May 9, 2014 § Leave a comment
Now that Lars von Trier’s ‘Nymphomaniac’ is out and in the open, I feel that I have finally come to some conclusion, or at the very least some articulable opinion regarding the practice of putting sex on film. Tossing my mind back to the days when this project was just a rumour in the air about the Danish prankster making a movie starring Shia Lebouf and his member, one that would tread the line between “cinema” and “pornography” more perilously than he ever had before – because ‘The Idiots’ had definitely not attempted this – I am struck by how anticlimactic the whole three-and-a-half hours feels, anticlimactic in the sense that ‘Nymphomaniac’ is perhaps a lot tamer than the hullabaloo leading up to its release suggested it might be, not that hullabaloo is ever predictive of anything. But at the very least, the film in my opinion does not commit any transgressions greater than have been done in previous von Trier efforts. Assuming, also, that the claims made by the director’s production company Zentropa are true – the ones about digitally grafting movies star faces onto porn star bodies – then one could concievably argue with some degree of conviction that ‘Nymphomaniac’ is likely not his most ‘pornographic’ film, which in itself is a problematic claim on so many levels, semantic and otherwise.
‘The Idiots’, a 1998 Dogme 95 film (Dogme 95 being a movement that forbade – amongst other things – the use of effects), featured actual sex between individuals whose heads and genitals were of the same flesh and shared the same DNA. ‘Nymphomaniac’, as far as we’ve been told, does not. Does this then make it less pornographic than von Trier’s 1998 picture? Does ‘The Idiots’ as a film have sex more on the brain than his most recent opus? Well, firstly, I’d argue that ‘The Idiots’ simply has sex in it while ‘Nymphomaniac’ is generally more sex-centric, if only sex as seen through one or two particular points of view.
Thinking about ‘Nymphomaniac’ over the last two weeks has led me to settle on the opinion that it is a film that does not explore or portray sex and sexuality in a particularly interesting or challenging way, but one which, by virtue of its sprawl and ideological indiscipline, is nonetheless a great heaving bonfire around which sex on film can be discussed. Maybe not sex as a complex facet of humanity, but sex as an element of cinematic language. I don’t want to review ‘Nymphomaniac’. I don’t want to critique the various performances and myriad accents featuted in it, the digressional script, the use of multiple aspect ratios, or whether it deserves its two-volume release. I’m not quite that interested in debating whether Lars von Trier is a misogynist or a wannabe feminist, whether he has anything to say or is just eager to be heard, whether he is intentionally or unintentionally tongue-in-cheek, or whether or not he loves or hates himself. Perhaps these are all meatier, juicier talking points, but I would like to take this opportunity to hash out some heretofore muddled thoughts and theories on filmic depictions of sex.
In my time as a young male raised in an epoch of sexual ubiquity, I have had my tiger’s share of media-assisted sexual gratification. I say assisted because some of my earliest autosexual experiences were facilitated by everything from women’s magazines tailored for conservative housewives and Avon catalogues, to kids’ shows hosted by finely-bosomed brunettes and even an admittedly sexually-charged scene from David Cronenberg’s ‘eXistenz’. To further clarify, when I say autosexual I do not simply mean masturbation, but any situation in which I was sexually aroused in the presence of myself and no one else, an arousal which I to some degree enjoyed, encouraged, prolonged or actively sought out. Does the fact that I was sexually aroused when watching the host of Kideo (a South Africa kids’ TV show) or that I pleasured myself while paging through Avon brochures imply that that show or those brochures where pornographic or that they at least contained pornographic elements? Sure, they contained sexual elements, and if they did contain sexual elements but only unintentionally so – from the perspective of their creators – then were they necessarily pornography? I can assure you that the host of that show was no more sexually suggestive than a pretty Sunday school teacher, and that those Avon materials no more suggestive than an insurance ad adorned by a gorgeous, smiling face. Now, while the latter may intentionally capitalize on sexuality to sell both insurance and mascara, to say that Avon or AAMI intend on me flopping out my wiener and stroking it is highly cynical.
