Blurred Lines: On Art and Pornography

Venus of Urbino

In an article appearing in The Guardian this past December, actor Stellan Skarsgård defends Lars von Trier’s forthcoming Nymphomaniac against accusations of pornography:

Pornography has just one purpose, which is to arouse you. To make you wank, basically. But if you look at this film, it’s actually a really bad porn movie, even if you fast forward. And after a while you find you don’t even react to the explicit scenes. They become as natural as seeing someone eating a bowl of cereal.

Critics mounted similar defenses against charges of pornography when Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color was released earlier last year. For example, Julie Maroh, the author of the work on which the film was based, stated that the sex scenes amounted to “a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn.” But according to Andrew O’Hehir at Salon:

Those scenes were intended to be challenging and destined to be controversial, but they are woven into the film’s design, not the reasons for its existence.

It’s not 1953, people – if your goal is to see French girls get naked, it’s not like you need to sit through a three-hour art film to achieve that.

Peter Bradshaw at The Guardian gets right to the heart of the matter:

For what it’s worth I entirely disagree that Blue Is the Warmest Colour is porn. Of course that charge can be levelled against any explicit material, and “porn” is a charge routinely made against anything that looks good: “food porn”, “property porn”, etc. But the film’s sheer uncompromising explicitness took it beyond the level of exploitation or titillation, and what also took it away from porn was its treatment of the unsexy aftermath: the agony, the tears, the arguments, the gloom and the despair. This is the long goodbye – a very unporn goodbye. I didn’t giggle at the sex scenes: I found them sexy, passionate and moving, in that narrative order.

In sum, according to all of these defenses, art differs from porn because its portrayals of sex are not necessarily titillating. They’re not “to make you wank,” as Skarsgård puts it. However, the history of art tells a different story. In the past, sexual art was common and created by the great artists for the very purpose of titillation; it was indistinguishable from today’s pornography in its expressed intentions to arouse its viewers. For this reason, and for the fact that by their very definitions porn and art cannot easily be separated, I would like to argue that charges of pornography levied against sexual content in art is a subtle way of avoiding any real confrontation with what the sexual content might signify. Also, I do not think that titillating and erotic content need necessarily disqualify a work from being considered art.

Part I: The History of Sex in Art (or, How Sex Became a Vice)

Blue Is the Warmest Color and Nymphomaniac are certainly not the first art house films to display graphic sex. A feature titled “A History of Real Sex in Movies” cites nine examples. One of these is 9 Songs, directed by Michael Winterbottom. Of the strong criticism levied against his film by British Parliament, Winterbottom remarked:

You can show people eating and doing normal things, but you can’t show two people making love, the most natural of all things.

This is a valid point. Why can’t we simply depict sex in art as a natural act? Why does it automatically become controversial, or worse, “obscene,” and threaten a work’s art status? As I have already mentioned, this was not always the case.

Jonathan Jones, the art critic at The Guardian, has written a lot on this subject (and even penned a book about it):

Europe’s great artists were making pornography long before the invention of the camera, let alone the internet. In my new book The Loves of the Artists, I argue that sexual gratification – of both the viewers of art, and artists themselves – was a fundamental drive of high European culture in the age of the old masters. Paintings were used as sexual stimuli, as visual lovers’ guides, as aids to fantasy. This was considered one of the most serious uses of art by no less a thinker than Leonardo da Vinci, who claimed images are better than words because pictures can directly arouse the senses. He was proud that he once painted a Madonna so sexy the owner asked for all its religious trappings to be removed, out of shame for the inappropriate lust it inspired. His painting of St John the Baptist is similarly ambiguous.

The sexual content of these classic paintings—not to mention the fact that some were clearly used as one would use pornography today (i.e., to arouse and stimulate sexual appetites)—does not negate their worth as art objects. They still hang in museums; they are still studied and appreciated.

We can go back even further in time, to Ancient Rome. In a blog about the ancient art of Pompeii, Jones writes:

The villas and brothels of Pompeii were full of erotic paintings, sculptures and kinky artefacts.

[…] It is a huge contrast with the Christian society that grew out of the ruins of Rome and still in many ways – whatever our personal beliefs – shapes the culture of the west. That contrast is sharply shown by what happened to the erotic art of Pompeii when it started to be rediscovered by excavators in the 18th century. It was admired, but also considered deeply provocative.

The point that Jones is making is that sex today is marred by sin, whereas “the art of Pompeii reveals that uninhibited sex and unrepressed art were universal in this ancient culture.” As Jones points out, Christianity is largely responsible for this differing perception of sex. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about how this shift occurred in an aphorism titled “To think a thing evil means to make it evil” (Daybreak 76, trans. R. J. Hollingdale):

The passions become evil and malicious if they are regarded as evil and malicious. Thus Christianity has succeeded in transforming Eros and Aphrodite – great powers capable of idealization – into diabolical kobolds and phantoms by means of the torments it introduces into the consciences of believers whenever they are excited sexually. Is it not dreadful to make necessary and regularly recurring sensations into a source of inner misery, and in this way to want to make inner misery a necessary and regularly recurring phenomenon in every human being! In addition to which it remains a misery kept secret and thus more deeply rooted: for not everyone possesses the courage of Shakespeare to confess his Christian gloominess on this point in the way he did in his Sonnets. – Must everything that one has to combat, that one has to keep within bounds or on occasion banish totally from one’s mind, always have to be called evil! Is it not the way of common souls always to think an enemy must be evil! And ought one to call Eros an enemy?

