Margaret, David, Wolf Creek 2 and, oh … torture porn

John Jarratt as Mick Taylor in Wolf Creek 2 … so what’s the problem? Courtesy of Roadshow Films

Well, I’m outraged, I tells ya. Outraged!

This is such a shameful snub. Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton, beloved hosts of ABC’s At the Movies, have apparently refused to review a major new Aussie movie. OK, maybe this particular movie is not everyone’s cup of tea. But is it really too much to expect they – and the public broadcaster they work for – should get behind Australian cinema and cover high-profile, locally-made movies?

After all, Horny Marsupial Wrangler Babes in Trouble 2 is the sequel to the highest-grossing Australian porn film in years. This is a pretty big deal.

Why the silence about such a major Aussie success story, Margaret and David? I can only conclude it’s sheer snobbery on your part. Curse these stuck-up arthouse types. Just where do they get off? (So to speak.)

Admittedly, I haven’t actually seen Horny Marsupial Wrangler Babes in Trouble 2, mostly because I just made it up. (Please, nobody invoke Rule 34: “If it exists, there is porn of it on the internet”). But imagine if there really was such a film, and David and Margaret refused to review it. Would you think that’s unreasonable?

Margaret and David. AAP Image/ABC

I’d imagine most people would think that’s fair enough. Why on earth would a serious movie show review a porno? To the extent that anyone has ever come up with a serious definition of porn, one key feature is that porn exists primarily to produce sexual arousal; artistic merit, even if it’s a consideration, must be subordinate to that aim. Debbie Does Dallas (1978) may have a certain kitsch charm (ah, so I’m told), but Citizen Kane it ain’t.

And yet, apparently At the Movies’ refusal to review Wolf Creek 2 (Stratton separately gave it a negative review for The Australian) is seen as a serious lapse in some quarters. National film editor at Fairfax Media Karl Quinn accuses them of having “abnegated their responsibility as Australia’s most-watched movie critics,” insisting that whatever they think of it, Wolf Creek 2 “is an artefact and it demands inspection” – apparently just because it’s popular.

Wolf Creek 2’s writer and director, Greg McLean, was also understandably peeved:

what on earth are they thinking? Simply not reviewing an independent Aussie movie that beat its US studio competitor Lone Survivor … is worth paying some attention.

Take a look at the comments attached to that article, and it becomes clear a certain number of people out there view this as a dereliction of the ABC’s duty to give taxpayers what they want to see, and to support the Australian film industry. Another example of the public broadcaster failing to show “basic affection for the home team” it would seem.

To be clear, I’m not arguing against the existence or availability of horror films, or porn films for that matter. If people want to watch these things, fine – though as consumers of these products we also need to be aware that there are arguments against both these things that deserve to be considered seriously rather than simply dismissed out of hand. “But I like it!” or “Ewww, gross” aren’t much chop as arguments either way.

What’s more interesting here is the unsettling double-standard. Despite all the hand-wringing about the “mainstreaming” of porn in the internet era, cultural artefacts such as Saw (2004), Hostel (2005), The Human Centipede (2009) and Wolf Creek (2005), with their gratuitous depictions of gore and violence, are somehow considered more socially acceptable than pornography. Why is “torture porn” somehow more valid than, well, porn-porn? Why does at least a section of the public expect At the Movies to review one but not the other?

No doubt there are some important differences. A second defining feature of porn that’s been noted, for example, is that porn invites you not merely to enjoy what’s being done on screen, but to approve of it too, at least implicitly. There’s a certain “pro-attitude” involved in arousal.

You could argue there’s no direct analogue to that in torture porn: presumably even the most ardent fan of Wolf Creek doesn’t actually think Mick Taylor’s tortures, rapes, mutilations and murders are a good way to behave.

Wolf Creek 2. Courtesy of Roadshow Films

Even so, you could say that both torture-porn and porn-porn invite the viewer to somehow revel in what’s going on, even if they don’t approve of it. (We’re not invited to think “Oh that poor innocent traveller, I do hope the killer doesn’t follow through with that hacksaw”).

And they do this in a specific way: they both reduce the living body to a vulnerable object, pitifully and hopelessly subject to violation. They are, you might say, both “obscene” in part of the sense Jean-Paul Sartre gives the term: the body revealed in “the inertia of its flesh”, as pure matter to be acted upon.

Indeed in that sense, porn comes out looking considerably better than Hostel-style gore-fests. An erection or a jiggling breast, attached to an apparently eager participant, is surely much less obscene in this technical sense than a severed head or hacked-off fingers. Both genres objectify, but as Martha Nussbaum argued, not all objectification is equally bad.

DH Lawrence’s Constance Chatterley and Mellors objectify each other by focussing on each other’s genitals, for instance, but they do so in a way that doesn’t deny or diminish the fundamental humanity of the person attached. They don’t reduce each other to their bodies.

I’m not sure we can say that about all torture-porn flicks. Setting aside the details – and admittedly the degradation is often in the details – what’s the greater affront to basic human dignity: a depiction of consenting adults having sex, or a depiction of non-consenting mutilation and murder?

Of course, such dignity-based arguments go out the window if you reject the idea there’s any such dignity there to begin with. Alan Soble, a leading American philosopher of sex, makes this case in quite arresting terms:

To complain that pornography presents women as “fuck objects” is to presuppose that women, as humans or persons, are something substantially more than fuck objects. Whence this piece of illusory optimism? […] Pornography gives to no one, male or female, the respect that no-one, male or female, deserves anyway. It demolishes human pretensions. It objectifies that which does not deserve not to be objectified. It thereby repudiates norms that Christian, Western culture holds dear, that people are not to be used or treated as objects or objectified or dehumanized or degraded.

Extending this thought to the torture porn genre: can we seriously say that human beings are no more than mere “slash objects”? If not, shouldn’t we find something troubling in depicting them as such?

Now, there’s an important liberal argument that’s often raised in discussions of porn that also seems to apply to torture-porn: if everyone involved – performers, producers, purchasers – is a willing participant, and so no-one gets hurt, then we simply have no right to interfere. Fair enough. But if we accept that argument, we also have to accept that Stratton and Pomeranz also have a right to review whatever they like.

If, on the other hand, we expect them to support local content producers, then it seems we have to accept the possibility of Margaret and David squabbling over the merits of Adelaide Sex Adventures 4: Rundle Mall Rumps.

Which, I think we can all agree, would make for awesome television.