Conversely, there are sex scenes of varying graphicness that I have witnessed on television or on the silver screen or on my laptop which, despite oozing tits and ass aplenty, barely stir cyclops from his slumber if at all. Some of the above scenes were in films legally registered as triple-x adult material yet for all their sexual explicitness I could have been watching lions mating on Saturday daytime cable TV. In these cases was I or was I not in the presence of pornography? Whereas I was aroused by that which was perhaps not intended to arouse, the converse occurred with that which was certainly intended to arouse to some extent or at least mildly titillate which is, let’s be frank, what most sex scenes featuring attractive actors in ‘non-pornographic’ films are in some way expected to do. There is clearly a difference between something being pornography versus being pornographic. Perhaps pornography is created with intent whereas anything can possibly be rendered pornographic, even transiently so, by way of a patron’s response to its sexual potential. I wonder.
So having established the complexity of the concept of pornography, I would like to consider why – outside of the realm of audiovisual coital aids – sex is finding, has often found, and will likely continue to find its way onto screens.
It’s saying nothing really, to state that whatever is on the mind of society will somehow find its way into that society’s artistic firmament. If this is the case – which it surely is, considering how steeped in sexuality are our oldest surviving tales and myths – then it is no surprise that sex and film has a long albeit problematic relationship. Almost as far back as the advent of the cinematic medium, blue movies and stag films have existed. Sex is and has been on the mind of human society for millennia and there is really no point in questioning why it continues to be portrayed in art. The real question is what purpose sex serves in the context of film other than simply depicting an enduring part of human life or kowtowing to society’s obsession with it? If a filmmaker states, as many do, that they wish to depict human lives in as raw and truthful a way as possible without succumbing to the usual pressures to create drama and omit the everyday, then would it not be a little prudish of them to avoid capturing humans in the act of sex, whether real or staged? In fact, why should sex not be depicted? Surely it’s not in order to preserve some ideal of sex being an intimate and private affair that only the involved parties should have any right to experience, because if this was the case, a staggering proportion of dramatic art would be immediately rendered inappropriate and exploitative for having exposed and portrayed that which occurs behind one’s closed doors and behind one’s eyes. Of course, it would be naïve to ignore the abiding influence of religion and common morality on how sex is approached in various societies. And while the society that I am most familiar with – the predominantly Anglo-Saxon West – has its roots in Judeo-Christian philosophy that traditionally considers sex to be a private and sacred (if not outright holy) act, in the secular here and now of 2014 when and where sexual explicitness and suggestiveness are commonplace in that there are increasingly commodified, it strikes me as particularly odd that the act of sex when transposed from its usual place under the duvet in a darkened bedroom onto a screen in a darkened theatre still seems to inspire discomfiture in so many people; well, at least from ratings boards and champions of moral “decency”.
It was only subsequent to the release in 2010 of Derek Cianfrance’s ‘Blue Valentine’ (a film I like but am not overly fond of) that I felt I understood something of the way sex is handled by the secular west. Now, assuming that the MPAA and other such organisations base their decisions on their gauge of the prevailing public mindset, then it can be argued that sex is not what causes such communal blushing, but the context in which sex occurs; the same goes for violence. This is nothing new. It has been clear to me for some time that violence is considered most disturbing when its psychological implications are brought to the fore. This is what allowed for the popularization – no – normalization of the action movie bloodbath in which hordes can be slaughtered yet nary a gasp or groan can be heard coming from a theatre audience. Kids half-watch such things in the presence of their parents at home, and the clanging of swords and barrage of gunfire are no more alarming to any of them than would be mild interference on the car radio. Similarly, people sit and consume their dinners while watching the news which is often a string of decontextualized violence recited plainly, as should perhaps be the case with all news, the “plainly” part that is. The horror may register intellectually, but there is little if any emotional impact. I know people (who shall remain unnamed) for whom violence is a strong no-no, apart from when it appears on the news in which case it is simply information despite the fact that some parties were actually affected, traumatised, maimed, killed. Violence is palatable, entertaining even, when the significance of the act is bleached out. Countless shootings and stabbings and beatings seen in countless films have barely scratched my psyche, yet one single act of brief violence in a film like ‘Cache’ still affects me, because it should, if only by way of my imagining what would possibly lead an individual to inflict such a thing on themselves and on the onlooker who stands looking on; because this is what the film itself asks.
