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RE: “Porn studies is hot. I’m bothered”, Saturday, March 29th, 2014

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Margaret Wente’s article was a slight confidence booster for me. I am a Ph.D. candidate studying pornography. With the possible collapse of my university’s department, as well as many other Arts programs at Ontario universities, I feared that my studies would lead to nothing more than contract positions at post-secondary institutions in the middle of nowhere.

Yet Wente informs me that “porn is a career builder.” I will “shine in academia”, she says. I appreciate Wente’s enthusiasm for the future of pornography studies. Perhaps once “centres and institutes” for pornography studies are announced I will feel more comfortable about my career prospects. For now, I remain a skeptic – a few conferences, a couple books and courses, and one academic journal on the study of pornography will not revolutionize the university or public on the merits of its research. But we are trying (Wente included).

Wente’s article was an unintentional effort to bring pornography studies into the public sphere – this I appreciate as well. Wente has, in Linda Williams’s terms, contributed to the proliferation of pornographies on/scene (see Williams’s essay in the inaugural issue of Porn Studies on this term as well as the distinction between porn, porno, and pornography) – to criticize pornography, with or without “seriousness and rigour,” one must describe the images therein and thereby become a pornographer oneself.

But Wente was not descriptive enough for my tastes. What was the content of Noble’s course? Surely the numerous essays in Porn Studies are not reducible to “discourses” on Derrida, Foucault, and the unmentioned but implied Judith Butler. To further complicate matters, in my dissertation I study pornography but do not study porn. Is Wente aware of just how far the study of pornographic texts and images goes? Evidently not.

More importantly, I’m wondering why Wente masked her clear distaste of pornography, or porno, or porn (I’m not sure which because her examples of pornography are few). She takes aim at university administrators and “granting agencies” rather than the pornography-consuming public. That being said, one would think that a $14+ billion dollar industry would merit some study.

The bigger problems with Wente’s opinion on the state of pornography in the university begin with her lack of seriousness and rigour. Wente painted one side only of pornography studies and the new journal, namely, its proximity to Cultural Studies. The study of this billion dollar industry has produced nothing less than multi-, trans-, and interdisciplinary approaches from researchers in departments such as sociology, psychology, law, politics, philosophy, women’s studies, film studies, English and literature, to name a few. Porn Studies is a journal that will attempt to bring disparate theoretical and social scientific approaches together. The editors (Feona Attwood and Clarissa Smith) of the journal write:

With this journal we do not simply want to reach those areas
where porn studies are quite well established –for instance,
in film and media studies–we also want to reach out to those
where there is hardly any sustained publication of academic
work – for instance, business, marketing, and
human/computer interaction. By offering a space for researchers to
develop conversations across different disciplines, the study of
porn will move in new directions. This is how areas of study grow
and develop over time.

We hope that the journal will become a central space for drawing
together work from across disciplines. We also hope that the
establishment of the journal will encourage more publication on
pornography as authors interested in this area will recognize that
there is a ‘home’ for their research.

 

I agree with Wente that this is “indeed awesome.”

Contrary to my initial praise of Wente’s efforts to inform Globe readers about the legitimacy of pornography study, I’m concerned the reporter does not go far enough – had she more carefully read the essays and articles in Porn Studies, perhaps we would have had a more serious and rigorous article, an article less concerned with moralizing and masquerading as journalism. Indeed, Wente would have written a better piece had she taken Noble’s course on pornography.

Thankfully, she opines, porn studies is hot. I hope future journalists have the opportunity to take many courses on pornography and in many different departments. According to Wente, I’ll be there to teach. A warning: the readings and the lectures will be full of “academese.” Perhaps then, if there are budding journalists in the audience, those writers will be less dismissive of pornography studies, or at least more honest than Wente about their views on it.

An apology from Wente to every person mentioned in the article is now necessary, as well as a clear statement from her on pornography/porn itself. To accomplish this Wente has much research ahead of her. The first issue of Porn Studies is an excellent place to start.

 

A much more flattering article on the Porn Studies journal can be found here.

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I was not surprised when The Act of Killing did not win Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars. This is because, I believe, the film is a much better work of fiction than documentary.

