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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Serbian Film, Stephen King, and autobiography

I return once again to the defense of A Serbian Film. For those who haven't heard of it, it's like watching someone tell "The Aristocrats" with a straight face. Or adapting it into a thriller film.

A plot overview- an out-of-work male pornstar in Serbia is lured into one last job, and is offered a large sum of money in advance to cooperate and not ask questions. The director, a self-proclaimed visionary, intends to create an experimental art porn that will establish his reputation and allow him to escape from the environment that is Serbia. The plot of the porno turns out to be a series of unmentionable attrocities, and conflict ensues.

The characters speak poorly of Serbia, and director Srđan Spasojević has defended his film as a political statement. While I have no knowledge of Serbian history, a few statistics from Wikipedia reveal that Serbia is pretty high on the suicide rate by country and pretty low on the quality of life index.

Reading Stephen King's Misery reframed for me the statement made by A Serbian Film. The 1990 film of Misery is a classic, but it misses a fascinating element of the book. Therein, while Paul Sheldon is the bedridden captive of Annie Wilkes, he reflects for pages on end upon his career as an author of genre fiction.

A note on genres: Film scholar Linda Williams argues that horror, melodrama, and pornography are "body genres," designed to elicit physical reactions from the viewer (terror, tears, and arousal). [I would argue that comedy belongs on that list, but that's beside the point.]
This points at an interesting comparison between horror and romance (it is suggested that Sheldon's Misery novels feature melodrama and copious bodice ripping content). In Misery, King describes Sheldon as playing a game called "Can You," in which Sheldon is challenged to weave a tale from point A to point B. What develops is a lengthy commentary on the life of King as an author, who apparently has a great deal in common with the fictional Paul Sheldon. Both are engaged in an ongoing game of "Can You," professionally and personally. As professionals, King and Sheldon are required to deliver thrills their readership expects, and are therefore somewhat confined to their genres (Sheldon in particular longs to escape the paperback market and have his new novel embraced on its literary merit alone). Personally, both men are writing for their lives; Sheldon writes first for his livelihood and later to appease his captor, while King's career began in poverty before the unlikely breakthrough of Carrie and his rise to a hugely successful genre fiction staple. King describes in Sheldon's voice the life of a genre author and the struggle and self-doubt of attempting to craft something personal and worthwhile in the confines of genre fiction. Through Sheldon, King expresses doubts about himself and the nagging suspicion that he may be a hack author. But from that personal angle comes the success of King's writing. In The Shining, King draws upon his experiences as an alcoholic and addict to present Jack Torrance, a heartfelt image of a struggling father. After reading The Shining, one sees why King was unhappy with Kubrick's film version, which pretty much omits the sympathetic side of Jack.

King's horror stories are not particularly original, but his intimate style of writing makes him a wonderful interpreter of the history of horror.

This leads us to A Serbian Film. What if Srđan Spasojević is expressing in his film the same self-dissatisfation that King presents in Misery? Perhaps Spasojević sees himself, unhappily, as a parallel to the director in his film, and is reflecting on the reality of what he must do to achieve recognition in the international film market. To reach his audience, the fictional director must film unspeakable pornography. Does Spasojević see his own work as something higher than the filthiest torture porn (to use the common term for films like Hostel) on the market? Or is he painting his competing sympathies for the struggling artist and the disgusted actor together into a Misery-esque self-portrait of his work? If this is true, Spasojević has played a fine game of "Can You?" by achieving the goal of taking torture porn to the limit while still preserving the thread of personal integrity that holds the film's metaphor together.