On Sunday I posted a video about the response to my extremely negative review of A Woman and War, explaining why I reviewed it the way I did and also lamenting the misplaced desire to see trash. Hubert called me out on it, and once we got into it both of us realized that this was part of a much bigger issue not just about a bad review (or bad reviews) but also about low-budget shock films in general. So we decided to turn it into a full blown discussion about the nature of all that and more. It’s a great conversation, and it made me realize a lot of things about the way I feel about movies and interact with them (you can practically read the lightbulb flashing over my head sometimes). For Hubert it was probably a bit less revelatory, but still worthwhile.
For context, I recommend reading my review of A Woman and War and watching the video response to the response (reposted below for your convenience). Doing so isn’t necessary, but it will help. Admittedly, this is more of a time commitment than the usual discussion, but I think it’ll be worth your while.
Here we go.
Alec: So I’ve made my case, but I know you disagree. Where did I go wrong?
Hubert: I don’t disagree with your larger point about not wanting people to see the film, but I think it’s unrealistic to expect that from everyone. You undermine your own sense of disbelief about people’s curiosity over A Woman and War by mentioning how a negative review of A Serbian Film contributed to your curiosity to see that film. Labeling it “one of the worst things I have ever seen in my entire life” and trying to dissuade people from seeing it so vehemently has the odd psychological effect of making it seem like a perverse “must see.”
It’s the nature of severely negative reactions. There’s a part in everyone that wonders what the fuss is about even though a person’s moral outrage may be warranted. Since the person who wrote the review has seen the film but you haven’t, you may suddenly be curious about seeing it yourself even if it sounds like something you may not otherwise enjoy.
In the end, people have different thresholds and different tastes and may have a different cultural perspective to offer as well, so I don’t think it’s surprising that even the most off-putting or reprehensible material might have a potential audience, or that this material might even appeal to its viewers in something other than a prurient way. I haven’t seen A Woman and War so it may not be the case, but is there maybe some social, political, or historical subtext to the rape and the misogyny that might be unique to a Japanese mindset, particularly during WWII given the crimes perpetrated by the country; and by that I only mean could there be a deeper level to the depravity and extremes in the film that goes beyond mere depravity, sort of like in Salo or A Serbian Film?
This isn’t necessarily something to be sad about either since it’s just one of those odd parts of human nature. It’s what people do when there’s an accident on the freeway: they slow down, crane their necks out the window, and get a good look.
Though I suppose to be fair, traffic is pretty frustrating.
Alec: I don’t think that’s true. I had to reference A Serbian Film (or something like it) to establish some sort of street cred. I wanted to say, “Yes, I’m like this too, and no, it doesn’t apply here.” It gives me the authority to say that this time it’s different.
Because it is different. In that case, I went in effectively blind. The reviews that told me not to see it didn’t really tell me why I shouldn’t see it, keeping it vague with offhand references that were both horrific and fascinating. There was just enough there to keep me interested. In my A Woman and War review, I didn’t leave things up to the imagination. The only thing I didn’t explicitly talk about was why the end is the stupidest thing ever, and that’s only because it would have required at least another paragraph of context.
There is a political message (something I mention in the review), but the message is so blunt and dumb that it doesn’t justify anything. “War is bad”? Really? I hadn’t heard that message from a billion other movies that didn’t use stupid amounts of rape to make their point. That it’s coming out of Japan may explain it somewhat, but that doesn’t justify it.
Part of the intrigue of a traffic accident is “What happened?!” If I heard a radio broadcast saying, “Two cars crashed into a guard rail, flipped over, and killed four people. Their remains are scattered across the highway.” I might turn and glance, but I’m not going to slow down the way I might if I were to just see something without context.
Hubert: In terms of subtext, it’s not just the fact it’s an anti-war movie. I’m talking about a possibility that (and I haven’t seen it so this is all hypothetical) there’s something else going on in A Woman and War; something that also touches on specific bits of Japanese history, Japanese views of sex, Japanese film history and genre history, and the unique character of Japan at that period when viewed through a contemporary lens.
