I actually finally saw the original rape-revenge cinema classic I Spit On Your Grave tonight. Not only is the cinematography lovely (not unaware of echoing the gaze of the predator, slasher movie style), but the portrait of the viciously tyrannical but ironically (and literally) castrated “primal father” after the death of patriarchy is an entirely appropriate response to the whole Othering of the primeval countryside. Here’s a statement I made on black metal that sort of applies:
“I think you could go so far as to say provincialism itself has acquired a certain globalized character-- it's the voice of negativity. Isolationism universal! And that sort of worldview has to be strictly negative. The struggle to resist the imperialist is (in a general abstract way at least) pure, but the land and invented history being defended are never pure.”
Anyhow, this whole conversation with my pal Noah was prompted by his article that is now readable here, in which he refers to the new and old versions of I Spit On Your Grave, as well as the old and new versions of Michael Haneke’s movie Funny Games.
My misgivings about I Spit are probably still relevant (for me anyway) and are enumerated below; I would add that I find dubious Noah’s claims about it being a “subtle and thoughtful” treatment of “how class works, how gender works, how that provokes violence, how that affects us and our morality.” But it’s a provocative movie that anyone who cares about radical feminism and/or likes violent movies should see.
We refer obliquely to some nice things Noah wrote on evil and pacifism, in these pieces on Spiderman, Superman, and Terry Eagleton.
And we begin…
I discovered that Andi Ziesler, one of the editors at Bitch magazine, apparently hates I Spit on Your Grave on the grounds that...well, you can probably figure it out. I found this more irritating than I expected, which is stupid of me. If you're going to get irritated because not all feminists like I Spit on Your Grave, you're going to be getting irritated a lot....
Feminists are probably touchy about long rape scenes and rape-revenge being yet another dom/mommy castrator fantasy thing. Which is sort of why I like absolute violence more than justified violence, in movies anyway. But I still want to see Spit.
I don't think you get around domination or castration fantasies with absolute violence, actually. But that's maybe just me....
I wish Andi Ziesler were smart enough to see it as castration fantasies on the part of men. As far as I can tell, she just sees it as sadism and exploiting women. Just the long rape scenes in other words. (She doesn't like the fact that Jennifer seduces the men afterwards either, which might be a dislike of castration fantasies, I suppose.)
I've probably made this clear enough...but I don't know that male masochistic investment in feminism is a bad thing. Men have an erotic investment in patriarchy — as indeed do women. It seems like if you're going to present an alternate model, you need an alternate erotics as well. I know the alternate model is supposed to be egalitarian sharing with everyone treating each other with respect, etc, but if other things work perhaps that's not so bad either. William Marston thought so, and he was a kook...but Gloria Steinem agreed with him....
Anyway, I think I Spit on My Grave has problems from a feminist perspective, and there are lots of reasons to dislike it. But it's so clearly engaged with feminism, and so clearly trying to talk about issues of patriarchy and violence...I don't know. Dismissing it out of hand just seems really wrong-headed.
So you're thinking that her critique would be that the movie is sadistic rather than masochistic, and you disagree-- and so then either you or she would be saying that masochism has more moral value than sadism. Which is pretty fair, for obvious reasons, but is interesting to just come out and say.
I was actually thinking of Funny Games being more about absolute violence, and Spit (and Rambo and every war movie ever) as being about justified violence. And, I gotta say, justified violence sounds a lot more masochistic and absolute sounds more sadistic.
I think Funny Games is pretty masochistic, though perhaps less so than I Spit. Haven't seen Rambo, believe it or not!
I mean, there's catharsis and empathy in every horror movie. But when that's bracketed the way it is in Funny Games, it feels more sadistic. There's more about evil in that. Power without the excuse of trauma.
The "absolute violence" thing is an idea I'm appreciating. The Old Testament (Job is a pretty profound example) locates the origins of violence in the arrogance of man and the mysterious machinations of the Divine. And then the New Testament rejects any justification of vengeance. As masochistic as "turn the other cheek" sounds, it's not a seduction strategy, it's a denial of all force.
Yes, the vision of justice and violence in Job is definitely congruent with that in Funny Games.
The problem with Funny Games, I'd argue, is that it puts the director in the place of God — and implicitly argues that man-made violence should be treated like divine violence. That's both blasphemous and, I would argue, unjust.
