Tuesday, September 25, 2007

"Cannibal" weekend, CBS Monday

I didn't catch all of the season premiere of "How I Met Your Mother"-- I walked into it pretty late-- but I'll offer a few takes on the CBS Monday night sitcoms, the apparent heir to the mantle of dominance once maintained by NBC's Thursday nights from Cosby through Seinfeld to "Friends". I don't think Robin will be terribly missed, at least not for sentimental reasons. Her presumptive role as the gentle mocking Voice of Reason (a sometimes unreasonable sort of 'reason') may be harder to fill though. Marshall and Lily may be the cutest couple in the world, but they need another couple to achieve comedic balance, and if this season is going to be about building a new central relationship, then it will be a challenge to make it funny.

I'll pass on offering judgment about "The Big Bang Theory", though I quite enjoyed it. Will the taller, geekier one mellow into a loveable sort or is he a misanthropic Squidward? I had pegged him from the trailers as the heartfelt one, but I see now that the shorter one is definitely meant to be genial and endearing. Oh well, I'll adjust accordingly. But is our heroine supposed to be a foxy minx, jolly wench or Everyday Girl? I need clarification.

The less said about "Two and a Half Men", well . . . --Of course I ENJOY the show; who wouldn't be delighted really? Who would have imagined that Charlie babyface Sheen would have evolved into something whose chin is a veritable comic strip come to life? Even without the potty humor, the deadpans would be hysterical. But I have nothing to 'analyze', at least not in my present state, and so--

Man, that Audrey is a bitch! "Rules of Engagement" has generally charmed, thanks to the comedic camaraderie of the males, what with chiselled Jeff as a more affable and affectless version of the male solipsism of Charlie Sheen's "Charlie" and David Spade as a peroxided metrosexual Genie-in-a-Bottle take on "How I Met Your Mother"s Barney, and then--er--that other dude as a less fey variation on Marshall. But "Rules", for all of its comedy-of-recognition in the relationships department (yes, if you're heterosexual, definitely watch it with your partner), presses hotly on the perils of the Whipped Man. From what frame of reference is this show being written, that a wife can blithely insist upon her husband getting surgery for his snoring? Would unpretentious sorts like Audrey and Jeff really consider a surgical procedure for such a trifling complaint [oh, but I don't live in the Real America, DO I?!?! . . . ] Well, I don't think Jeff would consent, nor should he, either as a person or as a believable character. If "Rules of Engagement" is going to submit Jeff to this kind of treatment, they might as well write him into the basement in "Pulp Fiction." And Audrey really needs to mellow, fast-- far from being a character women can relate to (I hope, at any rate, they feel restrained from doing so!), Audrey has always come across as a perpetually irritated scowl whose permanent state of unhappiness is very thinly veiled, and not by charm; that unhappiness, by the way, can hardly be attributed to the alleged thickheadedness of Jeff, whose self-deprecating manner of deadpanning his way through life is borderline Buddhistic, which is why, despite the affectations of masculine stereotype imposed upon the character, I regard Jeff as Marshall's near kin. Too bad he doesn't have himself a Lilly.

In other thoughts: Ruggero Deodato's splatterhouse exploitation 'classic' "Cannibal Holocaust" is neither the decathlon of gore-hounds nor the grindhouse "Straw Dogs" it is often made out to be. Putting aside Deodato's lamentable decision to kill real living animals on screen, the film is an ambitious but failed attempt to make terrifying moralistic hay out of crude Sadean pseudo-anthropology and edgy shifting of perspective. The opening scene, a brilliantly scripted and shot faux-news broadcast brimming with conceited smuggery about the "omnipotence" of man is so good I've watched it again and again. Our story will concern four "brave" young Americans, "children of the Space Age armed"--significant word--"with cameras" who plunged into deepest Amazonia never to be seen again. The first half of the film concerns the effort to retrieve what, it turns out, is all that is left of their intrepid adventure--their cannisters of film; the second "half" rolls that film, with appropriate interruptions, and significantly upends any idealistic or hopeful notions we may have begun this film with.

