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Conference Presentations

Violation: Representations in Literature and Culture

An Interdisciplinary Conference Sponsored by the McGill University English Department.

February 20-22, 2015. 

Thompson House, McGill University. 3650 Rue McTavish, Montréal.

SESSION C – Saturday 10-11:30AM*

II. Cinematic Liminality

Troy Bordun, Trent University

A Slow Dream, “As if” it were Real: Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux

Yan Tang, University of Victoria

Violating the Cinematic Surface: The Specters of Socialism in Chinese Urban Generation’s Films

Robyn Clarke, McGill University

Environmental Precarity in Take Shelter and Beasts of the Southern Wild: Political Ecology and the Precariat

via Panels.

A Slow Dream, “As if” it were Real: Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux

In this paper I argue that Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux (2012) presents altered states of embodiment “as if” they were everyday experiences, first, for the fictional characters, and second, for spectators’ affective experience of the film’s reality. Reygadas offers us a difficult narrative film that is any combination of characters’ dreams, fantasies, and hallucinations. Narrative films usually treat altered states as mental rather than physical experiences, reinforcing Cartesian views of experience. Unlike narrative works that clearly mark a separation between the “real world” of the diegesis and a subjective reality unique to a character, Post Tenebras Lux refuses to do so. By not announcing which sequences are dreams, concepts, and fantasies, and through an aesthetics that aims to elicit bodily responses in viewers rather than character identification/empathy, such as depth of field, the “hyperbolic long take” (de Luca 2014), and a camera lens shaved flat so that the edges of the frame are blurred, the director constructed a film that allows spectators to feel “as if” in an altered state themselves. This aligns the film with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s one-world hypothesis (Lingis 1996). For the phenomenologist, embodiment is a continuous flow of experience, thus dreams and fantasy are parts of being-in-the-world, not cordoned off states of mind. Media theorist and phenomenologist Vivian Sobchack (2004 & 2014) helps to reinforce these claims. She argues that films can touch us bodily, thus when we utter statements such as “the film felt ‘as if’ real,” we really mean that the film made contact with our corporeality. I conclude that Reygadas’s aesthetics turns viewers back on themselves to sense, and reflect upon, experiences otherwise unacknowledged as essential components of embodiment.

Keywords: Carlos Reygadas, phenomenological film theory, altered states, Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Bibliography

Jennifer M. Barker, The Tactile Eye, Touch and the Cinematic Experience (Berkeley, Los Angeles, & London: University of California Press, 2009).

Tiago de Luca, Realism of the Senses in World Cinema: The Experience of Physical Reality (London & New York: I.B. Tauris, 2014).

Alphonso Lingis, The Imperative (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996).

Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2000).

Sheldon Penn, ‘The Time-Image in Carlos Reygadas’ Stellet Licht: A Cinema of Immanence’, Bulletin of Spanish Studies, 90:7 [2013], 1159-81).

Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

3:30-5:15 PM –– Session Three: Insatiable Appetites (WHC 208)

Moderator: Name TBD, Title TBD, Yale University

Marco Bohr (Loughborough University): “Tampopo: Food, Hedonism and Decadence in Japan’s Bubble Economy”

Michael Turcios (University of Southern California): “The Appetite to Consume ‘Otherness’ in the French Colonial Cinema of Claire Denis”

Fareed Ben-Youssef (University of California, Berkeley): “‘Attendez la Crème!’: Food and Cultural Trauma in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained”

Troy Bordun (Trent University): “Porn in the Art Gallery: Aesthetics and Sensory Disciplining”

Abstract:

Porn in the Art Gallery: Aesthetics and Sensory Disciplining

I contend that before precise acts are represented onscreen, porn aesthetics presupposes a user who wants to control but not necessarily master the materials under his gaze. Porn users actively engage with images and video and simultaneously require an abandonment of that activity to experience visual and bodily pleasure (Paasonen 2011; 2013). If we presume the “pornification” of modern culture (Paasonen, Nikunen and Saarenmaa 2007), which includes at the very least a general familiarity with the phenomenon of pornography, contemporary spectators are ready for a gallery of porn, more so than spectators from earlier decades. Curatorship of an exhibition of pornography should therefore provide active and passive modes of interactivity for its participants, i.e., contain materials that command physical grabbing and perceptual touching to thereby cultivate some degree of sexual abandon.

In late August, 2014, I curated a small exhibition entitled Stags, Sexploitation, and Hard Core: Moving Image Pornography up to 1972 at an artist-run center in Peterborough, ON. I think the unusual setting for pornography offers me a chance to consider the genre’s aesthetics, as claimed above, and spectators’ relationship to disciplining spaces. For the exhibition I decided upon a number of films to play simultaneously throughout the gallery and designed panels composed of stills, promotional materials, and text. The purpose of the exhibition was to bring a small portion of pornography’s history to the public. Additionally, on the introductory panel, I suggested that pornography aims at eliciting bodily sensations from its spectators. I wrote that arousal, laughter, shock, surprise, and awkwardness were as valuable responses as critical (dis)interest. Through observation of visitors and reading anonymous surveys about their experiences, I discovered that the organization and architecture of the gallery maintained a critical distance between spectators and materials, as in a conventional gallery (Williams 1995; Dennis 2009), despite my efforts to produce the opposite effect.

