JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

The visual emphasis on the large columns and symmetrical aligned windows of the Hewitt family’s Texas home façade references Federalist style architectural.

In addition, the fanlight window over the home’s main entry door and its attendant sidelight windows provide additional visual links to Federalist architecture.

The triangular crown for the Hewitt house side porch evokes yet another element prominent in Federalist style architecture.

The White House, as a U.S. icon of Federalist style architecture, includes the large support columns, symmetrical rows of mullion-divided windows, the eyebrow window over the front door and the triangular crown of the portico.

As an metaphor of political corruption and manipulation, Charlie Hewitt (soon to be Hoyt Hewitt) shoots Sherriff Winston in the back as the latter man attempts to arrest Tommy Hewitt for the murder of the slaughterhouse plant manager.

Appropriating Sherriff Winston’s uniform and badge, Charlie Hewitt steals the legal and political authority to become Sherriff Hoyt Hewitt.

After killing Eric, Tommy Hewitt flays the young soldier’s face to use as his new mask for his militaristic identity, not unlike ...

…President George W. Bush, in full flight uniform, landing on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln to celebrate his ‘Mission Accomplished’ of the Iraqi Invasion.

Scattered debris litters the Texas farm road after the young adults’ jeep collides with a steer that has wandered into the middle of the highway.  This image echoes that of…

…images such as this one where a U.S. military hummer traverses a street, framed by bombed out buildings and detritus that line the road in the wake of the invasion of Iraq.

Tommy Hewitt’s final violent assault in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the Beginning leaves a trail of dead bodies and wrecked cars along the Texas highway, a horrific metaphor for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

One of the widely circulated photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib Prison, a clear failure of U.S. ideals associated with the Invasion of Iraq.

Gny. Sgt. Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) humiliates army recruit Pvt. Pyle in Full Metal Jacket (1987) in a similar manner used by …

… Sherriff Hoyt Hewitt, again played by R. Lee Ermey, humiliating draft dodger Dean in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the Beginning. The use of the same actor in both films reinforces the ideological associations of military cruelty associated with his characters.

Sherriff Hoyt’s abusive behavior and torture of Eric visually echoes …

…the actual abuse and torture of prisoners by U.S. military representatives at Abu Ghraib Prison.

 

 

As the voice over commentary on the DVD release states, the production company for TCM: the Beginning was able to use the very same run-down house, with its federalist style, that was used as Hewitt family house in the 2003 remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The original use of a decaying federalist style house in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003 may have been purely accidental, a fortuitous decision that shaped the production for TCM: the Beginning. Accident or not, the poetic function of the federalist-style house bears increased ideological weight when conjoined with the additional ideological associations prompted by many other narrative choices in the “prequel” that were not included in the 2003 remake. The semiotic elements of the Hewitt house interweave with new references such as allusions to the sanctioned torture at Abu Ghraib prison and explicit evangelical Christian references — in addition to allusions to economic depression and the abuse and corruption of political authority that had already surfaced in the remake. While Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) vaguely suggested anxieties associated with the Bush-Cheney Administration, TCM: the Beginning allegorically pummels them to death.

Within the narrative action, political corruption surfaces quite early in the film. Charlie Hewitt, patriarch of the family, acquires an alter-identity that reverberates with events associated with the Bush-Cheney Administration. As Sheriff Winston, the last remaining legitimate law officer in the area, attempts to arrest Thomas for the bludgeoning death of the slaughterhouse plant manager, Charlie steals the law officer’s shotgun from the official sheriff car’s dashboard, shooting Winston in the back of the head. Discarding his previous identity, Charlie steals identification to become Sheriff Hoyt, complete with freshly laundered uniform, shiny badge, and a new name tag. Charlie’s metamorphosis into Hoyt conjures up cultural memories of the contested 2000 Presidential election in which candidate Al Gore held the popular vote whereas George Bush became the national leader, suggesting metaphoric associations with illicit political manipulation. Hoyt’s identity personifies, in part, that sense of stolen authority. His representing the law of the land parallels the anxiety about leadership in the 2006 U.S. political landscape. With such cultural associations, TCM: the Beginning establishes allegorical links between the growing monstrousness of the Hewitt family and its allegorical cultural association with the Bush-Cheney White House.