On that note, back to ‘Blue Valentine’, a film that was threatened with – and may have in fact received (if I remember correctly) – an NC-17 rating (one step below X-rated) largely on the grounds of a scene in which a balding character played by Ryan Gosling fellates a character played by Michelle Williams. There was a mild cyclone of controversy about the MPAA’s reaction to this scene and much was written about it which I did not read, which means that some or much of what I say may echo things previously written and said.
When I heard of the MPAA’s decision I could not remember seeing more than Gosling’s oblong bobbing head shielded by William’s left thigh and seeing the response on the great actress’ face in a performance which consisted of more than the usual mechanical oohs and ahs that seem to score most sex scenes. Hers was a portrayal of vulnerability, desire, relief, uncertainty, frustration, conflict…things usually sieved from mainstream depictions of sexual intercourse. Just as the man who slashed his throat midway through ‘Cache’ did so – I believe – as an expression of something he felt he could not express with words, so too was the sex scene in ‘Blue Valentine’ in which a man tries to rekindle the fire with his wife in a kitschy hotel room and in doing so simultaneously expresses his desire to dominate as well as his utter dependence on her. In these two movies, violence and sex were not just acts for the purpose of narrative propulsion or embellishment; they are acts of communication, whether or not they were successful or even warranted. Moreover, the scene in ‘Blue Valentine’ has no comic or cartoonish undertones to it, just plain sexual honesty; no quick montage of a million and one sex positions, and more importantly perhaps, the deglamourisation of two recognizable and lusted-after faces such that what is on screen is not the Sex Olympics of the Gods but the simple psychosexual yearnings of average humans. Needless to say, it is exactly this type of honesty that disturbs people. Perhaps sex (and violence), when treated with seriousness, has an uncanny ability to access deep recesses of unexplored emotion and subconscious rumination in viewers that many – by conditioning or by choice – refuse to confront until they are expressed through acts that are either pleasurable or confounding or regrettable or all three and more. Violence is, of course, always regrettable…says the pacifist in me.
The sex scenes in ‘Nymphomaniac’ are not so much sex scenes as they are brief flashes of Joe and her lovers in various sexual positions. On this front, the film is disappointingly akin to many of its contemporaries in its approach to sex. Does Lars von Trier have any idea why it might be interesting to depict Joe in the act of sex? One could argue that for Joe, sex isn’t much more than a series of sexual positions with countless partners in which case the director is vindicated in the approach he has chosen. But considering he opted to pepper the film with random and frankly timid shots of penetration and genital intimacy, perhaps he should have utilised this explicitness for unprecedented artistic effect. I don’t think it would be at all presumptuous of me to suggest that the way in which a person interacts not only with their own body but with the bodies of others can provide as much information about their state of mind as a well scripted monologue or exchange; as much if not more. This alone would be a sufficiently strong justification for the inclusion of graphic penetrative sex in a film.
Anyone who believes that fellatio is simply the act of licking or sucking another person’s genitals like it is a bland ice cream or lollipop, and anyone who believes that there is no more nuance to the act than simple mechanical licking and sucking, is frankly kidding themselves. Just as the word “yes” can be uttered in various ways to express various things, so perhaps can an act of oral pleasuring. The most disappointing aspect of a film like Carlos Reygadas’ ‘Battle in Heaven’ is that the sex acts seem to be so aware of their “scandalousness” that they are content with simply being graphic, failing to be little more than plain depictions of sexual intercourse. Admittedly, there are clear attempts in ‘Battle in Heaven’ to utilise sex as an expression of inter- and intra- class/ethnic relations, and the fellatio scenes that bookend the film are perhaps the clearest of all. But even then, the act is so mechanical as to be comparable to the tentative first steps of someone who has only just learnt to do something new and somewhat terrifying. The blowjob that Hugh Jackman’s character receives in ‘Swordfish’ or the one that Captain David Aceveda is forced to give in FX’s great show ‘The Shield’ are almost more accomplished expressions of something in a way that the equivalent acts in Reygadas’ film are somehow not, and I say this as an admirer of Reygadas and his oeuvre. It seems that, as graphic penetrative sex is slowly finding its way into “non-pornographic” somewhat mainstream cinema, there is a self-consciousness that prevents the expression of anything more than giddy exhibitionism and rebellion. Perhaps, with time, once graphic sex becomes less of a taboo, actors, writers and directors will become less concerned with the fact that they’re pushing boundaries and more attuned to the psycho-emotional power and density of sexual activity. Until this becomes more prevalent, artists who use the suggestive power of sex rather than the explicit power of it will dominate in the way that the oft cited scene from Bergman’s ‘Persona’ has dominated this particular conversation since it was first seen in 1966.
