Monday, August 22, 2011

Cannibal Holocaust Denial

The Holocausto Canibal one-sheet, it ain't...

Friends of the Kentai Blog probably know how I feel about Ruggero Deodato's epic, the film that put him on the map and forever changed the notion of "controversial film". Professing my love for Cannibal Holocaust in anything but nude interpretive dance set on a bed of hot coals to Riz Ortolani's sweeping score would only be a trite offense to its accomplishments, but suffice to say that, 30 years later, this film is the real fucking deal. It speaks to our love of brutal entertainment on multiple levels, it remains offensive and shocking even after several decades and repeat viewings, and it's remained a hot topic with censors and activists ever since the film's debut in 1980. Hell, the film is still censored by the BBFC... but, more in that in a minute.

Cannibal Holocaust is an angry film, make no mistake. There may not be a single act of tenderness, apart from watching a bawdy couple literally fuck in the ashes of lives they've worsened in the name of getting the best shot for their documentary. Born of Deodato's increasingly jaded opinion of the media and a climate of post-"Mondo" features that demanded more gore to satisfy hungry Eastern audiences, the film makers disappeared in the jungles of the Amazon. When they returned and the film premiered, none of the four actors who disappear in the narrative were to be seen or heard from again for 6 months to build rumors of the film's "snuff movie" authenticity - rumors that were so startling and well received that Deodato was, for a brief period, accused of murdering his actors. Brutal rape, animal sacrifice, and the most warranted revenge in the history of horror cinema smear across the screen in faux-documentary 16mm recovered footage, laying the groundwork for the countless number of "asshole shakes his camcorder" films we have even now... and you know what? After all the controversy, the bannings, the protests from animal rights activists and the nay-sayers who scream that it's nothing but unwashed sensationalism... the movie itself is actually pretty fucking good.

Oh it's not perfect, make no mistake. The irony of creating a film that steadfastly says that we, as an audience, should reject the exploitive coverage of human suffering that, in turn, is built around set pieces that involve the slaughter of real live animals is pretty obvious. The film also has some pretty cringe-worthy post dubbing (despite being shot in English), some odious use of stock footage and one or two special effects that hardly hold up under scrutiny, but this all comes part and parcel with the film being a vintage slice of Euro-Horror. Jack Kerman's poor voice over gives the film a slightly misplaced goofy charm, but it doesn't destroy the film's criticism of the media as sensation-hounds willing to fudge the truth with more gore and less clarity, nor does it make the panicked footage of the film's ultimate villains scrambling lost in the wilderness as unfriendly forces close in on them any less exciting - and ultimately grotesque. No, for all the failings Cannibal Holocaust may bring to the table, it's very much a "real movie" with a clear vision and an end to its means, something I'm not so sure I'd say about Lenzi's much more depraved - but perhaps no less entertaining - final word on the gruesome Italian jungle adventure movie, Cannibal Ferox. Everything Cannibal Holocaust gets right far outweighs the things it does wrong, and the final result, three decades removed from the ballyhooing and cries for answers, is every bit as unpleasant and moving as they ever were.

"The most controversial film ever made", they say. Perhaps that's true, and Deodato isn't making it any fucking easier on that description by deciding in 2011 to create a brand new Director's Cut, which premiers on UK Blu-ray on September 26th. In a stroke of what might seem like karmic responsibility, Deodato's new version of the film removes only the most controversial remaining element: Footage of animals being slaughtered, live, for the sake of the audience. What some folks may not realize is that the natives egged Deodato on to catch real monkeys for the scene in which the little simians face is licked clean, or that the pig shot right between the eyes was purchased from a local market and would have been slaughtered eventually either way. The snake, the tarantula, and the river turtle were all killed quickly and (presumably) consumed by the local crew, since seriously, if you're living in the Amazon you learn to eat fucking anything and like it. In all cases, these scenes remain in the Director's Cut, but the actual moment of death - those few seconds of impact - have been obscured by simulated film damage. Deodato has seemingly acknowledged that they are part and parcel with the film, but stands by his suggestion that these scenes were made at the demands of producers who wanted more gore for the Mondo hungry Japanese market especially.

