I am bothered by movies, such as “Saw” and “Hostel”, that, to me, serve no purpose other than to depict the extremes of human pain and cruelty. I confess to having never watched a film from either of those series, nor have I watched a Hannibal Lector movie, or a Chucky, Freddy Krueger or Jason movie (which, I imagine, at this point seem almost quaint in their depictions of cruelty), so it is not only what is depicted on the screen, which I haven’t even seen, that disturbs me. It is the very fact that such movies exist, and that they pull in audiences. To me, they are a depraved sub-genre of moviemaking that elevates torture to their prime, even sole, raison d’etre (indeed, they have been dubbed “torture porn” and “gorno” by critics), and that bothers me. Are people really entertained by all that blood and gore? And if that is not the right word, what IS the experience that they crave, as they settle their butts into aisle seats? As to the people who make such films, why on earth do they spend precious hours of their lives depicting demoralizing, black spectacles of the last things that any of us would wish to experience, or even wish upon our worst enemies? Oh, believe me, I know the obvious answer to my question (they DO make money after all, and frankly, how hard can they be to make? We all know what we don’t wish to experience; all one has to do is pick up a camera and film that!), but is even money worth the de-humanizing that I feel must go on in the process of creating such films?
I am not arguing against the presence of violence in films. Indeed, some of my personal favorites, such as “The Godfather” and “Goodfellas”, contain numerous scenes that are not for the squeamish. If push came to shove, I could probably even be called upon to defend Wes Craven’s notorious, ultra-violent 70’s sleeper, “Last House on the Left” ( which took its plot from Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring” and borrowed heavily from Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”). One might well ask, what’s the difference? Well, in the case of LHOTL, this was an amateurish film by a freshman director, depicting amateurish villains who epitomize the dumb, self absorbed, amoral, societal outcasts we can easily imagine committing the atrocious crimes we see onscreen (and read about in the papers). They are not the incarnations of sadism one finds in slick gorno movies, creatures right out of our nightmares who are intelligent and irredeemably evil, sparing no expense to devise the most ingenious and horrific methods by which to dispense with their victims, for no other purpose than the pleasure that they get from doing so. To arrive at an understanding of the villains of the gorno movies, to place them in any sort of context, we need to go back to a French nobleman from the Age of Enlightenment whose writing was so over the top that he provides the very name for the “ism” that is out and out cruelty toward another living being.
Sade’s “libertines” (one should not refer to them as “villains”, when to him they were heroes) were precisely the kind of monsters we see in todays horror movies. Smarter and more powerful than their victims, they operated without restraint, and with no other purpose than to inflict pain. In Sade’s stories, the only way to escape victimhood was to allow yourself to become corrupted by your torturers, to become just as merciless and sadistic as them. These were the only triumphs he would allow in his nightmarish fables, that some would “liberate” themselves from any moral or empathetic impulses, which he insisted came from society, the real “villain” he himself was at war with. One can read Sade’s stories and accept them as he intended, as all-out assaults on society and civilization, on anything that limited individuals from behaving exactly as they themselves chose to. But that would naturally lead one to ask, if people could do anything they wanted to, why would they do that? Looking deeper, I believe that one can find a more pathological motivation, one which is readily on display in today’s torture porn movies as well; a deep seated hatred of the human body.
Oh, Sade loathed bodies! He wanted them sliced, diced, beaten, pulled apart, you name it. The one thing he didn’t want was for them to keep their original, native form, to be allowed to go on about their ways in peace. To him, an intact body was a challenge, perhaps even an affront, to his aesthetic. He treated them with nothing but the utmost disdain. And yet, it is telling that for all the descriptions of cruelty he filled page after feverish page with, he was particularly vicious toward the parts of the body that give birth to and nurture other bodies. Although there is no question that his writings and ideas have spiced up the sex lives of numerous couples throughout the years (and hey, whatever gets you through the night…), in the works themselves sex was anything but a life affirming, life celebrating activity. Genitalia, breasts, pregnant women, and fetuses are mercilessly tortured and destroyed by Sade’s libertines. The family itself is attacked viciously. In his stories, fathers rape their daughters, and corrupted daughters do unspeakable things to their mothers. The very reality of biological life seems to infuriate him.
What’s going on here? In the face of such depravity, one naturally searches for answers. Even if the knowledge goes nowhere toward ending man’s inhumanity to man, we strive to somehow make sense of things so dark and twisted they seem to defy explanation, for the sake of our own sanity if nothing else. My belief is that we see in Sade’s writing a psychological phenomenon that has its roots in the very nature of our sentience. It is the mind’s hatred of the body, because it can suffer, and take the mind along with it as it does so.
It is hard to imagine anything more painful than being eaten alive from the hind legs forward, and yet this is a fate that befalls thousands of our fellow creatures, in forests and savannas, every day. The vast majority of human beings will come to far more benign ends, but the important distinction is that we are well aware of what could happen to us, if we are not careful, or just plain unlucky. The fact is that, unlike animals, we can think about things happening to us that are every bit as frightening and unwelcome as the things that are shown in the torture movies. It is with our minds that we think about them, but it is our bodies that we imagine experiencing the suffering. We are the only species that has a distinct separation, a schism even, between mind and body. We can actually live lives, of a kind, outside our bodies. No other creature can. We can daydream, create stories, make songs, paint pictures, have sexual fantasies, relive memories vividly, conceptualize, invent, etc. We can easily imagine a life involving no body at all! Indeed, we have created science fiction stories where our minds are placed inside computers, thereby living eternal, pain-free lives. People who are stricken with cancer or other long term, debilitating and painful illnesses frequently describe themselves as “prisoners” in their bodies. What I am positing is that there is an element of human consciousness that chronically feels this way. Sade was expressing this, first and foremost, I believe, though he himself was perhaps unaware of it and presumedly would have denied it. It is ironic that he, due to his atrocious behavior as well as his writing (which outraged the Emperor Napolean), spent much of his life as a prisoner, in jails and mental asylums, creating through his mind an outward experience of the very thoughts that drove his writing.
The mind is frightened by the amount of pain, seemingly limitless, that the body it is merged with can experience. Although our central nervous system has evolved the sensation of pain to keep us from burning or bleeding or freezing to death, this impeccable biological system renders us horrendously vulnerable. So averse to its demise is our body that it keeps pain sensations active even as we lie helpless, and crushed, under the rubble of an earthquake, or trapped inside a burning room, on the off chance that we will somehow manage to get ourselves out of our predicament. Isn’t it plausible that our minds, aware of the stubbornness of the body, and its survival-at-any-cost imperative, would develop resentment against it? Why can’t we shut the pain mechanism down when we want to (apparently some yogis have developed this very ability, but it takes years of rigorous training)? When there is no hope of escape? Every king, dictator, Grand Inquisitor and mafioso throughout history has exploited this “flaw” in the body’s design. In fact, it is impossible to imagine the worst forms of government even existing without it, as such regimes are propped up by the fear they induce in the common folk. All of that suffering, down through the ages; no wonder the mind is pissed!
And so, the mind acts this out, through the mediums that it has developed, the “art” that is Sade’s writing and today’s gorno movies. Each time the mind, represented by Sade’s libertines or Hannibal Lector, or any of the demonic, merciless,ingenious psychopaths who fill our screens as well as our nightmares, gleefully tortures to death somebody else’s body, it has its revenge, momentarily. That’s the experience viewers are after, I feel. Though I am disturbed by such movies, and by the large following they have, I ultimately see them as merely symptomatic, and don’t expect them to go away. They, or some similar manifestation, will be with us so long as we have the ability to contemplate, and fear, our fate.