Bob McCabe. “Dreams and Nightmares: Terry Gilliam, The Brothers Grimm & Other Cautionary Tales of Hollywood”
(Started somewhere in 2010, and finished on that same day—or more accurately, in the early morn of the new day)
Well, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from attempting to restart this entire blog thing, it’s that trying to do it after my Friday night shift might not be such a good idea. It seemed like a good idea at the time, seeing as I don’t work on Saturday, and so I can write all night after I finish my bar shift. But we drink when our shift is over, and while I don’t drink a lot (or at least, not enough to get me arrested if I was pulled over), it’s enough to accentuate the sleepiness that accompanies an eight-hour shift.
It’s also impossible to get home after a bar shift and go directly to bed. You need some wind-down time. For me, that’s a pint glass filled 50/50 with whiskey and soda. Of course, the heavy pour and the sense of accomplishment makes me ready for bed, even if I don’t realize it. That last entry, written over two Friday night/Saturday morning shifts made sense in my head, but that doesn’t translate well to Web reading a few days after the fact, which is probably why that last entry was such a lucid train wreck. So: There are two constants: I should write shorter, and I should try to stick to the point.
Both of those are fairly impossible requests, however. I almost always write long, and there are always tangents. So, even though I’ve always been against them, I’m going to try to provide a thesis statement to keep me on track. And my statement is thus: I find the torture porn film genre boring, and yet I’ve seen how it can help a movie—or at least one in particular, a cult classic entitled Martyrs.
Before we start on this thesis, another tangent: The regularity in which I sit in front of the keyboard these days involves the film reviews I do for the local paper. Last week, the paper said they didn’t need anything from me. Me, liking what I do, thought I should do a review anyway, if only to keep in practice. And Martyrs was a perfect subject that ties into my real life. Not thematically (yet), but because the girl who wanted me to review it worked with me at the paper.
I should probably not mention that girl by name because of Facebook background checks, but I’ll use initials. A.L.’s one of those people that I love meeting because she shatters pre-conceived notions without putting any effort into it. When I was first hired on staff, she said hello politely and went back to her cubicle. Later, seeing her joke with a co-worker, I knew she had a sarcastic streak. Then, when she flipped out when I showed up to work in my Evil Dead shirt, I knew there she was a kindred soul, coupled with her spying on my iTunes list and asking me to burn copies of James Brown and Minor Threat (one artist or the other, you can pretty much always expect. But never both). And thus, we were comrades, the kind who know about obscure Misfits homages and movies that you would only take a date on as a dare, or at the very least, a litmus test on their coolness factor.
And if we were having a test based on murder movies, she would surely win. Me, I love me some murder in my movies, but she sees anything that has to do with the genre, and seems to have an undying love of watching people die. Whenever I put a quick rating on some knock-off cheapo horror franchise via Netflix, she wants to argue. “But they killed a person with a weed-whacker!” she’ll protest, as if that usage of a particular garden tool warrants another star.
Now, I’m no stranger to the allure of creative death, or cheesy horror. Hell, I may get paid to discuss the artistic merits of film over the last three years, but I have no problem still declaring Evil Dead 2 one of my favorite movies of all time. As of late, she’s been riding me for my opinion of Martyrs, which I hadn’t seen, though had heard of. It’s a cheap French haute horror film, known more for making the audience uncomfortable than for actual tension.
I resisted for as long as I could manage. When you see enough horror movies, the first thing you start to resent are films that utilize a sudden burst of noise to startle the audience. And then there are films within the torture porn genre of horror. Films like Saw or Hostel might not scare people, but they can sure as hell gross people out. And if the audience is hiding behind their hands, does it really matter if it’s out of fright or disgust?
In my opinion, yes, it matters. Some of the scariest moments I can remember: The shark making its first appearance in Jaws, the aliens that were under the floors and in the walls in Aliens, the birds, perched and silently watching in (wait for it) The Birds, the clown doll in Poltergeist. In most of these cases, the threat hasn’t even been manifested yet (and even in Jaws, in which we finally have manifestation, it’s more frightening than we could ever have anticipated).
And thus the idea of gore for gore sake has been lost on me as a marketing tool. I love Dead Alive (known to Troy as Brain Dead), and I love it because they took the messiest of possible murder implements (a lawnmower… Whoops! Spoilers!) and, well, made a mess. But that film, as much as it pushed the buttons back then, is almost tame now. And not to sound like a fuddy-duddy, but it’s the primary reason that I can sign off on the horror genre now, because it provides nothing more than a few creative kills.
