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The Yuck Factor

Hackman & Grant
Gene Pools: Gene Hackman lives up to his name as a surgeon with questionable surgery techniques in "Extreme Measures," in which he leaves a lot of bloody messes behind in Hugh Grant's operating room.

Forensic researcher examines the voyeuristic nature of film

By David Templeton

Metro Santa Cruz writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he calls up author Sarah Lovett to discuss the classy medical thriller Extreme Measures, now playing at the Santa Cruz Cinema 9.

THE MODERN THRILLER, as a cinematic genre, tends to be powered by a gleeful employment of certain grisly images--heads in boxes, faceless corpses tumbling into elevators, severed appendages, scars, stitches, pools of blood--as much as by the pacing and plot that identify it as a thriller. Personally, following such movies as Seven and Silence of the Lambs, it was Gwyneth Paltrow's predictable demise and Hannibal's impromptu facial surgery on a guard that first leapt to mind as I recalled those stories.

That and the feeling of having been relentlessly, though stylishly, assaulted.

"I love thrillers," laughs author Sarah Lovett, a former forensics specialist turned crime novelist, with whom I have been discussing Extreme Measures, the latest example of mainstream mayhem. "I love scares and that kind of thing. But I often come out with a kind of burned-out feeling. Know that feeling? When you've just seen meaningless violence for two hours, and you come out feeling tawdry, dirty and kind of hung over?"

I know the feeling.

Extreme Measures stars Hugh Grant as a New York emergency- room doctor who discovers an unsettling conspiracy to kidnap homeless men and use them for surgical experiments. It uses a minimum of those in-your-face "shock shots," relying instead on the aforementioned use of pacing and plot and a parade of philosophical questions, and comes off as pleasantly light--rather classy, in fact--and still manages to serve up its quota of lovingly photographed dead bodies.

"It did make an effort to deal with issues," concedes Lovett, who saw the film in her home town of Santa Fe, N.M.. "And I didn't come out feeling as... " She pauses, searching for another synonym for burned-out, tawdry and hung over. "I didn't come out feeling yucky, to use a really sophisticated term. The old 'Yuck Factor.' "

Lovett's own novels--the brand- new Acquired Motives (Villard, 1996) and the subtle, unsettling Dangerous Attachments (Villard, 1995)--rate similarly low in Yuck Factor while still scoring big with gripping stories and intelligent characters, a fair number of tasty ethical dilemmas and, of course, the random severed body part.

In response to my suggestion that the cinema's increasingly close-up-and-personal approach to on-screen death might reflect a weird cultural obsession with watching people die, Lovett hesitates.

"If you're right about that," she offers, "I think it's tempting to tie it into the fact that we've become so removed from the death process just in the last 50 or 100 years. A generation ago--my mother's generation--it was different. My mother is in her mid-80s. In her youth, families were tending to their own dead. Now, we don't tend to our dead. We pass them on to professionals. It used to be that women would wash the bodies of their dead and put pennies on their eyes. We've let that go. So it makes sense that we might have an obsession that we are acting out voyeuristically.

"This makes me think about the Victorian Death Photos," Lovett abruptly remarks. "Have you heard of them? It's fascinating. It was fashionable 100 years ago to take a formal portrait of someone right after they died, and to display those photos.

"It would be interesting to do some poking around," she adds, "to do a study on that, and see if we are acting out our loss of connection with the death process. But you know, we have always been fascinated with death. I remember being a kid and driving by accidents. I remember being really acutely aware when we'd pass a fatal collision, the gore and everything. That has never changed in human nature, I think. Still, it is strange that we push our dead away as fast as we can, cremate them and then come home and watch all these images of death for entertainment.

"There was a woman here about a year ago," Lovett continues. "I remember reading about her. She had cancer or AIDS--I forgot which--but she was dying. And she was trying to have a relationship with her own death. So she picked out her coffin and worked out the funeral. She planned ahead for her death. I thought, 'How healthy of her.' This was not morbid obsession, though it may have looked like it to others.

"To me it was...well...To me it was rather thrilling."

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From the October 17-23, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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