29 January 2013

Gender Imagery in Film, Pt. 5: Self-Mutilation and Female Circumcision

Religion has never been a stranger to self-torture and mutilation. This is particularly true of the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In his infamous work Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche states, “From the start, the Christian faith is a sacrifice: a sacrifice of all freedom, all pride, all self-confidence of the spirit; at the same time, enslavement and self-mockery, self-mutilation.”[1] In many instances, the self-torture is one that is purely psychological: fear of Hell; fear of physical torture; fear of fire and brimstone; self-censorship and anxiety over “impure thoughts;” &c. In other instances, the focus is on the physical shell. Certain sects of Catholicism have been known to practice self-flagellation as a form of repentance. Muslims, particularly radical Muslims, have been increasingly involved in suicide missions to promote their faith – suicide bombing arguably being the ultimate form of self-mutilation. Male circumcision is certainly a form of mutilation and, though it is typically performed on children and not self-inflicted, it can be if older men  decide to have it done. Female circumcision is another animal altogether, with consequences far more destructive than that of male circumcision. Perhaps it can be considered ironic, or, at the least, a contradiction in terms, that God allows us to slice skin off of our sons’ penises while insisting that our body is a temple.[2] In any event, the notion of physical mutilation is surely on familiar terms with religion.

Though Antichrist offers an overflowing handful of graphic violence in the second half of the film, it is the self-inflicted female circumcision scene that is almost certainly the most stomach churning and, arguably, the most misogynistic. If only one scene in the history of film had to be chosen to depict the culmination of hundreds of years of religious intolerance, resulting in an unmistakable fear and self-loathing instilled into the minds of women, it could be this horrendously vivid scene. By depicting an act so heinous, one that is still occurring in many cultures and subcultures today worldwide for a variety of reasons, von Trier is drawing a straight line connecting woman’s wickedness with her clitoris. The oppression of the woman, Antichrist purports, is a direct result of the intensity derived from her pleasure center. A pleasure center that, by the way, still baffles scientific minds today.

Building up to the aforementioned circumcision, She physically and emotionally tortures her husband, and begins to torture herself emotionally. Her sexual impulses drive her psychotic behavior and upon realizing that her desire for sexual pleasure is the cause of her son’s death, shown through flashbacks to the prologue, she grabs a pair of rusty shears, conveniently located underneath her buttocks. Once She has removed her clitoris, He is able to “free” countless women – women without faces, without identities, without any direct connection to Eve – from the bonds of their own self-hatred.

Despite being as gruesome a scene as any horror film one, further speculation of the entire sequence reveals something rather laughable: von Trier is a complete narcissist. As She inflicts the wound on herself, it is He who gets the credit for freeing the women enslaved to their own desires, not She. He wins. Yes, this is still misogyny, but the root must certainly be von Trier's own narcissism.
[1] Nietzsche, 250.

[2] HarperCollins, 1 Corinthians 6:19-20

12 January 2013

Gender Imagery in Film, Pt. 4: Antichrist

It has been a while since my last post. I have been focusing on some new changes at work, with my family, and in academics. This post focuses on the Lars von Trier film, Antichrist. When I last left off, I spoke of Disney's representation through many of their films of the female as a representation of the sins of Eve.

And a metamorphosis into sin it is, that She, female lead of Antichrist, undergoes throughout the 2009 Cannes film festival’s most detested film. Lars von Trier’s Antichrist is the product of one man’s internal struggles with his personal Christian beliefs and fears, and is a strikingly visual interpretation of woman as executor of iniquity. His vision runs the gamut from male dominance to female dominance, from child sacrifice to self-mutilation, from psychiatry to psychologically volatile, from sex to torture to freedom. In short, Antichrist could take its tagline from Nietzsche himself: “The Christian resolve to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad.”1 Even comedian, social critic, and philosopher, Bill Hicks noted the tendency for Christian fear-mongering. He said “The whole image is that eternal suffering awaits anyone who questions God's infinite love. That's the message we're brought up with, isn't it? Believe or die! Thank you, forgiving Lord, for all those options!”2

The Danish writer-director penned the screenplay and began filming it while in a deep depression and after having forgone the use of anti-depressants3, which could explain the daunting imagery, discouraging, dismal tone and complete lack of censorship. Additionally, it may be the only film in the short history of moving pictures to hire a “researcher on misogyny.”4

