Romance

A puritan, according to an old definition, is someone who distrusts desire. In The Money Shot, Jane Mills argues that Australian cinema (indeed, Australia generally) could do with a lot less puritanism. To begin with, you have to say: right on. Mills is a British expatriate who’s spent the last few years as head of Screen Studies at the Australian Film, Television & Radio School. She has an embarrassingly sharp eye for the failures and weaknesses of her adopted country (in part, it seems, because we’re more like her original country than she first hoped). The book is a collection of linked essays on topics ranging from recent local censorship debates to classical Hollywood melodrama, in a style that alternates, sometimes archly, between quasi-academic sobriety and breezy journalism.

Perhaps the best thing about The Money Shot is that Mills is a good old-fashioned defender of free speech, and we can never have too many of those. In these fearful times, it’s rousing to read someone who doesn’t just oppose censorship out of liberal principles, but vigorously argues that explicit sex and violence are vital elements in film art. Her argument against censorship is also an argument for education – for increased knowledge of the theory and history of cinema as well as the less official kind of knowledge obtainable from ‘transgressive’ images. Pitting herself against those who want to shield the public from such images, Mills envisages a community of active, informed viewers who have the tools to interpret and put into context the films they see.

In line with this belief in education, one of Mills’ main goals here is to popularise some of the concepts and arguments of academic cinema studies by linking them with wider community debates. She does this, in part, by pointing out that debates about censorship are always also debates about aesthetics, about form. For example, there’s a widespread belief that sex and violence in movies should always be “necessary to the story” rather than “gratuitous” – a principle that also shows up in our legal censorship guidelines. But even aside from the question of what constitutes “the story” in a film, the very concept of the “gratuitous” implies a specific and debatable aesthetic theory – one that shies away from fragmentation and ambiguity, while equating formal cohesion with moral worth.

This is where the defence of the imagination against censorship meets up with the other main theme of the book, the value of popular cinema. Against the classical aesthetics she sees as implicitly sponsored by the Office of Film And Literature Classification, Mills celebrates the gratuitous, excessive pleasures of “the money shot” – the “sublime, revelatory moment” (p. xix) in cinema that escapes from all stable frameworks of meaning and value. The crazy, fractured emotions of melodrama; the spectacular carnage of action movies; horror; pornography…

“The money shot” is a fantastic phrase, drawing together implications that are at once sexual, textual and economic (equating to the pornographic “cum shot” as well as “the shot the punters pay to see,” it suggests that the principal pleasure of consuming movies is the masturbatory one of spending). However, I have my problems with this side of the book, which in its haste to locate Hollywood cinema as a prime site of jouissance too often falls back on the worst and most glib rhetorical strategies of academic populism. Ultimately the argument gets reduced to a predictable battle between opposing terms – art versus trash, narrative versus spectacle, mind versus body, word versus image – drastically simplifying and sometimes confusing the issues at stake.

Thus while Mills sees herself as on the side of knowledge, the concept of the “money shot” as a singular, gratuitous, spectacular image that moves us “emotionally and sensationally” rather than “narratively and intellectually” (pp 217-218) plays into the hands of the dismissive view of spectacle as mindless, providing no sense of the way cinema uses images (and sounds) as forms of thought. Equally, to champion spectacle over narrative seems pointless given that all cinema is ultimately both spectacle and narrative (what else is a ‘moving picture’?) and that it’s unclear how a single image can function cinematically without reference to a larger, time-bound structure. Nor, when it comes right down to it, am I convinced that popular cinema offers us some kind of uniquely excessive experience (which is not to say that the relatively ‘unreflective’ procedures of popular art don’t have their own special aesthetic). I’d prefer to assume that any art worth having will simultaneously rely on formal conventions and breach them: on the face of it, an argument that sees high art as rule-bound and rigid, low art as thrillingly transgressive, is no more valid than the older view of the avant-garde as in revolt against the formulaic banality of mass culture.

Undoubtedly, in Australia and elsewhere, there was a time when to celebrate the supposedly mindless pleasures of cinema and other popular arts served as a useful way of tweaking entrenched intellectual prejudices (Marxist or literary-humanist). But in an era when the neo-conservative journal Quadrant can offer its own in-depth analysis of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, this kind of posturing has frankly had its day. (1) So clueless pundits like The Australian‘s Luke Slattery still know nothing about movies – who cares? While society and culture, including popular cinema itself, continue to be saturated in discourses of value, these discourses are less and less dominated by an unquestioned loyalty to ‘the classics’ or to traditional notions of artistic greatness (even in secondary education). Value, as most people encounter it, is much more ad hoc, shifting and multiple (2); indeed, struggles over valuation – what it means to be good or bad, a winner or a loser – are central to the kind of melodrama Mills defends.

