Classically Inclined

December 28, 2011

Thinking about monsters

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 12:20 pm
Tags: , , , ,

I type to you from the British Library, where I have taken cover for the day in order to do some more reading for the Harryhausen article. The thing I’m currently trying to get a handle on is monsters and the monstrous in film. The problem is that the two Clash of the Titans films both appear in just the wrong eras for the usual social matrixes to apply, and I’m having trouble working my own way through the implications of historical context.

To back up a little. Film has to be understood as part of its historical context. It’s one of the things that creates a film’s production conditions, that emphasises what contemporary social and cultural concerns a film speaks to. The big player in this game is American society exploring its anxieties about itself through representations of the Roman Empire, normally through empire films like The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) or Gladiator (2000). Here, the historical context is set either in the Cold War, in which case there’s obvious historical interpretation about the anxieties concerning Russia and nuclear annihilation, or it’s a question of America’s new role in the world as the lone superpower, questions of modern empire, that sort of thing. (Monica Cyrino’s Big Screen Rome has a good intro to this sort of thing if you’re interested.) The monster analysis I’ve found so far fits into this pattern – 1950s monster movies work out the social anxieties of the Cold War period, and the danger of the end of humanity, through a dehumanised vehicle that allows fear to be fully represented without coming too close to home.

Here’s the snag. The two Clash films are neither set in the right period, nor are they about Romans. The non-Roman kit isn’t such a big deal, but the chronology is more of a problem. Even given the time delay involved in producing a Dynamotion picture, the 1981 Clash is a product of the late 1970s to early 1980s, but before the 1980s egotistic boom gets under way – Perseus is, in some ways, the last of the traditional film heroes before the anti-hero craze kicks in. The Cold War is over, more or less, and the biggest national incident is the Iran embassy hostages (now, this may be a lead worth following, but I digress). 1980, interestingly, is the year Mount St. Helens erupts, which may link into concerns with landscape and danger, but only tangentially. As for Clash 2010, it too falls in an interesting half-place – it’s too late to be all about the invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan (or indeed quite properly about the global financial crisis), and while it’s obviously more interested in the individual hero narrative, I don’t quite see Hades as Goldman Sachs or the collapse of the Eurozone.

So I’m trying to work out the historical context in which these two films place monsters, and which anxieties and fears those monsters express (and why the question of landscape is then relevant to how those monsters are thematically expressed). If you can see something I’ve missed or have any ideas, please do put them in the comments!

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13 Comments »

  1. Ooh, interesting!

    One thing that occurs to me is that ‘the monster within’ was a huge narrative in pop culture when the earlier film was made – it’s a near-exact contemporary of The Empire Strikes Back (1980) which was all about that (cf. Luke fighting Vader in a cave and then it’s himself under the mask.) I’m guessing there was a bit of introspection going on because the hippie era was dying and the yuppie era hadn’t quite been born yet, ideals were in flux and people were probably feeling unsure and directionless in a mini-Generation X kind of way. So maybe it’s ABOUT being between two eras and holding on to the ideals of the past to transform the future, in the same way that Star Wars is. Just a thought, haven’t actually seen the film in way too long so may be nonsense

    Comment by Eve Jacques (@EveJacques) — December 28, 2011 @ 1:02 pm | Reply

    • “The monster within” trope is an ancient one, going all the way back to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which I had completely failed to spot until yesterday… that’s definitely at work with Calibos in the Clash films, that exploration of the monster/human boundary, and it’s interesting how the films differ in what’s responsible for releasing that monster.

      The idea of flux is an interesting one, made a bit more complicated by the fact that Clash 1981 actually was released a little too late – the rise of the anti-hero was well underway by then. But yes, notions of flux are probably important for thinking about this, but I need to get my head around them a bit more!

      Comment by lizgloyn — December 29, 2011 @ 10:36 am | Reply

  2. Remember the *other* monster; or rather, the two halves of a monster feature: a fearful thing, and a portrayal of the fear that it evinces.

