London director Frazer Lee’s two short films On Edge (15 mins, 1999) and Red Lines (7 mins, 2002) are among what he calls his “duty of care” films. On Edge tells the story of a “dentist” who, after mutilating an impatient private patient in a dentist’s office, is revealed to be a frustrated artist/dentist (but a no-longer-frustrated surgical sculptor of the human oral and tracheal planes). Red Lines sees a young student repeatedly made by her teacher to write “I must not run” only to discover through the apparition of a tortured girl that she should indeed run. This information, however, comes too late to save her. Both films involve violent transgression which first relies on the victim subjugating themselves to the authorised power presumed to inhere in the figures of the dentist and the teacher. The arbitrary but nonetheless necessary fiction that those with the most intimate power to hurt us will not is here redistributed, in the first film by the suggestion that falsifying such a position of power requires little more than looking and acting the part, and in the second film that even positions taken up by authorised means guarantee neither grace in the face of power, nor the extravasation of personal desire, “normal” or pathological.
The Enunciative Function: Discourse, Power, Objects
On Edge begins with a middle-aged man sitting at a nightclub (in reality London’s infamous long-running goth club Slimelight) sipping a drink to the strains of generic death metal and surrounded by the bacchanalic dancing of the punked and the PVCed. The man’s presence evokes disparate possibilities – dirty letch perving on young girls in rubber, geography teacher who lost his way or some unfortunate parent condemned to chaperoning his teen. The juxtaposition remains unresolved however as the film fades into the dentist’s office and the aching symptom of an increasingly privatised National Health Service in Britain – the private patient Peter Thurlow (Charlie Boorman, son of Deliverance director John Boorman) – demanding immediate care for a chipped molar. His impatience leads him to Dr Matthews (Doug Bradley) and to treatment. Horror aficionados will recognise Bradley for his role as Pinhead in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987), the superior Hellbound (Tony Randel, 1988), and its now unfortunately franchised sequels. Because of this familiarity the viewer is indeed likely to be put on edge, and here is where Lee exploits his perverse use of POV. The majority of the film positions the viewer as the patient, with Bradley (uncannily cheeked like a chipmunk) maintaining a cheery demeanour as he directly addresses the camera, recounting inane tales that are punctuated by horrific inappropriate details while also cooking up Valium and fetishistically polishing drills. As the dialogue continues Bradley’s history is revealed. He is both frustrated artist and frustrated dentist and performs oral torture on private patients as catharsis for his seething creativity and failure to assume the authorised enunciative voice of discursive pedagogy – the voice that becomes pure idea by the absenting of the speaker as a result of the discursive systems presumed to both precede and go beyond the speaker. For those in positions of power we do not ask “who is it that speaks” or even “what does he say” but “what is the power of this enunciation” based on the web of institutional establishment, history and site of speech by which the speaker emerges. The speaker exists when he is in the right place conforming to the right rules and emergent from the right epistemic genesis. The enunciative function is not what one says, but the epistemic legislature, context and site of speech that brings the speaker into being “as” – as doctor, lawyer, teacher. Beyond this what is said is presumed true. The patient realises this well after he should have, as a bizarre torture device is used to reconfigure the flesh of his lower jaw. Foucault affirms:
…Rules define not the dumb existence of a reality, nor the canonical use of a vocabulary, but the ordering of objects. “Words and things” is the entirely serious title of a problem: It is the ironic title of a work that modifies its own form, displaces its own data, and reveals at the end of the day a quite different task. A task that consists of not – of no longer – treating discourses as a group of signs but as practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak. (1)
While the film’s task reorients itself from the story of a dental patient to the story of a pathological oral pervert, it relies on our presumption that the enunciative function of the dentist allows infinitely more scope for perversion before the slow and myopic realisation this man may not be what we have presumed him to be. Bradley never says he is the dentist – the environment, the clothing and the presumed phantasy of institutional membership does this for him. The cinematic story of a trip to the dentist is what the sets signify, and the real object of the film, the desires of a surgical pervert, forms the new object, contrary to what we expect.
