The future is cannibal: “The Time Machine” (Pal, 1960)

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HG Wells wrote his ground-breaking novella The Time Machine in 1895, and George Pal’s movie of it, made in 1960, kept to that timeline, with of course a detour some 800,000 years into the future. The film was fairly sensational at the time of its release and won an Oscar for best special effects for the time-lapse images, particularly the disintegrating corpse (we’ll get to it). It took some liberties with several aspects of the story for the purpose of fitting a lot of science and a lot of fiction into under 100 minutes of film, but was generally true to the social commentary of the book, particularly the division of humanity into the effete intellectuals and the menacing workers. To this, the Director, George Pal, added a sixties flavour that was quite prescient for a work made in the first year of that decade, particularly a strong antiwar theme, including a horror of nuclear conflagration and resulting environmental devastation, which occupied a large part of the public imagination in the Cold War years.

Why is the Time Traveller interested in time travel?

“I don’t much care for the time I was born into. It seems people aren’t dying fast enough these days. They call upon science to invent new, more efficient weapons to depopulate the earth.”

Freud said that the two most profound taboos are incest and cannibalism, and he traced their origins, as linked events, to Darwin’s primal hordes and the murder and consumption of the father who was monopolising the women. Anyway, fast forward (very fast) to the year 802701 and incest seems to have had a revival (insofar as everyone looks the same) while cannibalism, somehow, is still frowned upon. Or rather it has gone underground.

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The Time Traveller meets the humans of the future, the Eloi, who look like a bunch of beautiful but listless hippies, even though hippies did not exist for a few years after the film was made. A separate race of humans known as Morlocks live underground, shunning the daylight and any kind of fire. In their deep caverns, they have dark, satanic mills and chop up the Eloi, who are clothed and fed by the industrious Morlocks and then “harvested” at maturity. This is why there are no old Eloi, although there don’t seem to be any babies either, which makes the sustainability of the cannibal diet a little tricky.

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But wait, are the Morlocks cannibals? To be a cannibal, you really need to eat the flesh of someone of your own species, and it seems unlikely that the Eloi and Morlocks are even related, having evolved into different niches centuries earlier. The Time Traveller, known only as George, is shown some “rings” (a form of data disks which require no energy except for a quick twirl with finger and thumb) which reveal that a 326 year war destroyed the environment, causing the human race to retreat underground. Some remained in the infernal depths as white-eyed demons, preying on the innocent, while those who got the subterranean homesick blues eventually returned to the surface when it cooled down. There they continued to be fed and clothed by the Morlocks, but when the factory whistle goes, they march glassy-eyed into the factory – as raw materials.

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The Morlocks are dressed in baggy skin and flabby paunches and have bulging eyes and long, shaggy white hair. In fact, they look more like decrepit twenty-first century boomer hippies than the Eloi ever did. They are also no match for George who has his fists and his matches. There is also a love interest – Weena, (Yvette Mimieux), an Eloi girl whom George saves from drowning, since the Eloi can’t really see the problem if she does. He accuses her of being a child, then hopes to take her home with him on the Time Machine, a nice precursor to Lolita, which was filmed two years later. In 1895, in contrast, George has only male friends, and his off-sider is the Scotsman David Filby, played by Alan Young, who went on to be the side-kick of a horse in Mister Ed for many years.

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All right, there are some very silly things in this movie, and leading the list is the fact that the Eloi all speak perfect twentieth century English. Considering we can barely understand Chaucerian English from 600 years ago, it seems a bit odd to be able to converse with the locals straight off the boat, as it were, some 801,000 years into the future. In the book, the TT has to learn the Eloi language, but there’s no time for such nonsense in a 90 minute movie, unless it’s a European art-house film. Then there is the time machine stopping in 1966, just in time for nuclear war to break out, giving the film only six years before proving itself wrong.

There is a Robinson Crusoe feel to this film – although the planet seems quite heavily populated by young pretty hippies and old decrepit cannibal hippies, George is the only civilised patriarchal figure there, shouting at the Eloi and setting fire to the Morlocks as he sees fit. His first encounter with the Morlocks involves seeing – yep, a footprint. Lots of footprints, showing where the Morlocks have absconded with the time machine. We know the year; we don’t know whether it’s  Friday though.

