Fear Street and Knife+Heart: The Interpassivity Problem

Leftist art, by which I mean art which is not liberal but rather which carries an actual socialist or anarchist message, is something of a rarity. Certainly there is plenty of progressive art. But progressive liberalism is not actual leftism and aims for a different message. However some work arises that actually communicates leftist values. Our subject films today are two handy examples. Both are built around two specific leftist ideals which are not shared by liberalism to any significant extent: both films champion the idea of community defense and solidarity and both films operate with an explicitly historicist lens regarding social conflict. Both the Fear Street trilogy and Knife+Heart (“Un Couteau Dans Le Coeur” originally which translates to “a knife in the heart”) do this in part by following a queer woman as she navigates the intersection of class and gender politics and as supernatural visions tie her into unresolved sins of the past which have consequences for her community in the present day.

As such these two films do present enough in common to make them fertile ground to contrast how they approach their topics and how they differ. Via these topics I believe we can also begin to examine one of the most significant problems plaguing leftist art in the age of neoliberalism: the interpassivity problem.

Interpassivity is a mode in art first described by Robert Pfaller. It was later taken up by Žižek who treats it with all the care of the actor who played Marshall McLuhan in his Canadian Heritage moment, waxing about how lightbulbs are a communication medium but it is a concept most clearly defined by Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism in which he says of the Pixar film Wall-E,

It seems that the cinema audience is itself the object of this satire, which prompted some right wing observers to recoil in disgust, condemning Disney/Pixar for attacking its own audience. But this kind of irony feeds rather than challenges capitalist realism. A film like Wall-E exemplifies what Robert Pfaller has called ‘interpassivity’: the film performs our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity. The role of capitalist ideology is not to make an explicit case for something in the way that propaganda does, but to conceal the fact that the operations of capital do not depend on any sort of subjectively assumed belief.

Mark Fisher – Capitalist Realism – What if you held a protest and everyone came?

Interpassivity is the process whereby an audience can see its activism being done for it on the screen and thus believe that the activism has been done. It’s the underlying psychological mode that treats reading books or watching films as praxis. Capitalism is all to happy to sell the image of anti-capitalism to an audience. Far from the apocryphal Lenin quote that, “when the time comes to hang the capitalists, they will bid against each other for the sale of the rope.” It seems that capitalism finds it all too easy to sell an image of a hanged capitalist as a panacea against the actual gallows.

Of course this mode of interpassivity depends on comfort to be effective. If people are dissatisfied enough then no number of imagined hangings will forestall the actual moment of action. But, of course, the same audiences who are satisfied to see the activism being done in a story will often fight against actual activism when it disrupts their comfort and it’s worth noting that a good number of Pixar’s films are enjoyed by comfortable people: adults age 18-44 with salaries over $50,000. In his pessimistic essay, “Why Revolution Is Impossible Today,” Byung-Chul Han argues that the concept of the sharing economy represents a movement toward the full commodification of communism, saying,

Paradoxically, despite all this wonderful ‘sharing’, no one gives anything away. One it begins to sell communism itself as a commodity, capitalism has reached its culmination. Communism as a commodity: that spells the end of any revolution.

Byung-Chul Han – Capitalism and the Death Drive – Why Revolution Is Impossible Today

This presents a serious problem for the very project of leftist film. After all, movies are a commodified product. They create these interpassive affects. They are commercial cinema after all. Commercial first and foremost. If Han is correct then leftist cinema might literally be interpassively forestalling revolution. I am not quite so pessimistic as Han or, indeed, Fisher and Žižek. Art is a tool for the creation and communication of affects and percepts. What we have, with interpassivity, is an affective problem. The solution, then, is to look at how we can short-circuit this comforting idea that, in the art, the activism has been done.

Now I’ve previously argued that it is necessary that we create art which serves the unsatisfied and proposed that a solution might be found in the gothic and in surrealism. Within that frame of reference we can look at how these two recent works of leftist cinema and how they succeed or fail in short-circuiting interpassive affects.

