Sunday, November 1, 2009

August Underground (2001)

NB - This review contains images of extreme gore. Please be advised.

VHS aesthetics are key to the film's disturbing realism.

Extremely cheap, immoral, and exploitative : this is the pinnacle of horror for our media-frenzied 21st century. As a bargain-basement video diary, it fits right alongside the endless succession of nasty bits from Youtube and other such media outlets, which we mecanically ingurgitate and produce with a zeal unknown in most areas of life. Nowadays, everybody is a star. And so are the protagonists of the present film. These guys are vile, witless, and vacuous, but they’ve got a camera, and that makes them much greater than what they are. It gives them an hypnotic power on both sides of the spectrum. To their victims, the camera constitues the prospect of a million eyes scrutinizing their suffering. To us viewers, it's presence make us realize that our interest alone legitimizes all of the actions onscreen. Thus, we are all put to shame by it: its victims through the spectacle of their humiliating demise, and the viewers for desiring to see such unnatural images. The only ones to escape this vicious circle are the killers themselves, possessors of the weapon-camera. The question underlying the film, "What would you do if you found a tape left behind by a pair of vicious killers?", hits us right at home, because the film does look true. And we still watch it... And although I will resist to impulse to call "August Underground" a philosophical treaty on contemporary mores, I will only say that it is symptomic of a desperately voyeuristic society .

"August Underground" is a repulsive film : grainy, shaky and (almost) unbearingly nasty. It contains some of the ugliest images ever captured on tape: a series of flat, smeared tableaux of trivial torture. Despite being horrific from a purely esthetic standpoint, these tableaux look devastatingly real. The primitive camerawork, which includes frequent floor shots and constant reframings, the sheer cheapness of the image makes the film look truly homemade, and thus almost suspicious. Obviously, there are some unconvicing elements (all the punches, for example, seem obviously staged), which compromise the illusion, but the tone, settings and characters generally contribute to a faithful portrait of the existential void and ennui that would spawn such explosive violence as shown inbetween shots of empty farmland and petty roadside attractions.

The surrounding void makes the stuffy underground
interiors appear quite lively in comparison.

Call it so if you will, but the only "character development" the film offers is the interaction between the killers and their environment. Besides laughing nevrotically, joking around, and shouting insults, they do little dialogue-wise. They don't strike us as humans, but rather as fungus-like hominids growing out of suburban mire. They are wanderers in a world that doesn't matter, amongst people who don't matter (a single elderly woman, a convenience store clerk, the twin owners of a comic book shop, a slaughterhouse employee, a pair of cheap hookers...). The viciousness of their crimes, is perhaps the lone exciting element in their lives, and in the film, it offers a colorful contrast (through the blood red/flesh beige/shit brown palette used in the basement shots) to the bland-looking exterior/night shots. The clash between the horrific and the ordinary, or rather, the growth of the horrific out of the ordinary is not limited to esthetic distinctions between exterior/interior scenes, but also to thematic distinctions. "August Underground" is a circular road movie. It is a cautious ride through the countryside followed by a quick, autistic return home. A weekend spent driving aimlessly to capture images of infinite(ly empty) space marred by the intrinsic need to return to the cramped existence of underground suburbia. The film is more than the clash between the infinitely (hopelessly) vast that surrounds us with ennui, and the infinitively tiny that crushes our spirit, between the open road movie and the sufocating "in camera", but between what is aboveground, and underground. The quiet stillness of the countryside is opposite its horrific bowel movements. There is something unbearable going on underneath the maple roots: the troglodytic existence of bored psychopaths. This is rather roughly captured on tape here, but it works. We know that suburban life, at least that of the disilusionned youth within, is concentrated in the basement of family houses, right underneath the bright daffodils that are their parents pride. It has been demonstrated time and time again, but never so efficiently as in this film, with its two parentless protagonists who take great care in keeping the tacit secrecy of suburbia alive. While watching the film, the exterior scenes often offer the viewer a breath of fresh air, particularly when one compares them to the unbearable indoor scenes. But nonetheless, it is the latter who offer true insight into the life in the killers' parts.

The shameless subjective camera constantly
tortures the killers' victims with the
perspective of their projected suffering.

The protagonists' murderous impulses are tied directly to nihilism. And this makes their actions that more horrific that they don't act as they do for a grander purpose, out of obsession, or for vengeance. They do so, because it is something to do. Plain and simple time-filling, if you can believe that. They consider life with such dread that humanity becomes a mere plaything. They act toward their peers as with objects, and that makes their demise that much more unbearable. The victims in the film are butchered for no other reason than to entertain a pair of dumb brutes, who giggle and shout all the way through. In horror cinema, it is pretty rare to see motivationless killers, and that is definitively a shortcoming of the genre. If horror is truly affective, there is no actual reason to develop the killers' back story, but most films in the genre still decide to do so, to conform in a way to the traditional narrative stance of narrative cinema as a whole. Nonetheless, I believe motivation makes things all too specific for the viewer. He cannot relate to the victim if it is the killer's ex-girlfriend, or a close friend of his. He can only do so if it is just a random passerby, i.e. if he has the feeling that he could be that person. And most importantly, if there is no reason for its victimization. Think about the razor-sharp efficiency of Michael Haneke's "Funny Games", which is more or less an aristocratic version of "August Underground". Where does it lie? In the killers' direct partnership with the director, of course, but also in the indeterminacy of their motivations. There is a scene halfway in which they answer their victims' classic question: "Why are you doing this to us?". The happy-go-lucky lead killer quips: "We're bored, spoiled kids". Then he offers a completely different answer. "Is this version more satisfactory?" he asks his victims so that they know they are being toyed with. Director Haneke is quite savvy. He knows very well that logic only softens the blow, when it comes to horror. And what a blow he delivers with his film! A pair of well-manered, gloved teenagers invade the house of a bourgeois family, torture, and eventually kill them. And all we're left with after the ordeal is over is a sense of impotency, a deep and cold void that twists our bowels. The mystery is still whole regarding the killers' origin. All we know is their nastiness. And there also lies the efficiency of "August Underground". Its protagonists are monsters with no redeeming value, no humanity lying beneath the surface. There is no comfortable explanation to fall back on, and thus emptiness fills us with unfathomable dread.

August Underground is an all-American freak show,
complete with several morbid exhibits.

Actually, there is a reason why those killers kill, and this is the main point that films such as "August" and "Games" try to make. The reason is sitting on a couch at home, on the other side of the screen. It dabbles popcorn while someone is tortured to death on the ineffectual TV screen in front of him . I wouldn't go as far as to say that these films accuse us of voyeurism, but they certainly make us question our position. How "Games" function is that it lets us know early on that the killers are on the director's side (they wink at the camera). We cannot hope for a happy ending, but still we watch, until the last family member is killed. The film is so intense the first time around that you cannot help but wonder, as the credits roll: "Why did I watch this?", which is pretty much the question put forward by "August"'s brutal final cut. The latter's strategy however, differs somewhat from "Games"'. Instead of going down the classic narrative path, it draws us inside the world of the film as the cameraman and joyful watcher of atrocities. It goes for such a realistic approach that our real values are necessarily involved. On the one hand, "August" truly looks as a snuff film. Was it not for the illustrated DVD case with Toe Tag's label on it, we could very well wonder if true people were not truly killed in front of us, making us an unwilling accessory to murder. On the other, the total absence of style in the cinematography and our constant awareness of the camera's presence reminds us of our own experience as amateur filmmakers. In other words, the film looks like it was made by the viewer on a shoestring budget, making it that much more plausible. "They" kill. But is it "our" fault?