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Peter Greenaway’s new biopic, Eisenstein in Guanajuato, shown at the Sydney Film Festival last night, depicts a particular phase in the eponymous Soviet Russian filmmaker’s life. In December 1930, after touring Europe and the United States, Eisenstein travelled to Mexico.
To that end, the films made good on the director’s theories and pioneering use of montage. By adapting early Hollywood narrative, Eisenstein inaugurated a new syntax of the moving image that could bypass issues such as mass illiteracy and regional dialects in speaking directly to his intended audience.
Narratively, Greenaway’s film covers the final days Eisenstein spent in the North-Central state of Guanajuato, focusing not on his abortive work, ¡Que viva México!, but on a frequently unrecognised affair between the director (played gloriously by the Finish actor Elmer Bäck) and his local guide, Jorge Palomino y Cañedo (Luis Alberti).
Sex and death collide in strange ways. Submarine
As the voiceover notes:
While the English subtitle of October was Ten Days that Shook the World, the director’s time south of the border concluded with “ten days that shook Eisenstein”.
The idea behind Eisenstein in Guanajuato is that there is a discernible metamorphosis in the director’s aesthetic, from the propaganda films of the 1920s to the more humanist narratives of the 1930s and 40s, and that something happened in Guanajuato to catalyse this transformation in the director’s output.
Sergei Eisenstein. Wikimedia Commons
In Greenaway’s view of things, it was a very specific personal event that impacted the aesthetic: namely, when Eisenstein fell in love with another man; or, in Greenaway’s vision, when he first allowed himself to be sodomised.
What all of this could mean in “the field of form” is that we should expect, from Greenaway if not from Eisenstein, a shift in emphasis away from collective class identities and onto discrete sexual couplings, a replacing of Karl Marx by Sigmund Freud, and a zooming in from the politicised multiple to the psychologised one: in short, we should expect an aesthetic that is more akin to Hollywood romance than to Soviet dialectics.
Eisenstein in Guanajuato, in its very structure, parallels this perceived transformation in the Soviet director’s aesthetic.
The first half of the film sets out to dazzle by channelling Eisenstein’s own affection for experimental shot types and ostentatious edits. Cameras dolly and pan and track and arc vertiginously; single shots are split three ways into triptych panels; telescopic lensing warps backgrounds; evidential scraps and greyscale photographs are intercut with a garishly oversaturated diegesis.
All of this, combined with Bäck’s delirious performance, makes for a film that pulsates with sexual vitality while alluding to an unseen historical panorama. Or, at least, that’s what it does for the first half.
Mexico is saturated in colour and full of movement. Submarine
The second half, by contrast, is weepily sentimental: a holiday romance.
One scene serves as a hinge between the film’s two halves and between what we are led to believe is the Eisenstein of the 1920s and the Eisenstein of the 1930s and 40s. In short, Palomino forcibly mounts the comrade from behind and then plants a red flag in his bloodied asshole.
Indeed, the scene itself forges a spectacularly literary connection between history and desire, with Eisenstein and Palomino nervously discussing politics during coitus. “And you tell me all these things,” asks the director, “as your prick is in my ass?”
This pivotal moment is narratively redolent of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), only replacing the stick of butter as a sexual lubricant with a few drops of olive oil. The comparison is apt both to the scene’s apparent violence and to the film’s production.
Bertolucci famously considered Marlon Brando as a physical extension of his own manhood, and there are echoes of that in Greenaway’s decision to cast Bäck in the title role.
would temporarily give me his heart, soul, brain, body and prick in the services of the depiction of a very human, very emotionally and anatomically naked – vomiting, shitting, weeping, fucking, sweating, howling Eisenstein.”
Bäck makes Eisenstein larger than life. Submarine
Visually, the opulent interiors of this and other scenes are akin to the Ancient Rome of the dementedly smutty Caligula (1979). It seems that Greenaway intended this likeness.
