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by Bill Gibron

17 Jun 2007

Get ready. It’s coming. And it’s gonna be LOUD! You think the outrage caused by Fahrenheit 9/11 was bad? You think the pro-NRA responses to Bowling for Columbine were bad. Well, fellow citizens, it’s safe to say that you ain’t seen nothing yet. Michael Moore is back, and with a little less than two weeks before his latest example of “docu-ganda” (as his critics would call it) hits theaters, the groundswell of hyperactive handwringing is already in full flummox mode. For those who are unaware of the filmmaker’s latest screed, SiCKO tells the woeful tale of America’s medical insurance crisis. Not from the perspective of those without coverage. No, they’re the real lost causes. Moore isn’t after the easy target this time. Instead, he has taken aim at the bloated bureaucracy surrounding the nation’s numerous health care and pharmaceutical companies, and how it harms – and even kills – many of its supposedly indemnified customers.

As a result, pundit power is already working overtime debunking the film. Of course, that’s kind of tough to do when it’s yet to see a wide theatrical release (you had to go to Cannes to see the most recent screening). But in what many are calling a grandiose publicity ploy on the behalf of Lionsgate, the full length feature somehow was ‘leaked’ to Internet file sharing sites (or P2P protocols as they are known), giving anyone with a bitTorrent program and a relatively fast DSL line the opportunity to bootleg it. Add this to the already tenuous position taken by the Federal Government over the filmmaker’s last act trip to Guantanamo Bay and other points inside Castro’s Cuba, and you’ve got a mole hill waiting for the prerequisite media dung to help fertilize it into an untenable mountain. It won’t be long before the apologists and the activists get their prostylitizing panties in a nice big wad over the many inaccuracies, half-truths, and gross overgeneralizations the director determines are necessary to make his point.

Unfortunately, their fuel comes to an already raging inferno. Moore’s work post-Roger and Me is already a sideshow. Though many could have anticipated the carnival barker approach to its marketing, no one could have accurately predicted the unprecedented preparations to tear this man a new bash-hole. Naturally, it’s a division drawn down ideological lines (Conservative vs. Liberal, patriot vs. provocateur) and very much founded in a previous film that divided a nation. Fahrenheit 9/11 took on an incredibly popular President, argued against the leaders ‘security through force” scare tactics, and complained that America shouldn’t be invading a country that had no real designs on destroying us. Many called it treasonous and demoralizing to our fighting men and women. Even with the critical community under its belt, there were those who couldn’t cotton to Moore’s refusal to conform. What a difference three years makes.

Now, the focus is far narrower and more easily delineated. SiCKO centers its story on how the development of the HMO’s, and the privatization of medical care, created a crisis in coverage which literally destroys the lives of the very people it’s supposed to support. Horror stories of denied claims and wild, worst case scenarios are piled on top of already obvious dicta (insurance companies are in the business of making money) and governmental boot licking, resulting in a chaotic, corrupt system so steadfastly self-debasing that it really doesn’t need Moore’s help making it look bad. Indeed, what the filmmaker does here is basically call out the cads and have them readily admit their graft. The kicker is in the afterthought. It’s not that these companies commit these immoral crimes against human health. It’s that they do so with absolute – and in some case, law protected – impunity.

The second half of the film is a stroll through three competing socialized systems – Canada, England and France. Each one is presented like paradise on Earth, a place where no myocardial infarction goes untreated, where no late night fever lacks a free and easy cure. In the next few months, expect to hear citizens of these noteworthy nations debunking Moore’s many declarations. The Canadians are already up in arms (if ever so slightly) while Parisians in particular do not like the filmmakers definition of “average” (it’s in connection with a supposedly ‘middle class’ couple). By the time the Fall begins its annual blitzkrieg of cold and flu remedy commercials, the rest of the Westernized world will offer their two cents about universal health care and its many diverse elements.

But that’s not really the point with this latest round of rebuking. Moore, like outspoken auteur Oliver Stone, is a man better at the big picture than the multiple minutia that accompanies concepts such as facts and accuracy. No one is questioning the need to overhaul what is becoming a major financial, social, and emotional albatross around the neck of the world’s remaining Superpower. But because Moore makes his films out of theories first and statistics second, many like to undermine his truths without beginning to broach the core conceits. They somehow believe that if you can disprove some percentage of the veracity in Moore’s claims, the overall idea is invalid. Naturally, that’s bunk. The sky may not be purely blue (in fact, it is made up of many colors refracted and refocused by the moisture in the atmosphere – the tendency toward blue is the result of said reflecting), but calling it so is not a crime…at least, not inherently.

It’s like quarreling over semantics. Is France’s health care 100% free? Probably not. Do Canadians really have the wonderful, problem free universal coverage as claimed in the film? Most assuredly No. Is either system, from a purely fiscal approach to the patient, better than America’s cash machine mandate of money based acceptance/denial of coverage? Without a doubt. So why argue the potential faulty finer points? If you can agree on the foundation, do all the bricks have to be faultless as well? It may make for better debate, but since the opposition (the health care industry, the lobbyists, and politicians who kowtow to them) won’t be forthcoming with all their facts either, it seems only far to fight liar with liar. Yet it’s unreasonable to call Moore a fraud. In a country where expression is paramount among our rights, he is completely free to speak his mind. Equally, he must be open to those who will criticize and condemn his efforts, even when those assessments are more assertion than argument.

