by Max S. Gordon
June 12, 2007
On June 8, 2007, Eli Roth’s sequel to his 2006 number one box office horror film Hostel opened nationwide. According to the film’s advance press, the sequel promised to surpass the original in gore and scenes of torture. The second film picks up thematically where the last one left off; Hostel was about a group of tourists, lured unsuspecting to a hostel in Slovakia where they were tortured and murdered by wealthy businessmen for pleasure. The first film had male protagonists, part two features a group of young female college students who are tortured to death.
If you have a sister, a female cousin or an aunt, then you know a woman who has been sexually abused or raped. You mother may be a survivor of rape or incest herself. You may not have had any way of knowing this about her unless she told you, but perhaps one day as a child you snuck up behind her to surprise her, and she burst into tears and left the room. Or you heard her calling out in her sleep because she was having night terrors, an aftermath of rape. She may have slept with the lights on. Your daughter, who suddenly seems withdrawn, may not be able to tell you that her boyfriend forced her to have sex with him, or that a male teacher touched her inappropriately after school. You may have a girlfriend who refuses to have oral sex and won’t talk about why; who cries during sex and can’t stop, who doesn’t remember anything about her childhood before the age of six. If you’ve lived next door to a woman who is being battered, you my have heard shouting or screams coming from her house at night, or seen a police car in her driveway. If you have any women friends or you work with women, then you may know someone who has come to her job bruised or with a broken limb or blackened eye because of a violent partner. You may also know a woman who is missing or who has been murdered.
I received an e-mail yesterday from a man I know who had attended the funeral of a friend, killed by a drunk driver. Upon returning home, he received the news that the daughter of a woman he grew up with had been murdered by her obsessive boyfriend. He wrote: “I'm having thoughts like, ‘If I were killed, my house is so messy my friends and family would never forgive me for putting them through so much work. So now I must clean the house in case I get killed.’ I relate to his words; I am worried about death a lot these days; about my own sickness or the possibility of something happening to my family or friends.
He sends me the link to an online news report about the woman’s murder. I try to make it real even though I don’t know the woman or her family. The fact that he knew her makes the information more personal, but if it weren’t for my friend, this would probably be just another tragic internet news story (instantly forgotten when the next tragic internet story comes along.) I want to feel grief for this woman, but the stories just come too fast these days, and it’s too emotionally overwhelming to care anymore. I google her. On the website of the company she worked for, her picture has not yet been taken down from the site. Her smile is bright, friendly, accommodating – I would have felt reassured if I’d come to her office for their services.
I read interviews with people who knew her. The details are different in her case, but I’ve seen this story before, as we all have. And no matter where you live in the world, on any given day you can open your newspaper or turn on the television and find some version of what happened to her – man kills wife and kids and then self; suspect wanted for rape and murder of grandmother; mother of three missing, husband questioned by police; abusive boyfriend shoots girlfriend in jealous rage. Today’s story in the New York Post is about Banaz Mahmod, a twenty-year-old Kurdish woman living in South London and murdered by her father and uncle for bringing shame on her family: after having walked out on an allegedly abusive arranged marriage, she was photographed on the street kissing a man she was in love with. Mahmod was found dead in a suitcase. These days stories of women being killed by men in the paper are about as mundanely familiar as supermarket advertisements. You pause, you may wonder for a moment, but you turn the page.
I think of women I have known personally, who have shared with me some of their experiences of sexual violence (not their real names): Brenda, who lived on my floor in college, locked in a closet and fondled by an older male cousin when she was five years old; Stacey, a friend in her late forties, raped in her apartment building when she was twenty; Deborah, terrified in therapy sessions, she no memories of abuse but when asked about her childhood relationship with her father, has on occasion gone mute, literally unable to speak until the subject is changed. Linda, forced to perform fellatio on her older brothers at eleven; Tina, raped in high school; Kelly, raped in high school; Monica, raped by her ex-boyfriend; Dawn, raped on a date after a college dance while her friends were watching a movie in the other room.
