Thursday, May 29, 2008

Stuff: A Defense of Torture Porn – Part 4: If the Screaming of the Tortured Is Too Loud, You're Too Old

Before we launch into this, the last of my series of posts dedicated to the defense of the horror subgenre oft dubbed "torture porn," I think that I should give you a peek behind the curtains and reveal a little about the creative processes behind ANTSS.

If other bloggers were to launch on an extended series of posts about what is possibly the most controversial development in the genre in the last decade (second only to the fast zombie versus slow zombie debate) they would do a considerable amount of prep. They'd re-watch essential films, gather expert opinions, reread key splatter-punk short stories and novels, find historical precedents, maybe do some shadowboxing and windsprints. They'd be sure to stretch so they didn't pull a hammy. Then, limber and brim-full of learnin', they'd outline their argument, carefully draft and revise their posts, consider possible criticisms and answer or incorporate them.

But that's not how we do it here at ANTSS. Instead, I read a roundtable on the LOTTD blog and said to myself, "I've got some opinions about this issue. I should just write them down. No forethought, no research, no draft: just write it all out." And I did. And here we are, three posts and a tub-full of verbiage later. Problem with this fire from the hip methodology of mine is that it means some really half-baked concepts get pushed into the marketplace of blog ideas without diligent product testing and a full QC review.

Now, as I reach the end of the series, the feedback I've been receiving shows me that some of the theories I've advanced about "torture porn," specifically some of the criteria in my definition, just don't stand up under close scrutiny. So, like all good bloggers, I'm going to simply cover my lack of thought by doubling the energy of my defense.

I kid.

Instead, I'm going to do something a little different. For this final entry, I'm going to carry out the last bit of my series – discussing the final two points of my proposed definition. I'll tighten it up a bit for space considerations, but I'll finish what I've started. Then, when I'm done, I'm going to switch gears and eat a big ol' heaping plate of crow. MMmmmm. Crow. What I'll do is bring up some of the most important criticism of the series and either attempt to expand or clarify my explanation to account for the feedback or simply point out that the critic is correct and admit that I don't have a good answer for them.

Sound like a plan? Okay. Let's put the last two criteria to rest, shall we.

The last two crucial aspects of torture porn are:
4. Self-aware earnestness.
5. A hyper-contemporary political outlook.

Of the two, I believe the first requires the least explanation. Like so much cinema after the post-Taratino indie film boom, torture porn flicks are dense with allusions, meta-references, in-jokes, and fan-service. However, in contrast to meta-horror like Scream or Behind the Mask, torture porn is relentlessly earnest.

We could spend several entries chasing down instances of the self-aware postmodern techniques in torture porn, so let's just pull out some from a single flick. For genre fans, Hostel 2 cast the director of Cannibal Holocaust as a fastidious, Hannibal-Lecter-style cannibal. It includes a visual homage to Blood Sucking Freaks in the death of Weinerdog, a scene that also drops a historical allusion to alleged mass-murderer Elizabeth Bathroy. For fans of the series, the film includes a subtle joke about the means used to lure the victims of the first film to the Hunt Club's hometown. (If you missed it, one of the women in Hostel 2 asks if Slovakia was the site of recent war: something that was told to the boys of the first film to convince them that the male to female ratio was wildly imbalanced in their favor. The siren that lures the girls to their doom states, correctly, that there hasn't been warfare in the country since WWII.) Also, answering charges that he used female nudity gratuitously, Roth placed a shot of a detailed portrait of an impressively-sized penis in the flick.

We could go on with this game (we haven't even broached the issue of Saw's weird, looping narrative), but I think we've established the principle. Torture porn is often allusive, playfully self-referential, even outright goofy (for example, the adoption of the Internet meme "It's a trap" for the tagline of Saw IV). Charges that such films are tediously humorless, stupidly linear, and single-mindedly realistic is a serious mischaracterization. Now, obviously, trying to be humorous, even darkly humorous, isn't the same thing as actually being funny and the charge that Roth simply isn't as funny as he thinks is nothing I can defend against. Although if you think his efforts at humor in things like Hostel 2 are heavy-handed, watch Cabin Fever. It'll make the head-as-footie-ball scene look like Oscar Wilde-grade wit.

The sense that these films more monochromatic, more focused and "real" than they actually are comes from the fact that, in the end, no matter how strange or tricky they may get, they are also earnest. Viewers aren't supposed to laugh off the pain and suffering they see on screen. It hits viewers in the gut and knowing that, for example, a certain torture technique is an allusion to an obscure 70s grindhouse flick doesn't make it any more pleasant to watch. In torture porn, pain and fear are serious stuff.

