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.


K. Lorraine Graham said...

Hi Mark,

I was thinking about this post in light of another binary, one that my two favorite modernists (Mina Loy et Djuna Barnes) like to play with: sacred/profane. One reason why Loy's Love Songs, for example, is so great is because she doesn't just write a love poem in a kind of reverse discourse. Instead, Love Songs sets up a tension between an accurate, maybe subversive kind of realism (detailing a profane, unorthodox love affair) and the impossibility of perfectly representing that love in a poem. In other words, I suppose I'm just agreeing that reversing a binary doesn't by default result in art that critiques power structures. For me, the art has to have some kind of dynamic tension.

Anonymous said...

Also remember Waters's films were queer, back when this was a honest perversion and not a market-definition. Like an inverted (most intentionally) "The Killing of Siser George," Waters waggled the nasties in the face of the straights, using that time-honored formula: one's a shake, two's a wank.


Joseph said...

I agree that Visitor Q is a boring film, but I think it's more interesting when viewed in the context of genre -- extreme Asian horror films -- and in the context of other Takashi Miike films, which do cohere into a "Miike vision of the universe" just as there is a "John Waters vision of the universe."

Ryan W. said...

I'm always thinking about the "aesthetic of the tasteless" and doing 1-2 other things at all times.

Jackass was tasteless, except for a few parts that I found funny. what could be more tasteless than repeatedly inflicting pain on oneself in ways that aren't even particularly creative or surprising? but there were a couple good parts.

hmm. actually it would be more tasteless, by a little, to inflict pain on others. I stopped watching pink flamingos during the chicken scene, because there was just nothing interesting about watching animals being harmed in a pointless way. and the movie wasn't particularly interesting up til that point, if I remember right. pecker was good tho.

Gary said...

I loved Vistor Q. But I'm also a huge Miike fan, and have seen dozens of his films. It does, I think, work well within his larger universe or world-view or whathaveyou ... and works especially well within a Japanese culture context ... but I also know many people who don't like Miike's films, period.

It also may help that I live with someone who lived in Japan for more than a decade. Often when I'm watching Japanese movies (in particular Battle Royale or anything by Ozu), Nada throws me cultural/social info to help put what's going on into the specific cultural context that the film comes out of.

Ron Silliman has made the point that humor doesn't travel well from culture to culure. I tend to make the opposite point, that humor from other cultures, even (especially?) extreme kinds of humor, like Visitor Q, give a viewer a lot of information about a culture if they read whatever the work is more actively.

I want to think more about Vanessa's point, because I don't agree with it at all--from everthing I've read about and by Waters, I think he was always very market-driven, even in the early days. His audience, early audience, was Baltimore, and I think they got what they paid to see. Same for his larger audience--that for the underground cinema in the U.S. generally ...

Anyway, my 22 cents!


mark wallace said...
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mark wallace said...

Thanks for these comments, everyone. They're very helpful.

Joseph and Gary, I certainly appreciate the information about Miike's ouevre, and no doubt I'm not seeing it in that context. Not sure I intend to, since this film didn't convince me that I wanted any more, but nonetheless it's true that I don't know what the Miike world view ultimately looks like.

I know only a bit about extreme Asian horror films. I know more about extreme American horror films of recent years, and though I'm a big horror movie fan I'm not a fan of those. Saw and its like, for instance, are really just torture flicks, with one dimensional characters having their bodies ripped apart in inventive ways. It all depends on grossness rather than any genuine suspense or interest in the totally disposable story. I can see how Visitor Q participates in another tradition of extreme body shock films without being certain that I want to investigate further.

Gary, I hear what you're saying about the importance of the Japanese context, and living with Nada certainly makes you more informed than I am. I didn't feel like I was missing any major cultural clues to what was happening in the film though, which I more or less perfectly understood, and the taboo violation checklist of tastelessness didn't seem that different from what those taboos would be in the U.S. The themes of the film seemed transparent to me, although I suppose I could be wrong about that.

