Unreal Nature

March 20, 2014

An Unbearable Desire to See

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:45 am

… “The concept of “obscenity” is tested when one dares to look at something that he has an unbearable desire to see, but has forbidden himself to look at.”

This is from Screening Sex by Linda Williams (2006):

… Moving-image pornography as practiced since the seventies has had the primary goal of arousing viewers through the maximum visibility of normally¬† hidden organs and acts that often verge on the clinical, with aesthetic considerations secondary.

… The utopian dream of the cinematic merger of the erotic and hard-core — an eros that could include graphic sex as well as a pornography that might encompass the erotic — held that one day respected actors would take on the varied performance of sex acts as part of the challenge of their craft, while respected directors would take the depiction of the quality and kind of sex as a crucial element of their art. Cinema would then catch up with the grown-up concerns of other arts, like literature, to become truly explicit and adult.

We all know how that dream turned out …

… But there was one film of seventies international cinema that actually did what Anglo-American and European critics and directors had only dreamed of doing. Oshima Nagisa’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976) fused the graphic sex of hard-core pornography and the erotic narrative of mad love exemplified by the landmark Last Tango in Paris into a remarkable work of hard-core eroticism. Explicit sex acts were deployed in this French-produced Japanese art film as part of a serous narrative in which the performance of heterosexual penetrative sex proved essential to the work’s meaning.

[image from Wikipedia]

Oshima himself defended the film as a radical extension of the possibilities of pornography and thus as a testing ground for challenging the very notion of obscenity. He wrote:

The concept of “obscenity” is tested when one dares to look at something that he has an unbearable desire to see, but has forbidden himself to look at. When one feels that everything that one had wanted to see has been revealed, “obscenity” disappears, the taboo disappears as well, and there is a certain liberation.

… In laudable, but I think misguided efforts to defend the film, more than one critic insisted, contra Oshima’s own assertions, that it was not pornography because it did not solicit the arousal of its spectators.

… I have been arguing, to the contrary, that In the Realm of the Senses offers a fascinating amalgam of Japanese and Western pornography and that neither of these traditions is free of what critics and legal scholars like to call prurience: both seek to arouse. The Eastern influence is not purer because it is more artful. Shunga woodprints were well known as sexual aids and stimulants. … We do Oshima an injustice if we think of his art as purified and of the filmmaker himself as one who wants only to make us think. To do so is to deny the obvious ability of this most lushly sensual of films to move us — whether to arousal or to horrified revulsion.

… It has been something of an axiom in thinking about filmic obscenity that while it might be desirable to break the taboos against representing bodies, organs, and intercourse in literature or art, the inherently graphic nature of moving-image media lends the literal display of real bodies, organs, and intercourse a coarseness exemplified by Fredric Jameson’s condemnation of the visual itself as a pornographic form of “rapt, mindless fascination.” Indeed, the received opinion about film has long been that its inherently graphic nature makes its pornography necessarily crass and mindless. Certainly a lot of it is.

… Understanding hard-core film art is not a matter of parsing good sex from bad, or determining which graphic sexual representations have gone “too far.” Nor is it a matter of invoking the old chestnut about the pitfalls of leaving “nothing to the imagination.” Rather, as we have begun to see in this chapter and will further explore in a later one, there are many possible ways of getting graphic as movies open up the question of the imagination of sex beyond the familiar formulas of soft and hard.

My most recent previous post from Williams’s book is here.



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