This earnestness is the source of torture porn's controversial moral ambiguity. Unlike so many horror flicks, torture porn doesn't have an easy moral escape hatch for its grim depictions of violence. Classic horror's reliance on the supernatural and, later, on monster-as-moral-lesson plots ("Don't play God, Doctor!") ensured filmmakers always had a Get Out of Responsibility free card in their pockets. Exploitation cinema retro-ists can appeal to camp irrelevance. A soft-core movie about Nazi torture sex camps? It isn't really objectionable – it's camp! Exploitation flicks also find cover under the defense that it is supposed to be objectionable. Button pushing is often given as a self-justifying goal. The beauty of this is it turns the conversation away from moral issue ("Is it really okay to trivialize the Holocaust just to make a sleazy T&A flick?") and makes it an abstract intellectual game ("The taboo busting nature of this difficult cinema that isn't afraid to get blood on its hands . . ."). The slashers, to which torture porn is most often compared, pulled a similar trick by quickly lapsing into self-parody. The films' dangerous elements sound became a fairly mundane set of narrative rules and all that was left was to chart progress in the terms of the relative creativity of kill scenes. The slasher villains became supernatural, their plots became formally rigorous, and the films became more and more ostentatiously ironic or repetitive; e.g., "Jason in Space!" "D&D in Freddy's Dream Dungeon," or "Yet Another Family Dinner with the Leatherfaces."

Torture porn has not yet taken either of these outs. Though that's a blessing and a curse. The issue with torture porn is that it has, in my opinion, never forcibly or successfully addressed the morality of its use of violence. In Hostel, which most directly addresses the issue of using torture for entertainment, the filmmaker practices the moral detachment mentioned in the opening post. Roth simply abdicates the responsibility to the view. In Saw the increased focus on the messianic ideology of Jigsaw is, perhaps, supposed to justify the suffering we watch. However, Jigsaw's philosophy in simply nuts and it is unclear just how much we're supposed to take it as a genuine justification. It is a profoundly unsatisfying a moral excuse. It is possible that this is the great Catch-22 of torture porn: it may have found a topic that can't be discussed artistically without lapsing into unjustifiable exploitation and brutality. Who knows?


The final criteria for torture porn is a post-1960s/70s political outlook. Torture porn is a product of millennial culture. Hostel is overtly global and concerned with anti-globalism insomuch as the film dramatizes a culture were the market seems to provide the sole measure of right and wrong. Saw has slowly built up a sort of post-liberal ideology (though, as I've said, it's not always clear how seriously we're supposed to take it) that resembles the bizarre Zen fascism of the guys from Fight Club. The conflicts so crucial to horror films since the 1970s are simply not that crucial. Identity politics (the sexual politics of slasher flicks, the monsterization of homosexuality) are simply not all that important to torture porn. Hostel features a gay torturer, but both Hostel and Hostel 2 feature gay protagonists and the later makes the heterosexuality of its chief villains part of the plot. For all of Jigsaw's vaguely religious overtones and somewhat conservative moral code (he's apparently really against adultery, for example), identity issues aren't moral issues for him. That is to say, he never goes after anybody because they're gay or black or a woman. Religion, in either villainous or heroic representations, was another big issue for horror flicks. It is remarkably absent from torture porn. Jigsaw seems to be the founder of his own secular cult of personality and the villains and protagonists of Hostel, even the Americans, seem to be at home in a modern secular Europe. (You could argue that there's a strong Holocaust theme running through the Hostel flicks, and I'd agree with you; but that's a topic for another time.) Even traditional liberal and conservative positions get jumbled about. In Hostel, for example, it isn't clear exactly what were supposed to make of the victims' earlier visit to a legal brothel. Are we being told that all flesh peddling in morally equivalent? Are we being lectured about using desire as our chief moral guide? Linking exploitation of sort the Hunt Club practices and legalized prostitution is a notably moralistic note strike. In Saw, Jigsaw's person-by-person approach to moral education assume personal responsibility is the only significant factor in a person's moral development. He has no time for sociological arguments about poverty, class, or race. People do bad things and he gives them a do-or-die chance to get their crap together. His stance is all the more stark for being contrasted to the generic "just want to help people" liberalism of his social worker wife. Torture porn's contemporary outlook contributes, I think, to the poor reception of torture porn among many blog critics. Not only are the films extreme and visceral, to older critics used to different set of ideological assumptions, they appear nihilistic.

