“The more a man dreams, the less he believes.”
~ H. L. Mencken
Preface: Why My Dreams Smell Like Nothing (Onto the Regime of Odor)
On June 18, 2005 (I hastily noted the date with tremulous precision, though now time means little), I woke pale and headachy from a kind of portentous dream that has been plaguing me for several years. Once alert, I’m tormented not so much by the dream — crawlingly alive, deliriously tactile, borderline hypnagogic — but my wearied imagination’s inability to render subconscious vividity into waking revelation. My sleeping brain, tethered to hazy, engorged irises, maliciously dramatizes my anxieties with neither the secure censorship of distant metaphors nor the brace of shocking self-abreaction. I instead blind myself with embarrassingly legible storylines distended to grotesque proportions, as if hyperbole alone were catharsis. But my nightmares — and, apart from my biannual erotic dreams, I have primarily nightmares — seldom haunt me. To the contrary, they are usually forgotten near-instantly, in a few moments (as if a liminal censorship were substituting for the want of Freudian displacements), and should I want to scratch the fantasy into my disordered wits, I must grog out of bed, drain the bloodshot from my eyes, and stumble for the nearest pen. By and large, the content of these pompous, grimacing dreams is too blatant thematically to warrant record, yet this dream of June 18 was so sickly obsessed with the infantile fixations and passive tortures of cinematic experience that I believed it might prove instructive — or at least amusing — for those embroiled, professionally or amateurishly, in culturalist criticism.
I stood overwhelmed in a cinema meta-megamultiplex, its economic oppressions not at all softened by pristinely white, softly curved balustrades more appropriate to a make-believe, Kubrickian space coaster rolling in low orbit. This wasn’t a single multiplex, mind you, but a hive of them ringed around an unmanned Mother Command Junction where robotic gloves tore tickets, fountain sodas spiraled down chutes into vending buckets, and nameless friedstuffs dangled deathfully from Chinese duck hooks, the whole affair highlighted by a trim of fluorescent neon flickering in aquamarine, an early 80s ultramodernity. Thankfully, it was unnecessary to navigate through the Mother Hive’s capitalistic belly, where the lynched friedstuffs lured you, the buzzing hoi polloi, with the commercial stench of residual vat grease and the sour promise of excrementally pumped golden cheese. Rather, the tunnels that linked each theater to the nucleus had at their entrances space-shifting portals allowing one to subatomically transport into an adjacent theater, popping in unnoticed and unpaid. Despite the scores of screens, a total of only three films were playing in continuous loop: what I (badly) imagined Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith to look like (I’m too old now to see it); a hackneyed Hollywood science fiction, whose only sequence I can recall lined up hundreds of men (and possibly women) in long shot, clad in form-fitting (possibly unisex) pole-fighting costumes, all training in a vast, immeasurably white arena that mirrored the clichéd sci-fi motifs of the meta-multiplex itself; and a hypothetical Clint Eastwood film, steeped in the sanctimonious gloom he’s adopted in his post-90s bid to become Our Certified Solemn American Auteur.
Soon I became a character in the Eastwood film — I forget the narrative, whatever it was — and I wandered myopically into a foggy shower stall, my point of view indistinguishable from that of Eastwood’s camera as it made a 360 degree pan ogling watery gore coursing over lilac tiles. Disappointed that Eastwood — for reasons unclear — was trapping me in a pointless, retrograde Hitchcock homage, I leapt from the screen and into the audience, found the theater’s radiating exit sign, rushed through a magic teleportal, and snuck into one of the eighty-seven theaters screening that spandex sci-fi clichéfest, whereupon I whipped out a tiny notepad and started frantically summarizing its virile, pole-obsessed inanities. Soon, the dream had me hurtling through three nearly equal jobs. I diligently was to take plot-summarizing notes (as a good critic should do, my unconscious thought) of each film on a pad too tiny to accommodate them. I was simultaneously to leap into each film, Sherlock Jr. -style, to participate in the diegetic action, at which point my bumbling participation (I guess) would nullify and supersede passive note-taking. Yet, I also needed to constantly jump from the screens, use the teleportals to elude the mysterious secret agents sworn to oversee the obsequiousness of my note-taking, locate an exit, and dash to the quarters-only parking meter where my shockingly attractive roadster was precariously stationed several blocks away, in the bad neighborhood, where clear urine, pouring from an unfastened hydrant, appeased street urchins for whom water frolics had been outlawed by a landslide referendum.
The dream’s narrative tightened around the roles of the trenchcoated, stubbly agents, from whom I needed to hide a notepad that was not only crumpled and inadequate, but had (somewhere) gotten lost, maybe dropped while sprinting to the cruel meter, counting down my lifespan as efficiently as Hollywood dross nullifies a hundred of one’s most fleeting minutes. Please don’t view the pad’s smallness as a reductive phallic inadequacy, for Freud, in his pre-behaviorist mindset, got this part backwards. I was, I think, literally anxious about the limitations of my critical-linguistic prowess, the source of potency, sexual or otherwise, rather than its effect. Regardless, I was now restlessly pursued, and my life hung in the balance: should I be revealed critically naked, sans academic notepad, I faced an unshaven Inquisition and its iced pincers, its spine-roller and its choking-fruit, then the navel-pricker, the dreaded strappado and ultimate squassation. If I survived, I’d be pinned down with Clockwork Orange lid sprockets and eye lube to suffer the Christian miracles of George Lucas.
In a sweaty, unfunny chase sequence, I scuttled up slim trestles and tripped across the snaking catwalks that guarded the meta-complex’s periphery. Fumbling up a ladder straddling a glowing electric popcorn forge, one stocky, quadrilaterally-shaped agent finally seized my legs, dangling in mid-air like those foil-draped friedstuffs, and dragged me prone to a bench where my mind, along with my feet, wobbled out of balance. Realizing I lacked my notebook, he kissed me angrily on the mouth, molested me slightly, and, withdrawing a razor blade stashed between his two front incisors, split open my cheek and palm, in retrospect emulating those razor-wielding crimson imps — in another, rare dream I remember sharply — that lightly slashed my eyeballs hour after hour while I lay spread and paralyzed, until I was suddenly jumping in front of a grade-school backdrop of hell, painted inferno and all, oozily squashing the little bastards underfoot. (My brain, with automatic masochism, made the juicy sensation of shoeless demon-stomping even more nauseating than relaxing in the slow shredding of my own corneas.) Hemorrhaging across the face, I made some pathetic protests, but while explaining that my notebook had gotten lost, I told myself secretly a shocking truth — I never had it at all. Betraying his bureaucratic trade, the ruffian pitied me and, though offering no dressings for my devilishly marked palm and cheek, promised to return with a fresh, factory-sealed notebook thin-ruled for submissive jottings. Though grateful for his lenience, my mind drifted back to my unaffordable roadster, the urine-washed children squatting at its radials, and the existentially ticking parking meter that had mastered us all. That is all I remember.
How damning is the patently Freudian dream! My fanciful galactic nightmare — replete with infantile dental fixations, wolfish evildoers incognito, and irrational happenstance enslaving me to terrific landscapes — seems like an oldfangled case study readily addable to Freud’s The Occurrence in Dreams of Material from Fairy Tales (1913). (Unusually, however, it wasn’t me but the oral wolves who experienced infantile tooth decay, though between their unsteady fangs hid a confident, phallic weapon.) But this fairy tale of film spectatorship was never a millstone of my own making. It is the imposed daydream of culturalists, whose free enterprise gobbles grandmothers and deep-fries into anonymity their own unwanted fetuses (us, the sorry children their culture produces), which are then hung for cannibalistic display, glossed with soothing pumped cheese, and sold back at inflated rates. At least my nightmare had the saving grace of mean-spirited satire — rotating statically in place, the cinematic space station both allegorized film’s futuristic technology as a self-fulfilling, go-nowhere prophecy, and ridiculed the conventionality of its expensive imagery, whose unwished, white-walled fantasies suppress the civil disobedience we are forbidden to wield.
I trust that you, bookish wanderer, have slogged muddily (and perhaps mightily) through more Freud, Lacan, Silverman, and their variously gendered epigones than I could ever dare to stomach, so your psychoanalyses of my phantasy are likely more cogent than my own. (Indeed, if you feel so inclined, please send me a brief written analysis in care of this publisher.) Yet I’ve offered up this dream — blatant and transparent, as I’ve already confessed — to stress the limitations of the symbolic unconscious, not its allegedly voltaic abreactions. I imagined Clint Eastwood — an arbitrary yet omnipresent symbol of filmmaking — as trapped in nostalgic, gazing Hitchcockianism, and I, his spectator, as existentially embedded within him, and inside what this degraded vision mandates: a neo-auteurism whose sleek nods toward retro-pastiche are negated by an overridingly psychoanalyzed cult of the director insurmountable by even the most egregious postmodernism. We’d at least sympathize a little with the Francoanalytic critics (who, unlike clinical psychiatrists, still resist Freud’s own confession that he was more philosopher-poet than applicable scientist) if they’d bravely lay naked and vulnerable the dreamy autobiographies that, we can only assume, bent their ideological games into oppressive if bizarrely marketable paragraphs. But academic privilege cannot surrender to the friendship of intimate public disclosure. Nevertheless, even unrepentant Lacanians endeared to the “unary trait” and bitter toward anti-gaze feminists surely tire of those radically unpragmatic debates about where and when and how the screen looks, whether our eyes pierce or bounce from its projected membrane, and if the pyramidally-brassiered woman-objects of classical Hollywood ever smirked back at wide-eyed teenagers ingesting cola and copping shadowy gropes.
Forget about the audience as objectified subjects, and forget about the cinema screen as a subjectified object leering aggressively back, so it can be taken seriously. Instead, think of the cinema — the ‘dream factory’ — as the social control mechanism it is: a Milgramian behavior booth with filmmakers as the authoritarian lab technicians, critics as those who pretend to scream next door, and you as the poorly paid, panicky dupe at the electroshock switch, looking fearsome but connected to nothing. The Milgram experiment was telling because it removed the omnipresent crutch of visual privilege. Unable to see the screaming actors, and judging experience only as a dramatized sound, Milgram’s unwitting test subjects needed to rely on auditory senses and judgments society never taught them to critically develop. Commercial cinema, from the opposite end of the spectrum, enforces the same disorienting conclusion, making us believe we can’t understand the world without the visual because, apart from a soundtrack’s insistent timpani or a nature documentary’s infantilizing voiceover, the visual is all we can trust. In the final scene of Sherlock, Jr. (1924), the film my dream partly mimicked, Buster Keaton realizes this “trust” has always been a silent betrayal. The slumbering Keaton, projecting his idealized self onto and into the screen, is disillusioned to discover that cinema’s wish-fulfilling falsehoods can’t teach him anything about being a man, a husband, a father, or a human being. Conventional cinematic narratology is even more infantile than he is. He, the sexually immature fiancé, scratches his head when the detective romance he screens refuses to tell him where babies come from — our laughter is disturbed, however, when we wonder if Keaton himself can teach us better than the film his character watches. Keaton can critique the false conventions of the marriage narrative, but he’d return to them a little less critically in Seven Chances (1925), with us following not far behind.
