Wednesday, November 17, 2010

WINTER OF DISCONTENT : Cannibal Holocaust (part one: animals were harmed during the making of this picture)

Apologies for the lack of screenshots. I neglected to take any while I was watching the film and I don’t feel like reacquainting myself with it just yet.

It’s one thing to announce in a fanfare of self-publicity that you’re devoting six weeks on your blog to all things exploitative. Yeah, you’ve got stockpile of gialli to go at. Sure, you can use ‘Shortbus’ as a jumping off point to consider the, ahem, insertion of unsimulated sexual activity into an otherwise non-porno flick. It’s as easy as pie to take the piss out of something as bog-awful as ‘Fight for Your Life’. You can pride yourself on watching ‘Thriller – A Cruel Picture’ without needing to break halfway through for a trip to the nearest decontamination plant.

You can line up a slew of scurrilous titles – look out for ‘Rope and Skin’, ‘The Candy Snatchers’ (thanks, Bryce!), ‘The House on Straw Hill’ and ‘Gator Bait’ next week – and happily wallow in a mudpool of cinematic filth.

But it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing them cannibals.

And if you’re going to kit yourself out with a sick bag and some anti-malarial pills and head into the green inferno, then you may as well accept the inevitable and square up to the most infamous cannibal movie – if not the most infamous movie – of all time: Ruggero Deodato’s ‘Cannibal Holocaust’.

This movie didn’t just upset the BBFC and the DPP. It upset fucking everyone. When Deodato’s friend and fellow director Sergio Leone wrote “what a movie … the second part is a masterpiece of cinematographic realism, but everything seems so real that I think you will get in trouble with all the world”, he had no idea how prescient this remark was.

Less than a fortnight after ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ premiered in Milan in 1980, prints were seized by the authorities and Deodato arrested. The charge? That he’d killed the four actors playing the missing documentarians as well as an indigenous actress who is shown impaled on a pole in one of the film’s most notorious images. In a hoist-by-one’s-own-petard twist, Deodato had insisted that his cast sign clauses denying them appearances in any media for a year following the film’s release; an obvious publicity stunt to play up the missing people/found footage aspect. Deodato produced the very much alive actors before the court and successfully demonstrated how the special effects had been achieved. The murder charges were dropped, but he was still convicted of obscenity and received a four-month suspended sentence. The court also banned the film, a decision it took Deodato three years to get overturned.

The obscenity prosecution owed to the unstaged animal deaths. Which is where this review gets thorny. The animal deaths in ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ are kind of like the hardcore inserts in ‘Thriller – A Cruel Picture’. Whatever level you discuss these two films on, whichever angle you come at them from, there’s no getting away from it. No avoiding it. ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ contains real animal deaths and ‘Thriller – A Cruel Picture’ contains hardcore pornographic footage. It’s up to the viewer to determine their own moral and critical standpoint.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to say “harrumph, animals were killed in front of the camera, disgusting behaviour, I wash my hands of this film”. An easy response, a justified response, and a completely self-defeating response. Unless you’re a vegetarian, every time you sit down to a meal you are complicit in the death of an animal. (I’m not a vegetarian by the way: I subscribe to Dennis Leary’s observation that “eggplant tastes like eggplant but meat tastes like murder and murder tastes pretty fucking good”.) So how come I can happily tuck into a chicken casserole, a rump steak, a pan-fried salmon or a rack of ribs but feel physically sick when I see a turtle being killed, gutted, cooked and eaten on camera in ‘Cannibal Holocaust’? Is it because I don’t see how the chicken meets its end? In fact, the turtle that ran afoul of Deodato and his crew probably had a better life – free and in the wilds right up till that final moment – than the chicken that was doubtlessly bred, lived and died in the miserable conditions of a battery farm, a chicken that existed solely to become the main ingredient in my casserole.

Then there’s the fact that ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ was a cheaply made Italian exploitation film released in 1980 – ie. not the kind of production monitored by the American Humane Association. This isn’t a justification, it’s a statement of fact. Pick any cannibal movie by an Italian director from the 70s or 80s and unsimulated animal deaths are virtually guaranteed. You can throw the argument wider: check out any number of Hollywood productions (particularly westerns) pre-mandatory AHA supervision. I wouldn’t change a frame of either of them, and certainly never call for them to be banned, but the chickens at the start of Peckinpah’s ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ and the lizard whose slo-mo demise opens ‘The Ballad of Cable Hogue’ – they got the same deal as Deodato’s turtle.

Now consider the BBFC’s decision to pass ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ with an 18-certificate following almost six minutes’ worth of cuts. Including the turtle evisceration sequence in its entirety, as well as the deaths of a snake, a spider, a monkey and pig. Does the film become a less thorny, more easily watchable work in this version? The answer has to be no: the turtle, the pig, the snake, the spider and not one but two monkeys still died (the superannuation of monkey murder was so that Deodato could get a reverse shot); cutting these scenes and pretending that the film is now significantly less contentious is at best an exercise in denial. As is a question I’ve seen posted on a forum: “How can I see ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ without the animal deaths?” Talk about a machine-washable morality! If the only way someone can rationalize approaching ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ is without these scenes, particularly if the issue of animal deaths is completely abhorrent to them, then surely they should be boycotting the film in any version as a matter of principle.

