UPDATE 1/25/10 1:18 p.m. The conversation about the Irreversible decision continues over at Jim Emerson’s Scanners, where Jim posted some thoughts about my piece and invited his readers to come here and check out what I had written. The resulting discussion has been a pretty fascinating one, veering from the post and direct reactions to it into the realm of philosophical ramifications of “choice,” “decision” and even the input of science writer Jonah Lehrer, who Jim quotes extensively on the rational and emotional components of human decision-making. After lurking along in the comments section since Jim posted last Thursday, I felt the time had come to enter the fray myself and attempt to address some of the more vociferous critics of my “self-congratulatory” piece. Though my response was rather long, I believe I have avoided excessive haughtiness or an overly defensive attitude in trying to assemble my thoughts. Jim has kindly posted my response in full and commented on it himself, so I suspect—I hope-- the back and forth will not end with my windbaggery. You can check out the continuing (?) saga right here. My sincere thanks to Jim for adding contemplative fuel to what I believe has so far been a very constructive, if sometimes fiery conversation.
It’s finally far enough into 2010 that I’ve had a chance to catch up with several of the movies of the previous year that I managed somehow to miss up till now, and as a result my year-end list, which usually appears about midway through January, is right on schedule, skirting the twin boundaries of indifference and irrelevance as each day passes. Obviously I can’t see everything, so around this time every year I just sort of throw up my hands in a kind of “I did what I can do” gesture of resignation, vow to stop worrying about it and get to the writing. But no critic, no cinephile, no average Joe can see everything there is to see, and if they’re telling the truth no critic even wants to see everything. I can guarantee there are titles of films written in journalist notepads the world over that have been actively avoided over the course of the year. This is a wrinkle in the list-making process that I’ve always tried, ever since inaugurating my year-end pieces on this blog, to own up to—before the big list I always start with an accounting of the movies I haven’t yet seen, and one of the movies I have no desire to see. Sometimes this attitude of being up front about my sins of omission and preconception has gotten me into hot water. Well, maybe not hot, but certainly warm water, like the year I confessed that I had absolutely no desire to see Babel. How could I not want to see what was surely going to be a big Oscar contender, several people asked? It’s a big, important movie—you should go see it. And finally I ended up agreeing. I went to see Babel, and whether I had made up my mind previously or not, I did not like it much at all. But I did see it, and my objections to it were based on thematic, stylistic and writing choices that I could not have judged the movie on without experiencing it for myself. It was a dreadful movie in my many ways, but I’m not sorry I saw it because it gave me a chance to exercise my head and write about a movie that for many people was an enthralling experience, and it was a challenge, not to mention a considerable bit of fun, to discover for myself why it was the opposite kind of film for me. (Jim Emerson has gotten a lot of fascinating mileage out of dealing with his own preconceptions about movies, most recently Precious.)
As I’ve continued on in this practice of writing about films and my reactions to them, I’ve come more and more to take seriously the idea of seeing as much as I can. Yet the simple fact remains that, with very few exceptions, I crack open my own wallet to see the movies I talk about here. I’m not a paid critic, I don’t receive screeners, I don’t have a press pass which will admit me to screenings around town, and the three or four times I’ve applied for credentials for local festivals I’ve been turned down. So it is, then, that everything I talk about on SLIFR necessarily comes prepackaged with the same kinds of preconceived notions that every ticket-buyer has when she or he lays down their hard-earned—I want the movie to be good, if not great. Of course there are times when I have my suspicions, for any number of reasons, about whether or not this is even possible. But preconceived notions are not set in stone, thank God, and sometimes they get up-ended. Rachel Getting Married, Speed Racer and Land of the Lost are just three examples off the top of my head of movies that completely surprised me, the latter two hobbled by terrible advance reviews, the former being a movie about a group of people from an alien tax bracket with whom I suspected it might be impossible to identify, and that whole hand-held camera aesthetic didn’t make me bank on my chances of enjoying it either. Yet all three are movies I enjoyed and (in the case of Rachel and Speed Racer) cherished far more than I ever thought I would.
Conversely, I have a personal journal containing information on every movie I’ve seen over the past 32 and a half years, and that journal is bursting with films for which I bore high hopes going in, only to have them dashed mercilessly on the jagged rocks of reality, resulting in disappointment, a sore jaw from the gnashing of teeth, and very often a buttered-popcorn headache as a result of conspicuous consumption meant to distract from the disaster on screen. Did I feel obligated to see Land of the Lost, even when so many rational voices were shouting it down (rather irrationally in some cases, as it turned out)? No. Perhaps I would have if I were writing reviews for a publication or a web site whose mission was to be as comprehensive about the film scene from week to week as possible. No, this one I took a chance on, and I was happily rewarded. (The shine quickly wore off my triumph, however, when I immediately followed the Will Ferrell movie with a screening of what I figured was a sure thing, based on the advance hype and reviews--The Hangover-- and it turned out to be a hateful, obnoxious dud.)
