Monday, August 31, 2020

Viewing The Ruins: How Carter Smith's Film Plays With Spectatorship & Stereotyping

(Every month, I choose a horror film to shine a spotlight on and dig into. For the month of August, I selected the underrated 2008 film The Ruins.)

Carter Smith's 2008 film The Ruins seems like a rather traditional horror film on the surface: The film follows two American couples, Jeff and Amy and Stacy and Eric, as they go on a summer vacation to Mexico. While enjoying themselves, they meet fellow tourists Mathias and Dimitri, whom inform them of Mathias's search for his missing brother. The group's search takes them to where Mathias claims he last heard his brother was located: A set of ancient Mayan ruins. When the group approaches the titular ruins, they are confronted by a tribe of indigenous people whom only speak Mayan and appear antagonistic as they quickly attack the group, resulting in Dimitri's death. The remaining five are forced to stay on top of the ruins, all of them under the assumption that the Mayan tribe is out to kill them for trespassing onto the ruins and their inability to communicate otherwise. However, what they soon discover is that the tribe has an entirely different motive for trapping them on top of the titular ruins, and that the tribe itself is not the real danger they face. By tinkering with its use of the concepts of stereotyping and spectatorship, The Ruins manages to create a subversive experience that leaves you guessing as to who you are meant to be identifying with and rooting for.

Amy (Jena Malone) in full American tourist mode in The Ruins

Before learning how these concepts figure into this film, one must understand what exactly the concepts of stereotyping and spectatorship are. Stereotyping is defined by Charles Ramirez Berg in his text "Categorizing The Other: Stereotypes and Stereotyping" as, at its base, a "creation of categories based on the recognition of gross difference(s)."Something Ramirez Berg claims allows for everybody to stereotype, not just what one may consider to be "bad" people. According to Ramirez Berg, where stereotyping goes from innocent to negative is when you mix it with ethnocentrism, the "view of things in which one's own group is the center of everything, and all others are scaled or rated with reference to it," and prejudice, when one is "judging others as innately inferior based on ethnocentrically determined difference." Whether good or bad, stereotyping is said by Ramirez Berg to be done to simplify and explain our environment, as well as to put some distance between what people perceive to be their "in-group" and whatever section they perceive as the "out-group". 

As for spectatorship, while the general idea is that spectatorship is the act of watching something passively, there's many different approaches to what exactly it is and how it applies to films. Film theorist Christian Metz took a psychoanalytic approach to spectatorship in his book The Imaginary Signifier, writing that he finds film to be like a mirror that reflects back on the audience in a metaphorical sense rather than a literal one. Instead of identifying with their own reflection as they would with a typical mirror, they typically identify with the character and/or actor closest to them. As long as they're perceived by the spectator to be offered as a human being to them, something that Metz refers to as primary cinematic identification. Metz also writes that the spectator is also capable of identifying with the camera itself, saying that, "It is true that as he identifies with himself as look, the spectator can do no other than identify with the camera, too, which has looked before him at what he is now looking at and whose stationing (= framing) determines the vanishing point [...] Without this identification with the camera certain facts could not be understood." Metz also writes that some films have certain codes or "sub-codes" that allows for, essentially, variations on traditional film spectatorship that "intervene in certain coded figures which occupy precise segments of precise films." Something that comes into play with a "precise" film such as The Ruins. 

Now that the concepts of stereotyping and spectatorship have been expounded, they can begin to be applied to The Ruins: When the film begins, we are treated to plenty of examples of the American characters applying stereotypes to their new surroundings. These instances include Stacy stating that, because of her belief that the water in Mexico is contaminated with feces, drinking the local water would be like "drinking hepatitis B," as well as referring to Mathias and Dimitri as "crazy Greeks," despite the fact that all of their behavior throughout the film is far from what one would associate with crazy. This leads up to, when the group arrives at the ruins, their initial confrontation with the indigenous tribe guarding the ruins. The tourists assume that, because they're in Mexico, the tribe must speak Spanish and proceed to try speaking with them in what little Spanish they actually know, despite the fact that the tribe is speaking Mayan. Because of this lack of proper communication, the tribe comes off to the tourists (and the film's audience) as imposing and threatening, especially when they seemingly become enraged when Amy steps into vines attached to the ruins. To the point where the tribe kills Dimitri, something that makes the protagonists rush to the top of the ruins to hide from the tribe that we assume are antagonistic.

Dimitri's (Dmitri Baveas) "random" death

This is where the film's sub-code of spectatorship begins to come into play: The Ruins seems to be going in a traditional direction of having its audience identify with the set of tourist characters more, including introducing them first. In addition to this, the film also doesn't give the Mayan-speaking tribe subtitles that allows the audience to understand what they're speaking. And, after the first group flees to the top of the ruins, we see that the tribe is setting up camp to keep watch of them, presumably to wait them out. Yet, the set of characters that appear to be the antagonists of the film are literally positioned exactly as the film's audience are: Passive spectators witnessing the actions of the tourist characters. However, why exactly this is has yet to be revealed and, as such, the film's audience is not yet motivated to question who they should identify with. Especially as, when we cut back to the tourists, they are convinced that they are being held prisoner by the tribe and resort to stereotypes about the tribe intending to use them as sacrifices for a ritual of some kind. And yet, at this point in the film, the audience has no reason to not believe this stereotyping. 

