Part one of a series on artistic intent and experiential criticism. See part two.
Now seems as a good a time as any to revive an old argument that took away weeks of my life in college. Sweat was wasted, tears were shed. No blood was drawn, but the drawing of blood was central to the conversation. I’m drowning in horrific student loan debt and all I can make of it is that all that money went toward making this argument possible. I won’t go into the gritty details; they aren’t worth repeating. It was about the responsibility of the entertainment consumer-public in regard to the advancement and equal treatment of women, and it was inspired by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s 1996 action horror film “From Dusk till Dawn.” If only it had been held in a circle on the grass with a guitar and a couple of racially ambiguous bystanders – it could have been the centerpiece of a liberal arts promotional mailer.
“From Dusk till Dawn” has been a major part of my life since middle school. Along with “Enemy At the Gates” and the first season of “Lost,” it was one of the not-nearly-enough movies in my friends’ and my collective film library that ended up getting watched far too many times to actually be enjoyable. We watched it at 2 AM sleepovers. We watched it on first dates. We incorporated it into our common parlance and quoted it until we’d forgotten that we were quoting anything. The fact that “naugahyde pussy” was a part of my daily high school vocabulary is a testament to Robert Rodriguez’s fundamental role in my formation as a human being.
There are two ways to experience “From Dusk till Dawn.” The first is to go in 100% blind. Due to packaging and the modern reality of DVD menus, this is almost impossible unless you happen to chance across it on afternoon cable. If you have that opportunity, stop reading now and take it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I never got to experience.
Usually, though, you take the second route and go in knowing the obvious: “From Dusk till Dawn” is a vampire movie – a very silly vampire movie. The film follows two escaped convicts (Quentin Tarantino and George Clooney) as they flee across the Mexican border in the RV of a hostage-held family of three leaving behind a trail of robberies, explosions, and bodies. For its first hour, the film takes the tone of a gritty, darkly humorous action thriller: dry, bloody, and mostly realistic. About halfway through the film, however, “FDtD” transitions without warning into an over-the-top vampire film, complete with unrealistic violence, campy dialogue, and cartoonishly rendered vampires. The brutal cool of the first act is replaced by ironic absurdity. The film loses any sense of taste and becomes a deliberately cheap parody of action horror films.
Rodriguez and Tarantino’s apparent intent is clear: “FDtD” is an attempt to challenge audience expectations, the necessity of tonal integrity, and the notion of good taste in the action horror genre. It’s a happy, nihilistic movie, a celebration of inconsistency and irreverence. This is easy enough to go along with if you’re in the right mood. The vampire transition is jarring but ultimately humorous. It would seem that Rodriguez and Tarantino are laughing the entire way, and you, for the most part, accept their laughter and laugh along too.
The problem, though, is that there’s a good chance you won’t be in the right mood. This is especially likely if you go in blind. I’ve seen “From Dusk till Dawn” lots of times with lots of different people. The first time few times were with friends who had seen it before. The forth or fifth time was with a friend who we had intentionally kept in the dark. The last time – the critical one that spawned the framework for my collegiate existence – was with a couple, one who knew very little and one who considers it his personal prerogative to know most things about most things. Every time, the results were more or less the same – people who knew what they were getting into thought that it was funny; people who didn’t were profoundly disturbed. The afore-mentioned couple from college broke up a couple months after we watched it. I’m pretty sure the screening was a fundamental factor in the disintegration of their relationship.
There’s a reason for this. “FDtD” would be relatively unremarkable except for one scene: twenty minutes into the film, long before the transition, Tarantino’s character brutally rapes and murders a female bank teller. The act is not shown but the aftermath is, in a carefully shot and tonally serious scene in which Clooney’s character encounters Tarantino’s alone with the body in a blood-caked motel room. The ensuing dialogue is serious: neither character is affected by the murder, but the music and brutally realistic cinematography make it clear that the incident is not meant to be taken lightly. The teller’s death is not a joke; it provides the opportunity for the exposition of two very dangerous, very bad characters whose actions and personalities are meant to be repulsive and horrifying. The scene is in no way inconsistent with the first half of the film – indeed, it appears to set the film’s tone. Any thematic ambiguities seems to have been cleared: this is a dark, disturbingly realistic film in which nothing ought to be taken lightly.