The current preemptive take on SiCKO is obviously a tactic taken from the unbelievable backlash experienced on Fahrenheit 9/11. In the case of the Republican Party, there was a need to protect a sitting president running for re-election. It was part of a strategy that guaranteed that no issue would set the campaign agenda unless the GOP were in complete control of it. In a far more damning documentary, Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern’s …So Goes the Nation, we learn that in the political trenches of each candidate, it’s war almost every second of every day. Anything and everything is fodder for advantage and opponent undermining. If, somehow, Moore had managed to gain enough credibility to sway the election, he’d have achieved a monumental democratic goal. Thanks to the massive machine in place, however, the movie had to settle for winning an international cinematic award. Toppling a soon to be unpopular war mongering President just wasn’t in the cards.

This time around, it’s all about money. Moore is doing to Aetna and Kaiser Permanente what he did to General Motors, except he doesn’t have to confront a bunch of CEOs to do so. He has hundreds of willing whistleblowers eager to expose the demoralizing practices they were part of just to earn a paycheck.  In this case, the effect is more obvious and potentially potent. We see bleary eyed citizens crying, good and decent men and women whose lives have been inexplicably altered by the big bad robber baron of the 21st century – the insurance company. It’s the motion picture equivalent of shooting puppies. It may be manipulative, but it’s effective as all Hell. And better yet, it’s the perfect visual soundbite for a nation that needs its problems pitched at a text-messaging level of meaningful or they fail to register. SiCKO is a striking, nauseating, heart-wrenching, reactionary masterwork. That can’t be good news for the people over at Pfizer.

That’s why the repercussions have been so immediate and incremental. SiCKO is going to stir some response. It’s going to solidify the many grass roots consumer groups into one big voice of the people. It will more than likely be a topic on the tip of every candidates tongue as we enter 2008 and prepare for another pointless changing of the Executive Branch guard. On the other side, there will be those so lost in the jingoistic stance of the last seven years that they’ll be unable to tolerate the constant mocking of the US system (those pesky foreigners, they just love to hate us for our many liberties). They’ll milk the complicit media for as much screed time as possible, and Moore will have to appear on various chat fests to defend himself and his artistic choices. This won’t stop the conspiracy theorists for blaming each other over the film’s web appearance, nor will it defuse those already waiting for the 29 June play date to pounce.

While the leak does go to a wholly different issue regarding piracy, copyright, and Hollywood’s hopelessly outdated moviemaking model (which technology still trumps, damn those scientists), in this case, it also stokes the raging coals surrounding Moore’s most effective film to date. If the government was wise, it would back down from the bully pulpit and let the filmmaker have his medical days in the Cuban sun. In addition, the capitalistic cranks should also tone down the rebuttal rhetoric. It’s not like the multi-billion dollar health care industry needs their defending. Its got the money, and the connections, to secure its position. No, what everyone should be concerned about is the power inherent within the moving image. SiCKO may start a real people rebellion that could wrest this issue out of the hands of special interests once and for all. It may only be a movie, but it’s already having an impact. Just wait until it’s actually released. 

by Bill Gibron

12 Jun 2007

(Part One of this two part piece can be found HERE)

It’s clear that Eli Roth’s Hostel series is designed to push buttons. It uses easily recognizable elements - young people alone, international naiveté, the unknown evils of the former Iron Curtain – as components for a combination slice and dice splatter film and sly social commentary. But some have sensed that Roth is more misguided than masterful in creating his corrupt fright fests. While the complaints about the original film focused solely on the gore and brutality, gender has been added to the Part II prototype. As a result, the rabid reaction from critics and commoners has positioned this sequel as the worst cinematic example of violence against females ever attempted. Sadly, such a conclusion is not educated, but instead based purely on personal preference and perception.

It all starts in Hostel: Part II’s second act. Reminiscent of the famous legend surrounding the Blood Countess Elizabeth Báthory, the death of our dour, sensitive wallflower Lorna is what has most detractors of Roth up in arms. Up front, they are disturbed by the pseudo-sexual nature of the crime. Hung upside down and naked, actress Heather Matarazzo is featured topless and terrified. As preparations are being made for the soon to arrive ‘customer’, the young actress puts on a clinic of stifled sobs and desperate cries. Suddenly, her killer arrives – a middle aged woman with more than a little experience exposed in her aged appearance. Obviously buying into the whole mythical “rejuvenation” aspects of the Báthory story, she sits stark naked under the crying Lorna, and proceeds to tease her with an oversized scythe. Eventually, she stabs (unseen) and carves (seen) into the helpless girl’s body. As the craven claret covers her middle aged torso, our matron massages it into her flesh. It’s a horrific sequence, one made even more impactful by the performance from Matarazzo and the directorial flourish shown by Roth.

Because of its snuff film strategies, the combination of real and blood lust, and the overall viciousness of the attack, many in the media have decided that such a scene demands condemnation. In fact, many are convinced it’s the most awful atrocity committed against women onscreen in the history of the motion picture. The outright ludicrousness of such a statement aside, these self-professed experts are just plain wrong. Here, as a refresher, are a collection of titles that are far worse in their treatment of females, as well as the use of violence against women as a means of making movie macabre (the following is by no means all inclusive):

Psycho, Scrapbook, Blood Feast, Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer, Suspiria, Frenzy, Peeping Tom, Last House on the Left, Make Them Die Slowly (Cannibal Ferox), Cannibal Holocaust, Gates of Hell, I Spit on Your Grave, The Virgin Spring, Maniac, Tenebrae, Don’t Go In the House, Bloodsucking Freaks, The Gore-Gore Girls, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Opera, The Hills Have Eyes (both original and update), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, The Ilsa Movies, The Olga Movies, The Flesh Trilogy, The Friday the 13th Franchise, The Stendhal Syndrome, Se7en, Straw Dogs, The Death Wish Series, Jackson County Jail.

