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.

1 comment:

Rik Tod said...

Sir, I agree on just about every point that you have made. I try not to turn away from any type of film, but the current trending towards "torture porn" has me reeling. It's not surprising, though -- there is something ingrained in our society that allows events like Abu Ghiraib to occur. A sensible dialogue needs to begin over this in our country, and not one beaten down by partisan politics.

An excellent musing. I shall send people over to read this...