Saturday, December 31, 2011

I Spit on Your Grave (1978)

by Alexander "Mondo Gandhi" Kraft

There is a particular breed of hippie pacifist that argues one should never resort to violence under any circumstances, even to protect oneself from immediate harm. Most people, however, think such a notion is ridiculous. But a belief that violence is, at times, acceptable (people flinch when you put it in those terms, but it’s what almost everyone believes) is actually a far more intellectually treacherous position, right or wrong. What is the difference between killing someone who is pointing a gun at your head and killing someone who is denying you food? What if they’re pointing a gun at your wife’s head, or at a random stranger? Does revenge have an ethical justification? The hippie has an easy answer to these questions: “It’s bad, don’t do it.” It’s nice not to have to think about difficult questions. But alas, we in the violence-sometimes-good camp often don’t think enough about these questions either. Far too often, in fact. I’m not going to interrogate every question and assumption about violence and revenge in this article. Just a couple. I’m going to work under the assumption that rapists deserve to be tortured and killed. And I’ll further grant that it’s okay to be made happy (entertained?) by notions and depictions of said righteous violence. I am, however, going to question whether this is what is happening in I Spit on Your Grave.

At this point, you’ve watched, read, or watched The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. If not, you’re the only one. Go watch it and then come back – not for my sake, just so you know what everyone else is talking about tomorrow in the break room. Okay? So let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment. Our shocked, half-turned away “Ooooh!”s when Lisbeth kicked a dildo up her probation officer’s ass camouflaged cheers. There were giggles beneath our empathetic teeth-sucking as she tattooed him. When she was beating a sadistic serial killer with a golf club and later watching him burn to death, the omitted conclusion to our whispers of “Oh shit” was “…that’s awesome!” Likewise, as we watch Jennifer in I Spit on Your Grave hang, dismember (heh) and axe her rapists to death, we do so with white knuckles: the white knuckles of a roller-coaster. But it’s okay. Relax. It feels like a guilty pleasure, but it’s not. Besides being fictional people, they’re fictional rapists. It’s totally okay to enjoy seeing rapists get their comeuppance. I promise.

To illustrate this, imagine watching only the latter half of I Spit on Your Grave. Jennifer stalks the woods around her rural home brutally murdering some dudes she apparently knows. That’s the bad kind of violence. Not just the hippies, but even the most bloodthirsty Rambo-ass motherfuckers will tell you that it probably isn’t cool to root for her under these circumstances. Likewise, a highlights reel of Lisbeth brutalizing Swedish dudes, if shown to the last white person on earth who hasn’t already been exposed to some iteration of the story, would (should) evoke only a kind of “yuck” response: who is this chick, and what exactly is her problem?

But wait a minute. Would it? Or would we still get violence boners from it? I’ve seen Guinea Pig and Cannibal Holocaust and Faces of Death and all the other like exploitation films. They’re around. People watch them. Are we simply lying to ourselves about how just this kind of “morally justified” violence porn is? After all, to authorize our enjoyment of this brutal revenge, we just sat through scenes of brutal rape. While we were “tsk-tsk”ing and shaking our heads at it, we were still watching it, weren’t we? Were we, dare I say, entertained? This is the troubling point about this kind of film, the central critical question: are we being entertained by violent justice or just violence?

This isn’t a revolutionary question to ask about I Spit on Your Grave. It’s the question that makes the film controversial, and still worth writing about thirty-plus years later. The rape scenes are brutal, explicit, and loooooong. So long. From a technical standpoint, this film is another Easy Rider or 2001. A viewer can get up and make a pot of coffee, and when he sits back down, Jennifer will still be getting raped or walking shell-shocked through the woods or crying or whatever. A huge portion of the time spent watching I Spit on Your Grave is spent watching Jennifer being abused. Speaking only about the proportion of the film spent on various subjects, it’s really more of a rape film than it is a revenge film.