The psychology of my abovementioned dream is motivated primarily by visual hysteria, with my sense of touch — my heart pounding as I sweatily struggled up a ladder, the scalding razor across my palm — relegated to a secondary sensation. My other three senses fared even worse. I couldn’t tell you what the dream sounded like, I dared not taste the “food,” and, apart from the aborted friedstuffs’ greasy waftings, my hallucination was deodorized. The megaplex’s vacuum-proof carpets, its glass-shielded popcorn, the public toilet’s scarily yellowed antechamber, the thug’s breath heaving across my ripped cheek, the hydrant’s white baths of urine, the Eastwood film’s shower-stall gore — my brain’s stubborn visuality rendered all this conspicuously unscented, disinterested, unintelligible. Martin Jay has shown (to those with reading eyes) that suspicion of tyrannical visually-centered regimes has played a formative role in nearly all skeptical philosophies, from ancient asceticisms, Stoicism, and subtler elements of Platonism through surrealism and existentialism to deconstructionism and (most obviously!) feminism — and we can add Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism, and ten thousand other -isms suspicious of the arrogant charisma of appearances. My dream, visually and “cinematically” articulate but tongue-tied and, if you prefer, castrated at nearly all other sensory levels, reflects Jay’s notion of phallagocularcentrism, 1 or the overriding Western discourse that sadistically integrates phallagocentrism and ocularcentrism into an ideology that perceives material reality as not only unidimensional (phallicism) but unisensory (sight). My dream suggests that Jay’s neologism isn’t merely a reinvention of phallagocentrism because, for all my dream’s elaborate phallic discourse, my brain disallowed me to actually see the notes I tried to jot on my tiny pad (perhaps they were really insightful?). I had plenty of powerful vision, but in all the wrong places, particularly at the moment my dream’s point-of-view helplessly fused with that of Eastwood’s swirling camera, my eyes sadistically co-opted by his thrusting Panaflexed vision. Still, as I suggested above, I’d like to think my anxiety about the notepad, at least, signified more of a sociolinguistic lack than a sociosexual one, even if extricating the “lago-” from the “ocularo-” seems either a naïve task for the belletrist, or a Herculean one for the sociolinguist when the inexorable “phallo-” conflates the rules of lingual knowing with those of seeing.
It’s no accident that cultures in all epochs and geographies have elevated the congenitally blind to the oxymoronic role of sightless seer, whose vestigial eyes are a biological castration but also a mytho-cultural liberation. In his evaluation of the blinding, phantasmagoric effects the shell-shocked trenches of World War I had on the postwar antipathy toward vision, Jay invokes George Bataille’s mythic description of the pineal gland, the fabled third eye, as one antirationalist alternative to the rule of visual materialism. Bataille proposed the pineal not as the seat of rational intellection, as Descartes thought, but a portal, available mainly to the cursed and gifted, that transcends “both the two eyes of everyday sight and the rational [i.e., Cartesian] vision of the mind’s eye,” creating an immaterial space where “blindness and castration are less to be feared than welcomed as the means to liberate the mundane self from its enslavement in a restricted economy based on the fastidious discrimination of servile sight.” 2 Of course, Bataille’s notion, like all surrealism, hardly helps those who aren’t fearless artists — though I could see how a painless castration could free up some of my time to undertake more cerebral chores.
So where to find a practical, benevolent alternative to our pan-cultural visual dictatorship? Inevitably, it still may be the artistic elite who’ll create it. We should explore first the sense that is least used but, as psychologists and our daily experiences tell us, is the most potent — smell. If the blind seer blessed by Hera divines with a third eye, haven’t we, without prejudice, the courtesy to grant the crone with crippling postnasal drip an all-knowing second sinus?
We all require — desperately, I’m sure — a new theater of blind, dumb, deaf, and unfeeling smell. Unlike the unblinking Theaters of Cruelty and the Absurd, this will be a Dome of Sightless Scented Judgment, a new theater where scent designers, musky-headed scientists, aromatherapists, parfumeurs, and our new breed of odor maestri will engineer scent experiences for collective theatrical consumption. 3 We can’t call this unsighted theater a “spectacle,” of course, nor ocularcentrically describe its aesthetic as “enlightening” or “illuminating” — our immature vocabulary denies us a word for the pleasurable mass experience of pure smell. If the Theater of Absolute Odor sounds like a dire gimmick, remember that the scopic flickers of Edison, Meliès, and G. A. Smith were once passing gimmicks too, and Derek Jarman’s AIDS-blinded Blue (1994), which nearly does for sound what I propose for smell, cannot be dismissed as a trifle, despite Jarman’s uniquely autobiographical intent. Before laughing away my Stage of the Air, ponder the stunning, untapped powers of your own nasality, those cherished moments when your sneaky scent-memory blistered your psyche with a reeling kaleidoscope (oops — another ocularcentrism!) of forgotten loves, lapsed moments, and ecstatic futures; then imagine channeling, organizing, and aesthetically developing our underexploited nasalities into confounding, free-smell adventures where autumnal sprout and rot, sizzling shallots, moistened torso hair, burnt pecans, or the giddy scents of synthetics yet undreamed collide, struggle, reconcile, and rejoice in gales and airy calms. I can’t prescribe exactly how odor artists should engineer the Ethereal Theater; inevitably, internal debates will arise as to whether the new olfactory aesthetic should be abstract, amorphous, unbounded and avant-garde, or dramatized, narrativized, and reconventionalized. Cultural and literary critics, feminists, sex theorists and so forth would then interrogate the biases of “the olfactory regime” and its olfactorocentric oppressions, identifying the perceptions of certain smells, pleasurable or unpleasurable, along lines of class (a beggar’s unwashed hair versus a 19th-century dandy’s snuff), race (the aroma of collard greens versus caviar and blini), gender (a men’s damp locker room versus a soiled sanitary napkin), and geography (a Byelorussian flower kingdom versus the sulfured and skunked New Jersey Turnpike). So be it! If exclusivity is inevitable, let’s at least educate ourselves with and through a fresh exclusivity.
But the Smell lies in our future; that nightmare of phallagocularcentrism remains our eternal present, well deserving of a personalized berating.
Part One: When the Cinema Invades My Dreams, It Ceases To Be a Dream Itself
The phallagocularcentrophobic discussion of my nightmare above focused on the ocular and telescoped (but not totally shriveled) the phallic, with the hermeneutical skepticisms embedded in the lago- component as (I guess) our humdrum deconstructionist given. But did I protest too stridently against my dream’s unwished yet pulsing phallicism merely because of its venal cliché? Certainly, from the razor to the roadster, the nightmare endowed me with nearly every phallic cliché in the book (save big oaks and sawing lumberjacks). My unconscious climaxed with an act of genital rape, when that macho examiner, in my own words, “kissed me angrily [and] . . . molested me slightly” as punishment for being a disobedient, incompetent film critic. The phrase “molested slightly” wasn’t meant as coyness or euphemism; I remember he throttled with a gloved hand my loins and rubbed vigorously, as would an unusually proud nightstalker — in retrospect a rape, if not a proper, penetrating one. I once enjoyed watching this sort of violence, as we all do, as filmic spectacle. But the generic forcemeat that is genre cinema’s adolescent sadism had finally overtaken me; through sheer repeated exposure to filmic brutality, an increasing banality in its style, or some breakdown in my own psychic defenses, what used to be passively sniggering spectacle became actively shrieking tormentor. The cinema was unmasked as the rapist I, as a child, had dreamed it could never be.
Montaigne’s proto-virtual notion of hermeneutic friendship, of private essays epistling across uncharted continua of time and space, was always a lonesome thing. It has no place in sticky circuses or stickier cinemas, where, as you weigh your laughter and screams against those of your neighbors, you indulge the collective whim while inviting foreigners to plunder your private ego, that psychic egg where you, postmodern romanticist, are still convinced grander notions gestate. Let’s acknowledge my terror and not digress. The nightmare didn’t have me raped for resisting the cultural machine to which we pretend willful superiority, nor was I raped in body because my conceited, insufficiently masochistic intellect refused a rape in spirit (as would happen, I hope, in my waking hours). On the contrary, I was dream-raped because I had “lost my notepad,” my stupidly symbolic key to decent, submissive cultural criticism. I really wanted to succumb intellectually, but couldn’t even master victimhood, whose razor-wielding destiny had to be thrust upon me.
One of the most incisive feminist critiques of cinematic masochism remains Joan Mellen’s Big Bad Wolves: Masculinity in the American Film (1977), whose socioeconomic, second-wave feminism now seems too commonsensical for trend-setting genderfuckers, ocularcentric postfeminists, or pop academics spinning jargon-stained tributes to the post-queer liberations of Annie Sprinkle’s vaginally-conscious performance games. Contemporary with Christian Metz’s cinephobic The Imaginary Signifier, Mellen (never a hard-line jargonist) avoids the French Lacanianism then in vogue, and in plain language attends to anti-cathartic notions of a spectatorial masochism based purely on the (adult) subject’s relative social status, not a combination of his position as spectator and how cinematic apparati affect his mentalistic 4 apperceptions. This comparison is perhaps unfair, since Mellen’s commonsense humanism seems worlds apart from ocularcentric Metz’s wizardly academicism. 5 Yet they, in differently gendered tongues, both fear for the spectator’s sanity, and even if Mellen’s underlying humanism is naïve, she speaks more truthfully about our masochistic cinema than do arcane semioses of sutures or umpteen interrogations of the scopic. We needn’t frame the cinema’s fictional projections as an overlording mirror stage to which we, eternal infants, continually return for daily shots of identificatory narcissism and Othering. For Mellen, cinema is the wicked art of behavior modification, pure and simple. When we don’t measure up to the reflected cinematic image, we enter into a contract of cumulative, lifelong pain, administered under the guise of a sadistically goalless aversion therapy which the cinema’s temporary pleasures can neither ameliorate nor justify. The dream you once thought pleasurable has an ulterior motive, and it will catch up with you.
Though Mellen doesn’t bother citing Jung, her critique is leveled at cinema’s oppressive mythology of heroic archetypes, and the often rightist actors (Gary Cooper, John Wayne, etc.) the culture industry shrewdly appointed to embody them. 6 She assumes — as we all do when our heads are unclouded by theory — that audiences, though not fully aware of the Metzian mechanisms of cinematic manipulation, are persistently conscious of themselves as sheepish, pleasure-seeking subjects beholden to cinematic wolf-gods who grant hungry illusions at usurious costs, 7 and whose technical manifestations are the charismatic secrets of experts. 8 How the audience psycho-mythologically gazes is less important than why it sociologically gazes — an only apparently counterintuitive argument, if we believe the “how” question, not the “why” question, is the one usually bound up with sociology. If Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) is correct to suggest that pious congregants really worship their self-organized, a posteriori collective through the pretense of worshipping a mystical, a priori Other, we might also assume audiences really just want to gaze at themselves, not an iconic, superior hero. But alas, we can’t claim what audiences “want” — desire is irrelevant when we have to continually climb from debasements that only seem self-imposed.
If the Other is achieved through reflections of the self, we must ask what kind of Other will instill the healthiest narcissism — so healthy that, hopefully, it may one day become genuine, democratic altruism, not the indulgent altruism that Sade, like so many “natural” philosophers, believed was narcissism differently clothed. When we seek love, do we beg the approval of godlike mythmakers (sadly, filmmakers, technicians), or the brotherhood of our myth-believing neighbors, who will judge us according to our acceptance or rejection of popular mythmaking and its demi-theistic agenda? But any Other we initially choose, by design or accident, should have greater power over us, lest we choose inferior mirrors and become sadists in the process. Thus reminded of the inescapable binaries Otherness imputes, we contend again with polarities of passive and aggressive, feminine and masculine, Taoist and ocularcentric, all culminating, for our limited purposes, in the feminist and postfeminist defenses of deconstructionist difference poised against the queer negation of it.
Questioning why (not how) passive audiences identify with mythological heroes, Mellen reveals a little of old feminism’s starry optimism: “We are asked to surrender ourselves to men about whom the film deliberately tells us little, as if in our real lives we were being prepared to grant power on faith alone to a leader about whom we actually know next to nothing.” 9 We immediately realize this account of fascistic movie cultishness exactly describes our American electoral process, where Second Amendment citizenries, against their own economic best interests, are willing to endorse anyone who adheres to populist metaphysical fixations (“faith alone”) curiously similar to those the cinema’s degrading hero-worship stipulates. Nevertheless, Mellen’s feminism shuns baiting androphobia and, rather than debunking the known evils of housewifery, concentrates on the liberation of heterosexist, warlike, and profoundly insecure men, thus anticipating the utopian altruism for which queer theory strives in its less dogmatic and masturbatory guises. In retrospect, it speaks volumes that for Mellen Hollywood’s most authentic portrayal of heroic masculinity was Al Pacino’s sympathetic bank robber in Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975), the least stereotypical, passive, and guilt-ridden image of male homosexuality mainstream America could manufacture at the time.
