Friday, January 15, 2010

PRECONCEPTIONS, RESPONSIBILITIES and THE IRREVERSIBLE DECISION




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.

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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.

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27 comments:

Olli Sulopuisto said...

Dennis,

thanks for a superb blog post. I've long thought of Irreversible as one of those films that made a great impression on me and one that I'd never want to rewatch.

Now, mind you, I did revisit it just recently, as a part of my "Ten years, ten movies" series in which I watched a bunch of great movies with friends.

After a second viewing I found myself none the wiser in regards to the central question: why would anybody want to watch this movie? Why would anybody want to make a movie like this? It is heartbreaking and breathtaking, yes, but does it leave us any wiser or touched or in any way better? I can only conclude–just as you did–it doesn't.

So if my word as a complete stranger is worth anything: you were right. You don't have to see it.

Ms Midnight Movies said...

You aren't missing anything by not seeing Irreversible. Aside from the fact that the film is told in reverse to heighten your experience and understanding of the irreversibility of causal events, there isn't actually a whole lot of interesting happening there.

The rape scene is uncomfortable, certainly, but I think it's there primarily to distract from the fact that the film itself isn't actually all that engaging.

Flickhead said...

Try to imagine Irreversible done as a straight linear narrative, with its beginning-middle-end in that order, and its hollowness becomes apparent. I found it idiotically compelling for approximately forty-five minutes — say, from the fire extinguisher head bashing to the rape — but found the remaining frame around all that to be pointless. Had the film began at the sunny day at the park (so idealistic it’s nearly moronic), proceeded to the rape and onto the head bashing, I believe a lot of people would start to question their own principles for sitting through such a grotesque and aesthetically worthless series of events. There is no necessity to Irreversible, other than as an example of snuff art. Other films far off in its periphery — The Wild Bunch, Salo or Hostel II — have links to snuff art, but emphasize the ‘art’ over the ‘snuff.’ Hostel II is no masterpiece, not by a long shot; but it does wander into areas that question capitalism and the degenerate soul, plus there’s a nasty sense of humor percolating throughout. Irreversible has none of these attributes, nor does it reach for the moralizing of Peckinpah’s film or Pasolini’s ethereal poetry. Gaspar Noé addresses an anger issue without resolving anything. As a narrative, therefore, it’s a complete failure. I believe he realized this, which is why it’s constructed in the manner that it is.

Peter Nellhaus said...

You've made a clear argument here. To a certain extent, this is why I decided to not try and be a Michael Haneke completist. Maybe Haneke is being "honest" in his world view, but I found him more depressing than Noe, maybe because Hanake makes more films.

Jason Bellamy said...

This is classic Cozzalio. Thoughtful as ever. Nice job.

I'm tempted to write a ramble in response, but instead I'll try to keep it short.

* I agree with you. You are not duty bound to see anything. I skipped Antichrist in the theater because I didn't want to be trapped by it. I'll see it on DVD, I suspect, or maybe not. My life, my choice. But ...

* Whenever this situation comes up, I can't get away from this thought: When "serious" movie fans -- and we bloggers are that -- slap ourselves in the head because Joe Public only saw three movies during the year and thus thinks that Transformers 2 is amazing, the sentiment behind our frustration stems from our belief that "Joe" should get out more, see those films that "he" doesn't expect to like -- films that will challenge him and rewrite his rigid perceptions.

Now, this is a different scenario than you faced, in a way. And then again it isn't. My point is: while I totally agree with and support your decision (because I do the same thing), I know also that when others make similar decisions we often chalk it up to closed-mindedness, as in ... "If you'd watch something other than Fox News you'd realize Sarah Palin is a fucking moron." At some level, if we don't leave our comfort zones, we can't ask others to do the same.

Again, not the same situation exactly, but that's the way I often feel.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Jason, I'm always glad when you chime in! Boy, have I ever been guilty of that kind of holier-than-thou perspective when I look at what most people see or won't see. The other thing that happens when we slap ourselves on the head over such matters is that we forget that, whether we like it or not, films likely don't mean the same thing for Joe Public as they do for Joe Cinephile, which is probably reason #1 why he/she sees only three or four movies instead of the 100-200 a film writer, paid or not, sees each year.

"At some level, if we don't leave our comfort zones, we can't ask others to do the same."

Absolutely. That's a key part of the experience which I appreciate and that I feel has never left me. I'm just glad to be able to realize that it's not incumbent upon me or anyone else to accept every challenge outside of that comfort zone, that it's okay to use the trusted voices of experience which, thankfully, we can all more easily access every day, to help me make that decision, should I be considering the option of declining a particular challenge.

