Sunday, November 2, 2014

Too many films are now up to snuff

In our enlightened age, "damsels in distress" are supposed to be a thing of the past. Well, they are: because now we have damsels in pieces. Concurrent with the wails for better cinematic portrayals of women is a trend towards quasi-vivisections on screen. Each director seems determined to keep upping the ante for dismemberment. It's an arms race involving the removal of arms.

I recently saw A Walk Among the Tombstones, Liam Neeson's latest movie. It makes Taken look like an obtuse art film. I won't give away any plot points (first there would have to be a plot), but a woman ends up duct-taped in the back of a van as two sadists with blades contemplate how they're going to slice her. Any time two knife-wielding psychos are hovering above a kidnapped woman wearing nothing but duct tape we can pretty much assume she won't be writing a Yelp review of her evening.

But that wasn't enough for this director: he also has the two knife wielding psychos call her a cunt! Being a serial killer is pretty bad, but a serial killer who sneers out the c word? Now you're really a monster! 50 years ago if you wanted to convey that a film character was sinister, you had him not shave. Today he has to be a Holocaust-denying pedophile who eats puppies for breakfast and doesn't recycle.

The two knife-wielding psychos also gratuitously explain to the victim (and the audience) the anatomical reorganization they're planning to perform on her. Evidently the director thought the audience needed to be told that knife-wielding psychos who kidnap women have been known to use the knives to cut their kidnapped women.*

Later in the film, even after we have learned this woman's fate, the film unnecessarily flashes back to the repulsive images in the van, once again putting the victim's imperiled countenance squarely on camera. This is putatively done to build suspense; the jeopardized woman shown earlier in the film is shown again to remind us that other characters are in if we'd forgotten that these killers, you know, kill and stuff. Of course this doesn't build suspense. At all; it just makes the film a gross-out endurance test** (exactly like those much condemned '80s slasher films that an esteemed thespian like Neeson wouldn't have been caught dead appearing in). I wish they had told me ahead of time I was paying $16 to watch a Ginsu infomercial.

Here's what is behind a lot of this: If you make cartoonishly violent action films, long on explosions, cardboard villains, and impersonal body counts, you're classed as a crappy action director. If you personalize the violence and make it "realistic," even surgical, and make the people committing it cartoonishly shuddersome, you can still pass yourself off as some kind of artist (see all the people fooled by Drive). But these supposedly more artful vivisection films are just as manipulative and cynical as the basest Schwarzenegger flick. Actually, their pretenses make them worse. At least True Lies knew it was just a big dumb action movie.

Remember those William Castle film gimmicks -  Smell-O-Vision, theater seats connected to electric buzzers? I anticipate a resurgence in cheap film gimmicks: Splatter-Vision! The Anato-Cam! Instead of a skeleton flying over the audience, how about a small intestine? Or we could have a Gallagher-style smashing of full bladders and stomachs onto filmgoers. Or let's do away with 3-D glasses and just issue specs whose lenses are made from pulled human skin! The great schlock artists of the past died too soon; we're braced for a new Golden Age!

The word rapey has entered the lexicon. It's time to add snuffy.

*Part of me also thinks the more unlikable we make the villains, the more we're able to rationalize the broader violence of the film. 

**When feature films are this graphic, how much different are they than violent porn? Not much...the main difference is that people will admit to watching movies like A Walk Among the Tombstones.

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