|FILM: TRANSGRESSIVE CINEMA|
Kaleem Aftab and Ian Stewart argue that
film has a lot to tell us about current attitudes to transgression in art
Transgression has been a hot topic since the recent publication of Anthony Julius’s book Transgressions: The Offences of Art. Julius provides a useful taxonomy of transgressive art, breaking it down into three categories: ‘an art that breaks art’s own rules, an art of taboo-breaking, a politically resistant art.’ Interestingly, his analysis of taboo-breaking leads to the conclusion that we have reached the end of transgressive art, on the grounds that it is now unrewarding for artists to violate taboos since all taboos have all already been violated.
However, when we look at transgression in relation to film the conclusions are quite different. Even if the traditional transgressive areas of sex and violence are less relevant today, they still provide an outline for a critique of Julius’s thesis; no more so than in the realm of the arthouse film intended for wide release, where cinema uses transgressive material as an accessory to an artistic agenda.
It seems that every new French film is
either by a senescent New Waver or a trainee pornographer, that is if you
believe the movie posters, each emblazoned with the same tag: ‘The most
controversial film of the year!’ And it’s not only French film: sex is in
vogue the world over. And despite some sensationalist press coverage,
arthouse cinemas aren’t suddenly full of furtive old men in trenchcoats.
When European obscenity laws were liberalised in the late sixties and early seventies, countless auteurs wanted to push the boundaries off the map, with decidedly varying motives. Some bordered on pure prurience. Walerian Borowczyk was one of the world’s foremost avant-garde animators in the sixties; in 1977 he directed Emmanuelle ’77 and Behind Convent Walls. Others, however, mined gold in this new territory, or at least staked a claim to their own swath of ground. Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972) and Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses may be the best known taboo-busting films of the period, finding something worthwhile in the anonymous or obsessive character of the overexposed relationships of their protagonists. But there are other forgotten gems to unearth.
In Claude Chabrol’s La Rupture (1970), pornography becomes a brainwashing device, which makes for interesting parallels with Kubrick’s infinitely less restrained A Clockwork Orange (1971). Dusan Makavejev, central to the Yugoslavian Black Wave, was one of cinema’s true anarchists, and his WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) is an insane blend of faux Communist propaganda and documentary footage of Wilhelm Reich’s Orgone Accumulator boxes, designed to capture libidinal Orgone energy. There are dozens of other auteurs who dabbled in the sexplicit in the seventies, from Godard (Numéro Deux) to Pasolini (Salo) to Miklos Jancso (Private Vices and Public Virtues), and some, like Jean Rollin and Radley Metzger, made their careers blending soft-focus erotica with quasi-artistic agendas.
In 1980 it all stopped. The last semi-serious (to be generous) attempt before the mid-nineties was Tinto Brass’s Caligula (1980), a misguided big-budget epic produced by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, with Fellini’s production designer, a Gore Vidal script, and the crème of English thespianism. It was a mammoth aesthetic and commercial failure, but the hardcore art film had gone mainstream. At the dawn of the home-video age, pornography was easy to find, and screen sex was no longer radical. Arthouse sex died out quickly.
It has recently been resurrected with a vengeance. Again, many of the films have a French connection. The seventies films seemed mainly concerned with obsession and the intersection of power and sexual relations. Now that Foucault has been digested, this connection is no revelation. In the past five years, films have been concerned with new definitions of sexuality, and defusing the erotic charge. While our inboxes fill up with junkmail images of skanky model shoots, these films are a kind of antidote: it’s anti-pornography, but not of the Andrea Dworkin variety. Lars von Trier’s The Idiots (1998) features an orgy of people pretending dementia; Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy (2001) refuses the airbrush and presents sex with carpet burn; Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) is literally auto-eroticism, where sexuality and the machine are welded together, Virilio’s speed fetish sexualised; Catherine Breillat’s Romance (1999) is a woman’s quest for sexual fulfilment directed with the froideur of Bresson; and Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001) presents sexuality in the non-erotic context of self-mutilation. Bertrand Bonello’s The Pornographer (2001) sums up the state of affairs: a philosophical pornographer, who felt his métier was a subversive political force in the seventies, grows weary of making films de cul on discovering his artistic goals are now at odds with the demands of the genre.
