Chris Jordan wants to feel you from the inside.
|"My name is Trent and I'm very angry."|
1992: after an ugly battle with an unscrupulous record label, Trent Reznor finally broke free of the contract that had prevented him from releasing any new Nine Inch Nails material since 1989's Pretty Hate Machine. His former label had, in no uncertain terms, tried to derail his career to punish his resistance to their strong-arm manipulation, and while Reznor found new artistic freedom at Interscope, the ordeal had taken a major emotional toll. Now that he had a new outlet for his music, all the anger, bitterness, depression, and disillusionment that had been building up inside him during the last couple years took form, becoming Nine Inch Nails' landmark EP, Broken. A furious half-hour album described by Reznor as “an ultra-fast chunk of death,” it alternates between moody instrumentals and lyrics exploring themes of dependency, psychological control, and emotional brokenness, clearly reflecting the dark place in which he had found himself. Then in 1993, Broken re-emerged with even greater fury as a short film adaptation: an ultraviolent, Faces of Death-ish long-form music video that lived up to – and surpassed – Reznor's “ultra-fast chunk of death” descriptor.
The Broken Movie, as it is usually known, became the stuff of legend immediately upon its release. Or rather, its lack of release: the story of how it found its way to its fans is as fascinating as the content itself, and a huge part of its mythological stature. According to Reznor, Interscope was so shocked and horrified by the film's gruelingly violent content that they refused to release it, fearing a massive backlash. But that didn't stop it: a bootleg tape was leaked by someone close to the band, and it spread across the music scene like an urban legend. It was a literal viral video, in a physical, analogue sense: fans would hook up two VCRs and make tape copies for other fans, and those people would make more copies, and so on. It was like the tape from The Ring: you get a shady homemade copy and watch it, then you make someone else a copy and keep the circle expanding, or in seven days Trent will crawl out of your TV in his leather and fishnets and say “what the hell, you're not going to share this thing? Don't your friends like good music?” Interscope Records could never have marketed such a phenomenon even if they had released it.
But there's probably more to the story than all that. In retrospect, it all makes a huge amount of sense within the larger context of Reznor's career. It was always assumed by fans that Reznor himself was behind the leak – after all, surely he would want his film to be seen by any means necessary after the label allegedly buried it – but after years of his savvy experimentation with music distribution platforms, it's hard not to see The Broken Movie as his first experiment. It's totally possible that Interscope really did refuse to give an official VHS release to this ultra-fast cinematic chunk of death, but regardless of what happened in their offices, it's almost certain that Reznor seized the opportunity to do something really unique. Through anonymous underground channels, he effectively shook up industry distribution methods and conducted a cultural experiment to see what would happen if you just released a film into the wild and let it spread like an idea rather than a commodity. In a way, it's like an analogue equivalent to his later release of The Slip as a free-to-download album, only wrapped in the urban legend allure of a forbidden snuff film. Of course he would never admit if this was true or not (anything he's ever said about the leakage of the film has been tantalizingly vague), but it's undeniable that the way in which The Broken Movie was released (or wasn't) amplified and added to its grim narrative. The release WAS part of the story, and it turned the viewer into a character in the film; a guilty party taking voyeuristic pleasure in watching a serial killer's illicit snuff tape. We may never know if it was ever seriously considered for a mainstream VHS release or not, but if it had been, this fascinating meta-narrative would have been lost, and the film's power would have been diminished. It's definitely for the best that it was released the way it was.
|"Wowza!! I didn't know you|
were into this stuff."
But what about the film itself; does it live up to this one-of-a-kind behind-the-scenes story? Pretty much, yes. It's a nonlinear nightmare on film, told as three overlapping threads: the investigation into the grisly crimes of a serial killer, the killer's blood-soaked home movies, and the Nine Inch Nails music videos that the killer plays on his TV as background music for his murders. There's no real story, and there doesn't seem to be any deeper themes or meanings; the deeper theme is the lack of meaning. It reflects the nihilistic hopelessness and anger in the album's lyrics, and the dark emotions Reznor was feeling when he wrote them. It's all about mood and emotion: a harrowing enhancement of the album's journey. It's a rough experience, but that's exactly what it's supposed to be.
