Belton’s take


Yesterday I posted the most provocative of my Cinema textbook/guide reading (wherein I was looking for “science fiction” in film).  I was researching what attributes are assigned the genre of science fiction in film, as well as the history of the genre and any cultural perspectives attached. I have four books on my shelf:

Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, 3rd Edition. Susan Hayward. Routledge, 2006;  American Cinema/ American Culture, 3rd Edition. John Belton. McGraw-Hill, 2009;  Dictionary of Film Terms: The Aesthetic Companion to Film Art. Frank Eugene Beaver.  Peter Lang, 2007; The Film Experience: An Introduction, 2nd Edition. Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White. Bedford/St. Martin’s,  2009.

John Belton’s American Cinema/ American Culture was the most helpful towards what I was looking for. Belton dedicates Chapter 12 to Horror and Science Fiction (271-94), playing on their similarities and differences. Distinctions between the two can be difficult, but these cues seem to help: in looking at “the tone and mode of address” one would be “rational, speculative, and scientific” whereas the other is “suspenseful, shocking, irrational, and horrific” (271). This seems like a “no, duh!” sort of explanation, I know, but as I said, some distinctions between Horror and Science Fiction can be blurry.

Belton goes on to explain distinctions further. He uses the responses of “What if?” and “Oh No!” to differentiate. (yes, this is the whole paragraphed section):

The horror film is, like the melodrama, a modal genre; its chief purpose is to generate horror, terror, or dread in the audience primarily through the figure of the monster and the threat it poses to humanity. Though the science fiction film often features monsters from outer space, its narratives are less concerned with inducing terror than with creating a sense of wonder, best exemplified in the spectacular special-effects sequences found in films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the Star Wars and Star Trek films, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Blade Runner (1982), Independence Day (1996), and The Matrix (1999). If the science fiction film features an occasional creature from outer space, the horror film is dominated by the monster figure. By the same token, the horror film is obsessed with the supernatural, the occult, and the irrational. The science fiction film, on the other hand, is marked by its focus on science and reason. That which is fantastic in the horror film is attributed to the supernatural. The fantastic in the science fiction film is ultimately explained through natural laws—either those already known to be in existence or those that will be discovered over the course of the film’s narrative. Though fictional, the science fiction film is grounded in scientific facts, assumptions, and hypotheses on which it then builds speculations about the future or a futuristic past. The science fiction film looks forward to the future and, imagining a series of intriguing possibilities, asks the question “What if?” The horror film, on the other hand, frequently looks back to the past, to an earlier trauma, experience, or event that continues to haunt the present, frequently in the form of the return of that which had been previously repressed. If the mode of address of the science fiction film is “What if?”, that of the horror film is “Oh no!” If only what has been unleashed could be safely repressed. (272)

I rarely wonder off into the Horror section of Film…and if I do it is often by accident. However, there is an incredible overlap. I think knowledge of the differences help; it certainly provides a working summation of things to look for that makes a film narrative science fiction. Especially for those films who are quietly sci fi, like the dystopian science fiction Children of Men (2006).

[how applicable is this to the literary genre, do you think?]

While the above portion of the chapter was interesting and helpful. The next will follow me in my reviews of science fiction film and literature: “The chief concern of both genres is their focus on what it means to be human” (272).

Belton spends the chapter in further explanation, while studying the nuances and history of each genre. He concludes the chapter with this:

“The genres of horror and science fiction function to manage our anxiety about being human, the potentially porous borders between the human and the nonhuman, and the threat and attraction of the posthuman*. As human existence becomes increasingly tenuous in the twenty-first century world of global warming (and the attendant natural disasters of droughts, tsunamis, floods, and hurricanes), AIDS (and other pandemics), terrorism, ethnic cleansing, hunger, poverty, and financial insecurity, we rely more and more on these genres to affirm the centrality of the human, to warn us of the dangers to humanity’s survival, and to imagine the posthuman in its many utopian and dystopian guises.” (294)

In every explanation of the genre, science fiction is said to be a perfect genre in which we express and explore our fears. Belton is less arbitrary with what fears the genre is particularly preoccupied with.

