Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 5, No. 2, 1992
Film: Matters of Style
Edited by Adrian Martin

Fascination and the grotesque:
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Jodi Brooks

What I want to address in this paper are spectatorial pleasures - more specifically forms of cinematic fascination ranging from dread to intoxication. Cinematic experiences which make your eyes bulge, holding you transfixed to the point when you feel less the beholder of the image than the beheld. Why are these - by no means rare - experiences so difficult to address? Partly due to their seemingly ephemeral status, as if they were simply a side-effect of certain films or audiences (fascination being low on the hierarchy of valuable experiences); partly also as a result of a number of slippages and equations in much of the psychoanalytic film theory which has held sway over the last two decades - conflations of visual pleasure with voyeurism, spectacle with fetishism and narcissism. In the process, cinematic fascination has seemingly been accounted for, but has more effectively been side-stepped. Nevertheless fascination remains, I would claim, a central part of cinematic pleasures.

The forms of cinematic fascination I'm interested in here are ones involving an almost animistic relationship between spectator and film, revolving around a play of proximity and distance. They are tied to an intensity of attention involving a sort of mimetic relationship between spectator and film, or what I would prefer to call mimetic apprehension so as to signal the centrality of holding and being held by fascination. Fascination involves a degree of suspension, and I'm not referring to the suspension of one's critical faculties with which it is generally associated. If we turn to dictionary definitions of "fascinate", we find that the fascinated subject is "held" by that state; to fascinate is: 1. to attract and hold irresistably by delightful qualities. 2. to deprive of the power of resistance or movement, as through terror. 3. Obs. to bewitch. 4. Obs. to cast under a spell by a look. 5. to hold the attention. [L. fascinatus, pp enchanted] 1

Such forms of fascination come close to what Roger Caillois, Georges Bataille and other members of the College of Sociology refer to as tremendum and fascinans - that which simultaneously attracts and repulses. For them, this is the ambiguity of the sacred, and perhaps this concept of the sacred is a way of addressing what operates in cinematic fascination. In this paper I want to reclaim cinematic fascination by drawing on both Caillois' work "Mimicry and Legendary Psychaesthenia" 2 and Walter Benjamin's work on the mimetic faculty and the aura. These two writers, who were contemporaries (one based in France, the other in Germany), both deal with mimicry in terms of energy transfer and investment, as a form of self dispossession and mutation. Whilst they were working in different contexts and seem to make no reference to each other's work in this regard, they had certainly come in contact with each other. Klossowski reports that Benjamin attended some of the College of Sociology's meetings in the late 1930's - apparently unrecognised - and was to have presented his paper "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire" (though never did). The irony of drawing on Caillois' work here is that it is what he devalues, mimicry, that I want to both redeem and repropose. For Caillois, mimesis is primarily to do with a loss of the distinction between self and environment, of the "essential" distance and difference between one and the other. Mimesis he claims is to do with proximity, a lure of space which some (the "distinguished" in Caillois' hierarchy) can overcome, whilst others succumb. Mimesis is to do with the temptation to become matter, to become space rather than being satisfied with simply taking up a position in relation to it, with entering or occupying it - a temptation I find particularly pertinent to some cinema-going pleasures. For Caillois then, mimesis is tied to an instinct of renunciation, an instinct which for him leads to reduced existence.

If we take Caillois' idea of mimicry and the lure of space to cinema, who or what is it that can be held by this attraction, this desire to become similar? I want to argue here that it is something which can operate for the spectator, that this attraction is a form of cinematic fascination. It is perhaps easier to accept this idea of attraction and lure by limiting it to particular aspects of cinema - the facial close-up for instance, especially of the long, obsessively close variety which often seem to smother the spectator. But I think it goes further than this, and the facial close up is only an obvious form. For this reason I've chosen to deal here with a film in which this attraction operates around the lure of excessive display - the fascination of attraction/repulsion.

