Archive for Teaching

REEL DARK, a collection of masters, has arrived

The converse is not true, but all monsters are hybrids, or at least John Locke thought so, and although I’d like to believe the human imagination isn’t limited in the way he says it is, I can’t think of a counter-example, and I’ve looked at thousands of variations on monsters and their subtypes around the world.


So last weekend, at the World Horror Convention in Atlanta, BlackWyrm Publishing and I introduced to the world our latest monster!

Reel Dark COVER 050415png

Go to Amazon to get the marvelous back-cover blurb that co-editor Pamela Turner crafted, but the monstrous gist is that it’s a book about film infecting the world with dark realities, so while we’ve got comedy, western, sci-fi, and, yes, horror, the bottom line is that it’s dark and smart and full of fresh voices and some amazing pros. Hal Bodner! James Chambers! James Dorr! JG Faherty! Amy Grech! Jude-Marie GreenKaren Head! Lots of other great people–accomplished poets, storytellers, and filmmakers as well–and I am honored to be in their company and to have had an opportunity to work with their words, to arrange them so that they can have conversations you can now overhear.

New from BlackWyrm Publishing

New from BlackWyrm Publishing


To round out this post, here’s my intro to the volume:

“The film delivers baroque art from its convulsive catalepsy. Now, for the first time, the image of things is likewise the image of their duration, change mummified, as it were.”
—André Bazin, What is Cinema?

“The cinema combines, perhaps more perfectly than any other medium, two human fascinations: one with the boundary between life and death and the other with the mechanical animation of the inanimate… the answer to the question ‘what is cinema?’ should also be death 24 times a second.”
—Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second

These two quotations—from two of the most important thinkers about the cinema since mad scientists pieced it together from other art-forms in the late nineteenth century—tell us that even in the silent era that so few horror fans pay due, people saw a close connection between reels of film and the realities of horror and death. Our mission as editors was to find stories that offered dark, diverse perspectives on how far that connection between reel and real might go, and we wanted diversity in both the types of films people wrote about and in the writing itself. Rose Streif attends to the silent era’s neglect by horror’s mainstream in “Caligarisme,” and in addition to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919/1920), my own movie-obsessed madman narrator in “Leer Reel” riffs on many a silent: he jumps in time but has 1928 as home base. Arguably the first horror film, “The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots,” made by Thomas Edison’s studio the year regarded as cinema’s beginning, 1895, is just a few short seconds of a woman guillotined. The other contender for first horror film, Georges Méliès’s 1896 “Mansion of the Devil” (or “House of the Devil” if you want Ti West continuity) focuses on magical apparitions. People understood at the outset that just as the photographed, moving image made an action immortal, the immortality was “change mummified,” the immortality of the undead, and, as our debut poet Caroline Shriner-Wunn writes in “Confessions of a Woman of a Certain Age,” “The Mummy,” and some others we’ve scattered in between, the undeadness of the film real is not likely to be your sparkling friend. Think about a movie from 1900. Every frame that shows you a person is showing you a corpse. That person is dead. Chances are, if you’re my age, that person’s corpse looks younger than you do. And it’s smiling. Film, on average, advances at 24 images, or frames, per second. Those corpses are smiling at you 24 times per second. Cheeky bastards.

We selected stories that are dark (that was the point), so though we’ve got laughs and action and western and sci-fi and twisted relationships and WTFs, along with some light as well as extreme horror, expect chills, smart ones, as a thread. Our featured story, Hal Bodner’s “Whatever Happened to Peggy… Who?,” is fast, fun, and creepy on its own, but it pays double if you know mid-20th century American and British horror movies, quintuple if you’ve not only seen but really know Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), with bonuses if you know The Bad Seed (1956) or a lot of what Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were up to around then. Likewise, Jude-Marie Green’s “Queen of the Death Scenes” harkens to an age of screen queens that is behind us. Pamela Turner’s “Rival” riffs on 40s and 50s film noir with a twist; James Dorr’s title “Marcie and Her Sisters” points toward prime late 70s and 80s Woody Allen, but this editor’s opinion is that, intentionally or not, he manages in Jane Austen comic-horror adaptation territory better than many recent adapters have in several media. Sean Eads also takes us toward more contemporary territory with “The Dreamist,” on the Inception (2010) side of the postmodern mind-game.

