Friday, March 30, 2007

Torture Porn

There's a billboard for the upcoming movie Captivity that's made a bit of fuss lately. The billboard, showing Elisha Cuthbert in various stages of torture and eventual death, was prominently displayed along major highways and in front of elementary schools in California. The artwork angered many people(of course!) and prompted several Internet petitions to punish the filmmakers. It turns out the MPAA denied approval to the billboard images when first approached about them, but the studio went ahead anyway, meaning the MPAA could now revoke the film's rating. In effect this means the film would not get a major theatrical release, since -although the MPAA ratings are voluntary and have no legal binding- no theater chain is going to play an unrated film. Of course this is probably what the filmmakers intended, and indeed on the film's website they're already using complaints as advertising. Still, a removal of a rating would deal a strong financial blow; as big as the video market is, it's still preferable to get your film into a theatre.

Normally I oppose any form of censorship, even regarding things that push the envelope past the point of my own enjoyment(it would help to keep in mind my previous post where I admit to actively tracking down and watching a movie about a man killing people with his several yards long penis), yet I completely support this move. First off, it's all well and good to have some completely insane, misogynistic, hateful content in a movie, where people have to choose and pay to see it, but it's another to sucker punch people who have no desire to see this stuff. There's a pro-life organization here in Anchorage that recently began driving around a truck with images of aborted fetuses on it, solely to show people what abortion does. I agree abortion is detestable(despite being pro-choice), but the truck is just unforgivable; I can only imagine my 3 year old daughters reaction if I happened to pull up next to this thing at a stoplight. My point being that there are better ways to announce your position/product in a way that informs potentially interested parties without disregarding common decency. Secondly; I have officially had enough of torture porn. Not only is it a disgusting and mostly meritless sub genre of horror, it says some disturbing things about our society.

In the commentary track for Titus(an excellent Shakespeare adaptation), director Julie Taymor recounts a problem she had with the MPAA while presenting the film for rating. The violence(Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare's most notoriously violent work) apparently didn't bother them, but a sex scene did. Apparently she had to trim it down, because under MPAA guidelines you can show 1.5 pelvic thrusts on film with an R rating, any more and you get yourself an NC-17(for those not in the know, such a rating would limit a film's distribution almost as much as no rating at all). How bizarre is that? That the line between what the MPAA views as art and what they view as pornography is so arbitrary... and distressingly specific. I see this as an indication of a very upsetting trend in American society.

The problem with censorship is that it doesn't really stop anything. Banning explicit sex from public consumption doesn't mean people all of a sudden lose their appetite for pornography, it just gives them incentives to work around these roadblocks, and in many ways makes things much worse. Take Japan, for example; the censorship laws are so strict and draconian it's led to the creation of an entirely new genre; tentacle porn. You see, in Japan you cannot show male or female genitalia or pubic hair, so inventive perverts began using things that LOOKED like penises, the most popular of which is the tentacles of any number of demons aliens or monsters. Not only this, but the things you CAN show in Japanese pornography are so much worse than what you CAN'T show. Apparently a vagina could destroy the fabric of society, but rape? Bestiality? Feces and urination? Vomit? All of them at once(trust me)? All of these are perfectly acceptable, and prevalent, in Japanese pornography. This is a perfect example of following the rules so closely you forget the point, and I fear it's an extreme example of what's happening currently in America.

How bizarre it is that showing two people giving each other pleasure is so forbidden in our society, but we accept and in many cases reward showing people doing violence to each other. This disparity has led to the advent of what many are calling 'torture porn', movies that are based around, obviously, torture, and frequently rape. It's a very misogynistic sub genre where the majority of victims are female, and the torture is frequently coupled with uncomfortable sexual overtones. When you punish sexuality and reward violence, it leads to a shifting of priorities, and the violence becomes sexual, fetishized. Without actual intercourse, people need a release for all this built up desire and energy, and in many films it manifests violently. Spurting jugulars and sliced tendons are the new orgasms, giving a very literal meaning to the term 'torture porn'. This is our new pornography.

