What Cinema Is, Continued: "White Zombie"

Last week, I put down some ideas about the ways in which cinema (and all art, I should add) communicates, and some of the things it tries to communicate. This is of course a topic that needs far more discussion than a single journal entry; it's also one of the main rivers of exploration that runs beneath this entire writing project, and as such can have no real end point. I would certainly like to understand "what cinema is," in some larger sense, but this seems to me like a continuing process of evaluation and re-evaluation rather than a set of questions that can be set out and then solved.

This is because definitions, answers, flowery declarations of "I understand!" and all the rest are things that change with time and perspective. They are unstable, unreliable, sometimes sneaking away to change disguises while your back is turned and sometimes fading away before your eyes, proven insubstantial by the very act of explanation.

The further you hack your way into the thickets of art – as a fan, as a critic, as an artist – the more you discover that in this realm meaning itself is impish. Like the brooms in The Sorcerer's Apprentice or the gremlins in Joe Dante's Gremlins, the idea of "what something means" starts as something simple and helpful, perhaps even lovable, but almost immediately it begins to multiply, maniacally and indefinitely, soon enough running you over and pouring buckets of water on your head or cackling gleefully and tearing your house to pieces.

Regardless of its perils, though, the exploration of these things gives me a great deal of joy. So I thought that this week I would, cautiously, sink my teeth into this issue a second time (if you prefer a Dracula callback) or perhaps pour a bit more water on Gizmo (for those of you who are Dante fans.)

Our star again this week is Bela Lugosi, this time appearing in White Zombie from 1932, the film that is frequently credited with being the first zombie movie ever made.

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White Zombie tells the story of a young couple named Madeline Short (Madge Bellamy) and Neil Parker (John Herron) who are to be married in Haiti. They've been invited to conduct the ceremony at the mansion of a wealthy plantation owner named Charles Beaumont (Robert W. Frazier); unbeknownst to them, Beaumont has made this offer not out of generosity but because he's in love with Madeline and wants to steal her from Neil.

Beaumont at first believes his charms and wealth will be enough to win Madeline, but then realizes this will not be the case. So he enlists the aid of a local black magic practitioner and sugar plantation owner named, wonderfully, "Murder" Legendre (Lugosi) who is a master at turning people into zombies. Legendre's method is to kill people using a terrifically powerful poison – one sip, or even one sniff is enough – and then bring them back to life with his sorcery, at which point they are entirely under his control. We see an example of his power when Beaumont visits him at his sugar factory to seal the deal: every Haitian worker in the factory is a zombie, and when one falls into the machinery to be ground to bits there is no break at all in the work.

On the wedding night, Beaumont poisons Madeline. She dies and is buried, only to be retrieved from her tomb by Beaumont and Legendre and then taken to Legendre's castle by the ocean. There, Beaumont realizes his mistake: his machinations have brought him not the love of a living woman, but that of a soulless automaton. He begs Legendre to bring her back to life, but instead Legendre poisons him, intending to turn him into a zombie as well.

Meanwhile, a grief-stricken Neil visits his wife's tomb and finds it empty. Suspecting foul play, he enlists the aid of a local missionary named Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn), who knows about Legendre's magical abilities. The two journey to the castle, where they arrive just in time to save Madeline. The dying Beaumont tackles Legendre off the cliff, and Madeline awakens from the spell; presumably, she and Neil will go on to live happily ever after.

One of the fascinating things about White Zombie is that it's an indy film. Victor Halperin, who directed, and his brother Edward, who produced, got it made by renting space on the Universal and RKO lots (they mostly had to film at night when the studios' other productions were not up and running) and also shooting outdoors in nearby Griffith Park.

Because of this, the film is notably rough around the edges. (The acting in particular, outside of Lugosi's performance, has long been derogated.) But it also shares, with a lot of indy cinema, then and now, the feeling of a kind of exceptional achievement brought about exactly because of its restraints.

One can almost feel Halperin wracking his brain to come up with interesting solutions to difficult problems on the cheap, which has been the holy mission of every independent filmmaker who ever lived. And in this, it succeeds. It’s just over an hour long and jammed full of a fascinating assortment of sequences and eerie special effects, produced in a variety of ways.

It's here that we move into the question of the nature of cinema that I wrote about last week. If you've been reading this journal for any time at all, you will probably know that I think discussions of movies should always be based as much as possible on discussions of their particulars. Often, this means engaging with the specifics of filmic techniques, in order to try to think through how they operate, and how they make us feel the way they do.

