Wicked is the witch that stands 4 nothing: Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Ahead of the Criticism Masterclass, prolific critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas goes deep with EWF across the subjects of film, pop music, horror and morality – all the sugar and grit that makes for good criticism.

EWF: In a recent article for Overland you praise The Witch (2016) for ‘its total absence of knowing, postmodern playfulness’, suggesting that the film reserves ‘a mythic space’ for witchcraft that challenges the ‘quirkification’ of witches from ‘grotesque, malevolent evil into something far sassier and lip-gloss wearing’. You describe seeing Prince in Melbourne earlier this year and hearing him sing, ‘wicked is the witch that stands 4 nothing’. Which witch do you reckon Prince was thinking of when he wrote that line?

AHN: Honestly, who knows? He was always an enigma at the best of times, but for what it’s worth, I’m quite confident to suggest that the clue is in the wording of that line itself. Last year I wrote an essay ‘Lay Down Your Funky Weapon – In Praise of Prince’s Graffiti Bridge, 25 Years On’ about Prince’s brief (and broadly underrated) career as a film director, where I quoted his response to the initial critical and commercial dismissal of the film: ‘It was one of the purest, most spiritual, uplifting things I’ve ever done…they trashed The Wizard of Oz at first, too.’ The track ‘It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night’ from the Sign O’ the Times album samples ‘March of the Winkies’ from The Wizard of Oz, too, so I suspect Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West is a reasonably safe guess: surely Glinda is far too banal an alternative for Prince?

EWF: In an interview in Kill Your Darlings last year you remark—apropos of Dario Argento’s Suspiria—that ‘horror is, at its best, a kind of choreography about moving bodies and about what limits bodies can be taken to’. Is there something particularly about cinematic horror—about film as medium, as opposed to, say, the novel—that intensifies this sense of the bodily? You’ve written elsewhere about your affection for VHS—how does the medium alter the experience of horror in that case?

AHN: It may not be a wholly popular opinion, but I feel very passionately that the traditions of screen culture lie far closer to art history than to literature: not merely in terms of the privileging of the visual, but also in regards to the sense of scale, of form, and of sensory experience. It could be simply through the glut of attention placed in a lot of film criticism on movies as a mode of ‘storytelling’ that I flinch at discourse that fetishizes aspects like character development and plot. In terms of my own experience, at its most satisfying cinema is a multisensory experience, and in this light the medium is absolutely vital. My personal tastes align me with viewing experiences that force me to do more ‘work’, to fill in the gaps, to participate in the construction of my own meaning and experience more actively: this may be in terms of ambiguities, ellipses and/or failures of logic in content, formal decisions that go against the grain, or—in terms of VHS over something like, say, Blu-ray—to reject clarity over something hazier and less precisely defined.

EWF: You’ve written books about both rape-revenge and found-footage horror films. These subgenres are typically regarded as some of cinema’s most debased or obscene—extreme violence regularly marks both—but they also express deep social anxieties around gender, politics, sexuality and the body; they are rich documents of the morality of the eras in which they were produced. What can we learn from extreme horror? Should we even expect it to be morally instructive?

AHN: The most obvious answer to this is that I am a disgusting, despicable human being, and look, I’m not going to lie and deny this in this this sanctified space of the Emerging Writers Festival website. Less facetiously, I’m fascinated with your focus here on ‘morality’—like you say, this is a curious avenue for discussion for a domain of screen culture that has from more orthodox perspectives been dismissed as ‘immoral’. In terms of extreme horror, what intrigues me is less a unified, holistic or singularly didactic ‘meaning’ at the core of these films (either individually or taken collectively), but rather where they deviate and diverge from each other. So many of the films I have written about in these areas have struck me precisely for their contradictions and their ambivalence: even the same film (and quite regularly, the same filmmaker) can often present contradictory, even hypocritical ideological positions. The fake snuff films so important to the pre-history of the contemporary found footage horror phenomenon and rape-revenge films in particular really leap out here. There’s something about bodies in crisis—and often quite emphatically gendered bodies in crisis—that allows the broader hypocrisies of the cultures and contexts in which these films were produced to come to the fore and to confront us in often shocking, difficult ways.

