Images from Saw

The visuals alternate between color sequences providing a kind of "objective" view of men in their prison and...

... a kind of lunatic god's eye view that's represented by grainy black and white video.

In Saw, God is a lunatic who feels...

... compelled to mete out some kind of justice.

Images from The Machinist

To create this existential horror film, director Brad Anderson made a link between an industrial environment and the character's existential crisis. He used a muted industrial palette for much of the film, which he shot in Spain to find a kind of hands-on machine shop, not the high tech ones like those found in the U.S.

The street signs that mark the locale as specifically "American" all had to be added. In that sense, the image of the U.S. that emerges here bears the same relation to reality as Trevor's screen memories do.

Christian Bale lost 62 pounds to play the lead role. At the time of the filming he weighed 120 pounds. His gaunt look gives him something of the air of a Goya figure. It also fits the motif of...

... of the book he's reading, The Idiot. Many of his delusions seem to derive from Dostoyevsky's plot and the book's motif runs throughout the film.


Images from Bad Boy Bubby

In an excruciating opening sequence, a middle aged woman treats her adult child as if her were an infant.

She washes and shaves him, and she feeds him a toddler-mix of white bread chunks, sugar, and warm milk, before making him sit on a chair while she goes out. Much later she punishes him for soiling the chair, and still later she tells him to fuck her. The images of abuse throughout are extremely difficult to watch.

Mom always wears a gas mask to go out to do her errands and has told Bubby that the poisonous gas outside would poison him if he ever tried to leave. Given the initial palette and grunge aesthetic of the film, we initially accept this as some kind of post-apocalypse horror show. It's only much later, when a kittlen manages to get into the room Bubby shares with Mom, that we realize that we like Bubby have been duped.

Bubby escapes and begins to explore the world. He has a slightly mad demeanor and can only mimic what other people do.

His mimicry is put to good use in the music world. He hooks up with a punk rock band and makes a name for himself by simply channeling and repeating all the horrible things his mother used to say to him.

Oldboy: Split-screen sequences situate us in time, that of 9/11, but they also...

... indicate the kind of mental split exoerienced by the protagonist.

In Bad Boy Bubby director De Heer placed microphones next to actor Nicholas Hope's ears, so that every time he moves his head, the sound perspective changes. For that reason the DVD carries a sound advisory: "Since the sound is from Bubby's perspective, the audio imaging is often flipped from the action on the screen."


Freaky treasures

As one friend remarked, to work on Asian and European cinema while living in the United States is — in the present commercial climate — akin to doing anthropology before ethnography changed the discipline (the time when strange and curious artifacts were exhibited and studied, completely outside of their cultural and social context). Changes in mainstream commercial distribution patterns in the United States mean that there is no longer any coherent attempt to bring foreign films to U.S. audiences, certainly not the kind of coherent attempt that companies like New Yorker once made. Instead of buying and distributing groups of films — all of Miike Takashi or all new Japanese cinema, for example — companies pick individual titles that appear to have a marketing hook.[15][open endnotes in new window] Outré sex and violence is one obvious such hook, but there are others. For example, more Afghan and Iranian films were released in the United States in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy. And earlier, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was — temporarily — increased access to Eastern European films.

But even when several Japanese or German films are bought and distributed, they are shown as interesting, individual artifacts, from which the viewer is expected to infer an entire culture and an entire industrial relation (that is, the individual film’s connection both to world cinema and to its own national cinema). The films are shown out of context. Those of us who live outside the festival/cinémathèque beltway frequently do not see the other films — national dramas and genre films, for example — to which these U.S. theatrical releases might be responding. And frequently we know little of the cultural or political tensions within the societies that produce them. As a result, the main selling point about foreign films tends to become their very exoticism. They seem to be in conversation with some other film tradition, with some other culture, which we do not entirely understand. They become, in Chris Anderson’s words, “freaky treasures.”[16]

The epistemological problems posed by the current U.S. system are a little less severe for those attempting to study international generic developments in art horror. Although the inclusion of titles (particularly those by unknown directors) in a list can seem haphazard, collector companies and specialty houses do make a coherent attempt to represent national cinemas (within a limited generic scope), generic trends (subgenres) and auteurs. Italian horror and gialli, for example, are well-represented in catalogues and on websites. Thus it has been possible to get a sense of the different trends and tensions in their generic development from the 1970s to the 90s. Certainly, it has been easier to get a complete sense of the evolution of Dario Argento’s career during this period (since the collector sites also sell tapes of his television productions and interviews), than it is to get a good sense of the evolution of Godard’s work with Anne-Marie Miéville. Claude Chabrol’s Le Cri du hibou (1987) and other French thrillers of the 1980s were available for purchase from Luminous prior to their mainstream U.S. commercial distribution; so those of us working in art horror could look at the move toward horror themes in Chabrol’s career as well as get some sense of the horrific developments in 1980s French polars and thriller films (La Balance 1982, One Deadly Summer 1983). The fact that the same companies also sold splatter French gorefest movies (Jean Rollin’s films, for example) helped to provide some of the cinematic context against which to read the increased violence in thriller/art-horror flicks. Just how transgressive (in the French context) was the violent climax of Chabrol’s 1995 La Cérémonie and how did it compare with the gory narration ending Nancy Meckler’s Sister My Sister (1994), a British film based on a similar story? These questions can be approached now, through judicious purchases from the collector catalogue companies.

