Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Films of 2015: The Green Inferno

Eli Roth’s 2015 horror film, The Green Inferno is a sensitive, nuanced argument about intercultural differences and our inability to overcome them.

Okay, that’s not quite true.

Eli Roth’s 2015 horror film, The Green Inferno is an abundantly gory and enthusiastic tribute to the violent cannibal movies of yesteryear, like Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980).

The quality I enjoy so much about Roth’s work in the horror genre -- including his masterpiece, Hostel (2005) -- is the director’s total and utter disregard for convention or, politely put, tact.

Roth’s films blow right though the carefully erected movie borders of good taste (no pun intended, considering the subject matter here…), and the director sews discomfort by taking matters as far as they can possibly go without running too far afoul of the censors.

I appreciate Roth’s commitment to horror, his boundless energy, and yes, his fearlessness. I realize some horror fans don’t like Roth’s work, but whenever I ask why this is the case, I’m told that this dislike has something to do with the filmmaker’s personality, or ego.  

Well, I don’t know him personally (although we were both guests on Saturday Night at the Movie’s special on The Bad Seed a decade ago…). Nor do I know anything about his ego, for that matter. 

The only question I concern myself with is: does Roth make good, scary films?

The answer is affirmative. I am rarely disappointed by his horror movies, though I believe that Knock Knock (2015) could have proven a bit more coherent.

The Green Inferno has no such flaw.

In many ways, it’s a dedicated remake or update of Hostel. At the very least, it adopts the same narrative template as that older film does. To wit: misinformed Americans visit another region of the world without really knowing that region, and come to rue both their ignorance, and their naïve desire to see other countries.  

In the past, I have called this trope “American’s abroad.” This story-type acknowledges that there are other traditions in the world; traditions that we, as Americans, might find barbaric, profane, or even terrifying.

Thus The Green Inferno perfectly expresses the xenophobic quality of our national discourse at the moment.  As a country, we are apparently feeling very suspicious of refugees, foreigners, immigrants and those of other, non-Western belief systems.

Among other communication courses, I teach Intercultural Communications at a local college, and there’s a lot of push-back right now, by Americans, against the progressive concept of cultural relativism; the idea that one culture isn’t superior to another. Rather one culture is merely different from another.

The Green Inferno absolutely challenges such a conceit, yet is well-rounded and intelligent enough in its storytelling to consider not merely the barbarism of its cannibalistic villains. Rather, the film also takes square aim at the entitled, indulged nature of the American students who run afoul of them. 

In fact, the school kids and activists come off worse than the flesh eaters, really. Our culture may be more civilized, but if we can't survive in the jungle for a few hours without our grande lattes, is civilization such a good thing, in the final analysis?

Why did I enjoy The Green Inferno so much? Well, it isn’t really the horror film’s job to be polite, or even-handed, or even judicious in its insights.  

The horror film’s job is to scare us silly, and make observations about the world around us that manage to resonate, and reflect our times. The Green Inferno accomplishes that goal in indelicate, brutal, and wholly entertaining fashion.

They deserve to get tear-gassed for waking us up so early on a Sunday morning...”

In New York City, a naïve college freshman, Justine (Lorenza Izzo) becomes interested in social activism in general, and saving the rain forest in particular. Justine's interest is spurred, in part, by her attraction to an activist leader, Alejandro (Ariel Levy).

Although Alejandro already has a girlfriend, Kara (Ignacia Allamand), Justine decides to go on a "field trip," nonetheless, to prevent a company from bull-dozing the rain forest. Her father (Richard Burgi), who works at the U.N., is not happy about the trip, but she goes anyway.

After a stunt using smart phones to expose the demolition crew on the Internet, Justine and the activists board a plane for home, feeling very satisfied at their victory. Unfortunately, the plane crashes in the Peruvian jungle.

Upon landing, several of the activists are killed by a local cannibal tribe, but Justine, her friend Jonah (Aaron Burns) and Alejandro, among others are abducted and taken back to the village. 

There, the locals indulge in cannibalism, and prepare for Justine in a ritual involving female genital mutilation…

“You risked your life for a fucking photo shoot?”

Cannibal Holocaust is a rather notorious film in horror film circles, and yet it’s a powerful work of art too. The story of a documentary film crew that agitates a cannibal tribe in “the green inferno,” the 1980 film never feels anything less than immediate, or real.

The quasi-found footage nature of the thing makes Cannibal Holocaust especially powerful, and the social comment -- that the film crew from the First World is no more civilized than the cannibals of the Third -- is conveyed powerfully. Some people may claim the whole movie is but cynical manipulation, or that there are colonial/racist overtones to the action. These points may have some merit. But the movie is undeniably effective…and one heck of a conversation starter.

The Green Inferno doesn’t adopt the found footage approach of Cannibal Holocaust, but it does mirror the earlier film’s attempt at social commentary, making powerful, wicked and occasionally funny comparisons between the protagonists (college activists) and antagonists (cannibals).