My friends from high school had seen “FDtD” so many times on television before watching it in it’s entirety that they have an almost lived-in experience of the film – they know it so well that the supposed seriousness of the motel room scene is entirely unbelievable. The same goes for know-it-all friend who knew too much about what he was getting into to take the beginning of the film at face value. My other two friends, alternatively, had no idea what they were getting into. They weren’t expecting a parodic action comedy, and when they experienced the motel room scene they experienced it as a very serious representation of a very horrific event.
I wouldn’t take this particularly seriously if it were only these two friends who were so affected. One is squeamish and the other is an easily set-off feminist from whom I wouldn’t have expected anything less (she left the room the second the first vampire turned). The experience that matters most to me, however, was my father’s. He inexplicably rented “From Dusk till Dawn” one night, and when I later asked him what he thought he shook his head and said, “That’s a weird movie.” When I pressed him for details he mentioned the motel room scene and changed the subject.
If a movie is serious enough to affect my father then there must be something to it. “From Dusk till Dawn” does something artistically remarkable, and it seems worth one’s time to figure out what that is. This is a second-rate parody of a horror movie that has managed to make a profound impact on not only me but on some of the stoniest people I know. Intentionally or not, it succeeds emotionally where great works of art and literature fail, and that must mean something. It is beneficial then, to pinpoint what it does and how it does it.
“From Dusk till Dawn’s” central project is to create one reality and then violently disrupt that reality with a contradictory alternate reality. To experience the film is to experience something similar to what would happen if one actually went to a bar in Mexico and discovered that it was full of vampires. I’ve never been to Mexico or to a vampire bar, but I imagine that it would be shocking, absolutely so – the entirety of my reality would be devastatingly disrupted beyond all recognition. My reality is based in a large part on the nonexistence of undead monsters. If undead monsters proved to be real, everything that I once believed would become, at least partially so, a lie.
The realization that everything one believes is a lie is an unpleasant one to have, especially if one lives one’s life within a firmly grounded moral framework. One does not like to have one’s world violently disrupted, and when such a disruption occurs one more often than not turns against the disrupting force. This narrative plays out regularly, for example, when staunch Creationists confront evolutionary theory – evolutionary theory presents a borderline inarguable explanation of all life on Earth that directly opposes the Creationist view, but Creationists come out against evolutionary theory (or science as a whole) instead of turning on their own Creationist beliefs. The reaction to such foundational disruption is rarely (at least initially) rational. The disruption is shocking, and the most basic human reaction to such shock is horror, disgust, and violence.
This is essentially the experiential narrative that plays out when an unsuspecting viewer watches “FDtD” for the first time. He is led to believe one reality and then comes to the abrupt and violent realization that that reality is a lie. The first hour of the film establishes the thematic reality of the darkly serious thriller; standard emotional mores (disgust for violence, the sanctity of life, the horror of rape) are firmly established and implicitly endorsed (i.e., the film takes them seriously). The viewer has no interest in turning against these mores and exists fully within their experiential framework. He has no intent of turning against them, and if anything did turn against them he would find himself in opposition to it. This mentality is not only evoked, but strengthened (even initiated) by the film’s realism – particularly the motel room scene, which features a thematic (rape, torture, murder) that is almost always treated with the upmost seriousness. For the first hour, this is the reality that the viewer lives in, and he has no reason to do anything but accept it.
