Another Perspective

Shock Therapy

Why our tormented souls need torturous films.

By 3.17.08

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Maybe the biggest fad of the mid-1990s was a certain kind of crime film, popular enough among college kids to have resulted momentarily in the replacement of dorm posters featuring young nubiles with dorm posters featuring busted-up looking white guys. Some of these white guys were Scottish but most of them were American, and most of their names were Michael Madsen and Eric Stoltz, and one of them was even named John Travolta. The fleeting bizarro world they dominated was largely the invention of Quentin Tarantino, but Roger Avary -- with 1994's Killing Zoe -- earned himself an honorable mention. It was a very profitable, high-profile bizarro world they foisted onto the eager and hyped-up minds of a generation now entering into Respectable Adulthood. A whole culture revolved seemed to emerge out of Reservoir Dogs, one that didn't really dissolve until cutting off cops' ears and dousing them in gasoline was replaced in the collective consciousness with Ed Norton straddling Jared Leto on the floor of a dive-bar basement and clobbering his baby face into baby food.

Fight Club seemed like such a big deal because it was the first A-list film to recognize that ritually submitting to violence had therapy value for maybe a large number of pent-up dudes. This is old news. But even with two significant wars going it grates on a lot of otherwise permissive minds to think of warfighting as an appropriate release mechanism for male anger. Americans have uncomfortably adjusted themselves to the notion that our culture generates a small but significant number of monsters -- from Harris and Klebold to Seung-Hui Cho -- monsters with whom we need to have some kind of reckoning. The desire to make evil explicable is also old news. But the rise of the mystery of evil, and particularly the kind of evil that causes a person to maim, mutilate, and murder, to the level of a marketing niche in modern-day entertainment is a far cry from our postwar efforts to divine an "authoritarian personality." It's also a far cry from the naive era of Tarantinoesque violence, when bad guys shot up strangers because they wanted money and because criminals practice peer pressure.

So as is now well known, "torture porn" entered the mainstream, with the Saw franchise's villain Jigsaw the archetypical tortured soul working out his bad luck by making his victims unluckier. Yet even this trope -- bad childhood plus awkward divorce equals Abu Ghraib -- couldn't quite scratch the itch. What about the killer who kills just because? How do we cope with the incomprehensible?

It's a question that opens up onto the whole post-9/11 vista. In a society increasingly detached from its own wars and deeply invested in the goods of market democracy, health and security hold a preeminence simply absent from, say, Civil War-era America. Explanations for random violence that might fully self-justify the perpetrators -- i.e., "Allah wills it" -- don't carry much water for secular bohos. Thus Cloverfield, a film justified as a "safe way" to work out the morbid fascination with the prospect of our own bloody dismemberment. As director Matt Reeves puts it:

...there's this huge thing there, and survival becomes the order of the day. There's this way that the movie both reflects and deals with these fears in a certain way, to approach them, but in a safe way. I think that's the way a lot of genre movie function, they tap into our anxieties and our fears, and it's a way of approaching them in a safe environment. At the same time, it's a way to have an incredible time at the movies, because at the end of the day, the movie is very much a thrill ride.

In Cloverfield, the shock therapy of dismemberment involves the ruin of New York City at the hands of some giant crab monster. In the newly-released Funny Games, however, it's a perfect East Coast Establishment family that gets dismembered. And instead of a slobbering sea creature, it's two Aryan prep types, a Bill and a Biff who refer to themselves alternately as Tom and Jerry or Beavis and Butthead. For these enterprising young lads, the art of violence amounts to no more and no less than entertainment. They transcend the blue-collar ethic of Tarantino's shoot-'em-ups just as surely as they transcend the tacky emotional damage of a Jigsaw. These are perfectly healthy young boys.

It's the ultimate bobo nightmare -- our sons have discovered that arbitrary power of the most sordid sort really is fun! Egad, what if it's true? Can we endure a whole film dedicated to that proposition (admittedly with reassuringly cheeky disclaimers that it's all a film, folks) and still come out secure in our normality?

This is the ordeal our culture feels the need to put itself through -- the result of a gripping fear imposed by the recognition that, in a world low on the Christian ethos and the warrior ethos alike, we have few resources to see ourselves through the spontaneous traumas that pepper a society devoted to successfully ridding life of its agonies. Just because we've been so successful, unexpected suffering has become the great problem of modern living, the thing for which we're least able to cope. And our movie entertainment is dutifully supportive. We have to be able to train ourselves to stare the possibility of total meaninglessness in the face. And with its unique ability to combine profit, sex appeal, and the safety of vicarious experience, the cinema delivers.

It's only karma, then, that the hapless dad targeted in Funny Games is none other than Mr. Orange himself, Tim Roth, star of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. What a difference a decade makes: yesterday's "Everybody stay cool, this is a robbery!" becomes today's "Why don't you just kill us and get it over with?"

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About the Author

James Poulos is a doctoral student at Georgetown and the former Political Editor of Culture11. His writing has been published by The American Conservative, The National Interest, The New Atlantis, Partnership for a Secure America, and The Weekly Standard. In addition to AmSpecBlog, he has blogged at The American Scene, Doublethink, and Postmodern Conservative, which he founded. With degrees in political science and law from Duke and USC, he is currently at work on a dissertation about life after Napoleon.