The Point of Torture Porn

Examining the perverse fascination of sex and violence

"Hostel"

During the 2002 awards season, a screener tape of Gasper Noe’s Irreversible landed in my year-end review pile.  The film was set to play at The Esquire in Cincinnati at some undefined point, a decision I found highly unlikely given the critical buzz surfacing about a brutal revenge killing and an extremely graphic depiction of sexual violence. Thanks in part to the Memento-styled reverse narrative and the presence of stars Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassell, I eagerly anticipated the chance to settle down with such complex subject matter and found myself plugging the VHS tape into my player the night I received it.

In some ways, American audiences are programmed to handle depictions of excessive, cartoonish violence.  The unreality of such actions provides an escape from the mundane and opens up our own primal urges we work so diligently to mask through civility.  Yet within the first half hour of Irreversible, Noe presented the brutal bludgeoning of a man’s face and head with a fire extinguisher in a chaotic and frenzied fight that lacked the clean elegance of Hollywood entertainments. Here, the battle was fierce and slippery, tightly shot to approximate, for the viewer, the tactile sense of blood on our hands and the pain of each blow thrown and landed.

Even more immediate was the anal rape of Monica Bellucci’s character in an abandoned subway stop. Noe uses a static camera set-up for this unwavering nine-minute sequence. At one point during the attack, the camera catches a pedestrian who wanders down onto the platform. The person, visibly shaken by what is happening, darts back up the stairs and never returns, much as I wanted, but was unable to do. Noe traps the viewer in this moment and will not allow us to look away.

I turned the tape off at this point. Never before had a film sickened me before, playing on my attraction to an actress and my repulsion for her treatment at the hands of another. The lines between actress and character had been blurred, but on a deeper level, my own sense of self and my complicity in these acts was called into play. I barely slept, realizing, I suppose, that the only way to be free was to finish watching the film, which I did most uneasily. It was clear that Noe intended for audiences to grapple with these concerns and the narrative offered a surprisingly straightforward morality, despite the assertion of the final title card (“time destroys all things.”).  By moving backward through this one day, we are given a happy ending of sorts through the start of a day with all of its potential promise (a happy loving couple waking together). There is hope in this rewinding.

All of that serves as a contrast to a seemingly new subgenre of films that have sprung up in the years immediately following Irreversible. The Saw franchise, Wolf Creek, the host of horror remakes –The Hills Have Eyes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre– Turistas, and Eli Roth’s Hostel films each play on the audience’s identification with the confounding and titillating roles of torturer and victim, in most instances with no underlying perspective for critical, social or cultural discussion of the effects of violence on our collective psyches; hence the coining of the term “torture porn” as a moniker for these exercises.

Roth emerged on the scene with the rather clever viral horror movie Cabin Fever that married jokey Southern digs with the flesh-eating zombies of George Romero. The film was breezy splatter fun.  With the first Hostel though, he felt the need to jack up the violence while turning down the narrative conscience and consequence. The American-fratboys sold to the highest bidders for sadistic pleasure in the thrill-kill dungeons of Eastern Europe might have stirred thoughts of U.S. military treatment of POWs in Abu Ghraib, but that was likely the result of intense critical reading rather than filmmaker intention.

With Hostel 2, Roth found a way to silence his most ardent critical apologists by exposing an even more perverse fascination with violent ejaculatory fantasies. American girls, instead of good old boys, were the subjects opening the door for the double standards that emerged with considerations of the pornographic nature of torture on the human (female) body.  A United Nations committee (the UN Convention Against Torture) defined “torture” from an official perspective as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or emotional, is intentionally inflicted on a person.” The purposes were further explored in the detailed explanation, along with the assumption that beyond the official scope, such acts could be inflicted for “the sadistic gratification of the enforcer.”

Marry that with porn’s “explicit representation of the human body or sexual activity with the goal of sexual arousal and/or sexual relief” (versus erotica which “uses sexually arousing imagery mainly for artistic purpose”) and you’ve got a subgenre that presents pain and suffering for the gratification and/or arousal of the audience.  It supposes, to paraphrase The Band, that through these images “(we) shall be released.”

Over the last few years, I have been intrigued by our perverse fascination with these images and the label that we (the critical entertainment media) have slapped on them, this band-aid casually applied to such a large, open psychological wound. During interviews, I have taken it upon myself to poke and prod a bit, asking questions of a wide range of interviewees, some, like James Wan, the writer-director of the first Saw film (and executive producer of the remainder of the movies in the series) with obvious connections to the genre, and others, like Oscar-winning screenwriter and director Robert Benton (Kramer vs Kramer, Places in the Heart) and ScreenPeace Film Festival founder and screenwriter Thomas Girvin, who provided thoughtful analysis on the state and the history of violence in the film industry.

During a phone shake-down in support of Death Sentence, writer-director James Wan bristled slightly when asked for his opinion about the torture porn label and its application to him and his work.

