Sunday, October 31, 2010

Article 300: My Life As I See "Saw"

For those who subscribe to the notion that movies like Saw constitute "torture porn", I offer you two rebuttals:,1,5805726.story

As I rode the train to see "Saw 3D", the seventh installment in the long-stand "Saw" horror franchise, I began to reflect on the different experiences I have had seeing each of the films for the very first time. Soon, it occurred to me that a mini-biography of the past half-decade of my life could be woven through the unique lens of each of those experiences. That realization was the genesis of the article written below.

Saw II & Saw

My introduction to this horror franchise actually came about with the second film rather than the first, when my college friend Brad introduced myself and my then-girlfriend Regina to "Saw II". The location was his immaculate dormitory room; the calendar date can be approximated as sometime in early 2006 (between February, when the DVD was released, and May, when I graduated from Bard College with a BA in History); and the mood can be described, with great understatement, as one of shock and revulsion.

Prior to "Saw II", I had spent most of my life harboring an aversion to cinematic blood and guts. While this trepidation had diminished somewhat by the time I found myself reclining on Brad's bed and watching a panicked half-naked police informant press a razor blade against his eye, seeing "Saw II" acted as a form of intense immersion therapy for me. By the time that movie was completed, I had become so sated with exposure to physical agony and gruesome mutilations that I would subsequently find it impossible to become too squeamish at future gorefests. If nothing else, I can comfortably say that once you've seen "Saw II", you can handle anything.

Yet the movie's impact on me went beyond simply callousing my previously sensitive visceral nerve endings. The philosophical premise articulated by that motion picture's antagonist, the eponymous Jigsaw Killer, had piqued my interest in the entire franchise. How often do you find a horror film that bases its premise not on some supernatural conceit or macabre "What if?", but rather on a sophisticated philosophical argument?

As I explained in a blog article reviewing "Saw VI":

According to the movies' antagonist, "The Jigsaw Killer" (whose identity is only revealed at the end of the first movie, which is why I won't betray his identity, motives, or backstory here), modern mankind has gradually lost touch with a key element in its identity - the survival instinct. Hence the serial killer targets individuals who he believes have shown a lack of appreciation for the lives they have been given. His goal is to teach them to truly be alive. And how does he propose to do that? Why, by putting them through Rube Goldbergesque contraptions that force them to brutally torture themselves and/or other people in all sorts of creative ways before the proverbial clocks runs out and they are killed. According to the Jigsaw thesis, emerging intact (relatively speaking) from such life-threatening trials will help his subjects to gain, I don't know, some perspective on things, with the resulting epiphany causing them to stop wasting their lives.

What Jigsaw's approach lacks in subtlety it more than makes up for in ingenuity. The subjects he chooses for his tests (or "games", as he prefers to call them) are guilty of all sorts of infractions that have led him to believe they are unappreciative of their own lives. Rapists, crooked cops, hit-and-run drivers, drug dealers, philandering doctors, neglectful fathers, faux suicidal yuppies, and corrupt city planners are just a few of those he believes, for reasons he explains with sinister eloquence, have failed to make good use of the fleshy real estate they currently occupy. Some of his subjects pass their "tests" and get to live; most of them are bloody failures (pun intended) and shuffle off this mortal coil. It's all very entertaining to watch, assuming you have a stomach for the grungy aesthetic, overflowing profanity, and copious quantities of blood and guts that accompany each installment.

This is not to say that the movies aren't a bit too prone to glaring logical errors, be they in the mechanics of the traps, the rationale behind the selection of its victims, or the often agonizingly convoluted plot developments (each installment contains its own unique narrative labyrinth, which in turn builds on and connects to the equally complicated stories from each of its predecessors). Yet they also offer a surprisingly insightful look at how Nietzschean ideas of the "superman" would work if applied to contemporary American archetypes. We often talk about the workaholic, the unfeeling doctor, the repeat penal offender, and the junkie as being "wastes of space" - but if that really were true, in its most hyperliteral sense, would Jigsaw's logical extrapolation of what should be done to "fix" them be that far off the mark?

