I don’t know what to think.

Posted on 11/05/2011

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What happens when you don’t know how to react?

Do you freeze up like a deer caught in the headlights? Sit there catatonic with that glazed, vacant expression as you grapple with how you feel? Do you feel blank or empty or maybe a little bit stupid as you sit there somewhat dumbfounded? Do you walk away and still not know how to feel? Is it a mix of the three?

Personally, I love it when a film polarizes me. Later on, when I collect my analytical brain up off the floor, I may form an opinion, but in that moment, when a film goes to black and the credits begin to roll and when I sit there – completely at odds with myself as to what I thought – I feel as if a film has done it’s job. It is in that moment that I feel as if a film has questioned me, in such a way that I’m not prepared or able to answer just yet.

That’s a pretty incredible thing.

Many a narrative film has done that to me. Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, Belvaux’s Man Bites Dog, Cronenberg’s Videodrome, Lynch’s Eraserhead; all films that had me totally lost for words – and for opinion – at the end of them. And when I was about 18, a documentary did it to me as well, and because documentaries form a fairly small part of my viewing vocabulary, unsurprisingly, this had never happened before. It’s a funny little one, found on a late night trawling through YouTube, not really looking for anything in particular, and then stumbling across this:

Snuff: A Documentary About Killing on Camera

I am – by my own admission – quite morbidly curious about snuff films; and I am the single most passive, non-confrontational person I know. I mean, I hit somebody once, completely by accident, when I was seventeen, and still feel shit about it to this day. However, I can’t really justify an interest as awful as snuff in any way other than this: to me, it represents buried treasure, just the kind of treasure I hope I never find. It’s something long sought after, much talked about and speculated on, but never really found by it’s textbook definition. Listening to people talk about snuff films they’ve seen or heard of is kind of like the film nerd’s equivalent of telling ghost stories around a campfire, or retelling a nightmare. Generally, they’re not pleasant stories, but they certainly send a shiver down your spine.

Granted, when we first began doing our “Significant Moment” blogs in Screening Series a few weeks ago now, I did consider discussing snuff, and one film I had the grave misfortune of seeing the first fifteen seconds of, but clips weren’t  at all appropriate and I couldn’t describe it tastefully. So, I passed. But this documentary, made by an American independent company called Killing Joke Films, deals with this  particularly difficult and morbid subject matter with a strange sense of theatricality, that did absolutely polarize me when I first saw it. The film opens with this:

Snuff Film
[n.] slang.

– A motion picture showing the actual murder of a human being that is produced, perpetrated, and distributed solely for the purpose of profit.

“This”, by that definition, has apparently never been found. That is more a matter of personal opinion than anything else, but we’re here to talk doco, so let’s do just that.

'Snuff', one of the many bad examples the film uses.

Snuff: A Documentary About Killing on Camera is divided into three sections: “American Cinema and Snuff”, “Serial Killers and Snuff” and “War and Snuff”. There is one more, which I will get to in a moment. Essentially, what the piece is doing is exploring each of these three places where snuff can and may be found. It is a talking heads documentary, featuring everyone from Mark L Rosen – who produced 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – former FBI agents, experts on serial killers, American horror-movie makers and so forth. Basically anyone they could round up with an insight into the matter. Genuinely evil films such as Cannibal Holocaust and the Guinea Pig series are discussed, whilst there is also a lot of discussion about films like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Faces of Death and Bowling for Columbine, as well as movies made by serial killers of some of the murders they committed and many a mobile phone film that would circulate during the Iraq conflict.

The funny thing being  that none of the aforementioned are snuff, as defined by the film itself, but anyway…

Sounds okay? Sounds informative? Sounds somewhat interesting? I thought so too. But there’s something fishy about the whole thing, beyond the subject matter. It’s in the documentary itself.

Look at these three images. There’s something wrong with all of them:

One of the title cards that opens the film

An 'anonymous' cinephile and video store owner

R.P Whalen, a cinephile and film historian, also a film maker

Now, let’s put this into context, and not forget what it is that we’re talking about here. We’re talking about snuff, one of the single most reprehensible things a human being can commit to film, considered one of the most shocking and awful of social taboos. So riddle me this: why the hell are the interviewees laughing?! And why does a documentary about this kind of film, this kind of horror, need to say something like “We’re not kidding”? Does it think I don’t want to be here? Does it need to justify itself before my eyes; prove itself to me as a serious piece of work? Is it questioning my taste and sense of morbid curiosity before I’ve even started watching it? My answer to that being “Dude, fuck off! I’m here, I’m watching your film, now get lost and let me watch.”

But this is an inherent problem throughout this documentary. It has a sense of theatricality that feels quite inappropriate.  For example, Raymond Whalen (picture below left) appears at numerous points throughout the film, chucking his two cents in wherever it’s needed. He’s over-excited, all the time, his reaction to Cannibal Holocaust being one of utter glee and excitement, his definition of a “gore-hound” accompanied by groaning and laughter. He’s kind of like listening to Quentin Tarantino talk, practically pumping his fists in the air with excitement over film every time he’s on camera. Beyond being inappropriate, it does something to the documentary that is fatal for all documentaries: IT MAKES IT FEEL FAKE.

Mark L Rosen mid recitation.

Now, redemption does come in the form of Mark L Rosen, whose recollections of two separate incidents form the only two somewhat believable sections of the film; the story he tells that closes the film being utterly chilling – whether it is real or not. In it, he recites meeting a Philippines pornographer (presumably), who would show him a snuff film in his hotel room with the hope that Rosen would buy it from him to distribute. He recites the story in such a way that one cannot help but get caught up in it, so yes, the film ends on a good note. But I still don’t know if what I’ve seen was a legitimate documentary about a very serious subject that I wanted to know more about, or if it was a production company pulling a very sick practical joke on me, who merely wanted to increase his knowledge of cinema.

And so I sat there, as the film ended, having sat through scenes from movies the likes of which I didn’t even think existed, stories I don’t even wanted to know about and actual footage of death that still sends a shiver up the spine, combined with a collection of interviews that make me feel somewhat gypped, fooled and – in many ways – quite unclean for having had these people laugh at my face for having even ventured down the path of snuff.

Maybe that’s the point…

Still, I sat there, not knowing what to think…

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Posted in: Semester 1