The Aesthetics of Impact
A remake of George A. Romero’s film of the same name, Dawn of the Dead is a twofold diminishing returns action film. Firstly, because the body count is so high that one grows weary of the next death, and secondly, because the characters killed are zombies, there is no sense of a life snuffed out – merely a special effect achieved. In the original that wasn’t such a problem – half Romero’s point lay in the idea that society was zombifying us anyway, and so any sense of humanity was contained within a broader political question. Is Dawn of the Dead, the remake, though, symptomatic of an action genre that no longer has a sense of humanity and tempo not because it wants to contain the human and the narratological within a wider problematic, but because it wants simply visceral thrills at any price; that so insistent becomes the pyrotechnical aspect, that filmic rhythm and human purpose get lost to a crunching, cinematic self-regard?
Examples of skilful cinematic tempo can be found in any number of seventies/early eighties horror/action films, including The Exorcist and Jaws, Alien, The Thing, The Shining and, despite the prioritising of a political agenda, the original Dawn of the Dead. Here tempo dictates action, with the filmmakers pacing their works rather like musical pieces with a variety of moods and rhythms. An action scene thus works like a crescendo, but it needs quieter moments to determine the heightened aspect. However, tempo needn’t only require musical analogies; we can also understand it through the contrast of the human and the non-human.
Now what we mean by the human here is the characters, and their relationship with each other. This doesn’t require the most evolved psychology, but perhaps it needs to be human enough to contrast with the inhumanity surrounding the situation. In Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, the human moments are what we’ll call precursory: that is, they have a human significance before the event, but almost no significance after it. Precursory humanity in Dawn of the Dead includes of course central character Sarah Polley’s husband and child. As she returns home from her tough job as a nurse, she takes a shower with her hubby and we’re shown a loving, happy family. Moments later the daughter comes into the bedroom with blood drooling down her mouth, takes a chunk out of daddy’s neck, and, as Polley’s husband becomes a zombie, survival quickly becomes the priority. This is perfectly understandable: she has no time to reflect on the fact that she’s just lost her husband and child, because action must take precedence over reflection. The human must give way to the non-human. This is the objective in relation to the object: Polley must objectify the world surrounding her if she’s to achieve her objective of escaping with her life. But should the subjective not return in relation to the subjects who’ve just been removed from her life once the objective has been achieved? Shouldn’t Polley then realize the enormity of the situation, and the film accept that this crisis becomes part of her psychological make-up thereafter, just as the filmic world, now radically altered from generally human to generally zombie, should show the impact of instant sociological change?
Now some might insist that we’re using a very large hammer to crack a very small nut, but if we take Dawn of the Dead to be symptomatically useful, and also take into account its sociological veneer where the opening credits run through various archival scenes of social breakdown, maybe one isn’t protesting too much. Is it, finally, just yet another film working loosely within Geoff King’s notion of impact aesthetics, explored in New Hollywood Cinema and elsewhere, and David Bordwell’s idea of intensified continuity, anlaysed in The Way Hollywood Tells It? Does it want endless visceral impact and intensity? If so, maybe it’s quite apt that we’re going to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut: it’s in keeping with the hyperbolic nature of the films themselves.
What we really want to discuss here though is whether the films really have much of a nut to crack; is there some underlying principle at work that demands the pyrotechnics? If we look at Dawn of the Dead’s very impressive credit sequence we might think the film’s an apocalyptic take on society’s downfall. Combining Johnny Cash’s lyrics of society’s areligious decline and fall with archival and archival style images of social collapse, the film seems to have something at stake. Maybe we could accept the precursory humanity if it gave way to a societal collapse that made the individual crises irrelevant to the broader despair. Sure, Polley’s husband and daughter are dead – or more specifically zombified – but it’s apocalypse now. There can be no retrospective humanity because the very society human-ness predicates itself upon has collapsed. It would be like worrying about a snagged nail when you’re leg’s been torn from its socket.
