Friday, December 24, 2010

That's Cinema!

Sleaze and Horror have so much overlap that it often becomes very hard to know to how to treat the little anomalies that wind up in between them on the vendiagram. When a film with a huge dose of serious piles on the needless sex and drug use, is it fair to revoke its creators right to arthouse credentials, no matter how stylistically he or she makes their point? What about horror films that try really hard to be taken seriously but can't overcome their trappings? Or for that matter films that get so out of control with their need to shake up the squares that they either forget their message or lose any high ground needed to deliver it. This was certainly the case with Cannibal Holocaust and what I find so fascinating is that the people who purport to be inspired by it (Eli Roth springs immediately to mind) also get so bogged down making sure they've pulled out all the stops that by the end of it no one cares what their message was. There is a line in depicting violence and once you cross it, your message is just not worth the trouble anymore and your audience checks out. Of course, it's much easier to think up gory set pieces than to figure out the point of no return and make sure you don't cross it; too often message movies become dare movies. Franco Prosperi and Gualtieri Jacopetti wanted to prove they weren't racists by shedding light on the conditions that Africans underwent during the American antebellum period. But instead all they did was ensure that everyone who painted them as horrible violent exploitationists was right a few times over. Similarly if Adam Mason and Andrew Howard wanted to say something about hillbillies doubling as metaphors for anything or if Srdjan Spasojevic had anything to say about life in post-war Serbia, I doubt very much if anyone's going to feel like wading hip-deep in shit to figure what that was.

by Adam Mason
A woman runs through the desert in what could potentially be any part of the globe (it's got a desert near sporadically grassy terrain and trees that look they could be found almost anywhere). She's covered in blood and from her heavy breathing has been running a long time. The thing she's running from pulls up in his truck a few minutes later, scolds her for trying to escape, inarticulately, in an angry southern drawl. He knocks her out, throws her in the back of the truck and drives back to a trailer in the middle of nowhere. There, he throws her on the ground, knocks her around all while his similarly nameless and pregnant girlfriend/slave moans and screams incoherently. He then leaves the girl for her brother who he has chained up about a half a mile away. He toys with him, shoots at him, lets him run away for a bit, catches up to him, kills him and then castrates him. Then he goes back and puts the dead man's guts all over his sister, puts on a dress and then attempts to rape the remaining victim but can't get an erection. Then he stabs her to death, cleans himself up, puts on a suit and leaves in his truck again. On the way to what turns out to be an airport he calls his wife and child in a posh English accent and tells them he's been hunting and that he'll be home soon before taking off in his private jet. Roll credits backwards?
I semi-apologize for giving away the ending, but not really. As entertainment Pig has nothing to offer, but as a piece of art, well, that's a little harder to pin down. The first thing to say is that it's incredibly impressive that Mason shot the whole thing in one take and he and Andrew Howard, who co-wrote the script as well as playing the depraved psychopath, managed to make it all feel fairly real. The only problem with that is all the writing seems to have been mostly of an orchestrating a general timeline rather than writing dialogue. There's just no way they wrote lines for this; the whole thing feels improvised and it probably was. So really what do they get credit for? An air of sustained grossness I guess which, I mean, is pretty impressive but putting on an accent and playing around in blood isn't really a huge achievement, even if you keep it up for ninety minutes. The stabbings and shootings are well done considering they had to have been planned well in advance, but they're few and far between. Mostly we watch a derelict fritter away his afternoon at the expense of two screaming hostages. As a piece of performance art I understand it and respect the preparation and certainly enjoy it more than most backwoods horror films or straight-to-dvd gore films but with all the filth and violence and craziness it all started to get monotonous, then unbearably dull, then utterly boring. Mason also pipes in music throughout pretty much the whole movie (doesn't help the monotony any), so Pig never feels as real as he'd like it to. And then with the reveal that this man isn't who he seems to be, it lost my respect entirely. If we're to believe that this was all an act and this guy falls into the Naked Fear, Hostel school of murderer, which changes this film for the worst. Then the point shifts from performance art to comment on the rich. And this has to be the most drawn-out, useless one of those I've ever seen. There's just no reason for the guy to behave the way he does with his victims if he was planning on killing them. Furthermore, who's the pregnant girl? Did he get her pregnant, did he cause her mental illness, did he find her that way? Evidence suggests they've been together a long damn time, but if this guy's only out here for the weekend, that doesn't add up. The twist makes a joke out what was before an incredibly committed, albeit grimy and dull film. Imagine if at the end of The Devil's Rejects Captain Spaulding had driven Rufus and Baby to the airport where they changed into tuxedos and landed in New York in time to start working on Wall street. Woulda kinda undersold the whole outsider art part of the movie, wouldn't it? And that's exactly what happens here; Pig goes from bold to not-as-smart-as-it-thinks-it-is in about thirty seconds after an hour and a half of set up.
Now the other point that this ending skewers is that it meant that my trying to figure out what the fuck Mason and Howard were trying to say was maddeningly put to bed and then gassed in their sleep. So what was a grueling, pretty unrewarding experience became a tiresome joke that wasn't funny the first time someone told it. One take or not, Pig isn't worth the slog. If you're a performance artist or actor looking for lessons in commitment, I suppose you could do worse. But the problem is people not staying above the things they're out to critique. Just look at A Serbian Film. Though very well made and nice to look at (most of the time, anyway) A Serbian Film is just too stupid to be able to talk down to anyone, though boy jesus does it ever try to talk down to motherfuckers.

