Friday, July 16, 2010

Eyesores, or, I Spit on Your Rating System

Take the text and knife out of the picture and you're left with (amateurish) erotic photography. The woman is sexually inviting and threatening at the same time. Her clothing is made to look as if it were torn in a random way, but the fit is exact, even tailored -- body parts are hugged and conformed to just so, and the garment hangs invitingly off the shoulder but, in defiance of gravity, refuses to fall further. Having just been raped, she is scuffed and dirtied. The image sexualizes violence.

The story of 'I Spit on Your Grave', in a blip, is about a woman who is raped by a group of men. She is left for dead, survives, then proceeds to systematically exact revenge by torturing the men responsible for attacking her. (In the remake) the torture isn't of the slick, heavily implicit kind found in mainstream Hollywood movies. It's direct, practical, realistic, and brutal.

'I Spit on Your Grave' is simply graphic exploitation torture porn. The kind of movie that doesn't usually get much buzz. However, ISoYG is currently getting a lot of buzz, mostly bad, mostly about the nature of the plot, and the posters. Comments are uniformly negative, accusing producers of being demeaning to women and celebrating violence and the acts of torture depicted in the movie.

None of this comes as a surprise. It's normal and expected with movies of this kind. However, there's something about the nature of the materials and timing of their release, and, the commentary the materials have produced, that has caught my attention. Things don't seem to be so random. There is the appearance of an orchestrated strategy. I get the feeling the producers of ISoYG are reaching for something more than a modest return on a low-budget horror flick and are using methods not seen before, at least on this scale. Let me explain.

This is the original poster. It was a hated thing and the subject of the first volley of bad buzz. Understandably so -- it's ugly and off-putting. The viewer draws his or her knees closer together as a reflex upon seeing it. Even the most biting and sharply sarcastic horror bloggers were offended. And why not? Don't extremely hardcore splatter fans deserve some semblance of suspense? This poster has none.

The rusty shears held up over the viewer's lap are ready to snip away...something -- no mystery there. They are held by a woman who is barely visible, as if she doesn't matter -- as if the only thing that counts is that something is about to be chopped off. There's no fun in it. Nothing in the poster suggests anything so theatrically maudlin or dejectedly comical as spitting on a grave. The poster cuts straight to the chase, as it were. 'Just plain nasty' describes the effort fairly enough. This movie might as well be entitled 'I Cut with a Pair of Garden Shears'.

But, these qualities are obvious, almost forced in their clarity. The elements of the poster seem specifically chosen for their objectionable nature. Every part seems so completely offensive there can be no doubt as to the effect it will produce. It seems just a tad planned. Intentional.

Even the tag, 'It's Date Night', is not only inappropriate, it doesn't really make sense. What does that mean? How does it apply? Tonight we have a date for rape, tomorrow it'll be a date for retribution, torture, and to cut body parts off? It's so repugnant and irrelevant as to be a bad joke.

Was all this an accident? Perhaps. We get dumb, poorly designed posters all the time. Could have been the best producers could come up on a moment's notice. But, maybe in this instance, the materials were offensive by design. This first poster may have been created for the purpose of becoming the subject of not just negative comments, but ones filled with hatred. It may have been meant to have mud slung at it. A sly and obvious target for vitriol. If so, it succeeded admirably. After the poster was released a roar of protest went up online, and that backlash may have been precisely what the distributor, Anchor Bay, wanted to elicit from bloggers --
exactly the kind of buzz they were seeking, bad though it may have been.

Why would a distributor do this? Well, no buzz is bad buzz. Bloggers were vociferous in their disdain. Discussion boards filled with attacks. Comment sections overflowed. It made a splash. It got attention and stuck in the minds of horror fans -- a good thing, and hard to come by in the super-saturated world of movie blogging. Normally, you'd pay handsomely for that kind of coverage, but Anchor Bay got it for the cost of one really icky poster -- that is, practically free of charge.

