At some point, all of us film buffs have tasted violent cinema that offend our sense of decency. Sometimes it is as inane and trite as The Human Centipede; sometimes as arresting and poignant as I Stand Alone (Seul contre tous). But always, we condemn the brutal savagery committed by villains, and focus on rooting for cursed victims. Such unbearable films set us thinking. Wondering how much actually reflects the cold, hard light of reality. What history, which society and whose experience should we associate the cruelty with?
French playwright Antonin Artaud is one of the most visible figures in surrealist theater. As author of “The Theater and its Double” — a criticism on artificial, civilized drama that glorify and coddle harsh reality — his writings hammer home the need to return to primitive, authentic experience through a barrage of sensory extremism (usually marked by graphic violence and harrowing screams). Back in 1938, this anti-bourgeois notion gave birth to a discipline known as Theater of Cruelty:
The Theater of Cruelty has been created in order to restore to the theater a passionate and convulsive conception of life, and it is in this sense of violent rigor and extreme condensation of scenic elements that the cruelty on which it is based must be understood.
This cruelty, which will be bloody when necessary but not systematically so, can thus be identified with a kind of severe moral purity which is not afraid to pay life the price it must be paid.
While it’s true that diabolic powers of realism is a rhetorical knife that cuts both ways; there is no doubt that Artaud’s movement aims to force the capturing, the reliving, the vibrations of raw and painful existence.
To borrow psychoanalytic (Freudian) terms — create a visceral, meta-mental experience by first liberating repressed, ID-ridden subconsciousness, then forcing humans to acknowledge their true natures without the buffer of civilization’s prim and proper. According to him: “This will bring demons to the surface.”
Today, Theater of Cruelty as an antithesis to classical narrative has evolved and developed new strains of violence aesthetics in the form of Hollywood slasher films (Wes Craven’s Scream), new French extremity (Gaspar Noe’s Irréversible), Italian found-footage horror (Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust) etc.
Things have come a long way since Luis Buñuel’s vintage short Un Chien Andalou (1929), where the slitting of an eyeball was explicit enough to trigger dopaminergic shock but in most cases, been watered down to the extent of numbing effect — it is the logic of repeated exposures. In the atmosphere of contemporary cinema; simulating anxious spectatorship by using intense and explicit visual-auditory stimuli is nothing new to jaded 21st century consumers familiar with blood and gore. But among this flood of controversial films that seek to emulate, yet severely underestimate the real point of of Artaud’s pursuit, some have managed to slip through the cracks of mediocrity and emerge true to the central goal.
These are audacious, intolerable films that challenge perceptions and capture the strange, savage world we live in. They are fully capable of psychological battery and provide the basis to participate in Artaud’s cathartic ambition — to confront the lies and “reveal man to himself”.
THE MOLE (El Topo)
They don’t make films like this anymore because it isn’t allowed. This deranged 1970 western-fantasy by Chilean director, Alejandro Jordorwsky tops the list because it is a haunting retaliation against First Cinema — Hollywood model commercializing bourgeois values. The hero in El Topo is nameless, and in the first half of this epic, he traverses the violence of Mexico’s deep, silent terrain with a naked young son on horse back. They move quietly and I watched in discomfort when they stumble upon desperate lowlifes that do not speak. In this alternate universe unfolding within the context of Third Cinema, characters are unpredictable savages, dwarves, and mutants that sound like animals, not humans. After the Mole abandons his child and undertakes a mission to duel and terminate four gun masters, I was paralyzed by one of the most arresting mirage of cruelty involving swarms of bees. The second-half of this film takes place years later and ends with the same visual imagery.
Many will remember El Topo for its symbolic references to religion but this unusual film is more than that. The mystical Mole’s tragic journey is a self-contained experience to witness. Difficult to fashion with words.
At the end of his career output of two films per year; Jean-Luc Godard unburdened himself with a blistering smackdown on class struggle, materialism, gun violence and gender stereotypes. Weekend was billed as political in nature, but this description is pathetically inadequate to describe its eclectic ideology. This absurd black comedy follows young Roland and Corrine, middle-class married couple who travel through the countryside to visit Corrine’s dying father (with plans to murder him for inheritance). As if a homicidal conspiracy is not enough to put the point across, the mutually cheating pair also plan to kill each other. But their plan is marred by fatal car accidents, frightened hitchhikers, and cannibalistic strangers. An 8-minute tracking sequence made in one single take exemplifies dramatic impact sought by Artaud’s cruelists. There are many car accidents in Weekend, and a particularly morbid sequence involve three burning cars that conclude in the shrilling cries of a woman reacting to the loss of her Hermes handbag. Here, Godard’s style is appropriate to the intensity of his sardonic commentary.
As Roland and Corrine proceed headlong through the nightmares of mean bourgeois France, the film itself also lampoons cinema. At one point, famously declaring “What a rotten film, all we meet are crazy people.”
FUNNY GAMES (2007)
If any film can singularly demonstrate the Theater of Cruelty and terrorize conventional rules in cinema, it is Michael Haneke’s torture-comedy Funny Games. Not the Austrian original, but its shot-by-shot US remake. What is the point of an replica using the exact same script? The targets of this provocative strategy is a very specific set of viewers (some say lab rats) identified by Michael Haneke.
Tim Roth and Naomi Watts are George and Ann, head of the nuclear family with young son Georgie and their expensive dog. An idyllic retreat to the lake house located in an affluent side of Long Island is systematically ripped-apart when they cross paths with teenagers Peter and Paul — so polite and mannered in the way they terrorize this happy family it makes my skin crawl at the mere mention. As a neighborly encounter between Paul and Ann escalate from friendly, awkward to mounting dread; the trio are finally taken hostage with classic protagonist Ann forced to engage in sadistic games in-order to stay alive until 9am the next day. Can the water-soaked cell phone finally work and harness aid from law enforcement? Will she find the knife accidentally stashed away in George’s yacht?
Haneke admits the joke is on the very masses perpetuating the movie climate with their appetites for screen sex and violence:
I wanted to show the audience how much they can be manipulated. First they think it’s all an illusion, just a film, then I do this rewinding and suddenly you go back. I look at the viewer directly, I talk to him, I wink at him. I do this again and again to show how much one can manipulate. In view of this overriding illusion in movies, it’s a good idea to create a little bit of mistrust in the verité, in the truth of moving pictures.
But more than all the above… in a sense, the underlying tone in Funny Games aims to humiliate. By mocking spectators being held captive by this unpredictable and dissatisfying sociological experiment I could not help but wonder if this film has done for Michael Haneke, what he wants to administer on others. Is one still morally pure after educating others using power games?