Domination & Dragons: Georges Bataille's Story of the Eye (2003) & How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

Posted by Charles Reece, December 19, 2010 11:29pm | Post a Comment

Andrew McElhinney's adaptation of Georges Bataille's perverse classic, Story of the Eye, is transgressive in the way Lady GaGa challenges our notions of sexual identity. Its cast seems to have come from gay S&M clubs, Korn videos and Midwestern strip joints. I don't have Phil Donahue to tell me what middle America is thinking any more, so maybe the sight of a pierced black cock that looks like a Subway sandwich is still provocative up in Bakersfield. I'm certain my 95-year old grandmother would rather watch her soaps, but so would I. I knew I was in for a boring ride when the film opened with actual footage of a baby's birth, as if Hollywood still had Rob and Laura Petrie sleeping in single beds. Then came a scene with the Korn extra controlling via a joystick two dancing women with torsos painted to look like faces under big top hats. Guess what the joystick is replaced with through the magic of montage. Hasn't the phallic joystick become such a frozen metaphor at this point that it's literal? This is hardly the metonymic eroticism Roland Barthes once analyzed where eyes, eggs and breasts become signs of each other through cleverly structured vignettes of abject sexuality. Whereas Bataille's love story begins with a decapitated cyclist, McElhinney shows the application of a condom to promote safe sex! After about 5 minutes of gay porn involving a bleached blonde sailor boy pitted against the aforementioned Moby Dick of, umm, deli sandwiches, I began to fast forward, looking for anything involving buttocks and egg cracking, but to no avail. Maybe it's old-fashioned to be thinking of the halcyon days of transgression, however McElhinney's sexual terrain would've been flyover country back in de Sade's time.

You're better off watching Apocalypto, where Mel Gibson displays true Bataillean flair by taking his time in showing a Mayan sacrifice. As with the mortification of Jesus' body in The Passion of Christ, Gibson eroticizes the sacrificial act, beginning with the arduous walk up the steps of the great temple to the removal of the victim's heart to his beheading and then to the tossing of the headless corpse down the steps. (Inspired, he goes on to show another sacrifice, albeit it in not quite as much detail.) In both films, pain builds until it's released through violent ejaculation. Gibson was particularly interested in why a civilization like the Mayans (one could ask the same of the Romans), rationally capable of creating such architectural marvels, would treat another human so cruelly. For Bataille, it had to do with the material baseness of any rational structure, society's blindspot, or the madness that makes it all possible. Against the ratio of the Hegelian master-slave dialectic, he suggested that Aztec sacrifice (which Gibson had considered using, but went with the Mayans instead) was a way of resisting the reduction of human life into pure exchange value. While the slave can be exchanged in a rational system, the sacrifice is pure excess, or waste, and can't be used for anything else. In this manner, it becomes sacred ("heterogeneous"), suggestive of something beyond the homogenizing structures their culture placed upon them, and was therefore a foundational act.   

In Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders' (or should I say Dreamworks') How to Train Your Dragon, pure master-servant equilibrium is established, in which the once ballyhooed End of History occurs when the humans achieve proper mastery over nature qua dragons. It's the story of a little, effete Viking boy, who's the embarrassment of his macho father, becoming the glorious hero of the town after he learns how to control the dragons by befriending one of them. Until then, the Vikings and dragons were mortal enemies on a seemingly equal level. I suppose this teaches kids something about reality. And, to its credit, the film celebrates amputation (something that The Walking Dead, an adult show about zombies, chickens out on). But it has a parallel to the old racist canard that blacks are better off for being brought to the States as slaves because of the miserable state of affairs back in Africa. It turns out, you see, that all the dragons are slaves to a much bigger, tyrannical dragon. At the end of the picture, they find more peace and happiness serving the humans than they ever did serving one of their own. In other words, the dragons never rise above their exchange value, since they see no alternative. Perhaps a dragon sacrifice is in order.

Fightin' Side of Me: Frontier(s) (2007)

Posted by Charles Reece, July 4, 2010 10:14pm | Post a Comment

Next up in my survey of contemporary French horror films is Xavier Gens' Frontier(s). As can be surmised from the title, the horror affect centers on the question of boundaries, both in transgressing them and being bound by them. Most literally, the five main characters -- Yasmine, aka "the final girl;" her brother Sami; her boyfriend Alex; an awkward, Muslim kid, Farid; and a big, blonde dickhead named Tom -- are making a run for France's borders in the near-future after stealing some loot during a widespread riot on the eve of the National Front (NF)'s winning the popular election. This spatial separation of the inside from the outside -- particularly the urgent need to escape -- is the objective correlative for what follows.