To see this transformation in action (of Eros into an enemy, of love into sin), one need only look at the shunga art of ancient Japan. In an article for The Guardian, Charlotte Gibbons writes about a recent exhibit of shunga art at the British Museum:

Although shunga, meaning “spring picture” or “pillow picture”, was a mainstream artistic genre for several centuries, enjoyed by ordinary townspeople as well as aristocrats, it was suppressed in the 20th century when Japan opened up to the west and the country went through an accelerated “modernisation”.

At that point, instead of being regarded as a part of the texture of everyday life, presented to brides upon their marriages for instruction, arousal or amusement, shunga “was treated like pornography”, said [Tim] Clark [the show’s head curator].

Above all, said Clark, shunga is important because of its value as art. The greatest Japanese artists, such as Hokusai and Utamaro, made erotic images. Shunga invites us to question, he said, a western tradition that divided “great art” from “the obscene”. “That distinction simply does not exist in Japanese art of the period,” he said.

Thus, it was the western (Christian?) tradition of dividing “great art” from “the obscene” that turned Eros into an enemy, not only in the West, but across the entire globe. Still, the history of art and painting is full of works that embrace their erotic and sexual content. To return to Winterbottom’s complaint that he “can’t show two people making love, the most natural of all things,” I think we can now see why. It wouldn’t have been a problem in the pre-Christian world (e.g., Ancient Rome or Japan), where sexuality was celebrated and not seen as sinful. However, in our post-Christian world, we generally view sexuality in a negative light, as something shameful (or at least provocative). So, when today’s artists (e.g., Lars von Trier and Abdellatif Kechiche) attempt to depict graphic sexual content in their work, controversy inevitably follows, accompanied by charges of pornography. But what does this even mean?

Let us now look at definitions of pornography to see if it is in fact different from art.

Part II: The “Definitional Crossword” of Art and Pornography

In his article “Pornographic Art—A Case from Definitions” (British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 52, Number 3, July 2012, pp. 287-300), philosopher Simon Fokt attempts to determine, based on definitions of both art and pornography, whether there is enough to differentiate the two from each other. Fokt employs what he calls a “definitional crossword.” First, he lays out the most common definitions of pornography. Then, he sees how each one would fit within a particular theory or definition of art. (Since I have adopted an institutional theory of art on this blog, I will use that as an example.)

Fokt looks at five definitions of pornography. Aside from one definition that states that pornography features sexual content in which the participants are objectified, the other definitions focus on what they call pornography’s intention to sexually arouse its audience, or the fact that it at least comes with the expectation that its target audience will use it for sexual arousal. One definition claims that it is for this very reason (the focus on sexual arousal) that pornography cannot be appreciated aesthetically. If you are interested in the details that differentiate each definition, I urge you to seek out Fokt’s article; for the sake of simplicity, I will only work from my summary of the definitions described here.

The institutional definition of art employed by Fokt is the one formulated by George Dickie in Art and the Aesthetic:

A work of art in the classificatory sense is (1) an artifact (2) a set of the aspects of which has had conferred upon it the status of candidate for appreciation by some person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld).

The first thing you will notice about this definition is that it contains no caveats about a work’s content. As Fokt writes, “[…] the work’s content is utterly irrelevant to its status.” Thus, the definition of pornography mentioned above that claims pornography features sexual content involving objectified participants (or any content-based definition of pornography) would not prevent pornography from being accepted as art.

Next, as Fokt writes, “[…] works can become art in the institutional sense irrespective of what they were intended to be in the first place.” Thus, it does not matter whether or not a work was intended to arouse its audience sexually, or even if the work is used for this purpose regardless of its creator’s intentions.

Of the idea that sexual arousal would prevent someone from appreciating a work aesthetically, Fokt concludes:

[…] it is unimportant for an institutionalist whether an object is appreciated aesthetically or artistically; in fact, Dickie argues that there is no such thing as aesthetic appreciation at all. In this light, [the abovementioned definition’s] claim that being aroused by pornography prevents one from appreciating it aesthetically or artistically is again irrelevant, as such appreciation is not required for the conferral of the status.

Fokt’s conclusion:

In sum, none of the claims made by exclusivists are even remotely relevant to what makes objects art in the institutional sense. On the contrary, it seems that some pornography can be, and some of it actually is, art. It is artefactual in the same way as art; it can have the art status conferred upon it; and it is not at all impossible that other institutions should overlap with the artworld. Clearly, such social institutions as the state or church can, so why not the porn-world? Thus such works as The Story of O can be treated as examples of works which are pornographic and yet also art, in virtue of the art status having been conferred upon them by members of the artworld.

For those interested, Fokt also examines historical and functional definitions of art, as well as cluster accounts, and he briefly touches on other definitions. Needless to say, he comes to a very similar conclusion in each case, namely that “some pornography can be and is art.”

