Nothing's Shocking: What does it Mean for a Film to Be Transgressive Today?

Jul 11, 2013 at 4:00 am
Elijah Wood in Maniac.
Elijah Wood in Maniac. Photo by Lacey Terrell – © 2013 - La Petite Reine

In 1997, the programmers of the Making Scenes queer film and video festival in Ottawa, Ontario, received an unmarked package in the mail. It contained a videotape of an original film and no return address or contact information of any kind. The film, a five-minute short shot on video in color and credited only to "Anonymous," features a single crude title card, which simply reads Peter's Penis Tricks.

It opens on a closeup of a penis -- Peter's, presumably -- in front of what appears to be an all-black soundstage. In one long, unbroken take, that penis's owner proceeds to inflict all manner of physical harm upon his private parts: Peter's tricks include such incredible feats as hammering a nail into his urethra, extracting it with the hammer's other end, and, in a spectacular finale, stuffing more than a dozen silver ball-bearings into his shaft before masturbating himself to orgasm -- at which point, yes, they are sent hurtling out.

Best of all, the film is scored to the iconic sounds of Julius Fucik's "Entry of the Gladiators," the song that immediately comes to mind when you think of circus music. Though clearly a devoted masochist, Peter was not without a sense of humor.

Was that description discomforting? Peter's Penis Tricks, the only known copy of which has since been lost, belongs to a tradition of filmmaking in which the act of shocking or upsetting an audience constituted a productive and important endeavor. Part of that film's appeal, beyond the intrigue of its origins, is that it is so viscerally upsetting an experience that few can endure its brief running time -- and that its reward for doing so is a lifetime of mercilessly unforgettable images. If one of cinema's chief virtues is its capacity to affect people on an emotional level, using image and sound to elicit a powerful response, then films that successfully disturb their audience have achieved something significant -- perhaps even valuable. Peter's Penis Tricks inspires real feelings.

More than affecting, films that are shocking in this way are transgressive -- they work productively toward undermining our expectations and feelings of complacency. In 1985, experimental filmmaker Nick Zedd, in a manifesto entitled "The Cinema of Transgression," called for more challenging work from the underground. Transgressive cinema "has to be threatening the status quo by doing something surprising," he wrote, going "beyond all limits set or prescribed by taste, morality, or any other traditional value system shackling the minds of men."

Today, the Cinema of Transgression is usually discussed as an isolated historical movement, largely confined to the output of a dozen-plus artists working during the period -- films like Tessa Hughes-Freeland's 1982 "Baby Doll," about the systemic misogyny destroying the go-go club scene in New York, or Richard Kern's "My Nightmare," which involves graphic sex, masturbation, and urine-drinking rituals.

What does it mean for a film to be transgressive in 2013? It is common enough for movies to be marketed as shocking, and over the last few years we've seen a glut of mainstream films of the sort that alarmists denounce as affronts to taste and decency, most notably the emergence of so-called "torture porn," a subgenre of slasher films kickstarted by the Saw and Hostel franchises and currently sputtering towards its own slow, painful death.

That trend has receded in favor of a deluge of found-footage junk -- but its impact on contemporary horror cinema is likely indelible, at least in terms of raising the limit on acceptable levels of graphic violence and gore. What's conceptually distinctive about torture porn films, more than merely the degree of violence they typically present, is the reconfiguration of audience identification from wanting to see a protagonist struggle to avoid pain and death to wanting to see a protagonist suffer slowly and horribly. When watching a film like Hostel, the question is not the classical horror film's "Will this character make it out alive?", but rather, "How painfully will this character die?"

Leaving aside the question of whether anybody watching Saw or Hostel was ever truly affected or disturbed in a serious way, it's worth asking if the producers of these films appreciate the unsustainability of their fundamental gimmick. If your attempt to shock an audience is based on the premise that your violence is more extreme than the violence of earlier films, the obsolescence of your own shocks is built into the material, meaning that the arrival of a new torture porn film necessarily antiquates the last one, not unlike the release of a new game console or mobile phone. The model itself is not transgressive, nor can it ever be: We are so thoroughly inured to the process of heightened extremity in these genre films that no new level can really surprise us. The nature of the horror film, with its supremely codified conventions and generic principles, offers a kind of safe space for increasingly extreme violence. So long as the material coheres to the basic architecture of the genre -- as it unfailingly, inevitably does -- it can never qualify as effectively transgressive in the way something more purposeful can.