Clearly, Roth is not the first male filmmaker to use gender as a measure of cinematic vileness. In fact, the first Hostel is based clearly on the notion of twisting archetypes for the sake of invention. But it also belies an interesting conceit. In that first film, two young Slavic sluts are rundown by a car, one body so badly mangled it gets stuck under another vehicle’s frame. Yet these deaths are not lamented by haters of Roth’s ideas. Why? Because from all we learn about these evil mercenary whores, they deserve to die. They’ve set up our heroes (and hundreds of others like them) for the sake of a few dollars and some much needed drugs. They aren’t innocent and naïve. Unlike Lorna, who goes off with a fat foreign Romeo because he treats you like a goddess instead of a clod, they’re perverted and evil. Lorna’s only flaw is being too trusting, and her reward is getting garroted for the sake of some rich witch’s baneful beauty regiment. Right?

Wrong. There is nothing decidedly different in Lorna’s death vs. Josh’s in the original Hostel. All allusions to historical context aside, both she and he are mangled and murdered for no good reason. Yet somehow, when some viewers see Lorna die, their internal parenting protocol comes raging to the fore. Don’t call it a concern for humanity – a boy’s death is no different than a girl’s (and why, oh WHY does no one mention what happens to a grade school age CHILD during the course of Hostel: Part II’s narrative?). No, the old ridiculous psychosexual roles come immediately back into play, and Lorna is viewed as helpless, while Josh is merely reckless. People can point to the supposed erotic undercurrent, but that’s reading a great deal into a scene that is clearly presented for its splatter value. Besides, what does it say about the thinker when they argue that adolescent males will “get off” on such a sickening sequence?

In addition, only Whitney suffers a similar fate. Her face is cut with a buzzsaw, and she loses a patch of hair (and scalp) when it gets tangled in the mechanics (yes, it is noxious). But that’s it. Her eventually death occurs off camera, as part of a joke at the expense of the Elite Hunting Club’s surveillance team. Compared to what happens to Paxton (stabbed multiple times with a gardening tool, fingers sheered off by an errant chainsaw), she gets off metaphysically easy. In direct comparison to its predecessor, Hostel: Part II’s killings are succinct and to the point. Beth endures the most psychologically damaging situation as she has to play cat and mouse games with Stuart to save her life. She’s beaten, almost raped, and confronted by Sacha’s men before her undeniable wealth saves her. Told she must also take a life to be freed, she makes an immediate beeline for her capture’s manhood.

Which brings up an interesting dichotomy. In 2002, French filmmaker Gaspar Noé caused an international sensation when his film Irreversible featured a nine minute realistic rape scene that had many audience members running for the exits. While its artistic merits were bandied about, the outcry for his incontrovertible crime against women was never as loud as that for Roth. The reason why is obvious – first, Hostel: Part II is part of the most easily marginalized and dismissed genre in all of motion pictures: the horror film. It’s a long standing scholarly bias, one that argues for the categories disposability as a credible form of cinematic expression. Almost always reconsidered in retrospect (imagine the reaction of critics who climbed all over Tobe Hooper’s Chainsaw to see it heralded today), the fright film is, to most, incapable of creative vitality. So anything it offers is pragmatically pointless.

And let’s not forget the snooty arthouse factor. Irreversible was indeed viewed as confrontational and repugnant, but because it represented an experimental effort, highly improvised and shot in an unusual manner, the repugnance of the rape was contextually compromised. In essence, if Roth was any other homemade horror addict, creating his craven delights in the basement of his parent’s home with a group of friends, the uproar would be limited by logistics. But because he is making a mainstream scarefest as part of the Summer Movie season, he’s open to outright attack. True, the images and elements at play in Hostel: Part II are not natural and do not represent the best that the medium of film has to offer. But if there is room for inexcusable violence against women in award winning dramas (The Accused) or foreign films, then horror should be able to do the same without facing increased scrutiny.

Again, there are far worse examples of what Roth is being condemned for. Take the aforementioned Texas Chainsaw film. Actress Marilyn Burns spends the final act of the film tied to a chair and abused both emotionally and physically by the diabolical Sawyer clan. She is beaten repeatedly in the head with a sledgehammer, cut severely with a straight razor, and eventually chased, bloody and insane, by a crazy man wielding the title power tool. Or how about David Lynch’s sickening send-off to his famous Twin Peaks series. Aside from the obvious sexual/incestual undercurrent, the infamous auteur languishes on Laura Palmer’s death in Fire Walk With Me, her bruised and battered face full of fear as her dad crushes her skull with a bolder. Throughout Wes Craven’s early career, his female leads are typically raped and murdered in particularly graphic fashion. Even the exploitation realm which started the entire taboo-busting side of cinema had Olga, Ilsa and Michael Findlay’s foul slasher start-up, the Flesh Trilogy to violate all kinds of interchangeable victims.

Of course, for every supposed outrage, there’s someone out there ready to complain about it. When Lynch presented a completely naked Isabella Rosalinni, scarred and scared, at the doorstep of Kyle McLaughlin in Blue Velvet, Roger Ebert was so appalled he accused it’s creator of being a soulless monster. Similarly, when I Spit on Your Grave took the entire rape/revenge element to new, nauseating heights, the well respected reviewer, along with his then partner in prostylitizing, Gene Siskel, decided to focus an entire show on women as the centerpiece of the scary movie slaughter ideal. Pointing to the overabundance of female deaths in the derivative slasher films, they made it sound like they had discovered something completely novel in the new post-modern movie dynamic. Sadly, as far back as one goes, gender has helped define the terms of terror. Even the early Universal monster movies used the so-called “weaker sex” as the object of evil’s unhinged desire.

