Girl Meets Context: November is going to be our Best of the 1990s Month, where we watch some of Sean’s personal favorites from one of horror cinema’s darkest decades. We kick things off with Alejandro Amenábar’s debut film. In Thesis, Madrid college student Ángela (The Spirit of the Beehive‘s Ana Torrent) is writing her thesis about violence in cinema. But when her advisor dies mysteriously and Ángela discovers an authentic snuff film that was hidden in the university archives, she stumbles upon the existence of an underground snuff/torture ring. Enlisting the aide of a gorehound horror movie buff named Chema (Fele Martínez), Ángela tries to get to the bottom of the consipiracy without winding up a victim herself. But she soon finds herself drawn to an enigmatic fellow student (The Devil’s Backbone‘s Eduardo Noriega) who may or may not be involved. Kristine and I sat down to discuss the movie. If you haven’t seen Thesis, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Sean: I was wondering if the first 30 minutes of Thesis reminded you of… this blog? You/Me = Chema/Ángela.
Kristine: OMFG, I have that exact thing in my notes!!! I am dying.
Sean: Haahahaha! Right?
Sean: I want you to tell me if the following dialogue is from the movie, or from one of our previous chats: “I must show you something.” “I can’t…” “Yes, you can!” “I don’t want to!” “Yes, you do!”
Kristine: It’s a trick question. The answer is, ‘Both.’
Kristine: Haha! When Ángela is refusing to watch the videotape and Chema is all into it? That was basically us for every other movie we watched during the first year.
Sean: It is ridiculously true.
Kristine: I thought both the leads in Thesis were really, really good. And I liked how Chema wasn’t “cleaned up” to be likable. I mean, dude is a freak and that is not a pretty sight. And I loved Ángela’s impulsive and irrational decisions. For me, her behavior rang really true and didn’t feel like the usual complaint of “why are people so dumb in horror movies?”
Sean: Lots of negative reviews of Thesis disagree with you, and particularly call Ángela out for her “choices.”
Kristine: She is consumed with passion! That is a real thing that happens.
Sean: I mean, can we blame her? Has Eduardo Noriega ever been hotter than in this movie? Is it possible to be hotter than that?
Kristine: Hee! He was good. I would totally make Ángela’s choices. I mean, I have made Ángela’s choices. You have borne witness.
Sean: One of the things that most reminded me of us was Chema’s disgust/horror at Ángela’s pursuit of Bosco. It cracked me up! Sub Bosco for like, some janky boy from Tucson c.1999 and voilá!
Kristine: It’s true. I love how these things are equal in Chema’s mind: the horror of Ángela getting close to a likely sadistic serial killer and the indignity of Ángela having Bosco over to her house for dinnner when she never even has coffee with Chema. Those are equal horrors in his mind.
Sean: Another bit of mid-‘90s character development that reminded me of us was that there’s a Nightbreed poster on the wall in Chema’s kitchen, and a My Own Private Idaho poster in Ángela’s room. (FYI, Nightbreed‘s a Clive Barker-directed horror movie).
Kristine: I totally saw the My Own Private Idaho, but I didn’t notice or register the Nightbreed poster.
Sean: Duh! Because you’re Ángela!
Kristine: Haha! This is all true. Was Chema’s pad awesome or a gross nightmare?
Sean: A bit of both.
Sean: I did love his cabinet of scuzzy perv/gore movies.
Kristine: The “porn-moire”? React to Chema watching the snuff film of Vanessa’s murder and mocking Vanessa saying, “Please, please stop.”
Sean: I knew you’d notice that! Hahaha!
Kristine: Because it was upsetting! Ángela noticed also.
Sean: When he did that I was like, Kristine will not approve.
Kristine: I didn’t.
Sean: What about when Ángela wants to know if Chema has ever seen anyone killed in real life, not just on tv, but Chema insists that his movies qualify as real?
Kristine: That was… Wow.
Sean: I kind of found Ángela to be…
Sean: See, I was going to say ‘a problem.’ I didn’t like her Tipper Gore act.
Kristine: But, she abandons her thesis project!
Sean: When Castro is interviewing her and she’s like, “We get so much [violence] in films, on TV… we’re getting too used to it. I’m concerned because I don’t like violence.” I was like, put a sock in it Tipper. Oh, you’re concerned?
Kristine: Actually, I love you comparing her to Tipper because we all know the reason Tipper was so gung-ho to censor shit was because she was terrified of her own base physical desires, right? In Tipper’s world, all it takes is one “XXX”-rated rap song to turn you into a down low ho fo’ sho’. And Ángela is the same way, which is clearly established during the opening scene (which I thought was great) when The Man is trying to keep the public from seeing the violent reality of the person who threw himself on the train tracks and was cut in two. But Ángela wants to see the carnage. She doesn’t hate violence, just like Tipper doesn’t hate big black cock. They’re just curious about it, but conflicted and ashamed of their curiosity.
