A novel local melodrama has accompanied the showcasing of Lars von Trier’s latest film in Romania. Shouts went out against the new censorship, the prestige of the great art was invoked, famous trials for pornography, trials refuted by the evolution of mentalities, were recalled, the Romanian cultural ghetto was denounced. Political pressure was not absent, a representative voice of the ruling power vehemently asking the “censorship” commission to lift the interdiction. Heads have rolled even, the chairwoman of the commission being demoted to the status of a simple member. All of this is superimposed on a true social phenomenon, because the Danish director’s film (or better put its first part for the time being) has packed the halls, being an unusual success in terms of audiences for an “art cinema” generally condemned to remain quartered in a niche for the pretentious.
It’s indubitable that not just the theme of sexuality but especially the pornographic pretentions were decisive for the interest of the audience (almost entirely young). Before being an offense (a more serious or a lighter one), pornography was a form of art, trying to present, visually or literarily, a constitutive dimension of human life: eroticism. In our European civilization of Christian inspiration eroticism was to a great extent blamed, sometimes falling prey to an over-culpabilization (to take over the term used by historian Jean Delumeau, a serious investigator of the phenomenon) that produced veritable mass neuroses (which Freud diagnosed without false impudence). In such a climate, pornography was looked upon as a perverse form of sexual corruption and later, when the old confessional booths were replaced by psychiatry offices, as a form of voyeurism. The last century however was a century of “liberation,” not just of sexual morals but also of art with an erotic substratum. Some avant-garde artists (such as the surrealists) often played around being provocateurs through “indecent assaults,” implicitly penalizing the specifically “bourgeois” hypocrisy and pettiness. Liberal and capitalist societies however evolved towards gradually giving up various forms of censorship, either in the name of freedom of expression, of individualistic hedonism, or of the boom of the entertainment industry (which often crosses paths with the more accurately called cultural one). “It’s forbidden to forbid,” “make love not war,” the hippie colonies and the large rock concerts (based on the Woodstock model), these are the brands of the new era. In cinema taboos also fall gradually, after important directors that were not few in number stirred scandals for “freedoms” that today seem routine. A preponderantly pornographic cinema, with another type of commercial and “artistic” ambitions, developed in parallel. In time this too became liberalized, and the boom of the internet has popularized it as never before.
From a moral point of view pornographic culture was reproached with giving a bad example by encouraging the infidelity of feelings, with betraying the exigencies of “true” art or with weakening social discipline by mollifying morals. Pope Paul VI said that with the appearance of the contraceptive pill “treason” (of all kinds) will grow in the world. This argument however has to do with the traditional morality of fear: people are “virtuous” only if they are thinking about the evil consequences of “vice.” Does acting out an erotic scene mean however that the characters are unavoidably “depraved”? That the sexuality depicted is inevitably immoral? The argument of intimacy (a fulfilled sexuality is sufficient to itself and implicitly non-representative) should be used with care, because it is not absolute. Let us not neglect the implicitly pedagogical dimension of art. Many are finding out from the screens (for better and for worse) erotic behaviors that otherwise would not have crossed their minds. What the medieval minstrels or other cultural circles tried throughout history represent projects worthy of attention given their civilizing potential.
But can pornography really be a “true” art? Philosopher Michel Onfray actually dreamt that great directors would start making pornographic films based on artistic and moral norms, in order to be able to surpass the civilization of a shady (and gross) sexuality. What is to decry about the pornography today customary for a certain type of films (or books) is the more than doubtful quality, the pathetic theatricals, the more than improvised staging, the pretenses of artistic fast-food, the kitsch. More serious however is the association with various forms of violence and degradation (especially of women), reducing eroticism to forms of domination or abuse and to a tyranny of a rather forced orgasmic pleasure. In such a context, what can be more challenging than a film with pornographic pretenses made by a director of note? A good challenge in the sense of a closer look at the penumbra of the erotic universe.
(to be continued)