If those who are complaining about Hostel: Part II are only up in arms because its girls, not guys, getting torn apart for the sake of shock value, then their “humanitarian” argument is hypocritical. Imagine the Lorna scene with a ‘Larry’ substituting for the victim and a middle aged MAN as the scythe wielding reprobate and see what kind of response you’d get. It’s the dirty little secret of this entire debate that gender determines reaction in a way that is antithetical to the overall concept. If you hate pointless brutality against any individual, sex doesn’t matter – not in perception, not in presentation. Death is death, and the reproductive organs of those being butchered are unimportant. Besides, looking back over the murders in both movies, one would dare say that the original Hostel is far more gruesome than the smattering of gore given in the sequel.

Still, there will be those who question all of Eli Roth’s intensions. To them, both movies are simply the same notes being hit on different masculine/feminine beats, and the entire girl angle of the series smacks of reprehensible personal depravity. Like most of the horror genre, it will be easily dismissed as the playground for perverts and those who get some manner of sick kicks out of the terrifying and torture of human beings. Like hardcore pornography, it is given over to a select group of weirdoes who can’t see the forest for all the blood and guts soaked trees. Unfortunately, such criticism is as narrow-minded and biased as any other position of intolerance. Hostel: Part II is not a mindless rip-off of its original narrative, nor is it the most violent movie concerning women ever created. Both ideas are simply shorthand for avoiding the whole horror as entertainment discussion. Until said situation can be settled once and for all, it will be motives, not the movies themselves, that will be constantly chastised and challenged.

by Bill Gibron

10 Jun 2007

I’m sure he expected vitriol. Maybe he even welcomed a little of it. Controversy sure spins the turnstiles. But nothing could have prepared Eli Roth for the advanced word on his recently released sequel to the successful horror film Hostel. One critic questioned his humanity, even going so far as to state publicly that, upon finally meeting the man, he would refuse the offer to shake his hand. Ouch! Then there are the neo-con calls for boycotts and censorship, arguing that “trash” like this only glorifies the death and defilement of young women. Granted, it’s a shortsighted argument, but a very effective one in our touchy feely mindset. You see, it’s all about the chicks, man. That’s what’s got everyone in an uproar. Stick a bunch of horny teen boys in a slice and dice slasher flick centering around an Eastern European hostel from Hell and no one screams. But change the gender dynamic, and it’s the latest example of filmmaking excess.

For many Hostel: Part II is a non-issue. It’s a horror film, fulfilling the questionable thrill seeking needs of a particularly narrow dynamic. To them, the genre itself has very little going for it artistically, and those rare films that break out of the categories mold of mediocrity to become certified cinematic classics – the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist, etc. – are the anomalies in a field overflowing with filmic offal. As a result, most mainstream critics avoid it, while the marketing makes it clear that the adolescent teen demo is the target for such shock value. All in all, it is easy to dismiss, the typical carnival barking of an otherwise pointless motion picture ideal. But there is another facet to this film’s outright rejection – and it has very little to do with its effectiveness as a shocker, a splatter fest, or a social commentary. No, this aspect of the argument goes to the very heart of how people interact with their entertainment media of choice.

Looking over the isolated discussions of Roth’s return to his previous success, two main complaints arise. The first is also the most ridiculous – that all he offers in Hostel: Part II is more of the same. Anyone with half a brain and a real knowledge of what this filmmaker did in his original film would instantly deride such a preposterous suggestion. Still, by viewing both efforts back to back, we will see how incredibly sloppy such a suggestion is. The second disparagement is equally ludicrous, but goes to an issue much more culturally complex. To listen to the pundits and self-described purveyors of taste, Roth has offered up the most misogynistic film ever. He degrades women in ways that few, if any, have done before, and mixes the sexual with the sickening to further his gangrenous goals of sensationalism. Sadly, such a view ignores 50 years of moviemaking and illustrates that, in many cases, these objections are based on the source’s own desire for glory, not a realistic grasp of motion picture reality.

Let’s take the first point, shall we - that Roth is merely repeating himself. Again, that’s a completely bogus attack. The first Hostel centered on a group of teenage
boys backpacking across Europe looking for sex, drugs…and more sex. They find themselves in Amsterdam partaking of cheap booze and readily available marijuana. When the female element fails them, a Slovakian student suggests they head to an inn in his homeland. There, he says, there are hundreds of willing women, and, as Americans, they can do pretty much anything they want to them. The lure of easy companionship sends the boys to the Eastern Bloc. There, they check into the youth accommodations, meet some incredibly hot to trot honeys, and begin their descent into debauchery. Now, for those who have not seen the film, and may be eager to do so some time in the future, a SPOILER ALERT is now offered. From this point on, we will be dealing with major plot points and scare reveals.

Our three men are separated one night, with two (Josh and Paxton) waking up to wonder where their friend has gone. Turns out, he has become the first victim of something called The Elite Hunting Club. A rich person’s permutation of The Most Dangerous Game, it’s an organization that allows the wealthy to spend obscene amounts of cash in pursuit of the ultimate taboo – the taking of another human life. The factory facilities that house this horror show offer the clientele any number of death dealing options – power tools, surgical equipment, firearms, old fashioned torture devices. All the paying customer has to do is choose his personal ‘poison’ and start the slaying. Soon, Josh is kidnapped and killed, his body used by a wannabe doctor as a kind of fresh cut cadaver. Paxton investigates his pal’s disappearance, and it’s not long before he’s being sliced up by a nervous German with a chainsaw. Managing to escape, he saves an Asian girl, gets out of Slovakia, and even manages some revenge on the deviant who vivisected his friend.

