2011: UNIVERSAL SNUFF FILM
In 2011, there was an earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and a historic drought and famine in Somalia. The US government successfully assassinated one of its own citizens, while a US citizen barely failed to assassinate a member of the US government. There was a Civil War in Libya that killed 30,000 people. And as for me, I realized that I really appreciate movies where people get beaten, sliced open, amputated, shot, and just generally hurt physically in as many ways possible.
The sheer variety and determinedness of violence onscreen this year was overwhelming. Surgically forced ass-to-mouth went meta in The Human Centipede 2; I Saw the Devil showed us cannibalism so real you could taste it; and A Serbian Film took an English-language-learner’s misinterpretation of the term “torture porn” to its most literal conclusion. Even outside of the gushing stigmata of this Holy Fuck Trinity, 2011’s screens were soaked straight through. Across genres, there were moments of filmic violence that audiences won’t easily forget, from Ellen Page’s head blown in half in a comedy (Super) to weird rape/homicide/forced-tattooing in an indie love story (Bellflower).
2011 seemed more consistently punctuated by video of real-life tragedy, violence, and human suffering from around the world than any year before it.
In some ways, these films reflected the year’s real-life brutality. Of course, there’s no direct link between what’s onscreen and what’s real life, as the always-sage US Supreme Court recently decided when they ruled that shooting hookers so you don’t have to pay them in Grand Theft Auto is — just like political donations from multinational corporations — protected as free speech by the First Amendment. But still, 2011 seemed more consistently punctuated by video of real-life tragedy, violence, and human suffering from around the world than any year before it. The same year we all saw Lieutenant John Pike casually spray chemical weapons point blank down the throats of peaceful students, we also all watched — with Cannes’ trés importante approval — Ryan Gosling squash somebody’s skull like a rotten pumpkin just moments after a dreamy first kiss with Carey Mulligan in Drive.
I’m not sure this is a complete coincidence.
Maybe it’s because I’m still a noob, but given how this year’s filmic gore ripped the beating heart right out of the zeitgeist, my appreciation of it is a little self-conscious. Am I a horrible person for being buoyed by the sight of 13 samurai butchering an entire army in Japan’s 13 Assassins, while avoiding the pummeling of news reports about the country’s earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown? Am I going to be banned from living near public parks for seeing deeply artistic intent in A Serbian Film’s scenes of sexual infanticide, from a country barely 15 years out of its genocide?
Or maybe I’m just shy about being so late to such an awesome party. Either way, I hope you won’t have to close your eyes too many times as I try to figure it out.
CASUALLY PEPPER SPRAY EVERYTHING
My past avoidance of filmic bloodbaths had more to do with boredom than puritanical squeamishness. Some of the very first films I fell in love with were extremely sadistic, but only emotionally. Lars von Trier, Todd Solondz, Darren Aronofsky, Ingmar Bergman, romantic comedies, Pixar’s entire catalogue (just kidding, I can’t even joke about that level of pain) — their palette of emotional devastation seemed as endlessly unpredictable as the human mind itself. But physical violence on screen, I thought, was always the same: impact, incision, blood, death — in that order.
That all changed this year, and while I’m not sure exactly which knife wound or roundhouse won me over, I do know who I have to thank for making me realize that I had come to appreciate representations of violence: the now-legendary defender of UC campus lawns, Lieutenant John Pike.
The famous video of Mr. Pike shooting a chemical weapon at point blank range into eyes and down the throats of peaceful UC Davis students was the most emotionally distressing piece of film I watched all year — and this was the year I saw Charlotte Gainsbourg “circumcise” herself with a knife in Antichrist. I replayed the UC Davis video a few times every hour for a full day, shaking. Yet compared to this year’s other documentary violence, John Pike’s moment of fame was mild. There wasn’t any blood. Nobody died. How could this small scene wreck me more than imagery from disasters that kills tens of thousands?