Hollywood’s double standard created a crushing inferiority complex for Hollywood men first and foremost, who, arrested in their psychosexual development, forever alternate between heterosexual romance and homosocial bonding (the “buddy” film) without being able to synthesize the two 10 — just as China’s Mulan archetype (discussed in the first part of this essay) neutered transgenderism to forestall the logic of its performatively homosexual or transsexual conclusions. Only thereafter was Hollywood’s heterosexist psychosis passed onto women as the residual phallagocentrism of guilt-ridden deceit. 11 Such deceits are now lore:
Clark Gable had his ears pinned back and from a very early age wore false teeth. The false teeth of James Dean were also acquired young . . . Alan Ladd, a short man, stood on boxes . . . Errol Flynn had his nose bobbed . . . Douglas Fairbanks himself, originally named Julius Ulman, had to change his name to one sufficiently Anglo-Saxon . . .12
Woody Allen’s Play It Again Sam(1972), despite the phony pathos of its final act, is a rare specimen to thoroughly acknowledge the consequences of Hollywood’s false heroics, the truth that “most men are secretly tortured by not being Bogart.” 13 As Mellen says:
[The audience] wishes they could know such [heroic] men; they have no illusions about resembling them . . . The vicarious discharge in the dark of his daily frustrations carries with it an unavowed threat of emasculation because he must re-enter the world feeling even less adequate . . . In seeming to entertain us, movies in a very real sense have exacerbated our pain.14
Mellen’s emphasis on the male subject’s painful, impossible obligation to be more than his fallible, neurotic, sexual self effectively rebuts the simplistic and heterosexist plea with which Molly Haskell would conclude her From Reverence to Rape:
As a younger, less hidebound and less conflicted generation emerges, it becomes easier for all of us to speak with our own voices…to go against the grain of male desires and definitions, to be strange, loud, impolite, enigmatic, baroque, beautiful, ugly, vengeful, funny. We want nothing less, on or off the screen, than the wild variety and dazzling diversity of male options.15
I was a male who grew up worshipping movies, but one for whom the heteronormative male gaze was, even at the impressionable age of ten or eleven, alternately puzzling, tedious, or exciting only in form, not content. 16 Desiring a sympathetic violence but not finding it onscreen, I eventually cozied up with Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom while my dunderheaded classmates were faking their way through the Cliff’s Notes to A Farewell to Arms. 17 But I remained utterly unaware of the “dazzling diversity of male options” Haskell believed existed. Men were free, yes — to be violent, not sissies, to be physically daring, not intellectually curious, to enact the nationalisms of Manifest Destiny or the Turner Thesis, not exercise mercy or restraint. If crypto-socialism (Capra) or populism (The Grapes of Wrath, or other, gentler Fords) raised their pacifistic heads, heroes could draw much needed heteronormativities from the patriotic, marrying soil, not the barrel of the loner’s gun. (Only the sissified clown, ever-infantile and ill-prepared for marriage, could corrupt the hero’s straightness.) But as a prepubescent I knew too well that I couldn’t measure up to Dirty Harry, and while I was as much a sadist as any child, my phallic distress vitiated any vicarious, bullet-pumped pleasures, especially since Harry not-so-secretly loved offing San Francisco’s cabalistic fags (e.g., Magnum Force, 1973) in addition to Andy Robinson’s original slobbering perv.
Mellen reveals Clint Eastwood’s howlingly understated defense of Dirty Harry’s persona — which ’70s critics usually recognized as fascistic — as one of cinema’s archetypically destructive wolves-in-sheep’s-clothing. “The kind of thing I do is to glorify competence,” Eastwood once explained, as if Harry’s superhuman marksmanship, Keatonesque indestructibility (often recast as resurrecting Christ symbolism), and nearly Stoical ethical code could be equated with the workaday “competence” of a hacking coalminer or cafeteria gravy-ladler. In The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), we can’t sympathize with either angelic (yet pitiless) Eastwood or devilish (yet unimaginative) Lee Van Cleef, whose respective “goodness” and “badness” are just relative degrees of entrepreneurial sadism. We only sympathize with Eli Wallach’s grubby Tuco, the semi-competent underdog, clever but easily foiled, heroic but all-too-human, the only one of the triumvirate with a history, a biological family (revealed in the scene with his brother, now a priest). His superheroic, Manichean rivals, meanwhile, exist not only beyond the law but, like the clown, beyond historical and bio-familial explanation — they are the consciously inhuman archetypes through which Leone, like all good Italian socialists, satirizes America’s mythic pioneering capitalism. In Eastwood’s The Enforcer (1976), the greatest heroism available to Tyne Daly’s lesbian-coded feminist detective is ultimately a bare competence momentarily worthy of superman Dirty Harry’s throwaway respect. Her climactic martyrdom at the hands of homosexual terrorists graduates her from socially disruptive (yet non-practicing) lesbian to passable, asexual human, and nobly distinguishes her from the leftist-hippie terrorist Harry calls a “fucking fruit” before torching with an extra-cocky rocket launcher. 18 The killing of Daly’s struggling feminist means nothing for feminism; it is rather an event instructing us myth-hungry pawns that, now and then, ahistorical male icons are allowed to acknowledge “difference,” as long as the epiphany occurs in proximity to the final credits and is mysteriously forgotten in time for the sequel. Such is the inherited luxury of ahistorical mythography, and the resiliency of Jungian topoi even Freud couldn’t bury.
The superhero, whether Christian cowboy or Confucian swordsman, is at heart a conformist for whom social law is treated as natural law. When he lets down his Stoical guard and recognizes the compassion of natural law — as when Dirty Harry lets justified rape avenger Sandra Locke off the hook in Sudden Impact (1984) — we are expected to behave like ethically starved dogs grateful for the hero’s humanistic bone. 19 We wonder if the American superman is really a Buddhist, now canonized in .44 magnum Nirvana, whose lingering traces of humanity occasionally peek through from past, forgotten lives, when the myth was still a fallible, emotive human incarnate. To be sure, every few years the audience wakes up a little from its masochistic nightmare — as does Keaton in the final scene of Sherlock Jr. — and begins demanding some flattering realism to offset wholesale emasculations lived and dreamed. It’s perfectly logical that the inexplicable superhumanity of a Dirty Harry (or even Shaft) should droop into embarrassing repetition, genrefication, and concomitant self-parody, since he, though a model of moral conformism, receives his immortality from the same God that grants the amoral clown his. 20 The reactionary, antifeminist audiences of the 80s grew impatient for some realistic meat to flesh out their primitive fantasies — hence, marbled torsos in the Stallone-Schwarzenneger vein, both futuristic, backboned Aryan and primordial Neanderthal in the same ripple.
Through their demand for physical realism and believability, male audiences won for themselves a richer, more beautiful sort of Othering masochism. At very least, worshipping Stallone’s renegade if fascistic nakedness was preferable to drooling over the conformist suit and tie Dirty Harry yanked from the J.C. Penney bargain bin when the feminists weren’t looking. When wrinkles can no longer be oiled away — when biology finally overtakes ahistoricity — actors will try to legitimize their youth through confessional humanism in a film like Cop Land (1997), which offered Stallone reformed as an overweight, crusading loser, a heroic worm, deaf in one ear, whose climactic act of violence is morally cathartic, not pandering. Critics usually employ words like “rehabilitate” or “recuperate” to describe such pathetic gestures — for example, Rambo’s fascistic superheroism is intertextually “recuperated” when a middle-aged, bloated Stallone reframes the jingoistic, sanctimonious violence of his past as a politically correct, revisionist humanism that “rehabilitates” heroic violence by defining it in newly moral terms. But the prefix “re-” seems either unwarranted or misguided; it rather seems that formerly obscene or fallacious models of heroism are for the first time being “cuperated” or “habilitated” as (relative) realisms or kinder moralities. The star’s intertextual aura in itself shouldn’t merit the unintended legitimation the “re-” prefix supplies.
The revolving crux of the spectator’s masochism remains “identification,” a heavily trickled-down version of the narcissism central to Freudian psychosexual development. So sad, unscientific, and convenient is this term that entire film studies sub-fields clustered around what could be called the “Hitchcock routine,” where textual close-readings expose identification as a multifarious, often nefarious web of shifting allegiances and desires, operating under infinitely diverse viewing conditions, all manipulated by a Hitchcockian puppetmaster (if not the man himself) whose much-debated sadism only amplifies his charisma. 21 The second phase of the Hitchcock routine, wherein (usually feminist) critics argued whether sadomasochistic spectatorship is a bitter vitamin or delicious toxin, becomes far trickier, because somehow it doesn’t matter if you wind up defending the sadistic auteur or rooting for the passive spectator. Either way, you still haven’t abandoned the cinema (even if you’re Christian Metz) — it’s your livelihood, after all, so you might as well fully participate in its flamboyant alienations and decorate your private sufferings with public jargon. When early feminists trained in literary criticism proved the existence of sadomasochism (or just gaze-ism) through close textual readings of classical Hollywood, they bloated the mystique of cine-narratology by acknowledging only canonical texts. This was, in the end, not altruistic, bra-burning consciousness-raising, and the mesmerized yet gazed-at masses, by definition, never subscribed to Screen anyway. When budding postmodernism corrected canonical devotions in the 1980s by queerly reading the ambisexual bodies of Liquid Sky (1985), and celebrating the post-genital, cybernetic allegories proposed by Sigourney Weaver’s hybridized, inhumanly lubricious motherhood in Aliens (1986), we all got very excited (even if H.R. Giger’s orally-fixated creature design betrayed residual anthropomorphisms). Well, some of us got excited. Most of us had to worry about the socioeconomic sadisms feminism still hadn’t solved.
The “star system” tells us three things about charisma: it is the premise of identification, it can exist quite apart from narrative, and its exclusivity is expressly, celebratorily designed to be sadistic. The charismatic identifications you indulge in the anonymity of a cinema are instantly humiliated and enlightened by the extradiegetic disidentifications you face leaving the theater’s Aristotelian confines, when you confront the moonlit chill of the parking lot, scrape someone’s cherry bubblegum from your soles, and suddenly realize you’re not Bogart, Toshiro Mifune, Kim Novak, or even Barry Prima at his silliest. Yes, it’s an obvious point, but be honest . . . are you truly a postromantic, or do you only pretend to be?
More sophisticated cultural theorists will argue against reducing spectatorship to the subject’s desire for unfulfillable identifications and a masochistic lifestyle whose best days tender ersatz pleasures we blushingly call “vicarious.” Perhaps my nightmare of cinematic predation, which frankly literalized my own sense of critical powerlessness as panoptical surveillance and brutish rape, fails to acknowledge what pragmatists would deem the sociological necessity of using film genres to embolden, rather than regulate, the masses’ mythopoetic longings. Cinephilic culturalists, who (like feminists) privilege reader-response interpretation over intentionality and technique, certainly wish to be applauded for their popularly democratic agenda. The “negotiated meanings” their jargon realizes aren’t Pollyannaish fantasies, but appeasements made to a mediating cinematic mirror that — quite unlike the corporatists who gloss the mirror’s flaws — is prepared to negotiate with captive employees. Assuredly postmodern culturalist spectators identify freely with chosen Others, and are too sophisticated to be taken in entirely by big guns and bigger tits. They are savvy agents playing with pop culture, not victims raped by its excesses. As culturally knowing insiders, their populist gazes can ably thrust and parry with the sadisms of the scopic regime’s cruelest auteurs, thereby converting the silver screen from a vertical Lacanian mirror into a flattened free market playground, where phallagocularcentrism surely will be trampled, one of these days.
