Bloody Blow (Canada, 2012); Dir. Rémy Couture & Joseph Elfassi
The other day I received a message from a young friend. She's an inquisitive girl a penchant for controversial material; be it Charles Manson's curtailed music career, accounts of the Brooklyn Vampire or the writings of Satanic supercrank Anton Lavey.
Anyway, she sent me a link to the short film I've embedded above and wanted my impressions. Being an egotist who hides behind a facade of false modesty I was of course happy to oblige.
I'll confess that beforehand I'd never heard of Rémy Couture, the French Canadian filmmaker and special effects artist who was arrested in 2009 on charges of obscenity relating to a series of extreme horror shorts he'd made a few years before and made available on his website innerdepravity.com. His trial has already been adjourned a number of times but is currently scheduled to start in December 2012.
Couture's oeuvre, so to speak, explores the transgression of taboos. He's steeped in horror history and cites such works as Hellraiser and Cannibal Holocaust amongst his formative influences. As a effects artist he's been involved with some major Hollywood productions and at least prior to his arrest was much sought after.
Now personally I've don't have any great interest in the more radical forms of body horror; it's something I've dipped into for curiosity's sake but hardly a place I care to spend much time. It's not really a question of taste more that it often appears banal and a bit silly.
So Bloody Blow, the film Couture recently released to promote his ongoing legal fight, was never likely to float my boat. It's a short vignette in which Couure's occasional collaborator Zombie Boy (model and artist Ricky Genest) is held for interrogation by the authorities. After being seduced by a goth temptress Zombie Boy tucks into some raw brains and is then executed. The piece closes with a reminder of the charges of corrupting morals Couture is facing and the admonition 'ART IS NOT A CRIME' written in smeared blood.
My initial response was not so much of disgust as supercilious disregard for the film's merits. Yes, it's giving expression to the nihilistic, sociopathic urges that reside beneath the veneer of civilised society, but it's doing so in a fairly crass and obvious way with the specific intention of trying to provoke disgust. In the past eighteen months I've watched uncut versions of the aforesaid Cannibal Holocaust and Srđan Spasojević's A Serbian Film and both were more shockingly effective in that regard, although in the case of Cannibal Holocaust I abhor the cruelty with which this was achieved.
However, on a second viewing I realised I'd overreacted. Bloody Blow may be graphic in its depiction of cannibalism but the whole scenario so cartoonish that it's really not that offensive. It put me in mind of the kind of thing found in EC's horror comics during the fifties and it seems laughable that sixty years later the censorship debate appears to have progressed so little. If this is reflective of Couture's earlier work it's hard to see what all the fuss is about.
But there's something else I wanted to touch upon which sadly may have some influence upon Couture's trial, as it again centres around the dissemination of horrific material over the internet...
Last month police in Hamburg arrested and extradited Luka Magnotta, a Canadian porn star and model wanted on suspicion of killing and dismembering Jin Lun, a Chinese student, and then sending his severed limbs to the offices of various political parties and elementary schools.
As if this wasn't disturbing enough Magnotta also uploaded an alleged video of the murder and dismemberment to bestgore.com, a website which publishes videos and photos of real-life death and mutilation obtained from various sources. According to the site's owner Mark Marek it does so because people have a right to know the "real, uncensored truth".
Marek removed the video and notified the police when he realised its provenance (although they took some persuading to believe him), but in some quarters it's raised serious questions about the extent to which society is becoming desensitised to extreme violence and horror in the internet age. Lest we imagine that this is a phenomena that more directly applies to troubled Canadian souls accustomed to long, dark winters, bear in mind how only a few months ago the front pages of British newspapers carried pictures of the barely alive Muammar Gaddafi being dragged to his execution.
Are we at risk of being 'corrupted' by such material? I think it's important to distinguish between morbid curiosity and the propensity to be depraved or corrupted (if such a thing exists). Who hasn't been guilty of some form of ghoulish rubbernecking at some point in their lives?
Let me give you an example from personal experience. On the evening of Sunday 15th April 1984 I was staying at my grandmother's in Bath. Despite being a devout Christian my gran had a penchant for trashy American and Australian soaps and I think we were watching Dynasty on BBC1. It was only the following day that I learnt how Tommy Cooper had collapsed and died on Live From Her Majesty's on ITV.
This incident had always fascinated me; along with the death of a boy I knew in a joyriding accident a couple of years later it seemed to encapsulate the concept of death in my childhood. So one bored afternoon a few months ago I decided to search for a clip of it online and suffice to say I quickly found it. There I was finally watching the moment a comedy legend slipped this mortal coil. It left me feeling sick and empty; I'd never care to see that again.
I'm by no means a portrait of sanity but I'm fairly confident I'm not a homicidal killer either. As human beings we have an ambivalence about death and the circumstances that lead to it; it appalls and fascinates us.
What's more the macabre and the moving image have an association almost as old as the cinema itself. One of the earliest films produced by the Edison Company was Electrocuting an Elephant in 1903. The dubious delights of bestgore.com can be seen as a continuation of the mondo filmmaking tradition that began (with Mondo Cane) in the early sixties and woud lead to such work as the infamous Faces of Death series the following decade.
Granted, these films made much use of faked material whereas, if the evidence to be believed, some of the bestgore clips have proven to be all too genuine. But the fact remains mondo and its descendants satiate an essential curiosity that some (by no means all) people feel. Accepting that you'll never extinguish this the onus is on the proprietors of such websites to ensure they moderate them with vigilance, although I guess there are no guarantees on that score.
Yet notwithstanding morbid curiosity do depictions of extreme violence, real or imaginary, carry the potential to deprave and corrupt? Well actually, yes, I suspect they probably do... to a limited extent. Take any case of abhorrent crime that's been given any serious study or investigation - the James Bulger killers for example - and you'll find a wealth of psychological factors, environmental factors and formative incidents that could have drawn those individuals towards sociopathic behaviour. Of these film, tv and video are just a single element, but they're potent mediums that can be recorded and replayed, unlike most experiences.
It's argued that the distinction between entertainment and reality is growing blurred but the evidence for any commensurate increase in violent crime is sketchy at best (though government agencies grow ever more sophisticated in their manipulation of statistics). Compare that to millions of kids undermining their prospects with insane dreams of instant celebrity sold to them by tv 'talent' shows and you can't help but be struck by the irony; nobody calls for these to be banned.
Implicit within the notion of a social contract between the individual and the state - and its utilitarian basis - is the faith that freedoms, however idiosyncratic, won't be curtailed unless it's for the greater good of society. Yet censorship undermines this trust and dilutes our liberty through specious evidence of our corruptibility.
I'm reminded of the research the academic Martin Barker did into the 'moral panic' surrounding video nasties in the early eighties, where a minority of puritanical zealots resorted to flimsy evidence, lies and obfuscation to arrive at the introduction of the 1984 Video Recordings Act. These weren't people acting for the greater good; their objective was social control and history has shown we ought to be very wary of that.
The problem these moral crusaders face nowadays is that the internet makes it all but impossible to enforce censorship, so instead they seek scapegoats. If successfully convicted it could be that Rémy Couture is just the first and set a disturbing precedent.