Free Speech and the Concept of "Torture Porn": Why are Critics So Hostile to "Hostel II"?

Monday, Jul. 16, 2007

Free speech advocates have often zeroed in on the hypocrisy of the ratings system of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA): Movies with less-than-explicit sex scenes often qualify for R and NC-17 ratings, whereas even very violent movies often do not. This criticism usually is paired with the hope that this hypocrisy will someday be resolved through a more reasonable approach to ratings for movies with sex scenes.

But recently, that hope for the movie industry has been turned on its head. It now seems that the analogy between movies that depict sex and violence, respectively, will be used not to convince the MPAA to ease up on the first, but rather to justify a crackdown on the latter. Thus, the comparison between sexuality and violence may actually serve as leverage in favor of harsher ratings, rather than against them.

That's a serious concern for those who believe in free speech. While the MPAA is of course an industry organization, and not a government body, its ratings can still have a profound effect (including a "chilling effect" for the future) upon the kind of movies that can be made and, if made, can reach broad audiences.

The phrase "torture porn," which has been repeatedly applied to the Writer/Director Eli Roth's recent movie "Hostel II," is telling in terms of the new movement to conflate sexuality and violence - and it's spreading virally. Entertainment Weekly used the term; and five of the featured reviews on the popular movie ratings site use variations on this theme. This summer, New York magazine's reviewer David Edelstein devoted an entire article to the concept.

While not quite new, the concept is recent - largely confined to Twenty-First Century films such as "Saw" and its sequels, and Roth's earlier films "Cabin Fever" and "Hostel." In addition, "Captivity," which premiered last Friday, June 13, has attracted the "torture porn" label - with its billboards becoming especially controversial. How long will it be before the MPAA follows the lead of movie reviewers in labeling films "torture porn"? (Meanwhile, in the context of television, Senator Sam Brownback may well succeed in convincing the FCC to move aggressively against depictions of violence, especially explicit ones - a move that has led to significant blowback from the ACLU.)

In this column, I'll argue that the "torture porn" label is damaging, unfair, and misguided. It attempts to trivialize certain movies by suggesting that their only purpose is to titillate - short-circuiting the brain to go straight to the pulse or groin. In fact, many of the visceral depictions of violence in these movies conveyed strong messages that no viewer could miss. Ironically, these messages, especially in the "Hostel" films, are typically anti-violence.

Because the real world includes violence, and because violence has such devastating effects, it would be anomalous if ideas about, and depictions of, violence didn't play a strong role in the lively "marketplace of ideas" the First Amendment protects. Aggressively protecting that marketplace of ideas, as the First Amendment commands us to do, entails protecting a wide swathe of types of expression, including those that some viewers will find overly explicit.

The Importance of Allowing Filmmakers to Rely on Context and Realism

Generally, scenes of violence are effectively interpreted by critics and the MPAA in isolation, unless the movie is truly a rare masterpiece. For example, the Oscar-nominated "Saving Private Ryan" came famously close to receiving an NC-17 for its violence, especially that of its opening, but ultimately did not, likely due to this informal masterpiece exception. In this one example, the MPAA was able to see the movie's violence in context, and in light of the perspective the movie conveyed. It was also able to see that it would have done a disservice to World War II veterans to convey a tamer portrait of what had actually happened on the battlefield.

These arguments regarding context and perspective, however, are applicable to virtually every movie; it's just that with respect to other films, the MPAA ignores them. It's nonsensical to look at scenes of violence out of context, given that viewers will only see them in context. And making violence look less realistic - less bloody, less gory, and more stylized - would be deceptive not only in masterpieces such as "Saving Private Ryan," but also in any film that purports to either locate itself in a real world, or to locate itself in a fictional world similar enough to our own that it can offer commentary on the world we live in.

The tacit masterpiece exception is also troubling in another way: It favors conventional films, and grossly discriminates against the kind of films that, while they may be interesting and popular, will never be nominated for an Academy Award. The masterpieces of Sundance may be allowed to be violent, but the masterpieces of its edgier spin-off, Slamdance, may not.

This is particularly troubling because it's not masterpieces, but edgier films, that are likely to have the most interesting and new points to make about violence.

The Cases of "Hostel" and "Hostel II": Anti-Violence Movies Wrongly Labeled "Torture Porn"

For example, it's hardly controversial to convey, as "Saving Private Ryan" did, that it's tragic when soldiers die in a just war. But it is very controversial indeed to say that even the most civilized-seeming people may be lawless sadists underneath, and that this sadism isn't aberrant; it's just an intensification and distortion of other elements in our culture.

Yet that's exactly the message of "Hostel" and "Hostel II" - a message seemingly lost on those who label the movies torture porn. Unfortunately, when these films receive that label, the movies' commentary about the violent extremes that seemingly-civilized people never reaches part of its potential audience, for would-be viewers may boycott the films based on this reductive and unfair label.