Whew. There we go. Ultimately, what I'm trying to argue is torture porn, if it does truly exist as a genre, is being greatly mischaracterized. Critics have argued that it consists of "flat" films notable only for their dogged adherence to a stylistically inert realism. I make no claims for the genre's inherent greatness. But, by looking at two of the most accepted example of the genre, I hope I've made the case that there is considerably more going on then critics of the genre care to admit. The films can be stylistically advanced, morally complicated dark fantasies that help us struggle with modern anxieties and ideas. I'd be the first to admit that, so far, films like Hostel and Saw have achieved more technically than they have intellectually. Hostel never fully owns the moral dilemma at its core and Saw has put forth a confused and somewhat incomprehensible solution to moral problems of torture porn. Still, even on a cursory look, they reveal far more than straw man characterizations allow. Torture porn is the most significant horror development in decades. I think blog critics and other fans of horror owe it to themselves and the genre as a whole to honestly and seriously consider its promise and limitations.

Now, who wants crow?

The first serious criticism of this series that I must address comes from Screamin' Sean Collins. Screamin' Sean suggests that I've used circular logic in constructing my definition of torture porn. Basically, I picked a tiny sample size of movies that justified criteria in my definition. Then I used the existence of that same criteria in the films I selected as proof of the correctness of my definition.

First, in my defense, the reason I focused on Hostel and Saw is that they seem to be the only two franchises everybody agrees upon. I did leave the possibility open to other flicks, even non-horror films, being included.

That said, I think he's correct. If I had undertaken a serious effort to create a comprehensive canon of torture porn films, I think we'd be looking at a very different definition of torture porn. I suspect that I would be forced to drop or seriously alter the last criteria. Certainly Touristas partakes in some of the anti-globalization theme Hostel does; but Audition has a good old "battle of the sexes" theme going on. Girl Next Door deconstructs the myth of American innocence, but gender politics are also central to it.

Anyway, I recognize now that limiting the scope tailored the response to a high degree. I still think many of my criteria would stand and expansion of the films under review, but I am certain I'd have to revise my definition.

I also think that somebody needs to theorize two types of torture porn: one is a subgenre and the other is a specific approach to material. This would help explain torture porn outside of a horror context. For example, there may be torture porn in 24, but I don't think most fans of the show would argue that the whole show is, itself, torture porn. I didn't make that leap here because I limited myself to torture porn as a horror subgenre. Still, there's more thinking to be done there.

Sean's criticism leads to an import objection raise by ANTSS regular Screamin' Spacey. Spacejack doubted my contention that Hostel and Saw were overtly political. He agrees that there's themes regarding the treatment of people as commodities and whatnot, but he doesn't feel their explicit enough to call them political themes and he especially things Jigsaw's ideology is so tangled and crazy that it doesn't amount to much in the way of a political ideology.

I see Spacejack's point. To reiterate, I'd probably have to reconsider that criteria if I add more flicks to the canon. Still, I perhaps should have avoided using terms like "overt." I think there's something interesting going on with the themes addressed in these films, but "political" does make it sound like it is something spelled-out and explicit. If I had it to do over, I'd rethink that criteria.

Another interesting criticism came from Matt M., who left a comment on Screamin' Sean's blog. Matt agreed with the idea that torture porn was not primarily realistic, but questioned my characterization of the visual style of torture porn. Connecting the visual style of Hostel and Saw to Se7en works, but what about films like Wolf Creek or, and this is my example, the faux-doc Poughkeepsie Tapes? Some arguable examples torture porn (though I don't think Wolf Creek counts – but still, it is arguable) clearly don't have the lush, polished disarray of a pseudo-Fincher flick.

This was a good point and one I must admit I didn't have an answer to. The solution may have been brought to my attention by ANTSS commentator Bruce. He pointed me to the Umberto Eco's Travels in Hyperreality which greatly expands the notion of the hyperreal by simplifying the idea to its essence: taking the strategies of presenting the real and emphasizing them to make something more-real-than-real. I'm not completely ready to say this answers Matt's concerns as I haven't read Eco in a dog's age. Even if it does answer Matt's criticism, his issue with my linking the Fincher look to the entire genre of torture porn is a point well taken. My characterization was an over-generalization based on the fact that I used too small a sample size.

I'm sure others have serious criticisms that are worthy of close consideration. Please, send 'em along. But, Screamers and Screamettes, I'm going to close out this series here. Thanks for indulging me. Stay classy.

11 comments:

SpaceJack said...

