Thursday, 28 February 2013

Gratuitous Violence in Tarantino and Homer

A couple of weeks ago I went to watch Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Django Unchained, and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was fun. But of course even while watching it I was wondering whether I really should be enjoying myself, whether I should not rather be disgusted and appalled by the sheer violence of the spectacle. People die by the score here, often in a rather gruesome manner, blood is splattering, and there is so much of it coming out of the bodies of the slaughtered that in one memorable scene the walls of a mansion are entirely covered with it. At the same time, perhaps because it was so exaggerated, so hyper-realistic, it was hard to take the violence seriously as violence. It was more like a Manga comic strip, a carefully choreographed dance sequence, a symphony in blood.

Accordingly, the people mutilated and killed did not come across as real people, but as actors, or dancers, playing their part in an orchestrated whole. Their death did not matter because they were never really alive in the first place. That is not to say that the acting was in any way bad, on the contrary. Christoph Waltz as Django’s bounty-hunting companion, Leonardo DiCaprio as the polished, but brutal plantation owner Calvin Candie, and Samuel Jackson as senior house slave Stephen were all superb. So were the dialogues. But it was all very much, and deliberately so, staged. The protagonists were more like characters in a play, a medieval mystery play perhaps, or even more an ancient tragedy where the roles were never freely chosen, but preordained by fate or the Gods. The story itself is of classic simplicity: a man has been treated unjustly and sets out to seek revenge and to find and win back the woman he loves and who has been taken away from him. And in order to get there he literally wades through seas of blood. This is the stuff of myths: injustice, revenge, love and death; the fight between good and evil. It’s basic stuff, resonating with the core of our being.
Of course, the whole thing is also very funny, which is exactly what makes it credible as a modern reinvention of ancient myths. The all-pervading humour saves it from becoming too pretentious. But still, do we really need so much graphic violence? Several critics have complained about the “gratuitous violence” that seems so central to Tarantino’s work, and many are worried that by making violence seem fun it might inspire actual acts of violence. I don’t know whether those worries are justified. Personally, I have no interest in hurting anyone, and I can honestly say that after watching almost three hours of Tarantino I didn’t feel any more inclined to shoot people or harm them in any other way or to find it funny when this happens in real life. But it may have a different effect on others.

I’m a bit puzzled, though, about the accusation of “gratuitous violence”, which suggests that there is also violence that is perfectly all right to show, or a way of showing it that is perfectly all right or at least acceptable. Gratuitous violence, presumably, is (depicted) violence that doesn’t serve any useful or good purpose, which seems to imply that as long as violence is useful it is fine. Of course the assumption may well be that the only useful or good violence is one that leaves no doubt that violence is a bad thing. The only acceptable violence would then be violence that teaches us to be non-violent. All other uses of violence would then be “gratuitous”. But what if there were no useful violence? What if all violence were inherently gratuitous, senseless, ultimately serving no purpose but its own? Could we in that case not learn about the true nature of violence through a depiction of gratuitous violence?
Compare Tarantino to Homer. Most of the Iliad consists in a description of violence. Limbs and heads are cut off, over and over again, people are being killed in all sorts of ways and by their hundreds, without pity or remorse, the bodies of the slain are torn apart by dogs, the suffering of the enemy sneered at. Compared to Achilles, Django is a gentle philantrophist. By today’s standards, Homer’s heroes were monsters. And the violence in Homer is in no way less gratuitous than Tarantino’s. Its depiction was not intended to turn readers into pacifists. It was meant to entertain, and to arouse our emotions. Should Homer be forbidden? Is Homer dangerous? Or was he when he was still read or heard? What exactly is the difference between Homer and Tarantino?  

Monday, 18 February 2013

Cormac McCarthy Buries a World

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, published in 2006, is a bleak tale about a father and his son trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic America. Only a few humans are left, and most of them would eat you alive if they got the slightest chance. No animals, no living plants, at least none that one could live on, all dust and ashes, empty and hopeless, a bit like the world that the traveller in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine encounters when he travels on to the far future when humanity has disappeared from the planet. We don’t get any explanation for why the world has become that way; it just has. And McCarthy makes it pretty clear that there really is no hope left, nothing to live for. The world is a literally god-forsaken place and is quickly grinding to a halt. “The frailty of everything revealed at last.” The few people left are not survivors, because there is no world left for them to live in. Instead, they are the walking dead. But despite this utter hopelessness, and without knowing why, the man carries on, trying to protect his son, to keep him alive and to keep him human. Still, in the end he dies, because die he must, and his son lives on, for a while, having found new protectors in a man and a woman who take him under their wing. But of course the world is still the same empty place, so it seems only a matter of time before they too must succumb to the hostile world that can no longer be a home to them.

