Two takes on genre nostalgia

By Archana Nathan

What does it mean to revisit the classic genres? Especially today, when increasingly, most genres are inching closer to being proclaimed dead?

Two films at Rotterdam- Charlie Lyne’s Fear Itself and Brady Corbet’s The Childhood of a Leader, which is also the closing film of the festival- present their perspectives on what it means to undertake a journey of genre nostalgia. Both films take on ambitious subjects but do not shy away from approaching them confidently.

What does horror say about us?

"How does horror work?" asks Lyne through his film Fear Itself and then goes on to explain his thesis. The film comprises a montage of scenes from horror films across time- some iconic and some others that are lesser known. Guiding us through this collage of horror scenes is a voiceover of a girl, who recounts to us her tryst with horror films. Do horror films know more about us than we do about ourselves? Despite their repetitive strategies and cliches, the fact that these films manage to scare us every single time does say something about us, right?

Lyne employs the spooky voice of Amy E. Watson well to prove his thesis. Interestingly, though he says that his film was not intended as a genre study, especially in the academic definition, it does use elements of the genre to lay bare the mechanism of the genre. A classic example of using form to explain a form, let’s say.

The technique of suggestion

If Lyne’s film delves into the genre directly, Corbet’s debut film The Childhood of a Leader enters the genre debate indirectly. Set in 1918, the protagonist of Corbet’s film is the seven-year-old Prescott (Tom Sweet). As the title suggests, we are invited to delve into a specific time period in Prescott’s childhood, one that would shape the person, leader and politician that he would go on to become later. Who this leader is, Corbet doesn’t reveal. His strategy is to merely throw hints at us and the film is littered with these hints.

The Childhood of a Leader lies at the cross-roads of the historical, the drama film and even employs elements of the gothic-horror genre. The entire film is divided into three sections or as Corbet puts it, the three tantrums of Prescott. In these three tantrums, we are invited to witness the origins of evil, of a strong ego and will. Prescott’s American father is the advisor to President Woodrow Wilson and is away most of the time and his German mother is the one who takes on the task of disciplining Prescott. Corbet’s film relies heavily on the technique of suggestion. Rather than revealing, Corbet takes solace in merely hinting. In terms of the plot, we see the tantrums of Prescott but their implications and imprint on his mind are not the focus. In an explosive climax, we see Prescott, the man, but we are barely allowed to get to know him. Corbet is adamant that we remain with our reading of the child that Prescott was.

The menacing, operatic soundtrack of the film, composed by Scott Walker, leads the technique of suggestion throughout the film. It is the soundtrack of the film that is a character in itself and is often given the narrator's voice as well. Corbet’s camera frames the chateau that Prescott lives in in iconic frames that look like oil paintings. Again, what the characters say is not so important for Corbet as much as showing us a period, a genre and its stylistic elements.