Later, I read David Edelstein's article (where he coined the term: here) and found myself agreeing with his take on films where "torture… cut deeper than mere gory spectacle." Surely— leaving aside nostalgia— the horror of Psycho was of a different breed than the horror of Saw. As Edelstein suggests, the difference is more than a matter of degree. He cuts to the heart of the matter with a probing question: "Fear supplants empathy and makes us all potential torturers, doesn’t it?" This question resonates with Stephen King's own take on horror movies (Edelstein references King's essay, too) as a release valve for our instinctual human craziness. We're all mental, King writes; it is only through social structure and entertainment-as-release that we can cope with the base human desires that rumble below the surface of civility. If we take these thoughts (fear, empathy and apathy, desire) and run them into the logical progression of modern horror cinema, then we find ourselves in an interesting place.
But, apparently—and not surprisingly—the term 'torture porn' hasn't exactly become a rallying point for horror enthusiasts. In fact, when I started writing what follows, I discovered the rather divisive nature of the term: Film critics misuse it; horror enthusiasts blame said critics for its misuse and would rather see the term jump the shark (or simply disappear) than have it muck up and censor works that might just be misunderstood art.
On the strictly fan side (evidence of why I put little-to-no faith in such sites), the first-ranking Urban Dictionary definition claims torture porn to be "an ignorant, degrading, condescending, judgmental and hypocritical phrase asserted by fuckwit Bible-thumpers and conservative critics." Clearly, this 'definition' is less descriptive than it is proscriptive. As such, it isn't much help in defining the term, but it does show the extent to which the term is not embraced by those who defend the types of films it has been used to define.
Brian Matus over at Fangoria bemoans, "the way “torture porn” has come to be used the last few years is (ironically) a perversion of its original usage." Matus claims the term "simply doesn't make sense when describing horror films that feature graphic depictions of torture. To the uninitiated, it sounds more like a subgenre of porn than a horror subgenre." With this in mind, it becomes pretty clear that the term is more troubling than insightful. Not surprising at all, true, but I hope below to recover it for a bit longer (at least to follow through on a few ideas).
Before I get to the rotting meat of my post, however, maybe we need to spend some time setting up the idea that these films (or, at least, their artistic objectives) are worth discussing. Unlike Don Kaye over on MSN Movies, I choose not to so quickly judge this subgenre: "From the spate of horror movies that have flooded the market over the past couple of years, it's obvious that many of the filmmakers behind them aren't too proud either." The implication here is twofold: Kaye delimits extreme horror films as shock for shock's sake; the invocation of pride is film critic double-speak for box office commensurability. No self-respecting (proud) filmmaker would ever cow to fan tastes for weekend bank.
While I confess I don't much care for these films-- and will likely never again see one on the big screen (The Passion of the Christ and Sin City having sated my appetite)-- that doesn't mean they have no value. And it's value that I'm searching out in this post.
What's notable is Kaye does more than Edelstein to link the two parts of the term together in a useful definition: Kaye admits that "'torture porn' has little to do with real pornography. There is virtually no sexual activity involved, although the victims are usually nude or partially nude." But, he continues, the juxtaposition that Edelstein invokes without deeply exploring "expresses the idea that its viewers are intensely, pruriently aroused by the sight of human bodies -- usually young, nubile ones, and quite often female -- getting torn into bloody chunks in the most awful ways imaginable." This is worth highlighting because it begins to unpack the connection-— however disturbing or useful—- between arousal and bodily mutilation, between desire and affect.
Kaye also lights upon another point that will help me draw connections between torture porn and camp: narrative. For Kaye, the problem with modern, extreme horror is that it seeks "disgust… rather than the hair-raising shiver of true fear." This is partly a confession of an old school horror fan who privileges narrative affectation over aesthetic value, suspense and story over spectacle. The unwitting dichotomy Kaye establishes here is one that places "true fear" hierarchically over "disgust." In the work of a narrative frame, the genesis of true fear is not in spectacle, but in something that builds from linear progression and climaxes. It's no wonder that Kaye resorts to focus on the lack of a sexualized, nubile female body instead of transgressive discourse prompted by non-narrative disgust. A naked body is only useful in horror if it's properly coded to adolescent sexual awakening (a la Friday the 13th); as a site of disruptive disgust it is simply shocking and puerile.
What is betrayed here, at a basic level, is a classic move: Within the machinery of Hollywood (of which the film critic is a willing laborer), narrative is an essential focal point. That is, much of what does not work in Hollywood is a result of narrative failure. A good story always trumps deep aesthetic. A simple test of this is the most recent Harry Potter offering. The initial cut of the film offered up by the director was considered too challenging aesthetically; it was subsequently re-colored before being distributed. The complaint was that the style interfered with the story.
Kaye alludes to a similar transgression in regards to extreme horror, though he takes pains to chide a lack of story (character development) rather than an excess of style: "In just about all the movies described above, the characters are never developed enough to make us even feel much for them; they're simply straw men and women, set up to be sliced apart." The argument here is clear. Spectacle in torture porn supersedes story.
Here is an intersection with camp.
Matthew Tinkcom, in discussing the camp aesthetic of director Vincente Minnelli, notes that "early in his career Minnelli had already achieved a highly consolidated aesthetic vision in which the emphasis in his filmmaking was on a mis-en-scene that not only competed with the narrative but in fact could become the narrative." Counter to Kaye's valuation of narrative, Minnelli's films sought to transcend their narratives for something else. "The seriousness of the labor that Minnelli expended," Tinkcom insists, "suggests that camp manifests itself in what has more commonly been described as the high degree of visual stylistic integration" produced in these films. Camp labors clearly privileged "visual style over and above their narrative" (54).
