Thursday, May 22, 2008

Stuff: A Defense of Torture Porn – Part 1: The Genre That Wasn't

If there is a JLA of horror-bloggers with classic taste and post-grad approaches to film criticism, it is probably the League of Tana Tea Drinkers. The LoTTD regularly gets together to shoot the shit about horror tropes and trends. If you're interested in thoughtful blogging about horror, usually horror from the Universal Age to the 1980s, then they are well worth checking out.

Recently the august members of the League took up the not-so-burning issue of "torture porn," the supposedly mainstreamed horror subgenre known in the critical and fan press primarily for its extensive images of human suffering. The League's reactions were officially mixed; but even those with no particular issue against the conceptual category seemed to, at best, damn it with faint praise.

What makes this almost unanimous reaction of condemnation, be it faintly dismissive or stridently disgusted, all the more interesting is that, by their own admission, none of the League seem to be able to pin down the subgenre or point to unique characteristics.

The first blogger to sound off brings up that narratives of brutal human suffering, often for the flimsiest or least palatable reasons, are fairly common in the Western artistic tradition. He sites Biblical tales, such as the beheading of John the Baptist, and Shakespearian scenes. He misses Dante's Inferno, perhaps the most extended literary riff on torture and suffering ever committed to paper, but his point is firmly made: extended and graphic takes on human torture are nothing new.

To hammer the point home, the next League member lays out a wonderful list of torture-centric flicks. Running from the 1930s to the 1960s, the mad genius behind Blogue Macabre drops the titles of a handful of notable horror films, all of which use torture as an important narrative element. He could have gone even further back. Part of the plot of the silent film Waxworks hinges on the torture techniques of Ivan the Terrible. Still, keeping it within the parameters he discusses, the blogger makes his point. Is the alleged subgenre in question is actually something new under the sun?

(Before we get of the criticism of the second blogger, I think there is something worth noting about the use of the term "classic horror." The period this initial critic pulls titles from extends nearly three decades: the 1930s to the 1960s. Later, another round-table participant will push the bar to include grindhouse exploitation cinema into the realm of worthies. Finally, the term "classic" will get appended to 1980s slasher flicks. The classic period of horror, with all the connotations of quality and cultural worth the term "classic" implies, would seem to run from the birth of the Universal monsters up through the late '80s, when the slasher phenomenon would enter a self-parodying doldrums. In short, everything is a classic except for what is happening right now.)

For all this exploration of the roots of torture porn, none of the critics ever successfully try to map out the genre they're critiquing. The Saw and Hostel franchises are mentioned repeatedly. The Hills Have Eyes, presumably the remake, is mentioned once, though where the extended torture scene in that film is eludes me at the moment. The neo-slashers Wolf Creek and High Tension get name-checked, though the later seems like a real stretch to me as we get none of the extended and focused abuse that supposedly marks the genre. Turistas was marketed as a tropical Hostel, though many viewers (like ANTSS favorite Mermaid Heather) would doubt the appropriateness of the label. The Devils Rejects, that bizarre splatter-Western-road-crime flick, has moments of great tension (the psycho-sexual harassment of the women at the motel) but nothing approaching the sustained physical abuse of Hostel. You certainly wouldn't say that scene was the central point of the flick.

Even given the problems with the canon as constructed here, at least there's a real effort here. Several of the critics dismiss the films at hand without having seen them. One of the critics freely admits that he's never seen any of the alleged "torture porn" films (he openly bases his critique on the marketing and second-hand buzz of the flicks and, in my book, gets full points for putting all his cards on the table) and another seems to take her refusal to actually watch the films she's critiquing as matter of pride.

Here's my question: if extreme violence and torture are not new and nobody can point to a body of works that show enough common traits to lump them together in any meaningful way, then what the hell are we all talking about?

The truth about the torture porn genre is that it simply doesn't exist.

We have, at most, two franchises that everyone can agree on: Hostel and Saw. Of those two, Hostel's second outing was a mediocre box-office performer. Only Saw, which has successfully made itself into a Halloween ritual for teens, continues to reliably bring in the dough. And, it should be noted, that the vast majority of the violence in the Saw flicks is not, by most standard definitions, torture. The injuries and deaths inflicted upon the victims in Saw are usually self-inflicted, most often through a relatively fast acting device, and are acts of psychopathically misguided benevolence. All the other nominees for the genre are questionable, flops, or so obscure that nobody gives a crap. It is a stretch to call this a genre. Compare it to, say, the two genuinely significant subgenre's of the '90s and double-aughts – J-horror remakes and zombie flicks – and we're talking about an incredibly insignificant portion of the horror bandwidth.