Sean: Yes! I actually like how Thesis flips the gender conventions between Ángela and Chema in some significant ways. I see Ángela as a kind of RIMA [Rational Inquiring Masculine Authority] figure, who wants to cast her clinical, objective eye on everything to order it and make rational sense of it. Meanwhile Thesis sets up Chema’s world/mind as the uncanny/freakish/weird world that Ángela is going to explore (á la Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland). Like that Walkman scene that juxtaposes Ángela’s (cultured, highbrow) classical music vs. Chema’s (primal, lowbrow) metal/rock.
Kristine: That was a good scene. I also thought it was interesting how Ángela’s desire for Bosco outweighs her RIMA-ness. That feels like a character trope that is usually assigned to male heroes – “Well, she might be psycho, but I’m gonna go for it anyway because she’s a hot piece of ass.” Male heroes in crime/action movie are always getting involved with some shady piece of ass because they just can’t help themselves.
Sean: Right – Bosco is the femme fatale.
Kristine: Have you ever seen a snuff film? IRL?
Sean: As far as I know, they’re an urban legend. There’s never been a real one.
Kristine: Of course there has!
Sean: Not one that has ever actually acquired distribution. A true-blue snuff film is made “for the express purpose of distribution and entertainment or financial exploitation.”
Kristine: So, it is not made for personal gratification. It has to be an enterprise.
Sean: Right. Some psychotic freak murders someone and videotapes it and keeps the tape to rewatch and beat off to… that’s not really a “snuff film.” That’s just a filmed record of a murder. A snuff movie is something made by filmmakers in order to distribute for profit.
Kristine: Okay, you work in the world of academia. Did it delight you that the deviant snuff film circle was set in a university and run by professors and such?
Sean: Yes! Loved it. In fact, the very title of the movie – Thesis – calls academic enterprise into question.
Kristine: For sure. Like the artifice of scholarly exploration versus the realness of experience?
Sean: Yes. I don’t think the movie itself actually values the thesis work Ángela is doing. I feel like the movie suggests she was using the “respectability” of academia as a cover in order to get her jollies and explore her own dark desires.
Kristine: Oh, I agree 100%.
Sean: Like how she caresses her dead advisor’s face when she finds him?
Kristine: Ángela is totally the female version of a classic horndog male character who “has” to go to titty bars every night “for research” on some fictional whatever they are writing, right?
Sean: Sure… Except she’s more repressed, I’d say. That classic male horndog character is like, thrilled by his own sexuality. Ángela is repressed and out-of-touch with her feelings and her own sexuality.
Sean: We already mentioned the conversation in which Chema and Ángela talk about whether or not they’ve ever seen someone killed “in real life.” By the end of Thesis, they have both killed someone IRL. Ángela even did it on videotape, reversing the power dynamic between spectator and perpetrator and literally becoming the killer in the snuff movie (whereas in the beginning of the movie, watching Vanessa’s murder on tape, she was revolted by the killer). So at the end of Thesis, they’re leaving the hospital as the tv show begins to air the footage of Vanessa’s murder. What are we supposed to understand about how their experiences have changed (or not changed) Chema and Ángela? Like, is the point that they’re now seasoned and desensitized?
Kristine: I am not sure either, but I think it’s the opposite. Now that they have actually experienced the violence which they previously fetishized/eroticized, they are no longer titillated by it. Now they are disgusted and saddened. They don’t want to see the gruesome footage any more. Ángela has been cured of her desire “to look,” which had been established in the opening scene where she wants to see the mangled body of the man on the train tracks. Even Chema no longer takes pleasure from the spectacle of violence. Instead, they want to go get coffee.
Sean: Aha… So they’re changed in a way that takes them away from violence, not towards it?
Kristine: That was my interpretation. They are humanized by what they’ve gone through, not desensitized (as is often thought to be the result of exposure to violence).
Sean: Interesting. So Ángela’s “perverted” desire to look has been cured…
Kristine: What were you thinking?
Sean: I am honestly not sure, but your take on it is convincing. I guess if I had to answer, I’d say that Thesis was curiously reticent to make a clear declaration at the end… It seems heavy-handed to show all the people in the hospital tuning in for the snuff movie footage, like they’re a bunch of ghouls for watching. But when the anchor says they are airing the footage because it “is of interest,” I was like… Well, it is of interest. It is interesting to look. That’s true. But I had thought Thesis was arguing that it’s not about whether or not you look, it’s about what you feel when you look. Ángela, at the beginning of the movie, finds people who enjoy violence to be “loathesome.” Why and how we look is what’s of paramount importance. To regard with a clinical, detached, “objective” eye is permissible. To regard with a prurient, primal, “subjective” eye is perverse. That’s what makes her such a RIMA.
