Posts Tagged ‘violence’

Slivers and Scraps

July 24, 2012

Greed and murder,
Nations gone mad,
Oceans of ugly,
Mountains of sad

I try real hard
I make it my duty
To force my focus
On goodness and beauty

Threads of compassion,
Scraps of nice,
Slivers of contact
Must suffice

by Richard W. Bray

Celebrating the Violent Death of a Wicked Man

May 5, 2011

any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind

John Donne

My grandfather lived to be a hundred years old. He had a remarkable career in which he enriched the lives of thousands of people. In fact, he loved his job teaching Geology so much that he continued to go to work every day for over thirty years after he retired. He was a respected family man and a pillar of the community. None of us could reasonably ask for anything more out of life.

If every person’s death makes me smaller, then it would be natural to assume that the passing of a kind, decent, and noble man like my grandfather would represent the greatest type of loss for humanity.

However, I believe that, paradoxically, the opposite is true: A life squandered in pursuit of violent and vindictive hatred is a failure for all of humanity because, as Donne noted in his famous sermon, no man is an island.

I’m not saying this to scold people who exalt in the death of someone who has committed heinous crimes. This is perfectly natural and I am in no way superior to anyone who would cheer when a bad man gets a bullet to the head. I feel petty and vindictive impulses every day, which are usually directed towards those whom I love the most. That’s simply a function of having an ego.

Being human, the best that I can ever hope to achieve is pity for the wicked in the rag and bone shop of my crooked heart.

by Richard W. Bray

We Think by Feeling

March 2, 2010

Theodore Roethke

David Hume

We think by feeling. What is there to know?

–Theodore Roethke

Morals and criticism are not so properly objects of understanding as of taste and sentiment. Beauty, whether moral or natural, is felt, more properly than perceived.

–David Hume

Emotions ignite moral judgments. Reason follows in the wake of this dynamic….Conscious moral reasoning often plays no role in our moral judgments, and in many cases reflects a post-hoc justification or rationalization of previously held biases or beliefs.

–Marc D. Hauser, Moral Minds (24-25)

We Think by Feeling

In my last post I objected to clever and stylistic cinematic portrayals of violence because violence is the ugliest and stupidest thing that people do. I selected four movies for disapprobation, Snatch, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Pulp Fiction, and Kill Bill. (It is no accident that two of these movies were created by Quentin Terantino, but more on that later.) But it dawned on me after I made the post that the primary rationale that I could come up with for why Mr. and Mrs. Smith is such a morally execrable movie (it makes light of those wretched people who kill others instead of exploring the contours of their depravity) is also true of Prizzi’s Honor, one of my favorite movies. Of course, I could try to convince myself that Prizzi’s Honor deserves an exemption from my rule about glamorizing violence because it is a highly ironic work of art.

Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure that whoever came up with Mr and Mrs. Smith was trying to be ironic, and every movie is a work of art (but not necessarily a well-achieved work of art.) It has also occurred to me that every reason I can come up with for why I never enjoyed Married with Children (it’s about a bunch of pathetic losers who are constantly abusing each other) is true about Two and a Half Men, one of my favorite shows.

Because emotions ignite moral judgments, it is my feeling that violence in film should be just as ugly and stupid as it is in real life. That’s why I like Reservoir Dogs so much more than Pulp Fiction (Michael Madsen’s happy dancing torturer scene notwithstanding). Terantino is, of course, a lightening rod for people who object to violent movies, particularly when he says asinine things like this:

“Violence in the movies can be cool,” he says. “It’s just another color to work with. When Fred Astaire dances, it doesn’t mean anything. Violence is the same. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s a color.”

The maddening thing about Terantino is that he such an idiotic savant. He writes brilliant dialogue, gets unexpectedly marvelous performances out of his actors and he’s even capable of creating rather touching scenes. I was very moved, for example, by the way Robert Forster revealed his vulnerable side to Pam Grier in Jackie Brown by talking about how degrading it was to sit alone for hours in a dark room that reeked of cat piss in order to do the only job he was qualified for.

So is every work of criticism simply an attempt to rationalize feelings? I’m afraid so.

by Richard W. Bray

Why am I so Goofy for Burn Notice?

February 26, 2010

My Four Favorite Imaginary Friends

“In my experience, people get hurt and things get complicated no matter what you do”
–Fiona Glenanne

Why am I so Goofy for Burn Notice?

For the uninitiated, Burn Notice is a television show about love, vulnerability, friendship, pyrotechnics, loyalty, violence, family, duty, honor, deceit, murder, depravity, greed, sunglasses and yogurt.

But mostly it’s about decisions. A friend once chastised me for being “so damn existential,” but I’m practically a Calvinist compared to whoever writes Burn Notice.

For reasons related to my own mental health more than anything else, I am trying to figure out why Michael, Fiona, Sam and Madeline are my four favorite imaginary friends:

Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) is a near-perfect hero. He’s brave, loyal, handsome, and honor-bound to do good in this fallen world. Week after week, this ascetic Good Soldier is reluctantly enlisted to aid and protect the helpless and downtrodden, and he just can’t say no. My favorite thing about Donovan is the way he can make his mouth smile while the rest of his face is saying, “You got to be kidding me.”

“The essential function of art is moral,” argued D. H Lawrence. That is why I get so upset when violence, the ugliest and stupidest thing people do, is portrayed in a stylish and witty fashion. I can’t stand philosophically nihilistic and morally empty movies like Snatch, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Pulp Fiction, and Kill Bill, no matter how elegant and clever they may be. Thus, I am troubled by my intense affection for Fiona Glenanne (Gabrielle Anwar), an extremely stylish assassin. I reconcile my love for Fiona with my feelings about cinematic violence by telling myself that Fiona (unlike, say, Beatrix Kiddo) is driven in equal measure by an appetite for both vengeance and compassion. But I can’t quite convince myself that this is true.

Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell) is the carefree, fun-loving guardian uncle that everyone should have. (I’m embarrassed to admit how unhip I am, but I really didn’t know that Campbell was a B-movie legend until my friend Tim who knows about these things recently schooled me.)

I am less embarrassed about my previous ignorance of Sharon Gless’s estimable talent (The shapes a bright container can contain!). I never watched Cagney and Lacey because it’s the kind of show my mom would (and did) watch. (My loss) Gless plays Madeline Westen, a haggard nicotine addict who is interminably stretched to the limit. Without getting too maudlin, the Westens represent a compelling mother-son relationship due to their heroic efforts to attempt to negotiate beyond her hurt and denial and his deeply constrained psyche which is fettered by a monomaniacal sense of duty.

But the main reason I love Burn Notice so much is probably because the show somehow manages to take a stand against wicked things like torture, mercenaries, and dehumanizing corporate greed without ever losing its cool.

by Richard W. Bray