Thursday, June 30, 2011

Lorraine Mortimer: Something Against Nature - Sweet Movie, 4, and Disgust

Something Against Nature: Sweet Movie, 4, and Disgust
by Lorraine Mortimer
Senses of Cinema


Makavejev shared Wilhelm Reich’s valuing of autonomy, not as an abstract ideal, but as a somatic-emotional experience—that of setting one’s own limits in relation to others. Like Reich, he was convinced of the dangers of servility, of raising human beings who do not know their own nature, and who can become prey to the call of tyrants with the promise of wholeness, happiness and empowerment. John Stuart Mill articulated something of this idea long ago, when he wrote of people from the highest to the lowest classes of society, who live “as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship”, until “by dint of not following their own nature, they have no nature to follow: their human capacities are withered and starved.” (17) These capacities, often less-than-heroic, and by no means all attractive, are exercised and performed in Sweet Movie, where physiological revolt is acted out, provoked, and experienced, one way or another, by the viewer him- or herself. The commune sequences, writes Cavell,

are, among other things, revolting. Placed in general adjacency with the sequence of the Katyn massacre, which is also revolting, we are asked to ask ourselves what we are revolted by… If rotting corpses make us want to vomit, why at the same time do live bodies insisting on their vitality? But the members of the commune themselves display images of revulsion, as if to vomit up the snakes and swords and fire the world forces down our throats. It is on this understanding that the sequence strikes me as one of innocence, or of a quest for innocence—the exact reverse of the unredeemable acts of tyrants, under whatever banner. (18)

Cavell’s ‘innocence’ here, like that of the poet, William Blake, is not related to ignorance or denial. It is intense, fulsome and complex, opposed to a cynical and sour experience. “The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom”, was one of Blake’s proverbs from ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’. Called ‘mad’ by some of his contemporary artists and political radicals, he might have envisioned such scenes as we have in this film in some of his wildest hallucinations. Said Cavell, wisely:

Sweet Movie [is] in effect the most concentrated work I know that follows out the idea that the way to assess the state of the world is to find out how it tastes (a sense modality not notably stressed by orthodox epistemologists but rather consigned to a corner of aesthetics)—which means both to find out how it tastes to you and how it tastes you, for example, to find out whether you and the world are disgusting to one another…

The film attempts to extract hope…from the very fact that we are capable of genuine disgust at the world; that our revoltedness is a chance for a cleansing revulsion; that we may purge ourselves by living rather than by killing, willing to visit hell if that is the direction to something beyond purgatory; that the fight for freedom continues to originate in the demands of our instincts, the chaotic cry of our nature, our cry to have a nature. It is a work powerful enough to encourage us to see again that the tyrant’s power continues to require our complicitous tyranny over ourselves. (19)

Early in the commune sequence, before Momma Communa (outrageously) suckled Miss World, when she was feeding her own baby, we watched something not often seen in (civilised) public spaces. The camera didn’t cut away from the baby withdrawing itself from her nipple, which in its elongated shape, looked something like a dagger—or a penis. In a way, the act of nourishment and nurture can have a discomforting edge to it, a seeming ‘indecency’, as if we are exposed to what Mary Douglas called “matter out of place.” (20) In nature as in life, nothing is pure. Once we let natural vitality into our picture, we must also let in decay; when we admit the reality of birth and death. The ‘theatre’ of the commune scenes doesn’t let us escape the realities of bodily functions, the breakdown of boundaries between solids and liquids, inside and outside, cultural and biological. And the performance is unapologetic and even aggressive, certainly on a first viewing, when we are unprepared and often overwhelmed. For members of the film’s audience, Cavell’s “cleansing revulsion”, the purging “by living rather than by killing” are probably far harder for us to take because we are not actual participants. There is perhaps a feeling of helplessly watching a difficult birth. The shaved heads and nude bodies of the participants perhaps conjure up Auschwitz, especially in this film where we have watched unearthings of victims of a war massacre. But more than this, in this spectacle that we are (as if) locked into, the regressing participants clearly don’t become babies but appear as infantile, less than attractive, adults. As their bodies seem to take on their own wills, with their uncoordinated movements, and lack of boundaries and protocols for bodily substances, more than adults undertaking a certain kind of liberation, they conjure up the disturbed and the sick, the dying—humans who are losing ordinary ‘civil’ controls and proprieties they struggle to keep with age and illness. Their carnal humus is revealed, the evidence that they, and we, are in the end, degradable matter.


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