On the one hand I want to remain sensitive to the mass killings in Indonesia in 1965-66, to the victims and victims’ families, to the recent discussions surrounding the killings, and to the apparently stable reign of the government responsible for them. On the other hand, Joshua Oppenheimer set out to make a documentary film about a few of perpetrators of these killings, thereby attempting to present a picture of the country’s past and present political situation. Yet, instead of a documentary feature, I saw a buddy movie, a film about two very close friends, often male, who have some kind of light-hearted adventure together. The characters in these films are similar in their interests but one takes on the role of leader, with all the accompanying positive and negative traits, and the other the role of sidekick, with all those necessary traits and gestures. Suggesting The Act of Killing is a buddy movie is also to say that it may not have been Oppenheimer’s intention to make a genre film so much as my reception of it; nevertheless, I’ve viewed the theatrical version three times and with each screening I see more and more of an effort on the part of the filmmakers to craft a simple narrative out of one of the most complicated issues in Indonesia’s history.

The story: individuals living in the aftermath of the mass murders in a period which the country’s citizens are changing their formerly positive views on the genocide. The plot: two buddies set out to make a fictional film in praise of the mass murders, the sidekick tries his own luck in the world independently of his Master, and the main protagonist undergoes an ethical transformation.

Anwar Congo and Herman Koto are buddies, this much is evident. Anwar, quite aged in this film, participated in the killing of perhaps one thousand persons in the mid 1960s. He is praised and feared by citizens and officials. His sidekick, Herman, is some years younger, a kind of bumbling idiot who mostly acts as Anwar’s support, other times his foil. Anwar has grandkids (perhaps a wife), Herman a wife and child, yet the two seem more interested in each other, their past exploits, and future adventures. The lack of women in the film emphasizes one of the central features of the buddy film, i.e., the fear of females by the expulsion of them from the narrative. Homosocial and homosexual subtexts are also central features of the genre. The cross-dressing Herman nearly snuggles with Anwar in a few scenes; he also idolizes and mimics his older friend.

But his role as a minor character is apparent in several interrelated scenes. In a small scene, Anwar bowls a strike and Herman rewards him with a massage. Herman attempts to bowl himself, nearly falling over in the process, tossing the ball into the gutter to the laughter of the audience, naturally. The younger is no match for the latter – much less attractive too: his belly protrudes from his shirts, his facial hair unkempt, his teeth rotten. His ugly appearance is all the more significant for his scenes in drag, which cause more laughter from the audience, naturally. Herman plays the fool so well.

In the multiple torture re-enactment scenes Herman dons elaborate dresses and, at one moment appears to be eating Anwar’s guts and, in another, decapitates an Anwar dummy. There is something quite amusing, then, at the sidekick pretending he is the more powerful person in the couple. Herman’s power is limited however, for instance, in Anwar’s mock torture and killing, when the older buddy loses his cool the sidekick must aid his Master by nursing him back to psychological stability – Herman takes on a rather paternal role in comforting his distressed friend.

Herman’s secondary status to Anwar is most importantly narrativized in his efforts to run for parliament, an effort that would perhaps free him from the role of sidekick. In this election campaign sequence we see his bumbling idiocy at its peak. Herman watches and listens to a speech by Barack Obama and mimics the President’s gestures and facial expressions, as if politics can be located in these moves alone. Herman’s family mocks his stupidity. As in all buddy movies the sidekick does not possess the charm and nonchalance of the lead character. Anwar, the former executioner, is cool, calm, speaks well. Herman, on the other hand, cannot even remember his simple lines for a drive-by political advertisement. He asks his cohorts several times, what do I say into the megaphone? Your name and political party, they quip. Without his buddy, the narrative shows us, Herman is nothing, inevitably failing in his election campaign. The audience laughs when the expected result of the campaign rings true.

The better developed and more identifiable character Anwar, in contrast, undergoes a transformation. He begins the film by glamorizing his former status as a movie-theatre gangster and killer. He shows us where the executions were performed, what clothes he donned, some old pictures, and introduces us to some of his fellow executioners who treat him with reverence. As the narrative unfolds, Anwar is increasingly faced with the consequences of his crimes: weaved in and out of the feature, Anwar informs us of his haunting dreams, culminating in a visit to a former execution site that recurs in his nightmares; Anwar, in conversation with a former executioner Adi, and in hearing his neighbour’s personal story about his step-father’s death at the hands of gangsters, appears to develop feelings of guilt and remorse; at the re-enactment of the massacre at Kampung Kolam, Anwar, almost in tears, observes how shocking the scene seemed; the penultimate scene now shows the protagonist in tears, telling us that he felt, during a mock-torture scene, what his victims must have felt; and finally, the narrative ends with Anwar’s emotional and physical breakdown atop the building where we were first introduced to his execution methods – Anwar stutters, tears, and wretches but does not appear to vomit.