The different styles within the film deliberately contrast one another to enhance the jarring effect of it all. The present-day footage and the music videos are extremely well-shot – on film – with very cinematic black and white (or in one case, desaturated color) cinematography. The home movie of the killer, on the other hand, is a deliberately worn and distorted VHS camcorder image: shaky found-footage with bleeding too-bright colors and VCR damage. The gore on the home movie segments is made all the more real-looking by the deliberately poor quality, while the grim images on the black and white film achieve more of a haunting quality somewhere between a horror movie and Eraserhead. The film contains the music videos for “Wish” and “Happiness in Slavery,” which were also released on their own, but are given even more eerie power within this context. Both are excellent, now-classic music videos. Wish's concert performance in a cage acts as a reflection of Reznor's state of mind during his conflict with his label, and also captures the raw fury of the band's early live shows. The grande guignol Happiness In Slavery video reflects these same themes through a grueling metaphor for labels chewing up and spitting out disposable artists who nonetheless enter the trap willingly. The film also contains new music videos for the album's instrumentals: haunting mood pieces that perfectly enhance the songs. All throughout, the killer's home movies give them a brutal context of despair.
If the film has an obvious flaw, it's that it is rather dependent on external context for much of its power. For it to really be good, you need to know the background of Reznor's artistic struggle and state of mind when the album was written, and also the meta-narrative of its underground release. It isn't really a standalone film, then, but an interactive art piece that is the centerpiece of a real-life story. With that knowledge, it has a creepy emotional resonance. Without it, it's basically just some great music videos wrapped up in an intensely brutal package. Its brutality definitely packs a punch; although in this post-Hostel era, the gore honestly doesn't seem as nasty as it would have been 22 years ago. I would argue, though, that it certainly is much more artistically meaningful than Hostel in the larger context of what the film means.
|"I'm not really sure what's going on|
here but it must be pure evil."
Its underground VHS release is not where the strange tale of The Broken Movie's distribution ends – with the age of DVD it reared its ugly head again, with equally sordid results. Interscope very nearly released the film on an official DVD, along with the Downward Spiral-era concert film/tour documentary Closure, but wound up pulling the plug on both releases. Trent Reznor, being the master of alternative release platforms that he is, naturally didn't let that stop him. He posted torrents of the full ISO files of both DVDs (anonymously, of course) around Christmas 2006, accompanied by the cryptic blog message “Happy Holidays! This one is a guilt-free download. (shhhh - I didn't say that out loud). If you know what I'm talking about, cool." The torrented DVD looks great: for the first time, the washed-out copy-of-a-copy-of-a VHS quality was replaced by a pristine remaster. But the story still doesn't end there. The film finally, briefly, saw an official Interscope-endorsed release when Reznor posted it on the Nine Inch Nails Vimeo channel in 2013 – but it was promptly pulled for explicit content. Again, however, he wrote a blog post not-so-subtlely directing people to his torrent: “This just wasn’t meant for the masses,” he wrote. “There is, however, a certain broad inlet of the sea where the land curves inward, inhabited by people who attack and rob ships at sea, where this video can be downloaded in high quality.” Who ever said Trent doesn't have a great sense of humor?
One could make a strong argument that the torrent is indeed an official release, distributed and supported by the artist, if not the label. But nonetheless, since it isn't available through official, strictly-legal channels, it remains in that nebulous category of Unreleased but Viewable. In addition to the torrent it can still be found streaming online; occasionally on YouTube or Vimeo when someone briefly posts it (it will always get pulled for explicit content), but usually on more unregulated video sites. But it's out there; you can find it easily with a quick search. And if you're a Nine Inch Nails fan – or just someone interested in this bizarre story from cinema's underground – you definitely should.
-Christopher S. Jordan
Trent says share this review or he'll f#@! you like an animal.