Monday, June 11, 2007

Three Movies & a Weekend

This weekend I saw 3 movies and a lousy NBA playoff game.

The first was The History Boys. What a wonderful film! Focusing on a group of young men in 1980s Britain at Cutlers' Grammar School who are trying to get into Oxford or Cambridge, this coming-of-age film touches on two uncommon themes. The first is the joy of imagination and learning, and the second is an uncompromising, boisterous and bouyant exploration of adolescent sexuality. The primary vehicle for both of these themes is Hector, an incongruous, somewhat bumbling gay or bi-sexual teacher in his 60s, who teaches General Studies, a loose-fitting coat that includes poetry, theatre, sexuality, and antics. Emotive and expressive, Hector is unapologetic of his "misdeeds," highly critical of where education is heading (a quantifiable sterile regurgitation), and genuinely affectionate towards his students. Throw in a new teacher who is to "ready" the boys for the entrance exam, and a demonic head-master, and a marginalized history teacher, and you have the stew. The ending is a bit predicatable, but the film is totally worth a net-flicks account, a good bottle of chardonnay, and a new sofa.

The second was Spiderman 2. Another wonderful film, although a bit silly and overplayed at times, it's primary exploration is the dark complexity of superherodom, and more specifically, the choices Peter Parker is forced to make (or feels he is forced to make) to fulfill his role as Spiderman. This movie manages to upend many cliches, and quite accurately present Peter as a conflicted soul. And who could hate Peter? What's the matter with you Harry Osborn?? Just cause he killed your dad. There are some very moving scenes -- the subway for instance.

The third was Shaun of the Dead, which interestingly enough was ranked higher by IMDB voters that either of the other two. I didn't finish Shaun of the Dead. I didn't find it all that funny, or interesting, but was more bothered by something else entirely. I was bothered by its use of zombies. To contextualize this, I have been thinking a lot about human violence over the past several years, and having numerous discussions to that extent. My own observations indicate that humans have always enjoyed the privilege of allowing themselves to do violence against other humans who have been categorized as sub-human. There are many ways this has been accomplished over history: through race, religion, mental retardation, criminality, gender, and so forth. Whatever the mechanism, the sub-humanized humans are then available for whatever forms of torture, death, etc. the "real" humans feel warranted. Zombies, along with most video-game villains are to my mind the latest crop.
I have to confess that I do not rule out violence in movies, books, music or anything else carte blanche. I think violence has a place in art, a profound place, and can be used for aesthetic, emotional (or hyper-emotional) and moral purposes.
I have also found in my discussions with others about violence that many people believe we are by nature violent, and that violent urges are as innate as the desire for sex or food. To these people, violent video games, violent films (such as Kill Bill), or even sports, often have the purpose of draining off, in a safe fashion, some of these violent urges. Many of these same people would argue against theories that claim excessive violence desensitizes, or heightens violent urges. I am not certain I subscribe to these views.
But in trying to sum up, and I'm drifting afar afield, what bothered me about Shaun was that zombies were used to display, often in a comic fashion, aggression and violence to human-like (I read sub-human) creatures. Given the lack of any real tension or horror in the film (unlike Romero's Night of the Living Dead), zombies were merely creatures to hack apart and spurt blood. While it would be easy to dismiss Shaun of the Dead as a light-hearted comedy, silly, studpid, or even a sweet evolution to adulthood for loser Shaun, I came away with a yet darker vision of contemporary pop culture than I had before I saw the movie. Luckily the other two gave me hope. Now if only the Cavs can win one game.


Miguel said...

Interesting thoughts on Shaun of the Dead - you should finish it - it has a happy ending!

One way that zombies have been interpreted is also as a reflection of human's inner, often hidden or rejected impulses - specifically towards violence, etc.

But another important trope in the zombie sub-genre is that they attack first... What we do after that perhaps is more illustrative.

l33t_m0nk3y said...

We've talked about this before as well.

I find it interesting that you decry the violence in Shaun of the Dead, yet make no mention of the violence in Spiderman 2.

In Shaun, the violence was (for the most part) inflicted by or upon 'sub-human' predatory monsters. In spiderman two the violence is person on person. Yet this didn't bear a mention in your post.

You almost glorify Peter Parker's conflicted character, yet never allude to the fact the he uses physical violence to fight crime.

I say Shaun of the Dead is a fantastic movie, which, unlike many movies, you can almost see yourself as the main character. Each of the 'survivors' portrays a realistic reaction to an otherwise completely insane event.

As you said, violence has it's place in art. I can be wholly entertained by a movie such as Shaun of the Dead, or Spiderman two, who use violence to entertain. While simultaneously being disturbed by the violence in a movie like American History X (another great).

Many classic physical comedians (e.g. Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, the Stooges) rely on violence (exaggerated and pantomimed, yet entirely inflicted upon people) for comedic effect, yet I doubt you would find fault there.