In film theory, some of the most generative work on fascination has come from Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer in their discussions of distraction and modernity. These two writers, working predominantly in the 1920s and 1930s, have provided the most promising directions for addressing fascination - both in cinema and in other cultural forms. Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in this aspect of these writers' work in journals like New German Critique, and in the articles and books by Heide Schlupmann, Patrice Petro, Tom Gunning and Miriam Hansen. But in Benjamin's case, it is also his work on the mimetic faculty and its relation to the aura which is particularly suggestive for a theory of cinematic fascination, and this has received far less attention in recent film theory. Benjamin's concepts of the mimetic faculty and the aura suggest forms of fascination tied to a sort of self dispossession of the spectator which is not reducible to empathy, and which entails a relinquishing of conscious identity in favour of the activation of involuntary memory. In Moscow Diary he writes:

As I was looking at an extraordinarily beautiful Cezanne, it suddenly occurred to me that it is even linguistically fallacious to speak of "empathy". It seemed to me that to the extent that one grasps a painting, one does not in any way enter into its space; rather, this space thrusts itself forward in various specific spots. It opens up to us in corners and angles in which we believe we can localize crucial experiences of the past; there is something inexplicably familiar about these spots. 3

This is a crucial distinction - in an empathetic relationship, one seems to enter the space of the object (in the sense of to feel with it). In mimetic apprehension on the other hand, the object (in "various specific spots") comes forth, animating something in the subject, and what is animated is a web of associations and correspondences. Such forms of fascination then would be tied less to the trance-like state generally associated with fascination than to a sort of mutual mobilization of work and subject. In film, as in Benjamin's example of the Cezanne painting, fascination arises at specific points. It is unlikely that a spectator would be held in a state of fascination for a whole film. Fascination rather is tied to particular scenes, shots, fragments of dialogue or sound, specific movements and expressions. Points in a film which can persevere for a spectator well after they've been superseded by other images and well after the film is finished. Points which send one reeling - moments which can involve a temporality not bound by narrative or apparatus time and which cannot be accounted for simply in terms of spectacle.

Benjamin, the Mimetic Faculty and the Auratic

Fascination is a central undercurrent running through Benjamin's work, and is essential to two of his major concepts - the aura and the mimetic faculty. I cannot deal fully with either of these in this paper, and will only refer to two aspects of them which are directly tied to fascination: the centrality of animation and arrest, and the forms of attentiveness operating in fascination.

In his essay "Some Motifs in Baudelaire" Benjamin writes that, "To perceive the aura of an object means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return". 4 For Benjamin the experience of the aura is tied to the anticipated reciprocity of the gaze. What is important here is the process of investing rather than any "real" return of the gaze. He goes on to write, "The experience of the aura thus rests on the transposition of a response common in human relationships to the relationship between the inanimate or natural object and man". 5 In other words, the experience of the aura is not simply to do with the felt return of the gaze but to the establishment of an animistic relationship between subject and object - or here between spectator and image. And it is not simply the object of perception that is animated (which would be something like anthropomorphism), but the animation of associations/correspondences in the spectator/perceiver through the object. What is "returned" is not the spectator's conscious identity but something more like involuntary memory. Auratic experience then is not an unmediated experience of the object of perception, but is more to do with - in Benjamin's words - "the associations which, at home in the involontaire memoire, tend to cluster around the object of perception". 6 It involves both an intensity of attention and a level of daydream and distraction - even boredom, similar to the forms of attention I see operating in cinematic fascination.

Benjamin sees the aura as having been originally related to magic and ritual, though over the course of history it has progressively been associated with aestheticism and social privilege. This argument is most explicitly (though by no means straightforwardly) laid out in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction". 7 In this much cited paper, the thrust of Benjamin's argument is that the technical reproducibility of art - and in particular the relatively "new" technologies of film and photography - challenge the status of art by threatening the key elements which have constituted the artwork's "aura": its authenticity and uniqueness. But Benjamin also suggests in this essay that a form of aura which is not so embedded in social privilege and aestheticism may take up residence in film (though he claims that for the moment film tends to be dominated by what he calls the "phony aura" of the star system). This "positive" aura of film he calls "unconscious optics" - the activation of memory images and associations in the spectator. Through "unconscious optics", film becomes a physiognomic, expressive form.