Wait! Stop worrying! This ain’t a history book.

We offer you three sections, mostly short stories, with short poems providing different sorts of pleasure scattered in each of the three. Many selections could appear in more than one section,so we placed based on where we thought they leaned.

Part 1 is “Decaying Celluloid,” and selections here either center on specific films or specific genres. In addition to the stories by Bodner, Turner, Dorr, and Streif, you’ll find Shriner-Wunn’s “Last Show at Hobb’s End” especially meaningful if you’ve seen John Carpenter’s Lovecraftian In the Mouth of Madness (1994). Prepare yourself for a story that matches the inversion in the title of Jason S. Walters’s swan song to the classic Western “Low Midnight” (which makes me want to discuss post-Kurosawa samurai films with him… Walters understands bleak but doesn’t present it like Sam Peckinpah or even Sergio Leone). The section concludes with our featured poem, the inimitable Karen Head’s “Amnesia,” a layered reflection on watching/living David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001).

Part 2, “Framing You,” transitions from Head’s poem and focuses on how audiences—the “real” world—might get caught up, often in ways far more literal than most people would think possible, in media. Thinking about Amy Grech’s “Dead Eye” still gives me  hills; all I’ll say in an intro is that she derives horrific concepts from the multiple meanings of “frame” and “shot.” Shriner-Wunn’s brief contributions here focus on spectacle, particularly the spectacle of the mutilated woman and what its cultural appeal seems to say (if you don’t know about it, read the poem once before you web search the real Black Dahlia case). Jay Seate and Mike Watt take us into fictional film production worlds, where films have very different ways of absorbing their makers. Sean Taylor’s “And So She Asked Again,” has maestro Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960) and its legendary star Barbara Steele as major references, but it’s about obsession with the power of film more generally… and what it could deliver. Likewise, master storyteller J.G. Faherty concludes the section with a tale about a man who finds immense, horrific power in a camera.

The book concludes with Pt. 3, “Pathological Projections,” the smallest and likely weirdest group, as their uniting feature is that they take a (usually kind of abstract) aspect of the medium of film itself and expand it into a (generally fairly messed up) story. Russ Bickerstaff kicks it off with ruminations on the 24-per-second concept in the dark sci-fi “24 per second: Persistence of Fission.” James Chambers suggests the medium may be the monster in “The Monster with My Fist for Its Head,” and in “Queen of the Death Scenes,” Jude-Marie Green finds that manipulating the medium’s immortal qualities could have unwanted side effects Shriner-Wunn’s “The Mummy” recalls Bazin but again goes fuller monster; “Cigarette Burns” by Jay Wilburn finds a perspective on the horror of being in the movies that nothing else I’ve read captures in the same way. My own story… well… it’s last. You get your money’s worth without it. You don’t have to read it. Perhaps you shouldn’t. The narrator is looking at you while you read.

—L. Andrew Cooper
April, 2015

Tortuous Fantasies of Power and Fame (Re: Reel Splatter and Me)

BlackWyrm Publishing (click and scroll down the alphabetic list to find my novel Burning the Middle Ground) is a noble but small press, a minority entity that offers innovative fiction not overtly calculated to match pre-sold subjects with large, predictable demographics.

Examples of the overtly-calculated appear in paranormal teen thrillers, which use vampires and other love-softened supernaturals (pre-sold subjects) to titillate literate adolescents (a large, predictable demographic). Or, perhaps more controversially, consider the “literary” novel, which uses trendy topics from history and the news (pre-sold) to assuage the liberal guilt and class insecurity of bourgeois New Yorkers and New Yorker readers (a large, predictable demographic). Anything that cannot be made recognizable as pre-sold and pre-matched, however erroneously, with the often demographic-defying mass American readership is unlikely to appear under imprints of the “Big Six” publishers that sell more than 50% of what Americans read.

