Monday, May 26, 2008

Stuff: A Defense of Torture Porn – Part 2: What Are You Talkin' About?

First, I'd like to thank everybody who took time to comment on the previous post. I'd especially like to thank Sean, who took my misreading of his definition of torture porn with a level of friendliness and class that is often sadly lacking on the Internets these days. In recognition of his utter and complete classiness, ANTSS would like to take this moment to officially append the honorific Screamin' before his name. Arise Screamin' Sean. One of us! One of us!

Alright. Back to business.

I start this post somewhat at a loss. In the previous post, I dismissed the notion that there was such a thing as torture porn. You, dearest reader, could be forgiven for wondering what exactly we still have to talk about. Or, even, why I continued to use the term "torture porn" in the title. How can I propose to defend something that doesn't exist?

Before we go any further then, let's define our terms. This is a horror blog, so I'm going to be talking mostly about horror films. I'm going to continue to use torture porn as the term for a subgenre of horror film. I'm also going to set a sort of canon. I believe that there are only two significant film franchises that everybody agrees belong to the torture porn genre: Saw and Hostel.

To make the genre tag meaningful, I'm going to propose a handful of stylistic and elements that I believe genuinely tie these films together:

1. Torture porn is strictly materialistic and humanistic in outlook: These films do not rely on supernatural elements or non-human agents to justify their set-ups or deliver their shocks. But this is not the same thing as saying that they are realistic. A point we'll get to later.

2. Torture porn relies on a hyper-realistic visual style: These films have a gritty, more-real-than-real look that emphasizes a sort of lavish squalor. Critics often mistake this for "gritty realism," but it is, in fact, an elaborately artificial approach that has its roots not in horror genre pictures, but mainstream crossover works.

3. Torture porn dramatizes paranoid helplessness: This is somewhat clumsy, but it is as close as we can get to the common "there's torture" while actually fitting the plots of the movies under discussion. The amount of torture in any given "torture porn" film is pretty small. What the majority of these films show is people slowly, seemingly inevitably, heading towards a horrible fate. I'd argue that, rather than the torture, is the source of their impact.

4. Torture porn's primary tone is one of self-aware earnestness: Unlike its most immediate predecessors, the exploitation cinema of the 1970s and the slasher flicks of the 1980s, torture porn is meta (like so much post-Taratino genre cinema, it is awash in allusions and references) but un-ironic (despite its hyper-referential nature, it is not meant to mainly be a giant in-joke for genre fans). This self-awareness means that these flicks also take the relationship between the viewer and the film seriously, something utterly lacking from the pandering of exploitation cinema or the winking irrelevance of slasher flicks.

5. Torture porn is often overtly political, but removed from 1960s/1970s style liberalism: Both Saw and Hostel wear their politics on their sleeves. The former has increasingly given over screen-time to the mystical libertarian philosophizing of Jigsaw, the Ron Paul of cinematic serial killers. Hostel, which muddled through several intertwined themes in the first film, focused it anti-globalization message in the second flick. What's interesting about these flicks is that they take for granted the fights older critics, especially those raised on horror from the 1960s to the 1980s, continue to fight: identity politics, liberal/conservative divisions, religion versus freethinking. Torture porn is decidedly modern. While exploitation and slasher cinema had its last gasp in the Clintonian Era (with Tarantino and Scream), torture porn represents the cloudy morality, global scope, and paranoia of the now – an era of Bush's Wars and a Democratic candidate who openly praises Reagan.

Arguably, other horror films belong in the canon. The critical and popular bomb Captivity was deliberately TP'ed-up in an effort to cash in on the alleged popularity of the hot new subgenre. It was so completely rejected by fans and foes alike that it would be hard to justify discussing it in the context of trying to discover what makes torture porn so popular. Captivity suggests the premise is false: it isn't very popular. Faux snuff like The Poughkeepsie Tapes and August Underground hit many of the criteria, though I have doubts about them meeting the second criteria. One could also make a solid argument for Girl Next Door, the direct to DVD adaptation of the Jack Ketchum book of the same name, and the Japanese shocker Audition. But, as I mentioned in my previous post, these are fairly cult-grade flicks. They hardly represent some flood of torture porn into the mainstream. I'm sure there are other horror flicks I'm forgetting, but I think this is a suitable framework for thinking about these flicks for now.

(As an aside, I feel these distinctions provide some useful purchase on non-horror flicks as well. The brutality of 24 doesn't really fit the template because it doesn't fit our third criteria. The terror suspect's fate simply isn't that important and the crucial paranoid helplessness of the victim is never the point. Instead, the will-he/won't-he of the torturer is the crucial point. The Passion of the Christ wouldn't count as torture porn because it fails to meet the first criteria. Regardless of whether or not one believes in Christian theological doctrine, the movie exists in a dramatic world where, for example, mystical connections like the rending of the curtain in the Temple and Satan are real. However, this is a horror blog and I leave non-genre connections and explorations to somebody else.)

