Quiet vampires

Helga’s Post # 77 — Friday is usually movie night at our house. I know, I know, this is a blog about writing, not movies, but please bear with me. While much of this post is about a film, there is a link to writing and books.

When you are reading a book, how much violence do you tolerate, or are repulsed by? What’s your turning point when you say enough is enough because the book no longer gives you enjoyment, or worse, it might even make you sick?

Conversely, are you in the camp that needs violence in their reading to enthrall, mesmerize, spellbind and tantalize you as you turn the pages of a novel? Does brutality and graphic violence spark your imagination?

These questions came to me after watching 12 Years a Slave, the movie that captivated this year’s Oscar crowd. The film tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a cultured and well respected African American northerner, who is kidnapped and then sold into slavery by his abductors and ends up spending 12 years on one or more southern plantations.1

As Oscar MC Ellen DeGeneres quipped, here were two possibilities for the evening: “That 12 Years a Slave wins the best picture Oscar. And possibility two: you’re all racists.”

Wait a minute here, Ellen. That’s a bunch of crap. Does it mean anyone is a racist who does not enjoy watching a movie of a succession of scenes containing the most graphic brutal violence and sadism? Does it that mean if Schindler’s List wouldn’t have won an Oscar for best picture and best director, that everybody was a fascist and Nazi?

Admittedly, I feel confused by this controversial and complex topic, because to be fair, there are other forces at work in this film; like the mesmerizing photography, the setting of the south, the great acting, all contributing factors to make the film work on those levels. 12 Years has all of that in addition to beautifully nuanced and sensitive portraits of black people, interpreted by a brilliant cast.

But it has something even more powerful than all these elements combined. It overwhelms its viewers for nearly two hours with relentless violence. In 12 Years, there are vicious beatings of every sort: murder, lynchings, rape, dehumanizing nudity, and that five-minute, lump-in-your-throat scene where Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup is strung up by his neck just inches off the ground. Film critic Armond White called it ‘torture porn’ and accused director McQueen of turning slavery into a “horror show”, and of confusing history with brutality, violence and misery.

This is how some critics have expressed similar sentiments:

– The problem with this amazing and unforgettable film is that it is comprised of unendurable and unrelenting human suffering. Because there is no relief for our hero-slave from beginning to almost the very end, it lacks a certain credibility. After the unrelieved cruelty that comes in a horrific procession from one scene to the next, we wonder, why was every single white human in this film corrupt, vicious, and cruel beyond imagination? So, Oscars will be awarded and rightly so, but I am warning my friends to think twice before enduring a movie that’s so hard to watch.

– Beyond the intriguing premise (a man is kidnapped into slavery) this movie goes nowhere. Brutal, repetitive, and pointless. What is the subtext? What is the message? Slavery was bad? No character development, no plot development. Just one graphic depiction of cruelty after another.

– So many stereotypes, excessive brutality and sadism without sufficient redeeming purpose. It’s a significant story historically but uncreative, humdrum approach to the subject. Acting of main character is excellent but even then it doesn’t feel true. It feels like a movie made for some “noble” purpose. I prefer Django Unchained because at least it doesn’t try to pretend to be something it isn’t.

– The movie message is slavery is bad. For two hours it hammers that message with a sledge hammer till the head aches from all of the excess noise in form of superb but ultimately useless star appearance, needless violence and sexual abuse is unbearable.
It all has been done before and better. A complete misuse of excellent cast.

So, lots of shared sentiment. There’s no denying that it’s an important film about an important and long-neglected subject. But actually watching it wasn’t my idea of a good time for a Friday night. My husband didn’t even watch it to the end and left during the flogging scene of Patsy.

And I am stuck with this question: Do we really need to see this grisly brutality in order to realize that slavery is bad? Or, more disturbingly, has 12 Years a Slave achieved its level of success and popularity because of its searing scenes of violence? Is it possible that so many consumers who watch films and buy books are demanding and enjoying such hyped-up description of brutality and violence?

I have asked myself similar questions whenever I come across some particularly graphic scenes on film or in books. I realize this may sound peculiar to lots of people, because violence is so firmly entrenched in popular culture. For me, it holds no joy. Conflict yes, intrigue yes, the more the better. But explicit, gory human suffering and sadistic violence?

Not so much, I’m afraid. I am not saying violence is always evil. As American singer-songwriter and poet Jim Morrison put it so well, ‘what’s evil is the infatuation with violence’. That’s what he must have meant when he said:

‘Film spectators are quiet vampires’.

15 thoughts on “Quiet vampires

  1. I would never never watch that movie, or any like it. Or read books filled with cruelty and violence. I don’t need to see or read about the depictions of the cruelty and brutality and torture by one human being to another to know it happens, and that it’s searingly painful for both parties. I feel as if I’ve done suffering to death (literally) and now wish only to feel and spread a little joy. It saddens me that so many seem to get some kind of entertainment satisfaction from such suffering.

    • Alison, thank you for sharing your thoughts on this subject. You said something very important: you don’t need to read about cruelty to know it happens, and that you wish only to feel and spread a little joy. How refreshing to hear this message.

