Tuesday, July 10, 2012

How I Love "Your Grave"

Most of my favorite movies are centered around a female protagonist with whom I identify on some personal level, and  I Spit On Your Grave is no exception. It is only underlined by the fact that the heroine is a writer who seeks her inspiration from being alone in the woods of New England. I can’t remember when exactly I first heard of I Spit On Your Grave (aka Day of the Woman), but I remember where I first saw the iconic video cover: at the dearly departed Gold Star Video Store in Rowley, Massachusetts. The striking image and arresting tagline left me fascinated from childhood onward. 


My unabashed love of this much-maligned film stems from the sixth grade. That's when a close friend of mine, a surrogate older sister to whom I am indebted for much of my film education, heaped praise upon the film. She and several of her female co-workers at a New England hair salon had a fondness  for I Spit On Your Grave that was in stark contrast to Roger Ebert's legendary hatred of the film, and this always amused me. For years I would press her for details on the film, until I was old enough to see it. After all, the tape at Gold Star was stamped with an 'X' ratingI finally saw it when I was seventeen. My Mom called me while she was out grocery shopping, and I asked her if she’d swing by the video store and pick it up for me, which she did. It only added further proof that she exists in the category of “Coolest Mom Ever”.  

I was terrified to watch it because I had a fear that it could feel like a snuff film, or a rape fantasy, or a trip to Hell that might leave me permanently scarred. I was permanently affected by the film, but not in a traumatic way. Despite being a peaceful person by nature, I fucking loved watching the heroine, Jennifer, seduce-and-slaughter a quartet of soulless misogynists.



Right away, I began showing the film to women in my life, starting with an art teacher in high school who (thankfully!) loved it. That same year I used it as the basis for an oral report in my American law class. I had planned to write about women who kill the men who rape them, but unable to draw upon proper resources at the time. So it ended up being a presentation on rape statistics and what my classmates should do if they were ever to be victimized. I fondly recall my female teacher privately commending me for my audacity, as all of my classmates at St. John’s Prep were male. 


Aside from inciting a visceral “KILL THEM ALL!” reaction in the audience, I Spit On Your Grave offers an unsubtle warning against the dangers of gender division. Jennifer is not human to the four rapists in the film because she is not a man, and they in turn feel no remorse about raping or killing her or any woman. They view all females as "the other". Their perspective is a sadistically extreme version of how young males are taught to interact with young females in the schoolyard.  I Spit On Your Grave demonstrates the violent extremes of what can happen when we implicitly or explicitly teach one gender to look at the other gender as different creatures entirely. I was born a homosexual male, but I have always viewed males and females as very nearly identical. I am fundamentally and relentlessly opposed to gender labels, and I suspect that Meir Zarchi might feel the same way. Some may describe the bloody revenge that Jennifer takes on her attackers as somehow masculine, suggesting she has abandoned her femaleness. But I would say she is fully embracing her Goddess within....and bettering all of humanity in the process.



I Spit On Your Grave provided the material for the final paper of an ethics class I took in my second year of college. I never got a letter grade, but I gathered that the professor hated it when my grade for the semester turned out to be lower than I expected. I'm not sure if it was because the professor so intensely disagreed with my perspective or because the professor felt it was poorly written. I'm not surprised either way: it's honestly just a love letter to Meir Zarchi for crafting one of my all-time favorite films and to Camille Keaton for bringing it to life like no other actor ever could have. 