I'm not trying to criticize, I'm just trying to find out where you place your distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable.

piper said...

Good comments both Miguel and Monkey Man. Let me try to approach them systematically, and let me also say that my conclusions may not be "logical" because I don't think logic necessarily governs how one reacts to something. There are those reductionists who would attempt to go there, but I'm not one. Let me also say that I find myself in the midst of an investigation of violence, one that may never come to any definitive conclusion. And finally, with regard to art, or entertainment, or most things in life, including life, there are many views. How one person can like a song and another not is often puzzling, especially a song that you love.

Zombie interpretation: I doubt the makers of Shaun were thinking of this theory, but let's say they were. There are other tactics used in therapy besides violence to deal with hidden impulses -- recognition and acceptance come to mind.

Zombies attack first. Granted. In 9/11 some people attacked first. What we did, and continue to do afterwards is also illustrative.

For some reason the violence in Spiderman didn't bother me nearly as much. Why? I'm not sure, but I'll try to put my finger on it. Peter Parker seems aware of the moral conflict of using violence to prevent violence, in fact he seems aware that he is trapped in it. I didn't recognize any moral consideration of this nature in Shaun. I also thought the violence in Shaun was more gratuitous. This is in part because, due to the comic nature of the film, I never felt the zombies were any real threat. This is a very different situation that the film's namesake.

If what Miguel said is correct, that zombies represent a human's inner impulses, then zombies are not in fact sub-human, but part human. The violence against them is also against a creature that is part human. But even if they don't represent that, they, to me, are human. They have human form, they are played by human actors, they react to violence in physical human ways -- spurt blood, etc.

I think the most interesting question for me is why do people need the experience of violence, either experienced as an actor (fighting), virtual actor (video games), or spectator (movies, books, etc.)? Or do we? Is violence a necessary innate human behavior? If so, is it something we can leave behind like an appendix or a spleen? Or is it something we're stuck with?

A secondary question involves the effect of violence in the above modes. Does it do nothing, increase the desire, desensitize the desire, or decrease the desire?

I think, given the conflicted state of our world, the competitive condition of political and corporate control, that these are serious questions.

l33t_m0nk3y said...

If I may be frank, in your first paragraph you mentioned that your conclusions may not be logical. While there is inherent truth in that statement, it is fraught with peril. Your reaction may not be one based upon logic, but to discuss it, you must have some sense of why you have the aversion. You can say "I don't like it, because I don't like it." At that point our conversation is finished, since it brooks no further discussion.

But, you did attempt to articulate your concerns, so we shall move forward with that.

Violence, in terms of what we discuss here, simply a human construction. A label we place on things to attempt to quantify/ qualify a concept. In this case 'violence' is probably simply defined as the application of force, perhaps in an injurious (or potentially so) manner. 'Violence' exists in nature, in fact it is an important factor in evolution and survivial.

I don't necessarily subscribe to the Zombie theory Miguel mentioned, partly because most interpretations of Zombies are simply leftovers of what was at one time human. Only the most basic impulses remain, particularly that of eating (Maslow's lowest level). You don't generally see a zombie pursuing impulses that go beyond that (with a few exceptions).

The violence manifests by either the zombie pursuing it's hunger, or the human defending it's life. I don't draw some kind of correlary between Zombies attack first and 9-11, one is primarily intended as fiction and one is very very real.

I disagree with you about Peter Parker having any kind of conflict about using violece to fight crime. And why should he, he is stronger, and more powerful than the street thugs he usually beats up, with only the occasional Goblin or Doctor Octopus cropping up. He saves people when he can but there is no point at which he says, "Maybe I should educate these criminals and make a difference in their life. Teach them how to learn right from wrong, instead of beating them up and leaving them hanging upside-down in a cool looking web."

He doesn't do this because it isn't entertaining. It's much more pleasing to an audience to see the bad guys get their licks, and for the morally bound yet adrenaline addicted superhero to do what they, probably, cannot.

"Gratiutous" violence, is really hard to define. I remember watching images of the holocaust in a movie in high school. It was disturbing. The 'curb stomp' in AmHistX was disturbing. Yet in both cases they served a purpose. In both cases you could have gotten the point across another way, yet both had an impact on me.

In the case of Shawn of the Dead, a comedy, you have a signficant plot point (or setting) of flesh eating zombies. In it you have no more (in terms of quantity) violent acts than something like say...Team America. Watch any Stooges movie they are rife with gratuitous violence.

What I suspect you have an issue with is the visceral nature of the violence in movies like Shaun.

I think we're stuck with it. In modern American society violence is only acceptable as comparmentalized pre-approved forms such as boxing, or exercise, or entertainment. I doubt in the places of the world that experience real violence on a daily basis, there is the need to experience it in leisure.

piper said...