Flickhead: Thanks for mentioning Hostel Part II, Salo and The Wild Bunch. Your comparison of their relative effect and intent is very illuminating. Though you're right, it is far from a masterpiece, I once wrote a defense of Hostel Part II and can clearly see how its stylization and its ability to connect with an idea, however well fleshed out that connection is or isn't, makes it at least worth discussing, worth enduring. And the Peckinpah and Pasolini films obviously go far beyond violence and degradation as an end in themselves. What's interesting is that Ebert, in the continuation of the quote I used in the piece, makes the same point about the chronology of Irreversible, only to defend the movie. Ebert's point is that by reversing the polarity and giving us what would be the big payoff in the first moments of the film instead of at the end, the film defuses its own trajectory and it becomes an argument against the horrors it presents instead of a jab at pushing the audience's envelope of tolerance. But it seems to me that thinking of the film itself in reverse (that is, moving chronologically forward) is, as you say, a good way to measure the merits of the movie as a narrative rather than as a provocative stunt.
Told in either direction, we still see what's there.

Ms Midnight Movies: "Aside from the fact that the film is told in reverse to heighten your experience and understanding of the irreversibility of causal events, there isn't actually a whole lot of interesting happening there."

It's a very interesting idea, this thought of how we cannot alter things that have happened, and how minute shifts in perspective and behavior can radically alter the outcome of any event. But at the heart of my hesitance about the movie is the feeling that it is, as you suggest, a unbalanced trade-off to offer lip service to a notion like that in return for what one must get through in order to grasp it. Thanks for leaving your comments. I hope you'll come back!

Olli, Peter: I miss so much on a daily basis that I feel like the idea of truly keeping up is a happy myth anyway. I will think back with satisfaction on your comments here as I unspool Don Siegel's The Lineup or The White Hell of Pitz Palu or some other interesting movie tonight instead of giving myself over to Gaspar Noe's vision.

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

I suggest this is a good weekend to catch up on Eric Rohmer, a more important French filmmaker than Gasper Noe.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

A hell of an idea, TLRHB. Pauline at the Beach is ready to go.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

And My Night at Maud's too!

Chris Stangl said...

At this point you have invested as much time discussing IRREVERSIBLE as it would take to watch the film. The classic wasted time conundrum: cut your losses and walk away, or sink more energy into something you don't want to do. Thankfully, film writers can channel either into something productive. So IRREVERSIBLE Vs. Cozzalio produces a study of filmgoing choices, a film's dread reputation and where they intersect with personal limits.

While I'm mostly with Mr. Ebert on this film, I'm not going to feign any extra horror. The rape sequence is frightening, sad, disgusting and finally boring. The scene isn't cut or paced to trigger these reactions; it isn't cut or paced at all, it's simply protracted, which provides in-film time to think, and for thoughts to evolve. I'm not sure that we automatically learn anything by staring at horror in real time. I find the sexual violence in IRREVERSIBLE harder to watch but ultimately less troubling than in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and STRAW DOGS, because Noé's film is less ideologically slippery. It is also not as fascinating. Who knows what you'd find in the film, though?

IRREVERSIBLE is not a message movie, but it has theses and talking points. Those ideas are meant to be related by the experience of the film unfolding, not summing up. The rape in the film is given weight partially to emotionally justify the futile revenge-by-fire-extinguisher, and the film is a case study about wrath and the track switches on destiny's railroad. It is one thing to say "time destroys us all!" — or "don't smash in people's heads," or "done cannot be undone," or "the fragile idyll of the moment exists at the whim of horrific chaos" — but the film is 97 minutes long, not three seconds. The shorthand might look good on a cross stitch sampler, but there is no telling what might happen in the mystical space between the screen and a viewer's brain.

I'm not sure it is a relevant argument that the plot would be hollow, dumb or pornographic if played in conventional chronology. Maybe, maybe not, but that's not what it does, not how it's built. KING KONG wouldn't play without the giant gorilla. Artsploitation classic AVERE VENT'ANNI tells a similar story in forward movement to great, wildly different effect.

Chris Stangl said...

(Cont'd!.)

