Friday, June 08, 2007

Torture porn?

More interesting discussion of Hostel part II, the term "torture porn" and all of those related controversies. The Future of Horror? by Dennis Cozzalio, It's back! by Damian Arlyn and Critical Disconnect: The 120 Days of Hostel part II by Chris Stangl. Despite not necessarily agreeing with all of the conclusions involved, I find these posts all intelligent and worth reading.

I've been pondering this issue a lot and haven't been entirely sure why. I've also been

Something came to me last night.

I think "torture porn" has rather crystallized a certain problem with criticism of horror and other genre works. Somehow being deemed a bad horror movie makes it ok, even important to some, to have a more damning sounding term than simply being a bad drama or bad comedy.

It's similar in it's way to the word "bitch". Being an unruly woman deserves a more damning term than being an unruly person. There are similar arguments regarding a class of people who hold the word "nigger" to mean a specific kind of black person they feel worthy of scorn, although don't necessarily have a reason I understand why "asshole" isn't just as good a word.

Mind you, I'm not successfully politically correct enough to not actually use the word "bitch", but I wholly understand the argument made there and find it largely accurate.

In a comment to Damian's post, Chris wrote, "What is the link between movies with extended setpieces of make believe violence, intended to horrify the spectator and movies which depict explicit and unsimulated sex acts? Just that there is a promise of sensationalistic spectacle intended to 'excite' the audience? Then does Michael Bay make 'explosion porn'? Are Busby Berkeley musicals 'choreography porn'? Because I presume torture is repellant to you and sex is not. So why are they equally balanced on the exploitation scales?" He also makes a similar point in his own post, linked above.

The case against these reminds me of the famous quote from Pastor Martin Niemöller, "First they came for the Communists but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists but I was not one of them, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews but I was not Jewish so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me."

No, I'm not trying to get into one of those conversations where I try to compare everyone I disagree with to Nazis and the KKK, although I have used similar metaphors here to try to make a point.

I'm well aware that horror fans are generally not in danger of life, limb or strong oppression. Although, certainly there have been situations, such as the Video nasties scare in the UK, in which people did lose their property and their freedom because of their interest in horror, or "extreme horror". I don't see that as something of immediate concern, especially here in the US.

But there is a quality there, "First they dismissed Eli Roth's movies as artistically meritless and socially deplorable but I didn't like his movies so I did not speak out..."

Mind you, I don't think the end of that path is the wholesale murder or even arrest of horror fans or filmmakers. I do think it could - and is intended, on some levels - lead to studios or filmmakers losing the courage of their conviction when it comes to later works, and those works could be by the next David Cronenberg or, well, me.

Honestly, I think Roth's comments on the MPAA in The Evening Class Roundtable Interview With Eli Roth, Pt. 1 are in that same neighborhood. Mind you, his comments regarding the advantages over actual government censorship are important to keep as part of the conversation, but I also got a real feeling of "First they cut up Paul Verhoeven's movie, but they were 'cool' to me, so I did not speak out. Then they made John Waters' movie less commerically viable..." Mind you, it's one of the issues about which I think most people on both sides are kind of wrong, but I found him a bit too dismissive of the issues.

2 comments:

Damian said...

Excellent post, Neil. I can seen that you have indeed done a lot of thinking about this subject. As I said over at Dennis' blog (and in response to Chris' comment on my own blog) I am growing rather weary of the whole argument myself. Nevertheless, without intending to debate you, I did want to briefly respond to a few things that you said in your post (and I will do so without using the term "torture porn").

Somehow being deemed a bad horror movie makes it ok, even important to some, to have a more damning sounding term than simply being a bad drama or bad comedy.

I am curious as to how you are using the term "bad" in this context, because there are different ways in which a movie can be "bad." Do you mean "bad" as in "lousy" (i.e. poorly made, artistically weak and/or aesthetically unpleasing) or do you mean "bad" as in "wrong" (i.e. offensive, immoral, unhealthy, dangerous)? I've seen films (horror and otherwise) that were "bad" in the former sense but not in the latter and I've seen films that were "bad" in the latter sense but not in the former. When I say that I believe Hostel to be a "bad" movie, I am actually using the term in both senses.

