Friday, June 22, 2012

Savage Friday: A Primer on the Savage Cinema


Welcome to "Savage Friday," a new type of post I’ll be running from time-to-time here on the blog. 

The Savage Cinema, as I like to call it, grew out of a film movement that began, arguably with Bonnie and Clyde (1976).  You’ll recall, perhaps, that Arthur Penn movie’s frankness about sex (conveyed in ubiquitous phallic imagery…), as well as the film’s unbelievably bloody and downbeat ending. 

As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, the “New Freedom” arrived in full, and cutting-edge filmmakers began to vet stories -- horror stories, I maintain – about basic human nature. 

In tales of the Savage Cinema, resources are scarce, compromise is impossible, and two “sides” go to war.  The Haves and the Have Nots (The Hills Have Eyes [1977]), the lawful and the unlawful (The Last House on the Left [1972]), the male and female (I Spit on Your Grave [1978]), the liberated and traditional (Straw Dogs [1971]), even city folk and country folk (Deliverance [1972]) find that there’s no room for debate…only bloodshed and hatred.

And in each one of these films, for the most part, there’s an Every Man (or Every Woman) who is drawn or pulled into combat, and must consequently re-evaluate his or her sense of morality to contend with the sudden, often inexplicable outbreak of violence.  That Every Person rises to an unexpected challenge, but also – in some way – succumbs to the basest human instinct: to kill.

In the crucible of (unwanted) combat, the Every Person thoroughly tests him or herself.  Does he or she have what it takes to survive?  Does this character descend, finally, into bloody violence?  And what is the personal, mental, and physical toll of shedding civilization and established norms of morality, even for an instant?   Can you come back from that?  Do you want to come back from that?

Such questions intrigue and fascinate me, perhaps because I have always lived a sheltered and safe life.  I’m a largely risk averse person in terms of my choices and life-style.  I live in a world where there is ample police protection, no military draft, and remarkably little crime. But I admire the Savage Cinema films I’ve mentioned above because they force audiences to ponder, quite frankly: what would I do? 

Even better, these films echo their content to an extreme and remarkably pure degree.  If Savage Cinema film narratives involve shedding the shackles and protections of civilization and the norms of morality, their cinematic, visual approach involves a stylistic corollary: shredding established film decorum and conventions, and going over the edge into transgressive and taboo-breaking territory.

This territory is not for polite company, to be certain.

It’s a place of frequent female and male rape (Deliverance, Straw Dogs, I Spit on Your Grave, Last House), imperiled family members (The Hills Have Eyes, Last House), and brutal violence.  Often that on-screen violence is of an intensely personal and even animalistic nature: A woman bites off a man’s penis in Craven’s Last House.  Similarly, in Straw Dogs, we see a man’s foot blown off (by a stray shot-gun blast) in extreme close-up. 

So yes, these movies are explicit and disturbing, but also courageous in the sense that they follow through on their promise and premise.  Where some people and critics have stated that such films are gratuitously violent, I argue the opposite point.  These films are about violence, and the consequences of violence on families, and civilization as a whole. 

The violence highlighted in films of the Savage Cinema is of a type that makes you wonder about our human nature.  It isn’t depicted as heroic, but rather, in some instances, as necessary and human, but still awful.  If you gaze at the final freeze frame of Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left, you see a family destroyed by violence.  On the soundtrack, we hear the lyrics “the road leads to nowhere” and that “the castle stays the same.”  In other words, a civilized family has descended to the level of law-breaking criminals, and nothing has been earned or won through that violence.  Retribution or revenge may satisfy blood lust for a moment, but then what do you do – for a lifetime – knowing that you are the same thing, at heart, as the “monster” you slayed?

This is the morally-fascinating territory of the Savage Cinema, and the reason why it boasts artistic worth and social value.  And make no mistake: the genre boasts powerful enemies on both sides of the political spectrum.  Some religious right-wingers decry the violence of the Savage Cinema and want the films banned.  On the left, there some committed feminists who view the films as being overtly anti-woman. 

With respect to both demographics, they aren’t seeing the forest for the trees.  While it’s true that the films are brutal, and that women are among those who suffer in them, it is also true that the violence boasts a moral point, and that men and women are – largely – brutalized equally.  In the Savage Cinema, no one is immune from the human condition.  But it's easy to discern that these films are politically-incorrect and that if you just look at the images (and not the meaning underlying the images), these films appear...incendiary.

Even in terms of horror aficionados, there are those who decry these films.  Savage cinema films lack the "Gothic elegance," we might be told, of an earlier, more dignified generation of genre films.   Again, that's true from a certain perspective.  The horror in these films is more direct -- and blunt -- than we might be accustomed to if we grew up with Universal or Hammer.   Savage Cinema films arise from a different cinematic aesthetic and tradition than such efforts -- that "New Freedom" of the counter-culture, late 1960s -- and yet they still speak trenchantly and symbolically about the human condition.

