V. Other Excesses
Linda Williams (Note
3) has developed a typology of film genres
that involve the elements of sexuality, violence and emotionality.
Her analysis identifies each as the “bodily excess” that fundamentally
defines pornography, horror and melodrama, respectively. Each is
construed as an organized system of excess involving “non-linear spectacles”
4), rather than traditional narratives, to
provide gross display of the human body. All may be considered, according
to Williams, forms of melodrama marked by departures from realism, excesses
of spectacle, and displays of primal emotion. These include pornography’s
portrayal of orgasmic pleasure, horror’s portrayal of violence and terror,
and melodrama’s portrayal of weeping. Williams suggests that investigation
of the visual and narrative pleasures found in portrayal of these three
types of excess raise possible questions of gender construction and gender
address in relation to basic sexual fantasies.
Williams’ presumed audience for pornography is
adult males, for horror is adolescent males, and for melodrama females.
The presumed identifications are, respectively, active and sadistic (pornography),
sadomasochistic (horror) and masochistic (melodrama). More problematic
is Williams’ use of cine-psychoanalysis to relate these presumed viewer
positions to primal fantasies – rather than recognizing that they are essentially
defined by primary emotion. Primal emotions refer not merely to facial
or verbal expressions, but families of antecedent or consequent acts and
characteristic action tendencies. Contemporary cross-cultural studies
have identified at least five culturally universal expressions that correspond
to primal emotions. Although modified by culturally specific display
rules, these emotions appear hard-wired and universally recognized.
They include fear, anger, disgust, sadness and enjoyment (Note
5). Williams’ typology seems most apposite
when applied to genre films that most clearly affirm patriarchal values
– pornography’s depiction of female enjoyment, melodrama’s depiction of
female sadness, and horror’s depiction of female fear.
But there are other instances in which the neat
symmetry of genre and presumed perversion does not hold. Other forms
of sadomasochistic behavior or the “stripper-vengeance” sub-genre reviewed
by Jeffrey Brown (Note 6) suggest
more complex relations between gender, excess, power and audience identification.
Recall that Clover (Note 7)
argued that perspectives of the masculine identified viewer may oscillate
within the span of the film narrative between the initial passive powerlessness
of the abject and terrorized female victim of horror and her later empowerment
as a masculinized “Final Girl.”
These distinctions perhaps break down completely
when the remaining primary emotions are considered. Until comparatively
recently, Hollywood produced relatively few action films that would foreground
women’s aggressive displays of anger or disgust. Patriarchal display
rules have tended to limit these to the narrowly circumscribed retaliatory
aggression of the Final Girl character. Even the icons of Hollywood
female action roles – “Ripley” in the “Alien” series or “Sarah Connor”
in “Terminator II” and their successors fall into the horror genre and
only resort to violence in extremis. But there are other works that
position the female protagonist as a much more malignant figure.
“I Spit on Your Grave” – while clearly establishing the horrific antecedents
for avenging rage – also privileged excesses of anger and disgust displayed
by the female protagonist – perhaps even enjoyment – with corresponding
fear displayed by her male perpetrators/victims. The existence of
such films suggests that excess is linked to power and to the depiction
of antecedents and consequences, rather than exclusively to gender.
Correlations between gender and power relations – contrary to cine-psychoanalysis
– seem more dynamic and culturally determined.
HK cinema has certainly taken note. A cinema
of popular entertainment genres par excellence (Note
8), HK cinema is replete with horror, crime,
vengeance, romance and pornographic genre titles that foreground primary
emotions. HK cinema has aggressively pursued the mass marketing of
diverse genre films, progressively stripping away the display rules for
primary emotion in the process. One of the largest and most obvious
departures has involved roles for women. While HK cinema absolutely
has its share of traditional horror, pornography and melodrama, it has
also privileged female action performances that foreground anger and disgust.
“Ms. 45” seemingly inspired the HK film “Girl with a Gun” that dispensed
with much of the antecedent suffering to focus on aggressive retaliation
(becoming, essentially, serial homicide). The Asian practice of martial
arts in popular film also provided a context for display of aggression
as a sensual bodily excess by either gender. With over 200 contemporary
action films involving leading roles for women as the agents of power and
aggression – frequently directed against men – it is apparent that HK films
– however much they may be characterized as recuperative rather than progressive
– nevertheless often defy simple categorizations that align gender with
active/passive distinctions in character or presumed viewer identification.
The fact that women are so frequently privileged
in active, aggressive roles inevitably raises questions about gender construction,
but it is suggested that these may be more complex than they initially
appear – representing negotiated readings reflecting an interplay of the
globalization of popular entertainment, evolving market strategies, intercultural
discourse, as well as rapidly changing social construction of gender roles.
Notes: Other Excesses
3. Williams, op. cit.
4. Williams, op. cit., p. 269.
5. Paul Ekman, “Basic emotions.” In,
Tim Dalgleish & Mick Power (Eds.), Handbook of Cognition and Emotion.
Chichester, Sussex, U.K.: John Wiley, 1999, pp. 45 – 60. Ekman,
“Facial expressions.” In, Dalgleish & Power, op. cit., pp. 301
6. Jeffrey Brown, “If looks could kill:
Power, revenge, and stripper movies.” In, McCaughey & King, op.
cit., pp. 52 – 77.
7. Clover, op. cit., pp. 46 – 47, p. 63.
8. See Bordwell, op. cit.