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’.