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10 May

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Alejandro Amenabar's Tesis (Thesis, 1996) HORROR
The violence of the spectacle
Alejandro Amenábar's Tesis (Thesis, 1996)

Highlighting what appear to be mutually exclusive levels of meaning, Marguerite La Caze here examines how Tesis "seems to be complicit in a culture that encourages the fetisihising of violence" while also "questioning or at least drawing our attention to the common conflation of real and faked/simulated violence."

"But," I said, "I once heard a story which I believe, that Leontius the son of Aglaion, on his way up from the Piraeus under the outer side of the northern wall, becoming aware of dead bodies that lay at the place of public execution at the same time felt a desire to see them and a repugnance and aversion, and that for a time he resisted and veiled his head, but overpowered in despite of all by his desire, with wide staring eyes he rushed up to the corpses and cried, 'There, ye wretches, take your fill of the fine spectacle!'"

Plato, Republic IV: 439e

"Yet, surely, this anecdote," I said, "signifies that the principle of anger sometimes fights against desires as an alien thing against an alien."

Plato, Republic IV: 440a

Tesis's thesis

Alejandro Amenábar's first feature, Tesis (Thesis, Spain, 1996), is a good example of realist horror cinema: Cynthia A Freeland notes that the typical realist horror film "succeeds by creating terror and unease, both promising and withholding the spectacle of violence," although the films have "ordinary" monsters rather than fictitious ones.[1] As the title suggests, Tesis has some pretensions to being taken seriously, as having something to say about the genre. Tesis has a thesis: human beings, no matter how well-meaning, are attracted to violence and death in all its forms. We want to see violence, hear violence, see dead bodies and know more about killings and murders. And we like murderers—apparently.

Tesis depicts a university student, Angela (Ana Torrent), who is writing a thesis on violent cinema. When her thesis advisor Figueroa (Miguel Picazo) is so disturbed by watching a video from the university archives that he dies from a heart attack, she takes the tape and discovers that someone on campus is making snuff films. Another student, Chema (Fele Martinez), who subsists on a steady diet of gore and pornographic films, helps Angela in her search to discover who is behind the snuff films.

The likely murderer is a clean-cut young male student, Bosco (Eduardo Noriega), who Angela finds attractive. He is contrasted with the geeky lover of violent movies, Chema, whom we suspect may be the murderer as he has one of the cameras used to make the snuff films and secretly videos Angela (as she discovers). One of the interesting aspects of the film is that Angela seems to be attracted to violence on two levels—both in the screen violence but also in the real violence suggested by the good-looking Bosco, the psychopathic serial killer who videos his murders.

At their first meeting, Bosco chases her around the corridors of the university. Why can't she see that he is the killer? A former friend of his has disappeared and Angela sees him videoing his girlfriend, Yolanda (Rosa Campillo), at the university. Or does she know at some level that he is the murderer, but is attracted to him nonetheless? At one point Angela has a dream in which she is stabbed by Bosco, suggesting that she is aware of his potential for cruelty. Her curiosity seems stronger than her aversion, however, and near the end of the film she even tells Bosco that she likes him. Angela almost seems willing to meet her own death to indulge this attraction. But she finally manages to free herself and kills Bosco, thereby transforming herself from willing victim to plucky heroine.[2]

Angela seems to have an irresistible urge to watch violence, both real and fictional. We see her turn away, and then turn back to look shamefacedly, first at a metro accident and later when the snuff film is screened on video. Alone, she can only experience the snuff movie with the sound on but not the picture, so that she listens to the screams of the victim.[3] Yet her thesis topic gives her an excuse to watch as much violence as she would like to, in the name of intellectual development and objectivity.

The viewer's conflict

Alejandro Amenabar's Tesis (Thesis, 1996)Tesis is about conflict, the conflict between two opposing desires: one to enjoy the horrible spectacle and one to turn away. A criticism of the film could be that it conflates real violence with faked violence insofar as it treats our responses to accidents, snuff films and gory movies as similar. Arguably, however, there is a fundamental difference in kind between actors portraying violence and actual violence, and consequently in how we should think about our response.

