Monday, June 29, 2015

Outgrowing Childish Things

Joe Clifford came to my attention at Bouchercon Long Beach, and hooked me good with Junkie Love. (His new book is Lamentation.) His blog is now among my can’t miss reads. Last week he posted the following in Facebook:

Today's motivator for getting the kid ready for school...
Me: OK. If you want to see pictures of Daddy's broken back, get ready for school!
(Last week, Holden asked why back always hurts, which led to pictures from my motorcycle accident. Far from explanation or inviting empathy [or deterrent from riding bikes], they have turned into a great form of amusement for the boy [and a bargaining chip for Dad]...

This is a cute and funny story any parent can relate to. What struck me a moment later was a spin-off from Joe’s “empathy” comment. A four-year-old doesn’t understand the seriousness of a broken back, so the picture and story are funny in a Three Stooges kind if way: there are no consequences the child is aware of.

The rest of us have no excuse.

Yes, I’m old, and, yes, I’m whining (again), but I am more disturbed all the time by the amount of humor derived from violence, pain, suffering, and death by neo-noir books and action movies. I’m sure I’m missing the true origin, but, to me, it stems from the flippant lines that became so common when Arnold Schwarzenegger killed someone. (“Stick around” from Predator comes to mind. To be fair, Predator is one of my favorite Arnold flicks; just not that line. “You are one ugly motherfucker” is genuinely funny, in context.) Quentin Tarantino is another prime offender.

Humor is appropriate in any context; that’s why the Irish invented wakes. Humor that shows the protagonist is a callous bastard is fine when the point is to show he’s a callous bastard; not for a laugh. As Raymond Chandler wrote in his essay, “The Simple Art of Murder:”

It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization.

“What we call civilization” becomes less civil all the time. I’m not an advocate of political correctness, but there is substantial room for compromise between being PC and walking around armed all the time. Libertarianism has many virtues; the too-frequently adopted attitude of “I get to do whatever I want and to hell with everyone else” is not among them.

I do not blame gun violence, drug abuse, poverty, child abuse, pollution, climate change, political corruption, or [insert favorite society destroyer here] on books or movies or television. I do not advocate returning to the days of the Hayes Office, where stories were too often morality plays. I don’t need art to tell me what to think. What I need—what we all need—is art that lays things out for us in a manner where we can draw our own conclusions, and not leave us with the idea that it’s humorous when evil is done, or that collateral damage means nothing so long as the bad guy gets his. There needs to be some nuance between those extremes, too.

Without placing too harsh a burden on culture, or ascribing too much influence to it, we’re all better off leaving a movie talking about character motivations, or wondering what happens next than we are debating whether Fury Road has better effects than Furious 7. Maybe not every time—fun’s fun—but not never, either.


John McFetridge said...

Good points. I've never gotten Tarantino movies. I accept that I'm the one who's out of touch, everyone else loves them, but to me they've always seemed like they're for teenage boys.

But I'm an old guy who grew up watching Sam Peckinpah movies so this isn't really my time.

Dana King said...

Same here. Next post I'll be writing for those kids o get off my lawn.

Peckinpah is a good example. Paraphrasing from TSAOM again, Chandler said Hammett's primary contribution to the genre was giving murder back to those who did it for a reason other then to provide a body, and a case for the hero to solve. I'm not squeamish about film (or written) violence; THE WILD BUNCH is among my favorite films of all time. There needs to be a reason for it beyond, "ain't this cool?"

John McFetridge said...

Well, it turns out there doesn't need to be a reason beyond "ain't this cool."

Back in the stone age we would talk about things like fatal flaws, something that might derail a narrative. Reservoir Dogs has such a terrible ending (police were waiting outside for Mr. Big to show up, hearing the voice of a fellow cop being tortured? Imagine that scene in The Wire). Pulp Fiction uses the old trope of a gangster going out of town and leaving a bodyguard to watch his girlfriend.

But these things have triumphed and Peckinpah is barely a footnote.

And the American League still has the DH - what's the point anymore, walk all over my lawn, tear it up.....

Jack Getze said...

Us teenage boys at heart live long lives. Can't wait to see Jurassic World's dinosaurs battle to the death. Movies are so full of visual grabbers these days, I wonder how much the plot really matters to the average movie-goer?