And you know what? I call bullshit. One of the very first interviews with Deodato on the subject recorded - over ten years ago now, if I remember right - has him explaining that he grew up on a farm where killing kittens and slaughtering livestock, while not fun, was an everyday part of life, so he didn't feel particularly bad about doing what he'd done in years past just because the cameras were rolling. After all, films like Apocalypse Now have scenes of animals being slaughtered and nobody complains about those, right? Perhaps the breaking point is the scene with a coatimundi, a furry little South American answer to the... fuck, what is it? A fox? A muskrat? A possum, maybe? I dunno, but it's fucking adorable, and it gets its throat. Fucking. Cut. The scene isn't pleasant, it doesn't drive the story forward, and unlike the lengthy, grotesque sequence with the turtle it was neither done to feed the cast nor to showcase the survival tactics that Amazon natives use - like cooking turtle soup in its' own shell, which is pretty fucking cool when you think about it. No, the coati isn't considered a delicacy, as the monkeys were (and cast members confirm that the locals were eager to munch some brains) - it was just a critter they caught that day by chance, and convinced one of the local Indos to eat some raw pieces of it on camera solely for shock value. It's an unpleasant, unnecessary and deplorable sacrifice to an otherwise almost-tactful film, and it's run afoul with censors - both without and within - twice with this upcoming British Blu-ray release.

The new "Director's Cut" deals with the footage by cutting away to a shot of the monkeys in the trees watching as the poor little coati squeals and dies. The "Original" version of the movie (also included), however, cuts this footage entirely. You see, the BBFC have a pretty strict policy about animals being mistreated in films, and if you can't somehow prove that an animal wasn't in any harm - even psychologically distressed! - the scene has to be removed. It's the law there, end of story. To the BBFC's credit they've lightened up considerably in recent years, allowing scenes of simulated animal torture in Deep Red to pass uncut, and in Cannibal Holocaust's case, every other act of violence towards an animal was deemed "humane enough" to remain in the film. Deodato's "Director's Cut" was likely a PR stunt pulled by Shameless so they could claim that at least one version of the film is "completely uncut", but the fact remains that this infamous footage is now going to be excised from the Shameless Blu-ray completely.

So, basically this. But with lots more shrieking and you feeling worse about it.

This leaves me in a frustrating spot. On the one hand, yeah, the footage is deplorable and nobody with a soul should literally mourn its absence. On the other hand... it's a part of the film. Yes, a cruel and perhaps needless part, but that doesn't make it any less relevant to the work as a finished piece of history. In effect, this single coati - who statistically would have died eventually, probably eaten by crocodile instead of a man in a loincloth - lost his life to set a deafening, gristly tone for a film that's been reviled and, yes, even beloved by millions of people around the world. If that scene is cut, the coati literally died for nothing! It's unfortunate that it happened, but is removing the footage really making things better? For that matter, why does cutting away from the literal moment of death change anything - the animals were still killed, and we still see their corpses laying there dead as a doornail immediately afterwards even in the new edit of the film! At least Grindhouse Releasing found a fairly clever way to literally remove all traces of the animals getting hacked up - it was kind of a pussy move, but at least it made sense.

Just to put this grim moment into context, it's not as if humans don't get their comeuppance: There's stock footage of real human executions in the film. Yeah, we see political prisoners in Africa being shot in the fucking head, and of countless bodies being piled into a mass grave. Totally authentic, and absolutely horrible to watch. Yet for one reason or another, NOBODY cuts that footage. I've had my share of kitties and other furry land mammals and certainly abhorrer even the thought of pets (or even livestock) being abused, but for fuck's sake! If images of non-simulated "death" and "cruelty" are the real issue here, why isn't that footage removed as well? I just don't get it... either it's all acceptable or none of it is.

With the above information laid bare, what the fuck do I do now? I make it a point to never buy censored releases if an uncensored version exists, and I already own multiple DVD copies of Cannibal Holocaust, all of which are at least less cut than the upcoming Shameless release. But do I really need that 15 seconds of cruelty? Does skipping over one brief moment of genuine horror at the hands of an entertainment crew make this release totally invalid, or can I purchase it for the HD presentation and exclusive extras, safe in the knowledge that I have at least three DVD copies with the coati slaughter scene intact?

I'll say it again: Either it's all acceptable or none of it is. This is a slippery slope of moral back-bends in which "grotesque image X" is somehow more or less acceptable than "grotesque image Y". With some fairly obvious exceptions*, I don't buy that bullshit, and it's why I make it a point to support censored film releases as little as I possibly can. I don't mind directors changing their minds decades later so long as they'll give us the version they made initially as well, and while both Deodato and Shameless have given their all to make everyone happy, the BBFC says that this one image is the line. Do I support it to satisfy my lust for Cannibal Holocaust, or do I turn it away and hope that Grindhouse Releasing will actually release the film in HD before I'm old and gray? They took about 5 years to pump the film out on DVD, and when they did it... looked kind of shitty. Doesn't really fill me with confidence that waiting a couple years will make their perhaps inevitable release "The One"... but either way, I still have my uncut PAL EC Ultrabit DVD to tide me over.