Robert Jeffrey
12/17/01
Ethics in Literature: Final Paper

Meir Zarchi’s 1977 masterpiece I Spit On Your Grave is a film of stark violence and uncompromising brutality. It is also a relentlessly intrusive movie, one which boldly forces the audience to rethink its feelings about law and justice and morality, and to question the battle between human instincts and intellectual sensibility. It does not ask questions, it provokes them. It is for this reason that the film has been seeped in controversy since its release. Yet it is also for this reason that a quarter of a century later it is still analyzed and scrutinized. The moral dilemma at the heart of the film is relevant in any era, and never before or since has the dilemma been portrayed so simply and explicitly. It does not explore an isolated situation, but rather a universal way of thinking and rethinking, and as such, it will always be ripe content for ethical debate.
            Jennifer is an intelligent, successful, single New York author who leaves the chaos of Manhattan to find solace in the country. She rents a lakeside house in a small, rustic town (never specified as Connecticut or upstate New York) so she can write her first novel. One day, while sunning herself in a canoe, her boat is lassoed by several local men in a passing motorboat. The men drag her boat to shore, and corner her in an isolated spot in the woods where they meet up with two other men. The men rape her, and then disappear. In a state of shock, Jennifer walks through the woods, attempting to find her home. In the woods, the men are waiting for her, and again overpower and rape her. When she finally returns to her home, the men are already there, and for the third and last time she is beaten and gang raped. The men leave, and one of them is sent back into the house to slit the throat of an already virtually lifeless woman. The man who is sent back cannot commit this final act, and so he smears Jennifer’s blood on the knife and leaves, claiming to have killed her.
            After the hours-long experience of being tortured, Jennifer spends days isolated and silent. When she finally leaves her secluded property, it is to go to a local Church; there, she kneels before an altar and asks for forgiveness for the acts she is about to commit. She then proceeds to take revenge against the men who have destroyed her. She calls upon Matthew, the man who was sent to kill her, and she seduces and then hangs him. She lures Johnny, the “leader” of the quartet, back to her house, where she castrates him and locks him into a room to bleed to death. When Stanley and Andy, the remaining rapists, head towards Jennifer’s house on their boat, Jennifer is waiting for them. In a final sequence set entirely on water, she mutilates one man with an axe, leaving him to drown. When only one rapist is left, crying for his life as he treads water, she turns the boat motor onto his chest. She speeds away on her boat, an ambiguous expression on her face, at which point the movie abruptly begins to roll credits.
            Once the audience has moved past its initial shock and any prejudices towards the crucially graphic depiction of violence in the film, they can begin to question the issues that linger in their mind. Should Jennifer have taken such brutal revenge? Does the excruciating rape that the audience was witness to justify her actions? Will her executions prevent similar crime? Were the men deserving of death, or merely victims of their own upbringing? And in the end, did it bring her satisfaction to equate their crimes with crimes of her own? For the purpose of this assignment, it is necessary to disregard the potential effect that the film itself could have on a philosopher’s opinions, and to base their assessment of the situation on the grounds of summary alone and how it would filter through their own theories.
Immanuel Kant believed that "persons" were the most capable creatures in the universe. His definition of a “person” was not simply restricted to humans-in fact, he was considering the possibility of aliens-for it referred to a creature’s mental ability as opposed to his physical composition. A person is a creature capable of reason, and who can use this reason to strive for The Good Will. The Good Will is evident in a person’s action that suggests a will to be good, a desire to be good, and an embracement of possible consequences if such consequences are necessary to achieve good. Kant felt that The Good Will was the only “limitless good”. Everything else that could be deemed ‘good’ has limitation, for such so-called virtues as courage and perseverance can be used to further negative intent.
Kant felt that intention was the sole determining factor in assessing the goodness of an action. The consequences of an action cannot ever be controlled and thus it is the intent that must be used to judge if it is a moral act. The intention, he said, must be based on reason, not inclination or training or fear or expectation of consequences. If the intention is not out of choice, then the action is not good. He also believed that for an action to be good it had to be universal; if it could not be applied to any given scenario, then it was not good. Kant believed that the matching of will and reason was true freedom, for if a person reached this stage of moral development then they were capable of eliminating any conscious desires or subconscious motives and genuinely choosing to do good. To Kant, this was the high end of morality. The middle ground, 'amorality', was when someone was incapable of reason, and thus could not be accounted for their actions, making them not a person but an animal. Someone who is 'immoral' has a choice to be a person, and chooses to be a non-person as a result of being aware of what is right and what is wrong and consciously choosing not to do what is right.