But even though I don’t get paid for seeing or writing about them, there are sometimes still some films that I feel an obligation to get to know, sometimes out of simple curiosity, sometimes because to not know them is to be left out of a conversation that might stretch beyond the boundaries of that one particular film, and sometimes I feel the desire to see a film because people I respect and trust advise me to see it because they hold it in high regard. That sense of obligation reared its head again this past week concerning Irreversible, a movie with a rather proud reputation for being a shocking, unrelenting, formally compelling but ultimately nasty piece of work. The 2003 movie, perhaps less well known in by John Q. Public than by cinephiles, was directed by Gaspar Noé, whose previous feature I Stand Alone (1999) centered on the grim life of a butcher who heaps violent abuse upon everyone around him, including his pregnant lover and the daughter who he abandons and with whom he attempts to reconcile. No cake walk this, by all reports (I have not seen it myself), but perhaps closer to one than Irreversible, which tells the story, in reverse order, of three friends (lovers Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci, and Albert Dupontel who plays Bellucci’s ex) whose day starts with companionship and lovemaking and ends in a hellish inferno of violence. The story’s conclusion has to do with a man thought to have committed a horrible rape who gets his head caved in with a fire extinguisher in a gay S&M disco known as the Rectum. (The irony is that he of the crushed cranium is not the man who perpetrated the crime.) Each scene takes the audience backward toward the rape itself, staged in one long 10-minute take and reportedly so horrifying as to be unwatchable, and back even further to the hopeful start of the day which, knowing what the audience knows about how the day is to proceed, the movie uses to end itself on the bitterly ironic image of domestic bliss.
I have never made secret, either on these pages or in my personal interactions with people, my physical aversion and revulsion whenever faced with a rape scenario in a film. But that doesn’t mean the subject or the depiction of it ought to be off limits, because it’s fairly easy to think of several films that have taken the horror of the situation seriously, sometimes to varying ends. Rape certainly serves the story as something more than a plot point in a film like Straw Dogs-- one can experience terror and revulsion even as Peckinpah eroticizes the act as a fantasy fulfilled, for both Susan George, the victim, and for us, the audience. Ned Beatty, in his very first film role, became a martyr to (some) men’s worst fears of anal violation in Deliverance. I’ll never forget Jessica Lange, brutalized in a ghastly fashion in her own home by the psychotic fop Tim Roth in Rob Roy, enduring the humiliation and then, her attacker long since gone, stepping out of her house and onto the nearby beach with as much dignity as she can muster, lifting her skirt and calmly squatting into the water to wash herself, her reserve wobbling but intact. And Lorraine Bracco imbued the aftermath of the experience of a stairwell rape in The Sopranos with unexpected shades of sympathy, anger and the consideration of revenge. However, rape can also be just another source of titillation to be exploited. Candice Rialson survives an assault in the projection booth of a drive-in during the one wildly miscalculated moment in the otherwise genial and delightful Hollywood Boulevard, and when one thinks about the frequency of rape as a thematic constant in low-rent horror movies like Humanoids from the Deep, Galaxy of Terror, the remakes of The Hills Have Eyes and Last House of the Left and countless others, it can get depressing with alarming rapidity. But ground zero for me, in terms of the line which I have always hoped no movie would go past with regard to rape, must be Lamont Johnson’s Lipstick, which carried the come-on of eroticized sexual assault from its glistening poster art all the way to the movie’s multiple acts of violation visited upon supermodel/star Margaux Hemingway, right on up to a similar violation visited upon her teenaged sister, Mariel. The movie is grim, tacky and innervating—Johnson’s typical directorial sensitivity is absent or suppressed here, and the movie uses the musical taste of the rapist to rattle the audience’s last nerve. (Chris Sarandon’s composer plays his own annoying electronic noodling—written by the film’s composer, Michael Polnareff—as amplified and relentless accompaniment to brutal assault.) By the time the movie degenerates even further into a Death Wish retread that arms the victim instead of an avenging angel stand-in, you’ve been desensitized enough to cheer on the slimy bastard getting his balls blown off just so the movie will mercifully end.
