Sunday, September 13, 2009

Man is a Wolf to Man: An Appreciation of Wolfen

One could argue that the three classic monsters of American culture are the vampire, zombie, and the werewolf, each handed down by folklore and solidified in popular culture. (I am leaving the Mummy out of this, as well as Frankenstein’s monster which is not a generic type, but a specific monster) Of these three the first two are definitely dominant. They not only make up much of the films, comics, and TV shows, but they have proven themselves the most versatile in terms of both the kinds of stories they can tell and what they can symbolize. Vampires are truly polymorphous in their significations. They are situated everywhere that sex intersects with death and fear. Zombies have proven to be much more versatile, symbolizing everything from the drudgery of work to the insatiable desire to consume.

Werewolves have lagged behind their cinematic brethren for at least two reasons. The first is purely technical. The werewolf is difficult to pull off, it is hard to combine the figure of the wolf with that of a human in a way that looks both convincing and menacing. The new CGI technologies do not really help either, leaving us with oddly hairless werewolves in the case of the Underworld movies. More importantly the werewolf has not proven itself so adept at symbolization, at providing the subtext that makes a horror movie work. There is the general theme of the animal within, but this is almost too literal, too direct, in the case of the werewolf. When it comes to symbolizing unchecked desires, the id within, the vampire and zombie have the market cornered. Vampires have become such versatile symbols of sexuality that they can cover everything from queer identity (True Blood) to the fear and desire of a first sexual encounter (Buffy). Zombies cover a more inchoate desire or hunger, but one that has been linked to shopping ever since Romero’s zombies went to the mall. With sex and consumption covered there is very little left of unchecked desire for the werewolf to symbolize.

However, it is possible to detect a bit of exhaustion with each of the two big figures. When vampires become part of a series of novels about teenage abstinence and when zombies are part of a Woody Harrelson comedy, one has to ask how many more movies can be churned out. It is at this point that our attention turns toward the werewolf as perhaps the next big thing in movies. In order for this to happen the werewolf will have to find its place in some kind of symbolic economy.

(This idea, the idea of the monster as symbol, is not sophisticated at all; in fact, one could argue that it constitutes a kind of degree zero of film interpretation, cited by almost anyone who does not know the gaze from the look. That is precisely my interest in it, and in so-called genre films themselves, which demand at least a minimum of interpretation to be viewed at all)

All of this is really a preamble to writing a few words about Wolfen. I know that I saw this movie years and years ago, during an adolescence in which I watched a lot of monster movies. Infinite thought posted about the film recently, suggesting a secret connection between it and Chris Marker, at least at the level of documentary footage (scroll down to September 5th). This prompted me to watch the film again.

The opening scene situates the film within the universe of the post-Watergate paranoid thrillers and the early films of Cronenberg. It is a world in which total and complete surveillance is emerging as a reality, carried out by a global corporation in a sterile and imposing office tower. This corporation, ESS, is responsible for protecting the elite against such forces as the Red Brigades, NAM, and Red Army Faction (all mentioned by name in the film). Caught between these two global forces are the police, city coroner, and a scientist at the city zoo, their dilapidated offices stand in sharp contrast to ultra sleek interiors of the corporations and super rich. This is very much a film about urban space, about the layers of space as the new city is built over the old. The old city cannot be entirely effaced by the new--the ruins, Native Americans, and wolves remain. The spaces also constitute a kind of shorthand for the dynamics of power: the powerful inhabit the skyscrapers and the powerless dwell in the derelict spaces of old buildings, the middle ground is made up of small shops and overburdened structures of civil society.

The plot of the movie begins when the wolves (or, inexplicably, wolfen) attack and kill a wealthy real estate developer, his wife, and driver. (As something of an aside I should point out that these are wolves, at least in appearance, and not awkward half-wolf/half human creatures that I wrote about above. Their human part comes in through their intelligence, and the suggestion that they were once part of an original tribe of man and wolf, a kind of cross-species primitive communism) The police and private corporation (ESS) each conduct their investigation of the murders, and from that point forward the film becomes explicitly about what is seen and unseen. This is highlighted in the films primary special effect, a kind of wolf-vision, in which the wolf’s perspectives is shown in a kind of pseudo-infrared, seeing in the dark where humans cannot see. Less explicitly, the corporation turns its attention to the usual subjects, various international terrorist groups and even a disgruntled rich daughter, playing at being radical, subjecting them to the latest biometric techniques to distinguish truth from fiction. In contrast to this the cop, Dewey Wilson (played by Albert Finney) teams up with the city coroner (played by Gregory Hines) to investigate the margins of the city, derelict spaces and a Native American bar. All of the different actors of the film are distinguished as much by what they can see as what they look at.

The difference of vision is not just framed in terms of how the two investigation agencies look—the corporation rounding up subjects to place in their high tech monitoring equipment versus the street smart cop investigating leads—but ultimately in terms of what they see. Wilson’s investigation leads to an encounter with a group of Native Americans who have relocated to New York City to work in the construction industry. One of these, Eddie Holt (played by Edward James Olmos), plays the role of informant, explaining to Wilson the origin of the wolves that live at the heart of New York City. As Holt and an elderly native American explain to Wilson.

Eddie Holt: It's not wolves, it's Wolfen. For 20,000 years Wilson- ten times your fucking Christian era- the 'skins and wolves, the great hunting nations, lived together, nature in balance. Then the slaughter came.The smartest ones, they went underground into a new wilderness, YOUR CITIES. You have your technology but you lost. You lost your senses
Elderly Native American: In their world, there can be no lies, no crimes.
Eddie Holt: No need for detectives.
Elderly Native American: In their eyes, YOU ARE THE SAVAGE.

