In My Skin and Hell’s Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films (review)

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Morbid Curiosity

When I was a couple of years old, or so I’m told, I decided to take a vegetable peeler to my finger, just to see what would happen. My mother says I was quite fascinated by all the blood and was otherwise completely unperturbed until she started screaming, and then I started screaming.

Could be this is why I did not walk out of In My Skin, as some people did during the screening I attended. I’m not squeamish. I think it’s pretty cool that you can watch surgeries on the science channels on TV. I don’t mutilate myself or anything — I know I’m weird, but I’m not that weird. I prefer my body intact. But there is something perversely, bizarrely fascinating about thinking about our own bodies as meat, as mere flesh. Like when you wake up and discover you’ve been sleeping on your arm all night, and you can’t feel it and can’t control it and it’s like someone else’s arm is laying there in the bed. Like that one time a few years ago when I accidentally stabbed myself down to the bone in one finger — another vegetable- and cooking-related incident; clearly, I should not be allowed in the kitchen — and before I ran for a bandage, I checked out all the layers of muscle now visible to me. That was kinda cool. Or maybe that’s just me.

Obviously, In My Skin is not a film for everyone. I’m not entirely sure it’s for anyone. It’s very French, in that “Why are foreign films so foreign?” way, all fascinating concept and setup and unraveling and no resolution, I guess because, you know, real life is messy like that. But that’s not why people were walking out — Skin is messy in a different way, in a way that we’re not used to seeing on film. Blood and gore and body parts and entrails we’re used to seeing on film — what’s different here is not only that the bodily damage is self-inflicted, it’s that it’s intimate and considered and almost sexual. It’s self-mutilation and even — *gulp* — self-cannibalism as a path to self-discovery.

I told you it was very French.

But it’s also thought-provoking, if you can sit through it. Now, that might be what I brought into the film myself — childhood experiments with potato peelers and so on — because there’s little that’s articulated in the grotesque odyssey that Esther (Marina de Van, who also wrote and directed) falls into. After a slip-and-fall during which she cuts up her leg badly, she becomes increasingly obsessed with her body as an object, one that can be cut and sliced and pondered, something not her. We talk about our bodies as if they’re merely things we own — “me” means everything that goes on in our heads, while everything else happens to “my body” — and not inherent aspects of who we are. But deep down, we don’t really mean that, because if we did, Esther’s carving off pieces of her skin with a steak knife and eating them would not be so godawfully disturbing as it is.

You squirmed at that last sentence — I know you did. I squirmed just writing it. I squirmed through In My Skin, too, though I never looked away from the screen. Any given Vin Diesel movie is far more graphic that this, anyway. It’s mostly the suggestion of what Esther is doing to herself that worms its way into your mind and won’t leave you alone, and that’s what people were finding so uncomfortable that they couldn’t continue to watch the film. Being confronted with a sudden boundary between “me” and “my body” isn’t something many of us have dealt with, and our innate inclination for self-preservation tells us to run from the suggestion that such a thing is possible. That might make In My Skin the ultimate horror movie, one the proposes that, given the right stimulus, we ourselves could be our own worst mortal danger.

Remember those highway safety films they subjected us to in high school driver’s ed? Bodies as meat was their point, too… keeping your body from becoming ground chuck by showing us all the hamburger that happens when 8,000 pounds of Detroit steel meets tender teen bodies. Those films, they had their hearts — and ruptured spleens and punctured lungs — in the right places, but they were so melodramatic and so overblown that it was inevitable that they’d become the object of cult fascination, the stuff of MST3K shorts and midnight-movie adoration.

With Hell’s Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films, Bret Wood, who probably had the stuffing scared out of him in high school by these films like the rest of us did, gives us the inside scoop on “the golden age of the driver’s ed film.” Produced by the Highway Safety Foundation of Mansfield, Ohio, from 1959 to 1979, such classics as “Mechanized Death,” “Wheels of Tragedy,” and the notorious “Last Date” — clips from all of which are included here — subjected new drivers to shockingly graphic aftermath of real violence and are likely responsible for completely messing up the heads of those of us who survived being teen drivers. “This is not a pretty motion picture,” the narrator of one short intones ominously. “It is not supposed to be.” Well, sure. But Wood delights in exposing the rubbernecking roots of these lurid films: the Ohio cop groupie who just liked hanging around road accidents taking pictures of the gruesome dead bodies and mangled cars; the other accident junkies who got in on the action; the slide shows they began showing around at state fairs. Family fun! Bring the kids!

The kitsch factor comes in, Wood shows, in how the roadkill movies blended industry safety films with the “social guidance” instructional shorts of the 1950s and 60s, the ones in which gum-chewing, curfew-breaking juvenile delinquents got smacks upside the head in an attempt to instill table manners, dating rules, and all the information a good little automaton needed to behave in a socially acceptable conformist way. The result: enough earnestness and arrogance to produce concepts such as “teenicide,” “the fine art of killing yourself — and maybe somebody else — before the age of 20. You do it with an automobile.”

I don’t see why teenicide couldn’t be done with, say, a handax or cyanide or the candlestick in the library, but it’s the ironic upshot of these films that leads me to such ponderings. Maybe seatbelts and speed limits are part of the legacy of “Mechanized Death,” but so is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Jaws and Friday the 13th. The Highway Safety Foundation wanted to get at us while we were still young and impressionable, and it worked: Now we can’t get enough of teens dying horribly all the time. It’s fun!

In My Skin
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
not rated
official site | IMDB

Hell’s Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films
viewed at home on a small screen
not rated
official site | IMDB

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