Friday, July 06, 2018

The 50th anniversary of Rosemary's Baby



Watching Hereditary I was disappointed by the presence of Satanism in the finale. I felt it watered down a potentially shattering psychological account of a family curse, a history of madness.

One of Ari Aster's influences is evidently Rosemary's Baby, the novel by Ira Levin filmed masterfully by Roman Polanski 50 years ago in the "crazy year 1968".

That film also introduced Satanism into mainstream cinema permanently. Rosemary's Baby was also one of the movies which brought horror back into the mainstream. Since 1935 horror had not been a mainstream genre, but Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski changed that in the 1960s.

The demon child became a central figure in horror films such as The Exorcist, The Omen, and It's Alive! with their sequels. Interestingly, also Ingmar Bergman introduced a demon child in 1968, in The Hour of the Wolf. A child infested by a zombie / vampire / rabiatic dog was a new figure in horror.

A child is someone whom we instinctively want to protect. But the demon child is there to destroy.

The appearance of the demon child coincided with new rules of narrative for horror. Happy end was no longer required in the 1960s. Instead, there was the ironic end (Psycho), the ominous end (The Birds), or the apocalyptic end (Rosemary's Baby). When the evil is spectacularly defeated there is the inevitable ominous hint that it will never die.

This year we also remember the 50th anniversary of the end of the Production Code Administration (PCA) in Hollywood. Until 1968 there were no ratings for films in the U.S., and all films produced for general theatrical release had to have a PCA seal of approval. This had a profound impact on the conventions of mainstream film narratives. The MPAA film rating administration was introduced on 1 November 1968, and a new era of American mainstream cinema started at full blast.

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After WWII there was a widespread feeling of the death of God in the Western world. Judeo-Christian communities were getting secularized. It was hard to believe in God after the world wars, the Holocaust, the Gulag, and Hiroshima.

In the 1960s the figure of the Devil became more prominent in popular culture, not only in horror films. 50 years ago, in June 1968, The Rolling Stones recorded "Sympathy for the Devil", their recording sessions documented by Jean-Luc Godard in his eponymous film.

Also 50 years ago, heavy metal music started as Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin were founded. Blasphemy and devil worship belonged to many currents of heavy metal music.

I remember the year 1968 from the perspective of a 13-year-old. The play with the devil was about defiance and irreverence, and also about agony and anxiety. It was about Weltschmerz. We were a generation of the Cold War under a permanent sense of the world going under. The Western world lost its respectability in Vietnam. The Thaw of the Eastern bloc ended when Warsaw Bloc tanks crushed the Prague Spring. We were aware of nuclear horror but also of ecological horror since Rachel Carson's A Silent Spring.

Devil worship was an act of defiance in that moment, but I do not know what to think about it now that the current trend has lasted for 50 years.

I am also at loss with the trend of vampire films, where the vampire, the incarnation of the Devil or worse, becomes a love object and an identification figure.

I try to interpret this as a postmodern phenomenon where the Devil and the vampire have been reduced to empty signifiers which have lost their content.

But I also sense that unconsciously they reflect a fatalism, a sense that we are already beyond hope, that the end of the world cannot be prevented. Which is why we are living like there is no tomorrow.

When I try to raise these issues I invariably draw a blank. When I try to discuss Twilight in these terms people do not know what I'm talking about. Maybe I'm a square. But unless someone convinces me otherwise I think that the cinema and music I have referred to reflect a twilight period in popular culture.

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