Like our legal system and our film ratings boards, we tend to group violence categorically according to its function: self-defense, domestic abuse, bar fight, war, excessive force, rape, homicide. Abstractly, I could construct various hierarchies out of these or other categorical blocks; in a pyramid of ethics, for example, “self-defense” would be at the “least-serious” base. Similar hierarchies were built (and frantically rebuilt) by the Bush administration to categorize specific violent acts within the functional category of “torture,” based on the intensity of the physical pain they caused.
Hopelessly alone and clownishly out of place, Pike and his spray can were devoured by an endless tide of cultural images that were, themselves, unaffected by his violence.
These categorizations are pretty useful for censorship boards and intelligence agencies, but they’re of little concern to anyone experiencing physical pain. Likewise, they’re lousy maps for navigating representations of pain and violence. Pike’s bored casualness, the shaky framing of the scene through the hand-held camera of a fellow student bearing witness to his colleagues’ pain — the details that got to me were only loosely connected to the intensity of the pain the students must have felt.
Tellingly, a change in those very details provided an antidote of sorts, as almost instantly, Pike spawned a meme. Through the efforts of countless people with computers and too much spare time, Lieutenant Pike was cut-and-pasted from the site of his crime and inserted mid-spray into the images that comprise our collective memory. From Kanye West hijacking the Grammys to Georges Seurat’s most famous example of pointillism, Pike futilely pepper-sprayed everything except UC Davis students. Hopelessly alone and clownishly out of place, Pike and his spray can were devoured by an endless tide of cultural images that were, themselves, unaffected by his violence. Somehow, the change in the original’s aesthetics felt like a victory over the act it depicted.
I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that a cop with a moustache taught me the importance of aesthetics in representations of violence. But as I LOL’d at the Casually Pepper Spray meme, I realized something else: for all our concern about the ethics of watching violence onscreen, these representations of violence might be even better suited to heal than to incite.
Like real-life violence, we deal with its filmic counterpart through categorization and hierarchies. Even critics who defend filmic gore slice its aesthetics into stylization (Kill Bill) and realism (presumably, Drive), with differing ethical implications stapled to each. I understand the idea, but these distinctions seem insufficient, especially for this year’s films, many of which shoved simple ethics and aesthetic conventions through a meat grinder. While the resulting jumble was tough to make sense of, it was still a gift for movie-goers, a qualitative smörgåsbord of fresh entrails, severed fingers, pulled teeth, and other food for thought. Here are some of my tasting notes from 2011’s selection.
Ellen Page’s Head and the Clit as ellipses
In Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2010, I know — I told you I was late to the filmic violence party), a crazed Charlotte Gainsbourg cuts her clitoris off out of hatred for her own sex. We see it all, centered on the screen. In Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In, a man undergoes a forced vaginoplasty. We don’t see the operation, and when the recovering patient lifts his gown up in front of a mirror to see his new organs (or new lack of them, depending on his perspective), he is interrupted before we get a peek. Weirdly, each scene’s impact on me was about the same. In filmic violence, omission and representation aren’t so dissimilar.
I understand omission as a narrative technique, but this year’s violence helped me to better understand its opposite. In real life, trauma occurs when we’re unable to integrate something into our narrative memory because it’s too bizarre, painful, or unfamiliar. Most victims can’t narrate their traumatic incident; they either relive it in the telling or omit it altogether. That famous scene in Antichrist exists, for me, like the former, outside of the rest of the film’s narrative framework, as if my mind were traumatically unable to merge the two. Remembering it, I relive my experience of seeing it.
Yet when Ellen Page’s head gets blown apart in Super, the effect is much the same. I remember the scene so clearly, as if it were a still photo in a frame, a perpetual pause in the film’s narrative. But how can an exploding head have that effect on me? Unlike clitoridectomies, exploding heads onscreen are familiar, not traumatic; I watch them all the time, and I know how to process them. So why does the scene stand out? Do I subconsciously associate Ellen Page’s admittedly small head with a clit?
By deconstructing our generic expectations, these films allowed us to see violence anew and forced us to figure out what to do with it.
Nah. It’s just that stylistically, Super has none of Antichrist’s carefully constructed mise-en-scène of dread. There are, unfortunately, no rotting fox corpses shouting “CHAOS REIGNS.” All Super’s aesthetic clues tell us that it’s a straightforward indie dramedy, a genre that doesn’t accommodate intense graphic violence.