The existence of violence qua violence is a mystery. The existence of specific acts of violence by human beings is not transcendent; it's imminent and explicable. Funny Games is in a way even more of an incitement to revenge and violence than I Spit; it suggests that there is really nothing that can be done with folks like Peter and Paul except to kill them, right? Whereas I Spit offers an analysis of violence which at least suggests the possibility of interventions before you get to everybody killing one another.
I like Niebuhr's idea that mercy is the refutation and the fulfillment of justice. As a result, justice for him is not the fulfillment of divinity, but is still part of God's work.
As I sort of said in the essay, there's a way to read I Spit that suggests that Jennifer's revenge is a failure, not a triumph; acquiescence in destroying herself, which is the result of all violence. In Funny Games on the other hand, if she had shot the guy with the rifle...there's no implicit critique of violence there that I can see. When your enemies are inexplicable all-powerful demons, there's no moral stain to killing them.
Here's where I would invoke Simone Weil's reading of the Iliad. Brutality just projects itself, it's always spilling over. Which absolutely doesn't excuse anyone-- rather, it convicts everyone. It can only be tricked, as it's a function of desire.
How does Funny Games convict the killers? They're not convicted or justified, they're evil. They are sharing our pleasure. Whereas, the rapists in I Spit are justified in some small way by the trauma of their poverty and ignorance, which actually feeds into the logic of the victim's revenge.
Trauma doesn't justify evil. Evil is evil, whether there's trauma involved or not. But explanations allow us to intervene in evil, for prevention or justice. Human understanding is flawed, but it's also a presumably god-given tool. Job's faith is the correct response to the divine, but faith in human evil is an error.
I would argue that only God can perform evil without reason (which in that case is not evil.) Restricting evil to a definition which involves no reason is what Eagleton does in his book. It's a bad move because it simultaneously causes you to demonize your enemies (resulting in violence) or to sink into despair (which is a sin.)
I Spit doesn't make a whole lot of the rapists' ignorance, I don't think. They're definitely poor, but that doesn't justify the rape. If anything, it convicts the poverty. That is, the movie implicates us not only because of our potential as rapists, but because of our participation in a class system which generates violence.
See how it goes-- trauma doesn't justify rape in I Spit, but then you blame the poverty, aka the trauma. Your whole point about evil happening for actual reasons, versus Terry Eagleton, and focusing on the act itself, indicts the murders by the rape victim. The cycle of retribution leaves her and the blonde boys in Funny Games in basically the same place, except there's the illusion of contracts being fulfilled in I Spit.
But yes, we can intervene in evil. But the trick is in deflecting the desire to punish. That's the irony of modern therapeutic justice, is that the deflection ends up abstracting the act of evil-- essentially, the straightforward vengeance in I Spit is a relief from modern suspension of moral distinctions, just like Dirty Harry. But then the ones playing God aren't the pleasure-seeking murderers of Funny Games, but the avenging angel of I Spit.
I don't blame the poverty. Rape is wrong, no matter where you are or what's happened to you. Explanation isn't excuse. Or are you on to the republican talking points about how we talking about conditions in the middle east is mollycoddling terrorists?
There isn't an illusion of a contract in I Spit. There's the actuality. Violence between people doesn't come out of the sky like a hurricane; it's part of human interactions and conditions — or karma, if that's your poison.
It is hard to hate the sin and love the sinner, of course. And of course I Spit doesn't solve the problem. But I don't think incarnating the sin in human beings as in Funny Games is an especially useful fix either.
Aw heck no! So you're on the bipartisan talking point that since someone in a cave in Afghanistan told someone else to blow up our building, we should invade Afghanistan? With feminist pretensions at that?
I think Funny Games provokes worthwhile thoughts, unlike I Spit, which is basically just scratching an itch.
From: Noah Berlatsky
I really don't think we should have invaded Afghanistan. But not because we can't understand justice.
Watching Funny Games the first version again...I don't know Bert. It seems really shallow and glib to me. Very well done, but with really little to say except the usual stupid serial killer moral. "There are bad people." Oh yeah, and also "Feel guilty for watching TV."
