Monday, June 13, 2011

Britt Offers Two Takes on SF Violence

Ryan Britt engages in the old debate-team tradition of arguing both sides of an issue over at Tor.com. Initially, he states that science fiction movies need to purge themselves of narrative violence. Excerpts:
When I talk to people about my interest in science fiction I run into trouble when we start talking about movies. Do I like Star Wars? Sure, but outside any sort of argument of whether it is or is not actual science fiction, the thing about Star Wars that bugs me is the same thing that has been bothering a lot of SF fans for several decades now. Though entertaining, Star Wars created a slew of monsters: science fiction movies that are mostly shoot-em-up blockbusters full of mindless action violence. Why is the genre of unlimited imagination often so predictable at the cinema? ...

[T]he incredibly popular Matrix trilogy has at its core a very inventive concept concerning a real world versus a digital one. Which one is more preferable? Do we really have free will? But these cool ideas ultimately take the form of ridiculously trite speeches exposed by characters whose only real personality traits are their ability to shoot/chop at people. The problem of the action/violence in the Matrix movies is compounded by the fact that the stakes of said violence are dubious. When characters are granted physical powers previously reserved for video game characters, not only does the action/violence cease to be interesting, it betrays what its real purpose is: violence for violence's sake. Is this brand of violence any different than the goal of pornography? Should you stand for it in your science fiction?
Then Britt takes an opposing view, arguing that the genre needs violence for verisimilitude's sake. Excerpts:
Violence does indeed have a place in science fiction; so much so, that I would argue that much of science fiction actually needs violence. And the reason is that in order to be effective fiction, science fiction has to comment on the real world. ...

In a recent interview on The New Yorker's blog, author Mary Gaitskill commented on the way violence is incorporated into our lives and the creative process saying; "… most people sublimate the violence, are even able to use it in a creative way. There's an interesting and very terrible line between that sublimation and more overt expression, a line that gets dramatically crossed in wartime situations …" The act of sublimation seems to be the key here. If science fiction, or any fiction, tackles violence it would seem the route would need would to be an acknowledgement without a celebration.
For my part, I think Britt hits the proverbial ball out of the park on at least one point, namely that if violence exists in a story it needs to not titillate. For all the usual talk of artistic freedom, I think most storytellers realize theirs is a profoundly moral undertaking, one that shapes peoples' minds at a bedrock level. If violence steps onstage during storytelling, it ought to do so in a way that doesn't encourage base instincts.

(Picture: CC 2009 by erin m)

5 comments:

Unknown said...

I'd agree, except that sometimes light-hearted violence is fun. A good shoot-em-up can be an enjoyable experience, as long as everyone involved is clear that what they're doing isn't really helpful and is purely for fun.

Loren Eaton said...

If it's something light-hearted in the same spirit as kids' games of cops and robbers, then I'd agree. The real problem occurs when a storyteller wants us to enjoy things that ought to repulse us. As far as electronic entertainment goes, this strikes me as stepping over the line.

Unknown said...

For me, it's the difference between Inglorious Basterds and Zombieland, which I saw in short succession when they first came out. Both feature copious amounts of almost cartoonish violence taken against mostly anonymous or semi-anonymous "pure evil" enemies, but Zombieland seems to realize that violence isn't really awesome and takes the time to put a fig-leaf romance/sentimentality plotline in between shooting people (or people-ish objects) in a manner played for laughs. In contrast, Basterds never seems to realize that there might be a problem with what it's doing. (To the degree that if it were anyone but Tarantino, I would suspect the whole film was some kind of metajoke on the audience. There's a moment where we see Hitler laughing and clapping at a scene in a movie in which a German soldier guns down Allied forces, and immediately afterward, the 'heroes' of the film come in and begin gunning down all the Nazis. The people in our theater laughed and clapped, apparently blissfully free of irony or cognitive dissonance.) If I hadn't heard Tarantino get uncomfortably enthusiastic about how cool all the action scenes are and brush away concerns by Godwinning the conversation, I'd swear it was done on purpose. (And there are those who do.)

Unknown said...

The point being that Zombieland admits that violence is bad and goes, "But isn't this kind of fun?" in a shamefaced tone, whereas Basterds just goes, "Man, violence is cool," and leaves it at that.

Loren Eaton said...

I'd think of the original Stargate (which shows my age) or maybe Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (which I haven't actually seen yet) as good examples of light-hearted films that incorporate violence in a more appropriate manner. But Tarantino is a great example of someone who does it in all the wrong ways. The Wall Street Journal had a great piece on all the problems with Basterds.