(I'll be discussing plot points as needed, so spoiler alert and don't expect a linear plot summary.)

Perhaps the most commonplace hypocrisy constituting the modern Right's ideological stance is that in promoting deregulation and mass privatization of supposedly everything, the one object that remains for them entirely objective, defined solely from the outside, and thusly constituted by the law, is the body. They are, for example, consistently against drug legalization, outré sexual practices (defined as anything outside of the ventro-ventral procreative technique with the opposite sex), suicide (various State-regulated killing of another's body is okay) and, of course, abortion. Yas, no longer having that last liberty available to her at home, flees to the border with her larcenous comrades to abort her pregnancy elsewhere, not wanting to raise a child in the encroaching fascist dystopia. This plan is foiled when the group encounters the Geisler family, a Eurotrash version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The Geislers are more Rob Zombie than Tobe Hooper, but with some of the latter's ideological concern returned to the mix. The patriarch is Von Geisler, a former Nazi (or, perhaps, a dedicated collaborator during the war) who still dons the uniform on special occasions. One of these occasions is the buzz saw marriage of his oldest son, Karl, to Yas. Like all good Master Race advocates, Von Geisler has been attempting to keep his bloodline within the family, and with the predictable horrific results. The numerous offspring produced with Eva -- the hunchbacked, youngest daughter -- are sequestered in the vast cement catacombs undergirding the hotel that the family runs in the country's hinterlands (not unlike the chamber which is the ideological core of Martyrs' suburbs and most likely borrowed from House of 1,000 Corpses). The old man is pragmatic enough to compromise his ideology by trying something else, namely put aside Yas' Arab heritage to further his ideal, much like he repressed all those failed utopian attempts residing in the hotel's unconscious underground. The family will force Yas to raise her child as a member of the Aryan race, a perverse joke on the liberal ideals of tolerance and integration. It's the horrific extreme of secular France's ban on the hijab. We accept people of all beliefs, provided they try to look and act like us. You could say Yas' body has been colonialized.

Like most families pushed to the edge of civilized society (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Spider BabyDelicatessen, The Hills Have Eyes, Naked Prey, etc.), the Geislers are cannibals. They hack their way through Yas' pals, serving her boyfriend as the wedding dinner's main course. I wonder, given the sheer abundance of cannibal films, if it wouldn't be more horrifying for liberally minded people to see a genuinely loving relation between fascists? But, with the notable exception of Hitler (albeit some resist calling him vegetarian), it's easier to think of them as cannibals by the logic of racism: Aryans have dominion over other races like man does animal, so anything non-white becomes food. Which brings up another boundary, the taboo.

Naomi Merritt uses the erotic theory of Georges Bataille to critique what she calls the cannibalistic capitalism of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (TCM). According to Bataille, taboos function to direct our inherent violent impulses into a more socially acceptable practice, such as labor. But when something is put off limits, it gains a seductive power over us, tempting us to transgress it -- like Ren telling Stimpy that whatever he does, don't push the red button. Transgression isn't possible until something that's readily available is made unavailable by a prohibition of some kind. The possibility of transgression then gives the taboo its power, reinforces its "idea or potency."  I'm not sure I see this as a paradox, but Merritt calls it the "fundamental paradox of taboos." As she explains:

A taboo provides a sense of order and control by placing the threatening element outside of society through prohibition. However, the security offered by the taboo is undermined by the recognition that is given to the forbidden thing when it is banished or excluded. The taboo, like any law, paradoxically conceives of the crime by disallowing it.

But it's not like the now criminalized act came into existence with the law. It would've had to have some power in order to be recognized for the prohibition. Maybe I'm being simple-minded, but it seems that some people were tempted to perform the prohibited act before it was outlawed, and that's why it was "disallowed." The red button would have the same destructive effect without Ren's admonition. What was once a desire to act becomes a temptation to transgress, since an illicit boundary has been set. But what's important here is the way Merritt interprets the cause of the family's cannibalism in TCM. They're laid off slaughterhouse workers, whose "violent urges [were previously] unleashed by the commercially driven slaughter and consumption of animals. But unemployment deprives them of this ‘acceptable’ or ‘productive’ outlet, leading to the murder and consumption of human beings." The work gave a form to the violent impulse, justified and directed it. But once machines took over the butchering of livestock, the Leatherface clan's skills were made redundant. Existing as excess of the capitalist system -- as unemployable workers -- they began applying their trade on the other side of the taboo, namely in butchering humans. The form of the violence remains the same, only now without the cultural support.