The film is divided into chapters, visually, each one explicitly titled and providing a distinct division between parts – similar to the way in which most books, including the Bible, are divided into chapters distinguishing a change in space, time or subject material. The film’s main title and all the subsequent chapter titles are drawn on a chalkboard, each one written different becoming darker and more embittered until the epilogue title. The use of a chalkboard could signify that the film is going to teach the viewer a lesson, mimicking the use of a chalkboard in a school setting. There are four chapters in total, named Grief, Pain, Despair, and The Three Beggars, as well as a prologue and an epilogue. Besides the previously mentioned link between the chapters of the film and the chapters in the Bible, the film ties the chapters to images in the film. The three beggars are shown briefly in the prologue as three pewter statue soldiers, labeled pain, grief, and despair. Later, in the beginning of chapter 3 (Despair), He, played by Willem Dafoe, finds them amongst his wife’s research materials, depicted this time as constellations of a fox, a crow, and a deer, and later sees these constellations in the sky while a voice over says, “I’ve never seen such constellations.” In addition, all three animals appear at regular intervals throughout the film, often at the end of the chapter that shares their namesake.

The connection of the three beggars to the zodiac imitates the same proposal that the Disney films introduced through the imagery of the villainesses in tying women to witchcraft. The first time He sees the deer, at the end of chapter 1, they share a moment of silent communication before the deer runs away, revealing a dead fawn hanging from out of its mother’s vagina, being kicked around in slow motion, both reflecting the death of his child and foreshadowing information that is to come concerning his wife and son. The appearance of the deer is significant to both He and the viewer, as it mimics the relationship between mother and child that is a major plot point for von Trier. Furthermore, the slow motion shot and high pitched whistle with no dialogue draw an immediate union between the end of the prologue and the end of chapter one, relying heavily on the viewer’s interpretation of visual images to make these distinctions.

Antichrist opens with a lengthy slow-motion sex scene, filmed in black and white, set against the Handel aria “Lascia Ch'io Pianga” from the opera Rinaldo, which, even as it builds in character, sounds full of lament and sorrow. As the couple engage in fully graphic and rather raucous coitus, their toddler son is seen climbing onto a desk, then onto the sill of an open window and, predictably, falling to his death. Following the art house technique of interpreting scenes of intensity in a most dramatic fashion, the boy’s super slow-motion fall is cut to moments of the mother’s orgasmic ecstasy in a long, drawn out, borderline painful manner. After witnessing the boy’s teddy bear plow face first into the snow below, the viewer is left with the uneasy feeling that the boy’s death is a result of the parents’ sexual encounter, and that there exists some tie between his mother’s sexual pleasure and his death. There hangs the impression that the family is being punished for allowing the woman sexual gratification.

Furthermore, the decision to show explicit sex, with a close-up shot of penile-vaginal insertion, heightens the connection that von Trier is making between the original sin, sex, and death. Before Eve’s sin, there was no shame5 surrounding nudity and sex, whereas today there is a large amount of discomfort and the resulting censorship of anything sexual. Von Trier’s overt sexual imagery in one way references itself (a movie about sex should surely have sex in it; this opening sex scene foreshadows upcoming sexual scenes) and in another references history’s discomfort with sex. As the viewer is caught off guard, likely having never seen such a scene in a non-pornographic film, he or she is imbued with the same shame and anxiety that Adam and Eve felt upon recognizing their nakedness. In a certain sense, Antichrist is saying that Eve’s sin has resulted in film and art censorship through the unveiling of the human sense of embarrassment. It is woman who has ruined paradise and brought upon us shame and death, both tied to the act of sex, the same act that creates life – because of woman’s wickedness, the creation of life is now, too, the destroyer of life. Just as there can be no divorce without marriage, there can be no death without life. While still contemplating the connection between these two drastically different displays of life and death, the viewer is thrust into the next chapter.