Like Fokt, my purpose in taking on this subject is not to suggest that all pornography should be considered art (nor do I wish to diminish the valid ethical and feminist concerns about the depiction of women in typical pornographic media). In fact, I think that works of pornography, as produced and consumed today, are experienced quite differently and in completely different contexts from works more commonly understood as art. Moreover, I think that (unlike the video game industry or even the food and fashion industries), the pornography industry has no interest in making claims that its product is art. (As we saw in the last section, Christianity helped separate art and sex by making Eros into a villain. In doing so, it likely drove sex underground, which gave birth to the porn industry we know today, one that cares little for the art side of its product.) However, as Fokt helps illustrate, I think that all attempts to draw a clear line between art and pornography are doomed from the start. In cases where misguided moralizers attempt to diminish an artwork for its sexual content or because it may sexually arouse some viewers, it can and should be demonstrated that the “pornographic” content does not necessarily disqualify the work as art.

Part III: Of Dance and Lap Dance

In the last section, I state my belief that the porn industry has no interest in claiming that its product is art. However, if they are pushed, they will definitely make that claim, and I believe that they have every right to do so.

In October of 2012, the Huffington Post reported on a strip club in suburban Albany (Nite Moves) that had filed a lawsuit arguing that “fees for admission to strip club and for private dances are exempt from sales tax.” The article begins this way:

Lap dances are taxable because they don’t promote culture in a community the way ballet or other artistic endeavors do, New York’s highest court concluded Tuesday in a sharply divided ruling.

The court split 4-3, with the dissenting judges saying there’s no distinction in state law between “highbrow dance and lowbrow dance,” so the case raises “significant constitutional problems.”

The article later explains in more detail the viewpoint of the dissenting judges:

In the dissent, Judge Robert Smith wrote that it was a question of what the law and regulations actually say. The law defines a “dramatic or musical arts admission charge” for “a live dramatic, choreographic or musical performance,” he noted. Choreography means dance, and clearly the women at Nite Moves dance, he wrote.

Smith assesses, quite correctly, that the court decision amounts to judges defining, willy-nilly, what counts as “highbrow” art and what counts merely as “lowbrow” entertainment:

Smith added that while he finds this sort of dancing “unedifying – indeed, I am stuffy enough to find it distasteful,” discriminating on the basis of content such as imposing a tax on Hustler magazine and giving the New Yorker an exemption “would surely be unconstitutional. It is not clear to me why the discrimination that the majority approves in this case stands on any firmer constitutional footing.”

Thus, even if an act (such as a lap dance) meets the above-referenced law’s definition of art, which allows for “choreographic or musical performance,” the judges can apparently make a value judgment on the act for the purpose of excluding it from tax exempt status. Even though we have now seen how sexual content, historically, did not threaten a work’s art status, and that even by definition pornography should not be disqualified from being art, lawmakers are still fighting their hardest to keep art and sex separate.

Years earlier, a strip club in Idaho (Erotic City Strip Club) was faced with a city law passed in 2001 forbidding “complete nudity in public unless the display has ‘serious artistic merit.’” Just as with the Nite Moves case, the issue revolved around legislators’ attempts to define (arbitrarily) the moral and aesthetic values of their constituents. Luckily, Chris Teague, the owner of Erotic City Strip Club, saw the absurdity in the situation and used it to his advantage. According to a BBC report, he started charging patrons for a pad, a pencil, and dance performance. He called it “Art Club Night,” and as long as his patrons sketched the dancers, he met the law’s “serious artistic merit” exemption; his dancers were able to perform nude.

The absurdity of these cases illustrates perfectly how the line separating art and pornography is arbitrarily set by those whose values paint sexuality in a negative light. When this line is examined in both a historical and academic context, it blurs and fades away.

Conclusion

What I would like to suggest is that, in discussions of art, charges of pornography offer no useful commentary on a work’s artistic merits. Instead, the word “pornographic” serves only an outdated Christian function; it is meant to make sex shameful. However, I think that we should approach sex in art in a more value-neutral way. For example, a sex scene should not be seen as morally or aesthetically objectionable in itself. But what are the details and the circumstances of the scene in the context of the story and its characters? These should be the targets of our criticism (moral, aesthetic, or otherwise).

In sum, though I think that Stellan Skarsgård, Andrew O’Hehir, and Peter Bradshaw are right to defend the sexual content of Nymphomaniac and Blue Is the Warmest Color, I do not think they should have to trouble themselves with arguing why the sexual content is artistic and not pornographic. For even if the films were to meet any or all definitions of pornography, I do not think that this should disqualify them from being considered art.

Sex, as Michael Winterbottom suggests, is simply as natural a human faculty as eating. We do not see moral outrage over “foodie” films like Babette’s Feast, no matter how explicit the food or how hungry it makes the viewers. The same should be true for artworks featuring sex – graphic, unsimulated, or otherwise.

Further reading:

Tim’s Vermeer

Camera Obscura

Last week I attended a screening of Penn & Teller’s new documentary Tim’s Vermeer at the Coolidge Corner Theatre as part of their Talk Cinema series.  This screening (and the discussion that followed) was hosted by Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr.

As Burr warned us before the movie began, there would be a lot to talk about.  He was right.  But let’s take a look at the film first.