That is not to say, however, that all the epistemological problems outlined above can be neatly avoided if one sticks with the art-horror genre and turns to alternative DVD sources. Part of the problem U.S. critics have had in reading the recent art horror French formation which James Quandt calls “the new French extremity” (the films of Catherine Breillat, François Ozon, Gaspar Noé, etc.)[17] , for example, rests with distribution problems. While the new French films have been distributed here and are readily available on DVD, the Beur and banlieue films against which (at least in part) they must be read are rarely seen outside the festival circuit.[18] If you do not speak French or Arabic, and you do not have access to a North African or Moroccan store, you will be able to locate only a handful of select banlieue titles in the United States. Even within the festival circuit, they can be maddeningly difficult to find; one title one year, one title the next and then one or two years of no titles at all. So it is nearly impossible for U.S. viewers to gain a good sense of the kind of impact they have had on western audiences and young French filmmakers. And, of course, if we do not visit France or Europe all that often, or have regular access to the local media, we can easily forget just how tense the race-class situation is right now in Paris.

The current system of distribution should make intelligent critics like Dargis wary of making sweeping qualitative judgments about arthouse cinema and the devolution of taste. At least it should dictate that reviewers frame their comments with the caveat that market forces have helped to delimit and impoverish the range of cinemas which U.S. audiences are readily able to see. Some critics — most notably Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader — do routinely remind readers that many of the best Asian and European films do not receive theatrical distribution at all.[19] Or they receive such limited distribution that only critics (those who watch films for a living) or collectors (those who track films as a kind of obsessional avocation) are able to see them.

The new extremity

The Dargis review of Park’s work (with which I began this essay) is interesting in the way it links some disparate trends in art horror under one rubric: the new extreme cinema. In part, this naming is itself a function of distribution. As Dargis notes, Park’s works are distributed by the British-based Tartan Films,

“which puts out works of undisputed artistic worth, genre classics, and pure schlock under the rubric Asia Extreme.”[20]

Asia Extreme also distributes Breillat’s Anatomy of Hell (2004), a fact which enables Dargis to link new French “extreme” cinema and Asian horror in interesting ways. So Takeshi Miike’s Audition (1999) is mentioned here alongside Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (Irreversible, 2002) and South Korean director Kim ki-Duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring (2003). Along with Park, these directors, Dargis writes,

“have earned critical and institutional recognition, partly because of their ability to invent ever more visually arresting ways to turn violence into entertainment.”[21]

Certainly, there are similarities that suggest comparison. But while I think Dargis is right that there is a certain extreme quality to the violence in contemporary French and Asian films, I do not think it is helpful to homogenize the traditions — as though all “visually arresting ways to turn violence into entertainment” ultimately mean the same thing, or even have the same visceral effect. Certainly, Oldboy invokes a despairing masochism that I am not sure is present in the new French films. In even as masochistic a work as Dans ma peau (In My Skin, 2002), Marina De Van’s film about cutting, mutilation is accompanied by a kind of erotic euphoria rather than the almost unbearable guilt which accompanies it in Oldboy. And the reversal of shock effects in Irréversible and in François Ozon’s recent 5x2 (2004), both of which begin with rape scenes, yields a totally different affect (and reading strategy) than the shift to violent-horror (in the second half of the film) which Audition visits upon its audience.

Interestingly Park’s success with Oldboy at Cannes provides the jumping-off point for what ultimately amounts to an invective (by Dargis) against the new extreme cinema — both French and Asian. For, in many ways, Oldboy is an extremely old-fashioned film. And it also intersects with other trends in art-horror — trends which I suspect Dargis would find less objectionable than the “new extremity” and which sadly go unmentioned in her critique.

Oldboy begins with a kidnapping. Oh Dae-su [Min-Sik Choi], an unruly drunk, is abducted one rainy night and imprisoned in a room for no apparent reason. Drugged and hypnotized, he spends the next fifteen years in a state of near madness, wondering who is keeping him prisoner and why. Suddenly released (the rationale for his release is as unknown to him as the reason for his capture), he sets out to find his abductor and exact revenge. But his captor has an agenda of his own. He gives Oh Dae-su an assignment. The former captive has five days to find out who instigated his abduction and why, or Mido [Hye-jeong Kang], the young woman who has been helping him and whom he has grown to love, will be killed.