Immanuel Kant would consider Jennifer a non-person. In fact, she could serve as the definition of his theory of immorality. She is most certainly not an animal. Before her assault, she is a highly intelligent and independent author. And while some might cite the inevitable mental deterioration from such a trauma, Jennifer’s actions certainly appeared to be conscious and well thought out. She began her revenge several days after the assaults, and each action was premeditated: she did not simply lash out at her attackers, but rather lured them in before taking revenge. Furthermore, the pivotal scene before the altar is crucial to her actions, for it proves that she was most definitely aware of her wrongdoing and asked God to excuse it. She knew that what she was doing was wrong, and she chose to go through with it anyway.
           Of course, her deliberate avoidance of acting good is not the only element of her behavior that would earn Kant’s condemnation. Her intentions would certainly appear to be based on her own personal desires to seek vengeance against these men. The act is motivated by what the act will do for her, and thus it cannot be good. Although one might argue that her behavior was out of an intent to protect other women from suffering the same fate, Kant would argue that such a motivation could not be accounted for. Even if Jennifer were to state, or even believe, that this was her reason, Kant would not buy it. He would likely point to Jennifer’s subconscious motivations, no doubt believing there would be no way a woman in her state could differentiate between her personal desire for revenge and her interest in benefiting her gender as a whole.
Even if she was genuinely attempting to aid women, Kant would disapprove anyway. He believed that humans could never be objectified as a means to an end, and this is exactly what Jennifer would be doing if her interest is female well being. Furthermore, he would feel that Jennifer could not universalize the maxim of her actions; if she can kill four men who have done her wrong, should everyone do the same thing when it suits them? Kant would attest that the only moral action in this situation would be for Jennifer to seek out the police. This way, she would be protecting women and resisting her own vengeful urges so as to uphold the belief that murder is wrong.
Jeremy Bentham is an icon of utilitarianism. His philosophical theory was somewhat simpler than that of Kant, and certainly much more clinical in its arrangement. He believed that an act would be moral if it is useful in producing pleasure and reducing pain. An immoral act would reduce pleasure and increase pain, and an amoral act would have neutral consequences. His most significant contribution to the Theory of Utility was the Hedonistic Calculus, a “mathematical” approach to determining an action's moral worth. The Hedonistic Calculus determines the morality of an action on a scale of –10 to 10 (maximum of immorality to maximum of morality) based on seven factors: intensity, duration, certainty vs. uncertainty, propinquity, purity, fecundity, and extent.
If Bentham were to asses Jennifer’s actions by means of the Hedonistic Calculus, his judgment would certainly be more comprehensive and less harsh than that of Kant, but ultimately he would come to a similar conclusion. The intensity of the rapists’ pain at the hands of Jennifer is certainly intense, but this does not necessarily equate the intensity of Jennifer’s pleasure. Having been raised to believe murder is wrong, it is unlikely that she is “enjoying” killing these men. As such, her pleasure is evident, in some degree, but certainly not intense. The duration of pleasure is a more dichotomous aspect of the scenario. If you look at the pleasure from a strictly vengeful perspective, her pleasure is short: simply put, the men do not take very long to die. If she is getting pleasure from knowing that their actions will not reoccur in the future, then the duration is lasting. Before killing the men, there is clearly a great deal of uncertainty on Jennifer’s mind. Is she capable of murder? Will she be able to live with herself? Similarly, the certainty of pleasure is weak. As stated before, it is not likely that the actual acts of murder will be pleasurable.
Regardless of what Jennifer will experience, it will happen soon. Propinquity is the most assured act on the Calculus, because the murders will happen when she initiates them, and whatever feelings they bring about will begin simultaneously. If there is pleasure to be had in the experience of killing, it is certainly not pure. Jennifer is a human being, and someone who has lived a life that clearly did not indicate a murderous rampage in her future. As such she will likely experience mixed emotions in the wake of her actions. And in a more realistic sense, it is possible that her life afterwards will be one of great pain. She will end up being arrested and tried, or she will either escape and forever be running or simply ‘get away with murder’ and live with the secret of what she has done. There are no worthy accolades to follow such action. Similarly, the fecundity is weak in the assessment as well, for pleasure is not going to follow and her acts are completely isolated and will never happen again.
The extent of Jennifer’s actions are perhaps the most damning aspect of the argument against her. Midway through the film, it is revealed that the character of Johnny has a wife and two young children, and we see these children playing with their father shortly before he is murdered. This is one example of a family that will be devasted by the actions, for  he is a husband and father to people who love him regardless of his actions. We never see what backgrounds the other men come from, but it goes without saying that their deaths would likely bring about great pain among family and friends. Furthermore, Jennifer’s own circle of friends and family would experience pain if she should be punished or forced to flee as a result of the actions.
With all aspects having been weighed, Bentham would agree that Jennifer should avoid taking justice into her own hands and instead turn the men in to the police. This way they will be punished and Jennifer will have the satisfaction of knowing that other women will not be harmed, and neither Jennifer nor the rapists' families will be quite as seriously hurt. The children will be able to visit their rapist father, and Jennifer’s family could deal with her rape trauma as opposed to seeing their daughter locked up or on the run.
