Thursday, August 14, 2008

Art Seen Between the Fingers

Big Pussy Bonpensiero is going to be killed tomorrow, and I am all ready to watch it happen.

I finally started watching The Sopranos. I know--how 1999, right. I've been watching it on A&E, where it is edited down for general cable broadcast, as everyone sneeringly informs me, as if I were watching a claymation version in which goodfellas shoot each other with potato guns. For a show that bases a lot of its shock value or even just storytelling on juxtaposition and sudden movements in and out of frame, all unaccompanied by a laudable lack of Hollywood music cues, editing out the bloodiest 20 seconds of a murder scene doesn't do that much. Probably they take out more I don't even know about, but it's still a very violent show.


I tried watching the show a couple times before, including once a few years ago with a DVD set and my thumb safely on fast forward, but even the very hints of violence stopped me cold.

The same thing happened for a while this time, too. The worst was the episode where Adriana is finally pushed to decide between Christopher and the FBI and is executed as a result of her decisions. It is a great episode. The pacing builds, the acting's amazing, the horror of the choice is nastily clear. It's not meaningless bloodshed, if that’s your criteria for judging violence. In fact, there's not even much blood. The scene in which she's being dragged out of the car upset me so much I had to cover my head with my bathrobe and plug my ears. I couldn’t even watch her ride in the car. It was horrible, terrifying. (Why any fans were surprised that this happened--I remember people being shocked at the time--I don't know.)

The violence stopped me cold. (Isn't that what violence is supposed to do?) And the Sopranos never stops being violent, and it never stops (so far as I've seen) being good at depicting it. I just couldn’t handle this violence that is the show's metier, these characters’ bread and butter. I could handle the milder side of it, sorta, but even then, though… It was wearing. It felt like what it is. Terrifying, venal, wrong, awful, shocking, distressing. It made me upset. It didn’t matter "why" one person after another was killed, it was death, death, death.

The problem, you see, is that I am a modern anomaly, the completely un-de-sensitized viewer who suspends every shred of disbelief in this area. I have a horrified, barely-functioning tolerance for any kind of violence. Anything. Drawn, filmed, fiction, nonfiction. Meaningless, meaningful. Campy, Peckipah, gruesome, scary, Tarantino, silly, Hollywood, Hong Kong, dead-serious, grade-B, Oscar-winning (look at 2007). I have been known to change the station during Itchy & Scratchy cartoons. Which makes me the lamest media consumer ever, I know, but I can't stand it. The only violence I can handle cold is white-washed Hollywood PG13-type, with nothing too close up, a distinct preparatory rhythm to it. Ka-blam, guy flies backward, no blood, ka-blam again. The really meaningless--de-meaning-ed--kind, although even that can go scary.

There is no virtue in this--it’s a bad handicap to have in everyday life. And just to make it clear: it’s not about demanding pretty pink roses on principle. I understand life itself is violent and horrifying. Sometimes. (They say the average American child sees 200,000 violent acts on TV by the age of 18…surely we are all over our limit, long ago). Nor is this about being an uncritical film-goer--more than normal, that is. I ran the film society in college. I write about film. I tend to watch movies with a film critic hat and fan-girl hat both pretty tight about my ears, but I get no chance to employ the former when it comes to violence.

That is, you might have noticed that Adriana LeCerva is not a real person; in fact, that The Sopranos is a TV show. I didn't. Or I should say it doesn't matter. It’s real. That episode was especially horrifying in fact because in it someone was begging for their life, and if what we are seeing is real--not a TV show--then we should have been able to help it, or stop it. Intervene. There was "time." But instead we watch it. I have the exact same problem with Animal Planet--I can't watch lions take down a zebra because of the horrible moments when the zebra is in the process of being killed--is alive but being killed and we’re doing nothing about it. Same with the first half of The Crying Game (no one ever talks about the first half of that movie).

So why did I stick with The Sopranos this time? There are some long-standing reasons such as a major crush on Gandolfini’s hooded gaze and hunched broad shoulders, a love of all those big noses, fascination with the complicated story-telling and the huge web of characters, the intense atmosphere, a badly-buried desire to work long nails and big hair. But basically I can watch it now because I ruin it.

