The Problem with Passable

This video from Nerdwriter explained something I’d felt but never been able to put into words:  so many movies today don’t observe, imitate,  and speak to life,  but rather to other,  older,  usually better movies. 

This is a temptation for a lot of writers, I’m sure; it certainly is for me. 

Why? Because we know the movie, tv,  and fiction tropes. We’re confident that.  We’re not always confident in our own insights into people. 

We don’t feel like we really understand people that well,  and we don’t want to not write because of it. 

We also don’t want to take the risk of writing what we see as real,  and then having people tear it  apart. 

But I think that is the risk we must take. Otherwise, we’re just adding to the passable problem. 

It Felt Like a Feast (Wrestling with Joy, Pleasure, and the Distractions of Modern Life)

people doing kettlebells exercises

I tried my first kettlebell swing workout tonight. My body gently aches from the back of my neck, across my shoulders and arms, down to my thighs and calves. Not two hours after I did the set, I found myself standing straighter, taller.

Maybe I really am 6’7”, and I’ve just been slouching.

But how did it feel? When I think back on my first, unimpressively weak (20 pound weight), slightly awkward experience with the kettlebell, what washes over me?

It felt like a feast.

Not just a buffet, or a coincidentally large meal. A feast, full of foods I really wanted, foods I only taste a few times a year. It felt like Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner.

Exercise has hardly ever felt like this before. Usually it’s drudgery in progress and pain and soreness following. But this felt like a feast. I’m beginning to understand people who love exercise.

Even putting aside sex totally, our bodies are meant to feel pleasure. Our bodies are meant to desire it.

But it seems like in my sedentary postmodern life, that sense is somewhat lost. Too much is buried in the screens: the gray of the office computer, the distracting static of the television, the infinite insignificance of the web, all exacerbated by long commutes and short nights.

The very technology and modernity that allows so many of us to live so comfortably, when in the past we might have died in the cradle, stands between us and the experience of joy.

We develop a disconnect with our bodies. We no longer stop and feel the rain, as we did in our youth. We no longer run for the joy of running, as we did as children. We no longer stop to let the wind rush over us.

Our pleasures are limited to our sex lives, the manufactured adrenaline of our media, and our food. And too often, that gets us into trouble. Because just as the media we consume is manipulated and processed to provide the fastest bang, the most addictive return on investment, so is our food.

And sometimes, this artificial intensity even spills over into our sex lives, in various forms of objectification. But that’s a topic for a different post.

Our bodies are meant to desire pleasure. Not manufactured, processed, white-sugar-buzz pleasure, with its dizzy intensity, inevitable crash, and empty hunger for more.

We are meant for spontaneous, genuine delight, like a child chasing leaves in an autumn wind. Like a young man running to meet the train that brings his beloved back to him. Like the sheer joy of feeling your body push its limits just far enough that it doesn’t verge into pain and damage.

It’s strange that a simple kettlebell swing reminded me of this. And stranger still that I went to a computer screen to share it. But such is the age we live in.

Time doesn’t run backward. Turning back the clock just breaks your hands. But who we are hasn’t changed, and the genuine joy we need is still available. Just look beyond the static.

Cultural Analysis: Horror as Ethical Violence

Dragon and Woman, painted by William Blake, circa 1805

Dragon and Woman by William Blake, circa 1805

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the violent imagination and ethical ways to approach violence in fiction.  Too much of American culture glorifies violence.  The way that good overcomes evil in TV, movies, many books, and even toy lines, is by kicking its butt.  Good beats evil because good shoots straighter, hits harder, has better toys, and keeps on fighting.  And in small doses, violence can teach the virtue of courage.  But we don’t get small doses.  We are, to quote the Palmolive commercial, “soaking in it.”

So that leads me to wonder, is there an ethical way to portray violence in fiction?  I’ll look at some other possibilities later, but here I’ll consider horror.  On the one hand, horror seems ethical because it explicitly presents the violence as horrific.  We are supposed to be repulsed by the violence we see.  There is no celebration of violence as glorious or righteous.  And even though much of the time the survivors use violence to overcome the killer or monster that is stalking them, they always pay a great cost.

This cost comes both in blood (horror stories typically have a high body count) and in the characters’ peace of mind. They will never again be as innocent, as naive, as carefree as they were.  They have met a great evil, passed through the darkness, and are no longer the same.  Often, they have killed for the first time, and it does not leave them untouched.

At its best, horror echoes the ancient legends: Orpheus descending into Hades to rescue his wife; a red-cloaked girl facing a great wolf who’d devoured her grandmother; Dante’s passage through inferno, purgatory, and paradise.  Horror, at its best, is the primal fairy tale: the innocent encountering the unnatural, and emerging changed.  Hidden amidst its armies and castles, The Lord of the Rings includes a fairy tale (or perhaps a horror novel), the story of four young friends who brave the lair of hell itself to destroy a profound and threatening evil.

But at its worst, horror mutilates young, usually sexually attractive, bodies for our thrills and titillation.  At its worst, slasher horror slut-shames women quite literally to death.  First, the young woman has sex (showing the gratuitous T&A shot), and then, she is slaughtered in gory Technicolor.  Meanwhile, the virgin survives to the end, to escape or kill the slasher.

When I speak of horror’s ethical approach to violence, I speak of Stephen King’s Desperation, not Friday the Thirteenth Part 27.   I speak of normal people caught up in a desperate situation, one that involves a terrible encounter with evil, one that tests their wills, their faith, their wits, their endurance.  The evil is overcome, often at great sacrifice, in a cathartic climax.  The universal story of good overcoming evil is retold, with the important reminder that such victories are never won without cost.  Without blood, there is no remission of sins.

So what do you think?  Is there an ethical way to portray violence in fiction?  If so, is horror one of those ways?