Both "Hostel" and "Hostel II' comment on the stereotype of na´ve American innocence and jaded European experience. Critics highlight this kind of commentary when it appears in classic literature, but tend to ignore it when they discuss the kind of movies they tend to consider beneath them, and only condescend to review. To illustrate the contrast between brash America and weary Europe, both movies depict small groups of young Americans traveling abroad (men in "Hostel"; women in "Hostel II"). Both groups have an ugly surprise waiting for them: They will be tricked into being the victims of a club, based in Eastern Europe, at which otherwise unremarkable but extremely wealthy men and women torture and kill for sport. Even if the Americans escape, their illusions of safety and privilege will be permanently shattered.

In both movies, there is no possible question about whom the audience is rooting for. "Hostel" has a hero, and "Hostel II" a heroine; both use their wits to escape. No one's sensitivities are spared with respect to the violence to which the lead characters' friends fall prey, and that they themselves either suffer or come close to suffering. In both movies, the lawless parts of the world, where anything can happen and any service is available for a price, are clearly condemned - with "Hostel II" making a very explicit reference to several real-world societies teetering on the edge of total anarchy.

The club members, too, are presented as repellent human beings, pumping themselves up for murder as they would for a sports game or hunting trip. They kill and torture out of weakness, not strength; they are despicable. (One man spews the misogyny he cannot voice in front of his wife, in front of a helpless victim who takes her place.) They are also addicts: In "Hostel," one satisfied club member comments of the charnel house where he's just murdered someone, "You could spend all your money in that place." In "Hostel II," two club members discuss their prior sex tourism, implying that they may well be child molesters in addition to being murderers.

Make no mistake: These are the dregs. And yet, with their athlete-like pumping-up rituals and locker-room bonding, and their hunter-like indifference to the fact that their "prey" has nothing remotely like a sporting chance, they can be uncomfortably familiar, too. And this is where the movie's message comes in: These aren't monsters, they are human being who have let their darkest tendencies go much too far, and who even revel in them shamelessly. Perhaps they are even encouraged by American culture to do so. Their relationship to violence is akin to the relationship of the Michael Douglas character, Gordon Gekko, in the film "Wall Street" to money: Greed is good, and no more explanation need be given.

It thus seems very questionable, then, to deem these movies morally inferior to, say, the Oscar-winning "Silence of the Lambs" -- which makes Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter so sympathetic that we laugh at his puns about "having a friend over for dinner" and cheer his escape. Again, apparently the tacit masterpiece exception applies - or perhaps the movie's lack of realism regarding Lecter's cannibalism saves it; that violence all occurs off-screen.

Violence as a Selling Point: The Excitement of Boundary-Pushing

What about critics' point, though, that the movies' violence is a selling point for viewers - not its condemnation of violence, but the violence itself?

I think this point is correct, but it's not a reason to fault the movie. I believe the violence is shocking - and a draw for audiences -- because it pushes boundaries, and it pushes boundaries because it is super-realistic. It seems logical that the highly-stylized violence of movies like the "Matrix" would give way to a spate of movies that offer super-realistic violence. Any movie that shows us something we've never seen before, or shows it to us in a new way, will interest audiences for this very reason. The boundary-pushing often has interesting effects, as well: Sometimes we, as viewers, laugh when we probably should cry - perhaps baffled at some deep level by what we are seeing, and unable to process it.

In the end, it seems strange to fault "Hostel" for its very realism about violence suffered by innocents - while, at the same time paying no mind to the endless, often bloodless and supposedly well-deserved violence of summer movies. Such violence passes so quickly we often barely register a particular shooting, except to think, "Good! He got him!" In contrast, "Hostel" and "Hostel II" dwell on the horrors they depict, and condemn them.

Which kind of presentation really desensitizes us to violence? I think the answer is clear.

In the end, First Amendment doctrine counsels that speech must be free regardless of the message it sends; government censorship based on the content of speech is especially noxious. (Even pro-violence messages are protected if they do not advocate imminent violence.)

Yet it seems ironic, here, that arguments for censorship (or at least NC-17 ratings) are based on a deep misunderstanding of the message that is actually sent by the movies at issue. The label "torture porn" implies that movies like "Hostel" and "Hostel II" present torture as somehow sexy. In fact, they present it as anything but.

Julie Hilden, a FindLaw columnist, graduated from Yale Law School in 1992. She practiced First Amendment law at the D.C. law firm of Williams & Connolly from 1996-99. Hilden is also a novelist. In reviewing Hilden's novel, 3, Kirkus Reviews praised Hilden's "rather uncanny abilities," and Counterpunch called it "a must read.... a work of art." Hilden's website,, includes free MP3 and text downloads of the novel's first chapter.

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