Wednesday, March 3, 2010

In which Precious is compared to torture porn, with fascinating results.

Michael Thomsen is one of my favorite unknown writers, so it's interesting to see his post comparing Precious to torture porn. I haven't seen Precious, and I don't watch much torture porn (I think I saw the first Saw movie when it came out). But his argument is interesting given that Precious tends to be treated very much as an artistic, even "audacious" film, while the torture-porn standards never get that kind of attention.

Basically, this is the centerpiece of Thomsen's argument:
I don’t think torture porn is necessarily derogatory term. I think making something for sheer emotional sensation is a fine use of any expressive medium. Showing close-ups of severed limbs and bleeding gashes isn’t necessarily nuanced, but that doesn’t make it any less powerful. Likewise, Precious is not a movie of great nuance but emotional sledge hammering. If it weren’t, it would be a bore, in the same way that porn without sex would be the story of a sensitive young pizza delivery boy dropping off some pies. Or Hostel would be a humorless story of a couple college dudes having a beer-and-boner contest in a foreign country.

Likewise, without HIV, incest, downs syndrome, obesity, and some cruel close-ups of pig parts frying in a pan Precious wouldn’t exist. Like torture porn it’s about the harrowing elation of having survived, and it wishfully pirouettes around the idea that violence has anything more than a glancing effect that can be overcome with just a little caring.
Essentially, according to Thomsen, Precious gives us the same kind of titillation as Hostel: it's about being given the opportunity to watch horrible things that we would never feel comfortable watching in real life.

It's also interesting that some of the criticisms of Precious have been similar to criticisms of torture porn: a lot of our worry centers on who gets seen as victims, who as saviors. From Feministing:
All this being said, the Hollywood version of the book absolutely invisibilized patriarchy, cast the system as a hero and not an actor responsible for the conditions of oppression in which Precious lived and survived, and over-simplified Precious' mother as an animal who fed her child to the wolves.
And from Jezebel, quoting yesand:
I don't know if I'm as worried about it being sanitized as I am about it black suffering being fetishized by a white audience.
And from Sociological Images:
Elizabeth points out that all the “good” adult characters are light-skinned (and thin) as well.
And here are a few quotes on torture porn, from Womens eNews:
The film's female characters receive similar treatment, but often while they are naked or dressed in lingerie...

Essentially I watched an hour and 45 minutes of a woman being stalked, drugged, nearly raped and terrorized... It's like as long as the woman kills the guy at the end, then of course it's a female empowerment movie.
In both cases, it seems like a lot of what we're talking about are objectified women (although in the case of Precious, we're talking about objectification in the sense of "othered," rather than in the sexual sense) who get victimized (usually by sadistic, unsympathetic individuals, often without reference to social forces behind the scenes), then rescued (often by agents of power -- men, cops, the welfare state).

My guess is that the different treatment, then, stems largely from the character of Precious herself. Centering on the experience of a black woman is revolutionary enough -- add in the fact that she's obese (and therefore not sexualized), and this seems like a whole new genre. Furthermore, the torture of Precious isn't (I don't think) portrayed as freakish and fantastical in quite the same way as the torture in more traditional torture porn is, but as in large part an extreme (but nonetheless realistic) portrayal of what growing up black in America can be like.

There's another piece of Thomsen's review that I find fascinating:
What is the purpose of watching footage of another human vomit, being beaten, or, worst of all, suffering rape by a father? Is it to raise social awareness? Have you begun to volunteer at a local chapter to support abused and battered women lately? Did Precious inspire you to donate to a boys and girls club in historically impoverished area of your local town?

We don’t participate in art as a social act of human betterment. We do it as emotional carnivores, to snatch the red meat of feeling from someone else’s visceral imagination. You don’t need art to sympathize with a human suffering. We’re surrounded by it. You do need art to forgive your need to stare at it without looking away in shame. The way you wouldn’t stare at a couple kissing in a bar, but you’d soak up the details in a movie close-up.

I don’t think I could stand to see a child beaten in real life. But I’d stare and stare and stare in a movie.
The first part sort of reminds me of David Mamet's line (from Three Uses of the Knife), "Drama doesn't need to affect people's behavior. There's a great and very, very effective tool that changes people's attitudes and makes them see the world in a new way. It's called a gun." But I think Thomsen trivializes a little when he reduces art to voyeurism, and I don't think it's entirely true that art can't be related to activism. And in fact, I think the reason why Precious doesn't inspire that might be tied to something Thomsen brought up earlier: "it wishfully pirouettes around the idea that violence has anything more than a glancing effect that can be overcome with just a little caring."

These stories about people who triumph over adversity with the help of nice light-skinned people in the welfare and education systems let us walk away feeling "uplifted" and "hopeful" but ultimately empty -- because we know that shit isn't real. Or rather, it's only partly real. Lots of people never recover psychologically from violence like you see in Precious or Hostel; having their escape be the end of the movie is dishonest and, I think, ultimately less compelling, although it might put asses in seats. (Remember the Poe/Lovecraft days, when horror stories inevitably involved protagonists who ended up either dead or permanently damaged?)

And I think partly what we're doing here is replacing drama with fairytale, which lets us walk away with a spring in our step but doesn't ultimately make sense -- and (let's see how many Mamet quotes I can work in here) "just as the purpose of the motion picture is the gradual revelation of the human genitalia, and the purpose of television is the support of several manufactories of small arms in Connecticut, just so the purpose of the theater is the making of sense."

It's that false sense of closure, of everything's-going-to-be-okay, that lets us keep going about our daily lives and ignoring the real-life Preciouses who don't escape.

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