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Torture porn: Want popcorn with that?

May Contain Spoilers

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Peet at NegativeSpace knows it when he sees it.


In the 1957 case Roth v. United States, the US Supreme Court held that the First Amendment did not protect obscenity, which Justice William Brennan characterized as a form of expression that was "utterly without redeeming social importance..." and which "... to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interest."

In Jacobeliis v. Ohio (1964), Justice Potter Stewart wrote his famous description of pornography:

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case [Louis Malle's 1958 "The Lovers"/"Les Amants"] is not that.

Nine years later, in Miller v. California, Chief Justice Warren Burger offered his famous definition of obscenity:


The basic guidelines for the trier of fact must be: (a) whether "the average person, applying contemporary community standards" would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest, (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

Today, of course, porn is made for the World Wide Interwebs, and so-called "torture porn" is mainstream multiplex fare. In a post called "The 120 Days of HOSTEL PART II" at The Exploding Kinetoscope, Chris Stangl argues that the phrase "torture porn" is simply a meaningless critical buzzword, "a non-position that allows a critic not to engage the work. It's critical name-calling." Stengl writes: "Any review, op-ed piece, or coverage of 'Hostel Part II' that includes the phrase 'torture porn' as if it were a meaningful genre designation, I will not finish reading. A line must be drawn. We all have our limits." (Thanks to The House for calling my attention to Stangl's site.)

I was about to disagree with this (after all, I happen to know torture porn when I see it!) — but then...

... Stangl added:

... [T]his kvetching is not meant to discount or discredit at any serious reading of horror films that takes issue with violence, nor to scoff at making a real-world stand against art one finds politically offensive, morally irresponsible, or destructive. Quite the opposite, the problem of the day is that the phrase "torture porn" is passive-aggressive non-engagement with a film. It makes drastic assumptions that are never backed up, chief among them the implied sexualization of violence, of which "Hostel," or "Wolf Creek," or "Saw" or what-have-you may or not be guilty, may complicate, may critique, may even subvert, but the critic never finds out, because: who bothers with textual analysis of pornography? And who likes torture? You don't like torture, right?

Well, it depends. I (and many liberals and conservatives) reluctantly admit to kinda liking it when Jack Bauer gets 21st Century on some terrorist, because he seems so confident he's doing it for a Greater Purpose (you know, like preventing that nuke from going off in LA), and because he seems to know exactly what will work on any given individual. He (usually) doesn't appear to enjoy it much. And, frankly, neither do I — I just like the idea that it sometimes gets results (even if, in real life, it rarely does) and removes a narrative obstacle so the tick-tick-tick story can keep movin' along. If Jack was able to do it all with intense dialog, that would be just as good. And when it doesn't work — like when he tortured his insufferable Bluetooth brother last season — that's even better, especially when, afterwards, he thinks he's succeeded.

I tend to find your average torture scene about as snooze-worthy as your average gunfight or car chase or love scene. To me, they too often feel like dull, unimaginative filler — just lazy, de rigueur gimmicks for padding out the running time. But Stangl's point is valid. Just as "torture porn" is a matter of context, so is the use of the phrase "torture porn." (And I am interested in textual analyses of porn and exploitation violence, which can be as revealing as a close analysis of any film.)

I value the term "torture porn" — when properly applied, with critical elaboration — because it describes quite specifically a kind of film designed for the primary purpose of pumping the audience (and/or the filmmakers) to get off on the torture, the pain, the flesh, the gore -- and where these hardcore scenes are the very "meat" of the movie, if you will. (I don't think it necessarily means that the actors or the filmmakers are getting sexual kicks from watching or shooting it, only that torture is being treated in ways similar to the portrayal of sex in pornography, as its raison d'être.)

Once porn moved to home video in the late 1970s and 1980s, the minimal story/character/instructional connective tissue (often employed to provide laughable "redeeming social importance" in the same way The Great White North was used to provide mandatory "Canadian content" on "SCTV") practically disappeared from pornographic features (sorry, Jack Horner), because viewers no longer had to sit through it to get to the "good stuff." They could simply fast-forward to get to the sex scenes, which were the only reasons the pictures existed, anyway. And each of those was constructed to climax in a "money shot" — just as torture porn does (violence instead of sex; blood instead of semen; death instead of "little death"). They just deal in different fluids, different kinds of penetration. And, when done mechanically, neither does much to raise my pulse rate.

That's similar to what Roger Ebert describes in his review of "Wolf Creek":

It is a film with one clear purpose: To establish the commercial credentials of its director by showing his skill at depicting the brutal tracking, torture and mutilation of screaming young women. [...]

