Sunday, 29 May 2011

From revenge to rape, and back again. Part 2

A couple of days, huh. (I got caught up in, amongst other things, writing an essay for university about clerical celibacy. Bizarre shift of focus there.)

Right. Let us briefly stop by the 80s before moving closer to the present day: in 1981, The Evil Dead was released upon the world, and plasticine would never be the same again.

Now, dear readers, I must admit that I've only seen this film once and the order in which things happen are a bit unclear to me at this moment. However, what I am sure of is this: a girl gets raped by the forest. That's right, not just IN the forest, but the forest itself rapes her. It's pretty special, to say the least. (Check out this spoof video if you will.)

Now, what I don't remember is if it's after this that the girl turns into a zombie? I kind of hope that it is, because that would open up for some pretty interesting interpretations, going along the lines of how rape and its consequences seem to be commonly represented in a lot of Western culture. As I mentioned in Part 1, in some films the experience of being raped appears to be almost likened to death. In this case (if the girl does indeed turn into a zombie after being raped by the forest... If you want to leave a comment and refresh my memory, it would be very welcome), it appears to be worse than death. Mari in The Last House on the Left got to walk quietly into a lake and then get shot (I can't believe I just made that sound like she was lucky to die in such a way) – this one (again, if my memory serves me) has to go through being a zombie as well, an evil dead, a truly terrifying shadow of a person. Her friends fear her and hate her, though at some level recognising that it isn't really her. If this is the case, one could take this as a comment on how some cultures or societies might respond or relate to a person being raped: I have no exact sources here but isn't it true that some people might end up viewing the rape victim differently? In societies where chastity is a virtue, is not a rape victim often seen as unclean? In this case, she is seen and represented as truly monstrous.

But this isn't just any kind of rape. I am unsure what exactly to make of this scene, but the connections with nature and aggressive sexuality (if it can be called that when it's a tree doing it? Do trees have sex drives...?) are worth considering. The first connection that struck me is that of female sexuality and nature – which is often enough represented by women as witches who are closely connected to nature, and so on. (Should you want to read more about this kind of thing, I'd suggest these two essays: Elizabeth Reis, Damned Women in Puritan New England and Sarah Ferber, Ecstacy, Possession, Witchcraft. Both can be found in The Witchcraft Reader. For the supposed naturalness of female sexuality, Thomas Laqueur could be one place to start.) I've kind of discussed this elsewhere too.

The other connection is almost exactly the opposite, in a way, and concerns the male sexuality. Kind of the same arguments are sometimes made on this side of the scale; abouthow the male sex drive apparently is such a strong force that the men just cannot control themselves. If we were to follow this kind of logic to its unpleasant conclusion, it might look like women are kind of expected to put up with being sexually assaulted. Sadly, this isn't even too far from how some people actually seem to view things. (See, for example, the recent Canadian outrage resulting in the Slut Walks.)

Evil Dead is not a typical rape-revenge film, so it might seem weird to have included it here. However, I simply found it impossible not to include it because of this particular scene. Also, the fact that there is a rape, but no kind of revenge inflicted upon the rapist (in a way, there isn't one) certainly helps to build up my argument which is hinted at in the titles of these two posts. I believe there has been a sort of a boomerang movement when it comes to where the focus has been placed in this sub-genre of slasher films which are built around a very simple plot: a person is raped, and wants revenge. In a way, the fact that there is no direct revenge being exerted in this film speaks volumes in itself. The rape is a spectacle, the rapist is near non-existent and impossible to punish for its deeds. The rape victim is defeated and turns monstrous as a result.

Fast forward to the very beginning of the 21st century, and it's a thoroughly new breed of rape-revenge films that makes its appearance. (I apologise for being unable to offer any examples at all from the 90s – I've never much cared for the 90s and as a result of that, am completely uneducated about anything that went on in that time.) In 2002, cinema audiences were exposed to a French, multi-award winning take on the sub-genre, which includes a brutal, 9 minute steadicam shot rape scene. This is certainly not for the faint-hearted, and although the rape scene itself is as brutal and upsetting as any such scene in earlier films, I still feel that the main focus has shifted onto the revenge by this point. This is mainly due to the reverse chronology technique which is used to tell this story: the beginning of the film makes you familiar with the results of the furious search for revenge, and it takes some time before you are even made acquainted with the motif for revenge. This is also assisted by turning to the older plot structure of having someone other than the rape victim take care of the revenge part of it. In this case, it is the victim's (Alex') boyfriend and her former lover who track down the alleged rapist.