That's not to say there aren't a few films that succeed in this genre. I personally feel that Hostel is a great horror film, and has much more to say than most fans probably realize. Where Hostel succeeds is that it realizes the problem with fetishized violence, and juxtaposes the first half of horny tourists cruising red light districts and brothels for sex with a very similar setting in which rich businessmen pay to torture and kill people. The way these young men discuss and treat women in the beginning of the film is not that different from how they are treated in the last half. Add to that a few little tweaks to the genre that add an interesting dimension to the proceedings, and you get a film light years beyond it's current contemporaries. However, this cultural discussion is not apparent in almost any other film of the genre(despite what the filmmakers would like you to believe). Take The Hills Have Eyes, which is a remake of a film that I have to admit I was never a big fan of. The new one is a far inferior film, and completely tasteless. What was originally a grim, gritty, realistic piece of revenge cinema became even more soulless when coupled with the flashy MTV imagery of today. On top of this, I have to say I don't think rape belongs in horror. It may sound odd to say-what could be more horrific than rape?- but it's true. What horror does is offer an escape, a chance to explore and exploit our fears(and in some cases desires), but all while knowing it's a fantasy. As soon as you add rape to the mix, it becomes real. We know this happens, we know this is horrible, and all it does is make the rest of the proceedings look crass and truly exploitative. It's also used to often as cinematic shorthand to upset an audience, but my experience with those who enjoy these movies seems to be that they are completely immune to any emotions involved here. All I hear is how cool and brutal these films are, when all they do is depress me.

And it's not the gore(believe me, I enjoy me a good splatter flick), it's the content. Or rather, it's what it says about where we as a society are heading. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre originally came out a few years before I was born, meaning that we now have two generations who have been raised around these films, where violence and sex are so tightly interwoven. And I am totally understanding of the attitude. I get a bit uncomfortable when a graphic sex scene comes up in a movie I'm watching with my girlfriend, and yet have no problem sitting through some bloody gun fights. My problem is, as I've stated, with how the violence in these torture movies has become so sexual. And I don't think the answer is more censorship, and I don't believe the answer is less censorship. This isn't a case of violence in movies causing violence in real life, I do think it's the other way around. What I think it means is that we, as a society, need to reevaluate our priorities and discuss why we react this way to sex and violence.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Pros and Cons of Bad Movies

This past week I watched a few bad movies, but none of them on our weekly movie night(which, this week, contained no movies). Still, a few words should be said about each of them.

The first film I watched was Soul Vengeance, a film that even my heartiest bad movie watching friends would be daunted by. I had to view it alone because no one would consent to watching it with me. Soul Vengeance(also known as Welcome Home Brother Charles) is pretty typical of mid-70s blaxploitation; Charles(Marlo Monte, in his only film credit) is arrested, beaten(nearly castrated) by the cops, and sent to prison for 3 years only to come out with the unexplained ability to hypnotize white women and kill their husbands with his penis, which he can now grow to several yards long.

Wait, what was that last part?

Yes, the sole attraction of this movie is a shocking couple of scenes involving Charles exacting his revenge by choking white dudes with his penis. The problem, if that's all your after, is that the scenes don't appear until over an hour into this hour and a half long movie, and they're so truncated(shut it!) and the movie ends so abruptly that your left... oh god... unsatisfied. Look, I'm really trying to avoid sexual euphemisms here, but there's only so much I can do. But yes, the scenes(actually, one in particular) are jaw-droppingly(shush!) outrageous, and thoroughly disgusting even if they aren't very realistic looking.

However, as I said, the scenes are short(timewise, anyway), and don't appear until the end of the movie, so how does the rest of the film fare? Well, good and bad. I know it's a cop-out, but it's true. If your a fan of the genre, the movie is nothing new, but pretty well done anyway, as these things go. If your not a fan of the genre, you may want to just fast forward until the points of interest come up. The movie begins with a more complex flashback structure than you may expect, showing Charles threatening to leap from a rooftop while the cops bring in a woman to talk him down. It then jumps back to show Charles being arrested and nearly castrated, where it jumps back again to show just why the cop is so angry at him. It then jumps forward to show Charles in prison(a montage of mainly black and white photos showing Charles thoughtful and tortured, psychologically speaking), and then moves fairly chronologically. There's more than a few instances of the director trying to be artsy in this film, and doesn't all work, but it's a welcome addition nonetheless.

