Sex, Violence and the Dangers of Representation

spring break

I have recently seen two films which I had hoped would positively provoke me and instigate questions that would delicately toss and turn in my head for days. In a way this did happen, but sadly not for the reasons I’d hoped for.

The Counsellor had everything going for it: directed by Ridley Scott in collaboration with Cormac McCarthy (who authored the book behind the Coen brothers’ critically acclaimed masterpiece No Country for Old Men), as well as a star-studded cast. I didn’t have the same expectations for Spring Breakers, but with a compelling trailer and James Franco as part of the cast I was tempted to watch it nonetheless. On the outset the two films are very different: The Counsellor is about the post hoc events when a successful lawyer (Michael Fassbender) gets muddled up in a drug deal gone wrong, whilst Spring Breakers is a “Girls-just-want-to-have-fun” spring break vacation that inevitably turns into a dangerous nightmare (or wet dream?).

What the two films do have in common however and what according to me is becoming less of a rarity in modern cinema, is the shameless revelling and self-indulgence of violence and objectifying sexuality. The way in which they choose to represent the social issues apparent in the films – sexuality, drugs, violence and to some extent freedom – leaves me wondering what message they are trying to send to their audience. After experiencing two hours of gruesome murders and violence in the one film and a visual orgy of scantily clad young women drinking, taking drugs and romanticising guns in the other – I feel none the wiser.

The films’ narrative and the way they’re shot invites me to think that the filmmakers are showing this because they can, rather than opening up questions regarding the social issues the films are supposed to portray. These types of films seemingly aim to shock and provoke people, utilising a variety of inventive ideas ranging from weapons that behead people to subversive sexual acts including Cameron Diaz having sex with a car windshield (No, I’m not joking).

So, if what I’m saying is true, what is the point of these films? Some people, and probably indeed the creators of such films, would argue that pushing the boundaries of what’s socially acceptable is important and an art in itself. Provoking the viewer is synonymous to constantly reinventing filmmaking and film spectatorship. I don’t disagree with this notion. However, if you are going to push the boundaries and represent the issues at hand you need to back it up with something tangible, or else the point gets lost in the overwhelming presence of what’s visually happening on screen. A classic example is Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange, which was and probably still is a controversial film. The violence and sex it depicts are highly different from what is shown in films like The Counsellor or Spring Breakers, because they bring up questions concerning society, behaviour, class and psychology.

I believe A Clockwork Orange gets away with its plethora of violent and explicit material, simply because there is a clear thought behind it. Social issues are addressed in an interesting and evocative way. Unfortunately I can’t say the same for The Counsellor or Spring Breakers. Both films leave narrative and moral loose ends, within the plot, and especially for the viewer. I didn’t feel like the films told me anything about the issues of the Mexican drug war, nor did they take a serious stance on the relationship between young women and sexual liberation. A film should leave you with reflections and even questions, not with complete incomprehension. In a way these films have succeeded; they have provoked me to write this.

And in a year’s time I’ll most definitely still remember the scene where Cameron Diaz does the splits and as Javier Bardem eloquently puts it, f***s his car.

Photograph by Harmony Korine et al, who own the sole copyright.

Joel Cullberg Head

Joel studies Comparative Literature with Film Studies at King's College London, UK.

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