When the film changes tone – when violence becomes comedic, when women become humorous targets for slaughter, when Clooney’s character becomes the bold protagonist and Tarantino’s character receives a hero’s death – he experiences a reality shift akin to the introduction of evolutionary theory in a staunchly literal Christian society. He is so entrenched in his serious thematic reality that it is almost impossible for him to accept anything else; he can’t shake the horror of the hotel room scene, and he cannot accept the humor of the parodic vampire holocaust. Violence against women is still appalling; Tarantino’s character is still a monster; blood is still a reminder of torment and death. Suddenly the filmic tropes that in other contexts he is prone to take so lightly – sexism, valorization of the anti-hero, profound disregard for human life – become disgusting. Action films are no longer a source of escapist fun with easily ignored consequences but cinematic abattoirs. He hates the film for trying to take such horrific matters lightly. He hates Tarantino and Rodriguez for making something as serious as the brutalization of an innocent woman into a joke. He hates George Clooney for taking part in this project and begins to question his work in “ER” and wonders if “Fantastic Mr. Fox” really was such a great family film. He questions all movies, action, horror, and otherwise. He questions the entire bloodstained film industry and the global culture that so gleefully sponsors it. For two hours he is unable to accept that which he used to so lightly ignore, and when Rodriguez and Tarantino attempt to persuade him into the nihilist glee of their parody he refuses them in scorn.
Scorn for a distasteful action horror film is nothing special; most viewers of “FDtD” have long become accustomed to the weightless slaughter and abuse of women and in Tarantino and Rodriguez’s films, and a movie that treats these matters lightly is hardly worthy of note. “FDtD,” however, adds new weight to violence because of the severity of it’s comedic attitude. It takes rape and murder so lightly that the viewer is unable to accept it; he experiences a visceral reaction against the film because its thematic so drastically opposes his own. Again, this is not particularly special – any number of grotesque horror films could cater the same experience – but “FDtD” is unique in that it brings about the reaction not via external critical apparatuses but by means of itself. I react against “Cannibal Holocaust” or “I Spit on Your Grave” by means of their antagonism to my own pre-conceived notion of the weight of human life, but I experience the same reaction to “FDtD” by means of it’s antagonism to a notion of weight that it establishes for itself. I do not turn against “FDtD”: it turns me against itself.
Once again, the experiential distinction between “FDtD” and other similar projects must be made absolutely clear. Any number of artworks attempt to be deliberately unpleasant for ulterior motives (this is the foundation for the tragic genre), but “FDtD” brings about a critical experience that seems to deliberately defy the intended experience of the film itself. It’s helpful to discuss this in terms of artistic teleology – that is, the apparent intent and purpose of the artist. I don’t mean to say that “FDtD,” or any respectable work of art, has a “message” or explicit “theme,” but I do believe that there is an underlying artistic mentality to most works of art, and that mentality connotes a certain spirit that the artwork is meant to bring about. In other words, Tarantino and Rodriguez experienced “FDtD” in a certain way and intended their viewers to share that experience. I stress this only to make it absolutely clear that I do not use the term “teleology” in any explicit way – in my usage, teleology does not express any specific project or purpose, only an implicit artistic goal.
All this is to say that “FDtD” brings about a critical experience that directly defies its apparent artistic teleology. Any critical analysis of “FDtD” would make it apparent that the film is an unabashedly nihilistic project that gives no particular weight to human slaughter or violence against women. In fact, the film deliberately flaunts the notion of the viewer taking such things seriously – it presents them as weighty matters and then deliberately undercuts that weight, thereby mocking anyone who ever took them seriously. The problem with this project, however, is that the flaunting is too severe to be taken lightly. The motel room scene is so disturbing, so realistic, so serious, that the viewer is unable to shake the weighty reality it creates. The parody of the second half of the film cannot outweigh the seriousness of that scene, and as the parody heightens (and more and more vampires are slaughtered, and Clooney’s valorization increases) that seriousness only increases, and the viewer turns more and more against the film. The film’s deliberate defiance of the viewer’s contradictory experience only succeeds in strengthening that experience. And, since the viewer’s experience was initially brought about by the film itself, that contradictory strengthening would almost seem to be intentional.
This, of course, cannot be true. Nothing about the film would indicate that Rodriguez and Tarantino’s teleology is anything but nihilistic. No artistic statements, no interviews, no biographical or filmographic insights, would suggest that “From Dusk till Dawn” is in any way meant to bring about a viscerally serious antagonistic reaction that renews the viewer’s belief in the absolute sanctity of life. This is what makes the experience of the film so devastatingly effective. A serious oppositional reaction to “FDtD” is only possible because the film appears to be so absolutely opposed to seriousness; I experience a renewed horror of rape and murder because I reject the film’s teleological defiance of that horror. The film is only successful because I hate it.