Kristine: Right. So if entertainment is about pleasure, then it is never permissible (according to Ángela) to include violence in entertainment.
Sean: Yes, but this goes back to why I’ve got problems with Ángela. Her being so tortured about wanting to look and possibly being excited by violence kind of annoys me. Remember when they first find Vanessa’s tape and play it, Ángela initially refuses to look? It’s only when Chema tells Ángela not to look that she can bring herself to turn around and see the tape. It’s when Chema confirms that she should not look that she chooses to.
Kristine: Because she’s not going to be told what to do!
Sean: I guess. I did find it fascinating that Ángela’s reaction to the tape of Vanessa’s murder is to ask “Why did they do it to her?” She wants to get to the bottom of these violent impulses. I thought it was significant that it’s Chema, ultimately, who seems more upset by the tape than she is. Chema refers to the film as “filth” and accuses her of liking it (which is just another in a long series of displacements and disassociations throughout the movie). Chema is also able to analyze the technical aspects of film production (he’s the one who notices “the horizontal lines” in the recording while Ángela tells us, “I only see intestines”) and figures out the camera used a digital zoom, which is a vital clue. Chema notices the absence of information, of footage (even as he also apes/repeats/mocks Vanessa’s cries for help).
Kristine: Right. Chema is the one actually examining the footage dispassionately, with a clinical eye, as Ángela is supposed to be doing for her thesis. He’s scrutinizing objectively, rather than just experiencing the footage like Ángela is doing.
Sean: Yeah, she is the one swept away in emotion during the act of looking, which is everything she claims to be against.
Sean: She’s a big hypocrite.
Kristine: Well, sure! She’s still the greatest, though!
Sean: I guess, but I feel like there’s some subtextual sexism in the idea that Ángela is, at the end of the day, just a shitty academic. All the men around her show more competence. Let me ask you a postmodern question: Were you ever scared/upset/in suspense while watching Thesis? Did you watch this movie swept away in emotion, or with a cold, clinical eye?
Kristine: I was uneasy many times. I was nervous and worried about how much/what Thesis was going to show of the Vanessa tape (and I found it really interesting that the actual violence shown is minimal). But I wasn’t ever actually scared. What about you?
Sean: I was completely riveted/sucked in/in breathless suspense during the first hour. I think the movie loses steam in the second half.
Kristine: I thought the sister/disco scene was unnecessary, for sure.
Sean: I found the first hour to be incredibly Hitchockian, in the best way.
Kristine: Right. Who can Ángela trust? That’s very much the predicament of the classic Hitchcock protagonist.
Sean: When they’re watching the tape of Vanessa’s murder and Chema realizes the tape has been edited because “She was going to say something… Something [the killer] doesn’t want us to hear”? That sent literal chills down my spine.
Sean: That initial footchase between Ángela and Bosco, where she starts off trailing him, but he winds up trailing her, was the best kind of Hitchcockian setpiece, too.
Kristine: I totally agree about on that chase scene. But I have to say that, overall, I found Thesis to be very… Serviceable. It sets out to achieve something and it does so. The acting is good, there’s a good story, and it brings up some interesting ideas about human nature. But I did not find the movie to be transcendent in any way. What do you think?
Sean: I sort of adore it. But again, mostly for the first hour and for the kinds of questions it sets up. I don’t know if it provides any interesting answers to those questions. Or even new ways to consider the questions… I mean, all the stuff about Castro and his “give the public what it wants!” cynicism was fine, but I was more into the set-up of the mystery than the way Thesis solved it.
Sean: One thing I will say: I think Thesis was ahead of its time and prefigured/foresaw a lot of later horror trends. The Ring, the torture porn trend, the found footage trend.
Kristine: A Serbian Film!
Kristine: Me too.
Sean: For example, the way Thesis introduces the character of Bosco is masterful. How at first you can’t even see his face, just his body with the camera on his shoulder, blocking him. He is the mechanism of aggressive looking, the male gaze personified. When Ángela recognizes the XT-500, she is seeing the camera as a weapon, as a marker of the sadist… I thought that was some pretty amazing, Peeping Tom-esque realness.
Kristine: Yes, agreed.
