In a previous article, I discussed whether extreme cinema can ever go too far. See this link here. Today, I want to discuss with you about the perception of extreme cinema, but from the other side of the coin – from the side of the detractors; from the perspective of people who dislike extreme cinema or who actively have an axe to grind against explicit violence or sexual material in film.
You see, I’m angry!
I’m sure many of you have come across instances, where you have stated your love, your passion, your thirst, or your desire for horror films. (For the sake of clarity, we will classify all extreme cinema, as being from within the horror genre. Whilst not all horror cinema is extreme, nor all extreme cinema, horrific, please indulge me for just one moment.) Now, I don’t know about you, but when I say to people "I love horror films", I frequently get criticised. I am told that violence isn’t healthy for me. I am often greeted with a sharp intake of breath as soon as I mention my interest in the dark side of the genre, as if my interest is abnormal; inappropriate, or even, just plain wrong.
Recently, via a couple of discussions and debates in online forums, I’ve been actively called an abhorrent human being. Criticised and labelled as some kind of deviant who is psychologically unstable, and mentally deficient. My love, has basically been demonised. The people that have done this, do not know me on a personal level. They have never met with me, nor spoken to me. In fact, the only things they do know, is from what I have talked about in the forum threads themselves.
Have any of you ever encountered this type of hostility?
If I were to say that I loved nothing better than indulging my spare time in a good action film, no one would bat an eyelid. If I were to proclaim my love for rom-com’s, most people would accept it at face value. Yet as soon as you mention a hankering for horror films, you will find yourself being chastised for it, and treated in a very underhand fashion. It’s bad enough that censorship already restricts us from viewing what we want to, but we also have governments telling us that horror films are not socially-acceptable viewing material. You may even find friends and family refuse to acknowledge or accept your chosen interest.
Why is this? Why is the horror genre such an unaccepted area in film?
I raise this issue, because a discussion about the merits and/or appropriateness of the infamous "newborn porn" scene from A SERBIAN FILM (2010, Srdjan Spasojevic), has caused me a lot of concern.
For those who don’t know, there is a moment in the film when a woman gives birth, and her newborn child is immediately sodomised in front of her, by a hooded man. That’s the politest way of putting it. Now, firstly, the scene is one hundred percent fake. I tell you this, so that no one is under any illusion about what we are talking about. And we are absolutely NOT talking about child pornography! The baby is a dummy, with sound effects overlayed to convey the nature of the scene. Secondly, the director says that he included the scene, as a way to explain that the Serbian people are raped on a daily basis, by their government, from birth until death. How much merit there is to this second issue, is debateable. From what I’ve read, most ordinary people, horror fans or not, really struggle with this scene. I have also read that many Serbian people, don’t believe in the relevance or necessity of the scene either. I’ve talked about this scene with others, and came to the conclusion that, whilst technically well-made, A SERBIAN FILM is not a good film. It’s one of those movies that has blatantly been made, to be confrontational for the sake of it. Any social or political message it MAY have meant to contain, got lost along the way, due to the extreme and unrelentingly nasty content.
So why has it got me angry, and why am I writing about this particular subject on my blog today?
Whilst I am predominantly anti-censorship, as a fan of extreme cinema, whilst I may watch material that is illegal in my own country and would never be sanctioned by the state censorship board, there are times when I see a film that crosses my own personal threshold of tolerance. It breaches my own moral values and limits, and once it does, I want nothing more to do with it.
A SERBIAN FILM broke that moral threshold, by a long margin!
When I first heard of the film, it wasn’t made known to me just how challenging the content actually was. It was marketed as a controversial film, a message film, but at no stage at that point in time – way back in August 2010 – when only a minority of people were even aware of this film’s existence, did anyone inform me exactly what it contained. It was just a film title, that had barely made a ripple in the Internet news world, and thus, when we watched it, we were utterly unprepared for what the film was going to depict.
We were, in effect, guinea pigs for the rest of you.
Obviously, many of you will have now seen it, having been told about it from others. Having been pre-warned, in effect. Well, that didn’t happen when I saw it. When I saw A SERBIAN FILM, I had no idea about it. I watched it, and was brutalised by its content. I then had to watch it a second time, to confirm various elements of the film I wished to discuss in my review of it.
Thus, it annoyed me greatly when one particularly moronic imbecile I recently met online via a discussion of this particular movei, was angry with me for being offended at a scene of a baby being sodomised. He told me that it was only a film, and hence, I should simply get over it. He then went on to question why I had watched it twice, if I was going to be so offended in the first place.
