We’ve all had friends tell us how disgusting a movie or Internet video was. They tell us it’s the foulest movie ever made. It’s so bad, they say, we’ll actually end up hating ourselves for watching it. So what do we do? We still watch it. And of course, it’s disgusting and we can’t get it out of our heads no matter how much Visine we douse our eyeballs in. As a matter of fact, sometimes we’re so repulsed, we watch it again. Don’t believe me? Then let me ask: How many can honestly say they haven’t seen “Two Girls One Cup?” And of those who have seen it, how many have shown it to a friend?
The release of “Shame,” a film rated NC-17 by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) for “some explicit sexual content,” has caused me to pause. It makes me wonder about that treacherous line many films straddle that separates honest storytelling and gratuitous filmmaking. How far can films push the envelope before they fall off the ledge completely?
“Shame” stars Michael Fassbender as a 30-ish yuppie sex addict whose life spins out of control after his sister moves in with him. Sounds provocative. Maybe the casual filmgoer would be interested in spending a couple bucks on a ticket — that is, of course, unless you mention the explicit scenes of masturbation and prostitution. I doubt that watching a New York yuppie take extra-long showers would create the proper ambiance for a date.
With such “lewd” material, “Shame” raises questions about the artistic merit of films slapped with the blasted NC-17 rating. Such movies rarely raise the bar at the box office, but Hollywood is no stranger to extreme filmmaking or controversy. In 1969, the X-rated (the ’60s equivalent of NC-17) “Midnight Cowboy” won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars. Just two years later, “A Clockwork Orange” (also X-rated) depicted a psychopathic delinquent committing murder, assault and rape — “bit of the old ultra-violence” — and allegedly inspired several copycat crimes in the UK.
Still, there are few critics today who would deny the merits of either of these classics. On the other hand, we have films like “The Human Centipede” and its sequel. Personally, I find both repulsive. They dwell in the bowels of filmmaking without having the common decency to call themselves shit. They masquerade as art, citing their “original” concept and defend themselves as such.
But cruelty is not a novelty. It never has been. And if I was forced to name the archetype of this movement, it would be a mockumentary-horror called “Cannibal Holocaust” produced 30 years prior.
Here’s a quaint scene from “Cannibal Holocaust”: Three men flip a large turtle on its back. It flails its legs, but one of the men grabs it by the neck and raises his machete. The first strike unhinges its head and the turtle’s legs kick wildly. The second strike takes the head off completely. He then proceeds to hack off its shell, dismember its legs, reach into its torso and tear apart its organs like a kid opening his Christmas present. The camera does not turn away. It stares into the pulpy mess and revels.
So why did the characters do it? Were they starving? Was this a documentary about indigenous diets? No, not at all. And that used to be a living, breathing turtle — murdered for our very pleasure. This was premeditated and carried out with full knowledge until the director shouted, “Cut!” and maybe joined the perverse barbeque as well. Some critics have interpreted and defended the film as an examination of Western civilization’s treatment of its fellow human beings. But that seems rather hypocritical, doesn’t it?
At times, I wonder why I subject myself to such films. I’d like to think it’s because I want to be more cultured, or simply because it’s my job to watch them. Honestly, I’m probably just another kid looking for new ways to thumb his nose to the rest of the world. As a movie-lover who would like to see the art medium he follows remain intact, I have some different views.
No matter how uncompromising a vision might want to be, the moral obligation “Shame” or any other film has to its audience cannot be ignored. If a film is to be gratuitous in violence or sex, it must be to take the audience to a level of visceral emotion otherwise not possible. It must make us cringe, not revel. The voice of the film — what it truly wants to say — must ring true in greater volume than those characters whose degeneracy it portrays.