Friday, May 04, 2007

More on Horror and Violence

As I had previously threatened, I'm going to blather on a bit about ulraviolent horror films because for some reason, Mike White's piece and another piece in the Guardian has set me off in a weird way. Also, I wanted to add to some points I had only briefly touched upon in the "Mike White..." entry. Bear with me.

Why do I like horror movies? I don't know; I just do. They're fun. They exorcise demons. As Stephen King pointed out in his brilliant Danse Macabre, watching horrible things happen to people on celluloid reaffirms your humanity. There's no politically correct sermonizing going on. You go in knowing there's no "message," which can be a bit of a relief/release every now and again.

Or, as Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote in his review of Grindhouse, because, "[t]here is not a minute in this three-hour-plus tribute to all that's unholy in cinema that is good for you."

"Charlie Willis" made an excellent point in my comments section two posts back:

"I'm a little amazed that, over the years, there hasn't been a backlash of artists talking in detail about catharsis. That we use fantasy and imagination to deal with darker impulses in a healthy way. We show it so that people can experience that WITHOUT having to act upon it. It's when there's a deeper malfunction in a person's ability to differentiate between fantasy and reality, or simply have no reference with regards to what's right and wrong, that things start going haywire."

Back in 2000, comic-book author Gerard Jones wrote an excellent article in Mother Jones arguing that bloody videogames, gun-glorifying gangsta rap and other forms of "creative violence" give kids a healthy outlet to control their rage. You can read it here. Having grown up on comic books, horror films, King novels and the TV series V (rated at the time as the most violent television series ever), I know exactly what he's talking about.

Seriously. Read it. Go on, I'll wait.

You back?


Horror films are geared towards kids. They always have been. (What, you thought all the people going to see The Creature From the Black Lagoon and The Wolf Man were middle-aged couples?) I don't think this is good or bad, right or wrong. I got into horror movies when I was a kid. The first official horror movie I saw in the theatre was Gremlins (which I think is an excellent example of making good horror for young people). I was seven years old. Sure, I was scared. But I also had an absolute blast. My mother, it seemed, was much more scared than I was (and I don't think it was because she was worried for me; she could tell I was loving it).

Since then, I ended up seeing a number of horror films at a young age and then got into Stephen King's work, starting with It, at age 12.

I was hooked. Still am, really.

(Side note: when I was very young I was plagued with nightmares on an almost nightly basis. I did notice that when I started watching horror movies and reading horror novels, I stopped getting nightmares. I don't know the exact causality but I figured it was something worth pointing out.)

Now, I don't want anyone reading this thinking I'm advocating taking children to see R-rated horror films (Roger Ebert wrote an essay on seeing Night of the Living Dead, which was released one month before the MPAA came out with its ratings system, and seeing several children in the audience). I'm not even advocating that people who don't like horror movies should "chill out" and have fun with them. That's not what's bothering me about the "are movies too violent" debate.

Here's what bothers me about the self-righteous whining over horror movies/violent films: as a fan, I'm not trying to advocate non-fans into watching them, but non-fans don't extend the same courtesy. I'm not trying to convert anybody. Honest. I absolutely loved Grindhouse, for example. If a movie like Grindhouse isn't your thing, it isn't your thing. I promise, I'm not trying to convince you otherwise. That's fine.

So why do people who don't like these kinds of movies insist that those who do shouldn't, either?

Okay, fuck it. There's another reason why it irritates me on some fundamental level: because arguing against violent horror films is such a safe and easy argument. Complaining about violence and sexism and rolling your eyes theatrically will win you huge brownie points in the politically correct public sphere.

I'm reminded of an old joke Chris Rock made in his stand-up routine, responding to white people who complained vociferously about rap music with: "It's not for you!"

Seriously, do we have to have every aspect of our popular culture and entertainment be given a Politically Correct Seal Of Approval? Really?

Wanting more violence,

James "Vicarious Sociopath" Comtois

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Anonymous Joshua James said...

Jesus Christ, James . . . I thought I was the only other person in the universe who's actually read DANSE MACBRE . . . I read it as a teen, and have read it many times thereafter, even have a copy near my desk today . . .

I first read THE STAND at age nine . . . and ironically, that was my first King book.

I agree that horror stories can be a way for us to confront our own fears, which is very empowering.

8:35 AM  
Blogger Alison Croggon said...

Hmm. I am hardly PC, nor do I think that violent media by themselves are an agent. I even like Stephen King. And I am all for kids having a space to confront fears or anger. Try reading Love's Work by Gillian Rose for a position on which I agree.

