Regarding the torture of dudes: David Rimanelli and Hanna Liden on Hostel.
"Hostel is a shocking and relentless film," the DVD packaging warned us about Eli Roth's high-grossing slaughterfest, which tracks "two Americans ... backpacking through Europe who find themselves lured in as victims of a murder-for-profit business." But nothing could have prepared us for the shock of recognition that would greet us upon popping the disc into the DVD player. As we watched the young auteur's follow-up to Cabin Fever (2002), our eyes erect with surprised excitement and fascination, we kept turning to stare at each other, feeling strangely paranoid, as if Roth had raped our unconscious minds: a movie about dude-ism and the evil New Europe, two of our favorite obsessions!
Indeed, as the story unfolded we encountered precise details and narrative twists touching on the cultural conflicts and perverted consequences we all face as the very psychogeography of Western civilization is being redefined. Any number of critics and commentators, including the director himself, have suggested that the film reflects the queasy moral climate of the United States in the wake of Abu Ghraib and other dubious foreign-policy incidents and international public-relations disasters. "Fear supplants empathy and makes us all potential torturers, doesn't it?" writes David Edelstein in New York magazine ("Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn," February 6, 2006). "Post-9/11, we've engaged in a national debate about the morality of torture, fueled by horrifying pictures of manifestly decent men and women (some of them, anyway) enacting brutal scenarios of domination at Abu Ghraib." Domestic anxieties over America's current ambiguous ethical position in the world at large are projected onto the malfeasance and duplicity of foreigners. Following this trickle of thought, Hostel bluntly allegorizes the displacement of American guilt onto those irritating snots in Europe, and the diabolists are conveniently located in the seeming terrain vague of the former Eastern Bloc. And what are we to make of Roth's prescience--nay, clairvoyance--in siting his clandestine torture facility in Eastern Europe in a film that test screened only weeks before the Washington Post broke the story about, yes, clandestine CIA torture facilities in Eastern Europe? But here, of course, in a neat reversal, the featured victims are principally Americans--or at least first-world types (like Icelanders, if they count).
The credits sequence immediately delves into the murder factory, giving us a preview of the promised gore, as blood and teeth drain noisily into the gutter during what is apparently a shoddy cleanup job after a recent dismemberment. The filthy residue that runs down the tile walls, one can't help but note, bears a striking resemblance to the foam of the now-ubiquitous Starbucks Mocha Frappuccino. Could this be a coincidence? Cut to Amsterdam and our dude heroes, Paxton and Josh (Jay Hernandez and Derek Richardson), smoking it up in a coffee shop. Their newfound pal, an Icelandic sleazebag named Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson), joins them, dragging to the table a very tired-looking young lady, as they choke on their hookahs. Paxton, a Californian fresh out of college, objects, remarking, "We can't rail a girl who's in a coma. I think that's illegal even in Amsterdam." Subsequently, they investigate a Wallpaper*-ish whorehouse, but their late-night boyish shenanigans cause them to return to their hostel postcurfew. Bummer, dudes. In an episode not so clearly explained, they end up climbing into the apartment (or something) of wild local youths. There they meet Alexei, aka Alex (Lubomir Bukovy), a super-sketchy yet friendly Eastern European pimp. "Looking for girls? So talk to Alex, he open up the pussy all over the Europe," he exhorts. "You have to go east, my friend. These girls"--Alex here proffers digital photos of himself entangled among a trio of Slovakian hotties--"I met at this one hostel ... just outside Bratislava.... You won't find this hostel in any guidebook. They hear your accent, they fuck you. There are so much pussy and because of the war"--P.S.: What war, Alex?--"there are no guys. They go crazy for any foreigner, especially Americans. You just take them." Dudes hop on next train to Bratislava.
The nameless fairy-tale town they cab to is predictably old-world charming in the vein of a New York Times travel-section feature. Alex's fabled hostel looks like a converted Rococo villa. Pulp Fiction, dubbed into Slovak, is playing on the lobby television. The dudes are taken aback by their initial encounter with their new roommates, Svetlana and Natalya (Jana Kaderabkova and Barbara Nedeljakova), who are in a state of carefree dishabille, changing from one Juicy Couture separate to another. Catalogue-model looks and moves aside, not to mention awesome tits and asses, the girls seem friendly. "We are going to the spa," says Natalya. "You should come," Svetlana devilishly adds.
Torn between shapeless frocks and black-market Uggs, babushka-type headgear and Von Dutch baseball caps, real-life Slovakia is a country in the process of transformation. Only now is it emerging as a tourist destination--something devoutly wished for by its government--and as such it's an appropriately counterintuitive setting for this fucked fantasy of benighted innocents abroad. Roth says he initially got the idea for Hostel from a website advertising a murder-for-thrills business in Thailand (another must-go destination for dudes): For $10,000, you got to kill a person. Tourism and capitalism gone berserk.