But Dawn of the Dead has little interest in an apocalyptic, post-human psychology; like many impact aesthetic films, it has little interest in imagining a fully evolved world so suddenly different from our own, but instead in utilising special effects as an adjunct to telling a conventional story. In this sense Bordwell’s absolutely right when he says, in The Way Hollywood Tells It, “what some call “postclassical” filmmaking needn’t be anticlassical filmmaking.” It’s just that they’ve taken to much greater heights what Susan Sontag in an essay on fifties science fiction films, ‘The Imagination of Disaster’, called “sensuous elaboration”. Here Sontag differentiates between the sci-fi novel and the sci-film, saying “compared with the science fiction novels, their film counterparts have unique strengths, one of which is the immediate representation of the extraordinary: physical deformity and mutation, missile and rocket combat, toppling skyscrapers…”
However, can this sensuous elaboration in-itself prove to be at the same time cinema’s weakness? For example, Speed is undeniably an impressive piece of sensuous elaboration as Sontag defines it, and there are numerous scenes in the film appropriate for cinematic tension. There is the scene at the beginning of the film where a lift falls through a shaft and the central character and his buddy determine to save the lives of all the lift’s occupants. As the film busily crosscuts between the occupants and their saviours, the Dolby sound captures every lurch and every scream. It’s a wonderful example of the ontology of film: what other form could achieve such vivid re-enactment?
Now this still complies to an urgent sensuous elaboration, but what about scenes that are certainly ontologically cinematic, but pass for redundant sensuous elaboration? There is a scene later on in Speed, just after all the passengers have managed to escape the bus that will blow up if it happens to go below fifty miles an hour, and the empty bus careers into an empty airplane, creating a huge explosion the film insists on viewing from multiple angles. What makes this redundant sensuous elaboration is that it is quite literally simple spectacle. It’s as though the bus is a remotely controlled toy the idle child allows to crash into something for the simple pleasure of watching destruction. There is nothing human at stake here.
David Thomson, in an essay on Screen Violence, called ‘Explosions’, says “In the practice of filmmaking, explosions have become a sport and a craft – nearly a cult…crews love those moments when care relaxes and they can blast order to hell.” And the crew’s love of explosion is mimicked by the audience: “In life we agonise over a scratch on our car or a leak in the roof. Those nagging bourgeois longings for wholeness and tidiness inspire a demon of resentment that is itching to breakout in a riot of mayhem, the lovely innocent plenty of ruin.” Here Thomson suggests that even redundant sensuous elaboration has its purpose, but the way Thomson describes it, it seems almost non-diegetically resentful, as if we’re thrown out of the thrust of the film for a moment of reflection on our own hemmed in existence. Thus a scene like the empty bus careering into an empty plane doesn’t need anything at stake because its purpose lies less in diegetic purposefulness than non-diegetic resentfulness.
Is there something similar going on in Dawn of the Dead? That just as we can have action without consequence; can we not have death without meaning? Though the zombie tradition is “an integral part of the religious beliefs that dominated the island [of Haiti]”, according to Jamie Russell in Book of the Dead, few zombie films care to explore the sociology of the zombie; taking into account the odd, and hardly anthropological, exception like Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow. Certainly Snyder has no interest in its anthropological routes, and it is perhaps partly this social disembodiment that allows for a further disembodiment of lost lives that are meaningless; empty signifiers of destruction like the bus and the plane in Speed. Both Dawn of the Dead and Speed are examples of impact aesthetics, but it’s an impact aesthetics that relies on the quality of the effects over the capacity for emotional engagement.
So maybe we need another term for an impact aesthetic that has, as Geoff King would say, an impact on the body as visceral response in the viewer, but could also suggest a visceral impact in relation to the human being on screen. We could call it an aesthetics of impact, where the filmmaker tries to find, say, out of narrative event, casting against type, or working against moral expectation, a sense of shock and surprise in the viewer that isn’t just a kind of hyperbolised Pavlovianism. Examples that come to mind include the child’s death at the beginning of Once Upon a Time in the West, Kevin Spacey being shot in LA Confidential, Matt Damon’s son drowning in Syriana, ‘love interest’ Maria Bello being shot in the remake of Assault on Precinct 13, and the child eating ice cream in the original. We might also think of Scorsese’s remake of The Departed, where two scenes – Martin Sheen’s death, the shooting in the lift near the end – have of course been lifted directly from the Hong Kong original Infernal Affairs, but Scorsese brilliantly combines abrupt narrative shifts and brutal visceral impact simultaneously and dovetails immediate impact aesthetics with an aesthetics of impact. All these instances rely less on the quality of the special effect, than the emotional after-effect, however brief. In each instance we have not just a precursory humanity, but also, at the very least, a moment of posthumous recognition. When we compare even a human death – let alone a Zombie death – in Dawn of the Dead, the difference is pronounced. Early in the film, just after her husband and daughter have been zombified, Polley’s character wanders outside and her neighbour warns her not to come close. As he speaks, an ambulance trundles past and another life’s carelessly and un-empathically lost.