The basics: Fear Street is a trilogy of slasher movies released on Netflix in 2021. Directed and written by arising horror talent Leigh Janiak these movies are very loosely adapted from the teen-targeted Fear Street novels by R. L. Stine. It is interesting to note that these films were originally scheduled for distribution through 20th Century Fox and the Netflix distribution agreement arose after Disney acquired 20th Century Fox and torpedoed the deal. Disney remains, as always, one of the principal enemies of good art in the current age. This trilogy plots the journey of discovery of Deena Johnson as she learns her on-again, off-again girlfriend Sam Fraser has been targeted by an apparent witches’ curse. This leads Deena and her small circle of friends to investigate the circumstances of the curse and uncover the dark secret at the heart of the history of misfortune that lies over the town of Shadyside. This story is set up using a series of frames with the principal action being in 1994 but with the second film principally told via flashback in 1978 and half of the third film likewise in 1666.

Knife + Heart (Un couteau dans le coeur) is a 2018 French film which was an official contest selection at Cannes. A surrealist horror thriller, it details the end of the relationship between a director of gay porn (Anne Parèze) and her editor (Loïs McKenna) in Paris in 1979. When actors associated with her studio become the target of a deranged killer she is guided into a realm of dream and premonition leading toward the revelation of the identity and motive of the killer.

It’s fascinating the extent to which these films share significant formal and thematic ties. Both center upon a fraught relationship between two queer women. Both feature worlds where a mystical interconnection between people guides them to uncover secrets from the past. Both feature supernaturally empowered slashers as their principal threat. Both have very negative views about police. Both are structurally adventurous, albeit in very different ways, as Fear Street provides a trilogy of movies framing three different time periods of the history of the town as it unravels the central mystery of the film and as Knife+Heart meanders between Anne’s increasingly self-destructive efforts to win back Loïs and the dreams, premonitions and supernatural guides who direct her deeper into the mystery of the killer. The film makes frequent use of remarkable lighting effects and negative photography to create a phantasmagorical atmosphere that frequently defies logical consistency.

Fear Street is very much a slasher film. It bears all the hallmarks of the American slasher – there is a core group of teens who are thrown into the path of a killer (killers in this case) and who must unravel the secret of the killer(s) while playing cat and mouse games and fleeing for their lives.

Central to this is the visions of Sarah Fier visited first upon Sam and later upon Ziggy (in the second film) and Deena. The series opens with the assumption that the vision is Fier, the assumed undead witch behind the Shadyside curse, targeting victims out of wrath for interference with her body. Bleeding upon the ground near the corpse or bleeding on the witches severed hand consistently lead to the protagonists being pursued by supernatural killers. What’s more, select women will bleed from the nose in the presence of the body, precipitating the vision. But as our protagonists quest to end the curse they discover the visions are far different – as is the nature of the curse and its agent.

In fact the actual authors of the curse are the Goode family – a founding family of the Union settlement from which Shadyside and the blessed community of Sunnyvale devolve – who have struck a bargain with Satan whereby they give over one Shadysider for possession by the devil. These possessed people go on to kill others in their own community and the Devil is nourished on that blood. In exchange for this innocent blood the Goodes are granted wealth, prestige and political power. Their town, Sunnyvale, prospers and all the while Shadyside, murder capital USA, gets worse and worse. The kids of Shadyside believe they’re trapped – that anyone who really tried to leave Shadyside would be hit by a bus or worse because the town doesn’t let go of its residents.

An early establishing shot in the first film in the trilogy has Deena riding a school bus to a rally in Sunnyvale. Tracking from within the bus, the camera records the destitution of Shadyside and the visible wealth of Sunnyvale. This class divide isn’t just in the quality of housing though and the establishing action of the film arises when Sam’s new boyfriend, enraged at Deena’s interference, pursues the Shadysiders in his car which leads to a crash at the gravesite of Sarah Fier and Sam being given an incomplete vision of the witch.

To call this a metaphor for class conflict misses the mark. Class conflict is openly depicted absent any metaphorical mystification. Over the course of the three movies Deena recruits Ziggy, the sole survivor of the 1978 massacre and the only person to have seen Sarah Fier and lived to tell the tale, her brother and Martin, the mall janitor to rescue would-be class ladder climber Sam from satanic possession, break the curse on Sunnyvale and murder a police chief.

