Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

There’s a term in cinema called the “snuff film.” A snuff film, for those lucky enough not to know, is a film that depicts the actual murder of a person or people for entertainment purposes, erotic or otherwise. The claim to fame of a snuff film is that there are no special effects, that the violence is real, and therefore special, exquisite, what-have-you. The joy comes from watching the violence and the pain.

A recent article by Andrew Romano in the The Daily Beast attempts to explain the current popularity of survival movies, films like Gravity and All is Lost that feature our hero in a deadly battle to stay alive: “A particularly dedicated (or masochistic) moviegoer could now park outside his local multiplex in the morning, spend his brunch hours rediscovering the horrors of America’s peculiar institution (12 Years a Slave), pass the early afternoon adrift in outer space (Gravity), hunker down with a band of hostage-taking Somali pirates around tea time (Captain Phillips), and have dinner, for one, on a life raft in the middle of the Indian Ocean (All Is Lost).”

Why? Why would anyone willingly inflict upon themselves even one of these movies? And why would the fates of Hollywood nature somehow bring to the screen four of these films at once?

Romano theorizes that the on-screen adversities in these films “mirror our real-world anxieties—about globalization, economic inequality, international affairs, technology, and so on.” Fundamentally, these films (with the exception of Captain Phillips, where salvation comes at the hand of “The Man”) dwell on our fundamental loneliness, on the fact that we are all, in some way, lost in space or at sea. Society, with its implied safety nets, is nowhere when we really need it.

And in this sense, Gravity, All is Lost, and 12 Years a Slave tap into the cultural zeitgeist, where the term safety net is as antiquated as the struggle of man versus nature. However, there is something else to be reflected in the popularity of these films, and 12 Years a Slave reflects this most horrifyingly.

The popularity of this film, I think, is a response to the growing apathy of our general population. We live in a time where someone can fall on the subway tracks and no one does anything. We drive by homeless and turn our heads. We see footage of children dying in Somalia, and we turn to a discussion of Miley Cyrus. There is a current inability to feel outrage about these things, a desensitization to what we feel we cannot change. We turn ourselves into cyborgs because it would be impossible to function otherwise. If you turn on the news, you are confronted with starving children in Africa, dying seagulls in the Gulf, polar ice caps melting, and a world that is, in general, going to hell.

It’s the end of the world, as we know it, and we’re doing our best to feel fine.

So we turn it off. We desensitize. We talk about Kanye and Kim’s wedding proposal. We watch The Bachelor. We escape. Because we can. Because we have to. Because we’re undergoing sensory overload all the time. Because, in the words of Marshall McLuhan, “One of the effects of living with electric information is that we live habitually in a state of information overload. There’s always more than you can cope with.”

But then, when we want to feel alive, we go to the movies. We watch Robert Redford’s existential struggle for survival against the forces of nature, and we feel. We feel — for a safe and sanitized two hours. It’s a civilized man’s version of the snuff film. And then we leave, and go home, and it is as if we, too, have won a battle. We, too, have struggled against the wilds of the ocean from the precariousness of a lifeboat, and now it’s time for the Real Housewives.

So what makes 12 Years a Slave so horrifying? Beyond the fact that this actually happened, beyond the fact that this was accepted, legal, and encouraged in our fine United States of America, what troubles me is that there has become this notion in Hollywood that cruelty and violence, when in the guise of the self-righteous, is permissible. That this level of violence, over and over, beyond any level which the story’s narrative requires, makes the story more real, more authentic, more important. And that this violence is not tempered with a humanity, with any sense of community or love among the slaves, makes it all the more brutal. That there is merely violence after violence after violence.

Yes, I get that this is what happened. I understand that slavery, like Holocaust, like death, isn’t pretty. That doesn’t mean I want to go to the movies and watch it, as it happened.

In a recent article in the LA Times about the difficulty of getting people to see the film (for obvious reasons), a woman talks about the importance of bringing her children to see it. If I had children, I would never bring them to see a film like this. I wish I hadn’t seen it. Instead, I would sit down with my children, and I would discuss American history (the ugly and the good). I would talk about racism, and slavery, and Martin Luther King, and Malcom X, and Trayvon Martin — but I would not bring them to this film.

The idea that it is socially acceptable to put this kind of gratuitous violence on the big screen for the sake of entertainment, no matter how noble that entertainment may be, is horribly misguided.

I am not pro-censorship. I am pro-history and social awareness. I know about slavery. I know it happened, and I know how horrifying it was. But while I also support the idea of telling stories about it, much like I support making films about the Holocaust, when this extreme level of violence is deemed necessary, I view it as exploitative, as a cheap way of getting us to feel. So that we can then leave the theater, shaking our heads at the horror of it all, feeling proud of ourselves for having made it through.

And then we turn on the Real Housewives.

While yet another school shooting just happened. While the environmental situation borders on catastrophic. While no one votes.

Perhaps, in addition to focusing on the horrifying crimes legal in America during the nineteenth century, we can also talk about human trafficking happening today (14,500-17,500 people are estimated to be trafficked into the United States each year, and half of those are said to be children, and 800,000 people are trafficked worldwide each year. Want to read more?). There is more than enough talent out there for movies to be made about all difficult subjects, and I would love a balance of films set in the past (slavery, Holocaust, et cetera), present (human trafficking, child soldiers, et cetera), and future (caste systems, digital surveillance, genetic modification, et cetera), since movies seem to be one of the few ways to bring awareness to anything these days.

And for all these films, regardless of the subject matter, I’m questioning the productivity of featuring this amount of violence when telling the story. Because, much like when a woman shows her boob, it’s all you remember (Hello, Janet). When there is this much violence, not only does that become what is remembered, but it also makes it okay to show this amount of violence, and then next time, we can show more. Which is, perversely, one more step in forging our apathy and desensitization. Psychological research suggests that the more often we see representations of egregious forms of violence, the more we become indifferent to them.

The common definition of a splatter film or gore film is a type of horror film that deliberately focuses on graphic portrayals of gore and graphic violence. To quote Wikipedia, “These films, through the use of special effects, tend to display an overt interest in the vulnerability of the human body and the theatricality of its mutilation.” Could it not be argued that this happens, over and over, in 12 Years a Slave? And that one of the drawbacks to this violence is the way it upstages the very narrative it is intended to support?

Perhaps, instead of feeling the need to show us scene after scene of horrifying and unrelenting violence, we could focus on learning how to feel after leaving the multiplex.

Perhaps we should wonder why it feels good to feel bad.

Perhaps we should wonder why it is okay to show such extraordinary and horrific cruelty in a film and yet a woman can’t show a breast on television.

Perhaps we should wonder why a film where almost every other scene depicts such inhumane cruelty is deemed not only important but necessary.

Advertisements