I ask for clarification only because this confusion of categories is perhaps one of the reasons why I often feel misunderstood when I express my opinion on this subject. People seem to think that I am making a value judgement of the film based solely on its aesthetic/artistic merits when I'm not. For some individuals, making a lousy movie is a far worse sin than making a morally reprehensible movie (that is, if they believe there is even such a thing as a morally reprehensible movie... and maybe there isn't; that's a whole other discussion in itself). Understand that I am not discrediting the evaluation of a film on the basis of art/aesthetics, because I am not. Not at all. In fact, I am convinced that such criteria is very important (and I use it a lot in my own analysis), but is it really the ONLY criteria? In the case of the movie Hostel, I feel that a whole other level of criticism is necessary. I'm not taking issue the craft or technique of the enterprise, I'm asking whether the enterprise itself has any merit (If I might also employ a "Nazi-oriented" analogy to make my point: It's not the method by which the Nazis killed the Jews that I'm worried about, it's the fact that they were killing Jews in the first place).

But there is a quality there, "First they dismissed Eli Roth's movies as artistically meritless and socially deplorable but I didn't like his movies so I did not speak out..."

Mind you, I don't think the end of that path is the wholesale murder or even arrest of horror fans or filmmakers. I do think it could - and is intended, on some levels - lead to studios or filmmakers losing the courage of their conviction when it comes to later works, and those works could be by the next David Cronenberg or, well, me.


One thing that I only recently struck me about this "torture porn" debate (okay, I know I said I wouldn't use that term and I apologize but in this case I am referring only to the ongoing conversation that uses the term) is that both sides tend to employ a "slippery slope" argument. Those who attack the movies saying "If we let THIS go by without saying anything, then what's going to be put up on the screen next? How ugly can a movie possibly get before it crosses the line?" while those defending the movies say "If you can attack this film on the basis of morality than whose to say you can't attack THIS film or THIS film or THIS film? Where does it end?" This is not to suggest that there is necessarily anything illegitimate about using a "slippery slope" argument, but it does reveal, I think, the underlying mindset of both parties: namely, a reactionary one. It appears that both sides seem to feel as if they are under attack; that their sensibilities, their way of life, perhaps even their very freedoms are being threatened and thus their response is entirely justified. I know that I myself have felt a little "under attack" this past week. Whether I actually was under attack or not is a different story. I may very well not have been, but I certainly felt like I was.

Part of the problem with living in a free society is that we are constantly running up against "conflicting freedoms." One group of people want the freedom to be able to say something is wrong if they truly believe that it is and another group of people wants the freedom to be able do something that they want to do without being told it's wrong. Unfortunately, both of these things cannot co-exist in the same society. So, what are we supposed to make of it? The truth is that I don't know. I'm not sure anybody does. I'm just trying to do what I think is right without stepping on TOO many freedoms of other people in the process.

Piper said...

Neil,

I like your points about our fascination with labeling movies. I have not seen either Hostel movies. I have rented Hostel 1 but could not bring myself to see it. I am a horror fan, but don't personally believe that there is horror in torture. For me, it's in the suspense so I'm not sure that either of these movies would interest me, but I would be lying if I didn't say that they have peaked my curiosity in their subject matter.

I personally just don't care for Eli Roth. I have called him a Rock and Roll Director before and I will call him that again. He seems more interested in creating buzz then actually creating a good movie. This is based solely on Cabin Fever which I didn't really care for. But then again what he has done is brought horror to the dinner table up from the basement where it's been for a long time. And I'm not sure that that's a bad thing. I just wish there was a better director doing it.

I think the judgment of this film and any others like it fall in the hands of the audiences. This trend will live or die on whether people want to pay money to see this kind of stuff.

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