Similarly, in Red Lines, as Emily (Kirsty Levett) is asked to sit at her desk and write “I must not run”, the ridiculous premise of this punishment is vindicated by the epistemic enunciative function of the teacher (Bradley again) demanding it. We, like Emily, accept the punishment in spite of the fact it is meaningless and its presumed causal effect redundant. However, when Emily is faced with the corpse who points out the word “run” written in blood on the wall, the fact that the words have been evacuated of their meaning by the teacher’s punishment task prevents the response or obedience which could save her life. Emily discovers in the teacher’s desk drawer, not pens and rulers, but locks of girls’ hair tied with ribbons. When the teacher returns to claim his pupil, he unzips his attaché case; and methodically removes plastic sheeting, rope and scissors (whose resemblance to primary school blunt scissors makes them uncanny). While in On Edge vaguely appropriate instruments were abstracted from their original function by becoming hyperreal formalised incarnations of fear of the sadism of dentistry, in Red Lines the functions of primary-school objects have changed. The rope resonates with skipping rope, the plastic sheeting with children who will insist on making a mess and the safety scissors whose uselessness is to prevent children hurting themselves are here proved beyond a doubt to be equally effective in hurting those very children. The three items as items of play and care reflect the teacher himself. “The coordinates and the material status of the statement are part of its intrinsic characteristics” (1). We must believe the “intrinsic” character of both the teacher and the objects is a result of logical, rational, “good” truth, but their status, not their essence, makes their truth. The films maintain the site and form of the instruments of torture, but the coordinates of desire are the catalyst of the horrors.
The enunciative subject must always be devoid of a second or trace voice which insinuates any form of subjective interest beyond the epistemic. This is another fiction of institutionalised power, as it repudiates the reasons why anyone would choose to authorise themselves within a particular discursive arena. While desire is not necessarily (although not necessarily not) sexual within epistemically driven individuals, the decoordination of desire as extricated from knowledge is a popular theme of horror films – the necrophiliac mad scientist, the sadistic dentist, the surgeon who uses his knowledge for pleasure, the supermasochist whose exquisite training means he can use techniques designed to preserve life to jeopardise his own. When her teacher tells Emily to write “I must not run” it is not her safety he has in mind. Form remains but function is dishevelled when we discover that if she does not run he will be able to satisfy his drives, yet the only reason he is able to do so is that society and this child have put themselves in the suppliant position, but for far from altruistic reasons – education and dentistry both represent different signifiers of evolved “civility”.
Positions of enunciation make invisible the speaker by affirming fields of resonance or resemblance. “But let us consider the function of the concept”, writes Foucault. “For the concept to master difference, perception must apprehend global resemblances at the root of what we call “diversity”. Each new representation must be accomplished by those representations which display the full range of resemblances…(sensation – image – memory)…but what recognises these similarities, the exact alike and the least similar – the greatest and the smallest, the brightest and the darkest – but good sense?” (3) Foucault emphasises two contradictions in enunciative objectivity and practice. The first is that mastery of knowledge (what we discover to be true) can only come into being through repetition (can we repeat this truth?), which only comes into being through, but is inherently foiled by, the intervention of the subject who performs the truth. Truth can never be the same, it can only be resemblance. Society, which is mechanised by systems of scientific (including medical) and intellectual (educational) truths, is simply a series of resemblances. We do not “know” the dentists, we know to what extent the person in front of us resembles the abstracted concept “dentist”. Once we have established resemblance we submit to whatever perversions await our mouths. The second contradiction follows here – good sense. Epistemic enunciative function vindicates practices disallowed within other sites and indeed by good sense. Through image and memory of what the signifier “dentist” evokes (augmented by the degrees on the wall), sensations that in any other situation would seem pathologically inappropriate are welcomed and rewarded. Although the bookends seem conceptually rudimentary, setting the forms of the “weirdos” at the club against the function of the pervert dentist emphasises the importance of hierarchies of value and image as opposed to action, implicitly deconstructing epistemic power.
Similarly in Red Lines we would not pay a university professor to tell us to write “I must not run” (unless as some sick post-structuralist joke) but this seems an appropriate sensation for a child to experience at the hands of an adult male. The transgression of duty of care evokes not just the horror of violence but of the thought we ourselves have submitted to this violence in the hope the fictional boundaries of epistemic discourse would protect us. It is what Lyotard and Deleuze would term “incompossible” where two terms are incommensurable – teacher/paedophile murderer, dentist/oral sadist – but exist within each other nonetheless. And darkly ironic is the notion that, unlike us, these perverts have exercised the most good sense in selecting which job would allow their proclivities to flourish.