Recently, I went to see the three hour, double bill Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez film Grindhouse. I thought the occasion might arise when I’d write about it and while I am choosing to violate the principle in this article, it seemed wrong to comment on or discuss a film I hadn’t seen. Perhaps I am also still under the collective delusion, leftover from the nineties, that everything Quentin Tarantino touches is potentially cool. I do believe Tarantino is an artist, there is always a surprise in his work, some bit of magical mischief, a real love for moviemaking; and these days even a hint of genius is often better than nothing as the film industry dumps another Disney theme-park movie at our feet. At least it looked as if Tarantino and Rodriguez were trying to do something different.
Eli Roth, the director of Hostel II, provides one of the mock trailers between the two feature films in Grindhouse, “Planet Terror” and “Death Proof”. In his spoof “Thanksgiving” Roth has a woman bouncing on a trampoline while entertaining a pervert who watches; she does a split and impales herself on a killer’s knife. Another image, obfuscated by the deliberate distress on the film for effect, shows a man having sex or being fellated by what appears to be a women’s severed head. The trailer is offered as comedy; and because of the absurdity of the voice over, the rapid “Did I just see what I think I saw” editing and the homage to seventies schlock horror in the conception of the Thanksgiving killer dressed in a turkey outfit, the audience laughs. Where the audience wasn’t laughing was during two extended scenes in “Planet Terror”, one played by Tarantino himself, where a man stands in front of a female character, menacing her with a weapon in his hand as he delivers a monologue on her worthlessness and his power to destroy her. The movie seems to screech to a halt, these scenes don’t feel stylized or particularly well written, and the only suspense comes from what the man will eventually do to the woman, what her fate will be in the hands of the character (and the director). Even if the woman perseveres by the end of the film or is considered to be a stronger female character than is usually found in horror movies (excuses often used in defense of Tarantino's on-screen sadism towards women), we are still subjected to scenes of her fearing for her life as a man humiliates her. It’s contempt for women that makes one recoil from Grindhouse.
I know this scene firsthand and not as a film; I watched it in my household growing up. If you have the stomach for it, gross-out slasher films are sometimes so unrealistic that they can be dismissed as pure fantasy, removed from daily life. But the memory of a man standing in front of woman, bullying her and undoing her psychologically while dinner burns and the kids watch – a real-life scene playing out in homes across America – can make the terror of emotional violence towards women on-screen feel more visceral, homegrown.
I am distracted by a child watching Grindhouse a few rows in front of me; there seems to be more children in R-rated movies these days. The boy sounds about six, and says: “Mommy, why is that man doing that to that lady? Why is he hurting her?” Children often ask questions when they can’t assimilate violence psychologically, and their motivation is right; human cruelty can be unfathomable, especially when you aren’t resigned to it. They ask the questions we refuse to ask. Since they can’t escape the movie, they are overpowered by it, and try control the brutality on screen with endless series of interrogations. They are usually told to shut up.
The man holds a weapon up to the woman’s face, he calls her a bitch. I reach for my popcorn or candy during scenes like this, many movies have them, and I remind myself that “it’s only a movie”, that those are only actors up there, not real people but characters in someone’s mind. But movies have an emotional texture, a voluptuousness that seduces, and on some level we all know that it doesn’t matter in the end whether a movie is true or not. It is real because it is emotionally true; we give ourselves over to movies at any age as children do to bedtime stories. Otherwise, we wouldn’t care about them or be moved by them to the extent we are. I care about this character in "Planet Terror", I don’t want to see her get hurt. And if she does get hurt, or killed-because people do get killed in life, like the daughter of the woman in my friend’s e-mail, I want a scene that shows someone grieving for her. It doesn’t have to be much, just a character who remarks casually that she is gone, some recognition on someone’s face that a life has been lost. I want to be reminded that this woman had a best friend, a sister or brother, a co-worker who will miss her. Usually, in movies like these, the camera lingers over her breasts, her bikini, her cut throat. The filmmaking tells me that if there is any grief at all it’s not for lost life, but a lost piece of ass.
