Thinking about Triggers, Thumbs, Sex, and Death

by B. Ruby Rich

from Film Quarterly Summer 2014, Volume 67, Number 4

Part I. In This Issue
At times it can seem that cinema, at least its American variant, inhabits a prolonged adolescence in which images of sex are at once omnipresent and puerile, in a “can’t look too close but can’t look away” manner. But why? Why should sex be any harder to credit in movies than murder? After all, nobody really dies: they pop up at press conferences and film festivals with nary an apology. Yet uneasiness about sex persists, as though a film set’s scrum of crewmembers, lights, cameras, and booms would allow any putative coupling. There’s an ongoing suspension of the usual suspension of disbelief, a reluctance to accord sexual performances the matter-of-fact acceptance automatically granted to every other aspect of filmmaking.

Usefully, several essays in this issue help reframe questions of sex, eroticism, and desire through a close examination of films emerging from disparate cultural frameworks. Three recent European film releases—one lesbian, one gay male, one heterosexual—opened over the course of the past year and have nudged the zones of acceptability for cinematic sex into more explicit and complex territory. Linda Williams brings her career-long expertise on the subject of “sex acts” (her term) to bear on these films and their receptions. Scrutinizing Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color, Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, and Lars von Trier’s Nymph( )maniac (all 2013), Williams traces their lineages of controversy and provides a context for current debates within a complex field of representational practices.1 Her analysis clarifies a great deal about cultural attitudes today, and just might help to shape a new viewership that can escape the sexual sandbox of predictable outrage the next time a controversy comes a-boiling.

Ara Osterweil, in turn, takes up questions of sexuality and desire in another of the season’s most debated films, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, arguing that its narrative of the sexual awakening of an alien (who takes the irresistible form of Scarlett Johansson) represents a significant advance in the cinematic depiction of female desire in a space of freedom denied to mortal females.

FQ contributing editor James S. Williams brings a much-needed perspective to the films of the renowned Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, who has lived in France since he was twenty-one but continues to shoot his films in his native Chad. Disentangling Haroun’s erotics of intimacy, Williams usefully points out that “beauty is trouble” in West African cinema as he sets about analyzing both the filmmaker’s insistence on cinematic beauty and the fate of the characters whom he so elegantly constructs and films.

Beauty is omnipresent in Isaac Julien’s nine-screen installation at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Ten Thousand Waves, the subject of an essay by Joseph Livesey. Livesey carefully traces the installation’s references back to Chinese cinema and the deaths by drowning of Chinese cockle-pickers in Morecombe Bay, and usefully extends his scope to consider the challenges imposed on spectators by the monumental screens that, by their placement, de-center the audience.

Lest Film Quarterly neglect popular cinema, columnist Amelie Hastie ponders the power of stardom from a multiplex close to home in her appreciation of Angelina Jolie and Maleficent (Robert Stromberg, 2014), reading the star through her role and the fairy-tale sorceress through the body that portrays her. Regular columnist Paul Julian Smith, ever peripatetic, reports from the Guadalajara film festival. Other film festival reviews bring readers up to date on the highlights from this year’s edition of Cannes, through the eyes of festival veteran Joan Dupont; on the changes in the revamped AFI DOCS festival by longtime observer and FQ contributing editor J. M. Tyree; and on the focus of the vast “Vienna Unveiled” retrospective by FQ‘s own book review editor, Noah Isenberg.

On the subject of books, with this issue David Sterritt rotates out of the position of Chief Book Critic and moves to a new domain as Editor-in-Chief of Quarterly Review of Film and Video, with all best wishes for his many contributions here.

Books assume a new role here at FQ with this issue, as we initiate a new practice of posting selections on the Film Quarterly website. See Bill Nichols on the power of film manifestos and their neglected place in film history in this issue, then go to the URL to read examples.

Part II. Trigger Warnings
The eloquent analyses of beauty, sexuality, and intimacy in this issue pose a stark contrast to heated debates in academia and the media concerning the phenomenon of “trigger warnings” gathering momentum on college campuses and Internet blogs.2 The phrase has its origins back in feminist blogs as well as best-practices initiatives by sexual-violence survivor groups, particularly online and in online sites set up for those communities, but it has also been used in the context of a more generalized discourse on PTSD and the kinds of experiences, images, or words that can “trigger” a recurrence of trauma.

Following a brief flurry of attention to the term four years ago, the past year witnessed a series of actions on college campuses that set off a media firestorm, leading Slate to declare 2013 the Year of the Trigger Warning. Reduced to near-cartoonish dimensions, the trigger-warning threat spurred articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, Nation, Atlantic, Chronicle of Higher Education, Salon, Bully Bloggers, and innumerable others within a matter of months.

