Sunday, September 7, 2008

Of Horror and Empathy

About a couple of weeks ago, the wonderful and eclectic folk at the Criterion Collection re-released Pasolini's Salo (120 Days of Sodom). If that title doesn't ring a bell, it was the last, highly controversial work of that Italian artist, intellectual, filmmaker and writer. Based on a work of torture/degradation by the Marquis de Sade, it is said that it was Pasolini's masterwork examining Fascism (and Capitalism) in general, and Italy during World War II in particular. I've heard that many college film courses play and examine this work--and that it's been described as nauseating, gory, sick, and nothing less than pornographic. I've always wanted to see the film that some viewers describe this way only because many others consider it a masterpiece. The question is, why haven't I?

My wife, who knows my love of film (and books), and the many DVDs that we house, would just laugh at this. Why? She knows that I've watched a great many movies, that to her, are disturbing. I'm sure that she bases this on a good bit in the collection (books, too) that are in the horror category. Yes, I admit, that for many years since my teens I've read, listened, or watched those works  that go bump in the night (along with other genres). I remember (fondly) when my relatives warned me to not to go and see The Exorcist when it first hit the theaters. Of course, for my brother (considered the tougher one of us), they didn't worry or say anything to him about it. The end result? He went to see it, and slept with the lights on in his room for the next three months, afterwards. Me? I wanted to read the William Peter Blatty book that it was based upon.

But, interestingly, not all horror works attract my attention. The trend of gore, perhaps started in the low budget, exploitive works of the sixties & seventies, in the horror category is a clue, here. Am I frightened or repulsed by it? If it's something inherent or logical in a good story, the answer is no. Alien, with it's (in)famous chest burster scene, is one of my all-time favorites. Same goes for John Carpenter's The Thing, where its extraordinary make-up and grisly effects added to the story's paranoia and dread (to a film that was far ahead of its time). I could name many others that exploited gore to effective end. So, on that end of the scale, that aspect should not stop me in taking in Pasolini's midnight movie classic.

I think, secretly mind you, it's related to that imperceptible line that some directors, writers, or artists push (or cross) to either make some revealing point (which is defensible), or to cross it (and turnaround to scratch it completely off) just because they can do it to the audience (which is much less defensible). The horror sub-genre some later nicknamed torture porn is just an example of this. I think Clive Barker really made an early (eighties) mark in this, way before critics coined the term (for the later examples of Eli Roth, Takashi Miike, Rob Zombie, etc.), with his Hellraiser film (based upon the his book, The Hellbound Heart). He pushed (successfully) that line. Though, it seems some of the recent films seem overly abusive just for sadism's (the term derived from the Marquis' surname, mind you) sake. I guess I like to watch film instead of cringing at the screen or taking it in through my stretched fingers (while I hold my hand over my face).

The lack of empathy is what I fear, I guess. That and the images that get etched into one's minds--for days, weeks, or always--after the viewer takes it in. And, I don't just hold filmmakers up to examination, here--this is warning to those even thinking of picking up Edward Lee's work (The Bighead is one I'll stay far away from). Perhaps, I'm getting soft in my old age. Or, more empathetic since I became a parent in the mid-nineties. Anyway, one of these days I'll take in that Pasolini title (... or those unopened DVDs like Inside, City of the Living Dead, and Imprint that some of my jaded co-horts have prodded me to watch). But, I wouldn't hold my breath...


  1. "that imperceptible line that some directors, writers, or artists push (or cross) to either make some revealing point (which is defensible), or to cross it (and turnaround to scratch it completely off) just because they can do it to the audience (which is much less defensible)."

    You make an excellent point, and articulate it nicely. Kind of goes back to McLuhan and whether it's all about the message or the medium.

    Curious, what do you make of the graphic torture Gibson depicted in 'The Passion of the Christ?' I found the film very powerful but one I have not been able to watch a second time because of the relentlessly graphic torture.

  2. We're both in the same boat with regards TPotC. I've seen it once, and only in the theater--though I have a copy of it in my DVD collection (which I've lent to friends who've never seen it--and they all return it with the same somber look). Gibson made a very powerful, uncompromising film. But the extreme and graphic nature of the the 'passion' (see suffering) is something I can recall only too well in my mind's eye. That leaves me without much of a yearning to watch it again, for now.

    Although, Gibson's film had me sympathizing with the victim, rather than identifying with the [insert serial killer's, madman's, etc.] power as some in film and literature appear to want the viewer/reader to do. I think a lot of what gets categorized as torture porn now, was called ultra-violence some decades back. There seems to be that recognizable ebb and flow to it in the marketplace, IMO.

    Thanks for the comment, Corey.