Rev., Dec 22, 2017.
In discussing Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), it is now impossible not to see the movie from the point of view of later times, after which he had then flipped to the completely opposite point of view, and shot A Christmas Story (1982), a movie which captures so perfectly nostalgia, and good feelings about even bad things going wrong in good old times, that it surprisingly, after failing in the theaters, took on a life of its own on cable TV and has become a seasonal classic for the more ironic keepers of the day. For Black Christmas is a paean to anti-nostalgia, and even to feeling good about the present moment. I have said before, and often, that no other movie exists which better captures the particular mood of the moment, 1974 AD. I was in freshman-sophomore year that year, and suffering mightily. We still lived in the shadow of the 60s generation, the upper classmen, but, for us, it was no longer that time. We had become cynical, but in a kind of clueless-cynical way. We were vaguely aware that the freedoms gained in the 60s were now going to be bringing some bad side effects. This is nicely captured both by the pre-slasher movie quality of this movie, and by the nature of the crime, and its uncertainty, at the moment, in the movie.
Let me start with this shot.
I have noted before that no shot in the movies better captures the conflicted nature of the times, than this one, it (or a nighttime variant, repeated) screams 1974. And the question is, why? To use my variant on Barthesian photo theory, I argued (in a catalog for a show “Inherent Vice,” at the Photography Center of Woodstock, NY, in 1991), that while Barthes believed that a picture captured a single, solid plain, and then there was a detail which the POV of the viewer picked up, or a general awareness of some aspect of it infusing it, the punctum, my argument was that, no, that argument is too rooted in a holistic view of subjectivity with intention who controls what he or she sees (the singleton ego view of life), in fact, all photographs, as a medium, outside the self, in the world, have an “inherent vice,” which means elements which are degrading to its stability, disabling its homoestasis, and resulting from the as it were movable plate tectonics of two overlapping fields (the term was invented by conservators having to work with trying to preserve modern paintings which might have included anything from mustard to spilled alcohol). Since 1974 was the year in which I first used the word “postmodern” in a paper at school (circled in red, and wreathed in question marks), I guess I would say that this photo theory is my variant on my original intuition that the hero of Sartre’s Nausea simply had no access to reality in-itself in modern Paris therefore did not suffer real nausea at all. I did not believe that reality was objective and to be taken for granted as an ontological whole, I also did not believe that subjectivity was a whole uncontested “self” which singletons in particular seem to entirely believe in uncritically (the word at the time, which I had never read, had an uncanny ring to it, as “modern” meant up to date, happening now, so how could you live in the present post of another time, but I was also speaking to a complaint that too many of my hippie teachers were telling me, the 60s is over, time to synthesize the results, James Joyce was in the 20s, no more innovation like that; I also quickly after began to see how, in fact, people could live in the present in a culture of “aftertaste” from another time, and, upon my move to NYC, discovering myself a zero in the world, devised the notion that I was henceforth “posthumous,” so my use of the word postmodern had more college-student-angst inferences in it). Today, using my post-formalist movie-based dynamic agency theory, I guess I would map out the problem this way. Barthes thought the scene was solid, with a single subjective eye picking out this or that (here placing the single plain in the fictive zone of the shot)
I on the other hand saw it this way
that is, spacing the planes of the film image diagonally, according to the fore, middle and background division, push-pull from before and aft, and as seen with preference by the POV of various parties, and then there also being a POV of a V viewer who saw only into the gaps in the image, because it had somehow begun to age, or wrinkle, or diffuse, or deplete, its “fissures,” as I called them, coming apart (this is why photos “worked” in one time, and began to “age” and look corny in later times, see my treatment of picture theory postpop painter John Currin), this made a photograph per se a very temporary rapprochement of contested POVs and therefore an unstable entity without essence, without ground, without in-itself, without any of the certainties that a modernist sought in things. So, when I look at the above image, in the foreground, in the framing, close to the viewer, is the image that has just moved off screen, the killer, it is HIS eyes which watch this scene of persons going away; but there is also an implication imposed I think by the mis en scene by Clark that we are also meant to look upon this with the dead eyes of the killed girl with her plastic bag over her head, so this as it were, in a general, exploitational way, beyond POV, deadens the scene, makes it cold. Then, there is my eye, my eye that looks into the gaps in the image, the passing through the gate, the space between the two people involved, a rather overdone battle between the righteous father and the landlady of the sorority house. They have previously had a visual contretemps over the fact that the missing daughter, now upstairs dead in the attic, had been doing some growing in college, and developing some testy ideas
and at one point now to implicate the girl in having joined in with the others, or been evilly influenced by the others, also enthusiastically join in a project of devirgination, and having lots of sex
this contretemps is a bit overwritten, perhaps purposely, meaning that they are fighting a rear guard action against a reality that the girls have already moved on in. All the behavior of the other girls, and the problems they are dealing with, makes the parent’s concerns, as expressed in an outburst by Margot Kidder, quite retro, out of step with the cynical times. All that is in the background of this shot. But, then, the overall nature of the shot is controlled by the exploitation reframing of the killer’s POV, a double POV, as it were, where it is the haunting almost undead presence of the girl in a plastic bag who looks
interestingly enough, some of the posters for the movie “got it,” that some sort of metaPOVing of the POV of the killer was being introduced here in a truly chilling way, the inference that she watched the proceedings.
