7.06 Iconographic comments on selected image groups

I have selected four groups Animals, Circus, Comix and Horror film. The Animals subject areas is selected because it is by far the largest group of images used in the Exploding Cinema programmes. Circus and Comics are areas that illustrate Exploding Cinema's allegiance to popular culture. Horror is part of this allegiance but is also an 'inferior' B movie mainstream genre with which there is much sympathy. Pages pertaining to these themes will then be analysed in more detail.

Images of Animals, including insects: With at least 47 pages with animal images this is the most recurrent theme in the programme images.

Augustine and Aquinas followed Paul in denying the Hebrew bible's injunction of kindness towards animals. Descartes went further, theorising them as without feeling or souls and even Kant followed this Christian line. Jeremy Bentham was the first person to argue for the interests of animals in Western ethics at the end of the Eighteenth century. But it was not until Peter Singer's book in the mid 1970's that this issue was seriously debated and the traditional Christian position reappraised. This was also the first philosophical debate to give rise to a popular movement.

Is it not crystal clear, then, comrades, that the evils of this

life of ours spring from the tyranny of human beings? What then must we do? Why, work night and day, body and soul, for the overthrow of the human race! George Orwell, Animal Farm[1]

This should be seen as part of a whole ecology or environmental movements that arose at the same time and has since become a major political force. Such concerns are at the heart of Western counter cultures.

Animals appeared in folk art, mythology and pagan religion because they were an important part of people's rural lives. They inhabit the pages of Exploding Cinema's programmes for different reasons. They are a symbol of nature but not of a romantic nature nor of a nature 'red in tooth and claw'. The appearance of so many animals in an urban production is surely a gesture against the historical division of nature /culture. The animals are often in assertive even avenging postures. They are co-inhabitants of the earth with us. We see animals holding cameras and generally being active.

Half the animals depicted are insects with their connotations of individual vulnerability but collective ubiquity and indestructibility. They can also be pests, something that the Exploding Cinema identifies with. Nature is here an antidote to a mainstream cinema, which is a standard bearer for the triumph of technology and cultural artifice.

Images of 'Circus': The first point is that these are subjects who may have originated in circuses or fairs but also appeared in the urban musichall.

The circus is the most evocative and extreme form of live popular spectacle. A space of contradictions; the exotic; the captured; a performance on dirt; a living encyclopaedia of wonders; Lions and Tigers; impossible feats; unbelievable skills; foreign smells; shock; danger... and all appearing and disappearing like a mirage. Probably the most extraordinary sights a European child would ever see.

The clown[2] paints the fixed smile of the courtier on his face. The upper class surrounded themselves in the appearance of the happiness of their servants (whose real moments of happiness were too coarse and vulgar!).[3] The clowns actions though, are sad even laughable, a satire on the hapless condition of the powerless.

The provenance of Exploding Cinema in such popular forms has already been suggested.

Comics: The preferred reading material of the modern young person is the comic. Comics like the Beano and Eagle and later Marvel Comics played a regular part in the early lives of many young people. Cheap illustrated publications were not considered serious literature. Comic art is excluded from the art school curriculum as a vulgar artform.[4]

Apart from its widespread influence on most of our childhoods, the comic was a significant part of the underground culture of the Sixties in specifically adult forms. A good example is Robert Crumb who provided a loving satire of hippy street life, with its incessant dope smoking and other inane behaviour, which is still widely read.[5] The exclusion of the comic from the literature of the establishment was perversely, a positive qualification for an underground cultural form.

There was something of a revival of non-commercial comic culture in the 1980's with a focus on women comic artists such as Carol Swain,[6] comics as a form of artist's book, and self-organised 'alternative' comic artist conventions.[7]

There may be a future - or very ancient past truth in these derisory, vulgar, foolish, dialogical forms of consumer subculture. (Barthes, 1977, p66)

The comic frame both captures the moment - often the peak of action or depletion but accompanies this with a mimetic text which transverses time. A text in which the frozen characters speak to each other or philosophise to themselves. The frame is activated in its stillness by this text which transports us beyond the images. This transcendence of the image produces a set of what Barthes called obtuse meanings. The quality of comics lies not only in their writing or graphic skill but more importantly from meaning generated in the space between the frames, in the tension between the graphic and the literary. A form that has many parallels with film.

The Horror genre: Although long established in cinema the growth of the horror film as a genre only took-off in the 1950s. The first drive-in cinema opened in 1933 but they didn't really become commonplace until car ownership became commonplace in the wake of the Second World War. By 1956 there were over 400 which were earning 25% of the total cinema box office. The audiences were mainly young and this encouraged the film industry to begin to make films tailored to this market. These were either rock music films like 'Jailhouse Rock' (1957) or horror films. The classic of the period, 'I Married a Monster from Outer Space', was made in 1958.[8]

Effective horror films would actually make the audience sweat, shake and scream with a mixture of thrill and terror. This excitement went into a darker and more visceral area of emotion than the kinaesthetic thrills of musicals or the teeth grinding tension of thrillers. It reached for the substance of nightmare with which they shared a context of darkness. And as nightmares are illusions, the horror film is closer to its referent than the convention of realism that dominated respectable cinema. This innate vulgarity did not allow them to be considered as serious cinema. As a genre they had a minority or 'cult' following and stayed irrevocably low budget.

Within the genre however standards evolved and classics were recognised. George Romero's 'Night of the Living Dead' made in 1968 on a low budget was one such. 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' (1974), which has only got a British certificate in its uncut version some 25 years after it was made, is another. Wes Craven's recent 'Scream' (1996) has shown the genre has finally become accepted within the mainstream.[9]

Not that horror is a subject that appears much in the films shown at Exploding Cinema. [10] It is more its outsider status as a low-budget cult genre and the viscerality of its aesthetic that makes it a reference point in the programme imagery.

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[1] David Henshaw, Animal Warfare: the story of the Animal Liberation Front (Fontana 1984)

 

[2] References to Exploding Cinema Illustrated Programmes (IP) see IPs 28/3/97 p13 & 11/6/95 p6

 

[3] See Norbert Elias's The Court Society (Blackwells 1983)

 

[4] We can go further and say that literary culture was iconophobic (See Tessa Watt, (1991) p 132- 139) which goes a long way to explaining the low cultural position of comics and graphic novels. Whilst teaching on a pre-diploma course in Colchester in the early Nineties we had to ask students to remove comic art from their portfolio, however good it was, as it would seriously jeopardise their chances of getting onto a degree course.

 

[5] For a film biography of Robert Crumb, see 'Crumb' directed by Terry Zwigoff (Columbia Tristar, 1995)

 

[6] See 'Girl Frenzy' magazine from the late Eighties and early Nineties (Box 148, Hove BN3 3DQ) and Roger Sabin's Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels: a history of comic art (Phaidon 1996)

 

[7] The First Small Press Comic Conference was organised in May 1991. Larry Watson in Small Press Yearbook 1992 (S.P.G. 1991 p104)

 

[8] "Their emphasis on spectacle implicitly recognised that the audience might have other things to do than just watch the film." Popular Culture in the Twentieth Century, Richard Maltby ed. (Grange Books, 1994 p151)

 

[9] The A-Z of Horror Film, Howard Maxford (Batsford 1996)

 

[10] Few of the cryptic film descriptions in the Exploding Cinema programmes use the term 'Horror'. See the list of genres in Chapter 10.