The Visceral Screen: Between the Cinemas of John Cassavetes and David Cronenberg

The Visceral Screen: Between the Cinemas of John Cassavetes and David Cronenberg

by Robert Furze


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Narrative and spectacle describe two extremes of film content, but the oeuvres of John Cassavetes and David Cronenberg resist such categorization. Instead, Robert Furze argues, the defining characteristic of these directors’ respective approaches is that of “visceral” cinema—a term that illustrates the anxiety these filmmakers provoke in their audiences. Cassavetes demonstrates this through disregard for plot structure and character coherence, while Cronenberg's focus is on graphic depictions of mutilation, extreme forms of bodily transformation, and violence.

The Visceral Screen sets out to articulate alternative ways of appreciating film aesthetics outside the narrative/spectacle continuum. Cassavetes and Cronenberg are established auteurs, but the elements of their films that appear to be barriers to their artistic status—for example, slipshod method and lingering violence or pre-digital special effects—are reassessed here as other indicators of creativity. In this way, Furze encourages debates of what makes a film good or bad—beyond how much it is seen to adhere to particular, established models of filmmaking. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783203703
Publisher: Intellect, Limited
Publication date: 09/15/2015
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Robert Furze (1971–2013) was a member of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Science at Dublin City University and taught students of media and film at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

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The Visceral Screen

Between the Cinemas of John Cassavetes and David Cronenberg

By Robert Furze

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2015 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78320-372-7


The Visceral: From Adjective to Noun

In the introductory chapter, films such as Straw Dogs, I Spit on Your Grave, Un Chien Andalou and V for Vendetta were referenced as having a visceral affect based very much on their explicit content. They are violent films, or they are films that awaken long-dormant political feelings, or both. In each of these cases the relationship of the film to its visceral effect is in service to an agenda. The point here is that in each of these examples, the visceral effect – that is, the reaction of the viewer – has a visceral cause that is firmly established in the construct of the film itself. The editing in Straw Dogs and I Spit on Your Grave's rape sequences and the explicitly rendered mise-en-scène of Un Chien Andalou create visual motivation for viewer response, while the addition of an unequivocally politicized plot in V for Vendetta allows viewer empathy and emotion to be stirred by engagement with character and narrative.

While these are valid expressions of how visceral cause and visceral effect are exploited by cinematic devices such as through the manipulations of editing, mise-en-scène, plot and so forth, the understanding of what constitutes a visceral element in film for The Visceral Screen carves out a territory that is far less explicitly locatable through categories such as 'genre' or 'narrative,' or even by techniques – the cut, the shot – though it may certainly be regarded as working in parallel to our understanding of visceral experience as a mostly physical sensation. These visceral elements, in other words, are not defined by what is apprehended, but by what is hidden from the sight of the viewer. The visceral screen screens what is unable to be fully comprehended by the viewer's logical, sensory faculties (primarily the eyes) but is nonetheless undeniably present as an aspect of the filmed image. In this way the word 'screen' can be understood as operating a dual function: both revealing the image for what it is (in the sense that a movie is screened for an audience); and concealing the full meaning of that image from the audience, in the manner of a folding screen behind which a lady in a period drama may be deshabille while being hidden from the gaze of a man in the same room. Rajendran (2007: 173) discusses this dual purpose of the screen, inherent in the word itself:

The screen can be seen as a site for projection as well as a projection of sight since the underlying power of the screen is unequivocally linked to what it actually conceals. With each screen comes a frame that excludes more than it includes. What is on-screen effectively signifies an ongoing relationship with what is off-screen [...] This then frames what is being "screened" with all that is being "screened" out.

Here, of course, lies the problem: espousing a thesis based on the unseen aspects of the visible properties of a medium, and locating these properties while simultaneously acknowledging their incomprehensible function. It is a challenge of which Barthes is aware, what he notes as our inability "to achieve more than an unstable grasp of reality." Faced with the cultural object, we are "powerless" he says, "to render its wholeness." Reality, for our purposes, corresponds with the visceral, hidden aspect of the filmed image, and it is worthwhile remembering here Barthes' warning to those who endeavour to connect with the reality of the object: "if we penetrate the object, we liberate it but we destroy it" (2000 [1957]: 159).

