Analysis: Meshes of the Afternoon (1943): a spiralling lucid nightmare, Maya Deren, & A dialogue with the Unconscious

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) is a memorable, experimental, surreal short film directed and written by Maya Deren. Referred to as poetic psychodrama, the film was ahead of its time with its focus on depicting fragments of the unconscious mind, externalising disjointed mental processes, dreams, and potential drama through poetic cinematic re-enactments brought to life by uncanny doppelganger figures. The enigmatic protagonist, played by Deren herself, enters a dream world in which she finds herself returning to the same spots and actions in and around her house, chasing a strange mirror-faced figure in a nightmarish, entangling, spiralling narrative. Whilst she ritualistically goes through nearly identical motions, with some slight changes, within a domestic space that is imbued with dread and a sense of doom, unreality, and foreignness – we also witness glimpses of multiple versions of herself, watching herself. The camera shifts from subjective to objective angles as the self-representation of the protagonist alternates between the dichotomous concepts of the self and the “other”. The domestic space revolves around certain recurrent symbolic objects. The film conjures up the uncanniness of dissociation or, more specifically, depersonalisation; self-obsession, a woman’s dual inner/outer life and subjective experience of the world, all congruous with Deren’s interest in self-transformation, interior states, surpassing the confines of personality and self-construct, as well as the self-transcending rituals of Haitian Vodou. The dream story, culminating in death, symbolically alludes to the -sometimes strange and terrifying- initial, non-rational stage of the Jungian process of the “transcendent function” (the symbolic confrontation with the unconscious) leading to the separation of awareness from unconscious thought patterns and the liberating reconciliation between the two opposites: ego and the unconscious, which also has the effect of integrating neurotic dissociations.

Continuity is absent in the disjointed dream narrative of the film. The woman goes up the stairs inside the house and unpredictably emerges from the window in a haunting shot, wrapped in and caressed by soft, semi-transparent curtains. After catching her distorted reflection in the polished knife, the camera follows her fluid bending movements as she is crawling on the staircase, whilst being strangely blown away by the wind in various directions within a claustrophobic space, levitating, trying to hang onto things, and eventually hanging in a crucified position against the wall. With her bat-like presence casting a larger-than-life shadow behind her, she gazes at her sleeping body on the couch through a point-of-view shot from the ceiling. This moment vividly evokes the concept of an out-of-body experience. She then watches a previous version of herself through the window, following the flower-holding, black cloaked figure outside. Unable to catch up, she enters the house, and the subjective camera movement switches to this version of her, whilst she catches a glimpse of the funereally dark, cloaked apparition walking up the stairs.

The elusive mirror-faced character is compelling and symbolically evocative. Nun, Grim Reaper, or mourner? The hooded black cloak and the ritual of bringing a flower to someone’s bed are immediately reminiscent of death, of mourning, and associations between bed/tomb and sleep/death. As the face of the obscure ghost-like manifestation is actually a mirror showing the reflection of the watcher, the scenario conjures up the idea of mourning one’s own death. After leaving the flower on the bed, the character disappears and the image of the woman also disappears and re-materialises several times, back and forth on the staircase.  She then heads towards her own sleeping body whilst holding a knife, proceeding to try to stab herself before she awakens and sees a man holding a flower in front of her.

The phantom steps of the hooded dream character are traced and re-traced by the man and the woman in what appears to be reality but turns out to be a dream within a dream. The man carries the flower upstairs, leaving it on the bed, a gesture that echoes the dream act but is seen in a different context- of intimacy rather than a religious or funereal act. The flower, a symbol of femininity, is therefore connected with death and sexuality, respectively. After a shot of the reflection of the man in the mirror next to the bed, we watch her lying down through the male gaze. The camera switches to the predatory look on his face, and, as he is about to touch her, she grabs the knife and tries to stab his face. At this point, the knife breaks a mirror instead, and the face of the man disintegrates into shards (another connection between the man and the dream figure), revealing an image -perhaps a memory- of waves and the beach. The man comes inside the house again to find the dead body of the woman on the couch- she committed suicide by cutting herself with a mirror.