But, of course, I’m on a tangent, and none of that last paragraph involves Martyrs as a film. That’s important to mention, because of the build-up I provided. When A.L. asked me to review it, specifically because she wanted my opinion about the end, I knew it wasn’t about the killings for her as well. There Will Be Blood, to borrow the title from a different genre, but that blood wasn’t the point. Given her affinity for kills of all kinds meant Martyrs was something special.
As it happened, the day that the DVD came in the mail, Scott Tobias of the AV Club wrote a retrospective of the film. Written too well to summarize, I’ll just include the first paragraph here:
“Martyrs is a black hole. It’s not an entertaining film. It’s not a hopeful or redemptive film. It’s a film to be reckoned with, a repository of darkness and evil that pushes the “extreme horror” genre as far as it can possibly go. (Takashi Miike has to feel pretty miffed about that.) Never released theatrically in the United States—it was bought by the Weinstein Company, but according to an interview with director Pascal Laugier, Bob Weinstein himself couldn’t make it to the end—Martyrs now exists as a dare on DVD, the film equivalent of kids egging each other into checking out the scary-looking house down the road. It sustains a heightened, steadily ratcheted anxiety and manufactures increasingly repulsive and sickeningly provocative imagery, all without even teasing the possibility of relief. It’s sick shit, in other words, and if you’re in the camp that finds nothing edifying about the experience of watching it, you’re likely to want to see it (and perhaps Laugier) dropped from a great height.
That’s as far as I read before I started the film. It was enough in terms of knowing what I was in for.
But it also wasn’t. I’ve had to review enough films, and watched others for my own purpose, to have a steel resolve. The Saw franchise, of which I’ve seen every film, is usually the litmus test on what I can handle seeing on screen. I’d like to say I can handle anything that’s thrown at me, but those films regularly show the two things that gross me out to the point that I can’t watch, which is the pulling of teeth and fingernails. Shudder.
Of course, looking away is no help, because if you’ve seen the films, sound is utilized even more than image. There’s no escape from the grotesqueries that are on screen, even with eyes averted. But as I was subjected to these images again and again, it’s pretty easy to figure out that it’s not scary, it’s just gross. The term “torture-porn” has a duality, one because they usually involve somebody being tortured (there go the teeth and fingernails), and two, seeing how the films aren’t ever really scary, they ratchet up the gore and gross factor to see if they can make you squirm.
That’s what I was expecting to see when I popped in Martrys, but that’s not exactly what I got. Obviously, there are spoilers to come, but you’re safe for right now. Starting with a scene of a 12-year-old girl named Lucie, bruised and bloody running away from a house, it’s a homage to the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre that also brings to mind to boy who escaped Jeffrey Dahmer, only to be returned to the house of horrors by the police. Here, however, Lucie’s put into an orphanage, where her nightmarish visions are dismissed, save from Anna, the one girl who empathizes and eventually becomes her friend. The two head out to avenge the terrible, unspoken wrongs done to her
And here’s where Martyrs does something interesting. Seeing that opening scene, with the girl running down the street in her underpants, and hearing about the ugliness of the film, I readied myself for some sexual abuse. It’s the sad norm of the film industry. I dated one girl about a decade ago who had serious rape and molestation issues, so bad that mere mention would put her in a state of near-panic. It got to the point where if we were going to a movie, I would have to show up ahead of time in order to poll people leaving the theater to see if it was safe to see. You’d be surprised how many films aren’t. Far too often, if a film wants to build suspense, they will stick the female role in a rape scenario. Yes, rape is awful. And thus, to use it as a superfluous plot device to build suspense, you cheapen and desensitize the act. But here, when the other people in the room discuss her trauma, they actually say, “there was no sexual abuse, thank God.”
That’s almost like an apology. In the introduction to the film, the director, Pascal Laugier appears on camera to say, “I’m not sure you have made the right decision.” It’s not a dare, but almost an apology, knowing that awful, horrible things are to come. But at least it’s not rape, right?
