Mm, sweet, sweet Ultraviolence
Violence has an odd place in society. One one hand, we're all told not to do it and violence is awful and people who are violent are monsters, but on the other hand, all of the stories we love are rife with violence. Western storytelling is primarily based on conflict and often the fastest way to that compelling conflict is with violence; psychological or physical.
I could talk a bit about values dissonance, about how we shun violence in so many aspects of our society and yet movies, video games, TV, books, etc are chock full of the stuff, and yet sex, which is a completely natural biological process (arguably, violence is too) is all too often relegated to the realms of smut in our stories and entertainment. Sex is getting more of a place in our stories, which I think can only be a positive as it allows a platform for subjects that have long gone undiscussed, but even so...
Which scene would you rather have your parents walk in on while watching Game of Thrones; a brothel scene with oodles of nude people or a battle scene with bloody bodies errywer? Then again, it does depend a lot on family dynamics and...
Nevermind. Scrap that.
Spoilers: I'm a fan of it.
That said, the reason I wanted to talk about it is this: I think the power of violence to disturb rather than entertain is perhaps the best reason for including it in a story.
Think of any number of PG-13 action movies and think about how much death there is. The main characters romp through the baddies with no problem and very little thought is given to how it affects human lives or psyche. They may as well be robots. Helping to reinforce that is the often bloodless way these mooks are dispatched. This is violence for the sake of entertainment, and while I think this too has its place, it's not what I want to talk about.
The best uses of violence, I think, come in a way that shocks or disturbs. That may sound like an advocation of cheap thrills, but hold on a sec, hear me out. Oh, and some spoilers ahead.
Remember how, in Pulp Fiction, John Travolta, one of the main characters, gets killed off in a completely unceremonious way by Bruce Willis' character? That particular death has stuck with me more than half a dozen other "heroic main character sacrifices" that I can think of. He was one of the main POV's we'd followed up to that point. And then he was just... offed. No commotion is made about it, no dramatic music, no reflection by other characters about what his loss means to them, nothing. He's just plucked out of the equation. It was really distressing to me because of how unceremonious it was.
That's what I'm talking about. It's a violent act that is shocking and disturbing because it subverts the norm and got me on a gut level to react about the nature of mortality. Nothing cheap about it.
To go back to Game of Thrones: the episode, "The Battle of the Bastards". Holy shit; I will sing the praises of that episode because it's one of the most fantastic "war is hell" sequences ever put to film, rivaling the opening D-Day sequence from Saving Private Ryan. In both cases, there is extreme gore. But rather than having the gore be used in an illicit torture porn sort of way, the copious gore made me feel an overwhelming sense of the human cost of war in both cases. War was not glorious. It was claustrophobic, it was stressful, it was butchery... and pointless, in a way. Again, nothing cheap about either of those.
Then, of course, there are other ways that violence can cause astounding emotional impact even without an overblown SFX budget. Old Yeller. 'Nuff said. It's the epitome of a movie that's traumatized people the whole world over because of the pull on the emotional heartstrings. And it wouldn't have had half the impact if the dog had just gotten sick and passed away from the rabies; the thing that really brings the tears and heartbreak... it's the fact that the main character is the one who has to put him down.
I do want to take a quick side-tangent into talking about torture porn style entertainment vis-a-vis Saw and the like. Because I don't like this sort of thing, and yet there are things I do like that could be construed as torture porn. IE, the plays of Sarah Kane. I think there's a big difference; torture porn uses gore as a way to make the audience go "ew gross" or "oh my god, look at how fucked up this is," whereas I think the plays of Sarah Kane or the more fucked up Stephen King novels use this extreme degredation to make some sort of point.
I should probably wrap this up cuz that last point is getting a little precarious, as it's a matter of point of view as to whether something "makes a point" or not (there are no doubt people wanting to shout at me why Saw is, in fact, making a point) and besides, I've just about winged myself inside out about this topic.
So that's what I'm going to do. Sign off, unceremoniously. Buh-bye.