and again, wreathing her, as if her dead eye view bespoke the season too
and then another one sought to animate her, to further imply that in a strange way, by her presence, and sitting in the attic in a rocking chair in the nature of the mother in Psycho, she is observing all that happens after her killing, and in a movie that is entirely about her disappearance and finding her
So, again, just a few years later, in 1978=80, the POV of the killer, the predatory POV, would be introduced, as the slasher movie takes solid form as a subgenre, and is developed. But, here, it is not quite formed, it is a bit amorphous, and, as I map it out, Clark has withdrawn back into the pure instrumentation of the film or movie in itself as a machine to make it bespeak the mechanical “stripping bare” of modern life, and then project THAT ice cold view of things back into the movie by way of the truly creepy inference, far creepier than the idea that the killer is watching, as sometimes evoked by this eye, and his POV, as to see in a moment, but the idea that SHE watches, as dead (this parallels to an idea expressed in King’s recent 1922 on Netflix that a dead mother can see the fate of her children, it has deep lore)
but this view, of course, folds into the movie nicely because it is, after all, an interesting, even inspired take, and only, again, by inference, as there is never the idea that she is alive and sees this all, an extension of a very common trope in horror, the cold eye, or the dead eye of life, often expressed by way of the expressionless eyes of taxidermy, dolls, and the like, “witnessing” but in a cold dead-eyed hyperobjective way that bespeaks the horror movie ethos that in the stripped bare world of modern life the world does not care one little bit about you, it watches on impassive, cold and indifferent. Examples of this trope are so numerous it hardly needs to be mentioned but in the movie Scared to Death (1980), the voyeur scores in his peeping, by seeing his victim nude, thus “stripping her bare” to the extent that his evil sexual-killing impulse having been awakened he no longer sees her as a human being
and then when he strikes (he being in this case a monster), Raggedy Anne, the most evergreen trope of this type, the Raggedy Anne as roughed-up-by-life tossed-all-over mess of a doll extraordinaire, epitomizing victimized objectification
and in this one they even take it one step further by having some blood spatter on her, so she can even ignore that, the blood of her keeper, and she does, not, care
Thus, when I look back on this shot
it is this structure of seeing it that I see
and that means that I see it as a push-pull tug of war between the foreground awareness of the killer POV, meaning I must have felt threatened at the time; the dead eye imposed over the shoulder of that meaning that I must have felt the world did not in any care one little bit about me (I did not then know that this was a trope in movies, so I cant count that in); then I saw into the contretemps of the adults as irrelevant and stupidly clueless, then saw college and hated college and hated my life in college so saw it on a negative background.
