This article will be discussing a number of films known for their explicit violent and sexual content. Reader discretion is advised.
I Spit On Your Grave and Blue Velvet share a number of things in common: Both films controversially depict the victimization of women. Both films were panned by Roger Ebert on moral grounds for how the victimization of the women was depicted. Both directors, Meir Zarchi and David Lynch, claim that the controversial content in their films was inspired by a real-life, personal event. Also, both directors ended up marrying the actresses, Camille Keaton and Isabella Rossellini, who portrayed the victimized women. (Keaton and Rossellini both came from families already established in the movie business. Isabella Rossellini is the daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini. Camille Keaton is the grand-niece of Buster Keaton.)
While I will be addressing the general criticisms of Blue Velvet and I Spit On Your Grave, my main focus will be on Roger Ebert’s reviews, as he has been particularly vocal in his dislike of both films. There has been a great deal written about these movies, so taking into account all the possible theories and interpretations would probably take up too much space. Instead, I’m going to compare and contrast similar movies while using Ebert’s reviews to frame the article. My goal is to determine which of the films actually is most deserving of its scandalous reputation based on its actual content, after cutting through all the external controversy.
Straight away, I think we can all agree that sexual assault is reprehensible. I’ve heard people question I Spit On Your Grave’s status as a controversial film because the vast majority of the population already agrees that rape is wrong. Rape isn’t controversial. While I agree with that assessment, the sexual violence alone in I Spit On Your Grave isn’t what catapulted the movie into infamy. Rather, it was how the rape of the Jennifer (Camille Keaton) character, and her subsequent revenge, were presented (and how critics, like Roger Ebert, reacted to how they were presented). Based on my reading of various analyses/criticisms of the film, here are some common reasons as to why I Spit On Your Grave might offend viewers:
1. Lack of a musical score
In the book Sleaze Artists, there is an essay entitled Troubling Synthesis: The Horrific Sights and Incompatible Sounds of Video Nasties that discusses how the use of music influences a viewer’s interpretation of the events in a film. If you watch most Hollywood movies, the musical score usually gives the person watching cues as to how they should feel about what they are seeing. If there is something sad taking place, then the movie will employ solemn music. If there is something exciting, then the music will be appropriately uptempo. In I Spit On Your Grave, there are no musical cues to guide the viewer’s interpretation. Because the scenes of sexual violence and calculated revenge are so stark, the lack of music as a moral compass may cause some viewers to feel uncomfortable. The movie itself seems to be immoral because there is no musical condemnation of the violent acts. (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is another movie containing extreme violence without a score that also met with controversy).
2. Duration of the sexual assault
The gang rape in I Spit On Your Grave is the most notorious portion of the movie (followed by the castration scene). Depending on how one chooses to time it, the length of Jennifer’s sexual assault runs from roughly 20-25 minutes in length. By the time it’s over, she is covered in blood and dirt and has suffered through considerable abuse. The whole ordeal is shot in a matter-of-fact, lingering fashion. Because of this, there have been complaints directed at the movie claiming that it condones violence against women. Whether showing the rape in such gruelling detail was a valid artistic decision is debatable, but I cannot imagine that most viewer’s will be titillated by it or identify with Jennifer’s assailants. There’s one part during the assault where Jennifer screams in agony that is more haunting than any other movie moment I can readily think of. (NOTE: The Day of the Woman horror blog is written by a female fan of I Spit On Your Grave. So, the movie must hold some appeal beyond just men watching it for sick thrills.)
Meir Zarchi has explained that his inspiration for making I Spit On Your Grave came from his harrowing encounter with a real woman who was raped. It was his intention to express the horrors of rape that he witnessed through the film. Not that a director’s intentions is always a valid justification for a movie’s content, but Zarchi claims that he did have a purpose for portraying the rape as he did. It is worth mentioning that I Spit On Your Grave was originally released under the less exploitative title Day of the Woman. Distributors of the film changed the title to attract a bigger audience, and came up with the misleading tagline “This woman has just cut, chopped, broken and burned five men beyond recognition… but no jury in America would ever convict her!” (there are only four men, and none get burned). Zarchi says he didn’t approve of the title change or how the film was marketed.
This trailer also exaggerates or misrepresents the tone and content of the film:
3. Jennifer’s method of revenge
Before the movie turns nasty, the Jennifer character is shown to be a good-natured and open-minded woman. Her initial interactions with the rapists before they start plotting to brutalize her are innocent and friendly. So, the only real “failings” Jennifer has are that she’s attractive, somewhat naive, and from the big city. The motivations of her attackers for subjecting her to prolonged humiliation and abuse are impossible to defend. So, after being dehumanized and tortured by four men for no reason, Jennifer is understandably no longer good-natured. While some viewers might consider the act of revenge itself to be objectionable, I’ve read a few reviews that question the manner in which Jennifer goes about her revenge. She doesn’t just go out and kill the bastards, but uses her sexuality to seduce the men before killing them. Some reviewers scoff at the idea of a woman behaving sexually toward the men who raped her, even if it was for the purpose of luring them to their doom.
