Cinematic Soulmates: The 10th Victim and Series 7: The Contenders
Violence has been a part of human nature since the beginning of time, and while we like to think we have evolved beyond it, the fact of the matter is that it is still very much alive within all of us. Some of us are better at controlling it than others, but one simply needs to look at the media we produce for proof that we are still willing to indulge our violent natures every now and then. Blockbuster action movies still dominate the box office; Scandinavian murder mysteries fly off of bookstore shelves; blood-soaked dramas like The Walking Dead, Sherlock, Dexter, and Breaking Bad are the TV shows everyone talks about; violent video games regularly move millions of units; and music featuring violent imagery regularly tops the charts. In short, we are a violent species, and as much as we would like to claim otherwise, watching violence excites us as much as it horrifies us. All of this brings us to the subjects of this installment of Cinematic Soulmates, in which we look at two movies that shine a light on this idea of violence as entertainment, but do so in drastically different ways.
Director Elio Petri’s The 10th Victim (1965) predates the reality TV craze by a good four decades, but it still manages to perfectly capture the notion of unscripted game shows. In an exceptionally Italian future, war has been outlawed. Instead, people from all over the world participate in The Big Hunt, an ongoing game that has become the most popular form of entertainment in the world. Participants alternate between being hunter and victim, and if they manage to survive, they become rich and famous. One of the most well known hunters is Marcello Polletti (Marcello Mastroianni), a suave and cool figure whose heart really isn’t in The Big Hunt. Instead, he prefers to lounge around and watch television while playing with his bizarre robotic baby/platypus toy…thing (seriously, what the hell is that thing?). But now, Marcello has been chosen to play the victim. His hunter is the beautiful and calculating Caroline Meredith (Ursula Andress), but in keeping with the rules, Marcello is not given this information. In fact, until he confirms the identity of his hunter, Marcello cannot legally fight back or defend himself. Keeping her identity a secret, Caroline approaches Marcello and strikes up a romance with him, and while Marcello is wary of her advances, he is nonetheless smitten by the brash and sexy young woman. Meanwhile, much to her dismay, Caroline finds that she is also falling for Marcello. Suddenly, neither contestant is quite so willing to kill the other, but if they don’t, both of them will forfeit the substantial sponsorship money that is being offered by Ming Tea, a multinational corporation that is pumping millions of advertising dollars into The Big Hunt.
Series 7: The Contenders (2001), on the other hand, was released during the height of the reality game show boom, and manages to faithfully replicate both the look and feel of reality game shows such as Fear Factor, Survivor, and Amazing Race. Directed by Daniel Minahan, the film follows the very pregnant Dawn (Brooke Smith), the only survivor of the 6th season of “The Contenders,” the most popular program in America. As the film opens, we are introduced to Dawn’s five competitors: Connie Trabucco (Marylouise Burke), a 57 year-old emergency room nurse; Anthony Reilly (Michael Kaycheck), a 39 year-old unemployed asbestos remover; Franklin James (Richard Venture), a retired 72 year-old crazy person; Lindsay Berns (Merritt Wever), an 18 year-old high school student; and Jeffrey Norman (Glenn Fitzgerald), a 33 year-old artist dying of testicular cancer who also happens to be Dawn’s former lover. Unlike The 10th Victim, there is only one rule in Series 7, and that is kill or be killed. The contestants hunt each other down using any means necessary, and the last man (or woman) is declared the winner. He or she then goes on to compete against five new competitors in the following season of the show. Dawn wants desperately to win, so she can ensure that her baby will survive, but she quickly learns that killing Jeffrey might not be as easy as she hoped. As she struggles to fight off the attacks of the other contestants, she manages to reconcile with Jeffrey, and together they hatch a plan to fight back against the show’s producers (embodied here by a pre-fame Will Arnett, who also provides the dulcet tones of the ever-present narrator).
