The Bigger Picture: What happens when we find 'The Line' as viewers?

A viewing of a post-apocalyptic exploitation film sets off an unexpected reaction

<p>The brutal rape of Lisbeth Salander is one of the key scenes in 'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,' but what do we lose or gain from the nonstop depiction of such an act in our culture?</p>

The brutal rape of Lisbeth Salander is one of the key scenes in 'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,' but what do we lose or gain from the nonstop depiction of such an act in our culture?

Credit: Music Box Films

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This was originally supposed to be a review of the Xavier Gens film "The Divide."

That will not be happening.

Over the course of my life, I'd wager I've seen at least 10,000 movies.  Maybe more.  I've had years where I've mainlined as many as 500 movies, many of them older catalog titles.  I have a voracious appetite for all types of movies, both high art and low.  I love smart sophisticated movies, I love experimental films, and I love genre junk.  I love any movie that offers me a genuine experience of some sort, where there's something that moves me or that I recognize as true and well-observed or where someone just plain surprises me.  I am open to pretty much anything when I sit down to a new film.

But at the age of 41, at about 94 minutes into "The Divide," I reached a breaking point, and I realized that I am pretty much incapable of sitting through one more cheap, pointless, exploitative rape in a movie.

This is something that's been bothering me for a while, and I think it's a bigger problem than the film community would like to admit.  It seems to me that somewhere along the way, it was decided that the easiest way to make an audience uncomfortable was to have someone rape a character onscreen.  I must see 30 films a year where somebody needs to have "something bad" happen, and the go-to impulse in almost every case is rape.  It is guaranteed to cause a visceral reaction, even when the scenes are badly staged and lazy, which most of them are.

What scares me most about it is that the vast majority of the scenes are directed so poorly that they become, in essence, titillation, and there is something immeasurably sick about including a scene in your film that involves rape just so you can sneak a little nudity into the movie.

I'm not a big fan of Stieg Larsson's "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," and one of the things that has bothered me about it since I read the first book is the rape of Lisbeth Salander, as well as her eventual revenge of the guy who did it.  There is certainly an element of wish fulfillment to what she does to the guy, and in every version of the story, whether it's the book or the Swedish film or Fincher's version, it's played as a "You go, girl!" moment when she turns the tables.  Larsson's original title for his book was, famously, "Men Who Hate Women," and that certainly puts a blunt thematic point on what Larsson intended to say with his story.  

The problem I have is that Lisbeth is portrayed as fairly close to superheroic in the rest of the trilogy, but in that one moment, she's overpowered and humiliated merely so we get that "You go, girl!" moment later.  There's no larger statement the sequence makes.  There's no throughline in the rest of the series about Lisbeth and her sexual history.  There's nothing that connects those two scenes, the set-up and pay-off, to anything else in the story.  They are there so that (A) we see Lisbeth humiliated and (B) we see her pay the guy back.  And it feels to me like one of the cheapest, most transparent bit of plot mechanics, and if Larsson had really pushed himself, I have no doubt he could have accomplished the same goals without including a rape.

But rape is easy.  And so it goes.

I can't even imagine directing a scene like that.  I'd say in my life, I've seen maybe a dozen movies where they've featured a scene like that and it is 100% thematically relevant to the film as a whole and essential to the important point that the filmmaker is making.  The "best" example of that is the shattering, awful "Irreversible."  I think Gaspar Noe is a gifted artist, and his film is about how there is no way to rebuild a world after something that horrible.  His film gives due weight to just how profound an event that is, and what changes afterwards.  The structure of his film is especially heartbreaking because of the way he tells the entire story in reverse, holding off the worst detail of the entire thing until the very, very end, and when I saw the film, the one time I think I'll ever see the film, it broke my heart as if it had actually happened to someone I know.  It's so skillfully built that it registered.  It got through all of the film technique and all of the exploitation crap I've seen and it hit me in a very personal place.  It made me feel that loss in a way that few films have, and I deeply respect it even if I never ever want to see it again.

I have no idea how the scene in "The Divide" plays out.  It's frozen on my screen right now, where it's been paused for the last hour or so, and I have no intention of finishing the movie.  So far, all the film has said to me thematically in the first ninety minutes is "When the world ends, and when people are put together in a high-stress situation, they'll probably be really shitty to each other."  Well, bravo, Xavier Gens, on your blinding insight.  You and about a bazillion other filmmakers have made that point, and it's numbing to see how closely you all structure your rape or near-rape sequences.  You push your actress, you brutalize the character, and you have a couple of actors play the absolute worst of humanity turned up to "cartoon," and it means nothing.  It is empty shock.  It is without effect because of just how hollow a gesture it is.  How can you justify asking an actress to bare herself both physically and emotionally for something as grimy as that without any real point to the scene?  It can't just be one more item on a checklist of atrocity.  If that's what you're doing, then ask yourself why.  What do you think any audience will get out of that?  Are you doing it to horrify them, or do you feel like that's what the audience wants and you need to give it to them?  And if that's the case, do you really want to feed that appetite?

