The Fog (1980)
The free motif of shattering façades in The Fog is an interesting and important one as it communicates a central issue of the films digesis. Exploring the symbolic nature of a shattering façade we note that it seems to indicate the return – and a violent breaching – of the repressed. Glass keeps the cold and various other elements, such as rain, from entering a house. Glass is a barrier to the elements of the wild; when a glass ruptured those elements are felt. Glass, windows and other barriers symbolise the the things we put up to separate and to keep out those elements of our personality, past and character that we wish hidden and repressed. When a glass, window or other façade is broken it tends to symbolise a fracture or return of the repressed. In The Fog we see several ruptures such as glass windows shattering, shattering dials and crumbling stones. The crumbling stone is the most explicit of all the happenings as it overtly uncovers, or exposes, the filthy secrets that the small Californian coastal town was built on.
The repression is not individual in The Fog. The guilt is social, the repression social. In most basic terms the repression is of the “other”. The town was approached by a Danish leper colony whose leader offered a sum of money to be allowed to establish a settlement near by. The town leaders shuddered at the thought of the settlement near by. On a foggy night they drew the leper’s ship onto some rocks causing them to drown. The town built its church will stolen money from the Danish leper’s ship. The destruction of the “other” and the immoral act of enabling this has come back to haunt the present. All American towns can be said to have built themselves upon the destruction and exploitation of indigenous and imported “others”. The fog in the films’ digesis seems to represent a return of the repressed and dominated and the film symbolises the social-psyche’s collective guilt concerning the brutal repression and exploitation of the “other”. Collective guilt is played out in the small coastal town’s terrifying plight against seemingly immortal revenging ghosts [similar to the “Furies” of Ancient Greek Mythology]. The use of fog as a carrier of the returning “other” is also an interesting choice. The fog seems symbolic of the unconscious itself. An ungraspable, untouchable dense something which hides our deepest fears and concerns. As I have noted this sense of the unconscious and repressed resonates through the entire film.
Regarding the Kuleshov effect we can see how it relates to the production of meaning in The Fog. In the film we see how the ‘effect’ produces a shock in the audience. The film relates two images creating the connotation that a “ghost” uses a spike to ram into a fisherman’s eyes. We never see this gruesome act however the non-seen act is still communicated because the we link the two acts by their close proximity.
This post is just the ground work for a series of article on films that will take a psychoanalytical approach. Here is a central concept that i will explore in relation to the horror and science fiction genres.
‘The subject of the ‘uncanny’…is undoubtedly related to what is frightening – to what arouses dread and horror; equally certain, too, the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense, so that it tends to coincide with what excites fear in general. […The] uncanny is that class of frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar ‘ (1.)
Long linked to that which is frightening, through its importance in Gothic fiction, the uncanny in its simplest and most basic form is the combination of two opposing states at once; namely both something familiar and unfamiliar. Freud in his famous essay ‘Uncanny’ lists how the word “homely” is linked to the word “unhomely” through the definition of the home. The familiar, known and open is set against the withdrawn, unfamiliar and unknown and found to both exist in the home (or the domestic or self). The home, according to Freud in relation to the uncanny, is the place where the know is withdrawn; the familiar hides the unfamiliar. When the unfamiliar is uncovered in the familiar a sense of uncanny is produced – even though the unfamiliar exists continuously in the familiar it is the bringing forth of the unfamiliar in the familiar that frightens us, brings into question our understanding and produces fear.
In an upcoming article i will highlight the psychoanalytical elements in Blade Runner (1982) and indicate an important instance of the uncanny.
(1.) Norton Anthology [full reference to follow] p. 930
Focalization is the perspective through which a narrative is presented. The style of focalization produces different styles of narrative and different conceptions of character. Hitchcock’s use of focalization ensured a sense of suspense and drama was produced. Hitchcock explained that a ‘Superior range of knowledge creates suspense [the essence of drama] because we can anticipate effects that the character cannot.’1 Essentially this is dramatic irony. Suspense and drama is produced when the audience knows the outcome or some alternative knowledge concerning the action on the screen. The perspective through which narrative is presented is important in the production of this superior range of knowledge. In the film Psycho (1960) when Lila is upstairs searching we are allowed the knowledge that Bates is downstairs. Lila doesn’t know this but we do. We hold our breath hoping that Lila gets out in time and every slow movement that Lila makes intensifies this panic. Hitchcock uses a objective, distant perspective to produce suspense and drama.