Due to prior conversations: The 1950s space invaders films: I went to look at his commentary on the matter; Belton writes,”From the 1950s to the present, science fiction films function as barometers of cultural anxiety, addressing many of the Big Ideas facing post-war American society” (289).  He doesn’t criticize how the barometer reads, just that in reading it, we can gain understanding of the times, e.g. “concerns about a communist takeover […] with the advent of the atomic bomb […] anxieties of the nuclear age […] and radioactive fallout” (289). I am supposing Belton expects each will apply their perspective and consider the implications and ramifications of the genre. In the meantime he is looking for the underlying thread, and found a theme that pervades the genre, the “focus on what it means to be human.”

Needless to say, what a culture perceives to be Human can be found in the narrative; the “it” or “other” is designated accordingly.

oh, and Belton’s comments on Star Wars: “In short, what Lucas (and Spielberg**) brought to the genre was a mythic dimension that the immediacy and topicality of many earlier science fiction films lacked.” (290)

Belton continues with how Lucas and Spielberg were “less interested in the science than in magic and mysticism,” that their heroes “rely on intuition rather than reason and have no patience for the scientific method. What they achieve at the end of their journey is knowledge, but it is irrational, mystical, and romantic in nature and not scientific knowledge” (290).

SF can be complicated and its nuances worth considering; a genre not so cut and dry as it might at first appear.

*”The notion of the posthuman in science and literature concerns the changing nature of human identity in an environment increasingly dominated by intelligent machines and a world in which humans increasingly interact with one another through the agency of such machines” (291), e.g. Blade Runner.

** “Although Spielberg did not directly evoke Campbell and the monomyth, he nonetheless did, like Lucas, consciously rework the mythic aspects of the narrative of The Searchers by putting the central characters of Close Encounters [of the Third Kind] in pursuit of a child abducted by aliens”(290).

9 Comments Add yours

  1. ibeeeg says:

    Very interesting post. I often wonder about genres, and their dividing factor. Very frequently, I find myself guessing as to what genre a certain book belongs to, and then many time just throw up my hands and pick the one that *I* think most suits the book. This post of yours about Sci-fi vs horror had me wondering if I clearly know what constitutes science-fiction. I don’t really, so I go with the science or spacecraft type of aspect within the story to help me define…too simplistic, I know. Also, when you were siting movies, you got me thinking about the movie ‘Aliens’. That could be sci-fi but going off the thinking of Belton, I would say it is actually a horror flick. what says you?
    Again…a very interesting post.

    1. L says:

      i tend to use things like space, future, technology, science, rational, as ways to categorize SF, too. I was looking to see what categories within SF there were, what thematic elements to look for, that sort of thing.

      SF, in some people’s view, is a sub-genre of Horror, or a sub-genre of Fantasy.. which I hadn’t considered before..

      It’s funny you mentioned Aliens, because Belton uses those films as an example of how the distinctions can be difficult. He writes,

      “Ridley Scott’s Alien surprises and shocks its viewers with a series of horrific set-pieces in which predatory, parasitic xenomorphs burst from teh chests of their victims. Though Aliens contains similar set-pieces, the search for the aliens takes the form of an organized scientific-cum-military expedition that depends on technology and scientific know-how to destroy the aliens. As director James Cameron notes, his sequel, unlike the original, relies “more on terror, less on horror.”

      Even within a franchise, it seems to go back to the director and the narrative chosen.

      ‘Course, you could be responding in horror instead of terror, regardless of Cameron’s intent.. He horrifies me frequently. 🙂

  2. ibeeeg says:

    Yes, the tricky thing is that some genres are sub-genres for other folk, and vice versa. I run into this difficulty a lot with the fantasy genre.

    ‘Aliens’ scared the crap out of me so I would equate it to more of a horror flick rather than a sci-fi flick. Suspense is a different story, and I do expect that from sci-fi. Thanks for sharing the quote. I found it to be very interesting.