By far the most effective moment of graphic sexuality in ‘Nymphomaniac’, the shot of a rising erection is more an expository device than anything, expository in the sense that the penis’s becoming erect tells us exactly what the man in question’s sexual predilection happens to be, which in turn has minor narrative implications. So, I suppose graphic sex can be used to advance plot, though in this circumstance plot would be a strong word. However, with regards to Joe’s dependence on sex, I must say that almost none of the sex scenes in which she features illustrate what exactly sex provides her. I could barely tell you whether Joe actually enjoys sex, or whether there is an element of emotional dependency or self-absorption. The only scenes in which an individual sex act is observed without von Trier’s camera quickly looking away with a blush are the S&M scenes. Joe’s self-loathing and desire for punishment are made a bit clearer, but self-loathing is almost the “go-to” emotional hang-up for sex addicts in fiction. Besides, graphic depictions of sadomasochism are not particularly subversive in 2013/2014 in which case von Trier once again comes across as mildly toothless. At the risk of sounding perverted, ‘Nymphomaniac’ does very little to make a case for the artistic validity of graphic sex in “non-pornographic” film by simply not going far enough. Believe it or not, ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’s much hyped sex scenes, while not involving much penetrative action, can be said to at least provide a viewer the slightest insight into Adele’s deep desire for self-actualisation and emotional freedom. In ‘Stranger at the Lake,’ another fine film, writer-director Alain Guiraudie utilises sex more fearlessly and with more psychological heft than does von Trier in ‘Nymphomaniac’, partly by investing his sex scenes with as much time and patience as he does the scenes of dialogue. In that film, sex and speech have similar thematic and narrative weight.
If sex is a mode of communication – non-literary, intuitive communication – then cinema needs to develop a sexual language that can express more than just desire. When two sexy young things manically rip their clothes off and boink each other in your run-of-the-mill television show or movie, one thing that is generally understood, without fail, is that these two individuals want one another on some level; nothing wrong with this. But imagine all other forms of language – verbal and otherwise – were portrayed on screen with equal unsophistication. Imagine actors could only either smile or frown, or were only permitted to speak the words “yes” or “no” and nothing else; hyperbolic as this illustration might be, this is – to an extent – the level of sophistication with which sexuality seems to be used as an expressive modality in film: desire, desire, desire, desire, desire. Maybe domination once in a while. Okay, sure, but what else?
No doubt, if art reserves the right to depict certain aspects of the human experience, on what moral grounds can it be prevented from depicting all aspects of the human experience? Sure, some of these result in more unease when portrayed in art than do others, but perhaps this is because modes of communication like sex and violence are more honest than the average human’s use of verbal discourse, discomfortingly so; honest in that they are deeply visceral and relatively more resistant to social conditioning than our use of words, maybe because we were fucking and fighting long before we developed a form of meaningful oral language and, in the wake of our new-found rhetorical skills, relegated those two to the closet where they can continue to wield immense influence from where they lie in the darkness of our collective id. Wherever words seem to fail, a penis or a pistol is never too far off for better or for worse, so why turn our eyes away or throw coy little glances? As much as it would be nice if violence ceased being a language of its own, if we are to explore ourselves as a species at the current time, we cannot ignore its power and its prevalence, its true terrible power. The same goes for sex.
