Film Esthetics 101: The Grotesque


Eggers, R. (2019). The Lighthouse [Photo]. https://www.polygon.com/2020/10/1/21496243/best-halloween-movies-tv-streaming/comment/532417052

Foreword

Discussing the esthetics of film can be a challenging task, especially when the term can refer to several issues. In a broader sense, it is a sort of philosophy of art, dealing with the judgment of taste and authentic artistic values. This series deals with the cinematic world, it will explore the concept of esthetics in two ways. The first one refers to the strong connection between art (in this case cinema) and sensation, while the second one looks at how esthetic categories are used as rules for certain cinematic discourses.


The esthetic categories explored in this series include beauty, the grotesque, kitsch, camp, and the sublime. The articles will cover the historical definitions of these categories and the filmic concepts related to them while also giving various cinematic examples.


Film Esthetics 101 is divided into five chapters:

  • Film Esthetics 101: Beauty and Truth

  • Film Esthetics 101: The Grotesque

  • Film Esthetics 101: The Cheap Pleasure of Kitsch

  • Film Esthetics 101: Camp and Performance

  • Film Esthetics 101: Obscure Echoes of the Sublime

The grotesque is an esthetic that is as old as the concept of beauty. Essentially, it is the opposite of it. If beauty, in a classical sense, is related to sexual attraction and social acceptance, the grotesque seems to represent a category that is linked to the undesirable. Over the years, the concept evolved and picked up many social and political meanings. When it comes to cinema, the grotesque is often associated with the horror genre, being a form of cinematic sensibility that brings out the dreadful part of human life.


Historical Context

For a long time, the grotesque was simply thought of as the antithesis of beauty. Due to the latter esthetic being thought of as inherently good, thinkers and artists associated the ugly side of humans with wickedness and immorality. “That which is instinctively repugnant to us, aesthetically, is proved by mankind’s longest experience to be harmful, dangerous, worthy of suspicion: the suddenly vocal aesthetic instinct (e.g., in disgust) contains a judgment” (Nietzsche, 1968, p. 423). However, as time passed, philosophers and theoreticians became more aware of the grotesque as a common aspect of life. Moreover, with the emergence of theatric and cinematic adaptations, narratives became more accustomed to characters who were deemed ugly, despite their obvious kind-heartedness. Some of the more famous examples include Quasimodo of Notre Dame and the story of Beauty and the Beast. As thoughts on esthetics evolved, a sort of theory of the grotesque appeared, which had implications for different types of art. Within various expressions and sensibilities, the grotesque developed as an uneasy atmosphere, built on outrageous visual depictions, psychological confusion, or both. The nature of this esthetic “could be summed up in a phrase that has repeatedly suggested itself to us: the grotesque is the estranged world” (Kayser, 1963, p. 184).


The Grotesque in Film

The cinematic image usually employs the esthetic of the grotesque in horror films. The genre requires a sensibility that is both distressing and off-putting. However, as mentioned in the previous article on beauty, directors have always tried to explore more ambiguous treatments of the classic dichotomy of beauty and ugliness. The existence of inner beauty has a counterpart in obscenely grotesque behaviour. Nevertheless, the impactful visual nature of cinema makes it a suitable medium to explore both kinds of grotesque expressions. Some of the most famous symbols of the horror genre include Freddie Krueger and Leatherface, two disfigured characters whose appearance shocks the audience even before their violent actions. Their cases fit the classical theory which dictates that elements that engender disgust should be avoided. However, there are also directors which employ the grotesque esthetic to guide the diegesis of their films and structure their discourse.


Examples

Videodrome (1983) is probably one of the most prominent examples of how to use the grotesque for the sake of developing a larger narrative. The director, David Cronenberg, is often considered the master of body horror, a subgenre that explores images of explicit body alterations and mutilations. However, Cronenberg is not seeking to simply shock with his cinematic sensibility.


In his film, a TV producer who specializes in sensationalist videos, becomes obsessed with a video that shows images of individuals who are being tortured. In order to boost the ratings of his station, the protagonist tries to find the creator behind the mysterious and disturbing imagery. Cronenberg takes his main character and the viewers down a rabbit hole of madness, in which reality and hallucination intertwine. His protagonist finds himself in an increasingly perturbing world, in which flesh becomes metal and machines become human. Videodrome is a grotesque cinematic experience that tells a compelling story of media manipulation, violence, and paranoia.

Cronenberg, D. (1983). Videodrome [Photo]. https://mubi.com/films/videodrome

Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997) is an experimental film combining documentary and fiction, which presents the aftermath of a tornado in a small town in the American state of Ohio. The narrative is mainly focused on two boys, but the cinematic eye also turns to different characters, who can be funny, confusing, or upsetting. The film is not grotesque in the same way as Cronenberg’s film, as there are no supernatural bodily alterations of mutilation. But, Korine’s sensibility highlights the grotesque nature of the lives of people who have been struck by a disaster. They resort to violence and deceitfulness to find meaning in a desolate landscape. Moreover, the film uses non-actors, real-life characters which brings an almost too honest realism to the narrative.


Korine’s film is at times hard to watch. At the same time, the spectator is drawn into the violence of the characters, unfiltered imagery, and decaying environment. Gummo is an unpolished presentation of devastation which is masterfully used by the director to reveal a deeper narrative of trauma.

Korine, H. (1997). Gummo [Photo]. https://lwlies.com/articles/whats-so-great-about-harmony-korines-gummo/

The Lighthouse (2019) is perhaps one of the most unconventional horror films in recent years. The black-and-white film, directed by Robert Eggers, tells the story of two lighthouse keepers on a remote island. The conflict arises as both Ephraim, the young keeper, and Thomas, the veteran start to descend into a loneliness-induced delirium.


The film’s strength lies in the flawless cinematography and world-building. The space that surrounds the tedious routines of the two protagonists is depressing, eerie, and extremely uncomfortable. Moreover, as the action progresses, the director gradually introduces gloomy and disturbing images. In The Lighthouse, the spectator is met with,


A single staring eye, wide with alarm; by a living bird being thrashed against concrete, until it’s no more than feathery rags of flesh; by a human head in a lobster pot; and by the hapless Ephraim, wheeling a barrow of coals toward us, in foul rain (Lane, 2019).


Eggers constructs his film as a representation of the minds of his two characters. When it comes to what is real and what is hallucination, the viewer’s guess is as good as that of the protagonists. Nevertheless, the film is an innovative take on how the grotesque esthetic can be used to portray unbridled madness.


The treatment of the grotesque is ever-changing. As art and philosophy continue to explore the dark side of human behaviour and thought, depictions of the grotesque will become more nuanced. These representations can tell a direct story about physical harm and trauma or use unsettling imagery to construct a larger narrative. Regardless of the directorial choices, the cinematic grotesque offers an extremely visceral experience, tying the spectators to their sensations, and perhaps even providing a sort of catharsis.


References:

  • Nietzsche, F. (1968). The Will to Power. Translated by Kaufmann, W., & Hollingdale, R.J., Random House

  • Kayser, W. (1963). The Grotesque in Art and Literature. Translated by Weisstein, U., Indiana University Press

  • Lane, A. (2019, October 18). “The Lighthouse” Is Salted with Madness. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/10/28/the-lighthouse-is-salted-with-madness

Author Photo

Sergiu Inizian

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