Sunday, December 7, 2008

Warning: Art, Sex, Violence (and jumbled thoughts)

I had just spent a good part of an hour poking around Netflix to find some movies to put in my queue. Vague thoughts about the sheer volume of violent films I've watched over the years wafted in and out of my mind. When I finished, I checked in at Bittergrace Notes, where I read Maria Browning's latest entry, on the play "Black Watch".

A word of caution (or an excuse, perhaps): My thoughts are muddled tonight. I am wary of writing, yet the urge is there, and noone is paying me to do a good job, so I shall proceed. . .

Some years ago, I took the 6:00am bus from Bangor, Maine to New York City. This particular bus line shows movies and serves snacks. The movies are usually comedies or Christmas films if it's the season. It's family fare. I don't recall many of the names of films I've seen on this trip, but suffice it to say, there's usually something with Adam Sandler in it. You get the idea.

On this snowy morning, I boarded the bus and immediately fell asleep. Upon awakening, I looked up at the movie screen and saw a rape taking place. It was 9:00am and we were watching "Rob Roy". Here is some of what Amazon's "essential film" review and synopsis says of this film: ". . .the intelligently scripted story takes place in Scotland in 1713. . .a tale of courage and valor destined to become an enduring movie classic." There is nothing to warn us, here (or on any other movie site), of the rape that we will witness.

The protracted rape scene was as beautiful, in my memory, as the rest of the film. How many beautifully choreographed rapes have I seen on television and in films? Too many to recount. I'm not going to mince words: most of us enjoy watching. Not because we like rape and murder, but because this is entertainment. The bad guys are killed, caught or punished, and so, we can feel okay about whatever enjoyment we derived from watching.

One movie stands out as an exception: Boys Don't Cry. The rape scene in this film is gut wrenching and painful to watch, as it should be. When I saw it in the theater, I could see people squirming in their seats. I have met more than one person who said that they did not want to subject themselves to this film or that they fast forwarded that scene when they watched it on DVD. If you haven't seen it, do so. Force yourself to look. Feel the pain and fear. See rape as it is - violence. We should be repulsed.

At the other extreme is the 1989 film version of Hubert Selby Jr's book"Last Exit to Brooklyn", where, if you read this New York Times review (along with every other review I just scanned) you'd be surprised to discover a slow-moving gang bang of the beautiful Jennifer Jason Leigh by a seemingly endless line of men in a vacant lot. As shocked as any viewer may be, I have heard from more than one person, and I will admit myself, to all the flak I may get, that there was something beautifully seductive about this scene of true horror.

Are we meant to feel guilt? I don't think so. When Pasolini's "Salo" (loosely based on DeSade's "120 Days of Sodom") was released, I remember, standing in the theater afterwards with some of my fellow (very young) art students. I felt queasy from watching this depiction of some of the most unthinkable acts of sadism. People were joking around, talking about how much they enjoyed the film, engaging in deconstructing it, completely unaware of what it's meaning might be, of Italian fascism, of Pasolini himself, of anything. It seemed cool to be able to watch this movie without flinching, as if the act of enjoying it was somehow a subversive act. What meaning does this have? That we are so numb to pain? Most of us were punks, and sado-masochistic themes were popular, but there is a chasm of difference between consensual sex play and enjoying rape, murder and torture, even if it is on film. There is pornography and then there is the pornographic.

We watch and read the news, see people beheaded, women shot in stadiums, watch endless shows about forensics. When we read or hear of Darfur, do we know that we are receiving information about reality? I think the answer to that is, perhaps, no.

We applaud films like Hotel Rwanda and Schindler's List, but when there was a Seinfeld episode about Jerry and his girlfriend making out while watching the latter, that was a brilliant piece of observation. Jerry's parents were shocked. But they shouldn't have been. It was just a movie. One of the film's subplots was the abusive sexual relationship of two characters (excuse me if I don't remember their names). It was something we should not have been able to watch, and instead it came off as something akin to an erotic S&M take on the relationship of Nazis and Jews.

Yes, I'm all over the map. I haven't seen "Black Watch". I probably won't. But when I think of all these beautiful men, as they undoubtedly all are, acting and dancing and singing, in spite of our right minds thinking of the horrors of war, we are again turning it into beautiful art.

