Thursday, November 5, 2009

Heroism in Horror: "I Want to Play a Game"

One of the most successful horror franchises of the new millennium has been Saw. Along with Hostel, it more or less singlehandedly founded the horror sub-genre affectionately known as "gorn," or "torture porn." As such, you'd probably think this would be the last place on earth you'd find good examples of heroism by any standard, Objectivist or otherwise. However when you have a villain with such mottoes as "Cherish your life" and "people have to save themselves" I beg to differ.

The series has gone through six entries, and I can honestly say that each one has dealt with complex themes while sporting amazing plots. Don't let the gore fool you; some of the series' most emotional moments come from scenes like a man being forced to burn the cherished toys that belonged to his dead son, so that he can save the life of the judge who sentenced the son's killer lightly.

John "Jigsaw" Kramer isn't your typical Hollywood monster. He was a skilled architect and engineer who had a wife he loved dearly and, from most appearances, fairly liberal politics. In short, he had a little something for everyone. But this all changed when he experienced what would have to be the worst year of his life. His wife ran a clinic in a poor part of town, and had a miscarriage after being robbed after-hours by one of her drug addicted patients. A divorce came shortly after, since the stress of losing a child was too much for John. Then John was given a diagnosis of terminal cancer, which lead to him making an attempt at suicide.

It was only when the suicide attempt failed and John had to put himself through a tremendous amount of pain to save his own life that his mission became clear. His goal became seeking out people who were wasting their lives and putting them in situations where they would have to realize how much their own lives actually meant to them.

He states regularly that not only is he
not a killer, but he despises killers. He creates tests which are designed to make people rethink their entire lives, and, when they make it through them, inspire change that will last a lifetime. But the problem is that for the test to truly work there has to be a chance of dying, a large one. Most people never make it through his tests, even though every time he gives the person a tool which will inflict pain, but save their life.

The idea of finding people who didn't truly appreciate their lives often lead to victim choices which were questionable throughout the series. Notably, his targets included private investigators who lived parasitically, drug addicts coasting through life from fix to fix, and people having extra-marital affairs wrecking their families.

However, when he found a target who REALLY deserved it, that was something special. A man who made numerous suicide attempts for attention's sake was placed in the middle of a maze of razor wire, given instructions that if he wanted to die, he merely had to sit at the center of the maze until he starved to death, but if he wanted to survive he'd have to cut himself more than he ever had before. "How much blood will you shed to save your life?"

Another great example was the aforementioned grieving father. He spent all day obsessing over his child's toys, and making Travis Bickle poses, dreaming about a confrontation where he'd deal out vengeance to the driver who ran over his son. Within a few short hours he's placed on a path where he will witness everyone who had anything to do with his son's death face a fate more gruesome than anything he could imagine unless he realizes that vengeance isn't what he actually wants and he puts himself through physical torment to save them.

In one of the most recent entries, Jigsaw's introduction made pleas against "selfishness" and for "collectivism"; and yet, it was still inspiring. A group of five people were sent through a course of four tests. The group thinks each one was designed for one person to die at every phase but in the end realize that they were all supposed to survive every test. The five collectively committed a crime which ended in the death of eight innocents, and it's simply inspiring in the final test when the last two realize "We've never faced justice for what we did...We
deserve to be here." When they go to shed their blood and save their lives it's an unparallelled act of heroism, a total dedication to facing reality and justice.

And that's where the strength of
Saw lies. Unlike many people, I can never bring myself to truly think of Jigsaw as a villain, but he is, at the very least, most-certainly an anti-hero. The fact that he treats the lives of others as his property to dispose of is wrong and evil, but you cannot doubt the man's devotion to reality, justice and pride. Plus there is a surprising lack of malevolence in what he does. He puts his emotions aside in choosing a target and starting a game, but that being said his congratulations to survivors is always genuine.
While the choice of methods can never be seen as heroic, they are specifically designed to bring out moments of unprecedented heroism in his victims. There are few things as inspiring as seeing a battered wife who turned a blind eye to her husband turning his violence on their child as well as her, finding the courage to save her own life at the expense of her tormentor.

The series is often criticized as being the act of watching a long, drawn-out murder, but I don't think that applies here. That may be true of a film like
The Grudge, where once you've encountered the evil ghosts they will continue to torment you for the rest of your (likely very short) life and there is no hope of escape, and no hope of survival. But in Saw, people have choices to make, difficult ones, and things are never treated as completely hopeless. At every moment of the story there is something any character can do in order to save their life, they merely have to discover what it is, and do so.

