Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Aesthetics of Death

Another essay I wrote nearly a decade ago for a class at Emerson College taught by Maria Koundoura called "The Construction of Taste." It deals with serial killers in the movies and I suggest in the first paragraph that the genre of serial killer films is nearly done with. Not quite right, but I will say that the two films I discuss in the essay -- The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en -- are still the requisite films in the genre.

The Aesthetics of Death:
The Burkian Sublime in The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en

The poet Bill Knott questions: "Doesn't Chekhov have to bear part of the blame for all the boring poems written about himself?" (Knott, p. v). If that is true, then it is certainly the case that certain trend-setting films can be blamed for the genres they create. Isn't John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) somewhat to blame for years of slasher flicks that revisited the theme of mutilating teen-age virgins? How about Quentin Tarantino and his unwitting creation of an entire genre of crime films, peppered with pop references, that portray violence as a sight-gag? These genres, or rather sub-genres, come and go like any other trend, precipitated usually by a singular massive success, and whimpering out along a string of failures. One recent sub-genre -- the serial killer movie -- seems to be at the end of its run. Over the past year Hollywood has produced one moderate success in the genre, Kiss the Girls (Gary Fleder, 1997), and two critical and box-office failures, Fallen (Gregory Hoblit, 1998) and Desperate Measures (Barbet Schroeder, 1998). The sub-genre itself, of course, was beget by 1991's Academy Award Best Picture of the Year The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme); and, I would argue, had its longevity temporarily restored by 1995's Se7en (David Fincher). What distinguishes these films, and their lesser offspring, is not the requisite police action, or the unsolved string or murders, or the pleasure (or dis-pleasure) of the well-wrought three-act structure, but, rather, their presentation of the enactment of violence as art, and, more specifically, the presentation of the enactors of that violence as artists, tainted by genius. It is mainly through that characterization, coupled with a corresponding visual presentation of artistic death, that both the films I will discuss mirror a Burkian aesthetic that approximates the sublime, while at the same time allowing the audience to maintain a far enough, but crucial, distance from such terrible beauty.

Edmund Burke, grappling with the nature of aesthetics, defined the "sublime" in this way in 1757:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas
of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in
any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible
objects, or operates in a manner analogous to
terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is
productive of the strongest emotion which the mind
is capable of feeling.
(Burke, p. 39)

Such an argument goes a long way in explaining the popularity of cinematic excess. I still remember my reaction the first time I saw The Silence of the Lambs -- in a packed theater the weekend it opened -- when Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins) peeled the skinned face of a murdered man off his own, revealing both his escape from a high-security prison and the excessive brutality of his methods. A communal shiver -- that strongest emotion, but distanced -- audibly swept the theater. Se7en, likewise, is filled with memorable presentations of torture and death, as the two detectives -- comprising that familiar pairing of a hot-tempered rookie and a jaded veteran (played respectively by Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman) -- track the serial killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey) as he leaves murdered bodies representative of the seven deadly sins. (Several members of my audience didn't make it past Sloth). But could presentations of death, heightened to elicit audience emotion, be enough to create and sustain a genre to itself? Certainly, for instance, if that were the case, if death-toll was the crucial distinguishing factor, a Titanic (James Cameron, 1997) and its phenomenal success could be born every year. What separates The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en from other films in their genre is not the closeness with which the audience is brought to death, but rather the rendered cinematic acts of violence and the meaning those acts have for the perpetrators. In both those films, the serial killers murder for the beauty of the act itself, for the aesthetic pleasure it brings them, rather than for any other interested motive, e.g. money or sex. That terrible beauty is recreated on screen for the audience to share and to be horrified by, and, also, by that sharing, the audience encounters the sublime, as Burke would describe it.

