Monday, July 19, 2010

Once You Are in Hell, Only the Devil Can Help You Out: The Tao of Jigsaw

Without a doubt, the most prominent silver screen bogeyman of the last decade is John Kramer, or Jigsaw (Tobin Bell).

This memorable horror villain has headlined a whopping six franchise feature films spanning the years 2004 to 2009, with a seventh Saw installment on the way (in 3-D) soon.

Much like historical cinematic bogeymen such as Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, and Hannibal Lecter, Jigsaw's very nature informs us about ourselves; about the things occurring in our world during his terrifying reign from Saw (2004) through Saw VI (2009).

The first important thing to understand about John Kramer is that he is a man who has known personal hardship. John's unborn child died in the womb when a weaselly drug addict named Cecil (Billy Otis) slammed a door into the belly of the expectant mother, John's wife, Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell).

If that tragedy wasn't sufficient suffering for one man to endure, John Kramer also weathered a terrifying car accident and the associated, bloody injuries, and -- finally -- was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. In some ways, John Kramer has been made to suffer more -- and in a shorter span -- than the Old Testament's Job. Like that Biblical character, Kramer was once a prosperous, happy man. But he was tested by -- if not God -- then certainly life.

Instead of surrendering to his enduring pain and loss, John Kramer selected another path. Sick and dying, he began to see that all those supposedly "healthy" people around him did not cherish they lives; that they were ungrateful for all they had.

So John set about to test these ungrateful, unaware people in the most painful, life-threatening manners possible. These tests or "traps" (or "games," as John Kramer terms them) comprise the gory, body-annihilating set-pieces of the Saw series. Each game is introduced with Jigsaw's euphemistic opener, "I want to play a game," and usually ends with a simple "game over."

Contextually, Jigsaw's flesh-rending, trademark games represent the crucible through which these ungrateful individuals must face their crimes, their weaknesses, their oversights, and their mistakes. In keeping with the post-9/11 context of the Saw films, nobody gets off scot-free, without losing something (usually a limb or other body part...).

For example, Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes) in Saw (2004) -- who has been unfaithful to his wife -- loses a foot to rescue his family. A predatory lender in Saw VI (2009) must hack off her own arm to survive, giving up a literal pound of flesh.

Interestingly, those victims/player who do endure through Jigsaw's bloody gauntlet may also arrive somewhere special in terms of understanding: at the same destination, in fact, as their secret guru, their anonymous teacher, John Kramer.

In other words, they come to appreciate life all the more for their harrowing journey. Jigsaw's mantra, "Cherish Your Life" becomes a phrase to live by.

I hasten to add, this is not a small lesson in the Age of Terror. We should cherish our lives, the Saw movies remind us, because easy, happy, seemingly-eternal continuance isn't a given. As an ex-President is fond of reminding us, "oceans can't protect us anymore." Government can't protect us, either, as Hurricane Katrina and the BP Oil Spill have proven. Life can be taken away in a heartbeat, even in modern America. That's an essential part of the human experience, despite our affluent, technological culture.

The Saw movies actually concern several entangled, interconnected aspects of American politics in the 2000s. There is blowback: a repayment for bad deeds by a wronged person; certainly a metaphor for what some people might deem imperialist foreign policy leading up to 9/11.

There is also the reckoning that comes from surviving an absolutely destructive, horrifying, and traumatic event, like the 9/11 attack itself. That attack (and Katrina, etc.) remind us how lucky we are to be alive. How the bell could have tolled for us; or for our own beloved family members in such a crisis.

And most importantly, perhaps, there is the hypocrisy of personal judgment imposed on other people. What elevates Jigsaw to the realm of villain and bogeyman-- and not merely a righteous moral avenger -- is the fact that he forces his belief system on others. He believes he knows the answers, that he knows the "right way" and that others must follow those ways so they can function on his "higher" moral level. This is self-righteous and intrusive in the extreme, yet Jigsaw sees his actions simply as helping people.

In other words, Jigsaw imposes upon his victims "games" in which they must specifically choose between two pre-arranged alternatives. Yes, they may learn from the horrifying experience. But the fact that they must learn at all is a result of Kramer's actions, no matter how John chooses to see it or rationalize it.

Jigsaw remains popular, I submit, because people of all political persuasions can interpret his behavior as being either Bush-like (pre-emptively forcing his will on others because he believes God wants him to; that he is on a holy mission) or Obama-like (legislating new social order from the bully pulpit).

I'll stay out of that particular argument...but I submit a case could likely be made from either end of the spectrum.

Finally, the Saw films boast another important and timely quality. They are unbelievably gory. Saw III (my choice for the best film in the cycle) is probably the most effectively gory film I've ever seen. By that, I mean simply that the movie boasts a powerful emotional impact, and isn't just a display of spaghetti special effects for shock and awe. This quality too is a product of our times. In the 2000s, Americans saw the bloody corpses of Uday and Qusay Hussein on cable television, photographs of prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib, news footage of American corpses hanged and burned to cinders in Iraq, and even a contractor decapitated by Al Qaeda, on the Net. You want to complain about "torture porn?" Don't point at the Saw films as devilish culprits (they merely reflect what's happening in our culture), point out the mainstream media for playing such ghastly images on a seemingly endless loop, day in and day out.

Given all this pertinent historical context, let's now play a game ourselves. Let's enumerate the most important qualities of this particular silver screen "monster," or the Tao of Jigsaw.

1.) He understands that "The Knowledge of Death changes everything."

