The Green Inferno

As far as scary movies go, there’s a particularly nasty micro-genre tucked way back into the corner of the annals of exploitation horror, only illuminated by the most iron-stomached aficionados. Behold: “cannibals in the jungle,” which, over the years, has been the purveyor of some of the most brutal, appalling snuff flicks ever committed to celluloid. Leave it, of course, to director/stylistic curator Eli Roth to bring such wanton grotesquerie into a contemporary context with his latest endeavor The Green Inferno. He’s the brand of filmmaker who feels the need to combine the “parody” of something like a Date Movie film spoof with the likes of Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust or Umberto Lenzi’s 1981 Cannibal Ferox, crafting something that has neither the ostensible self-awareness nor the controversy of either.

Inferno, which actually cribs its title from the movie-within-a-movie of Cannibal Holocaust, took its sweet time getting to theaters. Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013, it was scheduled for release almost exactly a year ago, only to be shelved at the last minute until the taste-making budget-horror maestros at Blumhouse Productions picked the film up and, thanks to their multi-platform label, BH Tilt, finally revealed Roth’s long-gestating splatterfest in all of its blood-soaked glory.

Roth’s jab at so-called “social justice warriors”—typically young, financially stable, non-marginalized progressives who hear about one injustice or another in the world and decide it’s their duty, without consideration for context or cultural acumen, to step in to help (think college freshmen learning about global atrocities for the first time)—The Green Inferno never moves beyond sophomoric mockery or pale imitation, making Roth’s deep-seated dislike for such people seem all the more pointless and bitter. In fact, Roth adds nothing new to the formulas he emulates besides some modern context: If you stumbled across this on a warped VHS tape from the early 1980s, it would probably be a hardcore cult classic, but in 2015, it’s more funny than horrifying.

The Green Inferno finds Justine (Lorenza Izzo), a college freshman in New York, falling in with a group of activists led by Alejandro (Ariel Levy), a caring stud who, when we first meet him, is on a hunger strike for janitor’s rights. Incensed by the injustices she’s just discovering outside the purview of her sheltered suburban existence, Justine joins Alejandro and his cohort on a trip to Peru to stop, among other timeless indignities, the bulldozing of the rain forest and the annihilation of an isolated indigenous tribe. The rub? Their plan actually works—but on the way back, their plane crashes in the jungle and the very tribe they rescued from eradication darts them, throws them in a cage, and, as bloodthirsty headhunting cannibals, systematically tortures and devours the do-gooders.

Somehow Roth feel obliged to translate his disdain for SJWs as a feature-length lampooning of the old “no good deed goes unpunished” adage, but his conclusions are so empty, so juvenile that he might as well have attached a “wah-wah” sound effect to the shitty trauma here (no joke, there’s a scene where a girl sprays diarrhea all over and children laugh at her). Not to mention that at one point, getting the villagers high on a paltry amount of weed forms the core of an escape plan—which does lead to the most hilariously vicious case of the munchies a movie’s possibly ever compiled.

For all the blood and violence, The Green Inferno isn’t even particularly shocking. Roth’s Hostel movies are far more graphic, easily so much more unsettling, and even with eyeballs plucked from skulls or young white people getting butchered alive—or, grossest of all, implied female genital mutilation—here Roth turns away, editing around the gruesomeness or employing such jittery camera work that there isn’t much to actually see. The movies Roth apes are admittedly, even 30-plus years later, hard to watch, and while most casual viewers will find plenty to make their guts lurch, it’s probably safe to say that even moderately attentive horror enthusiasts won’t find much remarkable here.

