On Not Watching Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible

A dozen or so years ago, my now-wife-and-then-girlfriend’s roommate, a young woman who worked as a community organizer, told me that she had recently seen Gaspar Noé‘s recently released Irréversible. She really liked it: it was a disturbing movie, hard to watch because of that notorious eight-minute rape scene and all the other violence, but I, a supposedly serious fan of the movies, should still see it. It was good, challenging movie–well-made and cleverly constructed, an innovative deployment of the cinematic medium. I listened carefully to her descriptions of the movie and said I would check it out. A little while later, once I got my Netflix account, I placed it on my DVD queue, and then later, my ‘Watch Instantly’ list.

I have still not seen Irréversible. It sits there on my queue, waiting to be selected.

I asked my wife whether she was interested in watching Irréversible. She admitted  she was not terribly enthusiastic about the prospect of sitting through an extended violent rape scene.  So I waited for a suitable opportunity to watch the movie by myself.

I kept waiting. Irréversible is still on my queue, but whenever the opportunity to watch it arises, I blow past it and pick some other movie.

I know my reactions are not unique; Irreversible evoked similar responses from many who saw the movie and critiqued it. Its violence, directed against gay men and women, was easily accused of being gratuitous, misogynistic and homophobic, of pandering to those who sought titillation in violence.

But I was not making a straightforwardly political statement of disapproval by not hitting ‘play.’ Rather, I was simply owning up to an intense emotional and aesthetic discomfort. Some kinds of violence have simply become too hard to watch on the screen. (The torture porn of modern horror movies is another example.) Perhaps I have gone old, perhaps I have gone ‘soft.’

Modern cinema revels in the ‘unflinching look’ – all the better to rip of the mask off previously sanitized examinations of mankind’s cruelty to itself. These perspectives–the protracted sequences of beating someone’s face to pulp, the close-ups of missing limbs, the lingering over terrifying torture and disfigurement–are supposed to work by persuading us that we condone the presence of violence when we refuse to reckon with its grim reality.

But I am long persuaded. I am disgusted and appalled; I am left nauseated and sleepless. I do not need to be told anymore that there is nothing remotely sexual in rape, that it is an act of violence, brutal and unsparing in the damage it inflicts on its victims. My movie-watching over the years has not made me numb to cinematic depictions of violence; instead, I have been broken down. My stomach is not as strong as it used to be–if it ever was. Another eight minutes of persuasion will do me no good. Their rhetorical pressure will be unbearable.

Irréversible still sits on my queue; I leave it there as a reminder that my tastes in cinema have changed.

The Year That Was, Here, On This Blog

The formal two-year anniversary of this blog was sometime back in November; as I was traveling then I couldn’t put up a commemorative post; this year-end dispatch will have to do as substitute marker for that occasion.

2013 was a busy year for blogging here, though I blogged on fewer occasions than I did in 2012. (In 2012 I put up three hundred and twenty four posts; this year, only two hundred and ninety-four.) Like 2012, I took one long break–of four weeks–from blogging because of travel; last year, I had taken my furlough while I was out road-tripping in the American West; this year, because I was traveling with my family in India. I also took occasional breaks from blogging while I traveled outside New York City; this was not a luxury I had allowed myself in 2012, but I was more fatigued this year thanks to parental responsibilities, and I took any chance I could get to catch a bit of rest.

As I noted in my first-year anniversary post last year, this blog still lacks focus; I do not have a particular subject of focus and write on almost anything that catches my fancy. My daughter’s birth sparked a particularly self-indulgent set of posts responding to her presence; I presume those readers who were parents found this understandable, while other readers’ tolerance might have been severely tested. I also remained tardy in replying to readers’ comments; I hope they will continue to indulge me and reply to my posts as I struggle to improve my response time to them. I do not know what lies ahead in 2014; I think my frequency of blogging will diminish just a bit as I spend more time on other writing projects. Do stick around though.

