Bring Me the Head of Henry Jenkins… (Part Two)

Yesterday, I began the strange saga of how a prosthesis of my head ended up in a glass case in an art gallery in New York City. If you missed that post, you probably want to go back and read it, since the rest of this will make even less sense than usual otherwise.

Some months later, I was sent several pictures of the people on the set of the movie, interacting with my decapitated head, including filling it with blood and guts needed for the gross out elements of the film. I have to say that there’s something uncanny about seeing your head oozing blood onto the asphalt, even if, as many people have pointed out, there isn’t that strong a resemblance to me in the end.

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Once they were done making the movie, the head found its way into the art exhibition and it has been touring galleries in both Europe and North America. I still haven’t seen it myself but I have talked to a number of people who have. And I have started to encounter some of the other “body parts” as I travel around the conference circuit. So far, I have met an arm and a leg.


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My head is a featured attraction in the press release for the exhibit:

For the creation of The Violence of Theory, 2006 Jankowski set out to find a horror production interested in collaboration and discovered filmmakers in the early stages of filming a straight-to-DVD werewolf movie. By bringing professional CGI studio effects and custom-made horror prosthetics to the bargaining table, Jankowski negotiated a new film project within their production.

Jankowski scoured the film’s script and located the pivotal moments in which the characters, in the vernacular typical of the genre, undergo fantastic transformations or meet their untimely demise. He then intervened into the script with quoted observations on the philosophy and nature of horror generated from conversations with high-profile academics and cultural historians working in the field. Each actor was paired with a theorist “alter-ego,” and while their character’s actions remain identical to the original script, surprising phrases emerge without warning: seconds before being devoured, one victim protests, “Cannibalism is not attractive, it is repulsive… but there may be an attraction to that repulsion. I once lost a piece of skin from my big toe and roasted it to see what it tastes like. It didn’t taste good, but I was curious.” (Linda Williams, Professor of Film Studies and Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley) In another scene the werewolf wonders aloud, “If the horror film looks dead, horror is alive and well. It is precisely the seemingly tired genre elements that, when combined in new configurations, like bits of DNA, produce new and powerful monsters, which, much like Frankenstein’s monster, acquire a life of their own and develop in ways that no-one can predict.” (Marc Jancovich, Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of East Anglia)

Jankowski has also fabricated prosthetic body parts from the same theorists and critical thinkers who supplied the quotations. While these lines will most likely only make it in the art piece, the prosthetics will remain in the final version that is distributed to 9,000 Blockbuster Video stores; the decapitated head of Henry Jenkins, Director of Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, will roll across countless television screens throughout the United States. In both the film and the accompanying sculptures shown in the exhibition, the surreal intervention of the theorists destabilises the viewer’s sense of reality and adds a macabre comic dimension while simultaneously presenting philosophical discourses relating to the horror genre. The Violence of Theory works in that place between loving the visceral experience of horror and trying to make sense of it through words.

I recently had a chance to see the more experimental film that emerged from this process, Lycan Theorized. It is a curious work — one where characters spout some of the most arcane theoretical prose before getting hacked to bits by the monster, thus giving new meaning to the concept of deconstruction. My lines were given to a beefy thug who tries to battle the werewolf with a chain and ends up loosing his head. (indeed, the head used in the film looks much more like him than like me, though people have said that the one in the display case bears an uncanny resemblence to moi.)

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His bosom companion is mouthing lines from Vivan Sobchack who donated the impression of her leg to the cause. (Ironically, Vivian already has a prosthetic leg. They wanted to create a prosthesis of a prosthesis but she’s pretty protective of her leg for good reason, given it is very expensive, as she explained in one of her essays.) Much of the dialog in the film is incomprehensible — removed from the context of the original theoretical works being quoted — I won’t comment on whether some of those works were comprehensible to begin with. I felt proud that my lines sort of made sense even in this context, given how much work I put into trying to make theory more accessible.

What follows is the transcript of the interview I did with Jankowski about my perspective on the horror film. The quotes used in the movie have been underlined.

What is the origin of your own interest in the horror genre?