Such heroic spectators refute the disproportionate influence once wielded by French psychoanalysts such as Baudry, who, like the Freud-corrupting Surrealists, likened films 22 to dreams that confine your senses to irrational rules of perception and sutures that make merry with spatio-temporal reality. Here selfconsciousness becomes irrelevant, whether your delusion is dreamt or film-projected. If your brain whispers, “You’re only dreaming,” or if crumpling Zagnut wrappers and heckling prepubescents intrude upon the “naturalism” of your cinematic mirage, your options are still fairly limited, for each environment, material and immaterial, seems equally ungovernable. Or so psychoanalytic aestheticists (as opposed to clinical psychoanalysts) would like us to sleepily believe. Dreams are aesthetic, but they’re not art. Radicals can burn a theater but never a dream, and even the most aleatory paint-dripping has an intentional impetus absent in dream states. The psychoanalytic critics were truly Surrealistic because they wanted to formulate selfconsciousness as an irrelevant game, perhaps to make mislaid willfulness, through that increasingly alchemical language only they could excrete, glow more goldenly (am I still being too kind?). While it responds to this psychoanalytic devaluation of the will, culturalism is hardly a Sartrean gesture; to the contrary, its apologias for the global capitalism that produces pop culture strip existentialism of its transcendental component, repackaging it as a heavily negotiated materialism that, at best, banks on temporarily optimistic outcomes. Superficially, both culturalism and queer theory depend heavily on empowering acts of subjectivity-claiming (e.g., “Asia the Invincible” as a re-historicized transsexual hero(ine), whether psychoanalyzed or not). However, culturalism’s pragmatic materialism distinguishes its brand of postmodernism from that of queer theory, which only in its second phase (say, post-mid-’90s 23 ) began to question the overzealous, almost Bataille-esque transcendentalism it proposed in the 1980s and early 90s, when it seemed but a dab of sci-fi’s gooey hybridity could conquer the world.
Jacinda Read, whose rape-revenge study The New Avengers I offered in the first section of this essay as an example of wanton culturalism, argues that diegetic identifications are more empowering than extradiegetic disidentifications are painful (to use my own terms). While Read acknowledges the capitalist injustices of celebrity culture, she nevertheless confesses,
. . . I have often been troubled by the gap between what I read and write as a feminist academic and my lived experience of feminism and social practice . . . between feminism’s critique of popular culture as the site where normative femininities are constructed and the excited rush of recognition and identification a female avenger, such as Catwoman in the film Batman Returns, inspires.24
Her sneaky conjunction — the nearly invisible “and” — quickly cleaves together recognition and identification, making them sympathetic cousins rather than antipathetic rivals. That we extradiegetically “recognize” certain charismatic or ocularcentric character traits a diegesis hurls at us could well mean we should disidentify with them, just as Plato rejected the Sophists and Gorgian rhetoric. Though we (allegedly) sympathize with the righteousness of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, all sympathies are voided when we antipathetically recognize that in real life she, a beautiful multimillionaire, exploits the very corporatist advantages and exploitations her fictitious character punishes. It’s no longer important whether we recognize this hypocrisy afterwards in the parking lot, in the dark while the film unspools, or years before we arrive at the theater. That question was never important, really.
For “identification” to be anything more than unreformed, unrequited wish-fulfillment, culturalists, postfeminists, and assorted ocularcentric apologists must not assume a happy reciprocity between products and consumers, but prove it. 25 I do hope this reciprocity could be proven, for then something revolutionary could happen: character identification could transform from a sympathetic attachment to a filmic Other the masochistic spectator could never be, to an empathetic attachment to a persona that, for all its formal otherness, embodies a reality that is feasibly within one’s reach. Directors who purport a content of “real populism,” such as John Sayles or Ken Loach, could freely employ famous actors (as they already do) without threatening hypocrisy, for these celebrities, now enmeshed in the give-and-take of a newly democratized culturalism, wouldn’t be in real life much better off than we. The whole of popular culture would have to be dismantled, the star system abolished, the minimum wage raised near the maximum, and all the aggressive drives, primordial signifiers, and patricidal longings beating in our hearts would suddenly give way to the dialectical materialism pounding in our heads. Is this the logical outcome of negotiated meanings? Can we believe the pop-culturalist wolf is really a Marxist sheep? Or do these cultural negotiations never end in a dialectical conclusion and continue eternally, beyond history? Too bad I can’t wait that long to find out — the culture had bankrupted my attention span long ago.
Part Two: Do You Choose Your Subject Matter, or Does It Choose You?
Long before the play of Derrida’s visible erasure marks, we knew that to write is to misrepresent ourselves. The dialectics of argumentation told us this millennia ago, in the Socratic dialogues, where Plato’s straw rhetoricians carried on purely conventional arguments to frustratingly illogical conclusions, going to hubristic lengths to save face and resist the Socratic logos of plebian justice. I can’t claim moral superiority to Plato’s Gorgian foils; I too entertain arguments that pen me into intellectual cul-de-sacs, warping what I believe is my uncommonly sweet soul into a bullying dogmatist, defending half-truthed arguments whose truthful halves I doubt myself. Judging from my indictment of the spectatorial masochism cinema’s superhuman Others generate, readers might conclude I am more Stoical than those cine-mythic heroes whose paranoiac phallic justice eclipses heteronormative terrors of emotiveness and contrition. Complicit in my own misunderstanding, I’ve cast myself as the truly moral hero, the Zenoist for whom Book X of The Republic is too lenient in its censure of ocularcentric illusionism.
I like pleasure, be it from ocularcentric painting, audiocentric music, gastronomocentric food, epidermocentric sex, or olfactorocentric Scotch-nosing. But I’m afraid the great Greek mistake, the tidy opposition between rationalism and emotionalism — a perversion of the proper distinction between logos and mythos — has made pleasure an emotional crutch, not a pragmatic, sensible, goal-oriented act of will. If moderation, the rival of emotionalism and governor of logos itself, keeps pleasure from dominating lives that would be meaningless without pleasure, moderation should also prevent a single sense (i.e., vision) from centrically ruling all our pleasures. If it could be tempered, centricity itself needn’t be innately bad, just as gender essentialism would be fine were it not the immoderately fertile soil of differentiated oppression. We should evaluate centricity pragmatically, and pause before raising its biased pleasures to turgid political contentions; the ocularcentrism of a stunning sushi roll, for instance, won’t bruise anything except the egos of inadequate sushi chefs dependant on the distraction of wasabi. But an excess of centricity becomes worshipfulness — this is why we must be cultural atheists, cheerfully rejecting masochistic adulations of material culture much as we, when adolescents, realized the infinite improbability of an afterlife defined as masochism’s spiritual reward.
Unless we are hermits content in nature’s lap, where we extract pleasure is as important as where we find our mediating Others. Recall from Plato’s Gorgias the problem of Callicles, the elitist, Dionysian hedonist who snubs Socratic democracy and who (theoretically) would mock cinema’s Apollonian superheroes, whose beauties are corrupted by the conventional moralism the culture industry’s narratology foists upon them. In trying to conquer convention with his quasi-Epicurean elitism, however, Callicles himself displays highly conventional ideas he cannot retract; should he admit error, he’d fall victim to shame and public humiliation, becoming prone to the same lowly, manipulative morality that keeps hoi polloi in their place. Callicles scoffs at Socrates’ (above) every attempt to specifically define the pleasures he claims are his supermanly philosophy. Betraying his conventionality, Callicles, more of a Platonist that Socrates himself, reddens when his interlocutor asks if sex is one of his inherently good pleasures, and calls Socrates “shameless” for even mentioning the subject, when, clearly, the shame is all his own. The very act of naming pleasures becomes a humiliating return to materialism’s dirty (and dirtying) specificities, minutia, and trivia. Callicles is not a truly sensual Epicurean, but a vain Idealist who elevates Pleasure to a literally senseless proper noun, an ethereality so spineless that filthy little words like “food” and “sex” tease and debase it.
We can’t experience Pleasure as a proper noun, in the abstract, but only as it is manifested in the experiences lower-case nouns signify. When culturalist critics rob Existentialism of its metaphysical idealism and attempt to dissolve the art world’s high-low binaries, they certainly intend to berate the foolhardiness of Calliclesian elitism, whose aesthetic pieties disguise mock-heroics and lowly shames. The context of the argument in the Gorgias is — as Plato always makes it — a discussion of which citizens are most fit to govern, and Callicles fears that when the inapplicability of his idealistic Pleasure is exposed, the usurping, common-noun hoi polloi will unworthily rule. But we sympathize with Callicles, recognizing in him our own false grandeur — with which we do not “identify”! — and realize that Socrates has trickily painted him into a corner by glossing over the critical distinction between democracy and ochlocracy (a distinction central to Rousseau’s On the Social Contract). Callicles never defends himself with the argument he should make — that the civil idealisms of the polis have repercussions as destructive as exclusionary aesthetics or Nazist liberal arts. Do hoi polloi recognize the difference between democracy and mob rule? Are ostensibly postmodern citizens holding a median undergraduate education capable of defining democracy in non-ochlocratic terms, or understanding that their precious voting rights are corporate oligarchy’s best camouflage? We imagine the mob inevitably would cast D(d)emocracy in terms of other abstract nouns, like F(f)reedom, that war cry whose idealized meaninglessness deafens us to the reality that freedoms are plural and performative, not singular and inert.26
The mob, and its aggrandizing, self-destructive pleasures, must be defended against both Calliclesian antipopulism and the feminisms of a humanist Joan Mellen or doctrinaire Laura Mulvey. Whether from postfeminists, queer theorists, or postmodern culturalists, the defense of pleasure turns on a dual defense of relativistic beauty and its unchained but hopefully ungluttonous consumers, who use their narcissistic free wills to preen in Lacan’s mirror, not degrade themselves before it. Pleasure-beauty becomes a hybrid monologue, like Foucault’s power-knowledge, and the lower the pleasures, the more we prove the expanses of our aesthetic magnanimity. The ethical binaries between high and low art were mooted by Christian Metz’s formulation of good object relations, where “filmic pleasure and filmic unpleasure…[are not] arranged in positions of antithetic symmetry, since the [cinematic] institution as a whole has pleasure as its aim.” 27 But “the” institution is not a singular thing 28 and doesn’t really exist “as a whole,” just as Pleasure is not an abstract holism where all pleasures, sadistic and masochistic, inclusionary and exclusionary, warmly huddle beneath a democratic umbrella. Metz psychologized cinematic spectatorship in terms of an active willfulness that rebounded between risky cinephilia and guilty cinephobia. But as the overbearing and inescapable pressures of corporatism remove voluntariness from cinema-consciousness, this kind of psychology is obsolete. Because engaging the cinema is no longer a willful, volitional, locomotive action, spectatorship is no longer just for spectators — nor is the cinema even the thing “cinema,” cordoned by walls and darkness, but a cultural octopus latched onto and into all media, all leering advertising, every bloodily inscribed signpost and every godly billboard in every glittering city square, slothful suburban mall, and putrid ghetto nook, suctioned to every optic fiber of our damnably culturalist being. If you look away, you’re still a spectator — because there’s no safe place to look.
Extrapolating from the optimism offered by “good object relations,” cultural studies tried to nullify high-low binaries by (correctly) critiquing our genrefication of taste, undoing the cultural value judgments historically invested in aesthetic forms: effete salon lieder, all technical niceties aside, aren’t better than racially charged reggae, Picasso himself surely approved of graffiti, and even if your ill-educated palette prefers clammily tinned wieners and aerosol cheese over truffled foie gras and St. André, your worthless voting privileges shouldn’t be revoked. Critical historiographies of genre-as-content, rather than genre-as-form, rejoiced in the discovery that I Spit on Your Grave(1978) is more sociopolitically relevant than the arias of syrupy operas where, in the words of George Bernard Shaw, the tenor and soprano repeatedly call attention to the fact that at last they meet again. But framing classism in terms of content somehow didn’t save our decadent souls, and delving into slum texts as an enlightening (if skeptical) adventure, as did Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws, was as much a balm for bourgeois egoism as social ills. Plugging in to Stockhausen after supper and then maintaining a straightened smirk through a midnight double-bill of The Black Gestapo and Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold may have rescued us from the tyrannies of tastefulness, but mere combinations of high and low couldn’t dent the cultural hegemonies that marginalize all extremes, regardless of their stature.