I think of the boys (yes, boys) I've known up here in Maine who went to Iraq. They left this country with proud families and proud and strong hearts. They came back damaged beyond repair. They are not beautiful. Some of them cannot speak. Some of them do not want to speak. Their eyes are glazed. Their bodies are damaged. Their youth has been taken away. They have done and seen things that noone should have done or seen, and whether you think it was for nothing or for a good cause, it makes no difference. These boys I've known will not be dancing or attending plays. Many of them are just gone. If I were to write a play about them, I'd cast boys of all sizes and shapes, scrawny, brawny, short, tall, limbs missing, acne-scarred, bad haircuts, ill-fitting clothes, and set them on a sofa. There'd be little dialogue. Perhaps a television set would be on. Maybe CSI Miami would be on, and we'd see yet another beautiful woman who has been raped, tortured and murdered. The men who were once boys would not react, for hardly any of us do, and these fellows, a good many of them, are further numbed by prescription drugs, heroin and booze. This would not be a pleasurable play to watch. The conversation: "Pass me a brew, would ya?" "Get it yourself, you lazy douche." Someone might get it together to get up and go to the refrigerator or go take a leak. Maybe they'd watch a football game. It would be a pretty boring play. And it would, hopefully, be depressing. People might leave the theater. After all, we watch plays where dialogue is elevated, turned into art. Everyone is beautiful, or if they are not, they are charicatures of ugliness, beautiful people made into monsters. Reality is banal.

This ends with a whimper and not a bang. What can I say? I warned you that my thoughts were murky tonight. I feel strongly about these things. I'm not a journalist, nor an intellectual. I am unsure how to collect my thoughts. But maybe that's okay. I'm neither a film critic or an expert. I'm just a somewhat regular person who thinks a bit too much, and I have no conclusions to offer you.

So, that's it for tonight. I hope, at least, you'll think about these things. Maybe you'll have a conclusion or thought that I don't. In fact, I'm sure you will.

Painting Note: Artemisia Gentileschi (July 8, 1593 – 1651/1653) was an Italian Early Baroque painter, today considered one of the most accomplished painters in the generation influenced by Caravaggio. In an era when women painters were not easily accepted by the artistic community, she was the first female painter to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence.(Wikipedia)For an interesting analysis of this painting "Susanna and the Elders" (based on a biblical story), go here.

Addendum: All evening I have been racking my brain, trying to find the term for the type of art, such as that of Dennis Cooper, or David Lynch. I looked at these links, and others, to find the term. Is it merely subversive art? I think not. But I can not, for the life of me, conjure up what I know that I know. It is terribly frustrating. Please, someone, help me out here! And then, this discussion will grow. The topic of art, violence and sexuality is one I've been wrestling with for a long time. It's now on the table, but I'm missing a large piece of my vocabulary tonight.


jmcleod76 said...

An interesting topic, Julie.

I was just talking about this last week with some friends. My Partner had just watched the French film "Haute Tension," which is a particularly gory and gruesome suspense thriller. I didn't see it, but I'm told some of the scenes are horrific to watch. Anyway, she and another friend who'd also seen it were discussing how it caused them both nightmares and scarred their minds. This prompted me to relate that I've become more guarded with my mind of late.

When I was a kid - like between the ages of 12 and 15, I guess - I LOVED slasher films. I watched every horror pic they had on inventory at the little video shop down the street from my house ... Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers, Chucky, Leatherface, anything by Stephen King, things about demonic possession or the Antichrist (The Omen, The Exorcist, The Seventh Sign, etc.). I couldn't get enough. I thought it was all good fun. And, for the most part, that sort of thing is just good fun. It's so ridiculously fake and over the top that no one could mistake it for real life violence. I used to brag to my aunts and uncles that "nothing can shock me." I though it meant I had an old soul and that I was better equipped, mentally, than other, weaker, people. Really, I was just a dumb kid who, like most dumb kids, thought I was invincible and hadn't yet developed a true sense of empathy (though I would have argued that latter point, because I was a Christian and I thought I was kinder and more feeling than most people, though I was actually quite selfish and jaded).

