Friday, November 16, 2012

My 100 Favorite Films of All Time #96: Hostel

Hostel.  Just that very title has probably made some of you groan.  Torture porn.  Homophobic.  Juvenile.  Gross.  Those are just a few of the words and phrases some critics, many of them lazy, used to describe it.  I’ve written about torture porn quite a bit, but let me comment once again on the phrase and how it is used with this film.

Torture porn implies a film is made to get audiences off on the violence.  It’s an unoriginal phrase used to dismiss a movie out of hand.  When it came to Eli Roth’s 2006 film, it was done with the same intent and it was the go-to term for critics too uninspired to come up with their own ideas on it.  The fact of the matter is that Hostel is a good film that is far deeper than many people give it credit for, and that could be because of the way it was hyped.

Roth and executive producer Quentin Tarantino played up the film old-school exploitation style.  (I have no doubt that the other executive producer, Scott Spiegel, had a hand in that decision making process, too.)  It was getting banned.  It was too gruesome for theatres.  So on and so forth.  Classic exploitation.  Many of the critics who tackled the movie weren’t even old enough to be aware of the exploitation tactics of yesteryear, and far fewer are educated in the history of film.  That was readily apparent in some of the reviews that surfaced.  To their credit, however, it looked like a film that would be easy to dismiss.

The plot reads like a groaner.  Two young American males and a male foreign friend are backpacking across Europe.  Actually, they’re drinking, drugging and fucking their way across Europe.  You know, acting like college kids from America tend to act when they are away from home – the ugly Americans.  When they meet a peer who tells them of a hostel in Slovakia where the women just love boys like them, they are on their way before you can say “erection.”  What they don’t realize is that they have stepped into a place where the elite from around the world pay good money to have their way with people, and these three young, dumb and full of cum tourists have been sold to the highest bidder.  Let the torture begin.

If you haven’t seen the film, that synopsis won’t make you rush out to watch it.  In fact, you’re probably thinking, “How isn’t this torture porn?”  If that’s all the story was, I’d have a hard time defending it.  But it is what is being said with the story that elevates this movie beyond the tired torture porn label.

First and foremost, something that oozes out of every frame is the notion of excess, the aforementioned ugly American and arrogance.  Americans can act however they want wherever they are.  The world is ours to do with what we want, and we have a privileged birthright.  The story starts with those ugly Americans, but it ends with capitalism (a theme explored at greater length in the sequel) showing that country of origin means jack shit when you got green.  You are a commodity, and no amount of John Wayne entitlement swagger and self-righteous ignorance is going to save you.  That was so obvious I was surprised some critics missed it.  They may have been too worried about the film’s supposed homophobia to care, however.

“Homophobic” is a term often used to define Roth and his films, including Hostel.  I don’t know Roth, so I can’t speak to whether or not he is homophobic.  I’d say he’s probably more ignorant than homophobic if you are to use his films as a guideline, but, again, I don’t know him. In this film, the characters call each other “fag.”  They react poorly when a strange man on a train touches one of their knees.  And by “react poorly,” I mean just that.  They don’t bash the guy.  They are surprised and maybe disgusted, though the one whose knee was touched later shares a nice moment with the same man outside a bar.  That scene is neglected by writers who attack the film for its supposed homophobia.  I wonder why?

Roth has said the dialogue he writes for these characters is how young people talk.  Granted, not all young people talk this way, but enough of them do.  Ryan Wilson II wrote a piece on about this very issue.  In it he states, “You are not supposed to cater to an audience what people do in ‘real life.’ A movie is fake; it's a representation. The dialogue in the movie does not at all represent the way we talk. All this combined is supposed to help whatever point you're trying to promote. Whatever your heroes do in the movie, endorses a set of views. You are in charge of everything in your movie, from the things the characters say to what they wear. If you are not careful, you may be saying something you never meant to say.” A filmmaker can cater to whatever he or she wants, and if you want to make a film feel more realistic, one of the ways you do that is through dialogue.  Wilson states that the dialogue is not the way “we” talk.  I don’t talk that way, but people do.  Adults and kids.  Roth is portraying that in this film, and no matter how many letters people write to Fangoria, he has a right to do that.  I wouldn’t call Roth homophobic based on the content of this film or any of his films.  His defense of the use of the term “fag” has been less-than-stellar, which leads me to believe his crime is ignorance rather than homophobia, but really, should he be made to defend this?  It is a fictional film with characters speaking as some people speak.  Is this a viable criticism to be launched at directors, or have people gotten so sensitive to certain issues that the use of realistic dialogue in a film warrants concern?  Perhaps I’d be less inclined to dismiss this if other directors were being taken to task over similar concerns.  As it stands, the accusations seem less about homophobia and more about Roth.

Hostel and Roth both rubbed people the wrong way for a multitude of reasons.  It got so bad that it was hard to tell if the poor reviews were due to the film or the fact that Roth was making movies.  When I would defend it to people, I would be met with grief much of the time.  The common refrain would be, “You are reading too much into it.”  Perhaps the problem was that they were reading the wrong things into it; people’s reaction to the film tends to say more about them then it does the work.  You can see John Carpenter’s The Thing and think it’s a monster movie, or you could say it’s a monster movie that has something to say about the paranoia of the Reagan years.  Much of it is perspective.

Few films that year polarized critics like this one, and I find that kind of refreshing.  It opened up dialogues on horror, homophobia and, in some circles, the nature of money and the behavior of Americans abroad.  Unfortunately, the horror and homophobia crowded out far too much of the underlying social messages about money and the ugly American concept.  Say what you will, but Roth wanted to create a movie that people saw and talked about, and he succeeded … and maybe that is why so many critics damned him for it. 

Mandatory FTC Disclaimer: I did not receive this film to review, but if you click on a link I may earn some money so that I can bid on people to torture.


No comments:

Post a Comment