Monday, July 16, 2007

Torture movies

It's been very frustrating to me for the last few months to attempt to sustain a dialogue with various internet folk about the current torture subgenre of horror movies, primarily because critics of these films have insisted on simplistic knee-jerk reactions - if they've even seen the films under discussion.

I refuse to submit to the name 'torture porn' because it's meant to be purely derogatory; but it also points out what it is about these movies that make critics so very uncomfortable - horror and porn are audiovisual genres that deal explicitly with the human body; porn in a fantasy context, horror in a nightmare context, and representations of the human body in these extreme circumstances make people deeply uncomfortable, as they have for over thirty years now. This is a continuation of the same debate that flourished in the 1970s over Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave, and the same lazy arguments are in play which seek to sweep all torture movies into the same bag, regardless of individual merit.

My frustrations have stemmed primarily from the insistence from some that torture movies like Hostel, the Saw movies, or the new Captivity are not just bad movies, but deeply objectionable; one critic for a high-profile publication has made it clear that he deems these movies so horrendous that anyone who expresses any opinion other than total revulsion is beyond the pale of redemption and unworthy of human contact. (Of course, this same critic is also happy to needle those who disagree with constant reminders of his moral superiority and persistent gloating in a babyish, intellectually lazy and dishonest manner.) I don't give a rat's ass if you like or dislike a movie, but I demand basic respect for my opinions and analysis, and insist that a critic see a movie before repetitively slamming it and gloating over it's fate - that's basic.

While I'm a big fan of horror movies, I would never say that every movie in this subgenre is good or worthy of respect; Darren Bousman's Saw sequels have been grim wallows in explicit gore justified by juvenile attempts at moralizing; Marcus Nispel's Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a standard slasher movie juiced up by all the aestheticization that a Michael Bay production could muster; and Turistas went through the motions, clearly uninterested in its own premise. However, as in every genre of movies, there are standouts, and so it is with Eli Roth's Hostel and Hostel Part II, and Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects. It's easier for critics to brush an entire class of movies into the 'torture porn' ghetto without actually evaluating each one for its own merits, just as thirty years ago good horror movies directed by David Cronenberg and John Carpenter like The Brood or Halloween were lumped together with turds like Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan. While it would be nice if critics could actually apply some judgement other than knee-jerk loathing, I would settle for critics to at least watch the movies they're so quick to demonize.

The other reason I'm frustrated by the 'torture porn' appellation is that it overlooks all the other forms of cinematic exploitation that go on. I'm of the opinion that a gory action movie like Pearl Harbor, 300, or Man on Fire is inherently more problematic than a gory horror movie. Each of these movies exploits violent action for the viewing pleasure of the home audience, but in a significantly different manner than in Hostel or Saw. The violence in the horror movies is perpetrated _on_ the movie's protagonists, represented as horrible and experienced as violations, outrages: bad. the violence and torture of the Spartan warriors in 300 or Denzel Washington in Man on Fire is perpetrated _by_ the movies' protagonists and represented as appropriate, desireable, righteous: good. Audience complicity is completely different in the two genres of film, and more clearly objectionable in the action movies. This also leaves behind emotional pornography, art-porn, romance-porn, or any other way to pander to human emotions in ways other than by representing the human body.

Finally, criticism of these movies extends into a criticism of horror as a whole, and overlooks the cinematic traditions they stem from. These are not an original development in American horror, but merely a resurgence of forms that have been popular in Asian, European, and grindhouse traditions: Captivity is a giallo, from its black leather gloves to its fluid cinematography; Chan-Wook Park's movies are as brutal as anything made by Eli Roth, but he gets a pass because he works in a foreign language; and The Texas Chainsaw sequels speak for themselves. The idea that a torture movie is more problematic than other forms of horror because the gory torture scenes are foregrounded above the narrative ignores the very point of a horror film: you go to see a horror film to be scared, and the experience is inherently masochistic; the only difference between a classical horror narrative and a modern film is one of subtlety vs. directness, with tradeoffs inherent either way.