My fascination in the films, which was whet by "Saw II", was finally confirmed by the first "Saw", which I rented from a video store several months after seeing its successor. The quality of the craftsmanship that had gone into developing the story and creating an appropriately foreboding movie atmosphere was undeniable in my eyes (although many movie critics, no doubt turned off by the goriness and susceptible to the elitist derision toward a genre inaccurately referred to as "torture porn", denied it in spades).

That said, I had yet to watch a "Saw" movie in theaters. Later in 2006, however, that fact would change. Indeed, unbeknowst to me, an annual tradition - one that would be followed for five successive autumns - was about to begin. What's more, each "Saw"-based outing would carry with it experiences that epitomized the different phase of my life at which I found myself as I went to see "Saw".

Saw III:

Prior to seeing "Saw III", I had read in various movie reviews that the opening scenes would continue the story of a character whose fate had been left uncertain at the end of the previous film. Naturally this increased my curiosity about the new movie, which I went to see in an upstate New York theater with Brad.

At the time, I was a graduate student in a Master's/Doctoral program at American University for history. I was also abjectly miserable, knowing full well that - while being a history professor was certainly one possible career route for me - there were plenty of others (including being a playwright or working in politics) that also had great appeal, and yet which I felt were being implicitly ruled out. This feeling of dormant but ever-rising despair defined my emotional life in the autumn of 2006 and, consequently, saw me undergoing the closest thing I have ever had to a genuine midlife (or in my case, quarterlife) crisis.

Those concerns were swept away as soon as I entered the theater - and they were, for an hour-and-a-half, replaced by sympathy for a man poignantly depicted as drowning in grief and rage at the untimely death of his young son, horror at the particularly brutal death of a character who had been with the franchise since its inception (one that gave new meaning to the expression "Spill your guts"), and frustration that the fate of the character left behind from the second film remained maddeningly ambiguous by the time the end credits began to roll on this one. As Brad and I drove away from the multiplex, he remarked to me that anyone who could be interested in the "Saw" movies was absolutely sick (a comment fraught with irony given his own enthusiasm when he introduced me to the films). While I could have tried to rebut his comment, I decided it would be wiser to keep my thoughts to myself. Instead I began to wonder if, in the fourth "Saw" movie (assuming they made one), the narrative thread involving that one compelling character would actually be tied up.

Saw IV:

This movie has two main distinctions for me:

- It is the first movie I ever saw in theaters on my own (something that would be the case for all of the future "Saw" films).

- It is one of the few movies I have ever seen in theaters more than once, although this last fact was not by design.

Autumn 2007 saw me in a very different state than the one in which I had found myself one year earlier. I had since then dropped out of graduate school and seized aggressive control over my own destiny. That was the good news; the bad news was that, at this particular time, that destiny had left me in the clutches of a miserable job at the Department of Veterans Affairs, a lonely and cramped apartment in Montclair, NJ, and a social life that consisted mainly of treks to upstate New York - where my then-girlfriend and half of my friends resided - and all-too-rare forays to Easton, PA, where the other half of my friends could be found.

Thus "Saw IV" offered another welcome respite from the banality of my day-to-day existence. Once again, my first introduction to the film occurred in a multiplex in upstate New York, where my then-girlfriend, myself, and several other friends had decided to go to the movies. While I don't remember the motion picture they had decided to see, I do recall that it was one in which I was very distinctly uninterested. Since I had been eagerly awaiting the sequel to "Saw III" ever since I had heard that it would, at last, bring resolution to the story of the character left over from the denouement of "Saw II", I decided to buy a ticket to that show instead.

This proved to be a mistake for three reasons:

- I had already agreed to see "Saw IV" with a co-worker of mine who shared an interest in the franchise, and since I didn't know at that time if I would enjoy the movie, it was a serious lapse in financial judgment to commit myself to spending money on tickets for it twice.

- While I did wind up feeling that "Saw IV" had much to its credit (an interesting and engaging plot, genuinely inventive and frightening horror set-ups, competent directing and acting), I was deeply disappointed by the manner in which the character-of-interest's storyline was brought to its close... and, thanks to my circumstances, had no one to whom I could vent my anger!

- As it turns out, it wasn't a good idea to have my first solo theatrical experience be one with a movie whose highlights included a scene in which a young woman was slowly scalped alive while strapped to a metal chair. I still feel guilty over the mess of popcorn and half-eaten Twizzlers I left for the hapless custodian.