After watching Grindhouse, I read online that actress Rosario Dawson had a confrontation over the script with the director, Quentin Tarantino. In his segment, "Death Proof", Dawson and two other women abandon a fourth female character on a isolated farm in the hands of a depraved looking man in overalls who, the audience has every reason to suspect, is going to rape her once the other’s leave. Two of the women are stunt drivers for the movies, and want to test drive a car the man is selling; Dawson’s character is the one who bargains with him, tacitly offering their friend, who seems drugged and completely out-of-it, in exchange for the use of the car. The article, “Rosario Dawson Upset With Death Proof Rape Scene” published on Hollywood.com states:
The feminist actress admits she had huge problems with the scene because she felt one woman wouldn't leave another behind if she felt she was in harm's way--but controlling Tarantino refused to listen to her complaints. Dawson says, “I talked to Quentin about it several times, because I had a huge problem with leaving her there: 'I don't leave that girl behind; I love that girl, we're friends.' "Quentin says, 'No,' (and) I say, 'Can I throw her the keys to the car?' and he says, 'No, you can't, that's not how it's going to work.'
I recalled the scene– the women get in the car and drive off, leaving the man standing over their friend as he walks towards her and she gulps in fear. Clearly, the director wasn’t concerned that having the three women behave this way might make them unsympathetic to the audience. The plot disregards this fourth woman and we never find out what happens to her. I couldn’t move on with the rest of the film: I was still on that farm with her and that demented man. The fact that they all abandon her, including Tarantino, was an insult that threw me out of the movie. By the end, the three women run down the serial killer who has been stalking them, and beat him to death. I started to question Tarantino’s “strong female characters” and wonder if a strong woman would really leave her friend behind to be raped, or if Tarantino’s “strong women” are just aspects of his macho sensibility in female drag.
I know I’m not alone in this hostile world, I’m not the only one who grew up in a house with domestic violence, or who watched as a woman was threatened with a gun or a knife at home. If the reports we read are true, and if violence against women is of epidemic proportions, from the sex industry to honor killings to familial sexual abuse, then there are a great many of us, including the filmmakers and studio heads to the actors and crew of Hostel II, (many of whom according to on-line reports had nightmares while filming), who know a woman victimized by violence, and who come from families where a woman's screams didn't end simply because a film director yelled, “Cut!”
Bijou Phillips, one of the actresses in Roth’s film, described the experience of making Hostel II to StuffMagazine.com. “It was horrible…basically, the movie is about three girls who are enjoying a semester abroad. Then they get led to and trapped in the hostel, where they are tortured. I had to go into such a horrible place mentally to shoot those scenes. Every day for a week, I would go into the room, be strapped down, and I’d have to scream and cry—with tears pouring out of my eyes—all day long. You go into some really primal places. I found that the majority of the time we were filming those scenes, all I was thinking was, I want my mom. After Eli would yell, “Cut!” for lunch or something, it would sometimes take me 20 minutes to stop crying.”
I didn’t feel I had to watch the Roth film before writing this piece, nor do I plan to watch it or support it. The movie may make box office history or bomb. The problem of violence against women in film is bigger than Roth’s movie, and can and should be discussed outside of liking or disliking any particular film. I can appreciate that for some readers, commenting on a film you haven’t seen is indefensible, but it’s gotten to a point where I just can’t sit through another movie listening to someone begging for the pain to stop, even if I feel justified watching as a writer or because I want to seem hip and the controversy is intriguing. Or to prove some macho ideal in my head that I’m emotionally hard enough to watch anything. We know that Hostel II will come and go and in a few weeks another torture film will take its place. The real conversation is not about one movie, but the influence these films and their advertising is having on our children. And I feel qualified to discuss Hostel II if only from the advertisements online that I saw and which infuriated me –images from the film of a woman being strapped to a chair and gagged as a man stands behind her choosing a metal implement from a table to torture her. These days movie posters themselves are a form of art and provocation. The fact that they are displayed all over your town, on your subways and bus stops, means you are included in a conversation about a new film whether you choose to be or not.
In March, the upcoming movie, Captivity, about a man and woman trapped in the cellar of a killer who systematically tortures them, had a billboard that was eventually pulled after public protest. The ad, posted in Los Angeles and New York, read, “Abduction” “Confinement” “Torture” and “Termination” and featured the actress Elisha Cuthbert’s character in the four stages of captivity; abducted with a gloved hand over her mouth; confined behind a wire fence; tortured with a mask over her face and bloody tubes in her nose; terminated in a final pose suggesting death. The fact that the campaign was led by Jill Soloway, one of the writers from the HBO series Six Feet Under may explain in part why the response was immediate and effective and the poster changed. A woman on a movie site I visit wrote that, although the billboard didn’t offend her personally, she didn’t want her daughters, seven and ten, to see it when they drove by in the car. A poster wrote back, “So basically we run our lives to serve your daughters.”
