Cinema Psycho

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Archive for October, 2011

Harsh Times: A Viewer’s Responsibility

Posted by CinemaPsycho on October 23, 2011

So, I saw A Serbian Film last week. Yeah… really interesting little movie there. Forget The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo remake, this is far and away the feel-bad movie of the year!

Seriously though. I don’t want to spend a bunch of paragraphs reviewing A Serbian Film. I don’t even know where I would begin. Was I shocked and disturbed by the film? Yes, of course I was. Was I offended by it? No. Absolutely not. I was not offended because I understood what the film is and why it was made. The film is a primal scream from the abyss, and that’s the way it needs to be viewed. I found it to be a fascinating portrait of dehumanization, as well as a potent metaphor for the way governments treat their citizens. Like it or not, that’s what the film is about. It is also a film intended to shock and disturb people, and it absolutely achieves that goal. I think we’ve reached a point where we as a society are so desensitized by portrayals of violence that we need something this extreme to shake us up and make us feel something, even if it’s revulsion. And make no mistake, many of the acts portrayed in the film are vile and reprehensible. The scenes of child sexual abuse are not pornographic, but they are graphic and there’s no getting around them. It’s strong stuff, and if you’re going to watch this, you’d better be fucking prepared for it.

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Which brings me to my main point. I expected people to be shocked and even offended by this film; what I did not expect is that people would decide never to return to the event that showed it. Which is apparently what’s happening – at least a few people have vowed not to attend the Columbus Horror Marathon any more because they were somehow “forced” to watch this film. This, of course, is totally irrational bullshit. The audience was warned several times by the hosts about this film’s content. There were discussions on the event’s message boards about the film and its most controversial scenes were discussed in detail. And of course, all you have to do is run a simple Internet search on the film and you can find out within minutes exactly what it contains. If you choose not to heed the warnings, is that the fault of the event’s organizers? Or is that the fault of the viewer for watching a film that they weren’t prepared for? I’m asking you as a reader what you think. Really, I am.

My belief is that a viewer needs to be responsible for what he or she chooses to watch. It’s easy to say, “if you don’t want to watch something, don’t watch it.” Even though I believe that to be true. But I also believe that it takes a little effort on your part to know what it is you don’t want to see. You have to be smart enough to know what’s out there and know what’s right for you as a viewer. If you don’t make that minimal amount of effort, then you have no one to blame but yourself if you’re offended by something. I don’t know why anyone would watch a film they know nothing about in the first place, especially in the age of the Internet when it’s so easy to get information about films and their contents. This is especially the case with the “extreme horror film” movement of recent years; these are films that often contain extremely graphic and violent images, and if you’re not aware of that by now, you’ve been living under a rock.

I don’t think it’s my job to defend these films. You either like them or you don’t. But I do find them fascinating as a sociological phenomenon. I’ve seen everything from the “mainstream” Saw and Hostel films to notorious French films like Irreversible, Martyrs and Inside. I’ve chosen to watch these films because I find them interesting, not because I get off on graphic violence or torture. All of these films break boundaries of screen violence, and I think there’s a reason why they have appeared at this particular time in film history. They reflect a culture in which there really are no boundaries left: a time in which people seem capable of doing anything to anyone, even their own friends and family. Just watch the news. Look at our history of the past decade or so. The Saw films are particularly fascinating because they are films in which human flesh is often torn apart by machinery; they are the first industrial slasher films. The fact that they are so popular among horror fans shows that they are clearly striking a chord with audiences somehow, whether they are aware of it or not. The foreign films I’ve listed are a bit more esoteric, and certainly not for everyone. But whether you like them or not, they do get their point across. They exist, and you can either choose to watch them or choose not to. But either way, you have to make an effort to deal with them; you have to ask yourself, “do I want to watch this or not?” That requires a modicum of effort on the part of the viewer, even if you don’t actually watch the films themselves. I think that’s a good thing. I don’t own any of these films as part of my personal collection, and I may never watch any of them again, but I think they’re a force to be reckoned with regardless. You either look at them, or you have to look away. And that choice is always up to you.

