Tortured Cinema - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Tortured Cinema

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.

Again, Rothbard:

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.

The constant horror of Saw does challenge coercive outside regulation as the ideal route to an individual’s happiness at its core, especially in a culture where “idealism” is so frequently linked to supporting some compulsive order or another, to restricting choice and freedom of conscience for individual and greater good. It is an implicitly anti-statist argument if followed to its natural conclusion. And as for the constant middle-brow suggestion by a sizable gaggle of critics that this is all a reflection of U.S. government torture post-9/11, there is nothing in any of the so-called “torture porn” films — good, bad or mediocre — that makes torture anything less than skin-crawlingly hideous.

NONE OF THIS IS TO suggest that Rothbard, were he still with us, would have nothing better to do on a Friday night in November than go see Saw IV. Nor is it likely the makers of the Saw series hunkered down with Rothbard or John Stuart Mill essays before drafting the screenplay. In fact, during a making-of documentary on the Saw DVD, one of the series producers muses the film “has a moral message despite the smears of blood” and director James Wan insists Jigsaw just “wants to help people out,” adding, “If you make it out of one of his games alive then he believes you’ll be a better person.”

Wan might be able to make a better case for this if, you know, anyone actually ever survived Jigsaw’s tests. As a fairly solid rule over the last four films, they don’t. The sole survivor from the gamut of hideous trials in the first movie becomes — spoiler alert — Jigsaw’s apprentice in Saw II and a villain worse than Jigsaw in Saw III, designing trials without even the pretense of survivability. Jigsaw does not hide his disappointment in his disciple when she fails to follow the rules he set forth for educating the masses, even as his own murder vice has clearly deepened. The traps he builds for his “subjects” only become more ghastly, his self-righteous moralizing streak broadening at a rate commensurate with his cruelty.

In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche argued that “even the seeker after knowledge forces his spirit to recognize things against the inclination of the spirit, and often enough also against the wishes of the heart — by way of saying No where he would like to say Yes, love and adore, and thus acts as an artist and transfigurer of cruelty.” There is a process of rationalization going on in Saw, whereby the central character suggests he is creating a situation…well, beyond good and evil; beyond cruelty. “If you make it through this, you’ll thank me one day,” Jigsaw confidently tells a doctor he’s kidnapped and locked into a collar rigged to explode if he flat-lines. As a deliverer of “something greater,” he allows himself to dismiss the “inclination of the spirit” towards compassion, kindness and all the rest.

THE OBVIOUS RETORT TO THIS line of reasoning, of course, is: Well, sure, but does the actual audience make any distinction or are they just there to get their rocks off on some over-the-top gory spectacle? It’s a fair question. When I saw Chuck Klosterman read recently, he talked about meeting the flavor-of-several-months-ago band The Strokes and being surprised to learn he had thought more deeply about their music than they had, and I am aware that the millions of people who flocked to Saw IV when it opened two weeks ago are probably not avid Murray Rothbard readers.

Nevertheless, when David Edelstein ruminates over why America “seems so nuts these days about torture,” there is a simple answer to his quandary: They’re not. If they were the local cineplex would be teeming with mobs for any simulated snuff film. This simply is not the case. The total global box office tally for the insipid, ultra-violent film The Devil’s Rejects was $19 million. The first three Saw films made $103 million, $147 million and $164 million, respectively. The crude torture knock off Captivity, despite immense controversy, publicity and advertising made only $9 million. Likewise, Turistas — a film with far more out and out torture scenes than Saw — grossed only $14 million. Hostel, a movie unfairly maligned as a 90 minute torturelogue, took in more than $80 million.

In other words, it takes more than pure torture to pile bodies in a theater. Films like Saw and Hostel are not for everyone, a point that should be made excessively clear. At the same time, the success of these films cannot be dismissed as mere bloodlust among a populace eager, as Edelstein surmised, to “suspend moral judgments altogether.” Presenting himself with the question “So where is morality now?” in his nonfiction study of the broader horror genre Danse Macabre, Stephen King wrote, “I think it lies where it has always lain: in the hearts and minds of men and women of good will. In the case of the writer, this may mean beginning with a nihilistic premise and gradually relearning old lessons of human values and human conduct.”

So it is with any film worth its salt in this genre, as well.

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