So why is the cop so mad at Charles that he'd try to castrate him in the back of his police vehicle? On a stakeout observing the drug dealing habits of our hero, the cop witnesses a beautiful white woman arrive for a booty call. The problem is it's the cop's wife! And here ensues one of the most ridiculous scenes in moviedom. On his way to beat down Charles, the cop is called away by a bomb threat at the airport. Here the director intercuts a sex scene between Charles and the cop's wife with shots of the cop defusing a bomb in a suitcase on the tarmac. At just the right climactic moment we see the woman orgasm, the cop fall over, spent from defusing the bomb, and planes take off symbolically. Genius. Pure genius.

I have to admit a fondness for mid-70s exploitation flicks. They offer a rarefied example of filmmakers working on their own terms. As crappy as a lot of these movies are(and they can be AWFUL crappy), they represent people scraping together movies that they want to do, on their terms. I have to admire that no matter how bad the result. And, to be honest, this one isn't too bad. Or maybe it is, and I'm just good at finding the entertainment value in crap.

A movie that is too bad to admire, despite being another example of people scraping together a movie on more or less their own terms, is the 1982 shocker Parasite. Parasite is a post-apocalyptic film about a scientist fleeing a corrupt government with a pair of parasites he created. One in a container, the other in his chest. He can't kill the one in the jar because he needs it to find out how to kill the one in his chest without killing himself in the process. He holes up in a nearly deserted town to do his research, but finds himself pursued by a government agent. It sounds promising, but it's actually fairly standard and exceedingly boring, directed by Charles Band, son of Albert Band, who I mentioned before when discussing Zoltan. Charles Band is a director of such talent that he took a film with Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man and the Mummy, and cast them all as midgets, and managed to suck almost all the fun out of the proceedings. I know I usually don't do this, but I'm warning people to stay away. There is absolutely nothing to recommend Parasite. There's nudity, but no real attractive people. There's gore, but nothing that looks like anything more than raspberry jelly. There's a Stan Winston effect, but it's pretty weak considering this was the same year he worked on The Thing, and nothing here matches even his earlier work.

The best example of the quality of this film I can make are a pair of bloopers. At one point a character mentions he's going 'out back' to turn on the generator, but then goes downstairs to the basement. And when a gang member is infected by one of the parasites, they refer to it as 'that thing on his arm' despite the fact that it's clearly on his chest. Maybe they aren't the biggest mistakes ever made, but they are indicative of the feeling that no one, not even the filmmakers, can gather the energy to care about this piece of crap. Maybe if the DVD was in 3-D, as it was shown in the early eighties, there would be something to recommend this film. As it stands, steer clear.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A Stranger Among the Living

Every now and then you just need a change of pace. Such was what happened at this last movie night, where we decided to watch the original Carnival of Souls, which is an actual GOOD movie. Completely unlike most of the stuff we watch at our weekly get-togethers. It's a movie I alone in our group had seen, like so many of the films we watch, but what're you gonna do? At the very least this is allowing me an opportunity to rewatch films I probably wouldn't normally get around to.

I first saw Carnival Of Souls a few years back, at 4am, alone in my apartment, and it made quite an impression as it left me deeply unsettled. It's one of those movies that I've since recommended to any horror fan that I come across, and sitting down to watch it with friends I was initially worried that I had hyped it up too much; both to friends and in my own mind. I was worried that the film would come out as a hokey product of the sixties, unscary and fairly square in it's attempts at surreal horror. I was, then, pleasantly surprised to find the movie just as effective as I remembered, and equally enjoyed by my friends. It's always an important part of any movie watching experience that the group around you enjoys it just as much as you do. A large part of my enjoyment the second time around came whenever I'd notice someone jump or shiver. No small feat for a slow moving movie with none of the hallmarks of what constitutes a horror movie these days(IE: no quick edits, loud musical cues or gore).