Everyone agrees that — regardless of "why," or what we think of the fact — IRREVERSIBLE contains a lengthy, horrifying rape sequence. It is only slightly stylized through framing, lighting, and blocking the actors. It is designed to appall, whether we believe it is tinged with bad boy shock tactics or not. Frankly, the hysterical (both senses) rapes that fuel bad taste comedy from Russ Meyer to PRECIOUS pack more shock-wallop through their crazed, irreverent stylistic flash (not upsetting, but jarring). Those in drive-in rape-n-revenge sagas — good (THRILLER - A CRUEL PICTURE) and not-so-good (MOTHER'S DAY) — are more harrowing because their purpose is ugly, naked and unserious... and paradoxically less grueling for that same transparency. IRREVERSIBLE's strength, failing, complexity and power is that its rape scene is realistic, plausible, aesthetically stripped-down, and bound up in an expressly serious film about violence.

You're not framing the argument as "IRREVERSIBLE should not provide these worthless images that I have not seen," but as "from what I understand, the images in IRREVERSIBLE will make me uncomfortable regardless of its other qualities." If you don't want to sit through that it may make you a "pussy," but of the best kind. What it does not make you is a failure as a movie lover. People who won't sit still for nine hours of THE HUMAN CONDITION, can't get through a Jerry Lewis movie, have to shut off HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE, go through life without seeing an Antonioni film, or won't brave ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS?: those are movie pussies. Those are wimps who I have a hard time believing when they say they love film.

Paul said...

Chris has said pretty much what I wanted to say. I would like to point out the obvious, though, which is that the gay character who is painfully killed with a fire extinguisher in revenge for the rape of the Monica Bellucci character is not the perpetrator of the rape, who is never depicted as gay. He does hang out in a gay bar. That's as far as it goes. Calling the film homophobic is weirdly off-beam.

Kimberly Lindbergs said...

Since I'm one of the people who encouraged you to see the film earlier (because I do think it's one of the best films of the last decade) I feel like I should say something although Chris said just about anything I could say and he did so rather brilliantly.

Personally I don't read a lot about films before seeing them. I prefer to make up my own mind and see films on my own terms. While I can understand that the film's subject matter or the content would make many people extremely uncomfortable and uninterested in seeing it, I do have some problems with the idea of judging anything so critically such as a film, a book, a piece of music, etc. based on other people's reviews and opinions. I guess that's because I feel that I'm my own best judge and I prefer to make up my own mind about everything. Even my husband (who I dearly love & respect) could never sway me in one direction about something like a film or work of art (and he would never try).

I'm a little confused by some of the language you used here. Would anyone actually think you're a "pussy" for not seeing a film? I can't believe that (we're not talking high-school endurance games here - we're talking movies) but I'm bothered by the implication that people who watch Irreversible and appreciate it are doing so because they're looking for cheap thrills, enjoy depictions of rape or are somehow homophobic which are all very strange assumptions to me.

If you made it through Antichrist (and I believe you appreciated it?), I think you'd make it though Irreversible even though they're very different films. Director's like Lars von Trier and Gaspar Noé don't make easy films for general entertainment. They don't make the kinds of movies you want to rewatch and enjoy with friends over a bowl of popcorn. Both director's have also been the subject of crude assumptions made by critics who don't like their films and enjoy tossing around terms like "misogynistic" and "homophobic" that get attention but hold very little water (in my opinion).

With that said, I do think knowing your limits and spending your time and money wisely is a good rule for every film viewer to follow. I use a similar strategy in my own viewing habits. This is why I avoid watching 75% of the movies Hollywood unloads on the public every year and I don't feel like I'm missing anything. I don't think avoiding a film like Avatar for example makes me a snob or a bad movie goer. And I don't judge others who do like Avatar and get some kind of enjoyment from the movie. Avatar just holds no interest or appeal for me and I'm okay with that. And obviously you should be okay with making the decision to not see Irreversible.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Hi, Kimberly! I think Chris states his case in a typically brilliant fashion too, and I’m always glad when he or anyone takes the time to write such an in-depth, cogent response or comment. And I’m really glad you popped in to leave your thoughts, because as one who appreciates the film your point of view was one of the ones I was using to weigh whether or not to see the film. I hope you understand that by deciding not to see it even after your recommendation, I’m in no way discounting your thoughts or your opinion.

“I do have some problems with the idea of judging anything so critically such as a film, a book, a piece of music, etc. based on other people's reviews and opinions.”