Before I divulge my own assessment of Jennifer’s actions, I suppose it’s important that I state my bias: I consider I Spit On Your Grave to be one of the finest films ever made. Considering the passionate arguments for and against the film, such a statement might illicit laughter or disgust, but the very reason that I feel this way is largely because of the moral questions that follow the film. It is a wholly uncompromising and disturbing experience, so much so that no one involved went on to do anything significant in film in the years following its scandalous release. It is not an easy film to watch, but it is an even harder film to think about, because it forces questions on the audience like no movie before or since. It is offensive to many people, but that is the goal of the filmmakers, and they have certainly succeeded in eliciting a response. Numerous essays have been written on the film, and feminist/professor Carol J. Clover dedicated the bulk of a whole chapter to an analysis of the film in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. I myself have written reviews and essays of the film in the past, and am always anxious to discuss my feelings on the film since it spawns new ones each time I view it. Having analyzed my feelings and weighed them against my personal philosophies, I think that I have come to a solid conclusion regarding my own opinion.
One of the most vital elements of my philosophical beliefs is that human beings are animals. This is certainly a well known fact, but it is one which people tend to disregard, most likely because humans tend to think of themselves as far more intelligent and sophisticated than other animals as a result of our ascendance up the food chain. We tend to intellectualize our actions to the point of deconstructing our very existence. We create belief systems and many of us hold up these beliefs in higher regard than our more abstract instincts we experience. I also believe in God, and God plays the most significant role in my philosophical theories. I believe that what we do not understand is understood by God, and that we must have faith in God to understand these things for us. I believe in doing what is “Godly”, and I believe in Madonna’s mantra that “where there is violence there is no God”.
With that having been said, my belief system gets a thorough shake up when asked to analyze the central premise of I Spit on Your Grave. On one hand, it seems that to dismiss the gang rapes and focus on Jennifer’s decision to take action is, in itself, a statement regarding society. Do we really consider revenge a worse crime than offense? Or are we so sure that the men’s action was wrong that we must address our own feelings and weigh them against our intellectual sensibility in order to form an opinion regarding Jennifer’s course of action?
I believe that most people would consider the second line more appropriate, though I might argue that the two sentences are quite similar. One part of me wonders why we should critique her actions at all. Anyone who has been raped has a clearer idea of the horror and trauma of the experience than some one who knows it merely as a word. And yet the depiction of gang rape, in its graphic nature and sheer relentlessness, is so potent that one feels as if they are the victim while watching the film. Some might argue that this is emotional manipulation, intended to make one sympathize with Jennifer’s action. I agree, only I do not consider this a negative argument. To the contrary, if we are not emotionally affected (or manipulated) then we are applying a completely aloof assessment to a very complex situation. What right does a person have to judge Jennifer’s actions when they are too afraid to allow their own emotions to be caught up in hers?
This, of course, brings me back to my emphasis on the connection between humans and animals. Animals, from what we as humans can see, make decisions based on emotion. They do not intellectualize their decisions or weigh alternatives. They act on impulse, because they know that this is the best means of survival. For example, if a female dog sees an animal attacking her puppies, or having killed them, she will fight the animal to the death. We as humans have this same protective instinct, but fear using it because it clashes with the society that we have created apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Jennifer is using this innate ability, and should not be punished for it.
I am not, however, trying to suggest that Jennifer is in any way “animalistic”. To the contrary, I feel that her actions were well thought out, and ultimately an act of self-sacrifice. As I mentioned earlier, her killing the men will likely bring about punishment by the law, and she is well aware of this. Yet she is willing to sacrifice years of her life in a jail cell because she feels so strongly that she must kill these men. She asked for the forgiveness of God, implying that if in His eyes she could be forgiven for her otherwise Godless acts, then she would be willing to accept responsibility and pay the consequences for an action which she felt so strongly about. In a warped way, this is exactly what Kant encouraged people to strive for. Her decision was completely selfless, for in the end it would only bring her pain. Yet she would do it, because she felt it was the right and natural response. And, I believe, because it would mean that her experience would not be relived by another woman. 
While watching the film, and living Jennifer’s story, I never have any doubt that what she is doing is right. I do not consider myself a believer in the “eye for an eye” mentality, and yet I never felt that Jennifer should refrain from her actions. It is not until after the film is over that I reassess my feelings, applying them to intellectual inquiry. However, this is where my own background as a “human elitist” is evident. If I were to trust my emotions I would not think twice about justifying Jennifer’s actions. And as some one who believes in the importance of emotions and instinct, I agree with and support Jennifer doing exactly what she did. 

