Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Stuff: A Defense of Torture Porn – Part 3: The Infernal Machine


To recap the previous entry, I attempted a shot at defining what makes something torture porn. Though I imagine my jerry-rigged set of subgenre tags leaves much to be desired, we've got to proceed from somewhere, so I'll continue to reference my five basic criteria:

1. A strictly non-supernatural outlook emphasizing human agents
2. A hyper-realistic visual look
3. The dramatization of paranoid helplessness
4. Self-aware earnestness
5. Overtly political post-Clinton outlook

This entry will focus on the first three criteria in an effort to answer the charges that torture porn is inherently uncreative, senseless, and un-artistic.

Some critics maintain that the issue with torture porn isn't the level of violence, but the fact that torture porn is allegedly an artistic dead-end. Critics claim these flicks place a premium on the realistic representation of pain and suffering, the ultimate goal of which is the evocation of an automatic physical response. These flicks exist to show hurting in order to kick in a primal fight-or-flight response. At its most elaborate and thoughtful, this criticism takes a form I'm going to call "High Horrorism."

High Horrorism is more of a stance towards horror than a critical orthodoxy, so trying to pin down some magic list of tenets for the approach would be impossible. Still, I think you can capture a sense of the High Horrorist ethos in broad outline. High Horrorism is the creative flipping of Victorian horror norms. At its center is an early 20th century psychological concept: the uncanny. The uncanny was first proposed as a literary concept by Ernst Jentsch, who in 1906 used it specifically to describe "doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might be, in fact, animate." In 1916 Freud expanded the concept to include notion of the familiar that is unfamiliar. He specifically focused on uncanny repetition: doubles, random numbers that keep popping up, that sort of thing. High Horrorism has expanded this concept even further defining it broadly as, with all apologies to Led Zeppelin, "what should never be." Real horror, as opposed to an unthinking visceral response to shock, is pondering the depthless void that opens up when one is confronted with the impossible that is. A strong line of the High Horror aesthetic traces from the works of the Romantics (Shelley, Hoffmann: whose story inspired the coining of the term "uncanny," Poe) to the Victorians (Stoker, Blackwood) on through to the last significant gasp of literary High Horrorism: the early Moderns (M.R. James, the ghost stories of Henry James, Lovecraft). High Horror tends to run towards the supernatural, the stylish, the inexplicable, and the abstract. Horror is, in some ways, the opposite of the real. To make the impossible possible becomes the goal of the horror writer and that is best done through a combination of stylish pyrotechnics and heavy use of symbolism. Horror is a break in real: it is never realistic. Like their Victorian predecessors, High Horrorism is still obsessed with sex, deviance, and the fluidity of identity politics; though the influence of Modernism – through Freud and the twin James's – flips the script and tends to view these suppressed forces as something in need of liberation or exploration.

For proponents of High Horrorism, torture porn fails on several levels. First, relentless realism is the bane of true terror. Realism creates works that are flat. The terror they evoke is pre-intellectual, readily explicable, and dissipates as soon as it is understood. Torture porn, they say, can't haunt your dreams. You need proper ghosts for that. Torture porn is also lacking in valuable symbolism. Torture is torture. It doesn't appeal to your deeper, hidden anxieties and fears. It doesn't explore the dark recesses of sexuality or identity. It is what it is. Finally, torture porn is small potatoes compared to the "unnamable" horrors that are the stock and trade of High Horror. The suffering of single individuals, while repugnant and morally revolting, is nothing compared to the revelation of a vast and cruel void over which all life teeters.

These criticisms are not entirely without merit insomuch as they rightly pinpoint the strength and artistic value of High Horror. High Horror has a rich history and continues to be a well-spring of important genre work. Furthermore, I agree that a significant amount of the power torture porn has is invested in the fact that human suffering evokes an immediate and powerful response the precedes intellectualization. That seem undeniable to me. However, the binary thinking that would hold High Horror up as the superior opposite of torture porn doesn't work. Mainly due to the fact that High Horrorists' characterizations of torture porn is almost entirely incorrect.

