Longinus: The Sublime v. Trash in Horror Cinema
by C.H. Newell
On Sublimity by Longinus focuses on the quality of art itself, as opposed to someone like Plato whose thoughts concentrated more on art’s effects and how individuals react or are changed by its content. Whether or not art conveys supposed dangerous ideas, his aim is to examine what makes art sublime. Longinus discusses both the pitfalls in attempting to create good art, what to avoid, as well as the main elements he considers as necessary for a work of art to reach sublimity. He cautions avoidance of insincerity by way of tumidity, puerility, and parenthyrsus, each of which conflate lesser ideas into seeming greater. Moreover, Longinus states the five elements of the sublime, which include the formation of great ideas, passion, the use of figures of language, properly chosen arrangement of said language, and also the application of these previous two in order to heighten the emotion and appeal to the soul. In order to illustrate the practicality of On Sublimity, I will use Longinus and his theories on art to examine horror cinema. Specifically, the elements of the sublime and what to avoid will be applied to a bad horror film, Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, as well as a more profound instance of the genre in Videodrome written and directed by Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg.
Widely considered one of the worst films ever made, Plan 9 from Outer Space would certainly be considered a poor work of art by Longinus. Furthermore, he would likely chastise director and writer Ed Wood for also attempting to create something worthy of grandeur, but unsuccessfully and through fake sublimity. To start, Longinus discusses his conception of tumidity, or what he often calls bombast, which he blames on the “dread of being convicted of feebleness and poverty of language” (On Sublimity III; 3-4). He does agree bombast can easily be fallen into, though, it only does injustice to the art by oppositely making things seem small. The resulting effect is not grandeur, but instead bombastic art and writing merely exposes how little there is behind the ideas presented. To illustrate, Ed Wood aimed to write a deep thinking piece of science-fiction with Plan 9 from Outer Space. However, his eager attempts were dashed by too much bombastic language forced in through the film’s narration. While the narrator is meant to give the audience perspective, its grandeur is inauthentic and explains the plot too explicitly. For instance, an early scene has the narrator explain in rosy metaphor how devastated a wife is by the loss of her husband, only to further explain the situation through action and dialogue. With both the narration and the scene itself Wood conveys the exact same thing. The bombast of the narrator’s speech only makes us realize how little Wood is saying and how he attempts to make it more grand through word choice. In opposition, if Wood had let the narration speak for the scene Longinus might consider this useful, as the language used by the narrator is well chosen and arranged to sound particularly beautiful or pleasant; this falls under the Longinus-approved proper “use of metaphors and other ornaments of diction” (On Sublimity VIII; 1). Yet Wood consistently appears to stray into the areas Longinus stresses to avoid.
From tumidity, Longinus moves on to its effects. Puerility comes out of the overly bombastic expressions in art, it is “utterly low” coming across as “tawdry and affected” (On Sublimity III; 4). Many incidents of puerile writing can be found in Plan 9 from Outer Space. This is best illustrated in the visual aspects of the film. Specifically, Wood’s movie fails into puerility due to the juxtaposition of its attempts at grandeur through writing versus the poor technical work. For all the lofty writing Wood employs much of it is completely undone by poor craftsmanship. As an example, in one scene on a plane two pilots sit in the cockpit talking, and in the background there is a boom microphone for recording sound clearly visible in the shadows on the wall. Moreover, many scenes are likewise ruined by crew members and other pieces of film equipment appearing behind characters on the sets. In such cases, the bombastic elements of Wood’s writing fall into puerility, as the viewer is completely taken out of the film. We become aware immediately of the filmic space in which the story takes place, instead of a proper film which aims to elevate us to a place where the events seem real. Due to this the effects of Wood’s screenplay are completely obliterated and the forced nature of his art is all too clear.
Finally, when Longinus discusses “[what] Theodorus used to call parenthyrsus” (On Sublimity III; 5), he is talking about passion. To clarify, this concept of parenthyrsus is essentially undue passion where it is not necessarily required, and also opposingly refers to places in art which feel empty where there ought to be passion. Regarding parenthyrsus, Longinus would easily identify such moments in the performances of the actors throughout Plan 9 from Outer Space. At times, mostly due to the presence of Bela Lugosi even in the twilight of his career, the acting is decent. However, most of the performances are incredibly over the top and melodramatic, which in effect renders the proper emotions conveyed in the screenplay useless. If the acting flowed from less dramatic to the melodrama the contrast could create proper emotionality. Instead, Wood places passion where there is need for subtlety. Due to this even when passion is called for the constant melodramatic acting creates an all around emptiness and never quite allows Wood to strike a proper balance. Clearly through examining Plan 9 from Outer Space it is not what Longinus would consider a sublime work of art, as opposed to something like David Cronenberg’s 1983 horror film Videodrome.
