Archive for the ‘art films’ Category

The System Loves Subversion

November 3, 2010

In a recent interview in Toronto’s weekly entertainment paper, the cult-turned-mainstream filmmaker John Waters lauded the latest Jackass film for its anarchic disregard for standards (“Dirty Waters” in Now Magazine, Oct 21-27, 2010). He is quoted as seeing in the success and wide distribution of the Jackass movies a popularization of the type of transgression once limited to avant-guard arthouse cinema:

Last night I saw a blue-collar audience, sold out; guys with their kids watch a pig eat an apple out of another man’s asshole. And I thought–huh? How do they get away with it? And they do get away with it, in a great way. It’s really anarchy.

The interviewer then asks whether this is not a lowering of standards, to which Waters replies “There are no standards. And that’s the point.” Apart from the standardized format of this exchange, in which the media interviewer plays the role of the mildly scandalized, voice of reason to which the outlandish interviewee replies with a diabolical rejoinder aimed at subverting his interlocutor’s conservative sentiment, the logic behind Waters’ championing subversion actually works to uphold the very standards he dismisses. The reason the producers of Jackass can “get away with it” is because their films are not truly subversive, but rather offer a cathartic release that serves to strengthen the standards they purport to overturn.

Jackass-style shock humour, an early example of which can be found in Tom Green’s public-access cable show from the nineties, works precisely because there are standards which these comedians can overturn and exploit. The fun in Tom Green having a pornographic picture airbrushed on the hood of his parent’s car lies in the fact that this act flaunts the staid, workaday order of respectable society. The audience can indulge an adolescent thrill in overturning social norms and expectations, but the reason this kind of humour contains an affective charge that can have popular appeal is precisely because these norms and standards are so pervasive.

If there actually were no standards, as Waters suggests, this form of humour simply would not work. The question is whether or not these type of carnivalesque inversions actually support the very structures they pretend to subvert, temporarily suspending them only to make them all the more entrenched when the momentary thrill of escaping the established order wears off. The mutually supportive relationship between transgression and repressive order is the secret hinge that allows so much allegedly subversive popular culture to be tolerated and even encouraged by the modern culture industry.

As Foucault’s anti-repressive hypothesis suggests, modern systems of social control operate within a permissive and productive, rather than a repressive framework. The repressive element enters in when we try to consider the types of truly oppositional actions that the sensationalist pseudo-subversions of popular culture effectively trivialize and preempt. John Waters is right to this extent: the antics of the Jackass crew are a popularized incorporation of the types of shock tactics developed by avant-guard artists, though I would look back to such innovators as the dadaists and surrealists rather than 70s trash films. By lacing surreal, interventionist imagery with a generous dose of sadomasochistic humiliation and macho fraternity antics, the Jackass films subvert subversion, reclaiming it for a social order based on power and domination.

But can we locate the initial kernel of resistance that lies buried in the incorporated form of guerrilla humour exhibited by the Jackass films? The genius inherent in some of Tom Green’s skits lies in his ability to use sensational disruptions of the everyday order to point out the urecognized absurdity of this order. To this extent, his best work is in the lineage of great modern art like the surrealists or the films of Chaplin where a character’s lack of fit with the social order brings out its inherent contradictions. With this in mind, I would offer one of my favourite Tom Green pieces…


The Pleasure of Being Robbed

March 13, 2010

The title of Josh Safdie’s 2008 indie film debut, The Pleasure of Being Robbed makes more sense if one reads the hand-written notes on the folded poster that serves as an insert to the DVD release. It seems that Safdie and his friends (including the actress Eleonore Hendricks, who plays the kleptomanic protagonist in the film) were themselves victims of a New York city thief who broke into Sadie’s car and stole thousands of dollars of film equipment. We learn that this occurred on the fifth day of shooting, which precludes reading the event as the traumatic kernel that informs the movie’s plot, as one would assume that by the fifth day of actual filming, the director would already have some idea of what his film was going to be about. And yet, upon reflection, the trope of life imitating art does provide an interesting reading of the film’s narrative structure, as well as offering a possible explanation for some of its instructive blind spots.

