Why Am I Listening to This: On Cannibals, Gore, and Stunning Music

As we speak, I’m listening to the wonderful work of Riz Ortolani, an Italian composer who sadly died this year. His main claim to fame consists of his film scores: one of his pieces was recently used by Quentin Tarantino to complete his Django Unchained soundtrack (and he once composed a song named after yours truly). Tarantino is known for combining extreme violence with beautiful or simply nice music. Who doesn’t remember that scene involving that Stealers Wheel song?*

Of course Tarantino wasn’t the first to do this. Somehow nice music works well (if you can actually use the word “well” in this context) with graphic violence. It appears to amplify the violence, making it even more disturbing, also by creating a sense of distance and well, basically, freaking you out.

Ortolani is famous for creating haunting tunes and working with notorious directors. His theme for Cannibal Holocaust (no disturbing images in the video, I promise) is unforgettable because it is both haunting and beautiful. I actually quite enjoy playing this song in the presence of people who don’t know it, then telling them that the song they like so much is actually the main theme of one of the most controversial films ever made. Again, do your own search here if you want, but simply put Cannibal Holocaust tells the story of some Western people who travel into the jungle of South America where they run into some cannibals. And the rest, to use a well-worn cliché, is history.

Why, one may wonder, did I end up listening to this music in the first place? I’m currently working on Exquisite Corpse, a 1996 novel by Poppy Z. Brite in which cannibalism plays an important role. Its main characters engage in it as a sexual perversion but also, interestingly, as a road to bodily transcendence. The novel is packed with references to the exotic and the occult – not very unusual for a novel set in New Orleans – and reading it in the context of cannibalist counter culture seems entirely appropriate.

I tried to watch Cannibal Holocaust and some similar films, including Cannibal Ferox (again, great soundtrack, this time with a typical 1970s disco groove, and again no creepy images in the video). Both are fairly easy to find these days – we’ve surely come a long way since the video nasty era, when both films were banned. And even though I’m a massive fan of free speech and opposed to censorship, I decided to censor myself when I decided that these films just aren’t for me. Yes, I like their focus on the ambiguous boundary between the West and the rest, and their use of cannibalism as a metaphor for exploitation sounds extremely interesting. In fact, it probably is. But I just can’t handle the gore. Whereas Exquisite Corpse, the novel, is just about bearable – even though reading scenes describing someone’s dismemberment really feel like work rather than pleasure – watching people actually being eaten is just a step too far. At least for me.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the soundtracks of these films are to be avoided as well. They are simply stunning, and very scary when listened to with their visual counterpart in mind, but also beautiful in their own right. Music may serve to emphasize gruesomeness in some cases, and I normally advocate contextualizing things, but sometimes enjoying things on their own just feels like the right thing to do.

*No, no link here, sorry. Those who like graphic content are probably more than able to do their own Google search (or, more likely, already know this scene by heart)

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