In 1997, the programmers of the Making Scenes queer film and video festival in Ottawa, Ontario, received an unmarked package in the mail. It contained a videotape of an original film and no return address or contact information of any kind. The film, a five-minute short shot on video in color and credited only to “Anonymous,” features a single crude title card, which simply reads Peter’s Penis Tricks.
It opens on a closeup of a penis -- Peter’s, presumably -- in front of what appears to be an all-black soundstage. In one long, unbroken take, that penis’s owner proceeds to inflict all manner of physical harm upon his private parts: Peter’s tricks include such incredible feats as hammering a nail into his urethra, extracting it with the hammer’s other end, and, in a spectacular finale, stuffing more than a dozen silver ball-bearings into his shaft before masturbating himself to orgasm -- at which point, yes, they are sent hurtling out.
Best of all, the film is scored to the iconic sounds of Julius Fucik’s “Entry of the Gladiators,” the song that immediately comes to mind when you think of circus music. Though clearly a devoted masochist, Peter was not without a sense of humor.
Was that description discomforting? Peter’s Penis Tricks, the only known copy of which has since been lost, belongs to a tradition of filmmaking in which the act of shocking or upsetting an audience constituted a productive and important endeavor. Part of that film’s appeal, beyond the intrigue of its origins, is that it is so viscerally upsetting an experience that few can endure its brief running time -- and that its reward for doing so is a lifetime of mercilessly unforgettable images. If one of cinema’s chief virtues is its capacity to affect people on an emotional level, using image and sound to elicit a powerful response, then films that successfully disturb their audience have achieved something significant -- perhaps even valuable. Peter’s Penis Tricks inspires real feelings.
More than affecting, films that are shocking in this way are transgressive -- they work productively toward undermining our expectations and feelings of complacency. In 1985, experimental filmmaker Nick Zedd, in a manifesto entitled “The Cinema of Transgression,” called for more challenging work from the underground. Transgressive cinema “has to be threatening the status quo by doing something surprising,” he wrote, going “beyond all limits set or prescribed by taste, morality, or any other traditional value system shackling the minds of men.”
Today, the Cinema of Transgression is usually discussed as an isolated historical movement, largely confined to the output of a dozen-plus artists working during the period -- films like Tessa Hughes-Freeland’s 1982 “Baby Doll,” about the systemic misogyny destroying the go-go club scene in New York, or Richard Kern’s “My Nightmare,” which involves graphic sex, masturbation, and urine-drinking rituals.
What does it mean for a film to be transgressive in 2013? It is common enough for movies to be marketed as shocking, and over the last few years we’ve seen a glut of mainstream films of the sort that alarmists denounce as affronts to taste and decency, most notably the emergence of so-called “torture porn,” a subgenre of slasher films kickstarted by the Saw and Hostel franchises and currently sputtering towards its own slow, painful death.
That trend has receded in favor of a deluge of found-footage junk -- but its impact on contemporary horror cinema is likely indelible, at least in terms of raising the limit on acceptable levels of graphic violence and gore. What’s conceptually distinctive about torture porn films, more than merely the degree of violence they typically present, is the reconfiguration of audience identification from wanting to see a protagonist struggle to avoid pain and death to wanting to see a protagonist suffer slowly and horribly. When watching a film like Hostel, the question is not the classical horror film’s “Will this character make it out alive?”, but rather, “How painfully will this character die?”
Leaving aside the question of whether anybody watching Saw or Hostel was ever truly affected or disturbed in a serious way, it’s worth asking if the producers of these films appreciate the unsustainability of their fundamental gimmick. If your attempt to shock an audience is based on the premise that your violence is more extreme than the violence of earlier films, the obsolescence of your own shocks is built into the material, meaning that the arrival of a new torture porn film necessarily antiquates the last one, not unlike the release of a new game console or mobile phone. The model itself is not transgressive, nor can it ever be: We are so thoroughly inured to the process of heightened extremity in these genre films that no new level can really surprise us. The nature of the horror film, with its supremely codified conventions and generic principles, offers a kind of safe space for increasingly extreme violence. So long as the material coheres to the basic architecture of the genre -- as it unfailingly, inevitably does -- it can never qualify as effectively transgressive in the way something more purposeful can.