A Serbian Film
by Srdjan Spasojevic
Milos is an ex-pornstar who must have retired yesterday because the video his son finds of him shows a version of the man exactly like the one who walks in the room to pop the tape out of the VCR. He and his wife don't seem all that bothered by the fact that their son has just watched his dad screwing some blonde on a motorcycle. But forget all that, it doesn't matter. Milos is late. He has to meet his friend and former co-star Lejla because she has an offer for him. She's recently met an odd man called Vukmir who's willing to employ both of them in a new endeavor. Milos is a mite apprehensive, but he'd like to feel useful again and misses playing the stud so he lets himself get talked into Vukmir's increasingly strange scheme. Vukmir is an independently wealthy eccentric who has some kind of half-cocked idea about making art porn. A word about this: how often do you think some fucking European lunatic gets this idea? One of Nicholas Ray's last movies was a short, part of an omnibus feature released by Francis Mishkind, who was really not someone you wanted funding the works of one of the last great filmmakers of the studio era. Anyway, it's a terrible idea but Milos can't say no to the money and goes along with it.

His first day is supremely weird. He's blindfolded and driven to what I take to be Vukmir's house where he is then led down a series of corridors where he witnesses what are either rehearsed scenes or just bizarre acts of cruelty. All the while he's filmed by two of Vukmir's hulking bodyguards. First he sees a woman slapping her daughter, then just down the hall, a woman separates them and tells the mother that she's unfit to raise the kid. Then Milos is driven home. The next day the men are outside Milos' door again ready to drive him back. This time he and Lejla have sex in a dark room, but Vukmir puts on three television sets playing footage of children just sitting in dark rooms. Well Milos has a hard time keeping it up and the next day meets with Vukmir to tell him he's had enough with the secrecy but most of all he's had it with all the children. Vukmir's response, "Why didn't you say so?" isn't what Milos wants to hear, but the businessman insists that it has to be this way. He use to work with kids and understands their psychology and if Milos would just watch some of the other stuff he's been filming, he'll totally understand. What he shows the horrified porn star, a giant man delivering, then fucking, a baby, sends Milos running terrified out of the house. I'm sure you or I would have had the same response. Only trouble is that Vukmir has drugged whatever Milos was drinking and when he wakes up the next day pissing blood with a hangover, he knows he's been thrust deeper into the murk than he ever wanted to go and once he remembers what happened last night, there will be no recovering.
In the documentary Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape, Neil Marshall mentioned that something was definitely lost in the transition from low to high budget horror films. The reason films like Cannibal Holocaust engendered so much fear and revulsion is because they looked like shit; if you were dumb, very open to suggestion or were looking for an excuse, you could make yourself believe you were watching the real thing. He complained that A Serbian Film doesn't work because despite its descending into the worst shit imaginable, it's too well made to be mistaken for the real thing. Which is why Snuff doesn't work, incidentally. Point definitely taken but the real problem with A Serbian Film is that it isn't as smart or as dangerous as it thinks it is. Let's talk danger: the film presents in no particular order baby fucking, skull fucking to death, sex that ends with decapitation and forced incest. Like most hard core pornography, all this becomes incredibly boring before too long. Like most films that decide to tow this particular line (Takashi Miike's Visitor Q, say) once you get that the filmmakers are only interested in showing you the most disgusting shit imaginable, you just