Deren poetically described the moment of the intertwining worlds as “a crack letting the light of another world gleam through.” [Deren, “A Letter”, in Essential Deren]

The uncanny dimension of the film lies in the transformation of the familiar environment into something mystifying, the dream-reality ambiguity, the repetition compulsion, the doubling (tripling and quadrupling), the distortions in spatial and temporal awareness, as well as the repetitive use of familiar images such as household objects that seemingly gain unknown symbolic connotations, whilst functioning as mnemonic devices. The juxtaposition of objects also contributes to the sense of dread and paranoia- the off-the-hook phone, the silent record player, the flower left behind by the enigmatic figure, the knife, the falling key. We can associate the off-the-hook phone with loss of communication, the knife -phallic form, therefore masculinity, besides the surface level connection with danger and death, the flower, as mentioned, having a contrasting effect-femininity, but also, death in this context; the key represents confinement, repression, and feeling entrapped, but also the possibility to escape. When the woman pulls out the key from her mouth, perhaps she had “the key” to find the way out all along, and then, as the regurgitated key turns into a knife, there is a connection between escape and (psychic) suicide. The mirror stands for introspection, and the death by mirror cut might allegorically refer to the disintegration of the identity construct, linked to liberation. When a version of the woman picks up the knife, she is re-claiming her agency, wielding phallic power.

It is worth mentioning that the director strongly opposed and discouraged psychoanalytic interpretations of her film and of the symbolic significance of the objects the film revolves around, instead encouraging the viewer to only interpret them in the context of the film narrative as a whole to avoid going beyond conscious intent in art. This brings me back to an inner debate on the topic of film analysis, its limitations and the question whether there is such a thing as going “too deep” into conscious and unconscious meaning behind film. The “risk” of going too deep is ingrained in the nature of the work of any film scholar or critic, especially when it comes to cine-psychoanalysis. However, when it comes to surreal films in particular, the intentions are blurred and open to interpretation, and clearly Deren’s art is lyrical in its symbolic nature, created by association of poetic images, and influenced by her interest in psychology. Before turning to cinematography, Maya Deren expressed herself through poetry, but she found it too limiting to convey the images in her mind through words.

To respect the wishes of the creator, let’s also look at her own statements related to the film, as well as her general preoccupations and beliefs, which are transparently relevant to the film.
This film is concerned with the interior experiences of an individual. It does not record an event which could be witnessed by other persons. Rather, it reproduces the way in which the subconscious of an individual will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience.” —Maya Deren on Meshes of the Afternoon, from DVD release Maya Deren: Experimental Films 1943–58.

The multiplying of the character is connected to dissociation, alienation, emotional fragmentation, and potentially reintegration towards the end. The multiple incarnations of the woman evoke an internal schizoid narrative breathing life into alternative versions of herself- challenging her self-construct. Some of her personas are passively observing her more powerful, key-holding, knife-wielding persona. The suicide is symbolic, despite the fact that, in the final scene, it appears as if the layers of the dream world are peeled off and we have access to the real world. I believe the death symbolism is derived from Jungian psychology- i.e. the death and resurrection of consciousness. In light of this thought, the film can represent a visual representation of Jung’s Transcendent Function. What unfolds on screen is the process through which a person gains awareness of and confronts unconscious material driving their life in order to unite and re-channel the opposing energies of the ego and the unconscious into a third state of being, of wholeness. This would also have an integral effect that will merge the embodiments of the character’s dissociations. According to Jung, the process involves a challenging, unnerving unleashing of fantasies, dreams, and instincts. The sense of dread and panic evoked by the film matches this idea. The process is also associated with the notion of ego death in Eastern philosophies.