Eye Candy: Yale Graduate Film Conference 2015

Eye Candy: Consuming Moving Images at the Cinema and Beyond”

Conference Program

All events are at the Whitney Humanities Center (WHC), 53 Wall Street. All events are free and open to the public.

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 13
4:30-5:30 PM –– Registration (WHC 208)

5:30-6:30 PM –– Keynote Address (WHC Main Auditorium)

Nicholas Mirzoeff, Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University: “The Cops and the Commons: Life, Love and Value After Ferguson”

6:30-7:30 PM –– Reception (WHC 108)

7:30-8:45 PM –– Special Screening: Daisies (1966, 35mm print, 74 min.) (WHC Main Auditorium): Introduction by Ila Tyagi

Screening generously co-sponsored by the Yale Film Study Center, the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures, and the Department of Art History.

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 14

9:00-10:00 AM –– Late Registration and Light Breakfast (WHC 208)

10:00-10:05 AM –– Opening Remarks (WHC 208)
Swagato Chakravorty and Regina Karl

10:05-11:45 AM –– Session One: Auteurs and their…

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Paper Presentation: November 16th, Cine-Excess VII: European Erotic Cinema: Identity, Desire and Disgust, Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham, U.K.

Paper Presentation: December 4th, Symons Seminar Series, Trent University, Peterborough, ON

Pornographic genre codes are appropriated by Breillat and twisted to produce a particular message, meaning, or truth: the shame of feminine sexuality under patriarchy. In this paper I argue she must be pornographic, and explicit, if some element of truth in obscenity is to be recovered. I situate Breillat within a style of cinematic pornography, recuperating the term from otherwise hostile definitions.

I first consider how her pornography is unlike the erotic. Sexual encounters within her films are ripe with dissatisfaction, distaste, and misery and therefore far from the classical definition of viewing erotic art as a composed spectator’s aesthetic appreciation. Secondly, I articulate the difference between Breillat’s films and a pornography designed to titillate a specifically male viewer. True, Breillat falls in with pornography defined by Williams (1991) as a body genre, producing intense sensations in the spectator; pornography, in some manner, should move the viewer, often to a state of arousal or if shared in a theatre amongst friends, in bursts of nervous laughter. Breillat greatly separates herself from hard core in her efforts to move spectators. The sensation Breillat is able to produce in spectators is a cinematic displeasure of both narrative and images. According to Brinkema (2006), Grønstad (2006), and Horeck and Kendall (2011), among others, Breillat transmits her message with this method of provocation by engaging the spectator’s senses, therefore calling the viewer to ethically and immediately respond to the work. She accomplishes this cinematic brilliance – treading a line which is pornographic yet not erotic and causing a sensation in the viewer which is not arousal – by frustrating habituated viewing, challenging the common film-experience of identifying with characters, or symbolically recognizing the genre.

Presentation at Decadence/Decay, Art History Conference at Carleton University, March 9-10, 2013

(Without introduction)

The Hole The Wayward Cloud

The Hole

There are seven days left before the new millennium. An epidemic has broken out in one of Taipei’s neighbourhoods; a virus with initial flu-like symptoms eventually transforms the behaviour of those affected into something like a cockroach. Additionally in Taipei, there seems to be a non-stop torrential downpour. The government has cancelled garbage collection and trash is casually tossed into the street; they have also suggested residents leave the area. The Water Company, we also learn through radio announcements at the beginning of the film, will turn off the water at midnight, January 1st, 2000. This story, to say the least, is a narrative of ruin, and many of Tsai’s admirers paint him as a pessimist and cynic because of it; the director himself says this film is sad and full of despair – although he is very open to interpretation, suggesting there is neither pessimism nor optimism.

An apartment complex perhaps in the middle of this epidemic seems to be mostly evacuated, and therefore a non-place, save two tenants – an unnamed young man (Lee Kang-sheng) and an unnamed middle-aged woman (Yang Kuei-mei) – who live one atop the other. The man upstairs has little to do but eat, sleep, piss, and open his underground shop. The woman seems to have no pre-occupations except eating, sleeping, pissing, and mopping the floor and walls which are perpetually leaking. And of course, both watch TV. This flood in her apartment, in a very strange way, brings the two characters together. The drip seems to be coming from a pipe located in the man’s floor, an absurd conclusion because no pipe would drench an apartment like that, and so, a plumber arrives in the first scene to drill a hole to access and hopefully fix the problem. Here we have the title. Two people who have no contact even in the most catastrophic time are brought together by this absurd hollow, connecting their respective apartments, and therefore their lives.

