Friday, August 8, 2008

On Pornography: A WB Treatise

Third in a series of WB treatises with "On Obscenity" and "On Perversity," posted earlier.

Eyes Wide Shut. Requiem for a Dream. Showgirls. Team America.

The Devil's Rejects. Hostel. The Hills Have Eyes. Funny Games.

What do all of these have in common? Not much, actually. The first four received NC-17 ratings from the Motion Picture Association of America because they showed excessive nudity and sexuality. The last four received R ratings because they only showed torture, sadism, rape, and murder.

In the case of Team America, the "nudity" is naked wooden puppets, and the "sex" consists of visible strings crashing the puppets' parts against each other in outrageously unrealistic pantomime. In the case of The Devil's Rejects, a woman is molested with a large handgun inserted into her vagina, then brutally murdered. Another woman is forced to wear a mask made from the flayed face of her murdered husband before she, too, is killed.

Team America: NC-17.

Devil's Rejects
: R.

Team America: the puppet sex is "strongly suggestive" of actual sex. And not just actual sex, but actual "kinky" sex that deviates far from the MPAA-approved missionary position that conveniently hides those pesky naughty parts people have. Even if puppets don't have any.

Devil's Rejects: the violence is so realistic that actor Bill Moseley broke down several times, unwilling to continue filming the rape/torture/murder scene required of him. Director Rob Zombie gave him a quick rah-rah speech assuring him that "art is not safe" and sent him back into the game to make that art.

Eyes Wide Shut: an artfully staged and totally simulated orgy at a sex club. Stanley Kubrick was forced to paste awkward CG "silhouettes" into the scenes to hide the offensive simulations. Requiem for a Dream: two women share a sex toy for the amusement of their male audience in the room. Nothing graphic was shown, but the scene went on too long. (That "suggestive" thing again.) Showgirls: simulated sex in a swimming pool, with everything hidden underwater, but explicit (and comical — one of the reasons this film is now a cult classic) thrashing and moaning.

NC-17 for the lot of them.

Why is tearing a fellow human being's flesh off with razors considered R-rated entertainment, while displaying physical desire and admiration for a fellow human being's flesh is considered NC-17 pornography?

"MPAA members] understand that if it's a horror film and there is blood, there are certain expectations that have to be met by the fans," says Eli Roth, director of the two Hostel torture-porn movies, in an interview. "[And] with a war going on, they are like, 'It's just a movie. We're at war and people are dying every day... Americans are getting killed, bodies are being burned, and no one knows when it's going to end. It's incredible, but the sex is what [the MPAA] is really tense about. I guess if there was like a giant orgy going on they would freak, but...they are a little less concerned with violence."

But what happens when sex is violence — and degradation, and psychological torture — as in this scene from Michael Haneke's late-2007 Funny Games?

Why does American culture value this kind of physical humiliation over physical affection? Why does it favor acts of hatred over acts of love? Why does it prefer destruction of bodies over desire for them?

Here's a theory. Ideologies form the substrata for a culture's whole way of being, believing, and behaving. U.S. culture happens to come from deeply fundamentalist (i.e. Puritan) roots that have been preserved for 400 years. We're torn between freedom and rights on one hand, and subservience to moral codes based on "the Good Book" on the other. In that Book, the flesh is sinful, feared, and punished... Leviticus alone condemns sex, nudity, menstruation, lust/desire; elsewhere come the verses about cutting off offending hands and plucking out offending eyes. The result has been surreal at times: in the early Puritan days, women found guilty of wearing "revealing" clothing were punished by being stripped to the waist and flogged publicly. A mixed message, to say the least.

So we have the remnants of these ideological foundations surviving in our attitudes toward what's shown in cinema. Flesh itself is still taboo if the context is a sexual one, but is okay for viewing if the context is its punishment — look at the ascetic monk, Silas, in The DaVinci Code, who wears a garter of pincers around his thigh to remind himself 24/7 of Christ's suffering, and who whips himself in the grand Jesuit tradition while chanting "Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa." The flesh is weak and therefore reviled in a continuing cultural adherence to Puritanism. Banning displays of flesh in sexual contexts is a way of denying that it can or should ever be celebrated and enjoyed; allowing displays of it in torture contexts is a way of reinforcing that it should be reviled and punished. The messages are actually the same, just in opposite directions.

Below is the European poster for Hostel 2. Because it is the European version, it can obviously show what could never be shown in the lobby of an American theater: a naked female body. (What, you thought we were going to say a decapitated woman? No problem showing that.)

At left is the American poster for Hostel 1. See that tool there? It's called a breast ripper, a medieval torture device created exclusively for punishing or extracting confessions from women, whose breasts were literally shredded in the process.

Breasts are definitely not okay for display in public theaters.

But breast rippers are just dandy.

Have we made our point yet?

The Bush Junior administration, the most fundamentalist the U.S. has ever had, tried for eight years to enforce an "abstinence only" policy around the world, even connecting that condition to AIDS research funding. Abstaining equals not sex, and therefore, sex never needs to be addressed. Or as a University of Florida professor, Jerome Stern, once put it: "In the schools they want to tell kids about drugs because then they won't use drugs, but they don't want to tell kids about sex because then they will have sex."

Run that one around your head five times fast.

And remember the tried-and-true formula for who dies first, and who survives, in a teen slasher film. The most promiscuous woman, or couple, are the first dispatched: punishment for their sin. The virtuous woman, or couple — who may have had sex one time, but are deeply in love and planning to marry — will survive, and maybe even punish the punisher/slasher. Likewise, look at the "D.C. Madam" prostitution case, in which the woman who ran the service committed suicide rather than face prison, while her male customers, including politicians, got no punishment and will face no charges. The woman tempted; the men were powerless victims of her beguilement; she was punished.

Sounds like Adam and Eve in the Garden, doesn't it?

Meanwhile, in the secularized cultures of Europe, sex and the body are celebrated and permitted and licensed, and torture films are restricted. ("A Clockwork Orange" was famously banned in the U.K., for example, due to its gratuitous violence and the "copycat crimes" it allegedly inspired.) And our friends on The Continent continue to look over at the U.S. and shake their heads in total bewilderment over the bizarre moral contradictions created by the lingering Puritanism in our laws and policies.


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