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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Uncanny Motions

There's a certain sensation in some media that I can only describe as the uncanny. It isn't horror, exactly. It's something more subtle. It's a sense of creeping, gnawing wrongness. It's the sensation of something seeming just profoundly wrong on some deep, physical level. H.P. Lovecraft, creator of the Cthulhu mythos, often attempted to capture this effect by describing architecture that occupied bizarre, non-Euclidean, four or five dimensional space. A number of other artists--I think particularly of several Anime directors--try more for a sense of mindscrew and discomfort (check out much of Neon Genesis Evangelion for what I'm talking about). And, of course, there are people like T.S. Eliot who create a sense of existential uncannyness through their warping of the familiar world into something phantasmagorical. I'll get back to Eliot in a later article, but his methods are a good jumping off point for what I want to discuss today.

Uncanny motion.

What I mean by this rather odd term is the recognition that an act or movement is partly natural and partly unnatural. Things move in ways they just aren't supposed to--whether doing physically impossible actions, or--much more subtly--keeping some things moving naturally while others stay unnaturally still.

But I can ramble on about this all day with no one getting any closer to understanding me. So, let's move on to the examples, shall we?


This is a video from How To Destroy Angels, Trent Reznor's (of Nine Inch Nails fame) new band with his wife, who does double duty here as a singer and as a dead body. (Reznor is, however, pictured without his legendary nails.) We've got a pretty uncanny start in this video, displaying some of the methods I discussed above. The video begins with a number of quick shots of enigmatic objects, and slowly we piece together the idea that two people have been quite thoroughly murdered here. We've got some signs already that something weird is going on, though--there's the shot of the sink overflowing, the cigarette slowly burning down unsmoked, the shot of someone apparently having quite a pleasant conversation on the phone, and then there's... there's... oh god, is that corpse...

Singing?

Yup, that's definitely a singing corpse. May I express my feelings with an "Auuuuaaauugh."

Yup. Hooboy. This is where the video takes a turn into the realm of horror. It is totally decontextualized horror, of course: we have absolutely no idea what's going on, or what happened directly before we poked our heads into the video. And it's all the more disturbing because of it.

There are some subtleties to how this disturbance works, though. This corpse isn't Helena, getting up and doing a jerky ballet down the aisle of the First Church of Our Lord And Savior Gerard Way. No, this corpse is staying right where she fell, not even getting up to put out the fire that is consuming her. The key to the creep factor of this video is the way only her lips move, the rest of her body, including her cold, dead eyes, remaining perfectly still. I mean, take a good look at her when she mouths the line "Still remain, the things we couldn't kill":

This picture took me a whole two minutes to create! You smucks had better appreciate it!
Watch how her lips and tongue caress those words. Urgh. And through it all, everything else involved in speech stays still--the vocal chords, the eyes--

What, you don't believe me? Try talking without moving your eyes and nose. You can do it, sure, but it doesn't seem particularly natural, does it? There's something weird about talking without even slight changes of facial expression. And, of course, I doubt you can sing without your throat moving a little bit. This is part of where the uncannyness comes from. It's not just that we've got a corpse here that's singing, it's the fact that the corpse is singing in a materially impossible way.

Er, impossible beyond the obvious. Of course.

And, because Trent Reznor is not one to go halfway on things, she keeps singing even as she is consumed by flames.

Fire in the disco! Fire in the... Taco B--oh, wait, wrong song.
Yikes.

The same effect is at work in the beginning of the second of the seventh Harry Potter movies. Yes, we're back to that again. Check out this cobbled together version of the intro sequence:


What stands out to me is the shot beginning at roughly 0:35--the Dementors hovering around Hogwarts. You're all smart people, so you probably have a good idea of what I'm going to say now--these creatures are particularly disturbing to look at because they should be in motion and they aren't. Hell, they even look like they're moving when you pull out a still frame:

Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! No, it's OH GOD THEY'RE EATING MY SOUL
They're tilted forward in a position that we associate with forward movement, their cloaks flap behind them in the wind, and yet... they are still. Completely still. They seemed supported by some invisible, immobile beam, perfectly suspended in air. There is something deeply threatening about this pose, as though they have simply been frozen in the act of sweeping in for the kill. They are uncanny in a way that is unlike anything else in the films, or in most fantasy, for that matter. They are horrifying because they seem wrong on a deeper, visceral level.

I think I'll leave you with that cheery image (They're Coming To Get You, Dear Reader! HAHAHA), but before I flit off I think I'll leave you with one final example of the kind of uncannyness I've described here. Check out this Korean comic. Turn on your speakers. And scroll downward nice and slow. Don't worry if you don't know Korean.

Trust me... you'll understand it just fine.

After all, if these examples are any indication, some things just go completely beyond words and into realms where the mind can do little but quake. I think, perhaps, that this effect is particularly potent when applied to us modern, rational, technology-besotted folk. We have been raised to view the world as a concrete, relatively consistent, comprehensible place. When the rules of that ordered world begin to slowly unscrew themselves, and the seams of things rattle apart, is it any surprise when the goosebumps rise on our arms, almost of their own accord?

As always, feel free to leave comments, complaints, or, best of all, your own interpretations, or e-mail me at keeperofmanynames@gmail.com . And, if you like what you've read here, share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Xanga, Netscape, or whatever else you crazy kids are using to surf the blogoblag these days. Oh, and I'm looking for guest entries this month, so if you have something interesting to say about things that generally fit the theme, send them my way.

6 comments:

  1. *shudder* Do it again!


    But seriously, if this is how you start the month, I cannot wait to see the rest of the month's posts. *excited*

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  2. I hadn't thought about this before, but you do make a point. It is very creepy. And just another reason dementors are proof that Harry Potter isn't for kids.

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  3. I read two weeks ago and I still cringe on occasion from that korean comic. I don't deal with scary images/stories/films well.

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  4. I haven't reread that comic since the first time... freaking terrifying.

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  5. I read that comic forever ago, and even knew what was coming, and I still jumped a bit at the first unnerving part. Very nice.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Here's a version in English: http://comic.naver.com/webtoon/detail.nhn?titleId=350217&no=31&weekday=tue

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