Thursday, August 9, 2012

For the Sake of Authenticity

The slaughtering of the water buffalo in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now has never bothered me. Not too much, anyway. It’s all rationalization, but I think the reasons for this are that, for one thing, I’ve been watching the film for decades now, I’m used to it, and I imagine when I originally saw it there was a certain morbid thrill inherent in seeing for the first time, as far as I knew, an actual living thing being actually killed. None of us are free from a certain morbid curiosity. More importantly, possibly, is that I was told that this water buffalo was being killed as part of a native ritual that was going to happen whether Coppola pointed his camera at it or not. This was helpful to me because it removed the responsibility of the buffalo’s death from Coppola and put it in the hands of a primitive culture that was, on a certain level, none of my business. In any case, I could compare it to watching a nature documentary.

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.
And anyway, for all my mostly internal anger towards movies that contain real animal killings, it’s not like I’ve been particularly good at avoiding them. Even once you get past the era of American film history when horses were regarded as disposable as matches, if you watch a lot of movies, and cast your film-going net as wide as I try to, you’re going to see some that were made in Europe. In European films, particularly those made in the 60s and 70s, all bets are off. Or can be off. But it really feels like sometimes an animal could be killed at any time in any given French or German or so on film. Rabbits and chickens and the like drop like flies in the morally rigorous films of Robert Bresson (exceptions to this include, oddly enough, Bresson’s famously bloody Lancelot of the Lake and the quietly apocalyptic L’Argent), with the nadir being reached in stock footage of a seal clubbing featured in The Devil, Probably, an image I haven’t been able to shake years after seeing it, and since in order to see that film I had to buy it I retain a vague and ridiculous fear that one day when I’m not around my wife, who likes this stuff even less than I do, will randomly decide to see what this The Devil, Probably deal is all about. And then, boom. I’m not really sure what the aftermath of that would be, so I’ll just say “boom.” More recently, Michael Haneke has shown no reticence about shooting pigs in the face, for example. I admire Haneke as a filmmaker (as I also admire Bresson, baffling though I sometimes find him), but the pig in Benny’s Video, just to take an example, makes the insufferable finger-wagging of Funny Games, which is plenty bad enough, even harder to take. I’m reminded of the pig in Godard’s Weekend, about which Pauline Kael said (paraphrasing here) that whatever moral judgments Godard wished to throw out to his audience, the pig was all his. This being the closest I’ve ever come to giving Kael the thumbs up. The upshot of all this being that while I’ve never seen any of Francis Veber’s light comedies, it wouldn’t shock me to learn that at some point in, say, The Dinner Game, there’s a shot of somebody scooping out the eyes of a live goat.

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.
Cannibal Holocaust’s turtle scene is the one that’s always talked about, but I can attest that none of these scenes are much fun to watch. Nor is any part of the rest of the movie. Deodato’s film is notable for being the first (among the first?) found footage horror movies, though it only becomes that towards the final third. The plot is, a group of American documentary filmmakers – supposedly extremely famous documentary filmmakers – led by Alan Yates (Gabriel Yorke) and his girlfriend Faye Daniels (Francesca Ciardi), are preparing to journey to the Amazon basin in order to film lives of the cannibal tribes to be found therein. When they don’t return, anthropologist Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman, a porn actor who interestingly gives the one decent performance in the whole movie) begins an expedition to go find them. Along the way, he sees all manner of atrocity, including the hideous rape and murder of a native girl, and is forced by the leader of the tribe in whose possession Monroe and his guides have found the remains, including cameras, of the missing filmmakers, to eat human flesh. Also a coatimundi, a kind of small mammal, has its throat slit and its stomach eaten. But he got the footage, so back to New York he goes, where the, I don’t know, TV network(?) is thrilled that the last film of these amazing filmmakers can be presented to the world. The fact that it’s known that all of these people were killed and eaten doesn’t seem to bug them too very much, and in fact they’re willing to slap that film, sight unseen, right up there on TV. But Monroe says “Well, let’s maybe watch it first?” so he and a network editor do so, and the found footage portion of Cannibal Holocaust begins.

