Saturday, December 4, 2010

"A Serbian Film" or "A Nightmare"

I couldn't fall asleep last night and it was because of a movie I've never even seen; I can count the number of times that's happened to me on one finger. Don't get me wrong--I've had sleeping issues because of movies I've seen but not because of a movie I simply read about. The second recurring nightmare I had in my life when I was little was because of the movie "Troll" or, specifically, one scene from the movie. All I remember is a part of the film where a child's striped ball goes bouncing through an open door down a set of stairs into the basement. I don't remember if you see the Troll's eyes, hear it grunting, or actually see the thing but whatever it was it traumatized me. Cut me some slack--I was two or three years old and for someone of that age, THIS was pretty terrifying:

(The first recurring nightmare came courtesy of the 8 p.m. garbage pickup on Thursdays.  I was two or maybe even younger and I remember the loud screeching sound of the compactor going and the truck's engine, as well as seeing the red lights at the front of the truck that gave it a monstrous resemblance.)

Anyway, after "Troll" it was the movie "Leprechaun" (which, I suppose, is still in the ballpark in terms of creepiness).  Then I went through a freaked-out-by-aliens phase and watching the show "Sightings" with my parents on Friday or Saturday night would definitely render me a bit gun shy about going to sleep (I've never seen "Fire in the Sky" or "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and I don't plan to thank you very much!)  I don't remember any movies that caused me to lose sleep until (unexpectedly) 2002 when Heather and I saw "Signs" in the theater.  I know, I know--I'm probably one of only four people in the entire country that liked the movie...and the only one that got spooked by it.  I think it was more the loud, jarring, startling-in-your-face kind of scares that Shyamalan employed that got me jittery...and then the whole alien thing.  I heard that the reason many people disliked the movie was because the alien looked lame; I wouldn't know as I was looking in between my fingers at the time.  I just remember on the drive home expecting something to jump up from under the car onto the hood.  Maybe it was the thousand-or-so times I've watched the Twilight Zone finally catching up to me.  Who knows.

Next it was "American History X" that caused me a few sleepless nights in succession.  The bathroom scene freaked me out to an unbelievable degree--so much so that I didn't so much as jaywalk for a full week out of fear of winding up in prison.  True story. 

Ed Norton = Amazing.

Finally, I bugged out over "Paranormal Activity" last year.  I know it was hit or miss with people...but it was a mega-hit with me.  There were too many eerie similarities to things that have happened in my house with things that were going on in the film and when I tried to sleep that night all I kept picturing was some unseen demon dragging me out of my bed by my foot. out of the next FOUR nights I slept exactly once...and that was because I was in Atlantic City and imbibed a great deal.

So that brings us up to speed...sort of.  I still need to explain the whole movie-I-haven't-seen-keeping-me-awake thing.  It all happened last night while I was enjoying a North Coast Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout (seriously--good stuff).  I popped online to check my email and I saw an interesting article in the newsfeed about a Jim Carrey movie I had never heard of.  I could see only a photo of Carrey and another male actor and the title of the film, "I Love You Phillip Morris."  I assumed from the picture that it was a movie about a gay romance but the title made me think it might be another scathing commentary on the cigarette industry.  I clicked on the link and it pulled up the article I will link you to in a moment.  Let me warn you careful what you read on that page and, more importantly, what you might be inclined to look up.  In fact, why not just skip the link for a moment and let me summarize what you'll find there and then you can decide for yourself what you investigate.

So the title of the article is "Most Controversial Movies of All Time: 10 Films That Truly Shocked Audiences."  Let me tell you first that this is a misnomer and is misleading.  Many of these films are nowhere near as controversial as some others that I will outline below but perhaps I am misreading the title.  Said title seems to imply that the list is of the Top 10 Most Controversial Films of all time...but there is a lack of a definite article at the beginning of the title, which might transform it into simply "Ten OF the Most Controversial Films of All Time."  I'll start with the list itself, which is as follows:

"A Serbian Film"
"Fahrenheit 9/11"
"The Passion of the Christ"
"Natural Born Killers"
"The Last Temptation Of Christ"
"Last Tango In Paris"
"Deep Throat"
"A Clockwork Orange"

I'm assuming that the Phillip Morris movie is included in the list...and I have to say I'm surprised that it is.  Homosexual relationships and romances are by no means part of the mainstream media...but neither is America like it was sixty years ago.  Modern American conservativism falls somewhere in between Iran (   Stay classy, Mahmoud!) and Ancient Rome ("Broscious!  Are you going to the orgy later???"  "Dude-icus!  Which one???  LOL  ::Ancient Roman High Five Ensues::); "Brokeback Mountain" was a big deal when it came out (lol) but perspectives have changed since then, so I'm surprised that the Phillip Morris movie would be considered controversial. if you're anything like me you've heard of eight of these films ("A Serbian Film" and "Salo" excluded) and that's a good thing.  From a purely critical standpoint, the list is notably lacking and repetitive in its themes (there are two films about Christ, for example, but none about racism or specific horrific socio-political events).  "Fahrenheit 9/11" isn't even a film (technically) but a documentary...and there are PLENTY of controversial documentaries that could be placed on a list of the top ten most controversial films.  "The Passion of the Christ" was definitely controversial in its own right, particularly because of its violence and its depictions of Jews as evil and money-hungry...but it became even more infamous because of its director's Anti-Semitic rants.

