Hoi Lun Law on ANGST/FEAR (Adrian Martin & Cristina Álvarez López, 2014)

ANGST/FEAR, A video essay by Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López.
First published at Transit: Cine y otros desvíos, July 4, 2013. Online at: http://cinentransit.com/angst-fear/

[Footage: MARTHA (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974), FEAR (James Foley, 1996)].

Written Reflection by Hoi Lun Law (University of Bristol)

If missing out some details and alternative interpretations of a film is an unavoidable condition of movie viewing, it is an inescapable fact of film criticism. Images exceed, evade and exhaust words. No matter how much the critic labours over her discussion and analysis of a film, she cannot come close to capturing its totality and her whole experience of it. Cinema, as Raymond Durgnat usefully points out, ‘is more continuously descriptive than words’ (1982: 114). Continuous, descriptive, and continuously descriptive. Film, as it moves forward in time, also mutates and modulates its meanings from moment to moment. This is not to say that the medium effectively defies language but rather that film invariably deems words ineffectual and inadequate. This is the reason why writings on cinema are often accompanied by frame enlargements and stills: ideally, the words and the images compliment each other. While words give eloquence and clarity to images; images lend richness and presence to words. The recent emergence of the audiovisual essay in the study of film presses the use of images further and generates experiments with the critical potential of evoking and directly engaging the very objects it examines. Images are used to study images; film becomes quotable in its criticism.

‘[N]othing’, Nicole Brenez observes, ‘clarifies an image like another image’ and ‘nothing analyses a film better than another film’ (2003: 23). This fascinating thought, while only recently being tested by the audiovisual essay, is in fact not an alien idea to film criticism. Indeed, comparison and contrast, juxtaposition and judgment are what criticism always does. Critics detour into another film when the one at hand calls for it, warrants it. By weighing one film against another, tracing their exchanges and traffic or delineating their kinship, we can often illuminate and deepen the understanding of both. Pairing up films inevitably draws our attention to the similarities and differences between them. The approach is particularly useful in discussions of remaking and reappropriation in cinema; it studies the stakes of sameness and variation between films – the creativity and innovation involved in the transfer.

Nevertheless, putting a film alongside another one does not only allow an enquiry into genealogy and teleology, it could also expose the subconscious of the films – their muted thoughts that easily go amiss otherwise. Consider ‘Angst/ Fear’, an audiovisual essay made by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin[1. Available online at: http://cinentransit.com/angst-fear/#dos [accessed 31 May 2014]. [The audiovisual essay is accompanied by a short text written by Álvarez López and Martin]. In this piece, they ‘conjure, through montage, an imaginary scene’ out of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Martha (1974) and James Foley’s Fear (1996) (emphasis original, 2013). What triggers the imagination of Álvarez López and Martin is the uncanny resemblance between the roller coaster ride scenes in the two films. Both of the films revolve around the painful relationship between a vulnerable girl and a sinister man; both of them consummate and unleash a perverse libidinal energy and reckless drive in a scene in the fairground; and both of them are footnoted by the presence of another couple after the ride. In terms of plot, the two scenes sound identical, inviting comparisons and a study of the lineage of ideas. However, this is not the avenue that Álvarez López and Martin’s audiovisual essay pursues. Instead of diving into the deep water of the ‘hyper-conscious, quotational frenzy of intertextuality’, their essay is interested in the ‘sifting and transforming, unconscious osmosis’ between the scenes (ibid). There exists a secret and subtle dialogue between Martha and Fear.

Álvarez López and Martin’s argument is simple: by juxtaposing Martha and Fear, we can unveil a deeper logic underneath both of the films. It is notable that the two fairground scenes, despite their resemblance, actually differ in their premise and context. In the Fassbinder film, the ride is Martha’s (Margit Carstensen) journey into fear, her confrontation with the anxiety of falling and falling in love; the corresponding scene in the Foley film, by depicting a sexual encounter between the couple (David and Nicole, played by Mark Wahlberg and Reese Witherspoon), plunges into the intense and pleasurable togetherness of that moment. Fear or pleasure. At the surface, the kinship of the two scenes is only superficial. However, a closer look at them discloses otherwise. Fear, as it develops, is revealed to be ‘a generalisation of the “charming bad boy” syndrome into an exploration of the terror of patriarchy itself’. The sinister undertone of the roller coaster ride, in retrospect, becomes immensely palpable. Martha, ever since her first sight of Helmut (Karlheinz Böhm) harbours an unspoken desire for the man. The ride, with its thrills and blasts of bodily sensations, is not unlike ‘a perverse source of pleasure, even ecstasy, for her’ (ibid). Fear and pleasure. The two scenes indeed double each other; their meanings deepen when placed together.