Applied to cinema, the analysis of the image is therefore a matter of allowing the visceral element its liberty, while attempting to remove the screen behind which, hitherto, it freely danced. Thus the current project is a concentrated effort to expose that which would rather remain hidden. This, we might argue, is the ultimate aim of any film analysis. As Robert B. Ray uncovers in his ABCs of Classic Hollywood (2008), via Adorno (1938: 129) and Mulvey (1989: 16), it is "film studies' traditional project": "to break the spell" of cinema as it exists at "the crossroads of magic and positivism" (Ray, 2008: xiv).

Ray, however, is as concerned by the implications of liberating but destroying the object (film) as is Barthes. His solution – to liberate a film's meanings without breaking the spell of cinema – is an elegant proposition that, in spirit at least, is applicable to the analysis of visceral cinema. In his book, Ray studies certain key Hollywood texts through a filter that lends a degree of arbitrariness to his analysis. Using every letter of the alphabet, Ray finds an element in his chosen film that begins with each letter. It is through this self-imposed restriction that he feels he is able "to penetrate the movies' veil while retaining their hallucinatory quality" (Ray, 2008: xv). So, in each case, Ray finds a detail within a classic Hollywood text and working with that detail, discovering its specific role in the context of the film itself and as part of cinema "in general," in an effort to garner "idiosyncratic" and "unpredictable" results (Ray, 2008: xxiii). Ray's project, however, is to rediscover the magic of cinema in the objects that are readily available and imminently accessible to the viewer, belonging as they do firmly to the logic of the mise-en-scène (an umbrella in The Maltese Falcon [Ray, 2008: 231–232], the colour red in Meet Me in St Louis [Ray, 2008: 301–304], the painting of a marlin in The Philadelphia Story [Ray, 2008: 121]).

While this approach has certain correlations with the analysis of visceral cinema offered here, there is one significant difference. It is that, while Ray scouts the filmed image for meanings in locatable objects, in the study of the visceral elements of film proposed here the meanings are hidden and remain hidden precisely because they have no meaning within the logic of the film. So while there are certainly impulses to retain the 'magic of cinema' throughout this investigation into the visceral elements of cinema, the greater problem lies in finding the language to describe, and to analyse, these meaning-less aspects of the image. To do so we must begin by acknowledging that such visceral elements do in fact exist: they are qualities that exceed the logic of the cinematographic image. They are, then, excessive qualities of the image, going beyond what meanings a film should reasonably divulge.

Any attempt to understand the value of this excess as it appears in film studies and its relationship to the visceral experience must by necessity acknowledge a debt to Kristin Thompson's seminal essay on the subject, "The Concept of Cinematic Excess" (2004). As in Ray's hypothesis, Thompson here is evaluating cinema through an emphasis on the particular rather than the general; on regarding the individual elements of films rather than on an overarching theory of classifications, types, genres and so on. Unlike Ray, her systematic approach in analysing such elements does not aim to uncover any hidden meaning, or regard these elements as "clues" (Ray, 2008: xviii). Instead, Thompson asserts that excess operates as a force that effectively opposes efforts to unify a film. It is an agent that resists the logical construction of the film text (2004: 513). We might say then that it is impossible to have the same understanding of an excessive element of a film, because it does not succumb to the deductive reasoning that Ray employs to interrogate a detail of mise-en-scène. Excess is not evidence, it simply is. In this way, Thompson's excess has many commonalities with our first enquiry into the visceral properties of cinema. For in both cases certain elements detach themselves from the 'sense' of the film, threatening its "homogeneity" (Thompson, 2004: 513; see also Heath, 1975: 100). Thus excessive and visceral elements oppose (or "subvert;" Thompson, 2004: 515) the intellectual processes that attempt to order the film into a cohesive whole. It is worth continuing to investigate here Thompson's claims for the existence of excess in the filmed image. Her insights present a basis for a theory of visceral cinema. Such groundwork potentially offers a more thorough understanding of the visceral forces at work in cinema, and of the traditional forms of cinema – marked by intellectual unity and homogeneity – which they resist.