    Truly, what is the difference between horror and terror?.?. In my mind, they equate the same emotional reaction of “oh shit! I cannot watch this at all!!!!!!!!!” and force myself to sleep, or shut my eyes/close my ears, walk away, turn the tv off. Never will I even venture into a theater to see something that could potentially set off this reaction.

    1. L says:

      i tend to think of terror as a fear that comes upon you from the outside, and horror as a fear that wells up from within, elicited by something external or from your higher level of consciousness. I agree that both certainly seem to share that “oh shit!” response.

  3. These posts have been thought-provoking, and the comments, too.

    Genre classification is something I struggle with, which is why I have a sub-genre column on my “Books” spreadsheet. Even then I don’t think I cover my bases.

    I tend to label all fantasy & sci-fi under the broad umbrella of speculative fiction, but that’s not satisfying to the masses, I don’t think. So then I think about the setting & plot devices, which sometimes leads to things like “fantasy realism” or “horrific sci-fi.” These are more precise, but still lack a true definition. I mean, don’t all stories have an element of mystery to them? The reader does not know everything that’s going on, so then we add another classification. This just keeps going.

    As for sci-fi in particular, the distinction between horror & sci-fi is too fine a line to discern. Where one may watch Aliens and be enthralled at the alien specie and in wonder at the unknown, another may see this unfamiliar thing as a creature of horror. Impossible!

    By bringing in myth and the likes to sci-fi we only further complicate the convoluted genre. This, I think, is definitely where the relationship between sci-fi & fantasy resonance strongest.

    Perhaps part of the problem is that in our minds we can only see things as being “this” OR “that” but not both. We want to simplify things so much that we reduce stuff to easy labels. Who knows?

    Since we’re on the subject, what happens to old science-fiction? If we ever achieve flying cars or personalized jet packs does this transform old sci-fi into fiction? Is a 1940s tale about traveling to the moon still sci-fi? I’d say yes, as the tropes of sci-fi writing would be evident, but I’m not certain.

    Finally, I’d argue that “The chief concern of both genres is their focus on what it means to be human” extends beyond just these two fields. This focus, what it is to be human, is really the chief concern of any artistic expression: book, film, painting, song, etc, regardless of genre.

    Great post!

    1. ibeeeg says:

      Ha! Logan are you saying that ‘Aliens’ enthralled you? enthralled me? Possibly, but it was more creature horror 🙂 This viewpoint of mind also illustrates why it is difficult to place books into genres much of the time…for me. The lines of genres can blur.

      I agree with your thoughts about the myth into sci-fi and the relationship with fantasy. Also how our minds see “this” or “that” but not both. Many times I do see both, and will label as such in my mind but wonder what the general public or those who do the official labeling think.

      I also agree, not only are these posts of L thought-provoking but so are the comments. Again…Thanks L.

      1. L says:

        sometimes I want to write and ask… why would you say this is X genre exactly?–because I don’t see it…

        man, and there are so many sub-genres, and one work can reside in more than a few sub-genres.. while it can be useful, it can also be exhausting.

    2. L says:

      I need to read up on Fantasy next and see how and if they might make distinctions between it and SF because you are right that that boundary is blurry…

      your right we do like categorizing… and it doesn’t hurt that Genres make it easier to shop..

      “what happens to old science-fiction? If we ever achieve flying cars or personalized jet packs does this transform old sci-fi into fiction? Is a 1940s tale about traveling to the moon still sci-fi? I’d say yes, as the tropes of sci-fi writing would be evident, but I’m not certain.”
      Good question! certainly the younger generations would place it in fiction, wouldn’t they? does a genre label hold forever? I would think that the subgenre of 1940s SF would be the clarification, or something like that, especially if the SF is tied to a time, or a specific cultural moment. If the content transcends time (even if set in a time like a Philip K Dick novel), and can feel valid and timely whatever the year, than I would think the generalized label would be enough to capture the greater audience.

      you have me thinking Logan.. I would be curious as to what Carl V would say.

  4. Marie says:

    Fascinating take on Star Wars. This sounds like a neat book. I once took a course on the films of the Cold War and science fiction certainly loomed large as a way to talk about the anxieties of that age.

thoughts? would love to hear them...

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