2008, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 50, spring 2008
Representations of the body in pain
and the cinema experience in torture-porn
by Gabrielle Murray
"Civilization itself in its language and its literature records the path that torture in its unconscious miming of the deconstruction of civilization follows in reverse: the protective, healing, expansive acts implicit in “host” and “hostel” and “hospitable” and “hospital” all converge back in “hospes,” which in turn moves back to the root “hos” meaning house, shelter, or refuge; but once back at “hos,” its generosity can be undone by an alternative movement forward into “hostis,” the source of “hostility” and “hostage” and “host” — not the host that willfully abandons the ground of his power in acts of reciprocity and equality but the “host” deprived of all ground, the host of the Eucharist, the sacrificial victim."
— Elaine Scarry (The Body in Pain 44-45)
Whenever possible I avoid gruesome horror films. I don’t find pleasure or purpose in my own terror. On those occasions when I have been cajoled by friends or for some other forgotten necessity have had to see one, the apprehension fills me with dread. My imagination works hard in anxious anticipation to conjure up what I will see, but it fails me. I can never quite picture the forthcoming terrors. Instead, I envisage a dark vacuum of wisps, shadows and trails of half-formed shapes, always tinted in dark red, pungent yellow and black. My anxiety increases in equal measure. In the cinema, I cover my eyes and look away before the slashing, grinding and cutting even begins.
But I do love violent films — the adrenaline high — the ecstasy of kinetic activity. An explicit, intense violent action can bring us face to face with corporeality, the transient nature of our mortality. Back in 1976, Vivian Sobchack in “The Violence Dance: A Personal Memoir of Death in the Movies” reminded us of this human tendency when she said, we humans attempt to
“hide from the frightening reality of our fragile innards by believing in the strength of plastic and supermarkets. Yet we [are] fascinated as we have always been, by blood and tissue and bone” (82).
It is this internal knowledge — this psychic and somatic meaning — I find in Peckinpah’s choreographed opening and closing sequences of The Wild Bunch (1969). He weaves real-time kinetic action with slow-motion impact capturing the annihilation of flesh — that stunning moment between a body in life and a body in death. Here too, I think of the humanity of Tarantino’s Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) lying on a dirty floor, his blood leaking from a bullet wound, gasping, crying, and slowly dying through what seems like the reel time of Reservoir Dogs (1992). Rarely has death been so raw, so unromantic — so painfully long. Stanley Cavell says of the beings that people cartoons that as
“[b]easts which are pure spirits, they avoid or deny, the metaphysical fact of human beings, that they are condemned to both souls and bodies” (171).
Cavell is speaking of Mickey Mouse and his cohort but I think the recent use of CGI and animation in film leaves us with an interesting quandary. Sin City (Frank Miller & Robert Rodriguez, 2005)is a wonder in the way it uses cartooning but still creates a brutal and bloody impact. The animation and oscillation of actual characters means we transfer our allegiance, our empathy, between their “flesh and blood” images and their graphic representations in a way that maintains a feeling of reality — that these animated figures are mortal and damned. However, none of these films are as explicit as the contemporary trend in the horror genre.
The film critic David Edelstein’s review “Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn” appeared in the 6th February 2006 issue of the New York Magazine. Edelstein, commenting on the upsurge in extreme, prolonged graphic torture, abduction, rape and dismemberment in films such as The Devil’s Rejects (Rob Zombie 2005), Saw (James Wan 2004),[open endnotes in new window] Wolf Creek (Greg Mclean 2005) and Hostel (Eli Roth 2005), dubbed the phenomenon “torture porn.” The label stuck. The box-office success of films like the Saw series and Hostel stunned many critics; most seemed bewildered by young audiences’ thirst for such graphic fare. While keeping an eye on the public debate around this trend, I managed to avoid most of these films, finding excuses for not seeing them. I did, however, see Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek, but I saw it at the drive-in, glad of my smudged windscreen softening the visions before me. Furthermore, I consoled myself by holding tight to the knowledge that Crocodile Dundee’s psychopathic doppelganger Mick was really friendly John Jarrett from Australian drama and children’s TV.
What I haven’t as yet made clear is that one of my main research interests is the aesthetics and experiential aspects of screen violence. I teach a course on violence and the cinema — and for the last couple of years my students have been talking about the new horror, “torture porn.” Fortuitously I happened to see a brief interview with the articulate director Eli Roth promoting the release of his new film, Hostel II. In regards to the first Hostel’s box office success and this trend in explicit horror, Roth commented that teenagers who were 10 when 9/11 happened are now 16 or 17. They have “grown up being told you are going to get blown-up. Terror Alert Orange… They want something to scream at” that is as shocking as the events of their lives.
An interesting observation considering that, reacting to a backlash against its apocalyptic underbelly, the U.S. entertainment industry post-9/11 has also displayed a tendency to cosset its audiences. These “torture porn” productions are predominantly U.S. ones, not surprising considering the United States has the most powerful global film industry. However, this appetite for “torture-porn” is not restricted to U.S. directors and audiences. Besides Wolf Creek, the original Saw was made by the Australian Leigh Whannell and James Wan, who is Malaysian. Wan went to film school at RMIT in Australia with Whannell. These films have gained broad international success.