But the fact I’m simply posing hyoptheticals here points out the bigger issue we’re really talking about. For me to be able to discuss A Woman and War in terms of content and to get into a conversation about this content and its moral reprehensibility/lack of artistic merit, I’d actually have to watch the movie for myself. It’s the old Supreme Court line about knowing obscenity when I see it. I don’t doubt your sincerity when you say that you feel it’s garbage, but the fact you’re talking about something that I haven’t experienced makes me curious about what my own experience might be like. We share similar taste with certain movies, but we both process movies in different ways. Maybe I would come away from A Woman and War with something different, or maybe not. And maybe even if I feel something different I’d still find your opinion valid. Or maybe I’d find we totally agreed and I’d be able to process your thoughts knowing the content you’re referring to.
This is probably why some people still expressed interest in wanting to see this film despite your warnings in the review. You probably dissuaded a good amount of people from seeing the movie because of the description of its content. Those who were dissuaded thought, “Okay, this is definitely not something I’d be into. Just no.” But not everyone’s the same. Other people may read the review and decide that they want to make up their own minds knowing full well that they may wind up agreeing with you in the end. These people might read reviews for the larger conversation about the movie and would like to participate in the conversation in some way, though in order to participate in the conversation, they need to watch the film. I don’t think you need to feel frustrated about that since everyone’s coming at movies differently.
I guess to expand this conversation a bit since it may just wind up going in circles, are there any negative reviews of films that you’ve read that have dissuaded you from seeing a movie due to its extreme or objectionable content? For me off the top of my head, I want to say The Bunny Game, the Guinea Pig movies, and Aftermath.
Alec: The Butcher is the only thing that comes to mind, but it wasn’t really a review that convinced me. It’s a Korean fake-snuff film where the victims have GoPros on their heads, so you get a special view of the “action,” which is all well and good, and people saying, “Ugh, disgusting!” was enough to interest me for a passing moment, but it was the technical failings of the film that made me so uninterested. I’ve seen two of the three August Underground films, and I don’t think I’ll ever see another fake snuff film in that vein (I intend to watch one of the Guinea Pig films in my lifetime, but that’s just to say I have). Making it POV doesn’t add intrigue.
For a while, I would go see lists of the most disturbing films out there and then put them on my list of movies to watch. It’s how I came to see Cannibal Holocaust, those two August Underground films, Irreversible, A Serbian Film, and a number of others. And I’m honestly glad I saw those films. Every single one of them taught me something about this medium that I love so very very much. (And having seen all of those is why I feel pretty confident saying that not much offends me.)
I don’t need to see The Butcher to know that I’ll get nothing out of it. The reviews told me that it was sick and perverse and the fact that it was banned in South Korea was fascinating, so out of curiosity, I did watch the trailer, but that minute was more than enough. I got the gimmick and got sick of it too. Honestly, I think I’d rather watch A Woman and War again. The reason I gave it a 9 was to give me room in case I ever saw anything worse. I expect The Butcher would count, and I just don’t need that in my life.
Maybe it’s a maturity thing. My obsession with disturbing shlock mostly took place in my mid-to-late teens, and since those ended it’s lost much of its appeal. Not technically proficient and relatively artistic films like Irreversible, Salo, or A Serbian Film, but the ones like August Underground and the Guinea Pig films. Teenage me would probably be all about that, but now it’s just revolting. The Bunny Game, which I had never heard of before, seems to be the same way. I’ve also lost interest in seeing Kids, something a negative review from a friend of mine initially turned me towards. Now that I think about it, I was both turned towards and from from Human Centipede II as well.
Maybe I’m a modern day Alex from Clockwork Orange (the one from chapter 21 of Anthony Burgess’ original novel). I’m not so sure anymore that I’ll be watching Flowers of Flesh and Blood after all… My younger self would be so disappointed.
Part of the issue is that some of these films do have legitimate value… but sometimes it’s hard to know which is which.
