Thursday, June 07, 2007

Critical Disconnect: The 120 Days of HOSTEL PART II

FRESH, HOT TORTURE PORN! Also: the world is ending.

I don't care about Hostel: Part II one way or the other, except that it may be a kick to see Edwige Fenech, Mrs. Wardh herself, on a multiplex screen.
I didn't think Hostel had either a visceral drive or poetic sense to rise above its 1-2-3 story, and the long voyage to the slaughterhouse dull and the splatstick adventure inside extremely silly, but never giddy.
I'm pretty sure I walked out with my soul intact.
I do know that the only people I know who enjoyed Hostel were women.
I do not know or particularly care what that means, one way or the other.

I know one thing. Any review, op-ed piece, or coverage of Hostel: Part II that includes the phrase "torture porn" as if it were a meaningful genre designation, I will not finish reading. A line must be drawn. We all have our limits.

Who comes up with this cute, holier-than-thou sloganeering? Calling Hostel torture porn - like accusing art of being nihilistic, or masturbatory, or self-indulgent - is a non-position that allows a critic not to engage the work. It's critical name-calling.

Nihilism is as valid and complex a philosophical position as any, and isn't inherently linked to sexualized violence or misanthropy.
All artists are exhibitionists, all audiences are voyeurs, all art is masturbatory.
Ideally, artists should take some pleasure in what they do, and who else are they supposed to indulge but themselves as an ideal audience member?
And there's no such thing as torture porn.

The defining genre identifiers of pornography are that it explicitly depicts actual sex acts. That is the spectacle promised, fulfilled, and required for the genre designation. [Side note: And if you have fifteen minutes, and are interested in adult film as a narrative genre, I expanded this idea in a piece on 1978's Candy Stripers last month.]

If everyone agrees to play nice, we might agree that no one in the audience is literally masturbating during the torture scenes. There is torture in Hostel, and that is the spectacle promised, and fulfilled. It arguably links sex and violence in unpleasant ways, but Hostel does not depict real human bodies being subjected to real torture in the throws of real agony and death. That it is fiction does not negate its possible power, but disqualifies it from the spectacle of real bodies in unsimulated physical acts which identifies pornography. If this is torture porn, it's softcore at worst (best?). Equating titillation with pornography is short-sighted, because it turns the experience of all aesthetic pleasure into "pornography"; e.g. Van Gough paintings are color and texture porn.

Best way to prevent this silliness from gaining currency would probably be never to mention it. But is it fair to say American Idol "song porn"? Is Pirates of the Caribbean "theme park porn"? Is Spider-Man 3 "web-porn"? Is my beloved Antiques Roadshow "swap meet porn"?

Also on this season's Played Out, Meaningless Insult List: invoking "video games" and "MTV" as shorthand for "underwritten or repetitious plotting" and "the cutting is too fast for me to keep up with" respectively. Because of course, these accusations are facile, and are only made by writers with passing-to-zero familiarity with video games and MTV. MTV, for example, is extremely slow and boring and barely shows music videos, which have not been a series of non sequitur images for a long time anyway, and even then had just co-opted Underground movie aesthetics.

Labeling unremarkable throwback gore pictures "torture porn" is a habit of critics who don't spend a lot of time watching horror movies, and don't really know anything about or enjoy them. Oprah Winfrey, who has never added Fangoria back issues to her book club, once declared that she felt she was in the presence of capital-E Evil while viewing Interview With a Vampire. Roger Ebert, who matured as a critic by leaps and bounds since 1967, once wrote about being appalled that Night of the Living Dead made children cry, but admitted in that ancient article that he hadn't seen a horror film in years, puts Creature from the Black Lagoon in the same class as Attack of the Crab Monsters, and remembered horror movies as "fun to see." On unfamiliar ground, tasting a new cup of tea, and concerned for the Youth Of Our Nation. Check. Check. Check.

In the seduction of innocents that swept the country in the early 1950s, an entire generation was nearly transformed into axe-maniacs by E.C. horror comics. The E stands for Educational: education on how to decapitate people. Thankfully Dr. Fredric Wertham stepped in to scream "torture porn!" or, er, the 1954 equivalent. Check your local library for further reading, but the vile menace of Todd Browning's first-gen t*rt*re-p*rn Freaks, too explicit with the horrible-making for 1932, was run out of neighborhoods, towns, entire countries. What They said about those menaces 2 society circa 1931, Dracula and Frankenstein, well, one is surprised that the world remains largely intact after these titans of terror were unleashed. The Good Plain Goddamn Common Sense reading is that general audiences are more inured to violence than previous generations, and that is terrible devolution that we must combat. Alternate interpretation of the same data: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Horror is disreputable, always has been, and hooplah for that. Horror fandom is viewed from the outside with skepticism and nervousness, and frankly, that is part of the fun.