The film follows the inventor and engineer Tim Jenison as he attempts to recreate The Music Lesson by Johannes Vermeer using optical devices and mirrors that he believes (along with artist David Hockney and art historian Philip Steadman) Vermeer must have used to obtain the photorealism present in his paintings.  There has always been a mystery surrounding Vermeer’s work, especially the fact that there are no signs below his paint that he was working from sketches.  Was he simply able to paint photorealistic paintings from memory?  Could he have had superior eyesight that would allow him to capture visual anomalies in his work that are normally hidden to the naked eye?

There has been a tendency throughout art history to romanticize Vermeer as a genius but never attempt to understand why he was a genius.  This is exactly what Tim sets out to understand in his experiment (which the film traces from conception to conclusion).  Though Tim is enthusiastic about proving his theory, there has been hesitation in academic circles to accept the theory popularized by Hockney and Steadman that Vermeer was aided by optics.  The reason for this is the increasingly outdated belief that the worth of an artwork is dependent on the amount of traditional skill and effort used to produce the piece.  Even though abstract and conceptual art have been dominant in the artworld for well over a century, this belief persists.  It still accounts for negative reactions that some people have toward art they do not understand, exemplified by the common reaction, “My kid could paint that.”  So why is it that people seem so unwilling to see technology as a useful aid to artists and not a dirty trick or a cheat?

Teller addresses this issue in an interview with The Village Voice, which Ty Burr also quoted from during our discussion:

I blame it on academia. Academics very often don’t have to do the art that they write about. They also don’t have to make a living from the art that they write or teach about. So I believe they’ve never gotten their feet wet, their hands dirty, and said, “OK, how would I go about making a painting that I would sell to support my family?” If you talk to real artists who actually produce things, they’re not woofty. They don’t view artists as supernatural beings who just walk up to a canvas and paint with light. They use whatever tools they can to achieve the effect, because the important idea is to get the idea that’s in your heart to the heart of someone else.

What I noticed at the screening of the film at the Coolidge was that the audience was overwhelmingly open to accepting Vermeer in these terms.  When Ty Burr asked whether the use of technology should change our view of Vermeer as an artist, or if the technology is a “cheat” and makes Vermeer “lazy,” the audience responded “of course not.”  They reiterated a point made in the film that even Renaissance artists were aided by technology (e.g., the algorithm behind perspective) in their effort to increase the level of realism in their works.  It is a point I have often made in defending electronic music against accusations that the artists are not using “real” instruments: if that is your belief, you do not understand the meaning of the word “instrument.”  What Tim Jenison proves in the film is that there is still a lot of skill and effort involved in creating and manipulating the technology that one may use to create art.

That said, I am still not entirely comfortable judging an artwork based solely on the quantification of skill and effort supposedly put into it.  I would hope that the finished artwork ultimately matters more than the methods used in its creation.  Duchamp’s Fountain is still an important work, regardless of how “easy” it was for him to throw together.  Leaving Vermeer’s painting skills and use of technology aside for a moment, his paintings are still miracles of composition that can be appreciated aesthetically as masterpieces of 17th century Dutch art.  In other words, I think we can look at Vermeer as a proto-camera and judge his paintings by the same standards by which we now judge photographic art.  However, if your appreciation of these works is dependent on a romantic conception of Vermeer as a man struggling with just his brush and without the aid of any other tools to achieve his artistic goals, I would suggest that you are only appreciating a mere expenditure of energy and not necessarily the actual paintings.

With Vermeer’s legacy safe, at least among my fellow audience members, Ty Burr asked: “Is Tim an artist?”  One woman answered “no,” because Tim produced a copy of an already existent work.  I find it hard to argue with that point.  But I would like to add that, based on what we see of Tim’s methods in the film, he certainly can be an artist if he were to apply himself toward the creation of original works and submit them to the artworld for evaluation.  (Actually, the film asks what I find to be a more provocative question: “Is Tim an inventor or an artist, or is that distinction important?”)

Finally, “Is the film an artwork?”  In the same interview referenced above, Teller talks about the process of finding the film’s story from the 2,400 hours of footage that was shot:

I like that term, “narativizing.” It’s exactly right because, in real life, you don’t know the story of your day. If you get to the end of the day, and you get to your diary entry, you know what the story of your day was. We had four years of undifferentiated human experience that included a lot of technical stuff, a lot of funny stuff, a lot of dull stuff, and we had to go into that and say, “What is the core of the story?”

In finding the narrative, the form of a story within the chaos of footage, Teller, narrator Penn Jillette, and editor Patrick Sheffield clearly create a work of art.  The story is smart, moving, and funny, and it is scored elegantly by composer Conrad Pope.  The filmmakers even utilize Lightwave, a technology created by Tim’s company, to craft illustrative animations, proving that artists today are still using whatever means necessary to make the best art they possibly can.  Not only is Tim’s Vermeer such an artwork, it is also one of the standout documentaries of the year.

In closing, despite recent attempts by people like Leon Wieseltier to keep science and the humanities separate, as if the humanities were somehow threatened by science and technology, the relationship between science and art remains a fruitful one.  This film, and the work of Vermeer at its heart, are a testament to that.

