Controversial Clashes: “Blue Velvet” vs. “I Spit On Your Grave” (Part 2)
If you missed part one, be sure to catch up at Controversial Clashes: “Blue Velvet” vs. “I Spit On Your Grave” (Part 1).
I Spit On Your Grave vs. Deliverance
One of the taglines for I Spit On Your Grave is “More devastating than Deliverance!”, which is comparing the scenes of sexual violence in both films. Even those who haven’t seen Deliverance may at least be aware of the film’s most infamous scene where Ned Beatty is made to “squeal like a pig” by a hillbilly. Or have heard the quote “He got a real pretty mouth, ain’t he?”. The rape scene in Deliverance is often referred to jokingly in popular culture, however, while there seems to be little humor associated with the rape in I Spit On Your Grave. Most reviews either condemn the graphic sexual violence as gratuitous and repugnant or earnestly attempt to justify its inclusion as part of the film’s anti-rape/feminist message.
Like Deliverance, the protagonist in I Spit On Your Grave, Jennifer Hills, is a city dweller who ventures out to the country. She sets up house in an idyllic spot by the river with the intention of writing her first novel. Now, when Jennifer first interacts with the locals (who are the men who will eventually assault her), she is cordial and not at all condescending. The four men in Deliverance, on the other hand, behave in a less respectful manner. Also, their reason for travelling to the country is to get in touch with their manhood by canoeing down the rapids. For comparison, there is one scene in I Spit On Your Grave where Jennifer is shown canoeing down the river near her house, but for the sake of reflecting on nature rather than conquering it. Looking at the movie that way, Jennifer is a more innocent character. Not to say Ned Beatty deserves what happens to him in Deliverance, but his plight doesn’t seem as troubling the way the movie is set up. The protagonists in both films are naive about their surroundings, but the guys in Deliverance are either cocky or out of their element. Jennifer is just a nice person who wants to write her novel and enjoy the scenery. (NOTE: In Ebert’s 2010 review of the I Spit On Your Grave remake, he says “In the original, a woman foolishly thought to go on holiday by herself at a secluded cabin”. Foolishly? Her choice of residence in the film is not a “secluded cabin” but rather a regular house in a small town. Ebert seems to be implying that Jennifer brought the rape on herself. His contempt for the movie even extends to the character who is assaulted, apparently.)
In Deliverance, the sexual assault occurs after Ned Beatty and Jon Voight take a break from their canoeing and stop off on land. They encounter a couple of hillbillies, who proceed to rape and humiliate Beatty. Before they can do the same to Voight, Burt Reynolds (who is the Alpha Male of the group) shows up and kills one of the hillbillies with an arrow. The other one runs off. There is no motivation given as to why the hillbillies wanted to rape Ned Beatty and John Voight. In I Spit On Your Grave, the rapists are shown discussing Jennifer (while night fishing) in much the same way that teenage boys might discuss girls in general. One of them, Matthew, who is mentally challenged, implies that he has a crush on her. The other guys later kidnap Jennifer (after harassing her) and offer her to Matthew, but he hesitates. So, instead, the other three beat and sexually assault her in a variety of ways, all of which is shown unflinchingly. Eventually, Matthew does get in on it, though his behavior isn’t sadistic so much as morally oblivious. When it’s all over, Matthew is told to kill Jennifer while the others wait outside, but he can’t bring himself to do it. He lies about her being dead, and the gang goes on with their lives. Jennifer spends the next couple of weeks recovering and plotting her revenge. Before the movie is over, she dispatches them all mercilessly. The most notorious killing involves the group’s ringleader, Johnny, who Jennifer castrates in a bathtub and leaves to bleed to death while she listens to a Puccini record.
What may give Deliverance more moral acceptability for some viewers is that the protagonists kill the villains out of self-defense rather than revenge. Also, they have a debate over the legal ramifications of their actions. In I Spit On Your Grave, Jennifer never openly considers whether killing her attackers is wrong. The closest she comes is when she enters a church and asks God to forgive her for the killing that she plans to do. Roger Ebert called this scene “unbelievably grotesque and inappropriate”. I must acknowledge that it certainly would’ve been more logical for her to ask for forgiveness after her spree of vengeance. Anyway, it seems that the whole point of showing Jennifer’s rape in such a brutal manner was to remove all doubt that she (or the audience) should feel remorse for seeking revenge. So, the church scene was at least unnecessary.
