Sunday, September 28, 2008
What Is Tasteless?
Let me be clear that I’m not recommending that you watch Takashi Miike's Visitor Q. In fact I’m recommending that you don’t watch it unless you have some idea of what you’re getting yourself into. Let me say also, in my own defense, that I only watched it at the request of a graduate student with whom I’m working who may be including a reading of Visitor Q in his thesis. And let me say, in his defense, that I think he has interesting things to say about this film and its relationship to the taboo. Besides, do I really need a justification for watching a film that many people claim is an important work of art? Even if I don’t though, in this instance it feels like I do.
All disclaimers aside, I think it’s not going too far to suggest that Visitor Q sets the contemporary standard for what’s tasteless. If there’s any more tasteless contemporary film around, I’m not aware of it and I’m not sure I want to be. Well, okay, I want to be aware of it. But watch it? I don’t know.
The only other film that I can think of that covers similar territory to Visitor Q is Pink Flamingos, a movie which is better than Visitor Q in almost every way. In fact one main problem with Visitor Q is that it’s just not very enjoyable to watch, or at least wasn’t to me. Its opening soft core porn incest scene, for instance, which turns out to be one of the gentlest in the film, is not only dull and interminable but also ridiculous. It’s perfectly transparent that the actors involved aren’t really a father and daughter, so the pretense that they are comes off as laughable. Similarly, the film’s rote attempt to shatter one taboo after another almost proceeds like a checklist: let’s shatter this one, and this one, and don’t forget this one. None of the characters or situations is ever believable for more than a few moments, which is part of the point perhaps but nonetheless not very interesting.
The idea of the tasteless obviously depends on the idea of taste. Both concepts are part of what we used to call back in the olden days of theory a binary opposition, like the concepts of good and bad art, the masculine and the feminine and many others. And taste of course is culture and class bound. One goal therefore of consciously tasteless art is to critique the social limitations of taste, showing it to be the property of the repressed, the controlling, and the power hungry. And certainly that’s part of what Miike wants Visitor Q to do.
But I’ve been wondering about an aesthetic of the tasteless and what value there is in it. Once the tasteless makes clear that it’s a critique of the limits of taste, isn’t it in some perverse sense making a bid for itself to be recuperated as somehow tasteful, at least in the sense that in showing problems in the idea of taste, it puts itself in the position of having a superior understanding of taste when compared to art that simply tries to reproduce cultural standards of the tasteful? Or to push this idea further, by showing that taste is no more than a set of biases, hasn’t it undermined both the idea of taste and therefore the idea of the tasteless by showing them both to be shaped by conditions of social power, in which case it’s not tasteless but something else? To remain tasteless, a work of art would have to accept normative standards of taste and therefore accept its own tastelessness. Many lowbrow American comedies, like the American Pie series, do something like this. Or else it would have to fail in its attempt to critique standards of taste and therefore remain tasteless.
The second of these possibilities is how Visitor Q achieves its own unique tastelessness. Its message, at the end, is that all we have watched has been part of the struggle of these characters to understand and accept themselves, and now that they have, they’ll be more capable of loving themselves and each other. Since it’s nearly impossible to believe that any of the characters could be actual people, the standard happy ending family message seems falsely tacked on, or else one more final tasteless joke in a series of such tasteless jokes. Believe me though, the ambiguity here is less interesting than it sounds.
Which is to say, Visitor Q remains genuinely tasteless because its critique of the oppression of social taboos is almost never convincing. Visitor Q remains tasteless because it doesn’t work.
Finally, I’m not sure how much interest I have in simply reversing the binary and celebrating the tasteless. Pink Flamingos, for instance, is gross, but because it succeeds as art it creates its own alternative standard of taste, that of the John Waters vision of the universe. Visitor Q remains tasteless mainly because it’s just not really that interesting. I can certainly acknowledge that someone might like this film because it’s both boring and tasteless. They might like it because it explores taboos and attacks middle class squeamishness even though I don’t think it does that very well. But what I can’t seem to acknowledge is that boring and tasteless art is automatically interesting simply because the idea of taste is a problem.