The Horror, The Horror
I don’t know what’s more frightening; knowing you’re going to be hit with something and being hit with it, or not suspecting what you’re about to be hit with and being hit with it. That’s exactly what we had here with these two films and really, moral repugnance of the subject matter in both these films is quite extraordinary.
I knew what was going to happen in ‘Human Centipede’ and when it hit, it was as gruesome as I had been told. But I was totally blindsided by just what ‘Unthinkable’ was going towards and in many ways I found the latter a lot more challenging to digest. What separates the two might be scale of the depravity in one and the consequences of the depravity in the other.
So here’s the spoiler alert. I will have to talk about pretty specific things to make this movie double entry work. There’s just no choice.
Both films are horrifying but one goes in a very transgressive personal way while the other commits to pushing the logic to the point of absolute horror. How do we in the civilised world countenance torture, let alone conceive of a methodology and a system for torture? Both these films shed immense light on just what it is that takes us to torture
The Sadean Vision
First, ‘Human Centipede’ is not as bad as the reviewers say it is. It actually has quite a bit of artistic ambition and pretension. In many ways it lives up to its ambitions as it goes inexorably to its central image, the human centipede. The human centipede is the surgical combining of 3 human beings, anus to mouth so that one long alimentary tract is created.
The logical ramification of this is that the second party is forced to eat the shit of the first party, and the third party is forced to digest the shit of the shit coming out of the first party through the second party. Why exactly a mad scientist wants to do this is not really well explained except for his one line, “I hate humans.”
As gruesome as it is, there is a great deal of black humour in the conception. The director Tom Six is reported to have said that the film started a s a joke in a pub where he argued that child molesters should have their mouths sewn to the anus of fat truckies and forced to eat their shit. Well, this is that film all right in all its loving rendering.
It is a horror worthy of something straight out of the Marquis de Sade’s collection. Indeed, even the story of how 2 tourists end up in the dungeon of despair (as Frank Zappa would have sung it) is similar to de Sade’s ‘Justine’ where a girl wanders through the forest and wanders into an inn full of evil people. It’s even in line with Hansel and Gretel, except the genders are reversed and the horror is coprophagy instead of cannibalism.
The Orwellian Vision
Compared to ‘Human Centipede’, ‘Unthinkable’ is flat out Orwellian. The film is about a desperate interrogation that entails significant amounts of torture. We don’t quite know where the film is going until well into the second act when Samuel Jackson’s character ‘H’ starts hoe-ing into Michael Sheen’s Yusuf. This film is what happens in Room 101, extended out to its logical extreme.
There are a few caveats on this point. In 1984, the state’s motive is gratuitous or so arcane as to be indecipherable. In ‘Unthinkable’ the state’s motive is clear as daylight – it seeks to stop a nuclear catastrophe from taking place. There is a big reason for the torture to take place because the guy is holding some vital information, It has to be extracted or millions will die. To that end of extracting the information, ‘H’ pulls out all stops from his bag of torture tricks trying to break Yusuf. Representing our relatively civilian and thus cozy point of view is Carrie-Anne Moss’ Agent Helen Brodie.
Agent Brodie’s moral dilemma is thus, should she be willing to commit acts of evil in order to save a great many lives? She recoils in horror, but gradually her duty to the state forces her to tacitly condone H’s methods. H, has long ago made ethical choices to affirm torture as his means of extracting information. In H’s view, it is a moral weakness not to embrace the full ramification of committing to interrogation and thus torture. It’s a joyless sadism in stark contrast to the joyous sadism of Dr. Heiter in ‘Human Centipede’.
The Point Of Cruelty
It’s never explained why the evil character Dr. Heiter came to hate humanity so much that he could commit such atrocities as they are portrayed in ‘Human Centipede’. We can’t even begin to guess at his disgust and thus it is hard to understand the whys and wherefores of ‘Human Centipede’. Dr. Heiter is not seeking to squeeze out the truth or information from his victims like ‘H’. He just likes the look of three people daisy-chained through surgery, which is to say his choice is an aesthetic one.
The aestheticisation of violence and cruelty is the hallmark of Marquis de Sade’s work, which in turn explains things like Nazisms and the curious pleasure its meanest bastards took in devising concentration camps. Many people ask “how could the Nazis have done such terrible things?” The answer was already written down by the Marquis who at least lived to see the French Revolution’s high ideals devolve into the ritual of the guillotine.
What then is the point of cruelty but pleasure?
At least, that is the point put forward by de Sade, and when you plug that through Freud, you can see how pleasure and cruelty can be conjoined and suddenly you have Nazism and concentration camps and Josef Fritzl the Dungeon Dad. Josef Fritzl for instance would not be such news if his crimes didn’t push upon a bunch of our taboos but also our self-understanding about cruelty and pleasure.