That the four documentarians turned out to be nihilistic punks comes as no surprise-- their cocky swagger when we first meet them is enough to prove that they will come to a poor end, and probably deserve it in some respect. It is a truism, good enough as far as it goes, that these four got exactly what they deserved. Except I feel that the film fails to give us quite enough-- not grisliness or wrongdoing, for there's plenty of that, but-- explication. The intention of Alan Yates in torching the hut was not, apparently, to kill everyone inside but to film the desperate escape. Of course he was horrifically exploiting and endangering these people-- moveover, it seems evident that at least someone died in this atrocity. Yet when we cut back to the present for the Professor's commentary, it lingers upon the slain pig (how prophetic of "Cannibal Holocaust"s own fate, it's animal atrocities having upstaged its many displays of man's inhumanity to man), and if there was a charred body in the wreckage, it is not commented upon. Of course, even if all the tribesmen made it out alive, the torching of their hut would be enough for us to despise the filmmakers and grimly but eagerly await their terrible comeuppance. But why the dissonance here about the consequences of their act? Has Professor Monroe made a moralizing mental slip, failing to see the charred remains because he is not yet equipped to ask "Who are the real cannibals?" Or has Deodato actually conceptualized his audience's (justifiable) reactions into the film's design, taunting us for our experience of entertainment in watching humans sadistically abused while fretting over the depiction of animals killed (or so he insists) for food?

"Cannibal Holocaust" is full of undigested dissonances of this sort, which unfortunately swell over and drown the less comprehensive displays of knowing dissonance incorporated into the film's design. The earliest scenes of "The Green Inferno" footage we see are persuasive bits of camera testing and tomfoolery. There's the disturbing trick of showing us "The Long Road to Hell", passed off here as 'fake' (or was that simply "staged"?-- a significant difference!) though this documentary footage is (supposedly) real-world atrocity footage from Africa. All of this primes us to be unsettled further by what is to come, but its bearing on subsequent events is a little hard to pin down. Doubtless being warned of Yates' duplicitous ways allows us a sense of outraged discovery when the hut is torched-- we realize just what kind of "documentary" these folks have in mind. Up until this point we have sympathized with the missing documentarians; now we learn to loathe them. But, as the ultimate victims of the titular "Holocaust", is it important for the film's total effect that we should still identify with them?

This, I think, is the larger cognitive game that Deodato loses at. Through swatches of "The Green Inferno" we can wonder at what the filmmakers' precise attitude to events is. Do they exculpate themselves, in their minds, of their behavior because they see the cannibals as subhuman, or simply because there is no civilized court of law to impose any standard of behavior upon them? Were they born sociopathic, or were they desensitived by previous exposure to horrors in Southeast Asia, or by reading Deconstructionists at NYU? It would be nice to get a little something of this sort to chew on [oh, the unintended pun!], but we receive no sense of incipient madness, or even of events pushing people with few moral defenses towards even more despicable behavior. No doubt we readily believe that Yates and crew came prepared to do exactly the terrible things they do in pursuit of their "documentary", but that doesn't explain their subsequent, even more willfully evil conduct. Nor can the film overcome the dissonance between the grave and disturbed faces of the actors during the disemboweling of the turtle (apparently unscripted and genuine displays of torment and disgust) with the nonchalance they put on for the gang-rape scene. If "Cannibal Holocaust" wanted to insinuate growing moral disease within the confusing and chaotic confines of the Green Inferno, even simply by providing thoughtful interstices in the surviving footage, then that would be an achievement. As it is, we feel that we are simply exploited, as viewers, with one nasty scene piled atop another willy-nilly.

It is a kind of agonized triumph in moral insight, by way of indicting media detachment from human misery and its failures of conscience, that "Cannibal Holocaust" places Faye during the gang-rape of the stray cannibal girl as a hectoring mommy, chiding her boys for wasting film! Though some commentators have apparently misread compassion into Faye's reaction, it is clear that she evinces no concern for the girl as a human being or, specifically, as a female victim of rape. Faye's cri de coeur is "We're not making a porno!"-- as if, in fact, the filmed rape of a tribal girl would constitute an exercise in porn as opposed to the "snuff film" genre. But yet Faye has the good sense to recognize that a filmed rape cannot make their final cut, and thus she protests vociferously-- at the waste of precious film!! Of course, once Yates joins in she becomes physically involved in trying to pull him off--either out of jealousy or concern that he might contract some social disease and pass it on to her. I take these motives as implied since, again, it is utterly clear from the rest of her outcries that her motivation is neither concern for the victim nor shock that her lover and pals have descended to this outrage.

Thus "Cannibal Holocaust" is capable of being as grim in its moral outlook as in its strict articulation of all the horrors that can be inflicted upon the human body. But these harsh imaginings of human moral failure, vivid as they are, don't amount to much if the viewer isn't given the tools to try and add up how these people came to be the way they are. Of course where the cannibals are concerned that's a question for anthropology. Not that I take anything in "Cannibal Holocaust" as a testiment to actual cannibal practice, but then cannibalism is not strictly an imaginary phenomenon, any more than snuff films, since the online murders by Al Qaeda and their colleagues have certainly literalized that urban legend. It's unavoidable that the cannibal tribes come off as frightening agents of destruction, nor can it be said that they act simply in defense of their own, since we have the gratuitous barbarities of the "social surgery" sequence, to say nothing of the ritual murder on the hellish riverbank that kicks off the film's roster of sickening slayings. But Deodato is not making "Cannibal Holocaust" to take the moral temperature of the Amazonians. It's uncomfortable to ask how well he's taking the audience's or his own. But what about that damned crew of filmmakers, how are we to explain their fever of cruelty?