The connection here is cemented by Kaye's notice that "most [torture porn films] shoot torture in a very visually exciting way." While he uses this phrase to set up a punch line ("helping the audience 'get off' on the pain"), it betrays what Kaye himself cannot deny: These films, despite their motive and seeming lack of value, are expertly crafted (labor). It is this craft—- or the critic's debasement of it—- that prompted Hostel director Eli Roth to fire back. Roth responded to Kaye's post with a letter that reads as mostly defensive posturing, but it does beg artistic integrity and intent: "I made the film I wanted the way I wanted, with risky subject matter and a superb cast." This, in conjunction with Kaye's reluctant admittance to a certain level of artistry, makes a potential case for my reading of torture porn as valuing style "over and above" narrative.
It remains, now, to figure out what we should do with this match up
The opening bank robbery of F. Gary Gray's Set It Off made me think of torture-porn. A stretch, a random juxtaposition. A camp move, maybe. But here's what I'm thinking. Tinkcom writes, "one way of locating camp in the sphere of production is by finding the repeated incidents of narrative filmmaking that seem to depart from the more usual expectations of visual and acoustic form." It is these "incidents," moments of excess (work-as-play) within a larger sphere of film production (labor), that lead Tinkcom to proffer that "camp reveals itself as a luxuriance in the inefficiencies of capital's modes of production" (28).
Now much of Tinkcom's argument stems from a crucial moment that I am somewhat willfully disregarding here (the queer camp intellectual; I would like to spend some time talking about "crises of heterosexuality," but not here, not now). However, the culmination of these bits quoted here led to my reading of Set It Off's opening bank robbery as a camp moment.
The point at which violence explodes—- when the robbery goes wrong and the lead assailant shoots, point blank, his white female hostage—- is shocking. This shock is a result of our misled sympathy. The leading dialogue between teller and robber, at least by Hollywood convention, serves to attach our sympathies to both characters. This is a clever sleight of hand with opening sequence exposition—- and is rather affectively melodramatic. First, we're shocked. Second, we're pulled to an ironic distance by instances of slow motion, a move meant to invoke a certain pleasure in the violence (pleasure as a result of delay). It was this moment, where delay creates a moment of departure, that made me think of torture porn. This moment "cut deeper than mere gory spectacle." Edelstein notes, that torture porn is "so viciously nihilistic that the only point seems to be to force you to suspend moral judgments altogether." The scene in Set It Off is nowhere near the visceral horror of a Rob Zombie sequence, but there is something out of place in the melodramatic labor of the sequence; this something resonates in the juxtaposition of torture porn and camp. Trade "suspend moral judgments" with "[departure] from the more usual expectations of visual and acoustic form" and these moments share delight in spectacle. This delight in spectacle, through the production of camp (t-p), reveals "the crises of value coding under capital" (30).
What I'm trying to do here is trouble the value of film violence because it is, at its core, affective. Reading Tinkcom, I found myself juggling "labor" and "work-as-play" and how they connect to film violence production (and performance). At a very surface level, shooting a violence sequence is difficult, labor-intensive, and expensive. Why go through the trouble? Verisimilitude? In the case of torture-porn, verisimilitude isn't even a consideration—the sheer mise-en-viscera is too spectacular to be "real." No. So what gives? The guess I'd venture: Where queer camp intellectuals "find the opportunities to press the cinematic commodity into a new form of service that expresses their presence within the domain of production," straight horror intellectuals create frisson in violent spaces for the same reason (29
Taking up "spectacle" again, I'll end with moving from production to viewing. Tinkcom writes, "Camp, as theorized in the present account as a knowledge about capital's changeable and volatile attributes of value, can and does migrate to recipients outside the sphere of its production. This helps to explain the intense affiliation between camp and the notion of cult-viewing formations, to the degree that when recipients of the camp film discover its alternative visions of the modern world, they attach themselves to it with a devotion not typical of the usual cinematic fair."
This is worth mentioning because the function of camp as cult is productive of value. A cult audience revalues a work into camp. That is, the mutability of capital and value allows for audiences to make their own value through camp viewing. A critical and financial failure like Mariah Carey's Glitter becomes valuable through cult-viewing camp. This is also interesting in regards to labor and production. Tinkcom interprets Marx (a la Grundrisse): "Marx asserts that the political economy of capitalism is most forcefully conceived through the category of production; he then distinguishes each feature of economy… as a moment of production in order to illuminate how humans under capital are producing themselves and commodities" (6). Interesting.
Still further and finally, is that while camp and cult function on a much smaller scale (small groups working either within the larger framework of Hollywood or in subgenres separate and outside Hollywood), torture-porn functions primarily because it is large scale. Paranormal Activity and Saw VI were in the top ten box office earners this past weekend. What does this say about the value of spectacle? Hmm…
Kaye, Don. "Torture Porn: The Right Snuff?" MSN Movies. 9 November 2009 http://movies.msn.com/movies/torture/.
Edelstein, David. "Now Playing At Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn." New York. 28 Jan. 2006. New York Magazine Online. 4 Nov. 2009 http://nymag.com/movies/features/15622/.
Matus, Brian. "The Problem with Torture Porn." Fangoria. 27 October 2009. 8 November 2009 http://www.fangoria.com/blogs/raising-hell/4461-the-problem-with-torture-porn.html.
Tinkcom, Matthew. Working Like A Homosexual: Camp, Capital, Cinema. Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2002.
"Torture Porn." Urban Dictionary. 8 November 2009 http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=torture%20porn.