Hostel II's director, Eli Roth’s statement about needing something to scream at sent me to Edelstein’s review, which says:
"Fear supplants empathy and makes us all potential torturers, doesn’t it? Post-9/11, we’ve engaged in a national debate about the morality of torture, fueled by horrifying pictures of manifestly decent men and women (some of them, anyway) enacting brutal scenarios of domination at Abu Ghraib. And a large segment of the population evidently has no problem with this. Our righteousness is buoyed by propaganda like the TV series 24, which devoted an entire season to justifying torture in the name of an imminent threat: a nuclear missile en route to a major city. Who do you want defending America? Kiefer Sutherland or terrorist-employed civil-liberties lawyers?"
The images of U.S. and U.K. military personnel torturing prisoners were initially brought to the public’s attention by a 60 Minutes II news report on 28th April 2004, and an article by Seymour M. Hersh in The New Yorker Magazine, posted on-line 30 April 2004 and published in the May 10 issue. Edelstein’s suggestion that this media coverage helped feed the escalation of uninhibited images of torture, degradation and mutilation in film is echoed in most reviews and commentaries on the phenomenon. How can we draw correlations between our exposure to images of torture, such as the images of the victims of Abu Ghraib, and the escalation of explicit representations in the horror genre? Why are films that represent extreme forms of violence and degradation currently popular?
Prior to this growth in explicit productions, the horror genre had been in one of its cyclic declines. The overblown reflexivity of films like the Scream series (Wes Craven 1996-2000) and Scary Movie (Keenen Ivory Wayans 2000) resulted in a comic trend in the horror genre, to the point where it seemed to have lost its edge. It no longer scared its audience. Since 2004, the success of horror films such as Freddy vs. Jason (Ronny Yu, 2003), and the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Marcus Nispel, 2003),began an escalation in the production of these explicit films. The industry reasoning for this increased production is straightforward. In a period of mounting pressures due to diverse markets, new technologies and platforms, these films have proven to be financially successful. Hostel was produced for under $5 million, yet it grossed close to $50 million in the United States and around $80 million world wide (IMDB). These films are cheap to make partly because they do not need expensive locations or sets. They are formulated on special effects rather than featuring stars who command huge salaries. Furthermore, the U.S. industry, responding to the increasing popularity of extreme Asian cinema with audiences and directors, has exploited this influence by using Asian directors, remaking films and increasing the explicitness of its own product. Roth is one of the directors who acknowledge this debt to Asian cinema: in Hostel, he paid homage to the famous Japanese horror director Takashi Miike by casting him in a cameo role.
What also needs to be acknowledged is the issue concerning under-age access to the release of R rated films either through renting them or buying them. Anecdotally, I know from discussion with 14 to 16 year olds that many of them have seen the Saw series, Wolf Creek and Hostel. Currently, they are waiting with anticipation for Hostel II to appear on DVD so they can rent, buy or borrow it from a friend. The longevity of this trend is another issue to be considered. Recently a brief article on CNN.com (17 July 2007) noted that Hostel II had grossed only $17 million in the United States and Canada, much less than the millions generated by the first film. Similar trends have been seen across the industry and there is a sense the market is now in overload and fickle audiences have had enough. Production companies such as After Dark Films, “anticipating the end of the torture flick trend,” are reducing their planned output (CNN.com).
Whether this is the end of “torture–porn” is yet to be revealed, but increasingly graphic scenes appear in a broader range of mainstream and art-house releases. We've seen attacks on the human body from the protracted beating, lashing, and scourging of Jesus in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ (2004) through to the latest Bond film offering Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006), in which Daniel Craig had his genitals whipped, while tied to a seatless chair. The suggested relation between our increased visual knowledge of violence and torture in the “real” world — garnered from images on television and the Internet — with the escalation of representations of explicit violence in the commercial and creative medium of film, can seem glib. After exposure to images of real torture, why would audiences then want to see films in which enact representations of dramatized torture in intimate detail and for protracted periods of time? What kind of people are we?
In simple terms, fictional cinema is a cultural object which is creative. It might exist, react to and reflect upon events in the world, but what it does best is create imaginary worlds. Like all art forms it is also capable of insightful social commentary. Also, as a commercial product it must respond to the mood of changing milieus to maintain audience interest and survive economically. And it must adjust to changing screen and viewing experiences. Historically, critics have seen the horror genre as functioning like a Richter scale, charting the unease in society of generational subconscious fears. Remarking on the “torture porn” trend in horror films, for example, Ross Douthat observes one “might note…a thread of imperial anxiety appropriate to an age of blowback and terrorist violence.” He further explains,
"the gorefests of the 1970s terrified a nation that was coming home from Vietnam; they were about the darkness waiting in the heartland’s heart, whether in Leatherface’s Texas or Michael Myer’s Illinois. Some of their contemporary imitators recapitulate that theme, but others … send their young Americans abroad to be slaughtered, in Old Worlds and Third Worlds that the New Worlders visit without even beginning to comprehend" (54).