Unlike life, whose mise-en-scène never expects violence, film usually prepares us for the worst through a benevolent toolkit of generic conventions, whether spooky music, thunderstorms, or the presence of Udo Kier. But in 2011, that didn’t always happen, as multiple films jumbled or ditched generic conventions. Bellflower switched without warning from indie romance to massacre, while Drive isolated violence (and car chases) from the filmic momentum and kineticism we’ve come to expect will accompany it.
If shot in a more typically Hollywood style, Ryan Gosling’s elevator head-smashing scene in Drive would be an unmemorable plot development. But without the familiar filmic conventions that help us to categorize, ascribe meaning to, and file away violence as “preemptive self-defense,” “obligatory gun fight,” or another function, the act exists on its own aesthetic and ethical terms, cautioning us against easy interpretation. By deconstructing our generic expectations, these films allowed us to see violence anew and forced us to figure out what to do with it.
Sex and violence seem to come together as often as Sting and his wife, and like that couple, thinking about them together usually makes me uncomfortable. I like them both on their own, and even together when sex takes the lead. But when Violence is the Dom and sex is the sub, I usually don’t want to play anymore.
2011 stuffed its violence completely airtight with sex of all kinds. Particularly uncomfortable was TMT favorite I Saw the Devil, in which the villain isn’t just a serial killer and an occasional cannibal; he’s also a rapist who gets off on fucking schoolgirls (and anyone else) while they’re terrified, rightly, that he’s going to kill them. Even when he isn’t in rape mode, sex is still a major factor in his selection, which is overwhelmingly female.
After watching an infant raped immediately after its birth by the man who cut its umbilical cord, the violence and pain of the world I inhabited seemed wholly manageable, and the innocence of my own world felt more valuable.
This put me in an unfamiliar situation: I was dismayed every time I saw a good-looking woman. By letting his camera calmly linger on the tastefully framed curve of a buttcheek or a delicate neck, director Jee-woon Kim nudges the viewer (or some of us) towards the cognitive dissonance of noticing that which we know, ethically, we should not.
It’s this dissonance that made I Saw the Devil’s sexual violence the year’s most difficult for me to watch. But I had no trouble with A Serbian Film’s nonstop and much more extreme onslaught of almost purely sexual violence. Banned in half of Europe and 9/10ths of Oceania, the film follows a retired Serbian porn star who signs up for one final role. Although he’s legendary for his schlong, stamina, and skill in sexual humiliation, the shoot is too much. He tries to pull out after the director shows him a clip of a new genre he just invented called “newborn porn,” but the crew drugs him with horse aphrodisiacs and speed. Superego chemically disabled, he proceeds to fuck to death — and behead with a machete while fucking to death — every piece of ass that’s put in front of him.
Unlike I Saw the Devil’s glimpses of beauty, there’s nothing to see in A Serbian Film besides endless, rote combinations of sex and violence. There’s nothing aesthetically or emotionally alluring in the film’s world; even the erotic is stripped away. The protagonist’s arousal becomes, like his victims’ pain, simply a sensorial experience of world-destroying intensity. Yet unlike the uncomfortable dissonance that sex and violence produced in I Saw the Devil, in A Serbian Film their reductionist convergence is somehow reassuring. After watching an infant raped immediately after its birth by the man who cut its umbilical cord, the violence and pain of the world I inhabited seemed wholly manageable, and the innocence of my own world felt more valuable.
Censorship boards take note: A Serbian Film made me really appreciate cuddles and hand-holding.
Violence as Metonym for Violence
As minutes of video go, the clips I saw of Muammar Gaddafi’s death and the Japanese tsunami weren’t much compared to their contexts: 30,000 dead from a civil war, and 15,000 people dead from an earthquake. But for me, their emotional impact was more intense than reading the numbers. Looking at Gaddafi, I saw an old man being tortured, but I also saw the entire Libyan Civil War, a compounding of both singular and metonymic pain.