For Tommy, the facially deformed, adopted son of the Hewitt family, how the characters regard him is fueled by the various masks he wears and his large physical stature. Outside of the Hewitt family, people taunt him as a freak, an animal, and a “retard,” basing much of their evaluation on his physical surface appearance. Within the categories that define the film’s social order, he lacks the surface qualities that define “normal” human appearance. As an abandoned infant in the slaughterhouse dumpster, much of his face is covered by crumpled butcher paper, leaving the full extent of the facial deformity to the viewer’s imagination. Given that the film does not offer an explicit image of Tommy’s face then, the viewer must wonder about the extent of his facial deformity. Fueling this curiosity, as the backdrop for the opening credits that follow young Luda Mae’s discovery in the dumpster, a visual montage of still images, newspaper clippings, bureaucratic paperwork, and a few short moving images provide some plot information that suggests that Tommy, from a very young age, practices self-mutilation as well as mutilates animals. Even so, the film does not offer clear visual indications of the extent of his natural deformity, of his self-inflicted mutilations, or of the combined ratio of the two. This narrative approach is somewhat perplexing, as the 2003 remake provides a close-up of Tommy’s mutilated/deformed face, wherein the complete absence of his nose and scared cheeks are quite pronounced. In contrast, TCM: the Beginning emphasizes the importance of the various masks rather than show Tommy’s face, adding ideological weight to this aspect of his identity.

Such a visual “teasing” continues throughout the film as the viewer never gets a clear visual image of Tommy’s deformed face. When the adult Tommy moves from the use of a stitched black leather mask to a human face, no random appropriated human face will do. In one of the film’s most visually explicit grand guignol moments, he flays the face of Eric, the Vietnam soldier, to wear as his own. In this case, the face is a horrific metaphor of appropriated military identity. On one level, it references the more acceptable charade by President George W. Bush, attired in a military flight uniform as he boarded the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. Because he had such a questionable military service record, President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” photo-op can be viewed as just as much a travesty of military heroics as Thomas’ visceral appropriation of Eric’s face. On another level, this narrative event creates an association between Eric’s socially approved actions as a Vietnam soldier and Tommy’s violent reactions against his social environment. This association and this contrast between Eric and Tommy, and their “face,” can be read allegorically in terms of the new war, the Iraq war, and the new kind of social anxiety it has generated. The war is accompanied by massive contradiction. The U.S. sanctioned the invasion of Iraq, expecting to find weapons of mass destruction that were not there.  At the same time, the neo-cons so influential in the Administration falsely assumed the U.S. armed forces would be welcome and the U.S. presence would improve the lives of Iraqi citizens. And then, in a dramatic way the abuses of military authority at Abu Ghraib prison were perpetrated by young soldiers with prototypical boy or girl-next-door appearances. For the U.S. public, all these aspects of the war undermined any idealistic sense of U.S. military actions in Iraq.

In the film the script condenses such social anxieties with the horrific nature of Tommy’s stealing Eric’s face. Plotwise, this narrative event becomes a powerful metaphor. Throughout the film Hoyt prods Tommy’s murderous rampages, one of which ends with Tommy appropriating Eric’s face. The multifaceted metaphor echoes Donald Rumsfeld’s promotion and sanction of acceptable torture techniques for U.S. military intelligence to gather information from prisoners of war, as well as the prison guards at Abu Ghraib who enacted such policy and more. It also harkens back to the President’s own appropriated military identity. Tommy’s theft of Eric’s face is a monstrous action metaphorically parallel to those taken by members of the Bush-Cheney Administration or people under their command.

The invasion of Iraq and social anxiety

In conjunction with the previously discussed anxieties, the hovering backdrop of the Vietnam War in TCM: the Beginning also reverberates with social anxiety about more recent U.S. military actions.In October, 2006, the country was still mired in ideologically divisive military actions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The body count, both of young U.S. military and of the Iraqi people, continued to grow in daily news reports. In contrast, clear progress to “secure” social stability in Iraq existed mainly in U.S. government public relations reports rather than being substantiated by verifiable evidence, especially through the later part of 2003 up through 2006. Indeed, this cognitive dissonance paralleled similar circumstances from the Vietnam War era where the news and the White House provided such different reports and “statistics.”

In the film, the Vietnam War influences character motivation, especially the prisoners’, with Eric’s patriotism and Dean’s pacifism. Eric’s previous experiences in Vietnam fuel conflicting emotions — patriotic duty vs. growing alienation arising from the cruelty and savagery he had confronted while in battle. In terms of plot development, Dean’s burned draft card triggers Sheriff Hoyt’s generational and class rage against hippies, bikers and draft dodgers. In a manner similar to Tommy’s job loss and its effect on that character in the prologue, the burned draft card unleashes Hoyt’s physical and psychological sadism. As he punishes both Eric and Dean for the burned draft card, Hoyt comes to embody a complex ideological mixture of psychotic reactionary patriotism mixed with religious fundamentalist fervor, deriving from his reaction to the Vietnam War. By building in plot developments that are based on the response of these three characters to the experience of the Vietnam War, the film provides a cinematic allegory extending the reference to contemporary conflicting perspectives toward current military conflicts, especially in Iraq — here from the xenophobic fanatic, the anti-war isolationist, and the duty-bound patriot.