This easy linkage of national events and cinematic representation has a long history. J. David Slocum argues that there is an overriding perception that an upsurge in “film violence” occurred in relation to the social upheaval of "the 60s." In 1967 Pauline Kael branded this escalation in film violence a cinema “of blood and holes,” while retrospectively Paul Monaco and Stephen Prince have termed this development as, correspondingly, a “cinema of sensation” and “ultraviolence” (Slocum 13).
The 60s in the United States is seen as a period of extreme unrest. The country was at war in Vietnam; civil rights, peace and women’s movements flourished; iconic figures like John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were assassinated. Television not only bought images of the war into homes but also pitted another leisure source against the cinema. Losing popularity and perceived as out of touch with the contemporary milieu, Hollywood introduced the ratings code, which enabled the development of films catering to specific demographics. This resulted in the production of films dealing with adult themes, specifically incorporating sex and violence. New Hollywood then evolves due to the breakdown of the studios, the end of the production code, the fragmentation of audiences, and an increasingly decentralized mode of production. Feature films also incorporated alternative filmmaking practices such as low budget, auteur driven, foreign influences, and experimentation in editing, multi-camera shooting and special effects. I offer here a condensed “pat” history with which most of us are familiar, and it is similar to the argument that the increased carnage in films arises out of and in response to the “increased carnage” in society. As Slocum claims "film violence" has become a trope closely associated with that of “the 60s.” While Slocum agrees with J. Hoberman that “public attitudes toward violent imagery are historically determined,” he further argues that the naturalizing that occurs through the development of such tropes has obscured further debate (Slocum 17). Moreover, Slocum regrets a lack of analysis of the “nature of the linkages between cinematic and social violence” since much of the discussion remains “circumstantial and speculative” (17).
The primary theoretical model supporting this interpretation of a connection between film violence and social conditions is the “media effects” model, which developed from behavioural science and communications studies analyses of the “instrumentality of media” (Slocum, 23). For the cinema the research question becomes: What are the behavioural “effects” of viewing violent films? For most film scholars, when they think about the media effects model, their focus is on the audience. Does the viewing of violent film affect audiences and what is that effect? While most of us agree that a “vulnerable” spectator might be inspired by film violence to act out, most of us also concede that this is a rare kind of film viewing. What the cinema mostly does, and one of the main reasons we continue to engage with its content, is that it affects us — it makes us feel.
Slocum’s argument draws attention to the way in which this "media effects" discourse both underpins and restricts many of the debates about film violence. He argues the interpretation of film violence as an “effect” has become naturalized in critical discourse and legitimated through funding and policy. This naturalization has had two distinct results in writings on horror. It limits our perception of violence in the cinema to “blood and guts,” and it results in the insistence on a critical consideration of the moral stance of the film (Slocum 24). Equally important to consider when analyzing film violence, as Slocum observes, is that it can also articulate issues of power and its relations. Questions of morality restrict our analysis, while the linkage of “the 60s” to “film violence” atomizes a historical moment and ascribes to it an aesthetic and thematic effect (Slocum 23). We need only look back to the films of the “50s” or the “30s” to assess the kinds of critical problems that would occur by using this simple equation.
Currently, a similar logic of “effect” argues for a direct linkage between our current historical moment — post 9/11 — and the escalation in explicit violence on our screens. In fact, filmmakers living in a society of increasing uncertainty, war and torture have often responded by exploring this reality on film. To take one example, over 250 documentary and feature films have been made on the bloody break up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the ignition of ethnic violence there with new successor states claiming their territories (Iordanova 6). Filmmakers do often choose to make films that have a strong or political social commentary, and the act of making these kinds of films and the process of viewing them can be homeopathic. But if we consider increased representations of explicit violence in contemporary film, is such a direct correlation so clear?
To provide an obvious anecdote to the linear “effects” argument, consider the relatively low crime rate in Japan. In that culture, tolerance of explicit violence and sex in the cinema and other media is extremely high. Furthermore, if we can go on the web and see images of real victims of torture, of kidnapping and execution, why would we want to see the dramatization of these actions in films? We could look back to consider the influential nature and trajectory of the Italian postwar film movement, Neorealism. Although Neorealism left a powerful stylistic and social legacy, we can argue that this social realist style had difficulty maintaining an audience largely because people who had lived through the war wanted fantasy on their cinema screens rather than the hardships of their daily lives. To create a parallel with our own times, the war in Iraq is becoming increasingly unpopular and has declining support in the West as more troops die. The U.S. military is currently offering a $20,000 cash bonus to new recruits as the Army is unable to meet its recruitment targets. A critic could well ask if “torture porn” deals with these political and social concerns in an explicit or implicit way. Does it function as allegory? What needs or desires does it fulfil for audiences — what kind of experience does it give them? Furthermore, why are we labelling these representations of torture and degradation in contemporary cinema as “porn”?