The film’s multiple renditions of Sergei Prokofiev’s Dance of the Knights, once used as Caligula’s title music, shore up the comparison. The score also contributes a grim overtone of tragic fate with which to haunt sexual liberty.
At least one critic has pointed out that Eisenstein in Guanajuato is not entirely faithful to the director’s biography. And yet, the more pertinent question is this: does Eisenstein in Guanajuato bear fidelity to Eisenstein’s artistic vision and how that vision evolved over time?
Yes and no.
Eisenstein never shied away from sexual vitality, both in his films and in life. Here we might recall the famous creamer scene – see below – from The General Line, in which ejaculatory streams of milk are presented as a machine-age money shot.
The creamer scene.
Or, biographically, we are punctually reminded of the photograph sent from Eisenstein to a friend in 1931, in which he sits astride an enormously phallic cactus. His inscription: “Speaks for itself and makes people jealous!”
Irreducibly crude expressions such as these inform the exuberant sexuality of the film’s first half, exemplified when a series of shot reverse-shots allow the director to converse with his own penis on matters of sexual sublimation. “Signor prick,” he tells it, “behave!”
Eisenstein was gleefully sexual, but never openly sentimental, or at least not in the way Greenaway wants him to be. Where this film ultimately disappoints is in its misprision of Eisenstein for a cliché story of the genius-in-love-versus-authority.
Of course, such a story makes perfect sense today, not least in the context of Russia’s opposition to this film.
“Putin has created this homophobia,” insists Greenaway, but one nevertheless fears that the final presentation of the socialist state as a blockage to homosexual desire might nevertheless serve as anti-utopian propaganda.
Eisenstein in Guanajuato was shown last night as part of the 2015 Sydney Film Festival, and will show again this weekend. Details here.
“Aloha,” director Cameron Crowe’s latest film, has not been well-received since its release. One of the major issues some had the Bradley Cooper-led romantic comedy was the casting of Emma Stone, a Caucasian actress, as an Asian-American character. On Tuesday, Crowe issued a “heartfelt” apology for the casting choice in a personal essay published on The… Continue reading →
Entourage 1.5 stars Starring Kevin Connolly, Adrian Grenier, Kevin Dillon, Jerry Ferrara, Jeremy Piven. Written and directed by Doug Ellin. 104 minutes. Opening Wednesday at major theatres. 18A Four years ago, band-of-bros in Hollywood series Entourage wrapped up after eight seasons on HBO. That should have been enough for anyone, yet they’re back for a movie… Continue reading →
Christian Grey knows exactly his hard limits in sadomasochism and he may also know a thing or two about his legal limits. The Dominant character Grey in the fantasy fiction Fifty Shades of Grey is bent on alluring his coprotagonist, Anastasia (Ana) Steele, to become his Submissive in a BDSM – Bondage & Discipline (BD) Domination & Submission (DS) Sadism & Masochism (SM) – relationship.
The layers of coercion, consent, pleasure and pain are as complex as the acronym itself and defined by the participants themselves. The cinematic account of this fiction – released this past weekend – illustrates some of the problematic demarcations in the law of assault in the real world.
When Grey informs the innocent Ana about the unnegotiable “hard limits” he sets down in a contract governing their BDSM activities – including no fire play, cutting, piercing, bloodletting, gynaecological instruments, scarring, permanent disfiguration, breath control, defecating/ urinating or use of electric current – she is confounded (probably with a blush and the cautious words of her subconscious). The law is a bit confounded too.
“Hard limits” – in the BDSM arrangement between Grey and Ana – are those activities excluded from the pair’s BDSM arrangement as a safety precaution. “Soft limits” – such as caning and flogging – are more negotiable: Grey does not regard them as a safety issue but they’re left open for negotiation on the grounds that they may cause unbearable pain.
So what does the law have to say about legal status of the sadomasochistic acts?