If films like Crash are now exploring entirely new sexual profiles, images certainly haven’t become more explicit. Makavejev’s Sweet Movie (1974) might be more shocking than any recent film, with scenes of seduction of children and documentary footage of a primitivist commune orgy involving every possible bodily excretion. And if Crash proposes a new configuration of sexuality, its transgressive character pales beside Sweet Movie or Borowczyk’s bestiality/power allegory La Bête (1975). If there is something sexually transgressive in recent film, it’s at sexuality’s intersection with violence.
Violence has been a bedfellow of film for a century, ever since Edwin S Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903), in which a bandit fires an arrow directly at the camera. Up until the sixties, violence was used only to highlight the battle between good and bad. Violence was sanitised and bullets left no mark. In the late sixties and early seventies, directors like Arthur Penn in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange began to explore the motivation behind violent action. In doing so, they also upped the ante by making violence bloody. They asked whether an individual could be morally justified in violently breaking the law. Criticism focused on the use of violence as part of screen entertainment and not the underlying ethics of violence. The visual presentation of violence was deemed transgressive even though the films contained an analysis of picaresque behaviour reflecting the legal structure of society and the liberal capitalist fabric.
By placing the audience on the side of the victim, these films ultimately adhered to the philosophy that violence against the individual was wrong. Audiences were challenged more by the visual images themselves than by any underlying ethical context. The images proved so powerful that they were endlessly regurgitated by Hollywood, and in the eighties violence became a marketing plus for films like Rambo and Terminator. Violence itself seemed to lose its ability to offend.
In the nineties, the response from auteurs wishing to use violence in a challenging way has been twofold: they have combined it with an element that is psychologically more abhorrent than the visual, or they have subverted the dominant uses of violence. The investigation of violence in pursuit of the picaresque has been replaced by the abject picaresque, a term coined by Tony McKibbin to describe actions done for their own sake rather than in pursuit of a discernable material goal. In the abject picaresque the motivation for violence is harder to locate, and because of this the auteur must place more emphasis on the psyche of the aggressor. Alan Clarke’s Scum (1977) is a precursor, but recently films have taken the additional step of asking the audience to sympathise with the most repugnant of characters.
In Gaspar Noé’s Seul Contre Tous (1998), a butcher despairs at the failure of the picaresque, leading to a response in which the psychoanalytical level of abjection goes beyond Freud’s death drive. With a voiceover barrage of the butcher’s thoughts, Noé tries to draw us into an empathic relationship with the character and his final resolution to violence. At the same time as Noé, the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta (1999), in which the only violence is psychological, arrived at a similar conclusion about humanity’s willingness to commit harm.
The other means by which screen violence has challenged orthodoxy is through the subversion of popcorn violence. Films like Rémy Belvaux’s Man Bites Dog (1993), Michael Haneke’s decidedly unfunny Funny Games (1998), and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994) satirise the use of violence as a source of entertainment and explore the limits of its social acceptance.
Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike is the master of the violent transgressive and his films often weave between the popcorn subversive and abject picaresque strands to produce a message that transcends the Manga-inspired violence of his films. Dead or Alive (1999) starts with an explosive five minutes of hedonistic violence before ending by highlighting the violent relationship between man and beast. Both strands are also present in Mathieu Kassovitz’s Assassin(s), 1997.
Kassovitz cleverly exploits our acceptance of screen violence using Darwin’s notion of survival of the fittest. He contextualises the most heinous scenes of violence in the film by playing them out in front of a nature documentary and popular adverts that adhere to Darwinian theory.
