Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Revulsion as Titillation?

The other day I read one of those little blurb reviews of films in the local paper. The page had a number of reviews, but my eyes fell on the one for Last House on the Left. I had seen a trailer for it at some point before I read the review, so I knew it fell in the horror genre. And I had a very deep suspicion that amidst the violence there was a rape scene. The review confirmed my suspicion. Despite being only a blurb, it was clear that the reviewer was disturbed by this scene, mainly because the reviewer thought that the scene was added mainly for, and this word sticks in my mind despite no longer having the review in front of me, titillation.

The movie is a remake of Wes Craven's film of the same name. His original also, I believe had a rape scene as did his The Hills Have Eyes, also recently remade but apparently not by the same folks. Having seen neither of these Wes Craven films, although I have seen a number of his Nightmare on Elm Street films, and The Serpent and the Rainbow which he directed and which I can no longer remember. I have also seen enough of the horror genre to know that titillation is part of the point... it draws the audience into the story and sets up the anticipation and suspense for the moments of surprise and horror and deepen the experience. Usually however, the sex, drinking, drug use and other illicit behaviors, those that titillate us, are undertaken by the ultimate victims of the violence. This pattern does indeed lead me to give some credence to the notion that horror movies are in some way sanctioned by moral conservatives to show the consequences for such behavior. The wages of sin being death, after all.

However, for rape to be portrayed as titillation continues to propagate the notion that rape is about sex, and not about violence, a truly revulsive violence. Perhaps the argument could be made that because rape looks like sex we cannot help but be somehow titillated, but really, either rape must be repulsive or else it isn't really being portrayed as rape.

As far as I can recall, I have only seen two other films with rape scenes, The Accused starring Jodi Foster, and Dead Man Walking with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Interesting to note, I think, that both of these movies won Oscars. I think that the rape in The Accused was purposefully titillating to help make the point precisely that rape is abhorrent and not the fault of the victim even if it seemed to be sex.

What I have been pondering however is the other film, Dead Man Walking. Throughout the movie we see Sister Helen Prejean's ministry to both the perpetrator and families of murder and rape victims. Throughout the movie Sister Helen has been trying to get the death-row convict Matthew Poncelet to essentially confess. Shortly before his execution, Matthew does in fact free himself of his burden and tell of his crime, which is shown rather graphically. In this movie, we have seen Matthew portrayed as a horrible person. The rape scene in that movie is not, I believe, portrayed as titillating. It is precisely not meant to get us excited, but instead to portray Poncelet as a revulsive character. What type of human could do such a thing to another?

Clearly, the one issue is the way rape is shown in order to titillate. But then there is also the differences in response between Last House on the Left and Dead Man Walking. Apparently, not to give away too much, the family whose house has been invaded, the same evidently as the young woman who has been raped, concoct deepening levels of revenge upon the invaders/rapists. The tag line of the movie, according to imdb.com is "If bad people hurt someone you love, how far would you go to hurt them back?" That is what we expect, isn't it? These offenders who have accosted us with their sexual violence and now go farther, earn their justice, even if we who have been titillated by it get away scot free.

Yet, in Dead Man Walking, we are brought into the midst of the violence, the rape and the murder, seeing how revulsive it actually is, wondering how any human being can do that to another? But then the response toward Matthew, while the state demands execution, is not just an eye for an eye. Rather, Sister Helen tells Matthew that when he is on the table about to be injected he should fix his eyes on her because she wants the last face he sees to be one of love. Here is the gospel message. One whose acts are revulsive, and who rightfully earns the world's justice, is nonetheless shown mercy from another. The proper Christian response to violence is not revenge, but forgiveness and evangelization. Yes, Poncelet suffers the consequences imposed by the state, but he is not forsaken. His violence is truly repulsive, yet the response of God and God's servants is the truly titillating.


Phillip said...

It's not really the same topic as your post, but I've often been bothered by the occurence in art media of violence for the sake of violence vs. violence as a means in a story, part of a larger narrative. I know the line is blurry there. I'm bothered by "art" that exists purely to upset people, to evoke pain--and, perhaps, titillate them--purely for the sake of pain, to "get a reaction." I've always thought it was evil. Why purposefully hurt people, even if it is through art?

I actually remember reading something in seminary that corroborated my thoughts along these lines...but I've long since lost the reference.

Brian Bennett said...

I think the word there Phillip is "provoke." And I have been thinking about that as well. During Lent, we have been talking about icons at our mid-week Lenten Vespers service. And I realize the modern notion that the purpose of art is to provoke a reaction is just that, modern... or post-modern to be more precise. It seems that artists now want to focus on an individual's reaction, but art has served many purposes in the past.

Art, particularly with icons, is a chronicle, a teller of story; an educator, catechizing the unbeliever; a window to God's realm. Art can evoke mystery as much as provoke reaction.

Thanks Phillip.

D.C. Bennett said...

I don't see any Church, Catholic, Luthern, etc. condemning unequivocally as immoral the current sadistic torture horror films that are being shown today in cinemas across the U.S. The British recently banned the Japanese film "Grotesque", probably the worst sadistic torture film produced to date. We're not talking about the same horror genre as old Frankenstein movies of the 50's, we're talking about virtual torture as entertainment and pleasure for an audience. Yet if there are complaints anywhere (and they are few and far between), people are almost apologetic, i.e. "I'm not a prude but I can't watch horror films" said one, or "I guess I'm just too sensitive to watch horror films" .
The primary basis of morality in all religions is "love your neighbor as yourself". What is more immoral than enjoying the suffering of our fellow man, simulated or real. Yet morality is the taboo word that cannot be addressed in anything called "art". This isn't art, it's sadism. And it's being gradually given acceptance in theatres across America.