5 comments:

  1. Wow!Pretty interesting work. ISOYG is the kind of movie you feel like watching over & over again. Jennifer's revenge clearly act as a catharsis for us spectators. Good job Rob! Glad you shared your passion & opinion about this awesome classic of the subgenre. Keep up the good work!

    Sincerely;
    Sly from Lost on 42ndSt

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    1. Thank you SO much Sly!! I am honored that you read it and your words make me feel great. I am so happy to know I'm not the only one with the desire to watch it over and over again--few performances are arresting as Camille Keaton's work in this one! Thank you for adding a smile to my day with your comment AND with your Tweets--it is truly MUCH appreciated Sly!!
      -Rob :)

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  2. Hi Robert-

    I only saw I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE once and, while I agree with everything you say, I don't think I could watch it again. Something about rape revenge movies like that and LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT are too much for me! That said, I teach/TA college courses and if I got a paper that placed Kant, Madonna's theology, and I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE in conversation with each other, I can't imagine how I could bring myself to give that student a bad grade! You definitely didn't get a good grade because it was badly written, in my opinion! I just stumbled on this essay and your essay about ANGEL (which is an *utterly seminal* film for me as well) after following your voguing adventures on facebook, and I don't know how I've lived without it all my life!

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  3. Excuse me, I mean "You definitely didn't get a BAD grade because it was badly written."

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    1. Hi Ben!! Please pardon my very late reply to your letter, as I had been meaning to get online to reply ever since you first wrote and getting the notification of your comment put a HUGE smile on my face. I LOVE it when people watch my video but I am ESPECIALLY honored when people read my blog, and a response like yours is fuel to my creative fires. Thank you SO much for the boost your words have given me since you posted them!!! :)
      PS. Your students are extremely fortunate to have you reading their words!
      PPS. I must of course commend you on your great taste in movies: I LOVE knowing that "Angel" meant so much to you, too!! ;)

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