In Roger Ebert’s 1972 review of Deliverance, he writes that the violence and rape are effective “in a disgusting way” and that the “appeal to latent sadism is so crudely made that the audience is embarrassed”. He gave the movie **1/2. He expresses no concern for Ned Beatty being uncomfortable during the sexual assault scene.
Blue Velvet & I Spit On Your Grave vs. Last House on the Left
Roger Ebert’s 1972 review for The Last House on the Left is surprisingly positive. Particularly when considering the severely negative review he gave to I Spit On Your Grave eight years later, and how determined he was to have the movie banned. In The Last House on the Left, two girls are kidnapped by criminals who rape, torture and degrade them for a good portion of the movie. After murdering the girls in the woods, the four villains end up staying the night at one of the victim’s parent’s house because their car stalled nearby. When the parents find out what their guests have done, they set out to take revenge.
I have some problems with Ebert’s praise of The Last House on the Left, which are relevant to his criticisms of both Blue Velvet and I Spit On Your Grave. Ebert calls I Spit On Your Grave “a film without a shred of artistic distinction.” Whether one agrees with that or not, I fail to see a great deal of “artistic distinction” in Last House, either. How I Spit On Your Grave is any more exploitative or depraved than Last House escapes me. For example, there is one scene in Last House where the mother of the murdered girl seduces one of the killers into tying his hands behind his back so she can perform oral sex on him. While he is savoring the moment, she bites off his manhood. She bites it off. After seducing him. In what version of reality is that less tasteless than Jennifer castrating a rapist in her bathtub? Also, Ebert says that the story in I Spit On Your Grave is told with “moronic simplicity”, and he makes no attempt to assign any meaning or emotional significance to the events in the movie. However, he assigns a great deal of meaning and emotional significance to the events in The Last House on the Left that the film itself simply does not convey as deeply or effectively as Ebert describes. (NOTE: Last House does have a musical soundtrack, though. Just saying.)
Ebert felt that the inappropriate humor in Blue Velvet lessened the impact of the the darker scenes. While he was watching Last House, he somehow missed the grossly inappropriate scenes with the two police officers that are pointlessly comedic and intrusive. In fact, the comedy scenes repeatedly interrupt the the scenes of torture and humiliation. Oh, wait, Ebert didn’t miss the pointless comedy scenes, because he criticizes them in the review. Somehow, though, he was willing to forgive those scenes that shamelessly demean the dramatic content in Last House, but he couldn’t stomach the humor in Blue Velvet. Apparently, Ebert just can’t deal with an actress being naked in an uncomfortable scene. Being raped and tortured is acceptable, as long as they are mostly clothed. (NOTE: Ebert doesn’t mention Camille Keaton’s frequent nudity in his review of I Spit On Your Grave, but she is more exposed overall than Rossellini in Blue Velvet. Also, her role must’ve been at least close to as demanding as Rossellini’s, considering how long the rape scene is. Was part of Ebert’s reaction to I Spit On Your Grave based on Keaton’s being naked and vulnerable during her performance, like Rossellini?)
Ebert points out in his follow up review to Blue Velvet that the critics who were praising the movie failed to acknowledge the serious issues that it raised. Perhaps Ebert’s praise of Last House fails to acknowledge how cheap, clumsy and tacky much of the movie is. In Ebert’s review of the 2009 remake he says that he was a different person when he saw the original, and that he is not interested in being consistent with reviews from the past. But maybe he should be. He still has his original review of Last House on his website with a ***1/2 rating. He gave the remake, which he should consider superior based on what his current standards seem to be, only **1/2. Blue Velvet still has but * and I Spit On Your Grave is still saddled with “zero stars”. At least some of those ratings should be adjusted.
I Spit On Your Grave vs. Irreversible
From what I’ve read, the director of Irreversible, Gaspar Noé, cites I Spit On Your Grave as an influence. Irreversible also depicts rape in graphic, relentless detail, and has also achieved notoriety for doing so. Unlike Grave, though, the events in the film unfold backward rather than forward. The viewer is first shown the viciously violent (though failed) attempt at revenge, followed by the viciously violent 9-minute rape that precipitates the attempt at revenge, followed by the party before the rape, and so on. Irreversible ends in a tranquil setting just as I Spit On Your Grave begins in one. Roger Ebert refers to Irreversible in his 2003 review as moral “at a structural level”. That is, because the movie starts with the rape and gives the viewer time to contemplate the horror of the violence as the film progresses away from it, this means Irreversible is opposed to the terrible events that it has depicted. This leads me to wonder how Ebert might have evaluated I Spit On Your Grave if its shocking scenes were shown in reverse order and the film ended with Jennifer driving from New York to the country.