Ryan, yeah. Visitor Q is mainly about pain inflicted on others, and especially pain inflicted on women by men. I didn't feel offended or anything haughty like that, just, you know, a little ill and grossed out, which is part of what the movie intends. I'm not going into any more detail because anybody who really wants to know can watch the film themselves. Let's just say that it makes rape/revenge films like "Last House on the Left" seem tame.

Vanessa, whatever the marketing strategy elements which Gary raises, there's no doubt that this Miike film is entirely hetero in its orientation and somewhat more boring for it. To me the taboo breaking in the film seemed like a fairly rote exercise, and the reclaiming of family happiness at the end just a way of having a wrap up to a film that wasn't saying nearly as much as it implied that it was.

Lorraine--yeah, you're right. Reversing a binary isn't automatically much more interesting than accepting one unquestionably.

Joseph said...

I wonder if any "tasteless" film, including those by John Waters, Takashi Miike or others, could fail to make "a bid for itself to be recuperated as somehow tasteful" given that the film medium -- or at least the kinds of films made by these directors -- is an art form; that is, these are directors who make "arty" films despite their tastelesness, shown in art house cinemas; both these directors can non-controversially be described as auteurs. So in some way there is inherently a bid to transcend taste. I find it interesting that one of your main complaints about "Visitor Q" is that 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." In that case no fiction could be tasteless; perhaps it could only be tasteless, then, if these really were father and daughter -- in which case, the real tasteless films are reality videos such as bum fights, or pseudo-pornography -- oh god, don't tell me you haven't seen "2 Girls, 1 Cup"? You can google it if you want, I won't link to it.

One more thing: I don't think it's quite right to compare extreme Asian horror films to American torture horror. The films by directors like Miike, Park Chan Wook and Jang Sun-woo (by the latter, I recommend "Timeless Bottomless Bad Movie") are really different animals. The Japanese and Korean film are much more intelligently made; they seem influenced by theory somewhat; and there's always a level of desire or politics on which to hang their extremities.

mark wallace said...

Thanks for this further response, Joseph. It's really helping me think about this.

I absolutely agree with your first point: that the arty context attempts to recuperate such pictures as tasteful, or at least as existing in a realm beyond issues of taste. The success of that move would obviously depend on whether the film itself handles that transfer convincingly. In other words, whether it turns the gross-out into something that has the looks and themes of art in a way that convinces viewers that it's legitimately more than just a gross-out fest.

Re the opening incest scene, part of the reason it's so transparent that the characters are actors is that the characters, both then and later, rarely seem convincing as characters. Nothing in the scene emotionally convinces me that they're father and daughter, so as a viewer I become aware that I'm just looking at a couple of good-looking actors who are mouthing words about being a father and daughter. That self-consciousness could certainly be part of the film's humor if the scene didn't go on so long and wasn't so dull.

Absolutely true too that American extreme horror and Asian extreme horror are not the same. Visitor Q definitely seems more driven by a desire to say something, both comical and serious, about desire and family life, when compared to something like Saw which is really just going for a tasteless torture gross-out. But to me the veneer of "saying something" in Visitor Q fails because the film feels like a rote checklist of taboos without convincing emotional context. They're like special effects in big Hollywood blockbusters; you're supposed to feel so fascinated/shocked/wowed by them that the story line can become an irrelevant distraction.

Gary said...

Hi again, Mark:

Actually, Takashi Miike's world view, as expressed in all of his films, is decidedly queer, which is I think why I'm having trouble understanding Vanessa's negative comparison of Miike to Waters based on Waters being queer and, what, anti-market b/c queer culture was pre-market in the 60s? I think I need her to parse this out for me; I'm not getting it at all.

Miike's "Big Bang Love, Juvenile A," a homoerotic flick about prisoners, which screened at the LA Gay & Lesbian Film Festival a year or two ago, is only the most overt ... all of Miike's films deal with cultural outsiders, racial, sexual, lifestyle, etc.--people who are, in all senses, "queer." Zebraman, for instance, so unlike a U.S. superhero film, is about cross-dressing. I mean, not literally, but that's what it is ultimately about, and meant to be read as that, in way that not even the U.S. TV Batman seemed to be, despite its campyness.

