The Ethical Spectacle, May 1995, http://www.spectacle.org

Interview with the Vampire Is the Real Pornography

Hollywood tells stories today which would be better left untold. Interview with the Vampire is one of them. It is a sadistic juvenile fantasy about the humiliation and murder of women, and it is intended to sell tickets by calling to the darkest impulses in the audience's soul.

Although we are told that vampires kill both men and women, the few male victims in the movie are dispatched quickly and unobtrusively, while the camera lingers on the killing of women. Unlike the original Dutch version of The Vanishing , which created a profoundly cruel atmosphere of evil triumphant without ever making objects of the victims, Interview is an adolescent's disturbed fantasy. The film establishes that the victims are at first sexually aroused by being bitten, even when blood is drawn; then, as they slowly realize what is happening to them, they are strangely passive, magnetically drawn to their killers even as they kneel before them and plead to live. No woman being murdered kicks a vampire, screams very loudly, draws a knife to defend herself, or even attempts to run away; instead, they stroll or stagger around, fall back into their killer's arms, and expire sensuously against him. Meanwhile, the vampires taunt their victims that their life has no meaning, that they are going to die anyway, and humiliate and torture them--in one case, before an appreciative on-screen audience.

Every woman in the movie comes to a horrible end, including three female vampires, while the two protagonists, Lestat and Louis, survive and continue killing. These two performances, by two very good actors, Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, are supercilious and campy, the slightly effete superman familiar from third-rate movies about Nazis. The vampires are presented as predators, who (despite the guilt feelings Louis experiences) have a right to kill lesser beings to survive; their female prey are presented as deserving of their fate, half in love with it, with no lives of their own, no identity or right to live, just objects whose whole prior existence has tended towards this death, in which they reach a sort of hapless fulfillment.

The movie, of course, is based on a novel by a woman. I have not read Anne Rice's work, but assuming that the film is faithful, we appear to be sharing the extremely masochistic fantasies of a borderline personality who may somehow have cleansed herself by dumping her garbage on us. Doubtless there are women in the world who want to die, or who distance themselves from such desires by identifying with male vampires who kill; nevertheless, there is something profoundly dispiriting in the fact that women will act in such films, or otherwise work on them, and other women will go to see them. What about reviewers who regard such stories as within normal parameters, to be praised as compelling or criticized as somewhat too violent, but fail to call them what they are: disturbed fantasies calling for self-fulfillment through the humiliation, torture or murder of others.

Imagine for a moment a simple substitution: a scene in which a young, good-looking man is presented on stage to avid spectators, stripped naked, displayed, told he has nothing to live for, and, as he kneels and pleads for life, is dispatched and covered by scurrying vampires? The film would have disgusted most of the same audience that is titillated when the victim is a young, attractive woman. Or, if the film had been about killers of Jews--if the exterminated had been old Jewish men and young girls--imagine the blasts of excoriation and horror that would have greeted this movie. But, instead, it presents itself squarely in a huge hole in our moral ozone: sexual violence in films is not considered the same as other violence. Think about it. If the victim were an elderly woman, the film-makers would expect us to be disgusted, but if it is a beautiful young woman, they expect us not to be.

If you analyze the dynamics of the scene being played, it is possibly partly to understand this, though in the end we refer back to the ozone hole. An actor or actress playing a Jewish victim in a somewhat serious movie--say, Schindler's List--is acting somewhat seriously, that is, portraying fear, tension, a desire to live: the multiple facets of a human. But the actress whose major credential is that she was stripped, humiliated and then killed onstage in Interview was, by contrast, engaging in a lesser form of acting where any talent is subordinated to her physical attributes and where the performance consists of being an object. She portrays fear, but in a very passive, alluring way, and is obviously trying to look her best even as she is abused. The actress, by performing the role, participates in and consents to the abuse; the subliminal message to the audience is that it is really all right, since the actress agreed to it, and even behaves as if she is enjoying it (there is a moment when she is standing a distance away from the vampire, after she knows she is to be killed; he opens his arms, and she strolls across the stage into his embrace, for the coup de grace, accepting her death.) It is easy to believe that a borderline personality, blurring the distinction between the actress' acceptance of a pretended humiliation and a real one, would be galvanized into committing a crime, and in fact there has been one such attempted murder by a man who attacked his girlfriend after taking her to see Interview. (I'll come back to the issue of the possible link between pornography and violence.)

There are a couple of other insights to be gained from this movie. Movies have always flirted with the titillation of violence, and especially of violence against women, but it took several decades after the self-policing of the Hayes Office ended before Hollywood decided that unabashed pandering was safe. For a long time, film-makers felt it was only safe to have it both ways: the audience could enjoy the violence against the victim, then assuage its own guilt when the perpetrator was impaled, blown up or shot at the end. But apparently, today's audience feels no guilt, because the perpetrators of horrible crimes can still be strong, superior, amused and free at the end of today's films. But few films go so far to advocate and justify sexual violence as this one.

The filmmaker's last vestiges of shame, of self-justification, are found in the theme: its a fantasy, a vampire story, so who could take it seriously? In such stories, our darkest fantasies can be freely and veristically portrayed in ways that would be too frightening in a more realistic story. This is why the most visceral fantasies have always been expressed in fairy tales, not in documentaries. The phenomenon has a corrolary: women can be terribly abused in movies if they are not really women, but are men in disguise, though played by actresses (Sean Young in Ace Ventura), are inhabited by aliens ( The Hidden) or are aliens in disguise (Iman in Star Trek VI). But the justification--its not really a woman, so why be upset?--is an echo of the successful Nazi distancing--a Jew is not a human being, so why object?

