Is shock value a thing of the past?
As the season of CGI spectacles gets underway in earnest, one blockbuster after another will set upon the task of wooing, wowing and otherwise jangling the ganglia of millions of moviegoers. Meanwhile, on another level entirely, a cadre of venerated auteurs will set out to startle, destabilize, even alienate viewers, presumably to challenge their bourgeois complacency. Or at least get them talking.
The Cannes Film Festival has already played host to some particularly notorious provocateurs. Both Lars von Trier and Gaspar Noé — alternately worshiped and reviled for films that push the boundaries of social and aesthetic good taste — had films there this year: von Trier’s “The House That Jack Built,” which stars Matt Dillon as a serial killer, is so graphic that several people walked out of the premiere. Noé prompted a few impromptu exits himself with “Climax,” a “horror musical” fueled by LSD and hip-hop, although the famously puckish filmmaker pronounced himself disappointed that more people didn’t head for the exits. “I usually have 25 percent of the audience walking out,” he complained to the online publication Indiewire.
It could be that Cannes audiences have become inured to the sorts of look-at-me stunts that guarantee post-festival buzz. Or, more likely, spectators in general immediately catch on when they’re being trolled. At a time when no less an august figure than the U.S. president is issuing unfiltered diktats and stoking petty Twitter feuds on the reg, we can smell a pot-stirrer a mile away.
And, when a nation shrugs at the idea of said world leader paying off a porn star to hide an extramarital affair, it could be that we’re now numb to outrage, at least unless you’re a football player daring to take a knee during the national anthem. Manufactured pique is the currency of a realm in which moral offense has been commodified by television, weaponized by social media and, in the process, virtually drained of proportion or meaning.
Whether as a function of cynicism or selective indignation, the wised-up filmgoer can no longer be counted on to take the bait, however enticingly slimy. And that’s unwelcome news for an industry that was practically created by luring customers with the promise of being voyeuristically horrified, comfortably disgusted and delectably offended. From the naughty shenanigans of the movies made in Hollywood before it enforced a decency code to the gleeful gross-outs of Herschell Gordon Lewis, Roger Corman, George Romero and John Waters, the “exploitation” film has been a staple of an American film culture as steeped in excess and ballyhoo as it is in lofty ideas about its own social conscience and significance.
Of course, those impulses can collide on occasion, and beautifully so: Luis Buñuel made a career of pushing his viewers to their sensory limits in the name of artistic and psychological exploration. His short film “Un Chien Andalou,” a surrealist, deeply Freudian collage of visceral images, is famous for its signature shot of a woman’s eyeball being sliced open. Alfred Hitchcock might have invented the slasher film in 1960 with “Psycho.”
The ensuing arms race to disturb, disgust, and perversely delight audiences has continued apace — and continued even into last year, when Darren Aronofsky released “Mother!,” a Boschian meditation on environmental destruction and ethical rot that featured a baby being eaten alive. Whereas several critics and fans thought “Mother!” was the stuff of transgressive genius, others (this one included) thought it went off the rails, its larger point lost in a sea of opaque self-indulgence.
But once in a while, substantive ideas can still be joined with graphic, even gruesome images that aren’t so much a stunt as an attempt to pull viewers into an intense, almost otherworldly, psychic state. With “First Reformed,” writer-director Paul Schrader does just that: In the film, Ethan Hawke plays Ernst Toller, a Protestant pastor experiencing a painful crisis of faith. Schrader’s unmoving camera captures a man quietly thinking, writing in his journal and embarking on thoughtful conversations with parishioners and colleagues, against a spare backdrop of echoing rooms and wintry countryside. Then, like a master manipulator (and seasoned showman), Schrader chooses just the right time to punctuate the meditative mood with shots that startle, unsettle, even repel: in one moment, a bloody, decapitated corpse; later, an excruciating scene of suffering and self-destruction.
In many ways, “First Reformed” strikes the perfect balance for Schrader, whose career began when he wrote the brooding urban drama “Taxi Driver,” and who for 40 years has returned to the theme of isolation, doubt, testing and metaphysical self-discovery. At a screening of “First Reformed” at the National Archives last week, Schrader recalled his strict Calvinist upbringing and how he discovered film’s lurid pleasures, then went on to write a book called “Transcendental Style in Film.” As he told Motion Picture Association of America Chairman and CEO Charles Rivkin, “I like sex and violence and action and empathy.” But he came of age as a film connoisseur watching the prayerful dramas of Robert Bresson.
Those competing impulses — what Schrader called his “sacred past and profane present” — suffuse “First Reformed,” but never at the expense of such humanist values as life, death, spiritual discipline and, just maybe, redemption. Schrader has proved that shock still has a place in American cinema — and that in the hands of a consummate artist, it can coexist with genuine awe.