Friday, December 20, 2013

2013 in Shit: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

The only class that I took on film as an undergraduate was entirely about John Carpenter. I'd never seen any of his movies before that, although I liked Lynch and was interested in Cronenberg. The professor had taught a class on Horror Film prior that a few of my friends had taken, and were pretty effusive about, and I also missed his senior seminar on vampire fiction (I believe it was the same quarter as I took my senior seminar on Proust, but am not sure, and am neither sure whether this was before or after the Carpenter class). Professor Leicester was weird, and I did end up taking a small class on Milton from him as well; as I recall, the research interests listed on his faculty page included porn and country music, and he was one of the only professors in the Literature department teaching film classes at the time (at least as far as I remember).

His readings leaned strongly Lacanian, though I believe (having read almost nothing of her, admittedly) that it was very much a Lacan through Kristeva, and where I had previously thought about film mostly in generalities he encouraged a particular attention that I've since found invaluable. One of the things that stuck with me most of all was his asking the class to reject the idea that the women in Halloween were stupid or objects of a moralizing gaze or to be moralized about, and instead to pay attention to the small gestures or phrases, and to build out of them first before assuming the narrative weight. And he was right about that, I think; that movie has a depth of character that runs in direct contrast to its misogyny. I still think I Know What You Did Last Summer is even better at this, but it isn't a competition; the point is that these texts work against themselves and that this is wonderful.

Another of his lessons that stuck for me was his focus on Carpenter's use of what he called "cool moves;" this was mostly in relation to Assault on Precinct 13, but also (I might be wrong here) discussed in the context of The Thing. Leicester's argument was that Carpenter was borrowing a certain affective move from Howard Hawks, a way of engaging with homosociality and competitive friendliness in an established filmic shorthand consisting of things like catching a tossed shotgun in midair.

Leicester would point these moments out with no little relish, identifying them not only in their ecstatic immanence but in how they were framed, whether these frames were quoted, &c &c. And most importantly, how that framing or quoting or whatever spoke to the moment in which it happened, how it recontextualized certain relationships or reorganized social dynamics or presented new or enhanced aspects of one character's existence within the world and situation of the film. It was an incredibly generous form of criticism, and very precise even as it argued incredibly counterintuitively. That was also the class in which I first watched and began initially formulating my long-deferred theory of ghosts based on The Fog, so it was pretty cool.

The most exciting part of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters for me was catching Hansel do those cool moves, mostly in the form of jauntily notching his shotgun into his shoulder (though the one instance of him replicating this tic with a large stick really cements how funny it is). Of course, as Professor Leicester strove to show, the coolness here was never in a vacuum; it always relied on and was generative of context.

I don't really remember if it was the same year as the Carpenter class or the year after, but I ended up applying for and winning a small grant at my school in the last year I was there. It was called the Humanities Undergraduate Research Award, and required submitting a proposal for a research project with a signoff by a professor; the winners were allowed to present a paper at the end of the year. I decided that I was going to submit a project called Hello Kitty Everything, which in that form was to be a series of essays about all the major (as determined by, uh, me) Sanrio characters. It was going to begin with an introduction about Hello Kitty, and then move through Chococat, My Melody, Charmmy Kitty, Badtz-Maru, and on and on. I also was going to anchor the project with a vague constellation of ideas, with the most overarching being Brecht's formulation of realism. On some level I've been working on this since, although hardly in the way I proposed. The closest I ever came to completing it in the initially proposed form was my contributions to three different #spamfm Chinese New Year compilations (the third of which I was the exclusive participant of); I don't think you can find those songs anywhere now, but they probably still exist.

The second new year compilation track was titled "My Melody, Remarks History" and was really a bad song. I basically wrote lyrics and sung them (I am a poor singer) and didn't record any sounds otherwise. It was nearly five minutes long, and was about My Melody as myth, more or less. The little rabbit started, allegedly, as a one-off bunny in a little red riding hood special with no name, but her potential popularity was realized and she became a staple. From what I understand, her popularity has had wild swings; the story is that in the 80s it was basically impossible to find merchandise of her anywhere, until a Strawberry News reader poll saw her come out on top; since then she has consistently remained in the upper tier of Sanrio characters, although (from what I understand) regional fluctuations can still be somewhat intense. I've heard, for instance, that her popularity in Japan was at a nadir about the same time as it reached its zenith here, about half a decade ago, but that's just anecdotal, and probably misremembered.

