Christopher Sloce, socialist writer and co-host of the It Can Be Done podcast brings us Can Chainsaws Break Bricks. This is the second installment of The Culture Column, a new bi-monthly series criticizing the culture we have so we can create the culture we want.
As Dante, the entrepreneur and secondary villain of Texas Chainsaw Massacre (which will from this point forward be referred to as ‘22), revels over the desiccated downtown of Harlow, Texas, he says something we may have been shocked to hear in a horror movie not even 2 years ago: “Behold, the joys of late stage capitalism.”
This is the sort of C grade bon mot we’re more familiar with hearing from our smart-ass friends, comrades, and Twitter feeds. But for a revival of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (which will from this point be referred to as ‘74), it sits differently, and signals to us that while we are still in the world of Tobe Hooper’s classic, we are not watching Tobe Hooper’s film. And God help us.
‘22 has obvious problems. Some of these are endemic to the codification of slasher films, a genre that like all fast and cheap production uses shortcuts, including a dearth of creativity. In some cases, this is a reliance on the cheap labor of working actors, a breed much different than our glitzy, tentpole aristocracy.
Because these actors are nobody bankable, they’re less of a risk to kill and risk upsetting possible revenue. And as the labor in a bog standard slasher, which ‘22 is closer to than ‘74, mostly consists of running, screaming, and removing your top before you get gutted — though this movie is much more invested in a meaningless attempt at subverting the slasher and dressing itself up than it is showing you ankles– meaning the slasher will never die, and its formula will not either.
The slasher itself is not doomed to the formula, but most people making them do not care to do anything beyond the formula but fill itself subvert itself ad infinitum, here a in this one the final girl has a machete, there a in this one the monster is gentrification.
All stories can be creative, but a lot of slashers feel like phone games, and all it takes is a simple palette swap of some different colors and voila, you can create some heat for something that is only as big as it is because of the name it has.
This all has to be attractive for a company like Netflix, who burns about as much cash as they make, and when HBO Max and others are sizing you up, you take every chance you can get. So in that regard, this film is a bog-standard slasher, and the listed issues are fitting criticisms.
But these are not what anyone will remember, as those sort of concerns to the slashers are features less so than bugs. It is ‘22’s attempts to be timely that deserve better inquiry. This is a film where the final girl is a school shooting survivor (in order to give anybody in this film an arc, she has to get over her fear of guns to shoot Leatherface), a grumbling gas station attendant hocking memorabilia of the original massacre calls the film’s upwardly mobile quartet “gentrifuckers”.
It gets worse in the film’s attempt at a signature sequence. When Leatherface enters a party bus full of SXSW types, they all in unison raise their cellphones to capture him on Instagram. That’s when a partygoer taunts Leatherface with, “Try anything and you’re cancelled, bro.”
And all this because Dante, erstwhile landlord and deliverer of the late stage capitalism bon-mot, ousted Leatherface and his guardian mother from the Harlow orphanage after seeing a Confederate flag hanging from the rafters.
Failing to be relevant is one thing. But the relish for a certain kind of relevance, to be considered a timely update, is a much more interesting avenue to criticize the film. Why does this film need to say something about the now? And the best answer I can reckon is an uncanny faith in developing discourse about yourself as well as screenwriting schools that believe the most clever thing a film can do is subvert a genre. And one way to do that is to cake on political signifiers that scream, “we care a lot!”
In this regard, the film is the opposite of the original film. While ‘74 was the film that in many ways exists as the ur-slasher, it’s also that the politics of the earlier film are embedded into the narrative in a deeper, where these are surface level. The politics you would extract from ‘22 are politics as the dressing to the everyday, a preference as arbitrary as Coke or Pepsi. Slanted a certain way or not, these are politics as trappings for the age with none of the lessons learned.
I am not arguing that only the sainted can talk about “late stage capitalism”, or that ‘22 is well-designed capitalist propaganda put together by a series of neoliberal elves in a workshop. But it is important that ground doesn’t get ceded in a fight, which brings us back to “behold, the joys of late stage capitalism”.
When our concepts get used incorrectly–despite the fact “late stage capitalism” is a descriptor that takes too optimistic of a view of the future (that capitalism is terminal: it’s been terminal since its inception) and a supposed past (what the hell was chattel slavery? A beta test?) we need apparatuses of response that can put the actual juice behind what we criticize in the world on the forefront.
I am not arguing for the Jacobin route of lazily tying in socialism into the Popeye’s chicken sandwich’s inferior quality under capitalism, where the jubilant tone speaks of a victory believed to be realized while the scoreboard says otherwise. Only better criticism and better art can recapture that ground.
In the fight for the production of culture, there will be strays that land, and if Texas Chainsaw Massacre ‘22 were a totally sincere project made by people with the perfect flavor of politics and criticizing it is friendly fire, then it still remains the movie is not good: under its newly progressive trappings there is still no personality, no quirks, and despite a script that would get an A in a screenwriting class, it should rot on a flash drive.
While good art is always going to have bad interpretations–read any site where people post song lyric analysis– we have to look for something other than what we have. Criticism points the way towards what needs to be one and art becomes the thing being done.
The art we want is more going to resemble ‘74 than anything. While the original version of the film is the sort of staph infected labor hazard we rail against (all we need to say on this is when Marilyn Burns’s finger was cut in order to feed Grandpa, that’s real blood), films do not have to be labor hazards to be as good as ‘74.