The domesticity that features so prominently in all of his films is enhanced by the repeated and altered use of the same apartment space. Few other films rival the sense of space in The Hole: we know where each object and each room is in relation to the others; how the man sleeps and eats and how the woman cleans and uses the bathroom. There is access to the private realm, things we are not supposed to see, or would really want to. However, providing this access we see the tragedy of solitary existence as both characters operate on the same mundane daily routine. But with the hole in the floor this loneliness is thwarted. The catastrophe has brought them together in a sense, and the dilapidated apartments, in their malfunction and decrepitude, allow them to share parallel domestic acts as well as cooperate to certain degrees. The man must not use his toilet because it leaks into her apartment; their water pressure is dependent on the other’s usage, and so on. In their numbing solitary confinement, the man and the woman share time and space, not becoming one but seeing two perspectives on a given day. The actual hole then is the viewpoint into the other person’s world whether we see that character’s looking through it or not.  It is often luminous, this hole, asking for one to peep through it. Its brightness is contrasted with the darkness of another much larger hole we see in the film, a black abyss where one infected individual scurries into, never to have human encounters again. The film is perhaps a story of encounters and not the mere bleakness of the characters apparent isolation. The tragedy is easy to point out, notes Jared Rapfogel, the links between characters more difficult.

The deteriorating spaces of The Hole are contrasted with the fantasies of either character or both simultaneously. Tsai accomplishes this through choreographed lip-sync musical numbers to the songs of 1950s Hong Kong pop sensation Grace Chang. These numbers, to varying degrees, represent the interiority of the character, a sort of “collective dream-in-general” within the catastrophic existence of everyday life. The real of the catastrophic is interrupted, says Amy Herzog, where these musical spectacles “serve to penetrate and transform… real space [into] a zone of indeterminacy where the real is falsified and burlesqued.”

The first song follows from the most mundane television program watched by the woman. The hostess embellishes the taste and quality of instant noodles, making it seem the food of kings and queens. The program fluidly breaks and we find the woman elegantly dressed in an elaborately lit elevator in the apartment complex, itself still decrepit. The song “Oh Calypso” describes the pleasures of dance as a way to escape hard day’s labours.  The second tune, “Tiger Lady”, was sparked by the man’s leering through the hole into the woman’s apartment. It lyrically establishes her initial fright at this intruder, taking place in the stairwell of the complex again. After some exchanges between the man and woman regarding the leak and plumber, another song alters our perception of the two individuals. This song shifts from distance and isolation as the two characters dance together in their corridor and the lyrics describe the desire of the woman for this man. The prominent theme then is the fantastic amongst the ruins; well-dressed and made-up, happy and flamboyant, all to the backdrop of cold and lonely elevators, stairs, and corridors. The shot directly following the song and dance solidifies this point, for instance, after the first tune concludes in the sparkling elevator, we cut to the man, drunk and passed out in the lift (and who eventually makes his way back to his apartment only to vomit in the hole and into the woman’s abode). (Same for Wayward Cloud). We should agree with Tsai that the musical scenes “are specifically tied to the locations,” thereby displaying a sense of “escape” from the current catastrophic existence.

Between the third and fourth song fantasy is played out in the diegesis itself. The woman, perhaps already losing herself to the virus, is stripping the walls of their coverings whilst talking erotically on the phone. A pun makes it apparent she is talking to an admirer when she repeats the “what am I doing?” and says “stripping.” She asks if the person on the other end of the phone wants to look through his hole in the floor as she undresses herself. As she begins to sensually touch herself, we cut to the man at work, and thus the fantasy element becomes quite apparent. She is speaking to herself.

The last lip-synced song is mine and others’ favorite. The woman is alone in a bath, sitting idly; she all-of-a-sudden sneezes and is therefore infected with the virus we surmise. The film then cuts to a concrete stairway decorated with bright satins. The tune “Achoo Cha Cha” is about being tied to a guy one no longer wants; she is allergic to commitment the songs wishes to say, or in the narrative of the film, now infected she can no longer begin a relationship with the man upstairs. The remaining minutes of the film follow the woman as she crawls on the floor like a cockroach and hides underneath her mounds of paper towel. Viewing her behaviour, through tears and moans, the man upstairs hammers at the floor to enlarge the hole and rescue her. The hole that has brought them together now divides them. One more event and song follow.

It is possible to misread the fantasy of the very last scene and song. The woman emerges from her mound of paper towels, no doubt very ill. The man upstairs passes her down a glass of water, extends his arm through the hole, and then lifts her up into his apartment. Firstly, this leap into the apartment is impossible: the hole is simply not big enough; second, there has been no indication of any persons recovering once infected. This is a very tragic turn to what could have been an eventual coming together of the two characters. Instead, Tsai remains at the level of fantasy, as the final shot is of the two dressed in evening wear, slow dancing to Chang’s “Alone Together.” This bleak finale never quite gives us what we want, i.e., a happy love. Rather, Tsai concludes with the words, “In the year 2000, we are grateful that we still have Grace Chang’s songs to comfort us,” followed by his trademark signature indicating the art of the film we just watched.

