Violence and Me
I always find those moments when a thought strikes you, for whatever reason, rather odd. I suppose it is especially odd when that moment involves something as trivial as a TV Show. Let’s be honest, I watch a lot of crap. Most of it not overly gratifying, the majority of it cartoonish in its characterisations and all of it nothing more than a distraction. A common thread through much of this lost time is action, suspense, witty banter and a batch of violence. It is this last bit that has been bugging me for a while. Normally, a shoot-out, beat down or juicy murder to get the plot rolling never really fazed me in any way. But over the last little while, a few things have been lodging in my mind. It is really summed up in a word, escalation. So I started thinking about what was being shown and what I was watching.
Sons of Anarchy was a series by Kurt Sutter about an outlaw motorcycle gang in California. The premise of the show was originally based on Hamlet. Father murdered, mother remarries and the son tries to piece things and the kingdom together. The show was originally designed to run for five seasons, but the fact it hit, and hit big, meant it was stretched out to seven. Herein builds a problem, when your arc needs to arch further, you need to fill in the time. The show was populated with a great cast, Charlie Hunnam, Ron Perlman and Katey Segal taking the Hamlet, Claudius and Gertrude roles. SAMCRO ran guns, women and drugs through the span of the show and came up against some equally determined opponents which upped the ante, and the violence. The tipping point for me was season six where they worked in a school shooting and the repeated rape of Otto, a SAMCRO lifer in jail for not giving up the MC, interestingly played by series creator Kurt Sutter. There is hours of couch time in the psychiatrist’s office and a couple of research papers to be written on those scenes. But, it never really served the story. The CIA reveal that totally undermined two series of story I could take, but killing a school room of kids and a show that uses sexual assault for the weakest of plot reasons (I’ll be coming back to this point in a minute) was enough for me to jack the show in. It was clutching at straws and aimed directly at making headlines. Which is what it did and the viewing figures went through the roof. 6.2m people watched the series finale.
A remarkably stupid argument about Hannibal springs to mind. Hannibal is a series about a cannibal serial killer played by one of my favorite actors, Mads Mikkelsen. Incredibly stylish, yet remarkably detailed in everything from the murders to how to cook lung. The result of the argument lead to one of those big picture moments I mentioned at the start and my viewership ended after about five or six episodes.
I've watched so much rubbish over the years that being truly shocked is rather rare. The ones that stick in my mind are, in no particular order:
- The swimming scene in Leave Her To Heaven.
- The barn scene in Elem Klimov’s Come and See. Incidentally, it is showing at the BFI next month and it is one of the greatest war films ever made, hands down.
- Helen’s death in the first season of Spooks.
- Saul Tigh’s tactics against the Cylons in the third season of Battlestar Galactica.
So not a long list, but in each of those points, the violence of the moment is used in a way that furthers a point, moves the story forwards and has consequences. That last point is one that is getting lost today.
The show that is the latest on the list to go is The Walking Dead. I’m a nut for the Zombie genre. The works of George A. Romero and Max Brooks are on my top whatever lists you ask me for. But in both of their cases, the setting brings out the human aspect of the situation. For Romero it was racism, commercialism and the poverty gap in America. For Brooks, writing World War Z, it was a story about loss. When we met at a screening of Night of the Living Dead at The Prince Charles Cinema, I asked him if the death of his mother, The Graduate’s Mrs Robinson, Anne Bancroft, while he was writing the book influenced the tone. He was taken aback and agreed that it did. The loss of the world that his “interviewees” describe with the coming of the great zombie war is palpable on the page and truly affecting to the reader. The scary bits, the violence, is there to create the situation, but it is the effect on the people, living in this new world, that is the drama. The Walking Dead started off about this, but has become a show asking the question “how far will you go to survive?” Too far for me, but I’m sure that the other 6.9 million people in the States that tune in each week don’t really care. I’ve read the comics that the series is based on and if they head that way in the series, I know what is coming, and I don’t want to see that, even if it is probably worse on the page.
