Rape and Raspberries
A trip to Westwood Village to see Eastern Promises sparked a conversation — over Pinkberry frozen yogurt (with strawberries and raspberries) — during which I tried to describe to A. the viscerally unpleasant reaction I have to films which portray the unrelentingly grim realities of life. The connection is a little unfair to this film, which is layered enough to be far more than just a wallow in grimness, but there’s enough grimness — rape, sectarian murder and reprisal, prostitution bordering on slavery — for it to be relevant.
The paradox here is that I’m mostly aware of processing stories at a considerable remove. I don’t typically get swept away, except on occasion by the elegance of the narrative itself. And yet, stories whose business is portraying with something approaching verisimilitude what a shitty place the world can be hit me in the gut in a way that significantly compromises whatever enjoyment I might get from other aspects. Eastern Promises reminded me somewhat of Mona Lisa; both involve a quasi-innocent becoming submerged in low-rent seediness, returning damaged but in some way stronger.
In particular, the narrative of an innocent being ground by the more brutal wheels that people are capable of creating strikes me with something like nausea. Distance from what I perceive to be a real-world setting does make a difference. Hitchcock, for example, was gleefully fond of sending innocents into torment, but his playful, theatrical style draws the sting. Brazil, just about my favourite film, involves torture, murder, terrorism, and finishes with a man being lobotomised; again, though, its otherworldliness buys it an indirection which dulls the pain. It refers to the grimness of life, without being about it. It seems to be the reality and proximity of grimness, rather than grimness itself, which repels me.
Even though the effect is again ameliorated by a stylised narrative — I don’t find A Clockwork Orange remotely disturbing, for example — portrayals of rape in particular get way under my skin. It’s notable that the comments following Not Again: 24 Great Films Too Painful To Watch Twice quickly morph into a discussion of the fact that the pain in many of the nominated films concerns violence against women. Aside: Even though they have a Michael Haneke on there, Funny Games is conspicuously missing. He’s a sanctimonious prick, but he knows what he’s doing.
More than that, situations of assault by multiple aggressors are a special case for this bit of squeamishness I have. It feels as if the horror here relates not so much to what is done to the victim, as it does to the inevitability caused by numerical advantage. It makes no sense to suggest that rape or assault by an individual is somehow less horrendous than rape or assault by a group, but my brain processes things that way. This might relate to the general revulsion I have for group behaviour in general. Groups of human beings are capable of things unimaginable to each of the constituent individuals alone. There’s both a premeditation and an unchecked momentum to group behaviour that’s as primitive as we ever get as a species. At the head of my own list of painful films (though not necessarily great) might be A.L. Kennedy’s Stella Does Tricks, which burned into my brain a gang-rape that’s not graphic, but is hideous for its premeditated cruelty, intended to serve as a vicious punishment. I find myself unable to think of the actor (James Bolam) who played the part of the seedy pimp who orchestrates the rape, without remembering the scene, though I know him for many other roles. Bolam himself is almost tainted in my mind, which makes no sense whatsoever. We don’t always make sense.
Oh, and do you know what the best thing about strawberries is? It’s that we can eat raspberries afterwards, and be reminded once again just how much nicer they are.