Joshua David Bellin
Southern Illinios University Press
ISBN 9 780809 326 242
Genre film criticism has often tended to focus on science fiction or horror as subjects worthy of analysis leaving fantasy films somewhat neglected – either because the term fantasy is perhaps considered too far reaching or, conversely, too specific. It could be argued, for example, that the main feature film of this book, King Kong, is a horror or even a romance film. Framing Monsters is a selection of essays exploring various facets of the fantasy film and its author, Joshua David Bellin, has a clear, almost over defensive love of King Kong and the fantasy genre as a whole. Great pains are made to highlight his adoration of what is still the ne plus ultra of the monster movie. However, there are reasons for these guilty protestations because Bellin comes not to praise Kong but to bury him, or at very least machine gun him off a famous New York landmark with a symbol of white male phallic potency. Similarly the marvels of Ray Harryhausen’s Sinbad trilogy (Harryhausen’s stop-motion work is lavished with gushingly adulatory adjectives sprinkled throughout the essay) are admired in order to criticise them. At times the hostile condemnations appear to contradict what the author actually enjoys about the films he discusses. This conflict of interests is, however, one of the few things that makes Framing Monsters a bearable read – a detached, academic, democratic liberalism tainted by knowingly guilty personal vice. Kong, you see, is not a primeval force of nature unleashed on a modern world, felled by the love of the delectable Faye Wray. No Buddy Bob. Kong is in fact the rapacious black man, a sign of the times when public hangings and lynchings were part of American society. The image of the lustful, primitive, uncontrollable negro on rampaging raping sprees violating wholesome white women is transferred onto the shape of Kong. He represents the white man’s fear of the black male. The fact that the model of Kong himself was operated by the decidedly Caucasian animator Willis O’Brien is just another shameful example of minstrelsy by proxy. One wonders, if King Kong is one of the author’s favourite films, why he ventures into the cinema at all. This is not to say, of course, that King Kong is devoid of such interpretations or that it doesn’t contain elements that are racist (any more than one can deny the racism inherent in Kong’s predecessor The Lost World). However, the explicit link between acts of KKK-fuelled barbarism and Kong as symbol of what that organisation promoted as “the black man” is, one feels, preposterous. Similarly stating that the Sinbad films depict declining US opinion regarding contemporary attitudes towards Middle Eastern politics and the Arab-Israel situation by noting the progressive evil and “otherness” of Sinbad’s adversaries, whilst noting Sinbad himself is basically an all-American in Eastern clothing, may have some cursory interest but does not sustain 30+ pages of historical analysis. He fights a giant Roc for goodness sake! The Wizard of Oz espouses a Luddite rejection of industrialism in order to continue blissful subjugation of the (deliberately) mentally restricted agricultural worker community. The phrase “there’s no place like home” is simply an order to know your place on the societal ladder. The basic premise of Framing Monsters, that fantasy cinema is not produced in a vacuum and relates to contemporary opinions and attitudes, is a sound one, as is the assertion that fantasy films tend to be in some way reactionary. One could easily, for example, view Conan the Barbarian as indicative of the rise in Reaganist consumerism or Lord of the Rings as middle-class fear of the proletariat uprising and the death of country idyll through rampant industrialisation. The problem lies with taking these premises to extremes without an over-riding appreciation of the genre’s conventions and its roots in sensationalist literature and phantasmagoria. Whilst there is much food for thought here (the essay on freak shows in relationship to Edward Scissorhands and the televisual representation of the other, the monstrous female archetype in Species for example) one is left with the nagging doubt this is analysis for the sake of pontificating on the issues du jour. Ultimately this book serves little purpose beyond academic publication for the sake of academic publication. It’s interesting, alternative and occasionally insightful, but file either on the shelf marked “why bother” or “life’s too short”.