As David Bordwell put it, "there is a zeitgeist and films reflect it..." and if that non-revelation is all a critic has up his sleeve, banal in the extreme. Implying psychosis in an audience is something worse: plainly elitist and edging in on a display of contempt for any reader who disagrees.

Because this kvetching is not meant to discount or discredit at any serious reading of horror films that takes issue with violence, nor to scoff at making a real-world stand against art one finds politically offensive, morally irresponsible, or destructive. Quite the opposite, the problem of the day is that the phrase "torture porn" is passive-aggressive non-engagement with a film. It makes drastic assumptions that are never backed up, chief among them the implied sexualization of violence, of which Hostel, or Wolf Creek, or Saw or what-have-you may or not be guilty, may complicate, may critique, may even subvert, but the critic never finds out, because: who bothers with textual analysis of pornography? And who likes torture? You don't like torture, right?

You can't be glib and dismissive and hysterical at the same time.

Joss Whedon, whose beautifully constructed genre TV-shows have been extended existentialist wrassles with gender politics, violence and power issues, wrote the MPAA in protest against the billboards for Captivity. A later post to Whedon-fan-central, Whedonesque, linked certain H-wood horror trends, the video-recorded murder of Kurdish teenager Du’a Khalil Aswad, and ponders a Just-So Story about How Misogyny was Invented. It is not a film review, of course. But neither is it alarmist when it discusses film. Point is, Whedon is applying pressure where it counts, isn't posturing. And he doesn't use the phrase "torture porn". Because he's serious, and this is important.

And seriously: who are these stuck-up weirdo creeps pretending they don't like porn?



This was a joy to read!

Anonymous said...

Go fuck yourself, poseur.
And masturbate over skin being peeled off of skeletons.

Anonymous said...

I don't like porn. It's the joyless eyes. I always feel like I just got caught eavesdropping on someone's fight in the next aisle at Wal-Mart.


Campaspe said...

Well done. Mea culpa--I did use the phrase torture porn in my piece on my inability to find any reason to see Hostel or its siblings. On a brighter note, I only did so rather late in the piece, so at least you would get the first four grafs under your belt (skin?) before refusing to read further. But indeed, it is high-handed name-calling. I am far from convinced that this subgenre requires respect or would know what to do with respect if it got some. All the same, the term is a distancing device and, as you argue, not especially descriptive, although I have enormous respect for the critic who coined the term, David Edelstein. It may be that the real problem is the desire for shorthand genre identifiers that are often elastic or meaningless anyway--is Mildred Pierce a melodrama, a noir, a women's picture or (here is a term I LOATHE) a weepie?

Certainly shorthand terms do political discourse no favors. Witness a phrase like "politically correct," which has lost any meaning it may once have had and is now officially a way for certrain groups to tell certain other groups to shut the hell up: "That's just political correctness!"

bill said...

I'll tell you who likes torture: Criswell. Remember "Orgy of the Dead"? "Torture, torture! It pleasures me!"

Culture Snob said...

Thanks for the provocative essay. I've written a response.

Tristan Yates said...

Good thoughtful writing. But doesn't Lions Gate use that phrase to describe its own movies?

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure Torture Porn as an expression is necessarily implying that the movies are sexualizing torture. I think they're just saying that the movies are only loosely concerned with arranging a superfluous story on their way to the meat of the piece, lengthy, elaborate sequences of torture. The "Porn" in Torture Porn is metaphorical.

Also, I recall when Con Air came out, Entertainment Weekly or Roger Ebert referred to that movie as Action Porn or Violence Porn, for basically the same reason.

Anonymous said...

Same anonymous as before... I just checked it out. It was Entertainment Weekly. This is the link to the review, and this is the line in question.,,288284,00.html

"Con Air may be the closest thing yet to pure action-thriller pornography. Ultimately, there's nothing to it but thrust."

Anonymous said...

Can't believe I just found a link to this article on the imdb boards. Absolutely brilliant!