Of course, it would have been rude of me to welsh on seeing "Saw IV" again with my co-worker, who was determined to see it. Yet even though my silly pride prohibited me from showing him how deeply some of "Saw IV"'s more graphic scenes had rattled me, the second viewing experience at least allowed me to have a partner with whom I could share my thoughts about the story.

Saw V:

Whereas my anticipation for "Saw III" and "Saw IV" had been very high, I had lost much of my enthusiasm by the time "Saw V" opened wide. Exacerbating this sense of disinterest was the fact that, by the autumn of 2008, I was not only passionately engaged in the outcome of the Obama-McCain election, but personally overwhelmed by my responsibilities as a field organizer for the State Senate campaign of Kristen McElroy.

The year separating "Saw IV" from "Saw V" had brought a lot of major personal changes for me. My job at the Department of Veterans Affairs was a thing of the past; a five month period of unemployment immediately followed, followed by three weeks as a temp-to-perm typist at TransPerfect Translations, a linguistic company centered in downtown Manhattan; and then, after the economy went south following the Wall Street meltdown of September 2008, I had been laid off from TransPerfect, only to rebound a few days later by being offered the political job for the Democratic longshot in this historically Republican Long Island state legislative district.

My work with McElroy for State Senate proved to be among the richest and most rewarding of my life - and, just as noteworthy, the most taxing. The relatively relaxing forty hour work weeks to which I had grown accustomed became a thing of the past; in their stead I found myself pushing my capacities and resources to their limit, working full throttle seven days a week for fourteen hours a day, with an hour-and-a-half long commute to and from my apartment bookending this daily ordeal. This lasted for nearly five weeks, during which time my only relief came from phone chats with my then-girlfriend Regina and my longtime close friend Brian.

Valuable though those regular chats may have been, I soon found that they weren't enough. The toll of having kept my foot pressed firmly down on my personal pedal was beginning to become obvious; sleepless nights followed hard-to-suppress lunches and strange periods of numbness in my upper arms and wrists. The stress over worrying about the fate of my local candidate (who eventually lost) and of the national candidate for whom I had worked even when he was an underdog in the presidential primaries (and who, of course, ultimately won) only made these burdens that much harder to bear.

In short, when "Saw V" was released in theaters on October 24, 2008, I knew that I needed to use seeing it as an excuse to take a break from the strenuous labor to which I had committed myself. Thus I found myself making a cold, solitary midnight foray to a Manhattan movie theater and buying a lone ticket to "Saw V" less than two hours after I had been dropped off in the city by the McElroy campaign manager.

Whether my thorough enjoyment of that film was derived from my need to unwind or my craving for a cathartic release for my anger at Sarah Palin, Joe the Plumber, and Kemp Hannon (Kristen McElroy's opponent), I can't say. All I know is the movie itself was well-written, well-acted, well-shot, and thus entirely deserving of credit for the great time that I had while watching it.

Saw VI:

Despite having deeply enjoyed "Saw V", I was still initially unsure as to whether I would be up for "Saw VI". With the exception of the fate of a character who had seemingly survived the end of the first "Saw" movie but then been dropped altogether from the movies (in part due to contractual disputes with the actor who depicted him), all of the major plot threads had been resolved by the end of the fifth film. What could possibly exist in a sixth entry that could fan my interest?

Then I saw an online trailer revealing that "Saw VI" would dedicate much of its plot to social commentary on the issue of health care reform, the hot button political topic of 2009 and one about which I had deeply cared ever since the days when I played John Edwards in a mock Democratic presidential debate five years earlier.

Most of my thoughts on "Saw VI" can found here -

Apart from those musings, all that I need to add is that, after leaving the theater at which I viewed it, I found myself approached by a man in a maroon vest who asked me to take a poll regarding my thoughts on the film. Apparently he was an employee for CinemaScore, a major research firm that conducts political style exit polls in order to gauge audience reactions toward widely released films. After giving "Saw VI" an 'A' in every category, I walked out of the theater happy that I had actually found myself on the receiving end of a survey, since prior to then I had spent most of my life reading them and wondering who the hell those people were who actually took them. To this day, "Saw VI" is the only movie for which I ever participated (or was even asked to participate) in a major poll.

