One is always considered mad when one perfects something that others cannot grasp.
As a body of work, the films of Edward D. Wood, Jr., virtually defy classification. Wood's career output included exploitation films, short subjects, industrial films, commercials, pornography, and unproduced screenplays, as well as various forays into sf. Yet even at an individual level, several of Wood's best–known films elude our grasp in terms of genre: Bride of the Monster (aka, Bride of the Atom, 1955) freely traverses the borders between sf and horror; and recent criticism has noted the avant–garde qualities evident in Wood's sf opus Plan 9 from Outer Space (1956, released 1959), as well as the exploitation film Glen or Glenda? (1953). As this volume's topic suggests, such blurring of borders is central to sf and “cult” films alike, resulting in the frequent overlapping of the two categories, as Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space and Bride of the Monster well illustrate. While known primarily for their cult status, these films abound in sf iconography and thematics—with their flying saucers and intergalactic intelligences, mad scientists and mutant creatures, and ruminations on the use of advanced technology. Even Glen or Glenda?, while not quite sf, features a subplot devoted to the then–revolutionary medical procedures involved in sex–change operations, combined with the psychological aspects of its characters’ transgendered experiences.
In addition to blurring generic boundaries, as Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik point out, cult films often challenge the distinctions between innovation and “badness,” between high and low culture, between acceptable and forbidden subject matter (2–3). As a result, our experience of the cult is frequently marked by confusion: a confusion not only of categories, but also of response (De Seife 2). Are we to be repelled by these films, elated by them, or both? In Wood's case, are we to regard him as a misunderstood auteur (even, perhaps, an accidental artist of the avant–garde), or do we merely dismiss him as one of the “worst” directors of all time?
The “badness” attributed to Wood's films may be seen as a hallmark of cult cinema, yet their almost gleeful silliness stands in marked contrast to Wood's apparently serious aims.
The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.
Despite all you may have heard to the contrary, the rain in Spain stays almost invariably in the hills.
This book derives from my readings from the field of cultural geography in an attempt to reflect on the terrain of the entity known as Spain, through the prism of my scholarly interest in contemporary Spanish cinematic and literary texts. A further motivation is the difficulties I and others wrestle with in Hispanic Studies as we try to investigate questions bounded by an idea of nation, in an era when the whole notion of a nation is open to dispute and indeed discredit. Some scholars now talk of an era of ‘post-nationalism’ and sometimes by implication post-nation-ism, but the concept of nation, including that of the Spanish nation, still has some currency. As Joan Ramon Resina puts it, ‘political subjects themselves continue to correlate with their national foundation in ways that cannot simply be bracketed out of the political discourse’ (Resina 2002: 377); the same could be said of cultural discourse as well. To take just one example, the field of Spanish film studies increasingly encounters difficulties over the now strongly questioned concept of a Spanish national cinema as if the latter simply reproduced an essential, authentic Spain within its films and were impervious to outside influence. Guarding against the impulse to be normative as to what Spanish cinema is has proved vital, particularly in an era of co-production and the ever-pervasive influence of American cinema (as first among other cinemas), but it does then raise questions as to what Spanish cinema actually is, and also it complicates the process of writing about the topic while trying to pick one's way through a normative minefield. I have great difficulties with the idea of a cultural text simply acting as a surface which we can scrape away to find an essential Spain underneath, thus the avoidance of essentialism in Spanish film studies as well as Spanish cultural studies more widely is something I find welcome; but it sometimes conflicts with not only my desire but my academic responsibility to write about something called ‘Spain’.
You wanted to blow other people's minds and you wanted to blow your own.
