation cinema. Due to the production context outside of mainstream Hollywood, the Italian westerns were able to explore darker themes and grittier narratives which directly challenged Hollywood’s own myth-making heritage. As J. Hoberman noted recently, the spaghetti western filmmakers had “been weaned on [Hollywood] westerns and to have internalized every genre cliché” (Hoberman, 2012, p. 38). Tarantino, a generation later, was weaned on the spaghetti westerns, as well as the other genres of the grindhouse, including Blaxploitation. He too internalized all the clichés of those genres and in his own films, is able to use these exploitation colours for his palate. The irony is that the exploitation filmmakers’ reaction against the ownership of these symbolic codes is now being slurped back up by Hollywood hegemony through Tarantino’s work. Hoberman’s suggestion that the spaghetti western’s inherent anti-American or anti-Imperialist perspective (Hoberman, 2012, p. 40) is potentially echoed in Tarantino’s rejection of the semiotics of Hollywood culture for the culture of the grindhouse. And yet, despite Tarantino appearing to reject American imperialist cinema, at the same time is equally part of that same cinema he appears to reject. How very postmodern.



Bayman, L. & Rigoletto, S., 2013. The Fair and the Museum: Framing the Popular. In: L. Bayman & S. Rigoletto, eds. Popular Italian Cinema. Basingstoke: Palgrave McMillan, pp. 1-28.

Bondanella, P., 2009. A History of Italian Cinema. New York: Continuum.

Edwards, G., 2012. Quentin Tarantino: Film-Maker. The New Review, 30 12, p. 8.

Fisher, A., 2011. Radical Frontiers inthe Spaghetti Western: Politics, Violence and Popular Italian Cinema. London: I. B. Tauris.

Frayling, C., 2000. Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone. London: I. B. Tauris.

Hoberman, J., 2012. In Praise of Da Pasta: The Subversive Sadism of the Spaghetti Western. Film Comment, 2012(May-June), pp. 36-43.

Newman, K., 2013. Trail Blazer. Sight & Sound, 23(2), pp. 34-37.


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