Close Encounters: Cinema, Myth and Meaning

There is a point in Martin Healy’s video work Genesis 28:12 (2006) in which the singer seems to draw back from the microphone, as though pausing to contemplate his task as a performer. While his movements and gestures suggest sincerity rather than mimicry, his performance inevitably calls to mind earlier, more authoritative, versions of Stairway to Heaven. Genesis 28:12, which derives its title from an even earlier ‘original’ (the biblical narrative of Jacob’s Ladder), can be read as an exploration of the relationship between myth and popular culture. There are no dire consequences to Healy’s reversal of Stairway to Heaven; no demonic force is unleashed. But this act does expose certain ambiguities surrounding the ‘live’ studio performance, complicating the relationship between original and copy. The gestures of the singer and band, combined with the use of dramatic stage lighting and smoke machine, appear to be oriented towards an audience that is present within the studio. But this presence cannot be confirmed; the intense gaze of the singer is never answered with a reverse shot of the audience, creating a certain degree of narrative instability.1 The use of multiple camera angles also opens up the possibility that several performances may have taken place.

The myth of the hidden message in Stairway to Heaven is linked to the use (or rather abuse) of consumer technology and there is nothing new is this intertwining of the technological, domestic and supernatural within popular culture. The telephone and the television have long been imagined as the conduit for some kind of supernatural or alien invasion2 and this theme recurs within Hollywood horror and science fiction cinema. In one of the key scenes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), for example, a vacuum cleaner is brought to life by aliens seeking to make contact with a child, while in Poltergeist (1982) television becomes the channel for communication with another realm. A focus on consumer technologies is also evident in more recent examples of the horror genre such as The Ring (2002), where the simple act of playing a VHS tape is enough to open a portal to another realm.

Healy’s interest in popular cultural fragments, cinematic space and questions of originality can perhaps be explored further through reference to Walter Benjamin’s concept of the ‘optical unconscious’. For Benjamin, the use of montage in early cinema seemed to offer the means to articulate the collective experience of urban modernity:

Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling. […] Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens itself to the naked eye – if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man.3

In the 1920s, filmmakers such as Vertov and Eisenstein developed an approach to framing and editing that emphasised contradiction and fragmentation, rather than coherency. The subsequent development of sound cinema was, however, marked by the rise of both naturalistic performance and an editing system structured around narrative continuity. The use of reverse playback in Genesis 28:12 evokes an era before the full establishment of these industrial codes and conventions, characterised by a fascination with the technology of cinema itself and a blurring of boundaries between fact and fiction. During this period, operators of the Lumiere Cinematograph4 would often wind the film backward to entertain their audiences; as a consequence, an ‘actuality’ such as Demolition of a Wall (1896) could depict both the destruction of a wall and its magical restoration.
The concern with performance and authenticity that is evident in Genesis 28:12 persists in Skywatcher (2007). This work consists of an interview with a middle-aged man who discusses the possibility that he may have encountered alien visitors in the Warminster area of the UK during the 1960s and 70s. The setting is domestic, almost deliberately mundane and the interviewee is at pains to present himself as a credible witness. In an analysis of UFO sightings in relation to domestic and scientific photography, Jane D. Marsching notes that witnesses often attempt to contextualise and ground their experiences through reference to the domain of the familiar.5 Their statements typically place particular emphasis on the precise moment of transition from the realm of the ordinary to the extraordinary. The subject at the centre of Skywatcher is not simply concerned with his own experience, however. Instead he offers an analysis of the broader cultural, economic and political forces particular to the era of the sightings; in the process, he appropriates the role of the detached commentator who reluctant to believe but convinced nonetheless.

Although Skywatcher clearly borrows from the conventions of documentary form in terms of staging and camerawork, the structure of the installation and the use of a double screen would suggest a critique of these codes. Documentary interviews are generally framed so that the subject seems to look towards an interviewer positioned off-camera and reaction shots are sometimes included during the editing stage. In Skywatcher, however, the installation structure creates the sense that the interviewee is actually looking off-camera in two slightly different directions at the same time, complicating the establishment of a coherent narrative space. The double screen image also seems to invite and enable the kind behavioural analysis that has become a feature of popular culture, particularly within ‘reality’ television. While a steady gaze is often regarded as evidence of truthfulness, armchair experts on body language will know that an authentic recollection of a past event may require the witness to look away, enabling dissociation from the here and now and a return to another time and place.

