I Know It When I See It

Donna’s never been able to sit through a violent movie. She’s fine with the occasional fistfight or car crash in an action thriller … I’m not saying she’s strictly G-rated … but movies that glorify violence, or that are based on violence and not much else, are not her thing.

Maybe I’m just going through a phase, but I find myself coming around to her point of view. The other night the kids (Polly and our goddaughter Natasha) put on a Netflix DVD I’d ordered, Young Adam.  I ordered it based on who was in it (Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton), not paying much attention to the rating (NC-17, “for some explicit sexual content”).  I’m okay with some level of sex in a movie (as is Donna … she’s not a prude, either), and the blurb didn’t alert me to anything out of the ordinary:

A young drifter working on a river barge disrupts his employers’ lives while hiding the fact that he knows more about a dead woman found in the river than he admits.

So anyway the kids have this movie on in the family room and I happen to walk in on what I hope to hell is most gruesome scene in the entire movie: a young woman kneeling naked on the floor, covered in blood and screaming as a man brutally whips, kicks, and slugs her.  The horrifying scene goes on and on, the woman keening EEEEEE! EEEEEE! between heart-wrenching sobs as the beating continues … a beating that will apparently end in her death.

By this point in the movie, Natasha’s in another room, and though Polly’s still on the sofa she’s reading a book … they’ve given up on the movie.  Polly must be thinking “Oh great, Dad couldn’t have walked in at a worse time” because the instant I let a startled “Jesus Christ” slip from my lips she leaps up, screams that I’m the one who ordered the goddamn thing, and storms off to join Natasha in the other room, leaving it to me to eject the DVD and put it back in the mailer.

Last night I sat down to watch another movie I’d ordered, The Disappearance of Alice Creed.  The blurb was clear enough:

Two men fortify a nondescript British apartment so it can serve as a prison, and then kidnap a woman and tie her to a bed. Before there’s even time to react, we’re plunged into a very nasty situation, but not a simple one.

The rating?  R, for “violent content, pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity.”  Okay to all of that; that’s what you might expect in a movie about an adult kidnapping.  What I couldn’t anticipate was the director fetishizing the criminals and the squalor of their actions, or lingering lovingly over the degrading conditions in which Ms Creed was held.  I don’t use the word pornographic lightly, but the scene that ended the movie for me was at the half-hour point, where the naked, bound, and gagged (with a sex shop S&M ball gag, yet) hostage is forced to urinate in a plastic bedpan held between her legs by one of the male kidnappers.  I was done at that point; with at least an hour of movie to go things could only get worse.

What am I supposed to get out of movies like these?  An appreciation for criminals, thugs, losers, and murderers?  As the Amish might say, these movies aren’t about people who exist in this world … and if there are people whose lives are that depressingly brutal, they do not exist to me, because I don’t wanna know.

I never have been able to sit through movies about self-destructive alcoholics (La Vie en Rose is a good example), or movies with strong sadomasochistic themes (Black Swan).  Now I have to add movies that exist solely for the purpose of worshiping brutality and violence.

I know I’m inconsistent on this.  I loved Trainspotting; I loved Mesrine.  Hell, I even managed to get through I Saw the Devil, a Korean serial killer slash flick that makes Quentin Tarantino look like Aunt Pittypat from Dubuque.  So sue me.  There was something redeeming in those movies.  There were doors that opened on life as we know it.  There were elements of humor.  A movie can be about evil things without being evil.  On second thought, forget the Korean flick.  It’s pretty damned evil.

The trouble is, how can you tell if you’re going to hate a movie before ordering it?  If I were sitting down to order DVDs from Netflix and hadn’t seen that scene from Young Adam, or hadn’t already watched the first half hour of The Disappearance of Alice Creed, I’d order them all over again.  The blurbs are interesting and the ratings don’t put me off (just think of all the great movies we’d miss if we shied away from R ratings).

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said, of hard-core pornography, that it is hard to define but that “I know it when I see it.”  That’s how I am about these movies.

Damn, my wife gets smarter every day.

© 2011, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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