Bobbing on boiling water

  • Datum 27-01-2011
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Jos van der Burg discusses how atrociously bad films have taken him out of his comfort zone a lot more often than astonishingly good ones. "It’s been a long time since I felt the kind of sucker punch that irréversible gave me."

"Comfort zone" is the psychologist’s new buzzword and will doubtlessly soon spawn a shelfload of self-help books. Until a few years ago these same psychologists still urged us to calmly go with the flow, the same flow they are now telling us to swim out from. Only then can we start growing again. Floating along on the stream offers us no challenges and causes rigidity. The brain needs to be stimulated and taunted to be awakened. This is how psychologists keep themselves in business, because five years from now, their waiting rooms are going to be full of distressed people that have swum too far out of their comfort zones. But I digress.

Films can make us uncomfortable in two ways: astonishingly good films can shatter our images of ourselves and of the world around us, but so can really bad films. Both can cause an earthquake followed by a series of aftershocks.
Eight years ago I saw irréversible in Cannes. Filmmaker Gaspar Noé had made seul contre tous, so nobody went into irréversible expecting two hours of serenity. However, I could never have imagined that the shock would be this great. From the first scene till the last I was nailed to my chair. When the final image gave way to booing and cheering I was unable to join either chorus — the film had grabbed me by the throat and was still holding it tightly closed. I had seen a masterpiece that redrew the boundaries and changed my self-image.
irréversible is the tale of a young man’s search for the man who raped his girlfriend. It contains two controversial, much-discussed scenes: the rape of the girlfriend in a subterranean passageway, stretched out over several minutes, and the boyfriend bashing in the head of the man he presumes to be the rapist, by means of a fire extinguisher.

Free will
These scenes will forever be burned onto my retina. More disturbing than this was the realisation that I could entirely relate to the young man’s quest for vengeance. I had to face the fact I would probably have done the exact same thing had I been in his shoes. Perhaps I would also smash the perpetrator’s head in with a fire extinguisher. It was a shocking thought. Later I realised that I’m probably too much of a coward to act with such violence, which was hardly a more comforting thought. irréversible destroyed my image of myself as a rational being. It showed that rational behaviour is nothing more than a lid bobbing atop a pan full of boiling water. I had always disapproved of taking the law into your own hands, but in irréversible I observed approvingly. Noé had me cornered: man is the victim of his own impulses. Tellingly, one of the early scenes features a character who claims that there are no crimes, only acts. Man is no different from animals, and animals cannot commit crimes. In an interview with de Filmkrant Noé explained: ‘During the entire film you’re watching people acting like beasts and you realise that they could have behaved in a civilised way if only the circumstances had been different.’ Free will, in other words, is a fiction. Today this conclusion borders on cliché, but while watching irréversible in that dark theatre in Cannes, it hit me like a hammer.

Dick-a-minute humour
Atrociously bad films push me out of my comfort zone for a different reason. ‘Do the people who made this really think I find this amusing?’, I fumigate as I watch the kind of films that feature jokes so moronic that any viewer with more than ten brain cells would feel insulted. I’m talking about films like deuce bigelow: european gigolo, whose creators believe that infantile equals funny. How droll, a man with a penis for a nose! Humour holds no secrets to the denizens of Hollywood’s netherregions. This dick-a-minute humour annoys me, but the advantage is that there is no need to second-guess the makers’ sense of humour. In other cases, this is impossible to gauge. Take love & other drugs for instance, in which a couple films themselves having sex. The boy’s brother finds the recording and masturbates to it, resulting in us watching a young man jerking off to a video of his brother fucking. The makers imagine I will find this funny, but what I see is someone in desperate need of a shrink. Why do these people think this is funny?
What conclusion can we draw from this? In recent years, atrociously bad films have taken me out of my comfort zone a lot more often than astonishingly good ones. What does this say about me? And more importantly: what does this say about the state of world cinema? It’s been a long time since I felt the kind of sucker punch that irréversible gave me. Lars von Trier made an attempt with antichrist, but never went beyond sensationalism. Where are the earth-shattering films? Who will kick the film industry out of its comfort zone?

Jos van der Burg
Translation Tom Mes

Jos van der Burg is part of the editorial team of de Filmkrant and senior film critic for the Dutch daily newspaper Het Parool.