Our general understanding of pornography is the expression in literature or art of obscene or unchaste subjects. Although Lawrence Alloway was writing in the 1970s, I find his discussion of the term in relation to media most useful. In Violent American: The Movies 1946-1964, Alloway evaluates Arthur Schlesinger’s use of the phrase “a pornography of violence” in his discussion of Bonnie and Clyde (64). The question for Alloway is this: What does the term
“pornography mean that would make it applicable to mass media?” (64).
He suggests that the criterion for understanding how this term is pertinent to representations of violence in mass media needs to be a social one. Pornography is
“visual and verbal material that exceeds what is socially tolerable in significative form” (Alloway 65).
Erotic material is legally available so it cannot be pornographic. Therefore, pornography is sexual description or depiction that is unacceptable and illegal. Yet finding agreement on a concise definition of what pornography is proves more difficult. Every country’s standard of tolerance varies and changes over time. Good examples of this in reference to feature films are the chequered censorship and distribution histories of films like Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Pasolini’s Salo (1975). Acknowledging this difficulty of defining the concept, Alloway argues:
“A social definition is the only one that can stand in the face of the variability of standards: ‘pornography’ is that which must be clandestine for a particular group at a particular time” (65).
The label “torture porn” would then by definition mean that the representations of mutilation and torture in films are pornography because they are illegal or at least unacceptable to contemporary cinema audiences. Yet as we all know, films depicting such practices are not banned. Instead, age demographics are restricted through the usual form of ratings. The ratings range from a PG for Hostel to the R ratings that most of the other films receive. Of course, DVD releases are another issue: you can currently obtain a copy of Hostel where the cover calls it “unrated.” In sum, since most viewers legally viewing these films and are 18 and older, the films do not fulfil the above requirements of pornography. The label "torture porn" remains evocative and potent — a bit punk rock. But what the use of the term "porn" suggests is untrue — that this trend provides viewers with secret, illicit, and underground works.
Perhaps we should view this label of "torture porn" as liberating because it voices the “T” word. Shortly after the release of the Abu Ghraib images, Susan Sontag in the New York Times resoundingly condemned the refusal by the Bush administration to call the actions that took place at Abu Ghraib “torture.” The shock voiced by the Bush Administration in relation to the photos and their circulation, argues Sontag, undermines and elides the fact that the true horror lies in the actions — the real thing. Commenting on the overwhelming power of images in our world, she says,
“the Western memory museum is now mostly a visual one.”
Due to new technologies like mobile phones and digital cameras, each soldier was recording a “visual” memory of his or her war experience. Military forces can no longer easily censor the circulation of information from their ranks. Now soldiers have become amateur “war photojournalists.” Enabled through digital camera, they record
“their war, their fun, their observations of what they find picturesque, their atrocities” (Sontag).
They swap images among themselves and e-mail them around the globe. We have only seen a few of these images. In fact, Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged the circulation of many more images, and videos, too — images and film we were not allowed to see (Sontag). However, since 2006, most of these images and films have been made available on Salon.com, where there is an archive of 279 photos and 19 videos of Abu Ghraib abuse first gathered by the criminal Investigation Command CID, and their timeline of events, which were acquired through a military source.
Drawing attention to the explicit nature of these images, Sontag claims torture has predominately a sexual nature. Further compounding the sexual component of the torture images is the fact that when circulated, they were interspersed with more traditionally pornographic images of soldiers having sex with each other. Historically, torture is frequently based on
“rape and pain being inflicted on the genitals” (Sontag).
Truly disturbing, the label "pornography" appropriately fits the actual images of victims of torture at Abu Ghraib. They are covert images taken in the secret of night; images of illegal acts inflicted upon human beings and shared among a cohort; they circulated for reasons of power and reasons of pleasure; illicit images that were never supposed to reach public sight. It is these images that truly fit the label “torture porn.” However, still difficult to fathom is the fact that the perpetrators of the acts and the images appeared to have
“no sense that there was anything wrong in what the pictures showed” (Sontag).
It must seem that I wish to tease out the implication in this label of "torture porn" because I might want to supplant it with a “better” one. Actually, as a descriptive title, I think “torture porn” serves its function well. Rather, my purpose is to draw attention to assumptions made about how we might correlate our knowledge of “escalating” violence worldwide and its social representation in visual images, specifically those of torture, and an upsurge in explicit images of violence and degradation in contemporary fiction film. Non-profit organizations like Amnesty International work tirelessly to draw our attention to incidences of torture throughout the world, yet many of us take little notice of their efforts. The images of torture from Abu Ghraib — shocking in their stark bleakness — for a while effectively focused attention on the morality of torture in the public realm. In discussing social issues as she described the “torture-porn” trend, Lynden Barber thus writes:
“While asking us politely not to mention the T-word, the US has admitted to the use at its Cuban detention centre of techniques including near-drowning, extremes of heat and cold, and 24 hour lighting” (25).