The question of which group the audience is meant to identify with is further complicated as the film goes on: When the group hears a cell phone ring from the bottom of a well, they send Mathias downward to search for the phone. When the rope carrying Mathias breaks and he plummets to the bottom, breaking his spine in the process, the audience is presented with two shots: One shot of the tribe watching as the Americans react to Mathias's fall, and then another shot of Jeff, Amy and Eric watching as they send Stacy downwards to try to rescue Mathias. Both groups are taking on the passive role that the film's audience are in by default, allowing for potential identification with both groups. However, since the film has spent more time with the trio of Jeff, Amy and Eric, the audience would not be remiss to continue perceiving them as the ones to identify with. Especially as the second shot is meant to be from Stacy's point of view and, to paraphrase Metz, "the look of the character out-of-frame [...] [her]self a spectator and hence the first delegate of the true spectator, but not to be confused with the latter since [s]he is inside, if not the frame, then at least the fiction. This invisible character, supposed (like the spectator), to be seeing, will collide obliquely with the latter's look and play the part of an obligatory intermediary."

Spectatorship on both sides of The Ruins

This is continues when, later on, we are treated to more shots of the American characters watching the indigenous characters watch them from afar. Interestingly, while Eric and Jeff remain passive when they are shown watching the tribe watching them, Amy refuses to remain in a passive role and insists on actively attempting to get some help from the tribe. Something that leads her to throwing some of the vines at one of the children within the tribe, which subsequently leads to a group of the adult tribe members executing the child in what appears to Amy (and the film's audience) to be a cold blooded murder. This is the first direct allusion to the film's major plot twist: That it's not the tribe that is the true antagonist of The Ruins, but rather the vines attached to the ruins. Something that is not fully revealed to the tourists (and the audience) until later on in the film, when Amy and Stacy travel to the bottom of the well again to search for the ringing cell phone, only to find that it's the vines mimicking the sound of the phone to lure them down there for an attack. With this reveal, the film's audience realizes a truth that is stated by Jeff and Amy later on in the film: That the tribe isn't imprisoning them for a sacrificial ritual like they assumed, but rather that the tribe is quarantining them to contain the infection caused by their exposure to the vines. 

With the true nature of The Ruins revealed, the audience's relationships to both sets of characters are re-contextualized, as per the director's design: Smith states on the film's DVD audio commentary that it was important for the audience to both learn the truth with the tourists and realize that the tribe were never actually the antagonists, but, in his own words, the "good guys". Something that is reinforced several more times by inserting more shots of the tribe watching the other group, including when Jeff proceeds to amputate both of Mathias's legs and when Stacy begs for Jeff and Amy to kill her after she butchers her body in an attempt to remove the infection from herself. It brings into true question which set of characters we are meant to root for, especially as the audience begins to realize the film's purposeful juxtaposition of the rational behavior of the indigenous people and the irrational behavior of the tourists. For example, in one scene the tribe is shown spreading salt all over the earth surrounding the ruins in an attempt to further prevent the vines and their infection from spreading outwards beyond. This is followed by Jeff and Eric using the group's knife to attempt to remove infectious vines out of Stacy's body, something that ultimately proves futile and leads to the aforementioned mercy killing, as well as Stacy's accidental killing of Eric.

The tribe (and the audience) viewing the escalating irrational behavior of the tourists

While the film is still following the remaining American characters, it is the intentions of Smith for the audience to ultimately side with the indigenous tribe. Something that is punctuated by the film's resolution: After the death of Stacy, Jeff and Amy formulate a plan that they enact the following day: Jeff distracts the tribe and, ironically, sacrifices himself while Amy escapes the ruins and the tribe. Something that they manage to execute without a hitch, allowing Amy to return to her group's jeep and drive away from the tribe and back towards civilization. In another film, this would be a triumphant moment for Amy and the film's audience, but instead the audience of The Ruins can see the moment for what it really is: While Amy survives, we can see vines moving in her face. The film's true protagonists have ultimately lost, while the film's true antagonist, the vines, have won. This is especially hammered home by the lack of spectator shots in this conclusion: By this point, Smith has made it clear that audiences's point of identification should be the tribe instead of the tourists. And the lack of spectator shots and looks in this conclusion means we are not meant to identify with Amy as she escapes and unwittingly brings the infection into the outside world. The last remaining member of the "in-group" subverts stereotyping by being the unwitting pawn of the film's antagonist.

The subversive downer ending of The Ruins

In summation, in Carter Smith's 2008 film The Ruins, the audience follows four Americans as they take a summer vacation in Mexico. After they encounter fellow tourists Mathias and Dimitri on their search for Mathias's missing brother. Their search leads them to ancient ruins that are guarded by a tribe of seemingly antagonistic indigenous people. After Dimitri is killed, the remaining tourists rush to the top of the ruins under the belief that the tribe is out to kill them. What they soon discover, however, is that the tribe is not the true threat: The real threat is in the form of the sentient vines attached to the ruins that infects them and intends to kill and consume them. Through the playing with the concepts of stereotyping and spectatorship, The Ruins subverts the expectations of its audience in regards to how its plot will unfold and as to who the true protagonists and antagonists of the film, thereby successfully creating a subversive and memorable experience for a viewing pleasure.

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