Now, it could be argued that Jennifer starts out the movie as an uninhibited, confident women who has an healthy sense of her femininity and sexuality. She apparently hasn’t encountered any situations in the past that have given her cause to act guarded around men. After she is attacked, Jennifer’s once healthy feminine disposition twists into something dark and predatory. The rapists corrupted her sense of self, and so she uses that corruption against them. Perhaps, though, if one looks at the movie that way, the whole revenge seems more tragic than cathartic. Which, I suppose, might make the movie objectionable to viewers who prefer happy endings. Since the movie never explicitly lets on to what Jennifer is thinking, it’s difficult to interpret her actions (the ambiguity of which also might vex viewers). Maybe, because she’s a writer, she just wanted the deaths of the rapists to be symbolic, and so that’s why she killed them as she did.
4. Roger Ebert
Ebert had a big enough role in generating controversy that he deserves individual recognition.
In his 1980 review of the film, he calls it “a vile bag of garbage”. He declares that “There is no reason to see this movie except to be entertained by the sight of sadism and suffering.” Ebert also mentions how he was disturbed by an audience member who was rooting for the rapists. Interestingly, both Ebert and fellow Chicago movie critic Gene Siskel blasted I Spit On Your Grave – not just its offensive content, but also for the behavior of the theater audiences. They were so disturbed by their overall experience with the film that they even campaigned to have it pulled from movie houses. However, their efforts to discourage others from seeing I Spit On Your Grave may have ultimately attracted a wider audience than if they hadn’t protested it at all. In this Obsessed with Film interview, director Meir Zarchi credits Siskel and Ebert as “the best promoters ever for this movie”.
It appears that there are two major objections raised against Blue Velvet :
1. Disturbing depiction of sexuality
Blue Velvet starts out as a mystery involving a severed human ear. Jeffery, a college student (Kyle MacLachlan), discovers the body part and brings it to the attention of a police detective. The plot thickens when the detective’s daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern), clues Jeffrey in about nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens (Rossellini), who might be involved with the case. Jeffrey takes it upon himself to investigate Vallens, which leads him to into the bizarre and depraved criminal underbelly of his seemingly normal small town. One night, after breaking into her apartment and spying on her from the living room closet, Jeffrey gets his first glimpse of the maniac Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). Booth verbally and physically abuses Vallens, while referring to her as “mommy” and himself as “baby”. As it turns out, Booth has kidnapped Vallens’ husband and son in order to force her to be his sex slave. Making the situation even more disturbing, Dorothy seems to masochistically enjoy Frank’s violent treatment of her. After witnessing their twisted interaction, Jeffrey forms a sexual relationship with Vallens that is both protective and sadomasochistic. She frequently begs him to hit her and talks about wanting Jeffrey’s “disease” inside of her. Because of these sorts of scenes, Blue Velvet has been accused of misogyny by some critics.
2. Isabella Rossellini’s nude scene
Roger Ebert’s 1986 review primarily criticizes how the dark and disturbing content in the film is undermined by the flippant injections of humor. In particular, he felt that Isabella Rossellini’s emotionally challenging performance and graphic nude scenes were demeaned because the subject matter wasn’t taken as seriously as it should have been. Ebert elaborates further on his position in this follow up article, which also includes an excerpt from a conversation he had with David Lynch. The scene in Blue Velvet that Ebert is most bothered by involves Rossellini appearing completely naked on a front lawn, which he believes to be unwarranted. Lynch explains in the article that he once saw a distraught naked woman walking down the street at night when he was young. The memory was so upsetting that it stayed with him, and apparently that’s why he chose to include the nude Rossellini scene.
In yet another article written by Ebert over ten years later, he brings up Isabella Rossellini’s new autobiography in which she discusses her feelings about the nude scene. According to her, it was an uncomfortable experience because she was concerned about how her family would react when they saw the movie. Also, there was a crowd of strangers watching that stayed around even after she asked them to leave. The reason Ebert objected to the scene in the first place was because he felt that it was humiliating to Rossellini, and, according to her autobiography, she actually did feel humiliated. Ebert then goes on to admit that he gave Blue Velvet a low rating based mostly on his negative feelings about that scene rather than on the overall quality of the film.
Here is Isabella Rossellini talking about Blue Velvet in 2002:
While Siskel and Ebert were unified in their disgust over I Spit On Your Grave, they disagreed over Blue Velvet. This is the episode of their TV program where they discuss the film and Rossellini:
Check back next week for part two, where we discuss how movies like Deliverance, The Last House on the Left, Irreversible, and Last Tango in Paris fit into the equation, as well as the verdict on the controversial clash between Blue Velvet and I Spit On Your Grave.