Monday, May 23, 2011

Getting Off

In one of the lighter pieces posted over the weekend at Salon, Matt Zoller Seitz writes about bad films, and describes Sex and the City 2 as "wealth porn." I think that could prove to be a very valuable phrase, if used widely, and I am frankly upset that I hadn't thought of it on my own yet.

I have long described many modern so-called horror films as being better identified as part of the "torture porn" genre, and I am hopeful that a tasteful viewing audience will start to catch onto the distinction and recognize that horror doesn't need to driven solely by gore and shock value. As a horror fan myself, I think it does a disservice to the genre to let the likes of the Saw sequels and Hostel, which are much more prominent, but have a very particular appeal, define horror. I like the term "torture porn" because it makes clear what the focus of the film is, whereas horror, on my conception, might not aim for disgust in its presentation, but rather atmosphere, and may possess a story that strive to shock, to startle, to amplify an audience's fears by logically presenting the threat of a subject, or to instill the subtle, creeping atmosphere of dread or nightmare.

I also like the term "torture porn" because it's disdainful to the specific sub-category of horror that I think of as pandering to the lowest common denominator. Despite changing attitudes, "porn" is still a pejorative word, and attaching it to anything serves to suggest an exploitative impulse, and an utter lack of nuance. Individual instances of torture porn may have other merits to them, but in general, I think people watch such films as ways of indulging their most base impulses without reflection, whether that means putting themselves in the role of the victim, or imagining themselves experiencing a pain they could never really experience, or just participating in anything that's seen as pushing the envelope and abutting with polite society. Giving it a more specific name than "horror" helps to bring all of this out into the open, and hopefully prompts a bit of the reflection that is otherwise conspicuously lacking.

"Wealth porn" is a phrase that can aspire to the same effect on a different class of media, and one that is vastly more commonplace these days. Between Sex and the City, celebrity gossip, and the plethora of reality shows that focus their lenses on the obscenely rich, there is a almost ubiquitous impulse among consumers of American media to watch other people enjoying, taking for granted, and wasting the benefits of a privileged existence. It is absolutely right to call it wealth porn, because it shares so much of its appeal with actual pornography, in that it is an escapist fantasy in which other real people are surrogates for your own would-be participation. You can't have wild anonymous sex with the buxom, blonde co-ed who stops by to help you study for your exam, and you can't spend four hundred dollars on dinner for two and then spend the next day hanging out in all the most posh martini bars. So you watch someone else doing it, and you satisfy yourself by forgetting for a little while that you're overweight and lonely, and your gas bill is past due.

Branding is enormously effective in generating breaking points. By terming something - correctly - as porn, we can potentially prompt a handful of people who would tend to have a bit of shame about participating in actual voyeurism to look with a more critical eye on what gives them satisfaction and realize, as they should have realized long ago, that it is an empty sort of satisfaction, completely reliant upon the glorified presentation of something that simply shouldn't be. So let's call everyone who films a "real housewife" or their ilk a wealth pornographer, and understand that by being asked to swallow it as if it's just any other form of entertainment, we're being screwed in a way we ought not accept.

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