The wildly popular Saw series, like Eli Roth’s Hostel, is frequently derided as torture porn,” a term coined by New York Magazine film critic David Edelstein to define a supposedly new genre of films “so viciously nihilistic that the only point seems to be to force you to suspend moral judgments altogether.” In a wonderful Weekly Standard piece last year endorsing dehumanized celluloid zombies over humanized torture victims, frequent TAS contributor James Poulos went even further, damning the series as “an annual celebration of torture, dismemberment, and Snowden’s secret from Catch-22: ‘The spirit gone, man is garbage.’”
Yet, while I would not presume to offer a blanket defense of every film shellacked as “torture porn” — just as I would not defend romantic comedy writ large on the basis of my love for You’ve Got Mail — these films collectively are neither new — see The Last House on the Left (1972), Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and I Spit On Your Grave (1978) — nor devoid of social value. The Saw films, in particular, intentionally or not, offer a visceral critique of the do-gooder impulse towards social engineering — taken to its ultimate extreme, obviously.
IN THE FIRST INSTALLMENT of Saw a man awakes in a chair, a steel collar holding his head in place as two industrial size drills slowly inch in from both left and right. As he struggles, the inventor of the diabolical contraption appears. “Don’t cry,” John Kramer, the infamous Jigsaw killer, tells him. “I’ve given you a life of purpose. You’re a test subject for something greater than yourself.”
Alas, Kramer’s perfidy is not the result of a tragic misreading of The Purpose Driven Life. A newspaper headline among the montage of introducing the character of Jigsaw blares “Psychopath Teaches Sick Life Lessons,” and that sums up the series arc fairly well: In a pre-Jigsaw life Kramer was an architectural engineer, ecstatic at the thought of growing old with his beautiful new fiancee and running Urban Renewal, a company dedicated to building low income housing — yeah, the filmmakers lay it on pretty thick — until a diagnosis of terminal cancer derails everything.
The perspective of this sudden death sentence infuriates him. Everywhere he looks Kramer sees the healthy taking precious life for granted, frittering away time and potential. The oblivious gall of it all unbalances him mentally. Soon Kramer is using his engineering skills to build perverse contraptions designed to kill those not possessing the fortitude to pass a trial necessary to escape. Drug addicts, failed suicides, thieves, adulterers, along with others whom Jigsaw deems in need of a moral makeover — a father in the third film must rescue the man who killed his son in a hit-and-run accident to save himself — find themselves captive in deadly rooms painted with slogans such as Welcome to Your Rebirth and Cherish Your Life. Their vice is always somehow symbolized in their invariably gruesome gauntlet. “Live or die,” Jigsaw repeats mantra-like, “the choice is yours.”
Trouble is, when a reverse bear trap attached to your face is about to help the top of your head meet the middle of your back…well, that’s not much of a choice at all.
IN HIS CLASSIC 1973 ESSAY “Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature,” Murray Rothbard laid out a scenario wherein it had become “a universal ethical goal that all men be able to fly by flapping their arms.” The result of this “pro-flapper” agitation is “unending social misery as society tries continually to move in the direction of arm-flying, and the preachers of arm-flapping make everyone’s lives miserable for being either lax or sinful enough not to live up to the common ideal.”
Often as not in cinema, this “common ideal” end justifies the means. In David Fincher’s 1999 film Fight Club there is a scene in which Brad Pitt’s character Tyler Durden drags a clerk out of a convenience store at gunpoint, puts him on his knees and demands he divulge his true life goal. (It is presumed this will not be convenience store clerk.) When through sobs the man explains he’d recently given up his dream of becoming a veterinarian, Pitt takes the clerk’s driver’s license. “If you’re not on your way to being a veterinarian in six weeks you’re going to be dead,” he threatens matter-of-factly, musing to Edward Norton as the clerk runs for his life, “Tomorrow will be the most beautiful day of his life. His breakfast will taste better than any meal you or I ever tasted.” Go to a signing by Chuck Palahniuk, author of the novel the film is based on, and you’ll see the reverence for these characters and their exploits first hand.
It is difficult to imagine the threat-of-violence-as-a-vehicle-for-social-good of Saw romanticized in the quite same way as the scene in Fight Club, where a stranger forcing an individual to live up to an arbitrary standard somehow becomes a sublime, transcendent moment.p>Again, Rothbard: br> /p>
The proper critique here is to challenge the “ideal” goal itself; to point out that the goal itself is impossible in view of the physical nature of man and the universe; and, therefore, to free mankind from its enslavement to an inherently impossible and, hence, evil goal. But this liberation could never occur so long as the anti-armfliers continued to be solely in the realm of the “practical” and to concede ethics and “idealism” to the high priests of arm-flying. The challenge must take place at the core — at the presumed ethical superiority of a nonsensical goal.br> The constant horror of Saw
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