One of the reasons Ebert gives in defense of Irreversible is his description of Alex (Monica Bellucci), the woman who is brutalized in the film. This is what he writes:
… she is not simply a sex object or a romantic partner, but a fierce woman who fights the rapist for every second of the rape. Who uses every tactic at her command to stop him. Who loses but does not surrender. It makes her sweetness and warmth much richer when we realize what darker weathers she harbors. This woman is not simply a sensuous being, as women so often simply are in the movies, but a fighter with a fierce survival instinct.
It is not at all a stretch to say that this could just as easily be describing Jennifer Hills. Jennifer, however, gets the opportunity in I Spit On Your Grave to show just how firece she actually is. Alex is never avenged, nor is she ever shown recovering from her ordeal. What exactly is the message of Irreversible, then? That any given choice we make, no matter how innocuous it seems at the time, could lead to a terrible fate? Why was a 9-minute rape scene any more necessary in Irreversible to convey its message than a 20-minute rape in I Spit On Your Grave? Ebert objected to I Spit On Your Grave in part because of how a man in the audience reacted insensitively to the sexual violence, but that same man could’ve behaved similarly while watching Irreversible. Does Roger Ebert know for sure that everyone who watches Irreversible reacts to it appropriately?
In Ebert’s review for The Last House on the Left remake, he lamented, “So now my job as a film critic involved grading rape scenes.” Well, I suppose the point is not to grade the rape scenes, but rather what their impact is in the context of the movie. I felt bad for Jennifer in I Spit On Your Grave. I felt bad for Alex in Irreversible. I felt bad for the girls in The Last House on the Left. So, I guess those movies did their job, at least in part because I already believe rape to be morally wrong. If I watched a movie that asked me to question the immorality of rape, then I would consider it controversial.
Blue Velvet vs. Last Tango in Paris
In Ebert’s second article on Blue Velvet, he says of Isabella Rossellini “she is put through a more severe emotional ordeal than any movie performer since Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris“. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci , and originally rated “X” (back before the rating was appropriated by the porn industry) for its explicit sex scenes, Last Tango currently holds the “NC-17” stamp. Chances are, Blue Velvet would’ve been given the “X” rating had it come out back in the early 70’s, but it ended up with the less prohibitory “R” when it was released in 1986.
The stories are similar in that 1) There is a character suffering over a traumatic incident involving a spouse 2) The character has some kinky sexual interests 3) The character carries on a relationship in an apartment with a younger stranger. In the case of Blue Velvet, that character is Dorothy Vallens. Her husband has been kidnapped, she likes to be abused, and she is involved with Jeffrey, who she met because he was hiding in her closet. In Last Tango, Marlon Brando plays a widower grieving over the suicide of his wife. He meets Maria Schneider while apartment hunting, and they have sex without even properly introducing themselves. As the relationship progresses, Brando introduces butter and sodomy into their sexual repertoire.
Roger Ebert has pronounced Last Tango to be one of his Great Movies, which means that it must be important. As I have mentioned previously, Ebert criticized Blue Velvet because he felt Isabella Rossellini was humiliated during one of her scenes. In his original review of Blue Velvet, he states that if a director is going to ask an actress to be in that type of situation, then he should put her “in an important film”. He then gives Last Tango as an example of an important film where the director asked the actress involved to do humiliating things. He, however, does not express concern that Maria Schneider was actually humiliated in Last Tango, because, I presume, he believed that the film was important. Interestingly, though, Maria Schneider says in this 2007 interview that during the scene where Brando simulates sodomizing her (with butter) “I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci”. Because Last Tango is so important, is that why Ebert failed to recognize Schneider’s humiliation as he did with Isabella Rossellini? (NOTE: The sodomy scene in Last Tango is like a less overtly violent version of the rape scene in Irreversible. Neither Schneider or Bellucci are completely naked in either scene.)
Blue Velvet vs. I Spit On Your Grave
It could be said that Frank Booth is a more blatantly twisted and diabolical tormentor to Vallens than Jennifer’s attackers. None of the rapists in I Spit On Your Grave are overtly deranged, but rather seem to commit their heinous act due to group-think and an immature sense of entitlement regarding women. Their leader even has a wife and two kids, who he appears to be nice to (based on a brief scene). And, as mentioned previously, Matthew is mentally slow, so it’s difficult to completely view him as evil. There is no mistaking Booth for being anything but a psychopath in Blue Velvet. Perhaps, then, what may trouble some viewers about I Spit On Your Grave is that the rapists themselves aren’t portrayed as thoroughly evil. Their actions are abominable, but the movie doesn’t spend any time building them up as sadistic villains before the rape (at least the hillbillies in Deliverance were portrayed as grotesquely backwoods). With Blue Velvet, Frank Booth’s motivations and evil nature are explained and demonstrated clearly. Dorothy Vallens obviously has a dark side herself, however, and a bizarre concept of male/female relationships. (NOTE: This article at Pajiba.com explains how Frank Booth and Dorothy Vallens symbolically represent Jeffrey’s parents, if you want to try and wrap your head around that interpretation.)
