Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Violence: Our Inhumanity

I've been thinking about violence...

...ever since I read Phantom Scribbler's poignant posts about a woman named Helen Hill, but also because Roger and I have become addicted to the HBO series Six Feet Under. Normally we would never describe that show as violent, but on Saturday night we watched Season 4, Episode 5. It's the one where David, one of the lead characters, is brutalized and tortured by a psychopath for several harrowing and unsettling hours.

Roger and I don't watch much TV. But when we do take a trip around the dial on the remote control we are often dismayed by the amount of violence we see. Violence is everywhere-- the news, documentaries, drama. In one format or another there is both the shock and celebration of it in our culture. We even saw an advertisement for a violent Christmas movie. (WTF is that about?) We click along, never stopping long enough to see who is behind the gun, the knife, the bomb. It's simply everywhere, on every channel. Murder and mayhem.

On Saturday we settled in for a little DVD escapism. We had already spent the rainy afternoon watching the original version of The Manchurian Candidate (excellent, but strangely, purposefully, and impersonally violent). By 9:00 pm we were ready for our Six Feet Under fix, but fifteen minutes into it, the horror of random personal violence came trampling through in the role of unbidden apocalyptic marauder. Through David's character we see how unsuspecting innocents always are, not believing what is actually befalling them, and how hopeful that somehow rational thinking and appeals to humanity will spare them. But isn't it the epitome of violence that the victim be utterly de-humanized, that pleasure be derived from inflicting suffering on others.

I left the room. I could not watch. Roger was able to sit through the entire episode albeit with trepidation and horror. Afterwards, we wondered if the fact that I am a survivor of a violent crime simply leaves me less able to watch the kind of violence inflicted on others. But I don't think that's it-- because I have always responded viscerally to depictions of violence, long before I myself fell victim.

Roger adds:
how could i watch david be assaulted, battered, and terrorized?

the first idea that occurs to me is that i have never been in such a situation. the last fight I was in was in the fourth grade. since then i have not been threatened physically in a way that left no out. i have encountered very bad people, but never in a confrontational way. while it was scary to be in their presence, and i slid away as fast as possible, nothing bad happened. i have no "sense memory," as the actor's studio says, of being scared shitless in the face of a brutal psychopath, or even a bully, to say nothing of being punched and kicked, so i think i can watch some forms of violence in a semi-detached way. not that my heart doesn't race, not that i don't feel fear and anger, and not that i enjoy watching, but i can hold back from investing myself entirely. my compassion for david and my curiousity, or need, to find out what happened, carried me through the scenes of physical violence.

i like drama. not melodrama. i appreciate that someone, mostly a large group of someones, goes to the trouble of producing a story, a play, a movie. it's a lot of work, so i try to "take the trip" with a willing suspension of disbelief. modern film and television portray "realism" quite well. the illusion of violence works, so i pick my "trips" carefully. i would survive a viewing of a slasher movie, but for what? an adrenaline rush? a bad one? and the hangover? i'll take my adrenaline rushes from my own physical adventures that don't involve hurt or pain or humiliation on anyone's part, thank you.

But we wonder, what role does theatrical depictions of violence serve in our culture? Why do you suppose there is so much of it? It is truly baffling to us, and we would love to hear why you think it is so ubiquitous. We may have been watching a two-year old episode of some HBO series, but it coincided with the real-life violent death of a fine woman, wife, and mother. What does it mean for all of us to live with the subtext of violence that permeates much of our life and popular culture?

When I left the room where the DVD was playing, I turned on the stereo and played old Moody Blues singing "Om." It just seemed like the right thing to do.

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