To further delve into Deren’s psyche and establish other links, let’s remember that she was fascinated by the rituals of Haitian Vodou and religious possession. She later participated in Vodou ceremonies and documented the rituals. Together with her love of dance (and later, her experience with recreational drugs) her immersion in and fascination with rituals were also a result of seeking to drift away from self-centredness, to go beyond self-construct and personality, and merge with something greater. This is again related to the Buddhist concept of ego death – a transcendent, life-turning mental state with self-revelatory consequences. We know that Deren has a preoccupation with the transformation of the self and reaching higher spiritual states of awareness. In this excerpt from An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form, and Film (1946), she makes insightful comments about ritual:

The ritualistic form treats the human being not as the source of the dramatic action, but as a somewhat depersonalised element in a dramatic whole. The intent of such depersonalisation is not the destruction of the individual; on the contrary, it enlarges him beyond the personal dimension and frees him from the specialisations and confines of personality. He becomes part of a dynamic whole which, like all such creative relationships, in turn, endow its parts with a measure of its larger meaning.”

I am glad she mentions depersonalisation and associates it with a form of spiritual awakening, as this coincides with my beliefs on depersonalisation and derealisation. The two often go hand in hand. Both experiences (note I’m not referring to them as ‘disorders’) involve a feeling of detachment – from one’s thoughts and from reality, as well as an awareness of this detachment (which distinguishes it from psychosis: there are no delusions or psychotic elements involved). Derealisation involves experiencing the world as if you are living in a dream or a film, and depersonalisation is the feeling of unreality of the self, which has been introduced as a psychiatric disorder of the dissociative type in 1930 and has been updated and re-interpreted several times in various psychiatric diagnosis manuals. Other common features mentioned in the DSM-IV are an uncanny distortion in visual and temporal perception, a feeling that other people, places, or events appear unfamiliar, unreal, or mechanical and lacking emotional depth. An individual experiencing this might feel like an outside observer of his or her own mental processes. All of this also applies to Meshes of the Afternoon where the protagonist is in a perpetual, adrift state of trance as she navigates the dream web and observes herself from an external perspective, whilst familiar objects appear foreign, strange, or ‘tainted’.

Here is an excerpt from Feeling Unreal, one of the few books tackling the elusive topic of  DPD- written by Daphne Simeon, MD and Jeffrey Abugel. The description matches the insight and feeling revealed by Deren regarding the state of depersonalisation in ritual:

“No longer grounded by familiar sensations or surroundings, they feel as if they’re losing their grip on reality. But unlike people with psychotic conditions like schizophrenia, they are not going insane at all. They are, if anything, suddenly overly aware of reality and existence and of the ways in which their own experience is a distortion of a ‘normal’ sense of a real self. Depersonalisation, in fact, resembles a sort of altered ‘awareness’ or ‘awakening’ that in some cultures is thought to be a level of spiritual growth.”

Back to the film, it is worth watching both existing versions: Your viewing experience might change depending on whether you watch the early silent version or the 1959 version accompanied by the official sombre, atmospheric soundtrack created by ‎Teiji Ito, Maya’s second husband. You may also realise that the dreamlike atmosphere and narrative of Meshes was a source of inspiration for David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001).

High Life (2018) – A sinister, dreamlike voyage

High Life (2018) is a hypnotising, mostly slow-paced, eerie sci-fi film directed by Claire Denis, French director associated with art-house films & known for transcending cinematic conventions. The film evokes a dreamlike, uncanny mood with some sinister, twisted aspects, sexual experiments, and violence, all wrapped up in a greater sense of despair and despondency attributed to the hopelessness of the space voyage. The plot of High Life reveals a group of people whose common denominator is their capital crime history, setting off on a peculiar expedition into space with the purpose of harnessing energy from a black hole and bringing it back on Earth. Having been deceived into thinking that the mission is the key to their freedom, as an alternative to their earthly punishment, they soon become aware that it appears to be more like a suicide mission.