But why would social revelation and debates result in the popularity of feature fiction “torture-porn” films that animate experiences of torture, mutilation, dismemberment, castration and cannibalism? David Edelstein queried, in this regard,
“Fear supplants empathy and makes us all potential torturers, doesn’t it?”
Thinking about fear and the potential for torture in all of us is a crucial one to consider in relation to government and military use of torture and society’s acquiescence. However, my purpose here is to tease out some untested connections in a critical debate that links increased public knowledge of images of torture, increased representations of explicit violence in films, and audiences’ desires to experience these graphic representations. Do we as spectators become complicit due to our fear supplanting our empathy? I can no longer ignore these "torture porn" fiction feature films.
In June 2007 I was doing some work in London when Hostel II was released in cinemas there, so I decided I must see it — but I had to do it in the middle of the day. It needed to be light when I resurfaced from the cinema. Before discussing this film and others in the trend, I wish to take a detour through Elaine Scarry’s key work on torture in The Body in Pain: The Making and the Unmaking of the World. I find it uncanny the way in which the title and setting of Eli Roth’s Hostel films evoke all the nuances that Scarry illuminates of the comfort, terror and deconstructions of the word “hostel” from refuge to hostility to sacrificial victim. Most of us think of torture as the infliction of excruciating pain so as to extort a confession of “secret information.” In fact, as Sontag notes, one of the definitions from the 1984 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, of which the U.S. is a signatory, torture is
“'any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession'….The 1984 convention declares, 'No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.' And all covenants on torture specify that it included treatment intended to humiliate the victim, like leaving prisoners naked in cells and corridors."
It is clear that what happened at Abu Ghraib is torture, but the meanings and purpose of torture are more complicated than appearances. Scarry agrees that torture is a primary physical act of inflicting pain and a
“primary verbal act, the interrogation” (28).
But she furthers our understanding of torture's mechanism and function when she argues that in spite of the interrogation and the inflicting of pain, to posit that interrogation has obtaining information as its aim is a ruse. Ultimately, torture is a process whereby recognition of weaponry as agency enables a denial of the victim’s pain and its translation into the assertion of the power of the torturer’s regime. Scarry’s discussion of the process through which this occurs is complex, but a brief outline will enable us to have a general understanding of the structure of torture.
Having no referent or external object, Scarry insists that pain not only resists language, it actively destroys it. Our compensation for the ambiguity of bodily pain — the felt reality of those who have it with the inability of others to share it and therefore confirm its existence — is that we externalize it by recognizing its characteristic in weapons (16). However, “perceptual confusion” arises because rather than the weapon symbolizing pain, the language of agency fosters the conflation of pain and power (18). The extreme bodily pain associated with torture is caught up with “the problem of power” (12). What enables the conversion of this “absolute pain into the fiction of absolute power is an obsessive, self conscious display of agency” (27). Furthermore, in torture the negative use of the language of agency achieves a “sadistic potential” (18). In torture, observes Scarry, it is in part the
“obsessive display of agency that permits one person’s body to be translated into another person’s voice, that allows real human pain to be converted into a regime’s fiction of power”(18).
Her thesis elucidates how torture is not used to unearth “secret information” in wars and political struggles. Rather, torture functions to confirm the power of one group by denying the bodily pain, the voice, the agency, ultimately the civilization of the other side through conversion of an individual’s pain. As we apply Scarry's theory to the cinematic phenomenon of “torture-porn,” it is important to understand how she sees torture structured as an event — the playing out of a monstrous drama. Scarry observes:
"Torture is a process which not only converts but announces the conversion of every conceivable aspect of the event and the environment into an agent of pain. It is not accidental that in the torturer’s idiom the room in which the brutality occurs was called the ‘production room’ in the Philippines, the ‘cinema room’ in South Vietnam, and the ‘blue lit stage’ in Chile: built on these repeated acts of display and having as its purpose the production of a fantastic illusion of power, torture is a grotesque piece of compensatory drama" (28).
Although interrogation is a feature in both war and thriller genres, films that fit within the “torture porn” trend never represent it. Instead these films bring us face to face with what is routinely denied in the process of military, state and government sanctioned “torture”: the event is reduced to a cruel, clear dynamic of power relations. The victim’s power is stolen from them through imprisonment. Then the victim’s agency is annihilated by the process of torture — not just through the infliction of excruciating pain, but its anticipation and duration. In these films there is no attempt to suggest legitimization for the torturer’s actions. They clearly display the fact that the torturer’s pleasure is his or her absolute power over the victim, events and situation. This sadistic pleasure is intimately bound to the torturer’s omnipotent and omniscient power. Yet there must be a survivor – the “final girl” who Carol Clover identifies in Men, Women and Chainsaws as empowering because she escapes to live another day or even returns to kill the “monster”. Someone has to escape to allow the audience to surface and the series to continue. Having now seen many of these films, I find one thing consistent within them. That is the staging of the performance of the torture, the maiming, the dismemberment.