This slew of trigger warning articles has reminded me of nothing so much as the anti-pornography fights of the 1980s, which similarly pitted free speech against personal harm in a free-for-all of media attention. Back then, sides were severely drawn for and against, with pornography denounced or defended according to gender, sexual history, and a varied set of personal fears. No middle ground was permitted. Hopefully, those mistakes won’t be repeated: emotionally resonant issues tend not to produce reasoned debate even though it’s precisely what is needed. This time around, the focus is on college campuses and demands by some students that trigger warnings be included on course syllabi to ensure that the classroom is a safe space for those with PTSD and histories of abuse.3 In turn, numerous professors and the typical media posse of pundits cry censorship and ridicule the very idea. I think trigger warnings are a terrible idea, skirting too close to policing the classroom for my comfort; furthermore, I doubt they would work.

I dread any such standard coming to film classes, and would hate to see the Motion Picture Association of America film rating system imposed on syllabi with new elaborated rules of engagement. The glory of watching films, for me, is precisely the not-knowing what is going to come next: transcendent beauty, abysmal sadness, chaotic confusion, unwanted violence. Great films redeem injury as powerfully as they confer grace. The imposition of warnings would do a disservice to cinema and students both. And such warnings would very probably be appended disproportionately to work that is daring, work that takes risks and upends conventions.

Amid the firestorm of articles, the clearest and most nuanced position came from a group of faculty writing with sympathy about the demands and with rigor about the reason not to accede to them. The signatories include FQ editorial board member Patricia White and recent contributor Homay King, who join their co-authors in pointing to dangers of such a practice as well as its ineffectiveness.4 Trauma is so varied and individual, and its restimulation markers so random, that myriad reports hold that attempts at warnings offer false comfort to anyone with PTSD.

Cinema should open eyes and minds and hearts, not shut them down. Like the age-old, rarely followed physicians’ dictum, “Do No Harm,” films are rightfully scrutinized for their effects; however, to string an intellectual version of caution tape across the room before a single image has been shown augurs a problem that could well be even worse.

Part III. Two Thumbs Up
The Steve James documentary Life Itself (2014) has opened in theaters across the United States. This tribute to Roger Ebert’s writing, life, joie de vivre, and death may not be playing to audiences as large as the critic himself once reached through his immense newspaper-television-blogging empire, but once it starts streaming, a much greater viewership is sure to follow. The film offers the opportunity to think seriously about Ebert’s career and his contributions to cinema.

Steve James departs here from his lifelong documentary focus on the lives of the disenfranchised, the injustices of poverty, racism, and violence. Here, for the first time, he focuses his camera on somebody famous and powerful. But Ebert was struggling, too—for life itself, as he faced illness and death—and therefore this is also the kind of intimate drama that James has long tracked. True, the home/hospice of a dying man does not offer the same social spaces as the hard streets or basketballs courts of Hoop Dreams (1994) or The Interrupters (2011), but archival footage bridges the gap and brings the audience into the full richness of Ebert’s world. It’s a great Chicago story and thus central to James’s lifelong devotion to his adopted city.

Life Itself fills in the details of Ebert’s career and private life, during and prior to his twenty-plus-year marriage to Chaz, including his young-bachelor wildness (a trait the documentary also traces, surprisingly, in his late co-host Gene Siskel), alcoholism, his collaboration with soft-core auteur Russ Meyer, for whom he wrote the screenplay to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970); and his bitter rivalry with Siskel, which evolved into an unspoken brotherly love that bound them and their families together.

Roger Ebert had terrific taste. In the early years, he championed R.W. Fassbinder as much as Martin Scorsese (who testifies in the film to his importance to his career), wrote on independent and foreign films as well as major releases, loved documentaries, and was a constant fixture at film festivals even before he started his own. He was an unfailingly generous and supportive colleague (except with Siskel, obviously, whom he was constantly trying to scoop, and vice versa). When I once thought of trying my luck as a daily critic, I turned to Roger for advice. “Can you write fast?” That was all he wanted to know. That was the main thing.5 Fast and well. But he skipped that last part, newspaperman that he was.

For every critic out there who acknowledges watching Ebert as a kid and being inspired to run off to the movies, there’s another who hated The Thumb and faulted Ebert for dumbing down film criticism, opening the door to the bloggers that followed. Not I. Roger Ebert knew more about film than most anyone. He studied it as earnestly as he did sports when he was a sportswriter and literature when he was a PhD student at the University of Chicago. Most of all, he always wanted to write a novel and once admitted to me that he had to accept that he was “only” a film critic.

After he won a Pulitzer, the first for a film critic, Ebert went right back to work at his beloved Chicago Sun-Times, a loyal newspaperman to the end. But he also edited a great collection of film writing, Roger Ebert’s Book of Film: From Tolstoy to Tarantino, the Finest Writing from a Century of Film (1996), that’s smart, well researched, and quirky enough to be interesting still. And Ebert could be counted on to go beyond a daily writer’s dutiful indexing of product to stick his neck out for films he believed in, famously standing up at Sundance to defend a young Taiwanese-American filmmaker from a hostile audience member who was outraged at the narrative of Asian-American yuppies getting away with murder. The filmmaker was Justin Lin, the debut film Better Luck Tomorrow (2002). (The scene is even in the film, captured by Linsanity (2103) director Evan Jackson Leong, then working with Lin.) Lin went on to create the Fast and Furious franchise and to remember how Roger stuck up for him. And Ebert went on to the next filmmaker in need of support.

