Unwatchable, but highly readable

review by Michael Arnzen

Baer, Nicholas, Hennefeld, Maggie, Horak, Laura and Iversen, Gunnar, Eds. Unwatchable. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2019. 412 pp. $21.34.

Unwatchable, a fascinating anthology of short film criticism and media theory published earlier this year by Rutgers University Press, asks of its fifty or so contributors a very simple question: What does it mean for a visual text to be “unwatchable”?

As you might imagine, the answer is complex, for “watching” does not just mean looking, but—usually—scrutinizing with some kind of intention. Thus to be “unwatchable” means to be a text that resists or denies the spectator’s ability to see what they are looking for… if the spectator isn’t already refusing to even look in the first place. Sometimes this denial is physical and objective in a way that obfuscates vision (like censor bars or scratched film); more often it is a term defined by a subjective desire (conscious or not) to look away. There is unwatchable footage, scratched and eroded by the violence of time. And there is unwatchable footage, scratched and eroded by the violence of the artist in a kind of "optical torture"—and both are addressed within these pages. Then there is unwatchable content—from avant-garde texts which viciously challenge expectations or strain the spectator’s patience, generating anxiety about what it is they are looking at—to exploitative texts which play boldly to base desires or cruel ideologies and strain the spectator’s ethical patience, generating anxiety about their complicity with what it is they are looking at.

One of the lessons of Unwatchable is that anxiety—personal, cultural, historical—propels the spectator to look away or fear the image they might perceive. Yet cultural criticism must stay "on watch." The wide range of contributions to Unwatchable allow us to peek between our fingers and consider films we might otherwise never watch on our own, to great success.

In fact, Unwatchable is a very strong collection because it boldly lifts the veil on unwatchable films that most people have only heard about but have never seen for themselves. Yet its strength lies in the way it theorizes the matter, rather than just exploring a catalogue of films that make audiences uncomfortable. Nearly all of the authors explore why such discomfort exists in the first place (while also remaining attentive to the thrills as much as the pains of discomfort, such as in extreme horror cinema, as well).

The book is large at 388 pages, with about 60 contributors peeking behind the curtain of so many films the average reader probably has never seen. Everyone from popular sex journalists (Susie Bright) to familiar film theorists (Vivian Sobchack, Noel Carroll) to specialist projectionists (Bennet Togler) and trans performance artists (Alok Vaid-Menon) come to the table, offering up very brief (750-1500 word) essays on the subject. While the diverse angles of inquiry is wide-ranging, generally I found that most of the writers raise one of three questions: Why I personally won’t watch X (often for political reasons); Why we don’t really want to watch X (often in defense of our identity or desire); or Why X is purposely unpleasurable to experience (often because the avant-garde or provocative artist is straining the pleasures attached to the visual apparatus). The way these questions and the answers posed overlap are fascinating. All of the essays are very short. And even the weakest among them—the smattering of personal preference pieces in which the writer muses defensively about their biases and why they refuse to screen certain films—serve to encourage the reader to question their own limits when it comes to engaging with visual texts that might be privately troubling or socially deemed unsuitable for viewing, whether for ethical, political, sensory or affective reasons.

The book feels timely, as the editors suggest the issue of “unwatchability” is ignited by the rise of accessibility to violent, traumatizing images in viral videos as much as footage of terrorism and tragedy in the news, on top of the recent wave of extreme horror films and the perverse politicking around “fake news.” After their introduction—which gracefully problematizes the term “unwatchable” and artfully places this concept in an array of aesthetic and philosophical frameworks—the book allows its contributors to each grapple with the term in their own way in brief essays (each writer is usually given no longer than three-four pages each) which reveals so many facets to what it means to watch, as much as not watch, media. Helpfully, the anthology of thinkpieces by established media critics is organized well, consisting of three main sections: Violence and Testimony; Histories and Genres; and Spectators and Objects.

The topics under study range from news footage taken from unmanned drone strikes to protest films literally about watching paint dry, on top of infamously provocative genre titles (Irreversible and Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom), to examinations of the equivalent of snuff films (such as The Bridge—which documents a year’s worth of suicidal leaps from the Golden Gate Bridge), cult zombie films and obscure fetish porn. Sneering references to Donald Trump appear often enough throughout the book to make the reader chuckle, but a few of the authors perform direct analyses of journalistic election/presidential coverage. These analyses drive home the notion that we truly are in a culture where we must stay alert and “on guard” (i.e. on watch) about the images we see—and yet stand against those who would obscure our vision of truth or avert our gaze from reality altogether by turning the media camera off or away as a political act.

While movies and memes that rub a spectator’s nose in viscera and violence are more obvious focal points for unwatchability (and the editors pull in some of the best critics on the subject), some themes emerge in a reading of this collection that are literally eye-opening. With chapters on “Bearing Witness,” “Enduring the Avant-Garde” and “Tedious Whiteness,” one can see that a key element of unwatchability is temporality—that is, duration. Even with just a still image (Warhol's 10 hour epic still camera shot of the Empire State Building, Empire (1964) or a black screen (Debord's 75 minute black screen picture, Howls for Sade (1952)), several of the essays in this book return to the notion that we can only stand watching images for so long before anxiety is produced. The same holds true of politically oppressive or inhumane images, historically. We learn from reading Unwatchable that there are benefits to looking at what we might otherwise be averse to, and that we need artists like Warhol and Debord to remind us of this—but also that there is only so much we can take. The most daring of these films challenge us and incite us to change or open up our worldview.

A book that purely focused on avant-garde optical destruction and nihilistic "gore-no" films would perhaps be unreadable. But the book counter-balances these extremes by including eclectic essays on such topics as the unendurably "precious" film (such as Gondry's Science of Sleep (2006)), biopics featuring actors who upstage their subjects (Lincoln (2012)), and even stunt youtube videos ("What Could Go Wrong?," 2017). The Unwatchable, apparently, isn't so much a media genre as it is an enduring framework for understanding aversion. Just as Freud quipped that "un-" is the token of repression in his essay on "The Uncanny," the authors in Unwatchable uncover a number of repressive and oppressive forces at play when we watch (and don't): from racial bias to entitled consumerist fantasy.

Unwatchable is a powerful, potent collection because of its mission to crack our fingers apart just a little bit wider to see more of what we're averse to. Thick-skinned viewers who can “watch anything” will learn more about what it is they are seeing (and not); thin-skinned spectators who avert their eyes from even the most laughable of horror films will learn more about what it is they are choosing to be ignorant about when they cover their eyes. The act of watching is inherently a kind of voluntary education, and the only “unwatchable” text may be the film that has nothing of value (however that might be determined) to teach us. It is interesting, then, that—in addition to an excellent bibliography and filmography—the book concludes with two chapters on pedagogy, with writers looking critically at campus politics and “trigger warnings,” exploring—as Katarina Kyrola puts it—“the ethical value of extreme discomfort" in an era which feels increasingly censorious.

Early in the anthology, W.J.T. Mitchell draws the distinction between seeing and watching as “passive and active poles of the scopic field. We see a lot of things that we do not watch or (more precisely) watch for. In fact, most of the things we watch for are things that we cannot see, things we are looking for, waiting for, trying to bring into focus” (36). Unwatchable brings into focus a number of issues which make it an excellent text for not merely a classroom, but any film enthusiast who perhaps privately isn't always enthusiastic about all film. Look for this book.