As the first weekend of "Iron Man 2" draws to a close and the studios are celebrating the start of the summer blockbuster season, I'd like to consider some of the alternative programming available this week. Specifically, I was struck by the fact that we have two very niche limited releases that have provoked strong reactions from the filmgoers simply because of their central concepts. At first glance, they couldn't be more different. One is a shocking horror film aimed at young men that promises repulsive visuals and a stomach-lurching story. The other is a feel-good documentary aimed at older women that seems determined to charm the audience into submission. The only thing they seem to have in common is that a lot of the action involves crawling. I'm referring to "The Human Centipede" and "Babies," which both opened in various markets on Friday along with "Iron Man 2."
The more I think about it, the more it becomes clear to me that these two movies are really two sides of the same coin. Both play to the audience's most primal instincts, and both have been dismissed as pointless exercises in pandering by those who are not part of each film's intended audience. On the one hand you have "The Human Centipede," which wants only to evoke terror and disgust, and has been taken to task by the usual opponents of the torture-porn genre that this picture shares certain features with. The premise is graphic enough that I won't go into much detail, but involves a mad scientist sewing his poor victims together into unlikely configurations. "Centipede" is selling itself on the extremity of its content, and is unlikely to be sought out by anyone who doesn't know exactly what they're getting into.
Now on the other hand you have "Babies," which follows the lives of four babies from around the world for the first year of their lives. Specifically timed for a Mother's Day release, its marketing has also been under the radar, but surprisingly pervasive. I was alerted to the release of "Babies" by one of my coworkers, a woman who doesn't normally go to many movies but expressed interest in this one. The argument could be made that the French-produced documentary has legitimate ambitions as an educational or informational work, but it's clear that the only reason it got picked up for distribution is because it's subject matter is just so gosh-darned cute. There's nothing in the world that provokes more feelings of giddy joy and elation in a good portion of the female population than babies. For those who are unaffected by their powers, however, the movie has been panned as a bore.
Of course there are female horror fans and plenty of soft-hearted dads out there who would probably enjoy both films, but otherwise you couldn't find two pieces of cinema more diametrically opposite from each other. A recent post on the fanboy film site AICN, which reviewed both films, one after another, provoked a lot of vocal disdain for "Babies" from the comments section, traditionally inhabited by the sort of prurient-minded, shock-loving young male demographic that would be inclined to welcome "The Human Centipede." And no doubt, should anyone bring up the two films in an older female-dominated discussion, you'd probably get the same result inverted. It doesn't bother me so much that we've got such a polarized, segmented audience, or films tailor-made for each group, but I am a little worried at how easily people have dismissed one or the other depending on what side of the coin they're on. Both films say very different things about the human condition, but they both have legitimate points of view.
As for me, I've spent the week's movie money on "Iron Man 2" and don't plant to see either film. But if I had to make a choice, I'd have to go with the cute life-affirming babies end of the continuum. My brother would probably go for the vortex of horrific freakishness end. And I think we're both okay with that.