Svetlana and Natalya seem to take a shine to our boys, showing them what the local nightlife has to offer; turns out, this involves consumption of Ecstasy, or some local derivative. Back at the hostel, the girls perform what could be characterized as synchronized date rape on eight-mile-high dudes--happy dudes. Postcoitus, Paxton remarks smugly to Josh, "Mission accomplished" (echoing the slogan of another self-satisfied American who had recently fucked foreigners?). At this point, the boys (and at that point the president) think they're just fucking; soon enough they learn they're fucked over. Dudes' smirking delight in sexual conquest dims upon the discovery of their Icelandic boon companion's sudden and unexplained disappearance. When Josh, in all likelihood a closet homosexual (remember his asthma attack in response to Natalya's advances?), vanishes the next day, Paxton wants answers from the girls, who are hanging out in an old-school bar, prattling--much to his annoyance--in some foreign language (subtitles not provided). Svetlana and Natalya have changed their look; Roth has given them a Transylvanian makeover. Cleverly borrowing from Juergen Teller and Corinne Day, he resurrects the dominant aesthetic of '90s fashion photography--heroin chic--thereby clarifying that these girls are seriously smacked-up, horsed-out, full-on junkies. Pale-faced and pin-eyed Natalya explains that Josh and Oli are at an "exhibition for artists," and gives Paxton a ride to the venue, an abandoned industrial site accessorized with Shoah-esque crematorium smokestack and the full Dr. Mengele tool kit. The vaunted horrors commence.
"For Kill Bill, I had to make one version for Japan and a less violent version for America," Quentin Tarantino remarked of the development of extreme-violence cinema. "Eli was able to make the Japanese version and release it in America" ("Scream Kings: Eli Roth and Quentin Tarantino," New York magazine, January 9, 2006). Roth acknowledges his debts to Asian Extreme at several points in Hostel, for instance casting J-horror superstar director Takashi Miike in a cameo role. But given that this is a Hollywood movie (banking on a sequel), somebody has to get out alive: Paxton--the last of our three dudes to be delivered into the hands of the evildoers, by the nefarious Natalya--is the lucky one who manages to escape the meatpacking district; he stumbles upon the client/killer changing room and absconds with an elegant suit and coat, and a big gray Dries Van Noten-type man-shawl. But just as he's about to make his getaway, "Pax" succumbs (in typical American/messianic style) to misguided heroic ambition.
Hearing the screams of Kana (Jennifer Lim), one of two Japanese girls he befriended at the hostel, he can't resist returning to the dungeon to rescue her. Her face, alas, has been severely disfigured by a blowtorch, and one of her eyes has popped out. The befuddled Pax then clips it off with scissors; yellow slime gushes forth. They steal a car and hightail it to the train station, literally running into Svetlana and Natalya on the way. Nobody on the platform seems to notice Kana's facial alteration--except, unfortunately, Kana, who haphazardly catches a glimpse of her own reflection. Transfixed by the new look, she congeals into a generic J-horror/video-game character and carpe diems by hurling herself under an approaching locomotive. Vanity suicide.
Kana's demise calls to mind Shion Sono's Suicide Club (2002), wherein young Japanese women collectively make a mass-suicide pact online. While we see not one computer in Hostel, the entire narrative is ultimately dependent on the respiratory system of the World Wide Web. Clients gain access to Elite Hunting--the name of the thrill-kill operation--through an e-mail address printed on a business card: email@example.com. We tried e-mailing to ask for prices, without results. Guess the movie's fictionalized.
When Hostel opened in theaters at the beginning of the year, it was thoroughly savaged in the press, as one would expect. Perhaps the most egregiously wrongheaded comment was made by Nathan Lee in a disparaging review of the movie in the New York Times (January 6, 2006), in which he asserted that it is "one of the most misogynistic films ever made." This statement leaves us nonplussed. It raises several questions--for starters, has Lee ever seen any American, European, Asian, or, for that matter, Australian outback movies? What an embarrassment of cinematic riches he has yet to discover. Maybe he could start with Gaspar Noe's Irreversible (2002), a favorite among art dudes. Somehow, a nine-minute-long anal rape of a pregnant woman in a public space strikes us as less artistically valid than the atrocities depicted in Hostel. Anyone with a modicum of street experience knows that the average rape, anal-pregnant or regular, takes about two minutes or less.
Irreversible pretentiously aspires to expose the internalized wickedness of Europe. It fails, whereas the allegory of Hostel--borne on the shoulders of our main dude, Pax Americana--perspicuously reflects still-unresolved conflicts rooted in various dark and mortifying episodes of Europe's past (Nazism, for starters) and haunting its less-than-dazzling present. You couldn't really say that Hostel is, um, intellectually nuanced, but through its imbrication of dialogue, locations, props, and fashions, it communicates as efficiently as a bullet to the head.
DAVID RIMANELLI IS A CONTRIBUTING EDITOR OF ARTFORUM.
HANNA LIDEN IS AN ARTIST LIVING IN NEW YORK.