Well, as I said, I didn’t know what the film was going to be about. It was one of those rare occasions when I quite literally knew next to nothing about its theme, its content or its approach. As such, it would be impossible to prepare myself for what it did show, without any prior knowledge.
As a reviewer, I believe it is incumbent of me to give every film I review a chance. There are lots of films and film genres I dislike. As such, I have to treat these films carefully, when I review them, so that I review them fairly and justly. That I treat them with complete impartiality. However, if you actively dislike, say, Westerns, then you will almost always going to end-up prejudging them, before you’ve seen a single frame, because of your negative feelings towards that type of movie.
I hate reviewers who hold prejudices against a film’s content, but have neither seen the film in full, or just simply repeat what other people have said, as if to give their own words some kind of validity or credence. Mary Whitehouse did this.
For non-British readers, I had probably better explain who Mrs Whitehouse was. She was an infamous lady who considered herself to be the moral guardian of Great Britain in the 1970’s and 80’s, and famously brought to the World’s attention the 1983/84 scandal about Video Nasties. Although a well-meaning individual, she got many people’s backs up, because most of the material she criticised, she did so, despite never having seen it, but through being told about it from other people in her church and committee groups. As such she was treated pretty shabbily by many anti-censorship people, and those who worked in the UK film industry. Despite her often badly-argued discussions, she still managed to attain plenty of attention from similarly-minded British citizens, who championed her beliefs and views. Her most famous filmic targets included A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, THE EXORCIST and MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN! (She was a deeply devout Christian, and so LIFE OF BRIAN was a real bugbear of hers, on the grounds of alleged blasphemous content!) For more info on her, see this BBC report to get a short introduction to her life.
The Daily Mail, (a terrible, British, tabloid daily newspaper that I cannot recommend to anyone with even the most cursory measure of an IQ), has a similar villain, in the form of their film reviewer: a man who goes by the name of Christopher Tookey. He, is like Mary Whitehouse. He frequently lambasts film’s with extreme content, having never seen a single frame of the offending material, and does this both online via the paper’s website, as well as within the paper itself. Thankfully, many of the world’s more reasoned people regularly demonstrate his hypocrisy and idiotic commentary, via the Mail’s Comments Page – often leading to much hilarity, and much red-faced embarrassment for Mr Tookey. One of his most famous, was his preachy, holier-than-thou report on Tom Six's shocker THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE II: FINAL SEQUENCE from 2011, which you can see being hilariously disected by the public here.
These individuals argue that film is becoming too extreme, in terms of violence or sexual content. That, in and of itself, is not a problem. In fact, even though I will argue till the cows come home, that adults should be free to see and read whatever they want – within reasonable limits, of course – I have no problem with anyone who wishes to argue for more censorship. If they are willing to furnish a reasoned, well-argued point-of-view, then I will happily continue a debate with them.
But I digress.
Alas, well-reasoned arguments are not what I have recently encountered. Returning to my recent online debate about the issue of the rape of a newly-born infant, or "newborn porn" as it is referred too in A SERBIAN FILM, I was desperately trying to understand why several people in the debate seemed to find that content acceptable, and not worthy of getting hot under the collar over.
Surely, any half-decent, semi-literate, reasonably sane person would find any depiction of the raping of an infant, an emotionally-charring event, no matter that the depiction is totally fictitious, wouldn’t they? Isn’t that an image, that no right-thinking person could possibly find acceptable, decent, or tolerable?
It seems I was wrong.
As I said, one individual felt that such a scene was not something I (nor anyone else) needed to get concerned about. When I explained to him, that I would question anyone’s mental well-being who didn’t find such a scene distressing or deeply abhorrent, he went off, firing an abusive post at me. Ok, fair enough, I did insinuate that he wasn’t all-there, so-to-speak, but as an adult, have we really reached a stage where nothing is sacrosanct any more; where any image is acceptable for entertainment, as long as it is fake?
I don’t think absolutely anything should be acceptable. I think, even as a fan of extreme cinema, there has to be a fine-line of acceptability. My argument in the shit-storm that I had now unleashed, was that if any film is going to feature a scene of baby-rape, that the director better have a damn good reason for including such material.
