October 16, 2012

Consent & Horror

by Mike Yarsky

A friend of mine told his parents to watch Audition – considered one of the most terrifying films of all time – because it was a well-crafted Japanese romance with some interesting twists to its narrative. This assessment is technically correct, but he had lied out of omission for the sake of a cheap prank on his parents. They were not expecting Takashi Miike's film to veer from its gentle, eccentric romantic comedy beginnings into the disturbing psychodrama of its second half. The justification for deceiving his parents is that he had expanded their horizons by getting them to watch something they would not have otherwise if they were granted sufficient warning. I suppose he didn't want them to deprive themselves of what he (and I, truth be told) deem cinematic greatness, so he imposed his wishes upon them via lying by omission.

Audition certainly tempts its viewers to not spoil it for the unwitting, and many of its supporters encourage people to view it without any expectations. The AV Club's Scott Tobias opened his write-up of Audition with a plea for the uninitiated to keep themselves as uninitiated as possible:

“My friend and current Esquire critic Mike D'Angelo once wrote that the ideal way to see Takashi Miike's Audition is to have a trusted friend that knows your tastes hand you an unlabeled copy in a paper bag, so you have no presuppositions about what it is and where it might be going. Sadly, just by including the film in Horror Month, I've already given some of the game away, and the majority of posters, box covers, and publicity photos do likewise. Still, I would strongly advise iron-stomached newcomers to Audition to take leave of this column now and salvage at least some of the surprises this nasty little film has to offer. And though you won't have a clean slate, you can at least appreciate what the experience might have been like if the DVD had arrived on your doorstep in a blank sleeve, like a gift from a mean-spirited prankster.”

The operative phrase here is “mean-spirited prankster.” By intentionally misbranding a film to convince someone to watch it, they are entering an unwritten contract under this long-standing presumption: the manner in which items are advertised to them actually provides an accurate representation of said item. How people latch onto this preconception is a whole other problem altogether; despite all the testimonials to the contrary, people seem to think that commercials provide honest portrayals of the good that is being marketed. Even though trying to convince people to part with their money has a sinister undertone to it, it is generally accepted that this motive is overshadowed  by an inexplicable assumption of honesty in presentation.

In my life, Audition has captured the imaginations of horror-buffs as an opportunity of deceit more than any other film. Because the first forty-seven minutes read as an eccentric and plodding romantic comedy, it even gives the more prepared viewer a false sense of security. Within Takashi Miike's very shocking, prolific canon, the first forty-seven minutes of Audition are a bewildering, stylistic anomaly. The film plays with two separate deceits: (1) whether a moment is a dream or not; and (2) whether a person's motives are benevolent or not. But it pushes those deceits to extremes. At the time of its release, it held a deceitful position in Miike's career, made a stylistic 180, and reveled in both cinematic and narrative treachery. Audition enables its viewers to push this deceit further by manipulating viewer expectations, and imposing a very unpleasant surprise on the unwitting victim.

I wonder from where this propensity comes from, because it seems fundamentally mean-spirited. Maggie Nelson writes in her book The Art of Cruelty:

“Consent and warning are not acquiescences to arbitrary, repressive notions of decorum and authority. Rather, they are space-makers, and they allow for the very possibility of voluntary submission and emancipation. The desire to catch an audience unawares and ambush it is a fundamentally terrorizing, Messianic approach to art-making...” (116)

Toying with viewer expectation, I think, falls under the purview of toying with the terms of consent. They agree to see the movie that they are being told to see, and that contract can, of course, be easily exploited. By lying, whether by omission or by outright misbranding the film as a romantic comedy, there is a breach of contract. Seeing the film is consenting to an agreement made under false or non-delineated pretenses.

There are paradigms of deceit that have greater, more long-standing and devastating consequences than involuntarily witnessing an aesthetically troubling fiction. So why is it that imposing a disturbing narrative without granting an audience its warning seems particularly objectionable?

I object to the prank of misrepresenting Audition to scare or disturb viewers that would otherwise avoid it, and it is in part because of how I understand what Nelson means by Messianic. It negates the intelligence of the viewers' preferences. It asserts that something must be seen, rather than can or should. The prankster assumes a greater knowledge about the other individuals' wants, deems their internal logic to be fallible, and exploits that internal logic for his or her own pleasure. The willed concealment of knowledge makes for a despicable imposition of will on another individual, and ultimately becomes dogmatic. It is no accident that imperial language is coinciding here with religious language, and refers to the involuntary instilling of one's personal beliefs on another that is entirely based in connivance. It is no wonder the language Nelson uses is religion-based.

Sadly, horror lends itself best to the violation of expectation. Horror needs the element of surprise more than comedy, often to the point where the need makes itself nauseatingly transparent. I think of films that rely on cheap, “jump” scares and how inconsequential a fright it is to be startled for a moment by a sudden orchestral pang. When a film is clamoring for surprise on such a myopic level, the horror dissipates shortly thereafter. Of course, horror enthusiasts are anticipating horror, and are in for the occasional entertaining jolt of a sudden face in a mirror (for example). Those jolts fall within the parameters of proper consent, if only because they are familiar tropes from any film resembling horror. Yet I hesitate to say that this is precisely the reason that they are not scary. It would be a great disappointment to know that horror's great secret is in subverting the audience's expectation to the point where it is exploiting the audience's trust, or being hostile or spiteful in pushing boundaries.