Dorothy Vallens is a different sort of woman than Jennifer Hills. While I can’t say for certain how Jennifer would react if someone kidnapped her family, it’s a safe bet that she wouldn’t derive pleasure from a guy hitting her. Jennifer appears to be a well-adjusted, independent woman. Dorothy comes across as fragile and psychologically damaged, and was probably a bit messed up previous to meeting Frank. Also, even before and during the rape, Jennifer fights back and resists as much as reasonably can be expected under her circumstances. She does not invite or accept being attacked at any time during the movie. Vallens actually likes being abused to some extent. And, while Vallens fills the damsel in distress role in Blue Velvet, Jennifer is the hero of I Spit On Your Grave (depending on how one defines “hero”.)
The only time Dorothy displays real assertiveness is when she first catches Jeffrey hiding in her closet and forces him to strip at knife point. She intends to engage in some sort of sexual act with him, but is interrupted when Frank shows up. There is a somewhat similar scene in I Spit On Your Grave where Jennifer forces Johnny to strip at gunpoint. After he arrogantly attempts to justify raping her, Jennifer lowers her weapon and appears to agree with him. This is when she takes Johnny back to her house and seduces him into the bathtub, where she castrates him with a knife. Maybe she decided that shooting was too good for him? The scene between Jeffrey and Dorothy leads to a weird sexual relationship. The scene between Jennifer and Johnny leads to painful, bloody death. Which portrayal of female sexuality is actually more contentious? Jennifer’s predatory use of sexuality, which was a reaction to being abused and violated, or Dorothy’s masochistic behavior, which was also a reaction to being abused and violated? This David Lynch quote regarding Dorothy Vallens might offer some insight into how to approach the issue:
“Because people have an idea that Dorothy was Everywoman, instead of being just Dorothy – that’s where the problem starts. If it’s just Dorothy, and it’s her story – which it is to me – then everything is fine … When you start talking about “women” versus “a woman,” then you’re getting into this area of generalization. There’s a billion different stories and possibilities.”
What he’s saying, I gather, is that Dorothy should only be viewed as an individual, rather than a representation of all women. Dorothy is a masochist, sure, but she is just one character out of a slew of possible woman characters. Since she is the woman character specifically created for Blue Velvet, that’s the only way she should be interpreted. Can Jennifer be looked at the same way? (Of course, it could be argued that the type of characters a director chooses to include in the story could be sending a potentially harmful message to viewers. Whether the director is responsible for how viewers interpret the message of the film is another matter.)
Roger Ebert was a friend of sexploitation director Russ Meyer, who died in 2004. He is credited as a writer on the Meyer films Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Up!, and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Meyer’s work, his movies are famous for portraying large-breasted actresses manically engaging in acts of sex and violence. Up! is a particularly crazy movie in his oeuvre. In one scene, a drunken lumberjack sexually assualts two women, axes a police officer in the chest, and is then himself chainsawed to death. This movie is a comedy. Having seen Up!, I find Ebert’s condemnation of I Spit On Your Grave even more puzzling. He helped write the movie, which was released four years before Ebert saw I Spit On Your Grave. Ebert should’ve been concerned that showing a drunken lumberjack raping women might be construed as an “expression of the most diseased and perverted darker human natures”, like he accused I Spit On Your Grave of being.
Meir Zarchi has said that Ebert’s attempts to have I Spit On Your Grave banned actually brought the film more attention. If Ebert hadn’t protested the film so strenuously, it may not have attained such a level of notoriety (at least in the U.S.). Considering Ebert’s praise of The Last House on the Left and his association with Russ Meyer, his outrage seems overblown in the first place. But, Ebert may have never went to see the movie if the original title hadn’t been changed from Day of the Woman to the more lurid I Spit On Your Grave. Before the title change, the movie wasn’t well-known. It took deceptive marketing to draw in a bigger audience. Now, while I Spit On Your Grave has met with a great deal of critical and legal opposition (having been banned in numerous countries), Blue Velvet is not looked upon as severely. In fact, Roger Ebert is in the minority of critics who dislike it, based on the 91% Freshness Rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Apparently, critics generally do not feel that Isabella Rossellini’s treatment was inappropriate enough to rate the film poorly, and so that particular controversy exists mostly for Ebert himself.