My interest in her, aside from the fact that she is one of my favorite of their designs, was largely in regards to how exactly her origins as an adaptation of little red riding hood affected the temporality of the Sanrio quasiverse. Everything in Sanrio is a bit of a weird timetable, given that their world comes very much after their products and remains unformalized. There are certain constants though, often related to Debord's clarifications on commodity time in Society of the Spectacle. I decided to start thinking of what My Melody occupied as "myth time."

This is complicated in a way that most theories projected on Sanrio characters aren't; My Melo had an anime called Onegai My Melody, which follows My Melo as she leaves Mari Land, her home, to pursue Kuromi, who is engaged in a plot to collect black notes via bad feelings to bring about some unspecified bad thing. My Melo collects pink notes and they race to a hundred; it's a pretty good show, and utterly weird for it to be based on Sanrio characters, whose characterization is exclusively situated in promotional materials, for the most part.

I really enjoy Genevieve Valentine's take on Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, but I want to take a slightly different tack and try to piece together its mythological temporality, instead of relating its historical fuckups; not, hopefully, in some po-faced Academic Thesis way, but because, for me, that was the most invigorating thing about actively watching the movie as a whole (as opposed to the individual moments that were most fun in their cool moves).

I decided fairly early on in Gretel that one way to read it would be in continuity with Xena: Warrior Princess; I believe the impetus there was Hansel's reliance on insulin (he is diabetic in the movie due to the childhood episode in the witch's candy house; the movie could also be productively read as a toychest in the same way I did Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) and Xena's invention of CPR in the season one finale. There is also the scene in which Gretel invents a defibrillator with her steampunk taser, which cements that similarity. The history of medical science in this universe might be the impetus but I don't really have more to say about it than that. Sorry.

This speculative continuity draws out interesting similarities; both Xena and Gretel function as some weird sort of fairy tale consultant procedurals, except without the representation of the material conditions that allows that genre to make sense. In both cases, though, the team of protagonists are clearly operating as reluctant contractors, working outside established power dynamics to achieve a generally-recognized good end through whatever-it-takes means, and both have historical identities that privilege their ability to achieve those ends, especially when it comes to being hired.[1]

Which is just to say that Xena's warlord past and Gretel's witch-hood are both basically forms of knowledge that construct their capacity to act without structural support. Which is to say that they are both fictions, really, but also that they are fictions which adequately theorize their own status as such in a way that most don't. That they both take place in the My Melody-esque myth time, a strange fusion of the spectacular logic of time organized by commodities with the situated eternality of the fairy tale, pushes them together; one way to say this would be to say that where Valentine sees aggressive anachronism I see acts of refusal, which in effect isn't all that much different except in how the organization of events (worldbuilding) approaches time.

Which is more or less to say that, like Xena, I don't think Gretel gets it wrong; I think it is an argument against the aesthetic assumptions that condition what getting it right can look like. Admittedly it is not an especially strong argument; the ground is already mostly ceded by the use of fable rather than history. But fabular time is relevant to the assumptions we make about historical time, existing neither in nor outside of it. And it is also important to how we think of spectacular (or (late) capitalist) time, which, for all its granularity in the form of management and regulation, is at large exactly the sort of situated eternal that My Melody condenses into cute.

Another strategy that I learned in Leicester's class on Carpenter was how to consciously approach a film as a constructed whole. The elision of elements of a film is something we necessarily do, and it was through, I believe, The Fog that I came to understand how one way to play within this would be to actively declare the bookends of a film, refusing that the whole of a movie was necessarily the first shot to the final, or the space between the opening and closing credits, or etc. One way to do this is to identify a closing frame, and then to reach backwards through the film to identify what that closed. One option, for Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, would be to say that it takes place in the space between Blue Velvet and Hellraiser. That cuts out the first half hour or so of the film and everything after the massacre at the blood moon convention.

Part of the point of this framing, of course, is simply to provide a base on which the elided portions can be differently accessed. So if I say that The Fog ends with the return of the golden crucifix, I'm not saying that Adrienne Barbeau doesn't cite The Thing From Another World, but that that citation functions differently than it would otherwise due to its being outside of the frame. It also means, then, that rather than assuming the obvious structure, with the child actors serving as prologue and the introduction of the adults as the beginning of the main story, that everything prior to the camera's delving underground is the pre-Velvet prologue; that is, up to that point the film doesn't have the overtones of an examination of the complicity between peace and violence (to HUGELY oversimplify). Or at least, it doesn't have them in terms it tacitly expects us to recognize.

