Why Extreme Cinema?
This is a personal essay on how I view extreme cinema and why I watch these movies. It will be partially apologetic, and it will contain personal ramblings and nonsense.
First of all is the issue of how to define 'extreme cinema'. This is not only a subjective term, but it is also up for interpretation relative to the current social zeitgeist. An extreme movie of yesterday will not be seen as extreme in a few years, and a disturbing movie for some may be boring for others. Also, keep in mind that when I say 'extreme cinema', I am also including surreal, experimental and bizarre movies, not just sick, gory or disturbing movies.
In the introduction, I tried to define as best I can how I qualify or disqualify movies as being worthy of the 'extreme' label. But, the bottom line is that a lot of it is very subjective.
The issue of relative extremism is very important for this essay for the simple reason that many accusations of sickness and objectionable content are hypocritical. Millions of people watched and were entertained by Total Recall, which contains a scene of Schwarzenegger wise-cracking while holding a man's gory dismembered arms that have just been torn out of their sockets. 'Bonnie and Clyde', now considered a classic crime flick, was once considered gratuitously sick for the simple fact that it contained a scene of human beings riddled with hundreds of bullets. Parents that call today's movies too sick, once sneaked out to watch the controversial movies of their own generation. And so on...
That said, I will also state that I despise the often-abused argument of relative morals and aesthetics, especially when it is used as an absolute philosophy of life. I firmly believe that some so-called artforms and specific instances of movies are ugly, pointless, idiotic, morally bankrupt or pointlessly sick from any perspective. A movie, say, like August Underground, does not offer any insight into human nature, does not offer any humor or interesting plot, and is simply sickness for its own sake. Thus, I can claim that from an objective standpoint, the movie is worthless, since gore and nastiness on their own are seen as absolutely negative things by any sane individual. If you can argue that it serves any positive purpose whatsoever, then by all means I'd like to hear it.
When it comes to violence and nastiness, I always believed that a key criterion is the focus of the movie: Where did the director place emphasis? What scenes got the most attention and budget? Does the camera show, linger and even zoom in on the nastiness or are we only shown what we need to see? And so on. This is another ruler that can be used to judge the movie objectively.
The majority of movies, however, fall in the category of 'mixed content'. And I am including the vast majority of Hollywood movies in this category as well. With these, it's only a matter of how much you can take before you think the movie has overstepped its boundaries. And this, obviously, is relative. Here we can ask ourselves questions like: Is the useful and positive content of the movie worthwhile enough to ignore the pointlessly negative content? Does humor transform gratuitous gore into something morally acceptable? What makes a scene gratuitous? Is it when the same point could have been made without it? But would the point be as hard-hitting and convincing without the extremism?
Most people don't want to explore these moralizing questions when it comes to movies, and I won't be doing this either. One could even attack a Hollywood romantic comedy for gratuitous nudity. All I am trying to do is point out a double-standard, and to demonstrate the complexity of the issue and the fact that 'extreme movies' don't necessarily have something that non-extreme movies haven't.
To sum up so far, most movies nowadays have questionable content. This site merely focuses on movies with larger quantities of it, as well as on movies that are unusual and bizarre. Unless one makes a point of watching only the handful of guaranteed non-violent non-sexual movies, children's flicks, or movies from the 40s, one simply cannot claim that one doesn't watch and even enjoy questionable content. And no, personally, I don't seek out this stuff exclusively; it's just that this site is focused on this neglected domain of cinema.
Of course, there are some movies which I can predict will most probably not be to my liking, or will most probably be pointlessly immoral, and yet I watch them anyways. To this I can only say that I am a pedantic completist, that I still have hope in most cases that there will be something of value to extract from the movie, and that I am providing a service by warning other people not to make the same mistake I made. OK... all flimsy excuses, I know.
But enough with the defensive arguments and let's move on to more interesting topics: Why I think extreme cinema has something potentially special and unique to offer.
For one thing, I think it is most interesting, satisfying and even educational when an idea, theme or genre is taken to its extreme. This approach would potentially explore a concept fully and comprehensively, taking ideas or stories to their logical conclusions, and even exploring what would happen if the idea is taken too far, thus exposing its strengths and weaknesses. Think of a discussion where people bring up extreme analogies and circumstances such as Nazism and perverts in order to expose fallacies or to prove an argument's comprehensive consistency. Think of a Ki-duk Kim, Tsukamoto, or even a Gaspar Noé movie for examples of this.
'Uncompromising' is an often used word with these movies, and sometimes rightfully so, because non-extreme movies often have to skew their writing and characters into unrealistic territory in order to take into account audience sensitivities.
For another thing, extremism is a classic mechanism for humor. Outrageousness, when used right, can be very entertaining, funny and even uniquely insightful. The classic examples here are satire and caricature.
Finally, I enjoy being exposed to as wide a variety of experiences and thoughts possible, as long as there is something interesting, mind-opening, positive or insightful to extract from it. I enjoy watching points being made via surrealism, shock-tactics, dream-logic, and various other modes of thinking. I enjoy learning about different ways to approach a subject, to see an idea deconstructed in unusual ways, exposing new aspects and meta-ideas, to strip away normal modes of thinking and explore a concept from a completely new perspective, even if it requires some extreme techniques to drive the point home.
Why use only linear and logical thought when exploring stories or ideas? What if something like dream-logic could make you absorb what you are seeing in a much deeper way? What if your mind is stagnant and unable to see new ideas from an unbiased angle, and it would take a backdoor into your mind, or even a shock, to get you to grasp the message? What if the concept is so entrenched and associated with incorrect conclusions that only a bizarre and surprising juxtaposition would allow you to re-evaluate it? I am not making this up; these are all well known philosophies of the Dada and Surrealist movements.
So this is why I watch extreme cinema. I enjoy a Ruiz movie for its intellectualism unshackled from reality, Greenaway for his uncompromising exploration of intellectual themes and minutia and new cinematic techniques, Lynch for his dream-logic ways of exploring a mystery, and so on. I enjoy 'splatstick' for its unique form of comedy, absurdism for shaking me out of my bad habits and stagnant thoughts, and if I am going to watch horror, then why not watch horror that exposes the potential darkness of human nature for what it is without sugar-coating? I know that for every Greenaway there is a Carmelo Bene, and that for every Peter Jackson there is a Schnaas, but that's the price I pay, and, by reviewing these obscure movies publicly, I can offer others the benefit of pre-knowledge.
Ironically, and this is the final topic for this essay, I also frequently come under attack from the other side of the fence: Cult movie fans and even underground movie-makers. I belittle their favorite movies, I don't appreciate the enjoyment that is to be extracted from trash movies that are not meant to be taken seriously, I should not be watching movies that I obviously don't enjoy, and so on. To these people I can only say that cult movies appeal to a select few by their very definition. I have my opinions and reasons for watching these movies, and I stand by my reviews as the partially-objective opinions that they are. And if I feel that my time has been wasted and my sensitivities offended for no good reason, then I shall be unapologetically ruthless.