Thoughts on art-house ultra-violence, the killjoy, critical consensus, and the power of signs.
A while ago, my fiancé and I got invited to go see Moebius, the new film from Kim Ki-duk. I agreed to go, based on a vague positive memory of his film The Isle and the knowledge that Kim is a darling of the international art-house circuit. In the first 5 minutes, we watched a mother—looking like the sort of bedraggled ghoul common to J- and K-Horror films—cut off her son’s penis and eat it—a lot to take even for an action-movie buff like me, to say nothing of my screen-violence averse fiancé. We tried to tough it out over a subsequent penis-removal, a durationally filmed gang rape, and some beatings, but I ended up crapping out about halfway through the movie, when the father rediscovered the joy of the orgasm through sanding off his skin. The film seemed never-ending, like some sort of plane with no beginning and no end—a one-sided strip, if you will.
After getting home a tacit moratorium on discussing Moebius settled over us, but I went online to check the film’s reviews. A bit surprisingly to me, there was a critical consensus that Moebius was something like a minor masterpiece. The film has a lot going for it, formally—it’s exquisitely shot, and it’s remarkable how much Kim is able to accomplish without any dialogue. Then again, 100 minutes of gruesome set pieces don’t need to be hung on a framework of verbose exposition, and as Nathan Rabin said, “sure it’s handsomely mounted, but then so are the heads of dead animals.”
Most reviews describe the film as a black comedy, with “the laughs drowning all.” According to a writer for IndieWire, “those who hadn’t left to vomit…were more often than not howling in the aisles.” Maybe it’s because I saw Moebius at a film festival in Bulgaria, and Sofiantsi aren’t the “howling in the aisles” type, but the emphasis on the film’s humor doesn’t add up. After watching Moebius, I’ve been trying to reconcile a widespread consensus on the film’s hilarity with something that I didn’t see in the text.
I got the same feeling recently with another work of critically beloved, hollow ultra-violence: 2010’s I Saw the Devil. I’ve liked and loved a lot of films from South Korean cinema’s New Wave, and Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil is one of the most popular entries in the cycle. Plenty of sources call it one of the absolute best, and I was expecting to become one of those fans.
As with Moebius, my experience watching I Saw the Devil may as well have been watching a different film. I Saw the Devil was in the news last week because it got picked up for an American remake. In announcing the US version, producer Adi Shankar described the 2010 film as “perfect,” a sentiment reiterated by many critics.
I Saw the Devil is many things, but it’s not perfect. Well, a caveat—it functions very efficiently as a delivery vehicle for gorgeous ultra-violence, but not much else. The characters are paper-thin to the point of being ciphers, and the film’s plotting is all over the place. I Saw the Devil frequently veers into absurd and contrived territory to keep the protagonist moving on his quest for revenge. More than anything, it wallows in misery as art, and has the same misogynistic core as Moebius—women exist solely to be graphically raped or murdered in order to motivate the protagonist.
It feels strange to describe the films in these terms—enumerating only their repulsive imagery and casual misogyny. Most critics bring up the violence to elaborate on both films’ deeper meaning, of which I think there’s little. Given their overwhelmingly positive reception, it’s almost like an exercise in reconciling entirely different texts.
It’s not that I’m not used to seeing films differently. As a film buff who’s politically an anarchist, I’m used to being pissed off by subtext that the overwhelmingly liberal crowd of film types don’t. However, part of the difficulty in damning a beautiful ultra-violent film while not becoming one of the most reviled creatures in pop culture criticism: the killjoy. Still, when I think about the films I saw versus the films critics describe, I think I see things at work that have bigger echoes in the world of criticism.
To be clear, I’m not trying to impute bad-faith arguments on the part of these films’ boosters. What I’m trying to do is reconcile a widespread consensus about these works that’s widely divergent from the texts I saw. If critics are giving more credit to art-house ultra-violence than it deserves, I think several factors provide the impetus.
It might seem at first glance like ultra-violent art-house movies are called “provocative” because cinema violence is a provocation. Film scholar Linda Williams calls violent slasher movies a “body genre” because they’re constructed to provoke an embodied response—in this case, a higher heart rate and quickened breath. “The fun of ‘gross’ movies,” Williams says, “is in their display of sensations that are on the edge of respectable.”
However, to call a film provocative isn’t just a normative statement about violence, but a value judgment about a work’s perceived depth and intelligence. Provocative as a descriptor is freighted with a lot of implicit statements about that film’s worth.
Given how hollow these films were for me, I wonder if there isn’t a push to see more in these films than there is—“the Emperor’s new snuff film.” I’ve written elsewhere about how the single tear of Katherine Bigelow’s spook-heroine at the end of Zero Dark Thirty allowed critics to attribute undeserved meaning to the film, and I suspect that a similar phenomenon may be at work.
