Matthew Wrather hosts with Matthew Belinkie and Mark Lee to discuss the deeper meanings of the Saw franchise and with Peter Fenzel for a firsthand report from the Rally to Restore Sanity.[audio:http://www.podtrac.com/pts/redirect.mp3/traffic.libsyn.com/mwrather/otip122.mp3]
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About the question what larger cultural anxiety might be behind the Saw movies: One obvious answer is of course the fear of torture. The cases of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have shown us that we live in times when even in democratic societies you cannot be absolutely sure to be free from torture.
But I would argue that there is a much more deeper meaning in these films (even though I haven’t seen any of them and don’t intend to do so). But as Matt portrayed them as an extension of Fight Club, I would argue that the deeper anxiety behind the Saw movies is the fear of meaninglessness. If it is true that we live in generally safe times and are all materially secured, that there are no more important quests in life, then this of course leads to a certain anxiety: The fear that there is nothing to live for. In Fight Club, we se one person’s struggle with this fear, and his “solution” is to create a split persona who is not afraid of this emptiness.
In the Saw movies, we can see people being pushed with their face down deep into this question of meaning. Just like the old “atomic monster” horror films, the audience’s diffuse anxiety and fear of nuclear power / loss of meaning in life is distilled and compressed and as an audience, we get to watch other people being put into situations where they face this fear in its purest form. Catharsis.
Oh, and here’s a link to a list with lots of funny signs from the rally to restore sanity and/or fear.
Right. My own answer, which we never got to on the show, was that the movies have to do with the fear that we are, in some fundamental way, powerless over the course and meaning of our lives — that life is, in some sense, a kind of sadistic trap.
I would probably link this to the decades-in-the-making disintegration of superstructures like religion that have traditionally provided some of this kind of meaning.
Interesting interpretation! How exactly would you link the disintegration of superstructures to a feeling of powerlessness? If anything, shouldn’t the abolition of institutions that tell you how to live your life lead to freedom? I know that this isn’t necessarily the case, I’d just be interested in your line of argument…
I’ve been thinking about Matt’s question: what IS the underlying fear that the Saw movies tap into? It’s a great question, one that I wasn’t prepared to answer at the time. It probably deserves its own article, but Halloween’s over and I’m moving on to overthinking Minecraft.
I think there’s a legit argument to be made that the Saw movies are just torture and plot twists, signifying nothing. They DON’T represent anything real – they’re just empty calories.
But let me toss a theory out there. One constant theme of the movies is that EVERYONE deserves to be in the traps. There are no upright, well-adjusted human beings. Let’s put aside the people who are there because they committed actual crimes. There are a few people who are there because they cheated on their spouses. Some of the cops get tested because they have an unhealthy obsession with their jobs. Someone is in there because he cannot move on after the death of his son. Other people, because they work as secretaries at a health insurance company with unfair rules.
You can argue, probably successfully, that most or all of these people don’t deserve to be in these traps. But for the most part, the victims themselves don’t make that argument. In at least a few of the movies, I remember the people being tested admitting that they deserve to suffer when faced with the consequences of their behavior.
And maybe that’s it. Saw is anchored by this sneaking suspicion that none of us – NONE of us – deserve our cushy, comfortable lives. We’re all sinners. We’re all ungrateful. There’s this overwhelming sense of middle class guilt. You sit down in your Lexus, and you wake up in a dungeon, confronted with the these grainy black and white photos that break down your own inflated self-image.
Ever since my girlfriend and I started watching these films, we like to joke about why Jigsaw would test US. Is it because I never exercise and eat nothing but junk food? Is it because she procrastinates by watching hours of Law and Order? We’re sort of joking, but we’re sort of not. Is there ANYONE out there who doesn’t feel, on some level, that they are wasting their lives?
What you have just described is part of the catharsis phenomenon (only without the relief part at the end…). I do have the feeling that I’m wasting my life from time to time, but I don’t want to watch a movie were a perverted psychopath uses this (perfectly normal, in my opinion) anxiety to conduct his experiments. I reserve the right to waste my life – well, not entirely, but at times, yes. I defy anyone trying to force-tell me what to do with it.
I agree that everyone is a “sinner” (maybe even Ghandi and Mother Theresa), but I reject the idea that we need to be put in cruel torturous situations to learn better. If, as you say, EVERYONE deserves to be in the traps, why didn’t jigsaw first make a trap for himself? And no, the cancer doesn’t count.
Maybe I am taking these movies too seriously. But as you seem to see a serious meaning in them, I feel I need to respond to that.
I could have chosen my words more carefully. I don’t think that ANYONE deserves to be in the traps. The traps are just horrible. But I do feel that good horror stories take real anxieties, and MAGNIFY them. Frankenstein was scary because people really were afraid of how technology could blur the lines between science and God (it’s still scary for the same reason). Dracula was scary because people were afraid of sexuality, especially female sexuality.
So I’m not saying Jigsaw is RIGHT to torture people. I’m saying that the movies are effective in part because, as you say, we all feel like we’re wasting our lives sometimes. That’s the real anxiety that makes things interesting.
And Jigsaw’s own test was when he drove his car off a cliff to try to kill himself. To his surprise, he finds the strength to pull himself out of the wreckage, and he’s reborn. It’s a very interesting coincidence that the same thing happens in Fight Club. Edward Norton purposely crashes his car. “Goddamn,” Tyler Durden says. “We’ve just had a near-life experience!”
Now imagine if Edward Norton decided that EVERYONE needs to be in a car crash, and goes around cutting people’s brakes. That’s Saw.
Because the superstructures of our societies are decaying organically, like Jigsaw’s many, many, many deserted industrial hiding places…or are these superstructures themselves the trap? A trap we as a culture constructed out of shortsighted ignorance and a lack of imagination?
On ‘Why Not Ask Fenzel’ as a podcast, it sounds quite like Answer Me This! answermethispodcast.com which I love, and would perfectly enjoy another version thereof.
I’m listening to an interview with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Flea kinda sounds like Belinkie.
Awesome. I AM extremely funky.