I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE
I Spit On Your Grave (1978) writ & dir. Meir Zarchi cine. Yuri Haviv star. Camille Keaton (Jennifer Hill), Eron Tabor (Johnny), Richard Pace (Matthew), Anthony Nichols (Stanley), Gunter Kleemann (Andy), Alexis Magnotti (wife)
generic essay: what I did on my summer holidays
I Spit On Your Grave: the sexual metaphor says it all. A gang of rural louts rape a nice looking young New Yorker who has retired for the summer to a secluded lakeside cottage to write her first novel, but they might as well have ejaculated onto their graves as they pay for their arrogance with their lives. Instead of writing her autobiographical fantasy, she finds herself choreographing a revenge tragedy in which the first person singular becomes the dominatrix in a sado-erotic morality play of such disturbing voyeurism we are forced to dismiss much of the action as infantile and improbable.
Zarchi's movie gains as much as it loses from its low-budget primitivism. One camera, no soundtrack music, and a cast of characters who might as well be nameless. The slow real time sequencing evokes both amateurism and voyeurism... as if we are watching something by accident rather than by design. This is good, actually, as we are forced to move past the surface politics of feminist outrage into the sub-text of natural selection and the impersonality of Nature.
What is civilization? Sex by consent, death by orgasm? Hunting in packs, eating in temples? The hunt, the sex, the kill. Everywhere the human spirit appears to be in contradiction with its idea of morality:
The Writer points her automatic pistol at the kneeling, naked auto Mechanic on an old logging road:
Writer: (sneers) Not guilty, of course.
Mechanic: (indignantly) The thing with you is a thing any man would've done... a man gets the message fast whether he's married or not... a man is just a man. You come into the gas station, you expose your damn sexy legs, walkin' back and forth real slow....
Once again we have the indignation of the sexual criminal that somehow he has been duped, that rape is merely the fulfillment of a universal invitation implicit in the female persona. It's this sort of raw objectivism that makes I Spit On Your Grave repugnant to the classic moralist and the contemporary social engineer alike. There's very little dialogue. The action is slow and brutal, like an exploratory game played by bored teenagers. In fact, it's a game that has been played by teenagers. The only variant is the revenge and murder exacted by the Writer (Camille Keaton) which raises the action into the blood consciousness of total war.
brutalism and the limits of human consciousness
The rape gang are an association of idiots, of course, and that this is their measurement is represented by the grocery delivery boy Matthew (Richard Pace) who is definitely two bricks short of a load. In terms of ensemble drama, he's the typical buffoon character who tippy-toes around the set like a kid who still thinks it's his birthday party. When his turn in the gang rape comes, he's unable to finish, as if orgasm would commit him to the irrevocable loneliness of adulthood. When the time for revenge comes, he is the first to die: forever the clown, he is lynch-fucked and cast into the lake by the whore he helped create. Orgasm? You bet.
Johnny (Eron Tabor), the bored mechanic from the aging gas station (that has the nostalgic appeal of an Edward Hopper painting), is the cunning predator and leader of the pack. His main characteristic is the fact that he never removes his steam engineer's cap even when he stripes down to rape Jennifer... or even later when she castrates him in the bath. His death is a lonely hemorrhage in the locked bathroom of the cottage as Jennifer listens to Puccini, her victim's screams merely part of the opera she is directing. True justice is poetic.
The other two incorrigibles are nondescript, staggered characterizations between the idiocy of Matthew and the predation of Johnny. They are mere outriders, part of the chorus in this evil design, pinions of the visual symbolism. The boat they use to torment Jennifer with is humorously phallic, its bow raised above the water in a crude anticipation of the sex hunt as they circle around yelping. While their deaths are less spectacular, they are no less ironic. Who can forget the image of the wronged woman speeding across the water in an aluminum boat towards the floundering men, an axe raised like a mythological figure from the pantheon of a new civilization? Yes, it's crude. Fantastic? Probably. But certainly not dishonest.
It's the post-rape sequences that test the naturalism and our moral patience. While the rapes are fairly convincing, the revenge is comedy, the director playing to his audience. While it might not have been Zarchi's intention, the Writer's revenge has to be considered part of the novel she is writing. We can accept the fact that she was raped, but her personal therapy can only be accepted as fiction. She has a hand gun, yet never fires it. If she had shot one or two of her assailants, i.e. executed the Mechanic when she had him on his knees on the back road, we would believe it. But that would be too dull, lacking irony and moral possibility. If revenge is the mother of invention, then fiction is the means by which it is fulfilled.
The clue that this is so is when Jennifer the Writer reassembles the pieces of her manuscript that her rapists have ripped and scattered. Their sins also include attempted murder. Instead of contacting the authorities when she recovers, she inserts a blank piece of paper in her typewriter and begins typing. Thus the revenge sequences commence.
The narrative moves from the masculine imperative to the female imperative.
The brutalism of the action commits this film to the Slasher genre, yet it cuts straight to the conscience, focuses the senses. No pretty boy police crusaders mar the action, no special effects dress the reality. It could be considered a crude photo-essay, "What I Did On My Summer Holidays". The genesis? An idle fantasy driven by sexual need. "You come from evil," Matthew says when Jennifer tells him she's from New York. But when he meets with Johnny and the others later, all he can say is, "I saw her tits."
Hmm. Men. And the gods who breed them.
© LR 27/9/99
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