Monday, March 16, 2009

In Defense of Trash

The cult classic B movie Faster, Pussycat Kill! Kill! (1965) was unavailable on DVD for years, but my copy finally has arrived. It is superb trash. No, it is trash transcending itself. Though there is not a scene in it that cannot be aired on primetime broadcast TV, the movie never is shown there because, collectively, the scenes make something definitely not for kids. There are busty killer babes, a threatened innocent, and (four years before Manson) a twisted family in an isolated desert ranch. Russ Meyer, with a pocket change budget, directed his quirky cast to make something special.

There is an old controversy about this sort of film, with an odd coalition of social conservatives and PC-liberals arguing that productions of this ilk encourage violence and should be restricted. They cite studies showing that exposure to violent images desensitizes people and makes them more aggressive. An equally odd mix of right and left dispute this and oppose restrictions. Gordon Dahl at UC San Diego and Stefano DellaVigna at UC Berkeley, from the latter group, recently concluded in their study that violent films reduce violence:

“We find that violent crime decreases on days with higher theater audiences for violent movies. The effect is mostly driven by incapacitation: between 6PM and 12AM, an increase of one million in the audience for violent movies reduces violent crime by 1.5 to 2 percent. After the exposure to the movie, between 12AM and 6AM, crime is still reduced but the effect is smaller and less robust. We obtain similar, but noisier, results using data on DVD and VHS rentals. Overall, we find no evidence of a temporary surge in violent crime due to exposure to movie violence. Rather, our estimates suggest that in the short-run violent movies deter over 200 assaults daily.”

Both groups, in my opinion, miss the point. A normal individual does not go out and commit assaults because he or she watched a shoot-‘em-up movie. Artists and viewers should not be shackled and censored according to the lowest common denominator of human being, i.e. someone who cannot distinguish fiction from reality and who takes his cues from the former. The problem with this person is not the movies. There always are people who can’t handle freedom, no matter what variety; this is no argument against it. Shackles belong only on people who commit crimes, not on people who depict them.

This still leaves open the question of whether such productions have positive value. This too is an old dispute. More than two millennia ago, Aristotle, disagreed with his mentor Plato who thought literature and the theater should be censored; Ari said violent and emotionally rending Greek tragedies were cathartic. They allowed viewers to experience and discharge deeper and darker aspects of themselves in a harmless way. The experiences thereby were healthy and promoted self-knowledge. I think the old boy was onto something.

Faster, Pussycat Kill! Kill! may not be The Bacchae and Russ Meyer was no Euripides, but the latter was considered by many to be a producer of trash in his day. I’m glad his works survived the censors.

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