This is very notably a new time of filmmaking. The decision to bring rape-revenge films into the mainstream is almost as bizarre as the existence of the phenomenon itself. But this doesn't have that same feel of being genre that most of the traditional rape-revenge films do: it isn't dodgily shot on a $30 budget, for a start. The characters are believable and it genuinely hurts to watch Alex's rape, as well witnessing her boyfriend's quest for revenge. Furthermore, this film actually includes scenes that depict a happy couple (Alex and her boyfriend) having sex and behaving much like a normal couple. This is rare for a film with this type of focus, and I suppose one of the things that make it so horribly effective.

I have mentioned Hard Candy (2005) on here before. It's one of those really annoying films in the way that I didn't enjoy watching it, but it's very useful for making certain points. Just so that you won't have to watch it, here's what happens in Hard Candy: the girl who played Juno agrees to meet up with someone she's been chatting to online, whom we realise is a tricksy, grown man (while she herself comes across as a very sweet, impressionable young girl), played by the guy who's Lynch in the A-Team movie. They go back to his and it turns out that she's the one to have him fooled all along, because she is convinced that he is responsible for several girls of her own age going missing, and she has very clear ideas about what he has done to them. And of what she is going to do to him. So the man never gets so far as to take any kind of advantage of the girl; instead, she ties him up and physically abuses him for a while and gets him to admit that he did indeed abduct and sexually abuse those other girls (I don't remember if he actually killed them or not. But he probably did). In the end, through all sorts of psychological manipulation in addition to the physical punishment, the girl gets him to hang himself before the police arrive at his house.

Hard Candy is, I would argue, a rape-revenge film with no sex scenes. There is not a single sexual act taking place for the duration of the film. In this respect, it's almost the opposite of Evil Dead: all revenge, no rape. Except, we learn that there have been rapes that we have not witnessed.

(She does, you know.)

The whole film, despite its gross-out bits (pun possibly intended?) is a very clinical affair. The same cannot be said for the even more recent Swedish affair The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009). Before we go any further, however, I am forced to, yet again, express my utter disproval of this translation of the film's original Scandinavian title, which would be Men Who Hate Women. Gives it a bit of a different feel, doesn't it? As with Evil Dead, for the purpose of this post I am really only interested in one scene in this film. It can be watched here (no English subtitles), but I must warn you, it's pretty upsetting.

Lisbeth Salander is very brutally raped by a man who is somehow her guardian and is meant to provide her with money when she needs it. Only, he wants something in return as well. The first time this happens, Lisbeth is forced to perform oral sex on him. She goes back not long after in an attempt to frame him; she's hidden a camera in her bag which she places on a chair by the man's bed. But where she was expecting "only" having something rather unpleasant inserted into her mouth, the man instead knocks her out, handcuffs and ties her to the bed, and full-on rapes her. However, Lisbeth goes back yet again and gets her revenge by providing him with a rather unflattering tattoo.

So there is rape, there is revenge, and it is even told in a linear form! Like some of the women in the earlier films I've discussed (namely Jennifer in ISOYG and Mari's mother in Last House...), Lisbeth also attempts to use sex as a means of getting revenge over the person who has assaulted her – but it doesn't exactly work out in her favour, this time. So when she goes back the final time with the tattoo equipment, she keeps her clothes on and uhh, her mouth shut. (Sorry.) Of course there is a certain element of risk in presenting viewers with too "cool" a revenge – no doubt, these events do contribute to Lisbeth's status as heroine, and you don't want young impressionable minds to think that this is the way to go. Physical revenge should be no more glorified than rape, or any type of violence that appears in violent films. But that isn't really the point of this post.

Maybe the biggest difference between The Girl Who Played With Fire and the earlier films like Last House on the Left and I Spit On Your Grave, and even Evil Dead, is what part the rape and the revenge play in the film. No longer is monstrousness, insanity and/or death the only possible outcomes of a movie rape.

Looks like that's it, for now.

Stay out of trouble.


PS: Here is an article entitled 'The Rape of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo'.
PPS: Issue 11 of Paracinema Magazine contains a section on rape-revenge films, as well as a feature on Frankenhooker and lots of other fun stuff. It's nearly sold out, get your copy while you can! I've certainly got mine.