Precious, Torture Porn, and Permission to Stare

Torture porn has lately formalized itself into a full-fledged, and mostly unwelcome, new genre in the same way as reality television. Precious fits neatly into this new pocket of sensorial expression at the more extreme ends of the human emotional spectrum. The association of Precious and something as tawdry as Hostel of Saw 5 is heresy to a lot of people I’ve spoken with. There is sanctity in the womanly suffering endured by the protagonist cum victim, and it cannot survive the notion that it exists more for effect than as a document of real life.

I paid money to see another human survive emotional torture and physical abuse from a mother. I wanted to see the shadowy details of suffering at the hands of the one person a child should innately trust more than any other. Precious is a systematic violation of every maternal instinct we celebrate in Western society; it’s like the Freddy Krueger version of Cinderella.

Like a lot of big concepts, we still don’t have a concise definition for pornography. It’s a Greek word that was originally used to describe writing about prostitutes. In modern usage, the word’s meaning has slackened to include derision for all sorts of excesses. Likewise, the original meaning has gained a plasticine glamour, as tales of sexual horse trading become less and less frowned upon. Or, if it still is frowned upon, people have become more and more willing to acknowledge they themselves have participated in sex for reasons other than astral predestination. We’ve all done things we’re not proud of, and so what?

To say something is pornographic is to describe something so excessive it is shameful. When something like Hostel is described as torture porn, it’s not because it contains sex, but because its depiction of violence is revoltingly divested from its realistic context for the sake of pure frisson. In exchange for a few moments of adrenalized palpitations in a dark room, millions of people are willing to hand over a nominal bit of cash.

I don’t think torture porn is necessarily derogatory term. I think making something for sheer emotional sensation is a fine use of any expressive medium. Showing close-ups of severed limbs and bleeding gashes isn’t necessarily nuanced, but that doesn’t make it any less powerful. Likewise, Precious is not a movie of great nuance but emotional sledge hammering. If it weren’t, it would be a bore, in the same way that porn without sex would be the story of a sensitive young pizza delivery boy dropping off some pies. Or Hostel would be a humorless story of a couple college dudes having a beer-and-boner contest in a foreign country.

Likewise, without HIV, incest, downs syndrome, obesity, and some cruel close-ups of pig parts frying in a pan Precious wouldn’t exist. Like torture porn it’s about the harrowing elation of having survived, and it wishfully pirouettes around the idea that violence has anything more than a glancing effect that can be overcome with just a little caring.

Describing Precious in those terms seems to cheapen it. Profound feeling can’t come from pure mechanical manipulation. Our emotions aren’t so pliable that they can be tweaked this way and that from a ruthlessly edited series of vignettes that play on our social stereotypes. Precious has to be a victim of other, cruel, inhuman, wallowing beasts of degradation. Otherwise, she becomes a pincushion who is made to suffer for our own lowly amusement.

I don’t mind characters being made into pincushions for my own amusement. It’s usually worth it. I don’t think there’s any other way to take Precious seriously. It’s not based on a true story, it’s not auto-biography, and it’s not a fictional consolidation of a series of anonymous accounts. Saphire imagined the character of Precious, and then Lee Daniels reimagined her. I believe that you can find real life instances of every single thing that happens to Precious in the telling of her story. I’m also certain there are real life instances from which Hostel is drawn.

But I don’t believe a narrative film could document a real life event. The great benefit of movies is that they can filter out all the complications in which we have to grapple while experiencing traumas, big and small. It zaps out all the hard stuff and lets us isolate the root emotion. That’s why pornography has long been such a secretly lucrative and broadly consumed application of film. It isolates an experience and presents it in a vacuum where complications can’t exist. It’s both liberating and cathartic to see something intimately familiar in an environment that is inherently false.

I liked Precious precisely because it’s a maternally exploitive entry in the torture porn genre. It’s ultimate emphasis is on survival, like Saw, Hostel, and all the other terrible beheading videos you could stumble across. And it rightly takes joy in survival. I was totally unprepared for the humor in Precious. Like Hostel 2, it’s brimming with comedy derived from its horrors. Her mother names the child with Downs Syndrome “Mongo” with the same absurd stupidity of a kindergartner fixating on the most obvious physical characteristics of her classmates. The blind ignorance in which Precious comes of age leads to a classic sit-com set-up where she plays odd lady out while her teacher has an entirely mundane conversation with her girlfriend. The disgustingly destructive food she is force-fed at home informs her gluttony for fried chicken, which results in a slapstick-vomiting episode after elation at being able to eat a ten-piece for breakfast.

What is the purpose of watching footage of another human vomit,  being beaten, or, worst of all, suffering rape by a father? Is it to raise social awareness? Have you begun to volunteer at a local chapter to support abused and battered women lately? Did Precious inspire you to donate to a boys and girls club in historically impoverished area of your local town?

We don’t participate in art as a social act of human betterment. We do it as emotional carnivores, to snatch the red meat of feeling from someone else’s visceral imagination. You don’t need art to sympathize with a human suffering. We’re surrounded by it. You do need art to forgive your need to stare at it without looking away in shame. The way you wouldn’t stare at a couple kissing in a bar, but you’d soak up the details in a movie close-up.

I don’t think I could stand to see a child beaten in real life. But I’d stare and stare and stare in a movie.

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4 thoughts on “Precious, Torture Porn, and Permission to Stare

  1. I haven’t seen the film yet, so I don’t know how much I can add to the whole thought process here.

    I’m not sure I’d agree with sticking it within the TP genre, though. Not because they don’t appeal (if that is the right word) to the same general emotion/response, but because it makes the descriptor less precise. Currently it refers to a specific type of horror movie. If we were to expand or re-direct the definition to focusing on the underlying emotions, it would expand the meaning tremendously. The storming of Normandy Beach in Saving Private Ryan could be described as a sort of Torture Porn (as could most war films.)

    I agree with the comparison, if not perhaps the resulting re-labeling.

  2. Edward: Yeah, to an extent labels are useless in that they allow for us to categorize things based on isolated qualities that might warp a better understanding of the whole. But we can apply a bit of rhetorical judo to categories and use them to appreciate the unspoken similarities between seemingly unlike things which is, for me, a much more entertaining endeavor. Ultimately neither are torture porn because the phenomenon doesn’t exist. It’s just a rough way of describing the lurid, sensational interest some people find in certain works that they’d just as soon not have to think about further (you’ll find Eli Roth doesn’t refer to what he does as torture porn, it’s always he’s critics who apply that seeming pejorative). Precious is a fine fairytale but it operates on those same principles of exploitation that we’d begrudge other works, only buying it’s general acceptance as a more celebrated film because it wraps its gore-go-round aesthetics in the reassuring swaddling of a hefty list of social issues.

    Which is a long way of saying, if singular labels can be applied to horror films, there’s nothing to suggest other works shouldn’t be described along similar lines based on their effect on audiences. Private Ryan’s best parts are torture porn. It would hardly be a movie without those bits.

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