Lately, the question of "how far is too" far seems to have started popping up around the horror blog-o-sphere. There was a mini-symposium on the matter at Vault of Horror, featuring B-Sol and BJ-C (the inseparable Tracy and Hepburn of horror blog world), and ragin' RayRay (political blogger behind Non-Partisan Witch Hunt).
Now there's a interesting back and forth between Curt, the Groovy One, and Sean, who is quite the deal in his own right and it is a failing on my part and not his that I don't have a nickname for him ("the Thin White Lantern"? too obscure? too jumbled?), about the literal bloodbath scene in Hostel II: Electric Drill Boogaloo. This starts in Curt's post on said movie and continues on Sean's blog.
Whether horror can or cannot (or should) go too far isn't something I really intend to address here. I believe my views on the matter are fairly eccentric and reductionist so there's no need to hash them out in open debate. Instead, I though we'd focus in on a curious trope that pops up in both exchanges.
In clarifying his reaction to the bleed out of Wiener Dog, Sean says:
It was precisely because it had all that "it's only a movie" nonsense surrounding it--and I'm thinking less of the Euro-horror sensuality in the scene itself, which is fine, and more of the splatstick stuff in the climax, which undercuts the whole film--that it bothered me so much. It's kind of like the bit in Inside that made me turn off the movie. If I'd been watching Henry or Dahmer or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or something similarly weighty and serious in intent, I'd have stuck with it, but to violate that particular taboo in the name of a slick, glossy (if gory), credulity-stretching thriller? Thanks but no thanks. Ditto the demise of Weiner Dog. Paradoxically, it's precisely the lack of realism that makes these sequences tougher both to watch and to justify. If i'm going to watch a nude woman get tortured to death, I want to feel like I'm eating my vegetables, not Cookie Crisps.
In his contribution to the roundtable exchange, B-Sol gives Roth's first Hostel flick a verbal smackdown:
My main problem with Hostel was that I found it to be a movie created for the sole purpose of showing me graphic depictions of dramatized torture. The plot was paper thin, as were the characters, and it was quite obvious that Eli Roth's goal was to titillate through violence, without even the flimsiest of dramatic justifications.
BJ-C hits a similar note discussing the on-film slaughter of animals in the infamous exploitation flick Cannibal Holocaust:
The same could be said for the Animal massacres in Cannibal Holocaust. However, as much as I personally cannot agree with killing animals for the sole purpose of "entertainment", the film was killing the animals to make a point.
Finally, RayRay sounds off with a comparison between Rob Zombie's debut and Roth's sophomore effort:
At the same time, movies like the Hostel series and Turistas, and other so called 'torture porn' I can consider having gone too far. Why? I suppose this has something to d with my distaste of the unnecessary cruelty embodied by such films. "Unnecessary cruelty? But that's what those movies are about!" some might retort. Yes, and that is all they are about. One might even then question me about the difference between House of a Thousand Corpses and Hostel. And I would say that the difference lies in the stresses the director one puts on what we see.
In House of a Thousand Corpses, the director created characters to identify with and against that had substance, and in one or two, they were more than a little campy. The violence was a means to an end, as well as a symptom of some greater sickness in those characters. There was more to the movie than just violating the human form.
In Hostel violence was the goal. While the premise wasn't terrible, the story never carried further than the murder of tourists. When you think about it, the most clever thing about Hostel is the director makes you into one of the purveyors of snuff, because the big payoff is all about watching what's going to happen to that Asian girl. In Turistas the payoff was watching a dissection of a girl. Is it the violence and the guts, though? No. Rather, it is the lack of story to contextualize the violence.
There's a lot in here I agree with. The bloodbath scene in Hostel II, for example, is oddly dissonant, and not in a satisfying way, with the rest of the flick. I didn't have the same problems with how realistic it may or may not have been, mainly because I don't see the Hostel films as particularly realistic in the first place. But I can see where Sean is coming from. I agree with RayRay that the decisions a director makes to present his material have a moral component to them and it is legit to compare how two directors hand similar material with that in mind. I can't contest B-Sol's argument that Hostel's plot and characters are not particularly complex.
However, there is one element that I feel runs through all these threads that I strongly disagree with.
Again and again we get some sort riff on the idea that violence, even perhaps the most extreme violence, would be okay if it were somehow wedded to a higher purpose. Violence shouldn't be "the point" of violence, but should rather serve "weighty and serious in intent" or be, somehow, necessary. Even, curiously, genuine acts of unnecessary suffering – if one is to admit that animals can in a meaningful analog to the human understanding of the term – are apparently justified if the acts of inflicting the makes some sort of thematic point.
That this refrain shows up again and again (and not just in these exchanges - we could find in almost any mainstream press review of any Hostel or Saw film, for example) is probably unsurprising. We've heard it before. In fact, there's something almost incantory about it evocation.
I don't buy it.
