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Et Tu, Bruno

The new film Bruno, along with Antichrist, extends the limits of artistic expression in the latterly commercial form of cinema - albeit arthouse or pseudo-documentary. Listening to a recent radio programme discussing Eliot's common pursuit, a la Leavis, of a moral base for a society, I came to reflect upon precisely the absence of such a ground, today, in Britain, in 2009. These films - hilarious or horrifying as they may be - achieve their effects against a backdrop that is post-humanist, as well as post-Christian. They may almost be even post-atheist, for atheism at least despairs at loss, or celebrates reason's triumph.

Instead, these are films of a generation, digitally modified, that has come to believe in absolutely nothing, for five minutes at a time, and which cares less and less, as reaction and feeling are thinned out - simply, there is too much to do and see to take anything too seriously, even life and death and the full moral struggle those poles represent. I've seen Bruno, and I feel it is a work of comic genius, if only because Sacha Baron Cohen's physical moves are so brilliant and risky. However, his attempt to mock Christians and hicks (basically due to their woeful homophobia) avoids the obvious hypocrisy at the hard core of the film, which is that almost all the jokes are themselves heavily based on gross-out homophobic stereotypes. More scandalously, the jokes at the expense of a human foetus, and the use of babies (in relation to crucifixion and the Holocaust) are beyond tasteless.

As for Von Trier, I won't see this film, because female genital mutilation is not something I particularly condone; nor do I want to see a blood-ejaculation. But others may well want to - and the risk, and challenge, for cinema, is - is it art or entertainment, or the glamour of evil, to show people a) what they desire; or b) what they fear? Film has near-immortal power to present images that can do incalculable good, or evil. Unfortunately, unlike atomic power, which generated a cadre of moral scientists who rebelled against the unleashed force, the art world of cinema has generated very few moral critics to resist and question the force of film. Horror, rescued from mockery by theory, now seeks to celebrate and study the mise-en-abime, and is a welcomed genre, so much so, that the torture-porn genre has entered the French film bloodstream.

European movies are now often either about brutal sexual murder or degradation, or feature harrowing scenes. The body is an apt site for interrogation of the moral - for the body is either the seat of the soul or mind, or it is, to be nihilistic, and to speak the language of the video game, a meat puppet. If the body is only meat, then we live in a world of unlimited pornographic potential, as de Sade anticipated. However, this potential has a limit of its own, for bodies, when used up, are discarded - one can transgress only so far until your meat is pulp. There will need to be a turn towards the limit again. Some control, some moral shaping, within art, lends beauty and even, yes, decency, to life. Art which descends to the level of the braying crowds, or the perverted private peeping booths, is not an art for humankind, but for the inhuman kind.

As a postscript, it should be added this is not a new issue. The Sunday Times Culture section features a story on Rupert Everett's celebration of Lord Byron, who in some ways is the original Antichrist figure. Byron, it is cheerily reported in this article "tried to buy a 12-year-old" child for sexual purposes, at one stage of his long sex-tourism jaunt. I don't wish to spoil the fun - after all, the Byronic hero is part of every aspect of rebel culture from Nirvana to Brando, but this man was a sexual predator. I am not sure that moral relativism should grant this poet total amnesty, since even in his times, it was considered wicked to buy children for sex. This is a troubling area to think through.

On Sunday, I had dinner with a missionary's daughter from Papua New Guinea, who discussed the practices of a tribe who killed and buried their firstborn child under their huts, for protection. Such magical thinking may be anthropologically intriguing, but should it be resisted, even punished? Can moral relativism finally forgive Byron, and send contemporary child-buyers to prison? Culture sends ambiguous, perplexing mixed messages, and poetry is not immune from these temptations, hazards, and responsibilities.


