Wednesday, August 29, 2007

so, can a Pacifist like The Departed?

-Okay. I am back for a moment-

On his blog, someone directed a comment towards me, not understanding how someone that practices nonviolence and abhors its glamorization could find a film such as The Departed a positive storytelling experience. It seemed inconsistent with my world-view to enjoy such a film.

It is not inconsistent for someone to be repulsed by the glamorization of violence and find a film which is very bloody to be worthwhile watching. I know I have spoken on this very many times, but I ask for patience as I try to explain it once more (apparently I am not very cogent at this argument- which is in my opinion one of the key blind spots of modern Christianity- along with the embrace of materialism and consumerism)...

It is very simple. Films such as The Departed deal with the implications of violent acts upon persons and the world around them. They do not glorify violence. In fact, they deglamorize its usefullness in film and society (making it repulsive and shocking, thereby stripping it of its power) and they do not embrace The Myth of Redemptive Violence which is a very dangerous myth and controls much of American Christianity.

The myth that the hero attains the salvation of others through the use of violence has been around since pre-Biblical literature. However, it stands in marked contrast to the idea of Jesus and the early church martyrs. It has much more in common teachings within with Islam, Crusade and Inquisition era "Christianity" and our Mormon friends. Sadly, it is the dominant myth of present day society.

It is not violence in film which I reject. It is the glorification of violence in popular culture I reject. It is the dehumanization of our enemies, which leads to seeing Iraqi kids as collateral damage and torture as a needed evil in present war. It leads to seeing some people as deserving their violent ends, such as a murderer or gangbanger. It slowly dehumanizes us, which separates us from Christ.

Some of my favorite films, such as The Departed, Three Kings, Schindler's List, The Proposition, Unforgiven, V for Vendetta, Children of Men and Pan's Labyrinth are terribly violent. They deal with violence in a serious, thoughtful, even handed manner. It is not something to be embraced or celebrated. It is something with human and societal costs. It dehumanizes the person doing the violent act more so than the person murdered. It is not something to be cheered, laughed at or embraced. It is to be rejected. The hope in these films comes from the rejection of the dominant myth and embrace of hope (I might say that the opposite of violence is not peace, but hope- is there a need for redemptive violence when hope is there?).

On the other hand we have the Die Hard films (which I loved as a child, yet turned away from as an adult), Rambo films*, 24, The Sopranos, Sin City, Grindhouse, the Saw trilogy and pretty much every horror and action** film at the cineplex. The myth of redemptive violence in film reverberates throughout our cities like an Adhan, calling the faithful to prayerfully embrace its ideal in its moviehouses and televisions weekly.

We are a marked contrast to other cultures, which see these films as another form of pornography, one (dare I say it) which is even more damaging to our lives. What is the difference between the pornography of sexuality and the pornography of violence? They both lead us away from the way of Jesus towards materialism (in the Marxist assessment) and the death of our humanity.

Although I seem to be a cynic, I must embrace the hope which came through the destruction of the myth of redemptive violence by Christ. I have no choice.

Here is the ironic part...

...I am still inconsistent to some degree. I think Pulp Fiction, which simultaneously embraces the myth and revels in its absurd destruction is among the greatest movies ever made. I accept it because of its superior storytelling skills and acting. Greatness in film will trump conviction, you know.

*Speaking of Rambo films... one day I will tell you about my moment of clarity revolving around the murder of Vietnamese and its glorification sickening me as a young teenager.

**Think even of Jason Bourne, one that does not embrace his darkness and runs from violence when possible and does not indiscriminately kill. He is a marked contrast to Jack Bauer and Tony Soprano.


LukeMiller said...

Funny. My wife and I have been having this conversation lately. I also am a pacifist, but some of my favorite films are violent (which, actually, perhaps fuels my pacifism).

Violence is ugly. It dehumanizes the victim and the perpetrator. I couldn't agree with you more. So, films that show this truth, I embrace. A film like the departed shows that a life of death ultimately leads to death.

One thing I wonder about is this: What does it say about our culture that we have the expectation that we should be sheltered from the realities of violence? In many cultures around the world, and throughout history, violence is a part of everyday life. Yet we have built suburbs and rear-entry garages and private schools that shield us from these realities.