Juliette Binoche plays Dibs, the mysterious, long-haired, witchy mad scientist figure on the spaceship, who conducts unwanted sexual experiments on the captives, collecting their bodily fluids for artificial insemination purposes. Her bewitching performance is harmoniously intertwined with Robert Pattinson’s intensity and stoic composure in his role as Monte. His character is protective of the women on the spaceship, going from beating another spaceship inhabitant who tries to rape one of the girls, to rushing to save the doctor’s life, and eventually going into fatherhood. We already figure that Monte and his daughter might be the last ones standing, as he discards the corpses of the other interstellar voyagers into nothingness.


The atmosphere throughout the whole film is somewhat alienating and surreal, with uncanny undertones. After years spent adrift in the vastness of the universe, the spaceship has become their home, whilst at the same time being their prison. Monte’s brief musings are poetic at times, and the dialogue is minimal, amplifying the tension and intensity on board. A major aspect of that tension is sexual, and some of it is released within “The Fuckbox” (initially called the “love machine”, before the French director was persuaded to Americanise it), a particularly strange kinky dark chamber designed for individual fantasy-unleashing, which, however, doesn’t prevent the cosmic drifters from sexually assaulting other members on-board or being repressed. “Fuckbox” seems to be a more appropriate term for its nature, unless “love machine” was intended to create a satirical contrast.

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Dr. Dibs’ self-satisfying scene in the box is mesmerising and primal, her movements are feral. This impression is further emphasised by the inclusion of animal fur within the decor and by the bizarre mystical soundtrack building up, incorporating sounds reminiscent of a wild animal’s lament. The sound could be mistaken for a distorted human moan for a split second, before turning wolf-like, which enhances the sense of eeriness and ritualistic transcendence. Her frenzy doesn’t culminate as she desired, it turns out the process was all too mechanical. When she gets out, she meets Monte’s reprimanding gaze, who questions her ways and her disturbing reproductive mission.

What follows is Monte’s confession that he had frequented the box, but decided to live a life of abstinence, hence why the others refer to him as the monk. He muses: “Chastity was a way of making myself stronger”. To provide contrast to the kinky box which is the symbol of Dibs’ queendom, the next scene shows Monte in his natural habitat, literally. He prefers hanging out in the little garden because it reminds him of life on Earth. His gardening pal admits that the garden anchors him in the present moment, perhaps making him feel connected to his family back on Earth, yet Monte gives him a painful reality check: that his family is either old or dead. We also find out that Monte’s name belongs to his dog, whom he was raised by, and who also had a more significant impact on his life.

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At times, Juliette Binoche’s acting is both trance-inducing and trance-like. Not as if in a daze, but in a controlling, maniacal way. An example of this is the scene following Mia Goth’s character revealing of Dibs’ secret gruesome criminal past. With her ghostly vampiric presence, Dibs steps quietly and secretively through the empty corridor after sedating everyone. Right before the unsettling scene featuring Monte’s sleeping body, she stops in front of the female pilot whom she urges to go to sleep in a weirdly hypnotising manner. The whole sequence is disturbing and uncanny partly because there is a deranged maternal aura about her, her gestures, and the ritual of covering up and putting a baby to sleep (in this case, both Boyse and Nansen). This is particularly disturbing considering what we’ve learnt about her past in the previous scene, even though her dedication to her reproductive mission is derived from that event.

The enthralling aesthetic of the film features a colour palette oscillating from icy tones to colourful, red and purple lights. Within the clinical-looking hallways and inside their separate rooms the characters are drowning in blue lights. The end scene is significantly golden in tone, as the film ends on an enigmatic, positive, vaguely hopeful note. Reminiscent of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2007) and Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) in different ways, High Life is an arthouse sci-fi film documenting the unfolding of human nature with both its ghastly destructive side and its hopeful nurturing side in the context of a fascinating, dreamlike, ominous space journey.

“The sensation: moving backwards even though we’re moving forwards, getting further from what’s getting nearer, sometimes I just can’t stand it.”

