If you haven't seen J. T. Petty's S&Man yet - yeah, I know, the wacky typographical title is off putting, for realz - go watch it and then come back. 'Cause I'm pretty much just going to bust into it as if you've seen it.
Okay? Here's five random observations about S&Man
In an early moment of of J. T. Petty's horror mockumentary S&Man, the titular filmmaker, the charmingly shy and rolly-polly Eric "S&Man" Rost, takes pains to clear up the pronunciation of his ampersand enhanced name: It's said "Sandman," not "S and M Man." Oddly, one imagines the incorrect pronunciation wouldn't be "S and M Man," but rather "S and Man." To pronounce it "S and M Man," you'd have to take a some alpha-phonetic liberties and slide another M in there. Still, the point is the first hint of the film's larger theme.
Sexual violence and S & M are often, but erroneously, conflated. The latter is a performance of the former intended to give at least one of the participants pleasure. The fact that it has this performative distance, that it is "fake" and understood to be so means that it ceases to be simply fake and becomes real, but in another sense. It severs the performance from the reality it supposedly emulates and gives it a new self-referential meaning, which opens it up to levels of irony, camp, style, decadence, and pleasure, that real violence, in its brutal mute presence, does not contain. S & M is the artistic conception of sexual violence. As such, it is devoid of sexual violence. When you make something art, its entire factuality is contained in the fact that it's a work of art. That's its power and allure. Art and the real exist in two parallel dimensions: mirrors of one another, but incommensurably distinct. Where art exists, we live in its depths. Where the real exists, one confronts the deafening silence of art's absence.
For somebody craving the art of S & M, sexual violence remains a destructive and vile negation. On the other hand if, like Eric, one desires to see real sexual violence, no amount of art could slake one's thirst.
Eric testily points that he's not "S and M Man." He informs J. T. Petty, playing himself as a documentarian, that he's "not into that shit." Of course he isn't.
The thorniest problem of horror cinema is the fact that horrors fans, without much pretext, can enjoy watching simulated atrocities. Outside of horror fandom, this is the core problem that gives the genre, despite it's longevity and profitability, the irremovable stigma of being a dubious sort of art. That is why, unlike sci-fi, romance, or any of the other second class genres which are dismissed merely as wastes of time, horror (like porn) remains a genre that is, for many, fundamentally beyond the pale.
This problem gets repressed within the fandom, but like all repressed facts leads to neurotic quirks. The critical discourse of genre, even when sympathetic, is steeped in the language of guilt and complicity. Catharsis theories, for example, attempt to prove that horror is good for mental health - a claim fans of sci-fi would never have to make because nobody takes seriously the proposition that watching science fiction films might be a sign of poor mental health. The famous last girl theory, with its play of complicity and sympathy, attempts to codify a spectator approach that justifies the viewing of simulated mass murder by showing how the fans "side" with the triumphant last would-be victim. Again, this notion that the viewer is innocent by virtue of wanting the almost-victim to win nods to the universal notion that there's something morally complicated about the pleasures of horror. Why proclaim one's innocence if there wasn't ever a question of guilt?
Folk theories - the sort of home grown explanations common to blogs and the like - are just as complicated. One popular, but kinda silly, folk theory is the Mimetic Argument: Horror films are violent because the world is violent. The idea that horror films reflect reality is, for the most part, transparent nonsense. If it were simply a reflection of the violence of the world that horror fans were after, we could just watch old Bumfights tapes and toss away ghost show hokum like Freddy. The world of the horror film is to real violence what the world of romantic comedies is to genuine courtship. For folks stretching for a little more redemption in their horror fare, there's the After School Special Argument: The violence of horror flicks is excusable, even if it is excessive, because horror films are "about something." Curiously, I've actually seen this taken to its logical conclusion, with one blogger sincerely arguing that actual on-screen violence against animals is okay if the real bloodshed is being done to serve a larger dramatic theme. This, of course, is a dodge. Even the average film-goer would agree that extreme imagery is sometimes artistically justified, the moral pickle is one's enjoyment of said extreme imagery.
Petty's S&Man is the most serious contemporary meditation on the nature of the pleasures of horror cinema. In a pleasant surprise, Petty manages to cut the Gordian knot of voyeurism and film-going, divorcing his answer to the persistent problem of horror cinema's irresistible dark glamour from the po-faced self-flagellations of fright flick slummers, from Peeping Tom to Funny Games. Instead, by looking at the "worst of the worst" - the extreme horror underground of faux snuff fetish flicks - and contrasting them with the possibility of genuine death, Petty suggests the possibility of a radical break between representations and the real.
