by Fernando Quintero
New professor of film Linda Williams discovered her academic calling in a darkened theater on Telegraph Avenue more than 20 years ago.
Up on the screen, the shocking violence of the beginning sequence of Luis Bunuel's "Un Chien Andalou," in which a thin cloud moving across the moon is followed by the movement of a thin razor being pulled across a woman's eyeball, became the point of departure for Williams' first book, a psychoanalytic study of Surrealist cinema.
"The scene horrified and amazed me," recalled Williams, then a young and impressionable Berkeley undergraduate majoring in comparative literature. "The profoundly disturbing effect of this violent, inaugural moment of Surrealist cinema, opening up a world of disturbing unconscious desire, became the motivation for my investigation into the figural formations of desire throughout the most surrealist works of Bunuel."
Over the last two decades, Williams' scholarly interests have shifted from literature to film, and from high modernist, avant garde movements such as Surrealism to the lowest forms of popular culture: pornography, horror and melodrama.
The common thread that weaves throughout Williams' topics of interest is the role of the body as the fundamental spectacle and ultimate source of appeal of all moving pictures.
"We understand very little about why and towards what end these moving pictures affect us," she said. "How should we go about addressing the brute, but remarkably little discussed fact of our bodies' vulnerability to the moving bodies on the screen? And what is the role of gender, sexuality and race in this vulnerability?"
During the '80s, Williams extended her initial interest in the body and the visceral shock of Surrealist images into the "low body genres" of horror, pornography and melodrama.
"Unlike Surrealism, these genres have been dismissed by cultural critics as excessive, mindless and gratuitous. Nonetheless, they are a physically moving, crudely disturbing veneer of civilization," said Williams. "I realized they were greatly neglected in academic work. And I thought we were taking something really obvious for granted: the representation of sexuality and pathos and fear in visual terms."
In a series of feminist essays on horror films and melodramatic women's films, Williams attempted to better understand the function of fear in horror and of tears in melodrama.
"My work was fueled by an early feminist response to the misogyny of horror films-it was (Alfred) Hitchcock who once said that if you want to make a scary film, torture a woman-and the excess of emotion of melodrama-make a woman cry. I soon began to see a greater complexity in the gender roles played out in both," Williams said.
Pornography posed to Williams a kind of test case of the most excessive and mindless use of, and appeal to, the body in cinema.
"We haven't come to grips with how pornography moves us," said Williams. Watching a stag movie with a bunch of men versus watching pornography alone in a theater poses certain questions, she said.
"Discovering a diverse genre as subject to social pressures for change as any other, and one whose goal of representing the bodily pleasures of sex was endlessly fascinating, I employed Marxist, psychoanalytic and Foucaultian theory to better understand this particular example of 20th century 'scientia sexualis.'"
So how does a respected scholar, with a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Colorado and numerous fellowships under her belt, pursue such maligned subject matter?
"If you bring a certain seriousness to it, and not reproduce the shock in your work," she said, "you can get away with it."
Williams, who taught film and rhetoric at UC Irvine before coming to Berkeley, said she is delighted to be back where it all started for her.
"Berkeley, and the Bay Area in general, is a great place to be if you're a student of film. We have all these terrific film festivals and
theaters that run independent films. And of course, there's the Pacific Film Archive," said Williams.
"I'm teaching a course on Luis Bunuel this spring. PFA probably has one-third of his films."
She added: "Physically, Berkeley hasn't changed that much. The exuberance of this place is still here. You can go home after all."