Problem, buildup, climax, release/resolution. A fictionalized film could not have presented a better narrative arc. The key question, then, is whether this documentary feature was a work of fiction in terms of its organizational structure. If so, Nick Fraser is incorrect when arguing for The Act of Killing as some kind of glorified snuff film; it is better viewed as a work of fiction based on a real event and from the performances of real individuals.

In Oppenheimer’s film I see more of Ulrich Seidl’s fictional films than Werner Herzog’s documentaries. Further, where the direct cinema or actuality dramas of someone like Allan King intentionally discloses its attempts to entertain – King documented real individuals and then edited his films to present an elaborate drama to achieve some kind of essence, e.g., of married life in A Married Couple (1969) – Oppenheimer’s film tried to mask its processes and made deliberate attempts to highlight Anwar’s apparent transformation despite the obviousness of its chronological inaccuracy. What Oppenheimer wanted was a cause and effect logic; the horrifying scenes, built atop one another, would lead to Anwar’s emotional and physical discomfort. This is very disconcerting because a documentary work of this sort should not reflect such a high entertainment value and strong character identification; it should invite complicated readings for the situation and its history itself is very complicated.

The Act of Killing therefore plays out the same narrative thrust as Dallas Buyers Club (2013). In this latter film we are forced to clap – literally, characters clap for the protagonist at the end of the film – at a man’s transformation from homophobe to HIV/AIDS activist; all it took for Ron Woodroof to realize homosexuals are persons too was getting HIV/AIDS himself (but in his efforts to save himself he discovers homosexuals can be financially exploited for a cure). Likewise, Anwar transforms by undergoing mock torture himself, only to be rescued by his sidekick.

In the buddy movie, the characters must be sufficiently alike in order for the story to progress but must also ethically diverge for there to be strong identification with the more likeable character, which is then followed by a resolution where the two overcome their differences for the sake of friendship. In a sense, perhaps, Anwar and Herman find cinematic kin in Noah Baumbach’s recent indie-comedy-buddy movie Frances Ha (2012). James Quandt goes as far as nominating Anwar Congo as Best Actor of the Year and Herman Koto as Best Supporting Actor.

But mass murder, corruption, guilt, and international politics, are not as fixed as Oppenheimer presents. There is nothing complex or troubling about the story or events found in The Act of Killing unfortunately; it entertains rather than troubles and therefore attains the status of an unethical investigation and presentation of a real world event. The film should have been open to new and unexpected events, facts, psychological states, interpersonal relationships, familial relationships, communities, and political engagements. Instead the plot traces the familiar story, from troubled beginning to happy end.  

Oppenheimer’s film, given what I’ve said here, is less a documentary, or snuff film, than a buddy movie. The bumbling idiot tries to make it without his Master and fails; the Masters transforms from his old ways, which would cause a caesura in his friendship, an event we do not see but can easily imagine. All we needed from The Act of Killing, to fully achieve its narrative ends, was one more scene: of Anwar and Herman reuniting and either severing all ties, the former claiming a newfound ethical superiority while the latter maintains his corruption, or, watch Anwar deliver an Oscar-worthy speech about his crimes and wrongdoings followed by Herman’s immediate and mimetic transformation. With Mozart accompaniment the two friends embrace, burst into tears, and the screen fades to black. The End…?

Published in Trent University’s Arthur Newspaper, March 11th, print and online.

Paradise Love

Kenya. A 50-year-old Austrian woman. Beach Boys and sex tourism. Racism, sexism, exploitation. Hakuna Matata, no problem.

Ulrich Seidl has a very particular filmmaking method. He and Veronika Franz pen a descriptive script, entirely without dialogue.

Professional actors and non-professional actors are thrown into a moment and in their adoption of a particular role, improvise dialogue on the spot. This adds a spontaneous and documentary feel to the scenes.

But Seidl’s films attain another degree of intensity in that the non-professional actors are not exactly playing a role in the same way the professionals are – the roles given to the non-professional actors are ones in which they find themselves in on a regular day.

This is the case with Paradise: Love (Paradies: Liebe, 2012), the first film of the Paradise Trilogy which, altogether, took four years to make. Seidl and his casting director Eva Roth interviewed numerous Beach Boys to play the part of the fictional Beach Boys of the film.

What is a Beach Boy?

