The following notes formed the basis for a talk at the Erotics Conference that took place at Griffith University in Brisbane in February and more recently a public talk as part of the Decadent Society. At some point a more literary version may well be completed for publication, in the meantime, read on.
My interests presented here are crashes, trauma, sex, fetishism, white bandages, bruises, suffering, discomfort and the desire to pay witness to this copulation as chaotic fusion of flesh and technology and eroticized wounds.
Invariably, opening with a quote, used elsewhere to describe both the work of JG Ballard’s Crash and car crash culture in general, but a pertinent point of entry: “She loved accidents: any mention of an animal run over, a man cut to pieces by a train, was bound to make her rush to the spot” – Emile Zola, La Bete Humaine, 1890. Here the swirling chaos of the Industrial Age accident emerges as a moment of spectacular eroticism, a moment in which the spectacle of the sex and death matrix becomes manifest. For the victim: the body losing control over its parts and function, at the mercy of the relentless machinery the coherent logic of the body experienced as coherent self is temporarily erased. In the car crash, thrown forward, wrenched and contorted the body is at the mercy of the vagaries of velocity and gravity, impact and resistance.
Car crashes are a moment in which, to paraphrase Georges Bataille, the profane enters the world of the sacred, where the car becomes a chariot which can deliver the inhabitant to the gods, and for those left behind the marks that remain, the scars of wounds and injuries, retain a hint of the sacred, the moment at which the subject briefly entered the realm of the sacred and subsequently bares its trace.
The scars and wounds of these accidents are, for some, as fascinating as the accidents themselves, a fetish than can be traced back in the case studies described in Psychopathia Sexualis by the pioneering sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who detailed the medical fetishists he saw in his consultancy: “Case 94. Fetishism -…Since his seventeenth year he became sexually excited at the sight of physical defects in women, especially lameness and disfigured fee…At times he could not resist the temptation to imitate their gate, which caused vehement orgasm, with lustful ejaculation.…Case 96. Fetishism - …Since his seventh year he had for a playmate a lame girl of the same ago. At the age of twelve…the boy began spontaneously to masturbate. At that period puberty set in, and it lies beyond doubt that the first sexual emotions towards the other sex were coincident with the sight of the lame girl. Forever after only limping women excited him sexually…”
In Ballard’s Crash the author is explicit in his analysis of the wounds from these accidents in his examination of back seat ejaculations, spectacular car crashes and wound fucking. Although fictional there is a parallel between the handful of individuals in Crash and the case studies of Krafft-Ebing.
“Scarred hands explored the worn fabric of the seat, marking in semen a cryptic diagram: some astrological sign or road intersection.” (p.135).
While elsewhere he writes:
[The protagonist] “Watched her thighs shifting against each other, the jut of he breast under the strap of her spinal harness” (p.145)
“I explored the scars on her thighs and arms, feeling for the wound areas under her left breast… during the next few days my orgasms took place with the scars…in these sexual apertures formed by fragmenting windshield louvers and dashboard dials in a high-speed impact…” (p.148)
Ballard’s novel – famously condemned by one pre-publication reader as the work of somebody who needed professional help – is the Ur text for the transgressive fantasies of car crashes, traumaphilia (arousal from wounds and trauma) and symphorophilia (arousal from staging and witnessing an accident). The book, which follows the author’s namesake who survives a car crash and becomes immersed within a community that fetishises car crashes and the resultant scars and wounds. A book that takes meticulous pains to examine and describe the texture of semen, the moisture of vaginal secretions, the texture of vinyl seats and the musculature of the rectum: “still parting his buttocks, I watched my semen leak from his anus across the fluted ribbing of the vinyl upholstery” (p.166). Anal sex experienced through both homosexual and heterosexual liaisons (as if these simple phrases matter in this world of car crash and wound focused paraphilia, as if gender ever enters the world of the unconscious in which the specificity of the act is what defines the fetish not the gender of the object choice) recurs repeatedly in Ballard’s novel.