As it happens, Anna has chosen the point of the aftermath of the murders to finally doubt the sanity of Lucia, making her one of the more obtuse characters seen in a while. There’s some bickering back and forth, a sense of “is she crazy, or is her paranoia real” seen in other films like Kalifornia. But then, being a French horror film, the movie takes a 180 degree turn on plot. Not only was Lucia right about the family she chose to slaughter, it’s all a part of something bigger. There’s a cabal, see, who have made it their business to torture people to the brink of madness, because those who can survive have seen God, and the cabal wants to know what happens next. Anna is captured, and thus begins her descent into madness.
And this is where Martyrs lost me, because for the next 40 minutes, we’re watching nothing but a shackled girl who is beaten relentlessly. To me this is depravity at its most boring, probably why I hate The Passion of the Christ with a passion. Is it scarier to watch Dr. Christian Szell in Marathon Man pull teeth, or is it the dread of what he’s going to do, endlessly repeating, “Is it safe?” Or, for the non-film school student, is the act of watching the Mister Blonde dance around his captive more frightening that the “actual” ear-severing in Reservoir Dogs? I’d argue that it’s the dread of what might happen, over the actual violence. The actual pain, to me, is not interesting.
(Major, MAJOR spoilers here. If you’re going to see it—and though I liked the movie, I can’t recommend that you do—stop fucking reading.)
Anna witnesses something at the end of Martyrs, but what she sees is kept from us.She’s the first person in a 15-year running experiment who’s been able to survive the process of being flayed and skinned alive. She whispers what she’s seen to her captor. We’re not privy to her experience. Flushed with success, the cabal orders a meeting to reveal what awaits after death. But the woman who heard the testimony, known only as “Mademoiselle,” cheats us and her audience out of an answer. “What do you think comes after death?” she asks the page who has called on her. When he replies that he doesn’t know, she says curtly, “keep doubting,” popping a pistol in her mouth and pulling the trigger. End credits.
It’s these last ten minutes that A.L. has asked me for my opinion (and instead, I detail the entire film. I told you, I have a problem with writing long). There is no definitive answer, of course. Whatever Anna tells Mademoiselle is the same thing as Marcellus Wallace’s glowing briefcase; it can be anything you want it to be. But since she asked, here are my thoughts on the ending that don’t ring totally hollow.
1: Anna told her about heaven, and said Mademoiselle will never see it because of her cruelty.
Being a devout atheist, what I want Anna to say is, “Nope, nothing there. Sorry.” The whispering goes on for far too long, however, and so this is next up. But it still doesn’t explain Mademoiselle’s suicide. If she’s not going to a heaven, but is still head of an all-powerful secret cabal, does she really need to check out so easily? God may have a lot of rules to gain entrance to his Kingdom of Heaven, but nobody likes a quitter.
2: Anna details exactly what awaits a person after death.
This, while not being the “correct” answer is the one I like best, and one that fits my atheist tendencies. When I argue with religious zealots (which happens a lot), one point that I use a lot is how religion is used to quiet, quell, and calm the masses. It’s the scared monkey argument. The scared monkeys point at the sky and exclaim, “AHHH! There’s a giant ball of fire in the sky!” And somebody comes along to explain that it’s Apollo, God of Light, who has nothing better to do than pull the sun across the stratosphere. And the scared monkeys, glad to have an explanation, sigh in relief. Then science comes along and explains what’s really going on, and the scared monkeys are still relieved, because they have an answer that makes sense. More sense than some guy in a chariot, anyway. From there, you endlessly repeat such pat reasoning of either Gods or Science, whichever makes them feel better. People want explanations. That would factor into why an enormous cabal would willingly torture young girls.
But part of the mystery of life is the mystery. I remember once, being about 11 or 12, stealing my mother’s car keys and finding all my Christmas presents in the trunk, because I wanted to know what I going to receive. That act took all the fun out of the day, because part of the fun in life is the uncertainty, and knowing exactly what lies ahead for the rest of eternity takes away the fun in living. If you heard that the rest of your life involved clocking into the same timeclock, only to sink into dementia and die unnoticed in a hospice, you might do something different. Like putting a pistol in your mouth. Keep doubting.
And so another horror movie brings out the amateur philosophy major, though this is much better than the freshman, Nietzschean Saw ideal behind “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” There are interesting ideas that are being put forward, but I still can’t recommend the film because of the violence shown on screen. We’ve seen the same story before, most memorable in V for Vendetta where the title character says, “What they did to me was monstrous,” and Natalie Portman answers simply, “And they created a monster.” We didn’t need 40 minutes of violence against a helpless person in that movie to understand the sentiment.