Benjamin's concept of the mimetic faculty is central to his theory of language and is most directly dealt with in "Doctrine of the Similar" and a later version of the same essay, "On the Mimetic Faculty". He also deals with it more indirectly in his work on Proust and Baudelaire, "On Language as Such", and in the Prologue to The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Drawing on Kabbalistic views of language and writing, as well as Proust and Baudelaire, Benjamin's concept of the mimetic faculty refers to the capacity to read similarities or correspondences, a capacity which is a remnant - both phylogenetically and ontogenetically - of the capacity to become similar (as Benjamin writes: "A child not only plays at being a grocer or a teacher, but also at being a windmill or a train" 8 ). Similarity here is less to do with identity and sameness than affinity. Through the mimetic faculty, non-sensuous similarity is perceived and grasped. The perception (or better, apprehension) of non-sensuous similarity is unlike other forms of perception - such as visual or tactile perception - in that it cannot be held. It is more like momentary configurations of meaning: "The perception of similarity is in every case bound to an instantaneous flash. It slips past, can possibly be regained, but really cannot be held fast like other perceptions. It offers itself to the eye as fleetingly and transitorily as a constellation of stars. The perception of similarities thus seems to be bound to a time-moment (Zeitmoment)". 9 In this flash, this "time-moment", the perception of similarities operates as a sort of revelatory montage. In terms of cinema, this concept of the flash sugests a move away from what are seen as cinema's two major constraints - the supposed all-determining control of apparatus time (or more specifically here the projector) and the iconic sign as cinema's "inevitable" form of representation. What it suggests is a different experience of temporality in cinema - the temporality of fascination. Cinematic fascination then would involve the play of a temporal proximity and distance through the activation of associations, and the "space" that the spectator merges with (to use Caillois' phrase) would be a temporal one. The anticipated return of the gaze here then is more to do with a temporal disjunction and vertigo than a mapping of visual space.

It is not because the unreal object appears close to me that my eyes are going to converge, but it is the convergence of my eyes that mimics the proximity of the object. (Jean-Paul Sartre) 10

For Sartre, it is not in an act of protection/retraction from something too close that one's eyes bulge and converge, but rather the convergence of the eyes is a mimetic act, and what is mimicked here is proximity. This idea seems particularly useful for thinking about the way fascination works in cinema, since it refers to the ways in which fascination can grip or agitate muscle, nerve and flesh - fascination as something which works on the body of the spectator, and works moreover as a lure.

It is in these terms that I want to look at a film which makes my eyes converge, Robert Aldrich's psychological horror film of 1962, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? - the story of two ageing and decaying sisters who have both, in their respective days, been stars. One as a precocious child star on the stage (Bette Davis as Jane), the other as a glamour queen of 1930s cinema (Joan Crawford as Blanche). In the "now" of the film - the early 1960s in Hollywood - these two sisters (both "old maids") have become grotesque, though in different ways. Jane embodies the visual (and aural) traits of the grotesque woman while Blanche is an emotional monster. The film is in fact full of freaks: a daddy's girl (Jane), an excessively obese mummy's boy, complete with doting tiny mother, television-generation nosey neighbours, and a decaying Hollywood mansion which is at times reminiscent of the Addams Family home. The two sisters are bound together by hatred and guilt, Davis/Baby Jane believing she is responsible for a car accident which left her sister crippled thirty years ago and Crawford/Blanche knowing that she has produced her sister as mad and grotesque (as she says at the end of the film: "You weren't ugly then, I made you that way, I even did that to you"). It is not until the final moments of the film that we find out that it is not Jane who caused the accident that crippled her sister but Blanche who crippled herself in an unsuccessful attempt to run over Jane, and who, crying victim for the last thirty years, has blackmailed Jane into relinquishing her own life and will to look after her. In the light of this most horrific of acts, Jane's physical torturing of Blanche - which makes up the bulk of the film - starving her, dragging her down the stairs, tying her to the bed and gagging her until near death in the final moments of the film - is mere child's play. Moreover it seems totally just - a relatively speedy suffering compared to the long drawn out torment of Jane, of which we see only the end product. It is not Jane - with all the accoutrements of the grotesque woman (looseness of flesh, powderiness of skin and hair, and probably most of all, little girl precociousness in an aged and decaying body) who is aligned with terror and evil, but Blanche in her sickly "femmi-ness". What interests me about this film is the intense appeal of Jane, the deep satisfaction and delight in her "innocent" torturing of her sister (feeding Blanche her pet bird on a finely chopped bed of tomato and onion on a silver platter, for instance). For what Jane is "about" is an intense desire to perform - and it is this which is established as both grotesque and appealing.

