The Problem with Film Canons: A Preliminary Defence of Eli Roth

Straight off the bat, I realise that this is supposed to be primarily a Hong Kong cinema blog and that my three posts so far have focused on British film criticism, a contemporary mainstream American film and now an American director that drummed up some minor controversy five years ago. In my defence, the following post was originally supposed to be a review of Dream Home and Revenge: A Love Story but I got a little sidetracked, the reviews became a little unwieldy and it probably would have been boring to read. Anyway, I’ll post the reviews in the next week or two.

In David Edelstein’s oft referenced 2006 article Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn, he coined the pejorative moniker “Torture Porn” for the cycle of explicitly violent films that emerged in the middle section of the last decade.  What is particularly interesting when returning to this article six years after its original publication is the surprisingly reasoned tone and Edelstein’s avoidance of the didactic moralising of subsequent critics of the cycle.  Although his issue is primarily with the explicit depictions of violence in these films, Edelstein also expresses concern at the often blameless nature of the victims, which he feels gives the films a disconcerting amorality.  His objection to the likes of Hostel, Wolf Creek and The Devil’s Rejects is that because of (what he considers to be) their inherent nihilism the prolonged spectacles of torture are there to be revelled in by audiences.

Being the most visible individual involved with the cycle, Hostel and Hostel II director Eli Roth has generally come in for the most criticism.  Reviews of his films were often undermined by lazy moralising on the part of critics who were incapable of seeing beyond the “torture porn” label and its connotations of trashiness, sadism and misogyny.  This was a genuine pity because, whatever one’s views on other films within the supposed cycle, the Hostel films were terrifically interesting genre movies.  Hostel is about a pair of young American males who have recently graduated from college and are back-packing around Europe.  They are lured to a fictional small town in Slovakia where they are taken captive by The Elite Hunting Club, a clandestine organisation that caters to sadists, providing them with human victims upon which they can carry out acts of extreme torture in exchange for a fee.  The film combines genre deconstruction with sociopolitical allegory, with the arrogance, ignorance and endearingly awkward empathy displayed by the two heroes towards their European hosts functioning as a pretty funny satire on post-9/11 America’s attitude towards the wider world.  Midway through the picture its chief protagonist switches from the shyer, more sensitive and seemingly more moral of the two Americans to his brasher and more sex-driven friend.  The latter becomes the film’s “final girl”, surviving and exacting revenge on his torturers while his more moral chum, who is presented to savvy audiences as the most likely candidate for survival throughout the first half of the film, suffers an unexpected painful early death.  Hostel II is perhaps even more interesting.  The film depicts the same scenario except in this instance the victims are all female Americans.  The film studiously avoids wandering into territory that could be considered misogynistic and is perhaps best described as a riposte to critics of Roth’s earlier work.

Yet while Edelstein felt that it was Roth’s films’ combination of an extreme, explicit violence with a nihilistic worldview that made them so troubling, many other critics felt that they did have a clear sociopolitical message, just an unfortunately unsavoury one.  In a 2006 article* for Sight & Sound, Kim Newman admonished the film for its depiction of Slovakia and its inaccurate portrayal of mainland Europe, accusing Roth of the same ignorance and arrogance that his film purported to satirise.  Additionally, Newman considered the violent vengeance wreaked by the American protagonist on one of his torturers at the film’s close to undermine any suggestion that it could be considered a critique of American foreign policy in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.  Rather he felt that this final act offered an implicit endorsement of said policy.  In his 2008 essay Mark Bernard probed the matter slightly further.  He too acknowledged that Roth had made present these same concerns in his film but felt that, as a culturally significant object, the film still measured up unfavourably against horror films from the 1970s such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  His rationale was essentially that, unlike Hostel, films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House on the Left did exhibit a political conscience but that it remained in the subtext.  By making his concerns explicitly textual Roth is implicitly ignoring other issues that the films touch upon.  For example, at the end of Hostel II the big “feminist” pay-off comes when the tortured female protagonist turns the tables on her antagonist and cuts off his penis with a gardening shears.  Although Roth claimed that the film was explicitly feminist, by focusing on this single issue between two white American characters, in what is portrayed in the film as a developing country, Bernard suggests that Roth is consequently elevating the concerns of Americans above those of non-Americans who are, in the real world, the more likely victims of torture.  Another vocal critic of Roth’s is the prominent British critic Mark Kermode.  In his reviews of the two films (here and here) he criticises them for not being “about” anything but appears unconcerned by the extended sequences of explicit torture.  He too compares Hostel II unfavourably with ’70s slasher precedents, in this instance Last House on the Left, which he praises for being “about something”.

I have probably not done justice to any of the aforementioned authors but I plan on dedicating a later post to a reevaluation of the Hostel series wherein I will hopefully be able to better explain these critics’ arguments.  However what is interesting here is that the films were all beaten with “torture porn” stick but for a variety of different and contradictory reasons.  Edelstein criticised the excessive violence and vacuous morals, Kermode criticised them for being about nothing, while Newman and Bernard criticised them for being about something, just the wrong thing.

It is interesting that Kermode and Newman were united in their dislike for Hostel given that both are renowned for their expert knowledge of the horror genre and are often associated with arguing the case for the “Video Nasty”.  Both critics have contributed greatly to the legitimisation of the horror genre in mainstream critical circles in the UK and Ireland over the past 30 years.  In their capacity as respected critics they have been able to generate a popular respect for their own favourite horror films, developing something of a canon of films that might otherwise be dismissed as trash or mindless exploitation.