The only mechanism, and it's a rough one, that allows me to experience violence in movies and TV, is knowing what's coming ahead of time. The fact that the series is completely over is probably why I can watch the Sopranos now at all, in fact. I don’t have to pretend to be committed to being surprised by any of it, and the show's helpful Wikipedia entry with all the beef backstory is longer than the entry on US history. So I use all my years of overly-sensitive data-gathering, and read the episode descriptions and get incredibly well-prepared for what’s going to happen. Check the “who dies” section more than once. I am forewarned about fantasy sequences and dreams and yes, I knew the Russian survived, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to watch that one at all--I had to spoil it to watch it.

Sometimes, too, I even squint at the 8:00 a.m. showing to see when the scary/horrible bits are coming, then watch the 2:00 p.m. rerun with a little less panic in the afternoon. Or I tape it, only that still doesn’t work as well as you’d think, because my thumb is very scared…it hits fast forward at just the slightest bit of scary, no matter if I know it’s coming or not. I still can't really handle the worst stuff and spend a lot of time with shirts over my head, turning the station, running out of the room. But I'm watching it.

I’ve spent a lot of my adult life doing this--watching through my shirt, I mean--but also just Navigating. Although my list of "not-seens" is not quite as big as you’d think. I watch “around” things. I spoil lots of things. I've never seen the eyeball sliced in Un Chien Andalou or the opening sequence of Persona (not even the shard of glass scene), but I’ve “seen” those films, along with a lot of others you wouldn’t expect. I love Goodfellas, for instance, but only because I've seen it--mostly on TV--so many times that I know exactly when stuff's coming--and by "stuff" I mean the violent scenes and the stuff leading up to the violent scenes. I still run away from it all like it's new, but at least I know when to do so.

Picking a current movie to see, as you can imagine, is tricky. I have a complicated set of sensors I use to navigate previews/reviews/descriptions from people who’ve seen it to figure out what I can handle, when I can’t or don’t want to spoil things completely. I ask all sorts of questions, different ways, and get a lot of codified answers. A nose-wrinkle + "It's not gross" = long, drawn-out violent tension with more blood than they're saying I will probably figure a way to handle. “It’s not that bad”/”there’s just one bad part” = I probably couldn’t handle it. “Yeah [it’s gross], but, you know, ______ [silly, campy, over-the-top]” = I definitely couldn’t handle it. Most other people’s distinctions (scary, torture-porn, realistic, goofy, stylish) about whether the violence in a film is a risk worth taking end up pretty meaningless.

What actually happens when I watch violence and am not prepared for it? And can’t run from it? Clockwork Orange-d, if you will? A test case was a night at the Chicago Film Festival, watching The Piano in an overheated, steamy theater in the middle of winter, jammed in a seat in the middle of a row near the front. I was lulled into the film, deeply involved in it, not expecting violence, invested in the film’s intense atmosphere, large and overwhelming on the screen. When the scene suddenly arrived--with little warning--when Sam Neill chops Holly Hunter's finger off, I almost passed out. The room swam, I got nauseous, I was terrified. I had to clamber over a whole row of pissed filmgoers’ knees and run out of the theatre. I spent the rest of the film in the lobby, gratefully clinging to any signs of real life (toilets flushing, the rustle of newspapers, the murmurs of the popcorn dudes). I didn’t care if I saw the rest of the film or not. I don’t know--I guess it felt like it happened to me. It did happen to me.

I really am liking The Sopranos
. I will probably see about half to two-thirds of the Big Pussy episode, even with all the prep, since it's such a particularly violent episode, but I will see it. (Eh, I don't know, maybe a third; these horrible drawn-out episodes where people beg for their lives are the most upsetting. And the show is depressing at general, at times, although perhaps that's a topic for another day--or maybe it's the whole point; even if you get through watching all that violence the pay-off for it is grim.) In general, though, I’m tired, tired of titrating out great TV shows and movies to keep the violence manageable (tired of my own limitations too). It used to be easier to avoid this stuff--I didn't use to feel so hounded by my paranoia. Now, however, you can't avoid much as easily; violence is the canvas on which many of our best as well as worst filmmakers are working. I feel despairing--and frustrated--about it. Why must that be our m├ętier? Why are we so hungry for it?

Why must we get so good at it? Even when it’s campy or over the top or unrealistic--violence’s great Out Clause--you don’t see its edges or cracks. The seams are well-hidden.
If you slow films down these days, you just see violence happening very slowly, not its internal mechanisms. I don't know that I can trust my judgement, as somebody who always sees blood, not squibs, but I can tell you how it feels, and it is a challenge-ridden nightmare of a world out there sometimes when it's all real regardless.

P.S. Sex? No problem. I like it. I know it's not real, either. Nor do I care. Go figure.

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