In Stephen King’s novel “The Cell,” a pulse goes out and, if you answer your phone, boom, you’re now a crazed zombie. When the plot to the upcoming Inglorious Bastards leaked, many of us succumbed to the pulse and obsessively found ourselves surfing around for news, details, tidbits. It’s easy to understand why. Take Kill Bill: just about every shot is a feast. Every second with Lucy Liu was – is – beautiful and perfect. But the real joy of so many of his (more recent) movies is the kind of Freudian delight in watching the intense fixations of large, powerful women avenging and emasculating their wrong-doers. Like a foot fetishist gazing at a beautiful woman’s large feet, consider Tarantino’s camera on Pam Grier moving through the airport in Jackie Brown. Re-watch Daryl Hannah, Michael Madsen and, of course, the snake in the second Kill Bill. The utterly riveting table-turning finale in Death Proof. Uma.
And then we have Eli Roth, whose latest role is Tarantino protégé. The collaboration on Hostel, the acting work in Death Proof. It’s easy to see the initial appeal. Cabin Fever had all the signifiers of classic 70’s horror with the (becoming tired but wasn’t then) contemporary winking. The kicks of Cabin Fever were of the characters’ transparent stupidity and asshole-ism. A flesh eating virus is unleashed on a redneck town, the guy who pledges to drink only beer will survive, the punishing of the promiscuous. (Incidentally, John Carpenter has apologized for, in Halloween, ruining free love. That Rob Zombie completely ruined everything great about that film is a subject for another time.) A little delving and we see that being kind to the sick would have stopped the plague, but being repulsed and shunning lets it spread (AIDS in the Reagan era anyone? Roth is surprisingly fluent in narrative of the gay experience. More on that later.). Roth has an eye, has clear obsessive tendencies, and studies the genre classics like every good fanboy. And one senses in Roth a sense of humor of the sort used in Psycho when, the audience was made to root for Norman Bates when the car gets stuck in the bog. When learning of Tarantino’s blessing in the form of executive producing Hostel, it was easy to be intrigued.
What Hostel is has been covered extensively, by better and wittier writers (David Edelstein comes to mind). What interests me in Hostel, and what interests and angers me about Roth, is a very superficial and transparent sexual deviance.
Hostel is profoundly problematic, but not for reasons I’ve seen discussed. (And I’ve looked.) The movie is about sex and the sexualizing of violence. Give me that description for a movie and I’ll be the first on my block to see it. But it turns out, more literally, the movie is an adolescent male fantasy of sex, violence and revenge. Two asshole college boys go to Europe. Starting in Amsterdam, they quickly find themselves in a whorehouse. All the aesthetics of porn (and cooking shows, and home renovating shows) are present: the music, the voyeurism, and, as in all porno, the sense that all is permitted, nothing judged, everything commodified. Paxton (Jay Hernandez) is fratboy psyched by all the naked flesh and Josh (Derek Richardson) is less-than-enthused. We’ve seen this dynamic before. But what starts as thinly-veiled suggestions of Josh’s homosexuality becomes overt while the two ride the rails to Slovakia.
On the train, Josh accidentally brushes against a decidedly odd fellow traveler, a Dutch businessman, and immediately Josh leashes out on this faggot-laced tirade. Roth knows what he’s doing here. First we see Josh uninterested in pussy. Then we see him way overcompensating, putting on a butch little show for his homophobic friend. Okay, so Josh is a repressed gay guy. Got it.
In Slovakia, Josh again meets the odd businessman from the train. Now, unwatched by Paxton, Josh apologizes, offers the guy a beer. And the offer is accepted. The two chat. And the conversation is the root of what makes the film interesting and repulsive. Essentially, the Dutchman tells young Josh that for many years he has lived a lie, repressing who he truly is to please his family and society. Now, older, he is finally openly and honestly presenting who he truly is, convention be damned. And wouldn’t you know, there’s a whole community of men like him, who accept him. The lesson for Josh is clear: to be happy, openly express who you are without fear of not living up to the (let’s use the expression) hetero-normative paradigm. The queer theory subtext, the coming out narrative is blazingly clear.
Roth got some shit for his characters throwing around “faggot,” just as Tarantino got some shit for throwing around “nigger.” The difference is this: Tarantino is no racist, but the evidence is strong that Roth is extremely and unamusingly homophobic. Roth defends his characters’ language explaining that’s how they talk, let’s be clear, and okay fine except there are more substantive problems. Roth, educated at NYU, no doubt had plenty of queer film theory and knows all about, say, the queer subtext of Strangers on a Train. So what Roth does next is not an accident: when Josh next meets the businessman, Josh is chained to a chair, bound in full S/M gear. The Dutchman, he of the “express who you are without fear of societal condemnation,” is now the torturer, the master, the top. The torture-house is setup just as the Amsterdam whorehouse. The camera is the same, the titillating open doors, the lack of judgment, the “everything is for sale.” The penetration, the money shot, is a drill to the leg, the release a scream of terror.
Paxton, the straight guy, the normal guy, the not repressed guy, quickly escapes his own torture room, goes on a murderous rampage where the killers meet their fate, and successfully flees. The straight guy does what the Hollywood straight guy always does. The end.
Roth using the classic coming out narrative to present this fucked up little allegory suggests Roth is essentially flipping the bird to all those queer theorists who made the college boy watch too much Rope, not enough Cannibal Holocaust.
But at least Hostel had ideas. With Hostel II, instead we get unbridled male misogyny given full expression in ways to numerous to count. Without bothering with details, just picture a lesbian witch masterbating, lubed up by the flowing blood of the girl who hangs above the witch, bound by her feet from a beam, throat slit.
Which group does Eli Roth hate more? Women or gays? Hard to tell. And with the new Tarantino flick, we assume the opportunity will come to witness Eli Roth explore his feelings about Jews.
Here’s what we know about the upcoming Tarantino flick Inglorious Bastards. WW2 is ending, the setting is Nazi occupied France, and a group (probably described as rag-tag) of Americans has a plan to kill Hitler. Meanwhile, a Jewish woman (Uma? Please Uma.) runs an art film house in Paris. She’s a Jew in hiding and through whatever twist of fate it turns out she’ll be screening an anti-Semitic propaganda film. All the big-deal Nazis will be there. So our group of soldiers decide the screening will be their chance to kill their target. Reading about it, what most excited was that clearly Tarantino would be able to offer his take on, his homage to Leni Riefenstahl. And then the news: protégé Roth, Jewish Roth, would direct the propaganda film within a film. This could be interesting in the way that Israel’s symphony doing Wagner is interesting. And maybe it will be fine. But and also maybe it won’t be fine for a petulant homophobe to offer his take on the treatment of an abused minority in film.
That Roth’s talents are dwarfed by Tarantino’s is debatable. That Roth’s politics are troubling is obvious. That Tarantino chose Roth for what should be the most interesting aspect to the film is a real disappointment.