The Pleasures and Pain of Not Looking Away

By Pranamika Subhalaxmi

A bloody foot. A bathroom overflowing with filthy water. Snails crawling over the breasts of a young girl. A man trying to bleed himself to death. 

Cinema makes voyeurs of us all.

Sometimes we are compelled to keep watching due to whatever pleasurable image being beamed into our eyes. Other times, however, we are forced to encounter the grotesque, the violent, the claustrophobic — yet the niggling urge to continue looking persists, that morbidity that causes us to rubber neck at car crashes. 

I think, sometimes, with popcorn movies and safe picks, we are wont to forget that cinema can be a visceral experience, provoking physical reactions and emotions that sit heavy in the middle of our chests. How does cinema functioning as a visual assault affect us, and how is it necessary?

An interesting case to study is Stay Awake, Be Ready, directed by Pham Thien An. The film is a careful one-take that is fairly stationary, only tilting down to include our ‘main character’ at the 3-minute mark. Stay Awake flirts with the suggestion of violence throughout, largely through off-screen events such as a violent car accident that we hear at the very beginning of the film. At one point, one of the men almost gleefully shows the other two images of the accident.
We cannot help but feel that slight nagging feeling of Let me have a look, as the camera refuses to budge and all we are allowed to view is the men’s reactions to the images. Yet, this begs the question of Why? Why do we have this itch to look at images which have clearly been described as ‘fucking disgusting’? What does the camera achieve by refusing to let us have a peek?

It is the build-up that leads to the shock and revulsion when the character re-enters the frame and places his profusely bleeding foot squarely on the table. The camera zooms slowly in, refusing us the relief of looking away, and we see the blood and gore in painful, visceral detail. 
Stay Awake holds off until the very end to provoke a physiological response from its audience, making us confront the violence of its subject matter. While we recoil, there is also an underlying sense of satisfaction — finally, we get a real taste of the questions the film dances around.
 
While Stay Awake’s technique of presenting the grotesque has an incredible impact on the audience via a sense of shock, other films in the programme establish that this kind of optical assault does not need to involve the withholding of visual information.

Chulayarnnon Siriphol’s Birth of Golden Snail is a silent film, focusing our attention entirely on the visual. This feels like it might not be for the better during an extended sequence featuring the young female character having a sexual dream that involves snails. 
The audience is left to sit with nothing to absorb but images of snails crawling over a woman’s naked body. There is an unflinching aspect to the frame, with the absurdity and gross-out nature of the situation creating a dark or disbelieving humour. This very fact reveals the pleasure that can come in a refusal to look away, by revelling in the comedy of an absurd and awful situation. 

This sits in stark opposition to the teasing nature of Stay Awake, whereby in Golden Snail the images are simply presented to us, without comment. The techniques in which the film toys with us and ‘manipulates’ us into being engrossed in the visuals vary, but to the same effect — that simultaneous enjoyment and repulsion.

The last example I would want to bring up is The Diary of Cattle. Rather than forcing its audience to confront images of an explicitly violent or sexual nature, this film mulls over its content and engages us by nature of the fact that its entire duration is filled with a certain monotony. 

At a 17-minute run-time, the film consists almost entirely of footage featuring cows pitifully grazing in a landfill. Similar to Golden Snail, there is an unassuming, simplistic element to this format. However, Cattle takes it further with its documentary style. By avoiding any clear narrative arc or tensions, the film simply provides a representation of facts. 
If you were to tell me, or any audience member, that such a film could have the momentum and emotional weight to make 17 minutes feel inconsequential, I would find it hard to believe. Yet, Cattle builds a relationship between the audience and the cattle with the amount of time the shots lends us with the cattle. 

The long takes, the shots of calves struggling to drink the milk of emaciated mothers and an image of a dead cow with the rest of the herd trying to investigate what has happened — the images become painful, difficult to tear our eyes away from. 
This manifests as a sense of powerful empathy for the predicament of these animals. The disgust we feel at the image leads to a feeling of guilt as well. This empathy drives us to continue consuming the images, creating a kind of cycle. There is little pleasure derived from Cattle, but a forefronting of pain that cannot be ignored.

The ways in which filmmakers play with the image and the scopophilia inherent in film-watching vary, to different effects. Whether this is through a build-up and release, or a matter-of-fact presentation, whether the images are violent or sexual or despairing — our response to the visual is uncomfortably physical. We are forced to consider the content head-on, even if it makes us flinch, makes us nauseous, makes us shift in our seats. But we consider it nonetheless.

Ultimately, when we are confronted with images designed to disgust or provoke, we need to ask ourselves not only why they are presented as such, but also — why do we keep on looking? Sometimes, we find that there is a sense of pleasure to be found under the pain. 

– Pranamika Subhalaxmi