This is all to say that there's plenty of room for discussion and debate on these issues, but narrow-minded individuals who refuse to have honest discussions about them are the villains of the day. Anyone who can't find a difference between Turistas and Hostel isn't worthy of the name 'critic'.

And Joe Leydon owes me an apology.


ShaWn said...

hostel was a bad movie though. it wasn't made very well. no suspense. no real characters. no real plot development. what is there to defend?

there is no such thing as moral or immoral art. there is only well made art and poorly made art. - oscar wilde.

Jeff McMahon said...

I guess I disagree with Oscar Wilde then, because plenty of 'poorly made' movies are good, and plenty of 'well-made' movies are bad - or rather, that his terms need to be more carefully defined. For example, a movie like 300 is made with the state of the art of Hollywood skill and craftsmanship, but it's an odious and repugnant work beyond that.

Hostel, on the other hand, was (in my opinion) made with intelligence; was suspenseful, and had just enough characterization to get the job done. I think your criteria may differ from mine.

cjKennedy said...

I'm treading dangerous ground here because Horror is simply not my favorite genre. Nothing against it and I try and keep up with the classics, but in the end standard Horror offers thrills that I'm not seeking.

Now that I've exposed myself as the anti-expert in the field, I've gotta say I'm sick and tired of people who don't know what they're talking about (like me) tossing around words like 'torture porn'. It's become shorthand for me for "this person is simply stuck on a concept that sounds nifty and fills them with the desired outrage so they can shout from the rooftops about something they actually no nothing about". It's a catch soundbite.

On the other hand, it seems like Horror is often a subversive genre and it probably thrives on conflict like this. It gives it a certain rebel cachet that I'm sure appeals to a segment of the audience.

As for the movies themselves, I did see Saw and Saw II at the request of a friend who thought they were great and I hated them. Not because of the violence, but because they weren't entertaining enough to distract me from the fact they were so poorly done. A few clever ideas were wasted.

Ok, this whole comment sounded better in my head before I typed it out. I should probably just delete it but I've gone through all the trouble now...

Jeff McMahon said...

Exactly, 'torture porn' is simply a popular tactic to demonize a group of movies that have little in common beyond a certain explicitness. As I tried to explain once, if 'porn' is going to be thrown around in discussion then you have to recognize all the other types of artistic porn, like 'action porn', which would include a movie like 300, or emotional porn, like a cheap romance novel or its cinematic equivalents, or my favorite, 'art porn', which is represented by anything in the weird-for-weird's sake school of pretentious garbage that consumers lap up because it makes them feel superior. Each of these forms are characterized the same way: by pandering to a particular appetite and by fetishization of particular imagery, specific to each case. The 'torture porn' goons are incorrectly assuming that watching a character in a movie being assaulted or tortured aligns the viewer with the torturer, not the victim - which tells me that _they_ should not be watching these movies, if those are the thoughts going through their heads.

Matthew Dessem said...

I've used the phrase "torture porn" myself, but I think only in the context of The Passion of the Christ. I will confess that I haven't seen Hostel, or, in fact, any of the films in this genre--it's not really my thing. I like my horror films supernatural. I agree with you that action films have at least as problematic a relationship with violence as horror movies. Don't you think, though, that many people in the audience of Hostel are there to empathize with the torturers? Or at least watching for the sort of "Wow, I can't believe I just saw that" sense of ickyness that gets people to watch internet beheadings and "Faces of Death?" I think regular pornography appeals the same way, particularly in its more extreme subgenres. Art porn, though I love the phrase, doesn't seem to have that going on.

Jeff McMahon said...

Certainly we're all complicit in the act of staged violence as soon as we buy a ticket, but I still think there's a difference between seeking to experience the thrills of a horror movie in a voyeuristic or vicarious manner, which is an essential feature of the genre; and denying the emotion of a horrific scene as a means of raw audience gratification. A great horror movie puts you through an emotional wringer. A poor one just goes through the motions, and that's where the difference lay for me - raw spectacle vs. charged spectacle.

My 'pornography' phrasing is specifically relating to the gratification of a need, as a transcation, and not in terms of the content of spectacle, sex, or the human body.