First, basing your critical interpretation on the basis of artist motivation is like building a house of cards on quicksand. What exactly is it that makes, for example, Henry more "weighty and serious in intent" than, say, Inside. One could site the presumption of "reality" (notably, all the examples Sean gives of movies one would be willing to suffer the presentation of extreme violence in are based, however loosely, on actual serial killers). The former is about genuine acts of violence, hence we can object to the level of violence the real situation demanded of the filmmakers, while the latter is simply a violent fantasy. This link somewhat to RayRay's point: In a fantasy, where there is no real life horror to capture, any extremes are purely the filmmaker's whim.
Close examination of the films in question, however, tends to undermine the assumption that Henry is somehow documentary in nature, and suggests that Inside would have just as much claim to being rooted in the realities of human vileness. Though loosely based on the exploits of a real killer, Henry the character in the film and Henry the real life serial killer should not be confused. The film, for example, treats as fact several of the crimes the real Henry falsely confessed to. Though much is made out of his prolific murderousness, the real Henry could only be linked to eleven crime, at least one of which was doubtful enough that even the former Texas Governor, former POTUS, and big time capital punishment booster was unable to, in good faith, carry out Henry's death sentence. Then there's the character of Becky. The "love" of the real Henry's life – the love interest of his movie, if you will – was a 12-year-old, not the adult we see in the fictional work. We could go on, but the important thing is that Henry is a work of fiction, regardless of what inspired it. But what about Inside? It is clearly a work of fiction too. But, if we're going to count inspiration for something, then Inside can claim just a valid a "true crime" pedigree. The makers of Inside were inspired by a true case of pre-natal kidnapping. Apparently, it does happen (in one particularly repugnant case, a woman removed the fetus from her pregnant victim's belly using a set of car keys).
What then of intention? Certainly Inside was made to be a shocker while Henry was conceived as meditation on the existential void of essential loneliness that dehumanizes us. Or, you know, it might have originally been conceived as a wrestling documentary. The project that would eventually form into Henry began life as a documentary about pro-wrestling in Chicago. The producers of this doc had previously worked with director McNaughton on a previous film, Dealers in Death, a documentary about Chicago gangsters made up entirely of public domain footage. They thought they had a lock on the wrestling movie because they had a line on a stash of old wrestling footage that a collector was willing to part with for a song and a dance. But, unexpectedly, the collector jacked up his price and left the producers with a small pile of development capital and no project to use it on. They told McNaughton that he could shoot a feature, but they demanded it had to be a horror film. McNaughton, under deadline pressure, started up attempts to make a creature feature – preferably, he thought, one featuring aliens – but he quickly surmised that his miniscule budget couldn't take the strain the FX would demand. Stuck for an idea, McNaughton caught an episode of 20/20 profiling Henry Lee Lucas. He pitched the serial killer idea to his backers and they ran with it.
This is, curiously enough, not all that different from the germination of Inside. The creators of that film started out to make a horror film. The story goes that they polled their friends in an effort to determine what scared people the most, the idea being that you could quantitatively determine what you horror flick should contain in order to scare the crap out of the greatest number of people. The poll idea, while kind of charming in its "can-do" logic, was a bust. This left the writer/director duo stuck for ideas. Luckily, the quixotic polling process did lead them to an odd story about a woman attacking a pregnant mother and stealing the baby from her womb. This true crime tidbit became the basis for their story. Curiously, the original conception for Inside was that, like Henry, it was going to be shot in a low-key, "realistic" style. Like Henry, this had more to do with budgets than artistic vision. However, when actress Béatrice Dalle joined the cast, the film suddenly got major cred in the eyes of the moneymen and the budget was bumped up. The filmmakers decided the that whole "verité" horror thing had been done to death, so they went with a more distinct and rigorously structuralistic look – a nod to art house filmmakers and the Poe story The Masque of the Red Death. (This actually speaks to the feed-me-my-leafy-greens point Sean makes. The visual cues that signal "just a movie" to Sean were, to the filmmakers, meant to breakaway from a visual pattern that they felt had ceased to actually communicate anything of value. To them, the shock of the semi-documentary style and its tag-function as "hey, this is The Real™" had both been worn away by overuse. Again we see the problem of pinning down intent.)
So which of these films is more "weighty and serious in intent"? The one that originally started out as a wrestling doc, then would have been a movie about alien invaders (if the money had been there), and ended up a fictionalization of a 20/20 episode? Or the one grew out of a misguided effort to pseudo-scientifically determine what the scariest things in horror films were, then morphed into a micro-budget "true crime" thriller, and then expanded due to the involvement of a popular actress and the belief that the whole "realistic" visual style had become a trite cliché? More importantly, even if one of these films was more weighty and serious in intent, how would you prove that?
I don't think you could, because the intent of the filmmaker is something you can't know. It is something you infer, which means that it is, at least partially, in the eye of the beholder.
Which brings us to the second problem: the popular hypothesis that some horror films have no point, so the violence in them is unjustified. By my reckoning, there's two major problem with this premise (there's a host of lesser problems, but I'm going to focus on just two that I think really sink this particular ship).
This "point" that separates good violence from bad violence is, suspiciously like the line between porn and erotica, one of those semi-critical concepts that everybody is happy to simply not define. We know a point when we see it and, by extension, when can tell when a movie doesn't have one. According to B-Sol and RayRay, Hostel is either pointless or, more specifically, that it's point it torture. B-Sol says: "My main problem with Hostel was that I found it to be a movie created for the sole purpose of showing me graphic depictions of dramatized torture." RayRay concurs: "In Hostel violence was the goal."