I know that there are people who simply don’t want to have to make choices for themselves as viewers; they just want to be able to watch anything that’s out there without risk of being offended. The problem is, you just can’t do that any more. With films like these, you have to be prepared for what you are about to see, and if you are not, you simply should not watch it. Again, that requires a minimal amount of effort on your part. If you’re unwilling or incapable of making that effort, maybe you shouldn’t watch movies at all any more! But if you wander blindly into a movie without knowing what you’re going to see, that’s no one’s fault but your own. If I see a movie I don’t like, I blame the filmmakers, not the exhibitors; I don’t vow to never return to that theater no matter what they show. I don’t trash my DVD player if I rent a film that turns out to be bad or not to my taste. I made the choice to watch that film, and I have to live with the consequences. Usually, I just move on to the next one and forget about it. But I don’t blame anyone but myself for making a bad choice.

This also requires knowing yourself as a viewer, and understanding what you like, what you don’t like, and why. I can watch pretty much anything and not be offended by it; shocked and disturbed, sure, but not offended. I don’t hold a grudge against filmmakers for giving me a disturbing experience – when it comes to horror films, that’s what I want. And I understand this about myself, so I know I can watch whatever interests me without taking offense to its content. I don’t think I’ve ever been offended by any film. I’ve disliked films, I’ve even hated films, but I don’t recall ever being offended by one. If I’m offended by anything, I’m offended by the mentality that produces utter garbage like Jack & Jill and Zookeeper. So I just don’t waste my time and money on films like that. I can’t prevent others from seeing them, however. A few years ago, I gave up completely on romantic comedies, because I discovered that I just don’t like them or the superficial worldview that they represent. They’re not for me, and I haven’t regretted that decision for a second. I spend my time and money elsewhere, and I’m happy with that choice. There are plenty of other films to watch. I would never say to someone who doesn’t like violent films, “well, you should really see them, because you’re missing out”. They’re not missing out, because those films are not for them. I may not understand that choice, but I’m not going to waste my time arguing about it either. They watch what they want, and I watch what I want.

Another problem with the “extreme horror” movement is that even a lot of horror fans don’t really understand them. There is a certain contingent of fans (usually people who grew up in the 80’s) who maintain that horror films should be “fun”. I’m not sure where they got this notion, because I can’t think of too many horror films that I’ve seen that were actually “fun” to watch. I don’t watch them expecting to have a blast. Horror films are meant to be dark and tense experiences that shake up the viewer; they are meant to disturb you on some level. Horror films are about the inevitability of death – Death is just around the corner, and it’s coming for us all sooner or later. That’s your basic modern horror film. I’m not sure what exactly is supposed to be “fun” about that. Sure, you can have a fun experience going out to the movies with your friends or on a date, but I don’t think the actual films themselves are meant to be fun. For me, action films are fun because they are pure testosterone fantasy writ large. Comedies are fun because, well, they’re funny (one hopes). Horror films are bleak and dark and fucked-up. Watching people get murdered isn’t “fun” for me. I watch them because, at least when they’re well done, they scare me. They disturb and even disgust me at times, and that’s the experience I’m looking for from them. These extreme horror films just take that experience a little further – or a lot further. If you don’t want to have that experience… you know the drill. If you don’t want to take the ride, don’t buy a ticket.