The 1970s represent one of the great transitional periods for Hollywood, producing an increasingly independent and confrontational approach to cinema in terms of both narrative content and aesthetic display. Film–makers sought to break violently with film–making conventions by reimaging genre tropes through a more visceral and realistic style, challenging audiences with graphic, nihilistic, and often brutal imagery. Thus, John Carpenter, director of The Thing (1982), confesses that he “wanted something savage to happen. I don't believe I could do that now. I don't believe they'd let me do that,” while David Cronenberg explains that he “wanted to blow other people's minds” (both qtd in The American Nightmare). This attitude was particularly apparent within film genres as they were being reimagined in this period. For instance, the western The Wild Bunch (1969), the outlaw film Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and the gangster film The Godfather (1972) all featured dramatic shootouts in which the bodies of protagonists were riddled with bullets in an orgy of bloodletting and violence. Similarly, big budget Hollywood horror films were reworking their scare tactics through visual display and special effects, both The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976) featuring regular and escalating set pieces in which the body comes under brutal attack by the devil and his minions. Nowhere was this emphasis on graphic imagery—defined by John McCarty as “splatter”—felt more keenly than in the arena of independent exploitation or underground cinema. McCarty argues that splatter cinema is a type of film whose aim was “not to scare their audiences, necessarily, nor to drive them to the edges of their seats in suspense, but to mortify them with scenes of explicit gore. In splatter movies, mutilation is indeed the message” (1).
While we most commonly associate splatter with horror, many of the era's exploitation film–makers were increasingly rethinking the nature of genre, blurring the lines not only between art and exploitation, but between sf and horror. Splatter especially served to reimagine sf within the context of increasingly independent modes of film production and a growing cult audience.
Decades ago, fans were usually adults who had the economic and social liberty of going to conventions or clubs. Recently, the discourse on fandom has become entwined with that on new media audiences, who are not only portrayed as younger, but also seen as especially exemplary of fandom in terms of their online activity. As a result of the increase in online participatory culture, criticism has followed suit, often focusing more on the “online” than the “offline” dimensions of fandom. However, concerts, conventions, movie theaters, and fan clubs remain relevant sites where media fandom is performed today, and these venues are especially revealing for the study of both cult and sf, one of the media genres in which cult texts have most flourished. In fact, only offline, amongst those who embody the enthusiasm of cult activity, can the scholar witness the key role that intimacy plays in enabling and characterizing the typical cult audience and cult relationship.
Academic commentary has often defined cult texts in relation to their media fandom and the intense and critical commitment of their audiences (Mathijs and Sexton 17–18). These definitions of cult reception echo the social and affective patterns that are often mentioned as characteristics of fandom (see Grossberg; Fiske, Understanding; Jenkins, Textual Poachers). Of course, differentiating between the fan and the cultist is problematic, since both are adoring, active audiences, but two differences are especially noteworthy here. First, while fandom of movies and television series is historically grounded and organized, for instance through early fan magazines and clubs, cult largely emerged in the 1970s and ties viewers to a critical discourse and a vintage identity of that era (Mathijs and Sexton 3). Cult fans invest in specialized media texts and knowledge (Abercrombie and Longhurst 138–39), and by defining their tastes as oppositional from the mainstream, they maintain a sense of distinction (Mathijs and Mendik 2). Second, academic studies on fanship have differentiated fans from other audiences through their productivity (see Fiske's “Cultural Economy”). In their creative fan practices, fans rework, extend, and appropriate popular culture through creative writing, costumes, fan art, and other activities (Jenkins, Textual Poachers). While cultists are recognizable through their knowledge practices, media fans seek to deepen the text through transformation.
