Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A History of Violence

Courtesy of Santi Slade
"Familiarity breeds contempt,” the saying goes. Anyone familiar with the current events of the world should harbor a little contempt at the way things are running. On one side, GOP contender Rick Santorum spews outdated drivel demeaning women, gays and all other minorities. Far more flagrant is the state-sanctioned massacre of civilians over in Syria. Videos from journalists — two of which were killed last week while covering the clash — and everyday citizens expose nauseating bloodshed that has spared no one; a clip went viral earlier this month that depicted a dismembered teen’s last moments. This continues on, with no end in sight.

But, hey, we love violence. A small contingent applauded Rick Perry’s boast that, last year, his state of Texas put to death more criminals than any other. A much larger majority cheered the death of Osama bin Laden. I will not lie to say I was not one of them. But, as a key passage from the Bible, Matthew 5:44, attests, “Love your enemies,” a principle so noble in theory because it is so difficult in practice.

Consider how many synonyms in the English language can substitute for “kill”: murder, slay, waste, snuff, whack, hit, ice … to take care of, to do away with, to make sleep with the fishes. How many different ways can we describe a field of flowers, or the connection with a loved one? Words appear futile in those circumstances. We have all, at least, seen glimpses of the best in life. Millions of songs have been written about how impossible it is to describe, the ineffability of beauty. Most of them are so bad they make us value this struggle even more.

Victims of rape assure the cozy masses that the extent of abuse similarly defies words. With a glazed stare, PTSD war veterans contend that taking life, for the noblest of causes, still rattles the soul. Hostile rhetoric can prove far more dangerous, for it indoctrinates subjects in intolerance, pushing objective detachment to subjective hatred. The images of war and the words leading to it remain ugly. Violence is the antithesis of beauty.

History tells us violence has forever been the answer instead of, to quote Elvis Costello, “peace, love and understanding.” It is easier, requires less thinking and compensates for the impotence of a long line of male leaders. “Kill, kill, kill!” we yell to this day. Demonize the enemy, for they could surely not be anything like us.

The haunting quote from Jean Renoir’s 1939 film, The Rules of the Game, takes the just, if taboo, both then and now, approach to our history of violence: “The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.” There is a side to every story, with emotions and values that lie not in black or white, but the grey in between. Familiarity breeds not contempt but identification, knowledge of another’s affairs that sit not far from our own.

Art uncovers these truths and, today, cinema most of all. But now that Oscar season is over, I expect movie studios to once again focus on making money; that is, equate the lowest denominator as the entire audience. Sickly romantic comedies take a shot at cobbling together some immaculate depiction of true love while Michael Bay and Guy Ritchie wade in the unremitting tide of action blow-em-ups.

From post-Oscar February to pre-Oscar October, Hollywood attempts to ignore its unequaled ability to contemplate topics like peace and morality, values long stripped from Congress. Some films like Harry Potter, Super 8 and Planet of the Apes slip through the cracks, yet not even they, the sole breadwinners in the business, occupy the ballot for Oscar night. Why does intelligent fare have to be relegated to a narrow three-month window, and at the metropolitan poles of our two coasts, no less? For the rest of the year, sex is love and blood is war.

The best of cinema ponders themes greater than its own plot or mechanics. Iran’s A Separation, winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and my Best Film of 2011, period, studies a simple but powerful domestic dispute. Through its performances, subplots, editing and direction, the film upends the hostile image of the country and its people many of us have as well as any notion of infallible law. No side of the conflict, between a recently divorced husband and sickly, pious woman, acted worthy of condemnation independent of one another. Innocuous events escalated until a mutual split in morality cast one vehemently against the other.

It is a fascinating, brilliant film that explores the simple violence in language and conduct, and how uncontested it would stand at each home base. Like the smallpox explorers greeted Native Americans with, the origins of strife are invisible to one another.

I criticized last year’s Drive, a film I otherwise greatly admired, for serving its brutal, almost beautiful carnage with no footnotes. Director Nicolas Winding Refn framed the slitting of wrists and stomping of skulls with chill sterility and detachment. It disturbed me not for the bloody images but for its refusal for empathy. It took a Camus approach to violence, detached and detailed, not unlike the testimony of the BTK Killer or Ted Bundy.

That approach works for some, but I carry an agenda with the greatest of films. “Why?” I want the film to ask. Violence is all around us, but it is born of mass ignorance and petty greed. Diplomacy seems impossible for a man raised to pull the trigger. If this is such a wonderful world, there should be nothing funny about peace, love and understanding. The Coen Brothers capture this complex perfectly in Fargo, after policewoman Marge apprehends four-time murderer Gaear. “And for what?” she asks. “For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know … And here you are, and it’s a beautiful day.”

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

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