Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Straw Dogs: When is sex and violence just sex and violence?

Over the holidays, I attempted to watch the movie Straw Dogs. I couldn't make it through. I found the film's relentless misogyny, violence, ableism and stereotyping of Southerners gross and unwatchable. After shutting off the film, I perused a few reviews to see if critics found it as unpleasant as I did. I was surprised to find that, though the movie was generally poorly reviewed, that many movie experts ascribed to the film some deeper meaning. Where I saw wanton violence, they saw commentary on violence. Where I saw dangerous sexism, they saw an analysis of masculinity. This has me trying to tease out, what criteria are there that confirm whether a piece of art celebrates a negative bit of culture (say, violence, sexism, racism or homophobia) or instead challenges or analyzes it?

The 2011 Straw Dogs is a remake of a 1971 film by the same name, directed by Sam Peckinpah. The original, set in England, starred Dustin Hoffman and Susan George. The reboot moves the action to the Southern United States and features James Marsden (David), Kate Bosworth (Amy) and Alexander Skarsgard (Charlie). Upon her father's death, TV star Amy and her writer husband, David, return to her small, rural Mississippi hometown. Amy is the picture of idealized white womanhood--thin, blonde and desired by every man who strolls into her orbit. David is the stereotypical effete liberal Northerner--bespectacled, pushing a Jag and always exuding a thinly-veiled aura of condescension. By contrast, the residents of Blackwater, Mississippi, are stupid, scruffy, bigoted, hyper religious and menacing, absorbed by Friday night football, hunting and breeding.

Charlie, Amy's high school flame, joins a group of local men in repairing a barn on Amy and David's property. What ensues is a--for lack of a better word--dick-measuring contest between Amy's past and current paramours. Charlie leads his crew in passive-aggressively (heavy on the aggressive) needling the couple. They play loud music early in the morning, barely put in a days work and walk freely into the house--all things David is too reserved to challenge. The posse soon escalates to more threatening behavior, killing the couple's pet cat and making lewd sexual remarks to Amy. Eventually, while his crew lures David on a hunting trip where he is narrowly missed by a bullet and abandoned in the woods, Charlie and another cohort rape Amy.

And this is where I had to stop. I couldn't bear any more.

Straw Dogs' female lead is sexually harassed and eventually assaulted to advance a story about a Red State-Blue State masculinity contest, men of different stripes battling over property. Worse, the film disturbingly attempts to make Amy complicit in her own assault. David remarks that perhaps the men would leave her alone if she covered herself and wore a bra. We are treated to several lascivious shots of her sweaty and scantily clad body. Even the rape scene was shot with too much emphasis on the bodies of Bosworth and Skarsgard, rather than the brutality of the moment.

There is a similar dance going on in a sub-plot involving Jeremy, a young developmentally disabled man, and the teenage daughter of the town's drunk and angry football coach. We are led to believe that, because of his disability, Jeremy is a danger to the town's girls and women. Allusions to some past "mistake" are made. The coach menaces Jeremy to stay away from his daughter. Yet, the minute the coach's back is turned, the girl sidles up to the Jeremy--all sex and candy. Eventually, Jeremy ends up mistakenly killing the girl, frightened after she attempts to give him oral sex.The implication is that women tease and some men simply cannot control themselves. And also that disabled people are dangerous.

And why were Amy and her husband met with such hostility in her hometown? It's unclear other than it fits hoary cliches about the flyover states, particularly Southern ones. The residents of Blackwater are like the hill folk in Deliverance with ever so slightly better manners.

The Internet tells me that Straw Dogs ends in an orgy of violence that forces David to cast off his yuppified persona and match the male aggression of his redneck tormentors.

About this, the Washington Post says:

The 1971 film was about how it was possible to win a fight while still losing everything, including one's humanity. Its outcome, brutal for the time, left you shell-shocked, by design.
The new version wants to leave you reeling, too. It tries to equate monstrous behavior -- not just Charlie's, or David's, but America's -- with a society that condones, and even glorifies, violence. Football, hunting, Budweiser and inflammatory rhetoric from the pulpit all share blame for society's ills. Read more...
Roger Ebert offers:
The lesson learned is that the egghead contains the possibility of using great violence when his home and wife are threatened. At the beginning, he doesn't know that. Read more...
And The New York Times:

“Straw Dogs” has often been understood as an exposé of David’s hypocrisy, a revelation of the beast that lurks in the heart of even the most civilized and passive modern man. But David’s homicidal frenzy is not really a descent into the primal, macho swamp of vengeance and self-defense where his antagonists have always been content to dwell. He is not defending Amy or punishing her rapists — in neither version does she tell him about the attack — but rather taking up arms in defense of two abstract ideas: the sanctity of private property and the importance of due process.
No wonder the blue-state audience at the screening I attended cheered and hooted as David made ingenious use of a nail gun, a bear trap and two pots of boiling oil to keep his tormentors at bay. I’m kidding, to some extent. The response to righteous movie mayhem is always more visceral than philosophical. But “Straw Dogs” does give you something to think about. Read more...
All of these reviewers seem to assign some depth to the ugliness of Straw Dogs that I'm not convinced is there. They found purpose in the rape imagery and the regressive pictures of womanhood and manhood. I didn't. I saw more endorsement than analysis. After all, in the end, our flawed hero has become the base and violent (masculine) animal that he disdains, in order to win. And Amy--the trophy around whom the film revolves has received no acknowledgment of her sexual violation.

This reminds me of defenses of Lisa Lampanelli and Sarah Silverman's comedy. Defenders claim that the women's comedy is not a celebration or endorsement of racism, but some sort of commentary on it. Yet, I am always confused as to why fans believe this. What is the nuance that turns Lampanelli and Silverman's comedy from gross racism to social commentary, other than the fact that we like to think no one--certainly not nice, liberal, Northern ladies--would be so openly and crassly biased and offensive.

I think sometimes we ascribe deeper meaning to things to avoid admitting our own vulgar tastes and beliefs. So, Straw Dogs becomes an elevated critique, because what other reason is there for 110 minutes of stereotypes, violence and sexual barbarism?

Did you see Straw Dogs? If so, did the subtext of the narrative reveal itself to you? What signaled the purpose of the brutality? If you didn't see this film, I repeat my earlier question: What criteria are there that confirm whether a piece of art celebrates a negative bit of culture (violence, sexism or regional bias) or instead challenges or analyzes it?


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