The range of knowledge and information we receive concerning that which affects the characters of a film is controlled by the type of narration and the style of focalization. In The Big Sleep (1946) we are given a fixed viewing position. An objective and closed-off focus on the protagonist Marlowe. We don’t get the same form of suspense as in Hitchcock’s Psycho because we never see more than Marlowe. We also rarely let into his thoughts or rationalizations. This can be explained by the attempt to make the film and Marlowe ‘more mysterious …[and interesting because] we do not know his inferences and deductions before he reveals them at the end.’2 However I personally believe this is the incorrect style for the film. I would assert that the The Big Sleep‘s style is incorrect because Chandler’s book and his Marlowe is interesting because of his continuously rationalizing and editorializing narrative.
Another similar film but one with a different style to The Big Sleep is Double Indemnity (1944). In this film we are given both the objective distance of The Big Sleep and a subjective style of focalization. We are also allowed the position of knowledge that Hitchcock utilized in Psycho. The beginning of the film we see a stumbling shot Walter Neff, we are given important information concerning his fate. The film proceeds by telling us how Neff comes to be shot through the technique of analepsis (flashback). What this does is create a marked reading of the events that follow. Our understanding of the chain of events that led to Neff’s destruction are coloured by our privileged position of knowledge. Although I dislike the production of The Big Sleep and its style of focalization it is not because the technique is flawed but rather because the style of the original text, Chandler’s novel, would lead itself to be more subjective and to contain the same style of rationalizing focalizer or voice of the novel.
1David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, London: McGraw-Hill Publishing, (1990), p. 66.
2David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, p. 67.
Psycho contains a confusing hybrid of differing genre conventions and traditions, these are all exhibited within the scenes that lead towards the famous/infamous shower scene. At first you are shown conventions of melodrama. The trapped lovers, who by fate, are obstructed by society from legitimating their relationship. This creates the expectation in the audience that the narrative will unfold around how these two star-crossed lovers will be united in their love. The narrative however switches to the moralistic Thriller genre. This happens when Marion Crane (Janet Heigh) attempts to escape the law, and may be even the rules of film convention, which she has broken by stealing $40,000. This switch creates an anti-climax, this is because it leaves loose ends; the audience is left with questions unanswered. The romantic partnership between Marion and Sam Loomis (John Gavin) has been co-opted by the new moralistic Thriller narrative: emotional and romantic engagement is now an impossibility for Marion and Sam. The audience is brought towards the seemingly conclusive nature of her being caught as a police officer trails her. But once again the audience is left with an anti-climax in relation to the Thriller narrative as Marion enters the exaggerated Horror realm of the Bates’ motel. Hitchcock exaggerates every convention of Horror: the house is darker, the rain heavier and a city motel is left entirely empty of contemporary society as if located in Death Valley and not within the space of regular civilization. The climax, anti-climax – sped up with the use of exaggerated generic characterisations and conventions – imbues the audience and the film with a sense of doubt. A doubt which infects how the audience sees the narrative’s direction. As the Thriller elements transmogrify into Horror the audience again gets a sense of anti-climax. This raises questions about the nature of appearance and characterization in films. It questions the accepted dramatic conventions of cinema. Hitchcock’s Psycho is overtly inter-textual: this builds up a sense that the audience has seen elements before, a sense that “We should know what’s going to happen”. However because of the continued use of anti-climax we do not. Psycho’s narrative plays with the history and conventions of cinema and story telling; the combination and hybrid of genres creates a parody, or critique of the conventional form of Horror, Thriller and Melodrama. This affect is important when seen in relationship with the shower scene…