The thing is, there are always going to be films that offend you if you’re looking to be offended. Throughout film history, there have been controversial films that have pushed boundaries and upset the apple cart. There is always a new line to cross. But how you respond to that depends on you. If you have sensitive issues with certain kinds of graphic material, you can either watch the film and be offended, or not watch the film. Either way, the film is going to exist regardless of what you do or what you think of it. The best thing to do is to educate yourself as a viewer. “Be pro-active” as they say these days. If you don’t know anything about a film, read up on it. Ask questions. Come to terms with the fact that these films exist, and you can either choose to watch them or not. I urge people to do this with any art form, be it movies, TV, literature, music, Internet porn, whatever. If you don’t know about something, find out. If you don’t like what’s being offered, find out what else is out there. There’s a whole world of entertainment out there – just because something is put in front of you doesn’t mean you have to consume it. Discover your own taste and what works for you. I’ve said this many times before and I’ll say it again: having taste is a good thing. It’s what separates us from the animals (well, that and opposable thumbs). You don’t have to watch the Kardashians or Jersey Shore (ugh) just “because it’s on”. You don’t have to listen to crappy pop music all day just because it’s being shoved down your throat. You don’t have to watch, read or listen to anything just because it’s there. You can make a choice for yourself. That choice often starts with changing the channel, venturing outside the mainstream, discovering things that aren’t necessarily in fashion this week. And sometimes it involves walking out of a theater that’s showing something you don’t want to see. If you’re a responsible and intelligent adult, you can make those choices for yourself. If you can’t do that, and you need to be protected from what’s out there by the moral guardians, then that’s your own fault and no one else’s.

So I’m not here to get you to watch A Serbian Film. Far from it. I would urge 99% of the population to not watch it, because most of them aren’t going to get it, and probably shouldn’t even try. If you’re the kind of viewer who only sees what’s on the surface, who is incapable of understanding subtext (or even text), and is offended by simulated, fictional depictions of horrible acts, then I urge you, I beg of you, do not watch A Serbian Film under any circumstances. I’m dead serious. Don’t watch it. Don’t watch any extreme horror film. Just don’t do it. You won’t be offended, and we’ll all be a lot better off. You have the right not to watch it.

And if you do watch it, and are offended by it despite my warnings, then I reserve the right to think you’re an idiot. No offense.

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Posted in Film Reviews | 3 Comments »

Dare to Be Offended: Why I Choose to Watch A Serbian Film

Posted by CinemaPsycho on October 9, 2011

So, it turns out that in a few days I will be attending a rare theatrical screening of A Serbian Film in Columbus, Ohio. Yep. So that’shappening. I have not seen the film yet, though I have read a lot about it online over the past couple of years. I’m not going to go into the film’s history here (feel free to Google it, there are tons of articles about the film both pro and con). Let’s just say it’s easily the most controversial film in recent years, as it depicts various perversions including simulated child rape. The operative word here being simulated. Not actually real. Why would I want to watch that, you ask? It’s a fair question.

serbianfilmcommpicsnews5.jpgFor the past several weeks I have been engaged in an argument with a few people on the event’s message boards who strongly object to the film being shown. There is one particular hysterical lunatic who keeps calling the film “child porn” and “filth”. Which he has every right to do, but the “child porn” tag is simply not accurate, as there is no actual pornographic material (involving children or anyone else) in the film. This is simply a fact. The film is an extreme horror film that is being shown at a 24-hour marathon of horror films. It is no more pornography than any other film ranging from Bambi to When Harry Met Sally. The ironic thing is that these are people who claim to love horror films, and are willing to watch all manner of disturbing and despicable acts on screen, including murder, rape, torture, cannibalism and so on. But when it comes to the particular issue of child abuse, suddenly there’s a line that can’t be crossed. All of a sudden these open-minded horror fans are extremely overreacting and behaving like the Christian Right or Tipper Gore. You know, the kind of people who would like to ban all horror films, and probably all violent films in general. I find it completely irrational. I think it’s obvious that if the film were actual child pornography, it would be illegal to view and there would be no discussion whatsoever. From what I have read, the filmmakers are making a political statement about conditions in their country by including this material. I’m not an expert on Serbia, so I won’t argue that point any further. But that is their intention, and one must accept that when watching the film. It’s not like they’re showing child rape for no reason.Frankly, I’ve always hated the “torture porn” label that has been applied to recent horror films. I think it’s both unfair and inaccurate. Pornography is intended to turn people on and get them off – to sexually excite them, in other words. The intention of extreme horror films (a more accurate term) is to shock and disturb the audience, which is the exact opposite of pornography’s intention. You’re supposed to be disturbed by these films, not turned on by them. So if an extreme horror film disturbs you, that means it’s effective at achieving its goal. If it disgusts you, that means it’s working. If you’re sexually excited by depictions of torture, that says a lot more about you than it does about the film. Look, I don’t even think these movies are going to last much longer – I think people really want to be scared again, not grossed out, and the success of films like Insidious and the Paranormal Activity series prove that. But there will always be filmmakers who push the envelope just a little bit further – there always have been and always will be. Films ranging from Psycho to Last House on the Left to I Spit on Your Grave have pushed the boundaries of their times, and in retrospect are now considered classics by horror fans. At the time, they were reviled by many critics who found them despicable. In 2011, they’re relatively tame stuff. A Serbian Film is simply the envelope-pushing film of its time. Granted, most mainstream moviegoers aren’t even aware of its existence, but I think most horror fans are well aware of the film and its content.