A legal perspective
For criminal lawyers, for humans in general, the hard limits described above may look a little bit like assault. The offence of wounding or grievous bodily harm with intent – which includes where there is permanent disfiguration or serious harm – attracts a maximum sentence 25 years imprisonment.
In Australia’s Northern Territory, mandatory prison sentences apply to first-time serious violent offenders. This may include acts involving cutting, scarring, whipping or caning. But the legislation does not prescribe the nature of violent activities or whether inflicting pain in the name of sexual pleasure is permissible.
In principle, if the participant suffering the harm consents to the violence, this would legalise what would otherwise be deemed assault.
In Fifty Shades, Christian Grey’s relentless pursuit of Ana’s consent before engaging in BDSM was well-advised, as consent provides an important pillar in nullifying assault claims – but it’s not the only pillar. There are, it seems, at least 50 shades of grey when it comes to the application of the laws relating to consensual bodily harm.
The law on consensual violence is cobbled together from a small pool of legal cases. The parameters are rarely tested, given that consenting and willing participants are hardly going to complain to police and press charges. Cases are often brought to the attention of authorities when something goes wrong or evidence emerges during an investigation for another crime (such as video tapes found during a drug investigation).
Demarcations of acceptable harm, beyond which would constitute serious assault, appear to hinge on the participants. In cases of “rough but innocent horse-play” in heterosexual relations, or manly violence inflicted in boxing or prize fighting, courts have refrained from convicting participants of assault due to the presence of consent.
Consent also legalises bodily harm arising in the normal course of surgery, contact sports, ritual circumcision, tattooing and ear piercing. But the law has been less accommodating with similar acts and similar levels of harm in different contexts.
Courts have condemned consensual acts of gay sadomasochism or Indigenous law punishment. The Northern Territory Supreme Court in the 2004 bail case of Re Anthony held that it could not condone the offender being let into the community to allegedly have Elders in the Tanami Desert community of Lajamanu spear him in the leg and hit him with nulla nullas.
The Court regarded that it was immaterial that the offender consented to the spearing, on the grounds that it would restore relations and remove the curse of his offence, because the serious nature of the harm meant it was not in the community’s interest. In the 1994 case of R v Brown, the House of Law found that consensual sadomasochistic activities involving a group of gay men was illegal.
This case was brought to the House of Lords to determine whether proof of wounds or harmful assaults in the course of sadomasochism required the prosecution to prove a lack of consent. The majority held that the gay sadomasochistic assaults were unlawful “because public policy required that society be protected by criminal sanctions against a cult of violence which contained the danger of the proselytisation and corruption of young men”.
It also regarded the availability of code words that the participants could pronounce to discontinue the act as insufficient evidence of ongoing consent. This may be news to Mr Grey, in Fifty Shades, who sets down safewords (“Yellow” for caution and “Red” to stop) for Ana to use when the violence becomes unacceptable.
Apart from courts relying on morality and colonial jurisdiction to set limits for lawful bodily harm, there is a spectrum of permissible harms in the context of consensual force (at least as far as BDSM and Indigenous law is concerned) that does not extend to wounding or serious harm.
The law may differ in other settings, such as permitting wounding in a tattoo parlour or through an elective caesarean. In R v Brown, where the House of Lords considered the legality of harm in gay sadomasochistic acts, it prohibited genital torture, violence (including beating) to the buttocks, anus, penis, testicles and nipples, branding, bloodletting and wounding with instruments.
The majority described these acts as uncivilised, involving the indulgence of cruelty by sadists and humiliating and degrading activities such as defecation. There is a lack of legal precedent on whether public policy would grant heterosexual couples with greater latitude to exact consensual sadomasochistic harm.
The excluded “hard limits of harm”, such as bloodletting and permanent disfigurement, in Christian and Ana’s arrangement is a sensible legal precaution (and naturally speaks to Christian’s high romantic ideals).
