The Screaming Emptied Eye
/1/ – Cavernous Bodies
Neil Marshall’s horror film The Descent is interesting for a number of reasons. For one, the movie is almost completely devoid of male characters nor is there is any of the juvenile ‘sexing up’ of the film’s female cast. Here is the film’s synopsis from IMDB:
“After a tragic accident, six friends reunite for a caving expedition. Their adventure soon goes horribly wrong when a collapse traps them deep underground and they find themselves pursued by bloodthirsty creatures. As their friendships deteriorate, they find themselves in a desperate struggle to survive the creatures and each other.”
There seems to be two large themes going in the the film. The larger theme is the interplay between trauma and guilt. Sarah, the main character, looses her daughter and husband at the beginning of the film and it is evident that Juno, one of her friends, was having an affair with him. Repeatedly, while unconscious, Sarah sees her daughter blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. The deconstruction of the myth of ‘feminine unity’ that kind of ‘girls look out for each other’ kind of illusion which still seems prevalent in some places. One could also connect this myth to the mythical pre-Oedipal state, where the child and mother exist in a fabled harmony. In Speculum of the Other Woman Luce Irigaray argues that Plato’s allegory of the cave is masculinist in that it suggests an abandonment of the cave [the body, the womb] for the male codified realm of the outside, intellectual world. The prisoner’s in the cave, chained forced to gaze upon the masquerade of shadows, for Irigiray, this speaks to ‘feminine sexual passivity’. Slavoj Žižek argues that the allegory should be twisted in that the cave is that which presents itself, there is no external reality it is keeping the prisoners from (The Parallax View, p. 162).
Judith Jack Halberstam in Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters claims that the exploitation of ‘female passivity’ is a undeniable part of contemporary horror films. Halberstam also notes that: “[the] postmodern Gothic warns us to be suspicious of monster hunters, monster makers, and above all, discourses invested in purity and innocence. The monster always represents the disruption of categories, the destruction of boundaries, and the presence of impurities and so we need monsters and we need to recognize and celebrate our own monstrosities” (p. 27).
There is no purity at the outset or end of The Descent, the always-already broken social between the films characters simply deteriorates further with the introduction of the crawlers – cannibalistic prehistoric humans who have adapted to living in complete darkness. The only boundary in the film that is disrupted is that of trust amongst friends which is destroyed on multiple levels before the six even enter the cave. Not only Juno’s betrayal of Sarah but the fact that Juno lied to the rest of the group and took them to an unexplored cave system.
The Six before their expedition
/2/ – Silent Screams
Another way in the which the film has something to say, or more specifically not say, about feminist criticisms towards horror film is in regards to voice. Kaja Silverman as well as film theorist Michel Chion have pointed out that in horror films women are reduced to a panicked scream before they are mutilated for the pleasure of the (assumed male) viewer.
[In some recent horror films this could be connected to the larger shift from thriller to horror in that the suspense is far less important then the satisfyingly gruesome death of the film's protagonists, particularly the female ones. The most prevalent example of this is the 2005 remake of the Vincent Price classic film House of Wax. One of the film's major selling points was the fact that one could see Paris Hilton (who plays Paige) die.]
Scream for me!
There is little screaming in The Descent not only because the characters are strong, cool-headed people, most of the time, but because the creatures that hunt them, the crawlers, are completely blind and hunt by sound. Silence becomes the main act of the female characters. This is in contrast to the Crawler’s constant purring/clicking/hissing and growling noises. In A Voice and Nothing More Mladen Dolar argues that language can be attributed (in psychoanalytic terms) to desire whereas the voice can be connected to the the drives. The two prominent screams emitted by Sarah are both primal screams: one of violence – where she kills a slew of crawlers and one of relief – when she escapes the cave.
Dolar writes: “Silence seems to be something extremely simple, where there is nothing to understand or interpret. Yet it never appears as such, it always functions as the negative of the voice, its shadow, its reverse, and thus something which can evoke the voice in its pure form. We could use a rough analogy to start with: the silence is the reverse of the voice just as the drive is the reverse side of desire, its shadow and its “negative” (p. 152).
Silence speaks volumes particularly when Sarah wounds Juno and leaves her to the crawlers upon learning of her past relationship with her dead husband. There is a passage from symbolic or calculated silence (in this case tactical silence) to one of the Real, the kind of clamor of the entire universe, where the deafening nonsense of the universe is a horrible silence. The silence of the Real hear emanates from Sarah’s actions which, in a sense, speak to the redoubled loss of her husband – lost life and then lost fidelity (retroactively). The social relation, as such, is made apparent as a void which words can only be lost in. One here is tempted to invoke the tagline of the first Alien film – “In space, no one can hear you scream” of course here we are not talking about outer space but inner space the constitutive lack of (social) being.
