Sunday, October 11, 2009

Inglourious Gorno: An essay of sorts on violence and the movies

SPOILER WARNING - There are some spoilers in here so if you are yet to see either Inglourious Basterds, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction or Funny Games then you might want to think twice about reading on.

Empire magazine gave the film Saw, four stars out of a possible five, and said of the second instalment, “Morally dubious it may be, but this gory melange of torture, terror and darkly humorous depravity appeals to the sick puppy within us all.” It says a great deal about us and just how sick that puppy is that Saw VI is scheduled for release on 23rd October. Saw is perhaps the flag bearer for a group of films which showcase what has been called torture-porn or gorno. Eli Roth is one of the directors who have brought this kind of stuff to the multiplex with the movies Cabin Fever and Hostel. In its unfavourable review of Hostel II Empire explains the sub-genre like this - “Gratuitous, guts-out, rooted in ’70s exploitation, gorno digs its fears out of lingering pain, voyeuristic camerawork, unblinking edits and a soft spot for novelty mutilations.” Business is booming too with Hostel making $20 million dollars in its opening weekend and the Saw franchise having taken hundreds of millions worldwide. Hostel III is in the works and decisions have already been made to make a Saw VII.

My friend Fraser likes to ask conversation sparking questions and one that accompanied us on a recent car journey was about film and the extreme. How much can we, should we take? How much gorno should we consume? And might over-indulgence be hurting our souls?

I love story and film and like to think that I’m an open-minded kind of guy who has sympathies with the idea that if you haven’t seen it you can’t really comment on it. And I like to comment. So when something comes along with a lot of buzz and hype, my interest gets perked to see what the fuss is all about. That’s perhaps what you call being duped by the marketing but I am going to try and pass it off as evidence of an insatiably curious mind...and see if anybody is fooled. These are the excuses I will give for having seen Saw, Hostel and half of Cabin Fever. I hasten to add that I watched them on TV - that I didn’t pay money to see death depicted on screen makes me feel better about myself for no rational reason.

Even the barely observant will notice that I just made an excuse for watching these films. Why do I feel the need? First of all, they are poor films. I did watch Saw to the end to see how it would all finish up but was amazed by how thin the plot for Hostel was. Thankfully Eli Roth does show some mercy by only keeping the thing going for 90 minutes. It has been suggested that torture-porn can be seen as exposing the horrors of the Guantanamo/Extraordinary Rendition world we live in but I find that pretty unconvincing. I think this is core to my feelings about violence in film – Is it saying something? Is there a purpose? Is there a story? Or is this all just gratuitous? In the absence of such qualities these films just become an excuse to watch ugliness. Subjective stuff? You betcha.

In support of showing the reality behind the gunshot wound or the decapitation or the scalping let me make one point. Like the insipid pop which markets consequence-free ‘zig a zig ah’ sex, the big blockbusters consistently fail to show the bloody results of violent acts in an effort to have their action-filled cake but also eat their PG13 sized opening weekends. They are like A Team episodes where BA will riddle the bad guys’ car with bullets ensuring that it flies up in the air and rolls down a ravine of some sort...only for the driver and his passenger to crawl out with barely a scratch and grunt, “You okay?” Jett Loe of The Film Talk, making particular reference to the Transformers films says, “Those films are like pollution.” If we want to watch violent action on our screens we should be prepared to see it in all its horrible reality. That doesn’t necessarily get us to graphic gore but it should see death and destruction less casually dished out. Otherwise we are telling potentially dangerous lies. One reaction would be to say that there is enough violence in the world without having it in movies so we should just tell other stories. My response is that film is an important way of dealing with, making sense of and telling the truth about the world in which we live. Removing the violence from our stories would limit them to sugary escapism and removing the blood from our violence fails to take its consequences seriously. But when that horror is what we are being entertained by we have to ask big questions of ourselves.

The second reason I think I need a reason (or two), and what we need to think about if we are saying that graphic violence might be legitimised by meaning, is whether the level of violence in these particular films is such is almost by definition gratuitous. It could never be necessary/positive/good to show these things, could it? The Passion of the Christ is a useful example to throw up given the violence that was put on display in what was hailed as a ‘Christian’ film – violence that was the point, violence that was the message. Was it justified? Did it have a place? To think about these questions I am going to discuss two films I have seen recently – Inglourious Basterds and Funny Games. A lot of on-line reading has helped me make sense of my thoughts on these two films and you will see me draw on the words of others to express them. I found two websites particularly helpful – The Film Talk and The House Next Door.

