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.