Depending on what film we’re talking about, I sometimes do read essays and other writing on a film before I see it. Sometimes I don’t, and the general feeling of the public and the critical community can still find a way to seep into my head. And though I like to think it doesn’t, sometimes reading and hearing of these perspectives can color my own perception of a film—we don’t live in a world where this kind of stuff can be easily filtered out, even if one makes a conscious effort. In the case of Irreversible, the film came loaded with reportage on reactions to it from Cannes and other festivals long before it played here in the United States. One who keeps even slightly abreast of what’s happening in the film world would have had to have blinders and earmuffs on to avoid hearing about it. I read the reviews I did because I was interested in the movie, and they, combined with the reactions of people I know that saw the movie—some positive, some negative—led me to believe this was one I would be better off not seeing, or perhaps less judgmentally one I felt I could miss. So it was in 2003 as it was this past weekend. However, I do feel it’s important to reiterate that my intention with this post was not to review the movie in an a priori fashion, and I have taken pains to make sure that was clear in the piece itself. If someday I do see Irreversible and I should draw a conclusion other than the one arrived at by David Edelstein in his review (which was a touchstone for me in my hesitation), then he will be the first to hear about it. (And I’m sure he’s holding his breath!) But by no means am I trying to form an opinion on the movie itself based on the articulated reaction of others. I instead tried to use those reactions to decide whether it was something I wanted to put myself through. Only after having done so would I ever write about the experience of watching Irreversible.

(Continued in Next Comment)

Dennis Cozzalio said...

“I'm a little confused by some of the language you used here. Would anyone actually think you're a ‘pussy’ for not seeing a film?”

The use of the word “pussy” was a direct reference to Edelstein’s review and his characterization of Noé’s directorial personality as one of an insistent bully. In reference to the notorious rape scene, Edelstein considered several possible points of concentration and finally concluded, “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.’” I believe it was Edelstein’s contention that with the movie Noé is playing precisely the sorts of endurance games with the audience that you suggest, and that to tap out would be taken as some sort of victory on his part. When I used the word again it was to speak to anyone who might take up that point of view as a way to reacting to my decision to step aside—sticks and stones may break my bones, but at least I didn’t have to watch Monica Bellucci get defiled. And I can’t speak for anyone but myself here, but I know it was not my intention to suggest that anyone who does see Irreversible and contend that it is a worthwhile, brilliant film are vicarious rapists and/or homophobes. Too many people I know and respect hold the movie in high esteem for me to believe such a blanket statement. As to the charges of homophobia in Irreversible, I would assume that you and Paul above would think that those charges are unwarranted.

The comparison of Antichrist to Irreversible is a comparison I cannot make. But I do know that the other Von Trier films I’ve seen have been, in my eyes, abject examples of imperious misanthropy and, in the cases of Dancer in the Dark and even Breaking the Waves, a projection of fear and random, God-like punishment visited upon female characters for the sole (soul) purpose of watching them (us) squirm. Antichrist is an entirely different ball of wax in that Von Trier is not punishing these characters, he’s projecting his own volcanic pain through them, and his gender doesn’t exactly get to sit back and nod through it all. With that pain comes confusion and a peek through the prism of a mania which the director can only partially account (and therein lies the challenge for the audience). Frankly, Irreversible looks, to this potential viewer, like only so much more punishment. The explication of the themes I’ve read seem glib and not worth the agony. But I’m still turning Antichrist over in my head weeks later, ruminating on its terror and desperation, but also its perilous beauty.

I think you’re shutting out of about 75% of Hollywood movies is probably a pretty accurate measure of the really good (25%) to the mediocre, forgettable or downright bad (75%). It’s not like anyone’s paying us for our misery here. If someone was and I had professional obligations, then there would be good reason for us to be a little less discriminate. But really, whether its Avatar or Irreversible, I’d like tot think that both you and I are grown-up enough to make fairly accurate guesses as to what we think will be worth our time. Of course we’re not always going to be right—looking back on movies I hated 10-15 years ago, or ones I avoided, I am often surprised to find a much better film waiting for me than I would have ever thought possible. Maybe in another 10 years I’ll feel differently about Irreversible. As long as there are divergent opinions on it the possibility always exists I’ll come back around and consider it again. But right now I’m perfectly fine with not seeing it.

Now, about Avatar ooh, it was so cool, in 3-D and all, and I— [ Kimberly Slams Door ] :)

jim emerson said...

This was a most suspenseful post, Dennis! I didn't know where it was going to go, but you made the journey, as always, fascinating. Glad Peter mentioned Haneke, because I think of "Irreversible" as a deliberate afront similar to "Funny Games" (x 2). It's a form of audience punishment: How much can you take? But unlike Haneke's movie, it's almost impossible to watch for the first half hour or so because Noe treats the camera like a dangling yo-yo, being swung and twirled by a hyperactive child. It's an obvious and deliberate artistic strategy, but I'm not sure what it accomplishes (beyond the inducement of queasiness in the viewer). I guess I'm glad I saw it -- but in the way you feel after having put a horrible experience behind you. "I survived 'Irreversible' and all I got was this lousy t-shirt."

