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Try Harder, Von Trier

Okay, I get it. We’re sick. We need help. We’re a culture obsessed with violence and pain and suffering. I miss the days when the gory slasher (or torture porn or gorn, depending on your preference) was solely the affairs of one-week-wonders produced on shoestrings and making a bit of money for studios to pump into other projects. However, with the autuer circuit’s growing fascination with paracinema (making the low brow high brow), it seems that these disturbing little films have become an arthouse favourite. Lars Von Trier’s effort at Cannes with Antichrist seems to have shown that critics are growing tired of it, but what on earth convinced artsy directors that this was a good genre to tackle?

This is another sort of gorn. It is also the only worksafe image we have on the topic.

This is another sort of gorn. It is also the only worksafe image we have on the topic.

I’ll confess. I like Saw. Not the crap, neverending convoluted sequels. The original, relatively low key (for a movie that has the protagonist saw through his own leg) precursor to all the violence that followed was a nice change of pace. Look at the cast – perennial supporting player Cary Elwes, the always-quality Danny Glover, pre-Lost Michael Emerson, a small supporting role for Tobin Bell and an even smaller role for veteran bit-part player and new Lostaway Ken Leung. It was a twisty visceral thriller that seemed more interested in startling its audience than visually sickening them. However, as Hollywood does when it gets a surprise hit, it commissioned a rake of sequels (with Donny Wahlberg!) and greenlighted all manner of sickeningly stomach-churning fare – stuff like Hostel or remakes of The Hills Have Eyes or Texas Chainsaw Massacre, movies that couldn’t provoke a decent scare through direction or character, so relied on gore.

Somewhere, a bunch of smart-ass festival-circling directors seem to have got the idea that there was room for art in the repulsive violence. So we ended up with stuff like the unrelenting (but not quite gory) Funny Games and gory (and also unrelenting) Antichrist. I read a description of the torture porn going on in the film and I’ve been sitting cross-legged all day. I don’t take offense at the attempt to elevate this form to art, but I wonder: Why? What’s the point? Not that these productions need a point (the originals don’t have one, but I expect more of Von Trier) – I’d just like to understand how this is meant to work.

The audiences at Cannes like thought-provoking cinema, that is true. But no one (save perhaps the people paying to see Saw VI: Saw Harder) wants to see that level of completely senseless violence on screen. It might enlighten, but it also repulses. And very few people will pay to be repulsed, even if they are promised enlightenment. The only people who would go and see such films will completely miss the point the director is trying to make about the brutality. You might make the point that other intellectually stimulating films and indie favourites – like Straw Dogs and the Exorcist, for example – are brutal, and that is true. But not to the same extent. If you think so, I suggest you check out the article linked to above.

The budget on Saw was so low that the cast couldn't afford decent dental cover.

The budget on Saw was so low that the cast couldn't afford decent dental cover.

Sure, the recent fascination with exploitation flicks has seen great filmmakers run in genres they normally wouldn’t have felt comfortable – Grindhouse is an example of this trend, with Tarantino and Rodriguez setting out to make an intentionally bad film. And though there is gore, I don’t feel blatantly uncomfortable watching it. The truth is that I enjoy the kitsch of it. That’s an important word, enjoy. There is nothing to enjoy in films like Kinatay, which follows a bunch of gang members slowly bisecting a victim. Contrary to what that film suggests, I don’t enjoy the violence or the inherent misogynism – I steer well clear of those films. If these arthouse films are making a point about the audience that does enjoy this violence for its own sake, they need to decide who they want to make it to. Those most discerning of cinema-goers who would get the point aren’t going to be the ones willing to sit through it. It’s a self defeating exercise.

It seems that independent cinema seems to have latched on to violence in an ironic way. They’re saying something about the culture we live in, the violence it creates. Maybe they are. The truth is that I would never go an see it, because it just repulses me while making a statement that is not particularly original or insightful – it’s the same thought that occurs to me when I decide not watch the latest cheap horror remake. I imagine the vast majority of people that this point would resonate with feel the same.

One Response

  1. […] (which is an institution on evening drives in our car) discussing IFCO’s decision to give the controversial arthouse flick Antichrist an 18’s certificate. Over the course of the interview with George Hook (who […]

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