The series could also be criticized for the fact it is too easy to sympathize with the villain. That may be true in a far more "accepted" example, such as Hanibal Lecter, who is so witty and charming we laugh
with him as he recounts his reasons for killing. But there is something more profound in Jigsaw's case; the sympathy comes from the fact that his morals are largely sound and strong. Even in the cases where he is flatly wrong, one still must at least respect his absolute integrity.

I fear many may still not be convinced. For those people I offer as evidence the idea behind the main protagonist's journey in part four. A man who is always putting himself in harm's way to save every person with a problem he encounters is placed on a path where he is taught the lesson that he cannot just go around saving people because, not only will it wreck his own life (as depicted by the fact that his marriage is falling apart), but when it really comes down to it, people have to save themselves.

The protagonist suffers because he doesn't learn the lessons of "cherishing
his life" and "people have to save themselves." For a villain in a series that is often viewed as too nihilisticly evil to be worth making note of, I sure wish some of the things he says would show up in the mouths of someone like Clark Kent on Smallville or Peter Petrelli on Heroes.


Joe Maurone said...

I hate to disagree with my bloggin' partner here, but I have to indentify myself as one of the "unconvinced." The very fact that Jigsaw takes people against their will undercuts any attempt to portray him as a morally integrated character. His is a twisted kind of morality, misintegrated at best, in a way similar to the character of Venom in the Spider-Man comics, who claims to defend the innocent, but causes more "carnage" than justice.

And yet, I understand where Landon is coming from, and I think I can make his point better, by bypassing the controversial example of Saw and getting to the heart what Jigsaw does: he serves his victims a "Beijing Cocktail." This concept was introduced via the movie Crank (at least in name, I believe.) The cocktail is "a synthetic drug which inhibits the flow of adrenaline from the adrenal glands, slowing the heart, and eventually killing the victim." The protagonist, in order to survive, has to keep his adrenaline flowing in order to live. The term itself has a more symbolic meaning. From the

"A potentially lethal concoction that makes one realize what one really wants out of life.
Billy was naive, so we gave him a Beijing cocktail to open his eyes a bit.

It takes a Beijing cocktail to wake up a kid."

This, as I understand it, is what Landon is arguing. The difference is that in his example, the villain is credited with being moral, whereas in mine, the villain is clearly the villain, and the heroism comes from the one having to find the strength to stay alive. As Landon states in another post, the essence of horror involves a sense of helplessness on the part of the victim, and this is true in Saw as well. Despite the argument that Jigsaw's traps are, indeed, escapable (and he punishes his rogue protege who violates this requirement), the traps are SO painful and SO gruesome as to require self-mutilation, (which is really no choice at all), and which is a reflection of Jigsaw's own twisted sense of life and morality. In Crank, however, the opposite is true: the hero, by seeking out constant adrenaline rushes, is more in line with the idea of heroism as being action-based and life-affirming, something to be fought for, not life as "self-mutilation" but as self-preservation on one's own terms, yet requiring effort and grit. In the former, the traps, like Jigsaw's cancer, reflect the view that life is something to be suffered; in the latter, life is depicted as something to be seized by the horns. And the difference is qualitative.

Another case that could be made for Jigsaw is to treat him as a metaphor or anthropomorphization of the "inner drive" to survive despite one's attempts at self-destruction. Symbolism of this kind functions in a more surreal or mythical setting, where forces of nature appear at such life-changing crossroads, and nature, being non-moral, can be seen to employ such "methods" without the question of heroism on its own part. (Or, as Landon noted in the tags for his post, Jigsaw is something of a "Trickster" figure. Other examples can be found in the "Ghosts of Christmas Past" of Dickens' A Christmas Carol.)

But to remain grounded in more "realistic" examples, another, milder precedent for Jigsaw in Morgan Freeman's portrayal of Joe Clark in Stand and Deliver, in a scene where Clark leads a delinquent with potential to the roof, and exhorts him to "kill himself expeditiously" by jumping, instead of slowly killing himself via drugs, gangbanging, and the like. In that case, Clark used the THREAT of horror and death as a demonstration, but did NOT push the kid, nor require him to mutilate himself. It's this kind of "mentoring" that comes off as more "heroic" on the part of the mentor, employing "tough love" but with a benevolence not found in Jigsaw's "teachings."

Landon Erp said...

To be perfectly honest I think Joe has a number of good points. Firstly I think the primary component of my positive reaction has to do with the idea of a sliding scale. Specifically the fact that Jigsaw often slides closer to the side I can sympathize with than I'm comfortable with.

