by Michael B. Mathias
Aristotle commended the poets for their ability to portray the ways in which fate tests character and to display how human weaknesses may be amplified in unusual situations. By depicting human beings caught up in extraordinary circumstances, the poets did not simply entertain; they provided deep insights about human nature. Tragedy teaches us about ourselves, Aristotle thought, and the self-understanding it provides forms part of the groundwork for ethical behaviour. Mike King echoes these Aristotelian themes in his lucid and noteworthy study of the American cinema of excess.
King’s basic goal is to present a composite picture of the American mind as it is represented in a ‘cinema of excess’ – films about Americans that deal with extreme situations such as death, torture, rape and suicide, and that make use of transgressive material, including vulgarity, explicit sex and graphic violence. The Introduction makes the case that political models of film criticism fail to engage with a cinema of excess. A more promising approach to analyzing these films is a dramatic model of criticism based on Aristotle’s theory of tragedy. Part One: Roots of the American Madness provides a short genealogy showing how basic aspects of the American personality descend from Hellenic and Hebraic ancestors. Ten characteristics of American madness are identified: paranoia, aggression, Oedipal/Freudian themes, sexual obsession, apocalyptic themes, Native Americans and cultural genocide, new age narcissism, nihilism and self-destruction, intellectual and cultural autism, and virtual reality/fantasy. Part Two: Filmic Journeys into the American Madness – the main section of the book – examines in detail two films for each of the ten major categories of excess. A number of supporting films are also briefly considered. Part Three: The American Sanityon Film looks at how the unique strengths of the American mind are portrayed in a half-dozen films. About 60 films in total are discussed. Though the book does engage other scholarly literature, the tone of the work is conversational and the material is accessible to a general audience. King argues that political models of film criticism fail to engage a cinema of excess in a constructive manner. Critics on the Left and Right regard cinema merely as a tool for advancing their preferred political agenda – on both approaches art is slave to politics. Left-wing (Marxist) theorists dismiss bourgeois cultural productions as opiates of the masses. Transgressive films have merit to the extent that they confront capitalist society and instigate radical political reform. Right-wing critics reject transgressive films out of hand. From this ideological perspective, cultural productions should celebrate society and reinforce its values; so films that intentionally subvert traditional culture lack value and pose a serious threat.
According to ‘classical cultural conservatives,’ like Allan Bloom, transgressive films are symptomatic of a liberal permissiveness that has led to the demise of high culture. ‘Religious cultural conservatives,’ such as Michael Medved, rail against the secular humanism that Hollywood imposes on a devout and unwitting American public. Having made art into politics, critics on both ends of the spectrum analyze transgressive films according to a formulaic and predictable pattern, employing a worn-out vocabulary.
Fight Club, 20th Century Fox, 1999
As a more fruitful alternative to political models of film criticism, King offers a ‘critical framework of the cathartic.’ Catharsis, of course, is a key concept in Aristotle’s aesthetics. The notion of catharsis appears at the end of his well-known definition of tragedy, and this is Aristotle’s customary place for stating the purpose of a thing. So, it seems, the goal of tragedy for Aristotle is catharsis. Despite its apparent significance, Aristotle provides nothing like a theory of catharsis. This void has been filled by an enormous amount of commentary. Aristotelian catharsis has commonly been understood in terms of an ancient medical concept. A medical catharsis was a purgation – a cleaning out of the digestive system by a laxative, enema or emetic. On this reading, tragedy flushes out unruly passions by letting them flow freely. According to a rival interpretation, catharsis is a purification or clarification of emotions. This interpretation assumes that the emotions are here to stay, and, hence, they need to be trained or calibrated to fit the real world situations that call them forth. By rousing powerful emotions under shielded conditions, tragedy teaches us how these emotions feel and where they are appropriate.
