Sunday, January 2, 2011

losing your subtext… when a film’s message gets lost behind what’s on the screen

The first few paragraphs of what follows is not what I intended to write. I wanted to write (and do, to an extent) about films with political/social subtext and how that can be lost when the text is too big, too flashy, too extreme, too offputting, too… well, anything else that may get in the way of the point that is intended. But, the second of the two films, the one I was more interested in using as an example, is actually quite hard to write about without getting into specifics, and the specifics, even simple discussion of them, would be offputting to readers. So, the following is more vague than I would have liked but I don’t think I can get into it anymore than I did here in these few paragraphs (note, several more paragraphs, written a few hours later and more befitting my point, follow):

The following pertains to two films: Monsters and A Serbian Film

The former is simply about a man and a woman trying to cross dangerous country (the north of Mexico) to get into America… with giant alien monsters that don’t show up much on screen and a big wall to keep these aliens out of America—there is a blatantness to that last bit that is so rife for serious commentary on immigration but the film doesn't quite get into that… more on that below. The latter is about a former porn star who signs up for a big paycheck to make a film the contents of which he won’t know ahead of time and which turn out to include graphic sex and violence (often combined)—knowing that the film was made as a comment on conditions in Serbia after many years of war, the subtext is definitely there, but it gets lost underneath such disturbing visuals that most anyone who would bother with the film (and I wouldn't really recommend it to anyone I know, at least) wouldn't catch it…

First, some more on Monsters. The two leads are good and despite some comments on IMDB from more than a few people who didn’t care for the characters, I rather liked them both fairly early on in the film. But, then again, I am not the average moviegoer. The titular alien creatures have a fairly basic design, like massive walking squids, but they don’t get much screen time. This is not an alien invasion film, nor is it an action film. If there were no aliens, then this would simply be about two strangers getting to know one another (never with much depth but pretty naturally) as they get smuggled (essentially) up through Mexico to America. Along the way, there is a conversation around a fire with some of the guerillas helping them get north that hints at immigration subtext, and the border wall mentioned above is almost painfully obvious in its message… but the subject really ends there. Just as this isn’t a film about aliens, ultimately, it’s not a film about immigration that much either. It’s a sort of road movie, a bit of a romance that happens to involve travel options that would usually be found in a very different film and some alien creatures that would be in a whole other, third film

A Serbian Film has no romance to it. In the beginning of the film, the lead character and his wife seem to have a healthy relationship but that isn’t central to the film (except perhaps in the end as something of regular life to be lost to the chaos of what this man is going through). And, right from the start the average viewer would be put off, with the notion in the opening scene that the man’s young son is sitting around watching one of his porn star dad’s films that got left sitting around. This film is said to have gotten the most cuts of any film ever for the British market and it’s very legality has been challenged in Serbia (where it was produced but not where its intended audience is… similar to the film within the film) and in Spain, because of its graphic sex… and, I’m avoiding details here because even discussion of some of what’s in this movie would disturb most people. Plus, the details aren’t important here. What is important here is that the imagery is so notable that the message gets lost. While there is something to be said for this man losing his wife and son and his regular life to violence and foreign interests, without better commentary on its own subtext and WITH images and subject matter that would put off most people, no one is really going to be paying attention to the subject

That is what I wrote earlier, and while I generally post a blog entry (in this blog or any other) immediately after writing it, I saved this instead. I considered coming back and adding more detail, mention the rape, the necrophilia, the incest, and even the stuff that’s worse. But, while I think there’s a valid point being made even in my own writing above, just as in the film being discussed, the point may get lost behind the disgust and folks wondering just what kind of things this guy watches…

An interjection: I watched 254 different movies this year, from short films to features, American, foreign, documentaries, scripted, of varying genres and varying qualities and tones. It isn’t that I will just watch any film that comes along, of course, but I love the medium. When I first went to college, I wanted to major in cinema, I wanted to be a filmmaker, and to be honest, I still harbor some urge toward such a thing, though I have moved into other pastures. I watch hundreds of films a year and have put together a list on IMDB of, as I type this, 3431 films I have seen ( I’ve watched low budget crappy films. I’ve watched big budget blockbusters, low brow crap, high brow art

