Imagine some of the things that you least (and I mean least) want to have happen to you, or to someone you love. Now imagine that a very sick person is doing all those things to you, or forcing you to watch them being done to someone you love. Now imagine a movie about this. Only about this. You don’t have to imagine, because I have just described the “plot” of a Japanese movie titled Grotesque, by horror movie director Koji Shiraishi. Except for a ridiculously out of place supernatural revenge sequence at the end, the only thing that happens in the movie is that two innocent people, a couple, are tortured and sexually abused for an hour and ten minutes. The English promotional materials promise to so outdo Saw and Hostel in gore, violence and depravity that watching those movies would thereafter be no different than watching West Side Story. Well, that was quite enough for the British Board of Film Classification, a body that determined that the – film – (can I just start calling it “piece of filth” or pof, for short?) had no redeeming value whatsoever, merely showed sexual depravity for its own sake, and presented a “risk of (psychological, I assume) harm” to potential viewers. “Not on these shores!”, decided the BBFC. They prohibited Grotesque from being shown or distributed in the UK, something that they normally just don’t do. Not surprisingly, Shiraishi wore this condemnation as a badge of honor, stood up for “artistic integrity” and redoubled his efforts to market his pof as the one film they don’t want you to see! Naturally, boasting this as its claim to fame, the standard audience for pofs of this nature felt even more determined to stand up for freedom of expression, to see what all the fuss was about, or to “test themselves” (let’s remember that no bravery is required to sit one’s posterior on a couch and watch a TV screen) against that which sought to disturb and disgust (or, just as possibly, arouse) them in every frame. The BBFC had their moral victory, and Shiraishi picked up a few extra yen. A win/win, if you will.
Why did the British film board decide to censor Grotesque, and not, for example, Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, a pof that features such heartwarming scenes as an innocent woman being forced to don a “mask” that has been fashioned out of her tortured-to-death husband’s facial skin? Because in the case of the former, it was determined that it in no way, shape or form even constituted a work of creativity. It was just, simply, extreme violence realistically portrayed so as to appeal to the most base and unhealthy interests of those wishing to watch it. In other words, they refused to recognize it as a work of art. Rather, they determined that it was just an unwholesome thingie, probably falling somewhere between rabid dog saliva and Weapon of Mass Destruction in terms of how beneficial they considered it to be for the citizens of the UK.
Many people called foul. Many people here, I imagine, may feel that the BFFC’s decision was lame and convoluted, and that is probably true. Essentially, there is no difference between Grotesque and other “torture porn” movies that were allowed, and hence the decision merely served to bestow upon it an “honor” which it doesn’t actually merit, thereby attracting a few more viewers to a pof that, in the best of cases, has only a very limited audience, and could only stand to benefit from being turned into a cause celebre.
Personally, however, I stand behind the decision, not because I think the matter was handled particularly well, but simply because I think that a country has every right to empower its review boards to reject things that, patently, have no merit and can only add more upset and horror to a world that already has more than enough. I believe, in other words, in censorship. At the very least, I believe it to be an arguable position.
Censorship? Surely there are few things more revealing of a reactionary mindset, some would hasten to assure me. Why, censorship can be identified with all the cruelest dictatorships, the most oppressive regimes, the most hardcore religious fundamentalists, etc. This is indeed true. I believe that in any way limiting a person’s right to express his or her political or religious opinions can only be a sign of an outlaw government. There is no excuse for it, even less the means by which it is often enforced. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people have been executed, tortured, or wasted away in prisons for making statements (or being alleged to have made them), writing letters, drawing cartoons, etc. that dared to criticize the Powers that Be in countries all over the world, and throughout history. Such censorship can rightly be considered evil.
However, depictions of sadism and depravity fall under another category, surely. The human race has certainly evolved in terms of what it no longer considers entertainment. Romans went to watch gladiators fight to the death, starved animals loosed upon slaves, criminals, Christians, etc., and a vast parade of cruelties at their circuses. In the Dark Ages, asylum inmates were sometimes displayed to entertain passersby, petty criminals were dunked or placed in stocks and pillories, and in a plethora of other ways pain and humiliation were inflicted on some in order to entertain others. Although benighted governments even to this day continue practices just as heinous, it is a mark of the march of progress in human thinking that civilized countries and persons no longer consider such “entertainments” to be acceptable. Ditto for dog fights, cock fights, bare fisted boxing, etc.