At this point I could make this blog quite interesting by claiming that the 50%+ figure, lower than many people suspicious of Big Media might expect (maybe I should do more homework about the source?), justifies one of these assertions:

1. Print fiction is a dead art form!

2. Under the laws of capitalism, free thought is illegal!

3. Corporate hegemony and global capitalism dictate our lives by limiting our representations of ways to live!

All of these claims are tempting, and when I’m in a bad mood, I’m inclined to believe them, but I have been unable to convince myself of their extremes’ veracity. If I believed such critiques, would I really bother with print fiction or, for that matter, thought? On the contrary, I believe all fiction is necessarily formulaic, and I actually like for my demographic to be served with mass market goodies. I therefore see the situation as bad news / good news.

The bad news is that we’re not likely to see very much innovative work coming directly from the bestseller-mills. “Literary” fiction, like “genre” fiction, relies on narrative and market formulas, but the literary distinguishes itself from the (other) genres by hiding its formulaic buttresses. These buttresses generally involve narratives about underprivileged people who have experiences that ultimately affirm the lives of the privileged by revealing the importance of Understanding. They sometimes involve privileged people confronting the malaise of their own incapacity to achieve Understanding. The former approach tends to engage with identity politics; the latter tends to engage with quasi-experimental form, existential angst wearing postmodern shawls. Hybrids welcome.

The good news is that fiction doesn’t have to be innovative to be enjoyable.

The better news is that the independents publishing the less-than-50% of novels are putting out a huge amount of material, a gush of books in which any droplet is unlikely to be a standout but could be, especially if it moistens appetites, perhaps some of those in the more-than-50% sector who deign to splash through them like the Trevi Fountain in La Dolce Vita.

Image borrowed from an Italian site about Fellini

Now then, I’m thinking about all of this stuff because I want to be realistic about the prospects for my novel Burning the Middle Ground, which will rely not on the +50%’s market muscle but on people like YOU if it’s to reach all the people who might find it vastly entertaining and thought-provoking. In other words, I am at the mercy of viral flows and appetites–word of mouth, word of Facebook, word of Twitter, word of words.

And now my thinking flows into other media.

David Bowie was, according to some, the first publicly traded individual. We could, at one point, buy stock in the man’s as-yet-unspecified artistic productivity and then share in the profits of such activity. But anyone who stakes her or his life on the buying power of the public, particularly if the stakes involve something as personal as art, is, in a sense, publicly traded. The artist’s fortunes wax and wane according to the investments of distributors and consumers. Bowie knew this truism and made his market activity a profound metaphoric reflection on a much broader phenomenon.

As a novelist and film critic working outside mainstream channels, I have small, ambivalent hopes of gaining anything like the profile of a David Bowie. I am, nevertheless, interested in what having that kind of market power could enable me to do, not just for me (narrow narcissism gets boring rather quickly) but for others I happen to like.

The fantasy of market power fills my head today because, in my class on the American Horror Film Since 1960, I hosted a Skype session with film director Mike Lombardo of Reel Splatter Productions. I have seen a great many short horror films in my time, and I have talked with several filmmakers who share Mike’s ambition. Mike, however, is the first person I’ve met in a purely-business fashion who has convinced me, however unintentionally, that he has a shot at becoming a true celebrity in my chosen field. I picked up his first collection of shorts, Suburban Holocaust, at Louisville’s Fright Nights Film Festival in July 2012. I’ll admit that I was shopping for someone to become a part of my teaching agenda, but only Mike got a follow-up email. While some of the other films I saw were competent, Mike’s had something different–self-awareness without cliched mise-en-abyme, humor that accentuates horror (and vice versa), and writing that makes characters seem more like the students I work with every day than flat Hollywood stereotypes. The work is allegorical but avoids the pitfall of taking itself too seriously; it is disgusting but avoids the error of assuming that extreme gore alone can carry a horror film to success.