We initiate our first Savage Cinema Friday with a look at one of the form’s most notorious and memorable films: John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972)...

12 comments:

  1. Great post John.. Thanks.

    The film "Red State" comes to mind while reading this. I believe I heard about that one from you as well. What separates this genre from more overtly typical horror like "Halloween" or "When a Stranger Calls"? Or from films jammed with gratuitous violence like Peckinpah's "Wild Bunch"?

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    1. Hi Big Nick,

      I love Red State. That's a perfect example of the Savage Cinema, revivified (if that's a word) for our contemporary age, and the Red State/Blue State divide in America.

      I think what differentiates the Savage Cinema from (great) films like Halloween or Wild Bunch is that the central question of the form is really: what am I capable of? Or perhaps, more generally, what are people capable of, when it comes down to it?

      Halloween is a terrifying exercise in horror, and about how we have built up all this infrastructure to "protect us" from monsters...but they still exist, and can still break through. But I don't think Michael's violence is the central question. the central question there is: does Evil exist, and is it a diagnos-able psychological condition, or something from outside humanity? If the answer is the latter, have we built up all this meaningless protection for no good reason?

      The Savage Cinema films are all, to varying degrees of course, very focused meditations on this question of the veneer of civilization, and people rising (or lowering) themselves to a position of fighting back. The ensuing questions become: are human beings innately violent or innately civilized? Does violence solve anything? And, after violence...what next?

      While other films are violent, of course, here, the action revolves around the meaning and nature of that violence.

      At least that's my take on it now...:)

      Great comment!

      best,
      John

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  2. Deliverance, (the original) Straw Dogs, Bonnie and Clyde, and Southern Comfort all get high marks from me.

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    1. David:

      I'm with you on all of those, 100 percent. Next week, I'll review Straw Dogs (1971), one of my all time favorite films, in any genre.

      Thanks for the comment!

      best,
      John

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  3. John -- As you know, "savage cinema" is not my favorite horror sub-genre ... but I have to admit that DELIVERANCE is one of my favorite films. I've been thinking about blogging on it soon, prompted by this recent article in the LA Times:
    http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/movies/la-ca-deliverance-20120617,0,6096134.story

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    1. Hi Joe,

      Thanks for sharing that link.

      An intriguing story about the strange making of the film. In whatever way it was assembled...it's powerful and remains powerful. A great American movie from perhaps the greatest age of American movies.

      One of these days, I'm going to have to ask you seriously why savage cinema isn't your favorite, since I've exposed my reasons for loving the sub-genre. :)

      Best,
      John

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    2. Here's your answer... http://maddrey.blogspot.com/2012/07/movies-made-me-47-deliverance-and.html

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  4. Hi John,

    Thanks for a great post! It strikes me that much of what you call Savage Cinema, I call a "revenge movie." Death Wish, Ms. 45, Breaking Point, and so many others fall into that category, and it's a genre I enjoy for its sometimes cathartic conclusions. Do you feel there is a divide between Savage Cinema and revenge movies, or are they fairly synonymous to you?

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    1. Hi Matthew,

      I think of "rape and revenge" films -- as I call them -- to be a part of the Savage Cinema, yes. I have a hard time accepting Death Wish as one of the family, only because it doesn't really deal with a philosophy around its violence. It's almost too mainstream. It actually encourages blood lust whereas most revenge oriented films end with the theme that the violence didn't really change anything for the better (think Last House). Ms. 45 has a LOT on its mind. I love that movie and do count it as a "Savage" cinema film.

      Let me put it this way, I feel that the Savage Cinema is intensely violent, but that every example of it offers some philosophical viewpoint on that violence instead of merely mindlessly encouraging violence. Not all "rape" films manage that nifty trick, but indeed many do.

      Thank you for posting. Your comment helps me better explain my thoughts on this.

      All my best,
      John

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    2. Thanks for your reply, John. I am not sure that I agree entirely that the first Death Wish film is pro-violence, as I see it as more of an examination, not necessarily coming down on one side or the other with regards to vigilantism (although it has been awhile since I've seen it). Certainly, it doesn't take a hard-line stance as the Savage Cinema films seem to.

      Where the line is drawn is always interesting to me, whether it is slasher movies or revenge movies or similar. So many of these sub-genres are related that there are definite gray areas between them. I think the slasher movie owes a lot to revenge movies, as they effectively reverse the audience's allegiance so that the character wronged in the past is the evil killer (as opposed to the hero) and the characters who wronged that character are picked off one-by-one.