This transgressive sexual act, that negates reproduction and so fascinated the Marquis de Sade, finds a link here to the ‘base’ to the annihilation of the self. Sade’s sadism has been described by Gilles Deleuze in Coldness And Cruelty as almost mathematical, with its “repetitiveness” (p.28) and the multiplications of victims and sufferings and in some way Ballard’s attention to detail is similar, but replacing the mathematics with oblique references to technical detail (Ballard and his associates at the literary publication Ambit once organized a stripper – the perfectly named Euphoria Bliss - to performing while a scientific paper was read allowed).
Details matter (from the short film Crash directed by Cokliss): “Her ungainly transit across the passenger seat through the nearside door. The overlay of her knees with the metal door flank. The conjunction of the aluminized gutter trim with the volumes of her thighs. The crushing of her left breast by the doorframe, and its self-extension as she continued to rise. The movement of her left hand across the chromium trim of the right headlamp assembly. Her movements distorted in the projecting carapace of the bonnet. The jut and rake of her pubis as she sits in the driver’s seat. The soft pressure of her thighs against the rim of the steering wheel.”
They contribute to the apparent authenticity of the fantasies articulated here. Mere action is not enough, details matter, from Vaughan’s Lincoln to the description of the flickering lights of indicators of police vehicles illuminating the twin copulations associated with human coitus and the metallic penetrations of accidents.
The nihilism of Crash is overwhelming, the protagonists negation of nature and even the self, again echoes Sade, the desires are so all consuming, they consume other and self, until all that is left is ruined metal, Vaughan’s desires are to kill his target and himself simultaneously. As a protagonist Vaughan recalls Sade’s sovereign man – that figure who exists beyond the sadist / masochist dyad, an affirmation of lived experience – in Vaughan manifest as sovereign man pursuing his own desires up to and including his own annihilation, experiencing every pleasure (up to an including the pleasure of annihilation).
The roots of the story of Crash can be found in Ballard’s previous book, the experimental novel The Atrocity Exhibition and in an April 1970 show curated by Ballard at the New Arts Lab in London. Crashed Cars featured three car crash ruined cars, dragged from wrecking yards and exhibited in the gallery. The opening night of the exhibition was marked by the presence of a topless model (although she was meant to be nude when she saw the ruined cars she refused) asking questions of the audience. According to Ballard’s autobiography Miracles of Life (p.240) over the following month viewers responded with outrage, with people attacking the cars and even, bizarrely, Hari Krishna’s throwing white paint on the cars. If Vaughan’s sperm scribblings described previously are some primitive sigils then this seems to be a form of ritual cleansing, as if both driving out and calling in the forces of autopic chaos.
Little known, and barely mentioned beyond Ballard fan circles, is the short film Crash directed by Harley Cokliss (aka Cokeliss – a director known for b-movies and tv shows [as either if these was bad]), this short film made for the BBC who broadcast it on BBC2 at 8:30pm two days before Valentines Day in 1971, can be found on Youtube, starring Ballard and actress Gabreille Drake (then famous for appearing in the television series UFO) it follows as Ballard – also seen onscreen - expands on the general themes that would subsequently inform Crash, while Drake enacts the role of driver and, of course, invariably, sexy car crash casualty. Thanks to – presumably the BBC Radiophonics workshop – the short film is scored by pre-industrial music / avant-garde noise, while Ballard – in beige suit - describes the human relationship to the car, the highway, while noting in fetishistic detail the movements of women climbing out of cars. Juxtaposing forms of car with curves of women’s bodies, creating a montage of eroticism. The second part of the film is dedicated to the car crash, with the author walking around ruined cars describing the fictions of the everyday manifested through consumption and car crashes, “if we really feared the car crash” he says “none of us would be able to drive a car.” In the wrecking yard Ballard glimpses women. Before discussing the style of the instrument panel as the model of our wounds. Footage shows Drake – moments before seen in the shower, her flesh, her curves and her nipple dripping with fresh water – now blood soaked and slumped over her steering wheel, the soundtrack a synthesized alarm escalating in intensity.
Ballard’s glorious fusion of sex, injury and death in the car crash realized in this short film plays on images of blood and sex, the thick heavy blood pooling on her skirt indicative of abdominal injuries, perhaps even genital injuries, her breast “bruised”. Realized with greater clarity in the subsequent Crash where the author speculates on such injuries before, later, describing a back seat fuck resulting in “bruised vulva”.
