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David Berreby

David Berreby

Posted: December 21, 2007 06:39 PM

America's Fascination with Terror in Film


Last January helicopters, gunboats and troops converged on the Brooklyn Bridge to shepherd panicked evacuees through some scenes of Will Smith's civilization-collapses-leaving-you-alone-with-bloodthirsty- monsters movie, I Am Legend. A number of people complained about noise and messed-up Christmas routines caused by the film crews. A few others, though, were squicked about something different: a Hollywood panic in a city that had known the real thing, the genuine dark.

As the Coast Guard's liaison officer said of the boats that worked on the shoot, "some of the crew had worked in New York during 9/11, and it brought back memories."

A few days ago, the movie opened big nationwide. It grossed more than $76 million in a single weekend, which, even allowing for the fact that everybody likes Will Smith, shows a public appetite for fantasies of blood, pain and death.

Another big movie release, The Golden Compass, based on Phillip Pullman's great trilogy, has plenty of gore and destruction, even if its spirit is not as grim as that of I am Legend (it's not doing nearly as well, either). Earlier, this year's big hits included Saw IV, a cavalcade of on-camera mutilation and murder; 30 Days of Night in which vampires slice and chomp their way through an entire town; and Beowulf, (homicidal monsters, dragons of mass destruction, Angelina Jolie with stilleto-heeled feet, etc etc). Even films set in the real world have centered on fantastical figures -- Gone Baby Gone turned on the extremely rare crime of child-snatching. American Gangster was the larger-than-life story of the drug kingpin Nicky Barnes.

Meanwhile, movies that treat typical people's fear and pain -- like Rendition or In the Valley of Ellah -- don't do anything like the vampires' business. Our current boom in film horror makes no reference to real explosions in Baghdad or Kandahar or Manhattan.

Why is that? If the public wants to confront its fears, why not spend two hours looking at the world as it is? On the other hand, if it would like to escape, why not see a nice musical? ( Alvin and the Chipmunks, say, or Sweeney Todd which is the song-filled tale the mass-murdering demon barber of Fleet Street. Oops.)

The chipmunks are a big hit, but still, milions of people are going for gore and escapism. Yes, the audience seems to be saying, we want bloodshed, but only in fantastical livery. Or, put it the other way: yes, we'd like fantasy -- it'll need to be about murder, though, OK?

Perhaps this flowering of exotic gore is due to guilt. We sit down to enjoy a Friday-night break with our popcorn, knowing that other Americans are patrolling Sadr City; that other human beings have no movie, no electricity, no food. We're told we are at war, that deadly enemies want to kill us, yet we suspect -- all right, we know -- that "our side" may not be ever good and pure. The movie audience knows it's privileged, and that its privileges are defended by waterboarding and rendition. From such unconscious guilts could grow an urge to see other comfortable Americans rent to bloody stumps.

On the other hand, maybe the explanation is post-industrial boredom: We sit all day and all night in a virtual world, clicking here and mousing there, and some residual part of us yearns for bodily experiences, experiences that cannot be undone with a command-Z. The more extreme, the better. Bring on the end of civilization. ``Naturally, we want to radically or even violently move our bodies around,'' Talia Lugacy said in an interview last spring. "Or at least see what would it feel like if we did."

The two theories are not contradictory, of course. (Lugacy, who directed Descent, about a woman's elaborate, extended revenge on a rapist, believes guilt and boredom with our unphysical world both help explain the "torture trend" in movies.)

Still, something feels missing in these two notions. For one thing, people in other times and places have developed a taste for the fantastically scary, without our cubicle-based lifestyle. Shakespeare's audience enjoyed the pre-industrial light and magic that put severed heads, chopped-off hands, gouged-out eyes and abundant stabbings on stage, but it did not work in the service sector. The readers of "Dracula," in their scratchy wool and bumpy carriages, did not lack for physical jolts.

As for guilt, why should that effect entertainment in one decade and not another? Ten years ago, the world's middle classes were an even- smaller island in a sea of human misery. But ten years ago, horror movies weren't a big money-maker. Today's approach of extreme brutality, and no looking away, has not been seen on screens since the 1970s. Which, by the way, was the last time that Hollywood made a movie out of I Am Legend, Richard Matheson's austere 1953 novel.

Well, perhaps unpopular wars and untrusted governments promote on- screen gore. Matheson wrote his novel in the first years of Cold War nuclear terror (in the book, the plague that turns humanity into vampires is war-related). But what, in turn, could explain such a connection? What connects political disillusionment to a trend in entertainment?

The novelist Hermann Broch thought that secular people were bound to face such a connection. Unless you think reality is a screen for some deeper truth -- that the world is "really" about God or something -- than you have to assume that what you perceive in the material world is pretty much all there is. Since some of what you perceive is going to be ugly, you are left with a choice, Broch thought.

"In order to attain a full enjoyment of life," he wrote, "either one must transfigure what is horrible into beauty -- like the Romans with their gladiator games, like a Nero or a Borgia -- or one must keep one's eyes shut in the face of ugliness and cruelty, and distinguish the beautiful so that it becomes an aesthetic 'elect' and makes possible undisturbed pleasure."

Either violence must be looked at, in which case it has to be made beautiful. Or violence must be defined as not-art, in which case, it won't be represented at all. Perhaps when Americans think the world is safe and running well enough, they prefer denial. And when we don't feel safe, we move instead toward aesthetics.

This might explain why lately audiences want films to be both more violent and more beautiful. Consider today's disassociative movie chat about composition, rhythm, allusion, technical mastery -- appreciations of how the masters make the blood gouts dance. As one reviewer wrote about Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill," Tarantino offers violence that "is so physically graceful, visually dazzling and meticulously executed that our instinctual, emotional responses undermine any rational objections we may have."

Still, as the movie monsters become ever more technically apt and gorgeous, the disembowellings ever more cleverly allusive and beautifully shot, I wonder about feedback. If disillusion fosters terror-as-art-form, can't, in turn, terror-as-art-form foster disillusion?

For six years, Americans' fears have been hyped and manipulated by politicians. Meanwhile, our entertainments teach us to enjoy fear, to play with it -- to be connoisseurs of our own terror. Doesn't that make it harder for us to imagine, and work for, a different kind of society: the kind where people don't live in fear?

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