Just to try to refine my point a bit about the political aspects (or lack thereof) in the films. With Saw, it seemed to think it was making a point, I just couldn't make much sense of it, nor did I have any sympathy for what I did get.

With Hostel, I saw the globalization element merely as a logical extension of the story concept. As for the rest of its moralizing, I thought it was posing questions rather than trying to answer them. Perhaps they weren't the most coherent or logical set, but that didn't really bother me. I think most people would say "okay" to at least one of them and "no" to another. But where do you draw the line? (Or, where do you draw the line?) Is one thing a gateway to another? Or is that nonsense?

(By the way, wouldn't it be fun to go back in time and tell the story of Hostel around a campfire at night to a bunch of North American backpackers in a European campground? One of the stories that I heard when I was touring around was that on the Italian trains, some of the conductors would be in league with criminals who would gas the passenger cars to steal all the backpackers stuff and rape the women in their sleep.)

I mentioned earlier that I agreed with #4, but neglected to add that I only agreed with it after I read it; it hadn't really occurred to me before. I thought it was a really interesting, or even crystallizing, observation.

"Fast zombie vs slow zombie debate" made me laugh a lot.

Thanks for the series.

Sasquatchan said...

No, no, when presented with conflicting evidence and contrary opinions, the real internet blogger responds with "you are all a bunch of fags". I think somethingawful has definitively said that is how you win an argument on the internet. It's like playing Mornington Crescent.

Anyway, I thought after your review of Saw 3 that you'd figured, "They're just in this for the money, now." Not necessarily the same sentiment as the self-parodying of slasher flicks, but I think of the same mindset. I'd guess the DVD versions with directors commentary are available. I'd say search those for some insight, but how much of what the directors say is bogus crap and how much is real (or inane stuff like "the lighting and shadowing really makes her tits stand out," or "we got a great deal on that phallic sculpture.")

It is a bully pulpit for them to defend their work, but if they fall into the same asinine "art is meant to mess with you" crap that yale abortion art student tried to pull, that loses all credibility.

cattleworks said...

Screaming Dude:
Great series.
I tried to add a comment yesterday but then blogger... oh, what's the technical term? Ah, yes: blogger boned me.

Now, this morning, I'm home "fresh" from an overnight 12 hour shift. Somehow I actually read your final entry in the series, but I don't have the energy to try and articulate my usually jumbled thoughts.
But, I think this was a great subject and I think you did a great job of introducing a lot of serious thought to the subject of TP, crow sucking aside (and even that didn't seem like crow sucking, merely an example of the process of throwing out an idea and then polishing it up some after some thoughtful but appreciative rebuttal and comment).

Although, "quickly": One thought I had was the idea of Torture Porn being broad enough to spawn, arguably, further yet distinct sub-genres.
SAW and HOSTEL seem to be the modern forefathers of the genre, and perhaps the purest version of contemporary Torture Porn, (I would think MARK OF THE DEVIL from the 7os is in the same vein, no?) although their approach is distinct from one another.
But, it seems Michael Haneke's FUNNY GAMES should have some consideration because it seems like an endurance test as well.
Although in FG's case, the audience must endure the torture not only as a voyeur, they are then the filmmaker's target as well. It is about horror (and violent) films, not in an homage-y way but actually a breaking the fourth wall way.

It seems the other extreme (and I think you've mentioned this) apparently skips any idea of story like SAW or HOSTEL and goes to pseudo or faux-snuff film. Although I haven't seen it, I'm thinking of AUGUST UNDERGROUND, which seems to be created like a an actual videotape of sickos torturing and abusing victims. And that's it. The reaction is a combination of "Oh, gross!" and "How did they do that?"

The JACKASS movies may be another subgenre, arguably, although in this case, the victim is also the torturer.
Actually, I think the forefathers of (today's) Torture Porn are reality shows. Then, SAW and HOSTEL appropriated the idea of an audience watching as an endurance test but added a fictional story.

Hey, look! I can do no research and talk off the top of my head, too! Okay, YOU do it much more articulately AND convincingly. When I do it, it seems like it's less coming off the top of my head and more coming straight out of my ass.
Which is why I read your blog, dammit!

Anyways, bla bla bla... great series, much to contemplate and digest... now I go sleepy sleep.

Heather Santrous said...

Sorry I haven't been commenting on this series of posts. I have been reading each post as it showed up though. I guess I haven't commented because I can't argue with you at all. I was telling Jed about your series of posts and had to correct him about the torture porn term. He was thinking it had something to do with sex sice the word porn was in there.