In short, Mike Lombardo’s Reel Splatter is where I hope the horror genre is going. What a thing to stumble upon while casually shopping a crowded festival!

In an email to Mike after the Skype, I paid an awkward, self-indulgent compliment to the tune of, “Hey, if anybody ever asks me who I’d like to direct the film version of Burning the Middle Ground, I’d put your name right at the top of the list!” This awkwardness involves layers of fantasy–the fantasy of having the power to sell my novel’s film rights wrapped around the fantasy of also having the power to lure a director who writes his own good stuff into working with mine–but I think, perhaps, these layers reveal what is most attractive about working in the less-than-50% indie zone. Just as small presses offer an alternative mode of publishing, and indie cinema offers an alternative outlet for film art, the indie world offers an alternative fantasy of power and fame.

Sure, I dream about my books reaching an audience wide enough to support me in a luxurious lifestyle, but at least a little more realistically, I dream about my work reaching a substantial audience that trusts me enough to take my advice about other art to consider.

If I had such an audience, I’d say to them–“Hey, look at Mike Lombardo!” I can’t judge my own artistic potential, but I have judged his, and I think it’s considerable. However, I know that the majority of people who have such considerable potential do not get a “breakout” moment to achieve stardom. If whatever capital I get from my own endeavors allows me to give a bump to an artist like Mike who deserves a breakout as much or more than anyone I’ve met, I’d feel enormous satisfaction in the accomplishment.

I really don’t think I have such capital yet, but just in case, do have a look at Mike’s work:

Last House on the Left: Old-Fashioned Eyefuls

My course “The American Horror Film Since 1960” was cancelled today for a university function, so the two-class discussion of Last House on the Left (1972) has to be whittled down. I tend to come to class with a list of talking points and then follow the students’ interests anyway, so I don’t know if even two full classes would get us where I intend to go with this blog, which is a fairly uncomfortable place.

The bottom line: on rewatching Last House on the Left, potentially one of the most offensive titles on my syllabus, I was again disappointed because it isn’t violent enough. Don’t get me wrong–the rapes and murders of two girls at the hands of Krug and his gang are even more graphic than I remembered, and as I get older, I tend to feel more rather than less sick to my stomach as I see such things on screen. What left me wanting more was the third act, the revenge that marks Wes Craven’s opus as a remake and Americanization of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960). The killers wind up at the home of one of their victims, and the girl’s parents serve up bloody justice that includes toothy castration and a prescient chainsaw (Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre appeared two years later).

Having just read a partial synopsis of the extreme violence that plays as just deserts, you might be wondering what more I could want. It’s a fair question. The seemingly safe answer is that I want to see the criminals suffer just as much as their victims, meaning that as a spectator I buy into the eye-for-an-eye justice that critics typically read as debasing the vengeful parents, making them mirror images of the people who have destroyed their daughter. And thus I would seem to be caught up in the film’s exposition of the violence at the heart of American culture, the violence sustaining the Vietnam War contemporary with Craven’s film. To recognize that the film works on me simultaneously justifies my decision to teach it (it really is more than exploitative garbage!) and exculpates my private bloodlust as a symptom of culture, which I can enjoy from a cozy and distant intellectual plane.

If only the answer were that easy. As the film sifts through various brain cells, I realize that the way it makes me feel raises questions about my political opposition to capital punishment. At least since I saw a certain movie released in the year 2000 (SPOILER ALERT–click only if you don’t mind knowing), my position has been that although in abstract principle I don’t object to state-sanctioned murder, I don’t see a way for any state to administer such punishment fairly, so I cannot will my abstract principle to be concrete law (and yes, friends of Kant, the preceding sentence is full of deep inconsistencies). And yet in Last House on the Left, I want the killers to die horribly, and I want the police who arrive at the end to approve.

