Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Torture porn.

This is gonna be it for today as my fingers are starting to hurt. (Note to self: not blogging for a week entails loss of manual stamina.)

Over here, Kira Cochrane, women's editor for the Guardian, claims that mainstream movies, particularly horror movies, are getting more violent and misogynistic. Methinks I have heard this argument before, dating back at least to the first Evil Dead movie (which I've never seen, actually; I've seen most of the first sequel and, of course, Army of Darkness). The way it's made is, however, extremely bad. She lumps together Hostel, Wolf Creek, Turistas, The Devil's Rejects and Grindhouse, claiming they all exhibit pointless and sexualized violence. She even calls them dehumanizing. She also cites a billboard campaign for an upcoming movie called Captivity, which apparently featured Elisha Cuthbert being progressively tortured and killed. She concludes by claiming that there's something wrong with calling the violence ironic or humorous.

(There's a couple of minor points that deserve mention. She blames Robert Rodriguez for the fact that in Sin City the women were basically either prostitutes or strippers, ignoring that Rodriguez was faithful to Frank Miller's original material, which was meant as an homage to pulp and noir. She claims that the Rapist Number One action figure (Tarantino's character in the Planet Terror segment of Grindhouse) is "for your kids", as if no adult would ever want to buy a toy version of a character that resembles a cult director. And only children buy the KISS dolls, too.)

There's many things wrong with the argument. First, as suggested above, this isn't new. Horror films have been blamed for misogynistic violence for a while. Society has yet to collapse. Draw your own conclusions.

Second, the films she mentions don't really go together. Grindhouse is a joke. No, really: it's just a joke. It's a tongue-in-cheek homage to a style of films that Rodriguez and Tarantino grew up watching. It has no plot to speak of, and the characters are completely flat. The whole point is long, elaborate set-ups for either shit to blow up real good (Planet Terror) or cars to go real fast (Death Proof). The trailers are also, entirely self-conscious, jokes. The Devil's Rejects is less of a joke, but still basically an homage. It's also, as I've blogged before [at least, I thought I had, but I can't find the post in my archives. Hmm...], really two movies in one: I don't think Rob Zombie could decide if he wanted to sympathetically treat his serial killer characters, or condemn them. Neither, though, fits as "torture porn". (I'll come back to the "irony" business in a bit.) I haven't seen the others, so can't really comment.

Third, she makes her points by overlooking the violence done against men. It does get a quick mention, but she tries to pass it off as "not sexualized". I dunno about that. The afore-mentioned Rapist Number One experiences some pretty gruesome damage to his genitalia: does that count? Furthermore, there isn't really a male parallel to rape; what, exactly, would count as sexualized violence equal to threatening a woman with rape? (Incidentally, to my recollection, both Grindhouse and The Devil's Rejects don't even imply rape, let alone depict it. At worst, it's threatened.)

And, finally, if you're out to horrify your audience -- and that's one meaning of "horror" -- threatening a female character, one that the audience sympathizes with, with rape is pretty good way to do it. (Unless your audience is the Manson Family or something, I suppose.) Taking Grindhouse, for example, I really wanted to see Tarantino's character get his ass kicked by Cherry (Rose McGowan) -- and he did, quite effectively. Similarly with Stuntman Mike in the Death Proof segment. Indeed, not only does Stuntman Mike bite it in the end, but he gets terrorized and then beaten to a pulp by three women whom he tried (and failed) to kill. Cochrane cites the many young, female victims depicted on CSI; but, assuming that she's right about the proportions, it just makes dramatic sense. Appealing to the chivalric impulses of the male audience strikes me as a pretty good way to build and keep an audience: they want to see the bad guy caught and get what he deserves.

Finally, the idea that there's something bad about being ironic about violence and death is highly obscure to me. If there were any way to connect the dots between these depictions and actually seeing violence as unimportant or morally permissible, then there might be sense to the claim. But, AFAIK, there's no connection ever been made. It's more likely, really, that the ironic distancing enhances the sense of unreality, the idea that what's being depicted on the screen is just fantasy, and would never be acceptable in reality.