I Spit, on the other hand, actually is interested in how people relate to each other; how class works, how gender works, how that provokes violence, how that affects us and our morality. It's really subtle and thoughtful. I don't know; maybe you'll feel differently about it if you ever see it....
But basically, I have some avant-garde-oid investment in a pedagogical approach to morality. I mean, what moral authority do these blonde young nihilism-Nazis have? None! They're not even tough-- but they're not gay either. They're ideal-- they're supermen.
Everyone loves being blamed for their privilege, EXCEPT when it's by someone who shares (and exceeds)that privilege. Basically, the beauty of Funny Games is that of a vulture feeding in the desert, not a cockfight. It's not a guilty pleasure that excuses itself with self-awareness-- it's bloodthirsty pornography that reminds you that actors in pornography have actual lives.
From: Noah Berlatsky
They're pretty tough. They're inhumanly competent, and have the keys to the universe too.
How does it remind you that the people in pornography have lives?
That's okay-- we can argue until the 8th. Hey, you should REALLY download the Stargazer/Invocation split from Cosmic Hearse.
The blond predators are clever enough, but they sucker-punch all the way through. And, as good as that keys line is, they don't control the universe- someone gave them a remote, like someone gave them everything else they have. Because it's a fable, a parable, an allegory. It doesn't have characters (even caricatures) like realist/fantasy cinema.
And this is what makes the movie a way to think about the traumatic Real, the contained impenetrable actuality of the people involved. It's a distanced Brechty thing, but with a different kind of materialism-- the figures' physical/cognitive autonomy (or lack thereof) is only elliptically relatable to anything having to do with socioeconomic circumstances. Everyone is wealthy and guilty, but not everyone is a torturer.
I don't know, Bert. The stuff about the media and violence is really heavy-handed. It's winking and ironic. Brecht is Brecht because he has an ideology; he believes in a Real, which is why there's a distance and something to be distanced from. If it's an allegory, it's an allegory of finger-wagging.
It's well done, and the first time I watched it I was disturbed. But the second time through the glibness got to me. Again, there's a connection to the Eagleton book; I don't actually think the idea of evil as without motivation is either true or helpful. The universe is without motivation that we can parse, and there's certainly a ineffable core of human beings as well. But evil isn't some transcendent projection. It's involved with us. It leaves prints. Their gloves are too white.
What stuff about the media? Looking at the camera and using the remote control? No one after Samuel Beckett (or John Hughes?) is allowed to mess with the fourth wall?
I think the truth of evil is sort of banal, as they (all those Hannah Arendts) say-- thus the rather odd dramatic flaccidity of trying to isolate it as a positive force. It's an attitude toward desires and prohibitions, though, more thana cause-and-effect narrative. Those narratives are the stuff of ideologies (laws) that simultaneously proscribe and encourage violence.
People don't really need a motivation to kill, just need permission and an opportunity. It's like sex. And, on that level, that base unspeakable level of evil, white-gloved unending expanding brutality is more interesting than the tired cyclical economy, the historical morass of triggers and targets that feeds on resentment and retribution. But on the level of drama, the cyclical economy is where it's at. The fingerprints are what stoke the promiscuous furnace of endless punishment.
There's lots of stuff about television and entertainment in that movie, Bert. The first thing Anna does after her son is killed and she gets to her feet is turn off the tv. Haneke's said it's about media violence in interviews too, I think.
I'm really not sure that it's true that people don't need a motivation to kill. There's always a motivation for sex; there's a fairly clear biological imperative. And, you know, even with wars and all, people have sex a lot more often than they kill each other.
Evil is a negation, not a cause and effect; I agree with that. Male bonding doesn't make those men rape. But I Spit acknowledges that; it specifically makes them individually responsible for their actions, even as it shows the way that that individual responsibility is expressed and takes on shape through a social world. Funny Games just abstracts evil — which to me makes it a lot less interesting — especially when the abstraction ends up being recursively about media-images self-generating their own violence and guilt.
I get what you're saying about law being the cause of crime and crime being the cause of law in an endless circle. Obviously, that's part of what rape/revenge is about. At the same time, I don't think justice or the desire for it is evil. Justice and mercy aren't opposites.
Justice and mercy are totally connected. But it's not like commenting on abstract evil is some kind of tired trope, in the way rape vengeance is (lynching?).
