I was telling my best friend a couple of days ago that one of the great things about movies is that movies are about everything and so that while sometimes talk about movies leads to talk about aesthetics (The King's Speech is bad because it is shot idiotically and the plot is predictable / 127 Hours is just shot so beautifully) but – and this is more fun to my mind – it also often leads to discussions about the world, for what do we bring to moviewatching but ourselves, our own positions in the world and our opinions from (and about) those positions.
In a discussion with three of my wonderful students last Saturday night, the topic of viewing violence in movies came up. B wanted to know if I liked Inglourious Basterds (I told him yes), and then M shared that while watching IB she had a reaction similar to the reaction I had while reading Sarah Kane's Blasted.
To wit: Blasted is a play about torture. It works because as I read the play, I hate the man being tortured. I hate him. And as he is tortured I think yes, he deserves this. And the torture gets worse and still, yes, he deserves this. He has done so much worse. But there comes a point in the play, and this point varies from person to person, when the torture becomes excessive, when I think, okay, now you should stop. He doesn't deserve that particular violation. And as I read the play, the moment when I think this, when I wish to confer mercy on the main character, I also think Oh my god why didn't I stop earlier? The torture was wrong a long, long time ago.
It is this moment that M had as she watched Inglourious Basterds. The torture was too much. The Nazis, it occurred to her, did not deserve that much torture. M asked me what I thought about this, and the four of us sat thoughtfully for a moment. I replied that I did not know, but perhaps there is no repayment for Nazi violence. What is enough to revenge those murdered? Frequently I think that that there is not enough. That there has not been enough repayment. We forget atrocity too easily. Atrocity too easily becomes simply a way of speaking about things that are not atrocious, a frame of reference and nothing more. B agreed with me here. There has not been enough revenge for the horrors of Fascism in Germany. We all agreed that historically inaccurate end of Inglourious Basterds was perfect.
We spoke more about Tarantino after this. Revenge for the Holocaust is one thing, I posited; a perhaps never-able-to-be-repayed revenge. But it isn't the Holocaust that allows this unbridled impulse to revenge. It is, of course, Tarantino. I say this because — I don't know about you but — I felt the same way in Kill Bill. She kills and kills and keeps killing, and I swear to you I never once thought okay, perhaps you have killed enough. That is enough revenge. Don't kill that person. That person, right there, doesn't deserve to die. Tarantino somehow makes it all feel justifiable. E disagreed. B and I were wrong, he said. He did feel like the killing in Kill Bill was excessive.
There was more talk about ethics and viewing. I posed to them the possibility that violence can often be beautiful (certainly onstage). But even when it is not beautiful... Why is watching violence pleasurable? When does pleasure in others as they watch violence horrify us? How can violence horrify some and give pleasure to others? These are questions that need more discussion, more theory (some of it written by me, hopefully). But I have to tell you all, I have some fabulous undergraduate students. They question me about ethics and violence on a Saturday night and are questioning their own viewership, their own pleasure, their own responsibilities as consumers of culture. I was, as you can imagine, delighted.