Friday, March 02, 2007

Camera Obscura - Cruelty as Entertainment

I've been giving America's most popular TV show a chance to argue it's case for the last few weeks, which means I have selflessly devoted some of my lifetime to the hours and hours and hours of the show on FOX which somehow has captured the nation's heart.

When American Idol first began a few years ago, I did watch some bits and pieces, thought "feh! who cares" and went on my way. But I decided like any good media critic, I should sit and watch as many episodes as I could ... which I have done for this season. I confess, it has become more and more difficult to sit through an hour (much less two) of this drivel.

It should now and forever be called American iDull.

So I will not watch anymore, I cannot. I hope you who do appreciate that this experience is an endless series of unimaginative judging, which essentially boils down to three words, one for each judge -- "dog", "beautiful" and "terrible", and an endless series of humiliations - "you've just been kicked off as the worst singer of the bunch, so 'cmon and sing one more time through your tears while the winners sing behind your back."

Whatever, people.

But since I'm on the topic of appetites for humiliation and cruelty, then let's talk about the current rage for a series of movies called "Saw."

I've always been a fan of horror films and always will be. However, movies like "Saw", "Hostel", "Wolf Creek," and others in recent years have been more about sadistic cruelties than narrative entertainments. It's a boring claim, yes, made in the past about everything from comic books to rock music. I'm going to do my best here not to write some pedantic student film research treatise. It's just that all movies - not just horror movies - have subtexts, both intended and unintended - which can make them both popular and profitable.

So I've been pondering on the subtexts in the "Saw" series. Grime-encrusted clockwork technologies, crude and blunt and brutal machines and damn near medieval "teach-the-bad-person-a-lesson" plot points are all integral parts to these movies. It's their appearance and the gory outcomes that audiences and critics all talk about. But why does it appeal to today's audiences?

Today's world is abuzz with new tech, not low tech. Most people can relate to feelings of being trapped by tech innovations, even simple ones like being stuck forever on the telephone menu pressing one button to go here or another to go there and never encountering anything with a human connection. Those who do not have broadband-connected lives, MP3 players or MySpace pages likely feel keenly disconnected from the times they inhabit. Perhaps it's a subconscious realization that the world is littered with technologies ancient and recent. We rely on machines most of us could never create ourselves, but which so dominate actions we must all take.

And there is a connection, too, I think, between these movies and the America with a 9-11 worldview. Smart-bombs and high-tech war machines are battling with unorganized and random enemies who use homemade explosives. Can a box-cutter and some fuel make a weapon which cannot be defeated? And it seems odd to me that in years past we used the word "bomb" and today the preferred word is "improvised explosive device", as if giving it a complex title transforms it's basic crudeness into a more technological danger. How, many may subconsciously wonder, can we not win a battle between hi and low tech?

And typically in the "Saw" films, the audiences is left to consider that if the intended victims just stay calm and think, they can figure a way out of a death-trap. Ironically in this series of movies, the one woman who can escape then joins in the game of making death-traps herself.

Discussions of torture and of morality are certainly prevalent in today's world. And as I said, there are intended and unintended subtexts in any movie -- even the crudest film made just to turn a tidy profit is an exercise not just in business, but in stimulus and response.

Is there a politics of the horror film?


  1. AGREED.
    I love true horror. But Saw and the like do not do a thing for me at all.
    If I wanted to watch things that make this uncomfortable, I can just watch Hannity and Colmes.
    And, honestly, I find it all tedious.
    That's just me.

  2. Well, given the choice of watching Saw and sequels or American iDull, or H&C et. al, then I'm a Saw man.

  3. I'm on the same experiment you are, Joe. Uncanny. Never watched it before this season...

    I didn't need to hear another Celine Dion or Whitney Houston song even BEFORE this. I've been treated to three and four grotesque versions of grotesque songs per night since this experiment started.

    Doesn't anyone sing anything that rocks anymore? If I was on there, U2 would be about as un-rock as I would even get...

    Even when the singing is right, I loathe the song choices. Do we really need to hear an iffeminate-sounding guy doing "Fever"? Have we committed some great sin and are we being punished thusly?

  4. "Have we committed some great sin and are we being punished thusly?"

    sure is a self-inflicted punishment i won't endure again!!

  5. Freedonian, we apparently have created a huge sin and karma is biting us in the ass with the American Idol thing. I can't watch anymore.
    Am I the only one who thinks that Simon Cowell does have some sense but is so narcissistic that it kind of gets lost in translation.
    I really, really don't like the Idol thing.
    But, if Saw was on at the same time as Idull, I think I would go get a book, even if it was one of those horrible romance books that gives me hives when I read them and go that route.
    Joe, I'm sitting here watching Rashomon as I type this :)

  6. I think Cowell is the guy to listen to if you want to come up with another of the ubiquitous adult contemporary acts that seem to stink up the radio. Personality-wise--- I like him. I think he's "one of us" in the sense that he's like a blogger, coming up with the snarkiest possible comments. If he insults someone that shouldn't be singing, I say more power to him. When I was a musician, I wasn't exactly kind to idiots myself. I was tuning my guitar using harmonics one time, and the guitarist for our opening act came over and said "That's a cool song you're playing". I said "I'm tuning my f'n guitar. You should try it sometime."

    The only one I really respect all that much is Randy Jackson. I saw him playing with Journey (I think it wa the Raised on Radio tour), an he's played with a ton of acts. He's the guy to listen to--- He's seen true star quality up close.

    Paula Abdul, as far as I'm concerned, has no business there. She was a here today, gone later today act that got by on cuteness and dancing ability. She was a middling singer who, to my knowledge, wrote nothing that was actually a hit. I'm sure she recognizes a good singer when she hears it, but any more than a cab driver might? I don't think so.

    I'm giving it one more week, but one more Celine Dion/ Whitney Houston-fest, and I can't be held responsible for my actions.

  7. Best I can tell cruelty has always topped the entertainment scales for humans. We are a sick bunch of primates. Turd chucking hairless, sans tail monkeys the lot of us.

  8. Freedonian, I'm with you. That's why I sorta, not really, kinda-intrigued with Cowell.
    But, as a former singer (never a musician and daughter of a real musician) I think that Cowell gets it in a peripheral way and I never thought of him being like a blogger, but good analogy.
    Randy sort of drives me crazy. He's supportive but the "dawg" stuff makes me want to get a room with a bottle of Jamison's.
    Tennessee Jed: "Turd chucking hairless, sans tail monkey" Oh dear God, I'm buying you a beer next time I come to Knoxville.

  9. that Jed! he's a keeper.

  10. chinchillionaire6:18 PM

    i always thought of "idol" as horror, but to find others... that's disturbing. the politics of horror may not be limited to horror movies.