The first three criteria of torture porn would seem to be the most self-explanatory, but they also seem to me to be the least acknowledged. Taken together, our first three criteria amount to this: torture porn is not, in method or in aim, realistic. It is a fantasy. It represents a nightmare vision of the world to an audience that has, by and far, simply outgrown the psychological models and social preoccupations of the High Horror generation. With the taboos of Victorianism and Modernism packaged and sold as entertainment, the dark and secret places of High Horror have become an amusement park. Psychological depth is now leveled and medicated (what Freud is to High Horror, Zoloft is for the torture porn set). We no longer explore the jungles of our psyche; we just pave them over. The void that so terrified Victorians and their intellectual descendents is now the norm: a secular scientific mindset tells that a vast and cold universe that mocks the scale of humanity is, in fact, the reasonable way to look at things. It's Cthulhu's universe; we just live in it. Modern creators of horror and their latest generation of fans know the uncanny too well. They live there.

First, let me defend my claim that torture porn is fantasy by focusing on the visual style that has become torture porn's most distinctive trait. The look of torture porn is not realistic, but hyper-realistic. It is a highly artificial approach that takes the trappings of realism and blows them all out of proportion. The result is a lavish, over-stuffed look – most often taking an archetypal image and stuffing it to the breaking point. This is most apparent in the dungeon settings of the two Hostel flicks and the bathroom set of the first Saw. Both sets are not just dirty, but absolutely coated in grime and slime. One imagines you could get tetanus of the eyeball just from looking at them. But neither represents what (sadly) we know torture looks like. Real torture, when governments undertake it, is conducted not in sewers, but in relatively orderly places that look disconcertingly like hospitals. Why leave a filthy crime scene behind? Mud and crud tends to trap potential clues like hair, foot and fingerprints, and so on. The answer, of course, is that these aren't "real." They visually represent the feelings the idea of torture evokes. Men in rubber aprons, faces hid behind monstrous brass and steel facemasks, power tools inexplicably left to rust (despite the fact that they are supposedly the property of an elite club of super rich people) – it all suggests the moral, spiritual, ethical decay of what's happening. The whole visual approach adopted by Roth and Wan is not realistic some much as it represents the typical strategies of film realism – a little grime here, some busted glass there – and invests it with symbolic purpose. The very fabric of their films' worlds reflects the mental state and fate of their characters.

As a historical aside, despite the roots of torture porn going back to exploitation cinema, I think the visual style owes much to the high-gloss, high-res squalor of David Fincher's Se7en. The home set of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is another influence, but it lacks the finish of Fincher's flick. Whatever debts torture porn directors owe to grindhouse cinema, it is not the source of their visual style.

If you had to pick an iconic symbol for this visual approach, it would be the surreal and absurd death raps of the Saw. Jigsaw's various devices are more than just traps, they are over-the-top representations of brutality. Where a few levers and screws would do, Jigsaw's machines are jumbles of inexplicable gears and spikes, covered in grease with illegible meters studding them. The clank and grind like they might, at any second, fall apart on their own. They are also always absurdly outsized. In the first Saw, one wonders how it is possible that the fairly pint-sized Amanda could ever hold up the contraption she's forced to wear, let alone escape from it. In their absurd machininess, Jigsaw's traps resemble the Romanticized steam-and-gear devices worshiped by streampunk types, only in this case we've got a nightmare vision of technology instead of a semi-utopian fantasy of human invention. (The Hostel equivalent of this is, I think, the mysterious and evocative device that appeared in the marketing, notably on the DVD box-cover. Monumental, black, sinister, vaguely insect-like: though a real object, the visual presentation made it a repository for meaning and fear. It is, by the way, a towel clamp and is generally used for holding back medical curtains.)

Jigsaw's traps bring us to the first and third criteria. They are visual metaphors for a paranoid helplessness that is to torture porn what the inexplicable void is High Horror. The old boogymen of High Horror – sex, human irrationality, the primitive self – just don't seem that scary anymore. What is scary is living in a system where all those things, with all their destructive capacities, will be bought and sold, catered too, and encouraged. Long before anybody ends up on a torture table, the characters in torture porn are trapped. Either they are being hunted by an impossibly smart cult of murderous death-trap tinkerers or they have been commoditized and traded on a wired-up global victims market. Ultimately, the only way to survive an encounter with either system is to assimilate into the system. In Saw it means you play by Jigsaw's rules. In Hostel you have to drop enough long green to pay for the privilege of switching positions with your torturer. But, even then, you've done nothing but survive. The overwhelming logic and perfect operation of these systems means that there no way out, no position from within the system that you can fight it or change up the game. It isn't irrational so much as inhumanly rational. It's the modern void: despite all the advances made politically, medically, culturally, and technically, the defining feature of the modern world is exploitation. You're a victim or you're an exploiter.