The vigour of Álvarez López and Martin’s audiovisual essay lies in the way it dramatises the doubling of Martha and Fear. It crosscuts between the two ride scenes, creating an original piece of montage. We can well imagine how the video could be made differently done – with images of the scenes literally placed alongside each other as in a split-screen comparison. If this were the case, however, with our attentions busy moving back and forth between the two images, the audience would be drawn to detecting the stylistic affinities and disparities amongst the scenes, as if it were a game of ‘spot the differences’: one might wonder why, for instance, Martha depicts the couple in two-shots while Fear separates the lovers in close-ups? Álvarez López and Martin’s approach, rather than merely virtuosic, has critical implications: By fusing the two rides into one, the video essay figuratively ‘conjures the perfect psychological double bind of ecstasy and angst combined’. ‘[T]hese twin, extreme emotions’, the critics conclude, ‘knot to form a prison, a paralysis’ (emphasis original, ibid). Also important is how the montage mirrors the whirlwind sensations of the rides: the scenes are crisscrossed to form a flurry of images with increasingly breakneck pace and relentless intensity. It is as if the experiences of two girls are indistinguishable, inextricably linked. In this light, Fear’s rapturous close-ups, as the Álvarez López and Martin piece suggests, are the mental enlargements of Martha and Helmut; and the two-shots in the Martha, by the same token, depicts the precarious situation that David and Nicole are in. Angst and desire, prison and paralysis – these are the keys to interpret Martha and Fear.

‘Interpretative criticism has an inherent tendency to schematise’, Robin Wood diagnoses, and scenes that ‘explore[s] the complex potentialities of… situation[s]’ are prone to be ‘coarsened in the process of analysis’ (1967: 86). Indeed, interpretation is about narrowing down the possibilities of a film, subjecting it to a distinct way of seeing; it sometimes makes the film appears neater than it actually is. This is perhaps a particularly acute concern when the critic compares and connects films: so how do we discuss the films in reasonably general and convincing terms without flattening them, effacing their singularities? Álvarez López and Martin, by allowing Fear and Martha the space to speak to and directly engage with each other as images, achieve the exploration of ‘the complex potentialities of situations’ within the scenes, without coarsening and sacrificing their individual texture, tone and mood. The video essay focuses closely on one specific way of approaching the films, yet at the same time opens up an alternative avenue of understanding them.

‘Wild horses couldn’t drag me away’ – Álvarez López and Martin reuse the song ‘Wild Horses’ from Fear. Here, the lyrics do not only amply describe the states that the couples of Martha and Fear are in: their deep and intense involvement in a situation and their determination to stay in it; the lyrics also bespeak a rather disabling mentality that plagues film criticism: How often do we read criticisms that seem to be written with a preconceived idea or framework? How often do we blindly embrace an established or powerful interpretation in our appreciation of film, denying the work its say? Indeed, Álvarez López and Martin’s video essay, so accomplished in opening up a conversation between the Fassbinder and Foley films, reminds us not to come to films with ideas. We should instead let the films lead and teach us how to view them, not letting their potentialities miss us. ‘Wild, wild horses, we’ll ride them some day’, the song ends on a note of hopeful aspiration.


Brenez, N. (2003) “Movie Mutations: Letters from (and to) Some Children of 1960” in Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin (eds.) Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia, London: BFI, pp.1-34.

Durgnat, R. (1982) “Film theory: From narrative to description”, Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 7:2, pp. 109-129.

Martin, A. and Álvarez López, C. (2013) “ANGST/FEAR”, Transit: Cine y otros desvíos, July 4. Online at: http://cinentransit.com/angst-fear/

Wood, R. (1967) Arthur Penn, London: Studio Vista.


Edited by Catherine Grant

Biographical Note

Hoi Lun Law is currently a research student in Film Studies at the University of Bristol, UK. He is one of the co-editors of The Audiovisual Essay website.