Except it isn't and wasn't. At least, that's not what I saw. And there are others who would seem to agree with me. After all, if the sole purpose of the film was to show torture and violence, why have most of the torture and violence occur of screen or happen quickly? Of the eight deaths in Hostel, only one is the direct end result of an extended torture scene. The other deaths (off-screen death presumably by torture, suicide by train, pedestrian-auto collision, head slammed against toilet) are pretty tame by even the R-rated baseline of the genre. Furthermore, why leave all the gore and violence, which is allegedly the point of your flick, until the last quarter? If story, theme, characterization, and all that other stuff is just filler, Roth surely could have jettisoned it for the standard hyper-compressed unstorytelling techniques of the slasher and got to the bloody business in the first 15 minutes of the film. Aside from that, what about the dramatic and themes other have seen in the flick: from an indictment of American exceptionalism, to a comment on bandit economics of post-Communist Eastern Europe, to a critique of the immorality of market logic? Personally, I'm fond of the last reading.
So who is right? I'm certain that B-Sol and RayRay are familiar with positive reviews of Hostel that suggest there's more to the film than pointless slaughter. I assume they find these reading unconvincing. If the film had a point, then by their logic it could not have "gone too far." The film might still suck ass, but it's violence would no longer be problematic. But I'm just as certain that the reviewers and bloggers who claim to have found these themes can make cases for them. Which is why using "the point" as some sort of measure of validity is, ultimately, a waste of everybody's time. If the point can't be expected to remain stable from person to person, then how can anybody feel comfortable pronouncing it as the measure between responsible representations of violence and unworthy representations of violence.
Arguably, you could say that holding a hardline on this makes all criticism of anything except the most formal elements of a film moot. I would disagree. I believe that claiming one sees a theme or idea or trope within a film does not necessarily assume that it is the only theme or trope or idea in a film (or book or painting or whatever). While I don't believe that works simply validate any and all interpretations – I think it is valid for critics, and even Joe Schmoe bloggers like myself, to demand that others support their interpretations with valid argument – I do think that the very nature of expression and criticism means that any given work, perhaps even regardless of artistic merit, can support a wealth of interpretations. That said, the argument that a work has no point, the charge of depthless meaninglessness, does necessarily preclude the idea that other interpretations might validly exist. Eli Roth's claim that Hostel is about American arrogance and my belief that it contains a critique of market capitalism might both be right. B-Sol and RayRay's interpretation assumes nobody else could be right.
Which brings us to the third and final point of this post.
And I thank any and all of you that have had the patience to sit through this.
Point #3: The idea of a film with no deeper meaning is a lazy critical crutch because no such thing exists.
Let's try to imagine at film created with the intention of including no content except the depiction of violent torture. It literally has no plot. Because chronology would imply a plot of sorts, let's say that the scenes are shown in randomly selected order. Avoid allowing characterization to creep into our imaginary film, we don't show the same victims and torturers. The film then becomes non-continuous shots of unrelated individuals at various, but non-continuous stages of torture. But, now we've got a problem. How do we randomize the individuals? We can't just cast people as victims and torturers. Our casting decisions would be open to interpretation. We could use only found footage, which would ensure that the footage would contain victims and torturers we had no power of choosing. However, the risk with found footage is that interpretable materials would start to creep in. Too many army uniforms and a viewer could start to formula a hypothesis about the use of political and military might and its morality. What if the found victims included more women than men? We could mix found and newly shot footage to ensure a sort of perfectly neutral mix of figures in our film, but then you start inviting comparisons between what's real footage and what's fake, opening up a can of worms about representation and reality. And I didn't want to mention it before, but the cuts between the shots are another problem. We can't just make cuts, as that would constitute an artistic, stylistic choice. But if we truly randomize the process, we might destroy our original purpose: to show violent torture. It could become an unintelligible series of strobe-like images. We'll have to make a call, which means there will be a decision that viewers can critique.
Let's stop here – though I think we could go on – because I think we've gone on long enough to make the point. Every film, no matter what its final form, is the product of a creative process that inevitably leaves traces of interpretable clutter behind it. No matter how lame or great, no matter powerful or dull, there's always already something beyond the literal. Even if you could somehow remove all human agency from the creation of a film, the fact that you removed all human agency from the creation of the film introduces space for interpretation.
You'll never make a perfectly flat film. To even try is to automatically fail.
This might be obvious. I suspect it is. If so, then why do critics continue to drag out the impossible accusation of pointlessness?
I'm not sure. I think it's a pretty much a slur. It is a semi-ritualized way of justifying the dismissal of a work and its proponents that has nothing to do with actual appreciation of film. I think it replaces attention with presumption. It is a call to stop thinking, to quit questioning, to stop really caring. Worse, at its core, I think the charge contains the implication that films – and by extension any art – don't matter in any way beyond personal taste.
Though, honestly, maybe that's fair to say of film. Perhaps I should just be comfortable with that.