Although we do not have it quite yet, this is almost a story of love. True, Tsai denies such accusations, claiming that the woman is intentionally much older than the man so as to deny the possibility of love, but I and other critics disagree. I think that the refusal of a “real” romantic ending is instead to give us a different look at love, perhaps something like Alain Badiou has been suggesting in his work. Love is not marriage with procreation, nor is it the spontaneous and otherwise passionless sexual encounter. It is instead the scene of the two, where two do not fuse into one but come to share the world from dual perspectives. This is what the hole in the film, as I tried to suggest above, really accomplishes. In the midst of catastrophic existence, writes Badiou, love is obstinate and itself refusing to be denied its longevity. As the man hammers away at the floor in a flood of tears, he maintains his commitment to the woman below; the final dance number extenuates this, of course an entirely tragic end but also showing us a fidelity that is the definition of love: to remain with an in love again all odds, against all viruses and catastrophes, and despite the crumbling spaces the characters inhabit. Perhaps then love is re-invented in The Hole, rallying to its defense Badiou called for, i.e., against its lackluster expression through marriage or promiscuity; except, rather than philosophy, it is accomplished by art (a strategy Badiou would like I think, since he cites Rimbaud on this necessity to re-invent).

The Hole, final shot and scene

The Hole, final shot and scene

Shiang-chyi attacks Hsiao-kang

Shiang-chyi attacks Hsiao-kang

The Wayward Cloud

The Wayward Cloud is another narrative of ruin, albeit less so than The Hole. Taipei is in the midst of a draught; the juice from watermelon a source of fluid since there is little water. Despite thirst and lack of resources the shooting and production of pornographic films must continue. We are introduced to Hsaio-Kang (Lee) and Shiang-chyi (Chen), the former a fresh porn actor and the latter just trying to survive.

The bulk of the film is comprised of the two characters spending time together, fantasizing, flirting, and going about their business. Shiang-chyi never does find out Hsiao-kang’s profession until the end of the film, and how she responds to it, is certainly up for interpretation. Tsai, much like in The Hole, withholds the romance coming to fruition. We know from the beginning however that some sexual encounter will take place however. The V shaped corridors introduced in the first long shot, where Hsiao-kang’s co-lead in the porn production passes by Shiang-chyi unnoticed, re-emerge later in the film as Hsiao-kang scales the wall like an insect and his crush feeds him. The connection of the V shape is rendered significant also by an early shot from Shiang-chyi’s perspective, a shot of the V of her legs and the TV in the background. This erotic intensity looms throughout the two characters’ encounters.

But even in the video store, in that tucked away pornography section in the back, Tsai will not offer us a completed sexual encounter. Shiang-chyi attacks Hsaio-kang with kisses and caresses. However, overwhelmed by the naughty dvds and his career, he has developed an addiction to pornography, in his case, only able to perform sexually when performing sex for a camera. Thus the very controversial final scene (at both Brisbane and Berlin film festivals audience members walked out) is the conditions necessary for the proclamation or connection of love between the two characters. The Japanese porn actress is found unconscious by Shiang-chyi, likely from dehydration. She and a member of the porn crew carry her body back to the set, and here, Shiang-chyi discovers her love interest is an actor. A lack of water for the earlier shower scene and an unconsciousness actress in the following scene does not stop the crew from going back to work.

The setting is split between the bed and a lobby, Hsiao-kang performing in the former and Shaing-chyi the witness through the grate or gigantic hole in the latter, which echoes an earlier split or division between the two characters who are in fact perpetually unable to communicate and are separated by space, much like the characters in The Hole. Shiang-chyi’s shock in raping the unconscious actress is perhaps the realization that morality and civility has fallen away, but according to Adrian Martin et al., “it is also the expression of love they arrive at.” Shiang-chyi becomes the stand-in for the unconscious porn actress, herself making the necessary moans and groans for arousal, both for herself and for the male actor. And there is something comic here, bringing our attention to the illusion of the groans and moans of actors and actresses in actual pornographic scenes. Since the characters do not speak, and have not at this point made love, rather than uttering the words “I love you”, Hsiao-kang expresses himself by finishing his performance  in Shiang-chyi’s mouth. His ass sweats in a close-up and she tears in extreme close-up: the draught, that is their delayed sexual encounter, has come to an end.

The Wayward Cloud is the only other film by Tsai that has lip-synched and choreographed musical numbers, this time making use of other pop stars besides Grace Chang. The first expresses Hsaio-kang’s long search for lost love; the second, after the two characters meet again, has the woman lip-syncing a tune which cherishes their reuniting and future love; the fourth song, after the characters first date, ripe with flirting and a sexy cigarette, describes mixing up dates and confusion with dating; and lastly, following the failed video store sex, the lyrics about keeping focus and not losing track of your goal parallels Hsaio-kang’s inability to get aroused (and the lyrics, “Gently let you spirits rise” takes on a double meaning).

