A reader on the message board was talking about the eroticization of violence in Hellbent, and mentioned this film, which I immediately put to the top of my list. It’s time for some controversial, nasty gay stuff! And this movie apparently does come enshrouded in controversy, as it was originally screened as the final film in the 1996 SF Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, and according to one report over half of the audience walked out before it was over, some screaming at the screen. So there ya go!
The movie begins with its title, the ‘F’ somewhat out of alignment with the ‘RISK,’ which highlights the ‘risk’ element of what’s going on, but what about the ‘F?’ Is it Fucking risk? Perhaps, but not so clearly through the course of the rest of the movie. Anyway, the movie begins with a letter Dennis has written to Julian, an ex-boyfriend. In it he says that he was become a serial killer. We then flash back to Dennis’ childhood, where we meet him as a 13-year-old boy who starts hanging out in an adult bookstore. The owner lets him see these pictures of guys who have been posed as if they are dead, and he is soon obsessed with them. There is a very good section where Dennis is talking about becoming obsessed with porn, as we see porn images spinning, usually centered around the dick. Then there are a number of superimposed 70s porn images in a highly scratched film, which was interesting and kind of beautiful. These, turns out, come from a short film by the director, Nob Hill, which is also included on the DVD.
So as he gets older Dennis and Julian do serious drugs and hustle for money. Julian and this guy Henry are into cutting and pain during sex, and there is a lot of voice-over talk about slitting people open and dismembering them and all that. The flashes of violence and sex are all very quick and suggestive, giving one the impression that one is seeing more than one is, and the most violent content is simply described in voice-over.
A lot of it is Dennis’ imagination, but we see it enacted. He imagines Henry, one of the guys he had seen posed as though he were dead earlier, being tied up by a sadistic top who spends a long scene saying he isn’t sure whether he’ll kill him or not. We meet a bald guy who was supposedly beaten to shit by some other guy, and now wants to come back for more. Blah, blah, blah, eventually Julian needs to enlist the help of a man and woman, she being played by Parker Posey. He fucks some guy without a condom. Toward the end some dead guy shows up and says that Dennis “wanted to kill people to get answers, but the only ones getting answers were the ones he killed. I’m a lot smarter now that I’m dead.”
Throughout there’s all this talk of getting close to someone and divining their secrets through killing them, cutting them up and playing in their organs, etc. At first I thought it was very interesting, regardless of the fact that it doesn't make very much sense. Then I started to think “this is putting a lot of effort into being ‘BAD.’” Then after a while I lost all interest and was just waiting for it to end.
There is a guy at my current job who, when you ask him what he did on the weekend, will say something like “fucked nuns” or “gave my girlfriend an abortion” or something, and after a while we would just start responding with “Oh my God, how SHOCKING,” or, before he could answer “Quick, think of something that will SHOCK us!” And after a while I felt that way about this movie. Oh dear, how very shocking. How very controversial. Heavens to Betsy.
I was hoping for a little more insight or depth. I thought that the movie would be about the intersection of sex and death post-AIDS, but it doesn’t come up much in the screenplay, and the non-verbal content of the movie doesn’t seem to touch on it very closely. I thought it would be about the intermingling of sex and violence, and of course it is, it’s just that I thought it might be a little more interesting, and leave the viewer with a little more.
So it seems that Dennis Cooper is a fuck-up. All the people in this movie are fuck-ups. And while I guess there is some value in considering the perspective of the fuck-up, ultimately it only offers so much to people who are not fucked up. In a 2001 interview I found through Wikipedia, Cooper says “Anyway, I'm less afraid now that I'll go insane and do something fucked up to myself or to someone else, but I'm hardly free," and “Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson both refused to let me write cover stories on them for Spin Magazine because they were afraid I'd out them as poseurs. They consider themselves to be very daring and extreme, and I think the fact that I'm more daring and extreme intimidated them.” So it sounds like there’s still a lot of romanticizing of being messed up, and a big internal contest of who is the most daring and extreme. Okay, WOW Dennis, you’re really daring and extreme. Okay? WOW. You win the big daring and extreme contest.
Okay, now it’s a month or so later—I have a backlist of reviews so I don’t feel pressured to watch a movie all the time—and I have to say that this movie did have an effect that lingered into the next day. It really annoyed me—witness the vitriol and personal attack in that last paragraph [which I had considered removing entirely]. Something about this movie was too close and too uncomfortable and I wanted to disavow it entirely. It was gnawing at me all day, but I became conscious of this when my boyfriend came over that night and we were playing a spirited game of hop on pop, and I kept having images from this movie in my mind, and was just agitated. I think it’s a combination of a wish to repudiate what one has seen in the movie, and also to reject the very idea that one can come to understand someone else by cutting them open and looking at their guts. I also read a later interview with Cooper where he seemed a little more level-headed and not so concerned with seeming so ‘dangerous,’ and also distanced himself from this movie, saying it was a complete misinterpretation of what he had done in the novel. I still don’t ever want to see this movie again, and my overall impression is still that it’s desperately trying to be ‘dangerous,’ but I have to admit that something about this movie definitely got under my skin and invaded my psychological space.
I skimmed through the commentary on the disc, with the director and one of the actors, and it is typically insight-free. How come no one ever talks about how they composed the film or why they shot it as they did or what their intentions were and how they did or didn’t come out or who their influences are—you know, interesting stuff? Instead all we ever get is who was whose boyfriend or who that shirt really belonged to or whose apartment this or that was shot at.
Whatever. In retrospect, it seems like the people getting enraged over this were misplacing their energies. This is just a bunch of tough kittens, talking as nasty as they can.
If you want, though I suspect you’ll probably regret it, and not because it’s so controversial and in your face.