Visitor Q is Miike's homage to Pasolini's Theorem, it's on a number of levels the same film, and I'd bet $25 US that it's a conscious retelling of that film.

Here's an essay on Theorem:

Not that any of this will convince you to like the film, but I do think that it's a mistake to dismiss it as simply an exercise in tastelessness. I think it's actually an exercise in queer expression, like all of his films.

Joseph is totally right, btw: American and Asian horror are worlds apart. Don't give up on Asian horror, Mark! Also, don't judge Miike just on Visitor Q.

If you have Netflix, cue up Fudoh, the Next Generation ... and if you hate that one, then you can safely forget Miike ... but I've got $14 US that says you'll like it!


Anonymous said...

My comment was more a reminder that "queer" was very community (sexuality) specific at the time of Pink Flamingos, and not the protean, market-driven and relatively accepted(among the target audience)phenom it is today. Your definition of queer demonstrates its more elastic contemporary definition, which is part of the point -- Waters' films were genuinely preverse from the point of a discreetly identifiable campy perversion. Divine was . And there's something that lies between anti- and pro- in terms of market, which may constitute signal flares sent up by outsiders. Waters has said that he just cast his friends as his friends were (e.g., Divine wasn't a drag queen, wasn't about cross dressing, but was about something grand in its absolute abjectness), they would get stoned and run around shooting scenes without permission in innocent farmers' innocent pig sties. That seems far more on the subversive (and therefore tasteful) side of tasteless than a glory hole gore fest, at least at first blush.


mark wallace said...

Thanks for these further thoughts, everyone.

Actually, Gary, I did know about the Pasolini connection already, although I appreciate the link. Of course, as you say, I'm not sure that a film I don't like will get any better just because it's a re-reading of another film. I suppose it could though.

I also appreciate your suggestion of another Miike film I should watch, although my guess is that your $14 is only about $11 today. Still, the suggestion also made me laugh, not because of anything you said, but because I've blogged before about being "led down the garden path of praise." I think it happens to a lot of people. You read a book or watch a film you don't like that somebody told you was good, then somebody says, "Ah that was the wrong one by that person, you should have read/watched this other one." And sometimes I've done that, and not liked it again, and sometimes somebody else has even suggested a third, which I end up usually not liking either. So I've sometimes ended up having explored several things in a row that I don't like and have wondered why I went that way.

But I appreciate you suggesting I could pull the plug after this next one if I don't like it, and because, you know, you're GARY, I'll trust you and try the other one at some point, when I'm in a relaxed mood and able to handle the possible frustration at my own infinite gullibility.

I can't say much about the queer/hetero issue relative to other Miike films, obviously, but in Visitor Q the desire seemed almost entirely hetero, and stereotypically at that: the mother who experiences infinite pain so she can be a source of an infinite milk of comfort, an unloved daughter who turns to prostitution, a father who can't really come to terms with himself until he releases his inner desire for violence and murders his girlfriend. The satire was vaguely amusing at small moments, but the ghgf that Vanessa speaks of really seemed to me to overwhelm the rest of the film.

Gary said...

Hi Mark and Vanessa,

First, thanks Vanessa for clarifying your earlier thoughts for me, and sorry for being so thick. I do understand what you’re saying, although I do think that what you say would have more relevance if Miike was an American (north or south) or European director.

I’ll see you next Thursday, when you read in midtown with Kim R—I plan to be there (it’s walking distance from my work). Looking forward to it!

Although I think there is some truth in the characterization you provided of how Waters approached filmmaking ca. 1972, I also have to admit that it doesn’t ring entirely true to me given everything I’ve seen by Waters (including that film), or what those who worked with Waters have written about their experiences with the great director.

Waters was not simply turning a camera on his friends being their stoned selves in some bucolic state of innocence—that sounds a bit more like maybe Jack Smith filming Normal Love. (And that may be a great part of the reason why Normal Love--or any of Smith's films, love them as I do---have the audience today that Pink Flamingoes and other Waters films do.)