Roth succeeds in populating his film with the kinds of caricatures he probably finds in the ranks of typical SJW enclaves: flatter than people used to think the Earth was, completely uninteresting, all obnoxiously terrible—Roth seems to want audiences to root for people to die. No one displays even a shred of personality, instead carrying a collection of random character traits: Dude who smokes weed; fat guy in love with hot girl; bitch. At least getting eaten will shut them up. Yet, like in Hostel, the film dawdles in its early scenes, apparently to make audiences care? By the time anything finally does happen, the contradiction has doomed the whole enterprise. Because we don’t care, and even before the teeth start gnashing we know where Roth’s going with all this, reducing all tension to an obligatory exercise in forcing oneself to form a coherent narrative.

What about the tribe being portrayed as nothing more than savage maniacs crazy for human flesh? The films The Green Inferno draws inspiration from all follow the same lines, but Roth makes no distinction between his responsibility as a modern filmmaker to rectify the ignorance of old tropes and his allegiance to providing an homage with little reason to exist outside of ribbing the perspectives of privileged college students. It’s like watching the monotone portrayal of Native Americans in old westerns. Beyond that, within the framework of the movie, Roth seems to want to make a point about the POV of modern activism, but his faltering method amounts to just a big middle finger to vague PC types.

And so The Green Inferno doesn’t add anything to, doesn’t try to build anything off of, doesn’t climb on the shoulders of what came before. It is simply content to stand next to its ilk, doing exactly what they already did, unwilling to defend its existence past indulging one of filmmaking’s most indulgent filmmakers.

Director: Eli Roth
Writers: Eli Roth, Guillermo Amoedo, Nicolás López
Starring: Lorenza Izzo, Ariel Levy, Aaron Burns, Nicolas Martinez, Ignacia Allamand, Daryl Sabara
Release Date: September 25, 2015

An Autumn Afternoon (1962)

Drama, Foreign, Indie

Rated Unrated

112 minutes

Two middle-aged students take their old teacher out to dinner, and he gets thoroughly drunk and is overtaken by sadness. We are alone in life, he tells them. Always alone. He lives with his daughter, who takes care of him, who has never married, who will be left all alone when he dies. He tells Hirayama, the hero of “An Autumn Afternoon,” to avoid the same mistake: Marry his daughter now, before she is too old.

 

“Ummm,” responds Hirayama. He reveals no apparent emotion. He lives at home with a son and daughter, and she waits on both of them. Another son is married. He considers his teacher’s sorrowful advice. At his office, a young women his daughter’s age is getting married. Perhaps the old man is correct. The night of the dinner, the students take their teacher home. They find he and his daughter now run a noodle shop, and she is fed up with him for getting drunk again. She cares for her father, but is trapped and unhappy.

The more you learn about Yasujiro Ozu, the director of “An Autumn Afternoon” (1962), the more you realize how very deep the waters reach beneath his serene surfaces. Ozu is one of the greatest artists to ever make a film. This was his last one. He never married. He lived for 60 years with his mother, and when she died, he was dead a few months later. Over and over again, in almost all of his films, he turned to the same central themes, of loneliness, of family, of dependence, of marriage, of parents and children. He holds these themes to the light and their prisms cast variations on each screenplay. His films are all made within the emotional space of his life, in which he finds not melodramatic joy or tragedy, but mono no aware, which is how the Japanese refer to the bittersweet transience of all things.

From time to time I return to Ozu feeling a need to be calmed and restored. He is a man with a profound understanding of human nature, about which he makes no dramatic statements. We are here, we hope to be happy, we want to do well, we are locked within our aloneness, life goes on. He embodies this vision in a cinematic style so distinctive that you can tell an Ozu film almost from a single shot. He films mostly indoors. His camera is at the eye level of a person seated on a tatami mat. The camera never moves. His shots often begin before anyone enters the frame, and end after the frame is empty again. There is foreground framing, from doors or walls or objects. There is meticulous attention to the things within the shot.