I do not want to examine David Cronenberg’s 1996 film here today. A thorough interpretation of the source material, it dances through the themes with vigor, although its cold tones never fully embraces the inherent fetishism of the traumatic, however the sight of Gabrille’s (Rosanna Arquette) legs gripped in braces as she rubs herself against a car, her short skirt rising high, is powerful, it is undone by the crass climax of the scene which sees her leg braces tearing the leather upholstery. Such images stop the film from being as unsettling - perhaps even uncanny if Ballard’s psychological description is correct - as it should be.
Instead I wish to move on to examine the emergence of traumaphilia as a source for others working in the post-Ballardian universe. Traumaphilia – the paraphilia in which the subject is aroused by wounds (sometimes referred to as traumatophilia) – can be seen in the medical art of French photographer, occasional filmmaker and fine artist Romain Slocombe whose fetishistic artistic practice depicted Asian women wrapped in crisp clean white bandages (and, to a lesser extent, in the popularity of the nurses uniforms and bandages that can be seen at some fetish clubs worn as fetish wear, although the nurses uniform is not primarily related to trauma, when played alongside bandages and the accoutrements of the emergency room, there is an element of traumatic fascination at play).
While the traumaphile is not necessarily interested in how the injured object choice came to be hurt, Crash and the car crash serve as a common source of injury and the interest in the injury. In his book Tristes Vaccacion (Sad Vacation), Slocombe’s paintings of bruised and bandaged girls are punctuated with descriptions, which detail the injuries and their sources, positioning the text / artwork within the same realm as the Sadean lists. Slocombe’s work continued to explore these themes in the collection Japan In Bandage includes images such as L’Ar Medical (1982), which depicts a naked patient in a hospital bed, bandages and orthopedic devices holding her – like bondage – in place. In the background there is an image of a car, similarly Bonne Route (1992) depicts a heavily bandaged woman standing next to a poster of a car.
The violence, as Slocombe has stated, in his work is located in the past. He is not necessarily interested in the moment of violence, the single act but the process of recovery. Car crashes, with their speed and rapid climax, are violent moments that are almost instantaneous, like film a rapid cut, a gap in time, then impact. The pleasures of watching the process of recovery – or recovering in a hospital bed - can neither be fully sadistic or masochistic, traumaphilia appears to operate in both yet neither zone, concerned as it is with everything from the mise-en-scene of the hospital and patient (white bandages, clean tiles, sheets) through to suffering (the patient restrained by surgical devices) through pain (the bruises heeling yet simultaneously so sore), and so on.
If Slocombe visualized the trauma, then American underground filmmaker Usama Alshaibi has taken it to the next level. Working in Chicago since the 1990s, Alshaibi has directed a string of short films, each lasting only a matter of minutes and exploring aspects of sexuality and fetishism (he has also made features and documentaries, but these are often very different to his shorts). In Convulsion Explosion a woman painted white and wrapped in bandages squirts red paint / stage blood from her rectum, the play here is not necessarily on the recreation of trauma so much as on the play of colours, the red and white, the texture of bandages and painted skin. In Traumata the camera plays over a naked young woman’s body the bruises, bandages and leg cast indicative of unspecified injury, while he dour expression indicates her humiliated discomfort. As if the audience and camera were intruding on her pain. In Gash the camera is turned onto an open wound a few centimeters from a woman’s vagina. The erotic potentialities of penetration doubled. In Patient a not quite naked woman writhes on a bed, her head wrapped in a bandage. These films play with trauma and traumaphilia, recognizing the fetishistic gaze onto the ‘wounded’ female, whose suffering – already in the past – is nevertheless born out on the marks that criss-cross the soft flesh.
No explanation is proffered in the films, short vignette in which the gaze on the injuries and suffering flesh appears as both first cause and intent.
There is a violence here that has happened, death has been momentarily thwarted, but the marks on the flesh remind the viewer (and the subject) of the transient nature of existence. But there is more at play here, more at stake, in paying witness to the accident and recuperation there is a sense of power of life over death. The ruined but healing body emerging as a locus of visual pleasure. To quote Paul Morrissey’s Flesh For Frankenstein, “to know life… you have to fuck death in the gallbladder”.
