In an essay called “The American Vice,” Will Self speaks to the “moral displacement” of modern cinema—which is far different from the viewer’s perspective on, say, Guernica. Of the scene in Reservoir Dogs in which a sadist exuberantly mutilates a bound policeman, Self writes, “We lose sight of whose exact POV we are inhabiting. The sadist who is doing the torturing? The policeman? The incapacitated accomplice? It is this vacillation in POV that forces the sinister card of complicity upon the viewer. For in such a situation the auteur is either abdicating—or more likely foisting—the moral responsibility for what is being depicted onscreen from himself to the viewer.”
That’s a tough charge—and the issue of where the spectator’s sympathies lie at violent movies has always been a complicated one. But there’s no doubt that something has changed in the past few decades. Serial killers occupy a huge—and disproportionate—share of our cultural imagination: As potential victims, we fear them, yet we also seek to identify with their power. A key archetype is Will Graham in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon—a genius serial-killer tracker because he can walk through grisly crime scenes and project himself into the killers’ heads. He’s both the instrument of justice and the empathic consumer of torture porn.
Fear supplants empathy and makes us all potential torturers, doesn’t it? Post-9/11, we’ve engaged in a national debate about the morality of torture, fueled by horrifying pictures of manifestly decent men and women (some of them, anyway) enacting brutal scenarios of domination at Abu Ghraib. And a large segment of the population evidently has no problem with this. Our righteousness is buoyed by propaganda like the TV series 24, which devoted an entire season to justifying torture in the name of an imminent threat: a nuclear missile en route to a major city. Who do you want defending America? Kiefer Sutherland or terrorist-employed civil-liberties lawyers?
Back in the realm of non-righteous torture, the question hangs, Where do you look while these defilements drag on? Consider a nightmarish film that many critics regard as deeply moral, Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, which delivers a nine-minute anal rape (of a pregnant woman). Noé means to rub your nose in the violence and make you loathe it, but my nose had been pretty well rubbed after the first two minutes. For a while I stared at the EXIT sign, then closed my eyes, plugged my ears, and chanted an old mantra. I didn’t understand why I had to be tortured, too. I didn’t want to identify with the victim or the victimizer.
I am complicit in one sense, though. I’ve described all this freak-show sensationalism with relish, enjoying—like these filmmakers—the prospect of titillating and shocking. Was it good for you, too?