Healy explores this territory from a somewhat different perspective in Here Be Monsters (2004). This earlier work also features an expert witness and a description of occult occurrences associated with a particular place, but the source of the information is never actually seen. Instead, his voice is simply heard off-screen, apparently emanating from inside the cab of a truck that is passing through a forest. There is no obvious evidence of any supernatural occurrence - only a fragment of the landscape is visible, in the form of a blurred, black and white ‘vignette’. Nonetheless, the forest itself seems to have acquired the characteristics of a spectre, evoking a long history of cinematic representation extending from the silent era to low budget horror in The Blair Witch Project (1999).
The forest recurs as an object of study in a series of photographs taken in County Clare. While the title of this work, Wald (2005), suggests a direct reference to Caspar David Friedrich’s exploration of landscape and the sublime, the connection may be mediated by cinema. As Angela Dalle Vacche has demonstrated, Friedrich’s work provided an importance source for Nosferatu (1922) one of first examples of horror cinema. 6 Like many other examples of German Expressionist filmmaking, Nosferatu is characterised by an emphasis on atmospheric art direction and optical visual effects, prefiguring developments within horror and fantasy cinema since the 1970s. The forests of Wald seem to belong to the realm of computer generated film fantasy and, even though there is no trace of digital manipulation, it is difficult to shake the suspicion that this landscape might be invented. The theme of unreality is also evident in Skywatch (2007), a series of photographs documenting various locations where sightings of UFOs supposedly occurred. These images offer a vivid counterpoint to the typical grainy UFP snapshot. They do not aspire to documentary authenticity but instead seek to capture something that may be even more elusive than the trace of a spacecraft: a persistent belief in a world that exists beyond that which is known and familiar.

A possible starting point for Healy’s investigation of the supernatural, and its place within popular culture, can be found in Looking for Jodie (Amityville) (2002). This photographic series documents the area around the infamous Amityville house, which first came to public attention as the site of a gruesome murder-suicide in the mid-1970s. The house (which remains occupied) was then bought by the Lutz family and subsequently abandoned amid rumours of demonic possession. Sceptics have argued, however, that the Lutzes actually fabricated the entire story of the possession in collaboration with the lawyer who represented the Amityville murderer.7 When they subsequently sold their story to another bidder for publication in 1977 (as The Amityville Horror: A True Story) the lawyer attempted to sue them for breach of contract.

Even though it has been repeatedly exposed as a hoax, the myth of the Amityville Horror persists as media phenomenon, fuelled by a continual interplay between news discourse, rumour and marketing hype. The commercial success of this franchise can be partly attributed to a convergence of cinema and publishing, and the development of new promotional strategies during the 1970s.8 But it is also linked to a revival of popular cultural interest in myth,9 evidenced by release of a series of ‘blockbuster’ films characterised by a thematic emphasis on the supernatural, including Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

Fredric Jameson has theorised the role of myth within various films from this period, including Jaws. He rejects the notion that the shark has a specific, hidden meaning and instead suggests that the monster is characterised by a “polysemeousness [that is] profoundly ideological, insofar as it allows essentially social and historical anxieties to be folded back into apparently ‘natural’ ones”.10 Jameson points out that in the original best-selling novel the oceanographer is a middle-class character who dies at the end, leaving the working class cop and the shark-hunter (a minor figure) to triumph. In Spielberg’s version, however, the role of Quint the shark-hunter is greatly enlarged and the oceanographer, played by Richard Dreyfuss, is primarily a technological expert. The death of Quint at the close of the film signals a rejection of the ideals of an older America (associated with World War Two) and the rise of a powerful new alliance between law, order and technology.

Elsewhere, Jameson provides an analysis of The Shining (1980), again focusing on the differences between the original novel and the film adaptation. He suggests that this film marks the continuation of Kubrick’s exploration of history and pastiche in Barry Lyndon (1975) and he points out that the central character, played by Jack Nicholson, is a failed writer frustrated by his inability to create an original work.11 He concludes that the theme of telepathy is actually a “false lead” within The Shining, obscuring the fact that the film is specifically concerned with the haunting of a particular place. According to Jameson, the Overlook Hotel and its crazed caretaker are possessed not by some demonic force but rather by a desire for an experience of collectivity that is now lost. They are possessed by “History” itself, “by the American past as it has left its sedimented traces in the corridors and dismembered suites” of the Overlook Hotel.12 Perhaps the references to the occult in Looking for Jodie (Amityville) also constitute a deliberate ‘false lead’. The photographs do not reveal or claim anything new about the paranormal events that supposedly took place in Amityville; instead they highlight the persistent circulation of meaning between fact and fiction, original and remake.

