Friday, December 5, 2008

"We're gonna win an Oscar for this": Cannibal Holocaust, the film that devours itself

Cannibal Holocaust, directed by Ruggero Deodato, (1979, not released until 1984)

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you one of the most disgusting movies ever made. I hesitate to call it the most vile, both because other films might show more atrocious activities (I have yet to see Salo, for instance) and because the moral agenda of the film is a little too complex to dismiss as mere nihilism or some awful form of grindhouse pandering.

Still, this is a film notorious for showing scenes of live animal cruelty. Cannibal Holocaust's director, Ruggero Deodato, was actually accused of murdering his cast for this film, something that, as far as I know, has happened with no other film. This is a film bookended, on DVD at least, by a real warning and a fake meta-warning and both seem legitimate. Of all the "video nasties" banned in Britain in the 1980s, this has to be the ultimate example.

The short version of Cannibal Holocaust's plot is that, a few months prior to the events in the film, an American documentary filmmaker named Alan Yates (Gabriel Yorke) went to South America to shoot footage of some never-before-seen tribes. He and his crew never returned and so an NYU anthropology professor sets out to find out their fate and possibly retrieve their remains and their films. A pseudo-travelogue ensues as Professor Monroe (Robert Kerman) and his guides travel through the Amazon and discover the crew's gruesome fate and retrieve the film. The whole thing seems rather par for the course for an Italian cannibal film, if more tastefully done than, let's say, Hell of the Living Dead or Emmanuelle and the Last Cannibals.

Then Professor Monroe retrieves the footage and takes it back to NYC in preparation for some prime-time sweeps airing (the "Pantheon Network", his sponsors, crow about the ratings they're going to get).  After watching said footage, however, he balks. When the network heads complain, he makes them (and us) watch it too. And what is in that part of the film is going to disgust pretty much everyone short of a war criminal.

A couple of days ago, political pundit and cultural commentator James Poulos posted something regarding the need to shut down Hollywood's nightmare factories, which are destabilizing our culture. And if he thinks Hardboiled represents some rough beast crawling towards Bethlehem to be born, he ain't seen nothin' yet.

Because this is a (fictional) film about a documentary film crew going off the reservation and staging the savagery they supposedly came to observe (and film). That's what's so vile to the character of Professor Monroe and he implicates us by making us watch this. And sure, the expected and annoying arguments about, like, what if the savages were civilized and we were really savages, dude, rear their head. So too does the idea that the media makes us violent (while showing us teh sex and violence!). And of course, there's blatant anti-Americanism (with the Professor's parting words about us being the real cannibals, the camera pans over to the street sign for the Avenue of the Americas). But you can't dismiss this film as easily as, for example, hyperstylized action films which apologize for their violence while defending the hero's violence as necessary (or un-hypocritical).

That's because this is a film which makes violence too hyper-real to be cool. The acts of violence committed on screen are comprehensible, but they are crudely shot, as if by someone trying to frame the picture in the moment. The camera lingers too long at the wrong angles, the action is blocked by the perpetrators, and other similar problems emerge. Realism is a style as much as any other, it's true, but here the style is used to deflate the violence and make it register in a new way. In a rare instance, even as the characters are fascinated by their own cruelty, the viewer is disgusted. Think of how many movies work the other way around.

The movie begins with us seeing the wreckage of the crew's adventures: the fearful villagers, the ruined buildings, and the mutilated corpses. Only after seeing all these artifacts of their journey are we permitted to see what they did, so that their cruelty holds no novelty or surprise. Instead, the viewer awaits each new torment with dread, knowing what's coming but powerless to stop it.

Now, needless to say, I don't think we need any more movies like this. I think one viewing is all I can stand. But it is a movie that takes violence as horrific, that is honest about its own nihilistic tendencies. By merely existing, it renders further exploration of hyper-violence unnecessary. 

After all, this is a film about American film-makers, armed with curiosity and technology (both an exposition-y newscaster and the Yates himself say something similar), who set out to make a name for themselves. They think they know how to manipulate real life in such a way to become famous (they provide the post title quote during a massacre they carry out) and instead they get hypnotized and then destroyed by their own manipulations. In the film within the film, we get glimpses of the film crew filming themselves filming themselves. By the last shot of the "found" footage, we get a dropped camera filming the bloody head of the lead film-maker rolling on the jungle floor. As both the "found" footage and the ending supertitles make clear, the movie outlives its own directors.

For two other thoughful and somewhat differing takes, see Jog the Blog and 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting. Neither of them enjoyed it, per se, but they also see something more complex than a Saw film. Jog also points out the context of the "mondo" films, which were accused of doing what this film pretends to do. I don't think that exculpates what this film does, but it does show that they're exaggerating (and satirizing) already existing tendencies, instead of making them up their own object of criticism. None of those reviews really tease out the obvious political dimensions of this film (partially also a commentary on American imperialism), but that's because those dimensions are the least developed and least complex.