Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Movies: In which we vivisect the torture porn issue for the last time.

I find Turistas an interesting film – perhaps, admittedly, out of all proportion to the value of the work itself – because it touches on a theme that pops up now and again on ANTSS: the troublesome concept of "torture porn."

Almost a year ago I wrote a four post series about the much reviled subgenre in ANTSS. It began with the claim that I didn't actually believe there was, in fact, a definite subgenre. As evidence, I pointed to the fact that there were really only two franchises anybody could point to as belonging to the set and, perhaps more importantly, that the original term was coined not to describe a type of film, but a manner of showing violence within a film. Torture porn was something a film did, not something it was. This might sound like an esoteric distinction, but it helps explain how things as diverse as The Passion of the Christ, which is far more brutal than any of the horror flicks so labeled, and the show 24 used to pop up in discussions of the phenomenon. Though I suspected that it was a product of horror fandom's myopic insularity that this phenomenon was perceived as a specifically horror-centric thing – in the Flatland of movie fandoms horror fandom is Pointland – I resigned myself to its use as common parlance and sallied forth to discuss what the subgenre might look like.

I've learned two important things from the experience of writing that series of posts.

First, if you can't put your argument forward in a single post, then don't bother to put it forward. Usage shows that visitors to the blog read the posts as they first went up, but since then the vast majority of readers never ever get past the first post. This is true even when the visitors are directed from blogs that link to every post and urge readers to check them all out. Several hang in there for the second post, and a select few manage to struggle on to the third; but I haven't had but a stray one or two visitors actually make it to the fourth post. This is especially noteworthy since the forth post actually contained a section regarding issues and problems readers had raised during the original series, some of which I had answers for, but many of which I had to simply admit as valid criticism. The number of "I gotcha" posts I get harping on subjects worked through in the forth post is tragic. When blogging, adopt the famed axiom of Phil Spector: "If it can't be said in three minutes, it isn't worth saying."

The second thing I learned from creating the series is that I should have gone with my gut.

There is no such thing as a torture porn subgenre.

In my initial post, I identified what I thought were the few films everybody could agree were torture porn films, and I then identified what I believed to be their common characteristics. Since posting that original series, film labeled torture porn by the horror blogtwit pro am hit the scene that, one by one, systematically demolish every genre boundary placed on the hypothetical grouping. Even the simplest definition – Sean T. Collins applied lex parsimoniae to the problem and developed a suitably Ockhamian definition: "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." – no longer holds. Why? Because we've mistaken bats for birds under the mistaken notion that all flying things must be the same.

Let's look at the film in question.

Whether it was an intentional effort to cash in a perceived trend or simply the laziness of critics, John Stockwell's action thriller Turistas was saddled immediately with the ill-fitting label of torture porn. A summary of the plot does nothing to disabuse one of the validity of the comparison. A co-ed group of tourists – Americans, an Aussie, two Brits – end up stranded in an isolated section of Brazil. Mercifully, the patch of coastline they find is a tropical paradise of pristine sands, cheap booze, and lovely skin. Not so mercifully, the locals appear to be patched in to an organ piracy network of a nearby mad doctor liberates Euros of their innards in order to provide organs for the oppressed and downtrodden. He's like a kidney Robin Hood.

After the traditional party scene and a suitable number of breast displays, the tourists find themselves doped and robbed. They leave paradise in search of help, only to be lead to the home of the mad doctor. There, one of their number is processed by the good doctor. The rest attempt an escape, leading to an extended chase scene in the jungle. What follows is a running battle through the local jungle and an underwater cave system between the doctor and his henchmen and the would-be non-volunteer organ donors.

I admit that the overall parameters of the plot – young travelers caught in violent exchange with locals, their ignorance of which exacerbates the problem – calls Hostel to mind. But I submit to you that those same parameters describe hundreds of film plots, few of which could be described as torture porn. Furthermore, with its extensive jungle scenes, mad scientist baddie, and an extended chase structure in the latter fourth of the film, I'd say that the flick has as much in common with The Most Dangerous Game and various versions of Island of Dr. Moreau, than with commonly agreed upon torture porn flicks like Saw.