In torture porn, real horror isn't finding an inexplicable break in the real. In fact, such a break would be liberating as it would imply something greater than the system and the possibility of transcending the system. In torture porn the horror is the real. The impossible and the unspeakable are readily available and organized for maximum market efficiency. All you need is the scratch. Compared to all-consuming logic of power and victimization, Cthulhu is kind of a wuss.

It should be pointed out that this horrific vision of inescapable fate is not to be taken as an actual diagnosis capitalism, neo-conservatism, or any other "-ism." Though Roth and the crew behind Saw have, I'm sure, opinions on globalism and the like, these are not primarily works of propaganda. They are allegories that point to no specific analog. In real life, we see these systems everywhere and are aware, on some level, that we are morally implicated in them. We buy some jeans and are vaguely understand that we might be somehow complicit in truly horrific behavior. Saw and Hostel are symbolic moral labs were we can mentally explore those notions' worst extremes. (This extends, I believe to the behavior of watching violence for entertainment purposes, but we'll talk about that next time).

Okay. That's enough of that. One more to go, then we'll return to our regularly scheduled, review-centric horror blogging. Can you dig it?

6 comments:

Sasquatchan said...

Can one talk of torture porn with out bringing up Abu Garab ?

I understand the Pogo-ish "we have met the enemy and it is us" aspect (or, "there but by the grace of God go I") aspect, but not sure I buy into the man's inhumanity to man. (But, again, there's Abu Garab, where I started.. heh)

Perhaps TPs bad guys are move visceral than the supernatural boogeyman to the modern viewer ?

(re: no way out, because you'll be killed in the sequel ;) And violence for entertainment purposes ? No UFC for you, I take it ? :)

Bruce Baugh said...

Absolutely marvelous stuff. Lovin it.

Color me curious: Is "hyper-realistic" a nod at Umberto Eco's wonderful essay "Travels in Hyperreality"?

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

At this point, it's hard to avoid talking about Abu Garab in connection to these films. Perhaps ironically, Morris's new documentary suggests that even the photos that have become the baseline "real" for representing torture were highly staged (but not fake in any sense) images. It is enough to make a postmodernist's head explode.

As for the visceral impact, I think I lost sight of that. After mentioning it briefly, I haven't returned to it because I think we all agree. Much of the power of these films does take place - just as critics claim - on the gut level. Whether that's necessarily a bad thing is another issue. But I think we can all agree that part of the draw is that, on a very physical level, these films cause an immediate and almost unavoidable reaction.

CRwM said...

Bruce,

I wasn't thinking of Eco went I wrote it, but his definition seems spot on and more concise than my ramblings.

I was worried about using the term because I thought it might drag in folks like Baudrillard - whose definition does not really dovetail with what I'm trying to describe - but I couldn't think of a better term.

Gary D Macabre said...

An excellent series of posts on this topic. Interesting that you have began the series with the underlying opinion that TP was not in itself a true sub-genre and have now done more to establish it as such than anyone before you. (This is not a criticism.) I feel this is a perfect example of where the public (yourself and myself included) respond to these movies with a predetermined, even if often subconscious, bias. The phrase "Torture Porn" itself hosts a multitude of negative or at least perversely taboo connotations further pointlessly polarizing discussions no the films in question.
As I had pointed out on my LOTT D submission and you have expanded upon in your initial post, that torture as a device or even a central theme in Horror is nothing new. What you have demonstrated (where I had failed) that the mere presence of torture , even graphic torture, does not in fact qualify as Torture Porn. (You may have noticed in my submission I purposely did not use the phrase Torture Porn).
I will later expand on this comment further at Blogue Macabre, but will leave you with this.
I commend you on your apologetics, if only the film makers would put as much effort into their movies, the sub-genre may offer something I could enjoy.

CRwM said...

Mr Macabre,

Thanks for stopping by and checking out the series. Your sign off touches on another big issue I didn't address. There's plenty of reasons somebody might dislike the movies currently lumped under the rubric "torture porn" which have nothing to do with the violence levels. As of yet, I don't know if we've seen any film from the genre that will truly be a lasting classic horror flick.