Wuthering Heights (2011) and the uncanny connection with nature

The following film stills represent a collection of brief moments providing a glimpse of the haunting, alluringly grim aesthetic of Wuthering Heights (2011), directed by Andrea Arnold. The film is a moody, visceral, atmospheric cinematic version of the story featuring the natural beauty and intensity of Kaya Scodelario as Cathy and her ineffable connection with Heathcliff, both of them sharing a deep bond with the gloomy, bleak, foggy surroundings.

The scenery is dark and as chaotic and turbulent as the compelling cinematography of the film. The atmospheric sounds are intense and loud. From the very beginning, the sound makes us anticipate the eerie human-nature connection. A grown-up Heathcliff wanders around thoughtfully in an empty room, in what appears to be an abandoned house. We can hear the loud wind from outside, as well as the cracking sounds of the doors and the floor. There is something eerie about the location and the unfolding of this initial scene. It looks and sounds as if it could be a house from a horror film. When the branches of a tree hit the window, it reminds us of the scene from the book in which Mr. Lockwood breaks the window to make the tapping stop. In the film, Heathcliff runs against the wall and ends up collapsing on the floor. After he starts crying, we hear four blows on the window, followed by Heathcliff’s matching response: hitting the floor four times while crying in despair. Then, we hear the impetuous rain and the powerful wind followed by the loud bark of the dogs. The wuthering sound remains constant. Heathcliff remains behind and is barked at by a dog, to which he responds with a savage snarl that implies his wild nature.

The chemistry between young Heathcliff and Cathy seems to be quite unusual: it is not represented through words, but mainly through looks, gestures, and, symbolically, through the agitation of the natural elements on the moors. Their bond is closely intertwined with the human-nature bond. The point-of-view shots showing Cathy’s wild hair blown in the wind are followed by shots of the wild, high grass and weeds, suggesting a correlation between the aspect of her messy hair and the chaotic movement of the plants. Even though Heathcliff showed he was capable of speaking (despite being mostly uneducated), the two children rarely talk: it seems that there is an unspoken understanding between them or a sense of telepathy whilst they listen to the whistling of the wind and admire the haunting beauty of the landscape. The actors’ performances are very instinctive and have a visceral quality.

The environment provides refuge for Cathy and Heathcliff from the rest of the world. After their escape from the baptising moment, they start running on the windy, misty moors, happy and carefree. When they get back home, they are slapped by her father for their little rebellion. The film highlights metaphors for the conflict between culture and nature, culture trying to dominate nature, but failing, as nature does not succumb so easily.

During the playful yet tension-imbued mud fight scene, the two children bond with each other and with the earth at the same time. The playful exploration of childhood is essential in the film. Everything between them seems pure, simple, and physical when they are little. The moors become a symbol for their love affair that becomes more complicated as they grow up. What for the spectator might look like a bleak dystopian or threatening landscape, was actually Heathcliff’s Arcadia. When a grown-up Heathcliff returns after a long absence, it’s not only for his love, Cathy, but also for the place and time when he experienced that pure bliss. An idyllic image of unattainable splendour is engraved in his mind. Childhood often seems to reside in the realm of Arcadia in our minds, offering a unique way of feeling and experiencing things, which cannot be brought back or re-adopted.

The moors can also be associated with the dark brooding character of a lonely soul (Heathcliff): the moors are infertile, arid, wild, and even threatening. They are not supposed to be cultivated. They are untouched, uninfluenced by culture. Healthcliff is wild in the traditional way which implies unfitness for civil society, yet he is also wild in the modern use of the word, in that he signifies an antidote to hypercivilisation. The concept of wildness denotes something that is shared between humans and nonhuman entities. There are various examples of how this refers to Heathcliff: consider any scene where young Heathcliff resonates with the natural elements.