Fraught with peril? What century you live in you banshee zombie killer?

I think this discussion is fraught with peril because I sense that you already have solidly entrenched beliefs, while I am still formulating mine. Thus, a difference of intentions - mine to investigate, yours to assert. If you were to claim an open mind, then we could proceed. History is rife with beliefs, but as many scientists, theologians and philosophers have said, beliefs are limits to be transcended.

So there, dog breath.

Human construction? How can anything we discuss not be a human construction. That is our glory, and our limitation.

That violence exists in nature is not debatable. So does pollination of cereus flowers by moths. There are very few species however, if any, that have made violence so predominate, so prestigious. There are no species that have created the means to their own demise.

Are you calling 9/11 fiction?

You're right about Peter Parker. He is of the violence to fight violence ethic, but it bothers him. Some, anyway. Ok, not much.

My beef with Shaun is that the zombies are just easy things to slaughter, like walking through a field of cattle and hacking them to pieces. Maybe it's a matter of drama in fiction -- the drama wasn't that interesting. And actually, what I have a problem with is not the visceral nature of violence in Shaun, but the casual nature of violence in Shaun, as if you're walking through a field of cattle and hacking them to pieces, while reading a book. Not a very good book.

Experiencing violence in leisure is a strange notion. I read recently that African armies comprised of extremely young kids (like 9-13), use extremely violent films to "pump the kids up," an arousal that's probably similar to watching a porn flick. So a question I'm wrestling with is does violence pump one up, do nothing, or desensitize one toward feeling anything? Obviously in your own experience, the violence in the high school holocaust films, and in AmHistX was evocative and instructive. I'm not sure the point could have been gotten across in another way, at least the same point. But these are very different uses of violence than those of Kill Bill or Shaun, where, to me at least, it is much more casual, much more for the purpose of entertainment. And that is what bothers me, about myself as well, that I (we) can be entertained by violence, that it is entertaining.

And yes, you have found my Achilles heel. I do love those Stooges. Iggy Pop as well.

Peace out dude.

l33t_m0nk3y said...

Sorry "Fraught with peril" is my term for anything as potentially sticky as this topic of discussion.

My beliefs are no more solidly entrenched than yours. Most of what I say is an assertion of my opinion, just as you assert yours. If you'd rather me not express my opinion in this matter, I can, of course, refrain. My opinion in all things is always evolving, primarily through discovery and discourse. No more or less than yours, probably.

My point about it being a human construction was the relative value we place on it. You discuss the possibility of transcending beyond violence as if it is something that is an option. Perhaps here, we should discuss how you define violence. Is a lioness downing a prey animal more violent than a Cordyceps invading an insect host. Is heroic and fantastic violence more acceptable than violence inflicted upon monstrous creatures?

Chimpanzees are a very violent species, even, probably by our conception of it. Because a chimpanzee does not posess gunpowder or nuclear arsenal, or create movies that use violence as a central theme does not change the fact that they are a violent, aggressive species. In some manner most social mammals have aggressive tendencies that are usually based around social struction, mating, etc.

You probably know more about this stuff than I do, but I know that Male lions taking over a pride kill cubs to bring the females into heat. Dolphins also, practice infanticide. Killer whales are notorious for behavior that we might consider violent. But it is what it is. Like most behaviors in mammals, it is probably a mix of both instinctual and learned behavior.

Perhaps, it's more effective to discuss violence within the framework of a given society?

Are the Jivaro Indians (headshrinking headhunters) more or less violent than Shaun of the Dead? Is their violence better or more acceptable? Violence happens the world over. Blame religion, blame race, blame nationality. Whether we write about it or live it, it just is.

The Zombies are easy to slaugher in Shaun of the dead, but it is unlike a field of cattle (IMO anyway), unless the cattle wanted to eat your brain. We could discuss all day the possible cause/effect of violence and it's effect on people, and I don't doubt that there is an effect on people. No different, necessarily, than a tear jerker, or a comedy.

What I don't put any stock in is the believe that somehow an individual becomes more violent because he/she watches or plays games that use violence. I love a good violent movie, yet it doesn't incite me to go out and commit violence. Most of my friends are the same way.

Your example with African armies is disturbing, but why isn't the same technique used with veterans? It's easy to objectify violence with children who do not truly grasp the loss associated with killing and death. Conditioning of any elite forces (I've known a few) similarly decouples killing and loss of life with emotion and sense of loss. They objectify the act because they must.

I can only speak from my own experience. I know that real, true violence is not something I would want to experience. With the few real samples I've been exposed to, I understand, or more importantly, I FEEL the difference between the two. Simultaneously, I can enjoy a violent movie without guilt or worry that I'm going to turn into a homicidal maniac (though I wouldn't rule out there are some that might).