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Living Things (13:36, 2013)

Initial response: 

Tom Grochowski, MFA, Ph.D. St. Joseph College, NY

Jeremy Newman’s 2013 short collage film Living Things incorporates footage and audio tracks from about a dozen or so sources, mainly B-grade sci-fi movies and science-related educational films, and mostly from the early Cold War era. Newman mixes sound and image in creative ways, so that the audio track of one film will be playing over images from a different one, including some original footage Newman apparently shot. (This original footage, in my view, doesn’t really add much to his point, but more on that later.) The film’s premise is to offer a critique of the representations of gender and science in these films, connecting them to Cold War politics with very brief clips of Truman and McCarthy.

One of the most compelling aspects of Living Things is its argument connecting the quest for scientific mastery over (Mother) Nature with male desire. The footage from the B movies is interspersed with, among other footage, shots of women paraded as objects “to be looked at” (as Laura Mulvey famously put it) and shots of male/female dating/pickup rituals from the fifties and early sixties. To master Nature – to challenge the aging process, for example, or to transplant a head onto another’s body – is to control it, to possess it. Watching the film for the first time brought to my mind Nathaniel Hawthorne’s proto-science fiction story “The Birthmark,” where a brilliant scientist (a master of what was called in the Romantic age “natural philosophy”) seeks to remove an unusually-shaped birthmark on his otherwise “perfect” wife’s cheek. His obsession with removing this imperfection leads him to develop a powerful potion that ultimately removes the mark but takes her life. Hawthorne’s tale is one of several from that age that offer caution to those who would use science to “play God” – the most famous fictional character of that era being Victor Frankenstein – but “The Birthmark” is very much rooted in the relationship between gender and science. It is the scientist who sees his wife’s birthmark as Nature’s imperfection – others have simply described it as a “charm” – and when she ultimately agrees to subject herself to his experiments, he arranges for her to move into rooms nearer to his laboratory. She is literally carried over the threshold into his territory, where she can be subjected to the same scrutiny as other living things on whom he plans to test his potion.

The desire for knowledge is an erotic impulse (“carnal knowledge”). The story of the apple in Genesis is a parable on the relationship between knowledge and sexual awareness; for Oedipus, to know the truth of his past is to learn of his crimes of murder and incest – and it is when he learns it that he gouges out his eyes. In many western languages, the phrase “I see” can mean, “I comprehend.” The arrival of film near the end of the nineteenth-century only further reinforced that seeing/knowing dynamic.

Cinema, especially the cinematic spectator, has long been theorized in terms of the scopophilc drive, the eroticism of watching without being seen. (In the age of Classical Hollywood, that drive was best thematized by Hitchcock in many of his films, most famously in Rear Window and most disturbingly in Vertigo.) Early cinema spectatorship included peep-shows. Muybridge’s photographic experiments in “locomotion” involved naked human subjects, mostly (though not exclusively) female. In the first half-century of cinema, narratives of science borrowed heavily from the Romantic age, with direct adaptations like Whale’s Frankenstein and Florey’s curious adaptation of Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which turned the tale of two gruesome (but in actuality, accidental) deaths into the result of a mad scientist’s experiment, loosely along the lines of Wells’s Dr. Moreau. (The mad scientist in The Murders in the Rue Morgue is played by the most iconic of all the Draculas, Bela Lugosi.) Films of the postwar period featured a new scientific danger; where the Romantic age seemed especially obsessed with the power of electricity to animate dead tissue, the postmodern age offered cautionary tales of tapping into the power of the atom.

Curiously, Newman’s film, despite using so much footage from the Cold War, largely ignores the fears concerning atomic science. Given that so many fifties science fiction films were about the horrific effects of radiation on living things (I’ve never quite got over the terror/thrill of Them!, Warner Brothers’ speculation on the effects of atomic-bomb-test radiation on ants), the film doesn’t address this effect at all, though it does at one comic point show us a mushroom cloud. Then again, most of those films don’t concern themselves directly with the science/gender nexus. (Implicitly, perhaps, as is the case with the female entomologist played by Joan Weldon in Them!, whose scientific knowledge is crucial to the male authorities’ ability to defeat the irradiated, giant ants but who also screams helplessly in the manner of Fay Wray.) But Newman’s film offers us a smaller slice of the overall science fiction pie, a reasonable decision for a film runs just under fourteen minutes.

What still seems to me an odd decision, even after watching the film a dozen times, is the brief incorporation of new material. Shots of a babbling brook, of a frog in a similar setting, of two humans walking “in nature”: they seem very unnecessary. When we first see the female walking in nature, the educational film voiceover speaks about the importance of the “sex urges” that keep populations growing; shots of the woman alternate with old footage clearly meant to mock the “educational” tone of the voiceover: showgirls, guys in a college dorm pantomiming the female shape, and a strange public exhibition of a man painting birds on a woman’s white dress. As we hear one of the B movie scientists speak about getting closer to unlocking the secrets of nature, Newman shows us footage of a male figure reaching up to take an apple off a tree. The use of this new footage wavers between the incongruous and the obvious, and I find it ultimately distracting.

