Friday, June 25, 2010

Different ways to see and know (by Suzie)

If a food critic says the pomegranate glaze tantalizes the tongue, she’s really saying, “I liked it, and I think you will, too.” But she refers to a disembodied tongue, a tongue that belongs to no one in particular, to avoid using I, I, I over and over. Unfortunately, avoiding the first person gives a false sense of objectivity. It obscures the writer’s point of view.

The tension between different points of view, between objectivity and subjectivity, has been on my mind since Echidne first wrote about “The Killer Inside Me” May 21, and a movie critic dropped by to argue. Bear with me as I use “Killer” to illustrate my points.

The narrator of the film is a violent sociopath who is especially brutal to women. Director Michael Winterbottom says:
Lou Ford is a very extreme kind of character, but at the same time, everyone does things like treat people badly who are closer to them, who are self-destructive, you see that all around you.
Talk like this, which disappears gender, reinforces the battle-of-the-sexes myth, in which men hurt women and women hurt men, and it all equals out. It doesn’t. Men commit much more serious violence against women than vice versa.

The two actors who play the women attacked by Lou distance themselves from characters they see as self-destructive. Their comments remind me of women who think they are safe from violence because they are not like victims in one way or another.

Kate Hudson, who considers herself empathetic, says about her character: “There is something kind of masochistic about her. She wasn’t easy to empathise with.” Jessica Alba, who plays a prostitute, says:
It really was the most tragic of love stories. I also felt she had a death wish, because she was always egging him on and provoking him. She finally found a man who was man enough to go through with it.
“Anyone who might find the violence in this movie gratifying or arousing is already virtually beyond the bounds of professional help,” writes Andrew O’Hehir in an updated review titled “Much Ado about Misogyny.” I assume he means the violence that doesn’t involve sex. Because lot’s of men find the S/M arousing. Just Google Alba’s name and “spanked.” She plays a prostitute, and Casey Affleck is Lou, a deputy sheriff. She hits him, and he throws her on a bed and beats her with his belt. Her misery soon turns to pleasure. Great. Another image of a woman who wants to be tamed, who wants rough sex. Since she’s a prostitute, you know she loved it. Or, as Alba suggests, she was thrilled that she finally found a lover who could be “man enough” to kill her.

Critics have noted that we learn little about the women, compared with Lou. Some identify with no one in the film, while some – to my horror – identify with the killer. Owen Gleiberman writes: “… as Lou betrays, lies, and murders again, our identification with him is slowly severed.”

Similarly, O’Hehir writes of “this handsome, intriguing good-boy/bad-boy character, in whom we have invested at least a little prurient identification” before he tries to beat his lover to death. The audience feels “that we are implicated in the crime.”

Who is this “we”? What significance does the movie have for people with a different perspective, who don’t feel any identification with Lou, who didn't find the sex hot?

He talks about a “simplistic and uninformed” viewpoint, followed by: “I'm reminded of then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's attacks on the ‘Grand Theft Auto’ games, which she clearly hadn't even looked at, let alone tried to play.” Steve Simels made a similar argument to those of us who criticized “Killer” before its release.

I’m not saying that people who can watch awful things are themselves awful, but that doesn't make them more objective than people who can't stomach brutal violence against women. Knowledge of male violence can be informative when judging a movie depicting it.

An interesting coda: I checked to see if Simels had written a review, only to find him pleased that O’Hehir had mentioned him in another piece.
… but as far as I'm concerned he still owes me big time. The week before, also in Salon, he posted a Sundance Fesitval dispatch on Michael Winterbottom's forthcoming film version of Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me which suggested that the film might be worth seeing despite its disturbing depictions of violence. This occasioned some serious garment-rending over at a feminist-oriented website I look at occasionally, and when I suggested in a forum over there that it might be appropriate to hold off on said rending until one had, you know, actually seen the movie...well, let's just say it wasn't my most popular suggestion this year."
Sounds like he defended O'Hehir, right? Wrong. In his comments to Echidne's original post, he said some lines of O'Hehir's were "pretentious bullshit." He later called them "errant nonsense. So why I'm obligated to defend the idiot is beyond me." And finally, "I think the reviewer has, at the very least...issues." Perhaps his perspective changed as he changed audiences.