I mean, FG is a meta movie-- that's its genre. I can imagine he said it's about "media violence." But, like the Iliad, it's also just about violence. Do you think any media isn't "about" other media? The family having NASCAR on while they're being tortured is a pretty fantastic mise-en-scene (if I'm using that right), but the rape-revenge conceit is absolutely about other narratives, even if it's not trying to provide a "meta" perspective (which it ends up doing anyway, I think you'd agree).
You think people have sex (or kill) for primarily (or even vaguely) rational reasons? Come now.
Sure, I Spit is about other narratives. It doesn't explicitly suggest that violence is caused by viewing media, or that the primary way we're implicated in violence is through watching TV. Funny Games comes awfully close to suggesting both those things.
Biological imperatives aren't rational in the way such things are usually understood, are they?
I think it's worth bringing in Quentin Tarantino here. His movies are full of consciously aesthicized brutality that comments on aestheticized brutality, and he takes a lot of flak for it. But his end result is humor, not horror. Not that I object, quite the opposite. But he uses humor, as well as the righteous vengeance fantasy, so that probably makes him more palatable.
Biological imperatives are seperate from vengeance. It takes a complex (if not always human) mind to come up with vengeance. Killing and fornicating are pretty universal to life. It's worth thinking about what a motive actually adds to that equasion, especially in a voyeuristic situation.
Tarantino is very interested in reasons, though, and in individuals. His characters are never just supercompetent avatars of evil; on the contrary, his evil characters tend to be doofuses and fuck-ups. He has a sense of karma, too; not just vengeance — that is, one's actions tend to have an effect. You get what you do.
I'd say that Funny Games obviously owes something to Tarantino's films — Funny Games is definitely very ironic, and not entirely unfunny. I find it a lot thinner, though — precisely because the iconic treatment of evil seems to add little to the insight that killing is something some (bad) people do.
Quentin Tarantino makes his women wild and mean-- but his movies are a lot more fun than Funny Games. I agree. They're partially comedies-- action comedies, basically, with romance and a lesson at the end. The plot lines and elements are strictly humanist realist-- so you get dipwads blowing off someone's head when the car hits a bump. Funny and not funny. You feel bad for laughing, but you laugh.
Whereas the Funny Games comedy, such as it is, is Osama bin Laden (or Dick Cheney, pick your cave-dwelling mass murderer) doing standup. So when you feel bad, it's not because you laughed, or because you actually wanted the family to be humiliated and tortured and murdered, or even because you can't help them, but because it's just straightforwardly pleasurable to witness cruelty-- and easy to not really care about perfectly normal, non-quirky, sympathetic characters.
And, when you root for the underdog, or seek justice, or pray for karma to punish the wealthy, at bottom it's the same drive. We are people who took picnics to watch Civil War battles, and now we get the same pleasure from watching the news. And it's not the excusable swaggering pulpiness of Tarantino, or Natural Born Killers, but a long static silence as a woman who could be your co-worker weeps quietly over the corpse of her only child. Lots of people get angry at the director, but that just seems like one way to cope with the complicated experience of watching that undeniably beautiful scene.
But a lot of people just find the film irritating or unpleasant...or a little boring my second time through. I don't think it is straightforwardly pleasurable to witness cruelty at all. I mean, it might be masochistically pleasurable — but that's almost by definition not straightforward.
I think the movie may posit that it's straightforwardly pleasurable to witness these acts; that's the implicating the viewer part. But just because it wants it to be true doesn't make it so.
Well, that's the sublime for you. People aren't accustomed to thinking of a hurricane or a volcano or a wildfire as beautiful, but that was once the fashion. It's kind of the way tragedy was translated into Romanticism, and then tragedy became horror.
It's not entertaining, it's beautiful. There's a difference. Slow-motion kung fu is a lot different than a landslide.
I don't think the viewer is really implicated, for the record. I think the viewer is included, but the space of the movie is an extraordinary space of bloodletting. There's just nobody who wants to stand around and watch a hanging anymore. Which would be fine, if we didn't pretend we were past it, while consuming the agony of the Other in various sublimated forms in everything from rap music to National Geographic.
But a hanging is about vengeance and just deserts. It's not random cruelty. And, conversely, I think people are quite used to thinking of a hurricane or a storm or a volcano as beautiful, actually. We're not that far form the romantics.