For Ana, however, it is the soft (more negotiable) limits inflicted in the punishment process that terrify and upset her they most. They include flogging, spanking, whipping and caning to maintain Grey’s control over Ana as part of their Dominant and Submissive relationship.
The punishment not only applies to Ana’s defiance in the Playroom (aka Red Room of Pain) but also contravening Christian’s decrees on her eating, exercise, sleep, dress, grooming, relationships and forms of communication. Ana is reluctant to offer her consent to the acts of punishment.
However, even with consent, it is unlikely that the acts would escape lawful punishment based on the level of serious harm and the intimidation that underpins the procurement of Ana’s consent.
Fifty Shades of Grey opens up a minefield on the issues at play in consensual acts of violence and their legal status in and out of the pleasuredome.
Philip Pickett, a very prominent conductor in the early music world, has been jailed for 11 years for sexually attacking two pupils and a young woman. He carried out the assaults in sound-proofed practise rooms in the 1970s and 1980s.
Abuse in music education is an issue that also currently features in a very different sphere – the Oscars race. Whiplash, nominated for Best Picture at this year’s awards, is is set in the fictional New York Schaffer Conservatory, the setting of which is undoubtedly based upon the Juilliard School (and where the classroom scene is shot). We follow a student jazz drummer, Andrew Neiman, as he is driven to the edge by tyrannical teacher Terence Fletcher.
Despite relying on two-dimensional characterisation and implausible scenarios, the film makes some very pertinent points about bullying and the pervasive power games that conservatoires promote.
Abuse of students by teachers is a real problem in music education. The Venezuelan massive music education project El Sistema, once hailed as a social program, has since been described as “a model of tyranny”. In March 2013 Michael Brewer, a former music teacher at Chetham’s school of music was jailed for 6 years after abusing a student who took her own life during the trial; a further teacher at the school (my own conducting teacher there) was jailed for 8 months in September 2014 after admitting to sexually assaulting a student when she was a child.
Various other cases involving teachers from the school await trial at the time of writing. A series of women have come forward to attest to their abuse at the hands of former Director of Music at the Yehudi Menuhin School, the late Marcel Gazelle, while many men came forward too with horrifying stories about the late Alan Doggett, the major conductor for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice and former music director at Colet Court School, following investigations by myself and The Times.
I have been involved in as a campaigner and researcher on the subject of abuse in music education for several years. I have chronicled many cases coming to light both before and after the Michael Brewer trial. I am aware of many other allegations, sometimes against very prominent musicians, throughout UK music education but also in the US, France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Russia and elsewhere.
What I have seen, overwhelmingly, from having gone through an elite musical training, working as a professional musician, and also from a large amount of information disclosed privately to me, is a systematic pattern of domination, cruelty, dehumanisation, bullying and emotional manipulation from unscrupulous musicians in positions of unchecked power, of which sexual abuse is one of several manifestations.
Compare Whiplash. Terence Fletcher is very much a cartoon villain. He physically assaults and publicly humiliates his students, and fires off homophobic and anti-semitic insults like an unintentional parody of Joe Pesci in a Martin Scorsese film, or anything scripted by David Mamet.
All of which he justifies (at least outwardly) by the old lie that he is pushing students to get the best results. Any individual acting in such a blatant manner in a US or UK conservatory today would almost certainly face severe disciplinary action very quickly (in Russia or China it might be a different matter).
Few could deny that Fletcher is a vicious bully. The fact that he is a jazz rather than classical teacher, and as such less bound by conventions of bourgeois respectability, may make him superficially more plausible, but I have found that bullying musicians are often more subtle and insidious.
A more devastatingly incisive rendition – the most realistic rendition of the culture of the conservatory I have yet seen on film – is Isabelle Huppert’s portrayal of the monstrous Erika in The Piano Teacher. Erika is a bitter and twisted woman utterly unfit for teaching. She uses the language and rhetoric of musical discernment and sophistication to undermine the confidence and sense of self of those she resents and envies.