The coarseness of the nouveau riche and the economic desperation of the declassed intellectual tell us that axes of high and low, of form and content, don’t always cross simply and congruently, or according to Bourdieu’s (mostly) trusty logic of class reproduction. As generations pass, the prized content of a genre can undergo drastic transformation, while its form remains undisturbed, crystallized. Examples abound in the supra-form we call classical music, a network of middle and high genres history clumsily threw together to confuse us. 29 In their own times, Adam’s Giselle and Glazunov’s Raymonda were solidly middlebrow and maligned by progressives (years before atonality was at issue), while the skirling twaddles of Offenbach and Viennese cadences of Johann Strauss, Jr. barely boosted hoi polloi to the middlebrow’s slippery bottom rung. With a blanketing cultural critique stretched a bit too thin, the astringent Adorno went further, effectively refusing distinctions between the watery, epical romance of Sibelius and the dance-hall’s dingy swoons. Today the courtly insipidities of Frescobaldi (an innovator in the 17th century!) and Telemann are properly relegated to classical radio’s dumbed-down lunchtime hours, allowing banks and offices to (presumably) motivate their upwardly mobile employees with the harmonies of immobile aristocracies only seemingly dead. Yet even classical music’s most trivial horrors are laundered in the decadence of repertoire, where bad art persists irrationally, brain-dead, and “high,” where the Othering mirror reassures us, through cobwebs, that the Calliclesian ideal of class persists, transcending all shameful contents. (We, powerless, waited for some elite to pull Telemann’s plug for us, so our century could breathe at least — but we choked on Boulez’s air too.) For any sane 30 person, a content of pleasure-beauty cannot be the goal of such cryogenic chestnuts, regardless of the listener’s social stature.
If pop culturalism, for the sake of heterogeneity, made it shameful to choose your own pleasures, just hopefully remember that good high art — intelligent art — rises from the same material shit of which hoi polloi and false hedonists are equally ashamed. Perhaps this view is too optimistic, and, like so many arguments, one-sided. But we see this optimism in an outsider art genius like Harry Partch, who burned his early, middlebrow compositions and traveled for nearly a decade as a hobo before developing his avant-garde system of microtonality, playable only on self-made, patchwork instruments of iron and exotic tubing: the diamond marimba, the drone devils, cone gongs, the cloud chamber bowls, the Eucal Blossom, the Quadrangularis Reversum, the Spoils of War. 31 The only pseudo-postmodern ethos of outsider art usually re-authenticates low amateurism by appreciating it within a higher commercial context — when grand bourgeois insiders give to outsider art their stamp of approval, amateurism and primitivism are not raised but rather reinforced, rewarded for humanizing truth and democratizing beauty (perhaps, in this case, pleasure is an accident or afterthought). A deliberately cerebral outsider work such as Partch’s melodrama (“opera” is an inadequate term) Revelations in the Courthouse Park(1960), a multiculturalized recreation of The Bacchae of Euripides, resists this sort of condescension. Not simply solipsistic (as outsider art can be), the work lies technically beyond the intellectual grasp of many professionals and is, more crucially, generically indefinable, calling for dance, mime, tumbling, orators, soloists and choruses singing in multiple styles, and a visible orchestra that, in the style of traditional Japanese theater, plays onstage and participates in the action. Partch’s abstruse intellectuality bypasses altogether the bourgeois goals of recognition and upward mobility, and his pathetic hobo biography (which sets him apart from semi-outsiders like Ives or Varèse) inflates romantic notions of late-blooming, transcendental genius, disregarding the mere artisanal eccentricity, or even the Duchampian aura of the objet trouvé, through which outsider art liberates insider spectators.
In the culturally elitist decades before capitalism became “advanced,” the anthropological nationalism of Brahms, Kodaly, Bartók, etc. drew upon low folk sources to authenticate their learned harmonizing, and simultaneously claimed commemorative kinship with the materialism hoi polloi connote. In the earliest days of VHS connoisseurship, the capitalist laws of supply and demand manifested this kinship formalistically, as improbable intersections of videotape cultishness — somehow, high aesthetes like Ferreri, Greenaway, Jodorowsky, and Arrabal were enthusiastically catalogued adjacent to schlocky bloodletters like Umberto Lenzi, Lucio Fulci, Jess Franco, and Paul Naschy simply because, twenty years ago, all were rare or forbidden objects unashamed of the bodily fluids decency stifles. At least, all these auteurs, high or low, were brotherly fantasists, 32 opposed to the mainstream’s doctrine of polite humanist realism, and when clumped together conjured the fantasy of the imagined community of a rebellious cult. When the culture industry consolidated its artistic interests in the homogenized middle, it no longer mattered if poles of high and low could coexist in “symbiotic authenticity,” for the petit bourgeois fist and its music-video aesthetic made mincemeat from each, not caring to segregate the cruelly homemade pâté from the assembly-line wieners, only seeking to mold the narcissistic contentment of the 18-49 white male demographic.
The middlebrow’s killer capitalisms needed to be tamed by returning to the defense of pleasure-beauty, as idealized in our “empowering” submissions to pop mythography (Catwoman, or Asia the Invincible, or whatever). The blockbuster aesthetic — now as much a Korean, Indian, Chinese, Thai, British or French ideology as an American one — was our common good, centripetally spinning and washing high and low transnational citizens (like high and low art) to cleanse them, respectively, of fascism and gross illiteracy, even if theism and oligarchy emerged from the rinse cycle polished and gleaming. A study such as Read’s The New Avengers, which inflates sophomoric self-referentialities found in pop culture texts into noteworthy subversions of race-sex-gender dynamics, is unpersuasive because we know the feared “cultural elitism” of Mahler and cognac is peanuts compared to the purely economic elitism of a multibillion-dollar culture industry that makes all charisma fascistic and all intellectualism boring. Worst of all, because postmodernism pretends to multicultural balance, it hasn’t even the guts to castrate Telemann’s wheezing organ. We’ve got to have some standards! (Stalin’s lethal solution, which makes doctrinaire postmodernism look riotously timid, did work once in awhile — a work such as Khachaturian’s Gayaneh purees levels of highness, lowness, and middleness into pleasurable indistinguishability. The advantages of pointing a gun at a good artist’s head!)
Not everything high is exclusive, and not everything exclusive is high. If “highness”itself is the real issue, an Anton Webern piano recital or Chris Marker retrospective free of charge is still socially harmful because it excludes uneducated hoi polloi. This harm, however, is trifling compared to the economic injustices produced by pop concerts (or plays or movies or, indeed, popular repertory operas), which don’t exclude though intellectual criteria (pop has to be radically legible) but economic ones (prohibitively expensive tickets which disproportionately reward the holders of manufactured, bureaucratic charisma 33. The “democratic” response to unrestrained culturalism was America’s indie film movement, apparently the melding of humble budgets, dully pandering humanism, and politically Green actors whose earthy charisma and wanton facial stubble defied the clean McCarthyite charisma of Hollywood’s Brylcreem dinosaurs. But remember that a “humble” budget is still more than most world citizens earn in a lifetime, and a thousand thick quotations of Pierre Bourdieu can’t transform the cultural capital of a second-chair violist goofily faltering through Pulcinella into real capital. Classical music may have been the dominant taste-maker a century ago, but it so lacks politico-aesthetic influence today that its “highness” is quite the inapplicable ethereality Callicles was so fearful of articulating — it exists only to prove, against all odds, it can exist.
By unknotting the rarefications and exclusions ingrained in cults of high and low, and by advancing a materialistic existentialism, culturalism made taste a moral question; though championing subjectivity, it maintains all pleasures, all eyes, all taste buds, all nerve endings, are made equal. The emphasis on agencies of taste, however, overlooks the reality that cults originally arise though ostracization, as defensive reactions against the self-reflective pain Mellen saw produced by mainstream cinema’s archetypal heroism (or any enviable, unviable Other). This pain (if correctly recognized as involuntary pain, not a matter of the postmodern spectator’s volitional taste) is usually ridiculed — sometimes rightly — by reframing it as the masturbatory compulsions, ritual obsessions, and cultural territorialism home-grown in fan magazines and lonely basements. Yet all tiers of collective social organization have their own entry fees, fetishistic initiations, ludicrous dress codes, and pompous stages of developmental arrest. When the beloved Texaco Opera Broadcast coaxed guest panels of ascoted pansies into imagining which shrieking Strauss heroine would most benefit from a stretch on the Freudian chaise, the gesture was no less infantile or isolationist than a geeky 1980s horror fan obsessing over the technicalities of Gianetto DeRossi’s eye-poking makeup effects and maggoty zombie brows. If anything, the very pretense of pseudo-democratizing and de-marginalizing high culture through phony low culture games is more delusionally infantile than low culture jerking itself off to what was known, accepted, and masochistically loved as life committed unwillfully to the margins. We’re not talking about preferences for centricity or eccentricity. Taste is for the free.
You’ll always be disappointed if you confuse taste with intelligence. The smartest, highest critics will shock you with wild or careless admissions of likes and dislikes. When Slavoj Žižek calls Chaplin’s sorry Limelight a “great” film because it, like The Great Dictator, is evidence of “the disruptive force of the voice” 34 that characterizes Chaplin’s insertion of mechanical sound into his silent film ethos, we can only assume greatness exists wherever an argument mandates its existence. Apart from a glint of personality humanizing conceited Lacanian declamations, “great” is only a peg in a one-sided argument. Greatness doesn’t exist for our pleasure.
If we assent to the variously psychodynamic cinephobias of Metz, Mellen, and those that shot through my own masochistic nightmare, I can’t say the cinema, either in its academic greatnesses or freethinking lownesses, exists for subjective pleasure either. Postmodernism and queer theory’s goal of subjectivity-claiming can be no more valid than the masochistic vehicles through which forward-looking, feministically-empowered, post-queered subjects are claimed. As we return to our initial subject matter of violent rape — not only that encoded in horror narratology but that directed socioeconomically at the audience itself — we must distinguish between narratives’ Sadean violence of taste and how audiences absorb the tastes of strangers (filmmakers) to acquire it masochistically as their own. When I insist that “we’re not talking about taste,” I’m not vainly arguing that taste and distaste, like and dislike, are not in play, but simply that we can’t be held accountable for strange tastes cine-technology encourages us to guiltily mistake for archetypal wish-fulfillments. Carol Clover, writing in 1992, offered breathless apologias for her ‘sociological’ enjoyment of rape-revenge; today younger graduates of film studies programs can bypass the classist ideology of the “guilty pleasure” — guilt has been washed away, pleasure promoted to beauty. Unsoothed by the postmodern solution, my problem is quite the opposite of Clover’s: having enjoyed the vicariousness of horror and rape-revenge as a child, its masochism, lingering cancerously and not as a fugitive trace, now makes me cringe in a displeasure whose guilt can’t be passed off as an alienated aesthetic preference or postmodern claim to schlock’s sociological vitality. Rather, I must examine my autobiography honestly and account for how this unnaturally acquired taste for violence tattered the impressionable fabrics of my personality and biased my cultural knowledge. I didn’t initially choose the “low” topic of movie rape to be culturally beneficent — the subject matter easily recognized the lowness in me.
