The Genre Mask
To mark the UK Blu-ray release of Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession, Daniel Bird looks at the genre implications which stem from the film.
In 1996, I met the writer and musician Stephen Thrower at a programme of Jess Franco films at the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead, London. Thrower was the editor of Eyeball, a fanzine celebrating art and exploitation in European cinema (although in the last few issues Thrower expanded his horizon globally). Eyeball was designed to mimic the layout of the defunct Monthly Film Bulletin. With wit and intelligence, Thrower (along with the likes of Pete Tombs) mapped out a zone of convergence between European high art and more low-brow tastes (genre film, comic books, pornography, etc.). In Eyeball, a review of Godard’s Pierrot le fou would rub shoulders with a reappraisal of Franco’s Virgin among the Living Dead – and why not? Ado Kyrou flagged up the ‘sublime’ moments to be found in ‘bad’ films. Franco made lots of bad films (so has Godard). Thrower was particularly keen on Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (1981) – a film that was, at the time, pretty much loathed all round. In short, its ‘artiness’ pissed off the horror crowd, while the monster and copious blood-letting excluded it from the prissy gaze of the ‘art house’ set. Thrower, however, loved it, and had no qualms about dedicating the last issue of Eyeball to Żuławski.
In spring 1997, Thrower and I travelled to Paris to interview Żuławski. Szamanka had opened in France and was about to close. It was only playing in one cinema in Saint Michel, and the reviews plastered outside the foyer made for an entertaining read. Libération urged anyone who saw ?u?awski approaching a movie camera to shoot him with a tranquilizer gun. Szamanka did not disappoint: it offered an unhinged performance by a beautiful unknown, and bruising social comment (not to mention cannibalism and nuclear war). Żuławski was admirably intransigent during the interview, rubbishing Terry Gilliam’s Fisher King, Ken Loach’s social realist camera set-ups while proposing that if Martians land on earth then they should be made to watch The Texas Chain Saw Massacre ‘because they might learn something about what it is to be human’. That is not, however, to suggest ?u?awski was a ‘fan’ of genre cinema – on the contrary. Anything that adhered to a ‘formula’ (ironic or otherwise) clearly bored him senseless. It reminded me of an interview Thrower conducted with Alejandro Jodorowsky around the time of the UK release of Santa Sangre. Jodorowsky said that, for him, the horror film was the only genre in which film poetry could still exist. Similarly, David Cronenberg asserted that he was not interested in gore, but rather imagery that could only be shown in the horror genre – like the tumour firing ‘cancer gun’ in Videodrome (Cronenberg, it seems, has gone back on this stance in favour of middle-class respectability). One of the things that impressed me the most about Possession was how Żuławski did not ‘suggest’ the monster (as Polanski did in Rosemary’s Baby), but rather showed it in its slimy, tentacled glory.
Towards the end of the 1990s, the French magazine Starfix asked a number of directors to list their films of the 1980s. Żuławski’s list included:
All That Jazz
Fanny and Alexander
Two trends can be discerned: first, take The Shining, The Thing and Blade Runner – three films that were marketed as genre films, but whose beauty, initial commercial failure and current ‘classic’ status rest in the fact that they are – like Possession – anything but formulaic; second, All That Jazz, Fanny and Alexander and Platoon are rooted in personal experience – but in each case Fosse, Bergman and Stone take what could have been mere memoir material to the realm of cinema. All That Jazz and Fanny and Alexander are not just honest and painful – they are also fantastic and, in the case of Platoon, hallucinatory. Żuławski’s list is of films that, like his own, all in some way ‘pierce reality’.
I have no problem with the word ‘genre’. Genre just means category. The novel is a genre, as distinct from poetry. The Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin wrote about how the ‘novel genre’ was rooted in banter, gossip and jokes of the market place as opposed to the sombre, authority of, say, a church sermon. By the same logic, a feature film is a genre in itself, period. However, when the ‘tropes’ that define that category become prescriptive, then the result is familiarity, boredom and apathy. Another Russian, the critic Viktor Shklovsky, wrote about how the job of the artist was to come up with a device that made the familiar seem strange. The ‘strangeness’ sets our brain a challenge, and the process of dealing with it is engaging – not just on an intellectual level, but an emotional one too (see Ben Wheatley’s ‘horror’ films – Kill List, Sightseers, A Field in England). Take The Thing – the Howard Hawks original is a respected, but ultimately hokey ‘man in a suit’ affair. In Carpenter’s version, however, all bets were off: anything could be the thing; we, as viewers, had to readjust to this – the result was something very disturbing indeed. In Possession, Żuławski made a marital breakdown ‘strange’ by showing ‘the horror’ – this was not Scenes from a Marriage – it was something else. Let us not forget that Bergman also turned to the fantastic (The Hour of the Wolf – a film that would make a great double bill with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). The monster in Possession (like the thing in Carpenter’s film) is incredibly poetic in the sense that it conjures up intense emotions through imagery – not unlike Kafka’s cockroach in his short story, ‘The Metamorphosis’.
Kafka frequently wrote stories about animals, but Disney is never going to pick up the rights from the Max Brod estate. The problem, for me, begins with the culture of ‘pitching’ ideas. Frederic Tuten, the co-writer of Possession, once told me an anecdote about a friend who was commissioned to write a script for ‘Jaws in Venice’. Tuten said that while the idea is ridiculous – the juxtaposition of those two elements – a killer shark and urban canals – conjures up an idea that can be, above all else, sold. The problem with such pitches is that they are often reductive and restrictive. Yes, Anna Karenina is ‘about a woman who is unfaithful’ – but it is also so much more. Similarly, Possession is not just ‘about a woman who fucks an octopus’. To pigeonhole Possession as a genre film is to go into the film wearing blinkers. Genre elements are often a disguise, like masks worn during a carnival (see Dostoevsky – whose stories all feature ‘crimes’ but could in no way be confused with episodes of C.S.I. – although it might be interesting to see Crime and Punishment in the style of C.S.I. , just as The Idiot could easily be recast as a love triangle between a geek, a jock and a cheerleader). To only see the mask and not sense what the mask is hiding is to lose out on what makes a film special. The ‘genre mask’ in itself is not interesting. Rather, it is a prop in the game of cinema, which itself is a reflection on life.