I find these musical insertions much more successful than The Hole in terms of their entertainment value, appeal to character’s interiority, and as Fran Martin suggests, exhibiting “the productive power of desire.” The film is also more successful in bringing fantasy out from just the musicals. Throughout the picture there are numerous instances of the fantastic incorporated into the diegesis. For instance, the first song takes place in a water reservoir where Hsiao-kang is bathing himself, and thus, to connect the two lost lovers, Shaing-chyi’s faucet produces little bubbles that float into her bedroom while she sleeps. And once our characters meet, Hsiao-kang helps Shaing-chyi retrieve a key that she had dropped and had been tarred over. He excavates it with a knife and miraculously a spring unveils itself, symbolic no doubt of the love the two will develop, exemplified by the transition to the second song which in fact anticipates a future together. The Wayward Cloud is comic, tragic, and truthful: making us realize love is perhaps a fantasy, albeit an extremely pleasurable one in this story. This is what I find so intriguing: love is often shown to be murderous and suicidal thanks to some unfulfilled fantasy; with Tsai on the other hand, while still remaining a bit of a pessimist fantasy may in fact be productive and bring people together. However, if we make a connection between the love of The Hole and The Wayward Cloud we come around to a conclusion that the fulfillment of sexual or romantic urges is an event which still produces much displeasure. Perhaps as Tsai would have wanted us to do since each film builds on and resembles others, and Tsai’s work as a whole, Tony McKibbin argues, is less about the “mechanics of narrative” than “metaphysics of coincidence”: single films can be put together by critics and theorists to flush out such a metaphysics.

The romantically and sexually unfulfilled story of The Hole is in fact fulfilled in The Wayward Cloud. Yang, the actress who plays the woman downstairs, is a frequently used actress in Tsai’s films (like any auteur director). In The Wayward Cloud she is the Taiwanese porn actress in the shower scene. Thus I suggest she can be read intertextually as the woman downstairs from The Hole. If this is the case, the man upstairs and the woman downstairs finally get together for a sexual encounter. The result however, as a squeeze bottle of hand cream squirts onto her face, mimicking what would be a “money shot”, her look of immense sadness paints a very grim portrait of contemporary love. Her despair at objectification is heightened by the transition to her own lip-synced musical number, whose lyrics express degradation by men “so brutal and jaded”, and selling her soul to keep her heart true. In other words, the romantic and sexual fantasy of The Hole, now fulfilled, has left her utterly empty. When put together, the notion that Robin Wood develops in his review of The Hole as entirely hopeless, is made all the stronger by The Wayward Cloud.

We can read Tsai as probably more a pessimist than optimist when we put these two films together. I have sketched how fantasy can in fact be pleasurable, but perhaps in some reference to a lack that can never be fulfilled, Tsai upholds his cynicism for contemporary love. “If you look at real life”, he says, “sex is difficult. All human relationships are difficult.” But at least we have his choreographed and stylized musical numbers to comfort us.

Research in progress presentation, Cultural Studies, Trent University, November 7, 2012

In a New Extreme film, a category first defined in 2004 to note a tendency in recent French film, the lead character or characters are in the midst of a crisis often brought on by forces outside of their own which then lead to indifferent, ambiguous, or downright unpleasurable sex or sexual interactions, performed unsimulated or portrayed as such. Most films end, or nearing the end of the narrative have, at first glance, an unexpected scene of violence that is not gratuitous or spectacular, shot in real-time, and without or with minimal cutting. Dialogue is sparse, natural lighting often preferred, the images have a documentary quality, the actors are usually nonprofessional and do not have a Hollywood aesthetic. Some of these films, in a very simplistic reading, could perhaps be described as dark, depressing, presenting the arbitrary suffering associated with an individual human existence. Directors associated with New Extremism are mostly French, but include others, most famously Lars Von Trier. According to Tanya Horeck and Tina Kendall, Hollywood productions have been incorporating elements of New Extremism into their features recently, e.g., in David Fincher’s The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo (2011).

A New Extreme film like Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh-Thi’s Baise Moi (2000), in its depiction of real sex and the shots which make up those scenes, along with its stylized violence, demands an investigation from the field of film ethics. To give a sense of the narrative, one critic describes the film as “basically Thelma and Louise get laid.” A quick example of possible ethical theorizing of the film: the sexual tension between the two lead female characters does not, like porn genre films for a male audience, result in show all same-sex sex scenes. According to Lisa Downing this refusal to show all undermines the supposed film-viewing experience of a male gaze at the passive female body as argued by Laura Mulvey. By not depicting the heterosexist pornography one expects – i.e., the two female characters to have sex with each other because the possibility exists within the diegesis (they have real promiscuous sex with men, so why not each other, we might ask) – infuses the images of their mutual attraction with a subversive power, resisting a normative viewing experience.[1] This subversion complicates the relationship between film, screen, and viewer, because we are forced to think about how the images and narrative functioned in past feature-length films and subsequently our own expectations and ethics of spectatorship.

