A few weeks ago my friend John Muir started a blog thread called “Savage Fridays,” his tribute to a series of New Hollywood films that he has dubbed the “savage cinema.” He defines this series of films by the questions they pose: “In the crucible of (unwanted) combat, the Every Person thoroughly tests him or herself. Does he or she have what it takes to survive? Does this character descend, finally, into bloody violence? And what is the personal, mental, and physical toll of shedding civilization and established norms of morality, even for an instant? Can you come back from that? Do you want to come back from that?” Muir gives as his prime examples several well-known films: Sam Peckinpah’s STRAW DOGS, John Boorman’s DELIVERANCE, Wes Craven’s LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and THE HILLS HAVE EYES, and Meir Zarchi’s notorious rape-revenge flick I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. (One could make a case for horror films as different as THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and THE DESCENT, so I'm very curious to see how far Muir takes this thread...)
I am a huge fan of Wes Craven, but I have to say that I’m not as big a fan of LAST HOUSE or THE HILLS HAVE EYES... and John’s post got me thinking about why I'm not a fan of “savage cinema” in general, in spite of my agreement with his theory that these films display a noble philosophical integrity. John eloquently made his point in my documentary NIGHTMARES IN RED WHITE AND BLUE by making a distinction between LAST HOUSE / STRAW DOGS and the Charles Bronson vehicle DEATH WISH. The savage cinema, he says, aims to show us “the naked ugliness of violence” -- the films consciously criticize our tacit acceptance of violence as casual entertainment -- while a film like DEATH WISH celebrates violence.
I’ve spent a lot of time considering this argument over the last few years, while developing a book on westerns. In my mind, DEATH WISH is a traditional western, in the sense that it makes a simple argument for the necessity of violence in response to violence. Traditional western often posit that, without violence, there can be no order in society. (I’m NOT saying that all westerns make this argument, but I’d say that it’s more common than not for the genre... up until the late 1960s.) LAST HOUSE, on the other hand, is a filmmaker’s argument against violence. Wes Craven has said that he intended the final scene in the film to illustrate that violence has not resolved anything. The violence in the film is intended to make the audience uncomfortable (unlike the violence in DEATH WISH or DIRTY HARRY, which we’re supposed to cheer on) and to leave us feeling that we should not and cannot accept a world that casually accepts violence as a necessity of life.
You don’t have to take my word for it, or John’s. Here’s a quote from Craven (quoted in Brian J. Robb's biography): “I see The Last House on the Left in a way as a protest film. It was made during the time of protest, the early seventies. It had, among other things, as well as attempting to be a popular film and a controversial film, been an attempt to show violence the way I and the producer thought it really was, rather than the way it was typically depicted in films. In that sense, it had a real purpose to it and I think it has a legitimate artistic power.”
In a 1972 Playboy interview, director Sam Peckinpah elaborates on the point: “You can’t make violence real to audiences today without rubbing their noses in it. We watch our wars and see men die, really die, every day on television, but it doesn’t seem real. We don’t believe those are real people dying on that screen. We’ve been anesthetized by the media. What I do is show people what it’s really like – not by showing it as it is so much as by heightening it, stylizing it. Most people don’t even know what a bullet hole in a human body looks like. The only way I can do that is by not letting them gloss over the looks of it, as if it were the seven o’clock news from the DMZ. When people complain about the way I handle violence, what they’re really saying is ‘Please don’t show me; I don’t want to know, and get me another beer out of the icebox.’”
It’s debatable whether or not Peckinpah’s visual style serves his intentions (some critics argue that he makes violence appear more poetic, rather than more horrific), but it seems to me that his storytelling techniques -- like Craven’s -- support the argument. And that is precisely why the savage cinema is not one of my favorite subgenres... Films like LAST HOUSE and STRAW DOGS are so effective in this aim that I don’t want to sit through them more than once. I say that not because I want to avoid movies that make me uncomfortable. I’m a horror fan, so I love movies that make me feel uncomfortable. And I'm not saying that I don’t often agree with the savage cinema’s generally pessimistic view of the world we live in, or that I don't want to be reminded of it. I'm only saying that I prefer films that offer some glimmer of hope that people can rise above our baser natures. I’m not asking for much... just a glimmer of hope. (Blanket optimism is actually more tiresome to me than blanket pessimism, so I really don't need much.) And that’s why I love DELIVERANCE.
