Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Taboo or Not Taboo

There are a lot of things I don't get about the segment of movie fans who love ultraviolence, or who rate movies by the number of bare breasts or penises they show.  As I wrote yesterday, it seems that many gay men aren't interested at all in the stories being told or the characters' journeys, just in the sex scenes -- which are simulated anyway.  The same thing goes for the geysers of blood and severed heads: they're fake, yet the fans react as though they were real and totally cool.  Sometimes, it's true, they talk or write as though they're praising the special-effects technicians who constructed those awesome illusions -- and why not, since so many DVDs have making-of features that show how the illusions were done -- but at the same time, it was so great when the dude's head exploded!

I can get it to some extent, of course.  At the end of Neil Jordan's 1986 film Mona Lisa, the fugitive prostitute Simone (Cathy Tyson) is tracked down by her pimp and by Mortwell, the gang boss (played by Michael Caine) he works for.  "Don't worry, love, I'm not going to hurt you," Mortwell tells Simone just before he begins to hit her.  But he doesn't know she has a loaded gun in her purse.  "Don't hit me!" she bellows, and fires, hitting him in the foot.  He bounces around, yelling in pain, while Simone yells "It hurts, doesn't it?  It really fucking hurts!" and shoots him through the heart.  Her pimp, bravado gone, is already running away down the hotel hallway; she shoots him too.

I loved this scene, and when the film came out on video I sometimes played it over and over.  There's not much gore, just a little blood when Simone kills Mortwell.  Yet it was tremendously effective, partly because it was relatively realistic: a geyser of CGI blood would have made it ridiculous.  But it was mainly effective because the viewer knows what Simone has endured at Mortwell's hands.  I first saw Mona Lisa soon after its original release, and just a few days after I saw David Lynch's Blue Velvet, a film I hated on first viewing and have never watched again.  One reason I hated Blue Velvet was that it fetishized sexual violence, making it comic and even cool, and worse yet, confused consensual sadomasochism with real violence.  I noticed that many reviewers blamed the victim, not her batterer.  And it was worse than I thought, as I learned when I read a newspaper interview with Lynch in which he explained one of these scenes as "Some women just seem to want you to hit them."  The ending of Mona Lisa was an antidote for Blue Velvet: though the films were made at about the same time, it was as if Neil Jordan were answering David Lynch: Being beaten up isn't funny or sexy or cool, it really fucking hurts.

I got a slight insight into the fanboy mindset, however, when I read Film Out of Bounds: Essays and Interviews on Non-Mainstream Cinema Worldwide, edited by Matthew Edwards (who actually wrote most of the book, with contributions by a few other writers) and published by McFarland in 2007.  Edwards is a British fanboy, now (or at any rate, in 2007) resident in Japan.  By "non-mainstream cinema", Edwards means mainly low-budget horror, splatter, and sexploitation movies of the kind that used to play in drive-ins and now often go straight to video.  That's okay, but my definition of non-mainstream cinema is a lot broader than that, so I was a bit disappointed to find how narrow the book's focus was.

After a chapter on Japanese "pink" films, Edwards moves on to what he calls the Golden Age of Porn, from the early 1970s to the rise of home video a decade later.  He focuses on Curt McDowell's 1975 Thundercrack!, which he calls "the perfect example of seventies porno -- a time of unpredictability, when filmmakers were willing to break taboos and show us gratuitous sex.  At the same time filmmakers aimed to deliver films with a fun or interesting storyline, and made them with impressive production values" (65).

As it happens, I've seen Thundercrack!, though it was more than twenty years ago, and I saw it partly because I was curious to see how it integrated a male-male sex scene into an otherwise heterosexual movie.  As I recall, the scene was played straight, if you'll pardon the figure of speech: serious, consensual, and pretty sexy.  This was in contrast to most of the movie, which was a parody of a certain kind of horror film: a group of (relative) innocents seek shelter in a decrepit mansion with crazy inhabitants and have a lot of weird adventures there. Other examples range from James Whale's The Old Dark House (1932) to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and probably beyond; I'm not a student of the genre.  The other sex scenes, as I recall, are played more broadly, and Edwards's account reminds me of a major plot point: one of the characters is a female gorilla (played by someone in a gorilla suit), who has a thing for human males, and in the end, love wins out.

So, how does Edwards, fan of taboo-breaking cinema, handle the gay scene in Thundercrack?  With tongs.  He refers to it thusly:
This leads to the film's infamous gay sex scene.  Once that is over with ... [64]
He describes the rest of the film, including the sex scenes, in detail, but draws a veil over the gay stuff.  The succeeding chapter is an interview by Edwards of Melinda McDowell, the filmmaker's sister and one of the film's leads.  The gay scene is delicately brought up:
One of the most talked-about aspects of Thundercrack! is the inclusion of a gay sex scene.  How did this go down with audiences of the time?

Audiences entered the theater never dreaming they would be subjected to close-up man on (or, in) man scenes.  A thrill for many, a reason to make a mad dash from the theater for others.
That having been addressed, Edwards moves thankfully on to ask about the scene where Medusa the gorilla gives the former circus worker Bing a handjob.  He calls it "a funny scene" but speculates that "maybe a double was used."  As long as they weren't both males -- but McDowell coyly refuses to tell who was in the gorilla suit for that scene.  It sounds to me like audiences of this time are still uncomfortable with guy on/in guy action in a porn film, even if they came to see taboos broken.  (Which reminds me, even one naked guy is enough to start "a mad dash from the theater" for many people, most of them male.)  Some taboos are clearly more taboo than others.  And by now, "extreme" cinema, even if it's not mainstream, can hardly be called "taboo-breaking."  For the audiences who love this stuff, it's the absence of blood geysers and lopped-off limbs that is taboo.

It seems to me like an impoverished approach to life and art, but whatever floats your boat.  And I don't mean that I can never appreciate such movies; I just wonder about people for whom splatter and glimpses of nipples are the measure by which they judge entertainment or art.  It strikes me as depersonalized: I loved the climax of Mona Lisa because I identified with Simone.  The fanboy mentality doesn't appear to seek identification with characters: even a personal motive like vengeance is built less on people than on the recurring tropes of extreme, unrealistic violence.  Ditto for the focus on sex scenes and exposure of naked bodies: whatever it means to the fans, it doesn't seem to be about people, either the actors or the characters.