8MM (1999) (IMDB) is a mystery/thriller film directed by Joel Schumacher and written by Andrew Kevin Walker (who also wrote the vastly superior Se7en (1995)).
Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage) is a private investigator for upper crust clients. An elderly widow, Mrs. Christian, says she found a roll of 8mm film in her late husband’s safe, which appears to document the murder of a young white woman. Wells is skeptical, saying it’s probably fake, but the widow hires him to find the girl.
There are two lines of investigation. First, Welles goes through the missing persons files. For some reason, he spends a lot of time looking at files for people who aren’t young Caucasian women with dark hair. He does find a lead to a missing girl, Mary Anne Matthews, who might be the girl in the film. It’s a standard story of young girl in a crappy town who leaves for Hollywood and disappears.
The second part is Wells investigating the porn culture of Hollywood, looking for any possible other snuff films that might lead to her. 8MM is an Orpheus story, a descent into the underworld in search of lost love.
Dante was guided through the inferno by the shade of the Roman poet Virgil. Wells’ guide is Max California (Joaquin Phoenix), a rocker turned porn shop clerk. Despite having been in the porn business for only 2 years as a clerk, he has a vast knowledge of the porn underground. Max is introduced while reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, hidden inside an adult paperback cover. “Wouldn’t want to embarrass yourself in front of your fellow perverts,” Welles observes. Apart from the judgmental use of “perverts”, did it occur to the people who made this movie that some people might read both porn and literature like In Cold Blood?
Max cautions Welles: “There’s things you’re going to see that you can’t un-see. They get inside your head and they stay there.”
Max: “You got your porn-zombies here, right. Junkies for the hard stuff. But these basement sales won’t last much longer. One, it’s too risky and two, everything’s on the net. Chickenhawks swapping photos with their loved ones. Then there’s classified ads with hidden codes, secret couriers, interstate wires to dummy corporations. If something’s not legal, they buy and sell as far away as they can get. Nobody knows what nobody knows.”
I have a feeling that the underground porn markets depicted in this film are based more on the filmmakers’ imagination than any real observation. Max also describes porn as coming from Haiti or Mexico, places that are distant and non-white. Max himself observes, “everything is on the net”. 8MM came just before the broadband era. Nowadays, if such a film existed, it wouldn’t be a film. It would be on a flash drive somewhere, or bouncing around on the dark web.
The last stop on Max and Welles’ tour is a BDSM club, suggesting that this is the most deviant of deviant sexualities. Max: “Some of these S&M and bondage films you’ll see, they straddle the line. Foot fetish, orgies, shit films, hermaphrodite, mutilation, it’s all harder than hard core. But mostly legal. One guy sees it and pukes, another guy sees it and falls in love.”
They go into a cage full of bondage/kink gear, where a guy sells them what are said to be snuff tapes. These turn out to be fake. 8MM’s hierarchy of sexual deviance is, to my eyes, inverted. A BDSM club, which probably advertises and operates above ground, and has safety rules, is the least likely place to get tapes purporting to be snuff. Sketchy underground or gang-affiliated porn bazaars, where you have to know a guy who knows a guy even to find it, are slightly more likely.
The theme here is that Wells’ investigation is emotionally draining, alienating him from his wife and daughter back home, but that’s not conveyed well. Cage actually looks bored in some scenes. We’re supposed to see that Welles has a dark side, but other than hiding his smoking from his wife, we don’t see him doing anything that’s dark on his own. Perhaps his job, investigating people’s secrets, is his dark side. The problem here is that he is never tempted by what he sees, only horrified and disgusted.
The other problem is that this films looks at porn almost exclusively from the perspectives of distributors and consumers, not the people involved in making it. Porn consumers are depicted as subhuman weirdoes, an isolated subculture that has nothing to do with the rest of society.
As we’ve seen in other films (e.g. Eyes Wide Shut), 8MM uses middle eastern or Indian-style music to indicate sexual exoticism and decadence, hearkening back to the myth of the dark and exotic Orient. (The other music genre most associated with BDSM in film is heavy metal.) The world Welles explores is Other, heterotopia, xenotopia. The people who inhabit it are utterly different from the rest of society, a less evolved, or devolved, form of humanity.
Welles finally realizes that wandering around underground porn shops looking very much like a cop is not working. He shows Maryanne’s picture at a teen shelter, and gets a lead on Dino Velvet, a NYC-based porn producer/director. This eventually leads to the three men who filmed the death of Mary Anne, and a confrontation in which it turns out the late Mr. Christian gave his attorney, Longdale, money to find or create the film, and that Longdale paid his co-conspirators only a fraction of the money.
This standoff ends with three dead men, and Welles spends the rest of the film tracking down the other two. Like Payback, there’s a lot of choreography of men beating and binding each other.
There are two confrontations with the killers of Mary Anne in which Welles demands to know “Why?” Why did his patron’s husband commission the film showing the death of a young woman? And why did Dino Velvet’s minion and star, the hulking masked man known only as Machine, kill her?
Longdale, Christian’s lawyer, doesn’t care, as long as he got paid.
Welles: “I’m trying to understand. What the fuck did he want with a snuff film?”
Longdale: “You’re asking me why?”
Welles: “Yes! Why, why?! Why did he want a film of a little girl being butchered?”
Longdale: “Because he could. He did it because he could. What other reason were you looking for?”
This portrays sexual deviance as a disease of the decadent elite. (Welles’ referring to Mary Anne as a “little girl” echoes Lt. Crowe in Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects.)
At the end of the fight with “Machine”, the killer takes the bondage mask off, revealing an ordinary-looking, baby-faced man to Welles.
“What did you expect, a monster?” [Puts on glasses.]
“Can’t get your mind around it, huh? I don’t have any answers to give. Nothing I can say is going to make you sleep easier at night. I wasn’t beaten. I wasn’t molested. Mommy didn’t abuse me. Daddy never raped me. I’m only what I am, and that’s all there is to it.”
“There’s no mystery. The things I do, I do them because I like them. Because I want to.”
The dominant emotion of 8MM is disgust, not desire. Welles wanders through this twilight world, looking as if all this is utterly baffling, like he’s never even peeked at a Playboy centerfold. His home life, featuring a wife and a new born baby daughter, is scrupulously white and normal. His attempt at sex with his wife is interrupted by their baby crying, suggesting parenthood is incompatible with sexuality.
Welles’ major relationship in this film is with Max, and they spend a lot of time side by side, even sitting on Max’s bed to watch fake-snuff porn tapes. Welles seems to believe that Max is too smart to be in this world, while Max positions himself as “in it but not of it.” Max says, “It beats pumping gas. I don’t buy it. I don’t endorse it. I just point the way.” Max’s death at the hands of Dino and Machine is shocking. While Welles is obsessed with avenging Mary Anne, and the film emphasizes the relationship between him and Mary Anne’s mother, there’s no consideration that Max might have a family who would want to know what happened to him.
There’s a curiously large number of similarities between 8MM and Tightrope. Both are noir-influenced “descent into hell” stories that explore the dark side of society and the protagonist’s psyche, a man struggling with changing definitions of husband and father. They even both feature a knife fight in a cemetery between the hero and the villain, wearing a leather bondage mask. Tightrope at least had the guts to give its protagonist a sex drive. 8MM is not like, say, Brian de Palma’s Body Double, which interrogates the voyeurism of the protagonist (and the audience).
According to IMDB, this film was heavily edited to get an R rating from the MPAA. There’s also a sequel in name only, 8MM2, which has no real connection to this film.