Funny Games doesn't fit either of these analogies. It's deliberately unreal villains given the power of a force of nature. It undermines genre tropes and narrative closure in the interest, not of the sublime, but of an ironized accusation of cynicism. My dislike of it isn't because I refuse to embrace the suppressed sublime death instinct, but because I'm tired of embracing the not at all suppressed political exhaustion and wise-guy pragmatic nihilism which has been a staple of our political life for decades.
Eh. Attending a public hanging (if you're not connected to the victim of the crime or the victim of the hanging) is about having a permission to watch a person twitch on the end of a rope.
This is why I brought up Tarantino. Everyone says, "Oh, he's so ironic and postmodern and glib." And yet he is saying "interracial relationships and loyalty and mercy are good." And Haneke is saying "Rich alienated white people are alienated even vicious to each other." Where are the air-quotes? You think people aren't supposed to feel anything when they see the slaughter? The smug Hitler guy is the hero?
In the like three times the killer looks at the camera? How does that make him our buddy?
Is the movie telling us to vote for Sarah Palin? What's the issue?
The reason that they feel they have permission, though, is because there's the claim that justice is being done.
The smug guy isn't the hero or our buddy, necessarily. But he's definitely right, in some sense; the filmmaker is on his side, his vision of the world is the correct one (literally — he knows he's in a movie.) And that vision is one which specifically mocks the desire for justice as impotent and naive. The media violence which is denigrated is just violence — and I think the film makes little effort to separate the justice out from the violence.
I'd agree that the film makes some effort to show that rich people torture each other and are miserable. I don't actually find that argument all that persuasive — I don't think rich people are especially more likely to torture each other than poor people, nor that they are more sadistic, nor certainly that they're less happy. It seems like a sop, really, to replace the idea of justice which is so roundly sneered at.
I mean, I don't hate the movie or anything. It's well acted, well directed, and well constructed, and the masochistic tension is really well done. I even like the idea of subverting the rape-revenge narrative, since, you know, I'm kind of a knee-jerk pacifist and I think revenge narratives are really problematic. But, again, I have a real problem with abstracting evil in the way this movie does it.
You know, it's not entirely different from Baldwin's critique of the Exorcist, now that I think about it. The portrayal of evil as separate from motivations and cause/effect (literally linked to transcendence in both Exorcist and Funny Games) ends up seeming evasive. I think both the Exorcist and Funny Games point in some interesting directions with their evasions — reveal tensions and issues around those evasions — but ultimately they both still feel duplicitous, at least to me.
Just for that, I went back and read the Baldwin essay. I see your point-- the evil is banal and unmotivated in Funny Games, just like in the Exorcist, and I think we both appreciate the Exorcist more than Baldwin did. But Baldwin talks about the evil in the eyes of the white sheriff, the housewife, etc., and frankly, I think the white privileged environment is les of a sop than you claim. It's not an excuse for evil-- it's precisely the absence of an excuse for evil. And there's nothing sci-fi about it (except for the remote control thing, which is just an acknowledgement of movie-ness)-- there's no question that the active pleasure-seeking of elites (the torturers) and the insular passivity of elites (the family) has caused a great deal of the world's misery.
So, again, making something a parable does not, to me, make it abstract.
But one point on which I'm sort of with you is that there's a pretty defensible argument that the lead torturer is (if self-consciously so, post- Natural Born Killers) something of an antihero-- "This is the real world, jackass! Eat lead!" I feel like the evil in his eyes is the same blue-eyed evil of the hate-mongering one-man black metal band, though, that stands for something awful and profound even if he's just whaling on a guitar and a drum machine and spewing noxious pablam.
Yeah, I like the Exorcist more than Baldwin does.
The problem is that the active pleasure seeking and the insular passivity doesn't, I don't think, primarily make the elites miserable. Cutting out the rest of the world makes it hard to see what's at stake. It doesn't excuse evil (which I don't think the exorcist does either) but it doesn't really grapple with what evil is in the world. It's not demons possessing your child or sociopaths taking your golf clubs, you know?
I'd argue that the best black metal actually isn't stupid or banal. Pyha has content, damn it. (Pacifist content at that.)