Further reading:

RIP Arthur Danto (1924-2013)

Arthur Danto

Sadly, we lost one of our greatest philosophers of art this past Friday.  I cannot overstate how important Arthur Danto has been to the development of my own understanding of art and our relationship to it.  In particular, his idea of the “Artworld” has greatly influenced many of my own writings and works of criticism (most of them published here on this blog).  And I still have much to learn.  For instance, I have a tendency to conflate the terms “aesthetics” and “philosophy of art,” something that Danto warned us not to do.  This past August, in a review of Danto’s final book, What Art Is, Joseph Tanke wrote:

While many take aesthetics and the philosophy of art to be synonymous, Danto argues for a hard distinction between the two. For him, aesthetics is largely a matter of delectation, a consideration of the way in which things appear to the senses, along with an argument for the superiority of one arrangement over another. The philosophy of art, on the other hand, is an inquiry into what distinguishes art objects from other things in the world; it is an attempt to answer the question, what makes art art?

Moving forward, I will try to make an effort to speak of “philosophy of art” in my approach to the subject, and not “aesthetics,” for I certainly have no desire to argue for the superiority of one arrangement of sensory data over another.

You can read the New York Times obituary of Danto here:

Arthur C. Danto, a Philosopher of Art, Is Dead at 89

And here is a reprint of a brief article that Danto published in 2002:

A commentary on the end of art: what you think is what it is

Subliminal: Leonard Mlodinow’s Nietzschean Look at the Unconscious

Leonard Mlodinow

I recently finished reading the book Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow.  It is an excellent summation of the best scientific research on the subject of the unconscious.  Mlodinow analyzes and organizes the material beautifully, and he also shares personal anecdotes for clarification and levity. For those unfamiliar with his past work, Mlodinow is a theoretical physicist who has published numerous books on a variety of subjects, worked alongside Stephen Hawking, and written for popular television series, including Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Subliminal is a wonderful book in its own right, but I like it for another reason.  Whether or not Mlodinow is even aware of the fact, the book provides scientific and empirical support for psychological ideas advanced by Friedrich Nietzsche in the 19th century.  For example, the book presents evidence to support Nietzsche’s claims on everything from the illusion of free will to the will to power (though it does not name this idea explicitly).  I am especially fond of Mlodinow’s chapter on “Feelings,” which explores the role that our unconscious feelings play in our choices and actions.   This role is indeed a greater one than that played by our conscious, rational faculties.  Our reasoning and thoughts are always just the post-hoc justifications for our behaviors, never the true motivations.  As Nietzsche said, “Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings—always darker, emptier, simpler.”

Take the following passage from the “Feelings” chapter:

We ask ourselves or our friends questions like “Why do you drive that car?” or “Why do you like that guy” or “Why did you laugh at that joke?”  Research suggests that we think we know the answers to such questions, but really we often don’t.  When asked to explain ourselves, we engage in a search for truth that may feel like a kind of introspection.  But though we think we know what we are feeling, we often know neither the content nor the unconscious origins of that content.  And so we come up with plausible explanations that are untrue or only partly accurate, and we believe them.  Scientists who study such errors have noticed that they are not haphazard.  They are regular and systematic.  And they have their basis in a repository of social, emotional, and cultural information we all share.

This brings up issues similar to those I have discussed previously in “Hume, Kael, and the Role of Subjectivity in Criticism.”  Just as with the questions Mlodinow asks above, the question of why a person likes a particular film or artwork is also always answered with a convenient narrative rather than an honest account or an objective reason.  This is why criticism is subjective and why objectivity is an illusion.  This is also the meaning behind Stanley Kubrick’s statement: “The test of a work of art is, in the end, our affection for it, not our ability to explain why it is good.”  To quote Nietzsche again: “It is hard enough to remember my opinions, without also remembering my reasons for them!”

This is not to discount criticism, of course. I offer a solution to this supposed discrepancy in my aforementioned “Subjectivity” essay. But if you are at all curious how your unconscious affects your aesthetic judgments, or if you would like a greater understanding of just how deeply your unconscious governs your behavior and shapes your identity, I wholeheartedly recommend Mlodinow’s Subliminal.

Further reading:

Leviathan

Leviathan

The first thing we notice is the noise: loud machinery, clanking metal, grinding chains.  Then we catch abstract glimpses of the moving parts—and, for brief seconds, the sight of the dark ocean crashing below.  But we can’t seem to catch our bearings.  The camera is purposefully disorienting us, unsettling us.  And it only gets worse from this point forward.

The soundtrack will soon give way to the wet scaly slaps of dying fish, the rattle of cracked shells, the gurgles of submersion, and the prehistoric calls of ravenous gulls.  The visuals will move somewhat rhythmically between machines and flesh, metal and viscera.  (One may easily be reminded of mid-90s Nine Inch Nails music videos.) This is Leviathan, a captivating documentary by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University.

In regard to theme, narrative, or even setting, we have no firm footing.  We are on a fishing vessel, but we might as well be on another planet.  The voices of the crew sound alien.  Their faces are the only evidence that they are human.  And they are our only respite from the dripping blood, the dancing fish heads, the bulging eyeballs.  Indeed, the animals look horrifically distorted and bloated, like demons out of Hieronymus Bosch.  The aforementioned birds, in flight against the black sky, recall both the Ride of the Valkyries from Wagner and the flight of dancing spirits in the Night on Bald Mountain sequence of Disney’s Fantasia.  This should give you an idea of the film’s overall tone, as neither reference supplies much comfort.

