Between Fear as a Spectacle and Interiorized Fear

1. If modern cinema—we will return to this later—addresses our most intimate fears, Hollywood cinema, basically action movies, likes to terrify the spectator in order to release a maximum of emotions, however basic: this is also a reason to go to the movies … This is shown by the plethora of special effects—and by the budgets allocated for them—and seeing an American blockbuster has something of the slightly nauseating experience of a double loop on a roller-coaster (to paraphrase Jean-Luc Godard, American cinema generates forgetting instead of fabricating memory!).

2. Without looking at horror movies where blood flows in torrents and chain-saws massacre merrily providing pleasure for some and pain for the rest, we must recall that André Bazin, the father of modern cinema criticism, put many famous moviemakers under the banner of the »cruelty movie.« [1] The best known among them, Alfred Hitchcock, became the master of suspense, which he distinguished from surprise, since the spectator knows the evil threatening the protagonists who themselves ignore everything about it. (We could easily analyze a sequence from Psycho or The Birds to see how the master creates suspense and the delicious sensation of fear that follows.) Even if the cruelty in these movies consists first of all in the cruelty of the characters as well as in that imposed on them by the director: the fear experienced by the spectator is entirely secondary.

3. To return to contemporary cinema, Hollywood provides an excellent catalogue (or mirror) of our present fears, and the industry of the spectacle did not have to wait until September 11th, 2001 to stage it—even if, a contrario, the beginning of the tormented new century has produced a slight seizing up of the machine for the provocation of thrills, only if thereafter to resume its systematic exploration with new energy. (Let us not forget that the science-fiction movies of the 1950s spoke of the fear of communism and the Godzilla movies of nuclear threat amidst the Cold War.) Let us take a few contemporary titles well-known to the public: Alien tells of the fear of the Other, embodied by a dignified monster descending from medieval creatures of hell; Terminator, of the revolt of the machines; Armageddon, of the threat from outer space; The Day After Tomorrow, of the fantastic acceleration of climate change; The Sons of Man, of a population that has become sterile, invaded on all sides by refugees; The Sum of All Fears, of nuclear threat; Curfew denounces Middle-East terrorism, et cetera. [2] This goes so far that the infernal spectacle of September 11th was perceived by many TV spectators as an image worthy of a sordid B-movie! But there is no muscular savior here blowing up the meteors or repulsing the demons into intersidereal space at the peril of his life. In reality, the king and America are naked! Yet there is one common point, the learning of fear—as the engine of consumption, according to some analysts, or the cover-up of real problems, according to others—and a salvation as spectacular as it is unrealistic.

4. While in the department of merry apocalypses, let us note, in passing, a few definitely deeper movies telling of this recurring fear of the end of time. The first of these, Le Jetée by Chris Marker, a great director and multimedia artist, probably provides the mould for all the others, starting with Terminator, which we just mentioned. A man returns from the future to try to save the world from a Third World War and fails. I do not insist upon this film for formal reasons, because it is made of a succession of black and white photographs, but because of the way it distils horror and oppression in a totalitarian world gone mad, just as in Hitchcock. Fear turns from the spectacular to the internal. We are closer to Franz Kafka than to Hollywood. In The Sacrifice, Andrei Tarkovsky proposes a spiritual answer to nuclear threat. But the insidious, rampant fear answered by the extraordinary prayer is present throughout the whole movie. More recently, The Time of the Wolf by Michael Hanneke tells of the consequences of war and questions poor mankind, as The Shame by Ingmar Bergman did much earlier. In the latter movies, fear becomes interior and provides the opportunity to reflect on the human condition facing horror rather than showing the cathartic appearance of horror—more demoralizing than comforting. The aim here is not to astound and to discharge the viewer of responsibility, but to provoke thought.

5. In fact here, and this is the other great difference from the contemporary Hollywood movie, we are interested not so much in the fear imposed on the spectator as in that experienced by the characters, be they fictional or real.

6. The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze distinguishes classical cinema, essentially the action movie, from modern cinema as follows: »The action movie exposes sensorial-motoric situations: the characters are in a certain situation and they act, sometimes with violence, according to what they perceive. The actions follow the perceptions, the perceptions continue in the actions. Let us now take a character in an ordinary or extraordinary situation beyond all possible action or leaving him without reaction. It is too strong, or too painful, too beautiful. The sensorial-motoric link is broken.« [3] He quotes as examples the characters played by Bergman in Roberto Rossellini’s movies like Stromboli, Europa 51, or Travel to Italy … all broken by something »too strong, too painful, too beautiful.« Does this not also happen when fear takes hold of this or that character? The tandem action-reaction (in other words, the sensorial-motoric link) is, as it were, broken.

