The New York Times is running an interactive piece about shock value in art. They ask, “does art retain the power to shock?”
I say yes. I admit to being somewhat attracted to the dark, scary and strange. I like to be shocked, but I think the line between what is shocking artistically and what is shocking just to be shocking is a very thin line. As one director said, “It’s easy to get the audience to squirm – just show them someone about to strangle a puppy.”
For me, the films that have shocked me the most are ones that have been burned through my eyes and into my brain. Their images haunt me at night and still scare me in my sleep. I admit that I haven’t seen every shocking movie. I have never seen anything by Harmony Korine and I cannot bring myself to watch Pasolini’s Salo. I just can’t. Nevertheless I submit for you my Top 5 Most Shocking Movies.
5. Old Boy, Chan-wook Park
The story of a businessman, who has been imprisoned for 15 years, escapes and seeks revenge on his captor. He falls in love with a strange girl, and learns the motives behind the man who kept him locked away. When the truth is revealed we discover that the businessman had revealed an incestuous relationship in his youth and now he must pay. I saw the movie at the Philadelphia Film Festival in 2003 and still remember the final frames of the film. Rumor has it that Spike Lee is making an American remake in 2013.
4. The Skin I Live In, Pedro Almodovar
Almodovar never disappoints and his films are always an artful blend of mystery and intrigue. I’ve seen almost all of his movies, but this one left me particularly disturbed. A plastic surgeon, Antonio Banderas, seeks revenge (yes, another revenge tale!) on a young man who he believes raped his daughter. The daughter is so traumatized by the event that she eventually kills herself. Acting on a vendetta, the surgeon kidnaps the man and turns him into a woman and they begin a relationship. Almodovar said that the movie is “a horror story without screams or frights” and I would definitely agree.
3. Scorpio Rising, Kenneth Anger
The biker subculture is explored through Anger’s shots of leather and flesh, mixed with cuts of Brando and James Dean, all set to a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack. It’s a dreamy experimental film that touches on ritual, fantasy, and American culture. When I first saw the film, it knocked me out. The zipping up of a leather jacket coincides with Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet,” and Little Peggy March’s “I Will Follow Him,” plays while a biker gang follows their leader. This is all twenty years before MTV even existed! It’s dark, twisted, and strange and I’m still not sure if I understand all of it. It will never leave me though.
2. Mulholland Drive, David Lynch
This is the first David Lynch film I saw and even after seeing Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Eraserhead, this one stayed with me the most. It shocked me so completely that when the movie was over, I was left scrambling on the internet for the rest of the night talking with people online about their interpretations and what it meant. The story of a hopeful actress, Betty Elms, played by Naomi Watts, moves to Hollywood and finds a woman named Rita living in her apartment. Things start strange and get stranger, and includes mobsters, a lesbian tryst, and a club called Silencio where a chanteuse sings Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in Spanish. If your confused by that description, wait until you see the movie. You’ll also never be able to look behind a dumpster in the same way again.
1. Female Trouble, John Waters
I think Female Trouble is more shocking than Pink Flamingos. There I said it. The story of Dawn Davenport, played by Divine, who has goes from schoolgirl to fashion model to murderer is simply too crazy to believe. Her speech in an electric chair at the end is a moment of pure shock camp. The fact that it combines all these elements, while still being entertaining is why the film is my number one. I got to see John Waters perform in Middletown, Delaware a few years ago in a bar. The town banned him from performing outdoors because of his racy comments. He performed his one man show “This Filthy World” to an audience of about forty or so and promptly left. I promise you his films won’t leave you as fast as he did.