Through the internet and cable we choose what we allow ourselves to see... and we freak out when we rent a movie that shows us something that we pretend doesn't exist.

So is violence in film and television, when part of telling a true story, actually repulsive only because we spend all of our time and money trying to convince ourselves it doesn't exist? And does this systematic sheltering keep us from the true human experience... or more importantly, from being incarnational in a world full of violence?

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this answer. You make a good point about the glamorizing vs showing the dark implications. I see that more clearly from this post. Their still remains in my mind though the subjective nature of making this distinction within film. For instance, I would put The Sopranos within the category of The Departed. As a viewer from the beginning I felt the writers were trying to show him and his crew coming to hate the violence in their world and yearning for a different way - in fact many times causing conflict with other bosses because Tony, the main character, was seeking to deal with things and people without the usual mob intincts-to kill without thought.

I also think there is a question, although a little different, if an American audience is really able to make these distinctions since they see these acts on a giant screen, the epitome of glorification even if there is a contrasting plot like in Bourne...No one in my theatre was there to see him reject his fact they applauded at the action sequences of him kicking the shit out of someone.

I virtually agree with your stance and this clarifies your thoughts however, their is a subjectiveness within its framework that seems to create tension.

Would it be fair to say that violence is actually reserved for God, a perect being, able to use it for judgement, without being tainted by its corrupting power?

james said...

Good post man. I don't know that i entirely agree with Luke's assessment however. I mean sure the suburbs were a place many could flee to in order to avoid the realities of the inner city. I guess i don't entirely see the suburbs as something that shelters us from the reality of violence however. You could be right though.

Rick I also enjoyed V for Vendetta but wouldn't you say that this, at best, borders upon glamorizing violence? It is the Wachowski Bros here. It seemed to me there was something of a celebration in the death of the gov't agents, and in the explosives of the govornmental agencies.

DJ Word said...

to Luke:

It is worth the blog posting to hear your comments. Thanks alot. I especially like the part about death leading to death. I should have said that.

I understand what you are saying about suburbia. There is an ironic factor about running to the safe spots so we can watch the violence and become desensitized from a distance.

DJ Word said...

Christian- Re. The Sopranos... many people feel like you do about it. I feel it can be a gray area, but it steps over some of my lines with the main character's actions in season 1 while taking his daughter to college, etc. Plus, there is little justice in this show, which moves it from a hopeful reality. It tries, like many films to have it both ways.

I felt justice was served a bit more in The Departed. There is no gray area with the mob boss (Nicholson) like there is with Tony S. Departed strikes me as more truthful than Sopranos and much more realistic. Plus, I already have a touchstone of a mob boss trying to it the right way and getting drawn back in (Godfather movies).

But, while I find the Sopranos a bit overblown and such, I find 24 a disgusting revenge fantasy with no feet in the real world and no truth being shown. It is the ultimate example of the myth I spoke of.

Thanks for the words. Remember though, nuance, gray areas, subjectivity and tension are the world I like to walk in. I don't like the easy black and white world.

I can only speak to violence from a personal framework as a follower of Christ. I feel that as a follower of Christ I cannot simultaneously work towards the destruction of others (in the name of God or nation) and love those same people. I cannot revel in the death of someone and love them.

It could be a weakness on my part and I should applaud Christians that can kill and love. It is why I could not be a soldier.

DJ Word said...


re. V for Vendetta, I may be reading the film as one that also spent time with the comic book. I did not feel it reveled in violence or glorified it in the same manner as the Matrix flicks.

I felt the hero was tragic and violence was his flaw. Portmann offered the antidote to this in many ways.

It told me that violence and oppression begets violence and oppression.

But, it is still Hollywood and must give the people the bloodport they want.

I was looking at what I think is the deeper meaning of that film (which I could be completely wrong about) as opposed tot he actions of the character.

I probably did the same thing with Bourne, even though (as Christian says) many people may have cheered the kick ass scenes.

Mike Murrow said...

nice man. by this logic then a pacifist can't enjoy the OT cause it is full of violence.