Part Three: The Returned of the Raped, Skin Curiously Intact
From a position of lowness and poverty, imposed in necessarily equal and mirrored measures by self and other, culturalism’s cinematic Constitution now centers us marginals so we may wield the ultimate symbol of petit heroism: the right to bear arms. The glories of violence — the right to avenge homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, etc. — are the end result of subjectivity-claiming, if we’re to accept Burnt Money (2000) at face value, and treat as a semi-pragmatic model Helen Leung’s psychoanalysis of Lin Ching-hsia’s “Asia the Invincible,” whose male-to-female body morph allegorizes the legitimacy of male violence transitorily passing into feminized (or, in Leung’s analysis, essentially and legitimately female) possession. No longer must we thicken with overemphatic speculation the murky, euphemistic, or Mellvillian waters of the repressedly homoerotic genre film, from Gilda (1946) to The Killer (1989), whose proposed homosexualities are a dead-end morass of psychoanalysis and corrupted intentionality, still enmeshed in the triangulated system of misogyny that Joan Mellen sensed in 1977 and Eve Sedgwick more systemically articulated in 1985. No longer must we seek pleasures in outré films that, when closely inspected, betray orificial evasions and aversions, as when queer Udo Kier in Flesh for Frankenstein(1974) fistfucks in the gall bladder his female zombie and not the prettier male counterpart his gaze, in all fairness, should rightfully assail. Nor need we unearth and justify examples of heroic yet deeply flawed nonheteronormativity in Asian cinemas, such as the gay martial arts master in Liu Chia-liang’s minor classic Dirty Ho (1979), whose surprising formidability is offset by the flaming effeminacy his Peking Opera-esque skills connote.35 But if we’ve finally won the right to assimilating heroic violence, do we really want it, or only the right to spit in its archetypal face? Or perhaps we should recast Kung-sun Lung-tzu’s famous linguistic puzzle, “Is a white horse a horse?” (“No, it’s a white horse!”), and ask “Is healthy violence still violence?”
Whether we need access to heroic representations of vengeful-cathartic-empowering violence depends on whether, first, we’re willing to reproduce the painfully archetypal conventions Mellen identifies in superhumanly, charismatic aggression, and second, if such a reproduction can be staved by reinventing the ways in which violence is stylistically or modally (re-)presented. If the avenues of quaint shock (Hammer horror), realism (Tobe Hooper or rape-revenge), mythic fantasy (Tsui Hark), closeted machismo (John Woo), parody (George Romero), self-parody (Sam Raimi), and satire (Alphaville, 1965) have been fairly exhausted, it may be difficult to find new, liberating modes through which violence can be made a viable, non-oppressive aesthetic option. In order to claim a new mode of violence, we must overcome the anxious influence of film history’s vast panorama of ocularcentric bloodsheds, while obstinately resisting a runaway computer technology whose new realism — perhaps pixelated “post-realism” — increasingly accrues fetish and charisma values in itself, having already infected (since 1997-98) the Hong Kong cinema whose dusty falls and wireworks were once prized as action cinema’s last bastion of honorable materialism. Yet as all genres, from classical music to martial arts, broaden, adjust, and reform, so must modes of representation — here, the representation of violence — undergo environmental change. In the past decade or so, film violence has become more hysterical and more permissible through changes in both technique and genre. As long as representing violence is bound up with sophisticated (computer) technology, censoring violence is tantamount to impeding technology itself; meanwhile, censorship was appeased, and maybe got a little delinquent, when it realized the escalating uproars and frenzies of the new strain of self-referential horror films only exposed their inherently generic and thus tamable makeup. The exaggeratedly “real” gruesomeness of House of a Thousand Corpses (2003), properly and postmodernistically stylized, escaped with a courteous “R” rating, something unthinkable fifteen years ago, when censors saw genre a bit more anally. At the risk of excessive Greek moderation, one nearly longs for censorship’s triumphant return, so it can preserve cinema violence as the precious controlled substance we once proudly, illegally bootlegged. We haven’t lost our taste for violence; it’s just that violence, now in such gluttonous supply, isn’t that tasty anymore.
Without offering a complete historiography of conventions of film violence (!), we should keep in mind that modal (or technical) representations of demonic violence in horror cinema ran influentially parallel and often intersected with the heroic violences celebrated in actions genres. We might assume now-accepted imageries of violence were spearheaded mostly by generic horror, from Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein (which, with its formaldehyde-floating eyeballs, made British censors in 1957 fear for society’s collapse), to the gritty woodland realism of ’70s rape-revenge, to the prosthetically shammed video snuff porn of Japan’s 1980s Guinea Pig series, 36 to the recent, panderingly technologized music-video retreads of Dawn of the Dead (2004) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003). Yet bloodshed in action genres — at least since Sam Fuller’s Run of the Arrow (1957) and Arthur Penn’s The Left-Handed Gun (1958) tentatively introduced into American cinema blood squibs and slow-motion fatality — has run a parallel trajectory of considerable auteurist expression, if we forgive the brainwashed ubiquity of post-Bonnie and Clyde (1967) squibbery. Action cinema once painted a violence well beyond Peckinpah plagiarisms and exploding garments; indeed, perhaps only now can we appreciate objectively the nascently idiosyncratic, fugitive violences of Kenji Misumi, Hideo Gosha, occasionally of Robert Aldrich, of Okamoto’s brutally black-and-white Sword of Doom (1967) and Kill! (1968), 37 of the adventurously phony, Shawscoped arm-severing in The Bells of Death (1968), of the expressionistically torn squares of flesh in Teruo Ishii’s Blind Woman’s Curse (1970). But auteurist sadism succumbed to the homogenizations of standardized effects. If we’re willing to suffer through hours of stilted, workshopped dialogue in some overproduced blockbuster about ancient Sparta, we should be appeased, at least, with current fashions in seamless dismemberment and gouging. But we — if not hopelessly militant — are appeased less and less with each passing year, with each technological hurdle demystified. We’re offended further when the costs of technological self-satisfaction are whitewashed with marketplace humanism. The wartime gore effects of Kang Je-gyu’s Tae Guk Gi (2004), its battlefield pandemonia romantically imagined with Louma cranes, wild shutter speeds, and unison violas, aren’t plastic medals of outré honor, but de rigueur signifiers of bourgeois realism that make fiery expanses of Dantean horror human, gut-wrenching, pitiless, and, in the end, so damned pretty your eyes can’t look away.
To counteract pop violences inflamed by runaway technology deluded of its realism, we might turn to the kind of surrealistic inversions suggested by Svankmajer’s Little Otik (2000), a cruel fairy-tale that, like much of Svankmajer’s work, renders violence not only grotesquely unrealistic but simultaneously fantastic and tactile, subverting ideologies that accept the materiality of violence as an automatic signifier of the “real.” As in his shorts, Svankmajer presents the civilized, opposably-thumbed act of eating with utensils as a revolting, animalistic procedure largely of the mouth, bowels, and intestines, not the brain, taste buds, or palette (perhaps as a Czech filmmaker growing up under Communism, the luxuriousness and exclusivity associated with rich meals carries a measure of disgust). When Svankmajer’s dreary apartment-block characters greedily, raucously slurp in close-up porridges, creams, and other culinary aberrations, their primordial oral and intestinal obsessions seem more vile and abject than the anthropophagous consumptions of Otik, the fabled tree-monster of the film’s title, who terrifies less for his gore-spilling than for his very irrational existence as a folk myth resurrected to reenact a pre-scripted fate in post-Soviet housing. The oral cavities of Svankmajer’s “rational” human characters can quaff soup as maliciously as wolverines gnaw flesh, but they’re about as capable of meaningful, linguistic interaction as the dialectically opposed clay heads of Svankmajer’s Dimensions of Dialogue (1982), who, cursed with silent (though panting) tongues, self-destruct from the tragic miscommunications of oral mime. But Otik’s irrationally is purely passive — he, a myth, is fated to eat the neighbors and disembowel a nosy social worker. Encouraging us to view the stop-motion-animated Otik as a pathetic victim, Svankmajer keeps the monster’s anthropophagy (mostly) offscreen, limited to visions of uncanny aftermath or, in one case, a clumsily tossed spleen. The director similarly sympathizes with the irrationality of the film’s old pedophile, who can’t help himself when it comes to the little girl upstairs; when a seductive, metonymical hand, not a lunging, withered penis, protrudes from the old gent’s trousers, Svankmajer lessens the revulsion outsiders (like pedophiles) usually instill, as his raping organic offense is replaced wittily through the director’s unreal handicraft.
Criticism of Svankmajer’s films, however, usually emphasizes that his reversals of the organic and inorganic only intensify rather than mellow horror. Some viewers might find the incongruity of that animated (and, indeed, still aggressive) hand reaching from the pedophile’s zipper more disturbing than the sight of his actual member. When the animated, paper-doll rabbit in Alice (1987) is dryly decapitated with enormous shears, to loudly overdubbed sounds of ripping cloth, some might rather see more familiar, “logical” images of a rotary saw, a prosthetic human head, and stump-pumped crimson, all synched to sounds of squirting and slush. But as Surrealism subverts conventional orders through inversion and incongruity, Svankmajer (unlike antirealist decadents such as Lynch or Jodorowsky 38 disturbs not by presenting us with weird, undreamed-of horrors, or even alluding to absent ones. Rather, when his ancient, scissors-and-paper technology — wrapped in a highly sophisticated montage, to be sure — gets under our skin, it’s only because we are revealed as twistable puppets for whom horror is a purely fabricated convention. Our gluttonies and loud intestinal consumptions announce the body without liberating it; we are children afraid of myths, of paper trees, and by too-tightly embracing bodily functions we liquidate pleasures and dwell only in wastes and terrific decay. That bodily tactility and fluidity frighten most when transposed to dry, animated bodies of straw is our ultimate self-alienation and admission of defeat.
Certainly, we can discover this fright of primal tactility — our postmodern fear of the absence of the virtual — without recourse to Surrealism or any other ideology. Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, and Giuseppe De Liguoro’s 1911 silent L’Inferno 39 is a unique marvel of the primitive silent era, a bizarrely imbalanced concoction of primitivistic, “tactile” stage trickery and Meliès-style optical effects whose technical despair only amplifies Dante’s infernal trials. With jaw-dropping images of a double-exposed, thirty-foot tall Lucifer gobbling legs and spirits, naked hoards swimming the Styx and buried to their necks in Hell’s kitchen tiles, and multiheaded monsters of alarming fakery and glued fur, the film must now be considered the greatest visual achievement of its time. 40 Perhaps L’Inferno is just primitive nostalgia, the antithesis of hyperactive MTV-ism, but its beautiful, unashamed primitivism (nostalgic or not) is the nakedness technophiles now believe is relegated to the embarrassment of dreams, where stranded without clothes (or perhaps a notepad) you become perfectly naturalized and de-technologized in your horrible, self-alienated body. At least, there is a palpable liberation in seeing L’Inferno‘s hoards of naked (or g-stringed) extras scrambling over a foam abyss in 1911, before censorship laws made us ashamed of our bodies, when the punishments of Dante were precisely Dantean (cardboard Cerberus and all), not an unendurable, multimillion-dollar sound stage of popping blood squibs cornily envisaged as a film festival’s redemptive humanism.