But, for all that, this STILL does not quite cover the picture, as it would appear there was still one final overlay, which as it were seals it all in one tight compress or composition of disparate elements and that is that I have developed nonetheless a kind of counternostalgic appreciation for the special battle that I was engaged in in 1974, that I did lose it, but survived, but also that this takes place at an elite university, I thought maybe Cornell, or in any case symbolize that state of comfortable eliteness that one gets at places such as Cornell (but it is Toronto(, and feel that had I been accepted at an elite college and not ended up at a feeder college, things would have gone much differently. This is what I think Clark infers by this shot, the dead eye over the stately church tower, on campus, a symbol of insider elitism
I am not one of those people who say no regrets, that is simply ego talking. Life is filled with so many decisions to be made and roads taken and roads not taken that it is ridiculous to stubbornly in recollection stand one’s ground and say, no regrets, I have many regrets, and my junket to see an artist in January, 2013, to Cornell Univ., so filled me with a queer sense of undefinable loss and time passing, that I know that I deep down (but not really) believe that had I been accepted at Cornell, everything in my life would have been different, here is the graph of that, a further pullback of meta POV, taking in the whole shot, all its fissures, as a great “negative,” projected from a cult goal negated by failure to get it, to turn the whole picture into the very image of regret
This, then, for now, and, should I never be able to write about this shot again, as I have thought about it several times, this is as far as I will go with it, but at present I see it as a hornet’s nest of five contested POVs, but, for me, the “punctum” in the general infusing sense of the punctum of Lincoln’s killer Payne soon being dead being the punctum, according to Barthes’ reading of that picture, see Camera Lucida
For me, the punctum is, that is SO 1974 because I was not where I wanted to be, and knew I would’ve done much better if I had been somewhere else, and I suffered in the gap of that missing and that loss, and have ever since, and resent it, and still know, with a horrible longing to belong, that if I had got through the door at the place where I wanted to be, everything in my failed life might have gone better for me. So, in addition to looking at this picture through all the conflicts I have outlined, I suture it all back together to with a sick what-if sense of having back a thing I lost so see the gate as homey, and the snow as homey, and the view of going for the cab as reminding me of some time when “I was alive” or more alive than I am now, and, all that, wrapped up in it, makes this picture such an important shot for me (we are waaaayyy past Craig Owen’s simple analysis of film stills here). (The fun, inspiring detail, of this writing, is that this morning a 50-year-old dorm was imploded at the local University, and I took the occasion to recollect, on FB, using just these terms
And the pics
But, that, then, is enough of that shot. At least, at last, I have written something on it (even if not entirely satisfactory still).
The rest of the movie is also a nice essay on POV, and troubles with it. As for the mood of the times, and the confusions both visual and mental, the girls are “typical” 70s sorority girls, not yet by far the much more sororial mean girls after the 80s, so there are thrilling moments of them encountering some terrible new realities of the world in the negative fall out of the 60s in the 70s. When all of them gather round to listen to the obscene phone call, him using the c-word even more times than in The Exorcist, there is a look of appalled fascination on the faces of the girls, they are repulsed, but weirdly in awe of the horror of life which that voice represents (classic Freudian trope). They are also meant in this shot to be facing up to one of the unfortunate fallouts of the sexual revolution, some guys couldn’t measure up, couldn’t hack it, and so, according to slasher lore, dumped and damaged by women, went psycho, to take it out on girls in revenge, and maybe deep down the girls knew that due to their lax behavior they kinda deserved it (again, in he lore of the slasher; how different from the rationalizing pieties of today’s #metoo moment). Here is Andrea Martin, who is excellent here, the perfect wiry undergrad circa 1974, all those emotions in her face
then there is Olivia Hussey, the star, who goes through most of the troubles, but is a modern 70s undergrad who will not let female life conventions keep her down, so she has the red herring battle with Keir Dullea over the fact that due to their having a sexual relationship she is now pregnant, but she wants to get an abortion, he to keep it, it leads to trouble
and though it appears she survives, though it is not clear with what mental health, in the end
she became frightened by Keir Dullea’s animosity and anger, he also complicated the situation by in one sequence actually playing the false positive red herring substituting for the killer because he had had such a free run of her part of the house he had taken a nap up in her bed, waiting for her to come home, and here is represented as it were by the uniquely odd, and somewhat inspired instrumentation of the spider cobweb covered Christmas tree, blue lights prominent, indicating Christmas spirit effaced by the problems everyone is having
and then when he comes at her while she is cowering in the basement she thinks he is the killer and he comes in one her in this shot, as a blue mystery light (as per the trope of the blue lamp), meaning she is confused, and she kills him