But this discussion is hampered by a fascinating problem: different people watch films for different reasons, and in different modes.

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I noted above that there are at least three ways that we tend to approach art: as fans, as critics, or as artists. (It should go without saying that many of us approach it in several of these ways at the same time). And inasmuch as these represent three groups of people, they often exist in an at best uneasy detente.

The fans think the critics think too much, the filmmakers think the critics are too critical, the critics think the fans are clueless barbarians, and the fans think the filmmakers they don’t like are morons who aren’t doing it right, etc. Which is to say that despite the love of movies that unites them, they are all, at times, guilty of suspecting that their way of approaching cinema is the right one, or THE RIGHT ONE, GODDAMMIT!

In this, they're all wrong, of course. (Or THEY'RE ALL WRONG, GODDAMMIT!) There is no right way to approach a film. Put differently, no assignation of meaning to a piece of art can be definitive. But all of them can be useful.

To work through this, I'd like to point out one of my favorite of many shots in White Zombie. This is a long single take – a "oner" in the parlance, meaning that it is one shot that continues without any cuts – that lasts for almost exactly five minutes, and shows a conversation between Neil and Dr. Bruner in which the latter explains the roots of the belief in zombies, explains that their existence is presumed by Haitian law, and speculates on who may have been behind Madeline's death.

It begins by looking at Dr. Bruner from beneath Neil’s arm as he leans on Bruner’s desk, then pulls back to capture the both of them, follows them through their conversation, and then moves in again to end as it began, looking at Bruner from beneath Neil’s arm.

This is one of the things that I have in mind when I talk about "filmic technique": the basic building blocks out of which a film is constructed, consisting of acting, blocking (the positions of the actors) and the movement of the camera. And it has vastly different meanings depending on how you are approaching the film.

For someone operating as a fan, which I am (way too) loosely defining here as a person who simply wants to be absorbed into movies and their stories and mythologies and emotional force, this shot may in some sense be invisible. Which is to say that the technical specifics of it are only of the faintest interest compared to its content. This is a conversation that puts a chill in the spine of the viewer, particularly the viewer of 1932. It gives a foundation in the real world – zombism as a ritual that goes back thousands of years to ancient African societies, a recognition of it as an actually existing phenomenon in a book of law – to something mystical and horrific on the screen.

That is, the dialogue does what many elements of horror films are trying to do: convince us that the impossible things happening on the screen might not be quite as impossible as we hope they are, drilling a tiny chink in the armor of our faith in the rational. This feeling – that the horror might be possible – is both deeply unsettling and deeply enjoyable, which is one of the reasons horror movies continue to be made in such vast quantities.

Someone operating as a fan might also be entranced by the scene because it provides one of the first on-screen discussions of the origins of zombies. For people who love these kinds of movies, the mythology behind them is long and complicated, full of branches and interconnection. So zombie movies like Wes Craven's 1988 The Serpent and the Rainbow continue the tradition of zombies as creations of black magic traditions in Haiti, while things like George Romero's Night of the Living Dead from 1968 attribute only the vaguest origins – some kind of unknown rays from space – turning the shambling creatures into terrifyingly un-sentient threats not under the control of anyone or anything.

For someone operating as a fan, that is, the movement of the camera in this scene from White Zombie may have very little to do with what the scene is about. This is not to say that the technical elements of the shot don't affect them, simply that the effects do not occur at the front of their mind, as it were. But for someone thinking as a critic, the technical elements are often paramount.

The critic, which I'll define here (again with vast but hopefully useful simplification) is someone who has taken it on themselves to speculate about the quality of the film or, pushing in a more academic direction, the film's connection to elements outside of itself: the way it reflects the concerns and structures of society, how it arises out of the economic and industrial milieu around its creation, its place in film history, etc. (In the area of film history one can immediately see areas of overlap between fans and critics, putting paid to the notion that most people operate solely as one or the other.)

For the critic, the long take in White Zombie might have immense meaning beyond the simply plot-level information it delivers. The heart of this meaning will usually lie at the connection between what's happening on the screen and how we are to understand that happening in relation to things off the screen. So, for example some critics might focus almost entirely on the technical side of things, offering discourses on the history of the long take in Hollywood, and examining how successive generations of filmmakers have used the technique.