“Young Africans who work on the beach generally selling key rings, boat excursions or safaris and who seek out white women as sexual partners. Many speak fluent German, English and French. In exchange for their services they receive money or large gifts such as a motorcycle, car or house.”

The degradation, exploitation, and façade of love put on by an individual Beach Boy is, in a way, stripped right from their personal past. What is essential for Seidl, in casting actors and non-actors, is an authenticity of personality and appearance.

In Love, Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel) takes a vacation in Kenya. There she meets a fellow Austrian and this new friend convinces her that she should find an African boyfriend, become a Sugar Mama. This ritual is common in Kenya, the Beach Boys pretending to love and pretending to want sex from older white tourists so they can afford to live.

The most debated question of the film then becomes who is exploiting who? Teresa desires love and does not mind paying for it, and the Beach Boys she encounters need to use all of their charm and cunning to exploit meagre sums from their tourist girlfriends.

Seidl has a tendency to present both satirical and disturbing content. We cannot help but laugh at Teresa and co.’s racism and exploitation of the young African men’s bodies, and then quickly feel bad about our complicity in this racism by finding it amusing. Also, in that same moment, we take stock of our privileged economic positions.

NY Times critic A.O. Scott observed the same, calling Love “A tour de force of meticulous cruelty, a comic melodrama that elicits laughter and empathy and then replaces those responses with squirming discomfort.”

Seidl does not shy away from controversy. His films raise a number of ethical concerns, most importantly, as Michael Goddard argued in an essay on Seild’s Import/Export (2007), the exploitation depicted onscreen extends to the exploitation of the actors/actresses by the filmmakers in their production of a feature film that garners them a sustainable income.

Worthwhile aesthetic considerations bubble to the surface as well. Catherine Wheatley suggests ways in which Seidl’s documentary form pushes the limits of what can be seen in a fictional film; the director tests our limits as witnesses to human suffering.

Hopefully, in a small way, this pushing hard against our typical film experience forces us to think more critically about others’ suffering.

For those who attended our screening of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) on Feb. 19, I see these two films as having much in common.

Please join us for Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love (2012), Wednesday, March 12, 8pm at Artspace (378 Aylmer St. N.). As always, the screening is free.

GravityJust for fun, let’s see how I do. I haven’t seen some of the nominated films (Nebraska, Philomena, Hobbit), but I think I have enough for an educated guess. Will post the results tomorrow!

Results: I scored 12/20. Not bad.

Best Picture: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave – WINNER (see my list of Best and Worst of 2013 by clicking the link)

Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) – WINNER

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) – WINNER (see my review of Blue Jasmine by clicking the link)

Supporting Actor: Michael Fassbender (12 Years) WINNER: Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)

Supporting Actress: Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) – WINNER: Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years)

Director: McQueen (12 Years) – WINNER: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)

Adapted Screenplay: 12 years – WINNER

Original Screenplay: Her – WINNER (see my article by clicking the link)

Production Design: Gravity – WINNER: The Great Gatsby

Cinematography: Gravity – WINNER

Costume:  American Hustle (haven’t seen The Great Gatsby, but I think it’ll win) – WINNER: The Great Gatsby

Documentary: Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing – WINNER: 20 Feet from Stardom

Editing: Gravity – WINNER

Foreign: The Hunt (haven’t seen The Great Beauty, will likely get it) – WINNER: The Great Beauty

Makeup: Dallas Buyers Club – WINNER

Score: Her – WINNER: Gravity (I did really like the music in this film – click link)

Song: Her – WINNER: Frozen

Sound Editing: Gravity (I’d rather All is Lost) – WINNER: Gravity

Sound Mixing: Captain Phillips – WINNER: Gravity (should’ve known better)

Visuals: Gravity – WINNER

A different way of viewing The Act of Killing.

dingpolitik

Joshua Oppenheimer’s new documentary film The Act of Killing is yet another confrontation with the central philosophical problem of our recent history. Immediately, we are seduced by the content of the film: former gangsters for the government of Indonesia, after describing their story, reenact the murder of hundreds of communists using traditional cinematic techniques (and they appear to get off on it). Already, the content of the film has divided film critics, most of whom have resorted to normative frameworks for their assessment. Some critics have even called for a boycott of the film at film festivals and awards ceremonies.

We should not join the ranks of the moralists and call for a boycott of the film. Perhaps there is something much more profound about the film that is worth examining. It is not that the content (the story) is not important. Indeed it is, but the normative question is simply…

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