The insert’s anecdote fits into a surprisingly common pattern exhibited by supplementary material on DVD “bonus features” which we might describe as testimonies of the uncanny way that, in the course of a film’s production, real life incidents mirror the artistic content of the film. This happens, for instance, in Atom Egoyan’s commentary to the DVD version of his 1991 film, The Adjuster. The scene in which Hera’s sister, Seta is visually assaulted by a man masturbating in her living room window (while she herself is watching banned porn that Hera has surreptitiously recorded during her job as a censor for the Ontario government) is one of the central uncanny moments of the film, wherein a “punctum” is created between the films’ different levels of representation (the taboo video fantasy suddenly becomes a startling and odious reality in her living room window). The uncanny vertigo generated by this moment is augmented by Egoyan’s commentary, which explains that the man in the window (a trench-coated figure who is seen haunting the Render family’s deserted housing development earlier in the film) was written into the script as the bankrupt developer of a suburban project that never got past the initial earth-clearing stages (the Render family, it turns out, live in one of the three model homes built on the otherwise barren plot of earth). The movie scenes that would have explained his otherwise mysterious presence in the film were left out of the final cut, but Egoyan relates how, in a strange example of art imitating life, the actual real-world developer and owner of the land and home which Egoyan had rented as a location showed up with his young daughters on the very day that the above-mentioned masturbation scene was being filmed. The consumer of the DVD commentary is thus faced with a further, startling level of simulation through which the excised sexual content (represented by the censored video being watched by Seta) makes an uncanny return to unsettle, not just the characters in the film, but the people involved in the actual production of the film itself.

To further pull any scrap of rug that might help us distinguish reality from fantasy out from under our feet, Agoyan is careful to point out that the phallus that appears in the film, and which evidently disturbed the developer and his daughters on their fateful chance appearance on the set, was fake. But this brings us back to The Pleasure of Being Robbed and the use of the uncanny “life imitating art” trope employed by the film’s insert. In the course of trying to find their stolen equipment, Sadie and his friends take a tour of New York city in which they “saw a lot of sadness” and “met characters [they] had no business with”, almost “becoming their friends”. Much in the same way the camera follows the Eleonore character in the film, Sadie’s team follow a man who lives in the same building as their alleged thief, even following him into a supermarket and going shopping with him. The real-world thief surrogate is thus subjected to the same treatment that the film’s klepto character Eleonore will also undergo. If we read the lost camera equipment in Freudian terms, as a traumatic incident of castration, then the fact that the male lead (also named Josh, and played by Sadie himself) actually sleeps with Eleonore, the thief character, makes sense of the film’s title.

Sadie’s surrogate Josh character’s act of sleeping with Eleonore (he actually “captures” her in a kind of blanket trap he has playfully constructed above his bed) becomes a symbolic act of recuperation of lost libidinal energy in the form of the stolen camera equipment, while the film itself becomes an act of symbolic retribution. The jouissance of this revenge fantasy (symbolically displaced in the film upon societal control structures like the police and the middle class) explains why depictions that would lead to some kind of understanding of Eleonore’s character or motivations, let alone the actual material conditions of her existence (how does she afford her Manhattan apartment?), are absent from the film. It also explains the lack of sympathy for ethnic minorities whom Eleonore victimizes, the best crafted example of which being the Oriental ping-pong enthusiast, whose lunch Eleonore manages to ruin in one of the film’s most amusing scenes.

I greatly enjoyed this film. It manages to capture the seemingly impenetrable mystique that is held by the everyday eccentricities of big city life, and this along with the excellent soundtrack make it a fun film to watch. The film contributes to the production of a counter-cultural habitus that attempts to come to terms with the alienation of modern life by appropriating some of its negative effects (crime, loneliness, racism). But it never delves deeply enough below the surface of these effects to provide a relevant critique, and thus seems to serve as an artfully constructed testimony to Mark Seltzer’s thesis regarding our modern “wound culture”, or the reconfiguring of social relations around sensational incidents of their breaking down.