  2. Helga, I applaud you for this post.

    I have not wanted to watch this film.

    I’ve berated myself for thinking:

    “I should.”
    “I am a coward.”
    “This is an important film”.

    Yet your post made me realize that perhaps my reticence is not so misplaced after all. Sometimes, discretion really is the better part of valour. Sometimes we need a voice of reason to echo our own inner sentiments.

    I do not need to watch this film.

    • So glad it resonated, Paula. In fact it was Emil who suggested we watch it, thinking it’s an important social issue and historically accurate. Both are true, but the focus and emphasis on depicting in detail this incredible violence made me question the true motive behind making this film.

  3. It’s good to see input from fellow humans that there is enough of human suffering in the world without watching it in the name of “entertainment” on a big screen, dvr, or tv. I find as I get “more mature” it is harder for me to watch graphic suffering and it is scary that so many children now play the games with characters depicting that in cartoon form. We wonder why children commit murder? I have a theory that they’ve become desensitized via the games and don’t realize until the deed is done what the impact on their life, their freedom, their inner spirit will be and on those they love will be. Good mysteries I love, no need to describe in graphic detail, suffice to say the victim is dead and now let’s figure out why, by whom, etc.

    • Thank you, Lind for your insights. The fact is society’s infatuation with graphic violence is a profitable industry and a commodity to be exploited as long as consumers demand it.

    • “I find as I get “more mature” it is harder for me to watch graphic suffering.”

      I thought it was a male thing. Interesting to note that you feel the same way. When I was young, I used to like to watch boxing, and was in to martial arts. Now it sometimes turns my stomach.

      I’ve heard enough about 12 Years to know that I don’t want to see it, even if it is a great film. Ellen, comic genius that she is, was making a joke about guilt. Actually, it was an astute observation disguised as humor.

      • Thanks for that comment! Never mind boxing, have you seen wrestling lately? The blood spilled on the floor, the referee not stopping the fight and the audience cheering them on? If that’s supposed to be entertaining we really are a screwed-up species. Or some of us anyway.

  4. You’ve raised some interesting points here Helga. I can’t comment on the movie as I haven’t seen it yet. I do think we’ve reached a point where some of the violence depicted on screen is relentless and pointless. As a horror fan, I’ve watched some horror movies transform from good stories against a horror backdrop, to those ‘torture-porn’ movies that seem to depict more and more depraved scenes of human on human violence just to see how far they can go (or that’s how it seems). I wonder though if something like 12 years a slave is graphic (bearing in mind I haven’t see it) because we haven’t really seen the true horror of slavery depicted on film before – I don’t know. I’m certainly more choosy about what I let into my brain these days – I will be watching that movie, though I’ll now be thinking about these points as I watch it!

  5. I think it’s a matter of degree, Andrea. Sometimes a fine line. For example, the sadism displayed in the film ‘The Help’ did not affect me the same way as the one in 12 Years a Slave. It too demonstrated the ugliness of racism, but from a different angle. It lacked the shocking and searing details and viewers learned just as much about the injustice against Black people as in the 12 Years movie. Thanks for your comments.

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  7. Knowing your abhorrence of guts and gore, I applaud your decision to watch 12 Years a Slave. It wasn’t easy, was it? But it does have us all talking about it. I don’t know if you caught my earlier review of it in a March post (I reviewed 4 Oscar nominated movies and called it “3 hits and a miss” … 12 Years was the miss). I don’t like depictions of violence, but even Nature delivers violence. What sickens me more is mindless, arrogant inhumanity and cruelty. It brings out the worst in me – it makes me want to respond in kind, which, of course, is how this kind of behaviour gets perpetuated. So then the inherent conflict inhabits me – and my good self has to talk my vengeful self off the ledge. Who needs it?

    • Thanks, Silk. I am not surprised that you labeled the film a ‘miss’ in your thoughtful March post for similar, thought not identical, reasons. Actually, guts and gore alone don’t freak me out if it happens within Nature. It’s the human to human guts and gore that I, like you, don’t have tolerance for. I also want to lash out against it so I try and avoid it.

  8. Thank you for this Helga. I too have abandoned watching movies that seem focused on violence for the sake of violence. I used to be a horror fan when horror was heightened by the suspense of knowing something bad was going to happen – the gore of it actually happening was left to the imagination. Now it seems there is nothing left to the imagination. The sad part is, many of the movies are based off of novels that also leave nothing to the imagination. I have neither watched this movie or read the book. I don’t know if the book is graphically explicit as the movie and I will likely never find out as the movie makes me not want to pick up the book. A sad day indeed.

    • Thanks for your comments, Sue. Yes, indeed, suspense is heightened by knowing something bad is going to happen and the actual gore is left to the imagination. For me the ‘anticipation’ factor is what keeps me glued to a book – or a film – and that’s much more powerful than seeing it paraded in front of your eyes or spelled out in detail on the printed page. Often the most explicit horror is what we construe in our minds.

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