I'm not sure I buy that reading, since the logic of slaughter in relation to the boundary being crossed (from animal to human) doesn't really follow. Why wouldn't the family just stick to killing animals in a wholesale manner, irrespective of its capitalist justification? What is it about their status as excess that tempts their transgression into eating humans? It seems more plausible to suggest that the whole symbolic order has fallen apart for them once they were cast aside. The hitchhiking brother at the beginning of the film is a grave robbing necrophiliac, for example. A perverse mockery of the family unit and butchering skill set are the only vestiges of the old order. Thus any dialectic of taboo and its transgression -- or, as Bataille put it, "[e]xtreme seductiveness is at the boundary of horror" -- would no longer seem to apply. That might explain why the audience finds the family seductively terrifying (they break our taboo), but it doesn't say squat about the family's relation to taboo, since they don't recognize the same boundaries as we do. The taboo is a function of social order, so without the order, there is no taboo, only the violence.

I bring up Merritt's analysis, because it seems a much better fit for Frontier(s). The Geislers' cannibalism is a dark comical conclusion to the logic of a certain belief system regarding outsiders among us, chiefly immigrants. They are, in other words, a morbid satire of Jean-Marie Le Pen's typical supporter. Le Pen's National Front Party (NF) often gets called fascist, but a look at his core issues (minus an anti-American strain) suggests he's not too far off from our own Republican Party here in the States: strong immigration restrictions, death penalty, fervent nationalism and strict governmental control over one's body (as detailed earlier). If there's one thing that makes Le Pen appear more extreme it's his tendency to avoid (much to his own political detriment) coded language regarding minorities (well, that and his holocaust revisionism). Although the anti-immigration stance of the NF had been achieving an increasing popularity since the 80s, structuring a seemingly more mainstream conservative discourse (most notably in the form of 1993's Pasqua Laws, which -- according to their architect and namesake, then interior minister Charles Pasqua -- were to promote zero immigration), France was shocked when Le Pen came in a close second to conservative Jacques Chirac in the first round of 2002's presidential election. The resulting trauma gave Chirac one of the biggest landslide victories in French history a few weeks later. (A summary of how anti-immigration has played a significant role in contemporary French politics can be found here.) It's the fear of impending nationalism, with its strict delineation of French purity, that is central to Frontier(s)' use of cannibalism.

What allows for the transgression of eating humans here is Von Geisler's redefining some French (as depicted in the film, those of a North African descent) as not actually being part of a truly French people (and North Africans are the largest portion of immigrants to France due to colonialist ties with that region). There's no taboo if they're no longer eating people. In 2002, philosopher Alain Badiou and two of his comrades in the radical left L'Organization Politique argued that there was nothing surprising about Le Pen's showing. Both left and right governments "since Mitterand" had kowtowed to American interests that weren't too far removed from the policies of the NF. But, most importantly for present purposes, even the left had shown a remarkable lack of principle in opposing the removal of the concept 'worker' from popular discourse. In its place was 'illegal immigrant' (sans papiers, or "without papers"), connoting a threat to national borders (such as French identity). This categorical boundary had the effect of pushing legal low-wage legal workers towards the anti-prole policies of the NF and conservative parties by cutting off the solidarity they might've otherwise had with the sans papiers workers. This misidentification is played out in the film through Von Geisler's differing treatment of Karl, the oldest and best-looking son, and Hans, his oafish younger brother. The latter is barely treated with much more respect than what's paid the outsiders, but he's required to do all the butchering and most of the dirty work (having to spend most of his time in the underground chambers with their remains). Karl, on the other hand, is selected as the new patriarch, the one who's to pass on the bloodline and maintain the family ideology. When Hans has about all he can stand, he shoots his father while Yas is holding the old man at knifepoint. In turn, Karl kills his brother. Realizing that the family is ultimately consuming itself, the deformed Eva helps Yas escape (but remains behind to care for her troglodytic offspring).

Having scarcely escaped the worst excess of the NF's id, Yas returns, twitching and with arms outstretched like Romero's living dead, to face the now seemingly more mainstream Front's gendarmes as if it's a relief. This ending is a burlesque extension to the 2002 slogan "vote for the crook, not the fascist" that suggested the French voters rally around the right-wing candidate Chirac for fear of the really right-wing Le Pen actually winning. Her rights are still curtailed, but at least these fascists won't eat her.

(In which the author returns from the hospital.)

Posted by Job O Brother, May 30, 2010 01:53pm | Post a Comment

I'm too sexy for my Intravenous therapy.

Well, dear readers, I have returned to you after an opposite-of-glamorous stay at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center where I was hospitalized for five days. In the words of French philosopher Ferdinand de Saussure, “Je n'ai pas aimé cela.”