Violence, Justice Porn, And Free Characters

From time to time I hear teenage boys mutter, after directing their intellects toward the sticky issue of foreign relations and the Middle East, “Ah, geez, why don’t we just nuke them all?” I could not say for certain how long teenage boys have glibly advocated for the universal destruction of foreign nations, but if the Old Testament is to be trusted, total war has been a possibility for far longer than the total war weapon. The current moral and aesthetic climate of the United States towards violence certainly has some historical precedent: men have enjoyed watching the violent destruction of human bodies for thousands of years. Even the most beautiful and humane treatise on just war ever written, The Song of Roland, includes long, dull passages wherein human beings are chopped, diced and spliced in nauseating detail. The first thing which ought to be admitted when addressing the matter of violence in entertainment is this: it is no lately-arisen phenomenon.

As with the issue of nudity in film, the matter of graphic violence in film requires a more nuanced examination than a blank check allowing it or a blanket condemnation against it.

In the Confessions, Augustine tells the story of his friend Alypius, a student of law in Rome, who resisted going to gladiatorial shows for so long, but was finally led away by his friends to a contest. When he arrived at the arena, he vowed that he would keep his eyes closed and not drink in the spectacle, but a sudden cry from the audience and Alypius “opened his eyes and was struck with a deeper wound in his soul than the victim whom he desired to see had been in his body. For, as soon as he saw the blood, he drank in with it a savage temper, and he did not turn away, but fixed his eyes on the bloody pastime, unwittingly drinking in the madness – delighted with the wicked contest and drunk with blood lust.” Sixteen hundred years ago, men were drawn into theaters for similar reasons they are drawn in today. “Him, not me” heightens the senses and grants the world a precise, articulate quality which is lost when life is taken for granted. Bloodlust is a species of the lust to know, which is not a thirst for wisdom, but uncontrolled curiosity. Curiosity is a desire to master wisdom, while wonder brings us under the rule of wisdom. Curiosity is arrogant, wonder is humble. As for bloodlust, our guts are hidden from our eyes, and when we pass a car wreck on the side of the road, we draw near a secret being revealed.

Bloodlust is not interested in blood but in that man’s blood, much like lust is not so much concerned with the body but with that person’s body. Bloodlust is not the desire to know what a bullet wound looks like, but what a bullet wound looks like on that man… and that man… and that man, as well. So, too, lust is not much concerned with what a woman’s breasts look like, but in seeing that woman’s breasts. For this reason, films which appeal to lust and bloodlust alike tend to cycle rapidly through human bodies.

In the City of God, Augustine teaches that “the carnal man” is the man whose soul is slave to his body, as opposed to “the spiritual man,” whose body is slave to his soul. Unlike gnostics, Christians believe in the goodness of creation and the goodness of the body, even while they believe the soul is more important than the body. The death of the body is the separation of body and soul, but the death of the soul is the separation of the soul from God; a man must be willing to suffer the death of the body to avoid the death of the soul. “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell,” teaches Christ in Matthew. Much like the carnal man, a film which works to excite bloodlust is oriented towards the senses of the viewer and away from the intellect. This may seem like a false dichotomy, but a film has a body and a soul, much like a man. The soul of a film is the idea, the principle which gives it life. The soul of a film is the auteur’s work to give autonomy and liberty to the characters. The soul of the film is the theme, the tropes, the motifs, the freedom of the plot. The body of a film is its materiality— the color, the score, the editing, the actors, the script. A carnal film destroys the soul for the sake of the body. A very rotten film has no soul, which is to say no theme, no tropes, no motifs, and the plot moves inevitably toward a mechanistically foreordained, predestined conclusion. The story exists for the writer and the director, not for the characters and not for the audience. In a spiritual film, the color and score and actors liberate the characters from the creator, who, paradoxically, sustains his creation even as he rests from it.

The auteur’s work to fashion his characters in his own image and then set them free is the essence of all fiction. The auteur’s ways are not the character’s ways; the auteur desires that all his characters be saved, though the characters are free to do as they please, and the auteur ends up becoming the audience of his own pen, his own camera. Every genuine artist is capable of surprising himself; was God not intrigued at what Adam would name the animals?