Thoth Harris said…
Brilliant analysis by this Guardian Writer:
"It's possible, though, that Antichrist is not a film by a misogynistic director who's tumbled into the abyss and more an exercise in alternative theology. Von Trier, who converted to Catholicism at 30, might be "simply" revealing a world created by Satan and not God – and as such, it's a fantastical world based only loosely on reality...At the very least, Von Trier should be applauded for acknowledging and confronting his demons so honestly. Whether you think he's God or Satan is up to you."
This makes me want to see it and make up my own mind. Doesn't sound like it's pure formula and pretentiousness (à la the overrated Dancer in the Dark or Breaking the Waves). Perhaps he is back in top form, more in line with his two best movies, The Element of Crime and Europa).
One Twitterer I read, tweeted that Antichrist merely shows there isn't so much an Antichrist as that bad doctors exist. I doubt it is merely that shallow (although Dogville and The Idiots made me wonder: perhaps von Trier is reverting to his experimental period in which he made Epidemic (and thus Europa and Element of Crime). In some ways, Epidemic is just that: simple experiment, on the many levels that the word implies. Which is true poetry.
Todd, your post here has many brilliant insights. But it is not your strongest. The fact you dismiss von Trier's film (which is fine in simple conversation, but...) without even seeing it is a shallow response at best. Perhaps you should rethink your strategy, which makes your analysis look narrow.
Donald Brown said…
Thanks, didn't know about The Antichrist; good to know what's getting them up in arms at Cannes these days.

The de Sade comment is good; it's worth remembering that the investigation into 'the human' as inseparable from 'the body' was already pushed as far as it needed to go, before there was cinema.

As to Byron: I don't like the idea of 'moral relativism forgiving' Byron; the Byronic hero, like the Dostoevskyian villian, is something that needs to be upheld for what it is, the figure that can push against all decent norms. This can be glorified out of proportion, but it is something that should always be given its unsettling due. There's a certain 'sympathy for the devil' factor at work in trying to understand such figures, but, for me, that only has any force if 'the devil' is understood in some meaningful way, not simply as a stock, cartoon figure for things that make us squirm, morally or physically.

von Triers' 'Dogville' was brilliant; I won't judge this film without seeing it, but I don't know that I'll bother.
Mark Granier said…
"As for Von Trier, I won't see this film because female genital mutilation is not something I particularly condone; nor do I want to see a blood-ejaculation."

Nah, I don't particularly condone female genital mutilation either. Actually, ear-piercings aside, I don't particularly condone ANY forced or gratuitous mutilation (including self-mutilation) of a person's body or parts thereof, female or otherwise. In fact, I am repulsed by most mutilations of the flesh, whether by tribal elders, saintly sadists, fashion-enslaved pop stars, etc. I haven't seen the latest Von Trier voiding, but 'Dogville' was a woefully solemn exercise, more dreary than Haneke's 'Funny Games', which was spectacularly dreary. 'Antichrist' may well be brilliantly acted and visually beautiful in places; it may even be as fine a film as Bergman's 'Cries and Whispers' (the only film, so far, in which I've encountered something approximating female genital mutilation). But, even if it ranks with Bergman's (which seems unlikely), prolonged agonising and/or deranged grieving spiced with Exorcist-voiced foxes, graphic DIY surgery and a blood-orgasm is not, alas, my mug of Lavazza. And the possibility that this concoction is 'symbolic', even, as the title suggests, 'spiritual', confirms that a rain-check is definitely in order.

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With the death of the poetic genius John Ashbery, whose poems, translations, and criticism made him, to my mind, the most influential American poet since TS Eliot, 21st century poetry is moving into less certain territory.

Over the past few years, we have lost most of the truly great of our era: Edwin Morgan, Gunn, Hill, Heaney and Walcott, to name just five.  There are many more, of course. This is news too sad and deep to fathom this week.  I will write more perhaps later. 

I had a letter from Ashbery on my wall, and it inspired me daily.  He gave me advice for my PhD. He said kind things about a poetry book of mine.

He was a force for good serious play in poetry, and his appeal great. So many people I know and admire are at a loss this week because of his death. It is no consolation at present to think of the many thousands of living poets, just right now. But impressively, and even oddly, poetry itself seems to keep flowing.