The 1978 version of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE treads the fine line between gratuitous violence for entertainment or prurience sake, and detailing the harrowing and disturbing nature of an event. As most of you will be aware, the film features a graphic rape scene. Now, I know that many people dislike I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE for that very reason. However, I firmly believe that director Meir Zarchi deliberately made the rape scene so utterly cold, brutal, and clinical as possible, deliberately to demonstrate to anyone watching the film that rape is a horrific, vile crime that no one should take any ounce of pleasure from, complicit or not in the event itself. (As a viewer of the film, you are a spectator to the rape, and thus, Zarchi makes you complicit in the act, even if you tell yourself that you are watching a film, and that no one is actually being physically harmed.) Watching that scene, you will see that the rape is depicted in full. There are few edits to soften the violent content. There is no music to ease the mood. There is nothing, except an unrelenting amount of screaming, and degrading action unrolling before your eyes...
...Which is why that scene is so powerful, and why it should be left in uncut, and uncensored. It doesn’t try to say that rape is nasty, but cover-up the harsh nature of what rape actually is. It doesn’t make the viewer comfortable. If anything, it positively forces you to endure the scene, as much as Jennifer (actress Camille Keaton) endures the rape itself. It is technically, in it’s own, stark and warped manner, a warning to all men that you should be disgusted by rape, and never, ever want to even consider raping another human being, under any circumstances.
A SERBIAN FILM tries to proclaim that the scene of "newborn porn" is about the Serbian government raping its citizens from birth!
If Spasojevic really believes that, then there are a hundred other ways he could have made his point, without resorting to baby-rape. If he honestly believed that sodomy of an infant was the only way to get his message across, then he is both seriously deluded as well as an A1 idiot!
Could the scene have been less explicit? Absolutely.
Could the scene have just hinted at the idea, rather than showing it at all? Yes, for certain.
Was the sodomy of an infant actually necessary? Not at all.
I think what makes the scene even worse, is that it is coupled throughout the film along with many other equally abhorrent scenes of explicit, degrading and unwarranted depictions of sexualised violence. The mixing of children and sexual violence, may have been acceptable, if a point had been made well. Instead, what you get is scene after scene of repellent material – the worst that humanity can offer-up for your delectation.
I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE has one scene of rape: a nasty, repellent scene for sure, but one scene only. There is the infamous scene of bathtime fun too, but even that is tempered by being carefully filmed, so you never actually see the knife cut through a man’s genitals. You see the knife, and you see the blood, and you know exactly what Jennifer has done, but you never actually see sharpened metal cut through any fleshy appendage.
That’s some restraint in my eyes. Director Mei Zarchi could have chosen to make it as vile as the rape. Yet, he carefully includes enough detail so that audiences are left in no doubt as to what has happened, without actually showing the graphic details you might expect, or want, to see.
So why include baby-rape in A SERBIAN FILM, alongside scenes of incest, necrophilia, ultra-explicit sexualised decapitation, rape, sodomy and many other delightful moments? It’s for one reason only: it’s easy!
It’s easy to show explicit violence.
It’s easy to film gory scenes of carnage.
It’s also easy and lazy film-making.
Spasojevic has claimed that he’s an angry man, making an angry film, hence the violence. Well, Meir Zarchi was angry at rape being trivialised. Ruggero Deodato was angry with seeing news footage showing death on evening bulletins', whilst they simultaneously censored the worst moments to make it palatable and also warning viewers that they may see disturbing material. Spike Lee was angry at the way African-Americans were treated, when he filmed his biopic of Black Right’s Activict Malcolm X.
There are ways and means to film anger and hatred, without resorting to unnecessary violence.
Ah, but what about CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, I hear you ask? Doesn’t that film feature repellent content?
Yes, it does. Animal cruelty and killing is never acceptable in a film, and certainly not one that is primarily aimed at entertaining people.
However, the single defence that CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST has, is that the animal killing was done in 1979. A SERBIAN FILM was made in 2010. It doesn’t excuse what Deodato did for his work, but Spasojevic should know better.
We’re not in 1979, or 1989 or even 1999. We’re in the 21st Century, and as human beings, we’ve moved on from lowest common denominator violence. You don’t need to resort to explicit material, to get your point across. It can work, and there may be one or two occasions, when audiences may find it appropriate – CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and I SPIT ON YOUR GAVE being two of them – but they are old films, made in a different era. These days, you need to be aware that people don’t tolerate explicit violence if you are trying to get a message across to them. They don’t appreciate being sonically and visually mind-raped, with scene after scene of nihilism. Any point you may be trying to make, is going to quickly get lost, and more than likely, your audience is going to get wise to your shenanigans, and pull you up for it.
