Transgressively Yours

Posted by Charles Reece, October 20, 2013 03:03pm | Post a Comment

susan mcnamara richard kern my nightmare

I recently wrote an essay taking a perverse perspective on this comic book called Fukitor. It mixes questionable views on sex and race in a comedic manner that, I believe, undermines any straightforward reading of the book as mere support for white male power (the straightforward approach caused a brief controversy here and here). But, because it clearly revels within genres that are exploitative, the comic could hardly be thought to be clearly promoting good progressive values, either. Without a doubt, the book contains images of bigotry, but it's no more a sympathetic portrayal of white male privilege than a film like Fight for Your Life. All the white men in the book are knuckledragging imbeciles, but the comic (like said film) uses the bigotry for comedy, which is just too much for some people.

Being a fan of exploitation and not a fan of bigotry, it seems to me that the disagreement over exploitative imagery has more to do with the political demands one places on art rather than any necessary disagreement over politics itself. I don’t need to agree with the ideology of the art (whether or not it’s actually the view of the artist) to find some enjoyment there. In fact, like Groucho Marx, I'm skeptical of anyone who pats me on the back. Karns’ critics, however, seem to oppose his comics based on the fact that they aren’t expressing a correct view. I’m not the least bit sympathetic, for example, to Martin Wisse’s view on transgression ('transgression' being the word for 'exploitation' that lends it intellectual respectability):

If he really wants to shock and be radical and trangressive, why not have the same comic, but with the heroic defenders of Fukistani values defeating the evil forces of the godless west? Show some gleeful, lovingly dismemberment of US soldiers while Osama Bin Laden quips one liners?

In another words, something is transgressive (and “daring”) only when it violates another’s expectations, not his own committed leftism. Transgression is pissing off some imagined conservative, never the leftist who wants to understand why the other hates us so.

This is reminiscent of the Cinema of Transgression from the 1980s to early 90s. Nick Zedd’s manifesto called for “[a]ll values [to] be challenged,” yet, “propose[d] to go beyond all limits set or prescribed by taste, morality or any other traditional value system shackling the minds of men.” [my emphasis] Unsurprisingly, what it produced is a bunch of experimental films that could only make some conservative Midwesterner uncomfortable (you can watch them for free through the link). Isn’t it shocking how Richard Kern is drinking piss or masturbating on camera (cf. My Nightmare)? Not really, but it probably is to some, perhaps many, Americans if they ever saw it. But many Americans never did, since these films were only aimed at an audience who wouldn't find it shocking, i.e., a bunch of like-minded lefties living in New York who fancied themselves the cutting edge. I wonder if they’d be offended by Karns’ comics. Does he transgress their value system? He’s closer to Bataille or De Sade than they, that’s for sure. De Sade was transgressive because he threw out a concern for morality. The same could be said for surrealism and futurism. What Cinema of Transgression produced was merely ideological art. And that’s what Wisse is calling for, not transgression. I’d make the distinction by saying ideological art transgresses another’s values with yours, whereas transgressive art is having your own values affected by another's. It should make you question your own categories (of art, politics, et al.) in some fashion, even if it's something like "should I be laughing at this?" Regardless of the intent of the creator, this has more to do with the way the audience receives it, a feeling that something about oneself has been exposed in the reception.


And while I'm thinking about it, Calum Marsh recently cited Zedd's manifesto as a basis for arguing why so much of modern horror isn't shocking no matter how hard it tries. Likewise, he suggests a way of creating a transgressive jolt in the genre is to have a progressive message (boo!):

Violence against women not only has an overlong history of representation in the movies, filling screens from the dawn of the medium, it has a firm basis in reality that is not addressed or engaged with meaningfully by any of the films that play so cavalierly with the imagery. If being transgressive means challenging the status quo, depicting violence complacently but superficially "shockingly" is the furthest thing from transgression. That is the status quo. Instead of focusing on new ways to dismember women onscreen, the would-be transgressive filmmaker must devise a new subject whose dismantling might actually shock or upset people so used to its normality -- a film which targets rape culture, for instance, or patriarchy, or transphobia.

While I can think of some recent transgressive horror, largely from France, most of it depicts brutality to women in one way or another. But this is true of more extremist feminist films like Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl and Virginie Despentes' Baise-moi, too, as well as the both feminist and horrific In My Skin by Marina de Van. Martyrs is probably the paradigm case for horror here. It features gruesomely relentless torture of women, worse than any mere slasher, yet it's arguably feminist and most definitely leftist. In fact, most of the current crop of  these films (generally referred to as New French Extremism) is from a left perspective. What gives them their shock, their transgressive edge, is how far the imagery goes in making a point. If anything, these films would be even more controversial ("shocking") if they promoted the most brutish, barrelbrowed kind of conservativism (extremely pro-military, anti-feminine, xenophobic, and white supremacist), because (as with the Cinema of Transgression) the only people likely to see them aren't conservatives (they tend to need religious justification for enjoying exploitation, cf. The Passion of the Christ). So what really makes something like Martyrs potentially transgressive is ultimately the exploitative imagery in service of the ideology (the same stuff one might enjoy in more extreme examples of grindhouse), not the ideological message itself. 

[10-28-13: I just noticed Wisse's response to this, which points out that I mistakenly called him 'Matthew' -- sorry about that. I've made the correction above]

Relevant Tags

Nick Zedd (1), French Horror (5), Horror (213), Cinema Of Transgression (1), Transgression (3), Exploitation (6)