Despite being somewhat caricature-like, the nature of Fletcher’s power is portrayed with insight. Although his methods might be exaggerated, such abuse of power does regularly occur and the film should not be dismissed as entirely fictional.
It is important to note that the conservatory environment portrayed here belongs historically to classical musicians. While jazz has occasionally been taught in such institutions ever since the first course in Frankfurt in 1928, it has remained marginal until quite recently. Juilliard, for example, first offered jazz courses in 2001 and few big names in jazz – such as Charlie Parker or Buddy Rich, both mentioned in the film – had this type of musical education.
Conservatories are still strongly weighted towards classical music, and a large amount of bullying is found in this field, though it is often less obvious than that of Fletcher. Fewer volleying barrages of insults. Instead, I have found that frequently students’ inferiority is insinuated through assertions about their perceived emotional maturity or even level of sexual prowess, on the basis of their playing.
Some use personality stereotypes, based on just a few tawdry attributes, to demean and humiliate the student and flaunt their own power. In earlier times these might be overtly based upon the student’s ethnicity or social background; the difference now is simply that this is implicit rather than clearly stated.
Whiplash’s Fletcher knows just how vulnerable and desperate fledgling musicians are. He exploits this situation. Relationships, friendships or other trappings of a normal life disappear under the weight of naked ambition; other humans matter only to the extent they can further one’s career. The pressure to act in such a manner is very real in advanced musical education.
Budding musician. Sony
Those who lose out
The rather hollow “victory” achieved at the end of the film by Neiman (in a tour de force of filming as well as playing) could be argued to have legitimised Fletcher’s treatment of him. But the lasting message is not optimistic.
We find out that a former student, Sean Casey, likely hanged himself in response to his treatment by Fletcher. This is far more striking than some of the other implausible and melodramatic plot devices. But Casey was successful, at least in the terms set out here, having found a place playing in Marsalis’s museum-piece concerts.
More important, and ignored in most portrayals of musical education, is the fate of those who do not find success. These people have sacrificed everything else in their lives. Institutions teach significantly more students than could ever find available work. And so alongside the rosters of starry names brandished in conservatories’ publicity material, their legacy is equally to be found in the other alumni who are left bereft and disillusioned.
I know of many cases, some involving those I knew at school or college, in which the legacy of such study has been chronic depression, difficulties with relationships, drink and drug abuse. This is often prompted by the terror and paranoia engendered by repeated psychological, physical or sexual abuse, as well as the cripplingly low self-esteem that can result.
For those of us lucky few who have been able to devote our professional lives to music, many factors beyond supposed talent or natural selection are involved, often beyond one’s personal control.
This throws light on the real inadequacies of both the teachers and the institutional culture. Better results, both personal and musical, could be achieved by a teaching culture founded upon co-operation and mutual support rather than aggressive competition. The learning needs of students must be prioritised above the reputations of teachers. Educational breadth is needed to enable students to flourish as whole people, not just performing machines.
But this will only happen when the musical professions take real steps to reform a brutalising and dehumanising range of practices and attitudes, the justifications for which are no more convincing than those of Fletcher.
At the star-studded Academy Awards, remember that the essence of what is portrayed in Whiplash is very real and has profound effects upon many young musicians.
Some feminist groups have staged protests at screenings and a campaign has been launched to encourage donations to domestic violence shelters instead of seeing the film. There has also been debate about whether the film depicts Bondage, Discipline, Sadism and Masochism (BDSM) practices negatively.
What has been given less attention is why Fifty Shades has been popular, and how it has resonance with its predominantly female fans. Instead of condemning or praising the film we might ask: “who are the Fifty Shades fans, and why?”