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Anyway, George gets down and dirty into the underground, beats up some Morlocks, and sets the place on fire. He also fires up the Eloi who reclaim their power and beat up a few Morlocks too. Their totally vegan diet apparently has not left them, as George rudely claimed, “living vegetables”. His judgement of the Morlocks though is more severe: they had:

“… degenerated into the lowest form of human life: cannibalism!”

He gets his machine back and flees into the future, after killing a Morlock, who decomposes in time lapse mode, a scene that was quite the talk of the audience at the time.

But really, George. They have a system that works. His plan appears to be to return to 802701, impose regime change, and “free” the Eloi from the mouths of the Morlocks to build a new world. But of course the Eloi have no idea how to grow their food or make their clothes. With George as absolute monarch, they may learn. Or might they splinter into cliques, as humans always do, and soon go back to eating and wearing each other?

Filby, back in 1900, realises that George wouldn’t go off to build a civilisation without a plan. He figures out that he has gone back to the future and has taken just three books with him. Which books? No one knows.

Which books, Filby asks with a twinkle, would you have taken?

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Maybe Janice Poon’s cookbook?

 

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Meat the neighbours: “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (Hooper, 1974)

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The Texas chain saw massacre was named by Total Film as number one of the fifty greatest horror movies of all time. It spawned a number of sequels and prequels, but none as ground-breaking as the original, which was remastered in 2004 in 4K, making it that much more graphic. Time said that it set “a new standard for slasher films”. The concept of a vulnerable woman being terrorised by a monster was hardly new, and some critics suggested that the director, Tobe Hooper, may even have seen the Australian ‘slasher’ film Night of fear, so similar were the psychopaths. Night of fear was banned as too violent, and Texas chain saw, although less gory, was also banned in many countries, and was not available for showing in Australia for almost ten years after production. Night of fear moved from the knife or razor favoured in ‘slasher’ films to an axe; Texas chain saw escalated the weaponry even further with a large and very noisy chain saw. The chain saw is wielded by a particularly striking villain named Leatherface, so called due to his predilection for wearing a mask made of human skin.

Filmed in documentary style, on release it made a half-hearted attempt to appear to be a true story, whereas in fact it was based on the exploits of Ed Gein, a serial killer, but not a known cannibal, who was also the inspiration of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) as well as Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs. It was filmed on a tight budget against expectations it might never be cleared for exhibition. The respected critic Roger Ebert summed it up as “a grisly little item…I can’t imagine why anyone would want to make a movie like this, and yet it’s well-made, well-acted, and all too effective.” Such exploitative movies are profitable if made at the right price point, and Ebert grudgingly allows that the techniques and special effects are far better than the genre demands. He particularly liked the rapid montages of the survivor Sally screaming, with extreme close-ups of her bulging eyeballs, expressing all the foam flecked terror of any animal who realises she is about to be slaughtered.

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Gimme a close-up!

Leatherface lives in a family of ‘others’ who terrorise, slaughter and eat passers-by. They are ‘white trash’, but made trash by the process of industrialisation of agriculture: the abattoir in which the whole family worked has automated or closed, leaving them to use their expertise on a different species. The protagonists are a group of young hipsters, driving their Kombi through Texas to check on the grave of the grandfather of Sally and Franklin, following reports (shown in graphic footage during the credits) of graves being desecrated and robbed (an Ed Gein speciality). The pseudo-documentary style introduction tells us that “an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare”, one that seems to be a thinly veiled exposition of the nightmare faced by the Woodstock generation as they moved from the summer of love into the fall of Vietnam, drugs, the Manson murders and Nixon’s Silent Majority. Hooper spoke of his inspiration coming from the “beginning of the end of the subculture”, while one critic wrote that Hooper opened the way for horror to become a “vehicle for articulating twentieth-century pessimism”. It is revealing that this film about social decline was crafted in the period between Nixon’s landslide re-election and his resignation.

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Leatherface

Besides the disabled Franklin, the other four beautiful people are entirely two-dimensional, laughing at the quaint locals, reading horoscopes and heading off into unimagined horrors when looking for a non-existent swimming hole. Franklin does most of the talking, more so even than Sally, his sister, the only survivor, whose role is mostly to scream and run and scream more. Franklin reminisces about their grandfather (whose grave they are checking) and the abattoir where he used to sell his cattle. His speech is accompanied by images of cows waiting to be slaughtered or drooling, near death, as he describes the killing process – a sledgehammer: “it usually wouldn’t kill them on the first lick”. The cows queue for death as the young people drive past, on the way to their own identical slaughter. They pick up a hitchhiker who tells them his brother and grandfather work at the slaughterhouse. “My family’s always been in meat,” he tells them, an esoteric reference to their own imminent fate, which only the viewers appreciate.