Leviathan opens with an epigraph from the Book of Job, and it ends with a credit reel that lists the scientific names of the depicted species.  The significance of these details, if any, is left for the viewer to decide.  Some have read Leviathan as a parable about the viciousness of humanity against the environment, which it rapes and wastes with abandon, its hulking fishing vessels being construed as the true “Leviathan” of the title.  There is perhaps good evidence to support this reading.  However, I think that the film is better experienced with no such narrative in mind.  It should be felt viscerally, like a psychological horror movie that creeps under your skin like botfly larvae.  As already mentioned, it uses frequent disorienting cinematographical effects typical of films in that genre, and the audio track embodies the very essence of foreboding disquiet. On top of this, a few scenes of systematic butchering are certainly unnerving for anyone who has seen slasher films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

A close relative to Leviathan is Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness, a film that presents Kuwaiti oil fires as alien phenomena.  Both films offer us an alternative view of the world we think we know so well, and both make no attempt to shield us from the horror that runs so close to the surface of all that we do, breaching it here and there like starfish limbs through a fish net.  But Leviathan does it better.  It’s truly an astonishing and unforgettable work.  Let it wash over you; let it nauseate you and stir up your unconscious fears.  Maybe you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

Further reading:

In Defense of Heresy in Criticism

Full English Breakfast

Once a week, Criticwire asks a group of film critics a question and compiles their responses.  This week’s Criticwire Survey seems to have caused a bit of a stir.  Here is the question posed by Matt Singer:

What movie widely regarded as a cinematic masterpiece do you dislike (or maybe even hate)?

This question and its responses were promoted under the incendiary headline: “Overrated Masterpieces.”  Needless to say, this provoked some outrage, both in the comments and across the web.  Only one critic, Glenn Kenny, appears to have left the proceedings unscathed.  The reason for this is that he refused to name a film:

I find this question especially dispiriting, as it’s really just a form of bait, and a cue for individuals to come up with objects to snicker at, feel superior to, and all that. I’m sure many critics will have a blast with it.

Kenny follows this with a passage from Richard Hell’s autobiography where Hell writes of an encounter with Susan Sontag in which she laments the fact that she has opinions because, as Hell puts it, “opinions will solidify into prejudices that substitute for perception.”

On Twitter, New York Times critic A. O. Scott singled out Kenny for praise:

watch @Glenn__Kenny enlist Susan Sontag and Richard Hell to smack down glib link-trolling pseudo-contrarianism

First of all, I would argue that Kenny himself is using this opportunity to “snicker at” and “feel superior to” his fellow critics.  Second, I would argue that the point of this particular survey is to counter popular opinions that may have solidified into prejudices, not the other way around.  Finally, I think that it is Scott who is being “glib” in his dismissal of the exercise as “pseudo-contrarianism.”

Each individual critic (Kenny included) will have points of divergence from the critical community with which he or she belongs.  This is only natural; individuals have individual tastes (e.g., likes and dislikes) based on individual life experiences.  But here is an unsettling fact: many people will accept that certain films are sacred—sometimes irrationally and without having actually seen them—for the single reason that the films have been blessed with critical approval and labeled masterpieces.  The critics who answered the Criticwire Survey are simply challenging this automatic acceptance, some even going so far as to offer rational and articulate defenses of their opinions (the opposite of pseudo-contrarianism, I would say).

Interestingly, James Ramsden, a food blogger at The Guardian, wrote a piece last week called “The Great British fry-up: it’s a national disgrace.”  The article comes with the following blurb:

The full English breakfast is the most overrated of British dishes – even the name is shuddersome. How did we become shackled to this fried fiasco?

Just as with the Criticwire Survey (and perhaps again due to the word “overrated”), Ramsden experienced a lot of backlash.  He felt compelled to write a response (published only a day after the Criticwire Survey): “Which well-loved foods do you hate?”  In this piece, we learn that Ramsden received accusations similar to those received by the film critics.  For example, he, too, was accused of trolling (maybe by the A. O. Scott of the British food blogging world).  However, Ramsden understands where the attacks are coming from:

I understand it because I’ve felt it too. It is perhaps not a rational reaction to a subjective aversion […], but we feel strongly about food and are thus oddly offended by someone vehemently opposing that which we cherish.

Yes, and people apparently feel strongly about film as well and will oppose subjective aversions to well-loved films with equal vehemence and irrationality.  Ramsden, after providing a long list of similar aversions from some notable chefs and food critics, ends his piece by stating:

The common denominator with all of these dislikes is the mutual conviction that the other person is a loon, even a heretic. There are certain aversions – anchovies, haggis, balut, kidneys – that are entirely understandable (you don’t often hear cries of “you don’t like kimchi?!” except perhaps in certain foodish circles), but when it comes to dissing curry, fish and chips, pasta, or indeed a fry-up, it turns out people are, at best, going to think you very odd indeed. Still, can’t blame a man for trying.