‘Melancholia’ or: how I try to give a shit in spite of my nihilism
April 25, 2014 § 3 Comments
How frustrating it was to read and listen to the largely unvaried readings of Lars von Trier’s 2011 film ‘Melancholia’. It was either a symbolic expression of the filmmaker’s own experiences with clinical depression or simply another somewhat bonkers melodrama with otherworldly undertones from the Danish enfant terrible. This is not to say that either of those approaches is invalid, certainly not, but the majority of the discussion didn’t seem to deviate much further than depression or general arthouse mayhem. Maybe the conversation was usurped by the hoopla surrounding von Trier’s admittedly clumsy statements about Hitler and Nazism which too fell victim to surface level responses i.e. condemnation and knee-jerk shock rather than being utilised as an entry point to a potentially insightful discussion about the extents to which one can empathise with those who are apparently undeserving of it. But that is an essay for another day.
A bride in a peri-matrimonial depressive relapse stays with her sister, her sister’s wealthy rationalist husband and their young son after a disastrous wedding reception whose failure is largely to blame on her – the bride’s – poor mental state. Justine, the depressive in question, is deep in it and her sister Claire is trying her very best to be supportive while her husband John’s polite impatience is clear from the get-go. Midway through the film it is made known that a planet once thought to be bypassing earth is in fact on an unstoppable collision course for it. This rapidly approaching doom lays waste to the mental and emotional states of at least two of the film’s four lead characters, Claire and John. The effect of this news on young Leo is somewhat muted if memory serves me well, which – in my mind – seemed in keeping with someone his age.
Now, people have stated that the planet ‘Melancholia’ is a metaphor for the destructive effects of depression on the lives of people struggling with the condition and those within their social orbit. It’s a cute but obvious reading, which is not to say that it isn’t an actual and valid subtext within the film. Another school of thought is that the film explores the psychology of depression and the idea that individuals riding the black steed may be susceptible to extreme pessimism to the point of anticipating a doom that they cannot quite explain or qualify. Apparently, this particular concept was the seed from which the narrative grew in von Trier’s head. So, as per the above, Justine’s utter pessimism – nay – nihilism, epitomised by such acts as her having sex (in dove-white gown and on a golf course green) with a waiter on the night of her wedding reception, ensured that in the face of imminent demise she was by far the most resigned (having always expected the worst) and thus much calmer than most. She could of course simply be depressed, too depressed to care or register much of a response, as opposed to her having “rationalised” and come to terms with her own death and the destruction of all that she has ever known long before said death and destruction actually come to pass. It should be noted that Justine’s brother-in-law John, the rationalist, commits suicide towards the end of the film while his wife Claire takes on the nature of someone in a profound depressive rut, a reverse of the sisters’ roles in the latter half of the picture.
Now, it’s not too much of a stretch to posit that John and Claire represent, respectively, those who place their confidence in the rational and the tangible (knowledge, wealth) and those who place theirs in the sentimental (relationships, love, devotion.) If we choose to accept this idea then the eventual unravelling of these two characters in the face of planet Melancholia suggests that that which many or most people consider meaningful and valuable in this mortal life cannot ultimately withstand the pure spitefulness (query indifference?) of a futile end, whether that end is due to a ravaging cancer or being vapourised by so mindless an event as a planetary collision.
So does that make ‘Melancholia’ a nihilist’s declaration? An “I told you so” fantasy in which all those human with their fickle values and ideals are forced to face the fury of a meaningless, godless universe? That may very well be the take-away, if one chooses to forget the very final moments of the film during which Justine transcends her own severe state of detachment in order to provide a brief moment of solace for her hysterical sister and shell-shocked nephew. As Melancholia’s effect on earth approaches the cataclysmic and everything seems to melt away around them, Justine leads Claire and Leo out into a field. She sits them down and tearfully takes their hands in hers as if suggesting that they spend their last moments cherishing and appreciating that which means most to them, rather than mourning its impending loss. For someone who has spent the previous two hours totally indifferent to everything and all things, this act strikes me as one requiring great strength and selflessness. Sure, the very last seconds could be read in many ways. They could be bracing themselves for unimaginable physical torment. They could be comforting each other and reassuring their loved ones that they are loved for whatever that’s worth. But my impression while viewing the film was that the final seconds were spent in silent, terrified appreciation for the simple fact that they are currently still living and in the presence of those that they love. The key point is that Justine instigates this approach. She slaps some perspective into Claire when all signs seem to suggest that she should be sitting back, laughing cynically to herself while thinking “I told you. Didn’t I tell you?”
