Saturday, October 30, 2010


At this late date there is no point in reviewing The Human Centipede. Once you’ve heard about its central premise from an incensed or smugly delighted reviewer, or from an over-enthusiastic Blockbuster employee, there is no reason whatsoever for actually seeing the movie other than curiosity over what the titular creation will actually look like or what attendant grotesqueries might accompany the successful completion of Dr. Heiter’s (looks like Hitler!) foul experiment. Certainly writer-director Tom Six displays no apparent filmmaking talent other than that of making sure the words and pictures make it to the screen. He hasn’t concocted a story that moves anywhere beyond the predictable beats of humiliation, disfigurement and gastrointestinal debasement; once the good doctor’s abomination emerges from the operating theater, all there is to occupy one’s wasted time is to notice the incessant (muffled) moaning and screaming of the victims; Dieter Laser’s singular redefinition of overacting; just how coyly Six keeps his actors covered in just the places where one would think a true fuck-you filmmaker would revel in the rough stitches and pulled, suppurating flesh; and the long, long wait until the local none-too-bright authorities begin to suspect foul play in that isolated modern house on the edge of the woods. I’m usually not one to dabble in generalities, but I can’t trust statements that suggest this movie is somehow the artistic fulfillment of/justification for the “torture porn” movement, that it is some kind of wacky masterpiece, or even that there’s something going on metaphorically here which speaks to the upper class and its categorical dehumanization of those unfortunate bastards who can’t play on their social/intellectual/financial level. (I have heard people speak of all these things.)

And I certainly don’t buy L.A. Weekly film editor Karina Longworth’s proclamation of The Human Centipede as “definitive psychological horror” or a “torture-porn game changer” or that it in any way posits anything serious to say about humanity. She writes something like, “In Six's view, the moral imperative to preserve life only goes so far—eventually, death is a relief” as if it were an observation earmarking the film as a horror landmark. Well, the same conclusion was reached in Whose Life Is It Anyway?, a play and film which presumably earns its status as a forgettably earnest ethical drama because in it no one shat themselves and forced the nurse to eat the diaper. She goes on to note Centipede’s undeniably powerful ending as evidence of its correcting of “mainstream horror's bullshit conservative ideology.” But there is plenty of evidence in the history of horror to refute Longworth’s rather narrow-minded condemnation. Frankenstein’s monster dies, only to be reborn in the next movie, in much the same way that Tom Six gleefully assures us that this movie is a mere warm-up for the planned 100% medically accurate shocker sequel still to come. The horror movie, as flexible as it is conversant with its own storytelling traditions, can be conservative, but it can also take you in unexpected directions or leave you by the side of the road. It seems as absurd to me to suggest that only those films in the genre that leave the viewer psychologically scorched and hopeless are the ones to transcend the genre’s limitations as it would be to suggest that the genre needs transcending at all. Shysters like Tom Six make their hipster bed by smearing shit on the audience and laughing when the audience gladly accepts the abuse as evidence of art.

So instead of review the movie (which, in a way, I suppose I just have), I thought it’d be more fun to dial up the commentary track on the DVD and listen to what director Six had to say for himself. Now, just because a director may or may not be articulate about what he has created is no grounds for dismissal or praise of his creation. Films exist as texts that have to be evaluated through a prism of our own knowledge and prejudices certainly, but more definitely by simply what is on the screen. It’s safe to say that someone who finds The Human Centipede a rich allegory of class humiliation is probably seeing things I don’t see; the evaluation of whether those things are there or not is up to the individual viewer or writer to convincingly articulate. But when I listened to the Tom Six commentary on the Human Centipede a few things became clear to me, and I decided to just let Six speak for himself, with as little elaboration or analysis on my part as I could stand to withhold. Early on it becomes clear that Six is one of these DVD commentary hosts who is more than happy to use up time on the track stating or elaborating upon what is obvious on the screen. Within the first three minutes, we see a tracking shot and simultaneously hear Six say, “Um, this is a tracking shot.” Then he clears up something that he must believe has been being gnawing on the audience’s collective mind: “This is the silver-colored Mercedes belonging to Dr. Heiter.” Finally, “Yes, Dieter is wearing my Raybans. You can tell because they are too small for his face!” This is the commentary of a man clearly swept up in the compulsion to make a grand artistic statement about humanity.

There is more, much more, along these lines. But there are also statements in the commentary which I found either unintentionally funny, or revealing, or an inducement to severe eyeball-rolling, often all simultaneously, and they made watching the DVD a second time much more enjoyable than it was sitting through it the first time around listening to the actual soundtrack. Here, then, are 10 pearls of wisdom and observation gleaned from director Tom Six regarding his film The Human Centipede on the film’s DVD commentary track. After this, please don't say I’ve never done anything for you.