Thus, while Mills claims that Australian censorship legislation is underpinned by an aesthetic philosophy of “elitism,” (p. 137) can anyone seriously see Richard Alston and Brian Harradine as classically-minded defenders of the fine arts? It would make more sense to view the legislation as collapsing together high and low culture (not least through its philistine understanding of the “gratuitous”), given that it makes no distinction between an art movie like Salò (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975), and a slasher flick like I Spit On Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1977) or the lowliest Internet porn. (The fact that in practice such distinctions are sometimes made – allowing a film like Romance [Catherine Breillat, 1999] to slip through the net – is surely no bad thing.) This is what is so puzzling about the way Mills sees herself as fighting against the repressive, elitist strictures of “modernism,” (p. 206) which she more or less equates with Enlightenment rationalism. While this notion of modernism is highly misleading to begin with, it makes even less sense to think of modernist high art as a dominant force in Australian culture (as opposed to dominating the fantasies of certain middlebrow journalists). Mills may be right to say that Australian cinema is lacking in spectacular, visceral pleasures, but it hardly follows that this failure should be blamed on our bloodless, over-cerebral way of life. A more obvious explanation might be these pleasures are already provided so successfully by sport…

Deep Blue Sea

Thus I find it depressing when someone like Mills thinks that it’s a useful political or critical move to gush over the “blood, guts and unspeakable gore” (p. 27) of a shark attack scene in Deep Blue Sea (Renny Harlin, 1999) on the grounds that this spectacle is sinfully “delicious” while possessing “no aesthetic value to speak of” (p.21). As far as I remember, I thought Deep Blue Sea was fairly lame, but that’s not the issue. Nor do I have a moral or aesthetic objection to violent action movies as such. Rather, my problem is that Mills’ rhetoric reinforces oppositions between ‘art’ and ‘pleasure,’ between the decorous realm of aesthetics and the down-and-dirty stuff we secretly enjoy. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a really puritanical stance. A further problem with the blanket defence of ‘trash’ is that it leaves little space for discussion of how one ‘trashy’ movie is different from another – and hence to suggest that aesthetic preferences at this level can be important, that they might actually mean something.

And of course these preferences often do mean a great deal. In the passage quoted above, Mills literalises the association of the “money shot” with pornography by suggesting that the pleasure of Deep Blue Sea involves a non-aesthetic encounter with transgressively “sinful” subject-matter. Elsewhere, however, she appears to understand “’gratuitous’” (p. 97) violence (for example, in action movies) as aesthetically pleasurable precisely because it exceeds any framework of significance: pure textual play that “means” nothing at all. The shifting sands of her argument threaten to engulf her when she discusses her ambivalence, as a feminist, over Hollywood films that depict rape. Mills sees these films as posing a challenge to her anti-censorship principles, but what’s really striking here is the double standard. Apparently, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying fictional cinematic images of people being torn apart by sharks – yet to get off on similar images of women being raped remains objectionable. So over-the-top sadistic fantasies in cinema are formal devices, except when they have content; valid and liberating, except when they aren’t…

My point is neither to defend rape fantasies, nor to equate action movies with violent pornography (though for better or worse, some action movies are violent pornography). Rather, I want to insist that aesthetic preferences are never products of mere whim, and that they have important consequences. It’s one thing for Mills to state the case against crudely “realist” (p. 101) ways of understanding and judging films, such as pseudo-scientific claims of a direct causal link between cinematic violence and violence in the real world. But it’s quite another to deny that when we go to the movies (and not only Hollywood movies) the way we respond as spectators to the sexual and aggressive fantasies unfolding onscreen is bound to relate – complexly but fundamentally – to the conscious or unconscious sexual and aggressive fantasies we carry round with us in our daily lives. In other words, we respond to art because it hits us where we live. This is not to say that cinema in general is fundamentally pornographic, but it does imply that the issue of which artworks we admire and choose to defend has a significance that is at once personal, political and, yes, moral. (3) From this perspective, calls to free the imagination from all constraint are less valuable than serious arguments about which films are worth defending and why – keeping in mind the basic liberal principle that to condemn is not, necessarily, to censor.

Ultimately The Money Shot suggests that a populist anti-censorship stance may not, in any case, provide an adequate political basis for a defence of ‘free speech.’ This becomes clear when Mills argues that Australian cinema needs to ditch its “sheltered workshop mentality” (p. 53) and focus more on its target audience. While I can’t disagree with her view that most Australian feature films are “incredibly ordinary and culturally ignorant,” (p. 44) I find it hard to believe that market-oriented strategies would make them smarter and more unusual. Is this really borne out by the hard-sell hype of The Wogboy (Aleksi Vellis, 2000), Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrmann, 2001) or Let’s Get Skase (Matthew George, 2001)? Strikingly, ‘alternative’ cinema for Mills tends to remain constituency-based: a film like Hustler White (Bruce La Bruce & Rick Castro, 1996), for example, is seen as meeting the demands of an established ‘queer’ audience. Even while Mills asks for more government funding to improve our national screen culture, and while she rails against critics who judge films according to conventional norms, there’s not much here to suggest that genuinely alternative filmmaking practices might be conceived in opposition to any predefined (and inevitably phantasmatic) notion of the market. Yet it’s commercial imperatives, far more than censorship laws, that govern film production and distribution in Australia; the failure of imagination that sees official censorship as the major enemy of free speech is symptomatic of the difficulty many people now have in picturing a viable non-commercial public sphere (this may explain the overall failure of ‘media studies’ intellectuals to speak out against the undermining of the ABC).