"Kids" is a movie you might not have seen...but you'd be missing out.  It's a disturbing film but it's definitely eye-opening.  The article misidentifies the plot, which I found irritating, but the general premise is the same.  "Natural Born Killers" is a movie I've never seen but I remember the firestorm it sparked when it came out.  It seems to be more about gratuitous violence than anything else and I remember people being disturbed by the sheer quantity of bloodshed in the film.  Again, I would recommend "American History X" for the list though for its level of violence or, more specifically, its style of violence  ("Put your fuckin' mouth on the curb"...yeah...just made me shudder thinking about it).  "Last Tango In Paris" seems to be on the list solely because it was controversial at the time...which could be said for any number of movies ("Psycho" anyone?)

So that leaves us with "Deep Throat," "A Clockwork Orange,"...and the other two.  "Deep Throat," again, is controversial because of the time it was released and the fact that it was a landmark film (as the article says, it turned the X rating into into X-Rated).  I would argue that the film "Caligula" is far more controversial than "Deep Throat" and it came out seven years later. 

Okay--a little note about "Caligula."  Someone told me about this movie a long time ago and said I should never, ever watch it.  Naturally, this inclined me to do so but at the time I had no way of seeing it and eventually I forgot about it.  When I got to college, I found that my friends shared in my general disposition towards gross things (being mostly unaffected or desensitized towards them).  We would often try to gross-out (or out-gross-out, technically) each other with ever-more shocking pictures or stories found on the Internet (even that had its limit though--the idea of a harlequin fetus still freaks me out to this day).  Somewhere along the way I remembered "Caligula" and tricked Heather into watching it with me.

Now, it should be noted that, on paper, "Caligula" sounds probably far worse than "A Clockwork Orange."  I saw part of the latter in my psychology class in undergrad and I found that to be far more disturbing.  I think it was the sense of realism (or perhaps it was real footage being used) of the sexual depravity of some of the scenes that really got under my skin.  With "Caligula," I feel that it was so kitschy and over-the-top that it detracted from what, on paper, sounds pretty horrendous.  It's considered an adult biographical film as well as epic pornography...but it's as unerotic as it gets.  I'm sure there are people who get their jollies from it...but that's a pretty creepy notion.  What also makes both "Caligula" and "A Clockwork Orange" creepy is the fact that they both star Malcolm McDowell!

So now that leaves us with two movies from the controversial list: "A Serbian Film" and "Salo."  Both seem innocuous enough...but not so much.  I read the article sections in order but I'm saving "A Serbian Film" for last for the purposes of my discussion.  Both films are disgusting and disturbing but "A Serbian Film" trumps "Salo" a million times over.

Anyway, regarding the latter, the full title of the movie is: Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.  It is based upon the literary work of the Marquis de Sade of the same name (The 120 Days of Sodom).  Without even getting remotely into what I read about the plot of the film (and, presumably of the novel as well), let this excerpt from the Wikipedia article about the book serve as a warning for anyone curious enough to look deeper into the details of the film:

"[The 120 Days of Sodom] tells the story of four wealthy male libertines who resolve to experience the ultimate sexual gratification in orgies. To do this, they seal themselves away for four months in an inaccessible castle with a harem of 46 victims, mostly young male and female teenagers, and engage four women brothel keepers to tell the stories of their lives and adventures. The women's narratives form an inspiration for the sexual abuse and torture of the victims, which gradually mounts in intensity and ends in their slaughter."

"The film focuses on four wealthy, corrupted fascist libertines in Benito Mussolini's Italy in 1944 who kidnap a total of eighteen teenage boys and girls and subject them to four months of extreme violence, sadism, sexual and mental torture. The film is noted for exploring the themes of political corruption, abuse of power, sadism, perversion, sexuality, and fascism."

The sheer violence of the film and its unforgiving filming approach has gotten it banned all over the place and is what renders it so controversial.  The fact that it is based upon a book mitigates the shock value somewhat...but it is still unbelievably hideous.  The fact that it serves as a social commentary (and an effective one at that, from those that have seen it: offers perhaps the only excusable reason for watching it.  Most people (to sum up the thrust of the comments) came away haunted, some to the point that they couldn't eat for an extended period of time and others to the point that they were unable to think of anything but what they had just seen.  Again, since this film is based upon a book and its existence serves to speak to some greater issue(s), it can be understood why someone would watch it...

...but "A Serbian Film"?  There is absolutely no excuse for something like this to exist let alone to have been filmed.  Thankfully, the Serbian government is investigating whether or not the film perpetrates crimes against sexual morals and engenders the endangerment of minors.  The blurb on the Most Controversial Movies list for the film reads as follows:

"Since 'A Serbian Film' debuted at the South by Southwest festival this March, the movie has managed to create a firestorm of controversy in every country it has been screened in. While director Aleksandar Radivojević and others claim the story's graphic depiction of rape, incest and murder is a metaphor for the brutality of the Serbian government, many critics have argued that it's actually a metaphor for morally indefensible torture porn. British authorities refused to allow the film to run in London, while Serbian authorities are currently investigating the movie on charges related to child endangerment."

I have heard stories about the brutality of the Serbian government, particularly in terms of ethnic cleansing, and thus I was curious about the "firestorm of controversy" that this film created.  I will admit, I glazed over the line that cited things of "graphic depiction," with my usual "how-bad-could-it-be?" perspective and looked on Wikipedia for more information about the film.  I started reading...and by then it was too late.

To say that I was horrified would be a gross understatement.  This film isn't just hideous and heinous, it's downright evil.  At the bottom of the article there are a few quotations of critical reviews of the film, which read as follows:

First: "The film was released to great controversy in terms of its graphic and often sexually explicit violence. Screenwriter Srdjan Spasojevic has responded to the controversy with "This is a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government... It's about the monolithic power of leaders who hypnotize you to do things you don’t want to do. You have to feel the violence to know what it’s about."

I have to say, having read the plot of the film (and given the "firestorm of controversy") I have to call Mr. Spasojevic out on his bullshit.  You want to film in black and white an apple sitting on a desk for four hours and tell me that your movie speaks to the ennui of the world or the fact that God abandoned us (both typical artsy bullshit themes) that's fine.  No one's getting hurt or mentally/emotionally scarred.  You take a puppy, cover it in gasoline, light it on fire, and play Christmas music in the background while it burns and tell me that your movie is symbolic of the treatment of refugees in some third world country...and you're starting to cross that line not only of acceptability but of believability as well (let it be said that Mr. Spasojevic has not done either of those things--they're examples I made up to illustrate my point).  But to film what he did in "A Serbian Film" and to then claim that "This is a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government"?  It's inexcusable and it's fucking sick.  There are plenty of other ways of presenting such a diary.

The final two reviews read:

Scott Weinberg wrote "I think the film is tragic, sickening, disturbing, twisted, absurd, infuriated, and actually quite intelligent. There are those who will be unable (or unwilling) to decipher even the most basic of 'messages' buried within A Serbian Film, but I believe it's one of the most legitimately fascinating films I've ever seen. I admire and detest it at the same time. And I will never watch it again. Ever."

A more critical review came from Alison Willmore: "Movies can use transgressive topics and imagery toward great artistic resonance. They can also just use them for pure shock/novelty/boundary-pushing, which is where I'd group Serbian Film. That it comes from a country that's spent decades deep in violent conflict, civil unrest, corruption and ethnic tensions makes it tempting to read more into the film than I think it actually offers—ultimately, it has as much to say about its country of origin as Hostel does about America, which is a little, but nothing on the scale its title suggests."

Maybe its my sensitivity to the types of violent acts that are portrayed by the film or maybe it's simply the fact that I'm a parent now and have a different outlook on things.  Regardless, I found myself opting for another brew (Founders Breakfast Stout--even MORE incredible than the Rasputin!) after I finished reading the article, knowing that I was not going to sleep well, if at all, and hoping that the 8.30% ABV of the beer would help knock me out (it didn't).  Instead, I found myself tossing and turning, haunted by the images conjured up by the plot summary and, worse, by its closing phrase: "Start with the little one."

If you're of a sensitive disposition, please don't look this movie up; the purpose of my article was to exorcise the terrible, creepy feeling its summary gave me and to warn people about it.  If you think it won't bother you and you read the description or, even better, if you've seen the film (because I know I will never EVER watch this shit) I would love to know if you agree with Srdjan Spasojevic & Scott Weinberg that the film serves as a metaphor, or if you agree with Alison Willmore and myself that to view the film as anything but atrocious and diabolically repulsive is reading into it a bit too much.  Drop a comment and let me know.


I can't end this entry on such a negative, depressing note, so I'll conclude with an anecdote.  After reading the first paragraph or two of the description I thought of the movie "8mm" starring Nicholas Cage (naively, I thought that "A Serbian Film" was going to be similar in its scope and execution).  This morning, I thought of the film and its star again...and I was shocked by the progression that Nicholas Cage's acting career has taken.  To picture him in a film as dark as "8mm" and as villainous or violent characters in "Conair" and "Face/Off"...and then to compare those roles to his more recent endeavors (Disney's "National Treasure" and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" to name but two)'s quite a dichotomy.  This, in turn, made me think of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and his equal but opposite progression, going from films such as "The Game Plan," "Race to Witch Mountain," and "Tooth Fairy" to his latest movie "Faster."  It's as if the two actors are linked indelibly by some unseen bizarro universe connection causing one actor to take softer roles while the other toughens up.  I can only imagine what the middle ground would look like should both actors' careers reverse polarity!