I received the following today from a friend via a small group e-mail:
The past month, as I've waited at my usual bus stop to catch the 147 to work (and believe me, I usually wait much longer than I would like), I've been affronted by a giant face of a woman whose make-up is smeared due to her tears. She is confined by what seems to be a chain-link fence. I would guess that most of you have seen this poster around the city lately, or at least as a banner/ad on many web-sites. It is for the film CAPTIVITY - yet another mainstream film of the "torture porn" variety.
Now, I'm writing this to perhaps get a dialogue going, because I am no proponent of censorship, and I believe that violence (and even brutal violence) can be used very effectively in almost all genres of art. I also believe that utilizing shocking images can also be a useful tool in film, visual art, and theatre, if done properly and in moderation. In fact, one of my favorite plays seems to spend a good portion of the script subjecting its audience to horrific and shocking images solely for the sake of unnerving them and bringing them to a distressful emotional state in the hopes that they will empathise with political prisoners who are treated mercilessly in prisons and by the governmental theocrasy. It's brutal, to say the least, but at the heart is a beautiful statement about the stamina and persistance of the spirit of humanity and goodness.
However, this wave of films disturbs the hell out of me. The SAW films, CAPTIVITY, HOSTEL (and pretty much anything by the media whore and masogonyst Eli Roth), etc. Now here's the horrible part - I've never really seen any of these films. This makes me a hypocrite, because I HATE it when people make a judgement about a film they haven't seen (The Christian Right and their protests of films like Scorsese's LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST comes to mind). However, I know I don't really want to subject myself to these types of films. I have seen a couple from
Japan, and that was enough for me. So, perhaps I have no business whatsoever even talking about this topic, but I really can't help but feel that this trend points to something very wrong in my opinion.
So, due to the nature of disgust and outrage, the flip-side is my fascination with the topic, so as CAPTIVITY opened today, I went seeking out reviews for the film today, and I came across this link to Joss Whedon's web site and an article he wrote about the film: http://whedonesque.com/comments/13271
While I love Firefly/Serenity, and I love what he's written for X-Men, I don't drool of Joss Whedon like many do, but I think he's really got something significant to say in this article.
Have any of you seen any of these films? What do you think? Do they desensitize the populace to images of violence and torture? Does violence of this kind become more acceptable to our psyches when we are subjected to fictional depictions of it? If so, what are the implications? What do you think of these films being rated R instead of NC-17? How much violence do we need on the screen before the MPAA says it's too much? Even so, do these films have a place even outside of the mainstream? Thoughts?
Sorry if this whole thing is a little scatter-brained - I'm at work and kind of outraged at the whole thing... Check out the article and let me know what you think!
Here's my (limited) response:
As both a cinephile and a horror junkie (two hats which are often hard to align), this is a subject that has interested me for a while now. That and I'm actually a little sad I won't get to play 'spot the release date' on the Captivity posters anymore.
Some quick set-up on my knowledge base: I'm a huge horror fan, and while I agree that there are some despicable horror films out there, I don't know that I can condemn any entire genre of horror, such as "torture porn" or Ebert's favorite classifier, the "Dead Teenager Movie". As far as the current wave goes, I haven't seen many either, also to my dismay (but for different reasons). I recently watched the first Saw, and while I wasn't all that impressed, it had enough potential for me to be interested in watching II and III to see if they were able to build on it. I haven't seen either Hostel, but while I very much disliked Cabin Fever, I have heard enough interesting and thoughtful responses to Hostel (both on the positive and negative side) to give it a shot. I really didn't have any interest in Captivity, but did notice that it does have an good pedigree, being written by famed cult director Larry Cohen and helmed by double Oscar-nominee Roland Joffe. Then again, I'm still not very interested. I've also seen a decent amount of underground foreign horror, though, and if the comparison between, say, Saw and Japan's Evil Dead Trap or Guinea Pig series (the latter of which I haven't seen) or even Italy's Zombie, is any indication, America's got an inflated sense of the word 'graphic'. Not that Saw wasn't violent or that I feel more gore should have been added, but the horrific parts of the film were not the blood and guts, but the inconceivable situations that the writers managed to think up.
So no, I guess I don't object in theory to these violent films. In fact, I more object to the label 'torture porn' and its automatic assumption that pornography is a necessarily evil thing -- which is a whole different discussion. The important part of America's sudden obsession with graphic violence is not the what but the why. Why do these films sell? What exactly is going on in the human psyche during these images? What is going on in my psyche during these images? In a simplified manner -- why do we enjoy the feelings of fear and disgust? That's not only another discussion, there's an entire thesis in those questions.
As far as the Whedon aspect goes, I think there's a dangerous assumption being drawn (and he's not the first by any means) between desensitization to violence and misogyny, which are two entirely different topics. A film that potrays graphic violence against a woman is not by default misogynistic, just as a misogynistic film does not necessarily need to portray graphic violence against a woman. Are there misogynistic horror films? Absolutely. The entire Sexploitation genre (which contains many a horror film) is constantly up in debate over its gender politics. But for Whedon to say that he is giving the film a chance based on the creative minds behind it and then to jump on the misogynist bandwagon after seeing only the trailer? C'mon -- Whedon's a filmmaker, he should know perfectly well that the creative team and the marketing team on a studio film have the rarest of interaction. Captivity might by misogynistic, but you can't confidently call it that having only seeing the trailer any more than having seen the poster. (It's also worth noting that Whedon's input on the subject was initially urged by a friend of his -- an executive producer of Buffy -- who is part of a Hollywood feminist group actively campaigning against Captivity. Not that I don't think Whedon's words are heartfelt, just an interesting aside.)
And Whedon's evocation of the murder of Dua Khalil in order to further his point does a disservice to the tragedy of the poor girl and her family. To take a culturally, politically, religiously disparate situation and apply it unquestioningly to not only the rules of the American viewpoint, but the American media viewpoint (*shudder*) is beyond ethnocentric. It has to stem from either ignorance or inhumanity, neither of which I had initially pegged Whedon for.
I'm a lot more hesitant to talk about the feminist/misogynist aspect of these films, because I just don't know how I feel yet. The sentiment of Whedon's (and his commenters') arguments seems all together too off-putting and at times antagonistic to be effective (and yes, I realize that speaking from the male perspective in a male-dominated society I should just shut up and take it -- but where does that get us?). The solution cannot lie in the further singling out of any gender. All that's going to result in is the same kind of partisanship that currently divides America politically. And while it's true that in that case the power is more or less equal, or at least shifts equally, that's not a sort of friction that we can afford as a species to have between the genders. But I don't have any answers, which is the problem. All I can do is point to the Buckminster Fuller quote a few posts back (which Ming-Zhu coincidentally referenced recently in terms of gender politics). The answer is not to create a matriarchal society that apes our current patriarchal one, the answer has to be based in completely new ideas, ideas that work for society as a whole
And to think, I was going to write about the ongoing tribalism discussion some more. That'll have to wait 'til next time