So, what's wrong with sexualized violence against women? Far too much to mention. What's wrong with depicting it? Nothing that I can see, from a moral perspective. (Of course, you could make an aesthetic argument that such depictions are simply bad art. But that's not Cochrane's point.)

5 comments:

Adrian MacNair said...

What happens when you deconstruct B-movies to fit your feminist meme? Usually reveal more about yourself than the movies. Good rebuttal there, Adam.

ADHR said...

You think it was feminist in some way? I dunno. (Maybe I've been exposed to too much intelligent feminism to count something like this as "feminist".) I thought it was just standard hackish journalism.

If you Google "torture porn" or "gorno", you'll come across a number of fairly similar "critiques". It's part of the overall trend of moralistically decrying violent entertainment, which ebbs and flows over the past few years. Probably standard modernistic navel-gazing.

Personally, I tend to think Aristotle had it right: violence in entertainment is just another form of catharsis. (Those Greek tragedies are pretty brutal, after all.)

Closet Liberal said...

adhr makes my point for me in that Aristotle quote.

Here's the lengthy twisted version.

I have noticed that their has been an increase in horror/thriller/slasher movies lately. Many of these movies (according to their trailers anyway) appear to be very, very violent at levels unseen before. I find many of trailers themselves deeply disturbing. In any event, the trailers I remember seeing show male and female victims of horrific violence. Maybe the movies themselves differ, but somehow I doubt it.

Regardless of the fact that I will never see one of these movies, I'm not assigning blame to the studios or the directors making them.

There is an audience watching them, and this audience is approving of this material and through their box-office participation asking for more. Its a reaction to customer demand.

What that says about society today, well I'll leave that up to the individual. But it is filling a need, a need maybe created by the background anxiety many of us feel about the state of our climate/world etc. or maybe its just simple entertainment.

It perplexes me and others I have talked to about it. We have noticed an increase in the sadistic nature of many movies out today, and we have a hard time understanding the type of viewer attracted to these movies. But failure to understand the attraction does not mean it does not exist. The popularity of these movies (with men and women) is a reaction to society. It is not a creation out of the mind of sexist directors. Popular culture is not a cause, it's a symptom. Maybe if we question why the need exists, we might discover something about ourselves and any underlying anxieties permeating through western society.

ADHR said...

CL, I'm not totally sure I follow your point. Is the objection to all violence in entertainment (so, including Sophocles' tragedies, Shakespeare's histories, and so on)? Or to the level of violence in current popular entertainment?

From my perspective, I maintain still that it's cathartic to see horrific, terrifying images. We all have dreads and fears, to varying extents, and seeing them realized does, in some sense, discharge or relieve them. Keep in mind that many of these films (not all, but many) resolve with bad people getting punished and good people surviving.

Closet Liberal said...

adhr.

I don't explain myself very well, I know. I'll try to condense.

I'm not objecting to the depictions of violence. I agree that many may find it cathartic.

But I, and some of my peers have noticed an increase in the sadistic level of violence in current films. That part I agree with Kira Cochrane on. I feel that the violence is there as a reaction to the popular following it currently enjoys. Its in a self-feeding escalating cycle right now. Directors/Writers are encouraged to keep pushing the envelope of acceptable levels of violence and gore, and moviegoers keep lapping it up asking for more.

Rather than decrying the collapse of social mores or blaming the filmmakers for creating torture porn, we would be better served to discover the underlying motives that are making this type of film popular. Not as a problem to be "fixed" but as a means to discover the mental state of society right now.

If it is cathartic, why do we need the catharsis? Because of anxiety over the war on terror, dire warnings about climate change, the increasing marginalization of traditional authority figures? If we can answer that question, and the answer is related to unease and fear, then we can potentially find the means to allay the concerns.

Well, so much for the condensed version..... Did I clear that up for you?