Arguing the merits over the movie is one thing (this critic happens to believe it’s an important horror classic), but to say that Hostel: Part II is exactly the same is pure and utter crap. The differences are so painfully obvious that you have to believe Eli Roth sat down with his original script and decided to fashion a completely contradictory take. Sure, this time around we focus on three girls instead of three boys, but this is not where the differences end. No, this movie is purposefully out to fill in the gaps left by the original narrative, plus provide some incredibly novel twists on the whole women in peril dynamic (more on this later). Our Hostel: Part II leads are not really looking for sex and pharmaceutical thrills – they’re students studying abroad. Looking for a little relaxation outside their Rome routine, they take the advice of an attractive artist’s model named Axelle and head to a Slovakian spa. Naturally, their accommodations are the title tenement. 

Our trio is like sketches out of an archetypal coed guidebook. Beth is rich, so much so that she keeps her Dad on an allowance. Whitney is an international skank, but she also seems centered and sensitive to her raucous reputation. Lorna is the Sylvia Plath of the bunch, lost in her own world of wounded self-doubt, but capable of bursting out of her carefully crafted cocoon now and again. That we know more about these ladies is one of Roth’s new conceits. In the first film, our heroes are differentiated by size (tall, medium, muscular) and appearance (light, medium, and dark). We learn very little about their lives save for Paxton’s discussion of a young girl’s drowning and Josh’s mending of his recently broken heart. The guys have goals (lawyer and writer) but we don’t get much more meat than this. Before long, they’re ‘under the knife’, so to speak.

Similarly, before the girls are served up for their sickening purpose, we are introduced to the behind the scenes situations of the Elite Hunting Club. We learn of Sacha, the principle organizer and his connections to the corporate world. When our heroines check in, their image is immediately flashed across PDAs, cellphones and laptops worldwide. Rich individuals with a decidedly depraved outlook start a manic bidding frenzy, using the lives of these young girls like so much highly prized commodities. The winners are beyond excited. The losers are downcast and depressed. Unlike the original Hostel, which showed this killer’s club as a kind of underground den of unspeakable inequity, Roth revamps the idea, turning it into the ultimate escape for the overworked, overstressed CEO.

In this regard, we are also introduced to Stuart and Ben. The former is a slightly sheepish man with family issues. The latter is a pumped up powerbroker who believes that murder makes a man more threatening – even if only ephemerally. They have won two of the gals in our story, and are traveling to Slovakia to meet their manifest destiny. All of this material is new to the Hostel mythology. The original movie had the psychotic surgeon in training and nothing else. We learned a little about him (his love of things tactile, as well as his daughter) but there is not as big a backstory. No, Stuart and Ben come to represent two very intriguing concepts in Hostel: Part II. Without giving it all away, it boils down to what makes a man, and what eventually emasculates him.

This all leads to the most talked about element in Hostel: Part II – the death of our leads. Again, to avoid ruining the movie for those still interested, here’s another SPOILER WARNING. Unlike the first film, which offered at least a dozen on screen kills (some in very gruesome and graphic detail), this time around Roth gives us only three. Granted, another four (or five) occur, but they happen mostly off screen, without so much as a simple special effect to illustrate their dread. Only Lorna, Stuart and Axelle are shown being horrifically tortured and killed, and even then, only the first two have particularly nauseating deaths. In the case of our snooty model, she’s beheaded in a last act in-joke. Stuart has his gender literally removed when his penis is cut off. Lorna, on the other hand, becomes our first female victim, and it’s her disturbing death that’s causing all the clamor.

Quite clearly, these two movies are not “exactly” alike. They both take different routes to reach similar ends, and both are derivative of their creator’s desire to explore the premise he perfected in the first film. Indeed, the notion of a 180 degree reimagining of the original Hostel is so obvious as to be more than crystal clear. In the first, male machismo leads to hormonally charged happenstance – and death. In the sequel, female intuition constantly wins, but only as far as the dominating male Id will allow it. In the end of the original Hostel, brawn and bravery triumph. At the conclusion of the revisit, sensitivity and female cunning allow the tables to be turned. When meshed together, both Hostels become a complete whole, a look at both sides of the sexism coin and how it affects dread. If it weren’t for all the false bravado and public policy kvetching from the wannabe watchdogs, these films would be celebrated as such. In the future, perhaps they will be.

In Part Two, (scheduled for Wednesday, 13 June) we will discuss the death of Lorna, the entire “violence against women” angle, and how complaints about its blatant brutality fail to take into consideration the entire history of horror – or the other half of gender humanity.

by Bill Gibron

3 Jun 2007

That’s it. Mark it on a calendar. 2007 is the year where we officially no longer matter. Film critics, that is. Where once we set the standard for discussion on film, we’ve been marginalized by a medium that believes us to be out of touch, self important and far too fanatical in our devotion to quality over quantity. Newspapers are dropping us for generalized wire service hype. Messageboards are alight with conversations and condemnations of our efforts. Even fellow members of the Fourth Estate are tearing us a new class hole. David Poland, former film festival director and currently owner of industry information source Movie City News recently ripped into reviewers who loved Judd Apatow’s latest comedy classic Knocked Up. He did so with a joke that marginalized anyone adoring the film into a “middle-aged person who is so tired of studio movies that you will desperately overpraise a so-so film”. As Allison Porchnik once said, you gotta love being reduced to a cultural stereotype.

