nthposition online magazine

Targets

by Masha Tupitsyn

[ filmreviews ]

In the summertime, every day in Central Valley California is 100 degrees. Hardly the right weather conditions for horror, which, in its early years on celluloid, required chills and rain beating against windows and the hems of white gowns. The only thing I’ve been afraid of while living in California is that I might dry up. The heat isn’t the only reason I fear this: California is a drought in many ways. The movie Chinatown interprets the moral bankruptcy of 1930s Los Angeles by employing the metaphor of desert and water, or rather, the pilfering of water. The only way I can write is to acknowledge the seemingly disparate associations between things, narratives - beauty and monsters, fashion models and fascism - and for me that’s when the writing motor goes on. The writer Lynn Tillman wrote, “whatever independent thinking is, if it is, it happens dependently.” And, likewise, whatever stories I am capable of telling I can only tell by replaying and rearranging other stories. Every story is a ghost story, haunted by the previous. One Sunday afternoon I stumbled upon a nourishing clue, a way in Targets (1968). Targets is the metafictive tissue of both cinematic and real horror and the influence that each has had on the other. The film fell into my lap, both literally and figuratively, when I needed it the most. I screened it on my laptop, which housed the film and seared my ovaries. Whatever horror is, or ends up being, it is always rooted in the gendered body.

In the midst of writing a new book of stories about the cultural supremacy of film narratives, and the relationship between horror, monstrosity, and beauty, I used the British horror actor Boris Karloff as a symbolic point of entry into the heritage of cinematic horror in two of my stories. Constructing the fictions in my book as a space where Karloff can reflect on his own moment in horror, as well as horror itself, Targets offers precisely that, a metafiction, via Karloff himself, on the evolving narrative (exposition) of horror. It dips into the archive of cinema and screens a retrospective. When the twin towers fell, no one knew the difference between King Kong and Al Qaeda. What came first the cinematic chicken or a society that has lost all sense of real versus representation?

Peter Bogdanovich’s largely unseen film Targets is a study on the socio-cultural and cinematic weather patterns of horror. In it, old horror, largely the painted supernatural Hammer artifacts of Victorian monsters and archaic staircases, as well as its key front man, Byron Orlok (aka Boris Karloff), are being upstaged and modernized by a horror that will continue to scare in the age of Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and Bobby Kennedy, and the increasing prominence and fetishization of the firearm - from Dirty Harry through Taxi Driver. The age of assassinations proved that violence, as in the case of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, could be severed from its institutional loci and singularized as politically motivated male vigilantism. In other words, as the personal becomes political, and vice versa, what one man - who still performs the right-wing missions of the country - can do with one gun, becomes the central question. Targets brilliantly attempts to undress the cultural function of horror, on screen and off, and in the end, when the two generations of horror meet in the film, the result is an orchestra of analogies, narratives, and screens.

Both Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle and Targets’ unremarkable, white middle-class sniper, Bobby Thompson, are inspired by real-life men who wrote in their diaries and shot and killed: Bickle is an homage to Arthur Bremer, and Bobby Thompson is modeled after Texan Charles Whitman, who first shot his wife and mother, and then when out and shot countless others from an institutional tower. Both Bickle and Thompson plot the macabre on the road, in their vehicles that operate as a kind of surveillance apparatus. Another weapon with which to scan social decay and establish alienation. It’s where they watch and witness and discriminate, and where they decide what needs to be targeted. For Bickle it’s scum and for Thompson it’s pigs. In both films, the car is the predatory and anarchic space that performs the quasi-fascist narration, and it is a space that is at once social and anti-social. But the car, being so American, so assimilated, also allows them to blend in, and is thereby a schizophrenic encasement that simultaneously homogenizes and isolates. Both hallucinate the gun as the cure for alienation, boredom, rage, and disassociation. Both serenade their phallic extensions in two memorable scenes - Bickle with his famous mirror-image seduction/attack, and Thompson, with his anally-retentive organization of his guns on the gas tower - the location from which he performs the freeway shootings. While, Taxi Driver focuses on a series of polarities, dirt/cleanliness, corruption/purity, sexuality/repression, etc, these obsessions are equally present, if only hinted at, in Bobby Thompson, who compulsively arranges objects and worries more about blood getting on the carpet in his generic house after he’s murdered his wife and mother, then he does about the actual deaths. While in Targets, white, middle-class male rage is still polite and repressed, hiding all of its homicidal plans in the dark, in Taxi Driver, male rage has moved forward and fully off-loads. As film theorist Robin Wood writes in his seminal book Hollywood, from Vietnam to Reagan, “...The filth kept at bay through so many generations of movies by the traditional values of monogamy/family/home has risen up and flooded the entire city.”