What’s interesting to me about my own reaction to seeing rape on screen is how it makes me feel beyond just painful empathy for the person being victimized. Gaspar Noé, in an interview during which he talks about the audience reaction to the protracted rape that is Irreversible’s notorious centerpiece, claims that most of the people who walk out during this scene are men, and he goes so far as to speculate that what freaks men out about the scene is not empathy for the victim, or even revulsion over the crime itself. Noé believes that the impulse to run away from what he shows the audience unflinchingly (some have said with the glee of a bully provocateur) is born instead from men projecting themselves into the scene as the victim, as the recipient of the worst possible fate, taking it up the ass. (Andrew O’Hehir wrote very persuasively in Salon of “the obsession with anal sex that percolates through every scene” in Irreversible.) Having not seen the movie myself, I can only credit Noé with the possibility that he has constructed a film which, given its reputation not only for daring the audience to endure its provocations but also for its rather insistent homophobia, would support such an interpretation of a man rejecting the scene, and the movie, and walking out. But for me, rape scenes, however implied or extreme, awaken in me the ugly realization that, as a member of the physically stronger and more dominant gender of the species, such violence is entirely within my physical capability to inflict upon someone else. When I see rape scenes in films like the ones in Straw Dogs or Rob Roy that resonate for me within the story and allow me access to the characters as emotional creations rather than simply as projections on a screen, then that identification with the attacker becomes part and parcel of the richness of my reaction to it. But regardless of how well integrated the violence into the story, I still must face the rather black truth that even though I am not psychologically disposed to the kind of rage that results in such a monstrous act, I still am, physically, capable of it, and on that level I could be said to identify not with the assaulted, as Noé would I think more conveniently have it, but instead with the slobbering Neanderthal whose violence can so easily destroy the self-esteem, the confidence, the very inner life of his victim. Would we be so willing to endure these kinds of scenes if the directors had the balls to imply that the guy snarling and humping and beating on the poor, prone, screaming woman was us? I doubt it. So what is going on in a scene as deliberately in-your-face as the one Noé stages? Isn’t it a reasonable responsibility when staging such a scene to at least ask the audience why they’re watching what they’re watching? The rejoinder favored by the folks leaving comments on Irreversible’s IMDb page, that the scene is justified by the fact that, hey, stuff like this happens in real life, folks, covers the argument that showing a violent act should be an ugly experience. But if you argue that anything less than that pain and ugliness is the mark of thoughtless exploitation, then how a director chooses to present the event can reveal much about his intentions, his insensitivity, or his cluelessness, even if his choices seem on the surface unflinching. (See Lipstick. Or, rather, don’t.)
All of these considerations led me to skip Irreversible when it was first released back in 2003. David Edelstein articulated, for me, the most compelling argument for staying away from the film. “The movie,” Edelstein wrote, in a fashion completely unconcerned with whether he’d be lauded or lampooned for his rejection of the movie, “wants to violate you in the most lasting ways imaginable.” He also addressed the level of responsibility toward the portrayal of the film’s brutality: “There is something to be said for violence that isn't stylized and made to seem "fun”… It could be argued that this is the only moral way to present violence, so that it hurts. But there is nothing moral about Irreversible—only sneeringly superior and nihilistic, like Johnny Rotten at his most fatuous.” But it was Edelstein’s penultimate paragraph that really convinced me that the movie was not for me:
“It's difficult to know what to do during those nine minutes in which Bellucci lies prone, moaning and weeping, while Prestia convincingly simulates a violent buggering. You can stare at her cleavage or at her long, extended leg. You can close your eyes and wait for the sounds to end. You can leave—although Noé would probably consider that a victory; he'd call you a bourgeois "pussy." With all the heterosexual rapists of women in the world, Noé has chosen to make this one a homosexual who can't help himself from wanting to sully and finally obliterate such beauty, even if it's female. His portrait of gays and their lifestyle makes Cruising (1980) look like Philadelphia (1993). Irreversible might be the most homophobic movie ever made.”
Fast-forward to 2010. When film director Stuart Gordon (Re-animator, Stuck) announced that he would be showing Irreversible as part of the series he will be programming at the New Beverly Cinema beginning today, enough time had passed and the memory of so many well-articulated objections had faded, and I told myself that yes, if Stuart Gordon and several of my trusted friends (including Kimberly Lindbergs) held the movie in such high regard, perhaps it was time for me to live up to my cinephile duty and finally see it. After all, I saw Antichrist last week, another notorious act of Euro-provocation that filled me with dread going into the auditorium but which turned out to be horrifically beautiful. If I can take Antichrist, well, then… And who is to say that Irreversible wouldn’t turn out to be a similar surprise? I was kind of happy that I had finally found the courage to face up to this film, which seemed to hang over my experience as a filmgoer, as a film critic, with something of a ghostly, insistent quality. I mean, I am a curious person by nature. But is curiosity enough where a film like Irreversible is concerned?
