Review of Aaron Kerner and Jonathan L. Knapp’s Extreme Cinema: Affective Strategies in Transnational Media. Edinburgh University Press. June 2016 (Hardback). August 2017 (Paperback). 192 pages.
review by Marc Démont, University of South Carolina.
In this co-written volume, Aaron Kerner and Jonathan L. Knapp offer a fascinating definition and comparative analysis of extreme cinema. Whereas ‘extreme cinema’ is often understood and characterised in relation to the horror genre, and torture porn especially, the authors suggest that it derives its effect as much from its specific content as from a particular attention to formal cinematic aspects. Starting with Linda Williams’ analysis of body genres, the authors convincingly suggest that extreme cinema aims to elicit a strong corporeal response (tears, laughs, disgust, masturbation, etc.) from the viewer’s body. To explain how this bodily response is made possible, the authors rely on different approaches, ranging from a precise and innovative reading of Julia Kristeva’s abjection to an astute presentation of Gilles Deleuze’s concept of meat. The articulation of these two dimensions of extreme cinema (attention to formal aspects and to bodily responses) allows the authors to loosen the automatic association between extreme cinema and the horror genre and to articulate it with other genres (melodrama, grotesque comedy, porn). Each chapter is therefore dedicated to developing and articulating these two aspects that frame the definition of extreme cinema.
The authors pay particular attention to sound in order to explore the inter-sensorial nature of perception and especially the interrelation between aural perceptions and bodily responses. Highlighting the fact that cinema is an audiovisual medium, the authors expand on Michel Chion (Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen) and Steve Goodman’s (Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect and the Ecology of Fear) inter-sensorial models to offer an account of the ways in which extreme cinema elicits strong affective and bodily responses. Affirming that received stimuli through the channels of the eyes and ears are felt and transformed within the body and contaminate other senses (touch, smell, taste), the authors successfully develop a model where the body’s perceptual system is in direct connection with the audiovisual medium in a way that precedes any cognitive responses. This model allows us to understand why on screen depictions of pain elicit disgust and vicarious pain even if the viewer knows that the torture is staged.
This theoretical framework, in offering a sensation-based definition of extreme cinema is, what makes Kerner and Knapp’s chapter dedicated to sex and eroticism particularly exciting. Instead of focusing on pornographic movies, the authors examine the ambiguous and porous borders separating sexual arousal, disgust and pain. Consistent with their analysis of sensations and cinematic representation, they affirm with movies such as Virginie Despentes’s Baise-moi (2000), Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs (2004) or Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2013), that not only does the ambiguity of sensations generate a sliding between different affects but also that this sliding is premised on formal cinematic aspects. These two dimensions are thoroughly discussed with a close reading of Wetlands (David Wnendt 2013) and its representation of sensations (smell and touch) and its exploration of the disturbing cinematic encounter between the sexual and the disgusting.
One of the particularly interesting aspects that the book offers is the inclusion and discussion of the (grotesque) comedy genre within the scope of extreme cinema. As mentioned, the authors closely follow the definition of body genres offered by Linda Williams. However, contrary to her, they develop a compelling argument to include comedy in the body genres. Whereas Williams follows a model based on onscreen mimicry, the authors affirm that even if the viewer does not laugh with the characters but, most of the time, at the characters, laughter can still be understood as a bodily response and, as such, can fall under the scope of extreme cinema. In that perspective, the authors offer a compelling account of laughter disconnected from the joke and its narrative composition. On the contrary, laughter is analysed as a bodily response and as a natural response that displaces abjection.
Despite offering a major contribution towards the understanding of the international phenomenon of extreme cinema, the reader interested in the transnational perspective that the title announces could be disappointed. Transnational media functions here as a vague term to describe a loosely comparative methodology. As a consequence, the authors avoid the thorny question of the relation between national cinematic traditions and extreme cinema as an international trend. In other words, the book offers little insight to understand extreme cinema on a more global stage and in its (trans)cultural diversity. The book nevertheless offers a solid and fascinating theoretical framework thanks to subtle movie analysis and following two major approaches to defining extreme cinema: on the one hand, its attention to the formal cinematic aspects and, on the other, its focus on the viewer’s bodily sensations and responses.
Marc Démont received his PhD in comparative literature from the University of South Carolina where his dissertation focused on queer theory and French contemporary philosophy. He is currently working on two different projects. The first one is a study of the horror genre and more particularly the New French Extremity cinema, and the second one develops a queer psychoanalysis of touch.