Others might key in on the racial elements of the scene, noting that here zombism is tied to colonialism and fears of an uprising by the indigenous population – Dr. Bruner is a Christian missionary, trying to establish the supremacy of his views over those of the "witch doctors" – as well as longstanding racialized terrors about the fate of white women who fall in among those with darker skin. As Neil so eloquently moans about Madeline: "In the hands of natives? Better dead than that!" Under readings like this, the scene is important because of what it reveals about the racial, historical, and geographical attitudes of the culture that produced it.

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But the best critics (for my money) are the ones who combine thinking in both these areas – technical and sociological – and try to delve into the way they interact. For a critic who thinks like this, the question about the scene might involve the relationship between the particulars of the camera shot and the details of the meaning they're trying to draw out of the film.

The shot opens, for instance, with the camera creeping out from behind Neil's back to peek under his arm at Dr. Bruner. This has the effect of making us (the viewers) feel, I think, like interlopers, the proverbial flies on the wall listening in on a verboten conversation. There is also the fact that the image this creates is a decidedly odd one, in which Dr. Bruner's face is framed in a kind of triangle.

Similar effects are seen elsewhere in the film – both Legendre and Madeline are framed at one point through an odd-shaped aperture as they descend the stairs, for example – which pushes us in the direction of thinking about a kind of visual control: by making us see in particular ways, the film is asserting, or increasing, the degree to which we are not allowed to simply watch passively. Instead of allowing us freedom, it puts visual constraints onto us.

This is, of course, what all movies do: make us see what they want us to, and in the way they want us to. But here, through the framing (as well as other devices throughout) this control is foregrounded, highlighted. The camera pushes and pans in the shot, under this reading, the moment when Neil falls out of frame as we watch Dr. Bruner take the law book from the library shelf, and the ultimate return to the initial position beneath Neil's arm, all serve as a meditation on the way in which, in cinema, our will is not our own. We are at the mercy of the creator. Fitting stuff for a zombie flick.

Finally, there is the filmmaker's perspective. As with fans and critics I hesitate to speak for all filmmakers, as they are as varied a bunch as you can find, but I'll generalize to make the point. For the people behind the camera, I think, one of the tasks in a shot like this one is simple (and plays a part in any shot they set up): to stimulate the viewer in a particular direction, to make them feel something that the filmmaker would like them to feel.

There is something in a long take like this one that draws out, something inside of our viewing experience that seems to stretch, something that builds a kind of pressure or tension.

From the filmmaker's perspective, the idea for shooting this as a oner might be to try to use that extension, that building of pressure (which is induced in part, I think, because we have been trained by the film itself to expect a certain rhythm; up until now there have been more shots, more editing, in each sequence, and now that rhythm has been disrupted) to increase the suspense of the scene itself. Here in the film we have our revelation of what might actually be happening to Madeline, a revelation about black magic and life and death itself. To match that with a camera technique that creates a kind of building of tension in the viewer seems a wonderful way to emphasize it.

In addition to this, though, I think there is another side of many filmmakers. They want to do something to try it, to see if it can be done, for the sake of the expressive attempt itself. There is a high degree of risk in this shot. Film stock was one of the most expensive parts of filmmaking back then, and time is at a premium when you are renting space on a big studio lot. If you set up a shot like this one, and rehearse it, and shoot it, and one of the actors flubs a line four minutes in, it's going to cost you. There are ways to fix it – by shooting an insert, for example – but there is something of a gamble in even thinking about shooting five minutes of your movie in this way.

But Halperin did. At least in part, I think, just to do it. To try it. To make a film in which there are fascinating things happening, in which his vision of the tale is as perfectly realized as possible. And maybe to show off a little.

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So how does all this help with the elusive question of what cinema is? By highlighting, I think, not only the different ways in which we watch films, but the deep interconnections between those ways. The filmmaker is trying to capture us, to entrance us, and the fan is someone who loves that entrancement and celebrates it. The critic tries to understand it and to put it in context. The meaning of a movie – the nature of cinema itself – is thus entirely dependent on the reason one is engaging with it.

At the same time, none of these ways (or of the many other ways there are to watch a film) exist independent of one another. They are interlocked and responsive; perhaps a dance is the best metaphor. The filmmaker strives to find things that engage the audience, which is engaged in part for the reasons the critic attempts to elucidate. And the fan frequently acts as a critic, whether by debating the greatness of their favorite, or simply by choosing which films to watch, an act which implies critical judgement. And if both fans and critics respond poorly, the filmmaker begins to rethink their approach.

And all of this thinking and watching and terrifically hard work creates a shot, and a history of shots, and an accumulation of shots that can be edited into a movie, and a tradition of people sitting in front of screens to be enraptured, and cinema itself.

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