Monday, April 13, 2009

Increasing Cruelty

A thought on our culture and redemptive writing, from bestselling suspense author James Scott Bell.

One of America's best film critics, Manohla Dargis of the NY Times, reviewed the new Seth Rogen comedy, Observe and Report, last Friday. In this film, Rogen plays a mall cop who is power mad. In one scene, he is shown having raucous sex with a woman who has passed out from drinking (you know, the kind of scene George Bernard Shaw used to write so well). Dargis says:

"Comedy is often cruel, of course, but before 1968, the year the movie rating system was instituted, directors couldn’t squeeze laughs from the suggestion of date rape, as Mr. Hill [the director] tries to do here. Like action and horror filmmakers, comedy directors now push hard against social norms with characters who deploy expletives, bodily fluids and increasing brutality."

This is what saddens me about pop culture now. Wit is not valued, because wit requires a certain amount of intelligence. Cruelty requires nothing but cruelty, and when we start laughing at it, the jig is up, culturally speaking.

We're there.

There's a movie called Idiocracy (too many R elements to recommend it) which posits that the educated have fewer children, so the stupid outbreed them. A guy from the present gets sent 500 years into the future, and sees the results. People sit slack jawed in front of huge TVs, watching America's favorite show, which is simply a record of a guy getting hit in his most vulnerable spot, over and over again, in various ways (not a stretch, if you recall the popularity of MTV's Jackass).

We used to value and inculcate something called "good manners" which came from courtesy, which comes from the word "court" as in rules of conduct before the royal court, which itself came from notions of authority and order. One of these rules was not laughing at cruelty, not finding humor in the maltreatment of those who are weak and vulnerable. These rules have been built up over centuries, and now we see them flushed down manifold toilets every day.

The only thing we can do about this, as writers, is to continue to take our stand with redemptive fiction. No compromise. Don't give up.

Maybe it's a lost cause culturally, but as James Stewart puts it in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, "Sometimes lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for."

Watch the trailer for James Scott Bell's latest book, Try Darkness.


Georgiana Daniels said...

Here, here! Mr. Bell has nailed my exact sentiments (and put it far better than I could!) I find nothing funny about those kinds of shows and when something truly funny comes along it's a delight.

Nicole said...

So true. Remember when sit-coms on television and film comedies were actually funny and not vehicles for perverse, dirty, or cruel humor?

Pam Halter said...

Personally, I think it all started with "America's Funniest Home Videos." Most of them are people in potential dangerous or life threatening situations! My husband and daughter used to watch every week, and every week I would pass through the livingroom and comment, why is that funny? That person could have broken their neck!

They don't watch anymore. Not because of my comments, but because it started bothering them that people laughed at other's pain.

sibella giorello said...

This is terrific. Thank you.

Rosslyn Elliott said...

Hi Brandilyn,

I'm going to link to this post in my blog post tomorrow. Would you mind letting me know where this James Scott Bell quotation appears? Is it in one of his works, or was it in a speech?


Karen Eve said...

Jim has said it very well (as usual). However, the culture is still hungry for something substantial and when they get it, it takes off (The Shack, Lord of the Rings, Fireproof, etc.) When everyone gets tired of junior high humor and figures out that they're wallowing in the pig stye, then hopefully they'll remember that the Father's house had it all. I can't watch much TV anymore, it's just too sick. (Although I do have a soft spot for Ice Road Truckers).
Thanks for running this.

Sheila Deeth said...

Beautifully said. A lost cause well worth fighting for.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Rosslyn, Jim's thoughts are from an email he wrote to an author's loop, which I've used with permission. So there is nowhere else online for you to link to. No problem with you linking here. Thanks.

Dineen A. Miller said...

Jim, thank you for putting so clearly what has confused me greatly. My family watches things like this and finds great humor in it. Then when I don't, I'm told to lighten up or not to be so serious.

Brandilyn, thank you so much for sharing this. It was very helpful!

Danica Favorite said...

Great post! Thanks for sharing.

Unknown said...

Thanks for posting this! It's so true, and it's why we have to take a stand against the darkness.

James Scott Bell said...

Thank you for the comments. This is something I've thought long about, and one reason I write the way I do. When I speak to writers' groups, I like to quote the highly regarded novelist and teacher, John Gardner, from his book length essay On Moral Fiction:

"[T]he good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life . . . that is worth pursuing. And the bad artists, of whom there are many, are whining or moaning or staring, because it's fashionable, into the dark abyss."

I would add that abyss-looking-into is easy, and we have plenty of that. But where is the vision? It takes more skill as a storyteller to do that without being didactic or preachy. It's a challenge I enjoy.

Margo Carmichael said...

I love this, Jim and Brandilyn. I'd like to link my blog to this, too. A year or so ago, I wrote about a book, _Simple Social Graces_, which I had thought was about manners. It's more than that. It's about things we've lost.

Thank you for discussing this.

LOL the letters I have to type below are oferser--almost a confirmation.

Margo Carmichael said...

Done. Thank you.

Unknown said...

We're thinking of starting a Men's Fraternity group in our church. The purpose? To teach men what it means to be a man. No one knows anymore, and it's reflected in society. We have a whole generation of little boys who never got out of boyhood. And they're failing even more with their own children. It goes way beyond Funniest Home Videos. Men need to teach their children what is right and wrong. It's not happening. So this is what we've got.

Margo Carmichael said...

Wow, Ron, you should write a curricula for that.

Rosslyn said...

Thanks, Brandilyn!

Jim, you may like the quotation from William Dean Howells on my blog today.