This film handily ties the intersection of race and class into the action. Martin is, in the first film, apprehended by Sheriff Goode, accused of spray-painting slogans about the witch onto the mall after a recent massacre that happened within it. Martin tells the sheriff “those aren’t my cans” and Sheriff Goode replies that they are, in fact, his own. That Goode is deliberately framing a working class black man for his lesser crimes is shown as being part and parcel with his willingness to sacrifice Shadyside lives in exchange for his own prosperity. His brother is the mayor of Sunnyvale but it is the police chief, the commander of the armed enforcement wing of capital, whose duty it is to dispose of surplus labour. Aside from Sam, who is trying to escape Shadyside and who gets possessed for her efforts, the protagonists of the film are all unambiguously working class. Deena wields revelation regarding the nature of the curse to recruit other disaffected members of this oppressed working class into a small group of activist fighters. Effectively she builds a vanguard. And we should note that this vanguard doesn’t represent her friend circle. They’re not a found family. Ziggy is a weird shut-in. Martin is just a guy who lives in her town. They’re not even co-workers. Most of Deena’s friends, excepting Sam and her brother, die in the first of the three films.

Now just a brief aside here but there is another point of similarity between Fear Street and Knife + Heart to call out and that has to do with specific kill-staging. The death of Kate via bread slicer in Fear Street Part one is one of the rawest and most affecting kills I’ve seen in a horror film. When she dies we’ve got to the point in the story where she’s well-enough developed as a character that we really don’t want her to die and her death is… undignified and drawn out enough to hurt. Kate’s death leaves the audience unsatisfied. I was ready to consider it one of the best deaths in slasher cinema but then along came Knife + Heart and it pretty much broke my heart with the death of Karl at the opening of the film. This is something important that slasher films must do, formally, to be good: make us care when people die in them. In this regard these two movies are both far beyond the majority of their peers.

Continuing with the idea of Fear Street as plotting the formation of a vanguard is the situation of history within the film. This is what the visions of Sarah Fier actually are: a history lesson. When Deena finally experiences the vision herself she gets it in full and we learn that Fier did lay a curse but not on Shadyside. Her curse fell upon the ancestor of Sheriff Goode who framed her for his pact with the devil. And her curse was that the material truth of history would reveal his malfeasance and that of his descendants. And so the Fear Street Trilogy establishes that there is an oppressed class of people, that this class is opposed by an antagonistic class of people who benefit from oppression, that the police are the chief stewards of the violence that maintains this oppression, and that what is necessary is to form a vanguard to visit that violence directly back upon the police and the state. It demonstrates that the fatalism of the working class is a false consciousness that can be transcended through solidarity not with one’s family or one’s social circle but with one’s entire class.

But of course this is the trap here. Because the Fear Street trilogy is also a really entertaining, satisfying, piece of fiction. When Sheriff Goode finally gets what’s coming to him it’s hard not to cheer. We come to love Deena and Ziggy especially but all of our protagonists really and we’ve ached as the killers have cut them down. It feels good at the end of these films. Cathartic.

But that is where the risk of interpassivity lies.

Effectively the problem is that the Fear Street trilogy functions too well as a piece of entertainment such that it risks an audience feeling satisfied that the bad cop is dead, the good workers have triumphed and the curse has been broken. See that rich asshole get plowed over by a garbage truck? Classic. A denouement that shows the survivors all moving on to better things in their lives, including an hilarious suggestion that Martin may have invented the MP3 player because of his distaste for the Sony Discman further cements that everything is done and dusted (aside from an unknown person nabbing the book with the Satanic pact in it opening the door to inevitable sequels of course).

Now, of course, one can counter that the institution of the police in the United States was not overthrown in 1994 and the safe distance of our own history can show that the work of Deena’s vanguard is incomplete. But it’s unlikely that a cinemagoer is going to walk away from their six-hour Netflix binge saying, “I must follow the example of Deena Johnson thought and mobilize the revolutionary vanguard to overthrow the local sheriff.”

It is the triumph that is the problem here. Everything resolves too pat. The villains get what’s coming. The survivors are rewarded for keeping troth. And this is why I think Knife+Heart provides a valuable counter-point.

Now on the surface the premise of Knife+Heart is so specifically me that it shouldn’t be surprising that I’d seek to hold it up as an exemplar in the arts. Here we have a story that is very nearly like that of The Crow. A man and his lover are senselessly murdered. He is resurrected by a black bird (a blind grackle in this instance) who guides him as he seeks revenge.

In the mythology of the film the Starry-Eyed Grackle lived only in the forest of Chaladre and they would consume the sin of any person who lay in the wood flying up so close to the sun to burn those sins away that they were driven blind. These birds were also said to revive the sick and the dead and guide them back to life.