Thompson states that the most logical approach to creating intellectual unity/homogeneity in film (as in the novel or theatre) is through the development of narrative, which is the "interplay between plot and story; [where] plot is the actual presentation of events in the film, while story is the mental reconstruction by the spectator of these events in their 'real,' chronological order (partly on the basis of codes of cause and effect)" (Thompson, 2004: 514). A film becomes excessive, then, when a visual or auditory "device" appears as a "gap" or "lag" in that film's "motivation" ("the primary tool by which the work makes its own devices seem reasonable"). "At that point where motivation fails, excess begins" (2004: 517). Thus, in establishing film as primarily a material substance – which "depends on materiality for its existence; out of image and sound it creates its structures" (2004: 513) – Thompson can expose how all its "physical elements" can never entirely harmonize with the "smooth perceptual cues" demanded by narrative (2004: 513, 514). Thompson identifies four categories whereby "the material of the film exceeds motivation" (2004: 517). Since these categories present useful access to understanding visceral cinema, these examples will be detailed here.

The first of Thompson's categories pertains to cinematography and mise-en-scène, whereby "narrative function may justify the presence of a device, but it doesn't always motivate the specific form that individual element will take" (2004: 517). Taking an example from Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible Part I (1944), Thompson postulates that there "is some range of camera placements which would frame the scene adequately" to suggest the central character's importance and "impressiveness" (2004: 517–518). The "choices" made might, however, exceed what is necessarily required for us to infer Ivan's status (2004: 518).

The second category concerns time, so that "[w]e may notice a device immediately and understand its function, but it may then continue to be visible or audible for some time past this recognition." This is particularly pertinent when one views a film several times: "as we become familiar with the narrative (or other principle of progression), the innate interest of the composition, the visual aspects of the decor, or the structure of the musical accompaniment, may begin to come forward and capture more of our attention." The "excessive aspects" can thus be reflected on, so that the "function of the material elements of the film is accomplished, but their perceptual interest is by no means exhausted" (Thompson, 2004: 518).

The third category relates to narrative agency, in that "a single bit of narrative motivation seems to be capable of functioning almost indefinitely." Rather than advancing the plot, a "basic function" such as Ivan's intent "to formulate and embody the goal of unifying Russia" in Ivan the Terrible, becomes "extremely redundant" when "the repeated use of multiple devices to serve similar functions" merely succeeds "to expand the narrative 'vertically.'" In other words, if the train of a continuous narrative is visualized as operating on a horizontal axis propelled by causes and their effects, excess is the disruptive force that ruptures that train's momentum. In this way, such vertically imposed devices are "foregrounded primarily through their own innate interest" (Thompson, 2004: 518).

The fourth category involves the motif. Thompson writes, "[A] single motivation may serve to justify a device which is then repeated and varied many times. By this repetition, the device may far outweigh its original motivation and take on an importance greater than its narrative or compositional function would seem to warrant." In this way a motif may 'outlast' its usefulness, as it becomes less and less integral to the narrative's purpose, so that these devices "draw attention to themselves far beyond their importance in the functioning of the narrative" (2004: 518).

These four categories – mise-en-scène/cinematography, time, narrative agency and the motif – are able to inform us of how certain elements may surpass even the most rigorous narrative structure. We may thus be grateful to Thompson for identifying where and how in the activity of the film these elements can break free, and indeed how the problems facing the analyst of excessive qua visceral devices extends to the ability of these devices to "elude analysis" (2004: 518). She confronts this challenge while considering the material characteristics of the character Efrosinia in Ivan the Terrible:

That one can look at the visual figure in the images quite apart from her narrative function seems reasonably certain; we may go further and say with some confidence that one can perceive the visual figure even while following the narrative function it fills. But a discussion of the qualities of the visual figure at which we look seems doomed to a certain subjectivity. We may not agree that the texture of Efrosinia's skin has a "heavy, ugly dullness." The fact, however, that we can agree it has some texture opens the possibility of analysis.

(Thompson, 2004: 516)

Thus, however much visceral cinema may eventually and necessarily pull away from the concept of cinematic excess as being directly synonymous, a primary reading of both work on an assumption that the "critic and his/her reader must resist the learned tendency to try and find narrative significance in every detail" (Thompson, 2004: 516), so that as difficult a task it is to describe and evaluate, both cinematic excess and visceral cinema are essential to gathering a more comprehensive understanding of film.

