Come and See1 is about blood in the margins, it is about the filth and the great horrible real of unknowable matter in your boots, in your veins and beneath your eyelids so you see it when you sleep. Opening with children ignoring the warnings of elders not to dig the story pushes itself through the dry scrub and into the sand to find the armatures of war, a buried rifle. Sand is the safest kind of matter, dry and easy is trickles off the skin. For the tactile defensive, sand is the first hurdle, a uniform sensation gently clinging to the moisture of fingertips and gone with with the violent flap of anxious revulsion. Sand is safe because it is not even dead, it was never alive forever the silica other of rocks and architecture.
Once Florya has his rifle and bound with it his fate as a partisan, matter ceases to be so safe and will hold on around him as mud and muck and scum. This is the living dirt, the boundary zone of decomposition and enriched growth. Particles freefall in perpetual becoming, forming and loosing bonds, losing life and finding a role within another.
Come and See lives within this dirt, in a realism that unselfconsciously clings to hair or the corner of a mouth. Our characters find their own edges so shabbily defined as they merge with the landscape. Is this not the very mythos of the resistance? The hand of the land, the mob summoned up golem-like to throw its unprotected weight against the moral outrage of occupation.
The defining scene of Come and See is not the famous barn burning carnival but the tripping rush of denial as Florya leads Glasha to where he insists his massacred family will be hiding.
The prelude to this hysteria is where the two children enter Florya’s family home which is a prelude to the horrific roar of matter. Flies buzz around the cabin while Florya retrieves the still warm soup from the oven, for a second or two it seems that reality might be held back by the cultural relief of the meal. Through the symbolic envelopment by the family, matter might still be tamed. Then Glasha vomits and the real comes crashing in like an umber flood tide, the childhood stability is now irreparably corrupt as boy and girl run away from this break, out into the swamp. This next moment is that which defines the film, the mirror of the earlier sand scene Florya followed by Glasha wade out into water covered in tendrilous algae and biofilm. The rifle is pushed out ahead of the boy and is enveloped just as he is, held close and safe in a parental shroud of living material, the gun rendered useless2, and safe as they now encounter a level of the militia even closer to the land, a group of peasants and sub-Lumpenproletariat for whom the abstraction of politics has been pulled down into the praxis of survival3.
In 1983 Alan Moore is taking over the writing of DC’s Swamp Thing. Originally Swamp Thing belongs to the genre of the mortal turned ubermensch, and their struggle to act responsibly while attempting to regain their own humanity. In the writing of Moore this is changed, Swamp Thing is organic matter which has assimilated the memories of the dead mortal, there is no self to return to. Swamp Thing is organic material made self conscious, Rhizomatic, it realises a fractal structure, all parts contained within all parts forever turning inward. Swamp Thing is the realist dirt of Come and See, the land as Actant. The Soviet film pushes an ideology which pushes one layer deeper than a National Socialist volk spirit. Rather than centralising land-culture it centralises land-matter4, bare foot in the earth forming effigies from clay and spittle and the Hydroxyapatite of a human skull. The dead mortal’s memories shape Swamp Thing, as much as the political agreement we called the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic shapes the landscape of this film. Ultimately, this shaping is just a vehicle for articulation and interpretation and somewhere within it is the pure and filthy real. Central to Swamp Thing is the concept that the protagonist is not a being itself but rather the agency of all plant-life. Once again the hand of the land.
“In my heart/ there’s a place called swamp-land/ nine parts water/ one part sand5”
The early 80s are the days of body horror, the pinnacle of animatronic hard-visual-effect-technology and the entering of HIV/AIDS into the collective Western Consciousness6.
There is an argument that all horror is to some extent fixated on the body and as such there is no such thing as a non-body horror. This would follow from the dual observations that our traditional lineage of horror narratives all feature a corruption of a body (whether ours, or the mirror of the Other) and that horror involves the threat or realisation of the transformation of a body through violence, moving from a familiar and operational thing, to something else all together.
However, this defining branch of popular cinema in the earlier years of the 80s is quite specific. John Carpenter moves from the recent supernatural revenge horror of Halloween and the Fog to the cellular eruption of The Thing. Similarly David Cronenberg shifts the role of the body to one of central reconfiguration and instability with Videodrome7. looking wider there is Re-Animator, The Howling, Wolfen, An American Werewolf in London and on and on. These are films which respond to a fear not of the Communist Other of without but the de-unification of the self (the self as a network which might be re-configured rather than a monad). However, what is also happening here is a change in society's view of the materiality of the body, as we obsess not simply on the threat of viral change, but on an increasingly drawn out look at the change itself. The camera lingers on the splatter of blood and the alteration of form (the monster change...) and this act becomes the distancing catharsis of self administered de-sensitization8.
What has happened is an abuse of matter, an abuse of dirt. Through pushing depiction of the unstable borders of the self into a bloody hyper-real (and despite how the rubber looks to our now jaded eyes, hyper-real is just what The Thing was) representation, a connection with the real of muck was dulled significantly. This is what makes Come and See so shocking in 19849 (in the 70s it would have been fine, nature has mostly been left to it's own existence in this decade, whether by disinterest or respect10) it is true dirt, even-handed and real.
In 1983 Big Black released Bulldozer, Swans released Filth and right at the start of 1984 Einstürzende Neubauten take pneumatic drills to the floor of the ICA to get to the tunnels beneath11.