I think it is absolutely the responsibility of an artist to look into darkness without blinking.  I think it is important that we talk about morality and character and the way we dehumanize one another.  But I also think the point has been more than made on film that rape is a terrible thing, and at this point, if you're not contributing some new idea to the conversation, then you are literally just using it as a button, something you push to get a response, and that unnerves me.

If I had to pinpoint what bothers me most about the subject, though, it's that our ratings system in this country is so broken that a film that contains a sustained, brutal rape sequence featuring full-frontal female nudity can breeze right through with an R-rating, but if you include a sequence in which two people engage in spirited, consensual sex and we see anything that resembles reality, you are automatically flirting with an NC-17 or going out unrated.  We have created a code of film language in which the single most destructive act of sexual violence is perfect acceptable to depict in the most graphic, clinical detail, but actual love-making has been all but banished from mainstream film.  There's no "almost" about it; it is disturbing on a philosophical level to realize how backwards the system is right now, and I think one of the reasons many filmmakers will include a rape scene is so they can get some nudity into their movie, and the context doesn't matter to them.

It matters to me, though, and instead of repeat exposure desensitizing me to it, it's done the opposite.  I'm more upset by it now than I was when I first saw it used in movies.  You want to know something that really bothers me?  I don't remember the first time I saw it in a movie.  I know I didn't see "The Road Warrior" until 1982, and that has a pretty awful early moment that is quick but graphic, and Mel Gibson's reaction to it is to turn away, unable to look.  This is the same dude we've seen f some mf'ers up by that point, without even blinking an eye.  Max is out of his mind.  But that?  He can't watch, and so we don't either after that first awful glance.  It's really well-directed by Miller.

Absolutely essential?  Probably not.  But my reaction is that he's a very moral filmmaker, a guy whose movies are absolutely about exploring the things that test our character and how we respond, and so I don't have an issue with "The Road Warrior."  I don't have an issue with any filmmaker, frankly, whose films works.  My point isn't that it's something NO ONE SHOULD EVER TRY TO FILM, because there's no way I'd ever suggest that.  I am not the arbiter of the world's taste.

What I'm talking about is the idea that this imagery is commonplace, devalued in a world where you've got terrible violence, much of it sexual, raining down on young women in the "Law & Order"s and the "CSI"s.  So much awful sexual violence has already been done by the time the opening credits roll on those shows that it ultimately loses its impact.  This is also why I object to the word "rape" itself being overused and inappropriately deployed.  When I hear some fanboy crying about how "George Lucas raped my childhood," it makes me genuinely angry.  Unless George Lucas literally molested you during your formative years, that phrase has no place in a conversation.  It is hyperbolic and wrong.  Kim Novak's accusation that the use of the "Vertigo" score in "The Artist" was akin to rape also bothered me.  She should know better, and honestly, I'd be more interested in Bernard Hermann's reaction than Kim Novak's.  We see comedians make jokes about it constantly, sitcoms routinely reference prison rape as something hilarious, and in general, it seems that we've gotten so used to the term that it just bounces off of us.  And it shouldn't.

Maybe I'm sensitive to this because I'm gearing up for this year's festivals, starting with Sundance tonight, and I'm bracing myself for what I'm sure will be another year full of a laundry list of onscreen atrocity.  All I ever ask is that any filmmaker who is going to use these images uses them in a responsible way, genuinely aware of the weight of what they're doing.  I'm not going to do anything silly like try to call for a boycott of anything, and I'm not even making a blanket statement about every film that ever depicts sexual violence again.  I'm not going to strike a hypocritical pose here, because I've certainly recommended films that include this act before, and I'm sure I will again, but I am more sensitized to how it's used now.  I know that in my own writing, one particular script experience made me realize that I can't write that sort of moment at all.  I don't want to.  I feel what I write.  I get completely caught up in my own work, emotionally and otherwise, and I don't want to ever have to sit in a notes meeting again discussing the fine points of how we brutalize and rape a character.  It's too much for me personally to take, and all I'm talking about here is my own personal line.

The one thing that's for sure is that the next time I'm sitting through what is essentially an exploitation film and they decide to throw in a rape just to keep things lively, I will get up and leave the theater, or I will turn the DVD off, or I will simply tune the movie out.  I have reached that point for myself, and I guess it raises the bigger question of what lines there are for you as viewers, and how you deal with it when someone crosses those lines. 

I'd love to hear your feedback on this one, and I'll certainly be carrying my experience with "The Divide" into whatever else I see this year.

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