Franck Khalfoun's remake of the low-budget horror classic Maniac, which began its limited theatrical run last month, has been championed for what is claimed to be its rejuvenation of the staid genre. It's a somewhat odd case: Though it's classical by design, nostalgic for the tendency of '70s horror films to be especially nasty and crude, it's also conspicuously contemporary, taking full advantage of the technical liberations of digital cinematography to better adopt the first-person camera technique used halfheartedly by the original film and more graphically realize the film's many murders. Its effects, achieved on a slender budget through largely digital means, make for some exceptionally explicit and realistic-looking gore, including a half-dozen one-slice scalpings and a rather impressive knife stab up through a young woman's jugular and chin. In the most basic sense, this material is shocking -- it's new, it's well done, it's more -- but, in nearly every other way, Khalfoun's Maniac is more of the same old horror.

No matter how extreme the execution, and no matter how stylized the aesthetic surrounding the action, a movie in which a creepy guy walks around brutally murdering women is not remarkable, challenging, or new. It can be nominally shocking -- in the most superficial sense, as Maniac is -- but it doesn't transcend the gimmick, and it doesn't undermine audience expectations in the way of truly transgressive work.

Violence against women not only has an overlong history of representation in the movies, filling screens from the dawn of the medium, it has a firm basis in reality that is not addressed or engaged with meaningfully by any of the films that play so cavalierly with the imagery. If being transgressive means challenging the status quo, depicting violence complacently but superficially "shockingly" is the furthest thing from transgression. That is the status quo. Instead of focusing on new ways to dismember women onscreen, the would-be transgressive filmmaker must devise a new subject whose dismantling might actually shock or upset people so used to its normality -- a film which targets rape culture, for instance, or patriarchy, or transphobia. A film with a progressive ideological agenda wouldn't necessarily be any better than one without, and in fact given the wrong approach even the most radical feminist treatise could fall back into tiresome didacticism. There is no one direction forward which promises guaranteed transgression, and this isn't about prescribing one. But a new direction is at least a start.

Maybe the closest a contemporary horror film has come to addressing an issue in a challenging and, yes, shocking way was the recent low-budget hit The Purge, which built questions of class, privilege, and the violence of entitlement into its high-concept premise. But the results offered such pat responses -- the rich feed off of the poor and, given the opportunity, would murder them for sport -- that it seems doubtful that anybody could have left the film thinking about these things in a new or interesting way. The Purge was not challenging, even if it brushed up against challenging ideas. And even if the antiestablishment themes of the film had been effectively developed, they were so tidily worked into the framework of the genre that they had no chance to be transgressive in a meaningful way.

These examples, of course, tend toward the mainstream, even if a film like Maniac will be relegated to limited release -- these aren't exactly the underground projects Nick Zedd was admonishing for being too safe. But one luxury of the American independent cinema, one which horror films have always taken advantage of, is that there is very little one cannot get away with: Part of the reason horror has gotten more graphic and extreme is that the boundaries of good taste are being pushed ever forward, which is to say that even mainstream filmmakers can get away with showing more today in multiplexes than ever before. (Unless it's sexual -- that's relegated to premium cable.) A filmmaker hoping to make the cost of production back on an extreme horror project can't exactly throw away narrative and spend 90 minutes focusing on genital mutilation set to circus music. But as the limitations on content and approach slip away, there are more opportunities to do something truly interesting, and genuinely transgressive. A revolution in genre convention isn't likely to happen overnight, but without any forward movement, horror cinema continues to stagnate, insistent only upon upping the ante on gruesome.

So what options are filmmakers wishing to shock their audience left with? It might help to allow an anarchic sensibility to reign. It's easy to think of the kinds of films that might genuinely upset a national audience, and productively: films in which preconceptions are challenged, complacency is disrupted, or the status quo is upturned. The reason Peter's Penis Tricks is so disturbing isn't that it features graphic genital abuse and mutilation, a kind of logical extreme to the same horror filmmaking conventions we see in practice now (and it's not hard to imagine that being the outcome of the torture porn genre a few years out). Rather, what shocks us is the pleasure experienced by the person doing it: Somebody made this film and did this to himself because, as is obvious on screen, he enjoys doing it. We're not exactly accustomed to that. It upsets us. The graphic imagery, in other words, is not transgressive alone -- it needs to mean something, too.