The Grotesque in Film

An Introduction to the Grotesque in Film
by David Summar
Luis Bunuel
Tim Burton
Joel and Ethan Coen
David Cronenberg
The Farrelly Brothers
Federico Fellini
Terry Gilliam
Peter Greenaway
Derek Jarman
Jim Jarmusch
Alejandro Jodorowsky
David Lynch
The Movies
Ken Russell
Todd Solondz
Jan Svankmajer
Quentin Tarantino
David Summar
Middle Tennessee State University

Introduction to the Grotesque and Film

Shock me, shock me, shock me with that deviant behavior.
from Allan Moyle’s Empire Records

Any local video store greets its customers with a variety of genres suitable, so they claim, for every mood and person. And the variety seems endless: romance, comedy, romantic comedy, drama, adventure, action, war, martial arts, cult classics, classics, science fiction, horror, independent films, animation, foreign films, Academy Award winners, family films, and children’s films. Regardless of the apparently boundless list of film genres, nowhere does one find the category of the grotesque. The grotesque denies classification. From the shelves of any of these genres, one can ferret out a film with grotesque features or stumble upon one in full grotesque mode. The grotesque flourishes in film with peculiar success. Despite its evasion of generic classification, the grotesque undeniably proliferates in film, so what does characterize a grotesque film?

Almost always in films does the grotesque manifest in the body. Films typically classified as horror displace the body as an agent of pleasure and replace it as an article of disgust. Sam Raimi’s cult classic The Evil Dead sends a severed hand scuttling after victims. Jame’s Cameron’s Aliens brought to the screen aliens erupting from the bodies of terrified humans. Clive Barker sent viewers running for the exits with Hellraiser which takes sadomasochistic urges to demonic extremes. One director particularly notorious for his representation of the body is David Cronenberg. Bodies in his films are in revolt and are often objects of disgust which the person can not control. His Videodrome has James Wood as Max Renn watch in stupefied horror as his body undergoes torturous transformations, and in eXistenZ a computer programmer becomes embroiled in the latest incarnation of the video game, a throbbing organism which attaches umbilical-like to her body. Closely related to this strand of films utilizing the grotesque are thrillers which often feature physical violence but couple it with psychological fear.

The grotesque mind and its propensity to create grotesque bodies through sadistic murders reach prominence in psychological thrillers. Alfred Hitchcock introduces Norman Bates in Psycho into the American consciousness. More violent than Psycho, Silence of the Lambs directed by Jonathan Demme, likewise investigates the mind of the serial killer. The serial killer reaches appalling grotesqueness in Seven directed by David Fincher. Adrian Lyne created Fatal Attraction which shocked viewers with the incongruous Alex Forrest. Resting not only in the violence towards the victims, the grotesque locates itself in the essential ambivalence. What connects the killers of these movies is either their apparent normalcy or their intelligence. When these typically positive attributes come into conflict with the killer’s malevolence, the grotesque comes howling into the forefront. However, not always does the grotesque manifest itself in such violent ways.

Other directors make physical deformity or gross exaggeration a basis for their work. For example, Fellini’s freaks have garnered cinematic fame. Though many of his movies are populated with grotesques to some extent, he especially peoples Fellini-Satyricon, Roma, and Juliet of the Spirits with a startling array of malformed, misshapen creatures. Many other directors have similarly created movies that deal in different fashions with the malformed human body. Focusing on dwarves are Tod Browning’s Freaks and Yvone Le Moine’s Le Nain rouge (The Red Dwarf) in which both movies’ dwarves vie for the love of a non-disabled woman. Gross exaggeration in size continues in Tom Shadyac’s Nutty Professor and Big Momma’s House directed by Raja Gosnell. Assuming a more sympathetic stance towards the morbidly obese is What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. These movies, in part, explore the placement of what society informs as abnormal against what is accepted as normal. Do we celebrate, fear, or deride the grotesque person? With the movie as a visual medium, that the grotesque arises in physical form is no surprise; yet, not all movies that take on grotesque themes rely solely on the malformed body.

Other films assault the seemingly pristine, orderly surface of life. No one has done this more effectively than David Lynch, creator of Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet. In the television series and later the film of Twin Peaks, he reveals a macabre and complex mesh of grotesqueries, complete with dwarves, a one-armed man, an apparently insane woman who talks to a log, and the now infamous Laura Palmer, a prom queen with many devious secrets. Grotesque bodies frequent the screen in Lynch’s work, but they are not the staple by which the story thrives. This is especially evident in Blue Velvet. Lynch establishes in the opening scene an all-American town replete with waving firemen and smiling neighbors, yet by the movie’s end he draws the viewer into a seamy underworld that squirms in stark incongruity to its shiny facade. A contemporary film exploring similar avenues, but that eschews the grotesque body, is Sam Mendes’s American Beauty in which a family dwelling in plush middle-class luxury fractures into its grotesque components. Mendes exposes the America’s fascination with youth through Lester Burnham, who lusts after his daughter’s friend. As the family order ruptures, its grotesque underpinnings take prevalence, leaving a wake of tragic deaths in its path.

Not all that disgusts must frighten or condemn as the Farrelly brothers and Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of South Park, demonstrate. Films like the Farrelly’s Dumb and Dumber and Something About Mary take vulgarity and crassness to extremes. They expose people in their most embarrassing scatological moments, such as a man with violent diarrhea in Dumb and Dumber or a bashful boy who, when meeting his prom date, woefully and painfully traps his penis in his zipper. Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Southpark: Bigger, Longer and Uncut tops the scatological meter. Its characters utter profanity at an Olympian pace, and Sadam Hussein’s sexual escapades with Satan defy categorization. Other films using exaggerated bodies are Nutty Professor and Big Momma’s House, which both generate laughter and revenue with the grotesquely obese. These films use disgust to humorous ends, unlike the many that startle and revolt.

To return to the question, what characterizes the grotesque in films?, one finds a menagerie of answers. Scatological humor. Dwarves. Misshapen people. Destruction, desecration, and deformation of the body. Twisting of the psyche. Grotesque realities veiled beneath handsome appearances. Vulgarity and the profane. The grotesque revels in film. Regardless of which aisle the movie watcher traverses, she will surely find, and with little effort, countless works of the grotesque. These answers provide some insight, but they lead us to more profound questions. Why, in an art form barely one century of age, has the grotesque become a common feature? Are directors and writers simply trying to up the ante, taking the grotesque to greater extremes? Are audiences desensitized and, therefore, in need of greater shocks? Why does the contemporary audience delight in deviance? If the grotesque has become the dominant mode of the novel, as John Clark argues in The Modern Satiric Grotesque and its Traditions, is it also subsuming cinema, which long ago relinquished the classic foundations of tragedy and comedy and now demands another form to depict humans in their postmodern predicaments? Regardless, the tendency of directors and writers to utilize the grotesque in order to repulse the audience or induce in it gales of laughter is undergoing an exponential increase, and the video stores will continue to find their shelves burgeoning with ever more shocking material.

Works Cited Clark, John R. The Modern Satiric Grotesque and Its Traditions. Lexington: U Kentucky Press, 1991.