Anyway, as I got older, something happened to me. I went from lapping up depictions of violence to flinching away from them. Suddenly, I no longer found the thought of senseless brutality amusing or ironic, no mater how unrealistically it was portrayed, and I started to find those kinds of movies difficult to watch. I think perhaps it came as I began to learn more about the world, and about war and genocide and rape and torture. Of course I knew about those things when I was a teenager, but only as abstractions. I hadn't exposed myself to true stories about the horrors that happen every day in the world, and I hadn't opened my heart to be broken by the tragedy of it all.

I don't avoid all violence in movies. Some depictions of violence are instructive, such as the example you gave of "Boys Don't Cry." There, it isn't entertainment ... the filmmakers are calling on the audience to bear witness. They're saying "Look. This is you. You are Bandon Teena, You are his killers. This is what we do, as human beings, to one another. Don't look away. Not this time. Own it. Take responsibility." I think that is an important facet of art, to serve as a mirror into our humanity, even the really ugly parts.

But the examples where is is true are too few and far between for my liking. Mostly, as you say, it's just entertainment, and I have moved away from the place in my life where I can find human suffering entertaining. If it's art - if it changes me and changes my perspective in some way, causes me to grow from having seen it - I can do it, but not just for cheap thrills. It's a fine line, admittedly, but my heart knows the difference.

Julie H. Rose said...

Thank you, Jaime, for your thoughtful comment.

At different periods in my life, my relationship towards "entertainment" has changed. I couldn't/wouldn't watch anything gratuitously violent for a long period. During this time, I did watch "Boys Don't Cry", along with other films I thought were important to see. I had no TV.

In the last few years, I've gone back to watching many murder mysteries, watching films like Tarantino's and a lot of Asian film that is truly horrific. What is the attraction. What am I getting from it?

There is so much here to examine. I appreciate hearing everyone's point of view.

Here we are, in the middle of a war, and it seems like the amount of violence on television has increased greatly. Yet, the news says little of the war every night, compared to what I remember of the coverage of Vietnam.

There's some correlation, I think, but I can't make the intellectual leap right now.

Maybe my physical pain is a factor. . .

You wrote "I no longer found the thought of senseless brutality amusing or ironic. . ."

I watched Pulp Fiction two or three times. There is not a lick of redeeming value in this movie. It's primary purpose, as far as I can ascertain, is to intentionally inure one to outrageous violence through comedy. And yet I enjoyed it, more than once. Part of me thinks it is truly immoral, not just amoral.

Perhaps I watch to wrestle with these things. Or perhaps I'm just ordinary and unthinking.

Please excuse my continued semi-coherence. I'm in quite a bit of pain and still am not quite awake at 12:37. . .

BitterGrace said...

I have a hundred contradictory responses to your great post, Julie. Here are a few:

In fairness to "Black Watch," I think its creators wanted to make it something more like the play you would have written. I get that sense from it, anyway. But things have a way of taking on established forms and attitudes. The creative birth canal tends to warp original ideas as the emerge.

I wish "Black Watch" had made me feel some measure of what I feel when I look at this photo from "The Nation" (brace yourself):

I don't know what I think about violence as entertainment. I'm a coward about it in some ways. I never saw "Boys Don't Cry," specifically because I could not bear the idea of the rape scene. At the same time, I'm fine with Lynch's films. I thought Peter Greenaway's "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" was a great movie, even though it contains some disgusting sadism.

What's the difference? I can't really say, except that I think it has something to do with my role as a viewer. Films, novels, etc, give their audiences specific jobs: "You're here to empathize," You're here to judge," "You're here to be an objective witness," etc. If the film asks me to empathize (as I assume is the case with "Boys Don't Cry"), and then tortures the object of my empathy, it's unbearable. Art movies like Greenaway's, on the other hand, really put you in your place as an observer, they keep you detached--hence, the violence is tolerable, even amusing.

Or not. I'm just talking off the top of my head here.

Anyway, again, great post. I wish I knew the term you're trying to think of, but I don't have a clue.

Julie H. Rose said...

The photo did not come up on my computer. But I read the article. I can imagine. War is brutal. What an understatement.

I have a million contradictory feelings about what I wrote, too. That's why it's only semi-coherent!

I couldn't watch the Greenaway movie you mention, and you couldn't watch Boys Don't Cry.

I was angered by Blue Velvet and had an urge to walk out of the theater.