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Signe Pierce: Glamorous over-saturated hyperreality

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New York-based contemporary multimedia artist Signe Pierce self-identifies as a reality artist, exploring the blurred lines between art and technology, between art and life, and the concept of heightened reality through her neon urban signature photographic style characterised by a glamorous, saccharine aesthetic. The vibrant colour palette she uses is dominated by bright pink and purple hues, adding a different dimension to mundane urban landscapes. The chromatic excess emphasises artificiality, as the artist provides a visual commentary on the nature of reality in the digital world.
Signe Pierce embraces the idea of ‘unreality’ and takes it to the extreme in her lurid, holographic paradise. The viewer entering her world is mesmerised, distracted, trapped in hyperreality. Beautifully influenced by her environment and the chaos of New York, her work provides a glimpse into an augmented version of the famous city for the outsider to be virtually immersed into. Since her art is of a meta-referential nature, it shouldn’t be surprising that it self-consciously depicts the ubiquity of commercial ads and photography, phone screens, screens in general, which, instead of piercing into her world, are rather being harmoniously incorporated in it.

 


The almost aggressive, consistent use of pink and light purple tones reveals a feminist preoccupation with what is considered stereotypically girly- being subverted by the themes depicted, such as consumerism, surveillance, hyper-reality, and assertive hyper-femininity. The artist not only plays with visual perceptions by depicting fluid forms and using distorted liquefied shapes in some of her pictures, she also challenges perceptions of femininity, by blurring the line between the objectifier and the objectified and portraying the female figure as provocative and strong.
The slick fashion commercial aesthetic of the photographs is reminiscent of surreal fashion horror films such as Nicolas Winding Refn’s Neon Demon and the urban vividness of cyberpunk cinematography. At the same time, her frequently updated Instagram feed includes cinematic photographs depicting a constantly wired, overstimulated world. Some elements often featured in her universe are mirrors, eyes, technological devices, shiny, holographic pieces of clothing, reflecting lights, rainy cityscapes, strip malls, and a lush, stunningly illuminated mise-en-scene. In addition to emphasising the inherent ‘simulacrum’ nature of the urban experience in New York, Signe Pierce’s hyperreal sensory spectacle merges perceptions of reality and simulation to make the viewer question the nature of truth and reality in contemporary society.

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A glimpse of Perfect Blue

perfect-bluePerfect Blue (1997), directed by Satoshi Kon, is a disturbing, disorienting, surreal Japanese animated psychological horror/thriller film based on the 1991 novel Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis written by Yoshikazu Takeuchi. Mima, a 21-year-old former pop icon pursuing an acting career, can no longer discern between reality and fantasy, as she is haunted by ghosts of her past as a teen idol, and subsequently delves into paranoid delusions and nightmares. Her doppelgänger, an elusive mirror figure seemingly belonging to a parallel reality- is an embodiment of her former J-pop self whose taunting remarks about her failed diva status seem to spring from her own unconscious mind. The underlying commentary of the film touches the theme of unstable selfhood correlated with celebrity and the vicious effects of stardom, in a dark critique of Japanese pop culture and the cult of celebrity.
This eerie stylised depiction of madness filled with blood, violence, and suspense, has been seen as an animated version of a Giallo thriller directed by Dario Argento, and has also been cited as the inspiration behind Darren Arronofsky’s work, the most obvious one being Black Swan.

Short reviews: Lurid Cult Horror films – Fascination, The Beyond, and Videodrome

Fascination (1979) is an artful aesthetically-pleasing erotic Gothic horror film situated between arthouse and grindhouse, directed by Jean Rollin. Rollin tends to be associated with the sexploitation genre, yet he is recognised for the surreal dark fantasy style of his lyrical, tantalising, elegant, and atmospheric films, combining sensuality and visual poetry. Fascination’s opening scene takes place in 1905 in an abattoir where seemingly ordinary French women drink ox blood, considered a cure for anaemia at the time. Despite this bizarre moment and the fact that, as one of the ethereal vampire girls picks up a scythe, the film appears to progress into the slasher realm, Fascination is soft compared to other gore films, and not as surreal or bewildering as other Rollin films. The little gore that appears in the film is almost elegantly depicted.
Fascination is shot in a ghostly sinister castle surrounded by mist and emptiness. A thief ends up hiding in the chateau, where he finds two enigmatic nymph-like angelic-looking young women all alone, Eva and Elizabeth. They initially seem to be easy prey, but there is something unsettling about them, and it turns out they are actually part of a cult of aristocratic vampires.