Horror was a very active presence in my boyhood. My friends and I stayed up late to watch Creature Features on television. We read monster magazines and built Aurora models of the classic Universal monsters. We had haunted house themed birthday parties and would play around with stage makeup trying to make ourselves look like Frankenstein, Wolfman or Dracula. I would beg my father to take me to the drive in to see Roger Corman movies and I would fall asleep on his shoulders almost as soon as I arrived, knowing he would recount the plots to me the next day. More than anything, I wanted to buy a movie camera so I could make my own monster movies. We used to practice the various walks — the stiff leged straight armed Frankenstein walk, the Mummy shuffle, and the Wolfman Limp, basically inspired as much from the poses of the monster models as anything else. I used to pray for nightmares just so I could spend more time in the company of vampires and werewolves. I have written very little about horror as an adult — I do teach a class from time to time — but I find that I still get really worked up just thinking about what a hold it took on my boyhood imagination.

What are is the most relevant or interesting question(s) to be addressed right now in the field?

Horror is such a disreputable genre, yet it is also the space where we explore some of the most disturbing elements in our own culture. Right now, our horror films seem to be circling around issues of torture and terror — a perfect counter to the culture’s own preoccupation with such matters since 9/11. A film like United 93 has to be handled with such kid gloves, while a film like Saw and its sequels can just get dumped into the theatres with no fanfare.

Horror right now is also so connected to questions of globalization. We have all of these horror films arriving from Japan — in some cases directly, in other cases remade for an American audience. I will never forget the first time I watched a Japanese horror film. it was like riding a roller coaster blindfolded. I had no idea where it was going to take me. I didn’t know where the rails were or when it was going to pull away from a controversial topic. It got under my skin in a way few other films do.

Beyond that, I think horror ups the ante about the relationship of low culture and high culture. It is a site of constant experimentation, often racing above the most extreme avant garde artists, and it is a space where the most radical ways of seeing the world can be accepted. It is at the same time a space where emotional intensity is the primary criteria of evaluation and therefore where there is no patience for the various postures of distance which shape high art discourse.

How does idea theft play a role in horror film? Is authorship important?

I think the relationship between genre and authorship is key here. Most of the core elements of horror are positively archiac — they go back to our oldest stories, our most primitive beliefs, our basic folk traditions. At the same time, to work, the films have to make these elements relevant for a contemporary viewer. They have to work through our resistance, overcome our rationality, get us to believe in the boogeyman again, or at least to suspend our disbelief long enough to get swept up in the show.

Increasingly, horror films also build on other horror films. They assume that the modern viewer has seen many such films before, that they know they are watching a film, and even the characters in the film seem to know we are watching a film. So there’s plenty of room here for pastiche, for spoof, and for homage to earlier works. At the same time, the space demands innovation and experimentation. If it is all the same old, same old, it doesn’t have the necessary emotional impact. So it is always looking for artists with a fresh perspective, a new way of looking at the old elements, and it is very kind to kooks and goof balls. It is where the avant garde meets popular culture.

What do you think about the theft of “low culture,” or a trashy aesthetic, by “high culture”?

The word, theft, here is problematic in both cases. Let’s think of it as a dialog or exchange. High and popular artists borrow from each other all of the time. The popular artists are looking for something fresh which will revitalize the tired old formulas; the high culture artists are looking for something intense which will cut through the intellectual anemia which surrounds the art world at the present time. They are both looking for something that will shock and provoke. And so they end up borrowing constantly from each other. The popular artists borrows avant garde formal elements and weaves them into their genre formulas, where they become signs of madness or the supernatural. The high culture artists borrows shocking elements from popular culture, often slowing them down and flattening out their affective impact so we can contemplate them as things of beauty in their own terms. Or at least that’s what I discovered in looking at the work of Matthew Barney.

What is your stance on horror fan culture?

Horror produces its own intelligensia — people in the know, people committed to archiving its past, annotating its present, and analyzing seemingly every frame. I don’t see such people as blood-thirsty fiends. They are perhaps even less likely to commit violent acts than the next guy. They do look at horror with an aesthetic sensibility. They can look at creatures who provoke horror and experience desire or empathy. They can look at things which some would find horrific or ugly and see there their own kind of beauty. They can move past what is represented to explore how it is represented and thus they develop a technical vocabulary to talk about make-up and special effects.