There’s a time and a place for debating the artistic, aesthetic or intellectual merit (or otherwise) of ‘Cannibal Holocaust’, and I’ll dip a toe into those waters in the final part of this review, but it should be mentioned that all-too-often the requirement is placed on the individual to separate the artist from the art. Many of the great directors have been control freaks and bullies. Most of the great conductors: tyrants. Most of the great writers: depressives and alcoholics. Most of the great musicians: junkies. Do we stop watching ‘A Clockwork Orange’ because of what Kubrick put Malcolm McDowell through? Do we consign ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ to the scrapheap because Wagner was an anti-semite? Do we refuse to listen to a world-class recording of it because the conductor was once a member of the National Socialist Party?

Ultimately, it’s a matter of personal aesthetics. I approached ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ for two reasons: (i) to make up my own mind; and (ii) a sense of half-prurient half-academic curiosity. Could this movie really be as shocking, brutal and controversial as its reputation would have it?

Join me tomorrow and we’ll take a murky trek through that green inferno.


The Film Connoisseur said...

When I first saw it, I thought that the animal deaths were actually the least shocking scenes in the film, the rest of the stuff with the impalement, was more shocking to me.

Of course everyone hates seeing an animal get killed simply for the purpose of making a movie, I personally dont like the idea because, hey, your killing a living thing to make a movie? What? Sadder still is the fact that they did it simply for shock value alone. But then again, these are cannibals we are talking about here, and they do eat meat. But the animals could just as easily have been fake animals.

Yet, I see your point. Most of the humans on this planet are meat eaters, we just dont see the chickens getting slaughtered. Or the cows.

If you do want to see that, check out FOOD INC., they show it clear as day. On Fast Food Nation you can see cows getting their skin ripped right off of their bodies!

But whatever, I see Cannibal Holocaust as a dark chapter in cinematic history. Its nothing new, because as you mentioned, Italians did the same thing in many of their cannibal films, this wasnt the only one.

Still, as a film, its one of the most shocking films I've EVER seen, if not THE most shocking. The grandaddy of Blairwitch Project and Paranormal Activity.

Simon said...

I saw it, and I thought the human deaths alone were pretty fucking shocking, so I was a bit taken aback that it was the animal deaths people are getting pissed about. I mean, they can eat meat, but show them how it's done, then it's morally bankrupt.

Not that I'm a vegetarian. Murder does taste good.

Bryce Wilson said...

That thank you, might turn bitterly ironic after you actually watch the film.

Aaron said...

For me, the most "disturbing" thing in the film was the female native being violated with a stone. I also thought the makeup effects on a couple of the cannibal corpses were pretty disgusting. But by no means am I downplaying the animal cruelty in the film, especially the turtle scene. The animal deaths are more sad than anything, especially the pig who was just nonchalantly shot in the head (which is ironic since I regularly eat pig). As a viewer of exploitation films, I can't stand animal violence, but I've learned to just accept it as being what it is, which is why I choose not to watch the Jungle Cannibal movies very often. I will say, though, that I respect any director from that era who is man enough to take responsibility for his acts of animal cruelty. If I remember correctly, based on interviews that I've seen, Ruggero Deodato has never made excuses for what he did, but of course I could be wrong. Sergio Martino, on the other hand. Neil, if you've seen MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD, I'm sure you know what I'm talking about.

Nice write-up as always, Neil. Looking forward to the rest of the CH entries!

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks for your comments, guys.

During all my research on this film (and I've probably done more background reading for these articles than I have for anything I've reviewed by Herzog or Powell & Pressburger or Tarkovsky), it's the cruelty to animals that led to all the bannings (there's still some countries, including I think Finland and Norway, where 'Cannibal Holocaust' remains outright banned) and is cited as the main reason for the controversy that continues to dog the film.

I'm in agreement with Franco and Aaron who make the point that the animal deaths are sad more than anything. There's something about the flat and emotionless way Deodato films them that's just dispiriting. It's horrible, but you wonder how many animals die in that environment simply at the hands of other animals, or how many animals are reared in battery farms etc purely to be slaughtered. It's a thorny moral area and personally I'm a lot happier when animal involvement in films is properly supervised and monitored, but nonetheless there's a whiff of moral hypocrisy when people focus on the animal deaths - and this aspect of the film alone - as a justification for censorship and/or banning.

It says something that in a film which unflinchingly depicts man's inhumanity to man, the 18-certificate the BBFC finally granted it for home video a few years ago was dependent on 5 minutes and 44 seconds being cut - all of which accounted for the animal deaths and scenes of sexual violence. Yates and the others shooting or burning tribespeople to death - no problem. Flesh eating - no problem. The native guides agonising death by snakebite - no problem.

Is it just me who finds these kind of decisions a little too morally simplistic?