Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Evil in Hollywood. A review of the film "8MM"

“8MM” stars Nicholas Cage as a private investigator tracking down the origin of a snuff film. A snuff film is one in which a person is tortured and killed, for real, on camera. The idea is that the viewer would get a thrill from viewing this ultimate forbidden. This thrill is supposed to be broadly sexual in nature: when mainstream pornography doesn’t do it for you anymore, you can turn to films depicting ritualized S&M, bondage, torture, and (at the extreme) death.

“Real” snuff films -- films that depict real deaths, not just deaths that are faked for the camera -- do not really exist. Or at least so says everyone in “8MM.” The premise of the film, however, is that one man, an apparently rich, famous and powerful person, has paid a million dollars (why is it always exactly one million dollars?) to have one made. He has found a filmmaker and actors who specialize in violent pornography, and hired them to film the torture and execution of a young woman. This powerful man, named “Mr. Christian,” has died of old age (or something) as “8MM” begins. His elderly wife has found the tape in his safe. She hires Nicholas Cage, playing a private investigator, to find out whether or not the girl being killed on the tape was really killed, and who she was.

The subject is sensationalistic, but it gives “8MM” the possibility for greatness. By taking on this subject, the makers of this movie had a chance to say something about their understanding of the nature of evil. There are not a lot of subjects that Hollywood filmmakers can take up when they want to try to talk seriously about evil. But they are interested. We have seen several films about Nazi Germany and concentration camps recently. “Seven” and “Devil’s Advocate” also explored the nature of evil, in their own ways.

The filmmakers, to their credit, seem to be trying to do more than make a generic thriller. They want to talk about the nature of evil and its effects on basically good people. Unfortunately, they fail. They fail big. But we can learn something important about their failure: a lesson about the limitations and blindness of Hollywood (and much of America) when it comes to understanding evil.

Evil is traditionally a concept with strong religious overtones, so it is worth noting what the film makes of religion. Short answer: damn little. Here's everything I noticed.

First, the person who paid to have the snuff film made, though he never appears on camera, is made known to us as a widely respected, upstanding man. His name, Mr. Christian, suggests him to be pious as well. For her part, Mrs. Christian is a typical Hollywood “old lady”: she has little to do except inform Nicholas Cage of the existence of the film, give him some hints about how much was paid for it during the course of his investigation, and then kill herself (off camera) when she finds out that the movie was real. So the people named “Christian” turn out to be a murderer with extremely sick sexual fantasies and a pathetic old woman who can’t handle the truth and commits suicide. (Of course, traditional Christianity has held suicide to be the unforgiveable sin. Were the filmmakers ignorant of this? Either way, it does not speak well of their view of the faith.)

Another mention of religion comes near the end of the film. Nicholas Cage is tracking down the man who starred in the snuff film, the man who actually killed the girl. As Cage arrives at the man’s house, his wife is just leaving their home in a van that is clearly marked as being from a local church: she is off to a Christian function of some sort.

This is pretty much it for Christianity in the movie. None of them are even vaguely necessary to the plot. The old couple could have been named “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” of course, and the church van moment is a complete throwaway.

So the filmmakers want to talk about evil without even looking at the Christian or religious aspects of it. (By the way, both “Seven” and “Devil’s Advocate” take seriously at least something of the historical Christian ideas about evil.) Now, I am no Michael Medved: I don’t particularly care whether Christianity is treated well or badly in any given movie. But by refusing to even bring in any Christian or other religious concepts to a discussion of evil, the filmmakers have thrown out a lot of possible material.

"8MM” is structured around Nicholas Cage’s physical and psychological struggle with the evils he finds as he delves into the world of violent pornography. The sort of evil at issue might better be called “sickness” -- as in, “that violent pornography is sick.” “Sick” in two linked senses: disgusting, and mentally deranged.