Last House avoids some ethical messiness by not showing any real legal response to the vengeful parents, Dr. and Mrs. Collingwood. It even spares the Collingwoods the worst moral ambiguity by having Krug’s heroin-addicted accomplice-son, who doesn’t participate directly in the crimes and even tries to stop them, commit suicide at his father’s urging rather than fall victim to the Collingwoods’ wrath. Bergman’s version of the scenario doesn’t let wronged-parent bloodlust off so easily, but then again, it’s set safely in the distant past and thus lacks Last House‘s overt cultural correspondences. But the trouble is that I think I’d like Last House more if it went all the way, eschewing both Bergman and Craven’s ethical escape hatches by having the Collingwoods be even nastier.

So what does that say about me?

I don’t think it means I have to start supporting the death penalty. My own house may be on the political left, but I don’t really think this film places it far enough down the street to change its zip code. While Last House does raise the issues of class found in Virgin Spring–the Collingwoods are accustomed to wealth and education far beyond “animal” Krug and his friends, so their imposition of the death penalty mirrors a bias of the state’s–it also leaves no doubt about the criminals’ guilt. If the state could ever be as doubtless on this point as the film’s spectators, if the state could be as total a witness as Last House‘s camera, which sees all facts that are see-able because it constitutes the film’s entire visible world, I’d have to re-evaluate my political platform. It can’t, though, so I don’t.

It does mean that my investment in extreme aesthetics, in art that goes places I’d never want to get anywhere near in real life, potentially runs deeper than the “gore does political and philosophical work” position I’ve articulated in Gothic Realities and Dario Argento. For me, violence’s onscreen absence is potentially more of a problem than its presence, however much its presence may turn my aging stomach. Since I see so much of the violence against Last House‘s murdered girls, I feel a need to see a comparable amount of violence against their murderers, which is an aesthetic if not a political endorsement of eyeful-for-an-eyeful, which is uncannily similar to and yet significantly different from eye-for-an-eye. What I want to see is not coextensive with, and even opposes, what I want to be (both in the sense of who “I” is and what “I” thinks should exist). But what I want to see reveals an aesthetic conservatism even as it resists political conservatism. Gosh darn it, I demand symmetry and proportion, which means that while on the surface I champion cinema that seems profoundly messy, deep down, I share the biases that have defined Western art for millennia. I pose at being edgy, but really I’m an old-fashioned guy.

Granted, the students in “The American Horror Film Since 1960” probably don’t see me as particularly edgy or particularly anything other than professorial. Last House on the Left celebrates its 40th this year, so how could it really be on the edge of anything other than senility? This is one of those cases where I’d strongly prefer not to listen to my gut.

Dancing the “Ballet Mecanique”

response to class discussion of the French experimental film “Le Ballet Mecanique” (1924)

For the last couple of years, I’ve been inching toward acceptance of the so-called “experimental” tradition in film, movies that stretch the form in ways that challenge perception, often at the expense of accessibility. Although my liking has yet to go beyond acknowledged classics, teaching those classics has shown me that inaccessibility, despite the problems of elitism, can be extremely useful. Experimental film and teaching have a common starting aim: to make the familiar, in this case movies, strange again. Christian Metz argues that being a film critic requires alienation from the object of criticism, and while I’m not sure I agree, I do see the process of alienation and reconciliation, of making something strange in order to make it familiar again in a new way, as essential to higher learning. And I think (knock on wood) that yesterday, August 20, 2012, my semester-kickoff for Introduction to Film managed to use “Le Ballet Mecanique” to just such an end.