The closing frame works more as genealogy than anything, though. Seen through visual allusion, it enacts this thematic layering as both a culmination and an initiation; Gretel, then, both closes as Hellraiser and demands retroactively to be read through it. But the conditions of the frame matter as well; it would not close with this allusion had it not opened with (a different) one. In the context of this movie, Hellraiser doesn't exist without Blue Velvet. That itself could form a compelling argument; resonances at the level of the unconscious as structure and horror as affect, dissonances at the level of the contemporary use of the Expressionist toolset and the consequence of objects. Read through Gretel, a more complete picture might be derived, not least in the position of misogyny and specifically (which is to say historically) filmic elaboration of affect in the form of camp. Or, more formally, we could discuss why it is that a quotation of Blue Velvet takes the form of a way of moving the camera, while a quotation of Hellraiser takes the form of costume design.

Or we could zoom back out, and return to the question of time. Because citing Blue Velvet doesn't just mean citing the debates around the film's theme; it carries other baggage as well. And not the least of that is how Lynch's film takes place in the suburbs, in a time frame that is probably only really comprehensible as the fifties through the eighties. Which is to say: the time frame of a situated eternal.

The (US) fifties being, of course, more a construction of the futurity of the thirties just before it failed to bear fruit, and the nostalgia of the eighties as everything began to fall apart. The fifties being, that is to say, a fantasy of infinitely extending stability, of unthreatening and unthreatened growth alongside a security of life and value. A non-time, as it were. Exactly as realistic as a (maybe) German village from (undisclosed) centuries ago with full literacy, steampunk guns and insulin injections, or where Caesar crucified a young warrior princess over a decade prior to the first steps in Homer's bardic career. Or where the profusion of commodities precede their contextualization, even as they are introduced as Little Red Riding Hood.

Of course, Blue Velvet's aesthetic is a mix of horror and melodrama and detective story, which is culturally about as far from the B-fairytale steampunk of Gretel as possible. And this isn't to say that these aesthetic modes necessarily share an orientation toward temporality; but in these specific instances, they do. This is probably nowhere more obvious in Blue Velvet than the scene where Ben pantomimes Roy Orbison's "In Dreams." I think that's pretty self-explanatory.

That the logic of dreams is evident in Hellraiser is useful; rather than the Nightmare on Elm Street approach of dreams as diegesis, Hellraiser is a logic of dreams expressed primarily in forms of architecture. The cenobites themselves, as the citational objects, don't present a contrast with this so much as an extension; less than bodies, the monsters of Hellraiser are designed objects for the inhabitation of space. They kill because they are extensions of a murderous topos. The topos is murderous because it is forever.

I do hope you realize by now that there's going to be nothing resembling a synthesis here.

One of my favorite films in the genre of situated eternality is Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves, even if it lays the werewolves as menstruation metaphor on a little thick. That it also derives from the Little Red Riding Hood myth is probably part of it; the scene with the aristocratic gentlemen being transformed into (were)wolves becomes an explicit link between the politics of class (and race) and cute by way of the myth, and My Melody's writtenness on its palimpsest. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters might have nothing to do with the actual myth at hand, or even much to do with Jordan's dark & sparkly aesthetic, but fucked if they don't occupy the same nonspace. Or, to be more accurate, the same absence of time as space. The same (say it with me now) situated eternal.

Here, then, are two lengthy justifications of the weight of Hansel's cool moves; that their performative nature is anchored in not the countertemporality of steampunk, but in the atemporality of myth, and that they draw on a cinematic language of action, horror, and fairy tale simultaneously, pulling them together without a pretense of synthesis. These find their unification in the how the intrafilmic frame is composed of interfilmic moves, with reference to the specificities of the films interpolated, and also in how the former's (in its positive articulation) subsumption of the latter precedes their disentangling. What this provides doesn't necessarily find expression in the Hawksian gesture, which lack is itself a condition of its own ability to produce friction. Or to say it differently: it works to spite all this contextualizing.

Which is maybe just another way of saying that it is what it is. The Hawksian gesture is always a productive site of inquiry into the film's epistemology precisely because of its aggressive immanence, its entanglement with reductive homosociality, its negative formalism. It is necessarily a gesture at odds, a refusal of depth, an indication of aporia. It is an invitation to act disrespectfully, to criticism, to analysis, to a reaction absent humor or charity or sincerity, because it is a preemptive disarming, a smirk or a shrug or a swagger without content.

But then, it being what it is doesn't say shit about where it is, or how it is. So it's an irony, sure. All the more effective for refusing to double itself, or stand outside its own absence. To which, I suppose, there are many responses. Mine just happens to be, alright, fuck it. Lets get it.

[1] I know I said last time that it was likely the last, but here's one more Easter Egg for you. I'm taking this opportunity to announce that A Truly Blonde Child's first EP Xena: Season 1 will be released on Fuck the Polis! on January 7th. Feel free to check out the album trailer directed by Tuchus Christ for a short preview.

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