Yesterday, Drew McWeeny wrote a strong, provocative article about rape in cinema. It's not a call for censorship, just a personal statement of what he is no longer interested in watching, but in terms of his observations on the larger picture, the money quote for me is this:
"We have created a code of film language in which the single most destructive act of sexual violence is perfect(ly - sic) acceptable to depict in the most graphic, clinical detail, but actual love-making has been all but banished from mainstream film."
For those unfamiliar, he's basically referring to the fact that SHAME got an NC-17 in the States for portraying its lead's penis (and possibly some sex acts; I haven't seen, so don't know all the details), thus blocking not only any youth from seeing it cinematically but also barring its distribution from most cinemas ...
... whilst THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO contained horrific rape scenes, and anyone in America can take their 5-year old to watch it.
That's the horror of the American system, and that's how we reflect our values onscreen. Which could be a whole blog in itself.
Now, in terms of my thoughts overall on Drew's article, I had four reactions:
1. Many of the commenters, all too predictably, have been unable to read his piece as largely a descriptive reaction about his feelings, and instead immediately leapt to the presumption that it was a prescriptive call for a ban on rape on cinema or some such. The fact is, as cinema fans, the discussions that we have about content generally remain at an infantile level of "censorship bad!" "rape bad!". And it's a fucking shame. Because this is a nuanced issue, and while most of us can see the line between THE ACCUSED and I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (unwisely naming two films about rape I haven't seen, but hey), every single point along that line is a grey area you can argue either side of. And as adults, it would be nice to elevate the discussion. I've noticed the preponderance of rapes of late in cinema as well, particularly exploitation movies, and question their motive in some cases.
2. Along these lines: one interesting point here is McWeeny is a staunch defender of A SERBIAN FILM and THE WOMAN, two of the most controversial films of the past two years in terms of content. If you haven't heard of A SERBIAN FILM, I'm not even sure I can recommend looking up a plot review, as it's that beyond the pale in terms of content. Whilst I haven't seen it, I'm aware of many of the more disturbing scenes. Now, THE DIVIDE is the film that McWeeny uses as a whipping boy in his post, but he doesn't mention either of these other films, both of which he's defended on the grounds of allegory in the past.
I personally remain unconvinced that allegory or theme is a sufficiently elevated reason to go from excoriating a film for its rape-related content to praising it. In fact, in many cases, I think it's the opposite: the theme is used as a justification to include extreme content because it's somehow deep and important. It's not necessarily any more sophisticated than the difference between a child lying and a child who crosses his fingers when lying. In the latter case, he thinks it's "okay".
But it's not. Not to me, anyway. Not intrinsically.
I have not watched A SERBIAN FILM, and I walked out of THE WOMAN. (Long story.) So debating those films is difficult. But, similarly, Drew didn't finish THE DIVIDE. Does he know that it doesn't become an allegory for French colonialism in Africa in the end or something? And if it did, would that make it a better film, or retroactively justify the rape scene?
3. I do think there is a difference between historical films and current films. I watched BONE the other night, which is a fantastic, interesting film with some horrifically embarrassingly offensive sexual politics. I think anyone who's interested in exploitation film or innovative film, who's not bothered by that content, should definitely see it. That's just one example of, literally, hundreds we can choose.
But BONE is a product of its time, and we're a product of ours.
4. And here's something we know now that maybe we didn't know then, certainly not in such concrete terms. As anyone who's been unfortunate to stay still long enough next to me knows, I'm also fascinated with neuroscience. Total amateur hobbyist kind of stuff, no one to be truly trusted on the topic. But one aphorism that sticks with me is from Dr. Norman Doidge's book, THE BRAIN THAT CHANGES ITSELF, and it's a simple one: "neurons that fire together, wire together".
Why is this relevant? People that get raped go through a traumatic experience. Exposure to depictions of rape will, most likely, lead to the neural pathways of the memory of that rape, and by extension, that trauma.
A statistic that got dropped in the comment thread in McWeeny's article is that 1 in 4 women are raped. I don't know if that's true. But say it's 1 in 5, or 1 in 6, or even 1 in 10.
Now, take all the women that you've ever met in your life, and divide by 4, or 5, or 6, or 10. That's probably the number of rape victims you know, whether or not you know it.
And - and I know this is an obvious point by now, but I'm belaboring it intentionally, as it seems to be lost on many - every film featuring a rape is asking those friends of yours, those potential audience members, and everyone like them around the world, to relive that experience.
(And before we go on NO I AM NOT ASKING RAPE TO BE CENSORED FROM CINEMA DID YOU NOT READ POINT 1. ok. deep breath.)
But - look. As a filmmaker, I've never come up with a script that I feel so strongly about that it's important enough to ask an audience to go through that. But I won't say I never will. Certainly, there are other filmmakers who may have thought it through and decided yes, it is important. And some very great films, some very controversial films, feature strong, challenging rape scenes, and they're films I would recommend to an appropriate audience.
In the end, though, I think all that Drew wants, all that a lot of people want, is when we sit down to a movie, for the director to have thought through its effect on an audience as well.
Is that too much to ask?