But this psychopomp, unlike the eponymous crow, is blind and so this dead man revived is misled. He goes to Paris without any memory of his own father’s brutal murder of him and his lover and then by happenstance he enters a porno theater playing Anne’s movie “Spunk and the Land Alone” – which, by coincidence, recounts a version of his own story. But, where in reality, this man was castrated and burned to death by his father and his lover also killed, in Anne’s film the father joins the lovers and the three of them dance joyously around the burning barn.

Enraged seeing the potential for a happier outcome to his tragedy and unable to exact revenge on his father who died shortly after his murder, the killer began seeking out the actors of “Spunk and the Land Alone” to exact vengeance. There’s no pact with the devil here. Just a wounded gay man lashing out against the very community he should be in solidarity with. Only this wounded man can seemingly control weather, teleport and engage in many other supernatural acts in the process of exacting his revenge.

But, of course, the police are particularly useless against a killer whose targets are gay sex workers and so it eventually falls to the gay community to remove him. He is beaten and stabbed to death by a mob of people at that same movie theater. The first man to strike a blow against it challenges him that he “gets off on murdering fags” but it is the community who rise up in spontaneous mutual defense.

And yet there’s no pat resolution. The killer is another victim of the same homophobia that led the police to deprioritize the murders. Anne cannot reunite with Loïs. That was foreclosed on even before Loïs die because Anne was so enraged at the idea of their decade-long love ending that she commits a remarkably horrific sexual assault on her ex. The result is that Loïs insists Anne never see her again. When Loïs breaks this vow, rushing to rescue Anne when she discovers images of the killer in dailies from their movie, she is killed in Anne’s place.

There’s a Grand Guignol-style performance that Anne watches at a bar partway through the film. In it an aging lesbian declares her love for a monster and implores the monster to couple with her. The monster insists that, should she become aroused, she will not be able to control her passions and will definitely maul the woman to death. The woman greets death with open arms. This film invites us to ask whether Anne is, in fact, the monster.

Unlike the denouement of Fear Street, Knife+Heart ends with Anne recognizing that what’s broken must never be put right. Loïs is dead and cannot return. For all that the world of Knife+Heart is a fully magical one of prophesy and resurrection that is not available for Anne. Loïs was already gone before she ever died. The first thing she says to Anne is “my heart is dry” and frankly almost nothing Anne does throughout the film is the correct course to take to reignite their love. But Anne finds solace in her friends; in the end the killer doesn’t kill all her friends, or all her co-workers. But the removal of the killer by her greater community is also categorically not the triumphant end of an epochal struggle. For all the mysticism that guides Anne to the recognition of the human vitality of her loss there’s no karmic realignment at the end of revolution. There’s just a community of marginalized people, sometimes friends, sometimes lovers, sometimes turbulently destructive to each other, carrying on.

The ending of Knife+Heart is tragic in the full Nietzschean sense of the term. It’s an affirmation of the complete totality of life, and the annunciation that it is better to live in pain than to be dead. But it also leaves with broken people in a broken world – one in which many of their friends are gone without recall. The blind grackle who resurrected the killer is from an extinct species. That specific magic is fading from the world.

Knife+Heart has no opening for a sequel. It’s not part of a series nor even is it a greater work like a trilogy. While it plays with the French Surrealist and the Giallo genres of film it is quite a unique movie, an interrogation of filmic exploitation on par with Ti West’s X, an exploration of how oppressive violence causes people in the oppressed class to lash out against each other and how they sometimes come up and form a community despite it. Anne is a decent horror-investigator character but she’s hardly suitable as a revolutionary leader. She, herself, is embroiled with an ongoing conflict with the actors in her employ over their pay rates – something that occupies considerable dialog.

And yet we have characters like The Golden Throat – an aging gay man whose role on set is to keep the actors hard. He’s angered because Anne, in an attempt to process what’s happening around her and to draw out the killer, has been making a porn movie reenacting the events surrounding the killer. One of the stage hands asks him how much he’s getting paid and he, grinning, says he isn’t. He’s doing what he does out of love.

This film is unsatisfying. But in doing so it gets hooks into you. Some of those hooks will draw you into reflection. Knife+Heart is a very difficult movie to not-think-about. But part of that is a sense that there is wrongness in the world that still needs correcting – there’s a fight that still needs to be done.

Deena is a revolutionary vanguardist. She’s a leader who unites disparate people into a force to fight for change. Over there. On the screen. Anne can’t even organize a picnic without somebody innocent dying but her story does something more: it mobilizes the audience to remember that here, in the world not graced by magical birds and prophetic dreams, work must still be done.