Drag-Racing in the Desert of the Real

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I had an argument with some friends of mine recently about Dexter. Personally, I think that is a show for which the script is a poorly-written pretext for the violence.

In my teens, I watched the most extreme shit I could find. Most of it was horror; Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead and the like. Those films still hold my admiration. They employ a level of craft that far outstrips their budget to do what Sergei Eisenstein identified as a film-maker’s number one obligation – to grip their audience.

That craft works to take you into the script, which conjures powerful dimensions of psychological realism. Particularly in Dawn of the Dead. That film drags you into a claustrophobic environment in an apocalyptic setting. You can feel the brutal end as it encroaches, a real fear that hangs over us courtesy of the shadow of nuclear war. The violence itself is deliberately graphic. The gore increases the terror to a sickening fever-pitch.

Shows like Dexter and The Walking Dead employ this kind of graphic violence – the spectacle of physical suffering and violation – in scripts as deep as a thimble. Rather than striving to create psychological realism, they regurgitate all the dramatic clichés. It’s not particularly interesting, and if Germaine Greer, Naomi Wolf et al can trace women’s body-image issues to the things we see and hear through ‘entertainment’, then one must wonder at the effect of images such as these. Take the following promotional poster for the second season of The Walking Dead.

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The image itself is an obvious evocation of the frontiersman who brings law at the end of a gun, blah blah blah. BUT… this is one of the key images from a country which hosts at least one gun-related mass-murder a month.

Sam Peckinpah is cited by many as the father of modern screen violence. The Wild Bunch was one of the first films to feature exploding blood squibs and Peckinpah used them to great, gory effect.

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The film was slapped with an ‘X’ rating and consequently, cut more times than Jocelyn Wildenstein. Peckinpah was a realist; dismayed at the American penchant for violence as entertainment, he explained his aim with The Wild Bunch thus;

“The point of the film [‘The Wild Bunch’] is to take this facade of movie violence and open it up, get people involved in it so they are starting to go in the Hollywood, television, predictable reaction syndrome and then twist it so that it’s not fun anymore, just a wave of sickness in the gut … It’s ugly, brutalizing and bloody fucking awful. It’s not fun and games and cowboys and Indians. It’s a terrible, ugly thing. And yet there’s a certain response that you get from it, an excitement because we’re all violent people.”

The Wild Bunch is a complex film right out of the blocks. It’s actually the same story as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, produced to pre-empt the release of that film. However, you’re watching a Western in which the ‘heroes’ are explicitly drawn as mercenaries, murderers and thieves. It raises far more questions than it answers but it spells out one thing clearly; violence is the crowbar in the toolkit of the evil man.  

This project received an even more sophisticated outing in Straw Dogs.

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The film is the story of an American mathematics professor (Dustin Hoffman) and his English wife (Susan George), who return to the small village of her childhood so he can write a thesis. He gets mixed up with some of the local hoods who work as tradesmen on their farm. Long story short, Hoffman’s wife had a thing with one of them as a teenager; the man rapes her and the whole situation descends onto a primal footing one dark, stormy, alcohol-fuelled night when it erupts into an orgy of brutal violence.

After watching Straw Dogs as a teenager, I went into the bathroom and washed my face and hands to get the sensation of what I had seen off me. It felt like the film had been shrink-wrapped over my skin.

Years later, Straw Dogs returned to me in all kinds of benign echoes, shortly after dealing with my first ever pub brawl as a bouncer. I was 19. I worked with two other guys and we had to eject a group of what turned out to be about thirty men for fighting when they turned on us. I almost got stabbed in the kidney with a broken pot glass; one of my other friends had his cheekbone and eye socket crushed with a billiard ball. I remember seeing the whole thing ooze out of his head into a brilliant red crescent that sat on the green felt of the billiard table like paint.

The group coalesced on the other side of the road; the street corner was black with them. I remember standing in the doorway of the pub, one shoe on, glass in the other foot, head throbbing from the punches that had rained down on it. A thought occurred to me as the group hurled bottles at the windows. There was no law.

Before that night, I had taken it for granted that ‘the law’ bore down, holding us all in relative orbit, like gravity. In actuality, it was nowhere to be seen. Eventually, it turned up as the Police who I saw, on that particular night and others to follow, dish out bashings even more brutal.

I dealt with a number of young women in my late teens/early twenties who told me absolutely hair-raising stories about being raped by various men; sometimes their fathers. Who the fuck do you ask about something like that?

Straw Dogs, believe it or not, was the light that allowed me to countenance these awful faces.

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All this coalesced into a post the other day while I was watching Killer Joe.