Sean: I mean, A Serbian Film, Peeping Tom and Thesis all belong to a subgenre of horror movies that reflect upon the very process of filmmaking itself, and on the production of violent and/or “prurient” images. All of them wonder openly about how/why we create these kinds of films, these kinds of narratives. I think, of the three, Thesis is trying to think in the broadest and most sociological terms. It specifically brings up the context of a global (and national) film industry. Remember, Castro gives that speech where he asks,” What is cinema? Cinema is an industry, it’s money. It’s millions invested in films and then retrieved at the box office… The American industry is strangling you and there’s only one way to fight it: Give the public what it wants. Don’t forget that.” But again, Castro’s viewpoint that the mass audience is a made up of bloodthirsty cretins and so we’ve got to “give them what they want!” seems overly simplistic and moralistic to me.
Kristine: I’d like to switch gears here and ask you a very important question.
Kristine: If you thought a guy was super fine but was also pretty sure he was a sadistic killer, would you get with him at least once before turning him in/proving he was a killer/whatever the hell Ángela’s endgame was?
Sean: Um, if it was Eduardo Noreiga? I would do anything, whatever it took, to get a piece of his ass.
Kristine: As I suspected. (Me, too).
Kristine: Remember when I was upset about you watching A Serbian Film because I thought it would forever damage your soul? And then I watched it and it wasn’t that big a deal? Do you think there are movies that forever ruin you or drive you to death/suicide/homicide/insanity if you watch them? Or is that just a conceit dreamed up by screenwriters?
Sean: See, this movie did foresee The Ring! But my answer is no, I don’t think that. But what do I know? I was actually going to ask you about the difference between watching fictional violence and real violence. So, I watch all kinds of horror movies, but I don’t even like watching Youtube clips of people falling off their skateboards. My boyfriend loves watching clips of real people getting injured or like, vomiting, or something else disgusting. I cannot even watch them.
Sean: If I know it’s real, I don’t want to see it. Hate it.
Sean: I don’t know! I am super-squeamish about “real” footage. In fact, I have no plans for us to ever watch any mondo movies for the blog, because I don’t think I could handle it. (Mondo = shockumentary). Am I a hypocrite/baby bitch?
Kristine: No, but you are Chema, for real. I guess, in theory, I feel like if you are going to consume something (like murder) as entertainment, you should be able to deal with the reality as well. Kind of like the argument that if you are going to eat meat, you should be able to slaughter an animal, too. But in both cases, although I agree in principal, but there is no way I am going to follow it up with action. I am going to gorge myself on bacon until the day I die, but I will never slit a pig’s throat.
Sean: I completely reject that logic. Fictional spaces exist for us to deal with, work through and confront shit. They are moral spaces in which to work things out. Just because you’re confronting and thinking about violence in the safe space of fiction doesn’t mean you are required to go seek out actual violence in the real world. That logic is fucking demented to me. Acts of violence in real life have real victims, with real consequences. It’s grotesque to me to consume real footage with prurience for that reason – the whole point of fiction is that we can work through shit without there being real victims, real consequences!
Kristine: I mean, can you watch stuff like Jackass?
Sean: No. It makes me sick to my stomach.
Kristine: Okay, you might be a baby bitch after all. Sorry. I fucking love Jackass.
Sean: Do you know about the Faces of Death movies?
Kristine: Yes, I know about them and I don’t approve, but mostly because of animals. Remember I almost couldn’t watch 28 Days Later because of the monkey experimentation in the opening scene?
Sean: I mean, if this blog is really going to be true to its project then we should watch at least one Faces of Death.
Kristine: Only if there are no animals murdered.
Sean: I don’t think I can handle it even if no animals.
Kristine: The thing is, I get why humans are intrigued by this stuff. It makes sense. But if I went to someone’s house and they had, like, twenty Faces of Death DVDs on their bookshelf? I would judge them hard and run away. So I can see why Ángela has to funnel her curiosity/desire through the “doing research for my thesis” filter.
Sean: God. So Catholic! You’d judge Chema’s “porn-moire”?
Kristine: Deal with it.
Sean: Kristine, I would cut a bitch for a shot at Eduardo Noriega.
Kristine: Hee! I think it’s interesting that the evil (male, natch) powers that be are… film school teachers. Do you reckon Amenábar has a bone to pick with authority figures in his medium of choice?
Sean: Huh. Maybe? I thought it was all just meant as satire.
Kristine: Sure. But still…
Sean: But maybe that “give ‘em what they want!” mentality is something he’s encountered and hates.
Sean: Do you agree that Vanessa’s fate is among the most horrid we’ve encountered?
Sean: Up there with what happens to the ladies in Wolf Creek?
Kristine: That’s exactly what I immediately thought of!
Sean: That tape is so horrible. Ugh, god.
Kristine: I can’t.
The Girl’s Rating: Poses great questions, fumbles the answers AND This movie’s protagonist IS me (and I apologize)
The Freak’s Rating: Neo-Hitchcockian gorgeousness AND Poses great questions, fumbles the answers AND Postmodern as hell