It is times like these when I am most grateful for friends who, like Edelstein in his refusal to bow to what he saw as Noé’s audience-baiting tactics, aren’t afraid to step away from what the movie geeks are up to and ask a simple question or two. A friend of mine got word that I was considering going to see the movie this coming Friday night and when I confirmed the information she said, simply, “Why?” As in, “Why would you want to put yourself through something like that?” I was momentarily taken aback because this person is herself a movie geek who always seems up for whatever comes down the pipe film-wise, a fearless, but not (as it turned out) indiscriminate moviegoer. I remember coming up with answers for her like, “Well, it’s time, I guess,” or “I feel like I should see it,” but as the words came out they didn’t sound very convincing even to me. The skeptical look never left my friend’s face. And I started to think about exactly why I felt I should see it. I already knew what I’d be in for. What about those original reasons for staying away, which always seemed so rooted in clear observation and separate from the rush of excitement surrounding the savvy technique of a filmmaker who may have mastered the art of manipulating and pummeling an audience for the simple reason that he wants to and knows how to get away with it, were suddenly unsatisfactory?
The very next day I got an e-mail from a close friend whose point of view I respect even when we disagree. He had read that I was considering seeing Irreversible and felt compelled to send me a note detailing his reaction. “Structurally and formally, of course, it's fascinating,” my friend wrote. “And the movie is undeniably effective on a visceral, even emotional level. But I found it to be one of the ugliest things (not visually, but in its world-view) I've ever seen -- aggressively homophobic, misogynist, even anti-human.” Shades of Edelstein, whose review suddenly came pouring back into my memory, along with the feelings of dread and revulsion that simply reading about the movie churned up inside me! The e–mail concluded, “I literally can't think of another movie that so aggressively wants to rub our noses in protracted sexual violence and ugliness.” The two responses from these two friends, totally separate from each other yet each inquiring in their own way as to what my motivation might be for enduring what I could reasonably expect would not be an enlightening experience, threw something into powerful relief for me, something that perhaps should have been more obvious than it was at first: I didn’t have to see the film. I was in no way obligated professionally to see it, and certainly neither my credibility nor my card-carrying status as a cinephile would likely suffer as a result of my continuing to abstain from Gaspar Noé’s film. Even if I saw the film, I doubt I’d feel compelled to write about it, so the benefit even as an unpaid blogger seemed lost. I realized that, in my own way, I was ceding to pressure not from my friends who like the film but from Noé himself, who was still daring me six years later to see if I could take it, to see whether or not I was a pussy.
The thing is, I stopped responding to that kind of tactic back in eighth grade, and it suddenly felt strange to me to allow my arm to be twisted some 40-some years later, when I ought to know better. I maintain that I am as inquisitive now about the possibilities of the movies as I was two days ago—the only difference is that I’ve realized that it’s okay to step aside and not participate, in a film, in any work of art, if by knowledgeably weighing the pros and cons I can reasonably come to the conclusion that it’s not going to add anything to my life by experiencing it. Now, before I get accused to being too high and mighty, there are plenty of lowbrow shockers, exploitation films and otherwise cheap thrillers I love that don’t exactly “add” anything to my life either, but their pleasures are right there on their sleeves for the enjoying. (And after all, one man’s cheapness is another man’s value.) They don’t need to be gussied up with dubious philosophy (“Time destroys all,” Irreversible informs us) to make their transgressions, such as they might be, more palatable, justifiable.
But no matter what the air of philosophy, of style as content, that might surround Irreversible, I know that the movie would, for me, inevitably come down to that scene. In his largely positive review of Noé’s movie Roger Ebert wrote that “the reverse chronology makes Irreversible a film that structurally argues against rape and violence.” Beside the fact that I’m not sure I can even imagine a film that would argue for rape and violence, isn’t arguing against it a fairly obvious tack to take? The interesting thing is how some of the negative reviews seem to imply that for Noé this point of view may not necessarily be a given. Why do I need to see Monica Bellucci screaming and sobbing on her stomach while being cruelly buggered in order to understand that these horrors need to be argued against? Will I understand evil more than I already do after those nine minutes? Noé might suggest that I would, but the testimony of writers like Edelstein and Andrew O’Hehir suggests perhaps not, and I don’t believe that I am ceding my right and responsibility to think for myself when I say that in this instance I’m just going to take their word for it and thank them for enduring this grim work on my behalf. (Surely both reviews are more entertaining and edifying to read than the movie’s semi-improvised dialogue would be to hear.) Call me a pussy if you must-- or much worse, a film critic shirking his responsibility-- but as I get older it’s clearer than ever that time is precious. I’ve only got so much of it left in which to cram as much film experience as I can while I’m still lucid, which means I must be pickier and choosier even amongst those films which are likely not to be processed as an assault on my mental well-being. Rape is still a subject I find personally unbearable to witness in films, but its portrayal can certainly be justified. I cannot, however, justify putting myself through Irreversible. If I’m missing a masterpiece, well, it won’t be the first time. All I have to do is think about all the revered films I haven’t yet seen and choose one of them to lose myself in tonight, instead of being at the mercy of Noé’s film when the clock strikes midnight. If ever there were justification for someone who calls himself a film critic skipping a big, important conversation piece like Irreversible, that has to be it. And even if it isn’t, well, it’s good enough for me.