Certainly, the film shows the connections between a morbid curiosity about gruesome events (such as an accident in the street), an enjoyment of faked violence (as in violent pornographic videos) and a fascination with real violence (as in the case of the snuff film). Tesis ends with the patients in a hospital craning to see more about the victims of the snuff films being shown on an exploitative TV show. Although the film seems to be complicit in a culture that encourages the fetishising of violence, it can also be seen as questioning or at least drawing our attention to the common conflation of real and faked/simulated violence.

Clearly, Angela is meant to be any of us; indeed she seems intended to represent the best amongst us. She is concerned about the death of her professor and disgusted by the snuff films. Yet is she? Is the film saying that there is something inevitable about a strong attraction to violence, both real and faked? Freeland finds the "standard critiques of our direct interest in [such] monsters and spectacles both simplistic and naive."[4] However, the reverse—an uncritical acceptance of this interest—is equally unsophisticated.

The cinema professor who replaces Angela's advisor argues in a lecture that students should think of cinema as an industry and "give the public what it wants." Linking the notion of universal desire to watch violence with a notion that cinema must satisfy the public's desires implies that filmmakers should make violent movies. Tesis could be seen as an example that follows the professor's advice, but somehow it manages to convey a sense of depth and critique even in its replaying of the young-woman-gets-mixed-up-with-serial-killer genre. As well as seeing the violence, we are observing Angela's reaction and to some degree being encouraged to analyse it. We see sections of the snuff films,[5] but Angela's response is what is most important. Her decision to abandon her thesis after her horrific experiences suggests that an objective response is extremely difficult to achieve.

Closing your eyes?

Is the alternative to indulging in violent spectacle closing your eyes and turning away from it? Like Amenábar's Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes, Spain, 1997) and his most recent film, The Others (2001), Tesis (to a lesser extent) invites more than one reading. On one level, the film is complicit in the very cynicism and exploitation of suffering that the director tries to expose. On another level, Amenábar, by making his film a thesis about our response to violence, undermines his own thesis that we are inevitably attracted to the spectacle of death and violence.

Although Angela's thesis has a curious transparency that exposes her mixed motives in studying film violence, the analytical approach Amenábar takes in the film creates a certain distance that allows us to examine his thesis that we are necessarily drawn to the spectacle of violence. Perhaps we are—but do we have to be? By making a film about a student writing a thesis about violent films, Amenábar is able to suggest that we can open our eyes, not to violence, but to what it means.

Marguerite La Caze

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More on Amenábar's Tesis...
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About the author

Marguerite La Caze is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Queensland, Australia. Her publications include The Analytic Imaginary (2002) and Integrity and the Fragile Self (forthcoming 2003), co-authored with Damian Cox and Michael Levine.

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1. Cynthia A Freeland, "Realist Horror." In Philosophy and Film, eds. Cynthia A. Freeland and Thomas E Wartenberg (New York: Routledge, 1995), 126-42 (128). See Freeland for a characterisation of realist horror. For a discussion of some of the issues concerning classification of realist horror, see Joel Black, "Real(ist) Horror: From Execution Videos to Snuff Films." In Underground U.S.A.: Filmmaking Beyond the Hollywood Canon, ed. Xavier Mendik and Steven Jay Schneider (London: Wallflower Press, 2002), 63-75.return to text

2. Leora Lev argues that Angela is a probable candidate for "Final Girl" status: a resourceful female figure who defeats the enemy and can be identified with by both men and women, as seen in films such as Halloween (1978) and Aliens (1986). See Lev, "Alejandro Amenábar's Tesis and the New Spanish Cinema." Film Quarterly 54.1 (Fall 2000): 34-38. Available online from Find Articles. For more on the notion of the "Final Girl," see Carol Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).return to text

3. Steven Jay Schneider notes that films use footage that is supposedly really snuff, and Joel Black argues that films using this technique "push the envelope" of realist horror (65). Angela tapes the sounds of the screams and listens to them repeatedly. See Schneider, "The International Language of Horror: Anthony Waller's Mute Witness." Central Europe Review 2.38 (6 November 2000).return to text

4. Freeland, 133.return to text

5. Black notes that "the technique of following an obviously staged murder with a snuff sequence is a way of making the snuff sequence seem all the more realistic" (68). Amenábar uses this technique for heightened realism, but not to convince us that we are really watching a snuff movie.return to text

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