It’s not as if anyone is being forced to watch the film. People who choose not to watch it for any reason are not obligated to do so in any way. There’s the door. Use it. It is one film that’s showing out of 12 films. No one who buys a ticket has to watch any particular film in the lineup. This has been stated over and over again, yet people just don’t seem to get it. If you find a movie objectionable, DON’T WATCH IT. But let the rest of us have the chance to view the film for ourselves and form our own opinion of it. That’s been my argument from the beginning. Some of us don’t want critics and moral guardians to make our choices for us. We are rational, intelligent adults who are capable of surviving the traumatic experience of watching a film. I don’t believe that viewing this film will turn me into a child molester (or a Serbian) or that there will be riots in the streets because of it. I strongly believe that we can handle it. This is an audience that has viewed extreme horror films like Cannibal Holocaust, Martyrs and Irreversible at this event in the past, and in each case the world didn’t come to an end. Some people appreciated those films, some did not. The films were shown and life continued on. I don’t believe that showing A Serbian Film will be any different. So what’s the big deal? Watch the film, don’t watch it, the choice is up to you. I don’t really care either way what other people do. I just want the freedom to decide for myself.

(Yes, the movie is coming out on DVD soon, but most major retailers are not going to carry it. Netflix isn’t going to, and other retailers like Redbox, Blockbuster, Wal-Mart, Target etc. will follow suit. Let’s not be naive. I imagine there will be places you can buy the film online, but I generally prefer to see a film before dropping 20 or 30 bucks on it. As there have been very few theatrical screenings of it in the US, most people have not been able to make the choice for themselves. This amounts to censorship by default: no one shows the film, no one rents the film, no one sees the film.)

But none of that answers the main question: why do I want to see this film? It’s still a fair question. I certainly have no sympathy for child molesters, nor would I ever choose to view actual child pornography. I don’t have kids myself, but I do have a nephew and niece that I love dearly, and the thought of anyone hurting them in any way turns my stomach. On the other hand, child abuse is a real issue in the real world, and people do commit these acts, as despicable as they may be. To ignore that is to bury your head in the sand and deny reality, just as it would be to ignore murder and rape. I’m old enough to remember when rape was considered a taboo subject; now people joke about it on network TV (I’m speaking of the awful sitcom 2 Broke Girls, in which jokes about rape are a regular feature and yet no one’s complained about it that I’m aware of). The world has changed since I was a kid. Who knows, maybe in 30 years people will be regularly joking about child molestation on network television. That doesn’t make the fact of it any less terrible. It just means people acknowledge it as something that happens in the real world. I don’t think the writers of 2 Broke Girls actually approve of rape (which doesn’t make their show any funnier) or that the makers of A Serbian Film actually approve of child molestation.

