Sarah Palin, Saw V, and the Year’s Most Horrifying DVD
A member of the Online Film Critics Society, Peter writes for Twitch, the Financial Times, and Rue Morgue. A contributing editor at Metro magazine, and a columnist on blockbuster movies for Screen Education, he also blogs on pop culture at School Library Journal: http://blogs.slj.com/connect-the-pop/. Get too-frequent updates about comics, books, movies, and TV via Twitter: @Peter_GutierrezView all articles by Peter Gutiérrez
If you missed the Web flurry last week over a Saw V promo poster supposedly featuring the Republican nominee for Vice President, you’re probably lucky. It was one of those Roman candle stories that at first seem to burn so brightly and promisingly but then quickly leave you with ash in your eye, wondering why you wasted your time; the Web is full of them, and this may be a case where simple attention-getting was the sole intention all along (…he says, even as he leads the column with this selfsame “news” item).
In short, several outlets reported receiving a real, honest-to-goodness image from Lionsgate (or rather, its theatrical publicist) depicting an evil-looking Sarah Palin in connection with the upcoming release of Saw V. With a backdrop of a U.S. map awash in dripping crimson, she seems vaguely Manchurian-Stepfordian, Jigsaw’s spiral designs swirling away on her smiling face. The tagline? “Oh Yes… There will be blood.” If you’re dying to check out this “poster,” here it is. I promise to be waiting here for you when you return.
Back already? Well, if you took a gander at the art you’ll notice right away that it looks more fannish than pro. Yes, technically a professional artist/designer could have created it, but the attitude, the graphic style, and the mash-up of politics and pop culture smack of fandom. Besides, the official promo art for the Saw franchise is consistently polished and sophisticated (more so, one might argue, than the films themselves). Here’s what a real poster for Saw V looks like, its realism/minimalism typical of the series’ teasers and artwork.
The real story here—maybe—involves the titillation within horror fandom over rubbing up against the overtly political. And I’m as guilty as the next guy: the second I heard about the Palin/Saw rumor, I dropped everything in pursuit.
Of course many fans and creators in horror consider themselves social, if not political, rebels or perhaps even in the vanguard of radical truth-tellers in our culture. And in some instances this may even be true. But as for politics itself, most fans don’t really stop to reflect on whether the films they flock to are as revolutionary as they may first appear or instead deeply reactionary. In other words, there’s no acknowledgement that violence, shock, and fear can be ingredients in fantasies of the Right as well as the Left. The most interesting films, I’d maintain, contain mixtures of the two, mirroring how both political tendencies are inherent psychological responses to powerful flashpoints in the human condition such as death and sex—but that’s another story.
In any case, it’s as if the poster's Sarah Palin reference, whose meaning is oblique at best, marked the first time the Saw franchise became “political.”
Indeed, the Saw movies, which are about to celebrate their fifth installment in the same year that witnessed the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War, may in time be viewed as some of the most profound cinematic expressions of American political and moral malaise in the post-9/11 era.
In 2005 and 2006 public awareness shifted to allegations of prisoner abuse and torture at Guantanamo Bay, and the Saw series was prompt in delivering its sequels. Unlike Hostel, which was made in ‘05 and released in early ‘06, the Saw films increasingly articulated a deeply ambivalent attitude toward torture. While Jigsaw’s methods were clearly heinous and sadistic, on other levels one really couldn’t help but identify with the philosophical/ideological rationale he espoused, even if the way he acted on his beliefs was clearly insane. As average, Joe-American couch potatoes, weren’t we the spoiled, passive, apathetic, amoral, hypocritical, and overweight (mentally if not physically) slobs who deserved to be taught some harsh lessons? Here we were, watching Spider-Man movies and American Idol, while brave Americans had sacrificed themselves on United Flight 93 and were continuing to do so on multiple central Asian battlefields. By the way, if you think that this is a contradiction—that as audiences we identified with both Jigsaw and those in his clutches—then please mull over the possibility that the most successful horror movies have always played upon such dual, even paradoxical, allegiances. Frankly, it’s part of what makes the genre worth watching in the first place. Horror films consistently chart the reasons we feel that we need to be punished.
Anyway, I’ll probably return to the Saw movies in the coming weeks (it’s a bad topic to get me started on). For now, though, I just wanted to draw attention to a film that taught me how this recent pattern of prisoner abuse and torture actually began in Bagram, Afghanistan. While the Academy Award-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, which was released on DVD on September 30, is not likely to show up on most horror fans’ radar screens, I’d suggest that it can act as a potent counterpoint to any torture-and-torment films that may be on your list of entertainment options. And, in what I’m thinking is merely a coincidence, the name of the group that made this insightful and sober doc is called Jigsaw Productions.
Taxi to the Dark Side doesn’t shy away from presenting the brutal details of how harmless cab driver and dad Dilawar had his legs “pulpified” by repeated beatings before dying, and how other prisoners have had their brains basically turned into useless sponges through sleep deprivation and other techniques. As one would expect, the film supplements photos and other evidence with first-hand accounts by the abusers themselves and contrasts these largely honest confessional segments with official double-speak sound bites from well-known politicians.So while writer-director Alex Gibney’s film is so horrifying that it actually may take the fun out of Halloween for you this year, it’s still a title I’d recommend across the board, regardless of one’s political leanings. After all, I doubt that the military makes a point of vetting all registered Democrats before deciding on who gets assigned to prison guard duty.
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