13 June 2007

BUT SERIOUSLY, FOLKS...

Joking is all well and good, but the surprisingly virulent controversy around Hostel, Part II perhaps deserves some consideration.

By the way, the first thing you'll see after the jump? Not safe for work. Caveat emptor.

If we follow the official narrative, you had one of two reactions to that poster: you thought it was depraved, immoral, sickening trash; or you thought it was compelling art, perhaps laced with black humor of the cruelest refinement.

If we think outside of the frame that David Poland on one side and Harry Knowles on the other have established for us, it becomes (I think) a hell of a lot clearer: this is garden-variety "let's shock the squares" ballyhoo. Given the vitriol that so many middle-aged white men, and women of all ages and genders, have leveled against this film (I can honestly not recall in my lifetime the word "immoral" used so often in film criticism), I'd say that Roth & Co. have clearly succeeded. The squares have been shocked. I don't know if I'm happy about that or not, but it is what it is.

I'm not going to claim exceptionalism about this, because I've done it as much as anybody, but what the hell does it mean for a work of art to be "immoral," anyway? Hostel, Part II has no moral agency. It's not a living, breathing, thinking construct. Let us instead say, "it offended my sense of morality," which is almost surely the only sane response to this film, or to Hostel, or to so many others.

Here's my next question: what the holy hell is wrong with that? It must be very sad to decide that there is a strict correlation between the moral order suggested by a film with its quality as a work of cinema. There have been great movies that demonstrate moral uplift, as Ordet; and there have been great movies for which the word "moral" is incoherent, as Singin' in the Rain; and there have been great movies that are morally outrageous, as Straw Dogs.

There is, unquestionably, a gulf of intention and quality between Straw Dogs and Hostel, Part II that can hardly be fathomed, but they share a feature of key importance: they are both extremely brutal and disgusting to watch. "Disgusting" here is not meant to mean "aesthetically unacceptable," as the more censorious commentators among us would use it; it means "disgusting" in the sense of, "watching a man's thigh being filleted while he is both alive and conscious fills my gut with the physical feeling of disgust."

I've made this point before, but it bears repeating, because it is important: brutality is not a bad thing in a movie. It isn't, and should not be, "entertaining," as such. But there's nothing wrong with a brutal movie if it makes us feel awful about its brutality. Which is more psychologically well: a movie where we cheer when people get run over by tanks, or a film where we almost want to throw up because of the graphic depiction of cannibalism? Yet we show our children Raiders of the Lost Ark, and try to ban The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Please, don't anybody think that I'm slagging on Raiders, which is literally one of my five favorite movies of all time. I'm just saying: it desensitizes, and TCM is viscerally appalling, and one of those is a more human response.

Hostel, Part II is hardly TCM, Raiders or even Hostel, but you know what else it isn't? Saw III. That movie made me want to scour my eyes out, but Roth's movie just kind of made me think, "that was really gross to watch." All of this is basically just my way of saying that sensible critics maybe need to back off: Hostel, Part II is bad, but it's not the most objectionable torture porno by any conceivable yardstick.

Indeed, not that I had a stopwatch out, or anything, but I'm almost 100% positive that it had fewer gore shots than Hostel. The one significant exception is the death of Heather Matarazzo's character, in which she is bled dry while a woman bathes in her blood and writhes in sexual ecstasy, and while this is "gory" and "violent," it's also extremely baroque and does not suggest Roth's sadism nearly so much as it suggests that he watched a lot of Dario Argento films since making the first movie.

Hostel, Part II is bad. I don't mean to suggest that it isn't - just that I want to make sure we dislike it for the right reasons. The film is not just violent, it is violent towards women in a very specific way, and while I don't like making common cause with people who see patriarchal oppression under every rock and tree, it fits here; besides, it's the only thing the movie really has to separate it from the vast field of torture films, which tend to be gender-neutral, and this makes it interesting. Yes, I just called protracted violence against women "interesting." Yes, I am a complete asshole.

(The film is also relentless homophobic; but being shocked that an American horror film is homophobic is kind of like being surprised that the Earth's gravitational field is always there, every morning when you get out of bed).

The hell of it is: it's not protracted violence against women, not at all. Of the three leads, in fact, only Heather Matarazzo's Lorna dies violently, onscreen. Bijou Phillips's Whitney is decapitated off-camera, and the only thing we really see happen to her is that a chunk of hair and scalp gets caught in a power tool and torn off. It produces a lot of blood, but nothing like the dismemberment visited upon Jay Hernandez in Hostel or the incredibly grisly deaths given to the men in this film. Meanwhile, Lauren German's Beth is never actually harmed physically.

So what's the problem? The problem is that Matarazzo's character has already been subjected to endless scorn and contempt before we ever get to the torture rooms. She's been spat on, insulted, been drugged by her female friends, and all of this is played for laughter, and the inescapable conclusion is that we're "not supposed to care" because she's the alleged Ugly One.

But that's offensive without the added gloss of torture pornography. The film's weird attempt to make us sympathize with one of the two killers (the killers get a full plot this time, which has its own set of problems that I really shouldn't get into if I want to bring this in under 2000 words) would be offensive if there wasn't a drop of blood. So as much as I don't like to defend torture porn - it's a miserable genre for miserable people, and I believe it has much to tell us about the American love of violence, and I'll have more to say about that before the summer is over - I can't help but look at all of the Sensible People screaming for Eli Roth's head because of how horrible he must be in person, based on this movie, and beg them to kindly shut their fucking pieholes. Yes, I was offended by Hostel, Part II, because I don't know if we're supposed to feel sick or elated at the violent deaths (which, again, separates this film from the unabashed death-porn cheerleading of Saw III); but how that is worse than a popcorn comedy about God killing all of humanity in a flood, is not entirely clear to me.

Can I go back to that poster for a second? It's made by people who think that all nudity is shocking, for an audience that thinks that all nudity is shocking, and if you can get over that, it's really not shocking (watching a lot of Friday the 13th films in a row will quickly cure you of any hang-ups about naked women, I tell ya). It's really kind of sophomoric, in how obvious it wants to be shocking. It takes too much energy to be offended by it; it's like a rebellious teenager, not a mass killer.

And so is Roth just a rebellious teen, seeing how far he can push before society pushes back. I think he just found out. I do not like his movies, because they offend me, but more importantly, because they are just shitstirrers, not legitimate inquiries into human depravity; but he's probably not a bad person. His trailer in Grindhouse was a comic masterpiece (and I wearyingly feel that all people who got hung up on the trampoline scene need to stop thinking they have compelling things to say about horror movies). So he can do good things, if he wants to be more than just a brat.

On the other hand, anyone with his apparent love for Cannibal Holocaust is probably someone you should look out for. That's not harmless teenage posturing, that's actually a dangerous opinion to hold. There are three things that moral people do not joke about: Nazis, pedophilia, Cannibal Holocaust; and hell, even I won't joke about Cannibal Holocaust.

3 comments:

D-Nizzle said...

great article

Pearce said...

I've been trying to get my friends to watch Cannibal Holocaust for years, and they still won't.

Julio said...

Wait, what's so horrific about loving "Cannibal Holocaust"? It's a fine film--and a downright moral film, for that matter. Far more moral than even many of the films considered for the Oscars, though perhaps that's not a measuring stick for morality (though it it a measuring stick for what we consider quality, and I'd like to think at least some of us like some morality with their quality). Or are you simply saying that, whether good or bad, CH isn't something to joke about?

Either way, I've gotta say I really liked Hostel: Part II. I just watched it, and it's actually making me want to see the first film again.