“I don’t know whether to be annoyed or flattered, but I believe I lean towards annoyance,” he said. “I believe the reason why the first (Saw) film was so successful was because it wasn’t about torturing.  It was about the story and how people related to the characters in the film. I felt the death trap was a tiny portion of the film, but that’s what people take away from it.  The first film was more psychological, but to some degree the sequels are to blame for the coining of the label and the torture aspect of the films that have followed. Violence and torture don’t make a scary movie scary.  I think you can make a great horror movie without violence.”

Countering this stance to some extent though was Benton who, while addressing his sensual adult drama Feast of Love, explained “there is something in American character that trusts violence more than sex.  We have a history of violence. In the ‘70s, there was violence and erotic content (in film) and we’ve forgotten about erotic content.  I’m surprised by this.”

Girvin expanded on this thread during one of our numerous exchanges regarding his efforts to define the peace genre. “When porno chic came in with all the money back in the ‘70s (with films like Deep Throat), the majors (film studios) considered getting in on the action, but Jack Valenti, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America (and creator of the film rating system), convinced them otherwise,” he said. “So, this led the studios to violence instead. It was almost a reaction to choosing this side (violence) over the other (porn). And since everything goes in cycles, we’re simply experiencing the rise or the return of violence.”

The current strand appears to be quite lethal in its dose.

“What about our rights as artists,” Benton wondered though, “to say whatever we want to say and about our responsibility to the community?  I was asked about this as an author of Bonnie and Clyde.  It is a legitimate and troubling issue that I don’t know how to solve.  I think these movies about violence are aimed at young kids, and I’m afraid that motion picture companies are strip mining the young people of the country.  And I think your job (as a filmmaker) is to entertain and instruct without being pompous. No fake piety though. Nothing boring or pontifical.” He somewhat sadly concluded, “I’m not interested in violence anymore. Maybe I’m too old or I’m too weak to pull the trigger.”

Still, in Benton’s response lies one of the perplexing dilemmas impeding our understanding of torture porn; the notion that these films we’ve labeled as torture porn are about violence. The question becomes what are the films about? For example, is Bonnie and Clyde, one of the defining films of the late 1960s, along with Sam Peckinpah’s explosive Western The Wild Bunch, about violence? During my film criticism course at the University of Cincinnati last fall, I screened Blue Velvet, and one of my students in their review considered it soft core torture porn for its depictions of sexual depravity and violence, but is that what the film is about? Is Wan correct in his assertion that the first Saw movie was not about the violence and the death traps?

In 2007, writer-director Michael Haneke revisited Funny Games, released a decade earlier, providing an English language reshoot of the story about a pair of handsome young psychopaths (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet) who prey upon a couple (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) at their summer home. The film bedevils and seeks attention within this context because it seemingly has nothing more on its mind than to tempt and tease audiences with its fascination (and by extension, our own) with torture and killing for pleasure. Haneke’s foreign language original appeared on the scene before the torture porn tag and wasn’t seen in U.S. multiplexes, but the current trend must have been an unavoidable siren call.

Games, which is more in line with Irreversible, isn’t merely interested in soliciting a visceral reaction. It challenges the different assumptions between the roles of viewer and voyeur (for reference in this case, the difference is one of passivity vs. more engaged participation of the audience in the experience) by breaking the barriers between the onscreen participants and the audience. Haneke has one of his game killers directly address this at one point and he goes even further by literally rewinding a key sequence and replaying the action with an alternative outcome, one more in keeping with continuing the mayhem, rather than allowing for a bit of comeuppance for the film’s victims.

This degree of intellectual manipulation sets Funny Games apart from movies like the two Hostel installments and The Strangers, which plays a far simpler game, masking its killers and the overall intentions. But what is it that we (the audience) are seeking from these diversions? I wonder, are we ready to jump off the cliff into capturing real death sequences? The aim of pornography is to dispense with simulation, so is that the next step for torture porn?

Snuff films have been the stuff of horrific legend, set up as the ultimate unbreakable boundary of ethics and common decency.  And now, viral versions of beheadings have become a demoralizing tool of our current terroristic adversaries around the globe. What we have fetishized (and codified as torture porn) has become a powerful psychic and emotional weapon.  Are our studio exercises an unconscious reflection of the sociological and cultural dynamic or, on some level, are they an effort to reconfigure and reclaim the images, a means of putting death back in Pandora’s box?

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at contactus@daytoncitypaper.com

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

News of the weird: 09/16/14

By Chuck Shepherd Lead Story – A nerd’s rhapsody Nicholas Felton’s latest annual recap of his personal communications data is […]

Their exits and their entrances

Celebrating 20 years of Yellow Springs Kids Playhouse By Jennifer Hanauer Lumpkin Photo: Artistic director John Fleming addresses the audience during […]

In living color

Color: Impressions and Innovations at Glen Helen By Joyell Nevins Photo: Joe Barrish, “McLain Street View”; oil Our visual spectrum has […]

Advice Goddess

By Amy Alkon Whoa is me Last year, after I split up with my girlfriend, the law firm I worked […]

Law & Disorder

The last word, Not the last laugh by A.J. Wagner In 1994, Justice Harry Blackmun, in the case of Callins […]

News of the Weird

by Chuck Shepherd Lead Story – They didn’t see this coming? (1) German Rolf Buchholz, who owns the Guinness Book […]