Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Not so prudish after all

A couple weeks back I wrote a piece about Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny, the pretentious piece of experimental art that features a graphic oral sex scene -- a scene designed merely to shock viewers into talking about Gallo's film at the water cooler.

In that piece I also mentioned that this two-minute segment of pure pornography disqualified the film from being carried by Blockbuster. (At the time I said that Netflix also did not carry it, but later realized I had mistakenly lumped Netflix' morals in with Blockbuster's morals.)

Blockbuster has long been considered kind of the Wal-Mart of rental companies, in more ways than one. Wal-Mart, of course, is famous for trying to protect its customers from what the company considers morally dangerous segments of popular culture -- most prominently in the form of refusing to carry the works of certain rappers and other edgy musicians. Blockbuster is not nearly so extreme nor so public about its censorship, but it does keep a wide berth of films like The Brown Bunny.

I'm pleased to say, however, that Blockbuster -- the company I've sided with for a variety of reasons that I've cited several times before -- is not quite so grandmotherly as we might have thought.

This weekend I received in the mail a copy of I Spit on Your Grave, the infamous cult film from 1978, which features a brutal gang rape, and then the brutal retribution carried out by the victim. In that same Brown Bunny piece I discussed how Roger Ebert had given this film zero stars, which is what put it on my radar back in the 1980s. Writing about the film a few weeks back put it on my radar again, and I received it on Friday.

I saved watching it until my wife was out of the house. She wouldn't have judged me for watching it any more than she would have judged me for watching The Brown Bunny. Still, there's something about watching a movie you know is famous for a brutal gang rape that feels a bit icky. Best done in the privacy of a single-person viewing, and without going out of one's way to advertise that you actually watched it. Which is why, you know, I'm writing a piece about it on my blog. This is like my super-public confessional, and you all are my priests.

As with The Brown Bunny, I had no prurient interest here -- I just wanted to see what all the fuss was with an infamous film that was likely to shock me. It would make up for all the other times I'm not shocked in the slightest, during hours and hours of middle-of-the-road fare.

As I was preparing to watch it, I was also preparing for it to be a seriously neutered version of the original film. After all, this is not what Blockbuster usually endorses. Although I Spit on Your Grave has the alternate title Day of the Woman, critics at the time -- Roger Ebert in particular -- did not consider this anything close to a feminist film. Even if the main character draws out her revenge against the men who raped her, taunting and teasing them before finally killing them in the most gruesome ways imaginable, there's still the inescapable fact that she gets her clothes torn off, gets sodomized against a rock, and has a bottle jammed inside her. Some of this is suggested -- some of it isn't.

Yet I saw it all. There was no evidence of a clean, Blockbuster-friendly version here. If there were images removed from this film, I don't know which ones they could have been. Anything more than I saw here would have prevented this from getting a theatrical release, even in the more-permissive 1970s. There was full frontal nudity from both genders, and stomach-churning violence intermingled with it. In fact, during the aforementioned scene against the rock, Camille Keaton's shrieks were so loud and horrifying, I had to hurriedly close the windows and turn down the volume so the neighbors wouldn't think I was watching a snuff film. (Part of the reason the film was so controversial at the time, I think, was that Camille Keaton is Buster Keaton's grand-niece.)

And in the end, I think Ebert was a bit extreme with his zero stars. The movie is not super long on plot -- it basically consists of four upstate New York hillbillies catching the woman, raping her in three different locations, and then being picked off by her one by one several weeks later. But it's actually done with a decent amount of artistry -- shot well, edited well, and paced in a way to draw out the agony, but not for sadistic purposes. It seems like director Meir Zarchi's intention is to make the viewer really identify with the horrors experienced by a rape victim, to spell out exactly how brutal and terrifying non-consensual sex really is.

I actually do think there's something feminist here. I understand that merely putting these images into the world is in some way harmful toward women, but there's no ambiguity here about who is evil and who is righteous. And as Keaton's character goes through and delivers these men their just desserts, it's exquisitely satisfying. The film takes on the form of social critique in its portrayal of the men, several of whom lower their guard in her presence because they innately believe that she's truly back to seduce them, rather than exact revenge on them. The men seem to think that rape victims are "asking for it" to such a degree, that a few sultry words spoken in deceit by her are enough to convince them she's insatiable, back for more. It's so extreme that Zarchi's only intention can really be to point out just how morally bankrupt these men are, how programmed to view women as objects they can bend to their will, to the extent that it blinds them to threats to their safety.

The interesting thing about I Spit on Your Grave is that it exists simultaneously as exploitation and feminism. Either way, it's not something a person is likely to forget anytime soon.

And I have the surprisingly permissive standards of Blockbuster to thank for giving me the full, unfettered experience. What I found even more interesting is that Blockbuster listed the film with a slightly altered title -- like many cult classics, I Spit on Your Grave seems to have several different titles depending on various re-releases, in addition to its alternate title Day of the Woman. Blockbuster actually listed the film as I Spit on Your Corpse, I Piss on Your Grave, and at first I was wondering if I would actually get the version of the film I was supposed to get. Not only am I sure I did, but the two new words in that title -- "piss" and "corpse" -- are both words that a skittish company like Blockbuster would usually try to steer clear of. Yet they went out of their way to include these words in a title which, when listed in its more standard version, has only the less-sensitive words "spit" and "grave" in it. That might have been more shocking than anything I actually saw in the movie.

Now if Wal-Mart is the next company to surprise me, then I'll really be shocked.

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