Monday, January 7, 2013

America still has the urge to purge

If you are tempted to say "This changes everything!" then odds are good that it doesn't.

This came to mind when I saw Esquire magazine's The Culture Blog entry titled "Texas Chainsaw in the New Age of Violence."  Stephen Marche notices that "massacre" is missing from the usual title for this franchise, the latest installment being Texas Chainsaw 3D.  He suggests the deletion was strategic, a post-Sandy Hook omission.  He writes, "It is a horror movie that seems totally unaware of the current nature of horror."

He continues: "Horror movies exist to allay our fears through purgation.  But this is a film that scratches an itch that no longer exists..."

All fine and good, except for this: Texas Chainsaw 3D was the highest-grossing film last weekend.  Granted, its ticket sales of $23 million are not astonishing, but this does suggest American moviegoers have an itch such horror films can scratch.

Marche complains that Texas Chainsaw 3D is a "palimpsest of cliches," and I imagine he is right (I'm certainly not going to find out by seeing it).  But I think that is what horror-movie audiences want.  Such bloodfests are somehow reassuring in their predictability, like baseball but without George Will's bow ties.

Marche notes that Gangster Squad (either the dumbest or the most precise film title in a few years -- or perhaps it is both) was delayed after the Aurora shootings because the film features a shootout in a movie theater.  He writes: "The producers felt it was too close to reality for comfort.  Texas Chainsaw 3D has the opposite problem.  It is completely out of touch."

The problem, Marche says, is that Hollywood's monsters, such as Leatherface, are not as scary as the real monsters we face -- psychotic young white males with access to semiautomatic weapons and lots and lots of ammunition.  He feels films such as this no longer offer Americans that purgation they desire because their monsters are so unbelievable and unrelatable: "The vision of evil in this movie is too ridiculous even to be amusing.  Right now, in the middle of a time glutted on real-life horror, the ridiculousness borders on the offensive."

Implicit in his blog entry is the idea that "everything is different" after the events in Sandy Hook and Aurora.  I doubt they are.

The purgation he attributes to horror films is not designed to realistically deal with those things we find frightening in our real lives.  The purgation may excite audiences, but it has always left their world unaltered.  That is, it purges the audiences of anxieties and so re-establishes the social order they live in.

If monsters were realistic, the films might be imagining solutions to real-world problems.  Then they would not offer the cathartic experience Aristotle supposedly prescribed for the theater; they would offer catalyzing experiences, inspiring or inciting action from the audience.

Films such as Texas Chainsaw 3D may scare audiences, but they are designed also to reassure audiences that everything is OK.  While you might be jealous of the perfect bodies of the movie's victims, you certainly would not want to be chopped up with power tools -- and you probably don't have to worry about either.  It is unlikely you will keep your New Year's resolution to visit the gym more often, and it is even less likely you will be attacked by crazed killers in the woods.

There is another side to this argument.  While Hollywood reassures audiences that monsters do not present real threats to their safety, in other movies Hollywood reassures audiences that there are easy solutions to big problems, and these solutions usually involve high-caliber guns.  And that brings us back to Aurora and Sandy Hook.  (But that is the subject of a different blog entry.)

I do not think audiences will hunger anytime soon for realistic villains and monsters. Nor do I think Hollywood will offer us solutions to the actual threats we face every day.

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