The manner of graphic violence which excites bloodlust in order to satisfy it again and again is chiefly a revelation of a sinister auteur who does not desire the salvation of all, cares nothing for the apotheosis of his words, but ordains violence from the beginning for his own amusement. Chief offenders are those screenshot_31filmmakers who do not want to see crime prevented, but criminals punished. The auteur dictates a particularly nasty crime, preferably against a child or a chaste woman, should take place close to the beginning of the film. This crime writes the hero a blank check to take vengeance however he chooses, to whatever degree he chooses, and the audience need not feel guilty for the blood has been paid for by the innocent. Justice porn like Braveheart, Rob Roy, Rambo, Taken and Saving Private Ryan (ooh, ouch) invert the Cross so that the blood of the innocent pays not for forgiveness, not for reconciliation, but for the right to revel in the blood of the guilty. The audience is implicated in the initial trespass of the wicked characters, for we are not offended that the innocent characters should suffer, but thrilled, knowing that a little righteous blood in the first act pays for rivers of wicked blood in the second and third. When the wicked are slaughtered in the end, the Cross is once more inverted, for we feel relief that the guilty have died on our behalf.

Granted, not every act of cinematic violence is foreordained to gratify bloodlust, although I do believe the inevitability of violence in a film is what tends to make a film carnal. The most noble cinematic moments of violence emerge suddenly and surprisingly in fictional universes whom the creator has given rest. In Let The Right One In, Tomas Alfredson imbues Eli with such a soul as to roam the cinematic landscape free, metaphysically contingent and yet metaphysically independent; the sudden, shocking brutality which concludes the film is without preface, without foreshadowing, and accomplished as Alfredson looks on as a genuine other, distinct from his creatures. The most horrific acts of cinematic violence are not perpetrated by one character against another, they are perpetrated by the maker against his creations. “Why don’t we just nuke them all?” Because we do not have to.

 

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books, collects records and jogs to work. He and his wife have two children, both of whom have seven names. He tweets at @joshgibbs and blogs for the CiRCE Institute.

4 Responses to Violence, Justice Porn, And Free Characters

  1. Seems to me that if you said lust is not for a man to see what breasts look like, but “that woman’s” breasts. Then bloodlust would be a singular act of ravaging and torturing a single person rather than a high body count, which is more like what breasts look like, because you dont narrow in on who is dying. Just that a crowd of bad guys get mowed down by a 50cal. Personally I think bloodlust is the disconnect from who exactly and mowing down a crowd. I dont think you can compare it to regular lust because it has the same name. Sexual lust zeroes in on a particular woman, and bloodlust zeroes in on claiming high quantities of blood, not the individual man.

  2. Two quick questions:

    1. Is there a difference between Braveheart and Tarantino’s works? Both are violent, both deal in vengeance of one kind or another, but most Christians I know regard them very differently.

    2. Is there a possibility of getting more of your thoughts on Old Testament stories of shedding the blood of the guilty?

    I love the site, by the way. Some of your posts are very thought-provoking.

    David H.

    • Thanks for the questions, David.

      1. I see a stark difference between Gibson and Tarrantino, but that difference is one of degree, not of kind. Tarrantino’s great statement on violence comes from Lance in Pulp Fiction when he remarks, of the person who lately keyed his car, “Boy, I wish I could’ve caught him doing it. I’d have given anything to catch that asshole doing it. It’d been worth him doing it just so I could’ve caught him doing it.” Gibson favors stories where he finds the unjustified crime at the beginning is “worth it.”

      Of course, Gibson is a far better thinker than Tarrantino, and the nasty aspects of Gibson’s films are sometimes tempered with genuine redemption (Apocalypto, for instance, is often carnal, but has profound poetry, as well).

      2. This answer will probably not satisfy, though I would need far more space to treat on it. My take on OT stories of bloodshed is borrowed wholesale from St. Gregory of Nyssa’s “Life of Moses,” especially wherein he describes the slaughter of the Egyptian firstborn as such:

      “How would a concept worthy of God be preserved in the description of what happened if one looked only to the history? The Egyptian acts unjustly, and in his place is punished his newborn child, who in his infancy cannot discern what is good and what is not. His life has no experience of evil, for infancy is not capable of passion. He does not know to distinguish between his right hand and his left. The infant lifts his eyes only to his mother’s nipple, and tears are the sole perceptible sign of his sadness. And if he obtains anything which his nature desires, he signifies his pleasure by smiling. If such a one pays the penalty of his father’s wickedness, where is justice? Where is piety? Where is holiness? Where is Ezekiel, who cries, “The man who has sinned is the man who must die” and “A son is not to suffer for the sins of his father”? How can the history so contradict reason?”

      Best to you, David!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *