We figured that, in a year when Brokeback Mountain is considered “transgressive” cinema, then it’s time to question just what the word means. Certainly the film really “played” to the middle American audience unused to seeing tender depictions of homosexual relationships, yet at the same time, the film had a curiously regressive streak, and a final, laconic sigh that seemed wholly satisfied with staying in the closet. Within the subsequent months, we’ve seen a host of allegedly subversive or shocking movies hit theatres (United 93, The Notorious Bettie Page) attempting to jar us out of our complacency. This of course begs the question: What does truly ruffle us? As movie watchers, writers, thinkers, critics, people? What causes us to sit up and take notice of a sea change, however tiny or seismic? Does a narrative schism like that in Psycho truly commit as much cultural damage as a galvanizing social event like Easy Rider? Or is the latter simply a manufactured cultural phenomenon? And is the former as well?

In this issue of Reverse Shot, we asked our writers to tell us how we can reapply overused words like “subversive” or “transgressive” or “shocking.” We didn’t really want to hear any more about those films that are generally identified as epochal moments (i.e., Psycho, Easy Rider); instead we asked for something more personal—a film that shook, shocked, or socked us right in the gut. Or, perhaps a film that subtly snaked its way into our subconscious, arriving at a time and place that allowed it to be truly questioning of personal values and mores without appealing to reactionary ideologies or audience self-affirmation. In short providing the viewer a good, healthy “Reverse Shock.”

We also wanted, perhaps, to pit the shock of the completely new against the shock of the utterly banal, to isolate those tendencies across national cinemas, American or other, to try to find those places of deviation and those of derivation. Is an artist necessarily more compromised for working in the studio system? Or can we find instances in which limitations on capital do translate to limitations on potential? When critics bring the word “shocking” to bear, what is it that they’re really saying about themselves and how they view their audience?

As always, we left it up to the writing to shape the scope of the issue, rather than vice versa. The results were eye-opening: from Catherine Breillat to Charles Burnett, from Kubrick to Cassavetes, everyone had their one film that, in its own way, however noticeable to the outside eye, truly breaks boundaries and violates norms.