Glenn Kenny chose not to name a film on which his opinion differs from that of the masses.  Does that mean he holds no such opinion?  That no such film exists?  Hardly.  As I said, he used this opportunity to elevate himself above his fellow critics under the pretense that criticism has loftier goals than this sort of muckraking.  I think that he just didn’t want to get his hands dirty.  I prefer the “loons” and the “heretics” who are unafraid of their own subjectivity.  On a related note, I believe that Pauline Kael would have loved this week’s Criticwire Survey.  Especially the word “overrated.”

Further reading:

Hume, Kael, and the Role of Subjectivity in Criticism

Favorite Films of 2012

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

1. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
2. The Turin Horse (dir. Béla Tarr)
3. Amour (dir. Michael Haneke)

My top three films of the year are very similar thematically; that is, they are all careful studies of how individuals face head on the tragedy of existence.  In Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and The Turin Horse, we see characters dwarfed by their environments, helpless and vulnerable amid tragic circumstances.  Yet we also see glimmers of humanity, of perseverance, of wonder.  Sure, existence can be dreadful at times, but moments of beauty are still possible.

This is especially true in Anatolia where, for example, the remarkable sight of a distant train with lighted windows can cut across a blackened landscape and draw us to rapt attention—or, where a young girl serving tea in lamplight can soften a group of hardened men and chip away effortlessly at their posturing facades.  Moments like this are everywhere throughout Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s masterpiece.  The film is essentially a procedural about a police unit trying to find a body buried somewhere out in the vast Anatolian hillside.  But as the story progresses, it becomes so much more.  In an excellent essay on the film, Sheila O’Malley writes:

Every man in the entourage brings his entire life experience to the search, and that experience is rarely expressed, but is there in the wind-filled eerie silence of the steppes. They all seem to be in communication with the landscape. It infuriates them, beckons them.

Despite the anger and sadness of the characters (the causes of which are subtly and slowly revealed), it must also be stated that Ceylan manages to achieve some great moments of comedy; indeed, the dialogue is brimming with it.  For the absurd can induce laughter as well as terror, and this makes for a richer cinematic experience.

With its flawless cinematography, tight narrative control, and memorable characters, I can honestly say that no film from the past year has left an impression on me quite like this one.

Amour

Amour approaches the tragedy of life differently and more intimately.  In this film, we face mortality with a loving married couple—Georges and Anne (portrayed with great commitment and humanity by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva).  Anne suffers a stroke toward the beginning of the film, and her health steadily declines from that point onward.  Yet the film’s sense of melancholy and hopelessness is still challenged by none other than Anne herself.  While looking at scrapbooks of old photographs, she acknowledges aloud the beauty in her long and transitory life.  This admission lingers, even when Anne’s two great loves (Georges and music) can no longer bring her comfort or ease her pain and suffering.  And it is an acknowledgement that lingers like an echoing whisper after the film has ended and we are left alone to reflect on our own lives and loves.

The Master

4. The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

The Master is truly a puzzling work, as many critics have pointed out, but that does not mean that we should dismiss it.  For one thing, it includes two of the greatest performances of the past year—Joaquin Phoenix as the wayward Freddie Quell and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the charismatic Lancaster Dodd.  The two characters strike up a strange and uneven friendship, and the joy of the film is watching them play off of each other in an endless power struggle.  There are certainly many ways to interpret the film, but I’ll simply use this space to restate a comparison I made between The Master and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange in the comments section of Jim Emerson’s essay on the film (please skip to avoid possible spoilers):

Freddie (as with Alex in Kubrick’s film) is incapable of being other than who he is (i.e., what his experiences have made him).  Dodd, like the state (and the priest, to a lesser extent) in A Clockwork Orange, wants to “cure” Freddie.  That is, he wants him to conform to his view of how humans should behave.  At first, Dodd assumes (like the priest in Clockwork) that Freddie will be able simply to live a more spiritual, guided life of his own free will with the proper teaching. When this fails, Dodd (like the state in Clockwork) believes he can at least train and condition Freddie to behave like the other followers of the Cause (Dodd’s religious teachings).

This conditioning works for Freddie, just as it does for Alex.  But the effects are very short-lived.  Freddie and Alex both eventually shed these psychologically imposed restraints.  And at the end of both films, we see Alex and Freddie each underneath a naked woman, enjoying sex, and mocking those who tried to “cure” them.

I doubt that this even comes close to figuring out what Paul Thomas Anderson might really be doing with The Master, but I thought the comparison was warranted.  (Also see: Urges and Desires in P.T. Anderson’s The Master.)  I would love to know how others have read this intriguing work.

Lincoln

5. Lincoln (dir. Steven Spielberg)

Lincoln is a fascinating film.  Despite the sentimentality of Spielberg’s directorial techniques, it portrays quite frankly and somewhat disturbingly the moral ambiguity of political process.

In an essay titled “Oscars 2013: what the nominations say about America,” David Cox writes of Lincoln:

Ruthlessness is to be admired in pursuit of a cause whose champion has deemed it surpassing. So it seems are bribery, deceit and the subversion of democracy.

