Teach Me a Lesson: Violence as Commentary

One of the more famous jokes from the great Arrested Development centers around a one-armed man’s constant appearance as a warning. The Bluth children learn their lessons through a shocking use of violence, but with each time the trick is pulled, they are less moved by it. Eventually, the one armed man screams in front of bored, jaded eyes.

In 1971, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs was released to controversy. The film centered around a man who has to use violence to protect his home for rural farmers. The scenes of violence were raw, gory, and horrifying for audiences. The movie was banned in several countries, people walked out of screenings, and critics debated over the theme of the movie, which seemed to be that violence is bad. The general consensus seemed to be that, yeah, we already knew that.

However, Straw Dogs has come to be known as one of the great films of the ’70’s. Critics now applaud the film’s depiction of violence as realistic and truly disgusting. It’s good that there are violent films out there that show it as it truly is–senseless and destructive. In a time where the Vietnam War was on television every night, did we really need to see a movie to understand why violence was bad?

A few years ago, a new kind of horror film genre grew popular. Torture Porn  is both an exploitation of and warning against violence toward innocent people. Except now, instead of a man trying to

protect his home, this is about people trying to escape the torture of an unknown enemy. Both Straw Dogs and Torture Porn are products of wartime media, and both are staunchly against violence, using their own violence to send a message to an audience. But is that what the audience is getting from it? It’s great that films are trying to show people that murder is disgusting, cruel, and all-around uncool, but these films are mostly attracting people who find violence awesome. Only, as Denis Leary says in Small Soldiers, they don’t call it violence. They call it action.

So, in response to the people who love the violence in torture porn, some filmmakers upped the stakes. Rob Zombie, in his sequel to the disturbingly loony House of 1,000 Corpses, brings us The Devil’s Rejects, which is a film that follows the exploits of a family that makes the Manson family look like the Brady Bunch.

Upon its release, The Devil’s Rejects disgusted critics and parents and politicians alike. The murders came senselessly and ruthlessly, and the film had the strange notion that we liked the protagonists. Well, maybe it isn’t that strange. After all, the Saw movies make money because of the killings, not because of the screams.

So now we have violent movies that are commenting on our love of violent movies. And the stakes are always getting higher. The Devil’s Rejects isn’t scary because of what’s happening on screen. It’s scary because of why the things are happening on screen. Rob Zombie takes all of the elements of most violent movies in recent memory and feeds his audience with them. In this movie, nobody is innocent. Even the devoted police officer uses torture and pain as his method of punishment. He has followed the immorality of this family for so long that he can only think of punishment as pain, and in a climactic scene, he does to the family exactly as the family does to him.

The Devil’s Rejects is about horror movie audiences getting what they want. And what they want is

ridiculous, senseless, glamorized violence done against unsuspecting people, all to a soundtrack of classic rock ballads and slow-motion visuals. Like Straw DogsThe Devil’s Rejects is a brilliant (yes, brilliant) indictment of violence in the modern world. It is the logical conclusion to the growing popularity of viral videos that showcase brutal murders and horrific accidents caught on tape.

But still, the question lingers. Why do we need to be reminded of this? What good is the commentary if it just perpetuates on-screen brutality? It will be misunderstood. It will be accepted and rejected by the wrong people. It will become part of the problem. The only people who will understand the commentary are the ones who don’t need to be told. So what’s the use of preaching to the choir? Especially when your version of preaching is essentially rubbing a dog’s nose in its pee.

There’s a certain smugness to knowing the score. To knowing that somebody out there is learning something that you already knew. Maybe that’s part of the reason I like films that act as commentary, but there’s another element to these films as well. It’s a playfulness with the material. Sometimes you know that violence is wrong and immoral, and the director knows this too, but the dramatization of violence is just that – drama. It’s fiction. It might be dangerous fiction, but it’s also safe. It’s a window into another world that we abhor, and what we see cannot reach for us.  Even though some of us don’t argue it very well, the argument still stands. Violence can be horrible in reality, but it can be exciting and exhilarating in fiction. We just need to get better at figuring out who our market is.

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