 

The Beyond (1981) is a surreal cult horror film with Southern Gothic echoes, directed by Lucio Fulci, who is known as “The Godfather of Gore”. When Liza decides to renovate her newly-inherited dilapidated hotel, the activity triggers a series of mysterious deaths. It is revealed that the hotel is built over one of the seven portals to Hell, which was activated by the renovation. The violent darkness of the film unfolds in an unsettling combination of supernatural events, visceral graphic scenes featuring tarantulas and ghastly rotten zombie flesh, and uncanny silhouettes haunting empty houses. Towards the end, the afterlife is painted as an eerie wasteland filled with corpses. The film exhibits a chaotic dreamlike atmosphere mixed with gruesome visuals and otherworldly sounds.

The Uncanny appears in many shapes and forms. Lurid, erotic, provocative, disturbing, hallucinatory, and grotesque are a few words you can use to describe David Cronenberg’s famous body horror film, Videodrome (1983), a sinister commentary on the sadomasochistic consumerist nature of our society & the pervasiveness and intrusiveness of technology. Cronenberg approached this theme in the 80s, yet it becomes increasingly relevant in time. Videodrome is a TV show featuring violent acts of punishment with sexual undertones tailored to an audience belonging to the age of over-stimulation. Marked by his girlfriend’s disappearance after auditioning for the show, Max explores the Videodrome phenomenon, finding out that the line between reality and simulation is blurred. The film ends on a tragic note, including the famous cult line “Death to Videodrome! Long live the new flesh!” uttered repetitively throughout the film like an incantation.

 

Costume design symbolism in Crimson Peak (2015): Lucille’s breathtaking blue velvet dress

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Crimson Peak (2015), directed by Guillermo del Toro, is a visually stunning, gloomy cinematic horror spectacle, noted for its incredible and haunting aesthetic. A particularly remarkable and alluring feature of the intricate production design is Lucille’s breathtaking blue velvet dress. The bewitching symbolically-charged Victorian design of the dress includes a black garland resembling a vine with withered leaves, claustrophobically climbing towards her pale neck. The owner, played by the mesmerising Jessica Chastain, is a beautiful, tense, frigidly graceful corset-wearing ice queen filled with dark repressed emotions, whose attire reflects her inner state. Her blue, heavy rigid dress seems to blend with her eerie funereal surroundings, the underwater feeling given by the aquatic colours and the flickering interplay of light and darkness, the dark curtains, and the grandiose blue walls of the Gothic mansion. She is tragically connected to the ominous house and the dead vines tangled up around her body further anchor her in it, symbolising her psychological confinement. She is often shown in contrast to pure, innocent, and lively Edith, played by Mia Wasikowska, who wears light and loose gowns.

 

 

Reflections on reading

Published in Education in the Digital Era, March 2019

Books are not only the arbitrary sum of our dreams, and our memory. They also give us the model of self-transcendence. […] They are a way of being fully human.”- Susan Sontag

The multifaceted nature of literature encompasses an abundance of purposes when it comes to the act of reading, such as functioning as a vehicle of escapism, working as a tool to enhance self-awareness, setting in motion cultural and social change starting from individual transformation, inspiring metaphorical deaths and resurrections of selves, summoning childhood magic and nostalgia associated with books we grew up with and memories entangled with their reading, perceiving the human spirit as shaped through time within specific historical and cultural frameworks, as well as strengthening our connection with others by making us recognise ‘the other’ within us, and providing a mirror that we can use to face the world with empathy and acceptance as we fully acknowledge its realness and complexity.

