It dawns on me that not everyone out there has taken a slew of Literary Analysis courses in college while desperately trying to take enough classes to keep financial aid after you’ve run out of coursework in your own major. So, I thought I’d drop some words on you.
Now, this isn’t to say that you have to engage critically with all the media you enjoy, although I will warn you that once you start, it’s hard to turn it off and you may go through a phase of, “Sweet Zombie Jesus, can’t I enjoy ANYTHING anymore?” Seriously, I don’t think I’ll every be able to really listen to the Rolling Stones ever again after, and that didn’t even take critical analysis, seeing the lyrics to “Brown Sugar” because who the fucking fuck writes that?!?!? Only the fact that Mick Jagger is a mushmouth kept me from that stunning revelation for so long.
But I’m also able to enjoy some truly bad films: The Dead Want Women, Night of the Demons, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. Ok, that last one, I love this film, but it is really not good. However, the inherent badness of it allows me to not be annoyed by the weird ass anachronisms. And it doesn’t take itself seriously, which is something I look for in my bad movies.
So, I don’t always think critically about films I’m watching. Sometimes I just tune out and enjoy them.
But sometimes you come across media that makes you make the Golden Retriever confronted with something baffling face, and you want the tools to figure out what it is that’s so puzzling, offensive, or just stupid about something.
A lot of the critical thinking I do surrounds horror films. I read a lot of books dedicated to pulling apart the concepts of Horror to try to figure out what makes them tick, and what makes us want to watch them. And what informs what we like.
I’ve talked before about how I don’t consider Hostel, Saw or any of the torture porn films to actually be horror. Just as I don’t consider The Silence of the Lambs to be Horror, even thought it is a fantastic film. Now, while I think Silence of the Lambs can be referenced more correctly as a Thriller, I don’t think Hostel or Saw can. And a friend and I feel they are more an outgrowth of the ultra-violent films of Peckinpah or Russ Meyer. The other day I had someone tell me they didn’t consider anything with supernatural agency to be horror, only the torture porn stuff, which I found really fucking weird. Because the genre originated in novels with supernatural elements, and the first horror movies are things like Nosferatu: Kino Classics 2-Disc Deluxe Remastered Edition [Blu-ray], Maciste in Hell , Haxan , and such.
Anyway, if you want a basic primer on engaging with horror critically, I would start with Stephen King’s Danse Macabre. While Mr. King’s stated intent was merely to provide a survey of horror from the beginnings through the 1970s/early 80s, he does provide a great deal of background in analysis. Probably because he was an English teacher and probably took as many Lit Anal classes as I have, if not more.
But when engaging critically with media, ask yourself a few questions:
1. What are the tropes involved here? Horror is rife with tropes. The sluts (of both/all genders) are the first to die. The virgin nearly always lives. The jock is a rapist douche, and will die because of it. The “other” is terrifying and dangerous. “Playing God” always ends poorly.
2. What do those tropes say? What are they shorthand for? Well, in horror they’re painted with pretty broad brushes, I mean, Horror as a genre is pretty much just morality plays over and over. If you have sex (usually premarital) you’re going to die, sexuality is dangerous. If you use drugs, you’re going to die. If you are mean to people, you’re going to die. Purity is strength. And science is usually out of control, if not actively evil (looking at you, Resident Evil).
3. Then think about the dominant culture and how that informs these tropes. This is especially helpful when viewing older films, just like when reading older books. I really like H.P. Lovecraft, but the man was a raging racist, even by the standards of his own time, and had some serious issues surrounding sex, and probably his mother. Which leads me to:
4. Don’t excuse the problematic shit. Read the Social Justice League’s article on “How to be a Fan of Problematic Things.” Like I said, I really enjoy H.P. Lovecraft, but I don’t deny that he was racist and misogynist like whoa. I also like Manly Wade Wellman, particularly his Silver John the Balladeer and his John Thunstone stuff, but man, talk about racist and sexist. Recognize that it is problematic as fuck, even as you enjoy the craft that went into
This is the thing that cracks me up. Horror is considered this outre genre, disreputable, trashy, but for the most part it spends the majority of its time reinforcing the norms of the society that rejects it. The only really subversive thing about the genre as a whole, is it’s dedication to the Final Girl trope. Like I said in my review of The Cabin In The Woods , that film is a good place to start deconstructing and analyzing the genre, especially for those who’ve never really thought about engaging with media on that level.
Speaking of subtext, I’m watching Dante’s Inferno: An Animated Epic , and wow, someone has issues. Lots of them. I commend to you the level of lust, with the lady demons in the tower. Wow. Also the fact that his father in the greed level has a talking vagina inside his mouth. Wow. Also, that so long as Beatrice has a pure soul, she has a very posh British accent, but when she becomes corrupted she suddenly sounds all low class, cockney. What the fuck? This movie is filled with WTF.
To engage critically with media, think beyond what the words are telling you to what the actions are showing you. If there are three POC characters, and they’re all murdered quickly after fulfilling various stereotypical roles, then, yes, that film is racist. If the only female characters are the virgin and the whore, and the whore dies, well, that’s pretty fucking misogynist, now isn’t it, no matter how many “girl power” lines are uttered. Think about what the film-makers are showing you, not just what they’re telling you.
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