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The family

The family turn out to be very mentally troubled: the wild-eyed hitchhiker is the brother of Leatherface who occasionally puts down the chain saw and dons an apron to take a feminine role in the house of slaughter. Leatherface is actually humanised under his mask: grunting, sweating and showing us his deformed teeth he was as human as on-screen killers got in the days before Dexter and Hannibal. Another relative, the gas-station owner, appears normal and presents a disturbing picture of the schizophrenic nature of modern society: his station has no gas, he sells barbecued meat of a suspect origin, and he constantly offers Sally comfort as he recaptures her, gags her and beats her, all the time assuring her everything will be all right. I couldn’t help thinking of the protestations of farmers who insist that they care deeply about their animals, as they pack them onto trucks for the gruelling journey to a terrifying death.

The film’s final thirty minutes consist of Sally being chased, mostly with a chain saw, with occasional respites where she is captured and tormented before again leaping from windows. Hitchcock famously said that the chase is the “final expression” of the medium of film and ‘slasher’ movies thrive on them. Yet the film’s setting is deliberately confused: instead of the normative divide of country providing meat to the city, here the city kids are providing meat to the rural rejects. As the kids are slaughtered, we hear the sounds of pigs grunting, see a captive chicken awaiting her fate, in a room filled with the bones and skins of several species, particularly H. sapiens. The cannibals’ method of slaughter, the sledgehammer, the meat hook, the freezer, is the same as the way cattle and pigs are treated at an abattoir.

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Pam learns how the professionals do it

Is the film a disguised polemic against farming and slaughtering animals? The reviewer Forrest Wickman called it “forehead-slappingly obvious” in his review “The Ultimate Pro-Vegetarian Film Is the Last Movie You’d Expect”. So much so that PETA listed it in its “top 10 movies that make you go meatless”. Hooper said in an interview that he gave up meat while making the film: “the heart of the film was about meat; it’s about the chain of life and killing sentient beings”. He also claimed that Guillermo Del Toro, no shrinking violet himself in abject film-making, gave up meat after seeing it.

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Sally and friends

Nothing is as it should be in this film, nor was it in Nixon’s and Hooper’s America, circa 1974. It is filmed in bright Texan sunshine rather than horror’s normal Gothic gloom, the psychopathic Leatherface is cooking in an apron when Sally is carried in, Sally’s terror at the dinner table is accompanied with the noises of non-diegetic pigs, the normal filmic heroes (young white males) are butchered without any defence offered, and what were they all eating when they stopped the Kombi at the gas station and bought barbecue? Who among us, Hooper seems to ask, is not a cannibal?

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Facebook cannibalism: “Eschatology” 2018

I don’t know if you’re into Facebook Live streaming, although lately people seem to be leaving Facebook rather than trying to find new ways of spending time on it. But a lot of people seem to have tuned in to a stream on 6 March 2018 of a performance named ‘Eschatology’ by artist Arturs Bērziņš at Museum LV un Grata JJ, in Riga, Latvia.

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Portrait of the artist as a young autophage

The footage showed Bērziņš’s assistant pulling on a white medical outfit, scalpel in hand, and cutting chunks of meat from the backs of two volunteers, one male and one female, apparently without anaesthetic. The assistant then fries the meat it in a large black pan.

I’ll spare you the unkindest cut, but you can, if you wish, see it on Youtube:

A small audience watches, phone cameras ready, and a couple more stand in the doorway, perhaps anticipating the need for a quick getaway. Spooky music plays as the assistant adds salt and pepper and perhaps some more exotic spices to the meagre meal and feeds the fragments to the volunteers.

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The artist later said: “It’s not fake, but it also is not cannibalism. Each of them ate his or her own piece of skin after (a) scarification procedure. Otherwise fingernail gnawing also can be proclaimed as cannibalism.” Something to consider next time you can’t be bothered reaching for the nail-file.

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The artist later commented “What we do daily with ourselves is much worse than any performance. The viewer has to face the genuineness. Genuine pain. Genuine action that has stepped out of abstraction into a real world. The viewer needs to be intellectually prepared for such an experience as this. Otherwise they’ll simply claim I have a screw loose and return to the infernal trance of everyday life.”