Also, I'm with Kimberly: After spending so many years of my life having to see almost everything that opened commercially, I now steer away from most of the recycled mainstream crap that gets released for the simple reasons that: 1) it's not even original in its crappiness --I've already seen it so many times before; and 2) I don't have that much time left -- in my daily life... or my life!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Jim, thanks for writing and expressing the point of view of someone who has had to professionally endure more than his share of commercially available junk. I know it absolutely thrills me (and I bet Kimberly feels the same rush) when I open up a newspaper and know that I have no responsibility for seeing steamers like The Ugly Truth and other movies that routine end up lining the bottom of the Worst Films birdcage at the end of the year. Sometimes I do get paid to see some of those movies, but it's not in a context of having to write about them afterwards-- in these cases, my pain is purely my own. (Unless I can trap some poor bastard in the hallway and start venting!)

So it is, for me, an extension of this sense of relief from having to see stuff like Law Abiding Citizen or Leap Year or Did You Hear About the Morgans? when I allow myself to step back from a movie like Irreversible in the "serious" film realm. (I also abstained from Haneke's remake of Funny Games, but this time because I'd already seen the Austrian version and could think of no compelling reason, based on reports of how deliberately Haneke had Xeroxed v.2.0 from the original, for putting myself through that intellectual con again. Would Headmaster Haneke be proud of me or pissed that I didn't take the bait?)

And by the way: "I survived Irreversible and all I got was this lousy t-shirt." I think I might go see it if I could get one of those afterward!

How are your quiz answers coming, Jim? ;) I ask only because I understand... The deadline I imposed on myself for submitting my own answers has looooong passed! But I still have hope!

Mike Lippert said...

I tend to agree that this film, outside of those icky bits that have made it famous, is not all that great. A great example of how people eat it up when films put style over substance for no better reason than for people who don't know any better to deem them brilliant. Well written piece though.

Steve C. said...

I do think IRREVERSIBLE is an extraordinary film, even if it took me three (three!) viewings to fully process it. That said, your post here is a thing of beauty. We all, as cinephiles, have our limits, our lines that just don't need to be crossed, and I think you've engaged your thought process vis-a-vis this particular work in impressive detail. As a champion of the film, I'm all for more people checking it out. But given the thorough going-over here, I can't fault you for leaving it by the wayside. There is, after all, only so much time.

(Maybe the film didn't bother me as much as some, as I tend to attract/collect cinematic extremity. Yet, if I were to write a piece detailing my apprehension with the 'mondo' genre of cinema, it might look a little something like this. So yeah, I know where yer comin' from, dood.)

Dave S said...

As a gay guy who loves (is that the right word?) "Irreversible", I have to chime in and say, that for me, the experience was all about my reaction. The movie made an impact, elicited a reaction beyond the norm, and took me to a place where I don't want to go every day. The reverse linear way in which its told is crucial to its impact, and it's the very way it's told that elected such a melancholy response from me when the film ends with the story's beginning...Beautiful woman, beautiful green grass, beautiful music... ALL INTACT. That Noe is an exploitation filmmaker isn't even the question... He tips his hat in I Stand Alone when he apes William Castle and throws a warning card on the screen before that film's climax. But I've had emotional responses to Castle's flicks, and I expect to continue having emotional responses to Noe's flicks too. For me, the line between trash film and art film has never existed. If you're interested, check out my initial reaction to the flick here:
http://bloody-terror.blogspot.com/2008/04/gaspar-no.html

Oh, and Chris Stangl, I'm with you on "To Be Twenty/Avere vent'anni".

John said...

Just keep telling yourself it's only a movie, it's only a movie, it's only a movie...

The last time I remember being truly afraid or too disturbed to watch a film was when I was around nine or ten and there was a Friday the 13th marathon on television. I would flip over and watch whichever movie they were running until I couldn't bare it anymore and have to switch to something else. Yet I kept switching over to it.

