Without delving into a discussion of postmodernism, it's been said that art is society thinking about itself. It's a way of interpreting the world around us, be it intentional or just some flotsam that floats up to the conscious surface. In regards to 'A Serbian Film', the message and themes are worn on its sleeve.
It's story depicts a male porn star (Srdjan Todorovic) whose hide has calloused from years of depravity. In an effort to reinvigorate himself, he becomes caught up in a film venture that redefines his and the audience's understanding of the reprehensible. He finds himself involved in abhorrently violent movies with children, guided by the hand of a truly disturbed director. Even as he tries to escape, he realizes that his caught up too deeply in the web of drugs, incest, and rape.
While it does have something to say about violence and pornography, it's an obvious political allegory. Screenwriter Srdjan Spasojevic set the movie up as a volley at Serbia's censorship laws, "This is a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government," he said. "We're giving this back to you."
That said, there are far different ways to make a political statement without crafting such a polarizing film. With such topics as explicit child rape, the filmmakers are immediately alienating a large part of their audience. Wouldn't their goals be better served with less perversity and more subversiveness? Nonetheless, it's a tangible example of a filmmaker taking their surroundings and experiences and stamping the metaphor onto celluloid.
Oft mentioned in the same breath as A Serbian Film is Tom Six's medical butt-to-mouth legend, 'The Human Centipede'. It tells of three victims who wander a bit too close to a maniacal doctor's sphere of influence. He stitches them all together. They try to escape. The end. Many have likened the now-legendary shock fest to the likes of David Cronenberg, finding weighty concepts explored beneath the stitches and agony. Six himself has even gone so far as to say that its another political allegory, this time touching on post-World War II relations between Germans and the Dutch. Could it be that critics and audiences are giving this way too much credit? Are viewers just suffering from English-major apophenia, where they find meaning and patterns from otherwise meaningless data? Perhaps all of the values being ascribed to such films is nothing more than the results of staring at a Rorschach blot and seeing a butterfly (or in this case, a centipede). However, as the Greek philosopher Parmenides said, "Ex nihilo nihil fit" or "Nothing comes from nothing."
At risk of sounding like an old-fashioned conservative alarmist, maybe the internet is to blame for this new push of the shocking. The most unsettling, unspeakable moving images are available on the internet, but now they're all real. Anyone with any Google-fu can track down clips of jihaadists decapitating infidels, girls throwing puppies into a river, or pedestrians getting obliterated by trains. Make no mistake, the levels of violence like this have occurred since the Monolith taught humanity's shambling ancestors how to use tools to make war, but awareness of it has exploded in the last ten years. Rather than floating in our amniotic haze in the Matrix, people have real time, immediate access to atrocities. The internet has created a global audience where horror more salient than any bogeyman is just a few clicks away.
This all begs the question, are any of these truly worse than what has come before them? In order to compete with this always available 'entertainment', do filmmakers try to top it by coming up with the most outlandish scenarios and imagery the mind can conceive? Does this render the more familiar monsters like Freddy or the Wolfman ineffective? It really is relative to the sensitivity of the audience, of course. Every generation has its envelope pushers, whether it was Jason Voorhees in the 80's, radioactive beasts before him, or even Bela Lugosi before that. The argument is cyclical. The effectiveness of these films can be judged on a number of levels. Again, one of the watermarks is that of awareness, which holds for any film or product. If a gore-hound wants something shocking, it's always out there. One just has to know where to look. Some of the most notably offensive films easily out-shock the modern displays of brutality. Since the 80's, Japan's 'Guinea Pig' film series has been the home of abyssal, pseudo-snuff nightmares. For whatever reason, though, they've received little mainstream attention or controversy. This has little to do with the quality or intensity of the films, but a sort of luck (or lack of it) that has kept the films from bleeding into the awareness of movie-watchers at large.
Do most viewers view a horror film with the desire to be enlightened about the plight of the Serbians or to examine their own expectations and fixation on violence through a dark looking glass? The answer is unequivocally "no" People don't go see 'The Human Centipede' for metaphorical exploration. People don't even go see it to watch a good movie. They go so that they can say they saw it. It's a badge of honor. It's a rite of passage to say that you endured. It's the same drive that pulled audiences to 'Night of the Living Dead' in the late 60's. It's the same thing that will happen 20 years from now. The difference is in what they include with the package. The shock of seeing an unwilling amputation will wear off unless there's something more there to chew on. Is 'the Exorcist' still offensive and abrasive? To some, perhaps, but its staying power comes from its quality as a film, its ability to entertain. The ability to make a viewer recoil by shoving something perverse in their face? That's ephemeral. Much like a foul smell, you'll get used to it after a while. Of these modern penny dreadfuls, only a scant few will even be remembered in fifty years.
So what's next? Is there a critical mass where movies simply can't get anymore shocking? Has it already reached its apex (or its nadir)? Just for a little thought exercise, what's the worst possible thing you can imagine? Now try to recall if you've seen it on the screen. If you haven't, then you will. Or maybe you just haven't looked hard enough.