The Torture Never Stops (The Uncle Frank Vision)
What if you then found joy in your work as a torturer? Or found that you were good at it, and that the state had great need of your services? The addition of duty makes for heady mix. Perhaps this is the big difference between say Fritzl’s essentially domestic and private atrocity and the humanitarian catastrophe that was the Extermination Camps?
The character of ‘H’ is possibly the most honest representation of the ugliest face of American Imperialism. It is the face of all imperialism that has taken place in history. Here are the lyrics to Frank Zappa’s ‘The Torture Never Stops’. Check out this verse:
Flies all green ‘n buzzin’ in his dungeon of despair
An evil prince eats a steamin’ pig in a chamber right near there
He eats the snouts ‘n the trotters first
The loin’s ‘n the groin’s is soon dispersed
His carvin’ style is well rehearsed
He stands and shouts
All men be cursed
All men be cursed
All men be cursed
All men be cursed
And disagree, well no-one durst
He’s the best of course of all the worst
Some wrong been done, he done it first
That is how the character of ‘H”s handler works. ‘H’ is the very instrument of torture of the state.
Talk about misanthropy. ‘H’ has done so much torture in his life, he no longer feels any joy in it any more. He is jaded by his one talent, that used to give him so much joy. What he doesn’t understand is that the duty allowed him to do all those tortures, but it is duty that slowly killed the joy in him. If it isn’t perverse enough that our most important character is a Sadist, he is a sated Sadist.
Dr. Heiter can’t restrain his joy as he yells, “Feed Her!” as the first person in the centipede defecates into the mouth of the second character. There’s none of that with ‘H’, because he’s just done it once too often. This is more frightening than Dr. Heiter, though that may be hard to believe. ‘Human Centipede’ is a black comedy next to the ethical direness of ‘Unthinkable’.
The Utilitarian Ethos As Challenge
The direness of ‘Unthinkable actually stems from a philosophical challenge that is being laid down to us. It’s the re-imagining of the ‘Star Trek: Wrath of Khan’ and ‘Star Trek: The Search for Spock’ problematic of “Needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” versus “The Needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many”, but applied to the present day problem of terrorism.
Let’s imagine for a moment we take the irrationalist Kirk position of the latter “needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many”. Just how many of the ‘many’ are we willing to sacrifice or ignore before we come back to the rationalist “Needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” position of Spock? In ‘Unthinkable’, it is made very clear that the rational view has to prevail when there is a nuclear threat to 3 cities – enough to compromise high principles of the society not to commit torture. Is this good? Morally speaking, absolutely not. But if you want to save those millions of people, then it becomes incumbent upon the interrogators to use any and all means necessary to squeeze the answer out of the one person.
And this is the horrible little secret of our society with all its wealth and privilege over other parts of the planet. It is exactly the truth we cannot handle, as per what Colonel Jessup says in ‘A Few Good Men’. All our high principles and morals and ethics are luxuries upheld by the willingness of certain parties – the armed forces and black ops – to undertake unspeakable brutality in order to preserve the lifestyle of the many. Every day we in the so-called civilised world are the beneficiaries and the many whose needs are outweighing the needs of the tortured.
If ‘A Few Good Men’ took us to the portal of understanding this problem, then ‘Unthinkable marches right in and shows us how the house of horrors is furnished. Compared to that very real house of horror, the house of horrors created by Dr. Heiter is very tame. ‘Unthinkable’ grabs our moral sensibility by the scruff of the neck, and shoves its snout into the shit that comes from the hypocrisy we practice by preaching our moral sensibilities. For some this would be a surprise. If you’ve been reading politics for a while, you will know that this is indeed the be all and end all of our pretty civilisation: that we live and die by our hypocrisy. Mostly, we thrive happily, oblivious.
Coprophagy And Other Taboos
Any time a film is made that transgresses a taboo, the critics line up to condemn the film for getting made. For instance, ‘Pink Flamingoes’ by John Waters has Divine eating dog shit and caused a furor. Incest in ‘Chinatown’ also disturbed critics. ‘Happiness’ which featured a family man who happened to be a child rapist could not get rated. ‘Salo’ continues to be a problem for the Australian censor board.
It’s interesting that ‘Human Centipede’ gets this critique from Roger Ebert:
I am required to award stars to movies I review. This time, I refuse to do it. The star rating system is unsuited to this film. Is the movie good? Is it bad? Does it matter? It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don’t shine.
It’s funny that he thought it was that bad. It’s not. Meanwhile there’s hardly a review for ‘Unthinkable’.
Between the two films, you’d think that ‘Unthinkable’ would be the film that might be the most threat to the decency of our society given what it says about who we are. What’s perhaps even more disturbing is that critics and censor boards think that torture by the state is okay, but private torture is not.