A man forcibly stripped and smeared with dog shit (The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, 1989); a kiss, carefully choreographed to evade the censor’s gaze (Notorious, 1946); a liberated prisoner devouring a living, squirming squid (Oldboy, 2003): these images live beyond the constraints of their time, imprinted in my mind. They shock and they dare but, most of all, they hold power because they transgress the received rules of acceptability and decency.
Subversive and transgressive images were almost omnipresent at Bristol’s Cinema Rediscovered festival, and with good reason. Many so-called great films are decorated as such precisely because they challenge: society is weighed, measured, and found wanting. Politically charged art seeks change, in part, through depiction and exposure, a process illustrated in Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (1970). The conservative and reactionary Chas (James Fox) undergoes transformation when confronted by the free love and multiculturalism of Turner’s (Mick Jagger) bohemian lifestyle. Transgression is an act that challenges dominant power structures, like Bill Whitney (Billy Warlock) in Society (1989), who breaks through social barriers to stop the rich from literally eating the poor.
But transgression is a complex instrument that can tip from challenging one set of power dynamics to reinforcing others. Too often it is handled bluntly, bogged down in edginess where obscenity for obscenity’s sake is a substitute for thoughtful critique. The flawed but intriguing Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) partially explores this notion. Faye Dunaway’s eponymous fashion photographer seeks to challenge sexual violence by recreating grotesque murder scenes. “I can’t stop it, but I can show it. I can make people look at it,” she argues. Contrasted with real crime scene photos, however, her work glitters. The lips of “murdered” models pout with sensuality, expertly lit and composed. They lack the spiteful banality of actual violence, which is brought home when the film’s villain is revealed. His exposure to violence has left him with a somber reverence (and taste) for it. Dead women sell, and Mars’ photos are commodities used to advertise, facilitating capitalism’s exploitation of sexual violence. In this small but illustrative example, her transgression of acceptable imagery is reductive and, ultimately, harmful.
The violence of Performance, by contrast, conveyed through abrasive editing and tinged with truly transgressive homoerotic sadism, is both more impactful and meaningful than Mars’ photography. In his introduction, Cinema Rediscovered co-curator and founder, Mark Cosgrove, recalled seeing Performance for the first time in a Glaswegian porn cinema after it struggled to find distribution. The juxtaposition of a film that uses exploitative elements as part of a wider exploration of identity, screened in an environment whose lifeblood is voyeurism and objectification, is an intriguing one. Performance’s subversion challenges normativity on several fronts, but its messiness and self-indulgence are not problem free.
Roeg’s overuse of full-frontal nudity throughout his career straddles this issue. At times, the effect is to turn women into set dressings. In The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), a muscular black man lifts his petite white wife out of a swimming pool with ease; the narrative gains nothing from their nudity and the scene walks dangerously close to a pernicious racist stereotype. The line between transgression and exploitation is narrow and, sometimes, a work can do both. Society may be wonderful for its grotesque satire, but the film’s treatment of Whitby’s thinly drawn, eye candy love interest, played by Playboy centerfold Devin DeVasquez, is typical of superficially progressive films of the era.
In her recent book on the culture wars of the internet age Kill All Normies, Angela Nagle questions the future value of transgression for its own sake. She argues that social liberals and conservatives have become locked in a radicalizing, co-dependent relationship of reaction and counter-reaction, and that growing liberalism has created a counter trend as intolerance itself now becomes transgressive. This is not a phenomenon that began with Trump’s rallies, and progressives must also guard against it. The Rolling Stones’ association with the Hell’s Angels biker gang was a part of their subversive brand and led to the shooting of a teenager at a concert. Siouxsie of the Banshees flirted with swastika imagery, as did many punks, the ultimate provocateurs. More subtly, the vogue nostalgia for the so-called authentic urban flavor of 1970s’ New York is a push against elitist gentrification that too often abstracts a derelict chic aesthetic from people’s lived experience and the latent exploitative power dynamics of pimps, pushers, and illiteracy that underpin it.
We should be wary of enabling a critical culture where transgression for its own sake is praised. What exactly is a given work transgressing and what are its effects? These questions have real world implications. As the narrator and director of Filmfarsi (2019), Ehsan Khoshbakht, observes, Iranian women’s transgression of conservative dress was often appropriated by the male gaze both on and off the cinema screen. While we may wish to “make it new,” we ought to be wary of how and why. Transgressive cinema has helped weaken conservative so-called family values (as it was supposed to), and that’s a good thing when it means liberation and egalitarianism. But support should be conditional, nuance should be exercised, or transgressive cinema will lose its power when going forwards or looking back.