Performance, Audacity and the Grotesque

You can never lose your can lose everything else but you can never lose your talent. (Jane)

What is it that holds one mesmerized and delighted in this film? Primarily I would argue that what fascinates here is the audacity of performance, the ever-presence of performance as display. Fascination and lure operate in this film not so much in those realms more generally associated with fascination and engrossment - the intoxicating proximity of the close up, or the thrill of excessive movement. The fascination of this film is to do with a different sort of proximity - of excessive performance up close. What is simultaneously attractive and repulsive here is the excessiveness of display.

It is this alignment of performance and the grotesque which becomes the site of dread and fascination, and it is only in Jane that these are enmeshed. Performance here is inseparable from excess - an excess which includes Jane's make-up, her heavy (but at the same time nimble) body, her gestures and facial expressions. In her paper "Female Grotesques", Mary Russo offers a description which seems made for Jane/Davis in this film:

Making a spectacle of oneself seemed a specifically feminine danger. The danger was of an exposure. Men, I learned somewhat later in life, 'exposed themselves,' but that operation was quite deliberate and circumscribed. For a woman, making a spectacle out of herself had more to do with a kind of inadvertancy and loss of boundaries: the possessors of large, aging and dimpled thighs displayed at the public beach, of overly rouged cheeks, of a voice shrill in laughter, or of a sliding bra strap - a loose, dingy bra strap especially - were at once caught out by fate and blameworthy. It was my impression that these women had done something wrong, had stepped, as it were, into the limelight out of turn - too young or too old, too early or too late - and yet anyone, any woman, could make a spectacle out of herself if she was not careful. 11

There is a sort of liberatory pleasure in such forms of spectacle - a delight in display, but also the appeal of letting-oneself-go, of becoming grotesque. A relation then of attraction and repulsion, though perhaps, against Bataille and Caillois, repulsion is not the right word. It implies a moralism and distaste which I don't necessarily see as part of this sort of fascination, and yet despite this qualification, "repulsion" has the advantage of signalling the centrality of movement (pulsion) in fascination.

It is not only with the aged, coarse and mad Jane that performance is aligned with the grotesque. Like Russo's "female grotesques", Jane has entered the limelight out of turn - both too early and too late, and the obscenity of performance also operates in the sequences of Jane in her heyday as the successful and adored child star - particularly in the sequence where, as a child, she performs her smash hit "I've Written a Letter to Daddy", totally mastering the codes of coy little girl. This is one of the most terrifying sequences of the film, in many ways more so than the older Jane's renditions of this number in the same outfit forty years on. What is rendered obscene is performance as precocity and excess.

Jane spends most of the film largely oblivious to the fact that she is no longer in the limelight, and continues to operate as if she were. Most bizarre, however, she seems to emanate her own stage lights, as if in her years as a child star she voraciously soaked up all the gazes upon her, hoarding them and adorning herself with them so that now they seem to beam out from within. The slightest suggestion of an audience and she radiates, and yet this glow is fully marked by decay - the whiteness of her eyes, hair and face is more like a thick but precarious surface than the intoxicating radiance of Charcot's hysterics. One finds a similar attitude toward attention and applause in another Bette Davis film, All About Eve, though here it is Anne Baxter's character who has the somewhat hysterical attitude toward the adoring gazes of fans and stage lights. Baxter plays the aspiring actress/monster Eve who - through her "scheming feminine ways" - attempts to usurp Margo Channing's/Davis' place as queen of the stage (Eve is much more like Blanche in this respect). In the middle of a conversation about how "theatre people" give "so much for so little", Eve launches into a bizarre speech about love and applause. With eyes transfixed she recites: "So little, so little did you say? Why if there's nothing else there's applause. I've listened backstage to people applaud - it's like waves of love coming over the footlights and wrapping you up. Imagine - to know every night different hundreds of people love you. They smile, their eyes shine, you've pleased them. They want you, you belong. Just that is worth anything." Jane (and Eve) may want to disappear in a mass of adoring lights and gazes, but I want to be held suspended across this spectacle of transmutating bodies.

