Two gallery artists subvert TV doc
“The horror genre is not trying to make you think.” Stephen King spends an hour arguing this thesis in Turner Classic Movies’ original documentary A Night at the Movies: The Horrors of Stephen King (airing 8 p.m., Oct. 3 on TCM). King emphasizes the way scary movies get the spectator to recoil, rather than their potential to enlighten. He pantomimes “the gasp, the turning away” to define the “reaction a filmmaker is going for in a horror movie.” Consequently, he traces the history of horror as a progression of shock tactics.
King reduces horror to novelty. Such an approach inevitably, yet misleadingly, comes to the film adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie (1976). The terror/elation of director Brian De Palma’s climax—a hand reaching out of the grave—opens up a revelation about the subconscious space of dreams and one’s waking-life relationship to the Other. This is familiar territory in Surrealist art. With the ending of Carrie, De Palma devised a radical the-horror-never-dies shock ending that spawned a legion of imitators, some of which King catalogs here.
Carrie’s hand seems to extend across time and art snobbery to a current Chelsea gallery exhibit. “I draw and then I think,” Marko Velk explains regarding his process of setting charcoal to paper. The results, on display at the Cueto Project’s Transitation exhibition, reflect a relationship between the artist’s subconscious and the iconography of Western culture: Christian, literary and folkloric. Velk’s “Ophelia” conveys the relief of relaxed hands, floating in darkness, that once grasped onto flowers and life. The charcoal medium provides a hauntingly palpable sense of the delicacy of flesh. The gallery presents “Seduction” as the flip side to Velk’s “Ophelia.” Flesh signifies in “Seduction” through Velk’s evocation of tension in the richly detailed hands embracing a skull. In all of the Transitation pieces, Velk attunes the viewer to the fear of mortality at the core of Horror—and finds beauty in its essential humanity.
With Carrie, De Palma innovated genre to express complex human truths. Yet King’s doc lecture cheapens De Palma’s gesture of mortal and emotional vulnerability—shared by the pop audience in one awesome gestalt. In A Night at the Movies, King diminishes De Palma’s achievement as a “terrific piece of work.” King repeats variations on that term—“piece of work”—throughout, as if horror films were only reaction-making machines, thus limiting the value of all horror films to the level of product. This might explain King’s own prolific output. However, De Palma transformed King’s “piece of work” into a work of art.
King’s voice-over lands on a still from John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977): “Even psychologists who’ve studied the genre don’t understand what works and what doesn’t work.” Boorman takes film audiences way beyond King’s conception of how horror “works.” The freedom afforded by the horror genre allows Boorman to realize astonishment: primal imagery (tapping the collective unconscious) and mystical social metaphor (the wings of Pazuzu). This visionary (corrective) sequel to William Friedkin’s 1973 film contradicts King’s thesis. Transcending the realm of “psychologists,” the engaged spectator discovers the full terror of The Heretic: Evil exists. But so does Good. It represents a total metaphysical statement. The achievements of De Palma and Boorman suggest an alternative (auteurist) history of horror to the one presented in The Horrors of Stephen King. Carrie and Exorcist II represent high points in film history where the genre market provided the possibility for an artist’s personal expression to reach a mass audience.
At the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, Haim Steinbach’s Creature show makes hilarious spectacle of the connection between subconscious processes and consumer culture. On the first floor, Steinbach deliberately arranges found objects (toys, figurines) on shelves. He encourages the spectator to consider how the mind constructs narrative (the bather) or finds pleasure and meaning in harmonious—yet fantastic—shapes, color and scale (robot poetry). In A Night at the Movies, King geeks out on the suspension of disbelief signified by the audience’s acceptance of a man in a rubber suit as “the most horrible creature there is” in The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). He observes a psychological and social phenomenon, but succumbs to its exploitation for unthinking thrills. Steinbach goes deeper. On the second floor of Creature, Steinbach challenges the spectator before reaching the exhibit’s unexpected final destination: “You don’t see it, do you?” The unseen made seen: Steinbach reveals that there are subconscious, human impulses behind mass-produced products and popular culture. The more you think about the profound punch line to Creature, the scarier it gets.
A Night at the Movies: The Horrors of Stephen King
Oct. 3, 8 p.m. (ET/PT), Turner Classic Movies, www.tcm.com.
Through Oct. 29, Cueto Project, 551 W. 21st St., www.cuetoproject.com, 212-229-2221.
Through Oct. 22, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, 521 W. 21st St., www.tanyabonakdargallery.com, 212-414-4144.
John Demetry erases the border between pop and art in his book The Community of Desire: Selected Critical Writings (2001-2007), available at www.lulu.com.