Saturday, June 14, 2008

Sonnets from the peanut gallery

I was asked a strange question a while ago. "How do you write a sonnet?" As a person who's been known to rattle off the occasional sonnet, I suppose I was as qualified as the next bod to answer ... and I assume the question had something to do with a college paper.

What jogs my memory about this is that I was juggling the type for the new eBook version of FORTUNES OF WAR yesterday, and of course there are two sonnets from Shakespeare himself quoted in the book. Which got me thinking about Shakespeare, and about the upcoming Macbeth movie (with Sean Bean as Mac). If they do it justice, as is understood by moviedom in 2008, it will be bloody indeed. I'm thinking of both 300and PATHFINDER: Legend of the Ghost Warrior. I imagine Macbeth will be a gore-fest ... and appreciating Sean Bean as I do, I expect to have a ringside seat at the carnage! Yet I ask myself, do I really need to see a guy's head get cut in two, to afford a high-resolution view of his bare brain? Hmmm.

A long time ago (must be ten years; I was in Alaska at the time), I got myself into some coniderable trouble by starting to talk about the violent aspect of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. I was actually going somewhere important with the argument, but didn't have long enough to get there before a complete stranger, who'd overhead what I was saying to a friend, rounded on me and put me very firmly in my place for having the temerity to say I didn't need the gore the movie had loaded up into my memory cache. Acording to this stranger, I DID need it, and DO need it. All right, let's look at this soberly.

Now, for all I know that stranger might be a film director; he might have gone on to work on the GHOST WARRIOR movie, which is even more gruesome than RYAN by a factor of about ten years' Hollywood development. That stranger was certainly an advocate of movie violence -- and to a point I do understand his argument, which goes like this: In order to appreciate the suffering, trauma and horror undergone by soldiers in the field, civilians have to see the real deal, in gut-leaking, brain-spattering detail.

And herein lies the real question. Do we need to actually see it? Are we so dense that we don't know, on an instinctual level, what it's all about?

And, as valid as the stranger's point is, it's deeply problematical. There's an inescapable downside to brutalizing the audience. Psychiatrists call it desensitization. You can think of it as habituation, or acclimation.

It happened to yours truly, even INSIDE (and well inside) the running-length of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN itself, and it's a big problem. In the first reel, one was shocked and sickened by the dismemberment depicted in stark, raw, detail. One felt the crawling skin, the odd hot-cold sensation, the prickling scalp and rapid pulse --which was the exact reaction Steven Spielberg intended. He scored, big time.

But 90 minutes later, I (and the rest of the audience with me) was so habituated to the gore, the effect had faded away. I watched the last-reel dismemberment without turning a hair. Ten years on, PATHFINDER: Legend of the Ghost Warrior, didn't upset my equilibrium at all --

And it should have. Seeing a guy's head cut open and his brain laid bare should make any normal person retch. Seeing, in closeup, the tip of a blade slice right through someone's face and take out his eye, and then the eyeball falls out, kersplat, into the muddy puddle at his feet, in another closeup shot, should make a normal human being shudder, or maybe even heave.

My point is this, kids: we're habituated now. We got used to it. It's a decade since PRIVATE RYAN, and in that time, the audience has been 'educated' to PhD level in realistic battlefield violence ... we've seen it all in closeup and technicolor. And the horror factor is so diminished, scenes that should be traumatizing bounce off even the most sensitive of us.

I ask myself, is this a good thing? The stranger who put me down at the cafe in Anchorage, AK, in 1997, desperately wanted to have the civvy audience 'educated' ... exposed to the real deal, in clinical detail. One would hope his motives were pure -- ie., so that they know at firsthand the horrors of the battlefield.

Hollywood obliged, over and over, in always-increasing detail, until we're now face to face with a kind of cynical 'yeah, so what?' attitude.

I look back on the mystique of the warrior, at whose bloody secrets the civilians could only guess, and who was revered, nursed of his wounds, even worshipped, by lesser beings like we, who fully believed we would have folded at the knees if we were faced with such horror.

Right now, there's a whole generation of kids out there to whom the soldier's trade, and his trauma, have been demystified, and they know for a fact what denuded brains and torn-out eyeballs look like ... and they ain't bothered by it.

I ask myself, this is a good thing? And you have to wonder, just a little bit, about the next generation of soldiers coming of age just now...

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