Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!: Day 11 - And Hell Itself Breathes Out Contagion to This World

There is an interesting subgenre of horror fiction that deals with film culture. I'm not necessarily talking about fiction that is about films and filmmaking (although that's part of it, and I talked a little about it here), and I'm definitely not talking about fiction that has been inspired primarily by the horror films of the 1970s and 80s (which seems to be most of it, these days). No, I'm talking about horror fiction that deals with our relationship to films, and how films affect us.

The grandaddy of this subgenre is Theodore Roszak's Flicker, a dense, fascinating and brilliant book that is a kind of metaphysical horror novel about the secret history, and intentions, of movies. That novel came out in 1991. In 1994, Tim Lucas -- a film critic, blogger, and horror film expert -- published a novel called Throat Sprockets. There are some rather striking similarities between Flicker and Lucas's novel, but Throat Sprockets began as a graphic novel, published in sections in a magazine called "Taboo", in 1987. And since the graphic novel was never completed, it has to be assumed that Roszak and Lucas were working pretty much ignorant of each other's plans, and just happened to extrapolate a similar danger connected to our collective obsession with movies.

Lucas's novel is about a man, our narrator (guess what his name is? Yep, he doesn't have one), who works for a small but succesful advertising firm in Ohio. He's married to a woman named Paige, whom he loves. And we gather that, at one time in his life, he was in love with movies. Unfortunately for him, that love has turned basically to disgust, or at least to an intense dislike. He still goes to movies almost every day, either during lunch or after work, but he always goes to the same theater, the Eros, whose name should give you a pretty good idea of what kind of films they show. Our narrator explains...:

I should explain that adult movies...have never particularly aroused me. On the contrary, I found myself drawn to them because of my disenchantment with mainstream films; I was fed up and growing weak on a steady diet of movies made by money and interested only in attracting more money. American films had become an art form with the agent as auteur; their lack of serious adult concerns was enforced by an outmoded and unrealistic ratings system that refused free expression to works of original or unpopular thought. I was driven by my attitude to the hard-core circuit, where the odds of being satisfied by a mature story line were slightly more in my favore -- even if those odds were one in a thousand, at least the chance existed.

I have to say, I don't quite follow the logic here. If there's any segment of the film industry that is primarily focused on making money, it's porn. And there is no part of the industry less interested in auteurs -- in art -- than porn. What movies is our narrator hoping to see, what "one in a thousand" adult film is he seeking? From my limited understanding, the heyday of adult films, the time when there might actually have been a slim chance in seeing a "good" adult film, was the 1970s, not the 1980s or 1990s. And if our narrator is hoping to see one of those older adult films, why not instead seek out their mainstream contemporaries? Isn't the 1970s considered the second Golden Age of American Film?

Anyway. This is really just a plot point, because, of course, the narrator does eventually find what he's looking for at the Eros in a film called Throat Sprockets. This is a film without plot, and without characters as we think of them, and without, by the way, any hardcore sex scenes. The eroticism stems from the filmmaker's apparent fetish for female throats. Every scene -- almost every shot, it would seem -- focuses either directly or indirectly on women's necks.

As I said, there is no plot to this film. It seems to consist of a series of scenes that, in one way or another, build towards a kind of "money shot". These individual scenes can involve no dialogue -- just a series of shots of necks -- or long scenes of dialogue in which one woman (the main character, of sorts, in that she appears throughout the film) describes to her psychiatrist her difficult time dealing with the death (via rough sex, not incidently) of a co-worker. The other main character would be a man who functions as the audience's point of view (at least, the male portion of the audience). His scenes are viewed from his eyes, and our narrator comes to refer to him as The Glover, due to the gloves he wears, and the fact that -- although this is never stated -- the name evokes a kind of threatening presence.

The film concludes with The Glover finally achieving what he's been building towards the whole film, which is the biting of a woman's neck, to the point of drawing -- and drinking -- blood (some of which spills, significantly, onto a page of The Completed Works of William Shakespeare). This is the ultimate sexual point of the film. To each his own, I guess, but it works on our narrator, who immediatley becomes obsessed with the film, to the point where he goes to see it almost every night. Eventually, his desire to act out what he's seen on-screen -- to engage in "sprocketing", as it comes to be called, based on the resemblance of the resulting neck wounds on the holes -- sprockets -- seen on the edges of film -- destroys his marriage. He doesn't just try to engage his wife in the activity, but tries to do so in a frenzy, which he later doesn't remember clearly. When his head clears afterwards, Paige has left him (and the novel).