7. Modern cinema is fond of this kind of character, starting with Rossellini and Wim Wenders and going up to John Cassavetes. In fact, the existential fear triggered by this »too strong, too painful, too beautiful« challenges reason and comes often very close to madness. In Anguish (Angst), adapted from the eponymous story by Stefan Zweig, Irene Wagner, alias Bergman, is hunted by guilt. During the captivity of her husband, she had a lover. As she breaks off the affair, a mistress of her lover surfaces and blackmails her. By and by, she realizes that her husband has invented the whole plot in order to force her to confess her infidelity. Classical middle-class drama, you will say! There is, however, more than that to this rather unknown work of Rossellini. As in all his movies with Bergman, one understands from a psychological point of view the acceleration of the crisis experienced by the female character. But something larger, more serious, deeper than just guilt takes hold of the character of Irène and pushes her towards the abyss … before carrying her back, in fine, towards light, in this movie, as black as an existentialist thriller.

8. The same holds for the female characters of Cassavetes, an independent American director who died at the end of the 1980s. One guesses what pushes the character played by Gena Rowlands into madness in A Woman Under Influence. Mabel plays the role of model wife in her life, a role too big for her, falls apart piece by piece and stops being herself. An unexplained and basically unexplainable fear mixes into her life, in spite of the love of her husband played by Peter Falk. Cassavetes summarizes in lapidary fashion the central question of the movie: »Mabel’s chief problem is that she has no I. She does all she can to please everyone except herself …« The fundamental problem of an identity broken under the pressure of a suffocating family model. Last refuge: madness! Closer to us, Donigan Cumming, contemporary photographer and video-artist, makes a portrait of Montreal marginals, of those pushed aside, showing their dark as well as their luminous sides. One must see the laughter and the tears of Colleen in If Only I. Paralyzed after an attempted suicide, she confronts, in turn both broken and radiating, the insistent, sometimes shameless questions of Cumming. This is a paradoxical relationship where the feigned cruelty of the director arouses the deep compassion of the spectator: Is Colleen not a late descendant of the characters interpreted by Bergman for Rossellini or by Rowlands for Cassavetes?

9. The great directors of the documentary movie—Frederick Wiseman, Raymond Depardon—have used the techniques of direct shooting—lightweight camera, synchronous sound—to confront madness directly. Titicut Follies, the first movie of the American director, was censored for a quarter of a century. Without comments, close to his characters, he shows broken identities whose decay is reinforced by the prison violence of penitentiary-like psychiatric institutions. Madness and extreme loneliness go hand in hand. In Urgences, by Depardon, a famous photographer and movie director, the clinical context is different: there is more concern and the distress is generated by ordinary life in the big city. One should see the sequence where the bus driver explains why he stopped his vehicle in the middle of the traffic. No visible fear in this sequence; on the contrary, much softness, but also much despair: the man was exhausted, he burst into tears. Today one would speak simply of burning out.Depardon’s camera is fixed, hardly moves, and the director does not ask questions: he is on the driver’s side. Still more moving is the story of the nurse who can no longer take care of the children she is in charge of after having been raped. She too is exhausted but her drama is deeper. And she is truly broken, to the point of not hearing the children calling in the hallway next-door. Here, too, the cutting is minimal; it is nearly one single sequence establishing an extraordinary presence and enabling deep empathy. In another sequence a retired man has just attempted suicide. The dialogue with the doctor reveals his deep distress. He cannot stand the color of his flat anymore, revealing symptoms of a solitary life that has turned entirely unbearable. Even if the man reveals himself to be an excellent actor of his own distress, his attempted suicide is an obvious call for help.

10. With the birth of video art, the breaches opened by the cinema of the real are extended, deepened, and transformed. Conversation in front of a camera takes on new dimensions, beyond the interruptions owed to cutting. In Portrait Oblique, a video essay shown in 2005 at the Venice Biennale, Ingrid Wildi Merino questions, over a space of three months, the wandering, distress, and loneliness of her brother who lives in a hostel for the homeless in Zurich … Coming from Chile, he experiences hard times in Switzerland, falling into depression and drifting away. He is a stranger whose double nationality blurs the definition of his identity. In the eyes of the other, he will always remain different: »I have had the experience of being a stranger in both countries … some said as an apology ‘I am a world citizen’ … but being a world citizen means: ‘I am globalized’.« The identity of migrant persons vacillates; they will never belong to here or elsewhere anymore. As Wildi Merino asks: »Did you lose your identity or your history?« Hans Rudolph answers: »Yes, sometimes yes; sometimes I feel as if I were losing my identity … but not my history, even though these two are linked together … but not always.« Beyond words: the gestures, the transformation of his face due to medication, to the suffering of perpetual shipwreck, to fear!