I like horror films. Horror movies, even extreme ones, function primarily by scaring us or intriguing us. Consider "Three ... Extremes" recently. "Wolf Creek" is more like the guy at the carnival sideshow who bites off chicken heads. No fun for us, no fun for the guy, no fun for the chicken. In the case of this film, it's fun for the guy. [...]

There is a line and this movie crosses it. I don't know where the line is, but it's way north of "Wolf Creek." There is a role for violence in film, but what the hell is the purpose of this sadistic celebration of pain and cruelty?

I guess what I find obscene is poster boy Eli Roth. Not his movies — I haven't seen any of 'em all the way through — but his self-righteous attitude when he talks about them. I saw him on some cable show, surrounded by his bimbos in what looked the "Body Double" house, talking about how his films were a response to 9/11 because, nowadays, "everyone needs to scream." Especially the kids who were "11 or 12" when 9/11 happened. Well, I'm a big proponent of the theory that good horror films are Jungian and cathartic and all that, and it pisses me off to hear (as I say at the top of the right column) "bad arguments for a view I hold dear." (Wes Craven, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg -- now those guys know how to talk articulately about this stuff. I know because I've talked to them about it — waaaaaaay back before 9/11, even!)

Aside: Truth is, I don't know any horror aficionados (beyond the Ain't-It-Cool set) who don't loathe or dismiss Roth and his movies as empty or lightweight — gruesome but not frightening. That's no excuse for me, but the fact that the guy does come across like a aging high school bully (he projects a kind of aggressive, Tom Cruise horrisma) does not make me feel more obliging toward his body of work. I suppose that's one downside of using him to promote his movies. Others are turned off by Quentin Tarantino's manic presence, or Michael Moore's snotty attitude, or Michael Bay's Michael Bayishness, and I understand. I really do. No, it's not fair to judge a movie by its producer's or director's TV persona (even if they are assholes), but let's be honest — that is a factor in how we respond to the marketing campaigns that rely on those personae.


Dennis Cozzalio at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule (who kinda liked "Hostel Part II") writes:

"Hostel Part II" is no more a purposeful or reflective consideration of the horrors of Abu Ghraib and Darfur, or a finger on the pulse of post-9/11 anxiety, than was Part I. Again, the notion that a movie takes advantage of a premise involving an especially bloody and aggressive outgrowth of capitalism, spearheaded by characters that look like they could have come from deep inside the beltway of George W. Bush’s America, doesn’t mean that the movie profoundly engages with that premise on a political or sociological level. And hearing Roth pontificate in interviews about how he drew inspiration for the movie after pondering the aftermath of a disaster like Hurricane Katrina really is opportunism at its most shameless-- post-production rationalization designed to distract the mainstream press from the ghoulish play he’s really up to.

I would argue that "Saw" or Pasolini's "Salò: 120 Days of Sodom" or Tobe Hooper's "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" or Park Chan-wook's "Oldboy" or Takashi Miike's "Audition" (which some consider the birth of the modern strain) are not "torture porn" because ... well, it's been too long since I've seen them to mount a coherent defense at this very moment, but as I see it, they supply a context for the torture/slaughter scenes. In other words, they are works of "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value" and have "redeeming social importance." Yes, it's strange to think that somebody could be legally penalized for making a crappy movie, but that's what Justices Berger and Brennan's decisions seems to imply. In which case I nominate "Midnight Express" as obscene by law. (BTW, back in the late '79s I saw the internationally banned "Salò" once — which at least one critic has said is the only way one should see it: "A film which, all accounts settled, can and must be seen only once, for the last time, when one still has virginal eyes.")

What's "torture porn" to you? And how does it differ — if it does — from other kinds of horror, or Grand Guignol? And does this post now mean I'm going to have to watch the "Hostel" movies and "Wolf Creek" and "Chaos" to the very end?

P.S. Fascinating interview with Alan Lowenstein, University of Pittsburgh professor and horror scholar, who has a smart take on the parallels between, say, Abu Ghraib and torture movies:

I wouldn't buy that right off the bat. But at the same time, I hold open the possibility that, 10 or 15 years from now, these movies absolutely will look like Abu Ghraib movies. I really am a firm believer in the notion that the meaning we make of films is a kind of negotiation between the intentions of the filmmaker, the interpretations of critics and audiences, and the influence of history. Reading Night of the Living Dead as a film that's powerfully related to its moment during the Vietnam War is an absolutely correct reading of the film. The fact that this reading wasn't available to the filmmakers or the audience during its initial release doesn't make that reading any less valid.

Note to Roth: Let somebody else say your movie reminds them of Abu Ghraib. When you say it yourself, you just look like an idiot with a bloated sense of your own... "social importance."

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