Despondent, and still obsessed, our narrator continues to see Throat Sprockets as often as he can, and is able to channel his emotions into his advertising work. Consequently, his career takes off, and he lands one big account after another, to the point where he is being sent on business trips to meet with clients. One trip takes him to Chicago, where he finds Throat Sprockets playing under a different title (Transylvania Mon Amour). He also meets a woman in the theater who wants to try "sprocketing" with him. Although their encounter turns into an embarrassing failure, it is at this point that Lucas begins to really make clear that there is an underground culture building throughout, at least, America, around this film, and the practice of "sprocketing".

One of the most interesting things about this novel is how gradually Lucas brings that element into the novel. The narrator eventually meets a woman -- the novel's love interest, for lack of a better term -- named Emma, who knows the film, but the fact that these two, strangers to each other, have seen this obscure movie doesn't come as a surprise to either. Also, Throat Sprockets comes out on video (via a Japanese company). Shadier hotels provide kits to facilitate safer "sprocketing". There are magazine articles written about the film. Young, virgin hookers provide unique services. And so on. The question of who made this film becomes important only in about the last third of the book, but by that time the narrator's relationship with Emma has threatened to more deeply explore the most unsettling extremes of their shared fetish, and the narrator's psyche is not sure it can handle it.

References to specific, real films and filmmakers are surprisingly sparse, until, again, the last third or so, when Emma, for example, talks about why she at one point believed Throat Sprockets was made by Akira Kurosawa (as a long-time admirer of Kurosawa, I wasn't able to follow either the reason behind that belief, or the reason for her eventual dismissal of it, which seems to be solely due to the fact that there's no rain in Throat Sprockets, and Kurosawa liked himself some rain. Okay, but...), or when the narrator reflects on the fact that Truffaut had to explore his own relationship with filmmaking by directing Day for Night, after which he become colder and more "death obsessed".

The relative absence of this kind of talk in a novel so soaked in the idea of film points up, I think, an understated but important theme of the novel, which is the topic of extreme, underground films. I'm talking about the kind of film that is both notorious for, and largely unavailable to the public because of, scenes of extreme sex, violence and cruelty, films like Cannibal Holocaust, Cannibal Ferox, The Men Behind the Sun, Guinea Pig and so forth. These films are often considered to be part of the horror genre, whether or not their ostensible subject matter obviously supports that, because their entire reason for being is to disgust and offend the viewer to the point that they wish they'd never started watching the film in the first place. These days, some of these films are readily available to the public, but many are not; still, some film fans make a point of seeing them anyway, whether to test their psychic constitutions, or because they've gotten to a point, like our narrator, where they find themselves more and more unmoved by standard cinematic fair.

Throat Sprockets, the film, is clearly nowhere near as extreme as these films, but the effect it has on our narrator, and the subculture that grows up around it, feels like Lucas trying to make a connection. At one point, before the narrator is able to get an official commercial video of the film, he spends $500 on a bootleg, which is the way films like The Men Behind the Sun tend to be seen. The man who sells it to him says that he also has a film featuring a one-time TV actress engaged in highly disturbing intercourse with a man whose back is to the camera. At the end of the film, the man turns towards the camera, and reveals himself to be Satan. The bootlegger says he sold this film to a man in Lubbock, TX, who was found, after watching the tape, with his eyes burned from their sockets. When the narrator receives his copy of Throat Sprockets from the bootlegger, he finds that a copy of this other tape has been included. After battling temptation and curiosity, he throws this second tape into an incenerator.

And I have to believe that Tim Lucas has seen his fair share of the kind of extreme films I'm talking about. I don't know this, but his specialty as a film critic is the horror genre, and he particularly specializes in what mass audiences would consider obscure horror films, like those made by Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and (especially, in Lucas's case) Mario Bava. Now, while I know that the sort of films made by those filmmakers can be pretty rough-sledding, as far as the sex and violence goes (well, maybe not so much in Bava), I'm also aware that they don't even come close to scraping the surface of what is offered up by something like Guinea Pig. But I think Lucas is making a connection, all the same. I think it would be a very rare horror critic with access -- due to professionald and personal reputation -- to anything the genre had to offer who didn't let curiosity get the better of him, and succumb to a viewing of one of these underground bootlegs, movies that are so realistically grotesque that they've been mistaken for genuine snuff films (this has happened to at least Cannibal Holocaust and Guinea Pig).