Like Aristotle, King does not explain his notion of catharsis in any detail, and he uses language associated with both interpretations of the term. He speaks, for example, of ‘the purgative quotient of a film’ (14); but he also writes that ‘by engaging with these sometimes extremely dramatic journeys at an emotional level, [viewers] may come out the other end in some way purified’ (234-35, King’s emphasis). Those who believe that ‘catharsis’ has been abused to the point that it should be purged from our critical vocabulary are likely to be frustrated by King’s casual use of the term. (King also employs a wide variety of terms borrowed from psychology and clinical psychiatry, e.g., ‘Oedipal complex,’ ‘paranoia,’ ‘autism,’ and ‘narcissism.’ These terms are used in a colloquial sense as is common in contemporary culture, but this may bother those opposed to the informal and metaphorical use of these terms.)
Aristotle’s Poetics provided a reply to Plato’s condemnation of poetry. Plato feared that tragedy’s emotions overpower our capacity to reason, but Aristotle presumed that we can reason about our emotions and make them more reasonable. Today’s conservative critics still harbour Plato’s misgivings. King, in the spirit of Aristotle, grants that transgressive films may take us on an unsettling journey into the heart of darkness, but contends that we are better off for having made the trip. By witnessing the dramatic spectacle we gain profound self-awareness and come away better able to deal with the real world. In Buddhist terms, which King sometimes deploys in discussing catharsis, stark confrontations with suffering should inspire compassion.
King acknowledges that it can sometimes be difficult to determine whether a transgressive film is genuinely cathartic or merely exploitative. He employs two main criteria to judge whether a filmmaker’s intent is to help us come to grips with our fears and madnesses or to shock and titillate. The first is whether the filmmaker employs the method of ‘emotional bracketing.’ This concept, borrowed from the work of Stephen Prince, refers to a pause after a transgressional act that allows an audience to absorb its moral content and discern its moral implications. The presence of emotional brackets signals that the on-screen transgressions are intended to have an emotional impact on viewers and provides them an opportunity to recover and develop some moral perspective; the absence of emotional brackets suggests that the transgressions are gratuitous. The second criterion is whether the filmmaker creates critical distance between the film and its viewers, a distance that forces viewers to critically examine and evaluate not only what they see on the screen, but also themselves. Films that show no critical awareness of the madness they portray are themselves indicative of that madness.
Proponents of film for film’s sake might worry that the focus on the pedagogical, ethical and therapeutic effects of transgressive films may distract from these works’ intrinsic aesthetic properties. But austere formalism is both uncommon and implausible. King’s position – that a work may gain value by producing ethical or other external results, as long as the work’s status as art is one of the causes of those results – is both more widespread and reasonable. The fact that cathartic effects follow from a film’s artistic effects does not entail that these external grounds are the basis for artistic success.
As would be expected, the mosaic portrait of the American mind gone mad that King constructs from cinematic images is not a pretty one. The core American pathology is a paranoia which grows out of the anxiety that America will lose its privileged and dominant position. America imagines that, because it is rich and powerful, ‘they’ – communists, terrorists, immigrants, the United Nations and even aliens – must be out to get it. At the same time America fears that its own Federal government is complicit. Its paranoia leads America to maintain a permanent state of aggressive defensiveness, and, when pushed too far, America lets loose devastating and uncontrollable violence – think of the Incredible Hulk.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Cinemation Industries, 1971
If the relative wealth and leisure of its citizenry has led to a popular paranoia, it has also led to a passive despair that finds no purpose in life. The characters populating American cinema attempt to give their lives meaning in various ways. Some become obsessed with sexual conquest. Others immerse themselves in therapeutic culture, or turn to flaky New Age spiritualism. Some become lost in the delusional belief that a grand cosmic struggle, leading up to the Apocalypse, is currently being played out. Yet others retreat from reality into a fantasy world, where they can control and dominate others in ways that are not possible in the real world. In all cases, there is displayed a self-absorption verging on solipsism. King claims that his study captures all of the main forms of the American madness portrayed in the cinema of excess. He acknowledges that personal preference guided his selection of films for analysis, but he denies that one could construct just any portrait of the American mind through a personal selection – the same portrait would emerge from an analysis of 60 other transgressive films. One theme that is notably absent from King’s study is any social pathology linked to race relations. As indicated, King does discuss themes related to Native Americans and the latent collective guilt associated with their near genocide. But King claims that there is no equivalent to the revisionist Western in filmmaking that is by Black people or deals with Black culture. This is doubtful, though. The nouvelle gangster films produced by Black filmmakers in the late-1980s and 1990s – John Singleton’s critically acclaimed Boyz ‘n the Hood (1991), for example – presented gritty renderings of purposefully transgressive and marginal figures, and depicted the complicity and corruption of the White culture of authority. These films were descendants of subversive Blaxploitation films like Melvin van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) and their influence on cinema is apparent in more recent films and TV shows like Ridley Scott’s American Gangster (2007) and David Simon’s The Wire (2002-2008). This does seem to be essential material for a work on transgressive American films.
Whether King’s portrait of the American mind in extremis, constructed out of fictional material, is in fact accurate, is a question that he deliberately avoids. (He does, however, frequently point to historical events – like the My Lai massacre, the siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and the torture and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib – that are evidence for its accuracy.) There are, to be sure, commentators who think that King’s picture reflects the American mind, not just as it manifests itself in extreme situations, but in its ‘normal’ state of functioning. Forty years ago Susan Sontag wrote in her essay ‘What’s Happening in America’: The unquenchable American moralism and the American faith in violence are not just twin symptoms of some character neurosis taking the form of a protracted adolescence, which presages an eventual maturity. They constitute a full-grown, firmly installed national psychosis, founded, as are all psychoses, on the efficacious denial of reality. (Sontag 2002, 196)
Boyz n the Hood, Columbia Pictures, 1991
A number of King’s categories of excess are present in Sontag’s diagnosis. Whether or not the image of the American mind on the screen accurately reflects the American mind in reality, it is vital that Americans understand that this image is the basis for much of the world’s perception of the nation’s character. The image – accurate or not – influences reality, and for this reason it is important that the image is well understood. King’s motives are friendly. He does not present this disturbing picture of the national character as a condemnation, but as a warning. The lesson is that America’s own cultural productions suggest that, when under strain, some very ugly personality traits tend to emerge, and America should be guided by an honest and balanced understanding of its character.
Of course, the very idea of a ‘national mind’ stands in direct contrast to the reality of America’s pluralism. It is also at odds with a popular recent interpretation of American culture. Americans are sharply divided by ideological differences, and some commentators argue that these political differences are rooted in an even deeper contrast between two fundamentally opposed conceptions of personality and self-image. Recent studies by psychologists lend some credence to the view that the ‘red-blue’ difference runs so deep that there are distinct personality types corresponding to the different ideologies. Some of the pathologies that King describes (paranoia, aggression, and millenarianism) are associated with red-culture America and others (sexual obsession, narcissism, and nihilism) with blue-culture America.
So an American reader may find some of these states of mind to be just as foreign and incomprehensible as would a non-American reader. King’s study will be of interest to scholars, teachers, and lay readers. The notion that one of the oldest critical theories provides the best hope for analyzing the latest cultural productions is provocative, and those who sense that the programmatic approaches of the Left and Right do not provide the critical tools needed to assess films like Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994), Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999), and American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000) may find a promising alternative vocabulary and interpretive approach to transgressive films here. Instructors could design a wide variety of courses in film studies and American studies around this text. Film buffs will find the discussion engaging, and it will deepen their appreciation of the cinema of excess.
Piece originally published at Film-Philosophy |
Sontag, Susan (2002) ‘What’s Happening in America’ in Styles of Radical Will. New York: Picador.
About the Author:
Michael B. Mathias is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Frostburg State University (USA). He is the editor of a new edition of John Stuart Mills’ On Liberty.