FILM COMMENT : Aggravating Assaults : Forty-five years after 'Streetcar Named Desire' dared to depict rape, too many filmmakers exploit it as a dramatic device.

Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

In the fall of 1950, when playwright Tennessee Williams, director Elia Kazan and producer Charles Feldman contracted with Warner Bros. to bring Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" to the screen, a question of rape almost derailed the entire project.

In those days, the major studios all abided by the Production Code, a list of do's and don'ts enforced by Joseph Breen, and Section II, Subsection 3 on "Seduction or Rape" stated clearly that "they should never be more than suggested, and only when essential for the plot, and even then never shown by explicit method."

In Williams' play, Blanche DuBois' rape by Stanley Kowalski is the critical dramatic moment, but Breen found it especially objectionable. The filmmakers, for their part, said it was not possible to do the picture without it. As Williams wrote to Breen in an impassioned letter, "the rape of Blanche by Stanley is a pivotal, integral truth in the play, without which the play loses its meaning, which is the ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate, by the savage and brutal forces of modern society."

Surprisingly, it was Breen who blinked. The rape would be allowed if, among other things, it was "done by suggestion and delicacy." That turned out to involve a shattered mirror, a swinging light bulb and Marlon Brando's Stanley roughly grabbing Vivien Leigh's Blanche by the shoulders before things discreetly faded out.

Despite all the fuss that scene caused 45 years ago, by the standards of today's post-Production Code environment "Streetcar" is so restrained and genteel that it was rated PG when it was released in an expanded version in 1993.

Because anyone who's been to the movies lately knows that the level of explicitness and violence that is allowed in current depictions of rape has escalated to a level that is both depressing and dehumanizing. While the "Streetcar" rape scene was considered a victory against censorship that free expression partisans could applaud, whether the scenes from the following recent or about-to-be-released pictures are a cause for any kind of celebration is another question.

* "Rob Roy": An icy sociopath takes an especially sadistic pleasure in graphically raping the hero's wife.

* "Showgirls": The heroine's best friend is beaten to the point of unconsciousness and viciously gang-raped by a singer she idolizes and his two bodyguards.

* "Strange Days": A prostitute in the year 1999 is stalked, humiliated, raped and murdered, all with a particularly sick futuristic twist--a mechanism amplifies her terror and feeds it back into her brain.

* "Leaving Las Vegas": The film's prostitute heroine is beaten and anally gang-raped by a group of thuggish college students.

These descriptions, unpleasant though they may be, only detail a few of the recent on-screen rapes and can barely hint at how wrenching these scenes are. Leaving aside the question of why three out of the four are rated R and not NC-17 (though it would be interesting to hear the ratings board's thoughts on that one), the questions are why such a sadistic level of explicitness has become the norm, what it does to audiences and how it can be contained.

This is not, it should be clearly said, a call to return to the old Production Code days. Rape, as "Streetcar" demonstrated and Akira Kurosawa's classic "Rashomon" made even clearer, is as capable of being used in a meaningful and artistically dramatic way as murder or even romance, and our movies would be weaker than they already are if incendiary topics were once again made taboo.

The problem with the current spate of rape scenes is several fold. First, these sequences occur so frequently they increasingly feel like a pathetic kind of "me-tooism," the way topless-ness became all the rage on screen for a while. Worse than that, the filmmakers seem to be trying to outdo each other in how forcefully they can grind our faces in the disturbing specifics of the event.

If the writers and directors could talk about why they've included these scenes, they'd probably echo Williams about needing to depict the savage forces of society, but this is disingenuous at best. Overdoing the violence and explicitness does not make a dramatic point stronger--it can in fact have the opposite effect. These nightmare moments call up a kind of visceral get-me-out-of-here revulsion that make the story nominally being told the least important thing in a viewer's mind.

Why, then, do filmmakers indulge in this kind of nastiness? Probably because we live in an age of excess, when lazy creators are happy to use overkill as a cheap way to get any kind of emotional response out of a jaded audience. Why take the time to think up intriguing plots, provocative characters or potent dialogue when you can abuse a woman and get the audience to cringe on cue? Truly, the worst of the manipulators have taken over the asylum.

Paradoxically, filmmakers don't seem to understand or care about the deeper reasons why their actions are so troubling. By forcing viewers to witness scenes of terrible torture and humiliation, they demean the audience as well as themselves. To insist that moviegoers be voyeurs with regard to some of the most disturbing acts human beings are capable of makes us in a sense a party to the actions and inevitably coarsens and soils everybody involved.

And, though without doubt most filmmakers would deny this, there is a strong element of sexual bias and exploitation in the way only women are singled out for this kind of treatment. For though men can indeed be raped by other men, it's hard to think of a mainstream film since "Deliverance" that acknowledged that, that allowed its male characters to be as abused and abased as women routinely are. (And that film gave its men the opportunity for retribution, something that, "Thelma & Louise" excepted, only genre items like "Ms. 45" have allowed female victims.)

Even more telling, despite how routine enormous amounts of physical violence have become, the men who are beaten up in film after film almost never face the kind of intense, protracted, skin-crawling misery that is routine for on-screen rape victims--for that would make men seem weak, and that, these films tell us over and over again, is a place reserved exclusively and for all time for the other sex.

Though it is impossible not to notice this wave of rape chic, few people have protested against it, and this is partly because, like the problem of on-screen violence in general, it is difficult to know what to say if you do not see censorship by some all-knowing authoritarian body as an option.

But just because we don't believe in prior restraint doesn't mean we have to remain silent. If audiences consistently protested with box-office abstinence, if agents, writers, directors and studio executives paused a moment and considered the consequences the next time they said "great idea" when one of these rape sequences came up, maybe there would be some progress.

And even if there is no immediate progress, actions like those are critical. A leftist World War II veteran once told me it griped the hell out of him that the right wing had somehow managed to co-opt patriotism, managed to take something he believed in and make it their exclusive property.

Similarly, people who don't believe in censorship cannot afford to let morality become the exclusive property of those who would eagerly push movies back to the pre-"Streetcar" days. If we can't come up with an acceptable middle ground between then and now, the time will inevitably come when there simply won't be one for us to fall back on.

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