Nicholas Cage leaves the sunny world where he lives with his wife and newborn child, and dives into the dark, dark world of extreme pornography (filmed in shadows throughout). He meets Joaquim Phoenix, playing an unusually intellectual but apparently low-level employee in a mainstream pornography store who conveniently has connections in the deep, dark world of violent porn. Phoenix himself seems basically normal, but he constantly warns Cage that watching too much of this stuff will “get in your head.”

Phoenix’s warnings are prescient. As Cage spends hours watching violent pornography as part of his investigation (searching for other films in which the “actors” in the snuff film might have appeared), things start to go wrong. He finds himself alienated from his wife (who is back home while he investigates). He forgets to call her for long periods of time, and doesn’t answer her calls on his cell phone. (Why he loses contact is not clear. Cage seems to be wrapped up in his hours of porn watching. But why doesn’t he leave the porn to talk to his wife? Does he start to enjoy the porn? The thought occurs to the viewer, and it would certainly make sense of his actions, but in an apparent failure of nerve the filmmakers never make this clear.)

Cage also forgets that his mission is only to find out whether the tape is real, and who the girl was. He discovers the answers to both those questions by about the middle of the film, but he keeps investigating, trying to find out who actually made the film, and forgetting even to report his results to Mrs. Christian. (Does his forgetfulness point to a mental breakdown, or is it just a hole in the plot?)

Then, when Cage does find out who made the film, he tracks them all down and, well, they all end up dead. Several of the bad guys conveniently kill each other, so Cage only has to kill two himself. One he ties up and then leaves alone for several hours before killing him in cold blood. He tracks the other man to his house and kills him in a bloody, mano-a-mano, hands-grappling-around-the-neck fight scene.

The last man that Cage kills, in the final fight scene, is an interesting case. We have seen this man on the snuff film, several times, and in other places "8MM". He is an actor in the snuff film, and in many other violent pornographic films. He always wears a black leather mask while making these films. It turns out that nobody in the porn world has ever seen his face, or has any idea who the man is.

When Cage finds him, he turns out to be, in appearance at least, just a regular guy. This is suggested by the brief scene where his wife leaves for church in the van, and by the normality of his house, his lawn, his white picket fence. It is confirmed during the fight scene, when his mask is torn from him and Cage sees him. Cage is stunned, and the camera and music make clear that we the audience are supposed to be stunned, that the man looks so normal. He looks like an accountant. Cage’s astonishment (and ours?) increases as we learn what has made the man spend his life in violent pornography and the making of a snuff film. (The man gets a little monologue during a break in the fight scene.) The man’s explanation: there is no explanation. He was not molested, or mistreated as a child. Typical psychological explanations don't fit. The man's life has been normal. Frightening message to audience: evil can come out of nowhere!

We are supposed to be utterly astonished, perplexed, and unable to understand this. Now, this is a classic approach to evil: evil as a surd, as that which defies explanation or understanding within our conceptual categories. Christian theologians have been saying this for centuries. But within "8MM," the attempt to define evil that way falls flat after a moment’s contemplation.

Remember, the movie has ruled any Christian notions out of bounds. But it is precisely Christian notions that can be brought in to explain evil in this case. After all, why should anyone be surprised that a person who looks perfectly normal would be evil? Classic Christian doctrine holds that the body and the soul are distinct entities. Evil infects the soul; it need not show up in the body. Moreover, on a Christian view of the world it is no surprise that we may find evil in anyone, even people who were not abused as a child (or whatever). Humans have been given the freedom to choose; evil is something people have always chosen. This is part of the writings of every Christian theologian in the last two thousand years! Our choices build on each other to become habits, either good habits (virtues) or bad ones (vices). With God's grace, we may attain a life of some virtue; otherwise we fall into sin and evil.

The filmmakers think they are shocking us. But the reality of evil that does not stem from obvious psychological root causes shouldn't shock anybody. A life of the greatest evil begins with a single step. And anybody can take that step. I thought we knew that. Does that really shock anybody?

Anyway, back to "8MM."

The film ends shortly after this final fight scene, in which Cage kills the actor. The ending leaves the viewer in a strange place: we do not know how to understand Cage’s character.

