Phantasms Prologue


This essay is the introduction my first book, Phantasms (1994). I intend to reprint only a few chapters of it on this website. I still have 10 paperback copies of this now rare, never reprinted book on my shelf, so if you want to buy one (signed by the author!), contact adrian@adrianmartinfilmcritic.com.

Things No One Wished to Say

This book begins from a not uncommon experience: the feeling that something you just saw (a film or TV show) was powerful or intriguing, but mysteriously so. Sure, there was a story line, with characters making statements that seemed to be pointing to the message of the proceedings; and, outside the work itself, ads, newspaper articles and reviews reinforcing the obvious explanation as to why this particular cultural event was entertaining, disturbing or thought provoking. Yet, in your mind or heart, you still suspect that all this is so much double talk – and that the core of the matter lies elsewhere, in a random line of dialogue, a fleeting bit of business, a discarded plot digression. You know you’ll have to go back and watch that film or TV show again, this time trying to see it differently, from the perspective opened up by that seemingly insignificant but uncannily compelling detail.

What I am calling the phantasms of popular culture are the dreams and drives which underlie its consciously avowed stories, characters, images and sounds. Sometimes cultural phantasms are utterly unconscious, but more often they appear semi-conscious, half recognised, both courted and evaded in the same desperate moment. There are many kinds of phantasm: sexual, social, political, racial, religious. Each one involves something that is desperately unsaid, tremblingly hidden or furtively suggested – which, precisely because it is kept so secret, decisively shapes the form and content of the artistic work.

Phantasms are like urgent but repressed messages emanating from the unconscious or the imaginary of our culture. They reveal the secret drives and wishes of not only their individual makers, but whole sectors of society. In 1954, the Surrealist critic and filmmaker Jacques Brunius proposed a very attractive formulation concerning such collective delirium.

Precisely because of the richness of its means the cinema makes total control of images, gestures and words by one man alone very difficult. Often enough a film leaves the head of its creator and the hands of his colleagues like a ship in a storm, as best it may, the bearer not only of what they meant to say, but also of some things no one wished to say. But is not the participation of chance in this clash of wills a fascinating thing? (1)

Any book which presents a collection of short, interrelated essays responding to the daily vagaries of mass culture must acknowledge its debt to Roland Barthes and his 1959 book Mythologies. As the film critic Serge Daney (who I also often quote) once remarked, Barthes not only penned a great work of literature, he also singlehandedly created a modern genre: the genre of the cultural chronicle. (2) Like others who have subsequently worked in this genre, such as Gilbert Adair (Myths and Memories, The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice) and Daney himself in his collections of film and television reviews, I gave myself a limited time frame (in my case, roughly mid-1991 to mid-1993), and permission to reflect on anything whatsoever which suddenly puzzled or delighted me. As befits this genre, I have tried to write in a way that mixes up reportage and analysis, experiencing these phantasms up very close, and then looking for some bigger picture into which to fit them.

Quite early in the project I abandoned the newspaper columnist’s perpetual nightmare of straining to say something interesting about every single, major event occurring within popular culture. When the expatriate Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz toured Australia in February 1993, I was moved by two comments that he offered to local audiences. First, his suggestion that it is sometimes better to watch only five films a year and to keep thinking about them deeply, returning to them again and again from different angles rather than to force oneself to see and have a bullish opinion on the thousand new films released every year. Second, his advice that “the way to escape from yourself is to form your obsessions, which are birds”, and to track those birds in flight.

So, I decided to trade a number of topical media events among them Hook, Sylvania Waters, Neighbours, Malcolm X for some new and old obsessions, which crop up in different forms across the following essays: Roseanne, Martin Scorsese, Star Trek: The Next Generation, teen movies, Surrealism, romantic comedy ...

This book does not propose a rigid definition of that fashionable beast popular culture. There are moments when I believe it is best to regard anything that is mass produced as part of popular culture available culture, targeted to its own niche in an increasingly specialised and fragmented market. Thus, on critical principle, I refuse to reduce popular culture to a handful of blockbuster events with certified mass success those films, TV shows, songs or newspapers consumed by the highest number of supposedly ordinary people.

Popular culture is as much whats on the ABC [Australian Broadcasting Commission] or arthouse cinemas as the commercial channels and major theatre chains; and its character is defined as much by the odd phenomena at the margins shows on late night TV or obscure titles in the video store as the more touted events in the centre. In any case, I see the act of writing about popular culture as a process of pointing out and creating suggestive connections between different moments in this swirling mass zapping from the highly popular to the lesser-known, from the clean to the perverse, from the praised to the damned, from the local to the international.

