Thursday, 28 June 2007

Your favourite movie hates you!

The amount that I find myself at a frat house party is less and less these days. But Scarface posters haven't left my vision completely. On one level, it's really cool that people who use their mantles to build shrines for emptied beer bottles have such passion for one of Brian De Palma's seminal works of 80s cinema. Yet the love isn't without irony.

How Scarface is so misunderstood by so many of its biggest fans is one of life's mysteries.

Maybe people just see what they want. They love that Tony Montana rises to the top by not taking no fucking shit. So what if he's a pathetic figure by the end, who's gunned down in his own house after dunking his face in a mountain of llello? Until then he made crime a profitable business.

"This movie's the most closely impactful for out generation. Our generation was really put here with nothing."
- Diddy, on the impact of Scarface in the Def Jam documentary Origins of a Hip-Hop Classic.

It's frankly so impossible to miss the message of Scarface, an over-the-top satire of Reagan era excess, that you just have to toss it up to people choosing to look around it. I love this movie. I have a Montana action figure standing on top of my TV. I admit that its drugs and violence fueled melodrama is completely badass. Those who dislike Scarface don't accept it as a modernized Shakespeare tragedy. It's as quotable as Hamlet. What's scary is how many corrupt entrepreneurs this movie has created. There's not a minute of the film where Montana isn't an asshole.

So why the adulation?

I blame Oliver Stone.

There's nothing inherently evil about Stone's script. But the guy has some weird voodoo curse on him that seems to affect his movies like nobody else's. Stone's films are doomed to be most loved by people who (sometimes deliberately) take the completely wrong message from them. I'm not trying to sound smarter than anyone; if there's one thing Stone is not, it's subtle. Critics weren't uncomfortable with Alexander on grounds that it wasn't gay enough.

I was recently informed of an attorney who just had a gold bracelet made with the name Gordon Gekko inscribed in it. Gekko is the bigwig stockmarket villain played by Michael Douglas in Wall Street. He's a man who has sold his soul before the movie has even started. His motto is "Greed is Good." He's the Dark Side ruler whose temptations must be resisted by the film's hero. So why does this person think Wall Street shares his philosophy? The movie is opposed to his way of life.

Isn't separating the attitudes of characters from the attitudes of the story something people learn about in tenth grade English?

Angus Wallen and Kara Winn were 27 when they killed Brandon Murphy in a murder similar to that of Mallory's mom in Natural Born Killers. Like the 8 other alleged NBK-inspired killers (including Columbine duo Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold), Wallen and Winn must have missed that the movie considers their actions part of the downfall of civilization. This isn't a hidden message either; it's about 115 of Natural Born Killers 120 minutes. And it's as subtle as a sledgehammer. They're paying respect to a movie that despises them.

When you look at it, the movies that become common youth obsessions (to the point where when you see its poster you know the beer bottle shrine isn't far away) deal in antisocial themes. If it's not Scarface on that wall, it's A Clockwork Orange or something by Tarantino. It would be funny if college age kids chose to idolize different Oliver Stone films. They could post pictures to Facebook of doing bong hits in front of their Nixon posters. "I'm going to university, so I can be a fucked up President too!"

The idea of art sometimes opposing its fans always reminds me a little of when Schwarzenegger ordered the execution of The Crips' co-founder Stanley Tookie Williams. Just think about how fucked up that is. As a notorious leader of the South Central LA street gang, it's highly likely that Tookie was a fan of Predator, The Terminator and Commando. And then one day, this guy whose movies Tookie felt a connection with decides he should be dead.

Imagine the world's biggest Woody Allen fan. He grew up watching Annie Hall, landed the woman of his dreams by studying Manhattan, and he tends to quote Love and Death in casual conversation. Then one day Allen decides he doesn't like something about this guy, and has the power to kill him. That must be the ultimate betrayal!

"Arnie partying with Tookie / Smokin and drinkin till they lose their cookies / Crips are cousins / Bloods are brothers / Family killing one another" - Fishbone, "Party With Saddam"

Sometimes a movie will deliberately turn its back on a significant part of its audience. I'm talking about critic hatred here.

It manifests in last year's Lady in the Water and in this year's Ratatouille. I don't for a second doubt that M. Night Shyamalan making a critic an antagonist in Lady in the Water is a big factor in that movie's critical thrashing. (Another factor is that critics universally decided it was time to be fed up with Shyamalan--something that's happened to Oliver Stone more than once.)

I didn't react negatively to Bob Balaban's portrait of a know-it-all movie critic in Lady in the Water for several reasons: 1) I'm able to see the humour in this job. 2) I don't identify much with most other critics, and have no aspiration to speak for the "critical communty." 3) There really are plenty of critics like the one Balaban plays, and they deserve to be called on it. Shyamalan has a thin skin, but there you go.

Ratatouille is a little stranger. Pixar movies pre-Cars have only ever gotten glowing reviews. In this case, it's a food critic named Anton Ego, but the general swipes would still apply. Writer Brad Bird includes a bit of voiceover dialogue where the critic admits that it's easier to destroy than to create, or such bullshit. And that his work will never be as important as the stuff he's tearing down. I wish filmmakers would acknowledge that they're critics too. Art is a commentary on life. And criticism is a commentary on art. Only the medium is different.

