I couldn’t possibly write in defense of the abomination I witnessed last weekend, could I? Cannibal Holocaust, which drew me to its midnight showing at the Uptown theater under the pretense of being one of the earliest found-footage mockumentaries (think Blair Witch Project, only 20 years earlier), turned out to be much more explicit than I was expecting—even after reading about its controversial portrayal of graphic brutality, sexual assault, and genuine violence toward animals that led to its banishment across most of the civilized world. And in a different setting, it would have been easy to walk away from the film with no further thoughts or feelings beyond the immediate disgust it so freely produced. But at the Uptown, in the company of a boisterous and mildly-intoxicated crowd, the experience itself rose to a place of such intellectual incitation and moral contemplation that it has become hard not to label the vehicle of this reflection an unmistakable work of art.
Oh god, is this where my opinions on cinema lose all credibility?
To be fair, Cannibal Holocaust is unmistakably provocative (its title alone recalls one of the worst tragedies in human history with passing irreverence), full of so many contentious depictions of obviously real animal killings that the line between the presumably staged human atrocities becomes uncomfortably blurred. But are the deaths of the turtle, the pig, and the monkey really that inhumane? The reactions of the zoologically-sympathetic audience with which I saw the film seem to indicate they were, but how, I wonder, would they react to an accurate portrayal of the process by which their food reaches their tables? Surely there wasn’t much indulgence in the actual on-location killings beyond the efficient minimum necessary to bring an animal to its end (though the presentation of these anatomical processes in a work of fictitious entertainment is another debate). And when you consider the fact the local tribes were able to use the resulting meat as a meal themselves, exactly how deplorable was the act of killing?
Cannibal Holocaust certainly may be able to convert a few to vegetarianism, but it is capable of much more than that. Through its controvertible depictions of animal slaughter, the film incites reactions of such vitriol and violence that the audience itself becomes the focus of debatable scorn. Over the course of the film’s 98 minute runtime, I saw audience members gasp in horror, turn away in disgust, verbalize their growing anger, and applaud an imminent on-screen vengeance that suddenly felt so personal and justified. And in our libational laughter and applause directed at the sight of the violent revenge finally enacted against the film’s contemptible American subjects, I wonder if we don’t become as contemptible as the subjects themselves? Many see Cannibal Holocaust as an artistic contrast of the civilized and uncivilized, but is the line not further blurred when a 21st century audience sits on its judgmental throne, cheering on a brutal and violent vengeance as inhumane as the act that started it all?
Somewhere in this blurred line and unsettling contrast there must exist some truth about human nature—about our primal and fatally-flawed urge to react that so often overwhelms our vital need to retreat and quietly contemplate. And in light of all that I saw at the Uptown last weekend, I think I’ll defer to the latter—after, of course, saying that the ostensible abomination that is Cannibal Holocaust might be worth a little more than most give it credit for.