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.
But that’s all bullshit anyway. I have a hard time believing Deodato thought too hard about the politics of any of this. He cared only about showing the savagery. Because of its reputation, I watched Cannibal Holocaust in constant fear that the animals shown scampering or crawling through the jungle would suddenly be massacred, though most of it doesn’t occur until the found footage section, at which point it all comes in a rush. The animal deaths occur at such a rapid pace by this time that I started wondering why they were letting some animals off the hook. There was an alligator at one point, and I couldn’t figure out why nobody was in a tree throwing big rocks at its head. I entered this state of mind after the turtle scene, which is lovingly filmed, I must say, and is by far the most gruesome animal scene in the film. In truth, I watched each of these scenes with one hand ready to block out what I would very probably decide I’d rather not see, which still left me seeing almost all of it, including the turtle scene. The one I did not watch a second of was the monkey killing, and in all honesty I have to admit that this is because I love monkeys, I think they’re cute, and monkeys scream. Turtles don’t. I like turtles too, mind you, but what I’m getting at, and this will shock nobody, is that some animals, by virtue of their behavior and appearance, have a greater hold of our sympathies than others. It is another hypocrisy which I have to deal with that the killing of a monkey, which is cute, makes me angrier than the killing of a turtle, which is, from a distance, kind of like a rock. This isn’t a hypocrisy that lets Deodato off the hook, however, and in any case I’d like to be clear that none of the animal killings in Cannibal Holocaust strike me as any less bad than the others (there is, in fact, a particular aspect of the turtle scene that bothers me enormously and I wish I’d looked away sooner).

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.


Anonymous said...

Excellent, Bill. After I finally saw the film myself a couple of years ago, I realized almost everything I'd read about it up to that point had been complete and utter bunk. It's a savage, stupid piece of exploitation that will always be deified by some, sadly, though not surprisingly. This is the first piece I've read that gets it right.

bill r. said...

Thank you. The pretense of political commentary is enough for some people to justify a film like this. I don't really want to judge people -- well, I do, but suspect I shouldn't -- who are fans of the film, but I do think there's a certain delusion among most of them.

John said...

I loved it. It's the only horror movie that has disturbed me to the point of totally eliminating any need for suspending my disbelief. I recall moments when I was actually glad to remind myself what I was watching was only a movie, animal killings aside.

The "political" aspects ascribed to it are, of course, laughable and totally dispensable, and about as valuable as most such commentary in fiction. But as a relentless, purely visceral experience (in more ways than one, I guess) no other horror flick I've sat through compares to it, even a much more professional production like The Exorcist.

I do agree with you on this one point, though:

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.

Movies like this tend to bring out the tediously moralist sides in their critics as they try to outdo one another in their declarations of shock and dismay, usually with an extra heaping of sanctimonious scorn for the benighted souls who don't share their enlightened perspectives on Art, Good Taste, etc. At least, Bill, you're willing to acknowledge the inherent hypocrisy of, say, expressing moral revulsion at slaughterhouse footage before going off to attend a barbecue. A point that seems lost on most of the other occupants of the moral high-ground.

bill r. said...

But you can acknowledge, can't you, that killing an animal for food and killing an animal for visceral titillation do carry different moral loads, right?

John said...

It depends on how necessary it is to use the animal for food, for one thing, and how much value you really put on that animal's survival and freedom from suffering, as opposed to your own. Killing an animal to eat it, or simply feeding on a killed animal, when you don't strictly require the sustenance to survive but simply because you enjoy it, is, to me, not significantly morally different from killing it to get a trophy, antlers to hang on the wall. Or even to get a shocking moment on film.

I don't like animal killings in movies either, whatever the rationale for filming or including them. But I don't believe it makes me a bad person (or, I should say, a worse person) to find value in a film that, for whatever reason, includes them.

bill r. said...

No, I don't think it makes you a bad person either, and I've tried to not imply that. In the weeks leading up to watching CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, I was convinced to finally give in when listening to a podcast that discussed the film. One of the guys on the podcast liked the film a lot, but also talked about the animal killing and how problematic it was. So I figured if this guy who had the same take on that element as I did, but still thought it was a good movie, then maybe there was something there that deserved a look.

But then, of course, I didn't like the movie at all, on any level, so that quickly became a moot point.

Stacia said...

I'm somewhat surprised you watched this, after the almost disastrous Twitter conversation a few of us had about it. Turns out Twitter is a really bad platform with which to discuss complex issues. Who knew?

Terrific post, bill, and I'm glad you wrote it, though I'm not so glad you saw the film as it seems to have been more disturbing than anything.

Hypocrisy when dealing with animal deaths is difficult. I wasn't able to finish The Passion of Anna, for example, yet I watched all of Cannibal Holocaust. And some of that was defiance on my part, because after the hilarious-useless attempt at moral and political context, I was absolutely convinced this was just a 1970s version of the coochie movies of the 1930s where a silly medical discussion was added in between scenes of nude girls being ravished by men in ape suits. And all the talk about how real people were killed in the film? Ha. I wasn't going to be fooled by Cannibal Holocaust, dammit, so I watched the whole thing, though ultimately I guess the joke was on me.

Since I have no idea what to feel about Cannibal Holocaust, I waver between mild irritation and indifference. It's useful as a discussion point with horror buffs, as a sort of early examples of the found footage conceit, but ultimately, I'm not sure what it contributes to the culture.