Still, I can't really take offense at Ratatouille. The movie's pretty great, and the other characters don't escape such exaggerations either. But you should see this food critic's mansion. Jesus! How much do these jobs pay in France, and why don't I live there?

Thursday, 7 June 2007

The New Sadism

"Did you invent the term 'torture porn'?," my friend Phil asked me.

This question was posed around the time of last Fall's release of Saw III, and 'torture porn' was becoming a common internet term for horror movies (often in the mainstream) that are increasingly focused on their protagonists' mutilation.

"I don't think so," I answered. But thinking about it now, maybe in an offhand way I did. I addressed the issue in my early 2002 review of Final Destination 2--probably the most negative review that movie got. And several months later, in a mid-year report article, I refer to said film as "death porn." My Saw II review was among the very first to hit the net, and there my Rotten Tomatoes headline quote is, "Real porn is more dignified than this."

I can't take direct responsibility for everyone on the Ain't It Cool talkbacks adding 'torture porn' to their lexicon.

Besides, I prefer branding these movies with the term "The New Sadism."

The New Sadism implicates the audience's culpability in these films' attitude in ways that Torture Porn does not. The New Sadism is an overground movement. Torture Porn sounds like its locked in the basement dungeon of a backalley video store. The New Sadism lets you see graphic and prolonged disembowlings and castrations at a mall multiplex. You can watch them in an audience with 14 year olds still standing beneath Rihanna's Umberella-ella-ella-eh-eh.

An easy mistake is to dismiss all these films outright. The New Sadism is the horror movie equivalent of Nu-Metal (which was big at the turn-of-the-millenium). It's seen by many as a perversion of a genre's purity, and by others as a genre at its most accessibly hardcore. The bottomline is that, even at a low playing field, some of these movies are better than others. The people who are most militant and unwavering in their dismissal of horror movies are always the ones who never watch them.

But I can say that, as a trend, I don't like The New Sadism.

It's the dominant movement in horror movies right now--just ahead of the Japanese People Are Scared of Mute Ghost Children genre.

Here's how it happened:

In Christmas 1996, Wes Craven's Scream opened. It grossed $100 million and reignited popular interest in horror films. Scream is a postmodern take on the teen slasher films of the 70s and 80s, given a very hip sensibility. It's hard for many to admit now, but 10 years ago Scream was seen as enormously cool. (Christmas 96 rocked for mainstream counterprogramming. We also got Mars Attacks! and Beavis and Butt-head Do America.)

Scream had so much crossover appeal because it's a feminized horror movie (more on that in a bit.) It was about 10 times as smart as it needed to be, thanks largely to a script by newcomer Kevin Williamson. It made stars Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox and Drew Barrymore seem cool. It spoke to teenagers, as well as people who just love slasher movies.

As a 17 year old who was into horror (and most other genres), I was obsessed with Scream for a while. In my years at high school it was (barring Kids and Romeo and Juliet) one of only two teen movies released in that whole period. The other was Clueless, which I never cared about.

Inevitably, other movies tried to cash-in. The forgettable Urban Legend and its even more forgettable sequel Urban Legends: Final Cut followed. The market looked right for another Chucky movie. We got Wes Craven Presents Wishmaster, Disturbing Behavior, Halloween H20, and The Faculty.

The most popular of these late-90s follow-ups, besides the good but overstuffed Scream 2, was I Know What You Did Last Summer. That movie's pedigree was due to several factors. For one, it brought Scream scribe Williamson back. I don't know what's since happened to that guy. He was in some ways the horror version of John Hughes. The first two seasons of Dawson's Creek are also better than you think. I Know What You Did Last Summer has one of the fucking best horror movie titles ever. Conversely, its sequel I Still Know What You Did Last Summer has one of the worst. But Williamson's typical dignity for his teenage characters was missing in I Know What You Did. These kids were sort of dispicable. And the intriguing premise, of four youths trying to bury the secret of a man they accidentally killed, is too slickly directed by Jim Gillespie. It looks beautiful, but it needs a stripped down grit.

The teen horror phase ended around the time of 2001's Valentine. Judging by the voices on the Internet back then, nobody wanted it back. These movies, which were most often not that good, were derided for casting TV stars, occasionally getting PG-13 ratings, and often wussing out from being truly violent.

Enter The New Sadism.

I pick Final Destination 2 as the transitional movie between the teen and sadist subgenres. The original Final Destination, of which I'm a big fan, places squarely in the teen horror genre.

The major difference goes back to the issue of Scream's feminization. In Scream, Sidney's (Neve Campbell) fight for survival is a mirror of her personal struggles. Following her mother's murder, she wants life to leave her alone. The ghostface killer isn't allowing that to happen. The series is about a character's blossoming, with the horror element mirroring that story. There's a touching innocence to Scream if you watch it today. It's really great.

