Katherine A. Fowkes,
Giving up the Ghost: Spirits, Ghosts, and Angels in Mainstream Comedy Films
Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998.
ISBN: 0 8143 2721 4 (paper)
(Review copy supplied by Wayne State University Press)
Uploaded 1 November 2000
The daemonic has been a powerful theme in art, attracting frequent critical attention. In cinema studies writers such as Noel Carroll, Barbara Creed and Carol Clover have undertaken sustained analyses of horror films and our fascination with them. Popular television programs such as Twin Peaks (1990) and The X Files (1993) have also received considerable academic comment. But what of the daemonic in film comedy? What kind of cultural meanings are associated with other worldly presences which are not scary? As its title indicates, Giving up the Ghost: Spirits, Ghosts, and Angels in Mainstream Comedy Films explores these questions.
While earlier examples such as Topper (1937) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) are discussed, the book is specifically concerned with a small cycle of films ranging from Heaven can Wait (1978) to Heart and Souls (1993). Katherine Fowkes includes Always (1989), Beetlejuice (1988), Ghost (1990), and Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991), but excludes a film like Ghostbusters (1984) because its phantoms are generated by special effects. Although some of these films are not “pure” comedies, Fowkes argues that they contain several comic elements that function within “the overall narrative to create a coherent dynamic that opposes both melodrama and horror in its intended effects”. (26)
Fowkes’ avowedly feminist study offers a critique of the familiar concept of the sadistic voyeur. Drawing on theorists such as Gilles Deleuze, Gaylyn Studlar and Kaja Silverman, she asserts that male ghosts can be read as masochistic figures. Such “men” struggle to affect their environment as they try to redress the mistakes of their all too human past lives. They are invisible to most other characters in the diegesis. They cannot move objects: their bodies are comically inept. They are inarticulate at crucial moments, their disembodied voices interiorised diegetically in a manner that undercuts the authority traditionally associated with the male voice over in cinema. As narrative agents their powers are limited. Fowkes contends that male ghosts are “feminised”, and that the trials, frustrations, and humiliations they experience are masochistic. In her view, these films are less about death than a fantasised rebirth or reunification with the pre-Oedipal maternal realm. Guilty or inadequate central male characters are converted into more holistic, and less overtly phallic, entities who can express their emotions. The flexibility of gender positions in this trajectory is reinforced by the active narrative roles assumed by female characters.
Fowkes claims that these features of comedy ghost films comprise a “masochistic aesthetic”. In her opinion, this concept enables one “to focus on delay, on passivity, and on many notions traditionally associated with the feminine, and yet it avoids classifying these things as definitively gendered”. (34) For spectators these texts disrupt conventional gender positions. Like male ghosts, viewers endure the repetitious contortions of these films because they promise the pleasures of transgression and transformation.
The potential scholarly value of Giving up the Ghost is uncertain. Fowkes’ analysis emphasises story and character in the films to the detriment of their stylistic elements. Rather than articulating a masochistic aesthetic, it would be more accurate to say that she locates a masochistic narrative scenario in these texts. This approach, combined with Fowkes’ tendency to use films as literal examples to illustrate theoretical points, results in extensive repetition. If she had examined three or four films in far greater detail her arguments may have been more convincing. A number of films made during the period in question are omitted without explanation when their inclusion might have been useful and challenging. Groundhog Day (1993) seems an obvious example of male masochism, and Sleepless in Seattle (1993), also about male suffering, has a female ghost, something Fowkes contends is a rarity.
Fowkes’ theoretical position is also problematic. She argues that comedy ghost films construct a masochistic spectator who cannot affect the films in any way. However, she also suggests that meaning is created in a dialectic between viewer and text, without reconciling this contradiction. Certainly, some of the films might be read differently. For example, Always and Truly, Madly, Deeply can be regarded as Oedipal narratives in which the male ghost assumes the position of the powerful dead father who arranges a new object choice for the grieving female survivor. Fowkes’ reliance on secondary sources limits her conceptualisation of the phenomenon under scrutiny. She acknowledges that her definition of masochism is entirely non-sexual. Consequently, her assumption that masculine suffering not only can, but should, be equated with passivity and feminisation has the effect of enforcing or naturalising the very gender categories she seeks to critique. Furthermore, Fowkes does not really explore the daemonic in psychoanalysis. In the analytic situation the daemon who confounds the analyst and clouds the patient’s memory is in not a daemon at all, but that which resists recollection and re-presentation: the affective tie. Thus, we might ask why Fowkes does not classify male suffering in comedy ghost films as a form of melancholy? Why not meditate on the affective responses of spectators who enjoy the “laughter through tears” (Dolly Parton’s favourite emotion in Steel Magnolias, 1989) of these films?
Giving up the Ghost is eminently readable, and Fowkes deserves credit for examining an overlooked and slightly disreputable group of films. But surely debates about spectatorship in cinema studies have moved beyond her theoretical position and argumentative style. In the end Giving up the Ghost resembles its object. Full of delays, repetitions and lost opportunities, it will be a valued curiosity for a few, but merely diverting to most.