Punishment for Looking
One of the more extraordinary things about both films is the use of POV. In a sense Lee exploits the duty of care toward audiences that all directors of horror films must transgress. Psychoanalytic film theory’s basic tenet has resonated persistently around the sadism of the (male) gaze. To gaze is to control, to empathise with the protagonist and to wield the phallic look. Many horror films have extrapolated this idea, quickening it to its literal inference by having the faceless murderer travel as POV and hence implicating the spectator in the murder. This apparent transparent transcribable cinematic technique has frequently been cited in reactionary censorship rhetoric, failing to address the importance of sadistic/masochistic oscillation in horror films, which is why fear and not aggression is the affect by which horror navigates its generic conventions. But post-structural theory has not only disputed the sadistic gaze, which allows woman to gaze incidentally and masochistically as and at her own objectified form, but also the bifurcation or suture championed by Metz and feminist film theory that sees an irredeemable fissure between the viewed and the viewer, and thus between representation and meaning, scopophilic pain and pleasure and indeed male and female spectatorial dialectics. Particularly in horror, where affect is simultaneously visceral and intelligible, we find examples of pleasure in and suffering from the oscillation between victim and perpetrator on screen. However beyond this still binary configuration is the element of pure cinema which directly affects the viewer in non-transcribable ways, beyond the images as pure deferrals to meaning or prefabricated concept. This affect occurs in two ways in the films. First through cinematic (rather than psychoanalytic) fetishism and following from this, the purely cinematic texture of submission to the image and its concept, where here the concept is vague, profane, a-signified and inevitably opens up rather than closes off the film through an inability to circuit the image via deference to a higher-order moral or even conceptual signifier.
Because it is a superior film, I will devote the majority of this discussion to Red Lines while the reader is asked to remember that much of On Edge relies on POV. Red Lines is a very short film with almost no dialogue. While one would expect the majority of fetishistic close-ups around the young girl in school uniform, they instead find themselves at various parts of Bradley’s body (4). When returning to the room he has locked the girl in, the camera lovingly accentuates the manicured nails and emergent liver spots on Bradley’s hand. As he removes his torture apparatus again the hands are closed in upon and during the final credits the hands are seen interring Emily’s lock of hair in its final resting place. A rudimentary analysis would of course suggest this evokes the enormity of this “monster” (enhanced by the use of schoolroom furniture designed for his far younger students). But I am taking fetishism here as cinesexual (5) – where the image is desirable by virtue of being an emergence of cinema, rather than cinema representing or reflecting meaning in reality – not psychoanalytic where the part stands in for the whole in an attempt to repudiate the castrated mother. This means that, unlike in psychoanalysis, the male is available to be fetishised and the female to indulge in the fetish. But beyond gender and vivisected parts, the fetish here is the extraordinary intensification of planes of skin, surfaces of flesh and volumes of form that saturate the eye to the point where they lose meaning and become pure volume of affect. Perhaps these planes of cinema are intended to evoke imminent action at the hands of this man, an action we never get to see, perhaps this fetishism is inverse, defined by its avoidance of the fetishisation of the girl. But it does intensify the tight intimacy of the film which makes it so uncomfortable – the familiar and genial (teacher/hand) gone awry, the frame as constricting as the small locked schoolroom, as the inevitable tragedy that the cinephile both dreads and longs for. The planes are also ugly, unlike other horror films which saturate their surfaces with intense colour or baroque spectacle. These are disturbing in their banality, uncanny in the unremarkability of the aspects fetishised.
Red Lines‘ final section sees the camera close in on Bradley’s face as he brings to Emily her conclusive fate. The film cuts away before we can bear witness to the crime. While the nomenclaturing of a non-specific part of the body is for purposes of affect rather than signification, the close-up of Bradley’s face with which Lee torments the viewer is both before and beyond signification. It is both a plane and a volume, meaningful and meaningless, irrefutably “a” face. If Deleuze claims the pure definition of masochism is that which awaits (6), then the final scene of Red Lines that truncates rather than resolves the whole film is the joke in which the masochist, upon demanding the sadist punish him, is told “no”. Whether this ending was due to constraints of budget, imagination or is deliberate, it is agonisingly sudden and is followed by what masochists call backlash, the guilt of expression of pleasure at something which abruptly stops and where we find ourselves having enjoyed the repellent experiences both we and she are privy to. Cinephiles will recognise this feeling from films that leave little effect upon exit from the cinema but gradually gall after the passing of time.
