It’s hard to see where things took the turn, but turn they have.
There’s a sort of casual brutality that has become like a skip in a record and we’ve yet to pick the needle up, as if we like the monotonous drone more than the tune itself.
And this doesn’t come from someone who says all of this casually. I am a dyed in the wool fan of horror – books, radio shows, podcasts, music, movies, comics, all of it – and I get the allure of filmed violence. As a teen I adored special effects artists and wanted to do that as a career. I knew how the deaths were done, at least how they COULD be done, so I focused on that, on the gore. I loved it. The gorier the better. And in books I loved the language used and how it all still held together within a story. To this day I still love gory movies and books, though I don’t necessarily seek them out as I used to. Not because my stomach has soured as much as my empathy has grown.
It’s hard to watch people be brutalized and kill, even in fiction, and that’s a good thing. It means that we still have that empathetic response to others and that we appreciate that this is horrible. And it also means that the creators did their job well because we cared enough to be upset.
The problem though is that so many things are becoming all about the brutal ‘punchline’ and not about the rest. The characters are puppets to be pushed this way and that and always towards a nasty end. Sometimes this works, as is the case of many slasher films and stories, though it’s a very thin line to walk. It’s about intent, investment, and outcome. I go into a slasher film with little investment in the characters, I know they want to gross me out, and I don’t feel bad about it. But if I watch something like a television show that I have invested countless hours in and they kill off someone brutally it’s upsetting because I was invested, to some degree in that person as well as their journey. It ‘hurts’. And again, that’s powerful. But brutality for its own sake is little more than junkfood and nourishes in the same way. Yeah, junkfood is fun, and it can hit the spot, but it doesn’t nourish you. It doesn’t give you anything long term.
Yet with each year we are pushing more and more towards this ‘junkfood diet’. And it’s not about watching ‘GOOD’ television and films and reading ‘GOOD’ books because that’s all subjective and personal, no, it’s about watching and investing yourself into things that reward you for it and not punish you. It’s spending time and money on things that treats you and the work fairly. It’s not about pushing boundaries to push them because boundaries are often written in sand, no, it’s about pushing the story. Sometimes the stories have to go to dark places, brutal places, but the creators should have a reason WHY it goes there beyond ‘because’. That’s not a reason.
I absolutely admit to loving gory films but I also take umbrage with a series like SAW that spent seven films showing the worst of Man and ended with a final message of – sorry, there’s no redemption, only suffering. Even if that’s the story they wanted to tell it’s a crap way to do it because investing that many hours into something to come up with that is not ‘artistic’, it’s cruel. Which is the thin line that franchises walk. You have to be true to the story but also be true to the fans. Don’t placate or kowtow to the fans but play them fair. Don’t drag me through several movies and make me care about people and things and then pee on my shoes. And that’s not to say that I expect a happy ending, no, but I expect you to be fair to me and not make me regret the investment. I expect you to be fair to the story and, if it has to go dark, give me a reason and a why and some answers. One of the cruelest films I have seen is Irreversible and it’s cruel because in the end, by telling that story in reverse, it’s beauty that cuts the deepest, not brutality, though it is a brutal film. A film like SERBIAN FILM is utterly cruel and brutal but it’s one film. If I had to sit through a series then I’d be mad as heck. If I invest myself into a television of film or book series I want the creators to follow the story but to at least give thought to me, the audience, as they play out their hands. Yeah, you can go brutal, it’s the easiest thing to do, but sometimes restraint is not just more impactful but more heart-wrenching. You can show a beloved tree sawed down and it’s sad but if you watch the family watching helplessly as it is, seeing the emotion on their face, that makes it worse. Now, the decision though comes with how the rest of things played out – if it was a show about cruelty and brutality then playing something that is utterly cruel with more finesse throws people off. Sure, some will get mad that it wasn’t more ‘hardcore’ but most folks, who are invested in the characters and show itself, will feel that sting of emotion more deeply. Yeah, revulsion has its place but it isn’t a feeling that you can overplay without people simply tuning out.
And they will tune out.
All around us we are becoming surrounded by brutality – politics, religion, economy, social justice, civil justice, art, culture, everything is being infected with brutality. It’s hard not to turn on the television and see politicians speaking towards one another in ways we won’t let our children speak. We can watch as ‘the bad guys’ are blown up remotely during wars. We can look at social media and see how nasty we are to one another and anyone that doesn’t feel, look, sound, or do anything else like we do. We wash our faces in blood in the morning and gargle it before we go to bed.
Enough is enough.
To every teller, a tale, and to every story, an audience.
But there needs to be care taken, in this world we live in now, to not give in to our sometimes cynical ideals. Yes, brutality has its place in art, and it has its power, but if that is the only trick in your bag then you’ll find your bag empty much sooner than you may have anticipated. I love a good gross-out, and appreciate the power of the downbeat, but I also know that without hope, without self-discipline, and without taking an audience into account you’ll end up singing only for yourself, writing only for yourself, and making films only for yourself, and that’s a very lonely audience indeed.
- Chris Arrr