Update (3/11/08): After posting this I realized that perhaps a much more serious example of "torture porn" is the hit TV show 24. Everyone tsks, tsks the horror genre, yet, they sit down to watch the cop culture entertainments of 24, Law and Order, and CSI, which all provide safely "exhilirating" and order-bringing "fear-inducing" versions of torture as porn (and I have barely touched the many examples that are on mainstream TV)--MB
(I admit the only examples of these films I have seen is Saw and Wolf Creek, after that I decided I didn't want to assault my senses any more. I developed a knee-jerk reaction to the concept of the Hostel films without having seen them, dismissing them as mindless, sadistic Torture Porn. I'm not going to rush out and go get them, but Hilden has effectively given me something to think about and I will keep in mind my violation of the grievous sin of dismissing what I have not seen/read. Came across this courtesy of Broken Pencil)
Free Speech and the Concept of "Torture Porn": Why are Critics So Hostile to "Hostel II"?
By JULIE HILDEN
Free speech advocates have often zeroed in on the hypocrisy of the ratings system of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA): Movies with less-than-explicit sex scenes often qualify for R and NC-17 ratings, whereas even very violent movies often do not. This criticism usually is paired with the hope that this hypocrisy will someday be resolved through a more reasonable approach to ratings for movies with sex scenes.
But recently, that hope for the movie industry has been turned on its head. It now seems that the analogy between movies that depict sex and violence, respectively, will be used not to convince the MPAA to ease up on the first, but rather to justify a crackdown on the latter. Thus, the comparison between sexuality and violence may actually serve as leverage in favor of harsher ratings, rather than against them.
That's a serious concern for those who believe in free speech. While the MPAA is of course an industry organization, and not a government body, its ratings can still have a profound effect (including a "chilling effect" for the future) upon the kind of movies that can be made and, if made, can reach broad audiences.
The phrase "torture porn," which has been repeatedly applied to the Writer/Director Eli Roth's recent movie "Hostel II," is telling in terms of the new movement to conflate sexuality and violence - and it's spreading virally. Entertainment Weekly used the term; and five of the featured reviews on the popular movie ratings site RottenTomatoes.com use variations on this theme. This summer, New York magazine's reviewer David Edelstein devoted an entire article to the concept.
While not quite new, the concept is recent - largely confined to Twenty-First Century films such as "Saw" and its sequels, and Roth's earlier films "Cabin Fever" and "Hostel." In addition, "Captivity," which premiered last Friday, June 13, has attracted the "torture porn" label - with its billboards becoming especially controversial. How long will it be before the MPAA follows the lead of movie reviewers in labeling films "torture porn"? (Meanwhile, in the context of television, Senator Sam Brownback may well succeed in convincing the FCC to move aggressively against depictions of violence, especially explicit ones - a move that has led to significant blowback from the ACLU.)
In this column, I'll argue that the "torture porn" label is damaging, unfair, and misguided. It attempts to trivialize certain movies by suggesting that their only purpose is to titillate - short-circuiting the brain to go straight to the pulse or groin. In fact, many of the visceral depictions of violence in these movies conveyed strong messages that no viewer could miss. Ironically, these messages, especially in the "Hostel" films, are typically anti-violence.
Because the real world includes violence, and because violence has such devastating effects, it would be anomalous if ideas about, and depictions of, violence didn't play a strong role in the lively "marketplace of ideas" the First Amendment protects. Aggressively protecting that marketplace of ideas, as the First Amendment commands us to do, entails protecting a wide swathe of types of expression, including those that some viewers will find overly explicit.
The Importance of Allowing Filmmakers to Rely on Context and Realism
Generally, scenes of violence are effectively interpreted by critics and the MPAA in isolation, unless the movie is truly a rare masterpiece. For example, the Oscar-nominated "Saving Private Ryan" came famously close to receiving an NC-17 for its violence, especially that of its opening, but ultimately did not, likely due to this informal masterpiece exception. In this one example, the MPAA was able to see the movie's violence in context, and in light of the perspective the movie conveyed. It was also able to see that it would have done a disservice to World War II veterans to convey a tamer portrait of what had actually happened on the battlefield.
These arguments regarding context and perspective, however, are applicable to virtually every movie; it's just that with respect to other films, the MPAA ignores them. It's nonsensical to look at scenes of violence out of context, given that viewers will only see them in context. And making violence look less realistic - less bloody, less gory, and more stylized - would be deceptive not only in masterpieces such as "Saving Private Ryan," but also in any film that purports to either locate itself in a real world, or to locate itself in a fictional world similar enough to our own that it can offer commentary on the world we live in.
The tacit masterpiece exception is also troubling in another way: It favors conventional films, and grossly discriminates against the kind of films that, while they may be interesting and popular, will never be nominated for an Academy Award. The masterpieces of Sundance may be allowed to be violent, but the masterpieces of its edgier spin-off, Slamdance, may not.
This is particularly troubling because it's not masterpieces, but edgier films, that are likely to have the most interesting and new points to make about violence.
The Cases of "Hostel" and "Hostel II": Anti-Violence Movies Wrongly Labeled "Torture Porn"
For example, it's hardly controversial to convey, as "Saving Private Ryan" did, that it's tragic when soldiers die in a just war. But it is very controversial indeed to say that even the most civilized-seeming people may be lawless sadists underneath, and that this sadism isn't aberrant; it's just an intensification and distortion of other elements in our culture.
Yet that's exactly the message of "Hostel" and "Hostel II" - a message seemingly lost on those who label the movies torture porn. Unfortunately, when these films receive that label, the movies' commentary about the violent extremes that seemingly-civilized people never reaches part of its potential audience, for would-be viewers may boycott the films based on this reductive and unfair label.
Both "Hostel" and "Hostel II' comment on the stereotype of naïve American innocence and jaded European experience. Critics highlight this kind of commentary when it appears in classic literature, but tend to ignore it when they discuss the kind of movies they tend to consider beneath them, and only condescend to review. To illustrate the contrast between brash America and weary Europe, both movies depict small groups of young Americans traveling abroad (men in "Hostel"; women in "Hostel II"). Both groups have an ugly surprise waiting for them: They will be tricked into being the victims of a club, based in Eastern Europe, at which otherwise unremarkable but extremely wealthy men and women torture and kill for sport. Even if the Americans escape, their illusions of safety and privilege will be permanently shattered.
To Read the Rest of the Essay
(This essay makes an excellent point about the level of acceptance of violence, real or implied, in mainstream "masterpiece" films as opposed to the more indie/low-budget grnre films. One could consider that Roth/Tarantino are trying to communicate a message about society... except, they turn it into a franchise? When you brand your message of violence and start spawning sequels, doesn't that problematize what you are trying to do... once again I admit I have not seen the Hostel films. If you have seen either of these films I would be very curious to hear what you have to say about them--Michael Benton)