At one point, our narrator discusses his deteriorating emotional and psychological state with a priest. He even tells the priest about his obsession with "sprocketing". The priest says that he thinks that people of the narrator's generation -- his age is 30 for most of the novel, and most of the novel takes place in the early 1990s -- find themselves drawn to this kind of extreme activity because they've never lived through a war, the kind of war that up-ends an entire nation, and is has been through warfare that past generations have been able to shake off the primitive blood- and death-lust every human has burned into their genes. I don't know if I agree with Monsignor Freud (Jung?) on that one, but it's further evidence that with this novel -- which I feel can be considered a horror novel almost entirely due to the fact that I don't know what else to call it -- Lucas is struggling to understand his own attraction to horror, and the extreme violence and abberant sexuality that, since the late 1960s, has increasingly become its bread and butter. If I'm correct about this, I should say that, while I haven't seen any of the real extreme films I've made reference to, I also share this confusion about my own connection to horror. Why would I want to watch and read some of the stuff I watch and read? I don't know. And I don't fully buy what Lucas is selling here, but I admire the attempt.

I actually have a quite a few quibbles with this novel -- for instance, Lucas has a baffling fondness for terrible puns -- but I feel like trying to double back and get into that would be a waste of time. At the moment, I'm just struck with the sheer ambition of this novel, and how it and Roszak's Flicker (the two novel's endings are extraordinarily similar, while still retaining their individuality) seem to stand alone, at least in my experience, as horror novels in which the source of horror can almost be described as the genre itself, and why we're drawn to it. There is a denseness of themes and ideas in Throat Sprockets that I really have barely touched on. Some are successful, some aren't, but I'll leave the rest of the novel for other people to tackle. In the meantime, I have a feeling what I have taken away from Lucas's novel will probably at least subliminally color everything else I read this month.


Brian Doan said...

Speaking of horror, I just saw the 'Skins highlights on NBC. My sympathies.

Anonymous said...

What a fine review of Lucas' novel. It sounds like even though it's uneven, as you have pointed out, and that you have problems with it, that it's nonetheless fairly original.

bill r. said...

Yes, well. They beat themselves. The Dallas game eased my pain a little bit.

bill r. said...

Thanks, Rick. It is original, but in almost exactly the same was as Flicker is, but I hope I made it clear that the similarities have to be a coincidence.

Fox said...

That's my favorite "Slash" post yet. Bill, you really take off in your writing when the subject books/authors/literature. You sound different... in a GOOD way.

Well done!

p.s. Sorry about your 'Skins.

bill r. said...

Thank you very much, Fox. If you look at when I posted this, you might notice that I wrote it right after the Redskins game. I channeled all my energy and frustration into my blog!

Greg said...

I didn't even know Lucas wrote a novel. I knew about the Bava book but not the novel. Lucas is a great non-fiction writer and reviewer, I'd be interested to see how his fictional prose develops.

I remember you recommending Flicker on SLIFR and Dennis seemed to like it as well. My backlog of movie and book recommendations is so long that I doubt I would put Lucas' novel high on my list for now but it's good to know it's out there.

And when I read this, "...for instance, Lucas has a baffling fondness for terrible puns," I thought, "Why isn't he commenting on Cinema Styles?"

bill r. said...

Lucas has actually written two novels; the other one is called The Book of Renfield, which I haven't read. I seem to remember that Lucas was flirting with the idea of shutting down his blog (which he obviously decided against), and one of the reasons was that it was seriously cutting into his fiction-writing time.

And I haven't read it, nor do I own a copy, but that Bava book is nuts. Nuts!

I seem to be running across a lot more puns lately, since Cinema Styles turned into Pun Station (get it!?!?). I'm not happy about it, either.

Greg said...

Don't worry, it's only because of the volume of lightweight posts I've put up in October so the puns seem more prevelant but once you put up a post on evil or The Haunted Screen they go away. Thank the maker! As soon as I put up some frothy posts this I'm sure they'll return.