In 1984 Black Flag release the record My War which is itself a slither between two attitudes to matter and the physical. Side A is the dumb hand-me-down punk of America pushing 1977 London back through rock and roll, side B is something that slows down the moment into 3 6minute plus songs of the lingering touch of distortion. A perfect synthesis of early Sabbath and Funhouse the last half of My War revels in the moment by moment of sound in stark contrast to conservative structures of the tracks which precede it. The guitars have been atonal all along but with the first of the three tracks, Nothing Left Inside, Greg Ginn's playing is so loose as to be rootless, just a huge collapse spilling out over a spasmodic and exhausted12 ruin of the first 4 notes of Peter Gunn played for what feels like forever on three legs.
1984 also sees the airing of Threads on the BBC then in 1985 Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy is published.
Like a revisionist return-to-nature both Threads and Blood Meridian offer a doom triumph of matter over ideology. That messy algorithm of rot and growth, that fuzziness at the border of self might cease to just be something on the surface, might infect and get inside, and this is what it would like in that world a handful of years later, no common language and no absolutes at all. That's really the fear of the Easton-Ellis-Eighties, for all the language of utter self control, of dominance of everything through the left right of Will and Capital everyone knows that increasing the grip only provokes a rupture somewhere, something has got to burst out.
However, it that implies some sort of general self-awareness, 1984 is also the year Red Dawn came out. Happy Halloween.
1 I wrote this last month “I've had a sequential dream over the past week where I have been a reluctant member of a partisan militia traipsing through unlit farmland in the manner of the film Come and See, led by the tragically flawed and often depressed (at all times sitting in the pose depicted on the cover DMR's second album) Captain Kevin Rowland. I brought him round to my house at one point in an effort to cheer him up, possibly by cooking him dinner. I then realise to my horror that not only is my copy of Too-Rye-Ay visible but the record itself is on the turntable and something has initiated the automatic start. There is a click as the red light comes on, the arm lifts, swings out over the disk, I drop the piece of salami I'm holding, Kevin looks up just as the needle drops.... and then I wake up.”
2 A realisation of the hippie symbolism, a flower jammed down the barrel.
3 “Curiously, while Marx thought the final stage of history would amount to a sort of return to humanity's initial state ('primitive communism'), Marx and his successors never supposed that our own era's 'primitive communists' had any place in the transformations about to take place. You can't be an agent of history, the presumption went, if your form of life places you outside of history altogether.” J E H Smith
5 Swampland by The Scientists, released as a double A side by Au Go Go in 1982
6 The actual moment of AIDS entering general understanding is attributed to many events, but most relevant to our discussion here is the release of David Lynch’s Dune in 1984 with its disease ridden homosexual Sadean Baron Vladimir Harkonnen personifying the spectre of a collective terror and ignorance made flesh. It is also worth mentioning Dune's Soviet-Afghan War subtext and it's wicked case of TE Lawrence syndrome, which exoticises and objectifying the Other while living out its colonial fantasy of leadership.
8 Another branch of this enquiry should here look to the sister of the splatter film, the early 80s heavy metal album, specifically the rise of Grindcore and to a lesser extent Thrash and Death Metal. Again, a mass of cathartic abuse against matter by making all anxiety familiar and ineffectual. This will finally find language in Napalm Death's mantra from 1989 "You suffer, but why?"
9 Shocking in the West obviously. Another branch of enquiry would here look to the more pronounced respect of matter in post-war to pre-80s soviet cinema, compared to to the grittier end of 70s Hollywood and how this managed to survive much later into the decade.
10 Hackman eats boiled eggs, DeNiro mashes bread into a bowl of milk and 70s Nicholson gesticulates with his mouth like he is forever talking around some dry rye toast. It was a decade which defined tough cinema by the way it played with its dinner.
11 Three bands that through abrasive sonic texture, volume and the physicality of the means of producing (even amplified) sound attempting to re-connect something lost in the performance that might only be done so through confrontation. Unfortunately the drama (frequently in the lyrics, always in the clothes) often pulled the whole thing back into spectacle time and time again. Incidentally, the most physically engaged records I can think of are probably Free Your Mind... and Your Ass Will Follow by Funkadelic and There's a Riot Goin' On by Sly & The Family Stone, where noise and sonic space just lie about like they own the place, both are covered in dirt without any hysteria at all. The mix alone on either record is enough cut all chance of the listeners return to decency and a life of wallowing in music, taking it for granted. Both records grate in their own way, grate against the possibility of a transparent listening experience, one sounds like you've woken up in a grave, the other in some Stan Brakhage Ajax-scarred zoetrope of the storm from Return to Oz and a motown Silver Apples. Also both appear at the dawn of the 70s, right in the spray of Altamont which was arguably a moment when corporeal grit proved it simply had the mass to destroy any ideology, or tea party, or sales pitch or whatever.
12 [There's an excellent earlier post on here somewhere that discussed the importance of steroids and the self image of muscular 1980s, someone help me out I can't find it again.] The endless reservoir of will is the belief of decade though, and despite the chest beating quest for the fire-in-his-own-tortured-navel of Henry Rollins the thing that Black Flag get right about this Reaganite bootstraps Power of The Will mythology is the sheer exhaustion of it. The drive that the decade promotes, the peck flexing rugged individualist conservatism is actually the delirium of fatigue, it aint a march, it's a stagger.