To secure the passage of his anti-slavery bill, Spielberg’s Lincoln has to buy votes with jobs, conceal the availability of peace and obstruct the will of the people. You might have thought that the custodian of a republic built on law would agonise over this. America’s most illustrious president faced the prospect of pioneering the kind of behaviour that has since destroyed faith in the country’s body politic. Would it have been better to make abolition wait? Perhaps not – but wasn’t the question worth asking?

In the film, we do learn that Lincoln has side-stepped the Constitution to administer to himself executive powers to which, at the time, there was no precedent.  He does this because he has a clear moral goal before him: the complete and legal eradication of slavery in the United States.  Does this goal somehow justify Lincoln in granting these powers to himself?  And what of the bribery, deceit, and coercion that he must employ to secure the votes necessary for his amendment to pass?  Do the ends justify the means?

I have no answers to these questions, but they are worth considering, and Tony Kushner’s brilliant screenplay does not shy away from these challenging implications.  For this reason, and for the film’s magnificent performances, cinematography, and production design, I have included Lincoln on this list.

6. Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present (dir. Matthew Akers; Jeff Dupre)
7. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (dir. David Gelb)
8. This Is Not a Film (dir. Jafar Panahi; Mojtaba Mirtahmasb)

Here are three brilliant documentaries, all portraits of artists.  Each one works in a different medium and in a completely different part of the world, yet they all share an obsessive dedication to their respective crafts and to finding beauty in unexpected places.

The Artist Is Present

In the first film, we get a biographical look at performance artist Marina Abramović as she prepares for her Museum of Modern Art exhibit and retrospective, The Artist Is Present.  The film not only shows us the life and work of an extraordinary artist, but it documents as best as it can Abramović’s time at MoMA.   In her special exhibit, she sits still for hours at a time and lets visitors sit across from her in moments of complete silence.  In these moments, she and the visitors stare into each other’s eyes.  It sounds so simple, yet many participants claimed it to be a life-changing experience.  In the film, you can watch as some visitors simply break down and cry.  It’s truly a grand achievement in depicting how our bodies and our shared humanity can be sources of sublime aesthetic experience.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

In Jiro Dreams of Sushi, we get a glimpse into the life of Jiro Ono, a master sushi chef.  David Gelb, the film’s director, does a really fine job of conveying Jiro’s process, from the selection of his fish up through its painstaking preparation and final presentation.  Jiro’s restaurant was awarded three-stars from Michelin (no small feat), and it’s easy to see why.  The obsessive attention to detail that Jiro brings to his craft, every step of the way, is very much evident in the film.  Gelb uses some interesting classical music selections on the soundtrack to highlight the artfulness in Jiro’s sushi.  This is far from necessary (the work speaks for itself), but it’s an appropriate and fitting touch.

This Is Not a Film

This Is Not a Film is something of an oddity.  Smuggled out of Iran on flash drive hidden inside of a cake, it is not legally supposed to exist.  That is because the film’s director and subject, Jafar Panahi, is under house arrest in Iran and has been forbidden from making any new films.  But how can you stop an artist from exercising his artistic ambitions?  As Panahi demonstrates, it cannot be done.  Even when he abandons a makeshift charade of an unfinished script, disappointed that he is reduced to telling what he should be showing, he does not stop the camera from filming.  By the end of this strange document (remember, it is not a film), we have gone in some surprising directions and have seen Panahi capture some unexpectedly touching and sublime moments in the ordinariness of his life.  Like Marina Abramović, Panahi shows us that art can be anywhere, even where we do not at first notice it or know exactly how to see it.

9. Barbara (dir. Christian Petzold)
10. Oslo, August 31st (dir. Joachim Trier)

The final two films on my list are both foreign films, and each seeks to present a sympathetic portrait of the complex inner workings of its protagonist.

Barbara

In Barbara, we follow a woman working as a doctor in East Germany in the 1980s.  The oppressiveness of the government, especially in regard to its means of invasive surveillance, is deeply felt.  Barbara has been carefully orchestrating a plan of escape (with the aid of her boyfriend in the west).  But where do her duties as a physician fit into these plans?  What of her patients and those who are reliant upon her?  This moral quandary is explored through the extraordinary and understated performance of Nina Hoss in the lead role.  She helps us understand just how difficult her situation is and how unclear her moral choices are.

Oslo, August 31

In Oslo, August 31st, our subject is Anders, a recovering drug addict.  Anders is granted permission to leave rehab to travel to Oslo for a job interview.  Throughout the day, he runs into many old acquaintances and has many conversations that shed light onto his sadly resigned disposition.  There is a strong sense that he can no longer fit in with the world around him, that it is too late for him to catch up with his friends.  Thus, he remains passive; he’s just along for the ride.  Like Anders, we, too, are mere passengers in this narrative.  As much as we want Anders to participate more meaningfully in the goings on about him, we know it is impossible.  We stick with Anders, despite this, all the way to the film’s inevitable conclusion.  Yet we do not feel the same sense of resignation.  Even though Anders himself is unable to embrace it, his journey has shown us just what Anne reflects upon while looking through her old photo albums in Amour:  life, transitory and tragic though it may be, is still indeed beautiful.

What are your own favorite films from this past year?  Please feel free to share your thoughts and opinions in the comments.