This links back to the problem with the book’s defence of popular culture: it only makes sense in relation to a dominant discourse of “critically acclaimed art” (p. 27) that situates itself clearly outside popular culture. Yet when the purported guardians of high cultural standards cited by Mills include P.J. O’Rourke wanna-be Joe Queenan and Sydney ‘shock jock’ Alan Jones, it’s anyone’s guess how she can distinguish what she’s attacking from what she’s defending. Popular culture, after all, isn’t just the funky thrills of action and horror cinema: it also includes ‘politically incorrect’ media personalities like Jones, racist jokes in pubs, the neo-fascist moralising doled out five afternoons a week on Judge Judy (for an audience presumably made up largely of the stay-at-home unemployed) and John Howard’s crush on the Australian cricket team. Maybe it would make more sense to just call all this stuff ‘culture’ – viewed in a somewhat Foucaultian manner as a network where power is exercised from many points and in many ways (censorship laws being only one example) and where nobody can automatically presume to be granted a ‘high’ position above the battle (Les Murray notwithstanding). This is not to minimise the importance of resisting government threats to civil liberties, now more than ever – but to point out that this is the beginning rather than the end of thinking about which topics and styles of representation now occupy the cultural spotlight, which get systematically marginalised, and how this might be changed.

Yet too much of the time Mills seems content to leave all this up to laws of supply and demand, displaying a certain conscious, breezy cynicism (a tone that recalls other local ‘populist’ intellectuals such as Catherine Lumby). Perhaps the moment in the text that most gives the game away is the flip comparison between Hollywood studios and the Coca-Cola company – supposedly, both are top-of-the-line manufacturers of “predictable pleasure” (p. 23). Reading this, you’re forced to ponder the more dubious economic implications of the phrase “the money shot.” You also have to wonder how much Mills really cares about Hollywood in the first place. After all, the truly impressive thing about Hollywood is not its ability to satisfy consumer demand with an unchanging tested product. Rather, it’s the fact that every once in a while, from the very heart of what used to be called the industrial-entertainment complex, films emerge that are as beautiful, sophisticated and ambiguous as any cinema anywhere.

One reason for this is surely that Hollywood itself is both deeply idealistic and deeply cynical – committed to the project of making dreams come true, yet sceptical about the ultimate value and meaning of these dreams. Writing this, I’m thinking of two great Hollywood films, Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956) and A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001). For all their differences, the two have at least this in common: both are powered by the depiction of a yearning (male) desire of extraordinary intensity and purity, yet both cast the most radical doubt imaginable on the grounds for this desire (a better title for Artificial Intelligence would be Manufactured Emotion). The endings of both films (certainly among my personal examples of the “money shot”) can imagine some degree of fulfilment only by leaving us to wonder how far the object of desire was ever real at all, and by linking this fulfilment with death.

Is this the puritanism I began by challenging? Perhaps it is. But if there is a difference between art and pornography – and I think the distinction is at least sometimes worth making – it might be this: porn gives us what we want, or pretends to, and asks no questions. Art begins from the moment of thought, which is the moment of suspicion. Art does not reject the demands and desires we bring to it, yet it distrusts them, profoundly. Any serious defence of artistic autonomy, transgression, or the liberating power of the imagination must acknowledge (as Mills sometimes does) that desire is also distrust; that true, abiding fascination is rarely separable from ambivalence. Art takes us to the heart of that ambivalence, which may be as far as we can go.

Endnotes

  1. Neil McDonald, ‘Buffy: Prime Time Passion Play,’ Quadrant, April 2000, pp 63-67.
  2. For an empirical study that supports this view, see Tony Bennett, Michael Emmison and John Frow, Accounting For Tastes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). They conclude that in present-day Australia ‘cultural authority and prestige are dispersed across a range of incommensurable regimes of value. Rather than being organised around a polarity of the dominant and the deprived or resistant, the cultural field “does not have one centre, or no centre, but multiple, simultaneous centres”‘ (p. 269).
  3. For comparable views, see Adrian Martin, ‘The Offended Critic: Film Reviewing And Social Commentary,’ Senses Of Cinema 8 (July-Aug 2000); John Street, Politics And Popular Culture (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997), pp 168-198.