In the end this how Wilson does not so much solve the crime, but brings the narrative to a close, by recognizing that the savage and brutal attacks that he has been investigating are a kind of justice. He learns to see himself as savage, as outsider, to his own city. The wealthy real estate developer killed in the beginning was planning to convert the wolves’ space, the abandoned buildings they live in, hunting the sick and forgotten of the human pack, into condos and commercial development. In the final scene, when Wilson is cornered and surrounded by the wolf pack, he destroys the model of the new real estate development. This is an interesting reversal of the clichéd scene from horror and fantasy movies in which the protagonist has to destroy the magic amulet or some other cursed object in order to destroy the monster: the same magic which created the monster must be destroyed, restoring a natural balance. In this case the monster is us, and what has to be destroyed is not some primitive magic, but a symbol of urban gentrification. In the end what makes the movie interesting is how it solves the problem of the werewolf as symbol and subtext. The wolves are not symbols of some repressed animal nature, but are the return of the repressed, the vengeance of a population subject to genocidal slaughter.


Anonymous said...

Sometime in the future I had planned on making a list of all the "horror" movies that feature the noble Native American as the origin of the creature doom inflicted upon the cast. But much like an essay I will never write about how BUFFY and TWILIGHT promote an empowered sexual abstinence, delayed coital penetration through the dusty stake or wispy glimmering other romance, the Indian burial site/land grab piece will remain filed away in an unfinished chapter in a longer work on failure.

Shelton Waldrep said...

Jason, I really enjoyed your post. Indeed, 1981 is the year of the wolf: Wolfen, An American Werewolf in London, and the Howling. I think one could make a strong case for each of them functioning to tell us something abut the dawn of the 80s: Wolfen, as you discuss, about the genocide of Native Americans (among other beings); American Werewolf about the abject fear of terrorism (the American student's nightmares of terrorists invading his parents' home); and the Howling (my personal fav) for its use of media (television) with which to expose the truth about werewolves. At the time they cam out it was difficult to process them all. But it now seems like a high-water mark for the werewolf as symbol. American Werewolf has just been re-released on a new dvd version and I bet the wolf transformation scene in the apartment in London still holds up in the age of cgi. It's a sexy film that represents the uncanny better than almost any film ever has. It is probably the most conservative as well. But all three films deal with the question of identity, esp. American identity. In American Werewolf the sense that the young backpacking student has of being in a foreign land, even though its England, is made an effective metaphor for the beginning of the estrangement of leftist Americans from their own culture under Reagan and for rightest Americans a celebration of their xenophobia, of traditional American identity confirmed. It's a film that satisfied everyone. Of course, finally, the monster is inside and the division is internal--a fact perhaps lost in the romantic ending.

unemployed negativity said...

Thanks, Shelton. I had no idea that those three movies all came out the same year, which pretty much means that three of the best werewolf movies were all made the same year. I really like The Howling as well. It has an interesting subtext about fears of mind control of all sorts: media, cults, and psychiatrists. If I remember correctly it deals with a commune of werewolves that live with a psychiatrist in Northern California. Your comments make me want to revisit an American Werewolf in London. I have to admit it scared me to death as a kid. Since Landis was the director my parents thought that it was going to be funnier.

Ron said...

Hello, fellows! I just had a thought about "American Werewolf," which I think is relevant to Jason's point about the return of the repressed. "American Werewolf" is also a zombie-ghost movie, and the running gag of the undead in the picture is used to suggest that the dead we leave behind might love us or hate us for what we've done, but they can't absolve us. And, for that matter, love from the living can't redeem us.

David Marin-Guzman said...

Really interesting post. There does seem to be an ethnic or foreign component to the werewolf. Isn't the idea behind the new Twilight film that the Native Americans are actually werewolves? And, in the upcoming remake of The Wolfman, Benicio Del Toro also plays the American werewolf returning to England. And of course there was Michael Jackson the werewolf in John Landis' Thriller (his other zombie transformation perhaps more a reflection of his hyper commodified status?). Whatever sexual/phallic component there is to the werewolf seems to be tied up with its foreign otherness. When you take away the foreign element and leave just the sexual component the wolf becomes somewhat sanitised (ala Teenwolf!). At least I think this racial element of the wolf was expressed best in the horror cinema of the 80s and early 90s, a turbulent time in racial politics.

Will Roberts said...

One word: Gingersnap!

Seriously, have you seen in UN? I think it nicely reveals the core of the werewolf genre: the uncontrollable body. This is also why Teenwolf should be taken seriously as a werewolfmovie. If vampires have the sex/death nexus of Christian morality locked down, and zombies are all over the consumption compulsion of late modernity, then werewolves are about the problem of intentional action and conscious mastery of nature. They bespeak our fear of the bereakdown of technology.

unemployed negativity said...

Will, Oh, I totally forgot about Gingersnap, or is it Gingersnaps. I like that one, and I think that you are right about it. I have heard that one of the sequels is also interesting. In my view, however, there is still a way in which the werewolf remains undefined, borrowing much of its themes from the vampire and even the ghost story. Wolfen is in some sense about the vengeance of the past on the present, and even an American Werewolf in London adds a bit of the ghost story with the victims returning as guilt personified.

timelord said...

Sorry Jason, I too instantly thought of Gingersnaps! The film is an excellent portrayal of a nascent sexuality.