I was in a hotel room when the Virginia Tech massacre story broke. I watched the coverage with horror, but also with a strange feeling of titillation. Eventually the news story became, as most media events today, like being strung out on cocaine: I couldn’t stand to watch anymore, but I couldn’t stand to shut it off. I waited for even one newscaster’s face to register grief, loss, anything that could remotely pass for feeling, or a real sense of tragedy. Instead I got suspenseful movie music, self-conscious, over-the-top computer graphics that covered every inch of screen (THE MASSACRE at VIRGINIA TECH), and a barrage of seemingly random interviews from the school maintenance man to the student body president. Crime “experts” were eager to insured me that I should brace myself: with the trends in violence on college campuses, more killing was definitely on the way.
I turned the channel, I think South Park was on. People often defend South Park because of the talent behind it, and I’ve laughed at the show too, but the jokes in our comedy are different now. We laugh at cruelty, and when people are deliberately hurt we aren’t on the side of the victim, but the perpetrator. Anyone who tries to deconstruct or examine what we as a country find funny or entertaining these days is seen as humorless and pro-censorship, or worse, “politically correct” – a term which has come to inspire contempt for social justice of any kind. It’s part of the new equal-opportunity cynicism: hate is okay as long as you hate everyone and don’t single out any specific group. If we wince a little at jokes about people being hungry or homeless or if a character on the show says “Don’t be such a Jew,” because someone is tight with money or if a character is killed, we may still laugh, bullying the part of ourselves that objects and says, “Is being funny a justification for cruelty?” or "This is wrong." There is sociopathology and nihilism at the core of shows like South Park and a serious case of the “Fuck-Its”; an emotional place where everything sucks, and basically it is smarter just to go around hating everything than to engage or trust emotionally - that way you won’t be hurt or devastated by anything in particular. Adults might be able to locate the occasional irony in the nastiness, but I think many kids just get the nastiness. It becomes an endurance test, how much meanness one can stand to watch without flinching, without being “weak” or feeling empathy for someone’s pain. Unfortunately this lack of empathy extends to oneself. Some kids maintain the pose of indifference, attracted, much like a porn addiction, to more and more images of cruelty, to video games like Grand Theft Auto where female prostitutes are murdered for points, while experiencing an atrophy of anything life affirming which, compared with the intensity of the violence they are watching, probably seems childish in comparison – but then they are children. When facing the inevitable teen-age humiliations, compounded by a sense of isolation, the only inner resource some have to draw on is a manufactured arrogance, a kind of superiority “high” that sparks from fascist thinking. If there is no intervention and if the isolation is profound enough, there is an inevitable capitulation to despair. My news reporter, despite the crudeness of his delivery, was right - more violence is on the way. But Virginia Tech wasn’t an aberration, nor was the man who perpetuated that crime. Our entertainment, our campus and high school massacres or video games stand as warnings of an increasing fascism that is beginning to define our culture.
Pauline Kael, the late reviewer for The New Yorker magazine, wrote in her 70’s essay, “Fear of Movies”: “One film has shocked me in a way that made me feel it was a borderline case of immorality – Hitchcock’s Psycho, which, because of the director’s cheerful complicity with the killer, had a sadistic glee that I couldn’t quite deal with.” In Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 film Straw Dogs, David Sumner, played by Dustin Hoffman, is a pacifist American mathematician living in England, who, after being subjected to harassment by locals and the rape of his wife, is finally "forced" to defend himself. At the time of its release, the promotional material for Straw Dogs read, “How far will a man go to protect his wife and home?” Kael famously labeled the film, “the first American film that is a fascist piece of art,” and wrote: “The only beauty he allows himself is in eroticism and violence, which he links by an extraordinary aestheticizing technique. When the wife is raped, the rape has heat to it and what goes into that heat is the old male barroom attitude: she’s asking for it…the goal of the movie is to demonstrate that David enjoys the killing, and achieves his manhood in that self-recognition. David experiences no shock, no horror at what he has done but only a new self-assurance and pleasure. And Peckinpah wants us to dig the sexiness of violence.” In a later interview, when asked about the same film, she said, “…I think this brutality is disassociated from suffering – that is, from your own suffering, because those maimed or killed appear to be subhuman or ridiculous….So instead of being sensitized to pain, you are desensitized.”