/3/ – Gazes, bloody gazes
One scene that is strangely absent from the film is the ‘lights go out scene.’ This is incredible based on the setting – ‘no natural light’ – and the fact that dying batteries, supply of flares etc is mentioned prominently. What is interesting is that the women ‘see too much’ whether through their own eyes or that of their camera screen, which is equipped with infrared. One of the more disturbing scenes is when Sarah, in order to keep silent, is forced to watch one of her fellow cavers eaten by the monsters through the handheld camera. In her book Read My Desire: Lacan against the Historicists Joan Copjec argues against the contemporary (and often times feminist) reading of the subject in film theory. Copjec points out that film should be more of screen then a mirror. Put most simply, film theory focuses on the imaginary identifications one has with the film rather then the symbolic ones.
The Horror of seeing too much of the not-there
She writes: “The subject is the effect of the impossibility of seeing what is lacking in the representation, what the subject, therefore wants to see. The gaze, the object-cause of desire, is the object-cause of the subject of desire in the field of the visible. In other words, it is what the subject does not see and not simply what it sees that founds it” (p. 35-36). We could say then that Sarah’s terror is not ‘I will end up like her’ (the one being eaten) but ‘I do not see how I cannot end up like her.’ With this example we can see how for Lacan, as Copjec argues, the gaze is not identified with the subject and therefore in the thing being looked at, but is instead behind the image. The horrifying aspect of the gaze then is that it always sees right through you, it is that of a blind eye.
How perfect then that the film contains an incredibly intense eye gouging scene. Sarah’s brutal blinding/killing of one of the crawlers is interesting because the creature is blind, literally, and its gaze does not ‘see’ see Sarah, as Other, and hence there is no recognition and Sarah remains only a source of food for the creatures. Paradoxically then Sarah blinds/kills the blind creature because it cannot see her.
/4/ – Camera Fodder?
Discussing Krzysztof Kieslowski’s move from documentary to fictional films Žižek discusses how fiction explodes the very concept of documentary facticity. There is a limit to the documentary which can only be filled with a kind of fiction in order to, in a sense, fill in the gaps. (The Parallax View. p. 30-31). But, still, the very concept of documentary has a kind of appeal to it, for instance take for example the fictional documentary The Blair Witch Project. The assumed/advertised ‘reality’ of the film brought in (speaking in terms of cost/profit ratio) insane amounts of money. We could see the obverse here as well with The Descent taking into account some of the films negative reviews. Bill Westbrook writes:
“[A]s with other such films, The Descent seems less about female empowerment than female misery. One wonders if Marshall has issues. No males suffer here, just women who, even if they survive, won’t ever be the same again.”
Earlier in the review Westbrook also notes, disparagingly, how the women become violent while in the cave. Here what stands out more then the supposed reality of Marshall’s ‘issues’ (fiction being exploded by non-fiction) is Westbrook’s presumed fragility of women. If half a dozen athletic risk-taking people (regardless of gender/sex/etc) are attacked and have weapons, why wouldn’t they fight back? Taking Copjec’s definition of the gaze couldn’t we say that what Westbrook sees in the film is what is lacking. Westbrook’s critique of horror film for violence and trauma really reveals his view that violence and trauma cannot be endured/caused by strong female characters.
The last minute or so is cut in the US version so that we see Sarah escape only to find that she is now haunted by the ghost of Juno. In the British cut we then discover that Sarah never really escaped and is joined by her dead daughter as the crawlers approach. What is tortured and destroyed is not primarily the characters but the sense of their collectivity. To go back to the beginning, this sense of collectivity is, like the pre-Oedipal connectivity, mythical, non-existent. One of the promotional posters for The Descent is a take on Phillip Halsman’s photo In Voluptas Mars:
Dali and the Pleasure of Death
To reiterate the function of the Lacanian gaze we could utilize Nietzsche’s words in Beyond Good and Evil: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” The horror comes from the void that looks into our void which refuses to see what we are symbolically, materially. What is missing, is missing only in our view and that is when the gaze is returned – the eyes of the skull, the twisted jaw, the toothy grimace…..
Filed under: Copjec, feminism, film, psychoanalysis, queer theory | 1 Comment