Game of Thrones is on the bubble for me. While you can say that the Red Wedding and the head splitting demise of the brilliant Pedro Pascal’s Oberyn Martell completely moved the story forward, the sexual politics of the show are dubious to say the least. In Westeros, the women hold most of the power, but it doesn’t stopped them getting raped with no consequences. The Great Sept of Baelor scene in episode two of series four is case in point. Written as two grieving parents in George R.R. Martin’s book, it is turned into a sordid scene that for the rest of the season seems to have been Jamie’s catharsis and something Cersei, a woman who has killed many for much less, does next to nothing about. Martin is a clever man, producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have very strong material to work from, but they are pandering to a terribly low common denominator when they allow scenes like this to air in the way they have. It is the porn element again and all credit for Emilia Clarke, the Khaleesi herself, using her power in contract negotiations to remove the remarkably gratuitous naked scenes that were continually being written for her. The show returns in a few weeks and I’m honestly not sure I’ll make it to the end.
It’s The Following, a show I've never watched, that turned an inkling to a realisation and it is one I cannot take credit for. The show stars Kevin Bacon (no longer known as the guy from Footlose and Animal House, but, sadly, the EE guy) and James Purefoy, previously of The RSC, the Sharpe series and Rome, to name but a few. The Following is a series about a serial killer in prison whose charisma inspires his followers to continue his serial spree. On the Empire Magazine Podcast last January, Purefoy said something that truly surprised me. He stated that the producers of The Following had given him things to do on the show that “unsettled" him and made him wonder if they should be doing them at all (it is at 1:11:50 if you fancy a listen). It is rare for an actor to say something like that. Are we heading, or maybe even arrived, somewhere where the viewing public is desiring something that is increasingly extreme, that the actors that play the roles feel uncomfortable? Noel Coward famously said that an actor should "learn to speak their lines clearly, not bump into the furniture and if you need motivation, think of the paycheck on Friday." That is what, in a rather nice nutshell, actors do. Yet, are we expecting more and more from our "entertainment" to trigger a response? As an audience, are we past wanting to be taken on a journey but just want to be shocked from week to week? Has TV become nothing more than mainstream Porn, instant gratification without any sort of connection or consequence? I recently was able to see Michael Winterbottom's new film The Face of an Angel at the BFI with Winterbottom and writer Paul Viragh doing a Q&A after. The film is based on Meredith Kercher's murder in Perugia in 2007. I asked them if we had reached a point where the "who done it?" was more important than the "who it was?" They agreed saying the reason they made the film was to remind everyone that Amanda Knox is not the only story, Meredith had her story ended the night she was killed and all anyone seems to care about is the All American Girl accused, convicted, acquitted, accused etc., of her murder. They wanted to remind us of the bigger picture, that no one seems to care about the victim any more, only that they died and who they were is less important than what happened to them.
What the point of this terribly self-indulgent, blatantly hypocritical post? Well I’m just trying to say that we are walking happily down a road where the need to be shocked by our fiction is such that the real shocking things don’t hurt as much any more. Planes flying into skyscrapers on a beautiful autumn morning. Celebrities abusing the “trust” the public have in them. Ten year old girls being sent into markets to blow themselves up. Pilots being burnt alive. And it’s all on Youtube, unfortunately. We should be shocked by these real things, but should we be watching our heroes do these things? It is ok if Jack Bauer tortures someone, because he is the good guy, right? Escapism is a drug and we are hooked up to the greatest drip in history. No longer do we have to make the effort of reading a book, we just have to turn on the TV, our tablet, our phone and we can be titillated, shocked, humoured or plain bored by anything man can think of.
Right now, the expectation will be for me to make a grand statement and cut myself off from all of the above, but that isn’t terribly realistic. But what I can do is start cutting out most of these things to start with and see where we go. I'm as addicted to all of this as the next guy. But it is time to start lowering the dosage. If I write about something on this site and it contains some of the things above, I’m going to call it out. As you’ve seen, dear reader, the activity on here has dried up, mainly due to my thinking about this subject. Who knows, maybe I’ll close this site down if there is nothing to be positive about, which is why I started Boney Abroad, to talk about the things I like. I’m sure they are out there, I’m just going to look a tad harder to find them.