I cannot remember ever feeling so apprehensive on entering a cinema as on going to see Hostel II. I have to remind myself it is only make-believe. The cinema is deserted except for two old men sitting up the back of the theatre. I hate the fear that plays on my mind and lets me imagine they are in the cinema for all the wrong reasons. And it scares me. Thankfully a twenty-something couple enter carrying popcorn and hotdogs. Their dyed blonde hair and junk food normalize the experience. The commercials start. The screen seems enormous. Light, fluffy advertisements ease my apprehension but not for long. The cinema begins to darken and my body tenses. A line from a newspaper article pops into my head — horror has finally got “its edge back.” Now I’m sick of the trailers, sick of the suspense.
Finally the rating appears, and the by-line: “Producer Quentin Tarantino presents.” Distorted, dark images appear, sounds of running water and burning, a background rumble, a blurred figure burns a picture. The screen is huge. Flames eat the picture — the evidence? There is a rumbling, bubbling dangerous sound. In my seat, in the dark, I am bought back to my senses, to my sensing being in this moment, in this environment. The film begins with a rejoinder to the first Hostel. Our survivor, Paxton “the final boy” doesn’t last long. We learn there is a spa in Slovakia — a kind of hunting club symbolized with the image of a bloodhound — rich people go there to kill and torture and maim people. They pay money to do this. Everyone including the authorities seems to be complicit. Paxton’s friends are all dead, but he miraculously managed to escape. Too scared to tell the police or his friends’ parents, Paxton is hiding out with his girlfriend in the country, convinced “they” are going to get him. And they do. We find him one morning in the familiar domestic bliss of the kitchen. He’s missing his head and the pet cat is making a meal of the bloody stump of his neck.
Now it takes a long time for something else to happen, but we know something is going to happen. In Hostel II there is a gender switch. Three young women from the U.S. — Beth, the wealthy one, Lorna, the daggy one, and Whitney, the bitchy, slutty one — are travelling in Europe. Encouraged by an Eastern European bombshell, they take a trip to that same spa in Slovakia. As they check into the spa, we see the scanned images of their passport photos being sent around the world. Men with blackberries and mobile phones frenetically bid for the girls. That night at a festival in the local village, Lorna and Whitney disappear. From this moment on, we move between luxurious images of the peaceful spa and grisly, bloody images of a masked and leather-clad woman wielding a scythe and men in plastic gloves and jump suits using chain saws and blow torches on their victims. In this film, the surprising shift is that it is money rather than chance, virginity or ingenuity that allows Beth to buy her way out — but she also has to kill. After surprising myself by surviving this film, I went on to see others in this trend. As a result, I see in them several issues I think need to be addressed including how these films function on both global and local fronts, and how they make us feel.
For all the torture chamber horrors, Hostel II is a slick film that continually makes comments on the global and national perceptions of a stereotypical view of how people from the United States are perceived and think they are perceived in the world. The victims are Americans, the main torturers are American. When the girls are invited to go to Slovakia, they query whether there is a war going on there. Their Eastern European companion replies that there hasn’t been a war in fifty years. In Stupid White Men, Michael Moore humorously highlighted U.S. ignorance of geography and world events. The torturers fulfill another classic stereotype of believing in the power of the dollar. Money makes you immune to the law and justice, money can buy you anything — even young girls to burn, cut, maim and finally kill. The radical twist to this film is that Beth survives because she is so wealthy, she can buy all of them. It seems like a crowning indictment of U.S. consumer culture. Yet much of this critique is broad and general, produced by one-liners. As an Australian, I felt like I was watching a film that was typecasting “other” people, a different culture. This is partly because the film is not interested in developing the characters, nor our identification. What it is interested in is the staging of its horror action. In the first Hostel there is little of this kind of U.S.-directed critique. Yes, Paxton and his buddies also think there is a war in Slovakia and that money can buy you anything. But what they want to buy are “normal” things like girls and drink and drugs. More telling is the fact that in this film the torturers are a multicultural lot. This is a film that comfortably places itself within the horror genre and appears to have little interest in contemporary world events. I think we need to contextualize director Eli Roth’s rhetoric — about 9/11 and young people's desires to see on screen things as scary as they find in real life — in light of the critique we find in the second film. Roth, consciously or not, has taken on board the current debates about the relation between this trend of more explicit violence in feature films and world events. I would argue the literal critique in the second film suggests the filmmakers' informed stance.
To test Roth's thesis, I would like to consider a few other horror films of this period. Like many other Australian films, Wolf Creek plays with the powerful iconography of the bush as both a national defining symbol and an unknowable and fearful place. Yet it also picks up on an Australian criminal history involving the disappearance of hitchhikers. Two particular criminal events have been prevalent in the contemporary Australian media: the seven “backpacker murders” by Ivan Milat in the 1980s and 1990s; and the more recent disappearance of the British tourist Peter Falconio in 2001. Falconio was travelling with his girlfriend Joanne Lees, and although his body has never been found, Bradley John Murdoch was convicted of his murder in 2005. Wolf Creek has a particular resonance with local audiences yet it is still a close relation of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The international media coverage of the hitchhiker murders and the way the film plays with the internationally successful Crocodile Dundee films ensure its fascination for these audiences. Again, this film it not concerned with its character’s development or motivation. Much more time is spent on the idiosyncrasies of Mick, its psychopathic anti-hero. What the film is interested in is the place where the horror happens, how the victims are captured, the torturer’s actions, and the victim’s escape.