so, her POV is also contested (I will discuss her experience in searching the house in a moment). Then, too Kidder, she is the sexy, experienced, sassy, the liberated woman, sex she knows of, ie slut, of the 1970s, perfectly cast, fine performance, taunting the peeper
but, then, very oddly, she is not even given a chance to be a fightback girl, her sassiness is unmanned by the fact that she ends up being murdered in her bed, just like lore says everyone should be worried of
then, even stranger, acting all big and tough socially, in private she collects glass figures, representing extreme fragility, and the killer takes up a unicorn, representing, then, an exception, a quandry and enigma, and uses that symbol of a fragile enigma to kill her
and the only shots we see of this fightback girl fighting back are grasping for life, clearly undone, knocking about her glass figure collection
and Clark lingers, perhaps again interjecting some personal POV inference of vengeance over a kind or type of girl at the time who, in the lore of horror movies, did a lot of careless damage (in the literary tradition of Tom and Daisy)
and again, tres arty
but now we circle back to the eye of the killer, in the broader frame around the frame of the nest of character POVs (though I will return to Hussey in a bit)
the hidden stalking/peeping slasher is, of course, a trope, but the mistake that, if I recall, the remake made, and which a movie like The Boy (2016) also made, is that at some point it is felt by rationalizers that a person has to be made known, revealed, figured out entirely and, worse, explained, psychologically. But that usually ruins him, as in a hidden state he remains a bogey man, the figure representing all the random fears that pester modern life (heard that the Sydney Loofe killing, this month, RIP, in local news is, by rumor, even being blamed on the Rulo Cult, of the 1980s, I had to look it up). But, in this movie, he is a mere POV, who then, in a not so much abstract but abstract-ized way, kills. That is, like the bagged dead eye of the girl, whose gaze nonetheless usurps him, and, as we will see, also becomes the eye of the “to be continued” trope at the end, he is never shown, not even caught, the figures in the attic not caught, the police entirely absorbed in the girls (as if the movie plays on them the joke Kidder played on one dim cop by giving her a phone number spelling out Fellatio). But, his POV is suggested by the evergreen trope of constantly looking up and down the wooden stairway of the sorority house, the central feature of the house. We see it, after a rather too attendant following of the POV of the killer as he finds a place as the hidden homunculus haunting the house, early on, he is up above, in his wild space, civilization, their space, is below, the stairs are the great divide
we get it often, moving up and down, between lives, from one experience by one character to another, as a transitional device
in this shot, there is a formal portrait, perhaps of a former house mother, who knows, it is there, but did not play much of a direct role in anything
the view gets longer when the prowl in danger begins and there is something interesting, relative to the above picture, in this prowl
as she moves upstairs, she is searching for evidence that there is trouble, she has not, as advised, left the house, but is looking, but the interesting thing is, and often shown, outside in particular Kidder’s room door is a raft of very traditional house pictures of the history of the sorority and group shots of former members, and classes, and all that
the camera approaches these pictures from afar, then comes closer, as if to equate the space in the house to public space in the sense that this is not space owned by the girls, but only temporarily lived in by them, and therefore the prison of the railings and the newell posts are emptied out even further by the ersatz bureaucratic group-culture group-think mechanical of modern life as exemplified by such pictures, the one strafes the other, they interact, quite inspiringly
as she gets closer, it is as if the slats of the bannister, the equivalent of venetian blind slats in bespeaking shadiness and questioning on screen, are accented in their emptying effect, and worry, by the form and layout, in quite long form pictures, of the pictures. It is also of interest that these pictures cluster most about Kidder’s room’s door, as she is the most contentious against the traditions of the house, and the life, and the prime violater of house rules, in every way
and as we close in on her door, visually attempting to increase the tension, there is a ratcheting up of both the slat strafe and the group picture facture, both by crepitation itching away at our confidence in the scene, the ironic Christmas wreath on her door also speaks
now the camera pans over the long pictures of the groups and classes, almost as if this was the sorority house equivalent of the family tree portraiture of a family, an evergreen trope if ever there was, but this emptying things out in a more extreme, as if not only communicating that the house is in trouble, and she is in trouble, but they are in trouble because the lifestyle itself is archaic and corrupt
then, I also like this detail, on Kidder’s door is not an apotropaic keep out sign, but a “life of the party” trophy, a sign that says, we drink and have lots of sex in here, a black Christmas wreathe with tiny whiskey and other bottles attached as ornaments