There is a great deal of violence in the film, but surprisingly little gore. As in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1991), the most gruesome scenes actually take place off-screen. The visual suggestion that someone is using a claw hammer to forcibly extract teeth — and revenge — is enough alone to make many viewers look away (it is perhaps no surprise that Tarantino was on the Cannes jury which awarded Park the prize). Much of the violence that does take place on screen has a comic book quality that mitigates the effect. For example, an animated line appears on screen and seems to link Oh Dae-Su to a potential informant at the opening of one menacing moment. And there is a black-humor sequence about suicide that seems almost Monty Pythonesque in its abruptness. In addition, there are continual shifts in register (at one point Mido imagines herself on a subway train with an enormous ant) that work to occasionally blunt, or at least distract us from, the film's humanistic message — that revenge is pointless.

I believe this last aspect of Oldboy — its lack of a consistent humanistic tone — brings it closest to the films that James Quandt has dubbed “the New French Extremity”[22] and makes it part of the new “extreme” arthouse cinema that so troubles Dargis. As with the affective films of Breillat and Noé, it is difficult to know where on the ideological spectrum to place Oldboy, difficult to find anything like the film’s “moral center.”[23] In that sense, the film itself becomes something of an extension of the jumbled television images that Oh Dae-su sees during his fifteen years of captivity. The serious and the trivial, the deadly and the banal are juxtaposed into one vast sociopolitical cultural jumble.

But the film also taps into another cycle of art-horror movies, the new spate of which, for want of a better term, I will term guilt-trauma films. These include Bad Boy Bubby, James Wan’s Saw (2004), and Brad Anderson’s The Machinist (2004), films in which male protagonists find themselves imprisoned without fully understanding why. Like the protagonists of Saw and The Machinist, Dae-su only knows that he is guilty and must discover or (as in the case of Trevor Reznik/Christian Bale in The Machinist) remember what he has done. The film's incarceration sequence is, in many ways, Oldboy's strongest and most unbearable moment. Here we watch Dae-Su struggle to make sense of his situation, escape (by digging a hole in the wall) and keep sane. As with all such incarceration films, it becomes abundantly clear here what a tenuous hold on sanity even the most grounded of us really have. Although he has a pencil and is able to keep a sort of prison diary, Dae-su chooses to keep track of time by tattooing lines on his skin (one for each year of imprisonment). In part, this chronicle-on-the-flesh works to ensure that he will not be unmarked by what has happened to him, that — like victims of Nazi concentration camps — he will carry a permanent sign of freedom's arbitrary nature.

Each of these films has a strong tone of existential alienation and angst. In that sense they have a great deal in common with modernist arthouse films of a bygone era. Saw unfolds like a horror version of Sartre’s No Exit, as two men awaken to find themselves chained on opposite sides of a room — with what appears to be a dead body between them. The Machinist pays homage to Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. And Bad Boy Bubby is a sad and terrifying meditation on Sartre’s famous dictum that existence precedes essence. Abused and kept locked in a room for thirty-five years, Bubby has become a product of his environment. When he finally escapes, he has no point of reference against which to judge the world and can only mimic what others say and do to him. Like Bubby, Oldboy builds audience sympathy for its main character during the incarceration sequence. Voice-over narration gives us access to his thoughts, and the use of split screen (media images from the TV playing on the right, while Dae-su waits on the left) constantly reminds us of his sudden removal from history (and, incidentally, how much time is passing).

In terms of distribution, the guilt-trauma films have fared somewhat better than the European and Asian films discussed earlier in this article. And since two of them — The Machinist and Saw — are U.S. films, it is easier to see them within their cultural context.[24] Both films received wide theatrical distribution and the DVDs have been picked up by Blockbuster and other major outlets. Oldboy is becoming easier to track since Netflix and Nicheflix have purchased it, but for a long time it was available in the United States only as a promise (there were websites, but it was not clear when the DVD would actually become available).

The Australian-made Bad Boy Bubby has suffered the most in this regard. Arguably the best film in the cycle, it has received little play in the United States despite winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival. This is depressing, given the film’s artistic and experimental qualities. Using a method similar to the one employed by John Cassavetes, director De Heer shot the film in sequence. In order to build sympathy for the main character, he experimented with aural-perspective, creating a soundscape unlike anything I have heard before in cinema. Finally, he used thirty-two cinematographers to shoot discrete scenes in the film. None of the cinematographers saw previous footage, so the film unfolds as a remarkable series of vignettes or shorts, which are held together (and given continuity) primarily by the sound. From a purely formal point of view, therefore, the film needs to be seen, studied, and discussed. The fact that it also tells a moving and intelligent story simply underscores its importance.


What I have aimed to do in this essay is to open up some of the antithetical impulses in art horror for discussion, and also to revisit and update the taste culture arguments that characterize my book Cutting Edge. I have chosen Dargis’ review as a point of departure, not out of any desire to paint her as obtuse. Rather, precisely because she is a perceptive critic (particularly in the area of horror cinema), her review of Park seems emblematic of a larger set of cultural blind spots. That there is a continued replay of the age-old taste debate is depressing for scholars who work in this area. But it is also a reminder how almost willfully ignorant of our own cultural history we are. And the ongoing tendency to speak as though everyone in a country like the United States has equal access to festival culture becomes here a necessary reminder of just how class-inflected the debates over taste remain.[25]

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