While the low grade fever quality of the film does take cues from the harsh conditions it was made in, there are things in its vision and structure that cannot be replicated, like the sophistication of the story and how it is told.
It depicts poverty not as an urchin’s oyster or a precondition to make plot happen but as a cannibal’s nightmare, the responses of which are grotesque attempts at survival, building itself back into the tradition of the old jobs. ‘22 can never shake the truth: explicit as it may be about its politics, ‘74 has infinitely more to say while explicitly being about bad things happening to teenagers.
Perhaps it is because the original film understood that under the strictures of poverty, mutation will always arise. The tag line “who will survive and what will remain of them?” refers to the teenagers who befall the Texas Chain Saw Massacre and to those who carry it out: Leatherface’s family the Sawyer Clan.
Capitalism, too, asks the question “who will survive and what will remain of them?”, but in its poverty pornography, the uplifting tales of escape, and its boogeyman stories of welfare queens and Cadillac panhandlers, survival is meted out as a gold star as long as it fits certain strictures.
‘74 knows that survival is rarely easy, and what it leaves you with is often worse. While Leatherface is the film’s great symbol and great monster (and I truly believe Gunnar Hansen gives one of the greatest performances in film history in the ‘74 version), it is the hitchhiker who acts as our introduction to this question.
The hitchhiker appears twice, both times opening the Hell gate that Macbeth’s porter grumbled about. The first time, he is a warning, the second time an active participant in devouring the travelers. In the first scene, we see the entirety of the film’s economic view. Though the film invites gender readings (specifically regarding Leatherface) and a vegetarian reading, the scene of the hitchhiker has the same blue collar politics you can find in Bruce Springsteen’s story songs.
Its view of an elegiac, Texas past, is not that far removed from the works of Larry McMurty in his domestic Last Picture Show mode, but now the story is told an Edenic story, the fall coming with the rise of technology, the forbidden fruit the airgun that replaces the sledge.
Deindustrialization, wedded to profit, kills. People rot, the institutions rot around them. What is left is a series of meaningless and dangerous hustles, as well as pure survival measures. We see here what Rosa Luxemburg saw in the SPD’s failure to stop World War I (which as the socialists who broke away from the Second International saw, world war was the ultimate victory of imperialist capital, and we’re living in it) in The Junius Pamphlet: “Business thrives in the ruins. Cities become piles of ruins; villages become cemeteries; countries, deserts.”
This film exists in the failure of to turn things asunder. It is not concerned with how things are turned, but it does depict that there will be losses and ruins where business thrives.
The hitchhiker’s status as a worker is rather ambiguous–he seems to hint he only goes to the slaughterhouse to take pictures– but what is certain is his brother and his grandfather both worked there. In the ruins of the abattoirs, the hitchhiker feels a certain compulsion to go there and record what happens with the cattle.
He shows the travelers the photos of the slaughtered cattle, and they reject his record of what he lost, the steady blue-collar existence of America’s post-war heyday, and they reject what the hitchhiker has now: grotesque frontier resourcefulness, down to a skin gunny sack. It does not matter how good of headcheese the hitchhiker’s brother makes, there are some foods that will always be considered lesser.
Once the travelers blanch at his survival methods, he self-harms. The travelers, once so excited to pick up an odd hitchhiker, freak out. Once calm arises, he takes their photo and offers it to them, for a price, like any hustler in a tourist city. They refuse to pay for the picture, so once again he returns to harm.
In a moment that has a touch of the ritual, he sets the photo on fire on a piece of tin-foil, folds it up into his gunny sack, and then makes a final volley: if he cannot eat the travelers now, he will harm them. He takes a straight razor, cuts Franklin, the film’s wheelchair bound whiny foil, and only then is kicked out of the van.
Rosa Luxemburg asserted that in the ruins, “business thrives”. The inability to answer the question of “why is it when technology advances people are left behind” does not stop business from thriving, and is endemic to its thriving. The failure of the worldwide left to create internationalist order, instead, leaves people in a place where the entirety of life, once the ruins are set, is business. All ruins, personal and private, are subject to speculation.
That this is seated in the gore and grit of a slasher movie, some of the lowest of low culture, shows a certain level of possibility for art, that through passion and inventiveness we have the tools to better understand our world.
But understanding our world does not come through a didactic collection of concerns. It comes through convicted art that can interpret and be interpreted. This faith is similar to the faith that the working class alone must emancipate itself, and that does not result from a series of marching orders, but a constant reinterpretation of the world, of which art can play a role.
Where supposed progressive art sits in its seat, there are only marching orders, flanked by possums in cowboy hats and the small-scale Keith Olbermann indignation, constant advertisements for itself with no plan of action, even a bad one.
This is not to say the great art of yesteryear is immediately socialist, but that is no matter. As a common treasury for all is achieved, the art of the world will be held in that trust. The art we don’t want teaches its adherents to search for easy answers, never to understand the processes and flows of how events create and necessitate survival and mutation, because it exists as answers on a test, not a praxis for creating change. But it makes for easier marketing and creates for less struggle. Guess who pays for that?
Imagine we were to view these two films as tools for interpreting the world, to break through the hard base, a foundation of brick. We may find that neither “chainsaw” can break bricks, but the difference lies here: one tells you the bricks exist and that they’re bad. The other trusts you to know they exist and pulls the cord, ready to cut brick, no matter how fruitless.