For instance, a lot of the talk about Moebius’s deep “Oedipal concerns” is veering into extra-textual territory. The son rapes and then romances his father’s mistress with his father’s penis, which is pretty didactic as far as thematic exploration goes. The writer for the Chicago Reader says that the film would be easy to dismiss if it wasn’t for this “sober and sincere” work. I guess it’s open to interpretation how deep or thoughtful a commentary is constituted by “son rapes dad’s girlfriend.”
Similarly, some of the discussion around I Saw the Devil seems to describe a more complex and thought-provoking film than the one onscreen. Lots of reviewers and fans online discuss the film’s ending very gingerly, alluding to it without giving away any “spoilers,” as though the movie ends with a surprise twist. I Saw the Devil ends with the protagonist beheading the killer in front of the killer’s family, then alternately weeping and laughing. Treating this as though it’s a shocking reveal indicates to me that audiences are treating this film like there’s more there than actually exists. Graphically killing the villain isn’t more outré than what’s come before, and the “hero” isn’t much more evil than he was at the beginning. The audience is introduced to him torturing suspects—he’s not a man who loses his soul; he begins soulless and stays that way. Treating the film’s end like a shattering surprise seems like part of re-mapping I Saw the Devil to make it seem more complex and worthwhile.
The Dreaded Killjoy
It feels difficult to damn a beautiful ultra-violent film while not becoming one of the most reviled creatures in pop culture criticism: the killjoy. Unfortunately, when critics give a poor review to a widely anticipated mainstream blockbuster, it’s common practice for scads of internet users who couldn’t have seen the film to send them everything from angry comments to death threats.
In the face of these violent—and beautiful, but hollow—texts, its easy for the specter of the killjoy to rear her head. I say her because the killjoy, priggish and moralistic, is a gendered figure. To criticize violence is to risk being a killjoy because violence is inextricably linked to masculinity. Despite well-meaning anti-DV campaigns like “Real Men don’t hit women,” most of human history has sent the opposite message (and death to the idea of a “Real Man.”). A contrarian male critic like Armond White is branded a “troll,” rather than a killjoy. A killjoy recalls the frocks and petticoats of Ladies’ Temperance Unions, cruelly trying to take away hardworking men’s beer just like contemporary killjoys are trying to take away Nice Guys’ video games.
A central feature of the killjoy is that she affirmatively chooses to relinquish happiness by choosing the path of greater resistance. As Sarah Ahmed explains in “Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects),” “not to choose ‘the right path’ is readable as giving up the happiness that is presumed to follow that path.” There are echoes of this attitude in reviews of I Saw the Devil, simultaneously conceding the repulsiveness of the film while putting the onus on the viewer to embrace it.
According to a writer for IndieWire, I Saw the Devil is “cruel and remorseless, [and] its depiction of violence may not be stomach-able for most.” Here, the film is responsible for its form. However, the viewer continues that “It’s a shame, too, because those willing to give themselves to the movie are going to be very, very pleased.” In the next sentence, though, the viewer is responsible for the film’s now-value neutral images. More importantly, the critic now blames a failure to appreciate the film on the viewer’s lack of imagination, their inability to “give themselves to the movie.” Without directly invoking the killjoy, the critic has described the same subject—someone who relinquishes happiness, rather than appreciating the brutal spectacle.
However, plenty of movies get blasted as exercises in mindless gore-nography—check out any review of a horror film with a 2 or higher after the title. What affords art-house ultra-violence a drastically different reception has to do with the deeper signs that make a film what it is.
Superficial Signals and Empty Gestures
Film criticism seems like a tightly knit community, and like any community, it pushes towards consensus. This sort of groupthink leads to the sort of hype that leads to countless swiftly forgotten films getting garlanded with “awards buzz.” Describing this culture, Matt Singer says “the rush to get on a bandwagon can create a feeding frenzy of hype, as bloggers and critics read each other’s early reviews and tweets and repeat them, like a shark let loose in a pool full of chum that’s housed in an echo chamber. Punditry can’t make a bad movie good. But it can start—and then perpetuate—a conversation” I think that the last point is more debatable than Singer lets on.
At the risk of being extra-digressive, I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of empty signals recently. Having to do with a recent political evolution, I’ve been aware of the ways that people attach themselves to political gatekeepers who are more reactionary than they let on. The attachment is often the result of empty gestures and superficial signals on the part of the powerful person—things that sound and look good, essentially, but don’t have any substantive core. As a result, well-meaning people attach themselves to toxic figures based on Fata Morgana qualities that don’t really exist.