Saturday, July 30, 2011
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
A review of Salo first published in FilmInk last year. For readers unfamiliar with the censorship of the film in Australia the film was finally released for home consumption in October 2010, when this was published.
Salo has a checked history with the censors in Australia but after years of on- again / off-again banning, it is now available uncut. Taking its theme from the Marquis de Sade’s masterwork The 120 Days of Sodom and mirroring the circular structure of Dante’s Inferno, the film locates its narrative in the fascist Republic of Salo in the final days of the Second World War. Four fascist libertines, storytelling prostitutes, a cadre of handsome gun toting soldiers and their beautiful prisoners are ensconced in a rural estate. Here, amongst works of modern art and lavish furniture, the libertines enact their desires on the docile bodies of their victims. Filmed in long takes, with few close-ups, the viewer is compelled to watch the action with an almost dispassionate gaze, as the victims are forced to meet the libertines’ demands, sinking into a world of psycho-sexual obsession, scatological mayhem, degradation and violence.
While Salo draws its characters and basic premise from Sade’s work the tortures and torments owe little to the novel. Famously the film’s credits include a reading list for students of Sade, but the work is as mired in Pasolini’s experiences of fascism, post-war politics and consumer society as it is literature. Salo traces the erasure of the individual under power; the soldiers and the victims are largely nameless figures who exist simply to please the whims of the libertines. In Salo youth is annihilated for the pleasures of those in control and everybody feasts (literally) on shit.
Never explicitly pornographic, there is little opportunity for voyeurism in the nudity, the degradations the subjects are forced to experience detour eroticism into horror. Salo’s unflinching exploration of power and pleasure is controversial, in part, because it implicates the viewer within the film, an effect best emphasised in the final scenes.
Alongside two versions of Salo a second disc includes Philo Bregstein’s 1981 documentary Whoever Says the Truth Shall Die alongside documentaries on the film’s production and ongoing cultural relevance. Also included are Julian Cole’s short film Ostia and a video for Coil’s song ‘Ostia (The Death of Pasolini)’. One of the few films that will genuinely challenge the viewer, Salo is a must have.
Sunday, July 3, 2011
Lars Von Trier did interviews via Skype for the release of Antichrist, I was lucky enough to have 15 minutes with him, and this interview formed part of a lengthy career overview piece published in FilmInk on the release of the film. What follows is the unpublished literal transcription of the interview.
I wanted to say I loved the film, I enjoyed it very much.
I notice that some people have described this as a horror film, but it strikes me that it’s less about horror than grief and personal pain, and I wondered how you felt about it being described as a horror film?
Well, I think it was myself who descsribed it as a horror film, or, to put it another way, I started off wanting to make a horror film. But, you know, personalize it, then it is not hitting the genres completely. You know, I tried to make a musical once and it didn’t really hit. But the inspiration was the horror genre.
That’s interesting, because I just found the pain struck me as so much more internal in Antichrist, where as in the horror film it is about the audience – scaring the audience – where as in this film I felt emotionally moved by it.
Yeah, but as I said it’s where I start, and then I come to something in between.
One thing I found interesting is the act of madness in the film, the way in which the madness moves in Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character from trauma in her mind to trauma enacted on her body and then on her partner’s body, and I wondered what made you conceptualise madness in this way, to bring madness to a physical thing on the body?
To me the film is very much about anxiety, something that I have lived with for a long time and there’s this cognitive therapy that she is undergoing, well the most important thing about this therapy is saying that these things are thoughts, they are not real, and somehow, when you are the patient it is very real so that is where the bodily things comes from, that it becomes real.
Right, it’s interesting I got the sense watching the film that you had a huge empathy for her pain, very much from your own experience.
Yes. That is right, it is very much based on my experiences.
And you’ve talked about how you were drawn to Strindberg’s Inferno and your own dark period when you were writing the film script, and I thought that was very interesting because there is a section called Hell Let Loose in the English translation and I was wondering if you were drawing a parallel between Hell Let Loose and Chaos Reigns, this moment of the apocypltic coming out of you.