Even when it’s fiction, each violent act is a compound one. As the protagonist in A Serbian Film beheads the woman he’s fucking in a porn shoot with a machete, it’s hard not to think of real-life violence against women, or at least pornography’s generic pantomime of it. In Álex de la Iglesia’s The Last Circus, the impetus for the insane clown-vs-clown battling (the bulk of the film) is a love triangle, not politics, but it’s hardly incidental that this violence is framed by the Spanish Civil War and the beginnings of ETA’s (a Basque separatist group) terrorist response to Franco’s brutal dictatorship. Story-wise, it might be an allegory, but unlike the narrative it’s inserted into, the act of a clown burning his face off with acid isn’t a metaphor but rather simply a representative sliver of the violence of the era.
Each representation of violence is a metonym for more violence, so that no act is ever just singular. Like the serrated tip of an iceberg made of blood, each violent act we can see suggests the violent totality of what we cannot. On the surface, it might be fiction, but the bulk below is real.
The ability to stand by unmoved while thousands died hundreds of miles away on TV would be an asset, not a flaw.
Maybe this is why critics and policymakers ask if watching fictional people get chopped up on movie screens or shot dead in video games diminishes our sensitivity to real violence. But they never ask if that’s good thing. With globalized news media, much of the violence and pain we see is indifferent to our sensitivity, or at least can’t be solved by it. The ability to stand by unmoved while thousands died hundreds of miles away on TV would be an asset, not a flaw.
A more pertinent question would be if filmic violence helps us to better navigate the real violence we’re all immersed in. Seeing John Pike cut out of the UC Davis campus, his violence aestheticized as a meme, I laughed at something that had before made me feel angry and powerless. In film, it’s the same. Through endless aesthetic alterations and rearrangements, filmic violence breaks down its monolithic signified; real violence is hacked up into more easily digested bits, each one rendered unique by the knife marks. Most likely, not every singular piece of filmic violence does us good, but there’s value in the cutting.
PAIN AND MAKING MOVIES
In her 1985 study on physical pain, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, Elaine Scarry (no pun intended… by her parents) poured over letters and testimony from torture survivors, diaries from soldiers, medical case histories, and other texts I wouldn’t like to read. What she found, essentially, was this: pain unmakes our world.
When our bodies are hurt, everything else ceases to exist. Pain is a black hole that sucks up perceptions, thoughts, and emotions into its infinite yet invisible mass (sorry for the over-the-top space metaphor: I just saw Melancholia, so cosmic disasters are currently a major preoccupation) until it is all that’s left. If you’ve ever even stubbed your toe, you know this is true.
Trained in English, Scarry was drawn to pain because of what she saw as literature’s inability to describe it. “The real problem for language wasn’t the abstract but the concrete,” she told The New York Times. “As hard as it is to get a notion of truth in a novel […] it can be done. Whereas I realized that no novel I was reading was about physical pain.”
Not only is pain incredibly difficult to describe; in its unmaking of the world, Scarry argues, it also erases language itself. It’s significant, then, that the media that today deal most often with the destruction of the human body are overwhelmingly visual. Unlike literature, film revels in the concrete, approaching the abstract only obliquely: to get at the truths it was so concerned with, Tree of Life had to show us a lot (I mean, really, A LOT) of shots of leaves, branches, and rays of sunlight. Yet for all its skill in specificity, film falters with the sensorially concrete, with describing sensations experienced internally without resorting to the non-visual realm of voiceovers.
Thus, faced with the impossibility of describing pain, film simply doesn’t. Instead, it shows us the violence that causes it. While there might be in the narratives that contain them, there’s no message in these depictions of violence — their metonymies lead only to different versions of themselves. Yet in this maze of mirrors, something is built out of the void of a world that’s been unmade.
Through its complex arrangements of blood and guts, film creates language out of that which destroys language. 2011’s aesthetically-kaleidoscopic representations of violence form part of this peculiar grammar of mutilation. Like language itself, film violence neither creates nor contains meaning: it gives us the tools do to so ourselves.
[Artwork: Keith Kawaii]