Another distancing occurs because of the nature of film. A Grand Guignol theater, in which the torture and murder of women was simulated daily, with fake blood copiously splashed about, would not be acceptable in our society. It either could not exist at all, or if it did, would exist on the extreme fringes. But portray the same acts on screen in a mainstream Hollywood movie, and it can play on main street. The video-on-demand menu in the hotel room where I watched Interview gave me the option of blocking out the adult movies, in case I was travelling with children; but it did not offer me the option of blocking out Interview for the same reason. The difference between film and theater, which makes extreme violence more acceptable in the one than in the other, is, of course, an empty justification, a distinction without a difference. In reality, since so many more people see films, rent or bootleg them and let their children watch them, films have much more power to communicate values than the theater does.

Also, consider Hollywood's schizophrenia. The same studio may release a warm-hearted story about female friends, geared to female audiences; then a vampire movie in which women are mindless objects who court and deserve death. Imagine that it is 1933, and the same German studio has just released two movies, one about a loveable Jewish family, and the other about Nazi supermen who hunt down and justifiably kill Jewish families. What would you think? Certainly, that the studio was pandering to different audiences in each film; but you would also have to conclude that films are conceived and produced in a monstrous ethical vacuum. (But I'm not telling you anything you didn't already know, right?)

Movies like Interview convince me that, despite the lack of research evidence, there is a link between them and violence. Although instances of someone seeing a movie, then immediately committing a crime, are relatively rare (and also hard to prove) no doubt there is a feedback loop between popular culture and our values. Movies express values (typically while claiming not to do so) and we learn our values at the movies. A child whose every entertainment informs him that violence is an acceptable way to mediate life, and that certain other humans are objects created for his exploitation, will believe this; and even an adult raised in an entertainment vacuum (if one exists anywhere), his basest instincts called to prominence by the values of the movies he sees, could claim that films are a justification for his beliefs and actions.

I am not saying that it is the obligation of Hollywood to make only feel-good movies promoting safe "family values". Instead, I am simply saying that ethics should lead us to refrain from telling certain stories, the sole motivation of which is to earn a dollar by promoting what is basest in our natures. If a Hollywood producer would not teach his daughter that she exists for the pleasure of men, nor his son that women are chattels to be consumed by him, even to their destruction, why would he make a movie that communicates these same messages? Few, or none, are actually proselytizing violence; instead, they are chasing dollars, and there has been a serious decline in standards regarding what we will do to chase dollars. This, somehow, becomes the ultimate justification: do not hold me morally responsible for a message that I do not believe, but am communicating just to make money; in fact, do not regard it as a message at all, for it is only an entertainment. But, in considering whether such an excuse works, let's try another thought experiment: should Julius Streicher, the Nazi propagandist, have been able to escape judgment at Nuremburg if he had proven that his anti-Jewish works were intended merely as entertainments?

I have referred to Interview as pornography a few times; let me justify this. Definitions of pornography are notoriously difficult. I define it in part as material designed to induce sexual excitement, which communicates the right of a human being to use physical force and violence against others in pursuit of fulfillment. Though there may be other works which do not fit this definition which are also pornography, this is the only pornography I am certain of. My limited definition is consistent with Mill's view of liberty: the law may only intervene to forbid acts that harm others, not ourselves. Erotic materials should not fall afoul of the law just because they involve me in a dreamworld, or make me lose interest in real life, nor are they immoral in themselves because of their sexual nature. But they may be barred if they directly promote a culture of sadism and disregard for the liberty of others.

Half the human race cannot reach its full potential as individuals because it cannot walk alone at night or in deserted places, but must always seek the protection of others. Half the human race has the daily experience of unwelcome, hostile attention from people who would (most of them) never dream of harassing blacks or Jews, but, due to that moral ozone hole, regard gender as a license for intimidation. Who can seriously claim that movies such as Interview play no role in legitimating and extending this behavior?

That said, would I outlaw Interview, or put its creators in prison as pornographers? I would not, though I regard them as extremely culpable of doing harm. The reason is that today, the tools we use to analyze are infinitely more precise and sensitive than the tools we use to punish and enforce. Imagine if CAT scans existed for diagnosis, but the only surgical tools were carpenter's saws, hammers or even cannons. Since the law is such a blunt instrument, I would feel no confidence that a law banning Interview would not be turned by the moral fundamentalists to prohibit other works which do not infringe Mill's rule about harm to others.

Mill, in his chapter on "Applications", conceded that there is no bright line, and that determining what acts the law may interdict is an act of striking a balance. Liberty is not a binary value; it exists on a spectrum. Where the law may not intervene, Mill freely acknowledges that public criticism may; the danger is when the law becomes coextensive with public morality, and attempts to enforce the beliefs of the majority as the values of everyone. In the United States, we have not needed hate speech laws, because the majority finds it socially unacceptable to engage publicly in race or religious hatred.

The effects of this kind of moral evolution, unenforced by law, can be seen in the movies as well. Civil rights laws stop short of banning the portrayal of black people as "Stepin Fetchit" types in film, yet no movie would dare to do this, because of social disapproval. For the same reason, movies cannot be made portraying blacks as the justified victims of unredressed violence. Yet, if the victims are female, no equivalent prohibition exists. The solution is not to extend the pornography laws, but for people, male and female, to close the ozone hole by refusing to participate in, support or see movies like Interview With the Vampire.