By the same token, there is also a need, at certain moments and in particular situations, to speak up for popular culture as something separate from culture as a whole. I have a lot of time for those writers and critics who, throughout this century, have respectfully and open-mindedly devoted themselves to the task of exploring popular art a form (with all its various styles, genres and traditions) that has its own complex, intricate aesthetic properties quite different to those we associate with so-called elite art. The struggle to define and, where necessary, to defend popular culture as popular art is one of the threads of this book.

However, the heroic, bloody opposition of popular and elite art, low and high culture, is not always a useful polemic. This is partly because the whole landscape of mass production and consumption has made such a binary view of culture rather obsolete. I prefer to see at least three terms constantly at in play in the circulation of mass cultural works and events: quality, popular and trash. These are not words that should be used to definitively describe the contents and style of a particular film or TV show; rather they are the labels, the names that are constantly used and fought over. No work is, for all time, quality, popular or trash; indeed, some works get branded as all three as they make their way through history.

Quality cultural works are those that have well and truly arrived at a plateau of respectability; there is a general consensus that they are serious, noble, worthy, meaningful, artistically well achieved. They are the fully redeemed, sanctified tokens of culture, beyond suspicion and also, usually, beyond the taint of grubby commerciality.

The popular is a more nebulous category; it can be viewed as a vast transit lounge or clearing house, where works of mass produced entertainment are progressively redeemed. In this transit lounge, there are works about to pass wholly into the realm of quality (like the music of The Beatles, or certain classic Hollywood movies); and there are commercial works trying their level best to be “classy” product (like Thirtysomething or Spielbergs Empire of the Sun) with, each year, the Academy Awards ceremony showing most vividly the perennially desperate and contorted attempts of mass culture to be thought of as not Industry, but Art.

At the same time, the realm of the popular is also taking in new members from below: works progressively elevated from the kingdom of sheer trash. To label something popular is to give it, if not the badge of art, at least a medal of good, healthy, lively, exciting entertainment. We do well to remember that, for instance, Alfred Hitchcock a director whose masterpieces we would not hesitate today to classify as great, quality works of art was considered, not very long ago, a vulgar Hollywood entertainer whose presence in anything resembling high culture had to be tenaciously justified.

So, at the bottom of this ladder, trash culture is that which is unredeemable (or at least not yet redeemed); the stuff that makes people squeamish about admitting that they watch, enjoy, or perhaps even secretly love it at least not without heavily defensive qualifications (like “it's so bad, it's good”). If the higher realms of culture bask in redemption, the lower depths are covered in shame.

Phantasms are to be found not only in the fictions, images and sounds of popular culture; they inexorably attach themselves to the way we talk, label, valorise or dismiss this culture. That is why, alongside the pieces that focus on specific movies, episodes of TV series, genres or trends, I have included several essays on cultural criticism itself as it is practised in the mainstream media – on the ways that these slippery terms of quality, popular and trash are constantly, strategically re-ordered. On a more general plane of popular consciousness, I have endeavoured to trace some of the widespread, topical ideas that gripped the public, media sphere – from political correctness and the beauty myth to sexual harassment and the dysfunctional family – that inevitably found their way, in various convoluted forms, into films and TV shows.

When Barthes wrote Mythologies, his target was the myths of his time and society – the underlying ideologies which presented themselves to people as natural, but were in fact highly artificial and constructed. His project of demystifying or exposing these mythologies was a political, quasi-Marxist one; the essential enemy, for Barthes, being the bourgeois norm. (3) Surveying popular culture in the early 1990s from my very specific vantage point, I am not so certain what the norm is, or who my enemies really are.

For me, popular culture is a somewhat crazy formation, as full of oddities and excesses as dominating ideologies and oppressive value-systems. Phantasms always cut (at least) two ways: they reach backward, nostalgically, for a lost point of order; whilst betraying radical desires for anything different from or better than the present. The dreams and drives that animate our culture are tense, contradictory, volatile, dramatic. To make sense of these phantasms, one has to dive into them – and to find, or lose, oneself there.

MORE Phantasms: Hanging on the Telephone

NOTES (added 2023)

1. Jacques Brunius, quoted by Paul Hammond, The Shadow & Its Shadow: Surrealist Writings on the Cinema (San Francisco: City Lights, 2000), p. 28. back

2. Serge Daney (interview), “Zappeur et cinéphile”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 406 (April 1988), p. 54. back

3. See the final chapter of Roland Barthes, Mythologies: The Complete Edition (New York: Hill and Wang, 2013). back

© Adrian Martin 1993

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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