I suspect we all have different buttons that get pushed. I find some sadomasochistic imagery to be quite alluring, and I suspect I feel angry when I feel manipulated to view something that portrays that as "sick", or to take pleasure, or distance myself from nonconsensual sadism, which is not acceptable to me.

I was writing off the top of my head, as usual, so I give you permission to do so, too!

I agree that art puts the viewer into different roles. I personally dislike feeling manipulated. I also have a viscerally bad response to most films in which I am being told to distance myself, and the more "hip" the film is, the more than bothers me.

And, my "play" would be boring. It might work as a performance piece.

I thought of Picasso's Guernica last night when I wrote the post. Do we feel any pain upon viewing it? Not at all. I didn't use that image, for I've used it before.

Thanks for commenting. I find this topic so rich, so fascinating - I want to hear everyone's take on it, whether it's a well thought out response or not (or you are always most coherent!)

Julie H. Rose said...

Excuse the typo: It was "AND you are always most coherent."

BitterGrace said...

I almost glad you couldn't see the photo, because I kinda regretted linking to it after I posted the comment. It's just an excruciating image. I've looked at it a dozen times and it always has the same effect.

The work of art that always comes to my mind whenever I discuss this topic is Titian's "The Flaying of Marsyas." It has everything going on for me--it's beautiful and sensual and sickening, all at once. I find it a very profound image, the world would be poorer without it, yet it borders on obscenity. At least, I think so. I think you can see it here:

Julie H. Rose said...

My first reaction was "that's a Titian?" Obviously, if I've seen it before, it didn't make a dent in my consciousness.

I'd like to see this in person. This laptop screen creates some distancing, as everything becomes rather iconic at near-postage stamp size.

Beautiful, sensual and sickening: sounds like some of Thierry Mugler's scents for his "Perfume: The Movie" collection.

I'm not trivializing by referring to perfume! In fact, now that I've mentioned it, I found the film Perfume to be beautiful, sensual and sickening. As it was meant to be. And here's one where I never thought "Why am I subjecting myself to this?" Hmmmm. This subject is beyond me.

On the other hand, it just occurred to me that this is life: beautiful, sensual and sickening. Just that.

Maybe art adds too much at times. We stroll along a forest path, walking upon dead things. . .

Phil Fox Rose said...

I think the term you might be fishing for is "transgressive." While the dictionary definition limits itself to a description, "involving a violation of accepted or imposed boundaries, esp. those of social acceptability", I've always understood transgressive art to be predicated on the belief that by demolishing those boundaries, we get at truth. Which I think is complete idiocy. What we get at is not truth, but a desensitization to reality (which is truth). While of course there is sometimes the need to challenge a social convention, I don't think transgressive art ever accomplishes this goal. For one thing, it is preaching to the choir. Mainstream society never sees it. For another, it rarely if ever has any constructive message. Unlike the referenced scene in Boys Don't Cry, or a disturbing war photo, transgressive art is usually designed simply to horrify you (or dare you not to be horrified, as you accurately describe.) It's purpose is to destroy. It is, to use the word, evil.

The other thing you talk about is casual inclusion of disturbing scenes for the entertainment value. This is a big complaint of mine. Whether on TV news or in mainstream films, it's nothing but base titillation. It's included for no reason other than excitement. And even when there is a reason for a scene of violence in a movie, I have noticed over the past decade an increasing level of brutality and, as you say, casual inclusion of this material. I blame Pulp Fiction and Wild At Heart and their ilk for some of the desensitizing, and the moral-less commercial targeting of teen boys for some of the inclusion.

But as I see it, the unnecessary graphic brutality is related to the cynical mockumentary and fake news phenomenon. The whole trend says, Don't believe anyone. Make fun of everything. Assume the worst of people. Desensitize yourself in advance. That way you can't be hurt. It's kind of the opposite of my philosophy for life. (Ironic, considering, as you know, that I edited a film by one of the transgressive film genre's founders, Nick Zedd.)

Julie H. Rose said...

Yes indeed. Transgressive was the word I was looking for.

I know Lynch's point was once to expose the dark underbelly of everything.

If I take your point, that the purpose of transgressive art is to expose this "truth", then I too disagree with its premise.

There is a reason to expose what we don't want to see, but we're not all serial killers at core. I don't believe that. No.

Oh, btw, folks, this is my evil twin, P.F.Rose. Just kidding ;-)