A conflict has been percolating for some time, between the responsibility of art in a violent world, and the idea that art has no responsibilities. Slightly different from the idea of censorship, manifestations of this conflict have lead left-wing protestors (typically anti-censorship) to do things like boycott an X-Men film (ostensibly a children’s film) because of a poster showing a woman being choked, and right-wing protestors (usually pro-censorhip) to hide their arguments behind the flimsy muslin gauze of ‘free speech’. A very charitable reading of this debate is that people are demanding higher standards from their art. A less charitable one might be that people, as Jarett Kobek has observed, are so saturated in capitalist media that the very act of seeing a superhero film can be considered ‘activism’, and thus people are requesting that the landscape fit their beliefs.
Tony Bicat’s prescient yet hollow 1972 work Skinflicker reaches from the past into the present and throws both sides of the conflict into sharp relief. A rough and grungy work, it is filmed in found-footage style (perhaps the first in this style), and tells the story of three political dissidents who kidnap a prominent MP, torture him, and eventually hang him. The style and tone recalls later films such as Man Bites Dog (at its periodic best), or even August Underground (at its frequent worst), in the flippant insouciance and casual hatred of bourgeois values and moral guardians of society that the film displays.
There is an obvious discussion point; watching this film, it is hard not to think of the tragic and abhorrent murder of Jo Cox. Cox’s murder was shocking for a number of reasons, but for me it seemed to represent an almost symbolic point at which politics became more than just a game with a safety net. Politics has never been ‘safe’ (and it shows my largely cushy existence in a liberal democracy to even suggest it is), but to see a public official murdered in broad daylight is both sickening, and very disillusioning. Both sides of the aisle, rightly, united in their condemnation for the act, and it was a tragedy that rippled through all of Westminster.
However, Jo Cox’s murder was a real event that actually happened; this film, conversely, is an obvious work of fiction, and a flawed one at that. These flaws make this a difficult piece to write. If the film was good, it would be easier to take it seriously as a legitimate statement, and it wouldn’t seem as disingenuous to discuss it in real terms. Yet the film is, both as a film and a political commentary, very poor. Aside from a silent sequence in the middle which shows the kidnapping, the film is frequently content to lapse into histrionic overacting that doesn’t do justice to the ideological underpinnings that the film may (or may not, and probably doesn’t) have, and the awkward structure over the forty minute runtime feels somehow both baggy and rushed. It doesn’t once discuss the motivations of the killers, yet doesn’t play into mindless nihilism enough for us to not have to question why they’re doing this.
The form of the film, too, is only operative to a point. The interiors of the garage, where most of the film is set, are effective, with dirty and bloody handprints lining the walls, yet the crude application of the found-footage style, with the exception of a couple of scenes, fails to present the architecture of this building in a way that might have built tension or reflected the moral architecture of the characters. Where Man Bites Dog used the homeliness of its sets to make a point about the banality of evil in the domestic setting, this film is just ‘there’. It is obvious that the filmmakers had something to say, but less obvious that they’ve actually thought about what that something might be.
But for all its flaws, it did make me think about the responsibility of art, especially in a political context. On the one hand, I do not think that this film in particular, or any film in general, can be said to directly cause violence or promote hate crimes. The worst I could say is that a film can act as a conduit that exacerbates pre-existing feelings, but a film cannot radicalise, or motivate, unless it is propaganda, but propaganda is not film, it is film as an arm of the state, and for all of Skinflicker’s issues, it is not propaganda.
And yet. Ideas gain acceptability through exposure, and without making this about The Internet and How It Is Ruining Us (yawn), we do live in a time where everything is happening all at once, and anyone with a certain opinion will be encouraged to engage with others who feel the same way, or feel so differently that your original viewpoint becomes encouraged through some kind of Hegelian witchcraft. This film is a small and probably inconsequential piece of an insurmountably larger puzzle, in which one person ended up murdering an elected public official.
Watching this film reminded me of the chilling exchange in Season Four of The Thick Of It, where spin doctor Malcolm Tucker defends the leaking of information on the grounds that ‘it’s not a big deal, nobody died’, only to be tersely reminded of the fact that ‘actually, someone did die’. Everything is inconsequential until there are consequences, and just because you didn’t see something coming and had no reason to see it coming doesn’t necessarily mean you’re off the hook.
The fact that the film communicates its point so badly, or perhaps doesn’t have one, doesn’t help it. If it directly condemned the killers, then it would be easier to treat it as satire (and it could have been excellent satire). But it doesn’t do so. And you could argue that any film which shows these acts is necessarily condemning them due to their inherent abhorrence, but this reeks of that particularly obnoxious ‘it’s not sexist/violent/racist, it’s about sexism/violence/racism!!’ defence, which has allowed many terrible films to me made under flimsy pretenses.
To put it frankly, this film left me troubled. It seems to me that there was once a time where a film like this could be made and taken at face value. Yet things have shifted so much in the intervening years that this film reads more like a missive from an alternate past where we could have actually predicted the mess we’re currently in. And there is also my persistent worry that things have always been this way, politically speaking, and it is the folly of the young (which I am) to experience the repetitious anxieties and crises of politics and life as if they are happening for the first time.
Anyway. Skinflicker draws me closer to the side of the debate which states that art does have a responsibility, and that any filmmaker taking on a theme with real world applicability should prove, through the film, that they have the chops and have done their homework enough to do justice to the issue. There should also be a counter-responsibility on the part of moviegoers to engage with these films, even if they are bad, instead of flippantly dismissing them.
Perhaps it simply comes down to the worth of the piece; Lindsay Anderson’s masterful If…. degenerates into a school shooting, but through white-hot filmmaking bravura and a commitment to outlandish satire, it justifies its existence and repeated critical attention even in the wake of Columbine and Sandy Hook.
Of all the films I’ve seen from the past, Skinflicker is the one I am most confident in saying could not be made now. And even though it seems to reflect our current circumstances, and might even be a little instructive, I’m not altogether convinced that that’s a bad thing.
For those interested, Skinflicker can be watched for one pound here.