Thursday, January 10, 2013

Texas Chainsaw 3-D: Of Leatherface, Liberals, and Al Qaida

Okay, first off: Texas Chainsaw 3-D is crap. The 3-D is obvious and unimaginative, mostly used to highlight shots of a chainsaw coming towards the camera; the set design, considering what's been done in the past with Chez Sawyer, is kind of threadbare and lazy; the gore effects, while decent - Herr Kurtzman, again! - are almost entirely reprises of things that were done in the first two Texas Chainsaw Massacre films; and there's a sleazy cynicism that pervades, as when we get multiple shots of a girl's butt, clad in cut-off jeans, because the filmmakers seem to reason that their audience is comprised of leering, horny teens, and not misanthropes and horror connoisseurs. Turns out I'm not at all offended by shots of a chainsaw cutting through a human body, but a coupla gratuitous butt shots of a cute girl can really get my ire: I mean, what kind of pervert do these people think I am, anyhow?

Even more maddeningly, the film plays fast-and-loose with its relation to the Tobe Hooper films that spawned the franchise. On the one hand, it's filled with allusions to them, from the casting of (original Leatherface) Gunnar Hansen and (TCM 2's Chop-top and frequent Rob Zombie actor) Bill Moseley in supporting roles, to a close-up of a dead armadillo on the roadside, to a sheriff whose last name is Hooper, to someone in a pig mask wielding a chainsaw; it even recaps the action of the original film in its first few minutes, using scenes from it in a sort of fast 3-D precis, to make us think we're continuing exactly where that narrative left off. On the other hand, while invoking fannish loyalty to the original, it also significantly rewrites the story: when it shifts from the recap to its actual beginning - a standoff, minutes after the action of the original film has supposedly finished, between the sheriff and the members of the Sawyer clan - the film  introduces, without explanation, several characters who were not present in the original film, but who stand around with Drayton Sawyer, holding guns, prepared to shoot it out in Drayton's defense. Who are these people? Are they complicit in the cannibalism and sadism and untold perversity that has been going on in the Sawyer home? Since they immediately take us out of the world of the first movie, which the previous few minutes have taken pains to situate us in, we might fairly ask why the fuck the filmmakers felt the need to include them at all; as they die within minutes of appearing onscreen - when other big ugly rednecks arrive to torch the place - they don't actually contribute much to the story. Presumably, they function solely to magnify the injustice done to the Sawyers, because that's the other thing Texas Chainsaw does: it provides a bland, commonplace revenge narrative to motivate the previously unfathomable Leatherface, who survives the fire, and ultimately ends up in a battle with the chief redneck responsible for burning down his family home (who subsequently becomes town mayor).

Crap, then - incoherent, have-it-both-ways, unimaginative crap: except that when the film finally arrives at the revelation that we are supposed to have sympathy for its poor, misunderstood monster, who is really just angry about what has been done to his family, a very strange moment transpires, which almost perked up my dwindling interest. After the film's climax, there's a shot of the film's young heroine - his cousin, an infant at the time of the fire and now grown into womanhood - sympathetically stroking Leatherface's leathery (outer) face, and trying to wipe away some of the blood that's on him (some of it is even his!). We are encouraged to feel an outpouring of sympathy and understanding and forgiveness, and to accept the poor brute as one of the good guys; even the town's sheriff, who knows full well that Leatherface has cut up several innocent people, turns a blind eye to his crimes and allows him to return to his (rebuilt) family home, with his cousin as his guardian, since the injustices visited upon him are so much greater than the ones he has perpetrated.

While there is a genuine pathos achieved here - my eyes welled up with tears at one point, looking at our misunderstood  monster's peeled-skin mask, and his pathetic, confused eyes, as he finds himself the unexpected recipient of familial love and acceptance - there's also something very, very weird going on. While past Texas Chainsaw films sometimes do invite us to have a degree of covert sympathy for Leatherface - who is clearly nuts, definitely entertaining, and at least somewhat tortured by his inner demons - here the sympathy takes on an overt, heart-on-sleeve, "love-me-I'm-a-liberal" aspect that I imagine Christ himself would have a hard time getting behind: like, "whosoever shall smite you [with a chainsaw] on your right cheek, turn to him the other also." I actually would prefer to keep my sympathy for Leatherface covert and unspoken, thank you; it's somehow discomfiting to see it made explicit and ratified on-screen. Even though I count myself as a liberal, never would I extend my forgiveness to the extent of accepting Leatherface into my home, thanks, no matter what injustices he's suffered. Once you arrive there, you have taken liberal virtue too far.

Stranger yet, somehow, in my head, I cross-referenced the ending of the film with arguments I recall being levied against the anti-war-on-terror camp, to the effect of how they're so keen to prove their open-mindedness and multiculturalism and earn liberal merit badges by embracing the Other that they end up rationalizing the actions of and thus implicitly defending fanatical fascists from other countries, whose values are in fact the antithesis of their own. Maybe I'm just nuts, but Leatherface - as much of an Other as one could ask for! - thus actually briefly became, for me, a cipher for Al Qaida: just as it was American foreign policy that was "really" to blame for 9/11, the film seems to reason that the crimes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre really were the fault of society as a whole, and/or the rednecks who burned down Leatherface's home, and that rather than seeking revenge, what we really need to do is just try to understand and accept and forgive, even if the person we're forgiving is wearing a mask of dead human skin peeled off the face of one of his victims.

That's actually kind of an interesting, and somewhat perverse, place for the film to arrive at; we're almost in the territory of Cormac McCarthy's Child of God, here (a fine, funny novel which extends sympathy to a dispossessed, mentally deficient hillbilly necrophiliac and murderer). If I thought that any of this was at all willful - if I believed the film was attempting to satirize, say, the excesses of liberals and the pitfalls of being too understanding in the face of evil, I'd probably admire it quite a bit more than I did. As it is, however, I can't quite bring myself to believe that any of the things I found interesting about Texas Chainsaw 3D were actually placed there deliberately by the filmmakers; I suspect they had a lot more to do with the activity going on in my brain than with anything going on in theirs.

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