11. These kinds of trajectories, which mark us deeply, all the more because we could very well share them, are also the subject of the cinema of the real, which lends its voice to and testifies for them. New zones of darkness are exposed, such as violence at work, or that related to the new phenomena of migration. In their very moving documentary Not All Died But All Got Hit, which continues the cinematographic tradition beginning with Wiseman and Depardon, Sophie Bruneau and Marc-Antoine Roudil observe suffering at work. Using the study by Christophe Dejours, Suffering in France, the film follows the conversations of patients and clinical staff in various hospitals in Paris. The fear of losing one’s job, the new paces of work, generate new pathologies. One must see the first interview, in which a woman admits »turning into a robot« and always doing more than necessary in order to avoid losing her job. She feels humiliated, on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Fear, first individual, becomes collective. The pressure is enormous. The change took place when the family business was purchased by a large American company; globalization of precariousness!

12. When Men Weep by Yasmine Kassari shows yet another aspect. The movie follows the ordeal of Moroccan immigrants working in agricultural plants in the south of Spain. She collects very beautiful testimonies of enduring precariousness, of daily humiliations, of repeated sackings and expulsions. Kacem explains: “To come back for good, there is no way … To stay for good, that’s impossible … It’s human nature to get used to this.”The men weep, their life is a misery, they are destroyed by fear, being accepted as workers and rejected as residents, threatened by pogroms like those of February 2000. Closer to us in time, Welcome Europa by Bruno Ulmer obtained this year the Inter-Religious Award at the Festival Visions du Réel. It describes the dejection of those who emigrate, attracted by the luxury and wealth of Europe, dreaming of a better future. The harder they fall: wandering, prostitution, a life in loneliness and fear, and sometimes suicide … A moving documentary deliberately coming close to fiction, staging the bad times of this or that character, going in the direction of modern cinema as described by Deleuze.

13. To conclude and so to speak »close the circuit,« I would like to return to the question of fear related to war with three contemporary examples. In Fragments 1990–2006, Gérard Allon shows us the rise of fear during Israel’s recent incursion into Lebanon. In fact, the director narrates the entire recent history of the Near East by means of diversion, by dialectical cutting (similar to Godard’s) of news pictures, of advertisement movies or of fictions such as Dr. Strangelove, the Rambo series or the kung-fu movies … What has this to do with fear, you may ask? Beyond the preparation of the son for war and of the family for eventual chemical retaliation, the movie tells masterfully of the mental fabrication of war through oppressive and stereotyped pictures, and denounces with brio the audiovisual and collective fabrication of fear!

14. To come down to reality, two series of pictures having nothing to do with fiction or fantasy. In Strawberry Fields, Ayelet Heller shows daily life in an Israeli-Palestinian company producing strawberries on the Gaza strip. Where one sees how one must keep working and working in spite of the missiles and of fear. It is also a question of dignity … One should see the sequence where the shooting crew is threatened by Israeli bombing, the camera being mistaken for a rocket launcher by a drone. In a short film called Sarajevo Film Festival Film, Johan van der Keuken, the very great Dutch documentary filmmaker who died in 2000 from cancer, shows the daily life of a young woman living in Sarajevo during the siege of the city. When the building before which she cultivates a little plot of land becomes a target, the young woman does not stop tilling the soil and the cameraman does not interrupt the shooting. In this unique sequence—an ethical and a political gesture—fear and terror are actually present. We will never forget her face, since we are with her, just like the cameraman. And the young woman explains what helps her to continue in this climate of terror. It is precisely cinema, allowing her to dream, hope, remain free, and enabling her to keep her belief in mankind and in this world in spite of daily horror.

More about this topic in the publication Dealing With Fear.

  1. Jump Up André Bazin: Le cinéma de la cruauté: Eric von Stroheim, Carl Th. Dreyer, Preston Sturges, Luis Buñuel, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa. Paris 1987.
  2. Jump Up An excellent study describes the close links between American movie production, the mental construction of the enemy, and the development of means to respond to an aggression thought to be certain: Jean-Michel Valantin: Hollywood, le Pentagone et Washington, Les trois acteurs d’une stratégie globale. Paris 2003.
  3. Jump Up Gilles Deleuze: Pourparlers, 1972–1990. Paris 2003 (translation by Christophe Kotanyi.