Jane is like the Lillian Gish of Broken Blossoms, but taken to even more hysterical proportions with her wide-eyed, almost trance-like girlishness, and her ability to drop this identity in favour of another in an instant. But it is also the excessiveness of her gestures which are reminiscent of silent film and pantomime and rendered more bizarre by their appearance in a sound film in a contemporary setting. Perhaps there is also a certain nostalgia operating here - for a period of cinema where excessiveness in bodily performance was the norm. (Blanche's gestures are excessive in a different way. They signal a more classic image of female narcissism... '"Crawford never reacted to anything," says Baby Jane screenwriter Lukas Heller. "She sat in her wheelchair or in bed and waited for her close-ups. As the camera would got closer, she would widen those enormous eyes of hers. She considered that acting"'). 12

The fascination of Jane's will to perform is partly also to do with her capacity to shift identities in a fraction of a second through facial gesture, voice and stance. Jane operates as a multiple, possessed body, and this multiplicity is staged both simultaneously and in sequence (the precocious child star and prematurely aged and vulgar "old hag". Mutton dressed up as lamb no doubt, but Jane doesn't leave it there - she also frolics). It is a "talent" which is at its best at the points when she performs the excessive femininity of sister Blanche, impersonating her voice on the phone as if it rises from within her like the voice of the devil in The Exorcist. 13 At one level what holds one enthralled is the precision of Jane's multiple performance - her mastery and realignment of the codes of coyness and coquetishness, but also of domesticity and the mad woman - a precision of performance which is counterposed against the sloppiness and excessiveness of her body, dress and gait - and it is this composite and endlessly transforming body which is the site of dread and fascination. She is like Bakhtin's figure of the "pregnant hag" - that figure of grotesqueness which embodies both birth and decay, connected to life and death, and blurring the distinction between them with its complex temporality. Jane stages a temporal confusion, for not only has she not aged chronologically, she also evokes other eras of cinema and cinematic pleasures - a nexus of fascinations around movement, stasis and display. Fascination here is inseparable from crisis, its temporality is catastrophic, for at these points of fascination, the moment endlessly opens and overlays itself.

Are we dealing in this form of fascination, then, with the capacity to become similar or to read similarities? Certainly Jane is intoxicated by a desire to become space, for she repeatedly surrenders to its lure and merges herself with it - becoming herself the space of spectacle and display. And what of the spectator held suspended in delight before this transmutation, this temptation to merge with a play of spatial and temporal distance and proximity? The fascinated spectator I would place somewhere between the desire to become similar and the ability to read similarities, and what holds the spectator there is cinematic fascination itself: an intensity of attention (which can border on a form of entropy) coupled with distraction and daydream, animating a labyrinth of associations. To read Caillois against Benjamin, it is in part this desire to become similar, this relation of affinity, which simultaneously attracts and repulses. A desire which is activated in this film by the obscenity of display.

This paper was originally presented at the Australian Cultural Studies Conference, University of Western Sydney, December 1990.


1. Concise Oxford Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980).

2. Roger Caillois, "Mimicry and Legendary Psychaesthenia", trans. John Shepley, October, 31 (Winter 1987), pp.17-33.

3. "Moscow Diary", October 35 (Winter 1985), trans. Richard Sieburth, p.42.

4. Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn (London, Verso, 1983), p.148.

5. Ibid. p.148.

6. Ibid. p.144.

7. Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (Suffolk, Fontana/Collins, 1973), pp.219-253.

8. Benjamin cited in Miriam Hansen, "Benjamin, Cinema and Experience: The Blue Flower in the Land of Technology", New German Critique 40 (Winter 1987), p.196.

9. "Doctrine of the Similar", trans. Knut Tarnowski, New German Critique, 17 (Spring 1979), p.66.

10. The Psychology of the Imagination (London, Methuen, 1972), cited in Joan Copjec, "Flavit et Dissipati Sunt", October, 18 (Fall 1981), p.34.

11. Mary Russo, "Female Grotesques: Carnival and Theory" in Teresa de Lauretis ed., Feminist Studies/Critical Studies, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), p.213.

12. Shaun Considine, "What Ever Happened on Baby Jane?", Premiere, v.3 n.3 (Nov. 1989), p.69.

13. The voice is in fact Crawford's, as Davis couldn't successfully mimic it during the shoot (much to Crawford's delight according to Davis). See Shaun Considine, Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud (London, Sphere Books, 1990), p.328.

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