One of the problems in our modern world is that technology has reached the point where the depictions of violence now appear every bit as real as actual acts of violence. We can now see on our film screens exactly what the Romans watched in their circuses. The only difference, a huge one assuredly, is that the acts are not real, and there is no real suffering taking place; no victims, in other words. But with the appalling stories of Abu Ghraib, and the more recent revelations about an Afghanistan-based GI rogue “kill team” and their trophy photos of their innocent victims, mightn’t we consider that there in fact is a victim; namely, society itself? Extrapolating into the future, can we imagine that technology will eventually make it possible to play one’s own virtual reality serial killer game (and the advertisements proudly proclaiming, “this is as real as it gets!”)? As we are obviously moving in that direction technologically, don’t we need to be thinking about how okay we are with that? When cruelty, whether real, filmed, or holographically simulated, is considered entertainment, doesn’t that throw up a red flag, or shouldn’t it? It does for me, certainly.
Sure, you can start by censoring things that nearly everyone finds objectionable, but aren’t you worried about a slippery slope?” Indeed, I am. It’s just that the slope I worry about slips in the other direction.
Consider this: imagine that you travel to a tribe in the Amazon that has almost no contact with the outside world, and still lives more or less exactly as their ancestors have for thousands upon thousands of years. You present an inhabitant there with a chocolate ice cream bar. I imagine that one of two scenarios would result:
The first would be that the sensations of super-sweetness and cold entering the mouth of the tribesman would be so unlike anything he’d previously experienced that he would instantly spit it out, perhaps considering it to be some kind of poison. He would be hard-pressed to identify what you have presented him with as “food”.
On the other hand, I suppose it is also possible that he would be delighted, as if the food had come from the world of the gods. He would want to share it with all his tribe’s members. Soon after, the tribe would come to recognize that their teeth were rotting, their overall health was decreasing and their children were becoming hyperactive and irritable. The tribal elders would insist that the tribe be allowed no more ice cream bars. They would censor that which they correctly determined to be harmful.
Ice cream is not a natural food; it is something that has evolved, as people have craved newer, fresher, sweeter, more stimulating sensations as they grew accustomed to the foods they were already eating. Cooking is an ongoing and evolving creative process, no less so than film-making, music, painting, etc. In all creative endeavors, it seems to be human nature to demand more, and for certain creators to strive to provide that. In other words, you make something sweet, I’ll make something sweeter. Oh, yeah? I’ll make something so sweet that your teeth will disintegrate. You show blood and torture, I’ll show twice as much blood and torture! Oh,yeah? And so on. That is the “slippery slope” that alarms me. A mere fifty years ago, audiences were so shocked by the infamous shower scene in Psycho that they fled the theaters, retched, broke down and cried, etc. Nowadays, “Psycho” can be shown unedited on prime time television. The iterative nature of film-making has reached the point where any depraved act that is shown will be seen as nothing more than a challenge to some audience members and directors to go even further. And, unfortunately, we don’t have tribal elders coming to the conclusion that this is not good for us. That it is poisoning our very souls. Instead, we have “staunch defenders of freedom of expression”.