There are several scenes in both The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en that would elucidate the uses of the sublime, specifically how those presentations characterize each film's antagonists, but two particular scenes stand out to me. The first is the aforementioned escape sequence from The Silence of the Lambs, when Hannibal Lector kills two guards in order to escape his confines at Shelby County Courthouse. In strictest terms, Hannibal Lector's position in the film operates as a wildly imagined sub-plot. The young agent-in-training Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is structurally pitted against the serial killer Buffalo Bill / Jame Gumb (Ted Levine), who is killing young women in order to skin them and make a woman suit for himself; to that end she is sent to interview the brilliant psychiatrist and notorious serial killer and cannibal Lector. In the course of the film Starling and Lector form a relationship; Lector escapes; Starling captures the true antagonist Gumb. She captures Gumb because she discovers his desire, his use for the women he is murdering, i.e. she captures Gumb because she links him with his victims, via interest. But what if murdering was an end in and of itself? What if murdering was an acquired taste, no pun intended? That is the presentation of Lector, and that is partly why the final image of the film is of Lector, roaming free.

The shot that begins the escape sequence shows a number of objects in Lector's cage-like cell: a book of poetry; sketches of Italian architecture done by Lector; a tape cassette playing Bach's Goldberg Variations; and, as a sort of punchline, an issue of the magazine Bon Apetit. The film is using several established, recognizable objects that render Lector a true man of civilized taste. Thus established, the audience is set up for the shock, and the joke, of Lector's barbarous action. It comes as Lector overpowers the two guards that have brought him his dinner (lamb, extra rare); when one is disabled and the other is handcuffed to the bars of the cage, the camera pans slowly into Lector as he lifts and smashes the police club, repetitively and rhythmically, into the policeman's head; a look of almost erotic pleasure crosses Lector's face. There is a cut to the policeman's body lying still in a pool of blood (an implication of a short passage of time), then a pan to Lector's hand moving in the same rhythmic deliberation over the cassette player, mock-conducting the Bach piece while also mock-emulating the blows that have just murdered the guard. The link is at once obvious and subtle. If music can be pure pleasure then why not the act of killing? To bring in Immanuel Kant, and his analysis of taste, he states that "taste in the beautiful is alone a disinterested and free satisfaction" (Kant, p. 44). Certainly Lector is interested in killing the guard in order to gain his escape, yet he receives pleasure from killing the guard. That pleasure approximates a pure pleasure -- or, in Kantian terminology, the beautiful -- because of Lector's disinterestedness. That is, the guard is not an unfaithful lover, or someone who owes money to Lector; he is nothing to Lector, so Lector's pleasure in killing him is almost a sublime act, and therefore all the scarier for the audience.

The idea of the sublime is pushed further by the filmmakers with the discovery of the guard's body. Lector has flayed the body open, and hung it on the outside of the cage in an approximation of the crucifixion. The religious implication is heightened by the use of back-lighting streaming into the frame, casting a glow around the mutilated guard. It is an artful presentation, one that mimics Lector's other habit of artfully cannibalizing his victims -- "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti." That quote is about a census taker, a banal figure in anyone's existence -- a figure that would normally elicit almost no interest, good or bad -- yet Lector had transformed him into something else, something beautiful, and tasteful, to him -- a murder and a meal. The villain of Se7en, John Doe, is equally, if not more, compelled to turn murder into an art form and, furthermore, an effective moral lesson. Just as Lector blurred the line of subject and object through cannibalization, John Doe obliterates that line by making himself the object of his own murder, and in doing so completing the seven murders he sets out to achieve. That sequence, at the end of the film, renders the idea of the sublime via John Doe's own making, and implicates the audience into the perpetration of several murders commited as beautiful acts.

The first two thirds of Se7en involve the older homicide detective William Somerset and the young rookie David Mills tracking a series of murders that are linked to the seven deadly sins. The two detectives comprise a high art / low art combination. Somerset does his detecting in the library, perusing Dante, Milton, Chaucer and Shakespeare (particularly The Merchant of Venice). Mills literally reads the Cliff Notes versions to tap into the killer's psyche. The film also provides a metaphoric landscape, an unnamed American city forever darkly shrouded in haze and rain, as the gothic backdrop to the crimes being committed. Up until the two-thirds mark the only introduction to John Doe, the serial killer, is via what he's left behind -- mutilated bodies that provide a lesson, e.g. a gluttonous man tied and forced to eat himself to death. After the fifth murder, the uncaptured John Doe turns himself in at the police precinct, claiming he's already committed murders six and seven: Envy and Wrath. He will deliver the bodies, provided Mills and Somerset accompany him to the crime scene. The shift at this moment in the film is marked by a deliberate change in scene and lighting; as John Doe brings the detectives to the completion of his artistry, they leave the city with its chiaroscuro lighting behind, and head out into empty fields suffused with light, signifying the approach of clarity. On their drive John Doe explains himself and the acts he has committed: "I did not choose. I was chosen." He also explains what he believes will be the implication of the action -- presumably a higher power's, God's -- that has funneled through him: "When it's finished, it's going to be....People won't be able to comprehend it." His stumbling over the words suggests that he is in the presence of the sublime. Terry Eagleton, discussing the Kantian aesthetic, writes:

In the turbulent presence of the sublime we are forcibly
reminded of the limits of our dwarfish imaginations and
admonished that the world as infinite totality is not ours
to know. It is as though in the sublime the 'real' itself --
the eternal, ungraspable totality of things -- inscribes itself
as the cautionary limit of all mere ideology, of all complacent
subject-centredness, causing us to feel the pain of incompletion
and unassuaged desire.
(Eagleton, p. 89)

The completion of John Doe's act is nothing less than his own death. In the middle of nowhere, the spot to which the two detectives are brought, a box is delivered that contains the severed head of Detective Mills' pregnant wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), representing Envy, John Doe's (everyman's?) for the normal life of love. The final sin is Wrath, its act completed when Mills puts a bullet in John Doe's brain. In the moment before that occurs -- when John Doe knows with certainty that the act is complete, that the canvas is finished -- an almost spiritual expression of peace comes over John Doe's face. The act for him, the beautiful act of murder, outweighs the most basic interestedness -- his interest in his own life. He has become his own object, and created an act that, for him, represents true sublimity.

In a baffling statement, film critic Stanley Kauffmann asserted that "Screen violence is not a perversion of reality, like pornography: it is verity -- exploitative, no doubt, but not exaggerated" (Kauffman, p. 424). Granted, in 1976, when Kauffman made that statement, perfectly executed cinematic velociraptors hadn't ripped actors in half in children's films yet. But certainly, the representation of violence has always meant more than a strict reporting of reality, which means, of course, that screen violence is a matter of taste, or our liking it or disliking. Kauffman weighs in on this subject as well:

The only real harm in eating at a hamburger chain
is in thinking it's good food. Discrimination about
violence (as about anything else) implies perspectives
of self and art and human possibility far larger
than the violence that is being discriminated about.
(Kauffman, p. 424)

So how does one discriminate? Kauffman, from his elitist critical perspective, believes that, just as in the case of food (what would he say about human liver with fava beans?) screen violence is either good or bad. In her essay, "Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess," Linda Williams discusses her son's pleasure in viewing "gross" films, such as the Nightmare on Elm Street series, and her son's displeasure in viewing kissing on the screen. Rightly so, it seems to me, she conjures that old line, "There is no accounting for taste," and adds to it, "especially in the realm of the 'gross'" (Grant, p. 140). Certainly, serial killer films are about unaccountable taste, about the "gross," and about the excess of human potentiality. Both The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en, however, take those ideas an aesthetical step further by exploring the realm of the sublime, and both also, interestingly, subvert the triumph-of-good-over-evil ideology that most of their genre espouse. Hannibal Lector roams free, as does John Doe's free will if not his corporeal essence -- his death marks a triumph of his own doing. That there is evil in the world, and that sometimes evil is propelled not by interested motives, but rather by the idea of beauty, is truly frightening to an audience allowed the critical distance to enjoy it.

Works Cited

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.

Eagleton, Terry. The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1990.

Grant, Barry Keith. Film Genre Reader II. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. London: Collier MacMillan Publishers, 1987.

Kauffman, Stanley. Before my Eyes: Film Criticism & Comment. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1980

Knott, Bill. Homages. Self-published by the author, 1996.

1 comment:

  1. This was another really interesting one. I have to posit something else I say all the time, and even your pictures prove this: Buffalo Bill is as creepy, if not more so, some (me) might say more so than Hannibal Lecter.