    If if dredge up the usual suspect for a monster in its time, we have The Evil Dead: cold-war paranoia and a faceless ‘other’ evincing fear as paranoioa, violence and selfishness – the dark side of the All-American heroic individualist. They do, of course, pull themselves together and Pull Together to a predictable redemption and to victory…

    Evil Dead 2 lurches from the grave into a fracturing society; the fear plays into a disorganised flock of victims who cannot unite and withstand the terror, dividing into bickering caricatures of Urban America’s socially, politically and racially-divided tribes. Doomed, doomed, they’re Doomed!

    Finally, we have The Evil Dead, Part 3: a fortunate few have barricaded themselves into a shopping mall, protected and sustained amidst the reassuring trappings of consumerism, utterly indifferent to the fate of the less-fortunate outside the walls. I try not to think of how the ‘monsters’ on the outside seem to play caricatures of the homeless, the addicted and the destitute; of all the horror movies I have seen, this is this one where I
    identify the most with the fearsome ‘other’, and found myself moved to loathing and disgust toward the ‘us’, the fearful victims.

    Monsters, indeed, if you’re looking in the right direction: and fear is a dramatic tool for exposing weaknesses – and strengths – in characters, communities and countries. Which is, of course, the point of a good ol’ bug-eyed monster flick.

    So ask yourself: is there any moment in the Titans movie when you’d cheer to see the ‘us’ – the fearful victims – disembowelled and devoured, and see yourself politely passing salt and pepper and the ketchup, just to help the monsters on a bit?

    Comment by Nile H (@Hairyears) — December 28, 2011 @ 7:35 pm | Reply

    • Actually, you’ve identified here another problem that I found myself wrestling with as I worked my way through my reading over the afternoon. The examples you give here, and that a lot of monster-theory uses, come from horror films, that is, films that specifically aim to scare and frighten us, frequently involving vast amounts of gore. Certainly the idea of the other, and the Other Within Us, is a trope there – as it has been from as far back as Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

      But my problem is that these generic models don’t quite fit when I’m dealing with what is more properly categorised as an epic fantasy film. The rules of the epic genre are different, and thus the monsters too function differently. So the fearful victims in these films are Us – and the epic hero overcomes the monster specifically to complete his Epic Heroic Narrative. But what, then, does that do to the monsters? This is all still thinking aloud, of course, but the generic conventions do seem to make quite a bit of difference here.

      Comment by lizgloyn — December 28, 2011 @ 7:43 pm | Reply

      • Do they function differently? That could be a good thing – for variety’s sake, at least – because I think that there are classical narratives that Hollywood has not discovered, let alone exhausted like (say) the vampire trope, rented formalwear and all.

        But it might not be a good thing: Hollywood is not an equal-opportunity employer for monsters classical and modern, and I’d be disappointed to discover that the victims and the monster are mere props for the generic (or Homeric) Epic Hero.

        A better question might be: what are these conventions that you mentioned? And what might change them, set on Planet Epic?

        I recall beginning a conversation on the disagreeable habit of projecting our imaginary virtues on some mythical image of the ancient civilisation: is the epic monster flick a way of portraying *ourselves* as the Olympian hero, standing above the fear-stricken whimpering ninnies who stand in for the things we don’t like about our modern era?

        Or is it all just an interesting backdrop for some cartoonish traducer of the Greeks?

        I remember discussing that, too, over dinner in The Red Lion; I choose not to name the shlockbuster leatherfest we mentioned – mercifully briefly – but I would cheerfully see its author disembowelled and devoured: salt and pepper, and ketchup, etc &c.

        Except, in that instance, I would politely pass the monsters Alka-Seltzer in apology.

        Comment by Nile H (@Hairyears) — December 28, 2011 @ 10:50 pm | Reply

      • A pointed reply to a specific point: excessive blood and gore.

        There is no meaning to be taken or inferred from this: the Special Effects team have been given too much money. Usually, to compensate for their disappointment when they’ve been given very little in the way of interesting things to do; a disappointment and a deficit that might permeate the project in its entirety.

        A short (and seasonal) title for this comment might be: “Giblets are frequently sold with turkeys”.

        Also: splattered gore can hold no terrors for heroic individuals who’ve seen a two-year-old eating anything with ketchup.