In the case of Bobby Thompson, it is the home and family that have estranged him and drawn out the homicidal onslaught. In one scene, he enters his house, but informs no one, instead examining the space and the photos on the wall as though he were an outsider scanning territory. It is only when his mother finds him in one of the rooms that he joins everyone for dinner and snaps back into his assignment as son and husband. The scene is important because it introduces the performance of ideological constructs.

The most discernable difference between the two films is that Bickle is a claustrophobic meditation on male isolationism and violence, while Targets, a much more inclusive film, is about endless links and parallels. It is indebted to and aware of the cultural framework of its cinematic narrative and the ways in which medial narratives forge new terrors. The terror that Bobby Thompson ensues is only one of many. In other words, it’s nothing personal, or messianic, as in the case of Taxi Driver, and instead has everything to do with collective repression, the industry of exploitation, and the historical commission and representation of violence.

 

“I am an antique. Out of date.” - Byron Orlock

The story of Targets is not an easy one to abridge because it is two pictures, a split-screen. Two stories, a movie within a movie. It is a film about echoes and things emerge and replicate like a Matreshka Doll. The story behind the making of the movie is part of the film itself, as all back-stories are. A freeway nightmare, and a precursor to road rage, the tale of Targets goes: Boris Karloff owed the famous B movie director/producer, Roger Corman, with whom he had done The Terror (1963), two days of work. Corman offered Peter Bogdanovich, his young assistant who worked on Wild Angels with him, the opportunity to write and direct his first feature under the condition that he used 20 minutes of film footage from The Terror (in an effort to repackage and release the film) in his movie, and two days of the new Karloff footage. The rest of the film’s 40 minutes could be whatever Bogdanovich and Polly Platt, his wife and the co-writer and production designer of the film, wanted to shoot. But Bogdanovich and Platt didn’t know how to make the Victorian footage of The Terror seem relevant in a modern, suburban context. So as a result, they made a movie that called attention to (and metafictionalized) that very dilemma - the hybridization of old and new horrors.

In the movie, Orlok the horror film icon is confronted with the anachronistic futility of his waning career and its outmoded symbolism. While viewing his last horror film The Terror in a screening room for the first time, Orlok announces his retirement from acting. He’s called a worthless antique by the film’s producers, and even has the bowleggedness and cane to support it. However, Orlok is still required to make one final public appearance at the California Reseda Drive-In, where he will promote The Terror. Instead, he temporarily cancels his appearance and begins a self-deprecating, yet defiant commentary on the meaning of his horror career and cultural violence in general.

In the case of Targets, the original formula of: “Marx Brother’s make you laugh Garbo makes you weep, and Karloff makes you scream” can no longer get the job done. But the question of what will, isn’t clear or confirmed until the end, when Orlok/Karloff, finally confronted with the new star of terror, the middle-class and unremarkable Bobby Thompson, asks, “Is that what I was afraid of? Even the original Golem of Gothic Revival, who is merely a sheep in wolf’s clothing, and who can’t move fast enough as Frankenstein’s Monster or as the Mummy, is at threat by the new violence of the late 20th century.

 

“Save your money for the finish, kid” - Samuel Fuller

Peter Bogdanovich says the drive-in finale in Targets took twelve nights to shoot. Ten cars were meant to look like hundreds and friends were recycled as audience extras. Karloff, 80 years old, stayed up until 3 am filming with the rest of the cast and crew. The drive-in murder sequence is where Targets makes its most powerful allusions about cinematic mirroring, and it does this in a literal and metaphoric employment of the split screen. In the film, horror itself is a haunted house, revisited, reanimated, and full of dead relatives. And like the California freeway, it multiplies and convolutes into a fun house. The mirror and the image bend and reflect each other. Bobby Thompson escapes from one violence and enters into another violent realm-both modern and historical, the film explains. It is a horror that precedes him, but that has surely played its part in educating him. After the 405 freeway shootings that Bobby commits from the gas tower, he dodges the police by settling in the safe haven of the Reseda Drive-In Movie Theatre, where Orlok is scheduled to make his final public appearance for The Terror. Bobby doesn’t consciously know that Orlok will be there, but he’s driven past the theater all week on his way to buy guns, so on an unconscious level he does. And horror is one of the things that the unconscious represses, and releases.