So what exactly is my point? What do I think ‘Melancholia’ is about? I’m not at all suggesting that Lars von Trier made the film in order to explore that which I am about to discuss, but these are ideas which the film kick-started my brain into entertaining. The depression analogies, while valid and very likely applicable, were not interesting enough for a film that struck me as having a great deal more on its mind than might appear at face value. Let me continue by asking this: what if you found out that – for a fact – the universe was utterly meaningless and that, while order still coexisted alongside chaos, nothing was of any more significance than that which you personal bestowed on it? What if life was – for a fact – only sacred because humans considered it to be, when necessary? What if the only entity who bore witness to your deeds were people in whose memories you would live on long after they and their memories had…ceased to exist; in whose non-existent memories your refusal or inability to choose right from wrong and love over hate would forever persist? What if you were a nihilist and couldn’t see why anything should matter in and to a universe that seemed indifferent?
It seems that nihilists can express their nihilism in several ways. There are those who wish to take advantage of the fact that this earthly life is like Vegas: what goes on here stays here. There is no external judgement and whatever forms of it one may be subjected to in this life is but a terrier’s bark in the scope of things. The logical approach then is to enjoy life, to exhaust all the sensory pleasures it has to offer. You could chose to take the hedonistic route wherein your quest for pleasure theoretically need not impact anybody but yourself though, seeing as nobody exists in a social vacuum, this would be mildly impossible. One could also take the satanic approach and consider carnal humanity as the true natural state of being with its elements of what might be termed ‘selfishness’, ‘aggression’ and a healthy dose of hedonism, that is to say, unbridled, unsanctified human nature with all its ‘flaws’ (if Satanists would even call them flaws.) One could also consider themselves at the service of cosmic chaos and actively partake in it: where values and ideas are unnecessarily applied, such individuals function as a reminder that nothing is sacred, nothing is hallowed, nothing deserves to be upheld and nothing deserves to be repressed, everything is the same and equally insignificant if the indifference of eternity has anything to say about it. Here we have the true punks of each age, existing until they cease to exist, defiling that which is considered holy; butchering sacred cows and holding aloft the offal. In many ways this approach may be adopted by those in existential despair, acting out against a universe that doesn’t have enough cognizance to give a shit.
But I think there is another philosophy that sits somewhere within the nihilistic spectrum but somewhere on the fringes of it. It is nihilism in that nothing objectively matters, but it isn’t in that ultimate futility need not lead to total disregard for those things which seem to matter to most people. Just as Justine, in those final moments, chooses to indulge those human needs that she has over time allow to deaden within her, so the individual who I’ll call…let’s say…a neo-Sisyphean chooses to live a life based on values and ideals despite their inherent (and ultimately depressing) belief that none of it may mean a thing to anyone or anything one hundred billion years down the track, or even now at this very moment. This, I think, is a tough stance, but a somewhat admirable one. This is what ‘Melancholia’ compelled me to consider.
Vengeance of the duelling swords
April 23, 2014 § Leave a comment
There is a scene in Lars von Trier’s newest work, a scene that to my dismay is much maligned; one which I find myself increasingly compelled to defend, and not even for the satisfaction of some contrarian streak. It’s the kind of scene I expected would set on edge those burdened with white guilt and those fuelled by reflexive non-white indignation, souring every mouth in the theatre and lingering long afterwards like a recent and pungent fart, but not one I expected would be read so superficially, perhaps for fear of appearing to entertain/humour von Trier’s most impish provocation tendencies.
