Saturday, November 06, 2010

in defense of Saw audiences

John C. Wright posts a description of a torture porn movie that I think is the latest episode of "Saw". He comments:
I solemnly assure you that even the Imperial box, front row center, at a Roman gladiatorial game did not show wounds and torment so vividly and closely. As I said above, the point is not to drive our civilization down to the point of paganism, nor to the point of barbarism. Barbarians are still human. The point is to drive civilization lower, to the subhuman.
OK, first a historic comment: John is forgetting the horrors of the Roman Coliseum. The most traditional entertainment was a fight to the death, often between a well-armed and well-trained gladiator and a poorly-armed untrained slave. It is arguable that the fighting events were less violent than the scenes depicted in Saw but there were other entertainments which I am not going to describe here. Suffice it to say that Christians were commonly tortured to death by the most cruel tortures that the Romans could devise.

What I really want to talk about, though, is John's criticism of the genre. I accidentally saw one of the Saw movies a few months ago while I was flipping around channels late at night. I had no idea what it was until I was absorbed in the movie, so I ended up watching a good part of it. It was not the torture that I found so absorbing. I would rather not see that level of violence. I never deliberately watch a movie that I know will contain explicit scenes of torture or other extreme forms of violence or that I know has a horrifying ending. What was absorbing about the move was not the torture but the drama. In his previous post John gave these components of a drama:
1. A protagonist with a goal or dream or need or mission, who is facing…
2. An obstacle (it can be a person, as an evil villain, or a situation, as life in an evil village) presenting a real challenge, perhaps an overwhelming challenge, blocking the protagonist’s achievement of this goal. Facing this challenge initiates…
3. Rising action, perhaps with unexpected yet logical plot-turns to astonish the reader’s expectations, leading to…
4. A climax, a crescendo or catharsis, which in turn brings about…
5. A resolution that not only…
1. Makes intellectual sense, with no plot threads forgotten and no plot holes showing but also…
2. Makes moral and emotional sense, it shows the cosmos the way it is or the way it should be, but also…
3. Makes thematic sense, such that it can be used as an example, or a model, or a reflection of life or some aspect of life.
The Saw movie (I keep calling it "the Saw move" because I don't know which one it was) involved a collection of subplots, each a drama according to John's description. In each subplot:

1. the protagonist has the goal of not being tortured to death and preventing someone else from being tortured to death

2. the challenge is that he has been put in a grotesque dilemma by a sadistic madman --a situation where someone is going to end up dieing a horrifying death and the protagonist has to make some very hard decision which will effect the outcome. Sometimes the protagonist can save himself by doing something horrible to someone else, or sometimes he can save someone else by doing something horrible to himself.

3. there is rising action, small victories, small defeats, plot twists, and --believe it or not-- character development. At various points there is hope that maybe they can get out of the trap, and then there is a twist that shows that the hope was just another aspect of the trap. Everything has been planned to perfection by the villain.

4. there is a climax when the deadline arrives and someone dies a horrible death.

5. The resolution was very tight and it made sense logically, morally, and thematically.

I believe that a lot of the appeal of these movies is not so much the torture itself as it is the way that the torture heightens the suspense for an audience that has become jaded by depictions of violence. By the time you see one of these movies, you have seen Dirty Harry blow a guy's head off with a .44 Magnum about a ten times. You have seen samurai and immortals cutting peoples heads off with swords. You have seen a huge cruise ship roll over and a sky scraper burn down and about twenty planes crash, killing thousands of people in all. You have seen terrorists take hostages and eventually murder them. You have seen Darth Vader blow up an entire planet full of people.

Modern audiences with this sort of background are hard to impress. They have emotional calluses over their sensitivity to depicted violence. If you want to use violence to raise the stakes of your drama, it is not going to be easy. If you have an extraordinarily talented cast you can make even an audience of regular TV watchers forget that they are watching a movie, you can set up a situation where even a small level of violence is unthinkable, and then bring in that level of violence. That way is hard. An easier way to get a visceral reaction from your audience is to use a level of violence more extreme than their emotional calluses can handle. That's the solution used by torture porn and slasher films.

In general, people who enjoy these kinds of movies don't really enjoy watching torture or extreme violence for itself. Rather, the attraction of the film is that the extreme violence raises the stakes to where they actually care about what happens. The audience members are jaded rather than sadistic. Just shooting someone in the head so they can see the blood spurt, or drowning a thousand men, women and children in a cruise ship is ho hum. But an explicit scene of someone's guts being ripped from their body --even a modern jaded audience reacts to that. The point is that they don't want to see the character suffer, and that is why the threat of suffering makes the audience care about the movie.

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