Furthermore, the character Chrissie’s evolution is another index of how contemporary factors shift the historical reference of the film. By the end of the film, she transforms from a traditional woman into a warrior woman fighting to save her friends’ lives and her own. In this sense there has been an historical shift with the invasion of Iraq, where more women military have participated in direct battle, indeed become casualties, than in the Vietnam War, where U.S. women soldiers did not participate in combat. Consequently, Chrissie’s character shift indicates a concern with the changing role of women in contemporary military operations rather than reference to the Vietnam War.

Beyond the literal setting of TCM: the Beginning, the rural Texas setting resonates with more contemporary events. As part of the general setting for the film, the geographical location of rural Texas, with its desolate sense of environment, also can be seen to refer to the desert landscape of post-invasion Iraq. This is part of the film’s narrative setup. In quick succession, several narrative events converge as the youths, soon to be prisoners, ride in their Jeep on a deserted Texas Farm Road. These events push them reluctantly into a small-scale military battle. Distracted by their own argument over the burning of the draft card, Eric and Dean fail to notice a female outlaw biker, complete with sawed-off shotgun, gaining ground behind them. As she fires at the Jeep, Eric exchanges gunfire with the her, taking his eyes off the road in front of him. This turns out to be a fateful mistake.

The Jeep collides with a large steer crossing the farm road in the wide-open expanse of the rural Texas landscape. Eric ends up in front of the decimated vehicle; Dean and Bailey are trapped in the backseat while Chrissie has been ejected into brush at the side of the road. With pieces of the Jeep and cattle carcass strewn over the road, the female biker proceeds to rob the three young adults still left with the wrecked vehicle. To add more confusion to the situation, Sheriff Hoyt pulls up, killing the female biker in a showdown straight out of a classic Hollywood western. He discovers the partially burned draft card that sets off his reactionary patriotic tirade against Eric and Dean. In trying to protect his younger brother, Eric professes that he is Dean, an identity switch, which when discovered by Sheriff Hoyt, provides him further rationale to engage in his sadistic interrogation and torture of the young adults. In the DVD’s voice-over commentary, Director Liebesman says he intended to convey that Hoyt always knew that the two brothers were lying to him, since the distinct difference between Eric’s and Dean’s haircuts — one with a shorter military cut and the other with a longer “hippie” hairstyle — implies who is the soldier and who is not. Again, this moment provides insight into Hoyt’s character. Ultimately, because they are both interlopers into his territory, he will direct his rage at both young men, patriot and draft resister.

Within the few minutes of screen time that it takes these story events to occur, the script constructs a setting of lawlessness; it is common in horror films to create a setup where it quickly becomes clear that the social rules and social identity with which the young adults/victims are familiar no longer apply. In the place of a “civilized” social order, the more savage rules of “eat or be eaten,” as stated by Sheriff Hoyt in his torture of Dean, become the norms for survival in this inhospitable milieu. Based on reports young U.S. soldiers have given about their experience in Iraq, such plot events resonate with the reported lawlessness that permeated Iraqi society right after the invasion, the ongoing sense of animosity projected by Iraqi locals toward the young soldiers, and even the individual trials of isolation and alienation experienced by young U.S. soldiers who find themselves in sudden and confusing military engagement.

Furthermore, after the collision, the imagery of strewn automotive debris  evokes strikingly similar iconography recorded during the invasion of Iraq where wasted automobile shells and military machinery littered the roadsides. A similar image appears in the final scene of the film, in the wake of Thomas’ final confrontation with Chrissie, reinforcing the associations between the rural Texas setting and images of roadside destruction in Iraq. The Hewitt family wages war on anyone who happens to cross their path. In the film, the war-like events and images intersect with the other social anxieties rising from the influences of economic depression to conjure the military practices and policies of the Bush-Cheney Administration. Connotations with the invasion of Iraq become stronger once the narrative turns its focus on the brutal torture and sadism inflicted by Sheriff Hoyt and Tommy upon the hapless young adults, acts that perhaps draw their inspiration from the disturbing images of U.S. soldiers’ conduct with Iraqi detainees in the military prison of Abu Ghraib.