Waters’ films—at least by 72—were tightly scripted, and Cookie Muller (who was not a friend of Waters, initially—she won a contest that granted her a screen test), in her memoirs, describes how Waters had to do retake after retake of Edith Massey, who would first struggle to learn her lines, and then—having finally gotten everything memorized, would recite the stage directions as well as the dialog.

And let’s not forget, in PF, scenes involving cutting off genitals, Edith in a crib (!), people burning houses down, and—of course—Divine eating dogshit in an ending that feels every bit as tacked on (and meant to shock, as well as delight) as the ending of Miike’s Visitor Q. (The ending in Visitor Q is meant to feel false, which is in line with just about every ending Miike provides.)

Pink Flamingos is a very American product, consciously so, and I think this is why it continues to appeal to so many here, even today. It’s a film that deals with two warring families (think Hatfield and McCoy), but even more so, as your description hints at, it’s a film that describes a struggle for individuation: who will be crowned the filthiest person alive.

While initially shocking for some, the plot, what the film is really about, is, on a key level, absolutely unsubversive with respect to American values, which place the individual, individual expression, above all else. The film is a celebration—albeit a twisted celebration—of that.

This is why Waters’ plotline focuses so heavily on the individuals in his cast. Although they are not just being themselves—they are being the very manufactured characters in Waters’ script—an important distinction, I think, at least so far as this discussion goes: Waters, I’m arguing, is subversive not just by being himself, or shooting his friends just being themselves, but in a very calculated, and to good extent, market-driven, way—although, yes, for a very different-looking market than exists today.

Remember, too, Waters was traveling up to NYC very frequently during this period, and just before it, watching and learning from the films he saw being screened at the time by the Kuchar brothers, Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, and so on. He’s second generation (which is why, I would argue, his films have held up better for a broader audience—he learned quite a bit from, as well as being inspired by, the first generation of underground filmmakers.)

Miike, on the other hand—and this is what I mean by thinking about his film in a Japanese context—is not foregrounding individuals in most of his films, including Visitor Q. VQ is focused on the social order, the realm of the superego rather than the ego of Waters’ focus, which is very Japanese.

Although many Americans give lip service to the primary importance of the family (or “family values”), in actual practice, it’s the individual that is ultimately of supreme importance for us—and the individual is in direct opposition to the family (or any other social order.)

Waters celebrates that very American sensibility, and audiences have ultimately rewarded him for it. And Visitor Q doesn’t seem like a film that any American filmmaker would care to (or even be able to?) make. It is concentrated on the social order of the family, and attacks it, in a way that American filmmakers would probably (I’m guessing) find pointless.

There is definitely a divide between PF and VQ, but it’s not just the one of time that Vanessa has pointed to—it’s one of cultures. I don’t think PF would have been made in Japan b/c, just as an attack on the family social order has less of a punch here than there, a flaunting of queer individuality in Japan wouldn’t read the same there as it does here.

Despite Japan’s greater focus, generally, on the social or realm of the superego (a concentration that is felt, to Japanese viewers, down to the exact language people use to speak to each other—something no subtitle, however good, can get across to us), Japan has always been much more tolerant of what many think of in the U.S. as “sexual deviation” or whathaveyou. In other words, what shocks (or subverts) in one culture doesn’t necessarily shock (or subvert—having less or even nothing to subvert) in another.

I wrote all that very quickly, and it no doubt is more convoluted than it should be! Also, of course, it's just my opinion, and I ultimately of course respect all others' responses to Miike's work--even if my own response is somewhat different. (I didn't think of it as a ghgf, although maybe I need to watch it again.)

Anyway, this has been interesting and lively, and I’m glad to have read your reading of Visitor Q, Mark—it’s given me a lot to think about.

And see you soon, Vanessa!


Gary said...

Oops! I meant to say that Jack Smith's films DON'T have the audience that Waters' films do ... but forgot the crucial word ("don't"). Sorry about that.