Just in case you don’t know the film and don’t want to see it on YouTube, I’ll quickly summarize it: a woman sits on a swing; cubist and surrealist images (including kaleidoscope-d pot lids, hard-to-identify machinery, and parts of a woman’s body) move rhythmically across the screen; the woman from the swing sniffs a flower. These difficult-to-connect elements appear against the backdrop of George Antheil’s musical composition “Ballet Mecanique” (long intended to go together, film and score weren’t unified until around 2000). The music includes dissonant banging on pianos and xylophones, sirens, and other cringe-inducing (but sometimes strangely lovely) sounds.

After I screened the 16-minute film in class, students’ facial expressions ranged from bored to annoyed to stunned. Part one–making cinema strange–had worked. Now came the work of introducing a new type of familiarity through insistent Socratic questioning. We started by thinking about the confusion and alienation most or all of us felt when watching: what meaning and value, if any, lie in befuddlement?


From left to right: A cubist Chaplin, fragments of a woman, and the birth of filmmaker Dudley Murphy from… something.

Natural hesitation to answer such a question didn’t last very long. We brainstormed a list of things we remembered seeing during the film, which was a surprisingly difficult task: smiling lips, detached legs, a random bird, a cubist clown in a hat (usually read as an homage to Charlie Chaplin), a man’s head rising from what might be a flower. Pretty soon, we were thinking that since the film begins and ends with the same woman, what happens inside this frame might represent the woman’s psychological experience. Almost immediately, a young woman with a background in gender studies suggested that the film might be about rape. I’ve been doing gender studies for years, so seeing sex, objectification, and violence in the film’s imagery isn’t all that difficult for me, but I expected such things to go unnoticed as students new to film studies tried to process the visual onslaught. While some students never shed their skepticism about sexual interpretations, others ran with them, ultimately arguing that the film not only reflects on women’s objectification through images of violation but that it imposes a rape-like experience on viewers who are violated by the rapid, disorienting sounds and images. De-emphasizing the violence, students also noted that the man’s head rising from the flower might be a birth resulting from the sexual penetration that film represents elsewhere. Since I’m fairly certain the head belongs to one of the two men behind the film, Dudley Murphy, I suggested that perhaps the film is reflecting on the birth of art (the film itself) and the artist from the random, confusing stimuli of modernity. Even the students who didn’t agree with this suggestion seemed to see where it came from.

When such conversations go well, the class comes up with different, sometimes contradictory interpretations, and I get to emphasize that the course encourages such contradiction as long as each claim has support from carefully analyzed evidence (e.g., discussion of details from sound and image). When such conversations go ever better, as this one did, I leave the class with new insight. This time, the insight came from a student’s comment about the film having a carpe diem sort of moral. The rapid, confusing imagery keeps us from seeing where the film is going or understanding where it’s been, so it forces us to experience the images and sounds entirely as events in the present. The film exists only now; it shows us how to live in the moment by making other kinds of living untenable during the film’s duration. I had thought similar thoughts, but none so clear and convincing. I responded by pointing out that a French film from 1924, the first world war a recent memory, has every reason to advocate for seizing the day.

I was thinking, however, that I had suddenly gained a new understanding of an experience I’ve had with favorite authors Virginia Woolf and Henry James as well as filmmakers like Stan Brakhage. I’ve always enjoyed modernist fiction, and as I’ve said, I’m coming around to experimental cinema, but a tendency not to be able to remember details has always haunted my experiences with such texts. The difficulty the class had brainstorming details from something they’d seen moments before suggested that I’m not alone in such memory failure, so maybe some of the relative inaccessibility of these works stems from a common narrative resistance to time becoming anything other than present. This is the sort of “maybe” that would probably require cognitive research to resolve (who knows, maybe someone has already done it). In any case, it’s the kind of maybe, a fresh, powerful perspective on an old idea about modernism and time, that makes teaching indissociable from learning. And if, for me, “Ballet Mecanique” crossed from strangeness into a new type of familiarity, I’m willing to bet it did for some of the students, too. I’d love to take all the credit, but mostly the outcome had to with the combination of student minds with the film. I came away from class loving both.