Quentin Tarantino is something of a polarizing figure and the two ways in which people view Inglourious Basterds, his latest film ostensibly about a group of Jewish-American soldiers fighting guerrilla style behind enemy lines, are perhaps examples of the two wider perspectives from which his work is viewed. Either Inglourious Basterds is about wish fulfilment, about how cool it would be to kill Nazis and how cool it is to watch them die, what Eli Roth, who stars in the film, calls “kosher porn”, OR it asks the following questions of its audience – Is revenge actually a brutal business regardless of your motive? And are you actually enjoying watching these characters get so graphically executed? In one scene, Tarantino juxtaposes a cinema full of Nazis manically laughing at a film featuring the seemingly endless killing of allied soldiers by a German sniper (Tellingly or coincidentally directed by Eli Roth) with the cinema you, the audience, are sitting in when people start laughing at the violence that is then unleashed. He is certainly not saying that executing figures of Nazi evil as happens on screen is comparable to their crime of genocide but is he showing that there is a moral cost to vengeance? Is he asking questions about the enjoyment we get from watching such events unfold? Does Tarantino have something to say about violence in film or does he just think it’s cool? And if his graphic violence says something does that legitimise his use of it? Or not?

Lt. Aldo Raine: We will be cruel to the Germans, and through our cruelty they will know who we are. The German will be sickened by us, the German will talk about us, and the German will fear us.

The same questions of meaning are brought up when Jeffrey Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss his first film as a director, Reservoir Dogs. Of the three way shootout in that movie Howard says, “This is the dead end that the image of the movie tough guy inevitably leads to, and those Tarantino characters who cannot escape such cinematic touchstones, who cannot imagine a life beyond their genre stereotypes, inevitably wind up dead.” But, echoing many others, Bellamy responds by completely disagreeing, “Not at all. Instead, I believe that QT thinks the three-way shootout is cool, and so he wants to do one, and that's that.” Does he have something to say or is it all about Tarantino’s definition of cool? This song is cool. That director was cool. This situation is cool. This actor is cool. This violence is cool.

Gareth Higgins of The Film Talk (And Northern Ireland!) thinks Tarantino is making a statement with Inglourious Basterds about the innate tastelessness of cinematic depictions of war. But how could this be what Tarantino, of all people, is suggesting? He was executive producer on Hostel. He helped write the script. He made Kill Bill! He had Vincent Vega shoot Marvin IN THE FACE by accident in Pulp Fiction because he thought it would be funny! This kind of scene is the reason why another reviewer, Matt Zoller Seitz (admittedly before the release of Inglourious Basterds) wrote that, “Tarantino has no feelings about violence at all, apart from appreciating its usefulness in jazzing people up or getting a character from Point A to Point B. ... I don’t think he understands the weight of violence, the long-term ramifications of it, otherwise he wouldn’t make it so graphic and so lightweight at the same time.” It would certainly be difficult to watch Tarantino’s films and suggest that he didn’t think that there was a lot of fun to be had from violence. So Howard seems to be stating the obvious when he suggests that Inglourious Basterds, “represents Tarantino really embracing his contradictions”.

My thought is that Tarantino is saying that violence has a cost, that vengeance and ‘victory’ is a messy, bloody business but, when it comes to the ethics of the voyeur, these issues about the enjoyment we draw from watching the violent, I think he is less making statements and more playing with questions. He is serious about these questions and he wants his audience to seriously consider them. But I don’t think he offers a fixed answer of his own. Howard seems to get it bang on for me when he writes, “I think this is part of what Tarantino's after, getting his audience to a point where they're not sure what to feel.”

So if we suggest that Tarantino has some things to say and some question to ask - is the gore necessary and therefore legitimised? Well, in a sense it is necessary, yes. Because of the way in which Tarantino wants to ask us the question. Because he wants to catch us in a laugh or with a flicker of torture-porn ‘yee-haw, we’s a killin’ Nat-zis!’ excitement in our bellies. He wants to ask us the question when we are up to our elbows in cookie jar. For Higgins, there is more too. He says, “By making this violence so absurd it makes the cruelty of the Nazis seem crueller than ever before and it makes war itself seem messier.”

And so to Funny Games...a real emotional wringer of a film where we see an upper middle class family have their home invaded and their lives brutally torn apart.

Paul: You can see it in the movie right?
: Of course.
: Well then she's as real as reality because you can see it too. Right?
: Bullshit.
Paul: Why?

With this exchange in his movie Funny Games, I wonder if Michael Haneke is making us complicit in the crimes we watch perpetrated by his two well dressed young psychos, Peter and Paul. By paying our, probably exorbitant ticket price, we have on some level given the two intruders a license to torture, terrify and kill. We are allowing this to happen, we paid for it to happen. Why do we want to watch this? There are many, many differences between Haneke and Tarantino as filmmakers, with Tarantino probably being exactly the kind of director Haneke’s Funny Games sermon is targeted at, and though the questions they pose with these films are arguably similar, their approach could scarcely be more different.

Crucial to our discussion regarding what it is necessary to see, is Haneke’s refusal to show much in the way of gore at all. His violent acts are supreme in their cruelty but they take place out of shot. It is the reaction of his characters’, the anguished victims not the disaffected perpetrators, which convey the barbarity of what has taken place. Nor does he allow for any kind of cathartic, vengeful actions, perhaps suggesting that that is the way of our world (that evil rarely reaps the whirlwind) or maybe simply refusing to grant us what he knows we want. As if to underline his point, the one moment of revenge/justice is the only graphic violence we really see but as suddenly as we were granted it, it is taken away from us again. Both directors flip things around on us, show us what we were not expecting and ask us why it is that we enjoy this kind of thing but Tarantino would never, as Howard puts it, “assume a Michael Haneke-style moralist position and castigate his audience for enjoying the film”. Tarantino wants us to enjoy his film but perhaps be a little uncomfortable with that enjoyment, Haneke wants to make us suffer. Tarantino is asking the questions, Haneke is making the statements.

Interestingly the marketing for both films suggested that they would be exciting, thrilling and shocking – with Tarantino calling Basterds, a “rip-roaring adventure”, a “Move back in time, away from a depiction of the victimisation of the war”. Now, if you are going to get an audience for your questions this is probably the way to go about it and because the studio is gasping for the audience’s cash this is how they will always want to go about it. But this seemingly inevitable approach to marketing means, particularly in the case of Tarantino’s film, that you are probably making it even easier for people to completely miss the point. They will buy in to this idea of so called Jewish wish fulfilment, enjoy the thrills and see it as kosher porn. Throughout the writing of this post I have been reminded of a scene from yet another movie, Jarhead. A packed room full of marines are watching the Ride of the Valkries scene from Apocalypse Now, a scene about the madness of war in a movie about the madness of war, and yet the marines are cheering and howling and punching the air with their fists, enjoying the explosions and baying for Vietcong blood. When you take the approach of condemning, or in the case of Tarantino questioning, the enjoyment of graphic violence in film by showing graphic violence you may just find yourself entertaining people, your questions lost in the adrenaline rush of gunshots. You are, after all, to paraphrase an on-line reviewer called Anton Bitel, assailing what you also embody.

Anna: Why don't you just kill us?
Peter: [smiling] You shouldn't forget the importance of entertainment.

Violence has a place in cinema and there will be times when this will require a sticker somewhere on the box to warn of scenes of a graphic nature. When that violence is thoughtfully used by a director intending to say something or question something I think it can be, not just legitimate, but important. It is when violence is trivialised or glorified that we find ourselves in dangerous places. I wonder if the reason, both what is intended and what is understood, behind the violence is more significant than the levels of actual gore. But directors tempted to push the boundaries need to show maturity about how they choose to tell their stories and make their cases. And when violence is being used to examine its own use particular caution is needed. Dangling us off the side of the cliff to show us how close we are to falling off is probably not all that effective – we’re getting used to the view from the edge by now so you’re at risk of doing nothing more than leaving us closer to the drop.

Lt. Aldo Raine: Actually, Werner, we're all tickled to hear you say that. Frankly, watchin' Donny beat Nazis to death is the closest we ever get to goin' to the movies.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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