Okay. That's enough for now. Personally I'm no big fan of horror bloggers just spinnin' their wheels, fill-auss-o-phizin' like we're more than hobbyists. If I was reading somebody else's blog, I'd get bored just about here. So, we're going to shut this down at this point. The next installment of this series will focus on the criticisms of "realism" in torture porn. Don't miss it. I'm going totally cop English major tude and dub something "High Horrorism" in tribute to "High Modernism." It will be ostentatiously pretentious. Be there.

5 comments:

Sasquatchan said...

So where would a film like Seven be in your list there ? It seems more like a meta-TP film, no ? But it also appears to hit your criteria, to some degree..

cattleworks said...

Master Screamer:

I'm going totally cop English major tude and dub something "High Horrorism" in tribute to "High Modernism." It will be ostentatiously pretentious. Be there.

Man, I am SO looking forward to the next installment, he said, geekily.

Meanwhile, re: SEVEN.
I have to run, so I can't re-digest the stated requirements defining TP, but SEVEN is sort of different because the victims' fates are discovered AFTER the fact. I mean, that seems to take the torture part out of it because we're not actually experiencing it.
Maybe that's a quibble.

And, that's how I remember the film playing out.

Great topic!

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

Funny you should mention Se7en, it gets name dropped in the next post.

I don't feel it counts. I think torture porn is ultimately about the condition of the victim, their helplessness in the face of a brutally rigorous system. Se7en's victims are mostly a canvas for the serial killer. As the viewers we don't care about them. They don't even get names - being identified throughout the film mainly by their "sin."

That said, you could make the case using the criteria I gave. I've avoided trying to construct a full "canon" of the subgenre because that's not really my aim. But if you tried to do that, you'd have to at least consider putting Se7en on there.

SpaceJack said...

Yeah, great topic indeed.

If I were to tack on one more film, I'd consider Hard Candy, even if it's not an exact fit.

I couldn't agree more with #1, 2 and 4 on your list nor could I possibly express them better than you have.

#3 highlights some of the differences between Saw and Hostel. To me, Hostel is a far scarier story because it explores man's capacity for inhumanity toward man. Not for survival or personal gain, but purely for indulgence. There is a very creepy plausibility to the whole thing, even if the specifics of the situation itself seem far fetched.

As there is no supernatural menace in the film, there is no supernatural way out either. Not only does it show you what a person who abandons all morality and empathy for another may be capable of, it adds the additional horror of a random, uncaring world. Both part 1 and 2 have very creepy accidents occurring in the torture chamber; even left alone with someone intent on inflicting horrific pain, the randomness of the material world can be even more cruel.

To me, this is real horror. (Not that Hostel isn't flawed. I think it loses us at several points with its indulgences, like the eye scene.)

Still, I think it'd be more fair to label Hostel as porn/torture (first part porn, second part torture) as opposed to torture-porn. Saw on the other hand, I see as more deserving of the pejorative torture-porn label. They way the gore scenes are shot, with close-ups, zooming in and out, and re-shot from multiple angles, it seems to think these scenes are something we enjoy watching, and in fact need heightened with all the modern film and audio-processing techniques we have at our disposal. (Contrast with Hostel's more straightforward visual exposition.) It also seems to assume that we're at least partly on-board with Jigsaw's motives, a conceit on the filmmaker's part that I found particularly irritating.

I also don't see how one would think Jigsaw is a libertarian. Why would he care about other people's vices or other personal failings? I saw him more as a delusional, moral extremist, perhaps thinking he's doing God's work. Another cliche that put me off the film.

I also don't quite see as much political allegory in these films as you do (maybe because I'm not American?) Whatever the reason, I see them more as a product of the times. What you see as an anti-globalization statement, I see more as just a statement of fact; that such things are possible with today's technology and interconnectivity.

Thanks for the post. A lot of good stuff to read and ponder. Whatever disagreements we may have, your points are certainly better-articulated :) Very much looking forward to the 3rd part.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Spacey,

Jigsaw's motives have shifted over the course of the film series. In the beginning, he was a generic messianic figure with the excuse that the tumor in his brain was makin' him nutso.

By the second film, he had this whole cult building thing going on.

But the third film has him reacting against his wife's role as a community outreach type in a rehab center and developing his whole crazy philosophy before ever getting sick. Further, his philosophy increasingly becomes "you can't help people, they have to choose to help themselves."

It isn't all that important to the first two flicks. But by the third film you've actually got conflict between Jigsaw and one of his followers over the ideological validity of the traps she's designed. Her traps don't "deliver" the proper message.

I gave it libertarian tag mostly as a gag. If he has any political fellow travelers, then I'd say he most resembles the weird pseudo-fascist/anti-materialist cult of Fight Club.

You are correct though in that I suspect the filmmakers have grown more and more fond of putting genuinely held sentiments into the mouth of Jigsaw, as if he was a wise teacher-figure. And those sentiments are, I think, not traditionally liberal or conservative. I can't think of anything else to call it.

I see your point about the political angles in both flicks. I think it is pretty explicit, but even if we step back a bit, I think your analysis still situates as being concerned with a modern phenomenon - the hyper-connected world. I go on about it a bit in the next one. I feel we're on the same page, even if we differ about degree.