Yeah, I haven’t thought about it, but it sounds good.
I think it is interesting is that in Kingdom you have this idea of the marshland and fens beneath the hospital, then you have the modern hospital on top and now in Antichrist you say that "nature is Satan's church" and I was wondering if this was almost a repetition, the idea that nature in some way is always below dragging us down, and I wondered what you relationship to nature was?
Well, nature to me is the opposite of civilization and that goes for green stuff and for the nature within people themselves. But it is definitely a repetition also from my first film Element of Crime where we also always talked about nature as something dangerous. It’s quite interesting because I really am a nature man, I like very much to be in nature.
Because obviously you are a gardener, that’s one of your hobbies.
Yeah, I am a lazy gardener. It’s something that I treasure.
So in that sense, when you say “nature is Satan’s church” do you personally identify Satan with this endless fecundity of nature, or darkness with this endless kind of growth in nature…
I don’t know if I so, but in Danish we have a saying that “this is a free nature of God” where we compare nature with God. And to me nature is the place of ultimate suffering for all the beings, so yeah I think it has more to do with the discussion if God created nature.
The other aspect of nature is Warner Herzog’s description of nature as deadly the whole time, is that something you were thinking of when you were writing the script?
Maybe I was not thinking it but I am a big Herzog fan, yeah it may have come from there.
There are lots of really potent symbols in the film; the fox, the deer, the blackbird are these symbols important to you personally or have you drawn on them from other sources?
All these animals come from, at a certain time in my life I was experimenting a little with shamanic journeys that you are probably familiar with, and the image of the animals comes from there.
That’s interesting, so in your own personal experiences of shamanic journeys are you drawing on that in your scriptwriting for the film, besides the symbolism for the animals, are there other aspects you are drawing on?
To me, I am an amateur, but I have read some books and then I do these drum things, and do these journeys on a drumbeat. These are just experiences I had on these journeys.
Is this something you are still practicing, do you still engage with that shamanic journey, or is that very much in your past?
No, that’s something I do now and then. Actually we have invested in something called a floatation tank. Something that when Ken Russell made that film Altered Experiments…
Altered States. Yes, it’s a fantastic film.
Yeah. They are just building this place, we should have this isolation tank, we will try everything, or I will.
That’s really interesting because obviously part of what you are doing in the film, to me, is about these journeys about interior space, people’s psychological functioning. Leading on from that, there’s one moment in the film where you say, or one of the character’s says, “Freud is dead” and I think that to me you are saying the opposite in the film, because you have polymorphic perversity, the death drive, thanatos and so on. The sex and death aspect of the film. So I wondered what your interpretation of that notion of Freud being dead was.
This cognitive therapy that I have been undergoing for three, four-years it’s very important for these people that Freud is dead, but I take a fantastical point of view on the therapy. So, I am not so sure he is dead but the therapists are so sure, it is an important point.
In terms of symbolism and dealing with the drives of the unconscious there is so much in Freud - I don’t know whether it is god or bad or real or not real – but there is so material in his notion of the unconscious and the dream and so on.
I believe also, yes.
I want to move on to the character doing the study about evil and the idea of women as evil, and reading some of the reviews and the criticisms they seem to draw on the notion of the woman as evil, but to me it seems much more about pain than evil, about suffering than evil, although she is reading women as evil within the film, it seems to me you are doing something much more complicated about personal pain and personal suffering. I wondered what your take on that was.
You know, if I wanted to say women were evil I would only say that in a few words. This is something else, I see this woman as being very human, and having an anxiety in nature, with her own nature, and anxiety with her sexuality also.
It’s much more about anxiety than evil.
Oh yes, oh yes. This thing about women being evil is nothing, it’s not my words.
This leads me to ask you, what made you call the film Antichrist?
Well it was very much this feeling that God is dead, instead of Freud. That if all these things that we call the free nature of God, and all that, is basically evil to me that’s a statement that, you know, to find God as not being present there.
It’s the absence of God and absence of meaning in a way.
Yeah I would say, yeah. But then, furthermore it is a very good title.