I wonder how much meaning people would attach to something empty and gross if there were enough signs attached to signal depth. I think that the limit for how charitable critics can be is more expansive than many would like to think.
It doesn’t take Barthes or Foucault to know that a film is more than its author. A film isn’t just the sum total of the individuals and studios that made it, but the entire ecosystem of cultures and diverse audiences worldwide. Film theorist Rick Altman calls this constellation of factors “the geometry of cinema events.”
Moebius and I Saw the Devil’s critical reception is inextricably linked to how they were made—this is part of the “geometry” that makes them what they are. Both are recent works by highly regarded Korean directors, and for many cineastes, the Korean New Wave has been one of the most exciting movements of the past few decades. New works from movement’s luminaries carry a lot of expectations, including the desire to see substance.
For instance, IndieWire speculates that I Saw the Devil’s relentless, monotonous violence might be “a commentary on the staleness of the genre itself.” This is open to interpretation, and obviously I’m on the non-charitable end of the spectrum, but it’s inarguably not a reading to which any film is entitled. A film by Kim Jee-woon gets this meaning mapped on to the film because he has made well-received films in the past, and is considered a fresh and interesting foreign voice.
Films with less artistic reputations don’t get this charity, even if they are clever satirical commentary on their genre. 2008’s Punisher: War Zone (Lexi Alexander) or 2006’s The Hills Have Eyes (Alexandre Aja) are both sly commentaries on their respective genres, though neither is recognized as such because of they look like genre dreck. They have a 27% and 50% on RottenTomatoes, respectively, and little critical recognition of their meta-textual qualities. In the case of The Hills Have Eyes, French director Aja added some of the most biting commentary in recent memory on the all-American action hero archetype. Released during Bush’s second term, the subtext was widely missed—one IMDB commenter mentions that those looking for something provocative will leave empty-handed. Though the film is plenty violent, it’s not “provocative,” because that word is used to mean intelligent and Aja’s film lacks the signifiers.
A Performance for the Critic
There’s another sort of signaling that I think may be going on with these two films, one done by their fans rather than the film itself. On RogerEbert.com, Kim Ki-duk is called “one of the international cinema scene’s most divisive filmmakers.” Divisive among whom, though? On Metacritic, 6 out of 7 of Kim Ki-duk’s films have positive reviews, for an average score of 68. His median user score is even higher. Among critics and those who seek out unconventional films, there’s less division than widespread embrace.
It’s true that most viewers don’t want to see sustained, outré violence. Though this is admittedly anecdotal, four years of working at movie theaters showed that the most irritable customers were often those walking out of a unexpectedly violent screening. I watched a customer go from asking calmly for re-admission passes to suddenly screaming profanities at my co-worker, having been shaken by the Aileen Wuornos biopic Monster. A friend of mine was told that it was “people like him” who were responsible for the Iraq War by someone walking out of No Country For Old Men.
Since extreme violence isn’t palatable to most people, I wonder if there’s a tendency to reflexively embrace art-house ultra-violence as a marker of sophistication. The way film critics, as someone from Escapist Magazine pointed out, trash Michael Bay as a safe proxy to attack mainstream audiences. Since it’s an unbreakable taboo for a critic to trash the “average American moviegoer,” the politically correct alternative is to trash with unrelenting zeal the filmmaker who’s seen as most emblematic of their unrefined tastes. Similarly, maybe the embrace of art-house Saws with trappings of “moral ambiguity” is to stake a place above the perceived bovine intellect of the typical popcorn-gobbling Cineplex rube.
This kind of signaling seems to be going on when I read things like “this is not for the faint of heart, but to Kim’s credit, it’s not for the faint of mind either.” The co-worker who took us to see Moebius had told us earlier about a book she read which proved that Heaven is for real, so Moebius has at least some appeal to members of the faint-minded community. With its increasingly inventive ways to remove characters’ flesh and punish women, Moebius would appeal to plenty of gorehounds whose Blu-ray collections most reviewers would probably sneer at. However, its signifiers command enough respect that it gets branded a cerebral, challenging work of art.
Both Moebius and I Saw the Devil have a lot going for them. I’m of the opinion that they don’t have much to offer textually, but they have a lot of cultural cachet. With their extreme violence and art-house signifiers, they offer not only a tabula rasa on which to project depth, but a position from which to perform depth.
Of course, I could be wrong about all of this. I think the movie Freddy Got Fingered is “provocative,” in both the senses I described earlier, so who knows. However, I do know that these films’ acceptances was more generous than that given to a more obvious provocateur like, say, Gaspar Noé, and I think there’s something to that. And maybe I’m just getting to do what I think others have done with these films—using them as a springboard to invoke other themes, and talk about something else.