But what if hateful rejection was Rodriguez and Tarantino’s intent? This question is a purely hypothetical rhetorical device. I do not mean to suggest that “From Dusk till Dawn” is anything other than a parody. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that Rodriguez and Tarantino’s film in any way attempts to cater an extraordinarily complex emotional experience. But, given the above experiential analysis, one might as well consider it as a possibility. Here we go, then, the critical equivalent of a grassy knoll conspiracy theory: both Tarantino and Rodriguez understand films and the power of filmic images, especially violent and sexual filmic images; they have demonstrated time and time again their intimate understanding of the effect of blood, whimpering faces, and emotionless slaughter on their audiences; they know that the mutilated body of a sexually violated middle-aged woman in a blood-splattered motel room is a horrifically emotional image that the average film viewer cannot easily shake from his mind; and they are clearly aware of the potential of experiential artistic direction – they created an intentionally jarring film with a deliberate and unexpected mid-film twist that was meant to disrupt and unsettle the viewer’s expectations. They are not amateurs; they know very well what they are doing.
So, what if? What if they created a film that deliberately brought about an experience in the viewer that deliberately contradicts the apparent teleology of the film? What if they marketed the film as a nihilist parody and stood by that marketing in all arenas of public life in order to reinforce that apparent teleology and strengthen the viewer’s oppositional reaction to it? What if they included the hotel room scene for the implicit purpose of disturbing the viewer in order to make him uncomfortable with the idea of glorified violence and to act with repulsion when he was unexpectedly confronted with it? What if “FDtD” is not a nihilistic work that makes light of human life, but the opposite, an attempt to shock the viewer into realizing the profound weight of human life and the horror of a cinematic culture that so blissfully denies it – a work imbued with an artistic teleology that deliberately defies the critically apparent teleology of the artwork itself?
Given Rodriguez’s tendency to include grotesqueries in even the most innocuous films (I will never recover from the scarring I received from the chemically disfigured “Fooglies” in the highly disturbing children’s film “Spy Kids”) and Tarantino’s profound disregard for anything at all, this almost certainly not the case. Rodriguez and Tarantino are both committed artists, but it seems unlikely that the entirety of their careers would be devoted to reinforcing the emotional experience of one of their earliest and least notable films. Besides, most people don’t experience “FDtD” in the way I’ve described. Most people think it’s kind of funny. If they’re at all moved by the motel room scene, they’re usually able to forget about it after a few minutes. People don’t throw themselves into an emotionally immersive experience of movies. It’s not healthy.
Nevertheless, “FDtD” can and does cater a significant critical response that indicates the possibility – intentional or not – of an artistic teleology that works deliberately against the apparent teleology of the artwork. It can be experienced as an artwork that works against itself, inspiring a critical teleology that exists beyond and against it’s own. No aspect of “FDtD” hints at this contradictory teleology, no aspect of Rodriguez or Tarantino’s lives, oeuvre, or stated intent alludes to it, no critic has ever considered the possibility of it – but enough people in my life have experienced it as I have described that it is impossible for me to ignore it as a possibility. Though it is highly unlikely that “FDtD” itself is an example of contra-teleological work, but it reveals the possibility of such a project, and presents the tools that could make such a project possible. It outlines a method for creating a work that acts against itself (presentation of one teleology, cementation of said teleology, deliberate defiance of cemented teleology that is artistically successful but an experiential failure), and in doing so provides the framework for the creation of a profoundly moving and largely unexplored form of art that has the potential to succeed emotionally in a world where total critical understanding has drastically undermined the potential for emotional success. “FDtD” is hardly a cinematic masterpiece, but it does serve as an example for the cinematic potential of a deliberately contradictory teleological revelation and is therefore a film that ought be given half a bit of mind – even if it is the wasted mind of a couple college kids who exist for the sole purpose of creating compelling promotional material for the continuation of wasted minds and wasted loan checks.
From Dusk till Dawn. Directed by Robert Rodriguez. Dimension Films. 1996.