The following is my contribution to my two online blogging colleagues (Ronan’s Belfast based film review site Filmplicity and Julian’s Dirty With Class site) and their intriguing blogathon which asks this philosophical question:
“Do filmmakers have a moral responsibility?”
I guess I can go either way on this query. On the grounds of argument sake, I’m repurposing a piece I wrote back in late-summer 2008 in an attempt to force me to come down on one side.
In late-August 2008, the wonderful and eclectic folk at the Criterion Collection re-released Pasolini’s Salo (120 Days of Sodom). If that title doesn’t ring a bell, it was the last, highly controversial work of that Italian artist, intellectual, filmmaker and writer. Based on a work of torture/degradation by the Marquis de Sade, it is said that it was Pasolini’s masterwork examining Fascism (and Capitalism) in general, and Italy during World War II in particular. I’ve heard that many college film courses screen and examine this work — and that it’s been described as nauseating, gory, sick, and nothing less than pornographic. I’ve always wanted to see the film that some viewers describe this way only because many others consider it a masterpiece. The question is, why haven’t I?
My wife, who knows my love of film (and books), and the many DVDs that we house, would just laugh at this. Why? She knows that I’ve watched a great many movies, that to her, are disturbing. I’m sure that she bases this on a good bit in the collection (books, too) that are in the horror category. Yes, I admit, that for many years since my teens I’ve read, listened, or watched those works that go bump in the night (along with other genres). I remember (fondly) when my relatives warned me to not to go and see The Exorcist when it first hit the theaters. Of course, for my brother (the more strong and silent type of my mother’s two sons) they didn’t worry or say anything to him about it. The end result? He went to see it, and slept with the lights on in his room for the next three months, afterwards. Me? All I wanted to do was read the William Peter Blatty book that it was based upon.
But, interestingly, not all horror works attract my attention. The trend of gore, perhaps started in the low-budget, exploitive works of the sixties & seventies, in the horror category is a clue, here. Am I frightened or repulsed by it? If it’s something inherent or logical in a good story, the answer is no. Alien, with its (in)famous chest burster scene, is one of my all-time favorites. Same goes for John Carpenter’s The Thing, where its extraordinary make-up and grisly effects added to the story’s paranoia and dread (to a film that was far ahead of its time). I could name many others that exploited gore to effective end. So, on that portion of the scale, that aspect should not stop me in taking in Pasolini’s midnight movie classic.
I think, secretly mind you, it’s related to that imperceptible line that some directors, writers, or artists push (or cross) to either make some revealing point (which is defensible), or to cross it (and then turnaround to scratch it completely off) just because they can do it to the audience (which is much less defensible). The horror sub-genre some later nicknamed torture porn is just an example of this. I think Clive Barker really made an early (80s) mark in this, way before critics coined the term (for the later examples of Eli Roth, Takashi Miike, Rob Zombie, etc.), with his Hellraiser film (based upon the his book, The Hellbound Heart). He pushed (successfully I might add) that line. Though, it seems some of the recent films seem overly abusive just for sadism’s (the term derived from the Marquis’ surname, mind you) sake. I guess I have reached a point in life where I’ve learned to appreciate watching film (in all of its variety) and not solely seeking to cringe at the screen or taking it in through my stretched fingers (while I hold my hand over my face).
My friends continue to broaden the film experience and challenge the things I chose to watch to see which are beyond my evolving comfort levels [my friend and author John Kenneth Muir does this regularly, see his cult review of Halloween 2 as a case in point]. Still, the lack of empathy is what I fear, I guess. That and the images that get etched into a person’s mind — for days, weeks, or always — after the viewer takes it in. And, I don’t just hold filmmakers up to examination, here — this is a warning to those even thinking of picking up novelist Edward Lee’s work (The Bighead is one I’ll stay far away from). Perhaps, I’m getting soft in my old age. Or, more empathetic since I became a parent in the mid-90s. Anyway, one of these days I’ll take in that Pasolini title… or those unwatched DVDs on the shelf or those difficult films still on my Netflix streaming list like Inside,
City of the Living Dead Irrevisible [check out Dennis Cozzalio’s brilliant discourse back in January 2009 on his decision to avoid this one], and Imprint Antichrist that some of my enlightened cohorts and online friends have prodded me to watch. I wouldn’t hold my breath on when that might be… but those crossed-out titles must mean I can be convinced otherwise.
Bottom-line: Yes, I do believe filmmakers have a moral responsibility. But, here’s the thing. Their morality, given their talent and creativity, will be inherently different from you or I. If they push at boundaries via their expression in film, it comes with the territory. Whether we (as film viewers) criticize the work, or chose not to view it, simply lies on the other side of that same equation.