Now this isn’t to insist that all action-oriented films need to create an aesthetics of impact over an impact aesthetics. But we might wonder if special effects prove so often to be a diminishing returns issue, does it lie in the technological advancement countering narrative and characterisational options? A couple of films that work this balance quite well are Alien and The Thing. In each instance, the directors work from character and atmosphere to the effect. Each film has the components of a stage play allied to the advanced design by H. R. Giger in Alien, the 70mm widescreen atmosphere of the Antarctic in The Thing. Critics like Kim Newman, in Nightmare Movies, may believe that each film insists on characters acting illogically for the purposes of the through-line of action suspense, but there is a carefully worked mood in each film. They know that the effects aren’t simply special effects, but shock effects as Hitchcock might define them.
Now, as we’ll see, these effects may not demand the type of anticipation Hitchcock would talk about when defining the difference between terror and forewarning. In an article on ‘The Enjoyment of Fear’ Hitchcock says, “terror is induced by surprise; suspense by forewarning. Let us suppose to make all this clear, that our plot is concerned with a married woman residing in Manhattan and engaged in amorous dalliance with a young cad.” Hitchcock says there are two ways to play it. One approach would focus so exclusively on the lovers that when the husband bursts through the door it takes the audience and the lovers completely by surprise. The second approach would cross-cut between the couple and the husband who’s not out of town as the couple suspect, but back in New York and approaching home. The filmmaker constantly cross-cuts, and the audience suspensefully wonders whether the husband will catch the couple in the act or not. But in atmospheric films like Alien and The Thing, we have a low-key build up of atmosphere that works suspense by other means. Not by cross-cutting, but by silence and solitariness. Where in Dawn of the Dead noise and music rarely let up except for a couple of seconds before the moment of terror – evidenced for example in an early scene where Polley hides behind the bathroom door, and her zombified husband head-butts a hole through it as he tries to break in, The Thing works for a much longer term effect. It isn’t exactly looking for the sort of existential dread that would be closer to portent, an inexplicable ineffable insecurity of existence, but it is searching out a sense of tension that comprehends the enormity of the situation. It’s as if John Carpenter’s film could have been called The…Thing, with the director creating a cinematic hesitancy towards this shape-shifting creature, a creature that can mimic all life forms. What Carpenter’s film generally refuses to do is reduce the Antarctic environment, the characters and the monster merely to action exigencies. Newman, in Nightmare Movies, was right to say “Carpenter handles a few quietly uneasy scenes as the characters try to put off any action by talking through their insoluble problem…” and it’s in the characters’ discussion and the insoluble problem that the film works its fear. In a way, indeed, that’s a healthy inversion of Dawn of the Dead.
Where in Snyder’s film we have characters whom Polley cares about but the audience does not, in The Thing we have to some degree the opposite: characters that care little about each other but characters whom the director nevertheless details. And where Dawn of the Dead, after its brilliant credit sequence, normalizes the zombie by the characters’ pragmatic reaction to it, in The Thing Carpenter determinedly wants to hold to the extraordinary problem this sleeping ugly presents, and the moral questions therein. Hence, central character Kurt Russell and co don’t want just to re-freeze the monster, for to do so there will then be the possibility that it will once more wreak havoc in the future. Thus, as the characters offer the sort of future tense moral arguments we expect from eco warriors protecting the planet in the present for generations in the future, they decide they need to get rid of it altogether; to burn it out – the one thing that can kill it is intense heat. If Carpenter’s film is more aesthetics of impact over impact aesthetics, it resides in the need to create evolved characters; they may have no great humanity towards each other, but the audience has a modicum of humanity for them. The aesthetics of impact also resides in a sense of portent that keeps the monster’s enormity present without quickly reducing it to special effects ingenuity
So what we’ve been moving towards here is a notion of an aesthetics of impact over impact aesthetics. How can filmmakers utilise elements that have ostensibly nothing to do with the design of impact aesthetics; but that nevertheless very much impact upon an audience? It is perhaps the difference between a positivist aesthetic insistence that the effect be evidential; against an effect that is suggestive and thus harder to pin down. In both Jaws and The Exorcist, in The Shining and Dawn of the Dead, Spielberg and Friedkin, and Kubrick and Romero, of course don’t completely negate the special effect, but they do contain it – they contain it within a broader disturbance that allows the effect to possess an uncanny sense. Thus the filmmakers aren’t so much interested in ruptured normality, with the special effect of awe-struck terror countering the normal, but a special effect that seems to come out of the subtle abnormality of the environment. Here the special effect doesn’t do all the work; it contributes to the work already done by the aesthetics of impact elements that cover anything from the use of sound, camera positioning, and the slightly unhinged social or familial context.