The remainder of the film is shot in color, though von Trier keeps the colors cold, damp and unwelcoming, like a moldy cellar – so strong are his color, cinematographic, and prop choices that as a viewer, you can practically smell the old furniture bathed in cat urine in the couple’s shabby Seattle home or the rotten stench, like decaying hamster bedding, as the main characters trample through the woods en route to their cabin. Von Trier favors long shots with little dialogue, allowing the viewer to feel as if they themselves are immersed in the scenery, feeling the same discomfort, fatigue, disillusionment, sadness, and fear that He and She experience. He relies on an atmosphere of realism, despite the rather unrealistic characteristics of his storyline. Sturken and Cartwright note that realism “has been a fundamental goal of many styles of art, because art has often functioned to reflect society and nature back to its spectators.”6 Antichrist, as a work of modern art, or even postmodern art, intends to relay a feeling of pragmatism, of possibility, of reality, in the face of the oncoming less practical, more metaphysical, myth-like horrors that unfold as the plot thickens. Antichrist could be considered both modern, with its realistic depictions of sex and the historical treatment of women along with its linear frame and its ties to classical literature and art, and postmodern, as it questions the notions of what is actually real and really provides us with no clear resolution in the end. Like many religious and spiritual films, Antichrist relies heavily on a blend of reality and mythology, similarly to the book in which it derives its “originality” and its substance, The Bible.

Returning to the three beggars, just as they return throughout the film, the ties to the biblical trinity is undeniable. Many ancient religions put particular emphasis on numbers, particularly those that were polytheistic – Judaism and Christianity are no different. Though today, the Jewish and Christian establishments claim monotheism, there exists in the Bible evidence to the contrary. Generic references to ancient god Baal can be found littered throughout the Old Testament7, as well as references to other divine beings, including “sons of god”8, “nephilim” and “angels”9, “satan” 10and, of course, Jesus11. Recognition of other divine beings, let alone other beings existing in the same heavenly realm, negates the possibility of monotheism. Christianity attempts to “Jedi mind trick” believers by claiming that the three are really one (which, coincidentally, defies all logic and rationality), and has therefore settled on the notion of a “Holy Trinity.” The three beggars represent von Trier’s interpretation of the Christian trinity, easy for the meticulous observer to spot when other mythical references are revealed.

Perhaps, the most obvious references are provided to us by the characters in a self-referential way. Sturken and Cartwright, in reference to the view that producers of art construct an intended meaning, say that filmmakers, amongst other artists, create images “with the intent that we read them in a certain way” while still maintaining that the producer is “not in full control of the meanings that are subsequently seen in their work.”12 In particular, von Trier intends his audience to be aware of Antichrist’s connections to Christianity: the name of the cabin in the forest in which his main characters experience their fall from grace is named “Eden;” He draws a triangle similar to the food pyramid on a piece of paper, representative of She’s psyche, in an attempt to understand her fears, and, at different points of time in his attempt to analyze her mental state, he labels them with the words “Eden” and “Satan;” the research materials that belong to She have wood-carving style pictures of witch burnings, which were largely produced during a period of religious persecution against women of otherness [otherness being anything outside of the societal-religious norm: insubordinate, intellectual, atheist, &c.]. Once he can create the obvious connections to religious teachings, he can truly begin to deconstruct his own spiritual interpretations and thrust his views onto the spectators. Those spectacles can be subdivided into their own categories: self-mutilation and female circumcision, child sacrifice, and female dominance, though all three intertwine and overlap.

1 Nietzsche, 172.
2 Bill Hicks, Rant in E Minor, Rykodisc, 1997.
3 Sean O’Hagan, "Interview: Lars von Trier," guardian.co.uk, 12 Jul. 2009. Web. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/jul/12/lars-von-trier-interview>, 17 Apr. 2010.
4 Antichrist, dir. Lars von Trier, perf. Willem Defoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, DVD, Zentropa Entertainments, 2009.
5 HarperCollins. Genesis 2:25
6 Sturken and Cartwright, 111.
7 HarperCollins. Judges 2:11, 10:10; Numbers 25:3; Deuteronomy 4:3; &c.
8 HarperCollins. Genesis 6:1-8; Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7; Daniel 3:25; Psalm 89:6; &c.
9 HarperCollins. Genesis 6:4; 1 Peter 3:18-22; 2 Peter 2:4-5; Jude 6.
10 HarperCollins. Job 2:1-7; John 8:44; James 4:7; Revelation 20:10; &c.
11 HarperCollins. The New Testament
12 Sturken and Cartwright, 45-46.