The five most viewed posts this year–a series started last year–were as follows:

Alan Dershowitz, Pro-Torture Plagiarist, Deigns to Lecture Us On Intellectual Honesty: When Alan Dershowitz decided he wanted to interfere with Brooklyn College’s academic departments’ rights to conduct academic events on campus, I was incensed, and said as much. The posts on this ‘BDS controversy at Brooklyn College’ also brought in a record number of comments, which should not have been all that surprising given that they were, after all, about Israel and Palestine.

The Peculiar Allure of Blog Search Terms: This post, my nod at the peculiar, intriguing, fascinating, sometimes disturbing search terms that bring readers to this blog (and others), was picked by WordPress for their Freshly Pressed series. My thanks to the WordPress folks for that; their selection certainly brought in many new readers to this blog.

American Horror Story and Torture Porn: This post was quite popular in 2013, and sometimes I wonder if it’s for all the wrong reasons: are people looking for ‘torture porn’? I don’t have any to offer, unfortunately, just some commentary on the cinematic laziness and possibly problematic morals of the genre.

Crossfit, Women, and ‘Tough Titsday’: A Woman’s Perspective: This post featured a guest contribution by my wife, who wrote an impassioned rejoinder to a wildly skewed, superficial and misleading article on Jezebel.

Male Anxiety in the Workplace: The Case of Academic Philosophy: I continued writing on womens’ station in academic philosophy, and here, in this post, I addressed the anxiety their presence seemed to cause to men.

American Horror Story and Torture Porn

Last night was Fright Night. I had plans to watch the opening episode of the third season of American Horror Story, a show that despite its disappointingly concluded first season and its at times too-lurid second season still manages to hold considerable promise for me. But I was going to watch Paranormal Activity first; somehow despite the hype, I’ve managed to not see this 2007 sleeper hit.   Watching a commercial-separated movie isn’t great, but it was going to run on F/X from 8-10, at which point American Horror Story would kick off.

Two hours later, after I had finished Paranormal Activity, I was only able to stay awake to catch the opening scenes and title sequence of American Horror Story; the rest was DVR’d for another day. But by then, I had already had occasion to encounter yet another instance of a familiar and problematic aspect of modern horror cinema: torture porn. (The Saw and Hostel franchises made torture-porn a talking point, enough of one to inspire a satirical short video in response; American Horror Story flirted with it in the second season.)

The Wikipedia entry for ‘torture porn’ is filed away under ‘splatter film; this, and the titles listed there suggest a broader understanding for the term that I have in mind. I take ‘torture porn’ to implicate those scenes, story lines, and plot devices that rely explicitly on torture carried out on captives (I’m suspect women are the majority of these prisoners.)

In this form ‘torture porn’ relies on scenes of extreme cruelty inflicted on helpless subjects. It is the contrast of maximal power with minimal that unsettles us so, tapping into primeval fears of inefficacy in the face of a variety of forces: natural, political, economic, animal. In the face of sadistic exertions in those domains, we sense we would experience fear and pain only dimly imagined, the kind that would transform us into whimpering, gibbering cowards, begging for mercy;  its cinematic depictions are then, bound to be disturbing to all but the deeply desensitized.

Torture porn can afford to be simplistic in its work. There is little to no suspense, no build-up of supernatural tension; there is little need for supernatural agencies; indeed, most torture porn relies on humans to do the dirty work – on other humans. Which, of course, is what makes it so disturbing: stories of torture are part of our histories, modern and ancient, and there is no evidence our species has grown any less fond of it over the years. Torture porn might thus enable the blending of two genres of cinema, sometimes taken to be distinct: true-crime and horror. For instance, Snowtown, the story of the John Bunting murders in Australia, could be reckoned a torture porn movie. (It is perhaps a little too sophisticated for that, but still my drift should be clear: torture porn enables us to see how horror lurks in the human.)

Is torture porn morally problematic? That is a large and complex question but at the least, I think many of its offerings are just plain lazy, unwilling to do the hard work of story writing, editing, and atmosphere creation that is usually required to effectively and scarily bring horror to the screen.  That’s as big a sin as any.

Note: Paranormal Activity is a very effective little shocker of a movie; with no torture required to creep us out.