As a master in the sub-genre of ‘body horror’, Cronenberg is an exceptional artist who often uses his films as metaphors. Usually, this metaphoric technique examines the way human beings and technology interact, as well as co-exist. In particular, Videodrome tells the story of a cable entrepreneur Max Renn whose goal is to search out the most raw and realistic programming available. When Renn comes across a show titled “Videodrome” he discovers an underground group of people against the rise of technology warring with an opposing faction who believe technology to be “the new flesh” (Cronenberg). Furthermore, the deeper Renn wades into this underground world he also finds technology begins to literally mould itself to the physical human form; at one point, Renn himself has a VHS tape inserted into a large open slit in his abdomen and torso. While the script itself definitely involves a level of grandeur, it is the visual aspect of the film that lifts Cronenberg’s story from mediocre to sublime.
Within this film, as opposed to that of Ed Wood, Longinus could find the five elements of the sublime which he lays out in On Sublimity. The first of these elements is the “power of forming great conceptions” (On Sublimity VII; 1), which can be identified immediately through the premise. So many horror films are based on simplistic and even foolish premises. In contrast, Cronenberg operates on the level of metaphor, giving his ‘body horror’ sub-genre a grandeur not usually present in other horror. Aside from the impressive concept, Longinus might further agree Videodrome is full of “vehement and inspired passion” (On Sublimity VIII; 1). Again it is the plot itself in which this element can be found. Cronenberg could have easily kept his story focused on a single man and his journey, however, he instead opts to broad the horizon by examining the character of Renn, his girlfriend, the two factions at war over technology, as well as a host of other minor characters. Specifically it is the subplot of the opposing groups fighting one another which inspires passion, as it expands the film’s depth and gives us a better idea of how intense Cronenberg views our relationship with technology. From the formation of elevated concepts and the use of passion Longinus transitions into the specifics of language.
When Longinus refers to “the due formation of figures” and “noble diction” (On Sublimity VIII; 1), his aim is to refine how the sublime can be attained through the use and organization of language. In regards to his concept of figures, Longinus is referring to how our thoughts are expressed. This is epitomized in Videodrome through a man named Brian O’Blivion, whose philosophy is that “the television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye” and “whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it” (Cronenberg). Moreover, Cronenberg visualizes this expression within the scene itself by having O’Blivion appear on a television screen within a television screen. In addition, Longinus continues to deal with thought and expression in reference to what he believes is “noble diction” (On Sublimity VIII; 1). Once more this is seen in the character of O’Blivion who eloquently explains himself even while talking about television violence. Further than that, Longinus also talks about imitation or homage of great works which come before the present piece of art. This directly relates to Videodrome: Cronenberg went to the University of Toronto while famous Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan lectured there, the character of Brian O’Blivion is based on him and his theories. McLuhan’s philosophy dealt with our relationship to technology from how we consume it to its effects on us overall, which Cronenberg elaborated on in his screenplay for Videodrome. This use of McLuhan, a well-known and respected philosopher, certainly exemplifies Longinus’ concept of proper homage.
Lastly, the fifth element constituting the sublime which Longinus refers to is “dignified and elevated composition” (On Sublimity VIII; 1). Similarly to how Longinus goes on to describe this quality, this is clear in Cronenberg’s overall equal composition of good writing and use of visuals. With respect to everything else in the list before now, Longinus sees grand composition as paramount. Using the power of language in combination with the amazing metaphoric visual aspect, including impressive practical makeup effects by artist Rick Baker, Cronenberg’s Videodrome can be seen as a “dignified and elevated” instance of horror cinema. If the movie were simply another typical slasher horror, or lacked the language necessary to justify the visual aspects, Cronenberg’s art would not have attained sublimity.
In conclusion, looking at Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome through the eye of Longinus, it is clear which film can be given the label of good art, and which can be labelled bad. On one hand, Wood created a science-fiction horror film which lacked all around: the writing was poor, the acting performed with too much emphasis on melodrama, as well as the fact the technical aspects of the production were below amateurish. On the other hand, Cronenberg’s ‘body horror’ film defies the usual genre tropes through inspired passion, high concept metaphors, and above all its entire composition elevates it above so many other trashy horror movies. Certainly Longinus could not have conceived of moving pictures in the way film enables them to exist. However, if he were here today and could watch Videodrome, I am almost positive he would agree, at the very least, Cronenberg’s artistry is very credible. In Wood’s case, it may be best for him and Plan 9 from Outer Space that Longinus has long since passed.
Longinus. On Sublimity. Translated by H.L. Havell. Project Gutenberg, 2006. eBook. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17957/17957-h/17957-h.htm
Plan 9 from Outer Space. Directed and Written by Ed Wood. Starring Gregory Walcott, Mona McKinnon, Tom Keene, Tor Johnson, Lyle Talbot, and Bela Lugosi. Reynolds Pictures. Rated PG. 79 minutes. Horror/Science Fiction. DVD.
Videodrome. Directed and Written by David Cronenberg. Starring James Woods, Deborah Harry, Sonja Smits, Peter Dvorsky, Les Carlson, Jack Creley, and Lynne Gorman. Universal Pictures/Criterion Collection. Rated R. 89 minutes. Horror/Science Fiction. Blu ray.