In the castle of Castle

The first film course I ever took was in the summer of 1991, just before I went off to college. Apparently, I am precisely the kind of dork who takes classes in the interim between high school and college. I have come to terms with this, in part because I somehow managed to parlay a love of movies into a career, and in part because two of the films I watched for my first-ever film paper were Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr., and William Castle‘s The Tingler, two of the definitive statements on cinematic reflexivity. That first-ever paper was about that very subject, in fact. I seem to recall believing that I was the first to ever realize that these two great films are fundamentally about the process of making and viewing movies. Ahem.

I’ve never lost my fondness for Keaton’s films, and regularly show them in various of my classes. About a year ago, I taught a course on the films of William Castle and Roger Corman, two of the most interesting and important “exploitation” filmmakers in American film. It’s always pleasing when the act of teaching a course suggests new directions for scholarly research, and that’s what happened with the Castle/Corman course. I got to thinking about how William Castle had a complex relationship with the notion of authorship: on one hand, his films are only adequately or averagely made: his filmmaking chops were solid, but not extraordinary, and his style was not a particularly strong one. It seemed to me that, as if to compensate for what he saw as his own shortcomings in the authorship department, Castle sort of overdetermined the extent to which we would recognize his works as those of a cinematic auteur: within his films, he repeatedly reminds us, both subtly and heavy-handedly, that we are watching a WILLIAM CASTLE FILM.

William Castle, startled by one of 13 ghosts

Curiously, after studying a couple of his best films (13 Ghosts and The Tingler, which remains one of my very favorite movies) carefully, I realized that Castle did possess something of an authorial signature, although, again, not a particularly strong one. Ironically, part of that signature is determined by his very tendency toward self-promotion, at which he was a master. It’s a kind of meta-authorship, in which the assertion of authorship itself becomes a part of the authorial signature.

This curiously determined authorship, it seemed to me, is very much like the modern notion of “branding,” PR-speak for the process by which a product or a person acquires certain “associations” by which the public at large will recognize it/him/her. The “Ben & Jerry’s” brand encompasses such notions as deliciousness, premium-quality, hippies, creativity, Vermont, and so forth. William Castle, in internally promoting his films so forcefully, effectively blurs the line between authorship and branding — two concepts which, in terms of the marketplace, are not especially far apart, when you come to think of it. When we talk about going to see, for instance, “the new Scorsese film” or “the new Woody Allen film,” we are referring to a kind of cinematic brand.

This is all to say that the Danish film journal 16:9 has recently published an article of mine, “The Branding of an Author: William Castle and the Auteur Theory,” in which I take up these very issues. And you can read it even if you don’t speak Danish: every issue contains at least one essay in the English language. Please check out other articles in the 16:9 archives: it’s a journal of consistently high quality, even though they periodically publish essays by me.


Posted on July 21, 2011, in Film and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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