Monday, January 21, 2013
Movies: Half-way through the morning of the fourth day of the week after the 6-month anniversary of the second Tuesday after the Day of the Woman.
I Spit On Your Grave, the 1978 revanchist rape exploiter that also traffics under the somewhat deceptive label Day of the Woman, reads better than it plays. This is because, in conversation and in writing, you can filter all the problematic elements of the flick through a critical scrim that invests them with nuance, depth, and significance. In the moment, however, all vulgarity is experienced as the same thing. We can, for example, discuss how the film critiques its own violence, but before that we're all going to have to sit through a 20-minute long gang rape scene. Or, depending on your definition of "rape" and "scene," perhaps we're just watching four five-minute long rape scenes. Either way, it amounts to quite a bit of forced penetration, screaming, bruising, bleeding, and generally rapey unpleasantness. Later we can discuss themes and craft and whatnot, but the immediate experience is entirely present and needs no explanation. Later, we can cluck at the shoddiness of it all or put on our post-third wave feminism hats and deconstruct it, but the immediate experience is that we're watching a woman get raped for entertainment. The result is that ISOYGorDotW works like the opposite of a really good joke: it's better if you weren't there and somebody explains it to you.
The weirdest thing about ISOYGorDotW is that it is, simultaneously, better and worse than you've heard. The usual line for the film's defenders is that it is some primitivist feminist piece in which a victimized woman masters the very violence that subjugates her and turns the tables her patriarchal oppressors with extreme prejudice. This isn't a critical view so much as plot description with a politically correct escape hatch for those who consider themselves enlightened, but need to explain why they spent nearly a half hour of their life volunteering to watch four dudes take turns brutally raping a woman. For our purposes, the important thing about this standard take isn't its self-serving moral cowardice, but the fact that it is wrong. And not just wrong: wrong in such a way that obscures the few things worth discussing in the film.
Our main character, Jennifer Hills, a writer who has left the big city to finish her new book, is a plot device rather than a character. She exists in the story mainly to get raped by four locals - Johnny, Matthew Lucas, Stanley, and Andy - and be the conduit for their Old Testament style reckoning. Her history is a blank, her interactions with others (when not sexual or violent) are vapid, and her most characteristic expression, an affectless stare, suggests the defining shallowness of her as a concept. My initial reaction was to wonder if Jennifer's relentless nothingness was part of a larger strategy: perhaps director/writer Meir Zarchi meant her to be a sort of everywoman and thought he needed to scrub her of individual details so she could better serve as vessel of viewer identification. But that's not how the film feels to me. Compare Jennifer with the other protags: the four attackers. In contrast to Jennifer, the men have internal worlds. We see them negotiate their own emotions and the pecking-order style politics of their micro-community. They exhibit savagery and remorse, fear and desire, sexual confusion and even a weirdly primitive sense of justice. We're talking about a b-grade grindhouse flick, so I'm not saying these guys are a quartet of Henry James characters here. But compared to the not-a-person that is Jennifer, they are notably robust. To be fair, I'm willing to bet you've got furniture that exhibits more personality than Jennifer.
This imbalance reveals the wrong-headedness of the whole wishful feminist take on ISOYGorDotW. It's a movie by a dude about dudes. The story really is about four men who commit a crime and then pay for it. It isn't about female empowerment, but rather about the lines you don't cross and the fatal logic of the consequences. Jennifer is little more than a marionette the director yanks on to stage, gets dirty, and then manipulates into offing his central protagonists. This is why I prefer I Spit On Your Grave as the title: it is easy to imagine Meir Zarchi playing God an saying that directly to his flawed and transgressing creations. For Day of the Woman to make sense, a real woman would have to appear somewhere in the film.
This is why I say the flick is worse than you've heard: the feminist apology for it is pretty much BS and it is no friend to the ladies. If you were hoping for some sort of social value here, I think you're barking up the wrong tree. There's a reason exploitation cinema was called that. Let's just admit it.
So how is this movie better than you've heard? Once we get over trying to excuse it, there's some pleasingly strange things about the film. Vengeful-Jennifer is as blank as Victim-Jennifer, but she's an interesting blank. First, there's the strangely dispassionate way in which she goes about her business. You get the feeling that Jennifer is sleep walking through the whole thing, a sense that is strengthened by the increasing sense of unreality throughout the whole last quarter of the movie. Jennifer doesn't just kill her attackers, but seems to need to do so in very specific ways: for example, Jen actually passes up popping a cap in Johnny and ending it quick so that she can entangle him an unlikely sexual situation and then dispatch him. The illogic of it - forgoing the opportunity to gun him down when you've got him at your mercy in order to get into a situation where you're far more vulnerable and the whole thing could turn into a battle of strength he could easily win - is striking and never resolves into something reasonable. There's also post-rape Jen's weird use of sex as a weapon of revenge. The most common take on Jen's post-rape predatory sexuality is that she's luring her attackers into a false sense of dominance. Unfortunately, this makes no sense. The first time she plays siren, her victim is a mentally retarded man who really poses no threat to her anymore. This guy shows up ready to be her victim, the whole seduction seems strangely unnecessary. Then, in the scene in which seduces and cuts the john off Johnny, her use of her sexuality as a weapon only makes sense if you ignore the fact that she already had a perfect opportunity to kill Johnny and opted instead to get into a situation where using her sexuality would be necessary. Why? I don't have an answer. It's weird, right? Then there's the methods of murder. Jen has access to firearms, but she chooses again and again to dispatch her attackers in overly elaborate ways, often involving some heavy-handed visual pun. This tendency towards the pun is odd in that, outside of the context of the viewer watching the movie, the puns make no sense; that is to say, since nobody within the film except Jen and her attackers knows what happened (the whole film seems to take place in world without law enforcement), the punchline of these pun-based deaths would mean nothing to any other character in the film. They appear to be something Jen is specifically doing for the viewer of the film, without ever showing any "meta" awareness of being a character in a film.
Whether or not the curious way the movie spirals into a crooked semi-surreality will outweigh the unpleasantness of the first half of the film is a debate you'll have to have with yourself. I would like to propose the following though: when you watch, keep open the possibility in your mind that all of Jen's revenge is a fantasy on her part. She's supposed to be a writer, right? What if, just what if, she gets attacked, is helpless to avenge herself, and concocts a story of unnecessarily elaborate revenge killings? Her character never worries about leaving behind evidence for the police because she controls the story-world and she knows they're not ever coming. The puns behind the murders are for her, the viewer of her fantasy. Her willingness to toss aside good opportunities in favor of carrying out unnecessarily dangerous schemes makes sense if she is in charge of the story-world: she knows everything will work out for her. Finally, it explains the strange sense that the Jen we see is a sort of story-device/ghost, a tool for a story-teller to impose his/her logic on the story-world. I'm not saying this is "the answer" to the movie. Movies aren't riddles that can be solved. Not good ones anyway. I'm just suggesting it as an alternate way of looking at the flick. Let me know how that works out. I'm probably not seeing it again any time soon.