I must say I detest the phrase "You're not missing anything if you don't see it." For one, how the hell would you know? It's presumptuous, perhaps there's some quality to the film that will resonate with me. It's also dismissive, "Oh you don't need to see that film because it did nothing for me!" Again, did nothing for you. And so what? This sentiment also treats opinions as facts instead of points to debate (as in a classical debate where you have your reasons, I have mine, and we exchange) I also hate when people every so often declare the death of cinema. It's pretentious and weird, especially considering that usually the people who make this pronouncement consider themselves cinema lovers. The wonderful thing about cinema is that it is an endless font, it constantly is attracting new talent and has a wealth always waiting to be discovered. Oh how wonderful! I'd say go see Irreversible you pussy, ha! Or don't. It's up to you. Might I suggest seeing I Stand Alone. Now that movie is nasty and disturbing, comparatively Irreversible is a fun night at the flickers. But if you don't want to just don't. But there is something attracting you to this film, you can't get it out of your head, perhaps something is leading you to this film and you should just bite the bullet. There is surcease from the madness at the end of the film, which makes for a really interesting sequence. Unique even. So what's 90 minutes of your life? Face fears, make decisions and just watch because it's only a movie, it's only a movie, it's only...

Nathan Marone said...

As I was reading this post, especially the sections in which you detail the structure of the film, I had the impression that you'd already made your decision to see it, and I expected a direct reaction to it that never came. When I learned that you had not yet seen the film, I realized that you didn't need to at all. It's clear that you already know what you're going to get if you do see it, and, since you know that it's an experience you don't want, why bother?

Having (regrettably) seen "Irreversible", I can tell you that you've made the right decision. It is a hateful film clothed in pseudo-importance.

One thing that you didn't mention in your post is that Noe's film is formally self-indulgent. The rape scene comes in at about the 40 minute mark, but I almost stopped the movie before that, because Noe's camera was swooping and swirling around, approximating the psychological state of the angered boyfriend, with such disorientation that I wasn't sure what was going on from one second to the next. If it weren't for snippets of dialogue (subtitled, of course), I wouldn't have had any clue as to what was going on from the visuals alone. This type of gimmickry, however, told me how to read the rest of the film.(a friend also informed me that Noe included a high-frequency drone during the revenge sequence to induce nausea in audience members, though I haven't confirmed this with any other source.) It's a wonder that Noe speaks of such masterful films as "I Am Cuba" and "Touch of Evil" as influences. The care and precision found in those films is nowhere in "Irreversible".

erik said...

Should you see Irreversible? IF you have to ask the question... probably not. It doesn't seem to be saying what it seems to think it's saying, for one thing. I buy that it's all about *men's* response to rape- either to identifying w/ the perpetrator, or w/ reacting as the boyfriend does, unable to come to grips w/ the aftermath. But there's a bunch of problems with the way it's all set up.

I don't mean the structure of the film, that's probably, truly, what makes it interesting at all. I mean that for one thing, everything that happens is sort of the boyfriend's fault. He acts like a dick at the party, she leaves alone. But then it's kind of her fault, I mean, dressing like that (in a basically see-through blouse) and going into that clearly-hellish tunnel (do they really look like that? Why would *anyone* ever use them? It's a kind of horror-movie deal, "you idiot! can't you see this is a RAPE-TUNNEL?").

And then there's the fact that it's Monica Bellucci, one of the most beautiful women in the world, and goddammit, even though she's obviously sufferering, from being raped, which is definitely *not* hot in itself, at least if you don't have rape fantasies, she actually never really stops being *desirable*. It seems like a cheap way to approach the issue, is all... if you really wanted to deal with rape as a serious issue, you probably wouldn't sexualize the living fuck out of the victim, and make the act something that comes as comeuppance for both the boyfriend (that's what you get for being a dick- your model-beautiful girlfriend gets defiled, and then you end up in prison for beating the wrong dude to death) and for the woman - that blouse! in that tunnel! almost like you're *asking* for it.

Which, maybe, is the point- if there's a point to all the provocation... one of those, "well, you *obviously* want to see this, so *who's* the sicko now, Mr Society?" Eh, there really are some interesting things in the movie, but as far as sitting through it to get some kinda cinephiliac merit badge, eh, there's better ways to get those.

jim emerson said...

Dennis -- I still haven't finished the quiz... but I did write about this post over at scanners!

Weigard said...

Gaspar Noe cries!

http://blog.oregonlive.com/madaboutmovies/2010/01/sundance_shocker_gaspar_noe_cr.html

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Ana said...

Good choice. I watched it when it came out here in Spain, not even knowing what it was about in the first place. Everyone in the theatre left but me and my friend. I was 23 and was traumatized for months. Well, I am still reading about it... wish I had never seen it.