Sunday, 19 September 2010

"A fusion of life and dream": In memory of John Orr

Image from Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003). This  film topped John Orr's list of favourite films in 2003 (here are his 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2009 lists)
What is trauma if not, as in the original Greek, a kind of wound? In cinema, though, it is something more: a wound that seldom heals, a deep wounding of body and soul from which, often, the subject does not recover. Hence, the critical formula for the outcome of the trauma picture: at the least, significant damage; at the most, violent death.

If film horror often sources the supernatural, film trauma focuses on the fears of the natural world. What is out there as waking nightmare in a dangerous world is often a mirror of what is hidden in here, in the human heart. The monsters that horror films project onto the screen are often the monsters of our dream worlds. The wounding events of the trauma film are by contrast a fusion of life and dream.

In film, there is no absolute borderline between these opposites – human trauma and supernatural horror  but the question of emphasis, one way or the other, is crucial: the threat of aliens, mutants, werewolves, monsters, robots, slasher killers, vampires et alia, or the threat of evil that is here and now, that is contingent and recurrent in the life-world, yet also seems onscreen to inhabit the world of dream. Horror is, thus, the popular genre of superhuman evil, trauma its human and dreamlike subset. [John Orr, 'The Trauma Film and British Romantic Cinema 1940-1960', Senses of Cinema, Issue 51, 2009]

Film Studies For Free was very sad to hear, via Dina Iordanova's website, of the death of influential film theorist and scholar John Orr.

Appointed as a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh in 1967, Orr began teaching film and cultural studies in that department in 1984. A few years later, he founded, with John Ellis, the joint honours film course for Sociology and English Literature. From 1998 onwards, he taught on the MSc in Film Studies, based in the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures.

Best known for his pioneering work on the sociology of film and art, Orr was author of Cinema and Modernity, Contemporary Cinema, The Art and Politics of Film and Hitchcock and 20th Century Cinema. He also co-edited important works on Andzrej Wajda and Roman Polanski and had written recent essays on Ingmar Bergman, Terrence Malick, and Dogme 95. His most recent book was Romantics and Modernists in British Cinema (Edinburgh University Press, 2010). He had recently retired from his post as Professor Emeritus in Social and Political Studies at Edinburgh, but was still very active in his research and publishing on cinema.

Orr was both prolific and very generous with his work. In recent years, he published a number of significant essays online, many of which set out in depth his brilliant thinking on trauma, fright, and paranoia in the cinema. Below, in tribute to and with gratitude for his work, both on and offline, FSFF has gathered links to those essays.

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