      Even movies like Carrie seem to skirt the edge of Savage Cinema, as nothing good seems to have really come of Carrie's revenge-taking. As much as you feel for Carrie, you are torn when she kills or scars those who were basically on her side. Indeed, it's hard to understand motives and allegiances of other people in reality; they are not simply black-and-white. Certainly there is some comment on Vietnam in some of these films.

      I think both Savage Cinema and revenge (or rape-and-revenge) films want the audience to initially be so disgusted by the actions of the violator(s) that the audience does want revenge and is perhaps even bloodthirsty. Whether it was rape, murder of family members, or even being framed and sent to prison for years, the act of violence needs to be sufficiently disgusting for the audience to sympathize with the "hero" for the rest of the film. I think the movies work best when you do feel a catharsis but then immediately feel a bitter after-taste once the hero reaches their horrible goal.

      I think it's worth considering that some Savage Cinema flicks may have tried to have it both ways by being extremely violent but adding a "violence doesn't solve anything" coda or implication at the end to almost excuse anything previous. There's nothing particularly wrong with that, but perhaps it's worth consideration. At the same time, movies that wanted to make such a statement about violence and revenge would find prior violence in the film very necessary, just as an anti-war movie might find realistic images of war necessary.

      The films of the Savage Cinema seem to argue for civility even in the face of extreme affronts to the main character. Nothing of the justice system is mentioned, but it's not a long leap to consider these very anti-death penalty in many cases, as the death penalty seems very geared towards satisfying a need for revenge.

      Thanks for giving me something quite interesting to ponder this Friday afternoon! It's always a pleasure to read your blog posts, and I value your opinion.

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    3. Hi Matthew,

      You had a lot of great points in that comment, and I agree with many of them. Honestly, I haven't seen Death Wish in a while, so I was writing about an impression that I had that could be wrong. I should re-watch the film.

      Secondly, there is definitely an area of overlap or "gray" area, as you say, regarding rape and revenge films, savage cinema and horror films in general.

      There are a lot of connections. I guess I view the Savage Cinema as consisting of those films that make a judgment about violence their main purpose for being. The debate about violence and human nature comes before anything else. (I don't think you can say that about Halloween, for instance).

      Next, I can't deny the possibility that Savage Cinema films may be trying to have it both ways. First draw in an audience with horrible, bloody violence, and then stand back and imbue all the bloodshed with a purpose and go "tsk tsk".

      Yep, I'm sure that's true in some cases. It is kind of having it both ways, indeed. However, I don't think this is necessarily true of the best Savage Cinema.

      I did feel this way, personally, about I Spit on Your Grave. My wife didn't feel that way about it at all: she felt it had social value, and at least one other movie critic has told me I was absolutely wrong about that one. So I'm looking forward to seeing it again and seeing where I either went wrong, or went right in terms of understanding it.

      I also agree with you that a lot of these films reference the Vietnam War at least obliquely (see my review of Deliverance, today...), and that this adds to the then-current national dialogue at the time about violence and whether it resolves anything. This may be a key component, in fact of the Savage Cinema in its first, 1970s context.

      Also, I do believe the equation is very much how you spell it out in your remarks: We watch these films and develop a feeling of blood lust, but then feel empty and kind of sad when revenge is meted. I feel that this is the powerful arc of the best Savage Cinema movies. They encourage your anger or your fury, but then make you see that anger and fury aren't, necessarily, fruitful responses to violence. It's a very interesting alchemy. Let's face it, the approach is very much anti-violence, which is ironic considering the amount of violence in all these pictures. But then again, you can't make an anti-violence movie without featuring the thing you're deriding, right?

      And thank you for giving me so much to think about on this Friday afternoon. Your comments have really gotten me pondering these films and how I choose to classify them. I value your opinion as well, and hope you'll come back to check additional reviews and add further to this and other conversations.

      All my best,
      John

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  5. A great idea for blog post series, John. Certainly, coming out of the tumultuous 60s (civil/voting rights, women’s movement, Vietnam War, political assassinations, etc.) it's no surprise the 70s had plenty of this type of cinema in reaction. As you've pointed out, the popularity and mark left by BONNIE & CLYDE (btw, you transposed a couple of numbers for its year, 1967, in your piece) probably did mark the start of all this. Still, while it was certainly nowhere near as commercial as that Arthur Penn classic, I'd nominate an earlier work from that same decade. It was seminally savage: Walter Grauman's little remembered LADY IN A CAGE (1964). Lurid and shocking, filmed in black & white to great and grim effect, and IIRC actor James Caan's acting debut, I think it would be a great addition. I saw it years ago as teen late one Saturday on a local network late-night movie program (believe it or not, my kid brother saw this as a second feature on a double-bill a couple of years before I caught it). For me, it defined the essence of savage cinema: it was scarring.

    Looking forward to your first post, John. Thanks for this.

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