Oh, and where was my personal life at the time I saw "Saw VI"? I was unemployed (and had been for nearly a year, a situation caused by the defeat of my political candidate), excitedly awaiting the professional roundtabling of one of my plays ("The Anthill"), just as eagerly in the process of developing a second piece ("The Lawmaker"), and less than three months away from a long-awaited trip to Israel. While I couldn't say that things in my life were going well, I could at least take comfort in knowing that I was far removed from my personal nadir.

Saw 3D:

By the time I saw this movie in theaters, I had lost my relationships with the two individuals who had been with me when I was first exposed to the "Saw" universe: Brad had long since turned me off with his erratic and emotionally volatile behavior; my then-girlfriend Regina had abruptly terminated our relationship and, despite initially professing an interest in a friendship, had so shocked and repulsed me with a streak of inexplicable anger and hostility that I had decided her irrationality rendered her unworthy of further friendly gestures.

On the upshot, I was no longer unemployed. After realizing that what mattered most to me was having a sense of personal control over my life, I decided that I truly did want to go to graduate school and study to become a history professor, since doing so would not (as I had once feared) require me to jettison the playwriting and political ambitions that were so important to me. As such, October 2010 found me living on the campus of Rutgers-Newark and putting in strong performances in all of my major classes, with a span of just over a year separating me from my Master's Degree in History and admission (hopefully) to a doctoral program.

Just as important was the fact that I was still passionately engaged in politics, as evidenced by my contributions to the campus newspaper (I had written political op-eds for college publications since my freshman year at Bard College), my countless conversations on political subjects, my own unending personal studies, and my oft-updated blog. I continued to work on my playwriting goals, as I was planning on completing my black notebook and green folder of dozens of story ideas, beginning work on a third play, and continuing to submit "The Anthill" to new venues. Finally, I had emerged from the pains and setbacks that I had endured over the previous four years not only intact, but stronger and wiser than I had been before.

Of course, I was still depressed that my Halloween this year was bound to be a lonely experience. Even as I saw my friends heading off to jubilant and raucous parties (or, as is the case with my Pennsylvania comrades, basking in the afterglow of their expedition to our nation's capital for Jon Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity"), I knew that I would be spending October 31st alone and without any activities with which I could celebrate this great holiday.

Fortunately, my mother - upon hearing about my plight - took pity on me and offered to front me the money so that I could see the seventh and final "Saw" movie in theaters. I say "final" because, by all reliable reports, the poor financial performance of the previous "Saw" film (the first in the franchise to be a failure at the box office) had made it necessary for this installment to be the last in the "Saw" cinematic canon. Adding a bright spot to this otherwise gloomy news was the fact that the fate of the character whose story had been left without closure at the end of the first "Saw" film was at last going to be revealed - and, while the storyteller in me refuses to spoil the contents of that revelation to those who may wish to see these movies, suffice to say that I was very pleased with how they ended his story, as well as that of the "Saw" franchise overall. In stark contrast to my sentiments while exiting the theater after "Saw IV", I walked away from "Saw 3D" feeling happy that a story which I had followed for nearly five years had ended itself with a finale that could leave me feeling satisfied instead of let down.

"Saw 3D" also marked another first in my moviegoing life - i.e., the first time that I won a T-shirt for seeing a movie. For reasons that remain unclear to me, the theater on 34th Street in Manhattan gave away "Saw 3D" shirts to those who attended the 3:45 showing. Yet while it would be appropriate to end this article with a humorous comment about that development - something to the effect of, "I sat through all seven 'Saw' movies and all I got was this lousy T-shirt" - that wouldn't really be true. Not only has my fandom of the "Saw" films provided me with more than ten hours of great (albeit cringingly bloodsoaked) entertainment, but they also rewarded me with excellent stories regarding when I saw each movie for the first time. All of those tales will be forever etched into my memory, reminding me not only of the experiences I have had, but of who I was and what my life was like when I had them.

Surveying the sweep of my personal narrative, even through the prism of the "Saw" films, may not be the most pleasant experience for me, but at least it helps me cherish my life - something that, ironically, is entirely consistent with the Jigsaw Killer's message.

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