What complicates if not challenges ethical theorization of Baise Moi, and others like it engaging real sexual acts and pretend violence, are possible claims to truth. Downing poses the problem: “how can we take seriously the critique of normative codes of sex and gender, and the suggestion of alternative ways of apprehending the sexually explicit spectacle, in a film that simultaneously appears to take the ‘reality’ of sex itself so seriously while evidently playing at violence?”[2] The answer, I think, is in a study of how realist aesthetics come into play in New Extreme films. It would be important, I think, to ask how a film can be realist in Bazin’s sense, what we mean by the term, and if that category need apply in all cases for theorization of film and ethics, which is to say not the ethics of filmmaking but methods of filmmaking that foster a courage in viewers to face the anxiety of change in regards to a specific ethical or political issue. Before we can determine just how a particular film demands courage from us as viewers we must look at what makes the film valuable as a work; once this is accomplished ethical theory can happen. Yet the assessment of form in terms of its power to evoke some notion of realism is uninteresting insofar as it merely represents or mimics a viewer’s perception of reality. Images not only make a correlation between mind, senses, and reality, but can turn spectators on to a kind of thinking about film form as an invitation to perceive everyday experience without normative coordinates. This is, according to Downing, Baise Moi’s merit. To watch these films, or experience them viscerally as Horeck and Kendall and others write, you must not bring in a prior understanding; little will be gained if our expectations of feature-length films precede the viewing of them.

Bazin’s film theory is useful here, his warning in “Marginal Notes on Eroticism in the Cinema” (1957) encouraging a tension in my work, also noted by Downing in her essay. Equivocating images of sexuality (defined as “ontological pornography”) with real instances of death, Bazin declares both are spectacles. “If you can show me on the screen a man and woman whose dress and position are such that at least the beginnings of sexual consummation undoubtedly accompanied the action, then I would have the right to demand, in a crime film, that you really kill the victim – or at least wound him pretty badly.”[3] There should be neither explicit sex nor death Bazin argues; he prefers a “simple story… which never touches the level of reality”, and thus never reaching a “documentary quality.”[4]

Much of Bazin’s claim, real sex = real death – and he notes that this claim is not worked out in full – begins with the actor/performer and his or her “actual sexual emotion[s]”. A concern for actual sexual emotions demands a theorizing of the limit of the real, i.e., how far would a spectator be willing to go in a narrative film. If the physical and emotive aspects of a sexual scene border on real, existing in reality outside filming (for instance, an actor’s arousal exists whether the camera is on and off), having a spectator leap up from his seat and be affected by the action is a possibility.[5] It is worthwhile to hypothesize for Bazin audience responses to real, or bordering on real, bodily expressions and emotions. If for instance, a woman strips in a theater production, Bazin claims she would arouse “the jealousy of the entire male [sic] audience.” In a film however, there is participation and identification, and thus the man who possesses the woman onscreen “gratifies me by proxy” (Bazin 2005, 173-4), reminding us here of Mulvey’s writing on misrecognition by male spectators. This psychological intrigue would then grant and idealize the pornographic. However, the psychological (in terms of a identifying with characters or narrative satisfying a lack) is not the reason why cinema has a high place in art for Bazin; its capacity to provoke imagination is what matters. In Bazin’s thinking on cinema, near the end of his life, the presence of the imaginary serves to justify censorship of the nude (female) body, i.e., not by law but film aesthetics. Ontological pornography is thus the perversion of realist aesthetics, a perversion which neglects the abundance of creative and imaginative potential of film on the part of those involved in production, as well as for the individual’s viewing experience. It is not what can be precisely filmed that is of concern – i.e., its indexical quality – but rather real events and the actual emotions of actors which lead to complicated distinctions between acting and real life. Bazinian realism engages spectator’s active imagination, making connections between narrative, acts and shots, via film style and techniques of director and crew.

Patrice Chéreau’s film Intimacy, released in 2001, provides a possible thread to join the imaginary and explicit sexuality. (The issue of violence I will return to.) Jay, a thirtysomething lonely bartender whose wife and sons has left him, participates in weekly sex with Claire. Claire, a thirtysomething who has a husband and child of her own, without specifying why or seeming to enjoy it, consistently appears to their sexual encounters on time. The film begins with a few of their sexual numbers at Jay’s home, and we quickly realize that their relationship is solely physical, and the two perhaps do not know a thing about each other. Following one of these Wednesday visits, Jay secretly pursues Claire to a pub and underground theater space where she in fact performs as a stage actor. Here Jay meets Claire’s husband and son, befriends them, and interacts with Claire as if the two had not previously met. This moment in the narrative marks a caesura for Jay, as the rest of the film documents the breaking down of his fantasy of anonymous sex and its impact on his emotional well-being – he wishes to know Claire, because he has growing feelings, but her real life encroaches on their make-believe one. Eventually the two lovers, and Claire’s husband Andy, all try to reconcile the affair or make it work without irreparably damaging their lives.