Indeed, in this vein, Thompson's observations even manage to suggest that excess is a subversion, not just of form but of ideology. Responding to film critic Pauline Kael's "outrage" by Ivan the Terrible, which she accuses of being "static, grandiose, and frequently ludicrous" (Thompson, 2004: 519; Kael, 1968: 288), Thompson suggests that Kael's reaction "is in part a rejection of excess, the reluctance to consider the uneconomical or unjustified" (Thompson, 2004: 519). Consequently excess and visceral cinema may be allied since they both challenge the balance of form and content laid down by a hegemony of cinema fixated by "standardized usage" (2004: 519). In Thompson's understanding, of course, the unified work is an impossibility, since at any time a device can break free of narrative constraints, which itself is unsettling to those, like Kael, who believe every device can – and should – have some purpose (motivation) in service to the entire film:

[T]he claim that a device has no function beyond offering itself for perceptual play is disturbing to many people. Perhaps this tendency is cultural, stemming from the fact that art is so often spoken of as unified and as creating perfect order, beyond that possible in nature.

(Thompson, 2004: 516)

We can add that art as an ideal, as being organized and unified as opposed to nature's chaos, is a charge against visceral cinema as much as a denial of excess and its effects.

While excess is certainly disturbing to many people, as Thompson suggests, its ability to occur at any time to disrupt narrative may be noticed by the viewer, or it may not. Excessive elements, while there, may not be visible on a first, or even second, viewing. The 'disunified' elements of a film must be 'sought out' through, for example, the process of analysis by a film theorist. It may trouble the casual viewer enough in a primary viewing to find it. But what it is not is explicit. It may be explicit, but it is not an a priori condition for it to be regarded as excessive. For a device to be excessive it needs to only insistently break from narrative cause-and-effect. It therefore need not disturb through any inherent characteristic, but simply through being inappropriately placed. It may disrupt, confuse our perception of logic and order, but it will not immediately aaffect us bodily or emotionally; it will not offend us. In short it does not have to impose upon us viscerally. The difference between the visceral and the excessive elements of film is a matter of degree, by which the visceral element cannot be comprehended, but neither can it be ignored. We may sum this up so: all that is visceral is excessive; but not all that is excessive is visceral.

There are, in this case, two considerations in analysing the visceral elements in any given film. One is a matter of identification, of discovering the visceral element in the film; and, in the spirit of Thompson's categories, paying attention to where the ruptures in the logical structure of a film are likely to appear. The other consideration concerns approach, in establishing a method by which the visceral aspect of the image may be analysed and delivered through a process of description, of theory and through writing. Ray's solution, to puzzle over the minutest details of individual aspects of certain films – while it is designed to offer solutions to the questions he lays out for himself – presents a tantalizing idea of how theory might engage with the incomprehensible aspects of the image.


Excerpted from The Visceral Screen by Robert Furze. Copyright © 2015 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of Contents

Biographical Note

Cassavetes, Cronenberg, Barthes: A literature review
The viewer
The chapters to follow: An overview

Chapter 1: The Visceral: From Adjective to Noun
The visceral

Chapter 2: The Auteur and the Visceral Sense
The place of the author
The out-of-control auteur
The imperfect auteur
The auteur and the visceral sense: John Cassavetes and David Cronenberg
John Cassavetes
David Cronenberg
A few words on cult cinema

Chapter 3: John Cassavetes and David Cronenberg: Lists and Emptiness
Cassavetes, Cronenberg and the DVD special feature
Semiotics or semiology?
Paradigm / syntagm

Chapter 4: Effects
Camera Lucida
Love Streams
From film to video games
The Path
Digital / analogue
Reaching out, pulling away
Conclusion: The visceral ‘Wounds’

Chapeter 5: Cities
Princes and shards: Ideology’s response to the visceral
Eastern Promises
Views from bridges
No centre


Appendix A: The visceral – a relational model
Appendix B: Cassavantes and Cronenberg – An annotated filmography
Appendix C: Glossary


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