But the kind of mind-numbing violence against women described in these movies hardly strikes me as cathartic, but something of the reverse, a desensitisation that expresses an awful misogyny and fear and hatred of female sexuality that exists in wider society. My question still stands: if you watched a movie where all the victims were black, would you be disturbed? Yes? No?

Catharsis is what happens when you watch tragedy and experience an epiphany of emotion (pity or fear). Ie, there's a complex emotional structure in the drama. I'm sure there's no pity in these portrayals. And it strikes me as disturbing. I'm not talking about censorship - I'm asking why it's plasurable to see pretty young sexual women dismembered or having their eyeballs sandblasted or whatever.

8:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay. First, Chris Rock is wrong.

He was wrong, and historically ignorant, since from the days of Jim Crow minstrelsy and the black renaissance, art black people make cannot possibly be limited to a black audience. It was never intended to, because those lovely spirituals were meant to show negroes' humanity to people who considered them animals. Later, it was a deliberate strategy to open black art to whites, to create social equality through aesthetic refinement (viz. TERRIBLE HONESTY, by Ann Douglas).

Around that art, the American media system grew, which swallowed all music, fiction, theatre into its maw. We have an Amendment to our Constitution barring the government from barring free speech, and the free market takes care of the rest. Rap stopped being for blacks only as soon as white kids got up enough courage to visit the neighborhoods in which it grew... and the rest is Rick Rubin.

Feminist or lesbian separatist art, when it attempted to be limited to a female audience, got slammed by bad press and lawsuits demanding inclusion -- have MTF women gotten in the Michigan Women's Music Festival, yet? -- the flipside of wanting equality, for all minority artists. They have to be the ones to open up, first. And, as their art changes, in response, they usually end up bending over, too.

Thus, Rock is disingenuous in thinking rap would ever be controlled by black artists, since those artists will never, ever control the national record distribution system. So, we get wiggers, now, and harumphing parents, and the new minstrelsy, and a surrender of responsibility from producers, record companies and artists, since they can all blame each other for the evils committed while blasting their tunes. (If they took responsibility for the male prison rape posture of saggy pant couture, for me it would be enough.)

For violent movies, they aren't by horror auteurs, for horror auteurs, so applying Rock's words here makes even less sense. The exploitation market made its bones on courting disapproval, along with stag movies, racist vignettes and other staples of the fraternal order 'smoker' bacchanal. The act of rebelling against adult standards of decency is a feature, not a bug, of teen entertainment, but teens don't control horror movie production. They may be the audience, but they don't make the decisions. Adults do. And I don't think it's crazy or censorious for adults to consider how they market (not create, but market) their transgressive, edgy, art to teens.

And, yeah, somewhere in all these debates there is the dismissing of violence towards lesser beings: minorities, women, kids, cops. Sure, they may be zombies for the ease of killing, but still excuses are made and accepted, for a lot of violence for which responsibility is as distributed and amorphous as with rap music. Videogames, especially, seem to be created by no one human.

And, to add to what Alison said, with no responsibility there can be no catharsis. An author needs to be there, to say 'here is the pain, and here is how I'll lead you out of it'. Without responsibility, these creators lose that storytelling power, which is fine by them, because it's all content and profit. Stephen King, Clive Barker, are different, which is why I understand why they do that thing they do. These other legions of splatter guys? They don't want me to know them. They like being behind the hockey mask, as long as they never, ever, get to be the screaming girl, violated, superfluous.


7:11 AM  
Blogger Becky Comtois said...

So then isn't the real problem that people don't like bad horror movies? I mean from my experience of the genre it isn't that all horror is bad but that bad horror is bad. When you have a monster raping a lady if you don't pique the audience's fear- if they can't identify with the victim- and thus have their latent fears of violation brought to the surface for them to confront, then the piece fails. What upsets people is when that scene misses the mark, it misses it so far as to become extremely offensive in it's blatant misogyny. Sure I have a problem with people who are bad at what they do. If saying, "make better movies" would work- then that would be great, but that's probably not going to happen, so as it is we need to sludge through a great deal of muck to get to the gold. I'm just saying- since no one here seems to be advocating censorship- what we're left with is to suck it up.

And as for the question of why IS sadism.... that is something worth examining, but is also something that has been around long before film, so I don't think the answer to that more anthropological question can be found within that particular medium, but rather within the human psyche.

11:14 AM  

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