Search This Blog

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Flower of Flesh and Blood, ethics, and the ontology of the body

Guinea Pig 2: Flower of Flesh and Blood (1985)- if you're not trying to do something academic with it, there's absolutely no reason to watch this movie, beyond satisfying a curiosity.
My friend Kara posted a comment on an older post, asking how exploitation fits into a definition of the horror film, and citing the Guinea Pig series as a possible example of pure exploitation.
I had never heard of this film. Perhaps you haven't either.

The film begins with a man chasing and choloroforming a young woman. When she awakens, she is bound to a bed in a bloodied basement. He beheads a live chicken and says something to the effect of "This will be you!" He then drugs her, and explains to the camera that she now feels no pain, and perhaps even feels pleasure. Then, using various implements, and in great detail, he dismembers her. In between amputations, he describes the body poetically, building on the theme of a "flower of flesh and blood."
When he is finished, he explains that he is adding her to his collection, and pulls back a curtain to reveal an area where he embalms some body parts and composts others.
Famously, actor Charlie Sheen, believing the movie to be a snuff film, contacted the MPAA, who contacted the FBI.
The entire runtime is about 40 minutes.

This film is very unusual, and defies a lot of expectations. With it's reputation in mind, I fully anticipated the possibility of having to turn it off for being revolting or offensive. Instead, I noticed that my heart rate did not accelerate at any point during the film, not because of some desensitization, but because of the very unusual presentation of violence.
The early scene where the captor threatens his victim by beheading the chicken is kind of an anomaly, for he does not otherwise seem to wish her any ill will. By drugging her, he ensures that she will feel no pain. The film therefore is extremely light on sadism and suffering. Compared to The Last House on the Left and Irréversible, two films that will always stand out to me for provoking strong reactions, Flower of Flesh and Blood is in some ways much easier to watch. It reminds one of surgical television programs, with a lot of gore narrated in serious tones. Because there is a lack of suffering or sadism, there is no suspense. For the majority of the film, the stakes are very low. Sure, she gets murdered. But painlessly? Not a bad way to go.

Perspective on the body
Occasionally, I happen into a weird perspective of what the body is. It cropped up a while back in another blog in a debate about teleportation, where I argued a perspective that comes from trying to describe the body in as "realistic" a way possible, removing the identity and considering the constituent elements. Sometimes a film can put you in touch with this distanced perspective. A scene from Tony Kaye's documentary Lake of Fire shows a doctor concluding an abortion by taking stock of the excised tissues. The footage is unsettling, but I found that it affirmed my belief in the right to choose. Abortion highlights the ontological problem of staring into the doctor's dish and describing what you see. It is somehow both a person and a conglomeration of tissues. The two impressions compete, and inform our ethics. In that tiny, disarrayed body, we can see something vile and wrong, but we can also see the wonders and curiosities of the chaos of biology.
Despite the fact that you are your mother's child, you may find yourself awakened to the fact that the raw materials of your body have always been the raw materials of something else, perhaps as one-time parts of innumerable other living things, and before that, they hurtled through space as stardust. At a distance, your body is composed of the same heterogeneous clay that forms everything else.
If we let this perspective compete with our ethics, we can explore Flower of Flesh and Blood. Surely it is wrong to murder, but beyond that, is it wrong to marvel at the body as one would appreciate a flower? Is it immoral to admire the way that blood blooms from a wound, to sniff the heavy bouquet of decay, or taste human blood, simply for the sake of experience?
In the murderer, Flower of Flesh and Blood presents an interesting study in motivation. By my interpretation, the murderer kills not because he wishes to murder, but because murder is an incidental prerequisite to his actual goal, which is to commune with the living body freely. Somehow, he blurs the boundaries of psychopath, naturalist, pervert, and transcendentalist poet.
This mirrors Patrick Süskind's novel from the same year (1985) Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, which was adapted to film in 2006 by director Tom Tykwer. The lead character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, is born with a superhuman sense of smell, and no scent of his own. He learns the perfuming trade, and endeavors to craft the perfect scent from the essence of virginal women. His experience of these women is sensual and exploratory, and totally divorced from the ethics of committing murder.
Flower of Flesh and Blood bears another interesting relevance to real events. Jeffrey Dahmer once gave an interview where he detailed the drives and desires that pushed him to commit his crimes. He expressed great regret and discussed hating having to murder on the way to satisfying those drives. The complexity of the pathology evokes some sympathy, as we see a man who killed not out of greed or a disregard for human life, but because he was coerced by some curious sickness, perhaps indeed a sickness of curiosity.

In response to Kara's question, I believe that this film is not an example of "pure exploitation." The exploitation film draws its audience by exploiting a specific interest the audience holds. This works like a form of advertising. For example, the "blaxploitation" films of the 1970s were produced specifically for black audiences. Exploitation is a method to get people into the theater. Pornography is another exploitation genre that exploits a certain (obvious) interest. The Guinea Pig series is exploitation aimed at the facet of horror fandom compelled by graphic depictions of gore. But is there such a thing as "pure exploitation?" I think that a film's content is separate from its exploitation techniques, which I would describe as "meta-content." That its content is particularly relevant to x audience population is irrelevant to the film's ability to stand on its own, and to be judged for better or for worse by its merits. Therefore, the film that is "pure exploitation" would necessarily be one that doesn't exist, but is nonetheless advertised! It could be well-argued that the "Royal Nonesuch" show from Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn could qualify, a near non-event that continues solely because of the patrons' desire to see their friends and neighbors similarly conned!

Not to give too much credit...
For 40-odd minutes of monotonous carnage, Flower of Flesh and Blood somehow yielded a lot to discuss. But it is not my intention to find merits where they shouldn't be found. Learning about biology from studying roadkill isn't a reason to laud the careless driver that ran it over. The film has some interesting sub-text, but it always borders on the faux-philosophical edge of bad filmmaking. Just because the film has something to do with the aesthetics of murder doesn't make it Se7en. The film reveals the intent behind it by bending to some of the more distasteful genre conventions, to the detriment of anything worthwhile therein. Already mentioned is the chicken scene, a preposterous attempt to create suspense. Furthermore, and quite egregiously, the eventual beheading scene is undertaken in slow-motion, and the head adopts a laughable and wholly unrealistic trajectory, splatting against the wall dramatically. This is very poor filmmaking with a marginal element of luck.

Gore can be fun. Consider any of makeup artist Tom Savini's work: there's always an element of good-natured joviality in each instance of "Wow!/Gross!" His hard work pays off, and it's clear that the crew had a good time putting that moment together, compared to the film in question, which reeks of unpleasantness.
You could watch this movie on a dare, but don't expect to be entertained.


  1. Can it also be pronounced "FLOW-er," as in "the blood flows"? Yay, homonyms.

    What are some examples of cases where you did have to turn it off due to revulsion/being offended?

  2. Actually, I can think of zero examples of movies I turned off, but other reviewers always threaten churned stomachs, walkouts, and the like. Someday, I will watch August Underground's Mordum, which the internet throws down as the ultimate test of movie-watching fortitude. Maintaining my list of films is a pretty good reason to follow through.

    I know my folks quit halfwway through Passion of the Christ, though.