But it could be argued, and one would imagine that the director (Meir Zarchi, if you’re interested) would in fact argue, that in order to access the visceral satisfaction of violent justice, we have to have something to be outraged about. That antecedent crime is what authorizes us to be entertained by the subsequent revenge. Even if we allow ourselves to be entertained by gratuitous and unjust violence, it’s a different kind of entertainment than the emotional satiety of justified violence – a satiety only accessible by having seen the unjust violence to begin with. Dizzying, I know.

So here we are, watching a movie where a guy gets his johnson removed and being entertained by it. That’s fine. What’s problematic is that we’re also watching a movie where a chick gets raped for forty minutes and being entertained by it. That is to say, having watched the movie, were we to be asked “Was it entertaining?” the answer would be “Yes”. And that “Yes” refers to an experience that includes 40 minutes of violent rape. Of course, we may qualify that “Yes” with references to the rape scenes being “uncomfortable” or “difficult to watch,” but we still consumed it as part of an entertainment product that we found satisfying overall. I know I did, anyway. It’s problematic at the least to assume that I am, at all cognitive levels, being entertained by the “good” sexual violence and condemning the “bad” sexual violence, and efficiently distinguishing between the two, all while they are dovetailed together into a single entertainment unit.

It bears repeating that this is hardly a novel critique of I Spit on Your Grave. Even back when it bore the more threatening (empowered?) title Day of the Woman, people were troubled by the possibility that it was just an excuse to slap a veneer of respectability over rape porn. Why are we - or, okay, why am I - still talking about it? Well, besides the fact that this is a revenge/exploitation blog, I’m talking about it because everyone is watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and as far as this critique is concerned, they are functionally identical. If exploitative depictions of sexual violence are necessary to tell the narrative of empowerment in I Spit on Your Grave, then they are likewise for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. However, if I Spit on Your Grave is unforgivable rape porn, then, I hate to break it to you, so is Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has a much more complex plot, much shorter (if no less shocking) depictions of gratuitous sexual violence, and a sort of half-baked vaguely populist theme of rich people thinking they can do whatever they want. But one of the many things it does is to depict sexual violence (aww shucks) so that we can be entertained by revenge violence (hooray!). Just like I Spit on your Grave. So if I Spit on your Grave is in murky ethical territory, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is its next-door neighbor in there. Which is relevant, because everyone is watching it. If it’s dangerous, it’s a danger that everyone is being exposed to.

This is where I’m supposed to give some kind of alternative, or recommendation for action. Ugh.

The shotgun-at-a-knife-fight answer is not to depict rape in entertainment at all. Then there’s no problem anymore, right? Well, unfortunately, we live in late-stage capitalist consumerville. We all get to choose what we see, and nobody is going to choose to see anything that isn’t entertaining in some way (see Network [1976]). And it’s almost too obvious to bother saying that if people don’t see something, they don’t know it exists, and that the more they see it, the more prevalent or important it seems. In other words, entertainment is (like it or not) a window on the world, and the world includes sexual violence. To simply not depict sexual violence is as irresponsible as to not depict racism: it masks the reality and prevalence of the problem, makes it invisible – thereby facilitating it. It’s just putting our fingers in our ears and closing our eyes. So we have to depict it, and we have to depict it in entertainment, or nobody will see. But it’s excruciatingly difficult to pick apart the distinction between depicting rape in entertainment and depicting rape as entertainment. If it’s even possible.

Can being genuinely, legitimately horrified be a form of entertainment? Perhaps. We go on roller-coasters and listen to talk radio and read about the Holocaust in our spare time. Why? Does experiencing these powerful negative emotions willfully and on our own terms allow us to practice dealing with them for when we encounter them “in the wild”? Are we merely getting off on the adrenaline rush? For whatever reason, it seems that intentionally subjecting oneself to what we normally classify as “negative” emotions can be “entertaining.” Perhaps we shouldn’t abandon the idea of being entertained by sexual violence, but rather be cautious not to depict it in such proximity to “approvable” violence. Or not, whatever. I’m going to go watch The Night Porter.

1 comment:

  1. Author's note: I've thought more on these topics since this article was published, and my views have developed quite a bit since then. This article remains as documentation of the incremental nature of that development.