The voyeur inside me.

14 June, 2010

I more or less lost interest in this blog — although I keep getting e-mails about my pan of The Hangover, which is quite nice — but the resurgence of the issue of violence — particularly violence against women — in cinema has drawn me back to the Kingdom of Doom, and I feel like I need to get my feelings on the matter off my chest.

Michael Winterbottom has a new film out called The Killer Inside Me, based on a book by Jim Thompson which I’m in the middle of reading. It’s already out in the UK and it’s due out in the US very soon. Like Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, it’s gotten the press all hot and bothered over the issue of whether or not extreme violence in art is ever justified, especially when women are involved. This article in The Guardian, and particularly the typically uninformed comments, got my mind racing about the subject, which is why I’m here now.

So here’s the thing:

The contentious scene in the film occurs in the first few pages of the book. It’s a horrible, grotesque scene to read, and I imagine it will be even worse when I eventually sit down to watch it. However, at no point while imagining this misogynist act of violence take place did I think to myself, “Why isn’t that delightful?” I reacted the way Thompson expected me to react: With horror and disgust. Winterbottom is saying the same thing in interviews, that extreme violence should be horrific and disgusting in art because that’s the whole point. Violence isn’t cute or fun, it’s ugly. Just like when Gaspar Noé made Irreversible and argued that watching Monica Bellucci be brutally raped for 9 minutes was justified because we need to be aware of just how horrible rape really is.

“Well, duh,” I can hear you saying. “I know violence against women is bad. Why else would a filmmaker relish in it unless he wanted us to enjoy it? We don’t need to be reminded.” Fair point, but I disagree.

As Dr. Kermode points out in the Guardian piece, very few people expressed their outrage last year over a scene in Crank 2 in which a woman’s breasts are shot off. Like the rest of the film, this moment was played for cheap laughs. They wanted you to enjoy it. Given Hollywood’s casual attitude towards violence in general, it’s easy to take for granted just how ugly and unpleasant it really is unless you’ve actually witnessed or experienced it yourself.

All moviegoers are voyeurs. This is something we’ve been aware of since Michael Powell put us behind the lens of a killer in Peeping Tom. The question is whether or not we are taking pleasure from our voyeurism. Well, it depends. This question can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. Contrary to popular belief, every single film you’ve ever seen — be it A Steven Spielberg Film or Un Film De Michael Haneke — is a piece of entertainment. If you’re being engaged by a work of art, it doesn’t matter if it’s low-brow or high-brow, scatological or intellectual…you are still being entertained.

The differences come within the standards of the particular artworks. I think Die Hard is a massively entertaining action movie, but I also think Raging Bull is a deeply affecting character study that entertains me for completely different reasons. I’m not having fun when Jake LaMotta is slamming his body against the concrete wall of a prison cell, but if I wasn’t being entertained by the scene on some level, I wouldn’t be in floods of tears by the end of it.

Works like The Killer Inside Me or Irreversible — films that seek emotional honesty from the anti-social acts they portray — are not the problem. Films like Transformers, where the female characters are only there for the purposes of non-ironic titillation, are the problem. For all the articles written about the character of Hit-Girl in the massively overrated Kick-Ass, I didn’t see one person complain about the fact that the love interest was nothing but a walking plot convenience and masturbation fodder for nerds. Finally, do we still need to see slasher movie after slasher movie in which Maxim models engage in gratuitous sex scenes only to be casually slaughtered a few frames later? What makes any of these films any less offensive to women?

Answer: They don’t hold the voyeur accountable.

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