Alarmist and yellow journalists notwithstanding, the media haven’t desensitized us to ocularcentric violence nearly enough, even if we, occasionally stunned and stunted by unexamined conventionalism, find Svankmajer’s iniquitous puppetry more galling than Iraqi war corpse-counts. Film and television may have wedged geographical distance and electrified fields between spectators and consumed representations of violence, but, if my aforementioned nightmare taught me anything, perceptions mediated passively shouldn’t be confused with sensation. We’re benumbed by the fictions of media violence (whether courtesy of Peter Jennings or Herschell Gordon Lewis) simply because its universal repetition tells us we are powerless to prevent its form from engulfing us, just as, according to Mellen, we’re masochistically complicit in maintaining Hollywood’s march of aggressive charisma. As for violence’s content,however, we’re still quiveringly sensitive. Compared to vainglorious Vikings, mattock-heaving Anglo-Saxons, torturous Crusaders, belly-slicing samurai, mud-toiling serfs, insidious officials of dynastic China, or Mexican Revolutionaries, we are soft, edible sheep so unprepared and over-responsive to violence that our daily rapes and nonchalant knifings, our high school massacres, our neighborhood pedophilic molestations still shock and awe our senses. We collapse bewildered to penitent knees, flipping through talk show sociology and large-print books to understand how violence alienated us to the violence to which we should have been conscious. At the risk of joking badly, if we’re so desensitized, why can’t we withstand our thousand natural shocks without rousing prefectural hysteria? Where are our moral calluses? Why hasn’t evolution, posing as the media’s social conditioning, shut down our tear ducts, disbelieved our existentialisms, and returned us (or advanced us?) to the days when homo erecti happily hacked at one another, free of guilt and artistic intermediation? If these questions sound profoundly silly, it’s because desensitization and alienation are two quite different things — the more alienated we become, the more sensitive we must pretend to be.
Repeated exposure to the culture industry’s indifferent, offhand violences still does, however, affect our judgments of form, eroding and rendering irrelevant the epidermal violations that anthropologist Mary Douglas, in her classic study of tribal taboos Purity and Danger (1966), theorized as universal mechanisms of social control. Human rituals of epidermal cleanliness, elitist classification of species (holy human/filthy pig), and rigid social regimens regarding mating, fertility, eating, excretion, bleeding and other orificial functions maintain orders between insiders and outcasts, control and chaos, sacred and profane, high culture and low culture (the very orders that Svankmajerian surrealism exposes as a tactile dictatorship of fear). Orifices, particularly genital and rectal, are sites of anxious political pregnancy; they are bodily boundaries requiring the protection of censorial taboos, particularly when the body politic is most threatened by invaders. As sociologist James Aho pithily puts it, “the tighter the ghetto, the tighter its holes.”
Going beyond a critique of mere phallagocularcentricism, Aho, partly following Douglas’ model, reminds us social taboos include obscene smells, 41 alien (unkosher) foods, and the former audial offenses of “unconventional musical forms such as syncopation and jazz.” 42 Aho continues:
The terror of personal pollution strikes when beloved social forms are believed pregnable. In one society, the invader may be imagined as an alien food or drug, the members’ mouths serving as the signifier of vulnerability, which therefore becomes the focus of policing. In a second, the semen of outsiders may seen as the vehicle of attack, the symbol of group weakness being the vaginas of its females . . . elsewhere, it might be the members’ noses or their ears that are inscribed as penetration routes, submitted to surveillance and regulated by law.43
Immigrants, therefore, may be perceived as more likely to be rapists because the pregnability of a society’s individual vaginas symbolize the perceived economic threat that border-penetrating migrants pose to the whole culture. Ritual female genital mutilation is, in this sociology, not a needlessly cruel antifeminism, but a “necessary” way of discouraging foreign marauders from raping indigenous women, thereby maintaining a tribal society’s self-contained purity against the threat of external despoilers. From this geographical dichotomy of “clean tribal insiders versus dirty rival invaders,” cultures extrapolate an analogous (or microcosmic) model to deal with preexisting filth within the herd. Indigenous citizens who threaten right orders — witches, homosexuals, masturbators, adulterers, cripples, those of certain skin pigmentations or hair colors — become unholy outcasts as well. While some prohibitions, such as those against epidermal filth, body odor, bestiality, and incest, seem semi-universal, Aho stresses that many are arbitrary consequences of culture or history. In some cultures (and during Western medieval history) mental retardation is equated with demonic possession, while some tribes rationalize those with defective nervous systems as divine beings — congenital blindness begets a pineal third eye, or the involuntary speaker of tongues is ritually appointed as shaman. To use one of Aho’s modern-world examples, the ganja deemed unclean, unhealthy, and unholy by the U. S. government is throughout South and Central America invested with mystical and medicinal properties that preserve rather than defile social orders of wholeness-holiness.
Following Douglas’ Durkheimian functionalism but deriding her latent Roman Catholicism, 44 which balks at mixing sacred and profane, Aho goes beyond symbolic dichotomies of inside (known orders, rationality) and outside (unknown disorders, irrationality) to propose a universalized (or “Copernican”) anthropology where human orifices, by regulating what comes in and goes out, also act as passages where purities and pollutants mix, merge and ironically pollute one another. Orifices are transitional sites, conduits of instability that determine the interrelations between exterior nature and interior psyche, between the individualism we believe is internally created and the external society that, paradoxically, first proposed willful individualism as a viable ideology. If taboo-empowered orifices (for nothing empowers more than prohibition) are defined as two-way conduits rather than one-way barriers, dirtiness can’t be reduced to unbelonging and exile, as Douglas (more or less) believed. After all, the bodily portals permitting holy entrance are the same gates enforcing unholy expulsions. Recognizing in the Portuguese imundo an etymological conflation of the otherworldly and the sacred, Aho sees holiness and unholiness as overlapping, not polar, a confusion that can take expressly political and ironic shape when insiders define unclean taboos allegedly threatening societal wholeness. For example, the male homosexual is both fearsomely powerful and degenerately powerless, and outcasted Others internalize their mythologization, turning ostracism into romantic notions of queerness. Science fiction movies more gleefully stress corporeally symbolized distinctions between insiders and outsiders by hyperbolizing the deaths of alien intruders. When the insectoid monsters of Aliens or Starship Troopers (1997) crack and burst, both filmmakers and MPAA censors allow the aliens’ precious bodily fluids to spill far more copiously, or squirt under much greater pressure, than would human blood — not because slimy alien blood is too unrealistic to terrify, but because persuasive physical (in this case, liquid) evidence is required to demonstrate the “reality” of Otherness’ horror.
Obviously, this anthropology of inside and outside has more to do with cultural studies than merely offering a working analogy of the ways in which high-low binaries are maintained or violated along tribalist lines of controlled cleanliness (highness) and uncontrolled filth (lowness). Considering how acutely we’re concerned with defensive and/or usurping penetrations aimed at the ocularized cinema screen itself, as well as the penetrations delivered upon the fictitious, mirroring characters who dwell there, these distinctions between insiders and outsiders relate directly to feminist, queer, culturalist, and/or neo-Marxist critiques of the spectatorship of violence. If we accept my presupposition that we’re frightfully alienated but not really desensitized — that, in fact, alienation and desensitization exist obversely — we can avoid rehashing our responses to film violence and sinking to the “concerned citizens” morality debates that mortified the better of us in the 70s and 80s. Instead, let’s first consider how we still ascribe generic meaning to acts of film violence. If a purportedly hip action film like Ong Bak (2003) turns out to be embroiled in conventional, generic morality, and is lavished with and emboldened by fulsome mainstream publicity, we can assume the shrewdly postmodern spectators predicted by culturalism loyally reproduce Douglas’ tribalistic poles of purity (narrativized as heroism) and impurity (narrativized as villainy). As it assumes modes of conventional heroism, action cinema’s violences ideologically diverge from those of conventional horror cinema, despite any aesthetic or technological kinship between them. The action hero submits to a social anthropology where bloodletting — the violation of the interior/exterior bodily order — exists only to distinguish between legal-rational insiders and illegal-irrational outsiders (the simplistic, if not simply boring, predetermination of this anthropology is certainly what renders action movies susceptible to vigorous race-class-gender-sex deconstructions). In action films, heroic skin may be perforated to prove toughness and an ability to cling to lively, heteronormative orders, just as young males in the audience prove worth and prestige by either stoically withstanding images of the harshest violence, or defensively laughing off terrors that, if presented with Svankmajerian surreality, would be less easily rationalized. 45 We then await the hero’s ritualistic bandaging sequences (often performed by his mothering love interest) or cauterization scenes (always done by himself) that will rightfully return his skin and social order, stronger than before. The perforation of villainous skin, of course, is a “final” solution, not the outcasting of filth but the eradication of it, if the so law allows.
Takeshi Kitano’s semi-straight-faced pastiche Zatoichi (2003), though suffering from the director’s usual disease of deadly, prestige-hungry hipness, cleverly satirizes our conventional responses to the “epidermality” of film violence, experimentally using computer technology to dismantle rather than embolden the accepted orders of realism and control typically signified by penetrations of the skin. Rather than using standard, material gore effects (squibs, blood bags), Kitano manufactures in post-production, through CGI effects, the splashes of blood that accompany each sword killing. The hyperbolic, computerized blood doesn’t merely parody or render ghostly the blatantly physical effects of Misumi, Okamoto, and their chambara brethren, but rather affronts the materialism inherent in Douglas’ divisions between internal order and external chaos, as signified in the bloodily permeable skin that divides individual from society. At first, Kitano’s violence is so clearly, joyously virtual — as opposed to just phony — that we are maddened when our bloodthirsty expectations go unmet. Soon, we realize Kitano’s ostensible celebration of technology is his best critique of it. The computer technology so endlessly touted to advance the realism of winged beasts and scenes of the Roman Coliseum turns out to be realism’s paramount subversion, as the digitized gore, intentionally failing to reproduce the natural world, also fails to represent the skin (or slashed kimonos) that vulnerably stands between internal, self-contained, life-giving blood and spilled, polluted, moribund blood. It’s also probable that, had Kitano used “real” blood effects, his film would have received an “X” rating — censors understand the “moral” harmlessness of fake blood better than the ideological harmfulness of tampering with realism. Nevertheless, Kitano’s experiment doesn’t go far enough; because his technological gamesmanship is embedded within a (basically) conventional narrative structure, the film’s subversion of bodily boundaries fails to symbolically translate into a parallel subversion of narrative structure or morality.
If moral action heroes withstand trials by violence, audiences of horror films, vicariously denying death to strengthen their staminas, assume a similar, heroic position when they endure whatever violences the horror genre throws at them. We enter theaters where horror films unspool prepared to assume subjective positions as victims (for the moment, I’ll avoid the word “identify,” which implies not only a greater collaboration with culturalism, but a more serious investment in generic formulae of heroes and antiheroes about which, I believe, we should remain skeptical or atheistic.) If we consider ourselves social “insiders,” 46 the potential violation and defilement of “our” symbolically political skin — maybe the only thing we own outright from birth to death — places us in the position of scapegoats, who may be “pierced” by the horror screen’s sadism, thus exposed as weak, unworthy, tainted, and undeserving of remaining a privileged social insider. For our present discussion of action-film heroism and horror-film victimhood, I’ve assumed separations of conventions — bodily, moral, and generic — that are becoming increasingly untidy and are ever-prone to overlap. When action films posit a nihilistic hero, they invariably invest him with monstrous-filthy topoi [e.g., Ichi the Killer,above, 2001], and when horror films posit a redeemable monster [e.g., Hannibal, 2001], they allow him holy heroism traditionally the domain of conformists and insiders. In later sections of this essay, we’ll investigate this issue more thoroughly, and discuss how the hybridizations of genres disrupt the holy/filthy and heroic/monstrous moralities that genres, in their pure forms, enlist.
The issue of generic despoliation is already raised, however, by the rape-revenge film, which posits as a hero not a pure male insider but a young woman, usually sexually frustrated and uncertain of her place in society, whose very bodily pregnability and despoliation sets in motion the despoliation, or hybridizing, of the action and horror genres she will meld and operate within. Clover’s gender-misidentifying “final girl” scenario allows male audiences to (masochistically) first enjoy being the weak outsider (posited as female), and then face the paradox that in order to become a whole and holy insider, she must enact a performative maleness whose strengths are not those of the action heroes male audiences worship, but those of a monster as fearsome as the rapist whose ultimate castration will cleanse her of sin. By temporarily becoming monstrous, and by removing the phallic tool of monstrosity, she will be returned symbolically to a state of acute femaleness more whole and holy than ever before, just as the action hero grows stronger when his wounds are ritually bandaged.
