Friday, October 23, 2009

Bad Data

This weekend, two new movies will arrive in our nation's Cine-MegaPlexes. One is part of a familiar franchise, one that's moved countless buckets of popcorn and cheez-drowned Nachitos over the past decade. The other is one-a dem furrin' films. You know. Moody. Existential. Independent, with a director who views it as deeply conceptual and who has a particular vision as an auteur.

The cinematic extravaganzas in question are Saw VI and Antichrist, and while they may seem to appeal to different audiences, they are cut from the same cloth and of the same genre. In an excellent essay in the WaPo yesterday, movie critic Anne Hornaday pegged the connection. Both are what cinephiles have come to describe as "torture porn," films that focus on the relentless and graphic depiction of the bloody torment of other human beings.

Both movies attempt to make the case that they are, in fact, furthering human understanding. The underlying premise behind the Saw franchise is, apparently, that the threat of a slow and horrible death inflicted on our helpless body by a sadistic psychopath enables us to better appreciate life. A few years back, I remember one of our Sunday School teachers suggested integrating that into our third grade curriculum. It didn't go over well.

Antichrist is a bit less like something written by Dr. Phil's sociopathic younger brother. It's more intentionally obscure, more aware that it is not a movie. It is not meant to entertain. It is Film! It is Art! It's array of misogynistic and increasingly harrowing images have something to do with the power dialectic between reason and emotion, male and female, sexuality, self-affirmation and self-mutilation. Though it's made by a Dane, he's evidently one of those Danes who hasn't discovered the pleasures of a good beer. It feels more High German, with a vision probably expressed best with some long technical made up word, like, say, dafoeingeweideblutforterungschafft.

Sigh. We Americans are just so..provincial.

Here, I feel a strange desire to go all Father Ted standing self-righteous with a sign outside of the theater. It's painfilth! It's degrading hurtsmut! Stay away! Down with that sort of thing!

I won't do that, tempting though it may be. But prog though I am, I can honestly see no reason to watch films that serve up meticulously presented brutality for our prurient delectation and amusement. I mean, jeez. I had to watch the Passion of the Christ once for church, and I never ever want to go through that again. Torture porn is a spiritually blighted genre, one into which Jesus-folk should wander only with deep caution. Better yet, stay away.

Some of my fellow progs might disagree. I am being judgmental. Prejudiced, even, given that I won't go see those films. Art that expresses human suffering is still art, they might say. Speech that revels in and celebrates inflicting mortal pain is still speech, they would suggest. What right do I have to make value judgments about things that other people enjoy or find expresses the human condition?

Discernment is just so...unpomo.

I am convinced, though, that storytelling and the images and ideas we take in transform us as persons. They are not passive expressions of what is, but help form us and shape us. It's part of the reason Jesus told stories to get his point across, eh? When we take in images of brutality and cruelty as a form of entertainment, it coarsens us. Stunts us.

It is, in programming terms, bad code.