There is no evidence that watching such movies influences people to actually go out and do such things! Hmmm….well, in that case, perhaps we should start telling companies to stop throwing away all those billions of dollars they spend annually on advertising. The images and messages we are exposed to through film and television don’t influence our behavior. Let’s remember that advertisements are rarely of the blunt, literal, “Go! Buy a Coke! NOW!” type. They aren’t even generally of the “You should buy only coke because it tastes so much better than its rivals!” variety. Indeed, in the early days of advertising, copy like that was quite common, as advertisers logically assumed that the way to get the most bang for your buck was to get straight to the point (an actual ad suggests, plainly, “Drink Coca Cola from a bottle through a straw, Absolutely Sanitary, Delicious and Refreshing”). As the industry moved out of its infancy, and became increasingly sophisticated, it was discovered that more subtle, subconscious associations that the viewer made about products were more likely to influence their purchasing habits. So we have “The Most Interesting Man in the World”, and product placement in movies, etc. In other words, media experts will vociferously argue (if there’s a buck to be made) that even subtle messages, through repeated exposure, can and do influence the external behavior of an audience. Of course, not everyone who sees a Coke commercial will go out and buy a Coke, but the whole industry depends on a sizable number doing so. And yet we are expected to believe that continual exposure to bodies being tortured and sexually abused will not impact the behavior of a segment of the viewers? A the very least, that it will not change their way of looking at the human body, what it is, what it is for, what is acceptable to do to it, or with it, etc.?
If not, why? Why can advertising influence our behavior but depictions of violence not? Does advertising activate a different part of the brain? Of course not. The same cerebral centers are responding to the same basic stimulus of filmed narrative. So, again, why one and not the other? Mightn’t that just be a disingenuous evasion tactic used to protect the profits of “the torture porn industry”? Put another way, if Grotesque isn’t, in effect, an advertisement for sadism, what is it?
****As a footnote, although Japan has a considerably lower homicide rate than the United States and many other countries, over the past few decades there have been a number of crimes that have shocked the country to its very core, involving sexual violence and barbarity beyond imagining. In all the cases that I can recall, the perpetrators were discovered to have a large collection of violent films and/or manga, even to have gotten their ideas from such. Japan is coming around, and a debate is taking place in the nation as to what type of content should be made viewable to the public.
I don’t want the government telling me what I can and can’t watch! Well, in fact, we do. It is the government, after all, that decides that we don’t have to watch a man pull down his pants and start masturbating in front of our home, or in front of a nursery school. Although the man may protest that he was simply expressing himself as he is hauled off to jail, I doubt that many would see him as a martyr at the altar of Artistic Freedom.
To say that the government has “no business” making judgments about such matters is basically to argue against any form of government, as if it is always untrustworthy. If we are worried about government overreach gradually leading to oppression, then perhaps we should do away with the Food and Drug Administration, The Surgeon General’s Office, etc., and no longer permit the government to determine how much nicotine can go into a cigarette, how much air pollution is too much air pollution; in short, to make any judgement calls regarding the health of its populace. Could a move to censor torture porn movies be used as a shoehorn to eventually legislate against other forms of expression? Certainly, the danger is there. But I’m not convinced that’s very likely. I think it would be a fairly simple matter to create clear guidelines as to what is or isn’t acceptable in a film or video game and to stay within those limits. I would like to consider what those type of limits might be.
Let us begin with one of the earliest filmed depictions of depravity, the infamous eye slicing segment from Salvador Dali’s/Luis Bunuel’s bizarre short film, Un Chien Andalou. Probably many people reading this have never seen it. For those who have, how many have seen it twice? As for me, though it has been more than twenty years since I first saw the scene, and I have watched other portions of the film in the interim, I have absolutely no desire to ever again subject myself to that short bit of extreme gore, and in fact I cringe at the very thought of doing so. No doubt, that speaks to its power to evoke a response. But does that make it art? And even if it does, what kind of art? Am I in any way a better person for having watched it? Are any of us? If so, I would like to know how. Watching that scene, I am quite certain, has in no way elevated my spirit, expanded my horizons, raised my IQ, or made me a better person in any way. If it had never existed, I can’t see how I, or the world, would be the worse for it.