Perhaps the real controversy involving I Spit On Your Grave is trying to make sense of why anybody would want to watch it. The film graphically depicts two morally disturbing acts – rape and coldblooded revenge- and leaves it up to viewers to come to their own conclusion as to what it means. Most people will agree (who are not in prison) that Jennifer’s rape, or any rape, is unjustifiable. So, then, is the viewer’s real task to determine if Jennifer’s act of revenge is a justifiable reaction to an unjustifiable act? Some viewers might find both rape and revenge abhorrent, and will not like to be put in the position of having to decide if Jennifer’s vengeance is justified. For those who accept the revenge, they still need to decide if how Jennifer goes about it is justifiable. Some reviews criticize how she is treated as an object in the first part of the film, but then turns herself into an object by using her sexuality as part of the revenge. Because the rapists deprived her of her personhood and used her as a sexual object, perhaps she was reversing the situation and becoming a sexual object who deprives the rapists of their personhood by killing them? They made excuses for raping Jennifer based on stereotypical assumptions about women, which were not true of Jennifer herself. She later uses their stereotypical assumptions against them by becoming the object they made her out to be. Maybe Jennifer is actually supposed to represent “Everywoman” and the film is showing her confront objectification in the most emphatic manner possible.
But, when Jennifer goes to ask for forgiveness at the church before killing the rapists, her moral credibility may come into question. Is she admitting that revenge is wrong? Because of the severity of Jennifer’s sexual assault, viewers who do not have a problem with revenge will likely already support her decision to kill the rapists. Maybe the church scene was intended to make Jennifer appear more righteous in her vengeance, but it doesn’t work that way. In Blue Velvet, there’s a scene where Dorothy tells Jeffrey “I’m not crazy. I know the difference between right and wrong.” Jeffrey doesn’t appear to be so sure. But it doesn’t matter as much in Blue Velvet how morally sound Dorothy’s behavior is, because Jeffrey is the hero of the movie. Since Jennifer is the only character the viewer has to look to for moral purpose in I Spit On Your Grave, and her goal is to commit violent revenge, her behavior should make sense morally, right? Still, there is no reason to believe that Jennifer was crazy or a bad person before being raped. The rapists must’ve already been bad people to some extent, or they wouldn’t have attacked Jennifer in the first place. (In Ebert’s review of the I Spit On Your Grave remake, he says of revenge “If I rape you, I have committed a crime. If you kill me, you have committed another one. The ideal outcome would be two people unharmed in the first place”. Yeah, but a rapist isn’t interested in that “ideal outcome”. Why should the person who was raped care if the rapist is unharmed, if the rapist doesn’t extend that same courtesy? Ideally, no one would be raped. Maybe Ebert should go back and give every movie involving revenge a “zero stars” rating.)
It could be that the inclusion of the rape itself is the biggest stumbling block in justifying I Spit On Your Grave. Rape happens in real life, but should it be used in a movie for the purpose of establishing the motivation for a character’s revenge? The murder of friends and loved ones is often used in movies as a motivation for revenge, but murder seems to be regarded as less offensive than rape (as Chris Rock has explained). Maybe the controversy isn’t over why anybody would want to watch I Spit On Your Grave, but more specifically why a male viewer would want to watch it. In Ebert’s review of the movie, he does mention the one female member of the audience who showed “feminist solidarity” for Jennifer by yelling “Cut him up, sister!”. Maybe that’s who the movie is intended for… It is possible that a male might enjoy watching both the revenge and the rape (or, even worse – just the rape). A female viewer, however, would presumably be entertained only by the revenge.
But, with movie viewers, as with movie characters, “there’s a billion different stories and possibilities”.
For Further Research
You can use the following to get a deeper perspective on some of the information/opinions I presented in the article.
- Joe Bob Briggs and Meir Zarchi commentaries on the I Spit On Your Grave Blu-Ray
- Films That Deserve to Be Revisited: I Spit On Your Grave
- No Masks: An Interview with Meir Zarchi, director of I Spit On Your Grave
- The B-Movie Catechism: I Spit On Your Grave
- The 50 Worst Sex Scenes in Cinema, #1-5
- A Second Take: Blue Velvet
- Irreversible Errors: Gaspar Noé’s Cinematic Rape