Australian critic Adrian Martin differentiates a film canon from a mere best of list on the basis that canons are imbued or legitimised with some sort of authority.  Kermode and Newman, from their position as prominent, respected film critics, have the authority to be canon makers.  I would imagine that Kermode has single-handedly altered large swathes of his middle brow, middle class, middle aged audience’s perception of The Exorcist from lowbrow ’70s horror to bona fide classic.  While this is laudable, my problem is that I imagine that a lot of the people whose views on the film have been changed by Kermode have not altered their position on the basis of a deeper understanding of the piece gleaned from listening to him but simply because he said so and the accepted weight of his opinion is enough.  These are probably the type of people that write those really annoying emails to “The Good Doctor” expecting a big pat on the back for dragging their uncultured, idiot friend to see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or something equally banal (usually starring Maggie Smith).  And this is one of the major problems with film canons, or any other canons in the Humanities, they dull our capacity for critical thought.

For example, if somebody told you that their favourite film was Citizen Kane, I would imagine that your first thought would be “You’re a f***ing liar!”.  You would then probably initiate a thought process that might allow you to uncover why this person was regurgitating such an unoriginal opinion.  Stating that Citizen Kane is your favourite film simply does not reflect personal preference.  It gives no insight into your personality or tastes but suggests only that you read somewhere that Citizen Kane is the greatest film of all time and that you now want to show how boringly refined you are by conflating your preferences with accepted values of worth.  The dull, pretentious man who claims to love Citizen Kane above all other films probably did enjoy it.  However I would bet my right eye that he has enjoyed other films more and only plumps for Citizen Kane because of its classic status at the top of the canon of good taste.  Jason Solomons made such an observation in an article for the Observer in 2002 following the publishing of the 2002 Sight & Sound Critics Poll, as he criticised the contributors for being too self-consciously reflective of perceived academic notions of good taste .

Yeah but who cares I hear you ask.  Well, I would argue that film canons continue to have considerable relevance in developing critical thought in academia.  As postmodernism has permeated most disciplines within the Humanities over the past 30 years the practice of evaluation has disappeared from the study of film in western universities.  A consequence of this development has been the almost complete separation of academic film theory and the practice of film criticism.  Academic analysis is generally based on some class of postmodern theory or an ethnographically focused methodology.  Academia has worked hard to transform itself from an elitist and exclusionary arena to a more democratic, pluralist forum and, as such, a contemporary film studies student is as likely to write a thesis on Piranha 3DD as La Grande Illusion or to undertake a star study on Jason Statham rather than undertake an auteur analysis of Sergei Eisenstein.  And yet canons remain as relevant as ever (would any film theory programme at postgraduate level lack studies of works from all of the usual suspects – Godard, Cassavetes, Welles, Hitchcock, Eisenstein etc.).

In an oft cited article from 1985, Janet Staiger charts the development of canon formation in film studies throughout the 20th century.  According to her, canons will inevitably be ideologically and politically endowed given that they are products of particular cultural circumstances and this will ultimately affect how we think/write about cinema.  She notes how much of the early, pre-1920 writing that could be categorised as academic, focused on discovering those films that could genuinely be described as art.  Although there was some variation in the criteria employed by writers of the time, Staiger notes a relatively broad consensus on those works that could be considered legitimate art and that these works formed the dominant canons of the era that still hold today.  Her point is twofold. Firstly, criticism and analysis are ultimately tied to social and political beliefs and will therefore inevitably be politically imbued.  Nevertheless, we continue to peddle the same canonical works as the important works of the era even though our critical criteria have changed and this can affect how we write about film history.  In other words, although we base film criticism on different criteria now to 100 years ago we still continue to propagate the same canonical works from that era.  Rather than seek out new films from the early days of cinema, we seek to shape existing canons according to current theoretical norms.  An example she gives is The Cabinet of Dr Caligari which, she claims, came to prominence as a result of disputes over the its value rather than a singular critical consensus.  Yet it remains a part of the early silent canon and is probably the most recognisable example of German Expressionist cinema.

In their chapter for American Horror Film, Pamela Craig and Martin Fradley made a similar observation regarding Halloween.  Now a staple of the ’70s horror canon they claim that, upon its release, the question of whether the merits of its innovative formal techniques outweighed it “proto-Reaganite” politics generated considerable debate among prominent leftist critics.  Perhaps it was this very argument that generated such a sense of importance around Halloween because its cultural significance now appears beyond question.

The problem with Hostel and Hostel II is that they cannot generate such debate.  The extent of the debate surrounding their worth rarely goes beyond superficial posturing and hand wringing concerning the rights and wrongs of onscreen violence.  This can largely be attributed to their being tarred with the pejorative term “torture porn” and its connotations of both low quality and absent morals.  Yet the meaning of “torture porn” is malleable and the use of the term in film criticism rarely corresponds with the definition provided by Edelstein.  While Newman and Kermode might stick to their ’70s canons it is completely crazy for punters to mindlessly buy into the notion that ’70s horror was some sort of high-water mark for quality horror film making.  It wasn’t.  Kermode and Newman tended to explain their fascination with the films by illustrating the ideas they raised.  In other words, their analysis was less focused on quality than cultural significance.  One might not like the Hostel films, however to bury them beneath the term “torture porn” on the say so of a critic whose preferences are long formed is a bad idea.  The horror genre should not always be measured against a set of values held in 1980.  Such closed thinking simply inhibits the development of canons and, by extension, knowledge.

*I don’t think that the article is available online.  For anyone interested, it was published in the June 2006 issue of Sight & Sound under the title “Torture Garden”.

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