The Amityville images also call to mind a rich body of thought exploring the relationship between still and moving images, extending from Barthes’ concept of ‘The Third Meaning’ to Victor Burgin’s more recent examination of the ‘remembered film’.13 Burgin emphasises that the experience of a film is no longer “localized in space and time, in the finite unreeling of a narrative in a particular theatre on a particular day”.14 Instead, he suggests:

A ‘film’ may be encountered through posters, ‘blurbs’, and other advertisements, such as trailers and television clips; it may be encountered through newspaper reviews, reference work synopses and theoretical articles (with their ‘film-strip’ assemblages of still images); through production photographs, frame enlargements, memorabilia, and so on.15

It is this expanded, refracted and fragmented experience of film that Healy brings to life in I Want to Believe. The exhibition is filled with references, both oblique and direct, to Close Encounters of the Third Kind - a film that is explicitly concerned with signification and the production of meaning. These themes are foregrounded both in Spielberg’s casting of New Wave auteur Francois Truffaut as a scientist and in the many scenes where characters are compelled to obsessively reproduce an image of the mountain where the alien landing will take place. Although it is wholly conventional for a Hollywood narrative to be driven by the desires of its central characters, these desires are rarely so tangible.

Interestingly, Spielberg’s film exists in two authoritative forms: the original version and the ‘special edition’, released in 1980. In the latter, a particularly unsettling scene in which Dreyfuss’ character destroys his own garden in an attempt to recreate the mountain has actually been removed, while references to a history of alien visitation have been included. The existence of Close Encounters in these two different forms calls attention to the complex circuit of meaning that is described by Victor Burgin, revealing the film as a composite of fragments, subject to infinite rearrangement and reinterpretation. A desire for the unknown, paralleling that which is explored in Close Encounters and exploited in The Amityville Horror, is evident throughout Healy’s work. But, as already suggested, the processes of investigation employed in Skywatcher, Skywatch (I just want to know it’s really happening) and GENESIS 28:12 are not necessarily intended to dispel mystery or provide answers. These works are, in fact, characterised by various forms of repetition, including re-enactment, and Healy’s use of photography and video to enable repetition recalls Benjamin’s hope that “a different nature” might open itself to the camera than to the naked eye.16 From this perspective, it may be possible to read the assertion ‘I Want to Believe’ in two different ways. On the most obvious level, it is a straightforward reference to the desire for something beyond the ordinary. But it is also open to interpretation as a statement of faith in the forms of representation that are particular to popular culture, through which collective experiences, both ordinary and extraordinary, continue to acquire meaning.

Maeve Connolly

1. The shot/reverse shot alternation forms part of the continuity editing system and has been the subject of extensive discussion within the context of 1970s psychoanalytic film theory. For an overview of these issues see Robert Lapsley and Michael Westlake, Film Theory: An Introduction, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988.

2. See Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.

3. See Walter Benjamin’s discussion of film in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arrendt and translated by Harry Zohn, London: Fontana/Collins, 1973, pp. 238 -239.

4. It is perhaps worth noting that the Cinematograph functioned as a projector as well as a camera and film processor.

5. Jane D. Marsching, “Orbs, Blobs, and Glows: Astronauts, UFOs, and Photography”, Art Journal, Vol 62, 2003, pp. 56 - 63.

6. See Angela Dalle Vacche, Cinema and Painting: How Art is Used in Film, University of Texas Press, 1996.

7. For further details see Joe Nickell, “Amityville: The Horror of it All”, Skeptical Inquirer, January/February 2003, pp. 13-14.

8. For further discussion of this period see David A. Cook, “Auteur Cinema and the ‘Film Generation’ in 1970s Hollywood”, in Jon Lewis (ed), The New American Cinema, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998, pp. 11-37.

9. As is widely known, directors such as George Lucas drew heavily upon folktale and Jungian psychology to create narratives that would have a broad appeal. Lucas, in particular, was strongly influenced by Joseph Campbell's analysis of myth in The Hero has a Thousand Faces (1949).

10. Fredric Jameson, Signatures of the Visible, London and New York: Routledge, 1992, p. 27 (emphasis added).

11. Jameson, p. 92.

12. Jameson, p. 90.

13. See Roland Barthes, “The Third Meaning: Research Notes on some Eisenstein Stills” in Image Music Text, London: Fontana Press, 177, pp. 52-68 and Victor Burgin, The Remembered Film, London: Reaktion Books, 2004.

14. Burgin, p. 8.

15. Burgin, p. 8. Burgin actually cites here from his own 1996 work, In/Different Spaces: Places and Memory in Visual Culture.

16. Benjamin, p. 238.