Throughout the film, Petty contrasts his fictional S&Man with a handful of genuine "characters," all playing themselves. Most notably, the delightfully ineloquent and profane Bill Zebub, auteur behind such horror-inflected fetish stroke flick classics as Jesus Christ: Serial Rapist and Kill the Scream Queen. and the curiously frat-boyish Fred Vogel, the infamous director of intestinal fortitude tests known as the August Underground series. These scenes, part expose and part Spinal Tap-ish satire, are some of the most moving segments in the film. Aside from the gonzo, gross out humor, there are several moments that are genuinely chilling and, perhaps more powerfully, genuinely sad. The scene of Bill Zebub taking a long, drunken night to get a single scene of one of his horror/fetish flicks in the can is one of the best comedic scenes ever placed in a horror flick. With its perfect blend of condescension and compassion, cruel exactness and broad sympathy, it's the best statement about bad art since Burton's Ed Wood.
Thematically, these two filmmakers and their work serve as a counterpoint to the fictional Eric and his films. The anarchic slapstick bad taste orgies of Vogel - who brags with almost John Waterish joy that he's got an actress in his stable that can vomit on cue - and the painfully raw fetish salads of Zebub are displayed in noisy, energetic contrast to the long take, static set up minimalism of the flicks in the fictional S&Man film series.
The S&Man flicks are, actually, really dull. If it wasn't for the almost immediate tip of the hand that gave the dangerous aura of snuff cinema, they'd be memorable for their tediousness. By contrast, the z-grade flicks of Vogel and Zebub are busting with life. The action's hectic - Vogel's clips spill into the film like mutant Marx Bros segments, chaotic to the point of incomprehension and filled with fourth wall breaking bits - and often, once you get past the stomach churning aspects of them, quite silly. More importantly, they - the films and the filmmakers - are products of an artistic subculture. They are reacting to other works and artists, attempting to expand, undermine, or innovate the boundaries of the genre as they know it. In one telling scene, after learning that Vogel employs an actress who is a cutter and who cuts herself in his latest flick, we see get a clip of Zebub working some self-cutting into his latest work.
Though the pleasures, if that's what one calls them, of Vogel and Zebub's work are more extreme than most horror fans care for, the dynamic here is familiar and can be found throughout the genre. Horror is more than self-reflexive; it's a competitive sport. Horror filmmakers are constantly pushing the parameters of previous work in a game of artistic one-up-manship. And it's this relationship, this closed world, that Petty indicates as the source of the joys of horror films. Horror films are not about death or the release of the primal id or the need to psychically unburden one's troubled soul or the latest headlines and echo chamber politics; the joy of a good horror film comes from witnessing the art of the film. Humans respond with pleasure to the well crafted work of art. Thankfully for Vogel and Zebub, the definition of well crafted is pretty flexible. Still, Petty suggests the pleasure of horror spectatorship is located in witnessing the evolution of the subcultural form, of watching something embrace the norms we no and successfully exploit or innovate them.
Eric's work, quiet and seemingly unaware of the audience, is something more like outsider art. He's not a horror filmmaker. His work is about death. It doesn't belong to an artistic community, but belongs to the empty void of fact.
In a brilliantly illuminating role, Dr. Carol "Women and Chainsaws" Clover, playing herself, provides the film's academic gravitas. Seriously, as much as I question her thesis about the whole final girl thing, I could have watched another hour of Clover talkin' head footage: She's that articulate, effortlessly insightful, and genuinely invested in the topic of horror. Somebody shoot the Clover doc, pronto.
Of course, with a thesis that posits an impassable gap between the real and the fake, Petty paints himself into a corner: You can't have Eric the S&Man in the flick as the avatar of reality as you've just proposed that the real needs no avatars and an alleged avatars are, automatically, fakers. (When citing cases of "real horror" it is telling that Petty and Clover both cite instances of genuine violence that, curiously enough, were staged for video or still cameras.) Which I believe explains the somewhat unsatisfying end when Petty seemingly helps Eric off Petty's girlfriend in order to film the death. It's a jarring narrative contrivance, but I think it is meant to appear so. If Petty's right, Eric must end the film being dragged into the clear and unmistakable fictitiousness.