Ed. Note: This piece contains several Hostel: Part II spoilers.
By S.T. VanAirsdale
Indignation will only get you so far when it comes to discussing the films of Eli Roth. Now officially a canon with the one-two punch of his Thanksgiving trailer during Grindhouse and this week's release of Hostel: Part II, Roth's work is cruel, vicious, exploitive, shallow, unimaginative and, occasionally, amusing in a dog-walking-into-the-screen-door kind of way that runs warm with the afterburn of pity. As entries in the horror genre, his films boast influence without reverence; dropped names and visual cues flow almost as freely as the viscera onscreen. They're half-witted and maybe a quarter scary. Roth wields the kind of muscular cynicism that purports to push envelopes, but only once he's emptied them.
Which, in a culture that rewards mediocrity, is a commodifiable trait you can't necessarily hold against him. Roth and his stars Bijou Phillips, Heather Matarazzo and Roger Bart were received like heroes following Wednesday night's Hostel: Part II preview at the AMC Empire, a prelude to the Museum of the Moving Image's upcoming series It's Only a Movie: Horror Films From the 1970s and Today. Indeed, the filmmaker's showmanship is captivating to the extent you fall for the accompanying sales pitch; in particular, his associations of feminism, economics and other political themes with Hostel: Part II's methodical torture and murder of women (by women, in several cases) and one's literally castrating revenge is more than a little disingenuous against his more gleeful paeans to movie violence. Roth and his distributors at Lionsgate, expert mythbuilders all, know their audience, and it doesn't ask questions.
Except, that is, when asking why the film didn't go further. "It's like cooking," Roth said during the discussion. "I shot more gore, but I took it out in editing, because truthfully, it's like when you put too much of your favorite ingredient in, it spoils the whole dish. I use makeup and effects the same way I use music and photography. It's all about being just the right amount for the story. And I think that judging by the way people were screaming and cheering, people were wrapped up in the story. Honestly, when you put more gore in, it takes away from the castration. There were more scenes where we had gore, but suddenly the castration wasn't as powerful. And for me, the whole movie is a build-up to that moment."
Of course -- because it's the out that entitles him to the 90 minutes of fetishized head-sawing, scythe-swinging, face-punching, "cunt"-calling, wife-hating exploration that precedes a male attacker's climactic demise. Take it too literally, and you have no sense of humor. Accept the conventions, and you're agreeing to the characters', the actors' and your own exploitation. And not "exploitation" as in low-budget sex-, blood- and race-baiting; I'm talking about the laziest, most genuinely unappealing exploitation of age and gender roles since, well, Hostel: Part I. Some choice.
Roth kind of has a defense for this, but I'm not so sure. Take the film's low point: Young college student Beth (Lauren German) escapes from the Slovakian pursuers planning to take her to the Elite Hunting death chamber where American businessmen-turned-killer Stuart (Bart) awaits. She is apprehended and beaten by the marauding pack of children from the first film before the death cartel boss Sasha "rescues" her. Sending her away to his waiting car, he stays behind to teach the kids a lesson. How? By pressing his pistol into cheeks, eyes and foreheads before shooting one at random.
Ever the sophist, Roth noted the law of this particular jungle -- "you get one of mine, I get one of yours" -- but offing a kid just for kid-offing's sake reflects a particularly facile wretchedness. It's not Salo or City of God, for example, where graphic child endangerment makes contextual, harrowing sense. Rather, it's the cheapest kind of exploitation -- literal, coarse exploitation of a dead child -- shattering the implicit agreement between an audience and a filmmaker that we suspend our disbelief insofar as our intelligence is not insulted.
I mentioned this to Roth and asked if he really saw it in such black-and-white terms. "Yes," he said. "I see it that there's a society, and these people are running it. The kids are fucking it up, and setting up that relationship with Sasha and the kids. ... I feel like it's an exploitation movie if I show the brains being splattered on the ground or actually seeing the kids head blown off. But it was an important story point. I think the kids are so funny and silly that I wanted people to be at that point of exhilaration and laughing at the end, but I think you need to take them to that other end of the spectrum to get there. You can't just be all silly all the time."
"It's a chilling scene," said Moving Image curator David Schwartz, the event's moderator. "It really makes you experience and think about it."
"It makes you feel the death." Roth said. "That's a moment that deals with death in a very horrific and realistic way."
"Well, yeah," I replied. "But you talk about the other end of the spectrum, and some people never come back from that end. What's the concern you have losing your audience when you go to that length? Because, you know, torture -- you can push that. But you take a kid... I mean, that's a new level."
"Yeah, I know," Roth said, shrugging. "Kids have gotten killed in movies before. When I saw City of God, it was really fucking horrifying. That's why I showed it off-camera. So I'm not exploiting the death of a child; I'm using it as a dramatic story point. And I think that for people who are enjoying the death and enjoying the violence, suddenly that moment makes it really real. And I think there is a moment -- just a moment -- in the movie, where you should pull into a place where people are genuinely horrified by the violence. And then you slowly bring them back to the point where they're actually into the violence and they're crazy and they're loving it and laughing at the dick in scissors, and once you see that dick, everyone's going fucking crazy. You have to take people to the point where they're genuinely horrified.
"And look," he continued. "It's not the first movie to kill a child. There's a fantastic film I saw recently by Serrador called Who Would Kill a Child? that was made in 1975. [It was released in the US as Island of the Damned -- Ed.] It was fucking awesome. But there's hard shit that happens, and there are things that you have to do in movies that take people to that certain place. ... I think if I really would have shown that kid getting shot in the head, then that's where I would have lost the audience."
Right. Because a gunshot and the boy's small, slumping body is such a concealment. If you're going to swagger up to the bell, you might as well ring it -- why not show his head getting blown off? Why not kill the group's little girl and drive the so-called feminist message twist even further; after all, according to the State Department, human trafficking in Slovakia has worsened between 2004 and 2006, especially that which victimizes women and children. Is this the type of "hard shit" Roth means? Because I wouldn't want to attribute to him the type of staggering intellectual dishonesty required to conflate the child murder in his film with the urban violence depicted in City of God; I wouldn't want to confuse visionary moral equivalency for gross insincerity.
But again, indignation will only get you so far when it comes to discussing the films of Eli Roth. The prints are struck, the audience is queued and the posters' beheaded nude bodies and swirls of boar meat have affirmed Roth and the Hostel franchise's place in a culture's imagination. It's a shame he won't be a little more responsible and at least pretend like he belongs there; if complacency is poisonous, then Eli Roth is thoroughly toxic.
Posted at June 7, 2007 11:05 AM
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