I'm actually hesitant to admit that DELIVERANCE is one of my favorite films, because what most people remember about the film is (a) an inbred guy playing a banjo, and (b) Ned Beatty getting raped. You might not expect much poetry from a film like that, but DELIVERANCE surprises. Some credit is due to director John Boorman, cinematographer Vilmos Szigmond and whoever actually played that banjo music. Some of the credit must also go to Jon Voight, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox, all of whom bring their characters to life with remarkable intensity. But personally I'm inclined to give most of the credit to author James Dickey, who allegedly exerted a tremendous (and often contentious) influence over the production, and actor Burt Reynolds, who brings the film's most compelling character to life.
In his recent review of DELIVERANCE, John Muir warns us not to “make the mistake that the Burt Reynolds character speaks for the movie, which I've seen some critics do.” This is a valid point, since the character that dominates the second half of the narrative is Ed (played by Jon Voight). It is also a very significant personal note for Muir, who finds his own way into the story by empathizing with the character of Drew (played by Ronny Cox). Muir confesses: “Of all the characters in the film, Drew is probably the one I most sympathize with; the one I imagine I’m probably most like in a crisis. I’d like to say I’m like Ed…but who knows? I tend to seek answers in consensus and spend most of my time debating art. So nobody take me on a trip to a river, okay?” This reinforces Muir’s earlier point that he appreciates savage cinema because “I have always lived a sheltered and safe life. I’m a largely risk averse person in terms of my choices and life-style. I live in a world where there is ample police protection, no military draft, and remarkably little crime. But I admire the Savage Cinema films I’ve mentioned above because they force audiences to ponder, quite frankly: what would I do?”
I can relate to this honest self-evaluation. But still I find my thoughts gravitating mostly toward the Burt Reynolds character. Not because of his hyper-masculine swagger, but because he is the narrative’s only voice of transcendence.... and that is what I find missing in so many examples of the savage cinema. There’s a reason that it’s usually missing: Horror doesn’t want to give you an “out.” It wants to put a gun in your hand and tells you that you have to kill your spouse or your child. Then it tells you that if you don’t choose, they’ll both die. A truly savage horror movie convinces you that you won’t get to walk away from this experience unscathed. No matter what, you will be transformed.
Lewis, the Burt Reynolds character in DELIVERANCE, not-so-secretly yearns for transformative experience. He wants to be tested, to see what he’s really made of. He's confident of a positive outcome, but he turns out to be a lot less tough than he thought he was. Many of us don't have any real desire to be tested on that level... maybe because we fear we’d turn out to be more “savage” than Lewis. As John says, who knows? To me, the important thing about the Lewis character is not his toughness or his level of savagery, but his desire. He is not superficially curious about what he’s capable of. He doesn’t want to be a contestant on FEAR FACTOR or SURVIVOR. His boat trip down the Cahulawassee River is not a matter of entertainment. This is life and death stuff. He wants to look into the void.
When one of the backwoods locals asks him, “What the hell you wanna go fuck around with that river for?” Lewis responds, “Because it’s there.” This is the same thing that climbers say about Mt. Everest. In fact, if you want to understand the character of Lewis, go read Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster. (Well, first go read James Dickey’s Deliverance... then read Into Thin Air.) Krakauer, like Dickey, understands the transcendent quality of extreme experiences... something that wasn’t as over-commercialized when DELIVERANCE was made. Today, as I suggested, Lewis could have his own reality show (he'd be a great host for DOOMSDAY PREPPERS)... but the risks of his experiences would be comparatively small, and his transformation would therefore be comparatively superficial.
I like to imagine that Lewis would run screaming from reality TV. Run all the way to the Alaskan wilderness to re-live Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” confronting the void with no one around to take notice. Why? Not to find out what he's made of.. but to surrender everything he has. My love of DELIVERANCE is rooted in one line from the movie. It’s as simple as this: “Sometimes you have to lose yourself before you can find anything.” The savage cinema is generally about losing everything, including oneself. But unlike many of those other films, DELIVERANCE features a character who is willing -- nay, eager -- to risk everything. He chooses to confront the void. It’s not the outcome (Ed's perpetual nightmare) that keeps me coming back to this film. It’s Lewis's deeply human desire to go further, to delve into the nightmare... a desire that cannot be erased or ignored until he's already gone too far.