Censorship isn’t the answer to the increasing violence in our films, but consciousness, discrimination, outrage. If public criticism and pressure didn’t matter, Don Imus would still have a job with NBC after calling the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy headed ho’s” and 400,000 copies of O.J. Simpson’s book If I Did It, a hypothetical account of the murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman, wouldn’t have been destroyed last November by it’s publisher, HarperCollins. It’s bullshit to say that unless “anything goes” someone is being censored. Our consciousness has shifted and our entertainment has changed over the decades, and there are a few things that you don’t see anymore, or see as often in movies concerning attitudes on race or homosexuality. Violence against women in the entertainment industry proliferates not because it involves censorship at its core and is therefore being defended on idealistic, democratic grounds to protect free speech. It isn’t being stopped because frankly nobody cares. There’s no penalty or punishment for hurting a woman; just the opposite, in fact, you make money. It’s disheartening to know that if films like Hostel II were about a killer with a taste for torturing puppies Americans would be out in the streets.
In a 2006 review, The New York Times called Eli Roth’s Hostel “One of the most misogynistic films every made.” In a poster from the earlier film currently on its web site, a man sits with a chainsaw in his lap. The saw is extended upward and he grips it with one hand like an erect penis. A poster for the sequel uses boar meat. In an interview posted on FilmJerk.com, Roth discussed the image:“…anytime people see women in a horror film, all they say is that all these girls are just pieces of meat and literally in ‘Hostel II,’ they are. They are the bait, they are the meat for these... they are the grist for the mill. I thought it was a really smart poster and really, really disgusting. I love it.”
As he describes his film, I wonder if Eli Roth has a sister, if his mother is still alive, if he has a girlfriend, or a wife and kids, maybe a daughter. If he is a father, does he feel any need to protect his child from images like this? Does it occur to him that the boys his daughter might one day date are getting their ideas about how to treat women from his films? When he watches a woman impaled on a knife, or whimper while she is being tortured does he imagine any women he cares for? (Actually, the old “don’t be violent to women because one day it could be your sister, wife, mother or daughter” argument has always been problematic. There is still an entitlement and possessiveness – your mother, your girlfriend, your daughter - a woman who deserves to be protected because she's an extension of a man.)
How about a more basic connection: when he films a woman or man being tortured, does he think of himself? As he takes a shower and washes his body, touching his own skin and testicles, does he feel fragile, has he ever known sexual powerlessness or sexual violence? Can he envision what it would feels like to have a knife against his throat from behind, a menacing mouth at his ear? When he films torture does it resonate with the experience of our soldiers at war being kidnapped, or the prisons at Abu Ghraib- which to some seems passé to mention, even though it remains the emotional subtext for all these torture films – and how could it not be? Or does he think only of the eighty million dollars that the original Hostel made worldwide; and convince himself that the films are justified because sadistic violence is profitable and the public wants them? We are a society that a little more than a century ago allowed our children to be taken out of school to attend public lynchings. The public’s taste isn’t always an indication of what is right, just what is popular.
I’m not against violence in movies in general - that always seems an absurd position to take. And the last thing I want to replace movies like Hostel II are what are dubiously referred to as “chick flicks”; a genre that too often has a surfeit of psychopathology, repression and emotional numbness of its own. Movies like Diane Keaton’s Because I Said So that are filled with smugness and privilege and adorable white people who giggle every time they talk about sex, who are so stridently cute and ingratiating that you end up craving the intrusion of a serial killer to off them. The point is not for a woman never to be killed in a film again. Anyone who has survived a ninth grade English class knows that there is violence in the Bible and Shakespeare, there is violence in a thunderstorm, and that human experience from birth to death is marked by violence. But violence is usually emotional, as least insofar as the victim is concerned; sociopaths are often indifferent. And that’s the problem: the violence in these films isn’t framed by the dramatic telling of a story, a point of view that includes the victim’s reality, but rather, simulated psychopathic situations where you get to watch as someone else does the raping, torturing or killing for you. It’s the flimsy plots and the set-ups in these films that crank inexorably towards the scene where a woman, always young, always beautiful, always often naked or topless, is tortured and raped. The violence doesn’t have a spiritual effect on us but one of spectacle - the way most people respond to road kill on the highway: mesmerized and fascinated at first, but ultimately detached and uninterested.