Ebert never failed to be generous to films by outsiders, gay or lesbian filmmakers, African-American filmmakers, many directors of color, international talents, or anyone pushing cinema in new directions. And other critics. During the interregnum between Siskel’s death and Richard Roeper’s hiring, he invited me on the show. We reviewed Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry (1999), raved about Hilary Swank’s performance as Brandon Teena, debated his/her pronouns, and agreed on two thumbs up. It was classic Ebert: championing a first-time film on a controversial subject, produced by indie film impresario Christine Vachon’s Killer Films. He was the star of a show produced by Disney with millions of viewers and a brand that spanned multiple platforms, but Ebert wouldn’t desert upstart films that were daring, outspoken, and great filmmaking.

Even when the cancer that had been in remission came back and got him, Ebert remained a force to be reckoned with. Shifting gears from television to blogging when he could no longer speak, he kept up with the film festivals that had always been his lifeline and kept filing copy, watching screeners, doing his part to hold up the ongoing dialogue about what films are worth seeing, what ideas worth holding, what talent worth supporting. Roger Ebert lived and breathed film to the end. I wonder what he’d have to say about “trigger warnings.”

Image detail:  Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel photographed by Kevin Horan. Courtesy of Kartemquin.

1. For my views on Blue Is the Warmest Color, see my essay “Feeling Blue” for the Criterion Collection, http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/3072-blue-is-the-warmest-color-feeling-blue. Listen to my conversation with NPR’s Bilal Qureshi, http://www.npr.org/2013/10/24/240239209/for-blue-the-palme-dor-was-only-the-beginning.

2. By May, this reached such a pitch that there was a new article nearly every week, day, or hour, both on the Internet and in print, as journalist after journalist sought to join the crowd of commentary and stake out a claim. Articles included: Sarah Ditum, “The Whole Damn Literary Canon Needs a Trigger Warning,” New Statesman, May 21, 2014, http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/05/whole-damn-literary-canon-needs-trigger-warning; Colleen Flaherty, “Trigger Unhappy,” Inside Higher Ed, April 14, 2014, http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/04/14/oberlin-backs-down-trigger-warnings-professors-who-teach-sensitive-material#ixzz37nauVqaF; Laurie Essig, “Trigger Warnings Trigger Me,” Chronicle of Higher Education, “Conversation,” March 10, 2014. http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2014/03/10/trigger-warnings-trigger-me; Conor Friedersdorff, “What HBO Can Teach Colleges About ‘Trigger Warnings’,” Atlantic, May 23, 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/05/what-trigger-warning-activists-and-critics-can-learn-from hbo/371137; Jack Halberstam, “You Are Triggering Me! The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger, and Trauma,” Bully Bloggers, July 5, 2014, and “Triggering Me, Triggering You: Making Up Is Hard to Do,” Bully Bloggers, July 15, 2014, http://bullybloggers.wordpress.com/2014/07/05/you-are-triggering-me-the-neo-liberal-rhetoric-of-harm-danger-and-trauma and http://bullybloggers.wordpress.com/2014/07/15/triggering-me-triggering-you-making-up-is-hard-to-do; Amanda Marcotte, “The Year of the Trigger Warning,” Slate, December 30, 2013; Jennifer Medina, “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm,” New York Times, May 18, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/us/warning-the-literary-canon-could-make-students-squirm.html; Angela Shaw-Thornburg, “This Is a Trigger Warning,” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 6, 2014, http://chronicle.com/article/This-Is-a-Trigger-Warning/147031; Valerie Strauss, “What Trigger Warning Would the Bible Get?” Washington Post, May 23, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/05/23/what-trigger-warning-would-the-bibleget/?tid=pm_local_pop.

3. The schools most often mentioned in reports are UC Santa Barbara and Oberlin, due to student declarations at those campuses, but there are many others where the issue has been raised by individuals or groups of students already.

4. See Elizabeth Freeman, Brian Herrera, Nat Hurley, Homay King, Dana Luciano, Dana Seitler, and Patricia White, “Trigger Warnings Are Flawed,” Inside Higher Ed, May 29, 2014, http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2014/05/29/essay-faculty-members-about-why-they-will-not-use-trigger-warnings#sthash.yRA5qHbv.dpbs.

5. My article with that title was posted online by Indiewire immediately after Ebert’s death: “Write Fast: Remembering Roger Ebert,” Indiewire, April 7, 2013, http://blogs.indiewire.com/criticwire/write-fast-b-ruby-rich-remembers-roger-ebert.