accepted it, then wait to see what they have in store for you. In the case of Visitor Q, it was in the service of a single idea: the modern Japanese family has been corrupted. That in mind everything you see (a dad killing then fucking his daughter, a woman lactating during sex, a man raped by youths with his own documentary equipment) it's all furthering the metaphor about modern families and the climate created by new technology. Ultimately I stopped really caring about the time the dad starts having sex with his daughter's dead body, though at least Miike made his film incredibly threadbare and didn't stop every few minutes to say "Get it?" He just kept on with the filth and let it speak for itself. It's what he does. Visitor Q isn't a great film, but like its most obvious influence, Pasolini's Teorema, it works as a single-thesis text. A Serbian Film has a lot on its mind, none of which it finds more interesting than the penis as a murder weapon.

An interesting idea, to be sure, if only Srdjan Spasojevic had done anything with it. Like Adam Mason, Spasojevic wastes his not inconsiderable craft and his desire to say something about modern life by instead making useless blanket statements and stupidly complicated plot contrivances. For instance, if Vukmir wants to craft some new horrifying brand of pornography, why the christ would he put all his efforts into doing it with someone who people would surely miss if he and his family went missing. Milos is not a nobody and it makes absolutely no sense that Vukmir would use him, especially to the degree he does. He doesn't even know him, so his vindictive treatment of him and his family makes no kind of sense either. Why wouldn't he find a criminal or a homeless guy, someone he could dissappear with no questions? Yes, yes I know the Serbian government and all that shit. But Milos seems perfectly comfortable, so what's the message? That the Serbs ruin middle class families? Why not the poor? Actually, come to think of it, who gives a fuck about Milos or his rich pornstar friends? He's an indifferent dad and husband and he lets himself get dragged in as far as he does without pulling the plug. I say who gives a shit! So, there goes the film's social relevance. So what's left? Penises killing people! So if you're super into that dig in! If like me you wanted a trifle more than just sex and murder being ramped up without actually changing anything, look away, you're not missing anything. It takes real talent to make that shit boring, yet here we are. And as if that weren't bad enough, Spasojevic takes every oppurtunity to make huge points about the state of the world and film and how dangerous it is and it all just feels like the most pretentious, unearned horse shit. Like because Spasojevic is as depraved as this he has the moral high ground somehow? Yeah, yeah and somewhere Hostel's being taught in colleges. I don't particularly like being taught by the guy who finds child rape so fascinating.
And so we see that taboo shattering in and of itself isn't necessarily a worthwhile pursuit. Neither Pig nor A Serbian Film is really all that endearing or interesting a watch. One is shot really well, the other really audaciously and yet neither is worth watching as either pure cinema or as an experiment. A Serbian Film is well made but is undercut by its repugnancy; Pig's repugnancy carries over into its presentation which fits but doesn't do much to ingratiate viewers. And frankly it still falls under Neil Marshall's complaint about it being too well made to be real. The whole time I was just thinking of the prep that went into this or that set piece before they started filming, and because the action left a little something to be desired, that was all I was ever thinking about. I surely wasn't interested in watching a hillbilly molest two people in real time for 90 minutes. Just as I wasn't interested in watching a man rape his whole family for no reason. And all the while Vukmir stands back and says "That's cinema!" Not good cinema, that's for sure.

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