The final scene is as revolting as it is compelling. Bradley, upon discovering Emily has excavated his lock of hair graveyard, fixes his gaze upon the camera unerringly. Nowhere can we find the enigmatic gaze of Pinhead, both frightening and seductive, or the convivial psychopathy of Dr Matthews, giggling as he tortures. In this gaze there is no catharsis or deferral available through libidinalisation or humour. Bradley stares at the camera, neither smiling nor frowning, a flaccid ageing man who, like the worst of the abuses of enunciative function, fails to speak – either confessionally or as insane – its own evil. Coming as it did on the heels of the Soham murders in Cambridgeshire, where two ten-year-old girls were killed by their friend and teacher’s boyfriend Ian Huntley, Red Lines neither demonises nor makes jovial its killer, but submits the viewer’s POV to the unbearable lack of discourse that is inevitably more horrifying than the demonic or angelic. Here is the harrowing realisation that the killer is neither the saint of the enunciative function nor the devil of the rebel who repudiates all epistemic law. The stark fluorescent lighting, which ages Bradley and washes Levett out to a diaphanous waif does indeed offer us the sadistic gaze, but it is his, not ours, in coldness not cruelty. Our gaze is far worse than sadistic, it is the gaze that cannot read. Without media, without the propaganda or sympathetic tenderness of answers to “why”, this gaze is the lost gaze that stares Bradley’s harrowing visage in the face of absolute lack of signification beyond the generic and regressive response of “eurgh”. Blanchot writes “the mission of reading seems to be to cause this stone to fall: to make it transparent, to dissolve it with the penetration of the gaze which enthusiastically goes beyond it.” (7) The true horror of this image is the realisation that this gaze cannot seek its object, its answer, the meaning of this face about to do this act. And yet this face says “this face gives you horror, I know you hate it, but I know also, even if you do not know, that you want it”, the final insult to our masochistic but no less consensual submission to cinema. Only through cinema can the desire to read, and the gaze, hurl themselves into the vertiginous beyond as an acknowledgement of and pleasure at the inability of the drive to “read” equivocated with “to know”. Pure cinema here is found in the horror of pure face – neither mask (because there is no signification), nor natural because the imminent act is so unnatural – as is the intense close up of a face, natural perhaps in cinema but never in reality except in the most intimate moments. Blanchot argues against Barthes’ and Foucault’s claim that reading is a re-creation or making resemblance of meaning after the author’s circumscription of the concept. Blanchot instead suggests that the reader desires before the text, as we desire meaning before this face, our reading is expectant before the face-as-text arrives. However this face ablates the meaning but leaves the residual desire to read nonetheless, punishing us. Here the teacher’s subjectivity horrifies because it shows the terror of the enunciative function as not transgression, not perversion, not betrayal, but inevitable silence. This silence is precisely what the vulgar media circus attempted to fill during the Soham trials, but such vacuous cacophony only masks the absence of meaning beneath, it cannot fill it. The face fills the screen, in emptiness, in a-signification, in silence.
Blanchot claims that to know we must turn away. To show concern we must exhibit unconcern. Orpheus, whose investigative gaze, and desire “to know”, resulted in the loss of his love, was forced to learn that knowledge is only available by turning away: “Orpheus”, writes Blanchot, “can do anything except look this ‘point’ in the face, look at the centre of the night in the night. He can descend to it, he can draw it to him – an even stronger power – and he can draw it upwards but only by keeping his back turned to it. This turning away is the only way he can approach it: this is the meaning of the concealment revealed in the night.” (8) What these two films offer is the simple essence of all horror – the bad man – but in our investigative gaze we seek to know this figure and what we find is that seeking or even recognising the aberrant is entirely reliant on and only available through the arbitrary and sometimes ridiculous structures and systems which produce power though the enunciative function. We must turn away from the “perverted” enunciator toward its structure to understand our complicity in its fiction. Because the films also offer pleasure we may experience the dizzying joy at loss of signification (albeit of a horrific kind) and the address of submission, perversion and alterity we navigate every day but in which we are prevented from losing ourselves through the strict rules of epistemic regulation.
- Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans A. Sheridan Smith. London, Tavistock, 1972, p. 49.
- Foucault, 1972, p. 100.
- Michel Foucault, “Theatrum Philosophicum”, trans Donald Brouchard and Sherry Simon, in Michel Foucault, Aesthetics, James D. Faubion (ed.), 1994, pp 356–57.
- Lee and Bradley seem to be cultivating a strange form of the director/male muse relationship that has long defined “heterosexual/homoaesthetic” Hollywood director/actor dynamics such as those of Scorsese/De Niro, Ferrara/Walken and Burton/Depp. It remains to be seen how this relationship will evolve.
- This concept/term derives from my research into Félix Guattari’s notion of “Cinema of Desire”. For more see my “Masochistic Cinesexuality” in Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik, AlterImage 2: Alternative Europe, London, Wallflower, 2004, pp 106–123, “Christopher Lee: His Italian Journeys into Perversion”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 24, Jan–Feb 2003, and “Barbara Steele’s Ephemeral Skin: Feminism, Fetishism and Film”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 22, Sept–Oct 2002.
- Gilles Deleuze, Masochism, trans. Jean McNeil, New York, Zone Books, 1991, p. 71.
- Maurice Blanchot, The Gaze of Orpheus and Other Essays, trans. Lydia Davis, New York, Station Hill, 1981, p. 95.
- Blanchot, 1981, p. 99.