As far as standards of decency go, in some countries they are just different than they are here, and some cultures cannot help but make a certain type of films, especially at certain periods in history. Look at 1980s American cinema and you will see a lot of big action pictures, a lot of late Cold War era machismo, the likes of Rambo and Commando. We were at a certain right wing height, arguably the end of our hegemony over the world as the Red Menace was purported to be something huge but turned out to be of little substance as far as its threat to us… and now I wonder if this blog entry could be crossposted on my political blog if I keep on with this angle

The thing is, it is understandable that a Serbian film (as opposed to, but of course including, “A Serbian Film”) would include themes of exploitation, of violence, of people being used and abused, raped and murdered. Serbia and the surrounding Balkan states have been the center of war after war, and ongoing ethnic-based violence for far too long. This particular film could be made with less explicit sex, less graphic violence, but then the point might be lost altogether and, more importantly, it would not get the attention it gets from controversy. One of the films stars, Sergej Trifunović, is said on IMDB to be controversial all the time, a guy that audiences and the Serbian public either love or hate. Here he plays a producer of films for a foreign clientele who are effectively standing in for all global powers that would sit around thriving while Serbia and its Balkan neighbors kill each other

The aliens in Monsters stand in for immigrants even though the experience of the two leads trying to get by them is also standing in for a certain immigrant experience. The producer. his security (or rather Security, capitalized as, if I get the implication rightly in the film, they work for some government Security organization) men, and the foreign clients who want a certain kind of snuff film made for them in A Serbian Film, stand in for, if nothing else, we Americans who see films like Hostel, an American film with a similar take on certain parts of Europe (but playing it, arguably, more exploitatively, than this film that includes a character so damaged—WARNING, DISTURBING DETAILS AHEAD—that she smiles when her newborn is raped and presumably killed in front of her. Yes, I suggested the American film is more exploitative, putting a secretive torturing organization within a culture we don’t necessarily have the right to present in such a way. A Serbian Film is a Serbian film, produced for a foreign audience perhaps as a cry for help, begging for rage in the same way a documentary might while providing us with footage of real rape and murder victims, real dead children, real beheadings. One could argue that this film both detaches itself from the real violence and destruction wrought in Serbia’s past while also quite fully embracing the existential desolation left in its wake in a way that perhaps still images of a documentary could not

But, then again, what does it matter if no one will want to see the movie. And, as I said above, I am not recommending anyone watch it. I would recommend Monsters as a good film regardless of its subtext, a low budget alien invasion film with no invasion, a romance with more quiet moments than overt, and also, some subtext perhaps on illegal immigration, the razor’s edge brink of being caught and/or killed at any moment while making the trek to a better place to live. But, I will not recommend A Serbian Film. I had read about what was in it and even seen clips before I sat down to watch the entire film. I knew what I was getting into and was specifically looking for the message, seeing the film as something other than an exercise in exploitation… One could wonder if any so-called exploitation film, simply by existing, does not demonstrate some social/cultural/political message. Why, for example, did we have blaxploitation films in the 1970s? Just after the promise of the civil rights movement had been shown to be little more than a promise, characters like Shaft were vital to exorcising certain cultural demons. The film 8mm dealt with the existence of snuff films and delved into a seedy underground film market but it came across far less real than A Serbian Film does. 8mm didn’t make it seedy enough, didn’t make it dirty enough, disgusting enough. It didn’t make us want to turn away (except inasmuch as it wasn’t received too well at the box office, if I recall rightly, but that was more a comment on the quality and not the content of the film, a mediocre followup to SE7EN by David Fincher). Read a description of A Serbian Film and some might curious, just like people were curious at The Human Centipede. But, I ended up watching very little of that film, skipping most of it because, well, there was no subtext, no point. A film like Men Behind the Sun (sorry to insert yet another film so close to the end of this entry) seems to have been made for good reason, to show what happened in Japanese camps during World War II, but along the way the film lost some of its point, just as A Serbian Film does, using extreme images (e.g. frozen arms being skinned, autopsy footage purported to be real) to titillate and not necessarily to educate. A Serbian Film suffers a bit of the same problem, with one or two too many graphic images (one involving an eye comes to mind) weighing the film down on the side of exploitation a little more than it should be if it intends to be a true commentary on social or cultural or political conditions, a portrait of a damaged country who has nothing left to export except its own pain

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