I guess that's sort of the difference between morality and ethics. If you chop down a tree in the forest and nobody sees you, are you still despoiling the environment? Or if you kill a man in the forest and nobody cares, are you still a murderer?
What kind of horror movie would Baldwin like? Night of the Living Dead?
I wonder how he would feel about Rosemary's Baby, or Stepford Wives. Or Turn of the Screw. Insular and claustrophobic is actually really important in horror. That's the nature of the Law. It's moral.
He actually mentions Wuthering Heights disparagingly in the Exorcist review-- there's this idea that the only responsible movie is an edifying portrait of existing social relations, sobering yet inspiring meaningful change. .I'm sorry, that's not horror. It can be drama or comedy, or some kind of cleverly compromised quasi-horror fantasy, but it's not truly dark if it has a clear ethical beacon.
The opposite of transcendent evil doesn't have to be a story of moral purity, or a story in which there's a clear moral beacon. And I don't think claustrophobic has to mean insular.
The version of the Exorcist that Baldwin would like is Angel Heart. Which is a fantastic movie.
And yeah, I bet he'd find something to like in Night of the Living Dead too.
Angel Heart is a really good movie, as I remember it, and as psychological thrillers go. And it has many plot parallels with the Exorcist-- there's possession of secondary characters reflected in a main character.
And yet, I really think of Funny Games and the Exorcist (and probably I Spit) as being (if arguably) not really the same kind of movie. All of these movies are closer to horror than thriller, I think, because of the lack of ethical direction in the plot. Horror, like metal, is at its purest when it's emphasizing a highly symvolic internal experience-- a nightmare-- that the viewer (listener) is supposed to be experiencing as well.
Romero zombie movies and Angel Heart are completely great-- they're just completely transparent. Order is in some way restored at the end, and was never truly absent. I Spit is on the fence, because I imagine the bloody revenge can be, despite its satisfying qualities, experienced as a step further into the abyss, rather than out of it.
I need to see Angel Heart again. I think it's as much horror as psychological thriller, though. Certainly, order isn't restored in any sense more than it is in the exorcist. In the Exorcist, the demon is expelled; though the main character is killed. In Angel Heart, the devil is revealed to be the main character — only after he's killed just about every other main character, and fucked and killed his own daughter. It's a pretty bleak vision.
Order is ritually restored at the end of slasher films as well. Or in Alien, or Terminator, all of which are arguably horror films. Not so much in The Thing...but again evil there is very much in relationships and anxiety about relationships, not
it isn't postulated as transcendent.
I think there's a way in which Funny Games is actually *less* horror than all those examples. Carol Clover argues that masochistic identification is central to horror. Funny Games is definitely ambivalent
about whether it wants to be sadistic or masochistic. You see that not only in its looks to the camera, but in its careful construction — the focus on time, the playful, icy control with which it puts all the
violence off screen. Even the repetition suggested by the precise remake; there's a rage for order there, an insistent control, that's different from the anxiously abject spewing of horror films.
Funny Games comes off as auteurish in a Hitchcock way.
Yeah, Hitchcock has some pretty harsh control, as does Haneke, and Haneke's protagonist antihero. And plenty of people die in thrillers/slashers (Psycho, Blue Velvet, I Spit, Angel Heart), or sci-fi-noir (like Alien and Terminator), but the nature of a movie where everything is revealed to be a torrential void of power lust and total chaos, which may borrow nearly every trope, has an important distinction in terms of content and thus the overall level of despair. Which, yes, is sadistic, I think. Also in The Thing-- there is awe before the monster, and Kurt Russell conquers it like Moby Dick, or a colonized population in Kipling.
Masochism is always about wrapping up loose narrative ends-- wearing costumes, delaying gratification, and looking forward to relieving the anguish. It recalls the distinction you once made between metal and other rock music that metal (like sadism, I would say) absolutely denies erotics-- libido is directed toward destruction. Sadism is ultra-male, always about a sensation of pitiless mastery. It's perhaps the most despicable side-effect of desire, but once you see it, it does (as in the Funny Games antihero) carry a sense of thunderous truth. Tree of Knowledge-- freedom and self-awareness are always about shame and perversion, dissonance and strife, as well as sublimated access to a silent place outside conscious everyday reality.