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The Movie Tourist Visits The Buyer’s Market in ‘8mm’

8MM is a thriller about a private investigator is hired to discover if a “snuff film” is authentic or not.

“Looking for darker pleasures or perhaps something more forbidden? These underground markets are stocked with something for even the most fringe of tastes. Here you name the vice and they name the price.”

At some point there seems to have been a memo sent out that every Nicolas Cage performance was to be viewed as being on the same level of his performance in the misguided The Wicker Man remake, which memorably climaxed with the audience watching Cage attempting to emote sheer terror at the prospect of being made to wear a bee helmet filled with CGI bees. At the same time, his attempts to work his way out debt by taking any role which is seemingly offered to him, have certainly seen him adding some interesting credits to his IMDb listing.

Of course for every Season of the Witch or Left Behind he has still put out a large number of great films over the course of his career, arguably giving a more exciting back catalogue to explore, especially for the more braver movie goer. Of course this experience can also be comparable to the journey into the world of the underground pornography scene that Cage’s private investigator Tom Welles finds himself on while trying to trace the origins of a supposed snuff film.

8mm
8mm, 1999 © Columbia Pictures Corporation

Penned by Andrew Kevin Walker, who after rising to fame as the writer of Se7en struggled to follow up his success, despite doing uncredited rewrites for David Fincher’s follow up The Game and Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon. Finally being picked up four years later, it initially it looked set to reunite Walker with Fincher who was the first choice to direct the film only for Joel Schumacher instead to take over the directorial reigns. Walker’s original script, much like Se7en, was another grim look at humanity with shades of Paul Schrader‘s Hardcore, which he hoped would be free of studio tampering only for Schumacher to side with the studio making his own changes giving the film too much of a happy ending according to Walker as he felt the film let the audience off in a way that Se7en hadn’t. This would lead to a much-publicized fallout between the pair, but also Walker disowning the film completely.

Welles is throughout the film shown as a social climber through his work and with his suburban home life is of course out of his element in this lurid world and perhaps would have avoided this assignment had it not been offered by the wealthy widow Mrs. Christian whose husband the film was found in the safe of. Now teaming up with sex shop employee Max California (Joaquin Phoenix) who like Wells has his own ideas about his social standing as he is introduced secretly reading Capote’s In Cold Blood though maintaining his cover of being just another pervert by switching out the book jackets so it appears that he’s reading the catchily titled Anal Secretary clearly more keen to disguise his own opinions on his customers compared to Wells who is open throughout on his opinions.

8mm
8mm, 1999 © Columbia Pictures Corporation

The key scene of the film and certainly the most interesting from a tourist perspective comes when Max takes Tom on a field trip into the underground pornography markets. There, they try and find a lead into who was responsible for the film, only to find that while snuff might be a pornographer fairytale, it’s not the only taboo being offered. He soon discovers that the rabbit hole is a lot deeper than he could ever have imaged, especially for the audience, who no doubt is more used to the Hollywood glamour styled vision of the porn industry, but here are instead thrust into the darker side of porn.

In total, this field trip takes us to three different locations, the first seemingly more like a brothel with a sideline in tapes while at the same time coming off like a badly thought out drug deal, and unsurprisingly finds Tom on the wrong side of the local mobsters when he starts asking about the availability of snuff films. Their reaction of course can be seen almost as the same as being offended that they would be associated with such material, giving perhaps a subtle hint that even these underground sellers have their own personal standards while at the same time dealing in bestiality and Mexican S&M movies. This of course though is merely a warm up to the underground swap meets we are next taken to, hinted by Max being killed off by the internet, making this a fascinating snapshot of a pre-internet society, especially as Max highlights to Wells the various methods that these traders use to shift product, from coded classified adds to complex wire transfers.

8mm
8mm, 1999 © Columbia Pictures Corporation

Shot in a suitably grimy style, you can tell throughout, just out of his element Wells is as he looks through the various stalls that offer various tapes, magazines and photo packs that are highlighted by Wells in particular as he curiously observes those offering pictures of kids before wiping his fingers on his jacket, unsure how to process what he’s seeing while Schumacher, no stranger to dark material, peppers this trip with numerous small details. This really brings these locations to life, such as the ominous sign advertising a set of VHS tapes as being “Way beyond XXXXXXXXX,” the trader playing solitaire as he reveals casually that they contain extreme bondage and rape films, yet still offers the option to buy 5 get one free as if someone might want to bulk buy such movies.

While we the audience, much like Wells, are shocked by such dark imagery, we also get the opposite with Max who at each location seems to have someone to catch up with as he trades greetings with vendors and colourful characters like the dwarf mistress Double Slap Dorothy while at the same time demonstrating a certain detachment from the world he’s so immersed in, much like the solitaire playing trader or the projectionist more engrossed in his book than the enema movie being projected on the makeshift movie screen while he scattered attendees for this screening either stare at the screen with grotesque fascination or satisfying their urges as they hunch over in the gloom. Max of course is able to justify his own involvement as he states to Wells

“I don’t buy it, I don’t endorse it, I just point the way.”

Sadly, this film has over the years, fallen foul of those keen to turn every Cage performance into a meme, in particular the scene of him initially watching the snuff film, but this really is one of the more restrained Cage performances and while it’s revenge focused final quarter might have its outlandish moments, this is still one of his more underrated film. Yes, it might not be in the same league as his Oscar winning turn in Leaving Las Vegas his Oscar even makes a cameo in the film. Still while this might not be as unforgiving as Walker’s original vision, it does still serve as an interesting companion piece to Se7en or Schumacher’s own Falling Down with the field trip providing a grim highlight which isn’t easily forgotten.

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