So. First, we get a poster that was so well calculated in its clumsiness and disregard for aesthetics it made bloggers cry out in indignation, then, seemingly in response to the clamor, a more pleasing and acceptable poster was released, which was not only nicer to look at but also an homage to the 1978 original. So, as far as one sheets go, producers of ISoYG had made nice. Right? People loved the second poster -- sort of.

True, the second poster is far better than the first in every way, but with its release a webwide wail went up in response to the sexism and exploitation inherent to this new and improved one sheet. Everybody chimed in: horror fans, feminists, geeks, those who are politically minded, people who take pride in their smarmy assessments of the movie industry, schlubs who don't give a damn about anything. They all said the same thing: This poster objectifies and devalues women, and celebrates (sexually oriented) violence, and we hate it.

Okay. I know what you're thinking. This is what the distributors of 'I Spit on Your Grave' wanted? Up to a couple days ago I wouldn't have thought so either, but then came the announcement that an unrated version of ISoYG would released in theaters. Well! The nerve! Dodging an MPAA rating is something no respectable distributor would do. Usually, Hollywood bends over backwards to get approval from the MPAA. Directors acquiesce and reluctantly nip and tuck here and there in order to maintain, say, a PG-13 rating. Nitpick editing of offensive scenes may be demanded by the MPAA again and again before they will allow a movie an R-rating instead of the dreaded NC-17. Studios play ball to avoid a rating that will cost them money at the box office. It's a pas de deux Hollywood creative types and the MPAA have been engaged in for decades. The MPAA wants to keep things civilized and protect society from base influences, while Hollywood wants to have fun and entertain their fans. So there's a back and forth. Typically, after much tap dancing and tug-of-war, it's the studios who end up ceding a certain degree of editorial sovereignty, cutting the spiciest bits from their precious creations until the end product is deemed acceptably conformist by the powers that be.

The familiar stamp of an MPAA rating gives the audience fair warning, puts their fears to rest, tips them off as to the nature of the movie so they feel safe in seeing it. But, this may not matter if your movie is a remake known to contain some of the most objectionable and abhorrent depictions ever filmed. People expect depravity from the 2010 'I Spit on Your Grave'. They don't need a rating from the MPAA. This may be the logic of Anchor Bay's tactics. Marketing may have decided that the movie has such repulsive subject matter it would be better (and cause more of a stir) if they released promo materials which celebrated the fact rather than trying to gloss it over. Following suit, it might be better for the bottom line to sidestep compromising negotiations with the MPAA, and release 'I Spit on Your Grave' in its more organic form, as an unrated movie fully loaded with all the depictions of violence and torture the writer and director originally envisioned despite that they are graphic to the point of obscenity.

After all, does the public really care if a movie with such content is R-rated or unrated? When does the distasteful become too distasteful? Are career horror fans concerned about such hair-splitting distinctions? Who needs an MPAA rating when it comes to extreme torture porn? With the release of an unrated cut of 'I Spit on Your Grave' Anchor Bay may be out to prove the answer is: Nobody, thank you very much.

With their announcement the movie will be released in theaters unrated, Anchor Bay has poured fuel on a fire of controversy already burning hot in response to posters, stills, and a trailer, and the increased buzz can only be considered a good thing.

Releasing the movie theatrically in an unrated version may whip up such a storm of wickedly bad press people would flock to the theater to see just what the fuss is about. After seeing the movie the word-of-mouth would be explosive. All the talk would be about just how gruesome ISoYG really is, being that all the naughtiest, nastiest bits were left intact. A theatrical run of an unadulterated version of 'I Spit on Your Grave' would probably produce much more box office than an R-rated version could every hope for. In fact, the movie could be so good for business, the ISoYG rollout could become the new model for hardcore horror movie marketing. In business school text books it could be called the I-Soyg approach.

Is this happenstance or careful planning? The best that could be done with exceedingly repulsive material, or, oh so clever posturing?