The Saw series is different again. More thriller than horror, the Saw films are consumed by the suspenseful intricacies of the narrative and some character development. We never know who Jigsaw, our serial killing psychopath is, but there are many cases of mistaken identity as victims are pitted against each other. The film’s concerns are universal ones. What will you do to survive? Would you take another’s life to save your own, to save your family? These films are full of existential anxiety about how we live our lives. Really the only thing all the above films have in common is the explicitness of their violent action, which is staged as a theatrical drama.
It is difficult to ascertain why audiences — specifically those under 25 — have flocked to see these films. While there are films that currently deal with 9/11 and torture in an explicit sense, I do not think that audiences are flocking to see “torture porn” as a kind of homeopathic cure for the unease and uncertainty of their world. When Roth argues that young audiences want “something to scream at” that is as shocking as the events of their lives; it almost sounds like an argument in support of a catharsis. However, I don’t think there is any literal correlation between these films and contemporary political events. But that is not to say that young audiences who feel disengaged, anxious and hopeless do not seek out these films. I think they do, but for the same reasons they have always sought alternative and explicit films out. My sense is these audiences want to feel intensity and fear. Fear that brings you into the moment, back to the body, to the senses, allows this sense of immediacy and intensity. And the intensity and fear the cinema creates is a safe one.
Bodily experience while watching horror film
Again, I would like to take a detour. When I was in the cinema watching Hostel II, I felt like I was bought back to my senses. The experience reminded me of the feeling of compression and restriction that I had in an installation by the British artist Antony Gormley called “Blind Light” at the Hayward Gallery (17 May-19 August 2007). The installation was a glass shed in the middle of a room filled with dry ice. Unseen fluorescent lights produced in the vapour-filled room a luminous white light. From the outside you could watch people disappear into its vapour. Occasionally dark, looming shapes or the imprint of a hand would appear on the clear walls, as those inside attempted to orientate themselves. On reviewing the listed ailments that would prevent you from entering, I decided I was an appropriate participant and stepped inside. A clever trick — but what a powerful one. A few steps, in seconds, I can barely see in front of me. Completely disorientated, I have no idea which way is out. I think of the fog and pollution of early industrial London, but most importantly I feel the way this loss of visual clarity has reduced and radically altered my way of experiencing this world. Instead of being in the world, or in my head and not my body – I am in my head and body — and it is very close. The light is blinding and I become a sensor of two feet of visibility that I have around me. This experience reminds me of something I have always known, but it resonates here as my eyes lose their visual orientation and my skin becomes a sensor of dampness, myself and space. I am bought back to the sentient and somatic experience of the body that is so significant in our experience of these films.
What I am talking about here is the power of the corporeal sensorium, the human bodily senses. In “Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered” Susan Buck-Morss reminds us of the original meaning of “aesthetics”:
"Aisthitikos is the ancient Greek word for that which is “perception by feeling.” Aisthisis is the sensory experience of perception. The original field of aesthetics is not art but reality — corporeal, material nature. As Terry Eagleton writes: ‘Aesthetics is born as a discourse of the body.’ It is a form of cognition, achieved through taste, touch, hearing, seeing, smell — the whole corporeal sensorium" (6).
What this reminds us of is that the body is a sensory organ, the skin — a surface, a mediating boundary — a sensual field. While our senses are cultivated to particular sensibilities and tastes, Buck Morss argues that at their core they resist “cultural domestication” (6). Our senses remind us of the fact of our biology through their
“instinctual needs for warmth, nourishment, safety, sociability” (6).
Buck Morss claims it is only in the modern era that
“aesthetics underwent a reversal of meaning….to cultural forms rather than sensible experience”(7).
In fact, the modernist project involved the training of the senses, their biological denial and their acculturation to the constructed world. Similarly, David MacDougall argues that conscious experience is much more than thought or cognition. It is made up of emotions, sensory responses and “pictures of the imagination” (2). Like Buck Morss, MacDougall draws on the original Greek meaning of aesthetics as a broad range of “culturally patterned sensory experience” (98). Specifically speaking of the filmmaking and audience experience, he argues that when we look,
“we are doing something more deliberate than seeing and yet more unguarded than thinking. We are putting ourselves in a sensory state that is at once one of vacancy and of heightened awareness” (7).
Our experience of the world is all about how we perceive it. Gormley’s installation illuminates this human perception by creating a radically altered environment that makes the participant intimately aware of his or her “own body space.” The enchantment of the cinema is that it engages us with the inhabitants on the screen in a way that we feel is real even though we know it is not. For us, the bodies in films are on one hand unworldly but “in another way, to our sense, corporeal” (MacDougall 13). MacDougall acknowledges the way the cinema generates a
“continuous interplay of stimulus and bodily responses between the spectator and screen” (20).