EWF: You’re appearing at EWF16 on a panel called Anatomy of an Essay, as part of our Criticism Masterclass. One of the challenges unique to film criticism is that of form: where a literary critic writes in the same medium as that which they’re writing about, a film critic typically has to translate cinematic form into text. How does this problem inform your work? Is the task of critical translation made more difficult when the subject at hand is extreme in its subject matter, as horror films often are?

AHN: My favourite kind of film writing—and what I most aspire to—is engaged on some level with something broader and more fundamental to human experience: the poetics of witnessing art. How do we write about the pleasures of the eye, the pleasures of the ear, the skin, the nose, the tongue? And for me more precisely in my focus on horror and extreme cinema, how do we write about the experience—often unpleasurable—of watching film bodies (be it in terms of form or figure) go wrong, break down, defy rules? Again, I return to art history as a closer point of comparison for film criticism than literary criticism on this front alone: for me at least, that the form of expression is so distinct is precisely the attraction. The best literary criticism for me personally revels in the challenge of using words to explore other words, but in film and art criticism we have a different set of challenges. In the case of extreme cinema—the subject area to which I always find myself returning—the most obvious challenge is to justify why these films even deserve exploration in the first place. People either have a taste for horror or they don’t, it functions on a plane far more closely aligned to the body than the intellect (both in terms of what the films are about and our varied responses to them). My challenge is that I am not so much trying to use words to explore other words, but rather using words to explore something whose impact for me at least exists in a place well beyond language in the first place.

EWF: In the essay on The Witch, mentioned above, you write that, after seeing him live, you became ‘increasingly convinced that Prince is not only a 5’2’ musical genius, but that he is also one of the greatest semioticians of our time’, for his insight into the symbolic power of witches (‘wicked is the witch that stands 4 nothing’). In another article for KYD, you write about the low-budget 1969 horror film The Image, David Bowie’s first screen appearance. Apart from the spooky coincidence of Bowie and Prince (rest in peace), what strikes me is the intersection of horror movies and popular music. Do pop music and extreme horror—which we might usually regard as antithetical—in fact interpret one another?

AHN: On a more objective level, I see them as being united by my third passion: choreography. Horror films and music share a fascination with bodies in movement, both physically and emotionally (in the sense of being ‘moved’). But as catchy a soap-box declaration as this may be, I’m not sure I’d be willing to back it up when push comes to shove: I suspect the overlap of music and extreme cinema simply comes from my own experience as a writer. I began music writing with a zine that got picked up for newsagent distribution about 15 years ago, which I edited for around three years. At the same time I did a lot of music writing for Melbourne street press, and my first book publication was ten entries in Robert Dimmery’s 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die (first published in 2005, and reprinted in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2013). I decided to pursue film writing more seriously around 2005 when I left the magazine, and that is where my focus has since remained (although I have published a number of essays in the last few years on subjects such as Australian politics and feminism). But music is special: I haven’t identified as a ‘music writer’ in over a decade, but I return every now and then when inspired (not only by Bowie and Prince, but also people like Kate Bush, Diamanda Galas and John Zorn). Returning to the previous question, I wonder if this is again the lure of using words to explore art that exists beyond the domain of the purely lingual? Or, more probably, it simply may be that we just never truly let go of our first loves.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic on Triple R’s Plato’s Cave programme and the 2016 winner of the Best Review of an Individual Australian Film award from the Australian Film Critics Association. She is a co-editor of the journal Senses of Cinema and has written four books on cult, horror and exploitation film: Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011), Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2014), Suspiria (Auteur, 2015), and Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017). She has also written for Overland, Metro, Kill Your Darlings, 4:3, Bright Lights and Scream Magazine (UK).

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas will be speaking at the Criticism Masterclass as part of the 2016 Emerging Writers’ Festival.