This is what film criticism has been condensed into—personal attacks/obsessions passing as viable cinematic analysis. It’s prevalent. Someone hates Mel Gibson for the horrendously racist things he said last August, and said writer translates that anger into a complete dismissal of the actor/director’s inventive action film Apocalypto. Then there are those so-called journalists who can’t make up their own minds. These supposed writers scan fan forums and other analytic websites to get ‘impressions’ of what the average man and/or woman is thinking about a specific film. They then roll all those thoughts into pure populist pap and pawn it off as well considered conclusions. Perhaps the worse example of this trend remains the film fetishists. To them, everything they love is legitimate, from the best example of Hollywood’s Golden era to a wonky little horror film that no one has ever heard of. In both cases, however, their overdone praise moves from meaningful to sickeningly sexual in its depth of desire.

Part of this is in response to the new found community of self-described know-it-alls called the Internet. In a realm where everyone has a forum, it logically figures that everything would be legitimized. There are six billion potential pundits in this world, meaning that all entertainment genres, from mystery to science fiction, action to heartbreaking drama will definitely find their champions. Taking it even further, within each subset will be people who love/hate a particular product with as much sense/insanity as they enjoy/despise something else. It’s an inferred universe without consensus, a place where even a one time motion picture masterpiece—say Citizen Kane—will eventually find an entire website devoted to how overrated and unremarkable it really is. And since there is no true guiding aesthetic (this is everyone out for themselves, remember), nothing is held in particular esteem. That means everyone is right. It also means that everyone is wrong. It’s merely a matter of perspective.

Take last year’s amazing movie The Fountain. Critics couldn’t handle its intertwining storylines and emotional reach. So instead of meeting it somewhere around the middle, they declared Darren Aronofsky the latest Emperor auteur and helped the viewing public rent his brand new cinematic skivvies. Similarly, Zak Snyder’s 300 burst onto movie screens back in March with a wave of invention that few films in the last few decades have managed to muster. But since the narrative was mired in old world machismo and dotted with homoerotic leanings, the proud carriers of the pro-PC banner took the movie to task. Some even disregarded it as being too action/aggression oriented. Last time anyone looked, the movie was about a battle between badly outnumbered Spartans and invading Persian hordes. So where, exactly, is the subtlety supposed to go? There are weekly examples of this kind of critical contradiction. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End will be both vilified as an overstuffed example of Hollywood hubris while simultaneously being celebrated by those who believe it to be a throwback to the original ‘70s blockbuster.

Because of the number of outlets for so-called legitimate cinematic reportage, because of the lack of an ongoing critical accord on what constitutes art and what equals artifice, because we can no longer sit idly by and watch geeks give us the metaphysical finger, we’ve decided to bite back. And the wound is now fully festering and gone gangrenous. We currently exist in a freakish film industry time when Grindhouse, a well received revamp of the exploitation film earning an 81% overview rating on Rotten Tomatoes (a database for storing critic scores), is considered a massive flop, while two atrocious titles from the same time—Norbit and Wild Hogs can earn a 9% and 16% rating respectively and still be massive mainstream hits. Some would call such movies ‘critic proof’, but there’s more to it than that. Bad is bad, but somehow, that message is not translating to the public.

And those who argue that it shouldn’t matter do indeed have a point. Movie reviewers, by their very nature, are product testers. They sample the motion picture wares coming out each and every week and let you know how their particular tastes reacted to it. From then on, the next step is wholly your own move. You don’t have to agree, and you may go into a screening and have the exact opposite reaction. But in the end, all the writer is providing you is an opinion. Sure, it may be steeped in a great knowledge of the medium or a singular joy for cinema, but these are not Gospel conclusions. They are—for the most part—the genuine reactions of a film fan. So Norbit should not live or die by what 123 critics from around the globe say it is. If you go to the theater and enjoy it, more power to you. And it’s that previous statement that sets up a potentially dangerous precedent.

While it may have at one time been about creativity, 2007 Tinsel Town is definitely a cash and carry conglomerate, period. Dollars are the determinative factor in why many films are made. Sure, we can see occasional gambles (the aforementioned 300, Apatow’s previous hit The 40 Year Old Virgin), but the major motion picture studios have the profit margin down to a slick hard sell science. They don’t go into a Little Man believing in failure. Indeed, they view certain production plans (horror sequels/prequels, comic book characters franchising) as money making its way to the bank. So when Disney greenlights two more Pirates movies on the back of the first one’s success, they are counting on a pair of separate yet simultaneous situations: (1) that the eventual release on home theater will continue to whet your appetite for more and (2) that their experience in repeated past successes is astute enough to get them through this risk.

Thus a critic proof film is not really able to avoid a journalistic smear campaign. No, what the film is truly protected from is any negative impact from the audience. What Hollywood has gotten dead brilliant at is marketing movies in such a way that, even if your best friends told you it was the biggest stinker this side of Waterworld, you’d still get in line on opening weekend to see for yourself. And this of course ties in directly to the Internet ideal. Since the number of websites catering to criticism have skyrocketed in the last few years, as well as the availability of high profile portals (blogs, myspace pages, YouTube) for opinion placement, the mainstream media no longer holds any sway. Norbit may hold a less than 10% approval rating from regular reviewers, but on a place like The Internet Movie Database, the score goes up to over 30. Such a strident difference empowers the audience and leads them to believe that their own conclusions are valid—even more so – than the person who makes viewing film their career.