The strange thing about this story is that although the world is ending and there really is nothing left to hope for, the main protagonist, the unnamed man, stubbornly, almost defiantly, keeps on protecting his son, pushing him forward to a non-existing future. His actions betray a hope that persists against all hope, a hope that cannot be extinguished, not even by the greatest despair. And desperate he certainly is, cursing the God that has let this happen. “He raised his face to the paling day. Are you there? he whispered. Will I see you at last? Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul? Oh God, he whispered. Oh God.” But God doesn’t answer. He, too, has left, has abandoned his creation. Or perhaps he has never been there in the first place. Perhaps it has always been an illusion, the crazy idea that the universe has eyes and ears to see and listen to our pain and sorrows and, somewhere, somehow, a compassionate heart to feel for us and with us. Perhaps the world has revealed its true nature at last.
“He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like groundfoxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”

The revealed emptiness is almost unbearable. “There were few nights lying in the dark that he did not envy the dead.” So why carry on? Why not die with the rest of the world? Maybe because there is still some beauty left, which appears even more precious, far more precious, when it is in danger of vanishing forever, when it has become the rarest thing imaginable. Beauty in the human heart that loves, and beauty in the human form that is being loved.

“No list of things to be done. The day providential itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you.”
“There were times when he sat watching the boy sleep that he would begin to sob uncontrollably but it wasn’t about death. He wasn’t sure what it was about but he thought it was about beauty or about goodness. Things that he’d no longer any way to think about at all.”

The man tells the boy that they are the good guys and that they “carry the fire”. It seems important to the boy. What fire? The fire of humanity. The fire of what is, or ever was, good and true and beautiful in the world. This fire is also the breath of God. There is even a suggestion, on the very last page of the book, that the fire will always be there. Before his father dies he tells the boy that even when he will be dead the boy could still talk to him. But the woman who then finds him tells him about God, so he tries to “talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didn’t forget. The woman said that was all right. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all time.”
However, the very last paragraph once again emphasises the impossibility to turn things around, to repair what cannot be repaired. That once things are lost, things that ought to be precious to us, they cannot be retrieved. Once they are lost, they are lost forever. And we are reminded of the beauty of this world and how important it is to take good care of it, so that it does not go away and leaves us behind in an empty world. We, not God, are this beauty’s guardians.

“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”

Monday, 11 February 2013

Ishiguro on Life's Turning Points

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, which was first published in 1989, was recently reissued as an Everyman’s Library Contemporary Classic, which prompted me to read it. I had never done so before, just watched, several times I believe, the film with Anthony Hopkins as Mr Stevens, the butler who wastes his life away in an at first unthinking and then increasingly desperate attempt to uphold an idea of dignity that even he himself cannot help realising is ultimately a mere excuse for not engaging with other people and with what is going on in the world. It is a kind of professional autism, and the considerable pride that Stevens seems to take in it, barely conceals the emptiness of a life that is spent entirely in the service of another, in complete identification with a particular role, which is constantly worn like a mask or camouflage. Emma Thompson played the housekeeper Miss Kent and the woman who might have loved him if he had only managed to open up a bit, to show some human feeling. But he never does, and then it’s too late, she leaves and never comes back. He had his chance, his one chance of redemption, of becoming an active player in the world instead of merely watching it from the sidelines, and he missed it. It’s a thoroughly depressing story of a failed life.   

The story is being told by Stevens himself. As a narrator he is clearly unreliable, his memory distorted not only by the passage of time, but also by his need to think good of himself, to see his past actions as justified and his life as meaningful. However, he is not entirely blind to the fact that some of his choices (though as a reader one never quite feels that he ever does have a real choice) eventually led to consequences that, if he had been aware of them, he would have rather wished to avoid. But the trouble is, and that is a problem not only for Stevens, but for all of us, that we don’t always know which of all the many things that we do will turn our lives in a direction that we might later find impossible to reverse. Only in retrospect do we realise that an action or event that at the time seemed rather insignificant, just a little thing really, actually had huge repercussions and markedly shaped our fate. In the novel, Stevens comes to the conclusion that one of the major turning points in his life came when he, yet again, rebuked the housekeeper Miss Kent for a minor oversight. He doesn’t really understand what exactly happened that day and why it should have had the consequence it did have, but he is acutely aware that it was the point when she slipped out of his reach for good. He wonders briefly what would have happened if he had acted differently, but then quickly shies away from dwelling too much on the matter:

“But what is the sense in forever speculating what might have happened had such and such a moment turned out differently? One could presumably drive oneself to distraction in this way. In any case, while it is all very well to talk of ‘turning points’, one can surely only recognize such moments in retrospect. Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had. Rather, it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one’s relationship with Miss Kenton; an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding. There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable.”