In isolated instances, extreme violence alone still has the power to shock. Virtually no one can comfortably watch the scene in Noé’s latest, Irréversible (2002), where a man furiously and repeatedly rams a fire extinguisher into the head of his victim. Old-fashioned visual transgression is rare, but it’s not dead yet.
The combination of both sex and violence, however, is another matter altogether. Sexual violence now has a transgressive impact, far more so than conventional violence. For this reason, seventies films like A Clockwork Orange and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) seem the most transgressive of their time. Straw Dogs remains an extremely challenging film because, during the rape sequence, it is suggested the woman might be enjoying the experience. A similar challenge is presented by Virginie Despentes’ recent Baise-Moi (2000), in which a woman about to be raped cries out ‘Kiss me!’; although the film admits an obvious feminist reading that would be difficult with Straw Dogs.
Today, The British Board of Film Classification will generally pass uncut scenes of simulated sex (although the eleven-second unsimulated ‘money shot’ in The Pornographer was snipped), but scenes with graphic sexual violence are rarely considered acceptable. A scene depicting the rape of an adolescent was cut from the UK video release of Breillat’s A Ma Soeur (2001), substantially changing the film’s meaning. Miike’s brutal and extreme slice of Japanese trash Ichi the Killer (2001), which displays violence most would never imagine possible, was also substantially cut because of scenes in which characters appear to enjoy committing acts of sexual violence. Surprisingly, the most controversial recent film, Irréversible, was passed uncut for UK cinematic exhibition, and the BBFC should be praised for respecting the necessity of the nearly unwatchable nine-minute rape sequence.
Irréversible draws intricate parallels between the petty violences we commit every day in social relationships, and the dynamics of real violence. By interrogating our everyday behaviour, Noé distributes blame to all of us for violence, and forces us to question all of our actions, even the seemingly innocuous. Without demonstrating the horror of actual rape, the argument would lose its force. Irréversible certainly feels transgressive, and not only because of the extreme imagery. The amoral context of the sexual violence, with its unpunished perpetrator, makes it far more problematic than the straightforward moral condemnation of rape in the Hollywood movie The Accused (1988).
Attitudes to portrayals of sexual violence have changed markedly since the seventies and not in the way you might expect: its depiction has now become less acceptable. In Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1972), the main character, played by Clint himself, rides into town and rapes a woman who goads him. At the time, no one batted an eyelid, but now, the suggestion that a woman could deserve to be raped would be more than controversial, and certainly far more contentious than the bloody shoot-out in Bonnie and Clyde that caused scandal in 1967.
And this is the crux: the very definition of transgression depends on dominant societal attitudes. As our culture metamorphoses, the boundaries shift, and transgression’s meaning changes. If sex or violence alone are now acceptable except in the most extreme cases (and films like Romance or Léos Carax’s Pola X (1999) would never have escaped censorship 20 years ago), films that offend our idea of social correctness have the ability to seem markedly transgressive. In general (although there are still some exceptions), it is no longer the content of the image that shocks, it’s the context. It’s telling that, outside America, the most controversial part of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) was not the sex in the ritual orgy sequence, but the fact that a sacred Hindu text was used in the music accompanying the scene. Sixty years ago, when India was under colonial rule, this likely would not have raised an eyebrow in the UK. Similarly, The Idiots is one of the most transgressive films from the past few years, not because of the explicit sexual imagery, but because it takes what could be seen as a wildly insensitive view of mental disability.
The point is that in our era of social sensitivity and multiculturalism, transgression need not follow the traditional forms of sex and violence. In his book, Julius situates transgression as part of a linear historical narrative, as though walls have been progressively collapsing and, now that the roof has caved in, we have reached the limit of transgressive possibility. But the walls haven’t fallen at all: they’ve only moved around a bit. Transgression isn’t dead, it’s changed. And it’s still a vital force in cinema.
Kaleem Aftab is a freelance writer based in London and is currently editing Spike Lee on Spike Lee for Faber and Faber. Ian Stewart is the Film Editor for contemporary