Stylistically it is very beautiful, the way the sound and vision work together. It is almost the opposite from Manderlay and Dogville. What drew you back to this richness of sound and vision? What made you want to make Antichrist in this way?
Well, whenever I work I try to go to the extremes, and the theatre like [style] that was in the films before, I did not really see the opportunity to go further in that direction, so then you have to go a little back and try again.
And how did you find it going back? Did it effect the way you wrote the script and directed the film?
Yeah, it allowed me to use this talent – I hope it is – for producing controlled images.
Do you identify that notion of control very differently from what you did in Dogville, Manderlay and The Idiots?
Yeah. I think it’s quite close to films I started of with. I was using some of the same techniques then.
How willing were the actors to go along with your vision, because I mean obviously you were making great demands on the actors, how did they find it?
They were amazing, we didn’t have any discussions like that. But we had a lot of discussions before hand when they were cast we talked through the script a lot. I am really admiring them for that, and especially Charlotte, but there were no problems whatsoever.
You’ve made a horror film, you’ve made a musical, can I ask what is next?
I’m writing a film called Melancholia that has to do with a giant planet crashing into the Earth and destroying it completely. I think it’s about time that I skip all these happy endings.
Saturday, July 2, 2011
Another FilmInk column, this time on the death film genre.
As the exotic thrills of mondo movies became more familiar, and with the increasing availability of hardcore porn thanks to Deep Throat (Gerard Damiano, 1972) and its ilk, the seventies exploitation ‘documentary’ market was looking for new, cheap, cheap thrills. Enter the death film.
As the exotic thrills of mondo movies became more familiar, and with the increasing availability of hardcore porn thanks to Deep Throat (Gerard Damiano, 1972) and its ilk, the seventies exploitation ‘documentary’ market was looking for new, cheap, cheap thrills. Enter the death film.
Sharing the salacious voyeurism of the mondo genre but focusing only on death (or, more often, gore), these films combined suitably gross-out stomach churning newsreel footage with staged recreations of grisly deaths. These sequences were woven together via a narrator who’s role, like that of his mondo predecessors, was to offer a commentary that would move from crass quasi-psychological insights to pseudo-moral tongue clicking and oblique supposedly existential observations on the nature of mortality.
The genre’s best known, and most successful movie, was Faces of Death (1978), directed by Conan Le Cilaire, the film is narrated by the brilliantly named Dr Francis B. Gross (actually actor Michael Carr). The good ‘doctor’ offers such quasi-homilies as, “Now it is time to witness the final moment, to discover the circle that forever repeats itself. The end of the beginning or the beginning of the end? I'll leave that decision to you”. Meanwhile the movie depicts everything from (faked) executions through to stock scenes of seals being culled, a woman jumping from a building and tourists eating monkey brains (faked again).
The film played the grindhouse circuit on 42nd street, but didn’t do much business with the jaded crowd, however international audiences, especially in Asia, flocked to see the movie. In 1980 Faces of Death made the top twenty highest grossing films of the year in Hong Kong, while legend has it that in Japan, where it was released as Junk, the film outgrossed Star Wars on some screens. Despite being banned in many territories (although its fake gore effects are fairly average and the newsreel footage is often familiar) Faces of Death found its natural home on the emergent home video market. Boasting the tagline “banned in 46 countries” gore hungry snuff fixated adolescents flocked to rent the video, and, when the film was banned, nth generation copies often circulated amongst horror and shock cinema fans.
The movie spawned six direct sequels and inspired various other films including Traces of Death (Brain Damage, 1993) and Faces of Gore (Todd Tjersland, 1999), both of which have also produced numerous sequels. With their simplistic, bluntly descriptive shock titles and we-dare-you style taglines (“banned” appearing to be the stock phrase) these films were ultimately, like most exploitation films, about marketing.
The growth of the Internet has meant that supposedly ‘shocking’ footage is far more readily available and circulated via email almost continually. Moreover, for anybody anxious to watch images of gore or death television offers numerous medical themed shows and the news is as ever filled with scenes of suffering. A somewhat strange subgenre of the mondo movie, the death film probably says more about the vagaries of video marketing in the '80s and salacious audiences than about death.