Ozu arranged the props in a shot with obsessive care, his collaborators recalled. In particular there is a little teapot that occurs in film after film, almost as the maker’s mark. The objects themselves are not as important as their compositional function; he often composes on a lateral within the unmoving frame, leading our eyes forward and backward. “An Autumn Afternoon” is one of his six color films, made between 1958 and 1962, and in it he makes particular use of the color red to draw our eyes deeper into the frame. In almost every shot there is something red or orange in the foreground, middle distance, and back. These are not obvious. They may involve a stool, a sign on a wall, an item of clothing hanging from a hook, a vase, some books. They mean nothing in particular, but because red is a dominant color, they lead our eyes through his usually pastel compositions and prevent us from reading a shot only in a flat pane. They give his films a depth of space that mocks the pretension of 3D.

If you love Ozu you do not need to be told that “An Autumn Afternoon” stars Chishû Ryû, who appeared in almost every film Ozu ever made. He always plays, we feel, the Ozu character, reserved, neat, quiet, and, like Ozu himself, often a heavy drinker, more meditative than demonstrative. In “An Autumn Afternoon,” his Hirayama is a salaryman at an unspecified factory, who lives with his daughter Michiko (Shima Iwashita), 24, and son Kazuo (Shinichirô Mikami) a little younger. An older son, Koichi (Keiji Sada), is already married. Hirayama is tall, slender, always well-dressed. What he feels is left to us to infer; Ozu prefers the empathy of the audience to dialogue revealing inner feelings. That monosyllable “ummm” is used over and again as Chishû Ryû’s character respond without committing themselves. Two or three times in “An Autumn Afternoon,” I heard the older son also using it, and I smiled with recognition.

The film takes place in Hirayama’s office and home, in a few bars and restaurants, and in his son’s home. A great many scenes involve steady drinking. These have echoes in Ozu’s work; a reunion with an old teacher can also be seen in the similar story of “There Was a Father” (1942), also starring the neither young nor old Chishû Ryû, this one living at home with his son.

There were a few things that happened to Ozu, apart from the military service he never displayed in his films: He went to school (where he smoked, drank, skipped class and was expelled), he worked, he never married, he drank too much, he was lonely, he spent much time with colleagues who loved him. These are the elements of his stories. Whether he felt trapped by his mother, whether he wanted to marry, we cannot know for sure. There were rumors of some troubles over a geisha in the 1930s, but no engagements or great romances. He worked almost always for the same studio, Shochiku, which revered him. The Japanese considered him their greatest director, but unlike Kurosawa he was unknown in the West. Shochiku considered him “too Japanese” to travel well, until the critic Donald Richie arranged for some of his work to be shown at the Venice Film Festival in the early 1970s.

As an extra on the Criterion DVD of “An Autumn Afternoon,” we see the French critics Michel Ciment and Georges Perec from a TV show of that period, discussing this great director who had come into their view a decade after his death. They try to describe the effect of his work. Ciment: “It is Zen, the rapture of the present lived moment.” Perec: “It’s what is happening when nothing is going on.” Mono no aware.

Perec reveals he cried twice in what must be the film’s emotional high point, on the daughter’s wedding day. She turns, radiant in her traditional bridal costume, so her father can see her. What are they thinking? She had argued she should not marry because her father and brother could not manage without her. She agreed with her father’s wishes. We haven’t even met the man she will marry. It isn’t who she is going to that’s the point; it’s who she is leaving. Hirayama looks at her. “Ummm,” he says. Observing, recognizing, accepting. There is no laughter. This scene of separation is as close as Ozu comes to violence. There was no indication that father and daughter shared any great love or need. But they were settled into a fixed existence, and marriage has ruptured it.

The soundtrack music by Kojun Saitô sounds Western (Italian, indeed), as it often does in an Ozu film. This is not an anachronism; Western music was well known in Japan. It is winsome and nostalgic. Its cheer is muted. It states what no one says in words: We carry on. We do our best. We are contained within our fates. Things change. In the final shot, we see Hirayama alone at home, in the kitchen at the end of an empty corridor. He pours himself some tea, probably, from the common yet distinctive little teapot that accompanied Ozu on his journey through his life’s work. The maker’s mark.

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