a few things about this. Each year about this time, I see a bush at the corner where I fell (19th and Washington) and it is littered with tiny bottles of alcohol, with which the men litter what I even call after them, my street, Fireball Run, so this is funny to see the same trope in 1974, epitomizing the world of that wreathe, dorm life (sorority variant), that so tortured me (my version of a wreathe tossed? the straw that broke the camel’s back for me and dorm life was hearing bottles breaking all night outside my door, then opening the door in the morning to find the corridor littered an inch deep with broken bottles all over). But, two, it is also interesting that the posters for the movie tried to make a possible reference to this by making the wreath the central device, including horror in it, though not corresponsing to the mis en scene in the film
and here, with a reference to Kidder, so it might be connected,
other posters focus on the ornaments, with a dead body in it, not lifted from the movie, and then the tree in general, but this seems the source of that sort of resymbolizing of the movie, or postering of it. But, then, the punchline is only a punchline to get in the uncut version of the movie, and in this viewing was the first time I ever got the uncut version, because she is horrified when she opens the door to see a kind of wreath of two bodies on the bed, as if the killer combined the art of collecting glass figures, and making Christmas decorations, with fantasies of all the twisted sex that was going on in this house of sluts (in the language of the day)
In actual fact, Kidder’s body is merely placed over Martin’s body, but it visualizes as a pretzeling knot, suggesting, in a bed, of sex, of the accusation, common among men angry at refusal by women, of triabic lesbianism in the attraction of women as friends to each other, it is not as great a shot as it might’ve been, but for 1974, it is a lot (and, like I said, edited out of all versions I have seen of the movie before this screening) (one also fears that it is from a musing serpentinely on the wreath on the door as well as the webby christmas tree plus this suggested as the extenuation in a psycho mind of what a Christmas tree of sex would look like that the remake got the truly awful and unscary only gross idea of having the psycho’s tree decorated with organs of the murder victims, ew).
later on, returning now to the girl who was the victim who ended up as the dead eye in the plastic bag suffocated, but to represent the dead eye POV of the cold world, she is not at all the Kidder type, in fact, quite tame, a more reasonable college girl, living between flowers and stuffed animals, in a dream of innocence, however the envelope stretches
but then we see that she is being talked through a dry cleaner plastic bag hung over her clothes in her closet
and that is how she ends up as the first victim, and as the dead eye of the movie
but, then, at the end, after we have apparently, down in the world of the living, in the house, in the space inside the cops’ investigation, wrapped things up, with no furhter search of the house, we trail away from the bed
some sort of grave rubbing of a medieval sort, meaning that Hussey was one of those, 1970s post60s undergrad escapists gone gaga on medievalism
then we pull back through the corridor, light tinkling over the pictures of the sorority groups past
and the camera on its own, representing film per se, the dead eye of the world, pans, crossing the doors of rooms where victims were killed (thus, in this second, is clear proof that in this movie the sorority house pictures, the group picture trope, was definitely instrumentalized, and quite creatively, and may or may not have influenced the next great, and best use of them, unnoticed by most, by Kubrick in The Shining (1980).
the first victim’s stuffed animal gives us a last dead eye glance
the camera crawls upstairs (can’t ID that pic, too dark)
we are informed, almost unbelievably, that the police did not find the two bodies in the attic
we even now pull out of that space by way of the window, and by way of the primary dead eye of the movie, victim in a plastic bag
to reduce her (the movie already working with the classic urban legend of the killer being, during a babysitting job, in the house upstairs) to the classic urban legend trope of the face in the window, that never moves, that is always there, eliding here into a ghost
and in a “to be continued” withdrawal it is promised that, since he is still in there, it is going to happen again, because sororities are sororities, they don’t get fixed, it will happen again, he is the evil homunculus not yet formed into a conscious slasher with a distinct MO, is the abstraction vaguely haunting the lives of young women of the 1970s around the edges, that something has gone very, very wrong with the sexual revolution, and the world as a whole has converted into a place of threat and danger
and so Clark pulls all the way back to the POV beyond even the POV of the dead eye, which is in turn beyond the POV of the dead eye, to speak to us once again that in 1974 the world suddenly seemed scary (even if it wasn’t), and cold, and impassive, and it is from the pooling of this alienation and sense of corruption and emptiness, that the official slasher would, a few years later, emerge. For all of this–and this has only been a stab taken at a very difficult problem, one which I have mused on for some time, why this movie captures so perfectly the mood of being 21 in 1974 AD–Black Christmas (1974) continues to grow on me, as one of the best evil or scary Christmas movies ever made, and by the exact same guy who made A Christmas Story!
This note another of many I have written about sorority houses in horror movies, no doubt all for some fantastical psychological purpose of recoup since, in real life, as the college I went to did not have Greek life, in never once set foot in a real sorority house in my college years.