I’d like to finish my remarks by asking our roundtable participants a question: given the way that Newman’s film takes the footage from several sources and rips them out of their contexts, does it make sense for us – or at least, me – to try and refer back to those contexts as a means of criticizing Newman’s work? Not knowing what anyone will answer, I’m going to shoot first and offer my criticism based on those films’ contexts. The three central B movies from which Newman pulls are The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, Wasp Woman, and Shock. All three films feature scientists who “do science” on females, but the narrative contexts are not the same. Shock is especially out of place, since it is really not a science fiction film at all, but a psychological crime thriller; the “mad scientist” is really a psychiatrist whose use of “insulin shock therapy” is merely a ruse to get rid of the only witness to have seen him murder his wife. While the film’s narrative may feature male domination, that domination has nothing to do with scientific mastery.

The other two films are a little more closely related to each other and to the thesis of Newman’s film. The plot of Wasp Woman is connected to the desire to use science to uncover the secrets of youth, though the ultimate impetus is as much connected to capitalist interests as scientific ones. The Brain That Wouldn’t Die concerns a scientist of ethically questionable reputation whose bizarre experiments reach their apex when he uses his scientific prowess to treat the woman he loves (much like the scientist-hero of the Hawthorne tale). Both feature the creation of female monsters, monsters created as the result of the scientific endeavor, but it’s worth noting the difference in each film: in The Wasp Woman, the scientist who is trying to extract enzymes from the royal jelly of the queen wasp in the belief that these enzymes can reverse the aging process does not have any real agency. He is employed by a honey farm and fired because of his experiments, and he is only able to continue his work when the founder of a cosmetics manufacturer agrees to fund his experiments – her motivations are personal and financial: the company’s sales are flagging because the aging mogul/model is no longer a convincing “face” of the company. She seeks to reverse the aging process for personal and financial gain, and while the footage Newman uses shows the scientist working with the mogul, in the broader narrative, it is the executive, desperate to turn back the clock, who actually injects herself with the experimental serum without any supervision, and without learning of the side effects the scientist discovers on his animal test subjects. As a result of her self-injection, she occasionally transforms into a wasp, and must ultimately be killed. While one might argue that the executive is a “victim” of the ideologically driven standards of female beauty, and, like the scientist’s wife in “The Birthmark,” willingly assents to altering her features along male-driven social relations, Newman’s film hardly seems so subtle as that.

Artist’s Statement

Living Things critiques the depiction of gender and science in Cold War era B-movies. In these films, women are victimized as science goes horribly awry. Yet, representational violence is veiled by absurdity. This experimental video highlights the cultural anxieties, shifting gender roles and scientific progress, which fostered these representations.

I intercut original digital video with appropriated clips from films such as Shock (1946), The Wasp Woman (1959), and *The Brain That Wouldn’t Die** (1962) to create a layered narrative. Primarily, digital video introduces visual motifs that ground the story in universal themes. This symbolism ranges from the biblical tree of knowledge to an earth mother figure that embodies fertility. My color footage also provides a contrast to the appropriated black-and-white clips, enabling me to incorporate visual textures and patterns.

In these Cold War era B-movies, America’s fledgling suburban lifestyle is threatened by destabilized gender roles and unrestrained scientific advancement. These films are cautionary tales that meld superstition and representational violence, depicting women as human guinea pigs. A psychiatrist in Shock uses insulin shock therapy to torment a war veteran’s wife. The Wasp Woman features a cosmetics innovation that transforms an aging woman into a deadly wasp. A surgeon keeps his wife’s severed head alive against her will, as he stalks potential body donors, in The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.

On the surface, mad doctors subjugate women through quasi-scientific experiments. Yet, I subvert these depictions with archival film clips that illustrate the socio-political sphere. For instance, Shopping Center & Supermarket (1958) and Fashion on Parade (1930s-1960s) promote consumerism and beauty ideals. Hygiene for Women (1964) advocates marriage and parenthood as the “desirable pattern.” History of U.S. Foreign Relations (1940s-1970s) reinforces the implied relationship between war and madness.

The representational violence in Shock, The Wasp Woman, and The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is often obscured by melodrama. In addition, these films escape critical attention due to their secondary economic status and inferior production values. Living Things is a theoretical work that interrogates these texts by situating them in new representational patterns.

About the Author: 

Tom Grochowski has published on topics ranging from Woody Allen, Sex and the City, the Marx Brothers, and web sites devoted to the O.J. Simpson murder trial. His most recent article, ” ‘The Poo Quotient Needs to be higher’: Horrible Histories and the Carnival of Children’s Television Programming,” was published in the 2016 anthology Children’s and Young Adult Literature: A Mosaic of Criticism, ed. Amie Doughty (Cambridge Scholars Publishing). He currently teaches American Literature, film, and media studies at St. Joseph’s College, where he Associate Chair of the Department of English. He is currently on the MAPACA advisory board. He earned his PhD from New York University’s Department of Cinema Studies; he also holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College, where he studied with Allen Ginsberg. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife two daughters, and dog.

Volume 1, Issue 2

Features in this issue

IN REVIEW: The War Game Files

Kevin M. Flanagan, Ph.D.
University of Pittsburgh
From the Editors: June 2017

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