Tuesday, April 21, 2009

trends in meta-snuff: Murder Collection, vol. 1

So far, there appears to be no such thing as a snuff film.

Nevertheless, the possibility of snuff has been a powerful source of inspiration for the underground gore community.

This inspiration has expressed itself in two basic ways:

1. Imitations of Snuff, i.e. fake snuff films
2. Films about Snuff, in the best instances providing some form of commentary on the nature of snuff and its appeal.

The most famous instance of the first type is perhaps the guinea pig short, flowers of flesh and blood, 1985. Which Charlie Sheen famously believed to be a real snuff film.

Instances of the second type include those that focus primarily on the psychology of those making the snuff films (Peeping Tom, 1960), the society that consumes snuff (Videodrome, 1983), the victims of snuff (Evil Dead Trap, 1988), or even all of the above (Cannibal Holocaust, 1980).

A compelling new trend in snuff-aesthetics can be seen in the films of Fred Vogel's ToeTag Pictures. The August Underground trilogy (August Underground, 2001, August Underground's Mordum, 2003, and August Underground's Penance, 2007) manages to combine the best features of the two primary types of snuff inspired film.

Technically speaking, these are all fake snuff films. This allows them to take advantage of the primary aesthetic virtue of the fake snuff film: its ability to connect viscerally and emotionally, to induce direct bodily reactions.

However, films about snuff traditionally find it much easier to investigate the underlying psychology of snuff. This psychology includes that of the filmmakers, the consumers, and also the society as a whole which has produced this trend. And it is this last factor, of course, which is in many ways the most interesting, as it implicates even those who do not seek out and consume extreme gore in the trends which it expresses.

The August Underground videos, especially when taken as a whole, manage to comment on the underlying psychology of both the murderers depicted and the society which produced them. On the side of the murderers, their attitude towards their violence gradually shifts from indifference in the first video, towards emotional, romantic entanglement in Mordum, eventually degenerating into empty, unfulfilling compulsion in Penance.

Society at large, however, is implicated in the extended non-gore scenes. The films intersperse scenes from the everyday lives of the protagonists along with extended of scenes of them torturing their victims. Unlike in a film such as Peeping Tom, where the protagonist is introverted, socially maladjusted, and explicitly attempts to erect a barrier between his snuff-habit and his everyday life, the August Underground films portray the protagonists' violent behavior as lying on a continuum with their everyday activities.

Conversations with friends, a walk in the park, dancing at a concert, getting a piercing: all these activities are presented as mere manifestations of the same underlying drive which motivates their crimes.

ToeTag's most recent picture takes this technique a step further, this time attempting to directly analyze and implicate the audience. The video is called Murder Collection Volume 1. Strictly speaking, Murder Collection is not a fake snuff film. Rather, it is a fake instance of a very real phenomenon: the collection of death footage.

This trend was perhaps initiated by the shocking but brilliant Mondo Cane, but in the days before everyone was walking around with phones and cameras which can double as video capture devices, footage of actual deaths was hard to come by. This inspired a number of fake collections, such as the Faces of Death films.

In the age of the internet, however, accidental (and deliberate) death footage became widely available. Sources range from accidents to Islamic extremists, to honest-to-god serial killer home videos (yes, if you look hard enough, they can be found). Murder Collection purports to be a mixtape of such found footage by a mysterious figure named Balan who helmed a site catering to those interested in such fare from the early days of the internet, i.e. 1994.

Much like actual sites which distribute such footage, Balan runs afoul of the authorities and the site is dismantled. Murder Collection, however, presents videos from his collection, interspersed with commentary by said shadowy figure. Unlike previous films like Faces of Death, which proclaimed itself real in all advertising material, or Cannibal Holocaust, for which the director asked the actors to go into hiding for a year in order to heighten the illusion they'd been killed, Murder Collection does not hide its fictional character. It has opening credits listing the (to my knowledge real) names of all involved, and ending credits which clearly list all actors in all segments. Furthermore, promotional copies have been distributed signed by all participants.

Essentially, then, the video is a collection of short stories, each fulfilling two constraints: (i) somebody has to die (usually accidentally), and (ii) the action must be captured by a video recording device plausibly operating within the context of the story. The stories themselves are quite clever, and, in particular, use time and perspective to generate substantial suspense. Overall, the gore level is quite low compared to other ToeTag pictures, but the suspense and intensity in the stories makes for a compelling and disturbing experience.

For our purposes, however, it is the interjections by host Balan which are perhaps of most interest. We never see a clear picture of Balan's face, only snippets of distorted and manipulated video, capturing various features in isolation. It's clear that these are compiled from a number of different faces, and features of the three main protagonists of the August Underground films are all in evidence (if my eyes do not mistake me). Balan's voice is distorted past the point of recognition, and his interjections are subtitled. It is clear that there is no direct connection between the text and voice.

Here's an example of one of Balan's comments, occurring a third of the way through the film. The grossly distorted voice uttering a string of expletives, something like: "[unintelligible] this motherfucking, stinking [dog?] pitiful piece of shit . . ." [etc.], which are subtitled:

"The joy of being repulsed stirs up our viscera. Causes us pain, nausea and discomfort. For most it is not enjoyable to watch another human die. Yet, it gives great pleasure to some. It makes them yearn for it. Even want to take a life for themselves. Regardless, in the end it's all the same. Viewing death generates acids in our guts and makes us feel alive."

Here we can clearly see the implication of even those members of society who choose not to watch gore, snuff, or death footage. The physiological reaction which motivates those who enjoy gore is the same as that which motivates those who despise it. Furthermore, the end consequence of this physiological reaction is the same in both types of people, it makes them "feel alive." This is perhaps Balan's own answer to the question he asks at the start of the video: "Why are you watching?"

Murder Collection is the gore underground's attempt to adapt to the times. Snuff films are not real, but accidental death videos are. Now that, thanks to the internet, they are widely available online, it is imitation death videos, rather than imitation snuff which are of interest. In the words of Balan: "the new media shines light in dank crevasses." Furthermore, the role of the snuff filmmaker has been replaced by the role of the death vid collector. In many ways, this subject is potentially more compelling from a psychological standpoint as he is much closer (in terms of his behavior and the lines he is willing to cross) to the audience of gore than the genuine psychopath.

One can see this in the content of the short stories. Although some capture thieves, kidnappers, or intentional murderers, others capture pranks which go too far or accidental expressions of emotion which cross the line into fatal excess. These serve to implicate the viewer and the everyday hooligan in much the same way as some of the most ambiguous august underground scenes.

But Balan's questions, whether sincere or ironic, remains hanging in the air: why violence and death? Will there even be an interest in the fake accidental death video when the real is so readily available? Is this human nature or perversion? Are we all implicated?


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