I just can't bring myself to see him as a full-on villain. In many ways he seems like the culmination of many ideas that have been (and will be) hashed out at this blog.

For me he's the opposite of the idea behind my article "Sometimes you just can't side with the hero" in that he's a villain who is often times a bit too easy to sympathize with.

He's the ultimate scene stealing villain without an "anemic" hero in sight. And at the end of the day he's the supervillain who won the culture wars.

Plus there has to be something said for the fact that "Saw IV" is one of the VERY few examples of a piece of work that is downright anti-altruism. As such, this villain is more of a hero than many heroes... which isn't necessarily a good thing.

Joe Maurone said...

"And at the end of the day he's the supervillain who won the culture wars."

I have an interesting post coming up that deals with precisely that sad conclusion...

Damien said...

Landon Erp,

I'm not an objectivist and at times, I'm rather critical of Rand, so obviously I don't agree with much of what you guys write on this blog. None the less I find many of the commentaries by you and Joe Maurone to be interesting. On occasion I do agree with you guys.

However, even through I have not seen any of the saw movies, from what little I know about Jigsaw I would definitively regard him as a full fledged Villain, and I'm surprised that you would not. Think about it, if Jigsaw was real, and he kidnapped you and forced you to play his "game," you don't think that you might not have a more negative view of him after what he did to you? Not to mention, what if he kidnapped one of your friends, and your friend failed to beat his game, and lost his life because of it?

Landon Erp said...


Thanks for reminding me why I started writing this series and this Saw entry especially.

I tried to end on my analysis of Saw IV since it's the best case I can make for the series, and the fact that I cannot bring myself to see Jigsaw as a villain. At the same time I realize this puts me at odds with almost anyone who's even orbiting Objectivism.

But Part 4 distills everything that was good about the series and eliminates all of the questionable elements. Every character in Saw 4 deserved to be placed in the situation they were in.

I'm not speaking in slasher movie logic in that "well he's a bully, she's a bitch, she's a slut" but in the fact that everyone placed in a test had MAJOR moral failings.

There was a woman who acted as a pimp to child prostitutes who had the choice of live and go to jail (since her savior was an honest police officer) or fight to the death and attempt to murder her savior.

There was also a man who lived as a voyeur and a rapist who had to choose if keeping the eyes which had lead him down his dark path was worth trading his life for. He hesitated.

There was a woman who not only took abuse from her husband, but turned a blind eye to that abuse being passed on to her child. She was given the choice of killing the man who'd ruined her life in order to survive, or making the sacrifice she'd given him absolute as they died together.

And finally there was the police officer whose altruism did nothing but harm everyone in his life, especially the people he tried to save. He was given every chance to just turn back and give up this destructive lifestyle, no pain involved. And he simply didn't

The way I look at it, all of these people legitimately deserved to be punished, and Jigsaw offered them all a chance at redemption, taking the punishment they'd earned and living a different life from that moment forward.

I could name a long list of accepted "heroes" who don't do as much good as this. This is why I see him as an anti-hero, and a transitional phase in that which is a hero.

Joe Maurone said...

Thanks for considering my points, Landon...I have one more...I just made the connection between what you write here about Jigsaw and what you wrote about THE DARK KNIGHT, and your arguments against vigilantism re the lack of accountability. I can understand WHY you'd consider Jigsaw an anti-hero if you put him in the vigilante category, in that HE believes he is writing wrongs. But since you make the argument against anarchy in your Dark Knight review ("The Anarchist Is King"), I'd be interested to here how you compare the two films and the concept. Particularly interesting is this quote from your review, because I wonder if you could replace the THE DARK KNIGHT with SAW:

"THE DARK KNIGHT never seems to expect me to take on the morality and the logic of the characters involved. It never tries to deny thefact that I might be coming at these problems with a completely different set of morals, it possibly even encourages me to do so."

Then there's this: "And the Joker’s triumph is complete when he proves that his situations cannot be dealt with unless Batman breaks his only chosen rule." This makes me think of Jigsaw's traps only being dealt with by his victim's being required to mutilate themselves (certainly a violation of the Hippocratic oath)...

Finally, there's your main point:
"My main objection comes from the fact that people would be cheering if Batman had murdered the Joker in a police station after he had been arrested. I can't get away from anarchy /minarchy/ accountability when analyzing stories like this. It's good that Batman has a rule, I'd hate a world where police, soldiers etc didn't have rules I especially don't want someone self appointed not having rules."

