Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

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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3 Responses to “Harsh Times: A Viewer’s Responsibility”

  1. Bryan said

    One of the best articles I’ve read on Serbian Film. I’m choosing not to watch it but understand why someone would…and your comparison of this movie to modern times was a million percent on target. Great article

  2. CinemaPsycho said

    Thanks man! Appreciate the comments.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve decided to change the last line. I don’t think it quite says what I intended to say. So I need to clarify that. I don’t think people are idiots if they choose not to watch the film… that’s not what I meant. So I’ll change that soon.

  3. […] – which he thought would be “fun” – and re-awakens his humanity a little. CinemaPsycho, reviewing A Serbian Film, covered this superbly: There is a certain contingent of fans (usually […]

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