To complicate matters, the term itself was not coined to meaningfully identify a subgenre of horror. The credit for this muddled term goes to New York Magazine reviewer David Edelstein, who entitled his 2006 film think-piece "Now Playing at Your Local Mutliplex: Torture Porn." Edelstein certainly focuses on horror flicks like Hostel and the like, but it should also be noted that he drops in The Passion of the Christ and Reservoir Dogs. More importantly, the identifying trait of "torture porn" is not that it depicts violence. The kicker is that the makers of these flicks evoke what Will Self calls "moral displacement." Discussing the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs, Self says: "We lose sight of whose exact POV we are inhabiting. The sadist who is doing the torturing? The policeman? The incapacitated accomplice? It is this vacillation in POV that forces the sinister card of complicity upon the viewer. For in such a situation the auteur is either abdicating—or more likely foisting—the moral responsibility for what is being depicted onscreen from himself to the viewer." It is this complicity, which is a morally, aesthetically, and philosophically complicated sticky wicket, that is the key feature of the films Edelstein was designating as torture porn. As a sort of totemic figure, Edelstein evokes "Will Graham in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon—a genius serial-killer tracker because he can walk through grisly crime scenes and project himself into the killers’ heads. He’s both the instrument of justice and the empathic consumer of torture porn."

Edelstein's coinage is a far cry from current, depleted, and somewhat pointless use of the term we find dominating horror debates. I'll borrow the definition of a favorite blogger of mine. Sean Collins writes: "Torture porn" (noun): Horror films in which the physical brutalization of a person or persons, frequently to death and always while somehow immobilized or held captive by the brutalizer or brutalizers, is the primary locus of horror in the film. [Update: Sean Collins has replied to this post and explained some of the important nuances I may have missed in unpacking his definition. Check out the comments section. Thanks Sean!] Let's set aside that this does not, even on a plotting-factual level, describe several of the films labeled torture porn by the folks in the LoTTD round-table. What bothers me more is the "primary locus of horror" part. It takes what was most interesting about Edelstein's original coinage – that it isn't just what we see, but how we see it that is the source of unease – and strips it down to the point of becoming a tautology. The point of the torture porn film is torture because that is the point of a torture porn film. It is this impoverished version of Edelstein's term that helps fuel the most common criticisms of the genre: that the pain is the only point, that they are all the same, and that they sacrifice style and artifice for a relentlessly unaesthetic "realism" in the pursuit of sharpening the impact of the gore. It feeds into the very notion that you could dismiss these films without seeing them because, well, their torture porn, right? You know what you need to know.

As it is used in the horror blog-o-sphere, torture porn is a little more than a slur. It doesn't describe any meaningful subset of films, fails to illuminate any significant feature of the films being discussed, and encourages the off-handed dismissal of the films under consideration.

Whew. Let me rest my fingers a bit. In the next section, coming soon, hopefully, we'll discuss common criticisms of horror porn. You wanna talk about torture porn? Wait until you slog your way through that!

6 comments:

Sean T. Collins said...

GREAT, thought-provoking post, CRWM. I will most likely write something about this on my own blog later today, but I wanted to pop in to defend my definition of torture. I understand what you're getting at by accusing me of tautology with my definition of torture porn, but I don't think I follow. Like, in a slasher movie, the primary locus of horror is the slasher. In a monster movie, it's the monster. In a zombie movie, it's the zombies. I'm not making any claim about WHY a torture porn movie uses torture--I'm certainly not saying "the point of the torture porn film is torture because that is the point of a torture porn film," because the point could be any number of things, just as the point of any given slasher or monster or zombie or whatever-horror movie could be any number of things. This might INCLUDE the simple gratuitous presentation of a slasher or a monster or zombies or torture as the case may be, but I don't think it flows from my definition that that's what it's LIMITED to. Remember, I'm a defender of the term!

Moreover, I really have beef with Edelstein's construction, the same way I've always had beef with audience-identification theories of horror in terms of whether we're supposed to be sitting there imagining, on some level, that we're Michael Meyers or Godzilla or that douchebag American businessman tearing that poor Japanese tourist's eyeball out. I feel like I can say without fear of contradiction that that's never been the case for me! "Complicity" in Edelstein's theory--there is a much more compelling case to be made there, I think, particularly when he says that the filmmakers are "foisting the moral responsibility" on the audience, which I definitely think is perhaps the most infuriating aspect of even the better films in the genre. But he screws it up with the POV stuff.

