Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Is It Exploitative? -- Reflections on "A Serbian Film" (2010)


A YOUNG, SEXY GIRL is getting dressed in her room. She is wearing nothing but her pink lace bra and matching panties. Sitting in front of her vanity mirror, she brushes her long blonde hair. As she brushes, she notices her breasts and adjusts herself, smiling with satisfaction at her ample cleavage.

Suddenly, she hears a LOUD, ABRUPT CREAKING NOISE, like the sound of a floorboard groaning under the weight of an intruder. She jumps from her seat, breasts bouncing, and slowly moves to her closed bedroom door. Mindfully, she places her hand on the doorknob and lowers her head to the door to listen to the other side. She hears a SCUTTLING SOUND. It gets louder as it gets to her door. Then it stops.

Before she can react, BOOM! The door is shoved open and the girl falls on to the floor. Her bra strap falls off her shoulder and her breast pops out. She doesn't have time to correct it as...

What you've just read is an excerpt of what could happen in pretty much any slasher flick to hit the box office over the last 20-30 years. It's fairly standard, isn't it? There's a vulnerable girl. She's well-endowed, and her breasts are heavy and on display as she cavorts in her undies. And she is under assault.

I'm sure as you read, you may have imagined a specific actress in this role. Maybe one you want to see naked. And for some of you, this may have excited you a little. It was designed to. The script exploits a masculine desire to watch nubile girls in danger. It could have exploited a lot worse, though. Like the girl could have been a nun, removing her habit, or she could have been pleasuring herself before the loud noise. Or, even better, she could have been enjoying an intimate moment with a girlfriend prior to the intruder's introduction.

I doubt anyone would disagree that what you've read here is an example of "exploitation."

I've often heard critics throw around the term "exploitation" when talking about movies. Usually they are referring to films with excessive amounts of sex and violence. The label seems to make a movie sound no better than your standard, run-of-the-mill porno. And sometimes the movies given this label really are no better than their XXX siblings (if anything, they're worse due to the fact that porn seldom pretends to be something it isn't).

Just because a film has extreme use of sex and violence does not necessarily make it exploitative, though. As with most things in life, it is the intent of the movie more than the content that makes it exploitative or not. To be truly exploitative, a movie must use its extreme content almost as a fetish, with an aim to arouse us, or excite us.

A movie like Machete is certainly exploitative. The movie relishes in its degradation. When Machete uses a man's intestines as a rope, we cheer. When he has a threesome with his enemy's wife and daughter in their swimming pool, we're titillated -- and oddly turned on by it. Even current movies, like Scream 4 are exploitative. Just like in the introduction to this article, Scream 4 uses violence towards helpless women to excite us and make us laugh. Every woman is beautiful, shown in lighting that accentuates their every curve. And even though the movie has zero nudity, it poses and shoots its women as if they were models in the latest issue of Maxim or FHM.

I bring this topic up because I just watched a controversial movie that has already been tagged with the "exploitation film" label. It is called A Serbian Film. The movie, which is the directorial debut of Serbian filmmaker Srđan Spasojević, has garnered lots of controversy since its premiere at the SXSW film festival in March of 2010. It is under investigation in the director's homeland for possibly being in violation of laws involving the protection of minors. Because of its extreme graphic sexual and violent content, the film has been denied permission to play at various film festivals worldwide. Critics have had mixed reactions. Some, like Mark Kermode of the BBC, called it a "nasty piece of exploitation trash." Meanwhile, Harry Knowles, of Ain't It Cool News, named A Serbian Film one of the ten best films of 2010. 

One thing, regardless of the critical evaluation, is true: A Serbian Film is a difficult film to watch and not for everyone. It is violent, depraved and pushes every button imaginable to get across its message. And most people who've seen it don't have much desire to see it again.

Having seen it, I believe it is a remarkably powerful and effective film. It is not exploitative, although its imagery is so disturbing at times that it's difficult not to see it as such. A Serbian Film will leave an indelible imprint on anyone who sees it, and once you get past the shocking elements, you'll find a movie filled with strong ideas about the roles of government and its citizens.

Basics: Milos (Srđan Todorović) is a semi-retired porn star, well-known for his ability to achieve an erection without any external stimulation. He has an amazing, beautiful wife and a precocious young son. He is called out of retirement by a former co-star who makes an offer he can't refuse -- a wealthy, avant-garde director wants Milos to star in an "art" film and is willing to give him enough money that he'd never have to work again. Milos eventually realizes he is making a snuff film, but by the time he figures this out and tries to leave, he's in too deep and the director drugs and exploits him in the most horrific ways imaginable.

What's So Bad About It?: A Serbian Film very graphically depicts scenes of necrophilia, pedophilia, rape, and sadomasochism. I don't want to spoil any of its most intense moments, but it goes places where we thought the lines were drawn in Sharpie ink and crosses them with remarkable confidence. I will admit that during one scene in particular I was in tears for what I was seeing, and I still find it hard to get the image out of my head. For some, this is no doubt awful and wrong; I don't want to debate the morality of the film. All I can say is that I've seen a lot of films with disturbing imagery and few of them are as well-made as this one to illicit these sorts of reactions from me.

Allegory or Not?: When a film is this professionally done and this remarkably sick and twisted, it is either a piece of exploitation, or it has a deeper meaning. The filmmakers have been very open about sharing that this film is a reaction to the recent history of the Serbian people, making this film an allegory. Watching it from this perspective, it becomes pretty clear what's going on. For those that don't know much about their Serbian history, what you need to know most is that throughout the 90s, a dictator named Milosevic controlled the region and authorized genocide, having Serbs killing Serbs. In this movie, the snuff film's director, Vukmir, is very much the madman that Milosevic was. And as the film progresses it becomes quite clear that Milos, the protagonist, is the stand-in for the Serbian people, being manipulated and controlled like a puppet. As Milos does the unthinkable, the actor's expression shares the mixed emotions of pleasure and anguish that no doubt characterized those forced to do the dictator's bidding. Is the allegory valuable? Does it, like Animal Farm or Narnia, cause us to re-evaluate the world we live in? That's up to the viewer, but as far as I'm concerned the film successfully marries a shocking concept with a real world horror we should not soon forget.

Hitchcock Rules: One of Alfred Hitchcock's greatest contributions to film was implied violence. In Psycho's  legendary shower scene, we never actually see Janet Leigh getting stabbed. Everything is implied in the editing. Yet, when you watch the moment, you swear you're seeing Leigh getting massacred. A Serbian Film works on a similar principle. For as violent as it seems, you never completely see what you think you're seeing. The editing in this film is brilliant. Each scene is meticulously framed, and it's the ideas of what we're seeing that effects us so strongly. I'm not putting this film on par with Psycho, of course, but the filmmakers certainly took their cues from Hitch.

"Exploitation" is an easy label to throw at a film, especially if you don't particularly like what you are seeing. But good movies don't have to be likable; they need to challenge us and make us see the world differently, even if it means seeing the ugliest of ugly.

No comments:

Post a Comment