Joe Maurone said...

Damien, thanks for your comment.

As to your comment:
"If Jigsaw was real, and he kidnapped you and forced you to play his "game," you don't think that you might not have a more negative view of him after what he did to you? Not to mention, what if he kidnapped one of your friends, and your friend failed to beat his game, and lost his life because of it?"

Certainly a fair question! And it's a point I agree with in principle. I'll let Landon answer for himself, but I'm going to "play a little game" of devil's advocate, (though not because I agree with Jigsaw, but to better refute him):

In the context of SAW, Jigsaw believes he's a force for life and change, administering justice. He's not an anarchist, or at least, he does have "rules" and does not allow his protege to "compete" (his protege would be the Joker to his twisted self-view as a "Batman" of order). The fact that his chosen targets do have some guilt would be the counter-argument to your query: "So what?" Jigsaw might say. "They have violated the gift of life, and must be held accountable." As to the friends and family of the "guilty," he's say the same: that if they really cared about the guilty's well-being, where were they BEFORE they let their friend sink so low? He might say that "they are just as guilty for enabling, and if they were truly caring, they would see the justness of his mission." In our legal system as it is, we have criminals and murderers who have friends and family who get mad at the legal system "kidnapping" (arrest) and fail to play the game (the "trial") and may face life in jail or death. Many maintain innocence, or if guilty, that "it's not fair!". Yet our legal system discounts this.

That's probably what Jigsaw would say, and while I STILL don't agree with him, and agree that he is a villain, that would make him not simply a villain, but a dark mirror of a hero.

There's something very "biblical" about it; the idea of Satan as having a role, to punish the wicked: do Christians judge negatively against God for condemning sinners to hell for their sins? Usually, they invoke the image of God as judge, jury and executioner, while absolving themselves from the responsibility of judging themselves. Jigsaw, in that sense, could be seen as a "wish fulfillment" of frustrated Christians against the wicked, even as he offers them redemption through self-sacrifice (the mutilation traps.) His own death seems to be "New Testament," in that he sees his protege break his rules, offering no redemption to the guilty; she would be the "fallen angel," and Jigsaw's own death is something of a crucifixion. (Though I stopped following after that movie, I don't know how well this theory mirrors the subsequent themes.)

And then, there's the political: Again, I don't see Landon making this argument, but there are anarchists on one hand, and let's say, supporters of Palestine who would argue that the U.S. legal system/military who is similar to Jigsaw's machinations, and that the U.S. is not heroic, but an "Evil Empire." They would probably share your argument about how friends and family would feel about civilian deaths at Waco or in Iraq. (We've already seen George Bush as the Joker and Dick Chaney as Emperor Palpatine, after all...).

Joe Maurone said...

Landon: "Plus there has to be something said for the fact that "Saw IV" is one of the VERY few examples of a piece of work that is downright anti-altruism. As such, this villain is more of a hero than many heroes... which isn't necessarily a good thing."

To this, I have to add that, in the way that just because one is an atheist doesn't mean he's a capitalist, so to that just because one is anti-altruist, doesn't mean he's rationally selfish. I'm tempted to equate Jigsaw with Nietzsche on this point, in the way that Rand pegged him as superficially an egoist, but ultimately detrimental to the idea. Jigsaw may seem pro-life on the surface, but his idea of life-affirmation may be less to do with individual life (else he'd leave the guilty to suffer as a result of their own choices), but the betterment of the species (and we've heard THAT one before...).

Landon Erp said...

I'll throw in one more comment, since I don't want to take too much attention away from your new post.

Specifically I think you covered a great deal of the ground we could agree on in your "Supervillains and Philosophy." What stands out is the idea of a character like Jigsaw (or Magneto, or V from V for Vendetta) as being not JUST a villain.

Even though the actions taken are deplorable, the villains have a much stronger philosophical base to stand on than almost any of their heroic counterparts.

To be honest, I was tempted to issue a challenge for someone to name a "Hero" with a stronger philosophical base than Jigsaw.

But I also don't want to seem like this whole series will simply be about treating villains like heroes. The topics of some later entries are often called "Horror Heroes" but I certainly believe that to be a misnomer.

One last thought on Saw for the moment (provided no more feedback comes in). I seriously think that in order to judge this series one should see Saw IV. The reason I brought up that it was anti-altruism was specifically the fact that it seemed both individualistic and to a large degree, encouraging "self-contained selfishness" as opposed to "sacrificial (Nietzchean) selfishness."