Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Profound Sex and Violence

Years ago, I saw this interview with Ned Beatty about his career and acting in general that totally blew me away. He started talking about his infamous “Squeal like a pig” scene. He says that when there are only two characters on the screen in a violent scene, you are either relating to the aggressor or the victim. He has received a lot of fan letters from women complimenting him on his bravery acting in that sequence – women who definitely related to the role of the victim. He then said that most men don’t talk to him about the scene except to quote the “squeal like a pig” line – essentially showing that they are relating to the aggressor.

I always remember this when I see really visceral content in films, and I try to ask myself “Who am I relating to here?”

More often than not, I find myself not relating to anyone. The clearest example of this in my life was the scene in Pulp Fiction where Ving Rhames is getting aggressively sexually assaulted up the wazoo.

It is a pretty graphic sequence and my very first thought when I saw that was, “I wonder how they pulled that off.” The follow up thoughts were contemplations of camera angles and blocking and other technical details culminating in the voice of my conscious going, “The dude is GETTING RAPED and you’re getting technical. Where is your humanity, man?”

So that’s my defense in situations of extreme content: I remind myself it isn’t real.

This approach is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it makes it so I can sit through practically anything and discuss it at length afterwards. On the other hand, it makes it practically impossible for me to watch anything with my wife. I mention how symbolic, lovely, and haunting a film like The Pillow Book is, but then have to follow it up with, “But a dude’s corpse gets skinned, though.”


It always amazes me what sticks with people about movies and what doesn’t. For example, Kill Bill is a film that features a comatose woman getting gang raped. And whenever people say, “I like Kill Bill,” what I hear is, “I like watching comatose women getting gang raped.” But when I talk to people about the film, almost to a person everyone seems to forget the-gang-rape-of-the-woman-in-a-coma happened, and instead choose to remember the nicer, happier parts where dozens of people get beheaded and children get to watch their parents brutally die.

End Digression

When I hear about the extreme content of a film, I usually dismiss it as a marketing ploy, because the far end of the bell curve is the only thing that gets reported in our short-cut, bottom-line media. What do I know about the movie Irreversible? It has a 12-minute rape sequence in it. Do I know anything else about the plot, director, or cinematographer? No. The news attention zeroed in on the one sequence in the film, and not the 90 to 100 minutes that surround it. Was it a good film? Since I haven’t heard anything about it since the initial release, the chances are no.

And that is the only way to avoid unnecessarily wasting time on something that is definitely not worth it. Wait until you hear or read if it will be worth your time. And then wait for your wife to be out of town on business to watch the movies.

Which gets to the point of this blog entry –

I recently saw a double feature of Where the Truth Lies and Oldboy. Both films have very extreme content, sexually explicit and viscerally violent, and both films have sparked a lot of discussion since their initial release. Both merit discussing, although neither of them is in a category where I would recommend them. But I like some of the ideas in them, so I’ll write about them and you can discuss the films at parties without having to sit through them.

It was a happy coincidence I watched these as a double-feature, because both films share a central climax/twist. A protagonist is tricked into behaving like the antagonist right before the protagonist is given permission to render judgment on the antagonist. In one film, right before the main character discovers another character has had a homosexual relationship, the main character is tricked into a homosexual one night stand. In the other film, the same scenario happens except this time it is incest instead of homosexuality.

Setting aside the fact that both of these films rely on the myth of “accidental sex” happening (forced sex happens and seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time-but-only-now-do-I-realize-I-am-a-complete-idiot sex happens, but “accidental sex” – no way – it is a lie we tell ourselves akin to “accidental legislation”), both of the films are insistent that if someone, anyone, was in the same situation, he or she would make the same decision.

In essence, the villains of both these movies want you to know, “You are no better than I am. You have no right to judge me.”

Good drama is about self-discovery. And when essentially good people realize that they are capable of evil, it can be transcendent tragedy. Think of Good King Oedipus, who, when all is said and done, has no one to blame but himself.

And this is the flaw in both these films. The protagonist’s journey of self discovery is coupled with a grinning villain overseeing the downfall, and that kind of small minded gloating detracts from the personal struggle. What makes a tragedy like Oedipus transcendent is that there is no boogie man. The story doesn’t end with Creon lording over a sightless Oedipus, laughing at him with a, “You thought me sleeping with my sister was bad. But, dude… you slept with your mom!”

When this happens, the dramatic struggle moves from an inner one to an external one, and one that is easier to dismiss. Internal struggles are easier to internalize and reach the audience on a deeper level, while external struggles are easier to dismiss.

When extreme content is brought into a film, it distances the audience from the action. To be relating totally to a person getting tortured would be too much. To be distanced from it is the only way to get through the experience. So if a film does contain extreme content, it needs to have something intellectual or symbolic going on or it will be dismissed as sensationalistic garbage. Peter Greenway films always have some strange bit of extreme content in them, but the subtext is the stuff of doctorial theses. And even mainstream films can deal with sex and violence in a challenging, thoughtful way (look no further than A History of Violence).

Vladmir Nobokov once wrote that the truth is inherently distasteful, and people will always hate it. So when his works focuses on taboo subjects (i.e. the pedophilia in ‘Lolita’), he couples the extreme content with deep insights about human nature and lyrical prose. It is an amazing and difficult hat trick that he pulls off.

I say difficult because so many artists have taken the cheap and easy route of
"extreme content = profound truth". This is not the case. Extreme content coupled with profound truth can lead to some truly great artwork, but extreme content on its own quickly falls into bland sensationalism. In fact, extreme content coupled with moderately interesting intellectual ponderings results in a mish-mash of mediocre.

Which is ultimately why I don’t recommend either Oldboy or Where the Truth Lies. The extreme content distracts from the story and distances audience members. Once the audience is clinical and distanced from the content, there isn’t that much to think about or analyze. Ultimately, all that is left about these films that set them apart from everything else is the sex and the violence. Not the plot, not the characters, just the sensationalism of it all.

Bottom line: You don’t go into a film like Oldboy to see a person’s story of self discovery; you go because there is a scene where a dude cuts off his own tongue. (Note: If you are ever talking to me about how much you like Oldboy, what I will hear is, “I like watching dudes cut out their own tongues.”)

I enjoy challenging cinema. I enjoy profound cinema. Sadly, these pieces of extreme content weren’t challenging or profound enough for me.

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