Is this the new face of competitive cooking shows?

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Is cannibalism sexy? “Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death” (Lawton, 1989)

Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death is a 1989 film which was the directorial debut of J. F. Lawton, who also authored Pretty Woman and Under Siege. He released this one under a pseudonym, J. D. Athens, and at first glance you have to agree with his decision.

The film drips with a sometimes forced irony, inspiring one reviewer on Rotten Tomatoes to call it “One of the best bad movies I’ve ever seen”. Here is some typical dialogue:

Margo Hunt: “They’re an ancient commune of feminists, so radical, so militant, so left of center they… they eat their men.”
Bunny: “Oh, that. Well, if I like a guy, I usually start at…”
Margo Hunt: “They don’t eat their men like that, Bunny.”

Or this one:

There aren’t any modern feminists who advocate cannibalism- at least not since the sixties.

The “jungle of death” is southern California, where a group of radical feminists have occupied the avocado plantations and kill and eat their men, as well as several companies of US troops who try to eliminate them. The film is rich in intertextual references: the protagonists enter the jungle in pursuit of Dr Kurtz, a professor of feminist studies who has become emperor of the cannibal women, a reference to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (set in the Congo) and the movie version of it Apocalypse Now (set in Vietnam), in which Brando plays the deranged Colonel Kurtz, who famously dies with the words “the horror, the horror!” on his lips. The Dr Kurtz in this film similarly meets her end, but her “horror” refers to having had to defend feminism on the David Letterman Late Show.

Intertextual humour depends on the reader being familiar with the sometimes cryptic references. Apocalypse Now is pretty well known, but some of the other references are either too obvious to be funny or else too obscure to score a laugh. The film opens with the kind of “male gaze” scene expected in an exploitation pic: semi-naked warrior women bathing in a stream while a couple of randy male explorers look on, but the scene concludes with both the men tracked down and slaughtered for the cannibals’ next meal. The main character, Margo Hunt, is played by Shannon Tweed, a former Playboy model, who does not drop her clothes at any point; her ditzy assistant, who wants to change her major from Home Economics to Feminist Studies, is named “Bunny”, another reference to the Playboy world. The bumbling comic relief and token male chauvinist is played by Bill Maher of the television show Real Time, a show which goes out of its way to skewer such prehistoric thinking.  He dresses like Indiana Jones and even wields a bull whip, rather less expertly. Topics from Margaret Mead to Disneyland all get a brief reference, and there is little time to wonder what they are about before the next gag is upon us. Some of the references are double barrelled: when Bunny is told that the women eat their men, she asks “boiled or roasted”, a reference both to the many Home Economics jokes, but also to Levi-Strauss’s musings on the different ways cannibals would cook their relatives or their enemies.

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Bill Maher as Jim. That isn’t a spa.

Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death is neither as stupid as it sounds or as funny as it intends. But it is diverting and it’s fun to tease out the cultural references, and the lead actors are really very good at delivering their sometimes painful lines. Its commentary on cannibalism is actually quite perceptive: the cannibal women are all gorgeous and young and scantily clad, presentations which are usually intended for the consumption of a male audience. This binary is reversed as they seize their knives and proceed to butcher and consume the male gazers (not on screen – the film is careful not to lose its PG13 rating, although it got an R18 in New Zealand). There is usually a male hero and a female in need of saving; in this, the roles are totally reversed. Cannibalism is not presented as evil or deranged by definition, but rather as another variety of power struggle. To quote Dr Kurtz:

This is a war between men and women. Anything short of cannibalism is
just beating around the bush.

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When your family are cannibals: “Parents” (Balaban, 1989)

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Parents is a real cannibal film. None of these feeble excuses about starvation or uncontrollably psychotic – here are people who enjoy eating tasty animals, and their chosen tasty animals are humans.

Parents is a Canadian/American production, the first feature film directed by Bob Balaban, who you will recognise from the Christopher Guest movies like Best in Show if you can be bothered to search for a picture of him. He’s a funny guy, and Randy Quaid leads a terrific cast, but the movie never quite got off the ground, scoring a measly 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, with Roger Ebert writing that the movie couldn’t really decide if it was satire, comedy, or horror.

