Friday February 26, 1999
Those foolhardy enough to place themselves at the mercy of "8MM" can expect the following emotions: disgust and revulsion, then anger, followed by a profound and disheartening sadness. There are some films whose existence makes the world a worse place to live, and this is one of them.
Disgust and revulsion because what director Joel Schumacher and company have created is a torture chamber of a film that mercilessly drags us through expensively re-created worlds of vivid sadomasochism, extreme bondage and worse as private eye Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage) tries to determine if a snuff film in his possession really shows a young woman being brutalized and killed. The truth is, after watching repeated glimpses of that stomach-turning horror show shot on 8-millimeter stock, as well as several other equally revolting items Welles turns up, it's hard to care. What's more to the point is why this film, which features women being graphically abused and tormented, that demeans the humanity in everyone in hopes of titillating an audience and earning a healthy return on investment, was ever made. During a sequence in Manhattan's meat-packing district, where sides of beef are trundled through the streets, the thought is inescapable that while government standards exist even for carcasses, there are apparently no limits to the degrading things women--and men, for that matter--can be put through on screen.
That's where the anger comes in, anger against Sony, which inexplicably put tens of millions of dollars into an unapologetically sleazy ordeal that delights in twisting the knife, a tawdry piece of work whose only raison d'e^tre is making the skin crawl in the name of box-office profit. If interviews are to be believed, Schumacher, Cage et al. consider this wretched business to be some kind of demented public service, a cautionary tale / wake-up call for a presumably somnolent America. A theory, no surprise, that the film in question in no way supports.
Just as much anger is directed toward a bankrupt MPAA rating system that gave "8MM" an R, a system that's gotten used to making deals and changing ratings for a cut here and a cut there. The ratings board has become so compliant with the major studios that it can't see the forest for the trees; it no longer has the stomach to insist that a film that graphically investigates the dehumanizing ultra-violent world of snuff films ought to have an NC-17 placed on it no matter what nips and tucks the studio coyly agrees to make.
The sadness comes from the realization that we are now imprisoned in a thoughtlessly amoral movie culture that considers films like this to be just swell, a culture that lionizes "8MM" screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, who made his career with the equally off-putting "Seven." Shamelessly pushing the envelope for what's acceptable on screen, celebrating every opportunity to creep audiences out more than they've ever been creeped out before, today's cutting-edge movies are well on their way to cutting their own throats.
Because it knows where it's headed, "8MM" makes a point of establishing Welles as a four-square family man who lives in rural Harrisburg, Penn., with his wife, Amy (Catherine Keener, wasted in a whiny part), and a baby daughter he adores. At least the film attempts to do this, but creating convincing normalcy is not something these folks are particularly good at.
As he dutifully follows the usual private eye routine of documenting adultery, Welles acts like a respectful zombie, polite and well-spoken. That attitude doesn't change when he gets called to an enormous estate where the recently widowed Mrs. Christian (Myra Carter), a wealthy woman with the demeanor of Eleanor Roosevelt, and her attorney Longdale (Anthony Heald), are in need of his assistance.
It seems that a tin of 8mm footage was found in the late Mr. Christian's private safe, a tin containing what appears to be an actual murder on film. Welles pooh-poohs this in theory, talking as knowledgeably as any critic about fake blood and special effects, but one glance at the footage, which begins with a petrified girl and a menacing man in a leather hood fondly examining a wide selection of terrifying knives, starts to change his mind.
Mrs. Christian wants to know if this film is real or not, and Welles, intrigued, takes the case, telling her he will treat it like any other missing person's investigation. And, in two shakes of a dominatrix's whip, he's discovered that the girl in question is a teenage runaway who's left behind a grieving mother (Amy Morton) in a naive quest for movie stardom.
Next stop is that well-known sinkhole and moral graveyard, Hollywood, where Welles connects with Max California (Joaquin Phoenix), an adult-bookstore clerk who reveals himself to be a cut above the rest because he's reading Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" instead of your run-of-the-mill dirty book.
With Max as his guide, Welles descends into all the circles of porno hell, visiting outre bondage clubs, watching S&M films, hearing discussions of child pornography, observing rooms full of masturbating men. "There's things you're going to see that you can't unsee, that you can't get out of your head," Max tells him. "If you dance with the devil, the devil doesn't change, the devil changes you."
This kind of bleak voyeurism not only alienates an audience, it also distances Welles from his grumpy wife back home in Pennsylvania. Eventually the trail leads to pornmeisters Eddie Poole (James Gandolfini) and Dino Velvet (Peter Stormare), inanely described by Max as "the Jim Jarmusch of porn." There's also a human killing machine charmingly known as Machine (Chris Bauer), whose arrival signals the addition of excessive beatings and physical violence to the film's attractions.
Given that Schumacher and his cohorts have reasons of their own for wanting to make this film, they may be the only people who end up liking it. Even the most powerful microscope couldn't discover what's in this demeaning ordeal for anyone else.
8MM, 1999. R, for strong perverse sexuality and violence, and for strong language. A Hofflund/Polone production, a Columbia Picture, released by Sony Pictures Entertainment. Director Joel Schumacher. Producers Gavin Polone, Judy Hofflund, Joel Schumacher. Executive producer Joseph M. Caracciolo. Screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker. Cinematographer Roger Elswit. Editor Mark Stevens. Costumes Mona May. Music Mychael Danna. Production design Gary Wissner. Art director Gershon F. Ginsburg. Set decorator Gary Fettis. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes. Nicolas Cage as Tom Welles. Joaquin Phoenix as Max California. James Gandolfini as Eddie Poole. Peter Stormare as Dino Velvet. Anthony Heald as Longdale. Chris Bauer as Machine. Catherine Keener as Amy Welles.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times