Trapped in the Web: An Open Letter to Bob Dole
(page two)

In my classes, I've taught I've Heard the Mermaids Singing, Do the Right Thing, Daughters of the Dust, and Go Fish because these movies deal with topics--radical politics, African American history, gay and lesbian culture--that Hollywood cinema usually marginalizes or ignores. These movies also provoke spirited discussions; the students aren't shy about expressing their opinions about the issues these films raise, even if their opinions are opposed to mine. And I'm happy to teach these films because I like them as much as Jackie Chan Kung-Fu fights and Fred Williamson blaxploitation pics.


Now Bob, you may see a contradiction here. How is it possible for me to support liberalism and teach feminist films while I enjoy horror films where women get cunnilingized by severed heads?

Well, I think that all spectators experience similar forms of cognitive dissonance, because we're all caught in a complex web of relationships that exerts a profound effect on our media reception. Some strands of the web are woven from our own desires and pleasures; others are woven by the particular TV show or film we're watching; still others are woven by ideological and social forces.

Because of this web, the act of watching a film (even a gory, drippy, bloody one) involves complicated layers of reasoning and response that can't be simplified into a campaign sound bite. Let me explain further by retracing the intellectual steps I took--through popular discourses about media violence, the fanzines of cult movie fandom, and academic film criticism--to reach these conclusions about the web that surrounds spectatorship.

Might As Well Face It, We’re Addicted to Violence

In my initial attempts to figure out my affection for violent films, I discovered a posse of cultural commentators who claim that media sex and violence degrade not only avid Playboy Channel watchers but everybody else too. In particular, conservative politicians like Pat Buchanan and Dan Quayle were building coalitions based on their shared contention that movie and television mayhem constitute a cultural attack on America's values. The most comprehensive and popular articulation of this position is Michael Medved's 1992 book Hollywood Vs. America. In a sub-chapter entitled "The Addiction to Violence," Medved argues that our addiction to brutality "encourages serious sorts of antisocial behavior, with devastating consequences for our civilization," and goes on to offer evidence for a connection between real-life and cinematic violence:

"The consensus among social scientists is that very definitely there's a causal connection between exposure to violence in the media and violent behavior," says Daniel Linz, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has spent much of his career researching the subject. At New York's Syracuse University, Professor of Communications George Comstock reached identical conclusions by going back more than thirty years to analyze the 190 most important research projects that attempted to gauge the impact of television violence on children and young adults. Summarizing his conclusions in 1991, Comstock found a "very solid relationship between viewing antisocial portrayals or violent episodes and behaving antisocially. It holds up regardless of sex."

This passage, and Medved's book as a whole, has some methodological problems. All the quotes in the above passage, for instance, came from USA Today and Newsweek instead of the original studies by Linz and Comstock. (You may not believe this Bob, but USA Today is not the most comprehensive and even-handed news source out there.) But I don't disagree with Medved's general argument. Certainly some causal links exist between the media and audience behavior; the advertisements and commercials that bombard us daily have been very effective at convincing us to buy useless shit. I also agree that sex and violence probably does adversely affect some spectators, although personally I've never been driven to antisocial action by Dennis Franz's naked butt on NYPD Blue. I remained calm even after watching Bad Lieutenant or Tongues Untied on PBS. But Medved never addresses the love fans like me have for violent movies. For him--and, I suspect, for Linz and Comstock--those films are already tainted meat, unfit for all proper, God-fearing audiences. Obviously Medved wasn't speaking to me.

Parking in Rear

Feeling ill at ease among Medved and the moral watchdogs, I decided to cast my lot with the fans of disreputable, violent films. These folks like everything--horror, women-in-prison films, cheesy documentaries, science fiction, porn, even Mexican wrestling monster movies--and write about these genres in both privately circulated fanzines and magazines available at bookstores. I started reading Zontar, Phantasma, The Gore Gazette, Psychotronic Video, Bits 'N' Pieces, Filmfax, Bad Seed, Film Threat, and dozens of other publications, and I found a thriving subculture of fans who love to trade information about disreputable stars and movies. Yet despite their love for the violent and weird, some of these fans really pissed me off. The best way to explain why is to quote Damon Foster's review of the Japanese movie Zeram published in Oriental Cinema #5:

"My first attempt at seeing Zeram failed miserably when the local art theater's only showing sold out. I was madder than a politically correct activist watching Rush Limbau [sic], since I'd driven an hour to get to the damn place, and had to deal with parking, etc. I'd driven all the way to that urban pusspool San Francisco, a city which brings new meaning to the words "Parking in Rear," only to stand in line and get turned down because everybody else made it into the theater before me. Only one showing? What kind of idiots booked it into SF's Kabuki Theater for only a single showing? Whoever you are, I'd shove your ticketbooth up your ass, but you'd probably like it."

Writing like this is nothing more than a pose for insecurity and intellectual flabbiness. Note that a supposedly independent, supposedly tough guy like Foster swallows the standard--albeit wildly inaccurate--take on "political correctness" without a single objection or qualification. All Mr. Ticketbooth does is spout the orthodox "Rush Limbau" line on "Feminazis" and "faggots," and I'm sure that you're counting on his vote--and the votes of a million more unthinking clods--in November, Bob.

Foster's stupidity is, unfortunately, not an isolated example. Many cult movie fans create a heterosexist "boy's club" in their writing, and most seem unwilling to question any of the pleasure they get from such immortal classics (ugh) as I Spit on Your Grave and Mondo Cane. Because I'm a liberal guy willing to think critically about violent movies--and not a homophobe willing to shove a ticketbooth up someone's ass--I was put off by the insularity and sexism of much of this cult film discourse. I was stuck in the middle, between conservatives like Medved who denounce violent movies from the get-go and conservatives like Foster who use violent movies as an opportunity to exercise rabid prejudice. What to do, what to do?

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