Social anxiety about Abu Ghraib and the failure of U.S. ideals

In early 2004, a series of horrific images began to circulate through the Internet that exposed the sanctioned practices of torture affected by members of the 800th Military Police Brigade on prisoners at Abu Ghraib Prison. Later, an official military report prepared by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba supported the initial allegations of torture.[29] In terms of general cultural awareness, internationally, the photos were shown on extensive news media reports by 60 Minutes II on April 28, 2004 and in articles posted by Seymour M. Hersh in The New Yorker. [30][open endnotes in new window] The images and the narratives around them conveyed instances of psychological humiliation, which exploited the prisoners’ sexual, gender and religious identity, and physical torture. In particular, the images that circulated via the Internet, originally among soldiers, fueled social anxiety — about the “benevolence” of a U.S. military presence in Iraq, the potential savagery of ill-trained American reservists, and a growing sense that the “solution” for Saddam Hussein’s barbarous treatment of the Iraqi people was as demoralizing and dangerous for them as their former leader’s own edicts and behavior.

In the trajectory of the film’s plot, having captured Eric, Dean and Bailey in the wake of the farm road skirmish, Sheriff Hoyt’s psychological humiliation and physical sadism, especially toward Eric and Dean, resonates in the viewers’ minds with what they know of the behavior of the military police at Abu Ghraib. Indeed, within the film these scenes are constructed and acted with intense emotional brutality. Much of this effect is due to the actors’ willingness to perform, with the physical verisimilitude of an extreme method-acting style, Hoyt’s acts of torture and humiliation on Eric and Dean. As described on the DVD’s voice-over commentary, the young actors endured the physical brutality of stress positions, suffocation, and blows from Hoyt’s truncheon. In the push-up scene, actor R. Lee Ermey (Hoyt) delivered body blows with a hard rubber truncheon to Taylor Handley (Dean), with at least one of the blows inflicting physical damage, seen in fact when Handley limps across the yard in his escape attempt. Matt Bomer (Eric) suffered short periods of suffocation when his face was enveloped in plastic wrap as well as a painful fall to the ground when he finally escapes from his forced-hanging stress position. Ermey, whose acting mantra on the set was “more is more,” adds a level of chilling realism to Hoyt’s caustic taunts and humiliation as well as his physical blows that amplify the dread associated with that character. The emotional intensity that results from the actors’ total immersion in their roles lets them exaggerate the inequality of social power between their characters. Consequently, the emotional intensity of the torture scenes deepens their metaphoric ties to the circulating photos and news stories about U.S. military police atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison.

Ermey’s performance as Hoyt Hewitt also echoes Gny. Sgt. Hartman, a similar character Ermey created for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, set during the Vietnam War. As a drill sergeant preparing new recruits for deployment, in that film Hartman unrelentingly humiliates out-of-shape, overweight Pvt. Pyle, especially during obstacle course training. In one scene, Hartman layers both psychological and physical abuse onto Pyle who cannot complete one chin-up, a sign that the young man is not fit for military service. Both films, through the roles created by R. Lee Ermey, present cinematic metaphors of abusive police authority. In the same manner that Hartman persecutes Pvt. Pyle, Emrey’s Sheriff Hoyt visits a similar psychological and physical torture on Dean. After Dean confesses his actual identity and that he was the one to burn his draft card, the faux sheriff drags the young man into the open expanse of the Hewitt family farmyard. As both a means of punishment and training, Hoyt offers the young man a chance at freedom. If Dean can perform ten correct pushups as a sign of his fitness for military duty, he will be free to walk off the farm. Of course, Dean’s task is not that simple. With a truncheon, Hoyt pummels the young man in his lower back and legs as he tries to push off of the ground, thereby thwarting Dean’s endeavor. Based on the depositions taken from prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Hoyt’s verbal and physical abuse of Dean and Eric compares to several instances of prisoner abuse carried out by SPC Charles A. Graner Jr., the military policeman sentenced to 10 years in prison for the sexual, physical and psychological abuse of prisoners, including beating them with a solid plastic stick.[31]

In addition, in TCM: the Beginning, Hoyt hangs the two young men crucifixion-style in a stress position to set the stage for his interrogation of them. As an alleged punishment for the burned draft card, he wraps the presumed Dean’s/Eric’s head in plastic wrap. Such an image of the young man struggling for his breath and life is eerily reminiscent of several images that captured a particular form of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, that of wrapping a naked detainee’s head in women’s underwear while his outstretched arms are shackled to the metal frame of a prison bunk bed. In addition, the use of the plastic wrap as a means of suffocation echoes the practice of water-boarding, an interrogation technique that the Bush-Cheney Administration condoned.

References to Abu Ghraib mount as the Hewitt family increases to demoralize and physically attack their four young adult captives. Whether the filmmakers consciously appropriated the images and news stories from Abu Ghraib or drew from the unconscious zeitgeist that has festered in U.S. culture, the correlation between the sadistic behavior and tortuous actions of the Hewitt family, primarily Hoyt, and those of the military police is pronounced, indicating a dark cultural acknowledgement of the social anxiety produced by the events at the actual prison.

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