Reading can be seen as a spiritual journey, since it inspires a form of awakening. Stories we read during our formative years, during an early stage in our lives that is of utmost significance memory-wise, those stories will potentially remain the most enchanting reading experiences, because they enter our mind at a time when we tend to simply absorb every evocative image, every symbol, indiscriminately, unassumingly, with naivety and curiosity, and when simple yet vivid memories are formed. Later, as we mature and acquire more knowledge- not exclusively literary, whilst we learn to be more discerning, selective, as well as developing critical thinking, we are encouraged to deeply reflect on the strings of words in front of our eyes- sometimes, however, at the expense of the child-like wonder and the child’s way of seeing, of disappearing, and truly living within a story.

While expressing her views on reading, Virginia Woolf emphasises that, whereas we should follow our instincts in reading rather than having someone else dictate the way in which we experience a literary piece, we should also avoid falling into the trap of projecting our pre-conceived ideas and judgements onto a piece of writing immediately, and instead, at first, decrease the volume of our critical voice in order to embrace the author’s voice and the creative process, to open our minds and let the thoughts of another flow into them. Afterwards, as cultivated readers, we can ponder on underlying themes and psychoanalytical symbolism, stylistic categorisations, meta-references, the larger aesthetic value of the work, character development, feminist interpretations and critiques, and the historical, socio-cultural, political or conceptual frameworks. As a Literature and Film graduate, I have found that temporarily tuning out certain aspects of this critical side that became a natural inclination in my reading is ideal if I wish to retain the pleasure of the act and to prevent disillusionment. Otherwise- and I have known Literature and Film students at university who faced such concerns- the enjoyment of a piece of writing or art in general might be diminished. When we let ourselves be fully engrossed by the words, something pure and beautiful happens: we disappear and live within a story, we allow ourselves to be bewitched by lyricism, to recognise the emotions evoked in a poem, to let them inspire us; we perceive and visualise the world conceived by another mind, unfolding within our own mind. That is when we can identify with a character, as well as finding traces of this character within ourselves, savouring every mental image, finding something interesting and revealing in every echo while devouring a good book. This way, we shift from clichés to something more intimate, from patterns of thinking to a unique taste of and insight into individual consciousness.

During literary studies at university, our way of reading pieces of literature is, indeed, interestingly shaped, to a certain degree, by the modules we opt for and their structure, particularly the recommended critical interpretations and analysis of the works in question or, more broadly, of literary movements, periods, and other divisions. Once you place everything in a cultural, social, or historical context, or consider the psychoanalytical dimensions of a text, or interpret narratives from a feminist point of view, it can influence your process of experiencing other works and how you delve into them. This aspect is also facilitated by a tendency towards syntopical or comparative reading, which is recommended within an academic context- particularly in analysing critical theory books and essays- and rightfully so, since it is a useful tool for finding your own voice, forming your own opinions, gaining perspective, and developing critical thinking skills which are so essential in various areas of life. As a result, while reading prose fiction for instance, our minds may involuntarily jump to underlying commentaries and themes, paying more attention to connotations of nuances and how they fall into a wider sociocultural, ideological, or psychological framework. This may seem like a double-edged sword because it appears to be in contrast to the previous idea of experiencing a written story viscerally, intimately. However, as previously mentioned, the mind can be trained to read differently for pleasure, inspiration, or educational purposes and everyone can shift between different methods of reading.

Placing a literary piece into the complex puzzle of history, can be particularly revealing and useful, for instance, when we read literature associated with silenced voices and with otherness: such literary works give us the chance to get an insight into the psyche of figures whose lives seem so distinct from ours and explore uncharted mental territories, an inner journey which will also prove to be self-revealing, whilst at the same time requiring transcendence. Reading can, indeed, often initiate us into a ritual of self-transcending. Language mediates our connection with our own selves as much as it mediates our connection with the world around us. Reading can be viewed as a process of merging contrasts: between temporality and atemporality, the tangible and the incorporeal, presence and absence, closeness and remoteness, self and other, the intimate and the universal, the evanescent and the eternal, a grasped world and an elusive one.