The current issue of Poets & Writers magazine has an excellent article called “Spilling Blood: The Art of Writing Violence” that as of this post hasn’t been reprinted online, but hopefully will be some time in the near future. The article addresses the role that violence plays in literature, defending its use, particularly anti-violence — the parts that we don’t see — as being most powerful in stretching our imaginations. One of the best examples used is the shower scene in Psycho,
shot over seven days and featuring seventy-seven camera angles and fifty cuts. Almost every shot is a close-up, each of them flashing on screen for the briefest moment, giving us a shutter-speed collage of horror. A screaming mouth. An outstretched hand. A bulging eye. Knife, knife, knife. You imagine you see the murder, but not once during these three minutes do we actually witness skin penetrated, an artery severed, a blade catching against a rbb–nothing that we would have observed had the scene been shown continuously or at a wider angle.
Hitchcock described this as “transferring the menace from the screen into the mind of the audience.” And isn’t that your goal? To make an audience feel? To turn the bystander into an accomplice? Hitchcock makes this possible by supplying minute particles, never showing us everything, only glimpses that anchor the moment and allow us to fill in the rest of the nightmare.
The article’s authors also describe examples of counterpoint within a story itself–where one scene depicts the violence in two pages of gruesome detail, where another is completely understated–and the effect that has on us, the readers.
One of the best lessons I learned in college was in one session of a playwrighting class. The TA had us each write the most offensive scene we could think of, and then we read them out loud. At first, we were all laughing. After ten or fifteen minutes, we were all sick. It wasn’t funny anymore. It was just grotesque. I learned that while there’s nothing wrong with including offensive material in your work, you want to be conscious of how you’re doing it, what effect you’re going for, and how you’re providing it. Is your goal to glorify and anesthetize, as in Natural Born Killers? To sadden, as in The Hurt Locker? To horrify, as in Se7en? To titillate, as in Silence of the Lambs? Each of these requires a different approach, a different treatment, and it requires a respect far beyond what is allowed by traditional “torture porn” with its buckets of corn syrup.
A month ago I wrote on this blog about the reading of Postville that I had, and I mentioned that “People argued over whether or not I should keep the scene showing the workings of the meat packing plant, because it was so graphic and visceral, it took them a while to get back into the story.” After 40 pages of comedy, right here is this scene of graphic violence: two pages of description that walk the audience through the slaughter ritual, describing the cows being funneled to their doom, manure everywhere, knife across the throat, the blood spewing out in the arc, and so on.
My intention here was to ask the question “Who is the hero and who is the villain?”; to juxtapose the cruel with the humane, the comedy with the drama. People have said the funneling the animals to slaughter reminded them of the holocaust, of Jews in concentration camps, with the corresponding irony that in this case the Jews are doing the slaughter. That symbolism was unintentional, although if art is about the viewer’s experience, I’m certainly happy to leave people with that one.
But whether or not a director will choose to depict this scene as graphically as I have is anyone’s guess. After all, does the depiction actually serve the story and the art, or does it take you out, as it did for this one reader? The authors of the PW article point out that if it takes you out of the story, then it’s not leaving you with an emotion, which is kind of the whole point of telling a story. They also point out that the violence must be earned — if “husband walks in on his wife in bed with another man” gets one paragraph, do we care about him, or his wife, or her lover when “torturing and killing wife’s lover” gets 15 pages? Which leaves me wondering whether I’ve earned the violence here in Postville. Another point: would it be more disturbing, as in Psycho not to show the violence than to show it? I generally feel no: my biggest problem with The Dark Knight was that they cut away and let us “imagine” the Joker slicing open that guy’s mouth, no doubt a casualty of the PG-13 rating; whereas my favorite moment was the first time we see Two Face, in all his glory. I think the graphic violence does leave us with a strong emotion, the question is whether that’s the emotion we want to leave you with.
It’s something I’ll have to consider as I’m working on Postville. But regardless, check out that article from PW when you can, and make sure all your violence — and the rest of your obscenities — are well founded.