That raises the question as to what is art for? Should it only be that which elevates our spirits, expands our horizons, etc.? Plato, famously, felt so. He was of the, radical for our times, extreme view that art should show and promote “only the good”. In other words, he was of the belief that art, as is sometimes said about money, makes a great servant, but a terrible master. For him, censorship was an obvious response to this extremely powerful mode of human expression. To him the idea was preposterous that artists and poets could express themselves any old way, regardless of the effect that may have on audiences, and the public in general. Surrealists like Dali and Bunuel would have challenged this viewpoint from their own understandings of the emerging science of psychology. Surrealism can in fact be seen as a direct outgrowth of Sigmund’s Freuds enormous influence. Suppressing humanity’s darker impulses can only be harmful, the argument goes. Art is a useful way for mankind to get its “shadow” out of its system. Personally, I suspect that both Plato and Freud (and Dali, Bunuel, etc.) are partially right, and that responsible choices can still be made about what to show and what not to show. After all, taken at its extreme, the pro-Freud notion (had it existed at the time) could have been used as an argument in the Roman days for continuing the torture shows in the circuses.
So, should the eye-cutting scene be (forgive the pun) cut? I think that would make an interesting debate. Personally, I’m not sure. The whole purpose of the movie was to shock, thereby stimulating the subconscious mind, the point of surrealist art in general. The film is not pandering to anyone, it is not a commercial film and the motivation for making it was not to make an easy buck, as I suspect it is in the case of directors like Eli Roth (Hostel) and Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects, House of a 1000 Corpses). Furthermore, the entire scene lasts only a few seconds. The man doing the cutting is not shown as an evil, leering sadist, and the woman victim is not shown bleeding and screaming afterwards. It is all very clinical, even as it horrifies and shocks. Maybe the above points would be considered mitigating by a review board, maybe not. Personally, I feel they are points worth considering.
What about movies that are considered major artistic achievements that nevertheless contain scenes of extreme violence, such as Goodfellas or Saving Private Ryan? The case of the latter is perhaps the easier one to consider. The Normandy beach sequence was so horrific that the audience response was on a par with the earlier reaction to Psycho. People fled the theaters, or broke down sobbing in their seats. Saving Private Ryan is perhaps the most widely seen movie ever made that doesn’t shy away from the kind of carnage that is the torture porn auteurs’ stock in trade. Plato, no doubt, would nix it without a second thought, but few in our modern age would agree. Director Steven Spielberg’s intentions in showing such extreme violence could not be more clear. He wanted to show what really happens when countries clash. He wanted to impress that reality on our minds in a way that no previous war movie had ever done. It’s hard to imagine anyone enjoying the first half hour of violence, identifying with its faceless killers, or getting any type of cheap thrill from it. Spielberg is an undisputed master at provoking the reaction he intends from his audience (to a fault,many would argue), and he made sure this scene became nobody’s wet dream.
Goodfellas is more problematic. It has numerous detractors. There are those who want to know why Martin Scorsese chose to make such a film. If Saving Private Ryan was an anti-war movie (or at least had anti-war overtones), wasn’t Goodfellas practically a pro-mafia one? With his scenes of spoiled hoodlums getting the best tables at the Copacabana, turning jail cells into bachelor pads, and sneering at the rest of us “shmucks”, this is clearly not your average cautionary tale. Far from it. It is more a grandly entertaining celebration of filmmaking that succeeds in entertaining us because its main characters are outrageously over the top, shockingly amoral and (in the case of Tommy and Jimmy) violent beyond our wildest imaginings. These are not people you want to go out and have a beer with. Just ask Billy Batts. In fact, the scene that depicts the unfortunate Mr. Batts’ brutal demise has some 2 million viewings, roughly, in its various incarnations on Youtube, and reading the comments, many of those are repeat viewings. Unlike the Normandy scene in SPR, which I imagine most people are content to see only once, many folks just can’t seem to get enough of Marty’s wiseguys, and their mayhem.
And, Goodfellas is considered by many to be one of the greatest movies ever made. It is a personal favorite of mine as well. Yet is it really all that different from the torture porn movies? Should it get a pass if they don’t? I waver on this one, frankly. Going back to my observations about Un Chien Andalou, I can’t very well argue that my spirit has been elevated in any way by having watched it. I am impressed by the breathtaking talent on display, particularly the masterful direction and Joe Pesci’s Oscar winning turn as Tommy. One might say that watching it and admiring it challenges and inspires me to go as far as I can with my own craft, and that I consider to be a good thing. Beyond that, I’m not really sure how best to argue on its behalf.