It’s this sense of a special effect coming out of an, if you like, special environment, that interests Kubrick in The Shining. Early in the film, after Jack Nicholson’s character has got the job looking after a top hotel over the winter period, his son back home asks his imaginary friend why the imaginary friend is keen not to go. The friend won’t explain, but then Kubrick cuts to a series of shots, including a scene where we see blood pouring out of a lift and all over the hotel carpet. Something happened years ago at the hotel, we’ve earlier been informed, but at this stage young Danny doesn’t know this. Kubrick cuts to what might be past events, what might be Danny’s imagination, but the scene lacks the certitude of narrative purpose and the moments are as much inexplicable as explanatory. What we have here is a fairly low-key impact aesthetic sequence of blood flooding the hotel floor, but the uncanny sense of indiscernibility robbing the scene of the certitude of an awe-inspired response.
What we so often have with impact aesthetic moments is an epistemologically certain set of events allied to a moment of technologically or pyrotechnically breathtaking action. In anything from Speed to the remake of Dawn of the Dead, little attempt is made to generate an underlying tension which cannot be dispelled by the effect. Thus, we notice in films like Independence Day and Armageddon – films that deal with nothing less than the possible destruction of the planet – that they want to banalise the surrounding events to emphasise the contrast between people getting on with their lives, and lives promptly destroyed by moments of impact. Kubrick wants much more to channel the special effect through unease, so that the effect is an exacerbation of mood, not a countering of it.
One way to explain this is to look at tangible versus intangible fear, or rather fear versus dread. Dread and the uncanny are often intangible states that cannot quite find their form – this is partly what makes them so ‘dread-ful’ and partly what Kubrick and Friedkin want to tap into. They want the tangible effects attached to a wider ‘dread-fulness’. Thus the effect works as no more than the explication of the dread, the justification for the dread, without in any way dispelling it. If we look again at the lift sequence early on in The Shining (though repeated later), we notice the scene isn’t there to ‘awe’ us but to disturb us. Now when using the term ‘awe’ what we mean really is a combination of the startle effect as Robert Baird defines it in an article of the same name in Film Quarterly (where we’re brought up short by a moment of intense surprise) combined with a sense of pacified impressiveness at the special effects work. It’s a bit like Thomson’s idea quoted above where we’re diegetically terrorised and also non-diegetically impressed. It is even as if the non-diegetic compensates, maybe dilutes, the startle, as the awareness of ingenuity almost coincides with the impact.
This is not what Kubrick is looking for, nor, generally the other filmmakers of an aesthetics of impact. In Kubrick, Carpenter, Friedkin and to some degree Ridley Scott in Alien, the awe, the awe defined by the dictionary as “an emotion compounded by dread”, rather than the “awe compounded by wonder” (Longman) needs to be greater than the special effect, not contained by it. Hence, at the end of The Shining, the film contains a haunted feeling that comes not from the effects but from the atmosphere the location generates. By the end of the film Kubrick manages to work a far higher degree of disquiet out of a picture of Jack Nicholson’s character working as a bar tender at the Overlook Hotel sixty years earlier than he does out of more conventional suspense moments, like the one where the summer caretaker comes back to the hotel in the middle of winter when he knows something’s gone wrong, and promptly gets killed as he arrives at the hotel. Whenever Kubrick works conventional suspense, startle moments or impacts aesthetics, the scenes seem weak next to the uncanny ones – suggesting Kubrick is much more, finally, a filmmaker of an aesthetics of impact over an impact aesthetic. After all, the latter tends to work best off the startle and special effects combined.
In Baird’s article, one of the examples he gives of a great startle moment is the head popping out of the hull of the boat in Jaws. Now this undeniably fits with impact aesthetics in terms of the quality of its startle. It’s easily more effective than the startle moments in The Shining, like the moment when Nicholson’s wife comes across the caretaker’s dead body, and might lead us to think that Spielberg is a filmmaker of impact aesthetics over aesthetics of impact. Yet we should remember that though Jaws is famous for its shark soundtrack, it also works extremely well with lengthy passages of quietly atmospheric music that can lead to the startle. So in the scene where Richard Dreyfuss discovers the cadaver, sure there is music leading up to the moment of terror, but this isn’t the sort of music that demands nerve crunching sounds and an over the top score to create terror in the wake of it, but that allows for just a slight upping of the ante. It still wants to work within a subdued sound-sphere rather than an agitated sound-sphere: it still wants us to hear hushed voices, domestic sounds and the breeze on the sea. In films like Speed, Independence Day and Armageddon, it’s as if everything has to be hyperbolized as the film creates a strident sound envorinment.