Indeed, The Green Inferno proves itself a real tribute to Cannibal Holocaust in terms of its narrative content, its level of gore, and the aforementioned social commentary. If you are a horror fan who remembers cannibal movies fondly, you’re going to love the film for its dedication to the form.

I will readily admit that I have affection for Cannibal Holocaust and its ilk, while noting -- at the same time -- that these films succeed in making me feel very uncomfortable.

Yet discomfort is not a bad position at all, from which to experience a horror film. In fact, it’s the best starting point.  If a horror film is afraid to make us question our social assumptions and beliefs, if it is afraid to burst our comfort bubble, then it is already hedging its bets.

No bets are hedged here.

The cannibals are depicted in the film in full-throated, savage terms. I suppose someone could argue that this is a racist, First World View of a different culture, but Roth deflects that criticism by painting some of the cannibals, especially a child, as individuals. Also, his critique of the activists balances the view of the natives as primitive monsters.

The gore scenes in the film are not for the timid. My wife joined me to watch the film, and then left the room three minutes into the central scene of cannibalism.

The film’s central gore set piece involves the tribal leader plucking out both of Jonah’s eyes, and eating them. She then cuts off the tip of his tongue…and eats that too. Then other tribe members come in and cut off his arms and legs…all while he is wriggling and still alive. It’s a vicious, explicit and harrowing scene, and it establishes, perfectly, what’s at stake for Justine and her friends.

The scene involving female genital mutilation is one of the most unsettling things I’ve seen in a horror movie lately, and, indeed, that’s the point. 

The movie possesses a very valid reason for including the sequence, so the violence isn’t gratuitous.The scene isn't leering, either. The central debate of The Green Inferno involves the difference between real activists -- who know and understand other cultures -- and dabblers or tourists, who are in it for superficial, egotistical reasons. The idea of female genital mutilation is just a social “issue” for Justine, an abstract intellectual idea about how another culture is wrong and hers is enlightened. 

But tellingly, Justine doesn’t join Alejandro on his mission because she wants to put a stop to female genital mutilation. She joins him because she thinks he’s hot. And she wants to impress him.

Through the events of the film, Justine comes to understand the horror of the grisly, misogynistic procedure in a very real life way. The debate, for her, is no longer distant, no longer abstract.

The activists in the film are largely of Justine’s ilk. Accordingly, Roth savages them one and all, sparing none. 

One activist complains, in the midst of the crisis, about the cannibals presenting a non-vegan diet to their captives. That’s a key line of dialogue, actually, because it reveals these so-called activists have no idea where they are, or that their own culture is very far away. 

They are put out because they have to change their diet? Really?

At another junction, the activists witness an adult riding on a motorcycle with a child. The child isn’t wearing a helmet, and an activist complains that this is “like child abuse.” 

Again, they are blind to the reality of another culture and its beliefs and customs.

In short, these college kids are the epitome of indulged and entitled brats; ones who can’t see that their rules of how to live -- the world of trigger warnings and helicopter parents -- doesn’t exist everywhere in the world.. 

Justine’s friend from the beginning of the film -- who at least possesses the wisdom not to travel to the jungle -- captures the tenor of the kids well. She says that being awakened early on a Sunday morning by activists is an act that merits bombardment by tear-gas. 

She also notes that activism is just a form of “white, suburban guilt” for Justine and the others. I don’t think she’s far off the mark regarding them. For most of these folks, activism is something to brag about on CVs and social media. It is just another way to look good to others, and therefore a form of narcissism, not altruism.

Roth pursues this leitmotif, comparing indulged kids with ravenous cannibals, while punctuating the film with remarkable shocks and surprises, keeping audiences off-balance. One scene involving the cannibals, a human victim, and some weed, is a bit of inspired lunacy.

And the crash scene in the jungle is rendered visceral through a series of bloody shocks that declare, essentially, “welcome to the jungle.”

I won’t go so far as to agree with all of Roth’s rhetorical "truth bombs" here. Like Cannibal Holocaust, The Green Inferno can feel mighty cynical at times.

The movie’s conclusion -- that good guys and bad guys are connected -- using the same techniques but to different ends, feels like a cheap shot at genuine, altruistic activists, who have fought for Civil Rights and accomplished great things in our history. 

But agreement isn’t really the issue here.

The Green Inferno thrives on a great, gleeful, anarchic vibe. It isn’t nuanced or sensitive, but the film does broach the topic of intercultural relationships in an intelligent fashion. The activists don’t realize where they are, who they are up against, or what is at stake. The cannibals don’t see them as people, only as food.  The barriers between the two cultures are insurmountable.

You can't save the world, the film says, if you don't know the truth of the world you want to save.

Given the Age of Xenophobia we live in right now, The Green Inferno succeeds admirably in suggesting how steep a climb successful intercultural relationships can prove to be. 

To paraphrase a character in the film, if you don’t realize when you’ve arrived in the jungle (and not at a local Starbucks…), there’s every chance "a tarantula will bite" your “dick off” there.

In this metaphor, I guess you can conclude that the film's activists are the dicks and the cannibals are the tarantula.  

Only Eli Roth could make this particular point in such a wonderfully vulgar (and yet artistic) way.

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