Amusingly enough, this is the "B-side" on the Shameless BD cover.

I think this is a more complex question than this admittedly already long-winded piece of brain-fartage can give proper exposure to. Does it seem justified to support something when you know it's your only option, but morally it rubs you completely the wrong way? Is it somehow more okay to steal said product - via downloading or, whatever - since it's not up to the standard you'd usually pay for, but still offers something of value? Is this sort of material - cruelty to animals, 30 years after the fact - actually harmful to anyone (sans the coati)? And should a director be allowed to reassess his work based, seemingly, on little more than the notion that the film he made strikes him as being in bad taste today?

All I know is that I want me some Cannibal Holocaust in HD, but can't decide if the film having even a frame removed is a fair tax for the privilege, much less for the 17 pounds sterling it's currently selling for... do I pre-order now and avoid the potential price-hikes of the dollar tumbling down a black hole? Or do I wait until I've seen screenshots and can confirm once and for all that the transfer isn't going to be cut and look like a decapitated monkey's asshole?

On much the same note, Anchor Bay recorded an interview with Sergio Martino for Mountain of the Cannibal God, in which the director defends the footage of the monkey being eaten by a snake was "a tragic accident", and when they realized there was nothing they could do they sighed and rolled cameras again, realizing that there was no sense in letting that moment go to waste. The footage cuts to the scene in question, pointing out - in slow motion - that the monkey is attached at the neck to a handle and is literally being force-fed to the snake. So at the very least I can't accuse Deodato of being alone in lying through his teeth over what's now a particularly controversial subject.

* For all the delishus lolita complex and shotaporn material you'll find on the Kentai Blog from time to time, you won't EVER find any actual images of child abuse. But, you CAN easily find plenty of legal to own images of actual murder on the internet. Weird... right?


Tommy said...

As long as it's a good transfer I'm in. Although I totally understand your concern regarding censorship...I just can't see getting worked up over one little scene...and to be honest, I'm too much of a pussy to watch it anyways. It's funny, I will watch absolutely anything in movies involving people (rape, murder, torture, you name it...), but when it comes to cute little fuzzy wuzzies I get all soft and squishy!

Kentai 拳態 said...

Animals are awesome. They don't hold grudges or lie to your family about dumb shit or take your car to run errands and then hang out at the quad without asking first, or borrow fifteen bucks and then promise to pay you back next week and never do. They just eat and poop and expect you to do the same. Animals rock. Anyone who can kick a puppy or punch a kitten deserves to be castrated with a rusted can opener in the back of van off-road with fucked up suspension, and hell yes you can quote me on that.

But hey, I eat a cheese burger about once a week. I know the animals that died so I could enjoy a greasy two-dollar lunch from the drive through window suffered far worse and much longer than the coati in CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, so as ridiculous and morally repulsive as the footage existing might be... fuck it. It is what it is, and we should all be mature enough to either deal with it, or decide this isn't a film you should be watching to begin with. Or just hit the "skip" button, whatever.

You can't change the past, you can only acknowledge that you made mistakes and move on as a culture. Instead we have the director deciding that the past was a bad idea and, changing it for the present to absolve himself of it in some weird way. I guess it's his perogative to do that, but I seriously feel like he's still missing the fucking point...

Tommy said...

haha, you should start a new chapter of Peta that specializes in rusty open road castrations. I will totally be the first to sign up.

Anyways, you make a good point for sure. Putting everything in perspective, it may not make sense to get worked up over any of these scenes. Even for myself, as a vegetarian, I support far worse on a daily basis just's simply impossible to keep your hands clean of all the shit that goes on in our world. But still, I think it's important to pick and choose your battles, as opposed to giving in to absolute nihilism. And in my opinion, anything Deodato can do to apologize for his actions is a positive thing. Although, that's assuming that he's being genuine and not just covering his own ass.

Leonardo T. Oliveira said...

The coati scene is important even for those who criticize the film today! It's important even to HATE this scene. I saw it not in the film, but as an excerpt in a documentary, and it was one of the most absurdly terrible things I have ever seen.