Stevens may well be right that we often overlook the significance of events and actions, but we may still draw a lesson from his failure to secure happiness for himself, or at least the chance to find happiness. Things done cannot be undone, but it is equally true that things undone often cannot be done at a later time. Especially in human relationships small things have a tendency to add up until eventually a breaking point is reached. You fail to make a phone call to acknowledge a friend’s birthday, and that, without being obvious at the time, effectively brings an end to that friendship. Or you have one argument too many with your spouse, or you say something, in the heat of the moment, that you don’t really mean, and the other never forgets it, and never forgives, and everything is suddenly very different from what it used to be. So what is there to be learned? I guess it is something very simple, very banal really, a truism: we should try to figure out what is really important to us and then work hard to make sure that we get it, and, once we have got it, not to lose it. Don’t take things, and especially relationships, for granted. Not ever. They are fragile and need to be cultivated. What’s undone cannot be redone. What is lost can never be retrieved. So let’s try not to lose, or make it impossible for ourselves to reach, what gives, or would give, meaning and light to our lives.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

The Old Wells and the Young Wells

The Time Machine was published in 1895 when Wells was a young man of just 28. And as I pointed out in my last post, the picture that Wells draws here of the future of humanity is pretty bleak.  However, I was surprised to find that when a new edition of The Time Machine was published in 1931, thirty-six years later, Wells, now 65, wrote a preface in which he all but denigrates his youthful endeavour. Not only does he now find his description of the social differentiation of humanity into Eloi and Morlocks rather crude, he is also quite apologetic about what he calls the “naïve pessimism” of the book, which he blames on the influence that Jonathan Swift had on his younger self and on the “dreadful lies” fabricated by late Victorian geologists who made everyone believe that in a million years or so everything will be over for life on earth because the entire planet will be frozen over. But science, Wells believes, has progressed enormously during the last thirty years, and now assures us with more authority than ever that in fact we’ve got “millions of millions of years” of further human development to look forward to. Assuming this to be true, “man will be able to do anything and go anywhere, and the only trace of pessimism left in the human prospect today is a faint flavour of regret that one was born so soon. And even from that distress modern psychological and biological philosophy offers ways of escape.”

So the young pessimist has turned into an old optimist, which I should think is rather unusual. Normally we start out as optimists, until life experience gradually transforms us into pessimists. And normally it is the optimists who strike us as naïve. “Naïve pessimism” seems almost a contradiction in terms. But I guess we can just as easily be naïve pessimists as we can be naïve optimists if our respective attitudes are rooted in prejudice and are expressive of our fears or hopes rather than an accurate assessment of probabilities based on a clear understanding of the facts. Yet if Wells’s early pessimism appears naïve to the old Wells, would not the old Wells’s optimism have appeared equally naïve to the young Wells? Not always do we become wiser when we get older, although we may always think we do. Is it really more informed, more astute and showing a firmer grasp of reality, to believe that eventually we “will be able to do anything and go anywhere”? That a completely limitless existence lies ahead of us? That even if this is all going to happen not now, but at some time in the future, science will find a way to help us survive until then, to “escape” from the present in which all those wonderful things that we will be able to do in the future are not possible yet? Life extension as the new time machine, an elevator to the future? Of course, before we really get there we won’t know who is more naïve: those who tend to believe that the scientific and technological advancement of humanity will eventually lead to a paradise on earth, or those who worry that it might end in some catastrophe or another.

But be that as it may, it appears that at the very end of his life Wells, now in his late seventies, went full circle when he once again changed his mind about the future prospects of humanity and became more pessimistic even than “that needy and cheerful namesake of his, who lived back along the time dimension, six and thirty years ago”, and whom he remembers, slightly embarrassed, but also with a certain fondness, in the 1931 preface to the new edition of The Time Machine. On the eve of his departure from this world, it seems to him that instead of evolving any further, it might be, all things considered, much better if humanity simply ceased to exist.