Fans take pictures at the premiere of Fifty Shades of Grey in London. EPA/Andy Rain
Studying fans of popular culture is not a new idea. Work done in the field of audience studies suggests that fans often have dynamic ways of interacting with texts, renegotiating meanings, providing commentary and extending stories with their own fan fiction. To ignore fans and focus on the storyline alone suggests that texts have a singular meaning that is merely “downloaded” by viewers.
The importance of considering fans of romance fiction in particular has also been argued for previously. Researchers in the field of romance studies have argued that criticism of the genre often involves patronising female readers.
Similar levels of critical concern are rarely turned on texts marketed to male audiences, or those seen as part of high culture. Studying romance fans themselves has been a way to recover the agency of female readers, in part by seeing female fans as active meaning-makers.
Fifty Shades as “mommy porn”
Authored by E.L. James (Erika Mitchell), Fifty Shades started as fan fiction inspired by the Twilight series and was published online as Master of the Universe.
The book trilogy has, to date, sold more than 100 million copies and the film adaptation of the first book grossed US$81.7 million in its opening weekend. Those figures suggest that Fifty Shades has mainstream exposure, if not appeal.
Many critics refer to the series as “mommy porn”, alongside jokes about the poor literary quality of the novels. This reveals a disdainful attitude toward fans of the franchise, who are often dismissed as bored, borderline illiterate housewives.
Some researchers argue that the idea Fifty Shades fans are sexually repressed housewives is a myth which allows critics of the series to experience feelings of superiority.
According to this research on “anti-fans”, critics can gain enjoyment from perceiving themselves as having greater knowledge of literature and sexual practices compared to the “ordinary” fans. But research also suggests this pleasurable culture of mocking the series means even the most critical anti-fans have usually read all three books.
Complex responses to Fifty Shades
Research that considers the Fifty Shades fan base suggests fans engage with its themes in complex ways. A survey of readers in the UK found that many first started reading because of negative responses to the books: people wanted to join in on the conversation and make their own assessment.
Image from the advocacy group Pornography Harms Facebook page.
It showed that many women are critical of the book’s style and content at the same time as finding it enjoyable. The survey also found that fans challenged some aspects of the story, such as the acceptability of certain character actions, as well the accuracy of the representations of sex.
At the same time as interrogating the text, fans reported enjoying elements of the romance as fantasy, as well as finding pleasure in the story’s sexual elements.
Indeed, reports from the film’s opening weekend suggest audiences responded with mixed emotions throughout the screenings, with reports of “explosive laughter”, groans and applause.
Fan sites and podcasts dedicated to Fifty Shades, as well as research interviews with fans, suggest women are also using the series as a way of bonding and openly discussing sex with each other and their partners, particularly focusing on BDSM practices.
Research has found that discussions of the book series open up space for readers to reflect upon their own experiences of sex and relationships.
Critical discussion versus shaming fans
Taking into account fan responses should not mean shutting down critical conversation. It is important to be able to discuss how issues of abuse and domestic violence might be relevant to fictional works such as Fifty Shades. The text’s entry into the mainstream can be used to start conversations around consent, relationships and exploring various sexual practices.
We know from fan studies that women are engaging with the series with some scepticism, but also enjoy the story for various reasons.
But considering fans means being mindful of exactly what (and whom) we might be critiquing when we are critical. The idea that it is morally correct to boycott the film and stage protests at its screenings suggests that there is only one possible way of seeing the film: as a representation of abuse that harms women.
Those kinds of tactics do little more than patronise and shame those who wish to see the film, and risk alienating people from the critical discussions that might be had.
Those looking forward to the impending release of Fifty Shades of Grey are likely to see the film for its sexy scenes, hot stars and… “unusual behavior”?
The MPAA has deemed “the strong sexual content including dialogue, some unusual behavior and graphic nudity” worthy of an R rating — although readers of the racy book might wonder how it’s possible to depict most of the action without getting closer to an NC-17 rating. Based on E. L. James’ risque bestselling romance novel, the film has a built-in fanbase of devotees. (Read More)