There is the infamous and crucial set piece in which a young woman is disassembled for her medically valuable viscera, but even that most torture pornish of scenes is curious. First, it is debatable whether or not the young woman is tortured. She is most certainly murdered, but the surgery takes place only after the victim has been put under anesthesia. She dies in a chemically-induced haze, making vague grunting noises until she expires. It is unclear how much pain she might be feeling, though her mouth remains ungagged throughout the operation and she does not scream or protest. The implication is that she's knows something is wrong, but she's pretty much gone under an insulating layer of dope. She does not really witness any of what is happening to her. The mad doc keeps up a running monologue of what he's doing and why he's doing it, though she doesn't really hear him. The question is, does this constitute torture? Admittedly, it is an extreme crime. But, oddly, it's a crime that specifically minimizes the suffering of the victim. It is certainly constitutes physical harm, but I'm not sure that it constitutes "brutalization," to use Sean's term. This isn't, I think, out of any humanitarian concern on the doc's part. A struggling and resisting victim increases the likelihood of a screwed up op and slows the whole thing down. Still, the result is the same: unlike torture, the organ theft op is not intended to cause pain and suffering.

Insomuch as torture requires the victim perceive their own torture as suffering, if anybody in the scene is tortured, that grim distinction goes to one of the Brit tourists who, strapped down on a surgical table next to the victim, witnesses the entire operation sans drug-buffer, all the while under the assumption that the same is soon to befall him. However, while this victim's confinement is certainly an according Hoyle torture porn aspect under the Collin definition, he's never physically brutalized. He briefly escapes only to be killed as most of the doomed characters in this film are: sudden death by bullet.

Whether it is locus of horror in the film or not is an equally debatable point. Certainly it establishes the stakes for the characters, justifying why a bunch of relatively pampered tourists are suddenly are extremely willing to not only risk their lives, but also kill others, in order to escape. Otherwise, however, the operation itself is only a tiny bit of the film. Only one of the ten deaths in the film are attributable to the mad doctor's deplorable efforts to reform the organ donor waitlist process. The rest occur during fights in the jungle surrounding the doctor's house (plus one henchmen who dies when the quick to anger doctor stabs him as a definitive review of his less than stellar henching). Even during the operation scene, the gory process does not take center stage. Unlike the claustrophobic, extended scenes of punishment in Hostel or Saw, the operation, which takes up about 4 minutes and 12 seconds of film altogether, is broken up with footage of the rest of the tourists' efforts at escape, which actually runs a slightly longer 4 minutes, 18 seconds. Even when it is the focus of the film, it isn't quite the focus of the film.

My point with this last bit isn't to finally see if Sean's definition fits Turistas or not, but to show that we've got trouble if we try to a definition that suggests that one relatively small section of the flick is the "locus" of the film's horror. We'd have the same problem with Martyrs, which includes quite a bit of horrific imagery and power in the first half of the film, most of which revolves around the revenge plot and the "ghost" that haunts one of the main characters. Yes there's torture, but is the last third of Martyrs its locus? What about Ambition? Is the gory finale the source of the film's horror? Or is it a sort of explosive release of the growing horror the viewer has felt building throughout the movie?

These could be debated (along with just about every other torture porn flick), but we could simply toss out the rather unproductive debate by getting rid of the sticking point that torture porn is the essence of certain films. Instead, if we agree with the term's coiner that torture porn is a visual and narrative strategy, and it can be used in many different films and for many different reasons, then we suddenly can discuss the links between Hostel and Turistas, as well as Reservoir Dogs and The Passion of the Christ and BSG (in which I'm told robot torture occurs, as seemingly illogical as that all is: why program them feel pain?) and so on without getting tangled up in the question of whether or not something is "authentically" torture porn. We can also toss out the critically lazy idea that "torture porn" films are some special subset of flicks concerned solely with the depiction of graphic, extended acts of violence. While admitting that there is something distinct and notable about the visual and narrative value of such depictions of violence, it leaves a requirement to confront the rest of the film. To have exhausted one's critic arsenal by dismissing an entire work on the basis of one filmmaking strategy would appear as stupid as announcing that all films that used unreliable narration or extensive montages were pointless. "They're just about narration. Montages are just about the editing – what's the point?"

Anywho, I've never been happy with the concept of torture porn as it is currently used and, on consideration, I believe it is because treating it as genre, instead of a collection of techniques, is inherently unhelpful. As of now – right now, just then, it happened already now – I'm dropping its use as a genre identifier for ANTSS.

