If there is one subject that cinema loves above all else, it is cinema itself. And why shouldn’t cinema have a fascination with itself? Art, commerce, industry, voyeurism, technology, ethics and politics all come together with filmmaking. Cinema has power, and it provokes both emotions and the intellect. Cinema also has the power to implicate viewers in the onscreen actions by their sheer willingness to watch the images that play out before them, a fact played with by filmmakers from Alfred Hitchcock to Spike Jonez.
Perhaps most notable is that cinema is, at its very core, a medium of exploitation. It exploits emotions; it exploits the conflicts between people and in society; and cinema exploits our own willingness to give ourselves over to manipulation. Of course, so do other mediums, but cinema, with its strong emphasis upon the visual and its need for collective participation, is particularly more pronounced in its exploitive capabilities, even in the most seemingly innocent of films. Bambi exploits murder of a parent for sheer emotional impact, lest we forget.
So it is no wonder that such focus is placed on the presence of violence and sex in film. Why do we partake in viewing scenes of violence? Why does one form of violence seem acceptable in a film, while another is not? Why is a murder presented in a film acceptable as long as there is no blood, while a gusher of blood may be viewed as wrong? If violence is ok, why do North American audiences have such a problem with sex? Even more unsettling, why do sex and violence seem to go together so often in films that mass audiences watch? Complex issues in need of complex thought.
This is particularly the case in the art vs. commerce debate that has existed as long as there have been film industries. Are films art, or are they product? No easy answer exists to that question. Certainly, a large number of films seek to be more than mere disposable entertainment, but often in the commercial film industry, the worst material tends to rise to the surface and succeed. Look no further than this past summer’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, with its sexist and racist politics being taken in by mass audiences, all the way to the top of the box office. What does it mean when we are willing to pay for such content, particularly if we are paying to see such material for sheer entertainment?
Cheap, a 2004 film from writer, director, and star Brad Jones, is a film which brings together these issues surrounding film production and film viewing and explores them in a section of the film industry which is at its most purely exploitive. Cheap is the story about a failed director in the porn industry named Jack, played by Jones himself, who in a desperate search for originality and profit turns to making snuff films, employing two women to act as his killers and using various individuals he finds on the street as his victims. Max Force (David Gobble), a low level distributor of online smut, begins distributing the films, oblivious to the very real nature of the murders taking place on camera, and believing the films to be the breakthrough he needs to rise in the industry. When Force’s own ego and exploitive nature begins to turn on Jack and his crew, it triggers a series of events darker than anything that precedes it.
In his introduction to the film on his site, Jones makes note that the film was a hard sell for his local audience and has been the only film he has directed not to turn a profit. This should be taken as a sign of artistic success, in part. Like Quentin Tarantino’s work, Cheap is a film that draws its aesthetic and subject matter from exploitation films. Unlike Tarantino’s work however, Jones’ film is not a celebration of cinema, but rather one that strips it down to its core manipulative and industrial natures. The world Jones presents the audience is one that is entirely repugnant and vile, with no sympathetic characters to be found. Everyone seems to know the game of the industry, to both be willing to exploit others, and to be exploited in turn. This is taken so far in the film that the line between the exploited and the exploiter ceases to exist. There is not even a relationship in the film that doesn’t somehow exist solely for convince and benefit of the parties involved: love and friendship do not exist here.
In exploring his subject matter, Jones makes a number of choices, which seem to be driven by both artistic and practical reasons. While I still am not a fan of shot on video filmmaking unless it is on crisper digital cameras, the approach is more fitting here than in his last film Freak Out. This is a low rent world, and the low level VHS look of the film fits perfectly. Furthermore, a choice in the masks worn by Jack’s murders is surprisingly effective rather than offensive as they evoke the history of exploitation in the fields of art and entertainment which sadly have not entirely been purged from society. Again, I’m looking at Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen here.
Perhaps the best of the choices made by Jones is the detached irony of the film. In a world this disgusting, Jones invites the audiences to clinically observe the insanity. This approach allows Jones to switch from moments of graphic (and I do mean graphic) horror to grim humour as he satirizes the mentality of the film industry and its practices. An early example is a scene where Max shows the first film Jack produces to his wife and another filmmaker: after exclaiming the “artistic” virtues of the film as an original, he immediately orders the other filmmaker to begin working on an imitation of the film in order to beat the competition. This leads to a recurring joke in which the poor filmmaker, who only knows how to direct films by following a set formula, becomes increasingly confused as he tries to copy Jack’s work.
The film isn’t perfect though. While Jones has made great strides since Freak Out on the directing and writing ends, there are a few moments where the writing is too on the nose, having character’s spell out the themes and ideas in the work rather than having the audience themselves piece it together. Another issue on this front is a story point in which one of Jack’s stars negotiates with Max Force instead of Jack himself handling the negotiations. First, the reasoning for Jack doing this is murky at best, and only seems to serve to set up a major plot point later on. Second, this causes a major plot hole: Jack sends his proxy in disguise, but we clearly see the individual sign a contract. Max could clearly figure out who the person is from this piece of information, and furthermore, if Max is bothering with contracts, he would probably realize that without a legally binding statement that allows the proxy to negotiate for Jack, such a signature would not be legally binding.
Furthermore, while the acting is far better on the whole this time around, the acting on the part of the two masked killers is distractingly stiff. Also, though Jones is hardly any guiltier of this than large budget filmmakers, neither actress seems to fit the age that the killers supposedly are.
Still, on a whole, Cheap is an unsettling but fascinating film, and one which will benefit from being distributed on the internet rather than at a multiplex where it would be burdened with commercial expectations. Still, I think I need something much, much more cheerful next. Perhaps something by, I don’t know, a Mr. Hal Ashby...