Questioning the pornography of violence

Commonbeauty has a fairly trenchant analysis of The Movie. “As a continuing sign of our impoverished public discourse, there is a silly debate about whether or not the film is ‘anti-semitic.’

“Well, as the kids would say, duh!

“It’s based on the gospels, isn’t it? I have an intimate familiarity with those texts, and I can tell you, they’re not exactly pro-Jew.”

A little farther along: “This film isn’t primarily about ‘God’ or about ‘accuracy’ or about any of the other trite formulations Christians around me (there are a few!) have been spouting. This film is about the power of the camera, the ability of soft-lighting, precious sound design and fake blood to reduce America’s suburban evangelicals to a giant heap of fanatical sobs and thoughtless sighs. It is a work of pornographic fidelity to dangerous and outdated ideas: blood sacrifice, collective guilt and the redemptive power of torture.

“It is no less than this nation deserves, really, that defines its reality either according to what is projected on the lit screen of the movie theatres or what trails across the lit skies of the theatres of war.”

I dropped some comments in the box as is my wont whenever ol’ CB goes on a truly righteous rant. I am particularly interested in his final statement, about our definitions of reality.

It’s true, NPR interviewed folks as they came out of the theatres. The most frequent comment was about how “realistic” it was. Even the people who labeled themselves as non-Christians were impressed by that. But what is so realistic about making a fifteen-minute whipping alluring enough to watch? In real life, most of us – the 95% who are not clinically psychopathic – wouldn’t be able to watch for a fraction of that time.

I don’t want to sound dense here, but what is it about violence that says ‘realism’ to so many people? Or should I be asking, what is it about people’s perceptions of reality that makes them look for it in extreme violence rather than among the thousand odd, beautiful, serendipitous and inscrutable moments, the acts of kindness and thoughtfulness that make our day-to-day lives worth living?

Could it stem perhaps from the modern cult of honesty, which demands that every ornamentation and decoration, every narrative flourish or poetic touch, every mask and costume, even (ideally) the skin itself be stripped away? It reverberates through proverb and cliche: “Bred in the bone.” “Beauty is only skin deep.” “That’s the way I really am, this is how I really feel.” The same cultural predilection that leads us to scorn the civilized art of rhetoric in favor of cant and sound bite and redneck anti-intellectualism. The same naivete that leads us to feel we can ignore the customs and mores of other cultures – and persuades us that the stark language of guns and bombs is all we need to change minds. The same blindness that keeps so many Americans (and Australians, I gather) from discovering an elemental social fact: that the hoary gestures of hospitality and respect, still practiced in places like Iraq and Old Europe, have a purpose, and that that purpose is to humanize. Reality isn’t just there, a given thing, raw matter. We shape it; we embellish, we embroider it. Some, mindful of transcendence, would say: we co-create it.

I’ll leave for sharper minds questions about the role of Hollywood and market forces and pop culture and imperialism. What seems clear to me is that Gibson – and millions of Christians like him – commit a grave error if they think the testimony of the emotions is sufficient. Would you discount the critical and creative faculties in deference to some literal interpretation? An old proverb about hiding a light under a bushel comes to mind. “Literal truth” is an oxymoron; reductionism leads to nihilism and brutality. So-called faith in the literal truth strikes me as little more than the blind worship of power. If you are religious, you might choose to look at it like this: God gave us imaginations for a reason. We need to combine the ancient Jewish teaching Love Thy Neighbor with the ancient maxim of Delphi: Know Thyself.

Know thy neighbor, love thyself.

Or something like that.


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