The thing that sticks with you after watching this movie is it's moody, dreamlike quality throughout, helped by it's soundtrack, which would probably be grating to anyone who doesn't like organ music. Aside from being a mood setter, the music serves a practical purpose as well, since the heroin, Mary Henry(Candace Hilligoss), is an organist for a local church(although her hand movements never seem to match up to what we hear). When we first meet her she's in a car with 2 female friends, drag racing. An accident on a bridge sends the car into a river and leaves her the only survivor. We don't get to see anything of her life before the crash, but we can assume the accident plays a large part in why she seems so antisocial and dislocated from people around her. It can also be assumed that it plays the same part in why she has chosen to leave her hometown and move somewhere else.

In this new town, Mary tries to start her life over, renting a room from a slightly loony old lady and getting a job in a new church. Far from solving anything, Mary Henry's problems become much worse in her new surroundings. She finds herself falling into weird states where she is literally disconnected from the world around her; unable to hear or communicate with other people. She's also plagued by visions of a ghoulish man and an abandoned carnival just outside of town where dead drowning victims(subtext alert!) rise to dance.

The dislocation sequences, while both eery and unsettling, serve to reinforce the theme of avoidance and misanthropy; traits Mary exhibits at every turn. She's sarcastic and dismissive of every person who approaches her. Perhaps the person who gets the worst of this is John Linden(Sidney Berger, whose only other film credit is the in-name-only remake of this film), her neighbor across the hall. It's hard to feel too bad for him, because he is a slimeball who seems to want nothing more than to get into Mary's skirts, but she does treat him pretty badly. Their first meeting is brief, as she shoves him quickly away from her door. However, the next morning, after some scares in the night, she eagerly invites him in when he arrives with coffee. At first she's grasping out for human contact, but watch how her humor only REALLY improves as she insults and mocks him without his knowing. She may not be the most respectable female character in movies, but Mary Henry is a more fully realized and layered person than one would expect from a horror movie of this era, in a genre not exactly known for it's realistic portrayal of women.

There's a twist at the end that I wont spoil, though it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who's watched many Twilight Zone episodes, but I just try and imagine what seeing it would have been like in 1962. Even if you discount the ending, though, the film remains a creepily effective gem, with some great, spooky cinematography and intriguing camera angles. It's made all the more impressive when you see that the director's previous(and many of his subsequent) works were all educational/industrial films such as 'Why Study Home Economics?', 'Exchanging Greetings and Introductions', and 'To Touch a Child'. Don't worry, that last one isn't about pedophilia, it's about changing kid's lives through after school activities. Again, not about pedophilia.

This film's reputation has been built up by hardcore horror aficionados over the years due to an urban legend surrounding the lead actress Candace Hilligoss. It was said that appearing in this film scarred her so badly she quit showbiz and was sent to a mental institution. While it's true that she only has one film credit AFTER Carnival of Souls, she remained a stage actress, and even jump started the godawful remake, although her actual input was never actually used for the movie. You can read a fairly informative(if you've seen both movies) and frank interview with her here.

There's a bunch of cheap versions of this movie floating around, since the movie has fallen into the public doman, and the quality isn't that bad as far as those things go. I would suggest watching it that way first, since you can probably buy it for not much more than the price of a rental, but if you like it, I suggest you go for the pricier, far superior Criterion edition, which is not only a cleaner print, but longer by about 5 minutes.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Go With The Flow?

Another year, another Superbowl, another flurry of FCC complaints. It's odd to think about, but the FCC would, once upon a time, receive fewer than 200 complaints a year. In 2000 the total number of complaints was 111. The number rose quite a bit over the next few years to 166,683(resulting, actually, in less than half the number of fines). Things REALLY got going in 2004, when the number jumped to 1,405,419. February alone had 200,000 complaints filed with the FCC. Those of you with decent memories will recognize that as the month that millions of arm-char quarterbacks sat up and said 'did I just see a nipple?' Yes, it was Janet Jackson's infamous Superbowl appearance where her outfit 'malfunctioned' and gave people a flash of nipple. I actually saw the event, which is surprising because I never watch football. And yes, I was instantly aware that a nipple had been revealed, but it was more the realization that it had happened; I didn't actually register seeing anything.