And that’s another thing that certain people don’t seem to get: just because a film shows a despicable act, that is not the same as actually committing that despicable act. If that were true, virtually every film director who ever lived would be guilty of murder. Nor does it mean that the filmmakers or the audience approve of the act in question. Psycho is one of my all-time favorite films; that doesn’t mean I approve of stabbing blondes in the shower. It doesn’t mean Hitchcock approves of it either. I don’t believe watching Silence of the Lambs turns people into cannibals (unless they’re already disturbed and oriented in that direction) or that watching GoodFellas turns people into violent gangsters. The mistake people are making is that showing an act amounts to tacit approval of that act from both filmmakers and viewers – which any intelligent viewer knows not to be true. Actual child pornography does imply approval, of course, and that’s one of the many reasons why it is illegal to view in this country. If A Serbian Film was actual child pornography, I would not want to view it, just as I would not want to view I Spit on Your Grave it it contained actual rape or any horror film that contained actual murder. Where I Spit on Your Grave features a graphic depiction of rape to show how truly ugly it is, I believe that is also the case with A Serbian Film and child molestation.
If it turns you on, well, that’s your issue, not the film’s.

The whole thing reminds me of the case of the German film The Tin Drum in 1979. I’m not going to go into the entire case in detail here, but the gist of it is that a film which depicted two underage kids having sex with each other (without any actual penetration being shown) was considered so offensive in this country that theatrical screenings were shut down and video stores that rented the film were raided. It was an extreme overreaction to a serious art film that was not intended to titillate in any way, and the film was eventually vindicated on its artistic merits. 32 years later, apparently not much has changed. Our moral guardians are still hitting the roof over anything that even suggests child pornography to them, even when it’s not child pornography. Never mind that underage kids actually do have sex in the real world (shocking, I know, but true) – which doesn’t justify child molestation, of course, and I would never make that claim. Just that it happens, and that a fictional depiction of it doesn’t equal pornography any more than a simulated depiction of adults having sex equals pornography.

So the question becomes, if we decide that A Serbian Film is unfit for adults to view, where does it end? Do we ban Lolita (either version)? Taxi Driver? Pretty Baby? The Blue Lagoon? Kids? Hounddog? The Runaways? Thirteen? Baby Doll? All of these films, and many more, suggest underage kids having sex either with each other or with adults. None of them are child pornography. They simply depict a fact of life – you don’t have to approve of that fact of life, just acknowledge that it exists. And you can choose to watch or not watch any of those films. But if you watch them, you have to deal with that subject at least on a very basic level. I recently watched David Schwimmer’s film Trust, which depicts an underage girl being seduced and raped by a much older man. It’s pretty clear that the film is against this act, but the film does portray it as something that happens. Do we ban that one too, even though Schwimmer clearly means it as a warning to parents to pay attention to what their kids are doing? Sure, let’s bury our heads in the sand and pretend the subject doesn’t exist. Will that really help protect your children? Doubtful.

Having said all that, I mostly want to see the film because I can. Because I have a right as a viewer to decide for myself what I watch. Do I expect it to be disturbing and disgusting? Of course I do. I am well aware of its content. I would be disturbed if I wasn’t disgusted by it. That is the appropriate reaction to have, since that is the reaction they are trying to provoke. If people view the film and are outraged by it, perhaps they should direct that outrage towards people who commit real acts of violence towards children rather than a goddamn movie. Write your Congressman or volunteer to help kids who have been abused. For myself, I am going to watch the film and, whether I hate it or appreciate it, I know that my opinion will be mine. If someone wants to print up T-shirts that read “I survived A Serbian Film”, I’d gladly wear one because I know I will survive it as a thinking, rational adult. And I think the rest of us will as well.

Posted in Psycho Therapy | 3 Comments »