Thursday, August 9, 2012
For the Sake of Authenticity
Except that over the years I’ve come to realize that I don’t like those kinds of nature documentaries, and more to the point I’ve long understood now that the actual, unsimulated killing of animals, or torture of same, in films is my one big taboo. I can’t say I will avoid films containing such scenes at all costs, because that would be a lie, but it’s the one thing that will make me avoid a film to the point that if presented with such a film that I’m otherwise interested in seeing, I will consider actually never seeing it. I fully realize that I’m far from alone in this, and one of the dangers I’m trying to avoid in writing about this topic is taking on a judgmental, long-suffering, more-sensitive-than-you tone. But put it like this: years ago, when John C. Reilly dropped out of Lars von Trier’s Manderlay reportedly because Von Trier planned on killing a donkey on camera, I was fully behind Reilly’s decision, and kind of hated Von Trier, whose reaction to losing the actor was essentially “What’s the big deal?” But he was sort of -- sort of -- right. One of the reasons I need to watch my tone here is because if I get too self righteous about this, the levels of hypocrisy that will be in play the next time I cram a roast beef sandwich into my face or get bummed out because my steak isn’t rare enough will have become insupportable.
Which brings me, sort of, to my earlier point about avoiding such films when I can, and deciding sometimes to just bite the bullet. There are two films that I have specifically not seen for years because of this: Bela Tarr’s Satantango (which features no actual animal deaths I’m aware of, but instead apparent cat abuse, though Tarr himself has offered an explanation that I’m inclined to believe, but not yet to the point of watching the maybe-not-actual-cat-abuse unfold), and, on the less, I don’t know, aesthetically precise end of things, Ruggero Deodato’s infamous Cannibal Holocaust. Perversely, this is the one for which I decided to end my embargo recently. And it’s a terrible movie with lots of animal killing in it. As I say, Cannibal Holocaust is notorious for its various animal butcheries, as well as the fake (convincingly faked, but faked, which should maybe go without saying, I guess, maybe) torture and rape and evisceration of most of its characters.
And a lot of this is actually kind of hilarious. The point of this whole ridiculous thing is that, you know, sure these people are cannibals, but aren’t we, members of the civilized Western world, kind of really the savages? Yes indeed we are, because Alan and his crew are terrible people. The footage they shot shows them as initially callous and glib, and just kind of jerks when you consider how often they flip off the camera (they do it a lot, and Faye sometimes makes rude faces, too), and finally as rapists and murderers. Well, finally as ripped apart corpses, but as rapists and murderers immediately prior to that. It’s already been revealed to us, and to Monroe, that Alan Yates and his crew made a habit of staging events for their documentaries (though in the example shown to us, a section of a film called The Last Road to Hell, it’s not clear to me if the tribal murders depicted were urged on by Alan, or if the murders themselves were faked), and here we see them torching a village belonging to a cannibal tribe known as “the tree people” so that it can be blamed, in their film if not in reality, on a rival tribe. And Alan and Faye and the other Americans are whooping it up and laughing as they torch the place and shoot pigs and yell about how much money they’re going to make. The economic theory being consulted here must be an obscure one, but anyway we’ll never find out if it pans out for them. Pretty soon after that, Alan and company capture a native girl and gang rape her (here, for once, Faye displays some moral uncertainty) and then look in awe and amusement at the girl’s ultimate fate, a famous image from Cannibal Holocaust involving impalement, and I’ll leave it at that.
I must admit there’s a grotesquely funny moment here involving Alan’s reaction to this, but since moral indictment of some kind seems to be at the forefront of Deodato’s mind here, or at least he’d like us to think so, I’m left wondering who or what is being indicted. The American involvement in Vietnam, about which Yates once made a film, and which, in a lazy, sleepy kind of way seems to be the goal? Or filmmakers who would make documentaries about such a thing, which appears more explicitly to be the target, but can’t actually be? Either way, characters in the film, more than once, actually say things like “I wonder who the real cannibals are?” and “Maybe we’re the savages.” If the question is really “Who are the real savages,” can’t the answer be both? I mean, just going by what’s in the film, the Amazon cannibal tribes do a lot of raping and murdering and cannibaling themselves. It’s not like it’s revealed that all the eating of human flesh that we as a culture once arrogantly ascribed to these Amazon tribes was actually being done in secret by Alan Yates and his girlfriend. Maybe Deodato wanted us to leave Cannibal Holocaust thinking it was a tie.
Except that perhaps the shooting of the pig, which I basically saw, feels worse than the others, because in the case of the others, the meat becomes food (actually becomes food, as far as I know) (and okay, not the snake) – this makes the deaths seem, almost, like what I call “farm killings,” a genre of on-screen animal deaths that is often what we’re seeing in Bresson, or, to take another example, Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien. The context of the pig killing, though, is basically “Hey everybody, watch me shoot this pig.” Gabriel Yorke, the actor who plays Yates, was supposed to shoot the pig, but he refused, and another actor took the job. There are a lot of stories about the making of Cannibal Holocaust that involve the actors balking at what Deodato was asking of them, and even clashing angrily with the director (among the stories is one about Francesca Ciardi, whose ideas about how to ease tensions, which having nothing to do with any kind of cruelty to any living thing, are nevertheless kind of alarming; Yorke, meanwhile, comes off as a normal, decent guy who probably spent a lot of time regretting the day he’d ever agreed to work with Deodato), all of which eventually pile up to make the filming of Cannibal Holocaust sound almost as ugly and shitty and morally ruinous as the film Deodato pretended he was making. At least I know who the savage is.