Are there pompous scribes who ruin it for everyone? Absolutely. Are there people in the film fussing trade so out of touch that they can actually champion something like Are We Done Yet? over David Fincher’s fabulous Zodiac. Definitely. Is there someone already chomping at the bit, ready to scream that both films deserve to be dumped in the nearest cesspool as examples of cinema at its most stagnant? You know it. But something odd has happened over the last couple of months. The loudest voices are not only being heard, they are drowning each other out, creating a weird wall of sound that turns off everyone who comes in contact with it. Mr. Poland himself is one of those individuals who likes to say “it sucks, because I said so” and then tosses in a few rationales for his rejection before moving on to his next insider tip about the future of film.

Again, what’s missing is context, the notion that cinema is not a disposable commodity easily interchangeable with any other kind of pulp product. Disregarding critics is similar to stating that superficial summer paperbacks represent literature as its most artful. Popularity does not equal perspective. Instead it’s a sign of mere mass acceptance. Independence Day is not a great science fiction film, just a well liked one. Similarly, 2001: A Space Odyssey remains a fixture on Best Of lists because individuals with a wealth of experience in the medium recognize its inherent value. Sometimes, a movie can combine the two (Pulp Fiction, for example). But without a voice outside the din discussing the difference between the two, the result is a watered down aesthetic—and the current state of mainstream moviemaking.

You think endless sequels and slight summer blockbusters are seen as proud accomplishments by the studios? No, they represent the fast food of the business, the guaranteed dosh makers that allow them the luxury of jeopardizing their revenue on a few prestige pictures come Awards season. They want you to believe a critic doesn’t know what he or she is talking about because it protects their investment and leads to greater returns come opening weekend. Thus the continuing decline in preview press screenings. Of course, they don’t mind turning around and using contextually suspect blurbs to support their hype machine, and they love to tout the number of Year End lists their movies appear on. Talk about your hate/tolerate kind of relationship.

When you boil it down to its basics, criticism is suffering because, in general, it’s poorly thought out and equally illiterate. Scan the web for other reviews of Knocked Up and you will find people actually using the attractiveness of actor Seth Rogen (or repugnant lack thereof) as a means of rating the film’s comedic viability. Talk about using high school standards as a means of making adult decisions. Why not just have Paris Hilton tell the moviegoing public what’s “hot” and what’s “not”. From poor sentence structure and a self-determined desire to be cleverer than what you’re reviewing, the critical community continually shoots itself in the foot. But instead of being merely hobbled, it looks like, this time, the damage may be permanent.

by Bill Gibron

25 May 2007

For those unfamiliar with geek lore, yesterday, 25 May, 2007, was a true nerd milestone. On said date, 30 years ago, an unknown sci-fi spectacle with very little advance buzz opened on movie screens across America. It starred nobody famous, was created by a filmmaker best known for his nostalgic nod to the 1950s, and confused critics with its jumbled genre crossing designs. Granted, the new fangled special effects looked mighty cool, but would audiences really queue up to see a bunch of basic eye candy wrapped around an obviously allegorical narrative? After all, three of the main characters were a pair of bumbling robots and an interstellar first mate who looked like Bigfoot. How could this possibly succeed?

Well, two sequels, three god-awful prequels, and umpteen billions of dollars later, its eventual conquest is now a glorified given. Indeed, Star Wars has come to mean more than just a novel 1977 popcorn flick that carried its creator George Lucas to both the zenith and nadir of fan obsession. It’s a corporate tag, a merchandising behemoth, a licensing label that has expanded across all marketing paradigms to prove its value as a type, a logo and a motion picture mission statement. Anyone who sat in the theaters some three decades past and thought they would see characters like Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Darth Vader mythologized into fictional keepers of the science fiction faith would have been declared insane. But thanks to rampant fandom, the rise of recordable home video, and the arrival of the Internet as a new form of implied community, all speculative fiction now finds itself compared to the worlds of Wars.

Granted, there was nothing wrong with Lucas’ lucky lament. Upon a first viewing, the original Star Wars was like a stick of imagination imploding TNT. As you sat in your seat, whisked away to planetoids never dreamed of, with characters you couldn’t have conceived, the cinematic scales fell from your eyes. In their place remained indelible images that still stand strong today – the figure of our hero, Luke Skywalker, standing against the backdrop of a multi-mooned sky; the devious orb of destruction known as the Death Star; the black hooded Darth Vader commanding respect from his easily replaceable crew; Han Solo saving the day, blaster blazing away in a flurry of laser light glory. From the initial space shot to the final interstellar dogfight, Star Wars stands a singular work of inspired genius. Like all exceptional art, it taps into many elements at once, combining to easily transcend and transform them all.

The sequels remain the first step in ruining all that. No matter how great you think Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi are, they destroyed the initial aesthetic generated by Lucas and their team. They took what was probably a one-off experiment (though Georgie constantly disagrees with such claims) and expanded it far beyond anyone’s ability to control. No longer a personal or private vision, the new films had to be retrofitted to meet the demands of a blockbuster craving public. Thankfully, Lucas understood his own lame limits and turned the projects over to others (Leigh Brackett, Lawrence Kasdan, Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand) to fulfill their newly compromised promise. He went on to make fledgling F/X house Industrial Light and Magic a definitive dream machine. The hope was to provide an outlet to secure any and all filmmaker’s wildest vision. And as said business plan resoundingly succeeded, Star Wars continued to become more and more culturally relevant.