If A SERBIAN FILM had marketed itself as an exploitation film, then I would still be unhappy with it, but at least it wouldn’t be pretending to be something more than what it is. But the fact that the director was actively telling people, that the extreme violence is on-screen because it’s a metaphor for real-life atrocities, doesn’t have any believability to it.
I could possibly accept just the scene of baby-rape, if the rest of the film hadn’t been so utterly sickening. I literally did feel like I was being psychologically sodomised, when I watched it the first time. At no point did I think to myself: "Wow, those poor Serbian men and women. What a horrible life it must be for them. What a despicable governmental regime they must be enduring".
No! What I was thinking is: "Holy shit, this is one deranged and fucked-up movie! I feel sick, and I don’t think I can stomach this any further!"
I can guarantee that if 99.9% of your audience are watching your film, and the first thing they think or speak of, is the latter, rather than the former, then your message has failed. In fact, most people who have seen this film who stuck it through to the end, admitted the latter. Plenty of others, however, walked-out of the few screenings that have occurred around the globe, or have simply stopped the DVD and said "Enough’s enough! It’s obscene!"
Not one person I know of, has "got" any message of any kind, from A SERBIAN FILM. It has failed miserably. I would question whether there actually was a message in the first place. SCHINDLER’S LIST has some graphic violence. It is based on real-life atrocities that took place, but I didn’t see Steven Spielberg fill that 195-minute film with every single type of debasing and inhumane act he could think of, to get his message across to his audience.
I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE and CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST didn’t portray themselves as "message movies", though they did contain messages – and messages that were quite blunt ones at that. In CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, the message is so blunt, it’s even mentioned three times in the film, just in case anyone wasn’t entirely sure what the message actually was, didn’t quite get it. When actor Robert Kerman discusses the content of the found footage, with the female TV executive, on the park bench, she explains that audiences want sensationalism. When he fights to explain that some of the found-footage is unsuitable for broadcast, he rallies against the TV studio management, decrying that "I’ve seen the footage that even your projectionist didn’t have the stomach for". They later watch the footage, and they realise just how despicable and racially offensive it is. Then, at the very end of the film, Kerman leaves the TV studio, and rhetorically asks "I wonder who the real cannibals are".
If you leave a screening of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, having sat through the entire thing, and you STILL haven’t got the message, then there really is no hope for you. The message is 100% there, though, and no one can deny that it isn’t, because it’s been explicitly spelled out, so it cannot be missed by anyone.
A SERBIAN FILM, though, doesn’t have that defence. It doesn’t have the defence that it was made 25 years ago, and that’s why it contains what it does. From the get-go, the film deliberately provokes you. If the first scene doesn’t have you worried, then the second one will. If that second scene doesn’t quite push your buttons, by scenes four, five and six, you will have been provoked beyond all limits of reasonableness, but there’s still scenes seven, eight, nine, ten and eleven to stomach!
It’s almost as if Spasojevic is prodding you with a stick, except each time you ask him to stop because he has your full attention, he just goes on poking you for 98 minutes more. Then, as the final coup de grace unfolds, he takes the stick, shoves it down your throat, before slapping you around the face, and kicking you in the crotch for good measure.
That’s some way to get a message across to your audience. Bludgeon them to pieces, so they become so desensitised and so disgusted with you, that they forget everything you were originally trying to tell them.
Well done, Srdjan Spasojevic! Congratulations on that! What a big and clever guy you are. What’s next for us viewers? How much lower are you going to now stoop, to further degrade and offend your audience? What other delights do you have in store for us?
Here’s my suggestion: let’s have a scene of a baby being forced to eat excrement.
No, let’s have a scene involving several babies, all being forced to eat excrement. And then we’ll make them drink piss. The piss will be in baby’s bottles.
No, even that’s not offensive enough! Let’s really get our film on the map. Let’s include a scene in which we have lots of babies, all gourged on shit and piss, and at the same time, each of those baby’s will be placed into an oven, and then we’ll cook them, until their flesh blisters and burns off. We’ll force the viewers to watch every single, vomit-inducing second, and we’ll promote the film’s notoriety by letting people know we used at least one, real, dead baby in that scene, and we really cooked it! Yeah, that’ll help promote how fucked-up the Serbian government is, and will justify my directorial anger, won’t it?! If it wasn’t so politically incorrect and offensive, I’d label Spasojevic ever-so-slightly retarded.
But you won’t see me doing that, because I don’t like deliberately offending people just to get my message across! I like to give my audience some credit of intelligence and maturity!
Here endeth the lesson!