March 10, 1995 was the culminating evening of a UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television symposium entitled “The Aesthetics of Violence.” Melnitz theater was packed for a discussion panel comprising writer-director Wes Craven, writer-director Paul Schrader, and feminist film scholars Carol J. Clover (Men, Women and Chainsaws) and Linda Williams (Hard Core).
If you know who these people are, your mind is now being blown just pondering this gathering. I was in the MFA Screenwriting program at the time, and had been a horror fan my whole life, not to mention an aca-feminist, so I was delirious over the prospect, to say the least.
What I remember most clearly is Clover brandishing her sharp and astute feminist analyses and slicing up Craven who was too genteel and polite to strike back at a lady.
I wish I had a transcript of that panel for you. I remember that Schrader, whom I was prepared to admire, was disappointingly rude and impatient with his other panelists. I don’t remember Williams at all although I had just read Hard Core and was a huge fan. This leads me to wonder if she might not have made it to the panel, or perhaps she was just overshadowed in my memory. What I remember most clearly is Clover brandishing her sharp and astute feminist analyses and slicing up Craven who was too genteel and polite to strike back at a lady. He quietly defended his art as being pro-woman and not celebrating violence so much as exploring it. But Clover wasn’t about to let the man who made The Last House on the Left off the meat-hook that easily.
Then followed the always-painful Question and Answer session, during which one after another people stood up and tried to pitch their script ideas to Craven. Worse yet were those who thought he might somehow get them their big break as a director. (Most of these were not students.) Craven politely referred them all to his agent, and the emcee politely cut off each unintelligible pitch.
After the panel there was a reception in one of the sound stages featuring cheap wine in plastic cups, cheddar and jalapeño cheese cubes, and stale crackers, as was de rigeur at glamorous ol’ TFT then. While we filed out of Melnitz auditorium to the sound stage, thunder boomed and rain began pouring down outside as if cued for the occasion.
I was milling around the sound stage with fellow students, sipping wine, when one of them, George, came up to me all giddy and nervous. George, when he wasn’t studying the art of screenwriting, worked for a special effects house — the physical, foam prosthetics and oozing gore kinds of effects. Horror and sci-fi were his metier, and he knew I was a big fan of Craven’s work.
“Come on,” he nudged me, “let’s go introduce ourselves to Wes Craven.”
We glanced around the large, crowded space and saw him talking amiably with Clover near the cheese. No one else, not even the faculty, dared stand too near them even though they smiled and seemed to have struck a truce.
“Oh, no,” I said. “They’re having a conversation. I don’t want to interrupt.”
As is evidenced in my other posts, I am not shy when it comes to speaking to celebrities, if the circumstances are right. But after all those wannabe screenwriters and directors had bombarded Craven, I could not bear to present myself to him as yet another parasite.
George said something to the effect that it was WES CRAVEN standing only a few feet away and that we would probably never have the chance to speak to him again in our lives. He was right. I could not argue, so I followed him over to Craven and Clover, sheepishly lingering behind. Can you guess what happened next?
Craven and Clover turned slightly apart, smiling, as we approached them. George said, “Hello, Mr. Craven. I admire your work so much, I just wanted to introduce myself.” We introduced ourselves, and I made a point to smile at Clover whom George had ignored in his nervousness. Then… nothing. George clammed up. The three of us waited for more, but he had nothing left.
I am not sure exactly what was said next. I think I pointed out the “dark and stormy night,” and then Craven asked what our ambitions were, and I must have mentioned having been an English major. The next thing I knew he was telling me about how he’d taught English and had a Masters degree in Philosophy, and how The Hills Have Eyes was based on Scottish folklore dating from the 17th century, and Last House on the Left was based on Bergman’s Virgin Spring, and… I was enthralled.
A little of this I’d probably read years previous in interviews, but you must remember this was long before Google and Wikipedia kept all of this sort of info at one’s fingertips at all times. Back then, if one wanted to brush up on Wes Craven’s background, a trip to the library’s periodical stacks was required.
Talking about literature led to me confessing I knew little of 17th century lit because I had focused on postmodern fiction. That in turn brought up his New Nightmare, which had screened earlier during the symposium. Then, to my horror, I heard myself tell him that New Nightmare had disappointed me. I wanted to suck the words back in immediately! Stupid cheap wine! But of course, Craven wanted me to elaborate. Fumbling, I explained I had liked the “meta” way the movie started out, but felt it had chickened out and not taken its self-reflexive deconstruction to its logical (and more entertaining) conclusion.
“I think I see what you mean,” he said, amiably — he really is one of the nicest people ever. “I’m working on a project right now that takes that postmodern aspect much further. I think you’ll really like it.”
“It” turned out to be Scream, which was indeed my postmodern-dream-movie.
We were having an English-major-movie-dork moment, him in his tweed jacket with elbow patches and me showing off my Derrida vocabulary.
Somewhere about then I glanced around to find George was gone, and Clover was politely smiling but eyeing both of us. I’m certain she suspected I was hitting on him. I don’t blame her. But yikes, I didn’t want one of my feminist idols thinking I was trying to sleep with male greatness in lieu of developing any greatness of my own. Nothing like that was happening anyway. We were having an English-major-movie-dork moment, him in his tweed jacket with elbow patches and me showing off my Derrida vocabulary. I turned back to Dr. Clover and, trying clumsily to pull her back into the conversation, said something like, “How about that O.J. Simpson trial, huh?”
Then the conversation got really interesting.
It was so interesting I can only vaguely remember all the twists and tangents. Racial stereotyping was mentioned but countered with gender stereotyping, and Clover and Craven speculated as to whether the specter of abused women would trump that of abused African Americans or visa-versa. Clover, of course, predicted exactly which way that wind was going to blow. That got us onto the topic of Americans, in general, and then myths and lore and true-life-horror and the epic dimension of the trial in the American imagination….
I glanced away at some point and noticed the big garage door of the sound stage had been opened. As I looked out at the rain still pouring down, lighting split the sky. “I am standing here talking to Wes Craven and Carol Clover about the O.J. Simpson trial on a dark and stormy night!” my brain screamed at me.
Well, I can dream, can’t I?