This didn’t mean it mattered cinematically or artistically. Instead of finding a way of making his spin-offs feel organic and original, Lucas continually rehashed the same old storylines (Skywalker’s in trouble, Vader is mad, Solo is suave, Leah is lost) and accessorizing their similarities with new characters (Yoda, Jabba the Hut) and ever expanding vistas. What he had initially was something very special, something that spoke to a generation eager to experience imagery and imagination unbridled and unfettered. In it’s place, Lucas simply created a cottage industry (and, eventually, a major motion picture force), one that forgot that fun was also part of the motion picture mix. Near the end of Jedi, with familial connections revealed, loyalties tested and tried, and every last manipulated emotion employed, our filmmaker let his cuddly duddly Ewok characters announce last call. Slightly satisfied, the crowds disbanded and went on their way.

It’s important to note that all of this occurred in an era with no reliable home theater construct. VCRs had been around since the early ‘70s, but few owned them and studios basically balked at the idea of releasing first run films onto a magnetic tape format (they had just caved on cable a couple of years previous). When movies finally started arriving on both Beta and VHS, they were incredibly expensive (well over $100 dollars) and limited in their reproduction quality. So for most of us, memory – and the occasional revival at the local arthouse – was all we had. And inside such wistful thoughts, Star Wars became something much more than its inauspicious origins. It became a phenomenon, a rite of passage, a part of everyone’s collective memory and any other lame metaphysical cliché you can clamp to it. Reality remained far off in the distance. In its place was the new religion – with new cathedrals built to its amusement immortality.

The first church eventually evolved from said videocassette. When Lucas finally put his War films out on the market, they were pan and scan shadows of their former big screen selves. Holding back as long as he arrogantly could, he turned each and every release into an epiphany. When the devoted demanded widescreen versions, mimicking the larger than life theatrical experience, he eventually complied. Soon, the digital technology that ILM helped found was firm enough to allow Lucas to tinker with his titles. The outrage was, initially, overwhelming, but with the promise of additional sequences and improved interstellar opulence, the whiners soon quieted. All three original movies were tweaked, and 1997 saw a 20th anniversary celebration of all things spacey. And like new prophecies from up on high, the faithful drank them in and learned their slightly different dogma.

The next logistical place of worship was the Internet. While continuously stereotyped as a place where freaks and dweebs tend to meet and greet, there is no denying the support group mentality inside the Information Superhighway. There, individuals who believe their obsessions are wholly and completely their own learn that others exist outside their sphere of experience and – believe it or not – their fetishism was the same as everyone else’s. It was here where Lucas’s sovereign state went nuclear. Fellow Warlords used bulletin boards, free Geocities webpages, and college computer lab time to outline their defense of the subtext strewn Skywalker realm. They opined on minutia, imagined plotlines of their own, and coalesced the entire Lucas empire (books, movies, video games, TV shows, comics, trading cards) into a doctrine drenched in exaggerated meaning and overhyped worth.

Naturally, their loose canon L. Ron had to respond, and Lucas solidified the sorry state of Star Wars’ artistic merits by delivering three of the stupidest space operas ever. The perfunctory prequels – movies predating the events in the original trilogy – did an amazing job of hallowing out everything that had come before. Darth Vader, an icon of imposing evil, was turned into a pitter-patter bratling with a tendency to express his joy in diaper wetting shouts. Even worse, as the films moved along, adolescence found the future Sith sulking like a paperboy who just been bitten by a teacup Chihuahua. By the end of the turgid third film, a lava-pruned Vader was reduced to an archetype – that is, a love lorn loser whose emotional depth is, again, reduced to monosyllabic shouts.

Failing to see how he pissed on perspective, Lucas did what any self-determined god does, and declared his works to be “good”. Then, he went on to deliver his final Soviet state revisionist sentence. The original Star Wars, he said, was never to exist again. Instead, it would only be available in the CGI revamped Special Edition. Those who didn’t like the decision needed to get with the times, he insisted, and stop living in the past. The problem was, the past was decidedly better. Forgetting the dated look of the fantasy for a moment, the spirit imbued throughout the original film was lost in a gloss of fake fictional creatures and overdone sci-fi cityscapes. Sure, the story remained the same – sort of (No, the whole Greedo episode will not be discussed here), but the heart of the narrative had been ripped out and replaced by something that looked like shameless self-promotion.

There is a bigger picture problem involved here as well. By purposefully thwarting art’s inherent element of timelessness, Lucas and others open up the entire category to unnecessary interference. For example, an owner of Picasso’s “Guernica” who believes it would look better in full color, or a studio convinced that a movie’s box office appeal was limited by a director’s choice of subplot are now supported in their frequently misguided notions of reconfiguration. And before you toss out the typical “they’re his films” mantra, remember two things. One day, they won’t be (no one lives forever) and Lucas didn’t make these movies just for himself. He put them out into the marketplace to be accepted and/or rejected. Once taken, a creative contract is implied. He can pragmatically retrieve and rewrite the original entertainment agreement, but by doing so, he opens himself to claims of fraud and falsehood. It may not hold up legally, but it sure stinks ethically.

And the worst was yet to come. Last year, among much hoopla and hand wringing, Lucas reneged on his ‘no original versions’ dicta and provided long suffering fans with a chance to own the initial ‘70s standards canoodling free. Of course, there was a catch, and DVD lovers soon learned that these transfers would be non-anamorphic and non-remastered. Amid rumors of a 30th Anniversary HD release, the shilling appeared shameless. Yet even this latest laugh in the face of the fanbase couldn’t dampen Star Wars’ freakish faithful. Many lined up this week to sit through all six films in this over-inflated franchise, and here’s hoping that mental health officials were standing by to treat the traumatized. To anyone who stood for hours to see the 1977 original – sometimes more than once – the irony is caustic. Today, there are dozens of ways to enjoy Lucas’ lumbering legacy. Back then, there was only the Bijou. We had no choice but to wait. Perhaps that’s why so many of us are Star worn today.

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