Monday, March 06, 2017

Kicking Ass for the Lord

"We hear many complaints about the prevalence of violence in modern fiction, and it is always assumed that this violence is bad thing and meant to be an end in itself. With the serious writer, violence is never an end in itself. It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially, and I believe these are times when writers are more interested in what we are essentially than in the tenor of our daily lives. Violence is a force which can be used for good or evil, and among other things taken by it is the kingdom of heaven. But regardless of what can be taken by it, the man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him; and since the characters in this story are all on the verge of eternity, it is appropriate to think of what they take with them."
-Flannery O'Connor

Action movies/tv series seem to be getting more brutal, gritty, violent, and downright nasty. You can see it even in the color palettes that are chosen for films - desaturated, devoid of color, grey. "This is what life is," the films seem to say before some casual murder and mayhem ensue...and then we're invited to giggle darkly at the next clever pun that comes along (perhaps to take the sting out of what we just saw or to give us permission to enjoy/downplay it via a character's response) or react with awe to the spectacle of the creator's genius as the camera jumps around some meticulously orchestrated gratuitous scene. It's like Kill Bill, only less artistic.

And there's some subtle guile-y off-feeling to it that sets my spider senses tingling.
When violence does not act as a trigger for some moral moment, but *is* the focal point, it becomes kinda gross. No upper/outer dimension, no conundrums, no moral pokey bits that unsettle you -- simply spectacle that appeals to our morbid fascination with death and destruction. For example [[spoilers!!!]], in Logan, a decent sweet and innocent family is murdered one by one -- and each family member's death is seen in an order: the child's death by the mother, the mother's death by the father (in a sense), and, finally, the father himself. The scene is somewhat extended and doesn't go anywhere. That is, it doesn't (a) establish something about the villains that we didn't know previously [does not reveal essential character of villains] or (b) serve any purpose within the narrative as a point of action for the protagonists [does not reveal essential character of protagonists] or (c) present some interesting moral dilemma for the watcher to resolve. It was there only to make us feel an exquisite horror, clutching our pearls and having tingly feels and gasping "oh wasn't that HIDEOUS!?" Many movies and tv series are falling into this, imo, selling it as cheeky, edgy, brutal, gritty, more 'mature.' Shyeeeeaah. Fart jokes might be more mature than feeding gruesome fixations.

In Plato's Republic, there's a telling quote (Book IV, 439E):"Leonitus, the son of Aglaion, was going up from the Piraeus under the outside of the North Wall when he noticed corpses lying by the public executioner. He desired to look, but at the same time he was disgusted and made himself turn away; for a while he struggled and covered his face. But finally, overpower by the desire, he opened his eyes wide, ran toward the corpses, and said: 'Look, you damned wretches, take your fill of the fair sight.'"

We accept the reality of a film that we enter into - the basic premises, the super-powers, the weird movie-logic - so perhaps it hinges on the reality that the film presents and how it frames it. Does this movie treat moments of violence as something ultimately meaningless one way or the other? If so, then it does a disservice to anyone watching it by training us to think of violence in a similar way - or even to enjoy it because of the emotions the sights elicit.

Not all violent movies give me that same off-feeling. The movie 300, for example (or the Evil Dead series or some campier films), I thought was a great fun lark. Maybe it was because there was some greater purpose that imbued their ludicrously serious performances (Yaaay! They'll all die tragically but heroically!! And they have muscley-muscles!! Glorious!) -- or perhaps it was because the violence was so stylized that it seemed removed from any possible reality -- or perhaps it was because there was a solid anchor of Good and Bad and you could cheer a side without reservations.

Not that movies need a stark contrast of Good and Bad - people are mixed bags, with mixed motives, even if there is some general orientation in one direction or the other. Movies should not be flippant in the attitudes that it adopts towards violence.
 

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