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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Film Violence and Filmed Violence (and ethics)

Part I: Real Film Violence

A while back, I came upon a documentary titled Snuff (von Stoetzel, 2008)in Netflix's instant catalog. I approached this film with what I hold to be more than a morbid curiosity. My understanding had been that in general, the snuff film is an urban legend that continually captures the imaginations of paranoiacs and moviegoers. Immediately, the Cannibal Holocaust controversy, John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns for "Masters of Horror," and Season 2/Episode 13 of "Family Guy" come to mind. I expected to have the urban legend explanation reinforced.

When I was young, I was parented into the notion that there are some things you don't watch. I don't recall how explicit this doctrine was, but I do remember a lot of stuff being deemed inappropriate. I could tell you about my first M (for Mature) rated video game, my first R rated movie, and stuff of that nature, and I could tell you about all of the mystery these things held at the movie rental stores.

When I was in junior high/high school, videos of hostage beheadings started coming out of Iraq and finding their way immediately to the internet. I remember that at that time my parents upped our surfing filter protection.

Snuff includes, among other things, some of that footage. It is easily the most horrifying thing I've ever seen. I believe the footage therein is the murder of American Eugene Armstrong. One of his captors reads a statement before the camera, while Armstrong kneels hooded before him. Upon concluding his reading, the man produces a knife and begins to behead Armstrong. The cameraman rushes forward for a better shot as the leader saws vigorously at the right side of Armstrong's neck. The wound is obscured by the commotion, and thankfully, the documentarians fade away before the conclusion of the footage.

There is a difference between a cry of pain and one of real fear and disbelief. Pain is a common experience, but I don't think that actors can feign the real thing. That is what sticks with me most from watching that footage.

Part II: Real Violence and Ethics

I went through a recovery period for a few weeks after, straying from horror entirely and working out that persistent discomfort. I concluded that it was not unethical to have watched it. Likewise, there's nothing unethical about viewing the war footage in Snuff, the slaughterhouse footage in The Faces of Death, or the abortion footage in Lake of Fire. I don't believe in forbidden or evil knowledge, but I do think that it is possible to unethically recontextualize imagery that is otherwise neutral. For example, if any of the aforementioned films were marketed as pornography, there would be a much more substantial ethical quandary.

I think that "marketed" is a key word in this discussion, because it is at the heart of the central problem of this hypothetical. I am not comfortable with placing personal responsibility upon anyone for any fetish, paraphilia, or alternative sexuality, because in general, such attractions are not under rational control. So while I would condemn a pedophile who offends, I sympathize with what must be among the most excruciating afflictions.

While pedophilia is not a crime, the consumption of child pornography is, because it provides financial motivation for child abuse. This logic extends to "crush films" (the pornographic depiction of women stomping on small animals, recently in public controversy). The public outcry is not so logical; the attempted prohibition of crush films is motivated by the public's uncomfortability with the idea of killing animals for sexual gratification. Instead, I contend that the real problem is the killing of animals, and that while crush films are repugnant and ought to be outlawed, the same should apply to factory farming. Note that part of the rationale used in the preservation of freedom of speech rights for crush films is that wording such a prohibition would at the same time outlaw images depicting recreational hunting. I ask, how is one less wrong than the other?

Contextualizing an image in an ethical way is, I think, going to become an increasingly prevalent topic. I recently watched A Serbian Film (Spasojević, 2010), which probably represents the beginning of the real end of film ethics because of the extremely graphic subject matter. Even the word "graphic" suggests that the imagery is closer to the liberal end of the spectrum between disclosure and obfuscation. This film is beyond graphic, and does not shy away from showing what, to my knowledge, has not been filmed/created with special effects before. The envelope has been pushed almost as far as possible.

Here's why I think A Serbian Film is not unethical: That imagery is presented within a narrative context. The director claims his film is a political piece. I don't care if the allegory is apt or poor; it doesn't matter. It's a drama, not a porno or snuff film.

John Kenneth Muir reiterated one of his recurring points recently, arguing that mainstream horror films are usually the only mainstream films to consistently debate a moral universe. This post feels like a reminder that that moral universe is not just a hypothetical fiction.