Neither movie is particularly great (or in the case of Series 7, particularly good), but they are interesting for a couple of reasons. Both films are addressing the idea of violence as entertainment, though in drastically different ways. The 10th Victim is presenting this idea solely as satire, doing so with a winking eye throughout, as if to say, “Isn’t this an unbelievable turn of events? That’s what makes it funny!” The film is totally campy and played very broadly, but seeing as how the central premise is built off the notion that our so-called civilization has always made room for violent entertainment, the satire is extremely effective. Series 7, meanwhile, offers up a premise that is at once over-the-top yet eerily plausible, especially when viewed in the context of actual reality game shows. In that respect, it’s quite similar to previous Cinematic Soulmates like Death Race 2000 and The Running Man. While it may be comforting to think that we would never take pleasure in watching people hunt and kill one another, it’s not that far removed from watching contestants get abused on a shows like The Chamber or Fear Factor. A better example might be the rise in popularity of Ultimate Fighting Championship and other mixed martial arts tournaments. We want to believe that we’ve progressed beyond being entertained by gladiatorial tournaments and public hangings, but the simple truth is we relish violent entertainment. It’s always been popular, and will most likely continue to be so for a long time. And while it’s probably safe to say that we are still a long way off from producing a television program that features legalized murder, it’s not all that difficult to imagine that it might actually happen someday.
Where the films differ is in how they present the idea of violence as entertainment. Being that it is firmly rooted in oh-so-fashionable 1960s Italy, The 10th Victim wants us to believe that The Big Hunt is cool, and thus by extension, violence is cool. The film treats death like it’s no big deal, as nameless, faceless characters are constantly running around and shooting at one another, and it’s all done for comedic effect. In fact, Marcello is so bored with life, that he is actually looking forward to being hunted, as it offers something different from his life of lounging around with his beautiful mistress and his toy robot beaver/doll monstrosity (I’m totally serious, you guys…what the hell is that thing?!). Sure, there is a hint of condemnation directed at those who find violence entertaining, mostly in the form of a cynical subplot in which both competitors are being wooed by different corporate sponsors. However, that seems like more of a jab at capitalistic greed than violence. Overall, The 10th Victim seems to want us to believe that violence is cool, and it’s okay to be entertained by it.
Series 7 is taking a more direct and bluntly obvious approach against violent entertainment. Director Minahan wants to make damn sure that we know he thinks violent entertainment is wrong, and to that end, he repeatedly bashes the viewer overhead with his message. The film goes out of its way to convey the idea that the people who find programs like “The Contenders” entertaining are vile human beings, but he’s not content to simply condemn the audience. He’s also going after the types of people who compete on reality game shows. While the contenders are participating against their will, they are nonetheless embody the cynical, empty human beings who are willing to utterly debase themselves for a shot at fame, no matter how fleeting. In fact, some of the characters get excited about appearing on the show. Both Lindsey and Anthony seem to welcome the challenge, especially the former, who has been stockpiling a huge cache of weapons solely for the day she gets picked to appear on “The Contenders.” It seems to be saying that we not only get off on watching violence, but there are those who relish the thought of actively engaging in violence. I’ll admit that it’s not a particularly groundbreaking revelation, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
Violence has always been a big part of our natures, and will no doubt continue to plague us well into the future. No matter how hard we try to suppress it, there will always be a little spark of it, just waiting for the time it can burst into a full flame of anger, hatred, and brutality. It is this little spark that compels us to watch, read, or listen to violent entertainment, and it is that very same spark that could very well lead us to someday accepting a television program in which normal, everyday people hunt and kill one another for our amusement. Both Series 7: The Contenders and The 10th Victim explore this idea, and while they come to very different conclusions, the very fact that they are treading similar ground is enough to make them Cinematic Soulmates.
I also found it interesting how I didn’t care at all about the characters. For the Italian film, it was because I sensed they didn’t really care about themselves or others. And for the newer film, it was because the film was mocking that trait of such reality shows to try really hard to get us to care about people. Both films disrupted any attempt for me to empathize and identify with the characters — and I wonder how much that was planned or not.