Perhaps the issue is not that the viewer is being deceived, but whether or not the viewer knows it will be deceived. Both filmmaker and viewer agree on a suspension of disbelief – that this celluloid rendering of performers spouting rehearsed lines should be taken seriously – and are buying into a mutual agreement on a false reality for each other's benefit. Out of necessity, horror calls this agreement into serious question. Oftentimes its themes are built on deconstruction, on the stripping-away of layers of artifice to reveal the fundamental and amoral primacy of the human as a creature. Think of the crimes that purportedly civilized beings succumb to under the duress of survival; the examples are too numerous to list both in reality and on film. Furthermore, horror must propel viewers out of a comfort zone to accomplish its goal, if only because it is a pathetic failure if it fails to do so. Horror is preoccupied with revealing the falsehoods of civil conduct, the skepticism with the innate “goodness” of people, and the need to grant discursive space to abject evil. Horror does not want people to choose to disregard what it is conveying, because ignoring these facets of humanity can breed even more horror. So what incentive does horror and its progenitors have to allow people to choose to walk away from it?

Take away all the comforts, rationalizations, and delusions of either civilization or cinematic decorum, and all that is left is horror. This is why horror is the domain of blood and flesh. It is literal, and it is raw. And that the deceit that is often the currency of horror would transcend celluloid and inform social life seems like the next logical step in the trajectory of its successes. This is quite scary.

. . .

For some horror enthusiasts, being successfully frightened by a movie represents a triumph against the person's own arrogance of expectations. Viewers consent to a very self-deluded expectation when going to witness horror – one that underplays the manipulation of physiological and sub-conscious signals – in that they feel prepared and brave in their inability to be frightened. Is there a less deservedly smug, safer, or complacent bravery than proclaiming oneself to be “desensitized”? Does anything boast a more benign courage than bragging about one's talents as a passive consumer?

Horror does, to its advantage, grant its fans the space to be either scared or not scared. Often its fans enjoy being not scared as equally as they do being scared. The flippant nature of being proudly non-responsive to a particularly notorious or disturbing scene (e.g. the rape scene in Irreversible or the literal slaughtering of animals in Cannibal Holocaust) is just as important to the space of consuming art as it is to be distraught. I like to think that the lack of emotional response is a consumer's trial run for his or her defenses, a means to employ his or her self-protective mechanisms to ensure that aloofness from violence is still alive and well, and will prevail not just under the trial simulation of staged brutality, but under real and tangible duress. As for campy or unsuccessful horror – the unintentionally funny, as it were – gives great comfort in its failure, not necessarily out of creative schadenfreude, but because the viewer triumphed over another's attempt to frighten. In a way, a failure as such is life-affirming.

I mention this if only to say that horror still has an important place as art even if those expectations are not violated. The boundaries can stay firmly in place and still provide space for an audience to consume horror and benefit from it. The outright breach of expectations for an audience is concordant with the evolution of art and the building of more frameworks with which  new generations of artists can experiment, challenge notions, and open discussions. If the audience did indeed have its way with forcing an artist to keep fulfilling its expectations and nothing more, it is hard to think what the world would be deprived of had artists kept up this agreement. Whether or not this evolution occurred on dubious terms is up for discussion, but the discussion would not be very compelling. It would devolve into the tried-and-true philosophical conundrum on whether or not the ends justify the means, a subject that many look upon in terror.

As far as the agreement to stay within expectations is concerned, it is unlikely that people could abide by it (as is so often horror's point). The person's penchant for subversion and caprice was well-documented by Dostoevsky, and the need to break expectation has a place in music appropriately titled the “deceptive cadence.” We are innate liars and we need to turn everything upside down to make it right-side up again. Is it any surprise then that this violation occurs? Does it surprise anyone that pranksters have gravitated toward the shocking elements of Audition, given they are only acting as part of the greater narrative of contract-negating that functions in tandem with art's evolution and much of horror's thematic statement?

Maggie Nelson writes: “I generally feel very alive and emancipated when I choose to walk out of something... Walking out reminds you that while submission can at times be a pleasure, a risk worth taking, you don't have to manufacture consent whenever or wherever it is nominally in demand... all of this serves to remind you of how good it feels to angle the full force of your body and attention toward that which seems to you a good use of your short time on the planet, and to practice aversion toward that which does not. These are freedoms that life does not always grant; God help us if we would prefer an art that further whittled down the choices.” (117)

I would not prefer an art that whittled down the choices, but I think I would prefer a society that did grant those freedoms. Those freedoms are taken away from the spectator when they are deceived into seeing a disturbing image that no amount of “walking out” will undo. By the time to compulsion to leave occurs, the scarring image has already been branded upon the eyelids, and it is too late. One can take little solace in realizing that this self-realization only works as a reactionary event after an unavoidable, irreversible deception. That one can manufacture dissent as well as manufacture consent is somewhat consoling, but sometimes it appears that these capacities are initiated only under the most frightening of terms. There is a great terror within the inability to unsee what one wants to unsee, or undo what one wants to undo, and a great terror in knowing that the choice to walk away from a deception can only take place after that trust is breached, and the horror was inflicted. Leave it to the simple human disposition to exploit that for what it is worth.

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