Note that there is no moral justification for Cage’s actions. Neither of the men he kills was responsible for the death of the girl, or the making of the film. The man who ordered the film made, Mr. Christian, is already dead. Dead too are the actual killer and the filmmaker who planned the details of the snuff film.

The two men Cage kills were only actors. Of course, they should not have participated in the movie. Like German citizens under Hitler, they participated in a great evil. They were not themselves responsible for the murder, but they did have a responsibility to refuse to participate, to try to stop it from happening: call the police, alert the media! Technically, the actors are probably accessories to murder. They are due for some serious jail time.

But why kill them? After the deaths of the men responsible for the murder of the girl, why not simply call it a day and go home, present your evidence to the cops? That would be the moral and civilized thing to do. Instead, Cage sentences the men to death, and carries out the sentence himself.

For what reason? The film makes clear that neither man is a danger to Cage; self-defense is not involved. Cage has to go out of his way, at real danger to himself, to track these men down and kill them.

The movie focuses on Cage’s face as he kills the men: he is furious, beside himself, vengeful. He makes no effort to control himself. He looks evil. He has become a cold-blooded murderer, even worse than the people he kills. The moral of the story seems clear: witnessing all the violent pornography has destroyed Cage’s sense of right and wrong, and turned him into a moral monster. Evil begets evil.

One problem with this reading of the film is that the filmmakers do not give it some needed support. If Cage’s actions are wrong, then presumably there were other, better options available to him. But nothing in the film leads us to think that Cage should have or could have done anything different. No other options are explored. There is no suggestion, from any quarter, that Cage might try to quash rather than indulge his desire for revenge. Nobody speaks a word on behalf of moderation. Even the men Cage kills seem to understand that, from his perspective, they have to die.

This reading of the film also coexists unhappily with a reading that makes more sense to viewers of typical Hollywood fare. Every Hollywood thriller seems to end with all the bad guys dead. No matter what their sins were, they have to die for those sins. And when the bad guys are dead, murdered by the good guys -- that’s an upbeat ending, and the good guys are not expected to be introspective about the morality of their actions. The good guys are not really “good,” they’re just the guys that we’ve been watching all movie long: we’re rooting for them. These bad guys need to die because, well, they’re the bad guys. Careful distinctions about actual culpability are beside the point.

On this reading, Cage is on the side of good. He is an avenging angel, making wrongs right, taking an eye for an eye. He plays the role of God, judge of sin and scourge of unrighteousness. He restores justice to the world. He is a hero, Hollywood-style.

Of course, this second reading of the film undercuts what we thought the movie was about. We were taking a close look at what repeated witnessing of sickness and evil can do to a man. It’s strange to think that what it does is to bless him, above all others, to dispense justice.

So we walk out of the movie not knowing what to think. Do Cage’s actions show the depth of his descent into madness and evil, or his ascension into Hollywood glory? It is a strange feeling to walk out of a movie not knowing whether the main character is supposed to be a psychopath or a hero.

And it’s not that the film leaves us with a pleasant sense of moral ambiguity. On the contrary, the impression is that the filmmakers had no idea what they were doing. “8MM” turns out to be a total failure, a mishmash. At first, it wants to be about the theme that evil begets evil. But the filmmakers don’t appear to believe in that theme, so they turn it into a typical Hollywood thriller. Now Cage looks like the good guy, the classic Hollywood hero. But because we, the audience, have been thinking about the infectiousness of evil, we suspect Cage’s character of having turned to evil, so we can’t quite buy that notion, either. We notice that Cage really is pretty unhinged and scary at the end of the film. But at no point in the film are we actually supported in the thought that he should not have done what he did. So we are left with nothing. We may start wondering whether Hollywood thrillers in general are wrongheaded and evil themselves, because they make us root for evil people. But clearly, this film does not intend to make us believe that!

If “8MM” teaches us something about evil, and about the limits of Hollywood’s ability to make evil real, it is despite what the film is trying to do, not because of it.

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