1) Over a shot near the opening of the film of a truck driver stopping his vehicle by the side of the road to relieve himself: “This is a nice little scene. Of course, the movie is about shit, and here we have a truck driver taking a shit!”

2) Over shots of the female characters relaxing in their hotel room: “The characters are still very pretty, but that will soon change, as you know.”

3) After relating how the crew ignored local refusal to grant them permits to film on a dark country road: “As a filmmaker, sometimes you have to be a little bad to get what you want.”

4) The director dismisses the nonstop pile-up of horror movie clichés that drive his plot by announcing that they were “deliberate,” and that if the audience thinks they’ve seen it all, then it “makes the impact of what eventually happens way, way better.”

5) Six eventually reveals that the basis of his horror movie “game-changer” came to him one night while he was watching a TV report on a child molester and declared that the guy “should be punished by having his mouth stitched to the ass of a truck driver.”

6) Over a shot of Dr. Heiter exuberantly celebrating the unveiling of his surgical masterpiece by lifting a mirror over his head and gazing at himself with happiness: “This is my homage to The Lion King, when Mufasa lifts Simba to the sky.”

7) Over the scene in which the lead centipede piece finally cannot hold back his excrement: “I’m really proud of this when I see this… Imagine the taste of shit in your mouth, the aftertaste… Imagine your best friend being attached to your ass—of course you would be constipated. You wouldn’t want to go to the bathroom! Poor Jenny. It looks so real…”

8) After noting the appearance of more horror movie clichés near the movie’s conclusion: “But it’s okay, because the rest of it is so not cliché!” (Which begs a question… but I won’t.)

9) “Not everybody understands the black humor. They only see the nasty things. But a lot of people can laugh about this film as well.” (Which begs a question… but I won’t.)

10) "The Human Centipede—First Sequence will look like My Little Pony compared to part two, The Human Centipede—Full Sequence.”



Peter Nellhaus said...

The more I read, the less interest I have in seeing this film, or probably anything else by Tom Six. Thanks for doing the heavy lifting.

David Edelstein said...

Presumably you sat through it twice to listen to the commentary. Wow. I'll say it again: Wow. I think I'd rather watch James Franco cut off his arm again. I should say that Ed Gonzalez wrote a very evocative rave at Slant. I don't agree but it's impressive when someone can make a smart case for a movie so dead on the screen.

bill r. said...

"This is my homage to The Lion King, when Mufasa lifts Simba to the sky."

The fuck??? Dennis, you've listened to the commentary, and I haven't so tell me: was he being serious when he said that? Can you tell?

Peter, you're not missing anything. It is as Dennis describes.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

David, I had forgotten that I had indeed read Ed’s piece, and you’re right—it’s easily the best thing, pro or con, I’ve read on the movie. (Here it is.) I particularly like Ed’s closer:

“A slave to routine, ritual, procedure, all that is clean, Heiter evinces that particular, obsessive-compulsive attitude often associated with Nazis. Six subtly asks us to imagine the man's previous lifework, how his devotion to correcting a mistake of the human birth cycle must have warped his mind to the point where he has become so repulsed by what humans are capable of producing—shit, he might call it—that he moves on to a more sinister line of work, one in which he debases us by fusing our bodies together in such a way that we become defined completely, from head to toe, by what we ingest and expel from them. This is a nihilist vision (Katsuro's final speech, like the film's open ending, certainly supports this), but it is also one rife with intriguing moral inquiry: What other unforeseen horrors are we—not just an imaginative filmmaker, but man in general—capable of inflicting on humanity before we feel as if we've seen and experienced everything? And will life, then, feel no longer worth living?”

The problem I have (narratively) with the movie is entirely based in what I feel Six fails to do once that premise is unveiled, that is, move the story in a direction that might reveal something other than the dead-end presentation of Heiter’s vision with no follow-up. In my view, Heiter’s subversive vision is limited by Six’s satisfaction about his naughty idea. If Six’s approach were genuinely subversive, there might be more going on in the movie’s second half than the trotting out of more clichés that Six is clearly contemptuous of.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Peter: My pleasure? :)

Bill: As far as I could tell, he was being serious. Perhaps someone else might be able to discern a smirk on the audio track, but I couldn't.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Oh, and yeah, David, that was two times through. Hopefully this excuses me from any obligation to see The Full Sequence?