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The satire is of the complacent fifties family, Mom at home, Dad at work, kid at school. The kid is Michael, played by a child actor who later made a fine career in Canada as an accountant, another commentary on the film, perhaps. He is traumatised by his family’s move to suburbia, by his increasingly gory dreams, and by seeing his parents having sex (he thinks they are biting each other – if only Freud had hung around long enough to make a cameo).

Michael’s Dad works at Toxico, a fine American corporation making toxic substances to defoliate jungles, and his particular job is working with human corpses, those who have donated their bodies for the good of science. Well, a man has to bring home the bacon, and Dad surely does, straight from the long pigs. Michael begins to suspect that their meals are what Nietzsche called Human, All Too Human after he sneaks into Toxico and sees Dad cutting up corpses. But he can’t get a straight answer out of his parents:

“What are we eating?”
“Leftovers.”
“Leftovers from what?”
“From the refrigerator.”

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So it’s comedy. But when Michael’s sceptical social worker takes him home and finds a body in the cellar, shit gets real. There is much death and bondage. Dad tells Michael he is an “outsider” like them, and that if he can get people to believe him, they will all burn. “Is that what you want?” He tells Michael “I’m sure you’ll acquire a taste for it. Your mother did.” She flashes a pretty fifties advertising smile: “I learnt to love it.”

Michael demurs and ends up bound up by his father like Isaac on the mountain with Abraham. Talk about sacrificial discourses! He manages to turn the tables, without the aid of angels and/or rams, and well, the fire happens.

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Michael ends up living with his (also archetypal fifties) grandparents who tuck him into bed and leave him a rather suspicious sandwich, in case he gets peckish during the night. Like all of us, he has moved on from his parents, but not from the patriarchal and carnist violence that helped to form him, us, and our polite, blood-soaked culture.

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School for cannibals: “Raw” (Ducournau, 2016)

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Raw is a French Bildungsroman or coming-of-age story, where education and character development is a crucial part of the narrative. A Bildungsroman is about transition to adulthood, whatever that term may mean for the protagonist. Think American Graffiti or Harry Potter, but with cannibalism. It’s about what Hannibal Lecter would call “becoming”, and relates closely to his preferred version of it, because Justine, a life-long vegetarian, “grows up” to become a cannibal.

The story is set in a veterinary school where Justine has just enrolled and the presence of animals, alive and dead, remind us of our materiality – we too get sick, bleed, die, just like the patients and specimens around her. Justine’s sister, who has been attending for some years, bullies her into accepting the hazing ritual – eating a rabbit’s kidney.

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This introduction to meat (as well as a shower of blood during the orientation festivities) brings out first an itchy rash, and then the hunger, and it’s all teeth and blood from there (it’s called Raw for a reason). But it’s not just a slasher movie – Justine finds her identity, which is what these movies are all about. She discovers what excites and pleases her, while being abused and humiliated. We sit in the cinema thinking: that’s exactly what growing up was like!

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Fortunately for this blog, the number of cannibal movies, books and news stories is growing all the time. Julie Ducournau was astonished that hers was not the only cannibal film at Cannes – there was also Neon Demon and Bad Batch. She commented:

The cannibalism in my movie is political. So the fact other movies are talking about it, it means something about society. We’re not talking about sci-fi; it’s about monsters that actually exist and are humans.

The movie starts with a car crash, deliberately caused, and resulting in some apparently quite yummy corpses. Our reliance on motor vehicles and acceptance of the carnage they create is built into the plot of a few cannibal narratives – e.g. Godard’s Weekend and Balaban’s Parents.  We find out more about Justine, about her sister, about her parents, before the final unravelling of the plot. No spoilers here, though.

Raw became famous, or infamous, when the news media heard that, during the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, some viewers received emergency medical treatment after allegedly fainting as a result of the film’s graphic scenes. The director, Julie, claimed to be shocked when she heard about this, but, as Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said, “there is no such thing as bad publicity”, and Raw quickly became famous, or infamous. Some cinemas in the US apparently handed out bags to patrons – the kind you find in the seat pocket of your plane.

But it would be a shame for Raw to be considered just a gore-fest. It is an intelligent and compassionate study of growing up in a rough world, and the pain of having the ethics that supported your childhood questioned and demolished. I thought the explanation of why it all happened at the end was disappointing and unnecessary, but take a look at Raw (I don’t think you will need a sick bag or an ambulance), and judge for yourself.

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