Whirr2005-06-11
Pornography
Long Story Short: Porn is bad, and so is Baz Luhrmann. Long, ranty.

Pornography is, loosely defined, any media created with the ultimate goal of sexual arousal--I think that's a pretty safe definition. On the face of it that's not so bad, after all being sexually aroused is often very pleasant. The trouble with pornography is that by its nature it can only be interested in producing a single state of mind--Lust. Cognition, reason and analysis are not necessary (and usually just get in the way) to achieve this goal. Porn is shallow and, as Wilde tells us (in a rare moment of strict honesty) shallowness is the supreme vice.

When it comes to pornography, arousal isn't merely a nice side effect--it's the ultimate goal. Any other feeling is unimportant and unnecessary. This is where things get dangerous. It's possible to be sexually aroused in an environment that treats all participants as equals, but if it's even slightly easier to become aroused by treating them like objects then porn must take the path of least resistance. And if pornography is the antithesis of rational thought, it means that the audience is entirely open to any hidden messages inherent in the process. While a normal person would never entertain the notion that, for example, "woman are made to be degraded", that idea may be (and often is, depending on the porn) accepted passively during the course of the pornographic experience.

It's wrong to condemn porn for stimulating Lust--the real problem is that it is willing to sacrifice so many other things in order to do so. Women are objectified and men are taught to objectify them in order to feel Lust. Violence is glorified and the audience members are taught to respond to it, all to feed Lust.

Anyway, plenty of people have spent a large amount of time discussing the problems and pitfalls of pornography. My point here is that standard Sex porn is not the only type of porn that one can have. I argue that any medium created with the ultimate goal of instilling any overwhelming feeling--Lust, Fear, Anger--is pornographic. Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down is an often-cited example of War Porn. You see those images and you don't think about foreign policy, or the cost of human suffering, but purely about violence.

The current J-Horror trend is Fear Porn (or Trauma Porn)--the plot of The Grudge is about as important as the plot of Hot Co-Eds in Prison, all that matters is stimulating a single emotion to the exclusion of everything else, flooding the audience with it. Anyone who stops to say, "Why would the ghost want to hurt those people, what's the reasoning?" would be looked upon as a fool who has obviously missed the point. Imagine watching a porn flick and saying, "But why would she have sex with that guy? They just met!" It isn't about exploring death or investigating the afterlife any more than Sex Porn is about demonstrating real life relationships or teaching people how to love and care for their partner. If you feel fear, then the Horror Porn has succeeded, end of story.

Which brings me to Emotional Porn, and the point of this rather pretentious and long-winded essay. My favorite example of this is the movie A.I., in which there is a plot point involving a mother abandoning her "son" (who is, in fact, a robot) in a forest. There are all sort of ways to handle this scene, from the most comforting (it could have been an accident that the child was left behind) to the malicious (as in Snow White, perhaps). Spielberg chose to make it as emotionally traumatic as he possibly can. No expense was spared, and every single heart string was systematically tugged. The mother is sobbing buckets of tears, the child is crying and, in fact, the script has set it up so that he would be "programmed for unconditional love" towards the mother. Before the scene had gotten half-way through I stopped feeling any sympathy for the characters and, instead, felt terribly manipulated. It was no longer a movie about mother / son relationships, or about how people cope with technological change, it had become a moving about making the audience feel Sad.

Trojan Women is very similar, I find. Ultimately, however, Euripides is writing about War, and is harnessing our feelings of despair in order to shape our feelings about War. I'm convinced that Spielberg is simply making us sad in order to make us sad. He doesn't care about any big idea any more than Ron Jeremy or Brittany Spears do.

And then there is a movie called Moulin Rouge, a movie about people dedicated to Truth, Freedom, Beauty and, above all, Love. From the first hour or so of the film, it certainly seemed like Baz Luhrmann was trying to tell the audience something about Truth and Beauty. Maybe he was trying to create a piece of art that communicated the idea that Love and Freedom were worth any price, were noble goals to strive for, &c. &c. The movie ends with the Lovers throwing caution to the wind, and declaring their love even though it will certainly put them in great difficulty. They embrace. Beautiful.

Then Nicole Kidman's character dies of tuberculosis, and there is a long scene with her gasping for breath and him sobbing. The rest of the movie is devoted to singing sad songs about how his lover is dead, and Ewan McGregor's character looks very romantic and cool with a month's growth of beard. From a strictly emotional point of view, the climax of the film is as satisfying as any other form of pornography. Her last breath and his final sob are precise equivalents to a graphic cum shot or a terrifying face appearing in the mirror.

Does that scene further his goals, however? Well, it in no way supports the idea that Truth, Freedom, Beauty or Love have any real hope of surviving for long. If this is a representation of what I can expect from the Bohemian Revolution, then I'll stick to Lies, Ugliness Hate and Slavery--it doesn't seem to be any worse. The story is very satisfying. I laughed, I cried, it was so touching when she died in his arms. I might not believe that "the only good lover is a dead one", or that "idealists will inevitably be crushed by reality", but those are the lessons that are being taught. And what with all of the intensely satisfying emotional pornography, the audience is in no position to combat them. Great, Baz. Nice work. You betrayed everything that your movie stood for: Truth, Beauty, Freedom and, most of all, Love.
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