For those who argue that the violence isn’t part of a sexual turn-on, try to imagine any of these films made with actresses that aren’t movie-“beautiful” or shaped like models, but women who live next door; women with children, careers, responsibility, who are middle-aged or older. There is something satisfying about torturing a beautiful young woman in the logic of these films; somehow her attractiveness is seen as an affront, a challenge to male dominance, and therefore requires her being cut up. When a beautiful woman (read defiant, self-assured, confident) is humiliated, tortured and killed, a man’s power is restored; an “unattractive” woman is already debased by the fact that men don’t want her (as she is already living a tortured life; the killer’s act would seem redundant.) That men are also murdered doesn’t change the fact that the killing of women in films and on television is fetishized in a way that the killing of a man rarely is: to give the viewer a sexual release. Once the orgasm of violence achieved, the dead woman is discarded. One wonders if the director could convince us as readily that the women onscreen were expendable if even one of the characters in Hostel II were played by an actress like Judi Dench, Meryl Streep or Cate Blanchett (unknown actors in horror help to ease our consciences when they are killed – there is no prior audience identification). The talent of these performers would come through the screen and snap us out of our sadistic trance, forcing us to deal with the victim’s pain and sorrow in a meaningful, lasting way, and to remember her for longer than the few moments after she is dispatched on screen.
A man in my building informs me on the way to work that last weekend he watched the remake of the The Hills Have Eyes with his four-year-old daughter sitting on his lap. The subject came up after he saw the DVD of the movie in my hand. I’d written negatively about the film when it opened in New York, after having seen the movie’s poster in the subway of a woman’s head held down, ostensibly crushed to death, by a mummified hand. I rented the movie because it was available at my local supermarket, I was curious to see if I’d overacted to the film, and I was bored. Having seen it, I now try to imagine watching the film as a four-year-old. I consider telling the man that what he has done is tantamount to child abuse, but I am too much of a coward and he get out of the elevator before I can collect my thoughts.
I ran scenes from the movie in my head; a character is raped, a family is held hostage at gunpoint, a woman is shot in the head and left bleeding on the floor to die. I think about these films, R-rated or unrated for their gore, later shown on cable, sometimes edited for their extreme violence if they run on “regular” stations, but still containing scenes that are extremely emotional and psychologically sadistic. A friend called me last week to complain about a crime program on at eight o’clock at night showing gruesome police photos of people who had been brutally murdered. It was someone’s great idea that if you put a “TV-14” or “Parental Guidance Suggested” symbol in the corner on the screen that viewers have been warned or protected, and that children under fourteen know not to watch by themselves. The Motion Picture Association of America continues to baffle and exasperate with a rating system that seems curiously intolerant to explicit sex and male nudity but green-lights violence of almost any kind, no matter how deranged. It rarely matters what a movie is rated, anyway. Once it is available on DVD and can be rented, children watch the uncut version with scenes that were extracted to get the original R rating, which means that some directors’ cuts are X-rated films.
We have abandoned our kids as a society, and we are seeing the effects of our culture: our children go to school and they murder each other. For those of us who know what it is like to have an unchecked sociopathic presence in our home, when male pathological violence or sadism in a family is ignored, excused or justified, we understand exactly what is happening in this country, and what it means for a movie director to project his psychopathic vision onto popular culture in the absence of any public outcry. (A friend told me last year about his older brother who terrorized and sexually abused him and his sister. I asked: “Where were your parents while all this was going on?” He replied: “Good question.”) We have to explore the ways we are complicit with this vision, as performers, investors, and viewers of these films, and consider the effects of these products once they are released. We must continue to examine the relationship of representations of violence and violence against actual people that has existed from the American slave trade to Nazism – and make the link between torture porn and violence against women.