Sitting in his car as he waits for the police to go by, Bobby is arranged against a wall with a giant red arrow above him that reads, “entrance.” The sign leads into the drive-in, but more interestingly, into the cinematic frame that Bobby is about to puncture and blur. He is entering into a hell that he has created and will inflict upon others, but this hell already has deep roots and a large following. The location of Bobby’s final shooting spree literally takes place behind the drive-in movie screen, up in a maze of scaffolding, and it is in this long scene that the two narratives in Targets finally run into each other. In the dark, behind The Terror’s film images, Bobby slides his rifle through a small hole in the huge screen that faces the drive-in spectators-a tear in the cinematic facade. By inserting himself behind the screen, or rather into it, Bobby literally targets and reinvents the horror image and the society that produces it. He aims and shoots directly through the cinematic horror, leaving his mark and transgressing the boundaries of horror itself. In The Terror, a fire breaks and burns around the nose of Bobby’s gun, as if he’s set it himself. It is now clear that horror is no longer restricted to the screen - the pretense under which an audience views a horror film - and upon closer inspection, we see that the movie screen itself is a thickly woven fabric. Like the soft tissue of the body that can easily be torn, the screen is translucent, full of veins and fibers. Everything is vulnerable, a reflective surface. But this is only clear from where Bobby is sitting.

Along with everyone else, Orlok watches his film, The Terror, at the drive-in. The microcosm and the macrocosm. There is Orlok’s mark on cinema, and cinema’s mark on everyone else. Bobby looks for a target. Like his life-long shooting practice with bottles and cans, first and foremost, he treats the act of shooting as a goal of precision, and when the police arrest him at the end of the film he even boasts, “Hardly ever missed, did I?” Whether it is a person or a piece of glass that is on the other side of Bobby’s gun is irrelevant, for in the eye of the trigger it is easy to disembody and fragment. Therefore, if the disassociation isn’t psychological, the editing happens in the technology itself. Using only the eye of the trigger, Bobby indiscriminately chooses to shoot a man in a red phone booth first. He shoots and the man slips down to the bottom of the box.

At the drive-in, the fact that a “modern” audience is watching an unmodern (outdated) film is largely what Targets is all about. Alignments and discontinuities. The old brand of terror, personified by Orlok, is a socio-political distraction, a blanket of denial over what is happening in the modern world of the late 1960s. The cultural and political modernity in question is shelved by the comforting terror of one painted boogey man at a time. In The Terror, horror is still Victorian, and going to the movies permits the audience to feel as though terror is locked behind cinematic bars. Whatever agony horror has to offer, it is safe at the Hollywood zoo. In Targets two horrors are colliding and overlapping, but more importantly, cinematic violence and real violence are expressed collaboratively. For this reason, the film is ahead of its time. In the end, when Bobby gets trapped between the screen Orlok and the real Orlok - who has revived his status as monster in order to confront his competition, like Godzilla in a match against King Kong - Bobby doesn’t know which one to fear, or resist, so he shoots at both. As Orlok marches at him from both sides, the effect is very powerful, for the film tries to explain that there is little difference between the screen and the real, and psychically, very little space from it.

Like any fashion, horror is a zeitgeist-it has to have its finger on the pulse of collective repressions in order to return as horror. Or go back and forth. But horror is also what we don’t see happening. That is, what we repress and ignore. Horror confronts all the elephants in the unconscious delineations. In his summarization of the horror genre, Robin Wood writes, “One might say that the true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses.” Targets is well of aware of horror’s schizophrenic multitasking and cultural reverberations, horror being one of the few avenues for the lawless exploration of madness and the cultural breakdown of repression. The film is a reflection on many things: the history of horror, the status of genre, but most boldly, it addresses the construct of monstrosity itself. What makes a monster a monster? How does something become monstrous? And, finally, in what ways is the culture invested in the maintenance of monstrosity, and by extension, perfection? In other words, the changing status of what society sees, or is willing to see, as horrific. Horror both follows and disrupts social conventions - as in the case of Dracula, a filter for the clichés and sexual anxieties of Victorian society. Or, a hundred years later, with the 1980s backlash against the feminist movement erupting in the Slasher genre’s revival of phallic supremacy. Not that it ever really went away. Equally, as Wood points out in his famous definition, horror also ceases to follow conventions, thereby magnifying the unconscious power of horror even more.

What makes Karloff/Orlok’s character, and by extension the film, so interesting is that horror, as well as its key tropes, are dug-up, inverted, and forced to take a look at themselves: at their own ruin, and at what replaces it once they’ve expired. Hollywood always upstages after it’s given away the stage. In Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class At The Movies, bell hooks writes that movies are our culture’s primary pedagogical tool. So the revealing question is: If it’s not screened to horrify, or worse, if it’s screened to please, we will know what horror is?