The way I look at the term is pretty simple really. Porn in itself means to me a movie the is excessive in showing sex. So torture porn is excessive in showing torture.

Anyway, I hope you do more posts like these. I don't mean the same topic but just a sweries of posts about a topic. You do a great job, even if you were just doing it on the fly.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Spacey,

Thanks for reading the series. It went on a bit longer than I intended, but I'm glad you enjoyed it.

I get what you're saying about the whole politics thing. Honestly, looking back, I think I'd have to rethink that whole notion to something more abstract. Or maybe ditch it altogether. I wanted to make the case that torture porn didn't make symbolic efforts impossible – you could abstract concepts and ideas and tackle them in a torture porn context just as you can tackle, say, sex through the symbol of the vampire.

Ultimately, though, I overstated the content of the films.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

Saw III remains, I think, the weakest of the series. Though we're really splitting hairs betwixt it and Saw IV. In my opinion, Saw IV tried to pump in a little more petrol in the franchise by reinventing Jigsaw as this visionary thinker type, rather than just a crazy dude with a tumor in his head that is making him think he's God. III, for me, didn't have anything to add to the franchise, squandered what it did have going for it (the potential for an eviler anti-Jigsaw in the form of his even more relentless sidekick), and contained traps that made the leap from fantasy to spoof.

I should have been more careful to state that my "defense" of the genre wasn't meant to be taken as a claim that all torture porn films are good. Simply that they are no inherently as bad as critics and anti-TP fans make them out to be.

Interesting note about the "Director's Commentary": for Hostel you'll notice that many fans actually dismiss Roth's comments about his own movie. He's made a great deal – in both 1 and 2 – about the assumption of safety on the part of the American characters. Most folks who see the film later comment that Roth's take of his own work is weirdly reductionistic. Go fig.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Cattle,

I kinda pulled back from tackling the whole issue of torture porn in other genres, but I think that might be the key to "getting" the whole thing. Maybe horror bloggers spin their wheels trying to figure out what makes TP so new, when the answer is that there isn't anything new here. I proposed that, sorta, and then didn't follow up on it.

I think we might also have two problems here, related, but not really the same. The first, and less serious problem, is: is there such a genre/subgenre/whatever as torture porn and what are really its characteristics? This what I tried to do here, in my admittedly limited way. Second: what are the aesthetic and moral ramifications of violent images in an entertainment context? That gets you into the stuff like Jackass, August Underground, etc. But that second one is a bigger issue that I can tackle. That's one for the scholars.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Heather,

Thanks for reading. I'm glad you liked it. I think your simpler definition has something going for it. In fact, Sean Collins, another of my fave bloggers, has basically argued the same thing you do.

I'd love to do another series. I enjoyed the silent horror one from last year and this went pretty well, if the end was a bit messy. But, for now, I'm going to go back to the equally fun, but less demanding, one-shot review format. Rest up, ya' know?

Colin said...

Really enjoyed reading this series. Found it by way of Groovvy Age of Horror. Anytime people use the term "torture porn" just seems to betray their poor knowledge of film history, not to mention what actually constitutes as "porn".

Your series also points out that this "wave" is really only a handful of films. While there are many films with the sadistic horror angle being flogged in film markets like Cannes, only a few even get wide distribution or exposure. As you pointed out, HOSTEL 1 + 2 and the SAW series are really all folks can reference.

Plus apparently we now have this "new trend", the "home invasion" horror film, a phrase that people are whipping out thanks to FUNNY GAMES (an anti-horror film, one that implicates you for watching the violence) and STRANGERS.

And to add fuel to the fire, I just saw one that has really divided horror fans - the French film MARTYRS. Look that one up...

Great job on the series. Going to check back regularly.

CRwM said...

Colin,

Thanks for swinging by and thanks for the kind words about the series. Reaction has been extremely mixed, so I think the next one I do will have to have the broadest appeal possible: "Cute Kittens or Adorable Puppies: Can't We Have Both?"

As for the new trend, maybe that's all it takes to count as a subgenre these days: 2 or 3 flicks. I can't wait until we have a knock-down drag out about the deeper meaning of home invasions. Somebody will trace its roots to Straw Dogs and somebody will suggest it isn't real horror because horror can only properly take place at a summer camp. Good times!

ILoz Zoc said...

Super read and discussion of torture porn. Would you please shoot me your email; the members of LOTT D would like to invite you to join our group.

ILoz Zoc (zomboscloset@yahoo.com)