Now we might say that in films of fear there has always been the imaginary and the real. That is, imaginary in the sense, as Slavoj Zizek puts it in The Obscene Object of Post Modernity, “instead of directly showing the terrifying monster (vampire, murderous beast), its presence is indicated only by means of off-screen sounds, by shadows, and so on and thus rendered all the more horrible,” and real in the sense of realizing the monster instead of expecting us just to imagine it. (Jaws, interestingly, is probably better here with the imagination than the realization.) But now in many a spectacle film we don’t so much have the imaginary and the real, as the two subsumed into the hyper-real – into the hyperbolic that demands ever more concern for the exaggerated.
But, as we’ve proposed, with less of the human at stake. Now we’re not especially asking for the real to be eschewed for the imaginary, but just that the two can work in conjunction, without an overly emphatic hyper-real imposing itself on the film to the detriment of character, narrative and ethos. In an aesthetics of impact, all three are finally more significant than the special effects, and can allow for the diminishing return of the ever more elaborate pyrotechnics (which of course needn’t be eschewed), to be contained by the threefold aspects mentioned above. Now a fine example of this aesthetics of impact can be found in a film as far away from impact aesthetics as we’re likely to find: Alan Clarke’s low-budget, made for television film, The Firm. This short feature on London football fans constantly looking for a ruckus, works its moment of impact on the basis that the violence be administered by knives, razor blades, broken bottles and baseball bats. Yet near the end of the film what happens is that the central character, played by Gary Oldman, gets blown away with a shotgun by an opposing gang member. It is a brilliant example of bringing a gun into a film when we least expect it, and gaining maximum impact from its use. It also conforms to the threefold purpose of the action film (which incorporates horror, thriller etc) we’ve proposed: that it respects character, narrative and ethos. Now of course most people would say that The Firm is hardly an action film, and yet louder, bigger action movies can learn a lot from a work ostensibly belonging to sociological cinema (closer to Mike Leigh and Ken Loach) in looking at its specifics, at the way it justifies its action sequences.
Let’s look briefly, for example, at its use of suspense and surprise as Hitchcock so famously defined them in his dictum: terror by surprise, suspense by forewarning. Clarke works with both. Now he doesn’t generate suspense mechanically – not through say cutting from a dangerous object like a knife or a gun that will lead to inevitable violence. There isn’t the sort of cause and effect we take for granted in a film where it will cut, say to a pot of boiling water as the baddie grapples with the heroine. And where we know that soon she will have to resort to that boiling pot, and thus the film builds suspense as we wonder whether she’ll be able to reach the stove before the baddie. No, in Clarke’s film it is much more socio-politically integrated and slow-burning than that. Here Oldman’s central character has a habit of leaving sundry fighting items around. One of these happens to be a razor blade, and there’s a scene where his young daughter finds it lying in the sitting room and decides to chew on it: ripping her mouth to shreds before her parents discover what she’s doing. This is the sort of forewarned suspense that is barely forewarned at all. It isn’t mechanically inevitable, but sociologically plausible. It wants to create an environment of forewarning; not the inevitability of an action to come.
If that takes care of suspense, albeit reconfigured; then what about terror, or shock? Here we can return to the moment of Oldman’s death. We cannot see it coming because it isn’t sociologically forewarned: there is nothing in the milieu to suggest somebody will pull a gun out and kill someone instantly. In this sense Clarke’s use of shock is almost equal to Hitchcock’s in Psycho, in the death of Marion Crane, but possesses a more obvious socio-political purpose. It’s as though Clarke’s refusing to play the game that he’s set up narratively – which is really about rival football gangs getting their kicks every weekend with a bit of aggro – and suddenly replaces it with a new set of rules. But while this in some ways cheats the audience; it does so purposefully rather than emptily. It changes the rules not because it is a game, which would suggest of course cheating, but because it isn’t. The characters may think they’re playing a game, but Clarke is at pains to indicate they’re not, and utilises Hitchcockian tension and surprise to throw us back into some notion of a real world.
What we’ve been proposing here, then, are ways in which recent filmmakers can learn from genre masters of the past, directors who transcend the genre boundaries, or who utilise generic elements without actually working in ‘genre’ at all. This allows for options within shock, terror, suspense and audience manipulation without resorting necessarily to intensifying continuity and impact aesthetics, and allow special effects to play once again their dutiful role as bridesmaids and not brides.