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The Guardian's new film critic Peter Bradshaw watches Nic Cage
ham his way through the porn-filled underworld
The Guardian: Friday April 23, 1999
Do snuff movies really exist? Well for heaven's sake - one is tempted to reply - who cares about an issue as quaint as that, now that explicit violence in the movies is realer than the real thing, anyway? Incredibly, snuff porn, with its alleged scenes of authentic degradation, used to be a semi-serious topic of dinner party conversation in the seventies and early eighties, with solemn and scandalised talk about how just viewing such movies made you legally liable as an "accessory after the fact".
Or something. Snuff porn has since been declared a tacky and prurient urban myth, but an unfortunate process of re-mystification seems to be underway with Joel Schumacher's 8mm, starring Nicolas Cage.
Cage, at his most slack-jawed and haunted, plays a private detective employed by a dead billionaire's widow to view the contents of the late mogul's safe: a sickening five-minute home-movie apparently showing a terrified teenage girl getting raped and slashed - for real. Cage's mission is to track down the girl, to find her alive and well, and so assure the old lady that this horrible film is just pretend. After a remarkably lucky break in the Missing Persons Bureau, Cage heads off on his grisly journey into the porn/crime underworld, with the aid of Joaquin Phoenix as the sulky punk porn-store attendant, playing Virgil to his Dante. The family man Cage is keen to climb aboard that old fascination/revulsion treadmill and he drives down neon avenues of self-loathing, getting deeper and deeper in, that ghastly home movie flickering continually in his head.
"Eight millimetre" alludes to the gauge of both film stock and weaponry, and implies an occult conflation of violence and cinematic voyeurism. This seems a little dated, now that contemporary porn is the province of video and the net. And yet nothing in those media compares to the corrupt and seedy theatrical glamour of celluloid porn, its jumpy screen flecked with grain and shame.
What a classic moment it always is in the movies when the camera turns back to capture the tatty circumstances of projection itself: the thin beam of light in the blackness, refracted through the projectionist's glass partition, the cigarette smoke, the abject clientele's ghostly pallor - it is always a signifier for a shameful type of film. And always there is that remorseless sprockety whirr of the reels: it was to this industrial soundtrack that Karl Böhm in Michael Powell's Peeping Tom exults in anguish over his home movie showing him murdering a prostitute; it is to this grimly impassive sound that George C Scott tries to rescue his daughter from the porn trade in Paul Schrader's Hardcore.
Added to these resonances, there is the idea of an illegal porn film's thrilling hiddenness: enthralling, legendary, fetishistic. Don DeLillo's novel Running Dog about a supposed underground porn film starring Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun covered this territory - albeit with very much more bizarre wit and style than 8mm manages - and from the canon of real life, there is the screen-test footage taken in the sixties of Lord "Lucky" Lucan gamely trying out for the role of James Bond.
It is across this seedy landscape of contemporary paranoia that Cage is dispatched on his unwholesome quest. And if it were more intelligently and daringly played, 8mm could conceivably have been an intriguing thriller in the Michael Powell class.
Instead, it is a boring, nasty and dishonest mess from first to last. 8mm invites us in the most hamfisted way to get our kicks from this squalid underworld while remaining officially disgusted: there turns out to be no subtly ambiguous "fascination" on the part of our horse-faced avenging protagonist. When he views the film for the first time, and the nasty bits come, Cage gives the hammiest and most unconvincing of winces. He winces like he's at a Rada wince workshop. Having thus presented his moral credentials, he ranges around the sleazy-scum universe, chancing upon improbable leads and generally insulting our intelligence with the implausibility of the plot.
Finally, he discovers that the movie was indeed real. So what does he do? He calls up the dead girl's mom and elicits her tearful permission to kill her daughter's murderers, a task he tackles with much righteousness. Then, well and truly freaked out by his season in hell, he retreats to his wife and infant daughter, wailing "Save me!" They (apparently) oblige, for the next thing we know he is ambling out to the mailbox like any regular family man - evidently the police have not fingered him as a murderer - and finds a letter from the dead girl's mom, warmly congratulating him on his actions. Cage's wife smiles out at him from the house; he smiles back; credits.
This bogus sentimental ending, as well as being grotesquely fraudulent, underscores a larger obtuseness: here is a sleek Hollywood movie smugly telling us that hateful exploitation is the exclusive province of a luridly imagined underground. But how about the over-ground? How about the respectable world of Natural Born Killers and Child's Play 3? Is there a movie to be made about the intersection of film and sexual violence in this world? I reckon there is. But not the all-action no-brainer that Schumacher was keen to give us with 8mm.