Shock Fatigue

In the last two weeks, two films have been released which everyone seems to be talking about.  Bruno – a comedy and Antichrist – a psychological horror. I have no compulsion to see either of them.

There is something that bothers me about them both and that thing feels so applicable to both that I’m confident applying it to them.  That thing is the need to shock.

I feel I should declare a caveat at this point. I understand that I’m in danger of falling into the worst possible trap of self-expression which would be criticising things that I haven’t actually seen. That is not my intention – and I would be horribly ashamed of myself if I were to do so. I am absolutely anti-censorship, pro-freedom of speech and expression and everything else a man of my hair length and beardage would be expected to be pro or anti of.  So, I’m not criticising these films – I have no basis to do so – I’m merely trying to explain why I – a lifelong film geek – can’t be bothered to watch them.

Cinema is a manipulative medium, this can work on an educational level – through documentary or the moral underpinnings of most narrative pieces – or it can work on a far more visceral level. Primarily, we as viewers use films in a visceral sense to acheive a quick fix of laughter, adrenaline, warm fuzziness or eroticism.  Most commercial cinema is pitched very heavily towards one of those four categories.

We know when we watch a new Will Ferrell film that he has delivered diminshing returns ever since he hit big with Anchorman, but we know that he’ll register shock at some point with a fun and quotable line, behave like a manchild and probably appear nonchalantly naked in an inappropriate setting and we’ll rather enjoy that.

Bruce Willis, excellent in Die Hard, can pretty much guarantee us a couple of improbable stunts including transport-based explosions, little fear of a love-based sub-story, and a mumbled insouciant put-down of the bad guy at just the right moment.

Equally a Richard Curtis film will always make Britain seem a rather nicer place to occupy than it is and let us feel that this country is built on a gooey warm foundation of goodness and kisses. And porn is designed to clean your pipes.

I guess the point I’m making is that what unifies the films that generally deliver effectively on a visceral level is their crass and calculated nature. Their utter lack of thought, art or intellectual worth. Which is fine. They serve a different purpose.

I’ve been teaching screenwriting for 8 years now and have learned more about the craft through teaching it and working with a wide array of students than I could ever have understood back when I was actively working as a screenwriter. I teach classes of around 24 students of mixed backgrounds and abilities and still the people I’ll be least interested in when I first survey a new class is the white, male 18-30 year old demographic. Generally, they’ve had little experience of life or anything interesting – most of their thoughts and love of cinema is based on the films of Scorsese and Tarantino  (Kubrick if I’m lucky, Guy Ritchie if I’m not). They have nothing they really want to say but kind of want to use the medium merely to express their love of the medium. They love these films so much, they want to make them. This is the first instinct I want to knock out of them. My greatest fear as a teacher is to unleash a force like Brett Ratner into the world and have him publicly credit me with his success.

My favoured challenge to give this demographic is ‘write me a script – it can be about anything you want, but you’re not allowed to have it feature sex, violence, guns, drug references or swearing’. This usually stifles them to the point of frustration. The point that I’m making is that if you have something to say,  you can find any number of ways to say it but if you have nothing to say, you rely purely on gimmicks and cheap cliched shock tactics.

So what upsets me about Bruno and Antichrist? Well, Bruno is the new film from director Larry Charles who is one of the creative forces behind Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm – 2 of the smartest and most influential comedy shows to come out of the US. Antichrist is the new film from Lars Von Trier -the man who valiantly tried to kickstart cinema with his Dogme ’95 manifesto and in his little-seen documentary The Five Obstructions showed how a stagnant filmmaker (one of his own mentors) could be inspired to artistry by having extreme limitations placed on his creativity.

Now, obviously I’ve not seen Bruno or Antichrist – but here is what I know about them…

Bruno is the latest character creation of Sacha Baron Cohen. His defining character feature is that he is gay. And we all like to laugh at the gays, don’t we. His last character was Borat, his defining character feature was that he was foreign. Again, we all like to laugh at the foreigners. In his defence, he uses the gay character to expose homophobia and the foreigner to highlight xenophobia but – not in his defence – these characters are so extreme they encourage the audience to laugh at them for the same reasons their opponents hate them. So, as an audience member, you find yourself in the somewhat duplicitous role of both scoffing at the small-minded rednecks AND giggling at the silly foreign man who doesn’t understand western culture – the buffoon! Charles’s last film – Religulous was a comedy documentary about religion. It started promisingly but essentially just offered up a load of different people of generally humble and non evangelical beliefs as idiots for the audience to chortle at. It didn’t seem to be saying much above ‘tee hee, look at these silly God believers! God TOTALLY doesn’t exist! Idiots!’

Antichrist is about a couple who, in a graphically sexual opening sequence have their baby die whilst they’re fucking. They go off to a cabin in the woods and share a complete mental breakdown. Supposedly Satan is in there there is definitely a highly publicised scene in which Charlotte Gainsbourg graphically cuts off her clitoris with a rusty pair of scissors. Genital mutilation is also by all accounts featured in other ways but I’m perfectly happy not knowing what those might be.

None of this is new. Graphic violence and the humiliation of minorities has always got bums on seats (I myself dream of seeing the two combined – although not as a cinematic project, I’d just like to see Jim Davidson get disemboweled mid-performance). I guess I just don’t like it when the smarter guys who are capable of saying so much and creating such art decide to play with the gimmicks.

Of course these guys can and should do whatever they want but we have the SAW films grossing us out with increasingly depraved and graphic mutilations and we have the Wayans brothers giving us the chance to laugh at dumb crap. So when I hear that the guy most responsible for shaking up independent cinema for this generation builds a film around -oooh- shots of genital mutilation and one of the sharper comic minds of our time is poking fun at camp Europeans, I just don’t really want to see their films. They sound like kind of a shame and a waste.

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Published in: on July 20, 2009 at 4:19 pm  Leave a Comment  

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