In this scene from ‘Nymphomaniac’, Joe, the film’s titular sex-fiend as embodied by von Trier muse Charlotte Gainsbourg, recounts an encounter that was borne of her desire to fuck a man with whom verbal communication was not possible. From her window way up in an apartment block in an indeterminate European – possibly British – locale, she spots a group of black men who frequent a certain street corner and who turn out to be African migrants with whose language she is not at all familiar. One particularly burly member of this group appeals to her and, in a conveniently elliptical turn, Joe acquires the services of a man who can translate her very plain sexual request into this fellow’s mother tongue. The man predictably accepts and instructs her via a scribbled note to meet in a hotel room for which Joe, a sexual risk-taker for decades, is totally game. What follows is an odd, farcical couple of minutes which initially threatened to test my knee reflex but which, on further thought, I feel is a wonderful reversal of that which people accuse the scene of endorsing or at the very least perpetuating. As Joe sits on the bed and waits with a nervousness that struck me as being out of sorts for her, the burly African, whose name I do not remember catching if indeed it was mentioned, walks in with a friend in tail, another African whom Joe equally does not understand and did not at all expect. They, the two men, then proceed to…assess Joe…stripping her clothes off and subjecting her lean and small-featured alabaster body to their foreign gazes. They themselves strip nude and, lo and behold, it turns out that they obey the ethnographic laws of penile endowment. Joe is frankly skewered by double entry and shows no discernible signs of pleasure if my memory serves well. At some point during the very unsexy proceedings, the two men both withdraw and get into a bit of a non-translated tiff about who knows what exactly, though it can be deduced that it has something to do with position and who gets the best piece of ass and for how long. In a move that strikes me as very apt but which I suspect strikes many as being very degrading and fetishist, von Trier’s frame centres Joe on the bed, naked, confused and looking utterly vulnerable while in the foreground two occasionally pulsating big black penises confront each other like duelling swords, the heads and torsos of the men to whom they are attached being somewhere off screen.
It’s understandable why the sight of two black males ‘exploiting’ one white female may come across as racially inflammatory, reviving or sustaining the somewhat pervasive idea that one is a perpetual threat to the other, and yes to some extent a degree of exploitation may in fact be taking place with Joe as the victim. Yet in this scene, Joe, being the individual who initially singled out another to satisfy her possibly fetishist if not exoticist fantasies, finds herself confronted with not just one but two versions of that which she may have fantasised about. The big black phallus she possibly swooned over in her daydreams is now made doubly manifest and it is actually threatening, and the men from whom the dicks sprout speak a language she doesn’t understand, and they will, these men – as far as she can tell – skewer her again. While the scene may say nothing to erase or rehabilitate commonly held racial misrepresentations, to say that it does not – at the very least – poke fun at or satirise sexual tourism and jungle fever is to be unfairly critical. At its worst this scene admittedly bears the stench of clumsily executed farce (which may in fact signify a clumsily executed depiction of miscommunication and ‘otherness’), but at its best it is grandly subversive, so much so that it seems to have been drowned out by gallons of aforementioned white guilt and reflexive non-white indignation.
I guess the trouble is further concentrated when Joe, too unsettled by being the subject of marketplace bickering, grabs her gear and slinks out of the hotel room to leave a frame dominated by two occasionally throbbing big black penises. One could argue that this simply represents von Trier’s gleeful indulgence in his own personal racial biases, sure. But it could also be said that this shot simply forces viewers to confront the very stereotypes that are – and I can personally attest to this – surprisingly and bafflingly still quite pervasive. As for the conversation that follows in which Joe implies that calling a black man a ‘negro’ is to simply call a spade a spade, it does not strike me as particularly offensive, one being that art has the right to portray all manner of individuals, racist or not; the second being that the use of the term ‘negro’, while laden with historical baggage that I personally do not understand, ought not negate the commentarial power of the preceding scene. One thing I have learnt about von Trier is that he and his films are often a rambling potluck of ideas and that the tastelessness or unpleasantness of one need not, no, should not detract from the utter succulence of another.