Cult and sf are both categories that suggest a skewed perspective on reality. Jeffrey Sconce uses the term “paracinema” to denote this different perspective, as he describes cult and other kinds of “bad” cinema that are often appreciated, ironically, for their deviation from—perhaps resistance to—dominant aesthetic codes. Sconce maintains that the resulting celebration of such “trash” is a rejection of the hegemony of academic film criticism, championing the trashy as “a final textual frontier that exists beyond the colonizing powers of the academy, and thus serves as a staging ground for strategic raids on legitimate culture and its institutions by those (temporarily) lower in educational, cultural and/or economic capital” (382). Through much of its history, sf has been similarly regarded. In Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, Darko Suvin calls it a “paraliterature” (vii) but celebrates its promise to interrogate dominant ideological codes that pass, unquestioned, as natural and apolitical in realist modes of representation. While Sconce's and Suvin's analyses of such different perspectives emphasize their foregrounding of class issues, this essay will focus on gender in the intersection of cult and sf. Both cult and sf have often been regarded as masculine forms, and the pleasures of excess that cult films celebrate often include the visual pleasures of scantily clad female bodies, images frequently associated with pulp sf's lurid magazine covers of the 1920s and 1930s. Yet sf also has a rich history of interrogating gender attitudes, using images such as aliens to express and examine patriarchal fears.
This essay explores cult's claims to transgression in this context of gender difference, focusing on a number of low–budget sf films of the 1950s and 1960s that have attained cult status, including Cat–Women of the Moon (1953), Devil Girl from Mars (1954), The Astounding She–Monster (1957), Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), The Wasp Woman (1959), Monstrosity (aka The Atomic Brain, 1963), Attack of the Puppet People (1957), and The Brain that Wouldn't Die (1962). I argue that these films demonstrate a dialectic of indulgence and critique that characterizes cult sf's treatment of gender difference, revealing how such difference—as well as differences in educational, cultural, or economic capital—informs the “raid” on legitimate culture that such films stage.
Spanish cinema has for many decades maintained a vein of film-making known as cine social, films that attempt to deal with social problems in a realist style; and this vein persists today even in an era when scholars and critics of Spanish film acknowledge a move towards more commercially orientated film-making that emphasises narrative and spectacle. Indeed, some film-makers have combined the two, with Benito Zambrano's Solas (Alone, 2000), for instance, blending a sentimental tale of family and quasi-family relationships with a study of alcoholism and domestic abuse; or Alejandro Amenábar's Mar adentro (The Sea Inside, 2004), a biopic cashing in on the director's previous commercial successes that nonetheless raises the question of assisted euthanasia and a person's right to die. Similar phenomena occur when it comes to depicting the question of immigration. As Isabel Santaolalla has observed in her book Los ‘otros’ (Santaolalla 2005: chap. 1), race and ethnicity have been underlying preoccupations of some areas of Spanish film-making for many decades: nonetheless, depictions of immigration in particular have become prominent in the last two decades. This responds to wider concerns in contemporary Spanish society about immigration, particularly from the African coast, a concern exacerbated recently by the increasing influx of people trying to get to Spain from Africa and media coverage of both the human cost of this influx and the political conflicts engendered by the phenomenon within the Spanish communities most affected. Most commentators on these films foreground race and immigration as their primary point of interest. My approach here is slightly different, since, in keeping with the overall tenor of this book, I am incorporating questions of landscape, space and place into the equation: I am looking at the ways in which questions of national and ethnic identity come to interact with notions of Spanishness related to space. What I will argue is that the spatial interaction of Spaniards with North African immigrants not only problematises the claim of Spaniards to the territory but also the very filmic representation of the landscape and more particularly of the immigrant. Yet the very contestation over territory invokes a call to care on the part both of the Spaniard and of the immigrant: both desire to associate with an idea of ‘Spain’.
One of the purposes of this book has been to reinvigorate the meaning of the word Spain as a term of more than simple convenience for academics. What that term means, of course, is another matter altogether. Given the case studies outlined here, the term resonates in different and often opposing ways. While both the films of del Toro and the novels of Torrente Ballester look to recover a Spain apparently lost, the Spains they imagine to be lost are very different, as are the reasons why recuperation is desirable. As regards the Basque Country, considered in Chapter 4, there are landscape traditions used to figure a different space wherein Spain may be resisted but must nonetheless be taken into account. The Spain stitched together through a restoration of the law of the land appears different depending on whether you are a local man taking on international crime lords and a corrupt local government or a woman juggling the spaces of work and home in a city. The porousness of borders can affect home life very differently if you are earning money through catering to foreign tastes for Spain as exotic and pleasurable, or if you feel threatened – or attracted – by the thought of foreigners coming to share your space on a more permanent basis. The explicitness of these characters’ commitment to Spain varies, too. While in the earlier chapters an avowed struggle for a certain sort of Spain – or, indeed, against a certain sort of Spain – takes place, in later chapters characters are more likely to prioritise personal over patriotic concerns.