Drawing on Linda Williams discussion of “body genres,” he comments:
"Viewers are known to have strong physical responses to such images — of shock, flinching, faintness, sexual arousal and even vomiting. These responses underline Williams’s point that in film viewing we do not necessarily feel for others, we feel for and in ourselves. It is also a fallacy to assume that vision is simply a way of possessing as 'absent other' (as in much 'gaze' theory) or to interpret the technologies of film as a one-way extension of the senses. This, in Williams’s view, perpetuates the 'lingering Cartesianism' of the disconnected voyeur, when in fact vision is much more directly connected to our own bodily processes" (18).
What happens when we watch the explicit violence of “torture porn”? How do we respond to these images of dramatic representations of victims of capture and torture screaming as they are being burned, hacked and maimed? Most of us are not in the cinema to gloat sadistically or use the victim voyeuristically, nor do we simply masochistically identify with the victim. The audience’s experience of identification and projection is a complex one that involves perception of the world and a diffuse, shifting array of positions of engagement, affectation and identification-projection. Similarly, the cinema involves a complex process through which it “incorporates” us in the film (MacDougall 25). Referring again to William’s work, it is important to note that we don’t just project ourselves or empathize with what is going on in the scene – rather, we feel “for and in ourselves.”
This is particularly the case in “body genres” like horror and pornography that have an “excess” that exceeds and resists
“absorption into symbol, narratives and plot” (MacDougall 18).
MacDougall notes that this excess generated by “cultural ambiguity” or unfamiliarity with the subject cannot be
“easily assimilated to prior experience” (21).
The escalation of violence in “torture porn” presents us with an experience of which most of us have no prior experience. Therefore, its intensity functions as excess and its kinesthetic potential affects us in a sensory and immediate way. I want to return to Scarry’s work for a moment, where she talks about what pain does to subjectivity:
"It is intense pain that destroys a person’s self and world, a destruction experienced spatially as either the contraction of the universe down to the immediate vicinity of the body or as the body swelling to fill the entire universe. Intense pain is also language destroying: as the content of one’s world disintegrates, so the content of one’s language disintegrates; as the self disintegrates, so that which would express and project the self is robbed of its source and its subject….World, self, and voice are lost, or nearly lost, through the intense pain of torture "(35).
In no way do I wish to suggest a conflation of this extreme subjectivity destroying pain with an imaginary sensual experience of the cinema. I do not think there is any direct correlation between our access to images of torture and violence in the actual world and the development of the torture porn trend. However, Scarry’s work addresses the effect of fear and pain on subjectivity and I think this is an idea worth teasing out.
The experience of ecstasy also has the power to make us forget our individuality — make us forget subjectivity. What is fascinating for me in this discussion is that extreme pain, like ecstasy, has the power to radically alter subjectivity. While the pain of torture destroys our being in the world by reducing subjectivity to the confines of the body, or by obliterating subjectivity through the body consuming the universe, ecstasy relieves us of our subjectivity by again taking us outside of ourselves. Rooted in what are often called the more primitive functions of the brain that precede thinking, the intensity of the ecstatic experience allows us to forget ourselves, by stepping beyond ourselves.
The cinema engages us in powerful ways. As an aural and visual medium it can create a kinetic experience that involves excess. In the case of “torture porn,” this excess while perceived cannot be thoughtfully understood. But it can be experienced through the complex phenomena of the sensorium — through perception by feeling. I don’t think that
“fear supplants empathy and makes us all potential torturers.”
But I do believe that intensity and fear — a fear we feel “for and in ourselves” grants us a kind of ecstasy. We forget ourselves — our cognitive subjectivity — in the immensity of physical feeling. Apprehension, anticipation and fear bring us back to the moment, to the body, to the immediacy of the “perception of feeling.”
1. James Wan wrote and directed the first Saw film. He was born in Malaysia but went to film school in Australia where he met Leigh Whannell. Whannell came up with the story and starred in the first film. The second and third films were written by Whannell, who again acted in them. In the third film Wan and Whannell collaborated on the writing.
3. Although taking a different narrative and aesthetic approach, we can trace an escalation in explicit sexual violence in European cinema. For example, see Gaspaer Noe’s Irréversible (2002), and Catherine Breillat’s Anatomie de l'enfer (Anatomy of Hell, 2004).
5. For further discussion and links to images from Abu Ghraib, see Julia Lesage, “Links: Abu Ghraib and Images of Abuse and Torture,” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. 47 (2005). Retrieved on 10 August 2007 http://ejumpcut.org/archive/jc47.2005/links.html
Also see Joan Walsh. ed. “The Abu Ghraib Files.” Salon.com. Retrieved on 25 April 2008 http://www.salon.com/news/abu_ghraib/2006/03/14/introduction/
I also await with anticipation for the release of Errol Morris’s latest documentary S.O.P.: Standard Operating Procedures, which examines the photographs taken by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison, mostly through interviews with the people who took them. The film is in the final stage of production.
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