Because Douglas’ anthropological boundaries between heroic inside and antiheroic outside are fairly staid, her theory clearly will not jive with culturalist models proposing hybridity — including Clover’s, where the female victim/hero alternates so rapidly between male and female performitivities that its stroboscopic effect is nearly indistinguishable from a proper hybrid, even though Clover emphasizes her model encourages only transgendered role-playing, and not a more erotically hybridized transsexuality possibly suggested by clashes between the male audience’s self-effeminization and the desired victim-hero’s temporary masculinization. While Douglas’ basic premises of cleanliness and ostracization are certainly applicable — rape-revenge films always contain “afterwards” scenes where victims frantically scrub in the shower — we will be relying on Aho’s hybridized notion of the two-way orifice, which mirrors the plight of rape-revenge heroines as they pass through the socially determined “orifices” of two genres (action and horror), a movement itself propelled by the quite literal violation of the heroine’s physical orifice.
In the next installment of this essay, we’ll critically combine the models of Aho and Clover to investigate in greater detail how the ideology of the rape-revenge film uneasily casts females as insiders who, paradoxically, must become outsiders to gain social acceptance. Our forthcoming examples will draw heavily on Hong Kong cinema, whose unique traditions of female heroism and gender role-playing further complicate Clover’s Eurocentric bias.
- Jay, Martin. Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993, 494. [↩]
- Ibid, 212, 226-227. [↩]
- The incorporation of scent into the cinema has been tried only as a shocking trick, as in John Waters’ Polyester (1981), for which theater patrons were given scratch-and-sniff cards to be nosed at key moments. Obviously, here smell is still subservient to sight, as screen images instructed spectators when and where to sniff. [↩]
- The root word “mentalism” is here used as a psychological term; its antonym would be behaviorism. [↩]
- Mellen’s film-studies sociology, probably intentionally, avoids both feminist and (anti-)phallic jargon, and thereby gives the appearance of being either uninformed about or uninterested in then-current debates on psychoanalysis. Freud gets only three mentions in the index; Lacan gets none. [↩]
- Unfortunately, Mellen limits her critique to the hygiene or harm in narratology itself and, while lambasting the McCarthyite evildoings of certain actors, stops short of a wholesale (Marxist) critique of the economics of the culture industry. The wealth of actors is excused, as long as they embody “healthy,” realistic, and viable models of masculinity. For example, Marty (1955) is praised for having a humanistic loser as its protagonist, but Mellen doesn’t really question the economic advantages and prestige Ernest Borgnine accrued from pretending to be a loser. [↩]
- This system of exclusionary class and mythological charisma, where corporatism prospers by selling attractive fictions of violence to conceal the socioeconomic violence wreaked on those fictions’ very consumers, invites comparison to the class dynamics that Paul Goodman, writing a decade earlier, described in The Psychology of Being Powerless. [↩]
- Which is charismatic, the technical secrets or the experts? If the technical secrets hold their own charisma, auteurism cannot be divorced from bureaucracy. This is a classic problem in sociology: apart from cases of extraordinary talent or genius, it is usually difficult to determine whether charisma is generated by individual personalities who come to hold powerful positions, or from high social positions that allow their holders to create the illusion of having powerful personalities. [↩]
- Mellen, Joan. Big Bad Wolves: Masculinity in the American Film. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977, 14. [↩]
- Mellen’s most vital example of homosexual misogyny is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), whose heroes reject women for each other. I image Mellen would rather have used the word “homosocial,” had Sedgwick coined it at the time. The Lethal Weapon series attempts to overcome the tension between stable heterosexual romance (as opposite to mere sexual conquest) and the recourse to buddy-film bonding by allowing Danny Glover’s family to become a surrogate family for Mel Gibson’s loner hero. [↩]
- Mellen’s vitriol is not reserved for social conservatives. She argues that the allegedly bleeding-heart Hollywood Ten were actually responsible for the “worst [i.e., most conservative] stereotyping of men in the history of American cinema,” a trenchant observation when one examines their jingoistic wartime screenplays and their postwar, blue-collar heterosexists. She further cites a 1938 Communist convention poll where male respondees named as their favorite male star the right-leaning Gary Cooper. Perhaps these Communists were thinking of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) rather than the colonialist The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) or The Plainsman (1936), in which Cooper impersonates Bill Hickok. [↩]
- Ibid, 1. [↩]
- See pp. 336-340 for a full discussion of Allen’s slightly hypocritical film. [↩]
- Ibid, 5 [↩]
- Haskell, Molly. From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987, 402. [↩]
- In retrospect, this “in form, not content” sounds curious even to me. In the early 1980s, I would become excited by cable television’s exposure of breasts, but my response probably resulted from a combined sense of social obligation and the knowledge that some kind of excitement (even if not masturbatory) should result from witnessing taboo images. [↩]
- I recall being proud of having read Sade over summer vacation. Upon returning for the new semester, I was to write on an index card a synopsis of The 120 Days of Sodom, which was placed by my teacher in the center of the classroom bulletin board, along with all the other index cards. I was amused — everyone else was apathetic. [↩]
- In Magnum Force (1973), Dirty Harry jokes that he wouldn’t mind if all of San Francisco’s cops were “queer for each other” if they could shoot as accurately as the film’s villains, four homosexual vigilante cops. The joke, of course, only intensifies rather than diffuses conservative scriptwriter John Milius’ predetermined correspondences of sexuality and legality. That said, Milius, either obfuscating his script’s homophobia or indulging his paranoid fantasies about liberal hedonists, paints all the film’s subsidiary victims as sexually deviant; when the homosexual cops murder orgiastic bisexual cocaine snorters, we are to believe the legal crime of drug abuse trumps the moral offense of homosexuality. [↩]
- Occasionally we see the opposite when a moralistic hero kills rather than arrests an irredeemable villain; this generally happens when the villain taunts the hero and reminds him of social law’s emasculating limitations. [↩]
- The hero’s immortality usually becomes an impenetrability that simultaneously proves his heroism and dares us to emasculate it, whether the occasionally shifting rules of transnational genre will permit it or not — a notion we’ve already discussed in Part One of this essay. While the sexless clown’s indestructibility doesn’t seem heteronormatively oppressive, marriage is still usually his goal, in accordance with the old traditions of festive comedy. [↩]
- The debate between anti-Hitchcock feminists and pro-Hitchcock postfeminists (and Paglia-style apologists) needs no introduction. The best-known example of Hitchcock’s sadism is his forcing Tippi Hedren to undergo five days of bloody torture in the attic scene in The Birds (1963). In an interview with Hedren in Ted Haines’ documentary Dial H for Hitchcock (1999), Hedren admits, “I think he felt very guilty for what he was putting me through.” In Frenzy (1972), Hitchcock’s only R-rated film and the one that finally unleashed the full feminist assault, the director took advantage of contemporary trends in sex and violence that allowed him to show more nudity and cruelty than he was capable of before. In most prints of Psycho (1960), there is a noticeable, post-production cropping of the bottom of the screen during the shot where dying Janet Leigh slides down the walls of the shower stall, preventing display of too much of her bosom. [↩]
- Of course, the psychoanalytic theory of the ’70s relied heavily on the singular experience of watching films in near-total darkness, surrounded by strangers. It’s no accident that cultural criticism first rose in the 1980s, the age of the VCR, when consumers could exercise more power over their individuated viewing habits. [↩]
- Or, possibly after the reaction to Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter, a critical revision of her Gender Trouble, which disproportionately drew its theories from Western male drag. [↩]
- Ibid, 4. [↩]
- Obviously, the culturalist position is easy to attack because it is nearly impossible to verify the reciprocity it values. Theoretically, one would have to engage in “hard” sociology, and resort to surveys and polls conducted at theaters. Ironically, only movie studios that probe test audiences and conduct market research, have the financing such hard analysis requires. [↩]
- I recall a recent (October 2005) National Public Radio story that featured an irate war widow questioning America’s interventionist policy in Iraq after learning that plastic surgeons were now able to practice openly in the post-Saddam Hussein regime. “My husband didn’t die so that rich Iraqi women can have plastic surgery!” she cried. But since freedoms are purely performative, that’s exactly why he died. [↩]
- Metz. Christian. The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977, 7. [↩]
- Metz himself uses the singular, suggesting that the two institutions of cinematic reception (the mental) and cinematic production (the mechanical) are halves of one holistic institution. [↩]
- Jazz is even more problematic as a genre classification, running not from lower-middle to very high, as does classical, but from very low (the smooth jazz of dentists’ waiting parlors) to very high (Cecil Taylor and other avant-gardists). [↩]
- “Sane” is the key word. If I reveal a certain elitism by claiming no sane person would derive pleasure from the content alone of a Frescobaldi or Adolphe Adam, I plead proudly guilty. [↩]
- See the Harry Partch Institute homepage. [↩]
- The mock-realist Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust, 1979) is an exception. Some, such as Lenzi, alternated bad attempts at realism with bad attempts at fantasy. [↩]
- Some will object to my placing popular operas — by which I mean mostly the Italian ones — in the same category with Britney Spears or falsetto boy bands, which bizarrely (futilely?) attempt to heterosexualize the castrati aesthetic. Obviously, the trained voice of a good opera singer, even one who sings clichéd repertoire, is better than the voice of a manufactured pop idol — but the economic interests that control each are analogous. [↩]
- Žižek, Slavoj. Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out. New York: Routledge, 2001, 2. [↩]
- In 1995, Liu Chia-liang’s (a/k/a Lau Kar-leung) wretched Drunken Master 3 offered Simon Yam (in a minor role) as a flamingly effeminate martial artist, precisely at a time when HK cinema was busy humanizing gay characters. The knowledge of Chinese operatic gender performance older directors of martial arts films had could well have inhibited rather than promoted “progressive” (non-effeminate) portrayals of gay heroes. [↩]
- The fifth installment of the Guinea Pig series even includes “making of” footage revealing the series’ special effects fakery, whose rubberiness shouldn’t have really fooled anybody, as it (somehow) did in the mid-1980s. [↩]
- Copyright dates for these two Okamoto films seem to vary by 1-2 years depending on the source. It’s possible the discrepancies reflect a delayed release year in the West. [↩]
- In this limited sense, David Lynch and Alexandro Jodorowsky are really allegorical fantasists, not Surrealists. Inversion and incongruity, the goals of the originary Surrealists, are not central to either’s work. Obviously, “surrealism” as a category is highly problematic, as it encompasses everything from the political surrealism of the Czech Renaissance to the apolitical dreams of Lynch, all under a broader rubric of “antirealism.” [↩]
- The film was released in 2004 on a British DVD by Eye 4 Films, Ltd. It is accompanied by a new Tangerine Dream soundtrack of requisite spookiness, despite unfortunate lapses into neo-Celtic pop song. [↩]
- Griffith was still making two-reelers in 1911, and the Italian Biblical epics that soon followed (Quo Vadis?, 1912) are greatly inferior in terms of costuming, set design, special effects, pacing, and overall imagination. [↩]
- Smells are most difficult to regulate — sulfur plants can be geographically segregated and fulsome human emissions shamed, but smells, for all their rambling gaseous form, really can’t be effectively censored. [↩]
- Aho, James. The Orifice as Sacrificial Site. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 2002, 11. [↩]
- Ibid., 10–11. [↩]
- Ibid, 18. Aho’s critique of Douglas is initially respectful but eventually sarcastic. Apart from its haughty pantheism, Aho’s book is learned and worthwhile. [↩]
- I once showed Dimensions of Dialogue to a class of undergraduate students — the responses ranged from bewilderment to bemusement. Unsurprisingly, girls were more disturbed than boys, though the film frightened less than I expected. One student’s tuition-paying father complained that his daughter shouldn’t be forced to watch such nonsense in a serious literature class. [↩]
- This is a critical, even central assumption, considering horror film audiences are traditionally comprised of outsiders. We’ll return to this in a later section of this essay. [↩]