What all these chapters have in common, however, is their invocation, either explicitly or implicitly, of Spain through their interaction with landscape, space and place: it is the last that assists us in the perception of Spain as being evoked. This use of landscape, space and place is another crucial element of what I have wished to explore here. As I noted in the Introduction, the examination of these in Hispanic studies is beginning to develop; but the purpose of this particular analysis has been more precisely to attempt to tease out how Spain as a concept is seen explicitly or implicitly by subjects by means of landscape, space and place.
This chapter and the next consider the links between the law and national identity, as further examples of the ways in which a notion of nation can trace itself through space and place. Space is one of the ideas listed by Tim Edensor in his discussion of the imbrications of legal frameworks, national identities and everyday life. ‘In a very practical sense, national identity is facilitated by the state's legislative framework, which delimits and regulates the practices in which people can partake, the spaces in which they are permitted to move, and in many other ways provides a framework for quotidian experience’ (Edensor 2002: 20). But more particularly space and place can become sites wherein the law is actively carried out (or, also, actively broken): the law is not simply an implicit shaper of daily experiences but something overtly manifested and displayed through policing and through criminal activity. And, as we shall see, the law is one manifestation of national identity, although not an unproblematic one precisely because the law and its policing by definition imply the possibility that the law can be broken and thus the link between law and nation fractured. But if the law is to this extent always provisional, it nonetheless offers the opportunity for the national to trace itself through textual space and place. The idea of the law, either broken or reinstated as part of the Spanish thriller, calls up once more Rose's desire for association and space and place as the means whereby we see that desire. The law's constant re-making and re-breaking, and its link to national identity, suggest once more a Spain always in the process of becoming.
The texts I will be considering in this chapter are Spanish thriller films, a genre which at first glance does not fit neatly into definitions of Spanish national cinema; and it is worth pausing to dwell a little on why this should be so before evoking the use of space and place in these films more directly. The difficulties can be illustrated by the example of the very successful debut film by Alejandro Amenábar, Tesis (Thesis, 1995).
If landscape, space and place can be used as a way of seeing past traumas and the way in which they haunt the present, they can also be used to see present traumas, too. One of the most enduring legacies of Franco's dictatorship is the sometimes violent struggle over the political position of the Basque Country, in the north of the Iberian peninsula: although the roots of the Basque nationalist movement promoting greater autonomy or outright independence from Spain go further back in time than the Franco period, the dictatorship added a new edge to calls for a recognition of the Basque Country as a nation, since Francoist ideology opposed any expression of regional identity that might presuppose a national identity separate from that of Spain. Franco believed that Spain should be kept whole, united and indivisible. The Basque Country was not alone in suffering political and cultural repression as a result – Catalonia and Galicia, the other familiar ‘historical nationalities’ of Spain, also saw their cultural and political freedoms severely curtailed – but only in the Basque Country did local reaction amount to a sustained campaign of violent rebellion, now commonly recognised in the democratic era as terrorist.
My purpose in this chapter is to consider Rose's call to care in the light not only of the ongoing political conflict but also of a well established landscape tradition in the Basque Country that itself is closely bound up with Basque nationalist ideas and ideologies, although not necessarily synonymous with them. Landscape, space and place can be redolent of nationalism as well as nation, as is exemplified by the link commonly made between rural and mountainous landscape and Basque nationalism. This chapter first explores how this link plays out in films that deal with the Basque nationalist struggle and the ways in which landscape, space and place are used. It begins by considering the relation of landscape to debate about the Basque situation in Julio Medem's La pelota vasca: la piel contra la piedra (Basque Ball: Skin Against Stone, 2003).
