Tuesday 10 March 2015

An Unpopular Opinion: Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativity

Here comes the end of neo-grindhouse era.

When Here Comes the Devil won all the horror awards at Fantastic Fest in 2012, I was a little disappointed in the horror community. Sure, it was a good movie, but certainly not the best one at the festival. Perhaps Berberian Sound Studio was too cerebral, The Collection too much of a sequel, and Antiviral too Canadian, but still.

I recall a conversation I had on the subway with a friend one August night. We were talking about The Raid and he said he didn't think the movie had lived up to all the hype. I like The Raid, I think it's a fine movie, and loads of fun to watch, but I responded with something like, "Well, maybe people make a big deal because it's foreign." He was inclined to agree.

The issue here is one of ethnocentrism, meaning we think we're awesome and everyone else less so. That then translates into a kind of perverse and vaguely biased criticism of foreign-made product. In this specific case, genre film. What I mean is this: non-western genre cinema is looked on favourably by western critics regardless of whether those movies are actually any good. Thus, Here Comes the Devil wins Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture because it's a Mexican independent horror feature.

That's not to suggest Adrian Garcia Bogliano or any other Mexican filmmaker isn't capable of making a really good movie, I'm just saying this particular film didn't merit all the accolades it received. Were the film made in the US, by an American indie filmmaker, it's unlikely it would have garnered as much positive press.

Or would it've?

At the end of 2014, everyone in the horror blogosphere was lining up to praise indie horror feature Starry Eyes. Likening it to Rosemary's Baby, horror critics and fans were calling it the best horror movie of the year. Starry Eyes has as much common with Polanski's devilishly slow burning gyno-horror as it does with The Servants of Twilight, a rather decent horror/thriller a lot of folks have never heard of: Satanic seniors. That's it. That's the whole comparison and, very likely, the foundation upon which the film's success is built.

Granted, Alex Essoe does a great job in the role of the starry-eyed (get it?) Sarah, but the the movie waffles between an indictment of ambition and an odd nostalgia for a Hollywood system that burned itself out decades before the main character was ever born. Sarah's struggle for stardom is set against the backdrop of a stagnant group of up-and-comers who talk about starting projects they'll never finish, and the look of the thing is as bland as the characters (with the noted exception of Sarah).

Starry Eyes adopts the modern western horror aesthetic of washed-out colours and an aggressive anti-tableau visual direction. I should say western indie horror, which I interpret as some kind of misguided reaction against mainstream horror that still places value in rich colour saturation and mise-en-scene. If Starry Eyes' director, Dennis Widmyer, really was channeling Roman Polanski (or even Jeffery Obrow), he would have paid more attention to setting the scene and having his characters move through it.

And yet Starry Eyes captured the hearts of horror fans. It's confusing and ultimately self-defeating, but because it's indie, it was held to different standard. Not lower, mind you, just different than what's expected from mainstream horror.

So the question now is how would Starry Eyes stack up against Here Comes the Devil? I can't answer that. But I will say that both films were equally, if for different reasons, forgiven their shortcomings. I'll also say that I'm not above being lenient to special movies, but I know when I'm doing it. I know that I'm sometimes too nice or, conversely, too mean to a low-budget movie. But I also know that a budget of $3 is no excuse for turning out a crummy film, and that cheap indie films can and do exceed expectations.

This image selection is deliberately misleading.

Found is a super-low-budget feature from first-time director Scott Schirmer. And it's great. Found's success, unlike so many other indie movies, is founded upon a solid script. Schirmer optioned a novel (he payed a whopping $1) and worked hard to adapt it to the screen. Schirmer also knew an FX artist and enlisted her and her students to work on his film. Now, not all first-timers have access to great and wonderful blood and guts and severed heads, but they do have access to educational resources and materials. Schirmer knew something about filmmaking and editing before he set to work and it shows in Found's storytelling.

It's entirely possible that Found is an outlier, a rarity. But it proves that with a little hard work and dedication, something as abysmal as Chainsaw Killer (one of the cheapest and worst movies I've seen) can rise above its station. Furthermore, a good movie is a good movie regardless of where it came from and how much it cost to make.

A movie's pedigree shouldn't influence opinions about its quality. Granted, film criticism will always be partly subjective, no matter how objective we try to be, but we have to resist the temptation to give certain films a pass. I'm not arguing for one standard that applies to all movies all the time--that's simply not fair. But if we're honest with ourselves about our opinions, we can be more transparent in our judgements.

We might sound like ethnocentric jerks to qualify our criticisms with "pretty good for a Thai movie," but it's necessary if our only point of reference is Hollywood. Indeed, something like Shutter stacks up well against against a lot of horror offerings from all over the place, but there's little to be gained from comparing Art of the Devil to Skeleton Key. A more culturally relativistic approach would be to evaluate Thai, or Mexican, or American indie horror, etc., in relation to other Thai, or Mexican, or American indie horror, etc., and work outwards from there. That way we can be reasonably sure our value judgements have merit.

So then what do we do in a festival setting where we can't judge emically" and must judge "etically"? Where Here Comes the Devil has to be held up against Antiviral? Honestly, I'm not sure I have a quick and easy answer. I guess, in that case we have to answer to politics and popularity, because that's was these kinds of contests are all about. Frankly, at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter who wins, but the how and the why can be very telling indeed.

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