Funny Games

S&Man skitters around a couple of big, interesting questions about our relationship to images of violence and cruelty. But as the film barrels towards its conclusion, it becomes apparent that, instead of knotting the various strands that comprise the film, director JT Petty has indiscriminately tangled them together. Petty is a good storyteller with broad concerns, but S&Man Cheap is not structurally precise enough to effectively pull off the game he wants to play.

In the film’s opening minutes, director JT Petty describes his initial vision for the film. When Petty was a child, a neighbor in suburban Washington D.C. spotted a red light in his backyard. Following it, he discovered a camera pointing directly into his window. It had been rolling for hours. He called the police, who matched the camera to another man in the neighborhood. When they arrested him, they found dozens of similar tapes. He had been secretly recording his neighbors for years. Learning that the tapes would have to be screened in open court in order to convict him, the victims all agreed to drop the suit. The voyeur stayed in the neighborhood. Throughout his life Petty remained fascinated with this man and his tapes. Years after he and his family left the neighborhood, he returned to court the voyeur as a documentary subject. The man resisted every one of Petty’s efforts, and, Petty claims, eventually chased him off with a chainsaw. Having spent a good chunk of the money HDnet had given him to make the film, Petty was forced to find new subjects.

As an adult, Petty had become, among other things, a director of horror films. He recognized in his interest in this character a certain admiration. This was someone who, with no money or artistic ambition, had crafted movies far scarier than any fiction Petty could concoct. Following the unsavory implications of his identification with a sexual predator, Petty refocuses his investigation of the voyeuristic impulse behind horror film fandom . He travels to Cherry Hill, New Jersey’s Chiller convention, a sort of trade show for underground horror movies. At first Petty is looking for snuff films, an obvious analogue to the tapes made by his neighbor. When he is unsuccessful, he turns his attention three directors of no-budget, extreme horror movies, whose inelegant construction and consumer-grade technology mimics what one imagines a snuff film would look like. Alongside these practitioners– Fred Vogel, Bill Zebub, and Eric Rost — Petty marshals academic horror expert Carol J. Clover to theorize about the genre’s effects, and sexologist Meg Kaplan who, with her husband Richard Kruger, a forensic psychologist, unpacks the drives behind compulsive voyeurism. This is where things start to unravel. Though these subjects’ interests are all part of the same nexus, they are talking about different things. The kind of movies Vogel, Zebub, and online Rost make are very different from the horror classics — Peeping Tom, Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre — Clover is interested in. Kaplan and Kruger speak mainly about people like Petty’s old neighbor, who derive an erotic thrill from watching actual people unaware they are being recorded. Though an interest in any of these types of movies may usefully be described as voyeuristic, I think it’s clear that they offer distinct pleasures. This isn’t just a problem for Petty’s thematic designs, it’s a basic narrative issue: the interviews begin to move in different directions, away from any coherent center. Clover is admittedly uninterested in the gory shock tactics that define the films produced by Petty’s filmmaker subjects, and if they have anything to say about Clover’s canon, Petty declines to share it with us.

Things get even more convoluted as Eric Rost emerges as the film’s star. Rost is the auteur behind the 11-part S&Man series (pronounced “Sandman”). Less baroque and far creepier than Vogel and Zebub’s campy splatter films, Rost’s Buy movies are the closest thing Petty can find to his old neighbor’s tapes. Each part of the series is essentially the same: a shaky handheld camera stalks a woman from afar. Through unexplained machinations, the man behind the camera begins to destroy the woman’s life. Once she is broken, the man approaches her and offers her help, and she consents. Eventually the camera is set down, Rost himself steps out from behind it, and brutally murders the woman. Whatever bizarre passions drive Vogel and Zebub, they aren’t even in the same ballpark of psychic damage as this guy. As he spends more time with him, Petty grows concerned that he can’t get straight answers from Rost about the details behind the movies’ production. Sometimes Rost says that he begins taping the women before he gets their consent, and other times he suggests they are in on it from the beginning. He resists Petty’s efforts to speak with his actresses. Petty begins to suggest that S&Man may be the snuff film he set out to find. The more of Rost’s footage we are shown, the harder it becomes to share Petty’s suspicions. The stalker segments are real enough, but Cheap Rost’s interaction with his victim looks staged, and the idea that any woman, even if their life had been ripped out from under them, would respond so placidly to a strange man pointing a video camera, is not plausible. Petty probes Rost further, and as they move toward a confrontation, it becomes obvious that Rost is fictional. In the movie’s penultimate scene, Petty cryptically admits to his ruse.

This isn’t just a Blair Witch-style hoax. By turning his documentary about horror and voyeurism into an underground horror movie itself, Petty draws a connection between the voyeurism of horror audiences and that of documentary audiences. But instead of creating the dizzying Purchase mise Cheap -en-abîme he’s aiming for, Petty’s meta-horror gambit offers an easy out on the issues the film raises. Rost is only interesting to the extent that he seems real — he’s an established type: the frustrated loner who violently lashes out at women. To have documentary to access to someone like this, to listen to him justify himself, to see where he lives, is chilling and fascinating, but as conjecture, he’s nothing special. The film’s meatiest question is: how does our relationship to an image change when we believe it depicts an actual event? With the Rost character, Petty provides a useless answer: it makes compelling a story that would otherwise be hoary or dull. Moreover, the effectiveness of Petty’s trickery hinges on a conceptual unity he is unable to provide. An ending like this completely recasts everything that has come before it, each part must now be viewed through the prism of the new whole. This is too tight a bundle with which to wrap the disparate contents of the film. Petty conflates whole different types of moving images — mainstream horror, underground horror, snuff, the voyeur’s hidden camera — into a flavorless mush. In failing to maintain some necessary distinctions between these varieties of voyeurism, Petty actually makes it more difficult to talk about them.

One thought on “Funny Games

  1. alex

    great essay, colin. very insightful and articulate as usual.

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