Still, it was enough to shock and anger the entire country. Or so we're led to believe. Certainly it was all over the news, and it was used by any number of christian extremists to prove a point about the end of days and how God will smite us all, but do YOU remember being upset? Do you, does anyone, actually believe that a flash of breast is enough to warp an entire society? I believe the majority of people watching that day were probably surprised and a little amused, but far from angered. In fact, according to the complaints found on the Smoking Gun(who did everyone a favor and paid the FCC for the transcripts of over 1,500 of them), the majority of complaints came only AFTER various 'pro-family' organizations petitioned church groups to complain. I would assume that many of these complaints were form letters church groups printed out and had their congregation send in. Certainly many of these complaints(find them here) have a repetitious feel, many of the same talking points trotted out.

I don't mean to imply everyone angered by the incident is a nutball. Some of the letters make good points, or are well stated, and some of them even show a functional reading/writing level over the 6th grade level. But not many.

This year's Superbowl had Prince, who one would imagine is even riskier a proposition than Janet Jackson. However he's recently turned over a new leaf and has even been self-censoring the sexuality inherent in his earlier songs when he plays them in concert. However, one look at his giant penis guitar seems to have made a few people nervous.

This schtick is nothing new. Prince isn't the first, or even the most shocking example, of a guitar being used as a phallic metaphor, but apparently viewers want their homo-eroticism to stay on the field where it belongs, not in their half time show. It's quite interesting what people claim to have seen in this performance, making it a bizarre Rorschach test. You can read a few of the complaints here, but I have to quote this one, and I nominate this guy as worst parent ever.

"During Prince's rendition of Purple Rain, which I think is a really great song, there seemed to be a shadow puppet of his (penis). The sheet? that was the backdrop seemed to be (stained?) with something (semen?) My children were watching and now I have to explain to them what a wet spot is on a cum covered sheet. Thanks CBS"

Those poor, traumatized kids. They'll have nightmares tonight. Still, they receive slightly LESS sympathy than this guys kids get. Keep in mind I have changed nothing, all spelling and syntax are as they appear in this guys complaint.

"It was obscene to show Prince, a HOMOSEXUAL person through a sheet, as to show his siluette while his guitar showed a very phalic symbol coming from his below-midrif section. I am very offended and I would preffer not to have showed it to my 4 children who love football. One of them has hoped to be a quarterback and now he will turn out gay. I am actually considering to check him for HIV. Thanks CBS for turning my son GAY."

This guy might actually be on to something. I've always found the level of homo-eroticism in the NFL games to be slightly disconcerting, and his son probably is gay. To quote from King Missile: "sports are always gay, because afterwards your showering with other guys, and that's gay."

There were also a few outrageous complaints about that Snickers ad that featured to men eating a Snickers bar from opposite ends a la Lady and The Tramp, only to find their lips lock. The ad has since been pulled amid all the complaints, but really it wasn't as offensive as many seem to think. If the FCC complaints are anything to go by, CBS was apparently airing gay porn instead of the Superbowl(not to belabor the point, but really, how could you tell the difference?).

All humor aside, the problem with this is that the FCC doesn't actually watch or monitor this stuff. They go by only what people complain about. Enough complaints and they investigate, and then penalize the networks held responsible. And of course no one calls the FCC to talk about when something pleases them, or when they aren't bothered by something. So, due to this, we've allowed a comparatively small segment of our population to force it's way into the mainstream through our complacency. It's the same segment of our population that has let Wal-Mart get away with destroying third world countries and has given Kirk Cameron and Casper Van Dien a career way past the point at which they should have been turning tricks for crack money.

So I ask you, any of you reading this, to take part in what I've started to do; Every once in awhile, fill out the FCC complaint form(conveniently linked to HERE) and just let them know that you've surveyed the television landscape and found everything fine just the way it is. Or better yet complain when you see something that promotes the right wing christian ideology to the point of being offensive to YOUR beliefs, or call them and complain whenever Elisabeth Hasselbeck on the View says something like "I believe that life begins at the moment of penetration" or "if the government wants to listen in on my phone calls it's okay by me!" Having her as a television personality on such a highly viewed show is MUCH more dangerous than a flash of nipple.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Dead End Indeed