As a society, we have become more and more anesthetized to human suffering, and not just the suffering of women. The “Natural Born Killers” generation has come of age. Nothing is outside our conception of entertainment. Now when people kill, they don’t just get caught and punished, they take out as many people as they can get their hands on taking their own lives. Sometimes they even record a video of themselves that gets played on the news. Serial killers in our culture enjoy a morbid fame and Hannibal Lechter and Scarface are seen as on-screen heroes. Is this the fault of the movies? Perhaps not, but something has definitely gone wrong in our collective thinking. When I read about the woman my friend knew who had been killed by her boyfriend, I learned about the boyfriend’s subsequent suicide, his allegedly nefarious past and the victim’s early career as a stripper. I am ashamed to admit that one of the first thoughts I had was, somebody is probably already optioning the screenplay because this is going to make a great film.
There was an advertisement online today listing the movies showing around the country. Right next to the latest obnoxious animated movie for kids, the mindless slapstick comedy, and the rudimentary superhero sequel, was an image from Hostel II: a woman hanging upside down, her hands bound, her mouth gagged, her eyes pleading to the viewer for help. It is an image meant to terrify and it holds you. I’m curious about the film, and wonder what will distinguish Hostel II from the torture porn (a term credited to David Edelstein of New York Magazine) that was on screen last month, the porn that will replace it next week. Early reviews suggest that the violence in this film will set a record for the genre and for R-rated films, one early reviewer is amazed it got an R-rating at all. The next filmmakers will need something more shocking to stimulate us. It’s definitely on the way: a website features a trailer for Sylvester Stallone’s new movie, John Rambo, due next summer. In the trailer Rambo decapitates heads, rips throats out, guts men with knives, and a voiceover by Stallone says the tagline: “When you’re pushed, killing’s as easy as breathing.”) A tagline from Hostel II: “If you want an American girl, it will cost you.” I’ve only been looking at the poster with the upside-down woman for a few minutes, and already I’m wondering if I’m overreacting a little. Maybe it isn’t that bad once you put it in context, it is a horror movie and aren’t horror movies supposed to horrify, and what is the alternative, censorship? The image of the woman in pain, once disturbing, eventually becomes banal, and my relationship to it one of indifference. I’m numb. I can imagine two boys leaving the cinema after Hostel II, sharing a moment of teenage bravado: “That wasn’t so gory,” one might say, perhaps to impress his friend. “But I hear this new movie Captivity is really fucked up.”
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the Iraq war hasn’t penetrated our national psyche; on some level it’s just more torture porn at another Cineplex far, far away. One of the original posters for Hostel II is of Bijou Phillips beheaded, standing and holding her own severed head in her hand. The head is turned towards the viewer, the eyes glazed over, the tongue hanging out. I’m not hip enough to have moved on yet; I still haven’t gotten over the beheading of Nick Berg in May 2004. I recall his father’s eloquent grief, Michael Berg’s refusal to “play nice” for the Bush Administration after his son’s death, and the ubiquitous posting of the beheading footage on the internet. At the time, I found a site with the Berg link, and I clicked to download the content, assuaging my feelings of guilt with the timeworn excuse, “Well, everybody else is doing it.” I felt the adrenalin rush as the content was buffering, (was I really going to watch?) as I waited for my movie to start. But I stopped after the first few fascinated seconds. Another image intruded: Berg’s father moved to tears in an interview that I had seen somewhere online weeks before. I thought for a moment – this is a real person I am about to watch being killed, with a real father who is at home really crying and wishing his son were still alive. I considered a time in my life when I wouldn’t have thought I was the kind of person who could watch a film of someone being murdered, and here I was with my hand suspended over the pause button. I tried to image what it might be like to be a father and know that anyone in the world could click a button and watch a video of your child’s death, whenever they felt like it, day or night. I felt that thing that seems so uncool these days - compassion for Nicholas Berg, for his father, and a sense of grief and loss more immediate than my curiosity to watch someone’s death so I could “get off”.
Maybe I will make a different choice one day, but that day I chose not to watch. Looking at the Nick Berg video felt like crossing a line. I think it is very important to have lines. In an article published on June 4, 2007 in the New York Daily News, Ethan Sacks reported on Roth’s film, “As one of his stars was winched into place, dangling upside down 15 feet above the ground, shackled and naked, director Eli Roth wondered if he had gone too far. ‘Her screams were so real and so horrific that even the makeup guys couldn't watch,’ says Roth. ‘There was a moment where I was standing there, really by myself - just me, [actress] Heather Matarazzo and the cameraman and the sound guy - and there she is just screaming her little heart out. And I thought, 'Oh my God, what have I done?'"
Copyright Max Gordon