Many aspects of the film stand out, such as the rather plain casting of the actors involved (as I said above, not cast for their Hollywood aesthetic), the natural lighting, and the use of real spaces in London. Of greatest interest are the performances of Mark Rylance and Kerry Fox, whom in two scenes perform two real sexual acts. The more notable for Linda Williams is the first, the second being fellatio. In the first, after the characters have stripped, Jay lies on his back with his erect penis visible in the center of the frame, which Claire grasps, and strokes. This is an act which we do not often see in a feature film and Williams is shocked by the intimate gesture for it overturns the standard depiction of woman’s sexuality as unfamiliar “with the movements of sex.”

Though she strokes the erect penis, she does not offer the kind of reverential penis worship that so commonly occurs in hard-core pornography and which is usually designed to showcase the penis’s outward extension from the male body in phallic display. Rather, we feel that she feels both the fleshy vulnerability of the organ as well as its pulsing hardness. Most important, the gesture makes us believe in the reciprocity of one touched body part to another.[6]

With this real gesture we get a sense of authenticity when the couple begins to thrust and pant in an embrace. The camera does not cut to extreme close-ups of penetration and does not need to in this case. “We believe,” writes Williams, “that this couple is connected, whether they really are or not.”[7]

The real gesture of Fox’s hand lingering over Rylance’s penis fools film scholar Tanya Krzywinska. She writes that in this first scene “the spectator is left in little doubt that penetration has occurred” and the film does make use of “real sex” in a different way than pornography.[8] The point here is that a single gesture ushered in an experience of the real, while the actual performance, according to interviews of Fox and boyfriend Alexander Linklater, did not include penetration. Nevertheless, critics have declared its realist tendencies. Jon Lewis, for instance, cites a review by Guardian critic AC Grayling to note the degree of cinematic realism accomplished in the film. Thus Williams approaches the title not just as a description of the sexual entanglement of the characters involved, but between the screen and spectator as well: we witness a real intimacy that the actors are asked to perform, and this performance is “among the rare moments on film when what we are watching and investing and believing in is real.”[9]

Combining the techniques used by a director and performances of the actors, as well as one scholar’s reflection on the film, I have hopefully hinted at a method of reconciling Bazinian aesthetics and filmed sexual acts. This was to show, following Williams’ critique of Bazin in Screening Sex (2008), that the imagination does not lose its proclivity when “confronted… with a penis, a vagina, or a blow job, or with many of the ways of performing – not just acting or simulating – sex.” Rather than just posit the always active role of the imagination while experiencing a film, I tried to stress the importance of specific techniques that enhance the imaginative process, in this case, Rylance and Fox’s performance, an essential element in what I want to elaborate upon: realist aesthetics. In the talents of director, crew, and performers, the requirement to show the sexual act in close up and in detail falls away when realism is creatively evoked by the artists involved in the production. “Neither tastefully erotic nor insistently hard-core… [Intimacy] make[s] us realize how impoverished are the gestures and emotions of most cinematic sex acts.”[10] This is perhaps why many of the New Extreme films, even the ones that have real sexual intercourse, do not feel the need to document it in fact – what Williams called in Hard Core (1989), maximum visibility and the frenzy of the visible. The assumption of “real” sex is already there in the viewing experience and our imagination is stimulated in a way altogether different from merely showing us the act of penetration.

My own reflections on Intimacy do not yet touch on the pretend violence that other New Extreme films portray. Perhaps one example can shed light on this issue and again hint at an answer to Downing and Bazin’s problem by theorizing two extreme limits of performance. Sadomasochism in film is perhaps the most challenging to both ethics and cinematic realism because in practice it is both real in the sense of effecting a body, and illusory, through performing particular prearranged roles.[11] Any sadomasochistic scene encounters this duality, most powerfully Catherine Breillat’s Romance (1999). Emma Wilson notes the scene of Marie’s (Caroline Ducey) untying after having been bound and gagged to the point of physical anguish. It becomes troublesome because this untying is staged to be sure but also appears as the untying of actress Ducey: her tears and anguish seem “genuine”, observes Wilson, and this is the pushing of performance to its limit which renders the experience of it haptic. “Breillat manages to convince her audience that, as in various scenes of intercourse, and in the scene where Marie masturbates, we are witnessing ‘real’, unstaged physical responses and reactions. This lack of mediation is shocking for the viewer… and promotes the film’s immediacy, its tactile presence.”[12] A tension is revealed in what is visible onscreen, again between the pretend and real, i.e., the feigned yet real violence of sadomasochism and the actual emotions or physical response of tears.

