Monday, November 12, 2007

Movies: I came, I saw, I kinda wanted my money back.

Recently, I was brought into a blog discussion as the local authority on the aesthetics and morality of torture porn. It was a bit of miscasting, really, as I'm not that much of a defender of it, but that's neither here nor there. The point of this was the question that kicked of this virtual hubbub was the news that, on its opening weekend, Saw IV snagged the top spot in the ranking of that weekend's ticket sales. The question was something like "What possesses some many people to see such a sick flick?"

I propose that a more appropriate question would be "What possessed so many people to see such a mediocre flick?"

In my review of Saw III I erroneously announced that I had seen the last film in the dwindling Saw franchise. I sincerely wish I had been correct.

The new latest edition to the Saw franchise is superior to the third flick, but that gets you awfully little. The traps take a set back from the Bond-villain grade devices that appeared in the third installment, with a single truly super-villain style device involving being perched on a block of melting ice while two other blocks of ice threaten to swing down and squish the victim's head.

What's actually weird about the Saw franchise is, against the grain of most horror franchises, the move has been towards increasing narrative complexity and a deepening of the backstory an relationships surrounding Jigsaw, the series now dead star who, through the miracle of nested flashbacks, gets plenty of screen-time. This is less promising than it sounds. When he was reviewing the first Saw flick, Roger Ebert mocked Jigsaw as another one of those bizarre and needlessly complex serial killers who invent overly fussy ways of offing folks main so the plots can drag on. Where's the motivation to do all this work? I have no idea if the men behind the saw franchise read that review, but they've basically reacted to in every subsequent flick by adding on yet another motive for Jigsaw to do what he does. In the first flick he did what he does 'cause he's dying and he's got a big ol' brain tumor that is probably scrambling his regular thoughts. Basically, he's not got long to live and he's batshit crazy so he concocts this bizarre religion around subjecting folks to life and death decisions. In the second flick, this nebulous religion got reified so that we get rules and disciples. The theory here being that adding more crazies to a delusion makes it a religion. In the third film we actually added a whole new reason for Jigsaw to be Jigsaw. See, before he got a tumor, he was in a car wreck that nearly killed him. At the moment, he had this epiphany. His traps are meant to recreate that transcendent moment for the suckers he traps. So, the brain tumor's out. That's just crap that came later. Car wreck, that's the new reason. Plus, in the third flick, what was a vague religion gets so codified that we can actually have an ideological split between Jigsaw and one of his disciples (astute readers just caught the feeble hook on which the plot of S4 hangs – there's more than one Junior Jigsaw). Finally, in S4, we get yet another reason for Jigsaw to be Jigsaw. In this flick we learn that Jigsaw's ex-wife was a social worker at a drug clinic. When she was preggers, one of the junkies she was trying to help robbed the place. She was injured and had a miscarriage. In the hospital, she is drowning in doubt. "I just wanted to help them," she says.

Jigsaw says something like, "You can't save people. They must save themselves."

So, here we have yet another motive – revenge – and a weird reworking of the pseudo-religion of the early Jiggy into something like a serial killer version of mainline libertarianism. In this flick he actually puts a cop through all varieties of hell to "prove" to the cop that he can't save everybody. One assumes that firemen are next, followed by ambulance drivers, then people from child services. Perhaps EPA guys after that. Since we're on the topic, the arc of the flicks has been to make him less crazy and transform him into a gory libertarian superhero. The alpha victims in the first flick were a doctor who was cheating on his wife because he'd lost the zest for life and a private eye who was a semi-creep. Jigsaw's treatment of them was entirely out of proportion. It was the work of crazy man. The victims in this installment include a violent junkie who injured a preggers woman, a serial rapist, a child abuser, a woman who we're told "will go to jail," and a lawyer who defends what we're supposed to feel is scum (Hollywood, for all the use they've gotten out of lawyers, seems feel that not everybody deserves the best legal defense available).


We've already spent too much time talking about it. With its Thousand and One Nights worthy flashback-in-a-flashback-in-a-flashback structure, its slick production values, and its incessant need to heap on needless complexities, no horror franchise has ever worked so very hard to achieve so little. In fact, in that way, the filmmakers resemble their star mass murderer. With his Rube Goldberg inventions meant to teach us that we shouldn't try to teach people stuff, Jigsaw is self-defeating. The filmmakers are in the same boat. They harder they work at this thing, the less it means.


Anonymous said...

I see a great opportunity for a computer game a'la "The Incredible Machine" or "Sid and Al's Incredible Toons," where home-players can create their own SAW inspired killing machines. Boy, we should get crackin' on such a game!

CRwM said...

Maybe we can repackage the old Mousetrap board game as Mousetrap: SAW (TM) Edition.

Anonymous said...

I don't know what it says about me that I'm totally okay with a guy shoving his face through a mesh of sharp knives, but hyperactive camera work makes me want to hurl.

spacejack said...

I saw the first couple of... Saws several months back, and I have to agree with dave's comment. There was (as I recall, they're fading from memory fast) too much insane-cam going on for my taste.

It's kind of too bad, I think the first one could've been pretty cool. It started out pretty much like a play, and I think would've been much more successful as a one-room film. As soon as they started showing flashbacks, I thought it lost all its tension.

Jigsaw never really appealed to me either. He seemed to be making God-like judgements of how others live their lives, but in the end he's just another person, flaws and all. As much as the filmmakers seemed to want us to wonder if maybe he had a point, at the end of the day he was just another psycho that needed to be stopped. Preferably by a hot blonde chick in a catholic schoolgirl outfit.

CRwM said...

You hit the nail on the head regarding the problem with Jigsaw. If his motive is anything more than "I'm loony," then he's sort of an absurd figure. If he's just a nut-ball, then he gets less and less interesting the more you look at him.

This is one of the reasons why the movies drag when they aren't focused on the efforts of his victims to escape and why the on-going tendency to make Jigsaw the protagonist is an exercise in diminishing returns.

Anonymous said...

But according to IMDB and wikipedia, we've got 2 more installments of the SAW series coming up where for we can explore the deeper relationships of jigsaw and his disciples..

Does the disciples shtick holdup to a horror movie ? Is it unique I wonder ? Passing down the bad guy to a new group.. Sure, sure, works for werewolves and vampires, but for psychos ?

CRwM said...

When they first introduced the idea of a Junior Jigsaw, it wasn't a bad idea. He was, at that point, a kinda screw-loose quasi-religious figure, so the idea that he'd be at the center of a cult wasn't a stretch.

His new political/philosophical incarnation makes it less sensible. Why does such a rigid "people can only help themselves" care so much about teaching people the way and converting people to his cause? (Though, I guess, you could point to Ayn Rand as the founder of a "cult of individuals" and put forth the theory that we can't expect any more logic out of a horror flick than we can expect in real life.)

Still, the inclusion of a new Junior Jigsaw and the insinuation that he's been recruiting seems too nakedly a retcon to justify further flicks. Plus, the new JJ Scout doesn't make any real sense. He just shows up at the last second without motive and, somewhat, without means (unlike Jigsaw and the first JJ Scout, he's got a day job which one would assume keeps him form spending his time creating and participating in Jiggy's overly elaborate death-games).

Perhaps shooting several flicks at once will prevent the sort of weird gaps and leaps of logic that are inevitable when you try to force the elaborate, soap-operatic plots onto a frame of individual flick, each made without the future in mind. The question is whether anybody will care?