With my recent paring down to only one job, I'm finding myself with a lot more free time on my hands than I used to have. With a young daughter at home, I'd find myself working all day and then trying to stay awake for an hour or two a night to spend time with my family. But now, without that second, hideous job, I'm home all day, every day(my remaining job is at night). Most of that time is spent doing parental stuff with the little one, but there's a few hours a day, during nap time, mainly, where I find myself with no real obligations, and a large stack of DVDs. I'm averaging a movie a day, which is nowhere near my pre-child average of 2-3, but still more than I've viewed in 3 years. The thing is, during that 3 years of minimal movie watching, I still collected DVDs left and right. Some were movies I loved theatrically, others were films I remembered from pre-DVD days, and some were just gifts or impulse purchases. The common thread was that I rarely got a chance to watch them. I believe I stated once that I'm a consumer.
One of these movies was Dead End Run, a Japanese film I was given by a friend who had it double shipped in an Internet order(the site he ordered from told him not to worry about returning it, for you goody-too-shoes out there) about a year ago. This makes it a fairly recent addition to the stack. The film was an official release, but the Japanese version, so I had no idea what it was about, since I can't read very much Japanese. Still, it boasted a starring role by Tadanobu Asano, who was the bright point of the very dark Ichi The Killer, and great in the little seen Survive Style 5+(PLEASE someone import this movie NOW!!!), so I popped it into the DVD player.

The movie turned out to be an anthology of three short films, all centered around people running, eventually into a dead end. Not a metaphorical dead end, mind you, a literal dead end. The problem -as I've noticed in every Japanese anthology film I've seen- is that the shortened running time means all traces of back story gets excised. In all but one of the shorts there is no explanation as to who, or what, the person is running from. This makes it very hard to care about the proceedings. Unfortunately that wasn't the only flaw.

The first film, entitled The Last Song, starts with nearly ten minutes of an unnamed man running. Running down streets, near train tracks, down alleys, and down more streets. The camera work is all handheld and shaky to the point of nausea. After this excruciating scene, the man runs into a dead end and hides, apparently from whoever is chasing him. A woman walks down the dead end, and he kills her before he can realize she isn't a threat. Then we're subjected to about 3 minutes of him wordlessly staring at the body. As he's about to leave, she begins to move, and it appears that this will be the start of an atypical Japanese horror movie, but then she breaks into a musical number(!) and it turns into a weird love story. But, like I said, these are short films, and there really isn't a lot of time left to explore whatever concepts the filmmaker had in mind, so it all falls flat, even though the woman singing has a nice voice and the music isn't bad. That's saying a lot if your familiar with the horribly translated songs used in most Japanese films.

The second film, Shadows, is one of the more torturous 20 minutes you'll see on film. There's not one line of dialogue, and the 10 minutes of pointless running used in the first segment are again trotted out here, but the real offense is the following 10 minutes, in which the chaser and the chased face off(in the same dead end from the first film) for 10 wordless, motionless minutes. Sogo Ishii(who directed all three segments) seems to think that quick MTV edits and shaky camera work will provide the kinetic energy needed to keep the audience interested, and boy is he wrong. The characters never move, and it's absolutely god-awful, which I know is very judgemental of me, considering my open views on most films, but this really is one of the most annoying things I've seen. There's some weird hocus pocus in which the actors change inexplicably a couple of times, and then a 'twist' ending that's supposed to make it all mean something, but again, we aren't given a reason for these events(what few of them there are), so why care?

The final film, and the one starring the above-mentioned Tadanobu Asano, is probably the most technically adequate film, but it's still fairly pointless. Asano, for some reason, is deemed worthy of an actual story, as he plays a criminal running from a trio of cops hot on his trail. The dead end, this time, is a rooftop-which is a nice change of scenery-where in an act of desperation he takes hostage a suicidal young woman. The film is over too quickly, since this one had the most potential to actually go somewhere, but compared to the first two segments it's pretty inoffensive and really not that bad, although not as interesting as the first segment.

I've since read a few reviews of this movie on IMDB where it's compared to the films of David Lynch due to it's long moments of inactivity and silence, but that claim comes from someone who must not have ever SEEN a David Lynch film. In this case(and I say this not as an insult but as an objective fact), the film's 60 minute run-time should have been trimmed by AT LEAST 20 minutes. The films wouldn't have been great, but the flaws wouldn't be as noticeable.