Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Dangerous Visions


The 1903 move The Great Train Robbery included a tag shot, which was not part of the story but was used either as a teaser or a coda depending on the showing.  In it, an outlaw pointed his revolver directly at the viewer and fired the gun until empty.  Legend has it that this created panic among some viewers, because the experience of being shot at through the screen was so new and so realistic.  (As I sat down to write I briefly searched around to try to verify this claim, which I know I've heard multiple times, and I wasn't finding validation quickly, so we'll stick with "legend has it.")

What's interesting about the story is the reaction of the audience.  As described, the audience reacted to the events shown on the screen as if they were real, as if a gun was really being pointed at them.  In some sense, this is the purpose of all fiction, to inspire feelings in the audience as if the events being seen were real.  Whether we are reading or watching a film, seeing a play or listening to a radio drama, we respond to the story of the characters in question as if they are real people whose fate matters.  We want the couple to get together and live happily ever after.  We want the main characters to escape the perilous chase unharmed.  We want the dog to find its way home.  If you ask a movie viewer, "What's happening?" and they respond "Oh, it doesn't matter.  None of this is real," it's a clear sign that the movie is not being an effective work of fiction.  

However, if the purpose of fiction is to involve us in the characters and events that are portrayed, this means that there is also the question: are there things that the makers of fiction should not involve us in, or which we as fiction viewers/readers should should avoid being involved in?

Leah Libresco tackled some of these issues in a piece for The American Conservative about the French movie Cuties which Netflix caught so much flack (rightly) for advertising salaciously in its US release.

The French film is a coming-of-age story centered on Amy, a pre-teen French-Senegalese girl who rejects one kind of exploitation for another. Amy is alienated from her conservative, Muslim family when her father plans to take a second wife. She looks for a new identity and finds it by joining a dance group that takes their cues from pornography and other hypersexualized women.

The initial advertising presented the hypersexualization without any hint of critique. It showed the young actresses in provocative poses, and made it appear that the intended audience for the film was people who wanted to see prepubescent children sexualized.

To an extent, Netflix was right about the audience—though the goal of Maïmouna Doucouré, the writer and director of the film, was to unsettle these people, not titillate them. She drew inspiration for the story when she was shocked and sickened by seeing a group of eleven-year-old girls perform risqué dances. She interviewed pre-teen girls to make her film, learning from them the double pressure they felt: first, to exploit themselves for social media attention and second, to call their experience of exploitation liberation.

I’m very sympathetic to her critique, and I appreciate that she grounded her film in real experiences, but I’m profoundly skeptical of offering that critique through film. Critiquing hypersexualization through visual art is very difficult. How can you show the exploitation of a child to critique the exploitation of children? How can you expose the ugliness of a culture that’s entered the mainstream without being even uglier than what people have already acclimated themselves to?

This is an interesting and important question.  

I think the answer depends to some extent on the type of thing one is trying to critique.  Trying to make a movie which critiques the sexualization of young girls is particularly hard because the visual images themselves will carry a message to many viewers regardless of what the director intends them to convey.  Even if a movie is showing young girls acting suggestively in order to make the point that they should not be led into acting suggestively, this intent does not erase the fact that the movie itself is showing young girls acting suggestively.  For some viewers, this may be fine, and they may see the message without being disturbed by the image.  But for other viewers, the image as image will be primary, and the movie will end up causing exactly what it means to critique.  

Leah goes on to make a broader critique, however, using as her starting example the musical Assassins, which is meant to be a commentary on the over-notoriety which people who assassinate presidents achieve.

I took my husband to see Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins and, in the post-show discussion, he said that the thesis of the show is that it is morally wrong to stage Assassins. The concept musical tells the story of successful and unsuccessful presidential assassins and weaves them together into a critique of the American love of spectacle and exceptionality. The assassins would rather be remembered, even infamously, than be ordinary.

At the climax of the show, the chorus of past assassins encourages Lee Harvey Oswald, saying that his notoriety strengthens them all. They need additional acts of violence to fan interest in their legacy. But they don’t just need Oswald, they need us, the audience. We are complicit when we treat assassins (or mass shooters) as objects of fascination. 

I find Assassins’ critique sharp and stinging, but there’s no denying my husband’s point that it argues against elevating assassins while doing just that. I wouldn’t be humming “The Ballad of Czolgosz” around the house without Sondheim using his genius to showcase President William McKinley’s murderer. I can’t guarantee the critique has outshone the spectacle.

Perhaps there's a basic process problem with a piece of art which seeks to argue that popular culture pays too much attention to some particular thing.  If the art is successful, then it will result in people paying attention to that thing, even if only to think about how they should not be paying attention to it.  And if the art is not successful, then it won't persuade anyone of the point.  Thus, any piece whose point is "we should not be discussing X so much" will necessarily fail in its success.  

But I think perhaps there's a broader issue with art which seeks to show us that something is bad through repulsion, whether it's "movies are oversexualized" or "movies glorify violence".  For a movie to be successful we have to want to see it, indeed at some level enjoy seeing it.  A movie which just leaves us feeling tired and disgusted is not a movie that will receive many recommendations.  And so filmmakers try to make their movies something people will want to watch, and in the process undercut the very message they are trying to send.

Thus, I can recall various movies which seemed artsy and important when I watched them in college and which were supposedly providing a dark commentary on how much our culture glorifies violence.  They did this by...  depicting violence.  And while they did make a point at some level, I think in the end they also ended up simply pushing the boundaries of movie violence even further, because at a certain dark level, watching them was enjoyable. From an older vantage point, I'm increasingly convinced that having a movie show violence in order to make the point that violence is overly glorified in movies is a self defeating approach.

How can an artist make that kind of point?  I think part of the problem with showing sexual images to make a point about the over-sexualization of culture, or showing violent images to make a point about the glorification of violence is that the images themselves end up with an independent existence.  Someone can watch them and enjoy them without recognizing or accepting the artist's intended meaning.

The solution, from an artistic point of view, is to change tactics.  What is it that you're trying to convey?  The idea of how a surfeit of sexual imagery or violent imagery ignores the inherent value of the person.  I think that in that case it's important to come up with something which conveys that devaluation, not to simply show the debasing image and hope the people will be repulsed by it.  

One way is to avoid imagery all together.  Sometimes the written word is more able to get across ideas and feelings without letting them be overpowered by images.  Perhaps a novel could have tackled the subject matter of Cuties without lending itself to exploitation.  But if the artist wants to use a movie to tackle this kind of topic, I think it's important to think about what will most clearly convey what the moral problem involved does to people.  This may mean a dialog scene or a reaction scene, not a scene where the exploitation you want to critique takes place.  If the director of Cuties wants to make people think about the plight of her young characters, she'd probably do well to focus primarily on these girls processing what the experience of over-sexualization has done to them, not on showing the dance scenes themselves.

1 comment:

Agnes said...

There is the problem of whether the film can force the type of reaction on the viewer intended by the artist (i. e. avoid titillation and inspire aversion/horror) and also the problem of exploitation of the actors/actresses who perform the scenes - especially troublesome in the case of children.
And even if it inspires the intended negative reaction, it still spreads the imagery, resulting in a desensitization of viewers. Modern viewers, I think, would be unlikely to be frightened by the revolver pointing and shooting at them, having seen so much violence, gore, explosions, space battles, superhero superweapons close up and in 3D.