Wednesday 16 September 2009

Snuff: A Documentary About Killing On Camera

I don't watch a lot of documentaries, and I've never reviewed one before now. I'm hardly an expert in documentary cinema, but I'm confident in my ability to tell good from bad. And Snuff: A Documentary About Killing On Camera (hereafter referred to as Snuff) is pretty bad.

Paul von Stoetzel's documentary explores the origins and veracity of snuff films. Great debate surrounds the acutal existence of snuff films, and Snuff attmepts to provide a definitive answer while educating its audience on the subject. The doc is presented as a group of talking heads informing on the origins and mainfestations of snuff films. These interviews are inter-cut with relevant video or title cards. von Steotzel's informants are retired law enforcement officers, cinephiles, filmmakers, and academics. The one who really stands out from the rest, however, is producer Mark L. Rosen, who was, at one point, signed onto The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and who serves as producer for Snuff.

Snuff plays out like a poorly written and researched disseration brought to life. The doc's content is divided into chapters, and the same chapter title card appears periodically throughout, letting us know the topic of discussion. The chapters are meant to give the impression of totality, that all variations on the snuff theme are being covered; the origins of snuff, snuff in American film, snuff and serial killers, snuff and war. But this format only demonstrates that von Stoetzel lacks the editing skills necessary to create a narrative.

Von Stoetzel also seems to have little or no understanding of subtlety or subtext. Though the films are talked about on-camera, his deliberate inclusion of clips from Cannibal Holocaust, Faces of Death, and the Lake and Ng tapes, are like a slap in the face. Without warning, the audience is subject to images of murder and torture of people and animals. I would love to suggest that von Stoetzel is turning the film medium in on itself in producing a pseudo-snuff film in an effort to explore snuff, but the man's ham-fisted attempts to shock and titlate only prove the opposite: as stated at the very start of the film, snuff is bought and paid for with the knowledge of what is being consumed.

Furthermore, the film completely lacks any self-awarness. In one instance, informant R. P. Whalen talks about Michael Moore's decision to include the CCTV footage of the Columbine shootings in Bowling for Columbine. Whalen argues it was an uncessary addition, and that Moore has, in essence, made a snuff film. In a later chapter, informants reason that war footage, in spite of its brutality and inhumanity, does not equate to snuff. But then von Stoetzel shows the beheading of Eugene Armstrong by Al Qaeda terrorists. Twice. And this after one man admits that his greatest regret in life is having watched that video when it first hit the Internet.

In addition to being poorly edited, Snuff also suffers from insufficient research. Informant Rosen tells a story about a Russian child-porn ring that trafficked in snuff. When this story broke in 2000 was big news and subsequently blown completely out of proportion by the media. Whether Rosen knows what he's talking about is of lesser importance than the fact that von Stoetzel backs up Rosen's account with exactly two newspaper sources. The doc makes no mention of the fact that major media outlets had to pull their stories when they were exposed for libel.

In the chapter on American movies, Cannibal Holocaust is of course mentioned because it was once thought to be a snuff film, but there is no further discussion of snuff and the horror genre. Horror is replete with meta-narratives about snuff and yet von Stoetzel shies away from this line of questioning and prefers instead to have his informants about films based on true events such as Henry: Portrait of a Killer, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Similarly, because von Stoetzel specifically identifies American cinema, he excludes all others from the discussion in spite of the fact that his informants all allude to snuff films and equally violent but wholly fictional films being made elsewhere in the world. And then Von Stoetzel shows a clip from Flowers of Flesh and Blood, the Japanese gore film that Charlie Sheen was convinced was snuff, but he fails entirely to comment upon it.

The chapter on serial killers relates specifically to one prolific pair, Lake and Ng. The two men built a torture chamber in Lake's cottage and proceeded to kidnap, rape, and kill dozens of women. The humiliations were filmed, but the murders were not. Informants agree these tapes are not snuff, but they might be the closest we can get. The discussion is peppered with clips from the Lake and Ng tapes and it's an interesting topic but the doc's failure to mention any other serial killer videos speaks to again to poor research skills, or laziness, on the part of the filmmaker.

To von Stoetzel's credit, he does include footage from the 1976 movie, Snuff, which coined the term, and gives some backstory to the film's origin. However, the snuff scene in Snuff (1976) is prefaced with a brief comment on the film's production values in which von Soetzel asks his audience, "how real does this look to you?" This is one of the worst acts of historical determinism ever and should probably discredit von Stoetzel as a documentary filmmaker.

After having watched Snuff, I did a tiny bit of research of my own, reading viewer reviews. Opinions seem to be split on the doc's quality, some like it, others don't. While people debate the legitimacy of von Stoetzel's informants (I personally find Whalen to be impossibly pretentious and he often gives the impression that he is complety dispossesed of any original thought, and doesn't always know what he's talking about), I prefer to debate the legitimacy of his arguments. As I've said, Snuff fails to properly support the points it tries to make. Additionally, though von Stoetzel has a variety of specialists and professionals who can all speak with some authority or intelligence on the subject, he doesn't have enough. Snuff lacks completeness.

I'll end this review where the film ends, with Rosen's final anectdote. He tells a gripping and emotional story about taking a meeting with a Filipino businessman who was looking for a porn distributor. The sex tape was a bit more violent than what Rosen usually dealt with. And the sex ended in the woman's death. The man slit her throat. Is this a legitimate first-person account of a real snuff film? The doc makes no comment--how can it? The entire length of the film has been spent discrediting snuff. Is it possible von Stoetzel possess the skill to fully understand what he's done, making a movie that argues against the existence of snuff and then ending his film in this way? I make no comment--how can I? I just spent this entire review arguing that he's a terrible filmmaker. Be that as it may, Snuff ends on an ambiguous note. Reviewers are less ambiguous, and most don't believe Rosen for a minute.

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