Hubert: They say that the 9/100 is the gentleman’s 0/100.
But as far as your change goes, I think that’s a natural thing for many people and part of getting older. I mean, I softened in some unexpected ways, and I write this as someone who spent his teenage years as a hardcore gorehound and a devotee of splatterpunk horror novels. I noticed this major shift in my ability to handle sadistic violence in movies, especially once I hit my early twenties. Gore per se I’m still okay with because I can at least admire the craft of good makeup effects, but unrelenting sadism and torture porn are generally tough for me to watch because it lacks the sense of artistic merit you mentioned with Salo or Irreversible. Those are well-made movies that are difficult to watch, whereas most torture porn is dreck.
I’m pretty sure I realized the same thing you did back in college while I was watching Lucio Fulci’s New York Ripper. That would have been 2001 or 2002, so I don’t think they even coined the phrase “torture porn” at that point. New York Ripper includes this really infamous razor blade torture/murder that involves a naked woman splayed on a bed. The scene was so sadistic and so misogynistic that it broke some wall of moral outrage in my brain. It almost happened earlier in that film where a woman gets stabbed in the crotch with a broken bottle. Eesh. On top of that, the killer makes Donald Duck noises the entire film, giving all the sadism a sleazy sense of glee. After finishing the movie I had to have a cigarette and go for a walk because I felt so rattled. Teenage me could have probably handled it no problem (that amoral little shit), and the contemporary gorehound probably thinks New York Ripper is downright quaint.
But it does come down to artistic value. If there’s something else going on behind the extreme stuff in a film, then I think I can handle it. It’s actually funny you used the word “value” because I got into a heated discussion about Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door a few years ago and it was all about the film’s value. I thought that the movie was torture porn garbage but she thought it was a powerful statement about humanity’s capacity for evil. The whole argument was about how the film depicted the banality of evil and whether or not this depiction was effective enough or sufficient enough to elevate the material above just plain sadism.
So, yeah. Despite whatever disagreement we may potentially have about A Woman and War — and if I’m ever in a masochistic mood (or maybe dumb enough) and decide to sit through it, you’ll be the first to know — we agree that what matters is that difficult-to-define thing called value.
I’ll let you have the last word about this since it was your review that kicked this off, but I see your point in outrage yet think others ultimately need to make up their own minds. So amen. And all that cal.
Alec: Sometimes I get the feeling that people just want to believe there’s something worthwhile about the things they’ve spent time watching. They don’t want to admit that they legitimately wasted their time so they claim that it’s a film about the human condition or whatever. It’s like a child who plays the worst videogame ever, but because it’s the only game they got that Christmas, they say it’s amazing (and convince themselves of it). It’s like Stockholm Syndrome, except instead of being traumatized into loving an abusive captor it’s being traumatized into loving a virtual manifestation of that captor.
Basically every movie we’ve mentioned (and the many we haven’t mentioned) share a common thread: they are about how man is inhumane to man. That’s as true about Irreversible, Salo, and A Serbian Film as it is about Aftermath, The Bunny Game, and A Woman and War. And maybe that’s part of why A Woman and War bothered me so much; it’s just another ugly, low-budget film that wants to shock its viewers into thinking it’s got value. But it doesn’t bring anything else to the table. It may not be as visually grotesque as many of those other films, but it’s no less cruel and no more worthwhile.
It’s been done before. It shouldn’t have been done again. And it will be done again in the future. As I write this, there are probably five of these things being made. Four of them will disappear, but for some reason the fifth will find a cult following. Maybe we’ll get an email from the filmmaker asking us to write about their new film.
And we’ll say no.
I feel justified in attacking A Woman and War because its place in a respected film festival alongside some truly excellent films gives it the appearance of legitimacy… but I’m not sure that I’ll ever return to Cinema Disturbia. I like it conceptually, but it runs the risk of very quickly devolving into inadvertently praising exactly the kind of things I’m now dismissing. If it does return, I’ll steer clear of some of the films I’d once thought about featuring. There’s truly no need to acknowledge trash.