Because of his own personal experiences, Jigsaw has come to understand what truly matters in life.

It's not wealth. It's not material belongings. It's personal morality;

It's the way we treat each other in this life. As strange as it sounds, many of Jigsaw's games are designed to foster that understanding.

Because Jigsaw has accepted his own death, he has no fear, no desire for possessions, no need to gain further power or prominence in the culture. Instead, he uses the knowledge of death to "see" other people as they truly are, and pinpoint and expose their faults.

It was never done in the Saw films, but it would have been truly interesting to see John's self-righteous moral lens turned on himself; to see someone else at the same plateau of "higher" morality judge him. His students, Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith) and Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) accept his dictates almost mindlessly; and other characters, such as Kerry (Dina Meyer) and Rigg (Lyriq Bent) reject him out of hand, considering him simply a criminal to be caught. Who judges the judge?

2.) He picks the right tool for the right job. Or, the punishment fits the crime.

Jigsaw is fiendishly clever and yet amazingly insightful in the manner he selects his victim's deadly "games." The games almost universally have something to do with the victim's bad behavior.

A corrupt cop, Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) is positioned by rope over a melting ice cube of considerable size, for instance, a metaphor for his "slippery" moral behavior on the job, in
Saw IV. When the ice melts...he will hang.

In Saw III, Jigsaw makes an abused woman's continued survival dependent on the physical separation from her abuser (her husband). They are both impaled on long spikes, but the beaten-down woman can pull herself off...and kill her spouse in the process. In other words, this woman must release herself from the shackles of co-dependency, instead of going back to the man that hurts her. Again. She can either die with him, or establish independence in a...pointed fashion.

In Saw VI, a slimy health insurance agent, Will (Peter Outerbridge) mercilessly chooses every day which strangers should live and die according to business, according to health insurance policy "rules." He issues death sentences with an eye not towards morality, but towards the company's bottom line. Jigsaw understands this, and thus makes Will's behavior on the job personal. In his deadly game, William must choose from among his friends, family and co-workers who should live and who should die. He suddenly sees the emotional underpinnings of his policy choices clearly.

Even Amanda's ghoulish game in Saw -- which involves a helmet that will literally rip her face apart -- seems to fit the nature of her individual personal demons. She is a junkie. She puts poison into her body on a regular basis. Amanda cares so little for her "temple," apparently, that she is willing to destroy it. Accordingly, Jigsaw provides a game which requires her to protect it from total destruction; the very opposite of her typical behavior.

3.) He understands that we're all "connected."

We're all in this life together. We are all citizens of the planet Earth. Ocean may separate us, but we are all of one globe.

Jigsaw understands that all human beings are "connected" through our choices, and attempts to teach this lesson to his victims.

In Saw V, Jigsaw arranges a game for five co-conspirators involved in a real-estate swindle. All five of the people enmeshed in this "deal" were looking out only for themselves; only for their own bottom-line. The end result is that several homeless people died in a fire they caused. They were so busy looking out for their percentage, they forgot the human equation. They committed murder because lining their pockets was more important.

Accordingly, Jigsaw lands all five conspirators in a game in which one person's fate dictates everybody's fate. The five people-- like we citizens of Planet Earth -- are connected. And if they learn their lesson -- if they realize the nature of this connection -- they will survive with minimal carnage and bodily harm. If they don't realize this, if they only look out for themselves, there can be no winner. Everyone will die.

In essence, this is an environmental message. We share the Earth. We either treat it right so we all can enjoy it, or we risk losing the whole game for everybody.

4.) He knows that immortality exists not in continued survival, but in the children.

Jigsaw, John Kramer, knows that he is going to die. He knows that the body weakens, and that life ends. He is not immortal.

Throughout the Saw films, then, he takes on multiple apprentices, "spiritual" children who can learn what he knows, and follow in his fatherly footsteps. These children are Amanda, Hoffman and Rigg.

Some of John's heirs prove disappointments. Rigg is a failed student. He is shown Jigsaw's way...but never takes to it.

Amanda and Hoffman both very soon prove to be more sadistic and less fair-minded than John (who believes that "everyone deserves a second chance"). Specifically, it is always possible for victims to survive one of John's games, if they play well, if they choose correctly. There is escape if the lesson is learned and understood, and understanding is demonstrated to the game master.

In Amanda and Hoffman's games -- as Detective Kerry learns the hard way -- the deck is stacked. There is only death and annihilation at the end of the contest, and so John's brand of justice becomes simply "vengeance." As self-righteous as John is, at the very least he plays by the rules. His offspring do not.

Yet sometimes siblings fight (Amanda and Hoffman boast a terrible rivalry...), and sometimes children disappoint their parents...but Jigsaw knows that the future is theirs, regardless. He attempts to share his wisdom with them, even taking into account that they are not "him" and can never be "him." He is both a good and bad father, I suppose. Good, because he teaches his children how to live. Bad, because that way to live is, well, at best self-righteous, at worst evil.

In a deep (and yet exquisitely gory...) fashion, the Saw movies are deliberately all about our moral decisions, and about the way we pass judgment on others for their moral decisions. We can look at the context of the films, the years from 2004 - 2010, to glean a better understanding of the movies, but perhaps the most critical aspect of the Tao of Jigsaw is human nature itself. John Kramer -- Jigsaw -- will likely carry relevance and meaning for us so long as human nature remains unchanged.

In other words, "the games have just begun..."

No comments:

Post a Comment