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It’s a terrific film. Directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist), it stars Matthew McConaughey as a mysterious, sinister Texas policeman who moonlights as a hitman. There was a particularly nasty scene featuring a chicken drumstick that invoked profoundly disturbing connotations of brutal rape and humiliation directed at a woman. I actually did something I had never done before; never at Salo, Dawn of the Dead, Texas Chainsaw, or even that execrable biscuit of smegma called Irreversible. In fact, I hadn’t done it since I saw the melting Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark with my mum holding my sweaty five-year-old hand.

I closed my eyes.

I’m not convinced that screen violence necessarily degrades people. I closed my eyes during Killer Joe because what I was watching was ‘real’ to me, and I didn’t feel that watching it would give me any insight into the situation presented. Maybe I have lost my nerve; maybe some of what drove me as a teenager, that kind of prurient, salacious curiosity, has now gone. When you’re a kid, watching and reading extreme material is about breaking taboos. It’s about wanting to feel terror because it’s every bit as legitimate an emotional sensation as elation, or ecstasy, because it makes you feel alive. It’s also about being initiated into an adult world where you hold the building blocks of morality in your own hands.

Or, at least, you think you do.

The thing that really changed me into the kind of person who closes his eyes was probably my first experience of being exposed to real horror. There’s a fascinating documentary called The American Nightmare which chronicles the American hard-core horror directors of the 1970s – Wes Craven, George A. Romero, Tobe Hooper and others – who grew up watching children attacked by dogs during race riots in the Deep South and children burned by napalm during the Vietnam war.

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The special effects man who worked on so many of these films was Tom Savini. Savini, a Vietnam veteran, explained in the doco that many of his special effects mock-ups were directly referenced from the carnage he had seen on the battlefield.

It’s an interesting idea, the thought that war, riots etcetera were percolating from the national subconscious up into its dreams.

My experience was in Cambodia. I had traveled about looking at various ruins in the jungle when I came across a band outside one of the temples. They were busking on various instruments that they could still play, even though they had been horrendously maimed – blinded, disfigured, and even dismembered – by ordnance left over from the war that had remained buried in the jungle. I have been to a few concentration camps since, but nothing hit me as hard as that. Now, I just can’t watch carnage and suffering and remain aloof from it. I remember my friend bleeding his face onto the table, or one of the women I knew crying and whispering as she told a story, her most personal story that was so obscene she could barely sound it, or the ghosts I heard rattling around in some concentration camp.

I guess, when I see things like Killer Joe now, even when the script is as sophisticated and the film as well-executed, I don’t necessarily want to go there if it isn’t in the service of shining a light to help me find my way.

Baudrillard asked ‘Did the gulf war really happen? If so, how do we know?’ This question leads us into the desert of the real, as he called it. Everything we know about events like the Gulf War, which are entirely separate from the urban, western person, come to us via a media which could be entirely fictional. Baudrillard doesn’t believe that to be the case – and doesn’t expect us to, either – but it’s a very instructive idea. How do we discern what is real and what isn’t, given how much of what we experience comes to us vicariously, in these strange little rubrics of entertainment that we hardly understand?

Saying all art should be moral is as boring and pretentious as saying all stories should be positive. But I’m not interested in watching a murderer morally licensed to kill because his father realized he was not quite right, so he gave him a code (instead of a bullet, a cell or a psychiatrist).

I consider that to be beneath me.

If art is like a mandala, a map of the subconscious, I believe it will orient us in the desert of the real. I haven’t been to Iraq, but I believe that when I got there, I would see the bodies. The shattered houses and the sacked museums. And I also believe that I would be able to learn what to do. To me, this is better than wandering in the desert, delirious and laughing, like a madman in the heat.

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2 Responses to “Drag-Racing in the Desert of the Real”

  1. I think its a good sign of maturity when you just dont wish to see horrible images as entertainment anymore. And violence is a weak, childish mans tool. I recently reached a new insight when during a late night street fight I deliberately allowed a young guy to hit me and get it out of his system, in the moment realizing the childish pointlessness of it all, at the time i thought in a few days I will be fine and he will probably have a lifetime of legal headaches. I slightly miscalculated there as punches turned to kicks and I ended up getting a broken rib which took almost 2 months to heal but still the net impact on my own life was virtually nil besides some gym training missed. I have been doing alot of thinking about violence since then and how the modern world has changed it all, making it redundant, everyone has a mobile phone and the police will generally be there quickly with relatively severe punishments if the victims decide to press charges. In my case several cars arrived within 3 minutes I kid you not. For urban areas there are cameras everywhere now. The script writers must find it increasingly difficult to hide these obvious facts from the audience.

  2. Hot damn this is good Jarrod. Makes me want to see the doco on all the directors of the ’70s we loved! I too started to recoil from horror movies – right after I came back from overseas the first time. Couldn’t stomach seeing violence on TV, ads, nothing. I always wondered why, and this goes some way to explaining.

    Ps and let the McConaughey fest continue!

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