Yates' joining-in during the rape is, from a narrative perspective, hard to fathom. His fiancee is witnessing this. We know, from prior events, that he is not lacking for sexual release thanks to her, just in case anyone wants to try that horrible old defense (and by "defense" we mean explanation, which is what we still seek in the face of the actual deed). For the purpose of shocking the viewer with the sting of outrage simply filming this would be enough to include Yates with his fellows as a scumbag-- does Deodato think Yates has to join in so that we get it that he's not just an enabler of evil, but an active participant? Well, it's his status as enabler that makes Yates terrifying, and it'd be more than enough for us to root for him to meet his grisly end.

The Grisly End that now descends very quickly upon them-- only allowing time for the poor victim to meet her even more hellish end first and for our merry crew to document it-- poses its own representational dilemmas. When Yates looks upon the impaled girl with that smug look of admiring titillation (does he wish he thought of doing it himself?: admittedly, I've toyed with the idea that the documentarians did this to her, but aside from the straight juxtaposition of rape and her death there's nothing to demonstrate this, though perhaps it is still a legitimate interpretational possibility) before snapping into the all-aghast bewilderment of the humane Westerner for the benefit of his camera, Deodato is cleverly, I feel, underlining the toxic amorality of Yates' filmmaker's gaze before we dive into the final orgy of mayhem, in which we must remain conscious of Yates' proximity to the murders of his pals (which adds the horror of suspense and "identification" to that of witnessing the carnage already underway) and also remain reproachfully aware of his demented, appalling and even self-destructive dedication to his "film" at all costs. We are thus voyeurs who are at the same time invited, prodded to reflect upon the voyeurism of the camera's lens and of the man wielding it. Should we imagine Yates with that same amazed grin on his face as Faye is gang-raped, beaten and beheaded? We must, at any rate, recognize that Faye's indictment during the rape of the young cannibal has come full circle: Yates is assuredly wasting film, because he should be running for his life, and he'll never get to use it in his film. Small consolation for Faye, whose terror, violation and death have become just another slice of entertainment. We should remember, lest we fall to meditating on the question of how this woman could have ever entertained setting up home with a man who would film her being raped and eaten, rather than make any chivalrous effort to save her or at any rate sensibly run for his own life, that to Faye another woman's rape was cause for complaint only as it wasted film.

Except I wish Deodato had set things up a tad more clearly at the end. Not cinematographically-- the footage is horrifically believable as something filmed under the circumstances assumed by the story. But the weight of events is not entirely clear: when Mark (?) yells at Yates to think of the film, is he telling him to give up and run away today to screen tomorrow, or is he telling him that Faye's capture means he should go and catch another scintillating reel of mutilation and torture? Does Yates shoot the blond guy to make sure he falls into the cannibals' clutches (as some have read this), thus assuring him something new and exciting to photograph, or is he putting him out of his misery (which, even allowing a mixture of these motives, is hard not to take gratefully, since with that spear in him he wasn't really going anywhere, and I think the niceties of the Terri Schiavo lobby would quickly fall mute in the fact of the treatment his body receives here)? It's possible to imagine, if one is so inclined, some tremors of emotion in the act of filming Faye's demise-- some desperate desire to simply record, in the face of his own inevitable death, or to understand what is happening to her or will happen to him. And this, of course, is actually a central motive on the part of the viewers of horror films. Terrible as the prospect is, noone will watch this without trying to grapple, albeit impossibly, with the infernal torments that the victims are subjected to. And with Faye, coldblooded hussy that she assuredly is, it's impossible not to identify with her, since she is the most "humanized" victim in the film. Yates, by contrast, goes out in a bloody close-up that tells us nothing about the state of his own internal organs, whether already 'tenderized' or indeed gone upon their route through the bowels of a politic convocation of cannibals. It's his masochistic narcissism, the almost tender look he bestows upon his camera, like some male starlet ready for his close-up, that gives "Cannibal Holocaust" its most penetrating moment of insight into media narcissism. Faye's operatic death-agonies (note the way Deodato taunts the viewer with the cut to the 'uplifting', and here almost sadistically schmaltzy, title music, before cutting back again to the Atrocity Theme) punch the gut and perhaps even pull at the weary heartstrings, but Yates' death-portrait stings the intellect.

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