Aw hell, I'm just gonna copy and paste all this to my own blog, who am I kidding.

CRwM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
CRwM said...

Sean,

Thanks for reading.

I apologize for overstating the emphasis of your definition. I'll put a little note in the original directing people to your comments here.

As to Edelstein's case for complicity: The POV quote is from Will Self - and I think he tangles himself up a bit by using POV, which has a technical meaning he does not mean to evoke, to mean something more like "who do we sympathize with." Self's fond of stylistic flourishes, and I think his effort to sound "filmic" tripped him up. If you re-read that quote, but replace POV with something like "just who are we supposed to sympathize with" and you get something more along the lines of what I think he's trying to say.

I hope to get into this more with the next post, but I think the question of moral responsibility is crucial to the "torture porn" genre - in so much as a "torture porn" genre can be said to exist.

I agree that audience identification schemes can become overly schematic. Though the whole "last girl" formula pointed to an important structural fact in the slasher formula, I've never fully bought all the leaps of identification that are supposed to happen while we watch.

That said, I feel that what was being ignored, but is a crucial aspect of both the Saw and Hostel franchises is that I believe they make that link explicit and make it problematic. Though not in the same ways - and there lies part of the rub about lumping everything together.

Anyway, if you want a preview, I've tackled the issue once before. You can find my early take on it in my review of Blood Sucking Freaks: here

Sasquatchan said...

Just a Motley Crue is now classic rock, agreed, it's a elusive word to use, and often means whatever the author wants it to mean.

My breadth in horror isn't as deep as yours, so I'd ask: 'classic 80s slasher' never seemed to focus on the actual death, just the suspense. The "ohh the kids in the woods having sex are gonna get it!" which was later riffed on by the Scream franchise (and again by the Scary Movie franchise). But those classic 80's movies also pushed the social envelope. I don't want to give any credence to that Yale art student's comments about what is are and pushing boundaries nonsense ..

Sure there was splatter and gore (gotta keep the f/x guys employed and happy, pushing the envelope), but is there a generic definition of a horror movie ?

Is it the suspense of some supernatural bad guy going after his prey ? Are all horror movies necessarily slasher movies ? And do zombie, or monster movies even enter into the horror discussion, or are they more their own genre ?

Heck, I'm confusing myself here, rambling with out a point. Where would the film "8mm", go ? Horror ? Torture-porn-meta ?

(and props for throwing in the passion of the Christ movie, as all the feedback folks have said is "wow, it helped me understand how Christ suffered for our sins," which may be of some evangelical use, I guess, but not to me)

SpaceJack said...

Another great post. Sometimes I wonder if I only watch horror movies so I can follow your blog.

Anyway, I can't really add much to this that hasn't already been covered by someone else. To make a more general and perhaps offtopic observation, I find it interesting to draw parallels with a recent post on another favourite blog of mine.

In both instances, we've got a single critic writing a single article, causing wide-scale effect on an entire field of art. In the case of Greenberg vs. Repin over on I.A., as postulated by the author and backed up in many comments, the damage caused by the article is still felt to this day.

If this is true, I find it more than a bit sad and even scary. Scary enough for a horror movie even.

kindertrauma said...

Great post!,
Whenever I hear negative discussions of the boogey "torture porn" I always flash back to an old episode of Siskel and Ebert where they were ranting and raving about slasher films and trying to get folks to burn BETSY PALMER at the stake for appearing in FRIDAY THE 13th. Don't get me wrong, I loved that show, but I never understood their foamy mouths or their bordering on Helen Lovejoy stance on the matter. Every generation is allowed to choose the horror that speaks to them for themselves.
As far as the franchises mentioned go, I personally wish I liked the SAW series because I'm all about the SHAWNEE SMITH yet it's too much of a cop procedural for me and it makes me sleepy. I wish I hated HOSTEL but I don't... I think it's rather brilliant and endlessly readable even if the Director ended up saying things in the picture(s) that even he himself doesn't understand. The funny thing is that neither of these films seem similar to me at all besides the fact that they were both high profile. I think the gritty "torture porn" element ( I actually believe it started with the CHAINSAW remake) started as a natural rubber band effect after the post-SCREAM snark-athons. Audiences just got fed up and demanded to actually have lives in danger on the screen rather than sarcastic comments, media references and music video slickness. They demanded that the ugliness of death and the ugliness of human nature return to the screen. I think that's a good thing. Another wind will come a' blowin' soon. As they say in Texas, "If you don't like the weather...wait."