Tears are a staple of film, as far back as Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). The close-ups of Maria Falconetti are no less affective than those of Ducey after her bound and gagged performance. Likewise we can suggest the feigned or actual orgasm of the performers in many New Extreme films is a realist aesthetic similar to an actor’s tears, i.e., as immersion into a character and scene. In the films I am focusing on for the most part, unlike Williams’ attempt to turn porn into a genre in its own right, orgasms are portrayed less in visible ejaculations than by bodily spasms and groans, and thus male or female, orgasms are equally invisible or in Bazin’s terms equally real in the body of the actors.[13] Such is true of Ducey’s masturbation scene in Romance. It is not as Williams hypothesizes in her text on pornography, that we are witnessing a frenzy of the visible here; this act provokes a heightened sense of realism by treading a line between imagination, screening masturbation, and its climax. Ducey’s performance is not filmed in a close-up of the genitals but beginning from her toes the camera proceeds upwards to her thighs, her hand between her crossed legs and without seeing the genitals, to her upper body and finally on her anguished face at the climax. (I say anguished because the film’s narrative centers on Marie’s sexual problems with husband Paul.) Whether “actually” masturbating or not, treading between real and imaginary provides a more authentic viewing experience. Spectators are active in engagement with characters and the then live performance. Rylance, Fox, and Ducey do not merely act. Performance is an opening up of one’s body to the challenges of physical and emotional of a situation, i.e., actual onscreen sex whether one desires the other or not: “The physical motions and the accompanying emotions”, whether orgasm or tears, are performed and experienced by viewers as “more real than just acting.”[14]

How is it possible then that these films address ethical issues, particularly with reference to forms of violence and sexual violence? What does a real sex act add to the pretend world in a film? In the climactic violence of Breillat’s Fat Girl, Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, Larry Clark’s Ken Park, Bruno Dumont’s The Life of Jesus and Twentynine Palms, Carlos Reygadas’ Battle in Heaven, Von Trier’s Antichrist, to name a few, the murders that conclude the narrative and the real or real-looking sex occurring prior to that end serve a purpose beyond the immediately affective, although it certainly is experienced in this way and I agree with theorists on that point. But we must state firstly: The realist aesthetic of these films is astoundingly affective in order to bring the shock of onscreen violence back into the viewing experience. Sex is exhibited as a normal part of the narrative when we contrast sexual images with the brutality of the murders for instance. Chéreau’s Intimacy “surprises” and “shocks”[15] despite lacking a violent climax if we watch this film in a body of work under the heading of New Extremism. Extreme cinema’s propensity towards actual sexual emotions alongside pretend acts of violence suggests that via the imagination of the spectator the pretend is felt as real within the diegesis and the film experience, and with this assumption it is possible to overcome the problem of taking seriously the explicit critiques of graphic violence in these films (although they are in fact unreal and illusory). In this brief attempt to satisfy Bazin and Downing’s provocative claims, realist aesthetics implicate the spectator in ethical modes of viewing.

Some suggest extreme cinema uncovers humanism as false piety, while others suggest that despite their disturbing misanthropy, the explicitness of the images and narratives are in fact humanistic in their challenge “to the numbing complacencies and stock humanity of much mainstream cinema.”[16] Grønstad’s claim is the more compelling no doubt and this is a line of argument that needs to be given sufficient attention and connected explicitly to the films. Developing a project on extreme realism then is simultaneous to develop a theory of ethics as Downing and Libby Saxton attempt in Film and Ethics (2009). The authors try to show, following Michelle Aaron’s lead in her book Spectatorship (2007), that the film viewing experience already engages ethical thinking. Whereas Downing and Saxton bring continental philosophy texts to film to produce a strand of ethical theory – from the writings of Levinas, Derrida, Lacan and Zizek, Mulvey, Foucault, and Badiou – I want to begin with a trend or movement in contemporary film that carries weight in the ethical field without as much recourse to 20th century philosophy. Sexuality, because of its diverse reception in cinema and its complex negotiations in everyday life, and the stark contrast of brutal violence as I have explained above, should prove to be the perfect points of reference to theorize cinematic realism and its connections to ethical theory. A rudimentary definition of New Extremism is fortunately reduced to those two traits in most scholarship – James Quandt’s article where he defines New Extremism is titled “Flesh and Blood.” New Extremism perhaps overdoes the ethical implication of viewers by its explicit sexuality and violence, and this is why I find it so compelling, both as an area of film studies and as an object to develop film ethics.


[1]               Downing, Film and Ethics, 80-87.

[2]               Ibid., 83.

[3]    Bazin, What is Cinema? V. 2, 173. There is also a similar claim made by the U.S. Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography in 1986. Seeing sex is ‘in the flesh’ and thus audiences bear witness to any abuse or perversions therein (Williams, 1989, 185).

[4] Ibid., 174. Cf. Williams, Hard Core, 185-186.

[5] Cf. Williams, “Film Bodies”. Here she outlines the merit of a horror, melodrama, or pornographic picture is perhaps based on the degree to which one is scared, sad, or turned on.

[6]               Williams, Screening Sex, 272-3.

[7]               Ibid., 273.

[8]               Krzywinska, Sex in the Cinema, 223-224.

[9]               Lewis, “Real Sex”.

[10]             Williams, Screening Sex, 273.

[11]             Williams, Hard Core, 195.

[12]             Wilson, “Deforming femininity”, 154.

[13]             Williams, Hard Core. She spends a great deal of time making the case that the visible male ejaculations in 1970s pornography are the stand-ins for the invisible pleasures of the female.

[14]             Williams, Screening Sex, 274-275.

[15]             Ibid.

[16] James Quandt, “More Moralism from that ‘wordy fuck’”, 213; Asbjørn Grønstad, “Abject desire”, 164.