Cinema Without Restraint: Love & Hate

To me, if art is increasingly pushing the boundaries of decency it’s not a sign of society’s downfall. No, that’s a sign that art is vital and alive. To be safe is to tread water. Look at the Hollywood remake machine. Do any of those films do anything to advance the genre? Sure, some of them might be entertaining and that can be enough, but sooner or later we reach a desert of ideas and only a shock to the system will bring us back. That said, when these films come about sometimes they might be a bit too much. Maybe there really are some things we don’t need to see. I’ve always believed that any artistic pursuit required the baseline belief that nothing is sacred and that any subject or image is fair game. Films like A Serbian Film and Salo challenge that idea however. I wanted to spend this post thinking about that subject a bit.

I own this shirt:

I have no idea what the original intended meaning was but I bought it because I thought it summed up the horror genre quite nicely. I have spent a sizable portion of my life enjoying the genre which blends those three subjects into a miasma of terror. Now let’s take a moment to think about the outer reaches of the genre.

Jean Luc-Godard

French New Wave provocateur Jean luc Godard said “The truth is that there is no terror untempered by some great moral idea.” Now, while he’s probably referring to actual political terrorism I would still imagine that Srdjan Spasojevic and Aleksandar Radivojevic, the collective minds behind A Serbian Film, would find some comfort in that statement. After all, they’ve made a lot in interviews of the intellectual intent behind their film. After finally watching A Serbian Film recently I’ve been thinking about it a lot. It certainly made an impression, I’m just not sure what to make of it. It’s impossible for me to say if it was good or not and I can’t in good conscience really recommend it to anybody either. My thinking is essentially, if you want to see the movie, then you probably already know whether or not you should.

But I’m not writing this to review A Serbian Film. It’s just a good example of what I call movies without restraint. To name a few, Salo or 100 Days of Sodom , The Taint, A Serbian Film, Philosophy of a Knife, or even Thriller: A Cruel Picture. The thing that links these films together in my mind is a willingness to subject the viewer to an explicit depiction of the most extreme reaches of the world their stories exist in. I think it’s important to note that any one of these films could have been made another way. Salo could have still been an allegorical tale about the exploitation of the under-class by ruling elites without many of its scenes of extreme sexual brutality. It could still have been based around the works of the Marquis DeSade too. There was something about the severity of the subject matter or perhaps the original text that made Pasolini feel that the explicitness of the film was warranted.

Choice cut from Salo, or 100 Days of Sodom

I bring up Salo because to me it seems like Serbian Film’s spiritual ancestor. Both films imagine a perverted elite who find sexual fulfillment in the humiliation and murder of the poor and/or powerless. This is also a theme in the Hostel films as well. However, where Hostel was trying to create a trashy exploitation film, Serbian and Paso aspired to high art and, if not that, at least an important message. In an interview with IndieWire, director Srdjan Spasojevic said this in response to a question about the metaphorical aspects of A Serbian Film:

“…Of course, there is a kind of political and social level to the film, but I didn’t want to make any kind of political statement. I’m not running for president. I didn’t want to express my political choices. But it was inevitable, because in Serbia a big part of our lives is about politics. In Serbia, the biggest stars on television are politicians. It also looks like pornography; it’s about power, influence and all of those things. The last few decades of war have left a political and social nightmare here in Serbia.

So all those things are just combined. It was accumulating inside of us. It’s all about expressing some recessed emotions about our region and the world also. If you scratch the perfect surface of society in today’s world, you will of course find bad things down there. You will find the living hell down there. I’m talking about Serbia, about Serbian problems. But it’s also a universal story.”

What exactly is the universal story? Is it the exploitation of the weak by the strong? In this same quote he relates the film to a very specifically Serbian mindset and then a moment later he says this:

“I really think that everyone, especially Americans, can really relate to this film. We are talking in really basic movie language.”

Who exactly, can relate to watching a newborn baby being raped? What was the cultural or sociopolitical expedience to that scene? Then again, even without that scene, could the movie have been as effective without some of the more extreme visuals? I ask myself the same thing of Salo. It’s not easy to answer, mostly because clearly Serbian Film had the intended impact. To ask another question about this impact though, was it achieved through story, acting or intellectual weight or by manipulation through the use of extreme visuals? Are either of those more valid than the other? For me, the un-answer-ability of that question keeps the genre exciting.

Director Srdjan Spasojevic

I find that I don’t have the same problems with the Hostel films (although I don’t particularly like them) or say Human Centipede 2. I don’t because they don’t aspire to some greater purpose. I’ve heard it said that Spasojevic came up with the highfalutin interpretation of his film when he realized what a fucked up movie he’d made. I don’t know if that’s true but it did remind me of my days in film school. Any time an assignment was too messed up, off topic, out of focus or generally bad, the student would invariably claim that it was “experimental” and, therefore, if you didn’t like it you probably didn’t “get” it. I’m not here to shit on true experimental art but sometimes these explanations really are just used as a rouse to get out of a tough spot.

Take for example this story by the New York Times Spasojevic indicated this to the writer of the Times’ story:

 “…a metaphor for modern times, in which characters in a dehumanized world must “rape or be raped,””

Rape or be raped eh? Not sure I buy that, especially since the lead was drugged into committing some of the more heinous acts in the film.

Anyway you look at it, these films exist in a classification of their own for their willingness to put the most distasteful, disgusting and controversial images on screen. I both commend them for their boundry pushing and occasionally condemn them for their cheap emotional manipulation. Some films are effective on a gut level and achieve something close to high art, like Salo perhaps. Some others use extreme images for cheap thrills, like the Hostel films or to comedic effect as in The Taint or Father’s Day (both of which should’ve made my penis dismemberment list). Still others use these images of gore and exploitation as a crutch to shortcut their way to your gut and make you feel like you’ve seen something more profound than you have. (I’m looking at you Philosophy of a Knife) You might say that the fact that we are talking about them speaks to their effectiveness. Perhaps, but I’m not quite sure that I buy that yet. I’m just glad that the genre is still managing to make parents worried and piss people off . Can a brother get a little Satanic panic?

Jonathan Watson

About Jonathan Watson

Father, husband, horror fan. I fell in love with the genre around age 5 when I began watching, the Rankin/Bass classic, Mad Monster Party on repeat. Now that I have little monsters of my own, I'm looking forward to training them in a couple of years. For the time being, I'll be satisfied to entertain you fine folks. Now, go make me look good and buy some shirts already.