Friend of Wag: Cruelty of Cinema (an Introduction)
Since founding Wag we have been inundated with requests to take on writers. Our staff is pretty full at the moment, but every now and again, we will be letting a friend of ours stand up and speak their minds on filmed entertainment. Today, I bring you the start of a new series by Brad Avery, a personal friend of mine who has a lot to say about movies in general. I’ll quit blabbing and let Brad take over.
Part of what makes film such a powerful art form is its ability to fully engage audiences in its stories. It can invoke strong emotional responses and create unforgettable scenes that can stay with audiences long after the show is over. If you’ve read Ian Maddisons “Understanding the Language of Cinema” series on this site (as you very well should here here & here) you’ll have a greater understanding of how cinematic technique works to make a coherent and exciting film. While all of this is incredibly important to properly understanding and appreciating films, what most audiences immediately identify with are the emotions they felt while watching the movie. Many people remember the pure sense of wonder they felt watching the massive spaceships and laser duels in Star Wars for the first time, or those exciting yet intense moments of shock and terror while watching Jaws. We as audiences get actively involved with the films we watch, and if a film manages to absorb us and get us laughing or crying, it generally has succeeded. We laugh with the characters, and we feel their peril during those intense moments. Great filmmakers know this, and more devious filmmakers know how to use this against us.
Sometimes there is a film that makes you uncomfortable. A film that makes you physically squirm in your seat and hide your face in your hands. That sets out to make sure you remember every agonizing moment and leave the theater in misery. There are many ways to achieve this. An unsettling atmosphere, grotesque images, graphic violence and gore. Most people avoid these kinds of things, and yet some people get a kick out of it and flock to them.
There’s a whole market for horror movies where people are regularly torn apart and disemboweled in unimaginable ways, and a lot of people love these movies. Some people love the adrenaline rush they get from being scared, others laugh every time someone on screen dies. But other times a violent scene can be so uncomfortable and disturbing that you have to pause the movie and take a smoke break. What causes this divide? Why are some violent films fun and others horrifying?
Better yet, why are there films like Cannibal Holocaust and Salò that are packed from beginning to end with relentless violence and torture in the first place? Why are there films like Friday the 13th and other countless slashers that exist solely to kill off their characters in the most gruesome ways imaginable? And why are there audiences for these films? Why do some people enjoy watching others be killed, while others are repulsed by it? There are thousands of these kinds of movies. It’s a cinema of cruelty.
Those questions might dig into some more sophisticated psychology, but what remains evident is that a film has the power to affect its udience. If it’s done well (once again, see Ian Maddison’s “Language of Cinema” series) it can manipulate you, make you laugh, make you cry, or make you feel disgusting. What I plan to do is take a look at individual films that indulge themselves in depravity. Films that may make the viewer feel terrible for watching it, either through wanton violence or other incredibly uncomfortable scenes. Films that take glee in the gore they depict and ask the audience to share that joy. And all of the in-between, with everything from torture-porn like Hostel, to gross-out fests like Pink Flamingos. I’ll examine how these films use the language of cinema to evoke a response, and why one film might be enjoyable while the other unbearable.
So, I guess it’s worth mentioning – keep repeating “It’s only a movie…Only a movie…Only a movie…”
- Brad Avery