Friday, December 02, 2011

Horrors Old and New: Remaking Reality

"Horror consists in its always remaining the same—the persistence of 'pre-history'—but is realized as constantly different, unforeseen, exceeding all expectation, the faithful shadow of developing productive forces."—Theodor Adorno

I read somewhere, I do not remember where, that Richard Connell's The Most Dangerous Game is the most frequently filmed, and remade, story. The story, which was first made as a film in 1932, is so simple that it is more of a template for remakes than a story. A man, a hunter, is shipwrecked on an isolated island, where he encounters a even greater hunter, an aristocrat in self imposed exile. The aristocrat shows his new guest his estate, including his trophy room, and eventually proclaims his boredom with hunting. He has hunted all of the world's game, and has come to the conclusion that man is the most dangerous game, the only one that provides sport. The hunt then begins, the aristocrat, the great hunter pursuing the lesser hunter. The tables are eventually turned and the hunter becomes the prey (again). Like I said, it has been remade dozens of times, and has been used by countless tv shows. (of course in some variations the hunter is an alien, but the basic idea holds.)

My personal favorite is the mid-nineties Ice-T version.

Like much horror, the story works from the basic premise that true horror is being treated like an animal. Cannibalism, the slaughter house, and vivisection is the stuff of so many celluloid nightmares. Beyond that the story offers a kind of pop-Nietzscheanism (and its eventual subversion). It explains the world as divided into two classes. As the protagonist in the film states, "This world's divided into two kinds of people: the hunter and the hunted. Luckily I'm the hunter. Nothing can change that." He states this before it is changed, before the roles are reversed only to be reversed, or righted, once again. 

The story works best if the hunter, the one who hunts man, is some kind of aristocrat or a wealthy man with the affections of wealth. (Surviving the Game, the Ice-T version adds race to this equation).  He is as much of perversion as a realization of the natural order. As much as he seeks to be sporting, seeks the most dangerous game, he does not arm his prey equally. Technology is on his side. His defeat is the restoration of a natural order, the victory of man over machine,  knowledge and skill, over technology. It is class struggle as adventure tale. If only ruler and ruled where to meet mano a mano, then the rule of wealth and technology would be displaced. The great white hunter's desire for true sport is inverted into the protagonists desire for a natural equality. 

If it can be read as an allegory of class struggle, then it is one in which class is not defined in terms of exploitation or even domination, but in the "pathos of distance," in the feeling of being superior. The hunt is an act of surplus cruelty, a staging of superiority. As much as hunting can be given a a pseudo natural justification, animals hunt and kill after all, the hunt itself, and its symbols and trophies, is a cultural staging of this natural conflict. As a symbol of mankind's victory over the animal it can easily become symbolic of the various hierarchies within humanity. Thus, in the case of the film, Darwinism, the survival of the fittest, is transformed into social Darwinism, the idea of mankind's natural superiors, only to be restored to Darwin in the last act. The appeal of the story is in this last reversal, in the idea of a kind of popular Darwinism. 

I am prompted to write this by two recent events. First, there is the story out of Ohio, which alleges that two men used a craigslist ad to lure men to a farm in order to shoot them. Details are sketchy, and there is nothing to suggest that these men were given a tour of a trophy room before being hunted. However, what is striking is not just, as the Time's piece suggests, how calculated the ad was to take advantage of the most desperate jobseekers, offering $300 a week for someone willing to surrender all connections for a job, but how desperate and relatively poor the "hunters" were in this case. They did not even own the land where the hunt, if it was that, took place. In any case they took advantage of people only slightly more desperate then themselves. 

Which brings me to my second point, or provocation, I happened to listen to an interview with Cory Robin on Against the Grain.  He was speaking about his new book, The Reactionary Mind. I have not read this book, but he did say two things which are important. First, conservative thought, conservative politics, needs to be taken seriously in terms of its immense appeal, affective as well as ideological. Second, part of this appeal has to do with what he calls "democratic feudalism," the popular support that conservatism gains by extending the right to dominate others, whites over nonwhites, men over women,  adults over children.  I have often said that capitalism does not spread the wealth, just the idea that anyone can become wealthy; to which Robin would appear to add that conservatism does not distribute power, just the idea that anyone can dominate.

I do not offer this as an explanation of the events of Ohio, but as a provocation for any future remake. Rather than search for new images of aristocracy, or the great white hunter, or displacing this unto aliens (all of the Predator remakes and sequels) perhaps it is time to remake the film, as the New York Times piece suggests, as a desperate attempt to hold onto superiority by those who feel that their control and power is being threatened.  Such a remake would be timely. 


don said...

Interesting post, as always. However:

"Like much horror, the story works from the basic premise that true horror is being treated like an animal."

"As a symbol of mankind's victory over the animal . . ."

Of course, mankind (humankind) is an animal, biologically speaking.

don said...

Mistakenly missing from the previous comment . . . to be placed at the end of that comment:

Speciesism is the last refuge of domination.

unemployed negativity said...

Yes, of course biologically, but that is not really what I was talking about. I was talking about the way in which the animal/human divide, which is a cultural/ideological/conceptual divide (biology notwithstanding), is used to reinforce or trouble divisions within humanity. The horror of the man hunts man scenario, like much horror, stems from human beings treating human beings like they treat animals, and only non-human animals can be legally hunted, eaten, and experimented upon, but it also reflects ideas about divisions, class, race, etc. within humanity. I have often thought that there is no division between the human and the animal that does not also echo and reflect ideas about divisions within humanity.

Schizostroller said...

Your remake sounds like my regular everyday life on long-term dole in the UK due to a disability. Whilst under Blair and Gordon it was like being caged, but under Cameron it's been like let out of a cage that was confining but provided a modicum of security to be hunted by those one bosses decision away from your own position and resentful of it, but unfortunately facing the wrong way, as you suggest desperately clinging to some sense of superiority.
The sad truth is that having come under fire by the tories media war on benefits, (a few of) those only one rung up the ladder from me have been the worst offenders when it comes to policing it.

seymourblogger said...

Reply to schizostroller

What keeps the social workers who are one step away from you from realizing that the more they cut people, the fewer jobs dominating them will be required. They depend on you being dependent.