        Comment by Nile H (@Hairyears) — December 29, 2011 @ 12:57 pm | Reply

      • Oh, I know that gore depends on finances! However, if you look at films in the ‘epic’ genre, the amount of blood and guts is significantly lower than in the ‘horror’ genre, where a certain amount of the red stuff is expected as part of those conventions I mentioned earlier. The more family-friendly epic needs less of it in order to retain its lower certificate rating to pull in the younger audience it is, in part, aimed at – it’s one of the reasons, apparently, that the two-headed dog sequence in the original Clash isn’t more graphic.

        Comment by lizgloyn — December 30, 2011 @ 9:53 am | Reply

      • is the epic monster flick a way of portraying *ourselves* as the Olympian hero, standing above the fear-stricken whimpering ninnies who stand in for the things we don’t like about our modern era?

        Coming back to this after the holiday season – you pick up on an interesting point here, which is that a lot of the Hollywood ancient films have been interpreted as ways of reinterpreting masculinity in the modern world; by returning to the achronic hero, the films create a space in which to articulate ideas of manhood which are detatched from the feminizing and emasculating effects of the modern world and technological advances which have displaced traditional masculine roles. So yes, epic films use the hero to work out notions of identity, but that identity creates a successful space for itself, negotiating the areas of conflict. In horror films, the focus is far more on the fear and the creation of fear itself, and while the monster of the moment may be overcome, there is always the possibility that (like the vampire) it will rise again.

        While I’m thinking of generic differences, one clear incidental difference is between the background music you find in epics and in horror films; the music of horror films is deliberately pitched at a tone which actually unsettles humans in order to heighten the sense of discomfort (the Saw film trailers were a particularly strong example of this), while epic films tend to have lush full orchestral scores which obey the musical conventions of romanticism more than anything else. Which is a long way of saying that filmic genre dictates everything about the setting in which these monsters appear, and the context in which they must be interpreted.

        Comment by lizgloyn — January 8, 2012 @ 7:43 pm | Reply

  3. Didn’t Cold War tensions flare up a bit around the late ’70s/early ’80s? Early ’80s produced Threads and The Day After (the film credited with persuading Reagen to, you know, not blow the world up!) so nuclear war still a pretty hot topic.

    Comment by Juliette — December 29, 2011 @ 1:35 pm | Reply

    • Interesting… looking at that highly reputable historical source, Wikipedia (hem), it seems like the nuclear-concern films were produced a couple of years later, so ’83, ’84, ’85. I don’t think the original Clash is late enough to tap into that flare. (We are also, for the record, now about five years post-Vietnam, which means that’s probably not in action either.) I really don’t see where nuclear concern would fit into this, unless we want to interpret the Medusa’s head as a nuclear-bomb style object, which is a possible interpretation (along with all the psychoanalytic ones). Taking out the Perseus turning humans to stone bit does rather make that a less attractive narrative for Clash 1981, though. Hmmm!

      Comment by lizgloyn — December 30, 2011 @ 9:50 am | Reply

  4. this is a drive-by – and continuing from the above comment re: nuclear stuff (… there is a better word than stuff) – what about Three Mile Island for the first Clash, and the natural catastrophes in recent years for the second? that is to say: acts of god(s). so you’ve got Perseus vs, er, the planet?

    which, i realise now, doesn’t really help with the ‘monster’ aspect. i should think things through before i start typing!

    Comment by jack. — January 9, 2012 @ 3:21 pm | Reply

    • Thanks for dropping by! I think if we were seeing nuclear anxiety on that scale, we’d have the other sort of disaster creature movie where the monsters are created by radiation – giant ants and giant locusts, for instance, being popular during the 50s. It’s a different sort of anxiety, although it is there – just not in the Clashes!

      Comment by lizgloyn — January 9, 2012 @ 8:33 pm | Reply

  5. […] to reading Freud’s essay on the uncanny [link to PDF]. I first decided I wanted to read it when I was thinking about monsters for the Harryhausen paper. My thought process then was concerned with trying to work out what […]

    Pingback by Freud, the uncanny and monsters | Classically Inclined — May 3, 2013 @ 10:34 am | Reply


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