That is not to say that I equate Goodfellas in its most existential way with movies like Grotesque and The Devil’s Rejects, the Hostel series, etc. In Goodfellas, bodies are abused terribly, but in those other movies the abuse of bodies is their only reason for existing. Moreover, it is pretty much the only thing, or certainly the main thing, that viewers want to see. This is an area where I feel that societies have a right, perhaps even a duty, to make a stand. In my opinion, a society that does not honor, does not teach love and respect for, does not, if you will, revere, the human body, cannot truly be called civilized. The human body is our vessel while we are here. We don’t know how to make them, and our best scientists don’t know how to make a machine in any way as exquisite as them. We only get one, and without one, we’re pretty much up shit creek. Therefore, protecting and promoting the health of the body should be the central concern of any society, because after all what is society other than an community of human bodies living in close proximity to one another?
Is freedom of expression more important than that? I don’t see how. Freedom of expression is an important concept, of course. But it is, after all, a mental construction. It is an idea that people have come, over time, to accept, and some to revere. It is an invention. The human body is not; it is far beyond that. Whether you believe that it was created by God, or emerged by natural processes, it is decidedly not something that humans came up with and started talking about in the last few thousand years. Torture porn movies do not honor the human body. They spit on the very concept. They use the body’s limitations and capacity for pain as ingredients for a burlesque show of horror. They treat the body with the utmost contempt. What sort of notions – conscious/subconcsious/subliminal – does this create in the viewers of such films? How is it good for society to have its most important and valuable assets being thoroughly trashed for the cheap thrills that provides viewers? How is it wrong for a society to stand up and say, “no” to that?
I feel that censoring such films makes good sense. As to how to go about this, the film review boards of nations would need to go beyond just rating films as unsuitable for children, but would in fact be empowered to decide that some films are not even allowed to be released, shown or distributed. The determining question would be, I feel, something along the lines of “to what degree is this film dependent on the degradation and torture of the human body for its entertainment value?” I believe that there is nothing wrong with asking film directors to answer that simple question. Before being allowed to release a film, I believe that film companies or directors should have to present its outline to the film boards. In the case of directors such as Zombie and Roth, whose reputation, shall we say, proceeds them, I think it would be made clear to them that the odds of getting their next films released were slim to none, but they are welcome to try. Perhaps it would be a good opportunity for they, themselves, to look into what it is they are doing, and feel they are accomplishing. “I want to make this movie because there’s a market for it”. Sorry, you’ll have to do better for that. There is a market for slaves, Saturday Night Specials, and crack cocaine as well, let’s remember.
Clearly, this would lead to a number of films not being made (the whole torture porn genre would be unceremoniously dropped into the dustbin of history), and perhaps a number of scenes being altered or removed from movies that do get made. Perhaps future Goodfellas and SPRs would need to tone down the gore. I’m okay with that, I think. For me, the deeply held philosophical belief that the human body is sacred trumps my (perhaps selfish) desire to see what I want to see, all other considerations be damned. I believe that a group of highly respected professionals, consisting of philosophers, psychiatrists and psychologists, educators, art historians and film experts, etc. could be trusted to devise a sensible set of standards, and make those clear enough for anyone to understand and follow. I think the discussion that would ultimately lead to would, in itself, be good for society, if it got people to question their attitudes toward the human body, the nature of entertainment, and all the philosophical issues that would be raised.
With so much actual cruelty taking place in the world, with so much real bloodshed and pain, is this even a battle worth fighting, some may ask. I feel that it is. I feel that the human spirit, and the great gift that is having a body, would be the ultimate beneficiaries of such censorship. I can’t say for certain that any lives would be saved, or that any potential psychopath would be steered away from actually becoming one, or sinking deeper into depravity, if pofs were to be outlawed. Nevertheless, I still feel the benefit would be real, and felt. Furthermore, I hardly feel that the human race in any way loses by deciding that people can’t make torture porn movies anymore. Rob Zombie can stick to his music, Eli Roth can stick to his acting, and the director of Grotesque can, I don’t know, go work at a car wash.