That's all very well, you might say, but how's Turistas?

Eh, it's kinda goofy. Attractive kids. Clunky plot. Strained seriousness with an ill-considered and inconsistent anti-colonial message. I wouldn't bother.


Anonymous said...

Couple of random thoughts:

1. Interesting to hear about the "multiple posts don't work" experience, not sure, if a long post as faring that much better though.

2. As far as I know, Turistas was originally supposed to be a standard adventure/thirller film and the producers insisted on the "torture" aspects being played up (more so in the advertising than in the actual film) and I guess that's why the film has been labelled as "torture porn" (maybe there's a point here about intention being crucial).

3. Although no one else seems to like it much, I found a lot to like in Turistas, especially the final showdown was really well done and it's just a very nice film to look at, which is already one major advantage over Hostel. It also has a (relatively speaking) far less far-fetched story than most other entries in the "torture porn" genre, so potentially, it could have been the most unpleasant one, but instead it comes across as a movie that is almost apologising for its detours into torture terrain.

4. Random theory: Might Turistas be to the "torture porn" genre what April Fool's Day was to the slasher (=a "politer" big studio version of what the producers thought audiences wanted to see)?

CRwM said...


Good points.

1. I'm personally stuck between in rock and hard place on this one. I suspect that more popular bloggers than I would say that I simply write in dragging style that isn't suited for the medium. I can't imagine what sort of strife Twitter would give me.

2. I don't have any first hand knowledge of the marketing decisions on this thing - though some sort of disconnect between the filmmakers and the film's marketers like you describe would explain much. However, what it doesn't get is that the film comes up again and again in discussions of extreme horror and torture porn. Honestly, it seems like you'd have to have not seen the movie to compare it films like Hostel, but people do it regularly.

3. The tropical setting and the underwater photography was very lovely, and the filmmakers should get credit for that. Though, honestly, I think the lush squalor of the Hostel flicks and the pop-surrealism of the Saw flicks are feats as well, so I can't really single Turista's out for that. As for "far-fetched story," while the mad doctor's motives are certainly more fleshed out than the average killer's motives in, say, Hostel, if had an even harder time believing that the doc as made an operation out of harvesting just those Euro/American tourists that happen to get stranded in what, at the beginning of the flick, we're told is a very isolated region of the country - even our protags only ended up there by accident. Plus, the operation clearly requires an insane amount of overhead - drugs, pay for kidnappers and henchmen, helicopter maintenance, and so on - but the whole thing is run pro bono for a charity hospital. Further, thought the doctor's motives seem more robust than, say, the head of the Elite Hunt Club, they don't really make much sense. His organization is meant to help the poor people of Brazil, but it requires are certainly level of desperation and poverty in the community around him to keep the operation running (his fairly most common incentive being he'll give you a couple bills and not kill you). He's also apparently quite racist, despite risking everything he has on a bizarro charity scheme for the impoverished, many of whom will be black or native Brazilians. All the baddies in Hostel, Saw, and so on all verge on James Bond villain status. I don't find any of them particularly realistic.

4. The parallel you've drawn does a great job of capturing the real relationship between Turista and the more extreme horror fare it is often compared with. I'm hesitant to claim it is a issue of mainstream studio influence as Turistas was no more big studio as project as Saw or Hostel. All three were made by small production companies and then distributed by large distributors.

Anonymous said...

2. While turistas comes up again and again in discussions of torture porn, it is usually either mentioned in passing (by mainstream critics) or mentioned as a particularly bad film (on most horror boards) and I think both reactions have a lot to do with the marketing, the former group includes the film out of laziness, the latter illustrates the disconnect between the marketing campaign and the actual movie. Similar examples can be found in the cannibal or zombie subgenres, where you also find certain titles being included again and again despite not really having very much to do with the genre in question (except marketing).

3. I didn't mean to suggest that the plot is that much better (I think it's slightly better, although of course just as silly as the rest if you think about it), but Turistas uses fears and urban legends that have been around for some time (organ theft in third world countries) as its basic starting point and I believe this could've created a much more direct and emotional impact than the scenarios Hostel and Saw are based on (although snuff films are admittedly also an urban legend).

The rest is admittedly entirely personal preference, but I think the fact that I can enjoy a film that is supposed to be torture porn for its scenery also says a lot about how misleading the label is in this case.