Spain has functioned as a tourist location for outsiders for at least the past two centuries. In the nineteenth century Frenchmen found Spain convivial as the primitive other next door, conveniently just the other side of the Pyrenees but allowing an escape, for a time, from the constraints of polite French society. This included a form of sex tourism, or at the very least an appreciation of maidens duskier than those to be found in France. Joseba Gabilondo observes that in the nineteenth century ‘Southern Europe, in continuation with the lower classes of most Northern European countries and cities, becomes the field in which heterosexuality is “tried out” and learned by young bourgeois men, so as to implement it later back home with women of their same class’ (Gabilondo 2008: 21). Spanish women thus come to represent a sexualised exotic other that nonetheless includes a show of freedom or agency, as Gabilondo goes on to note, ‘The orientalized “independence” of the Spanish woman becomes the sign of her “other sexuality” that is “before” and “outside” French bourgeois heterosexuality’ (ibid.: 27).
One of the most famous outputs of this vein is of course Prosper Mérimée's novella ‘Carmen’ of 1845, which in turn formed the basis of Bizet's opera of 1875: from there the portrait of a free-spirited, fickle and sexually desirable young Gypsy woman became known worldwide (spawning in her turn myriad interpretations of her story: see Powrie at al. 2007). Mérimée's original story included a framing device of the French narrator travelling and researching in Spain, who meets Carmen's lover and nemesis don José. The latter relates Carmen's story which then forms part of the narrator's musings on Gypsy society. Don José is himself a Northerner, from Navarre or the Basque Country, experiencing southern Spain for the first time when he is posted there as a soldier. Thus Carmen is seen as the object of a tourist's gaze on more than one level; or, indeed, we replace the tourist with our own gaze, adopting that of Mérimée's original traveller. What is perhaps less well known is that Spain has taken some pains to resist this figuration.
In 2009, several friends recommended that I see District 9, a new film produced by Peter Jackson and directed by the hitherto unknown Neill Blomkamp. They knew that since I was something of a missionary for cyberpunk and avant–pop texts, I would appreciate this film, an unlikely export from South Africa that had quickly attracted a cult following. They were right. Blomkamp's ideas and shocking images immediately reminded me of Shinya Tsukamoto's cyberpunk Tetsuo films (Tetsuo: The Iron Man, 1988, and Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, 1992) which had inspired me to write my first book, Full Metal Apache (2006). However, after seeing District 9 again, I realized that my first reading was a bit one–dimensional, and I became convinced that this cult film offered significant insight not only into the history of sf film, but also the cultural history—and contributions—of sf itself. At first glance, and like many other films with a cult reputation, District 9 seems very cheaply done, a seemingly slight, even offhand work. However, that simple low–budget appearance masks an incredible narrative complexity and challenging cultural commentary. This essay explores how that combination of simplicity and complexity has helped to make District 9 a contemporary cult classic.
District 9 Revisited
The central concept of District 9 is relatively familiar. Certainly, it recalls the traditional “invaders from space” narrative, as one day the inhabitants of Johannesburg, South Africa, find hovering overhead a huge UFO, inhabited by crustacean–like aliens that the South Africans nickname “prawns.” Fans of sf might well suppose that they are either superior invaders, as in Roland Emmerich's Independence Day (1996), or god–like supervisors of human affairs, much like the Overlords Arthur C. Clarke describes in his novel Childhood's End (1953), advanced beings who will help us evolve from humans into a higher form and solve our problems. However, Blomkamp twists Clarke's canonical formula for such “Imperialist” sf narratives, a formula that redefines humans as a kind of cattle who have been domesticated and overseen by superior aliens since the dawn of human time. He creates a situation in which it is not the human beings on Earth but the aliens from outer space who need help.
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