Without creative restraints imposed by the MPAA, 'I Spit on Your Grave' will probably be one of the most base and vile cinematic experiences one is ever likely to have. An unrated ISoYG may become The Movie to see if one hopes to keep his or her standing amongst the most enthusiastic fans of hardcore horror.

Despite what has heretofore been considered the stigma of being unrated by the MPAA (a status usually reserved for porn and bookishly subtitled foreign cinema replete with long-winded existential conversation) 'I Spit on Your Grave' might have a shot at box office glory simply because it is, in fact, unrated.

Watching one version or the other of 'I Spit on Your Grave' on DVD would not suffice. Owning both the R-rated and unrated versions, as well as being conversant in the controversy that surrounded the release of the movie(s), would be de rigueur in order to maintain one's status as a genuine horror movie cognoscente.

Down the road this movie might be cited as the next step in the evolution of torture porn and its marketing after the 'Saw' franchise, which appears to have run its course (possibly due to the fact that producers of the franchise continue to seek approval from the MPAA in order to secure a run in theaters). Why tapdance with the MPAA at all? If an R-rated version yields the same or less box office revenue than an unrated version, and the unrated version is more true to the material and is what fans want to see, well, what's the point of cutting the movie until it satisfies the MPAA?

And, what about box office business? Certainly, the stigma of an unrated movie isn't a lasting thing. Really, no negative connotation lasts forever. Would any true horror fan today refuse to see a film because it is unrated by the MPAA? What self-respecting non-conformist would do that?

If the unrated version of 'I Spit on Your Grave' does well at the box office we can look forward to more (horror) movies from major Hollywood studios being released theatrically without a rating. Not because the MPAA refused to rate the film, but because they were not asked to. Horror flicks may not be the only type of movie that appear in theaters without the sanction of a rating. We might get action movies in which the body count is high with an R-rating but higher if unrated. Gross-out comedies with jokes that make you squirm when the material is reined in by an R-rating, but leave you slack-jawed when the material is unrated.

People might like unrated movies. Such movies, no matter what kind they are, might offer more of what the genre has potential to deliver. The new marketing mantra would be: 'If you make it unrated, they will come'.

Studios could double their box office takes by releasing a particularly sharp unrated version for the stoutest, bravest, and most receptive of movie fans, then, when that flow of cash dries up, rolling out a version that carries the MPAA rating which will appeal to the more timid, less fervent, less experimentally-minded -- the average buttoned-down straight-arrow guy or gal. Two versions of every movie, twice the income from every movie. Twice as nice.

Unrated DVDs for most movies could become the standard instead of the rare exception. Studios might find a new freedom in the degree of gore and violence their slasher flicks contain. Directors might not have to worry about the graphic acts their movies depict. The most hardcore audiences may finally be able to look forward to a more fully satisfying genre experience. This may be the start of a marketing strategy known as 'I Spit on Your Rating System', or I-Soyrs.

And, if every seat is filled, why would theaters refuse to run unrated movies? What theater chain would turn down unrated fare on the basis that, at one time, such movies were taboo? Will the megaplex chain tell the distributor: 'Sorry, but take your unrated product elsewhere. Let another theater sell every seat in the house. We're not interested in your offensive over-the-top entertainment or the revenue it will surely produce'. I don't think so. With theater attendance lagging each successive year, the unrated movie may provide a box office boost that both studios and exhibitors would appreciate. Unrated movies may also provide a boost in plummeting DVD sales.

Anchor Bay's promotional strategy for 'I Spit on Your Grave' could represent the start of a new marketing approach for movies with extremely graphic violence and/or sexually explicit subject matter. Seeking approval of your movie from the MPAA might become a thing of the past and, if an unrated 'I Spit on Your Grave' is a success at the box office and on DVD, movie theater chains and Hollywood studios may adopt unrated movies as a way of revitalizing business.

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