But it's actually typical of most slasher films before it and of its time, in that it's primarily concerned with survival. These movies are about claiming one's dignity. We want Jamie Lee Curtis to beat the Boogeyman in Halloween. We want to see the special needs kids vanquish Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm St. 3: Dream Warriors.

The New Sadism doesn't care about survival, only execution. As horror movies become more popular (Craven speaks on the Nightmare DVD boxed set about how he'd mainly see kids who didn't fit any mold at his movies on opening night), the formative process of horror movies is reversed. It's a countdown to extinction. The bloodier, the better.

What this means is that horror movies have lost their appeal as an empathetic outsider pop art--something detractors never understood about them anyway. In the 2005 remake of House of Wax, glamourous young stars Elisha Cuthbert, Chad Michael Murray and Paris Hilton are convinced that all backwoods people are crazy imbred hillbillies. At the end, it's revealed the deformed redneck trying to kill them was abused during childhood. Fear those who are different than you, especially if their lives have been harder. That means they will kill you.

The New Sadism is typically about regular people caught in an animalistic land of primative psychopaths. It's not about who's gonna live, it's about how they'll die. This was the basis of Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses, which was celebrated by some as the antidote to years of Scream-wrought horror. It was also the focus of Marcus Nispel's corrupt remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Wolf Creek, Hostel, The Hills Have Eyes remake, Turistas and Severance.

Saw II was the point where I really objected. The increasing nihilism of these movies was getting defended as keeping with the spirit of horror movies. That is total bullshit. Horror got overtaken by people who like the genre far more than they understand it. The attraction to wanting to make these films is simple. If you're studying film craft, it's easier to detect and practice the overt style of horror sequences than other genres, which are often less pronounced. Horror gives newcomer directors a chance to get noticed by showing how "uncompromising" they are. It's why there are now almost as many zombie movies coming from film students as the typical film school projects about suicide and drugs. It's why Saw II, Hostel and Turistas feel like a pissing contest between Darren Lynn Bousman, Eli Roth and John Stockwell, each out to prove which of them is the most hardcore.

The thing defenders of The New Sadism don't grasp about some detractors is that the objection is not about the level of violence in a film. It's 2007. I can take it. I'm used to it. I've imagined far worse. What offends is a filmmaker's attitude about violence. The greatest human plague facing us today is the spread of evil. Everybody feels this. Witnessing audiences laugh as a boy gets crushed into a pancake by a plate of glass in Final Destination 2, or cheer as Nispel's camera pulls out of a gunshot head-wound in TCM03 is a way of coping with this vulnerability. Laughing at death is a way of proving you're above it. Not caring about things is always easier.

But a good horror film, like any worthwhile movie, has to connect us to the world (if not to ourselves) to have significant value. The other route is to tune out--to fetishize cruelty. The popularity of the first few episodes on a season of American Idol work this way. Contestants make fools of themselves publically and the shallow viewer finds self-worth in their humiliation. It's that simple. Jackass defenders frequently bring up that the stars are willingly hurting only themselves. This is true. But the audience's relation to that show is no different than if they were hurting others. Pleasure is derived from seeing people on the screen in pain. It's sadistic either way.

My favourite defense of movies in The New Sadism (favourite, as in the stupidest) is common among IMDb message board users. "If you don't like it, don't watch it."

Great. And if I don't like that there's a war in Iraq, the solution is that I don't watch the news.

Another common response on The New Sadism's behalf is that society has always objected to horror movies, and this is no different.

This is compelling, but not really true.

Controversy, and in some cases outrage, has accompanied horror movies before. The difference is that the ones these proponents are talking about never had much popular cultural impact. Maybe that shouldn't make a difference, but it does.

1972's The Last House on the Left and its more exploitative 1977 retread I Spit on Your Grave played in drive-ins and seedy urban areas. They were niche films. Their appeal is precisely that they weren't in synch with the standards of dominant culture. They were a reaction to it. That's why those movies were important. They didn't fit the sanctioned template. They felt defiant, and that made them political.

Sure, there's a satiric element to Hostel. It's a cheeky/gruesome take on American perception of foreign cultures. But Hostel's popularity amongst the under 35 demographic means that it is part of dominant American culture. It no longer has a defiant value. Saw II counters what Dawn of the Dead and The Last House on the Left meant by pitching its extreme nature as something institutional and corrupt. That shit is so basic to me. The desire to see unorthodox cult movies infiltrate the ultramainstream is just insane.

The New Sadism isn't necessarily a curse. Though perhaps the most brutal entry in the subgenre, I thought Alexander Aja's remake of The Hills Have Eyes was terrific. It was imagined in vivid visual terms, its violence was never pacifying, and it had moral and social context. Aja really knows what he's doing, and that's a crucial difference. Those who doubt he's the most talented new horror director need to look at this thing again.

Otherwise, hey, Hostel Part II opens tomorrow.

I've said all this as somebody who cares about the horror genre enough to believe it's worth more. When you're yelling "Awesome!" at a guy cutting off his own foot in Saw, what exactly are you rebelling against?