Atrocious Entertainment

“See those kids by the river/Drop some napalm/Watch them quiver/Napalm sticks to kids” ~ U.S. Army cadence

It’s a popularly accepted truth that art is an expression of culture. American culture, then, is obsessed with sadism. The movie theater has become our Colosseum, the actor our gladiator. Blood is our artistic medium of choice, the human body our canvas. God’s command to meditate on what is right, pure, and lovely has been perverted by society to an implicit command to meditate on whatever is evil, whatever is polluted, and whatever is hideous.

Sadism commands top dollar at the box office these days, according to an article in the latest issue of Newsweek. Confirming what I’ve long suspected, the article quotes horror magazine editor Tony Timpone, “In 1990, I had to pull my hair out just to find a movie to put on the cover. There were only three or four major horror releases a year. Now there’s three or four a month. We’re like pigs in slop.”

Horror movies like Saw II, which was infamously advertised by a movie poster representing the “II” as a pair of severed fingers, dominate theaters. With the public lust for blood snowballing, horror films have increasingly abandoned suspense in favor of no-holds-barred gore. As documented by Screen It, scenes focusing on every cut and delighting in every agony have become the norm.

For instance, the recent film Hostel, which beloved faux-butcher Quentin Tarantino co-wrote, features a scene in which a “sadist takes a power drill to a victim.” After showing one insertion, the camera reportedly cuts to “the drill as its laid down with flesh and blood in the bit. We then see the victim who has bloody drill holes in various parts of his body.” I learned about this movie when a female Air Force recruit told me she was looking forward to it, particularly because Tarantino was signed onto the project.

A prime example of the sadism offered by recent films is Saw II, which was highly anticipated by many of my peers. This movie contains such uplifting scenes as a woman reaching into a suspended glass cage with one-way openings, and being unable to remove her hands upon discovering that such attempts result in the bloody slicing of her wrists by the razor-sharp metal surrounding the openings. Another scene shows a former druggie tossed into a pit filled with used syringes and forced to frantically dig through the needles in search of a key. When I refused to see this film due to its pointlessly violent content, several acquaintances (all military recruits) pointed out that the film contained a “great twist.” Besides, they argued, the torturer has moral reasons for his actions. He tortures people to snap them out of an unappreciative stupor and teach them to appreciate life.

Other recent films include Cry Wolf, which tells the graphic story of a trio trapped by a kidnapper intent on torture, The Hills Have Eyes, which dwells on the pleasant subject of cannibalism, and Underworld: Evolution, which concentrates on multiple impalings and vampiric incidents.

How does the public respond to all this? In the words of one moviegoer quoted by Newsweek, “I liked it. I just wish it was bloodier.”

In what I believe is a direct result of a cinematic glorification of torture, American war crimes have literally become a laughing matter. Several months ago, I overheard one young airman telling his sergeant about the hilarious cadences he learned during his training, including the notorious “Napalm Sticks to Kids” chant. The sergeant, entertained, requested the airman serenade him with some of these cadences. “See those kids over by the lake? Drop some napalm, watch them bake,” crooned the airman, amusing the sergeant to no end. After Saw II, which netted 29 times its four million dollar production cost, featured a favorably portrayed maniac offing a houseful of men and women, it’s hardly startling that nobody cares that twelve Marines are currently accused of a My Lai style mini-massacre.

While stateside audiences munch popcorn and revel in the sight of an eyeball being cut from a woman’s skull, as portrayed in Hostel, is it any wonder that each day reveals a new story about American troops abusing Iraqis in one way or another? True, the Abu Ghraib MPs confined themselves to techniques for producing humiliation and mental distress, bypassing outright “torture,” but their motivation was to abuse for time-killing giggles. Mistreatment became a recreational sport, a form of diversion like you might find in your friendly neighborhood theater.

Of course, the American occupation in Iraq has produced more than perverted shenanigans. Aidan Delgado, who was profiled in a New York Times article after being discharged from the Army for conscientious objection, says, “Guys in my unit, particularly the younger guys, would drive by in their Humvee and shatter bottles over the heads of Iraqi civilians passing by. They’d keep a bunch of empty Coke bottles in the Humvee to break over people’s heads.” Delgado also says he “witnessed incidents in which an Army sergeant lashed a group of children with a steel Humvee antenna, and a Marine corporal planted a vicious kick in the chest of a kid about 6 years old.” Hysterical, right? Why should American troops behave any differently when the movies tell us our culture approves of torture as entertainment?

War isn’t the only place where the line between fantasy and reality blurs these days, though. Sacramento’s News 10 reports that a “vampire” who once ran for school board in my traditionally calm neck of the woods was just arrested in Bolivia for bombing two hotels. This American, Tristan Amero, styled himself “Lestat Claudius de Orleans y Montevideo” after the blood-sucking hero of Tom Cruise’s horror film, Interview With the Vampire. Then there are the profoundly violent video games of the day, including “Grand Theft Auto,” which Alabaman Devin Moore played “day and night for months,” according to CBS News. The game mainly focuses on the painstakingly detailed killing of cops, an animated diversion Moore brought to the real world last year when he murdered three police officers.

Speaking of his victims, serial killer Ted Bundy said, “You feel the last bit of breath leaving their body. You’re looking into their eyes. A person in that situation is God!” Modern entertainment has given audiences the ability to feel that power and indulge that lust to be like God, with the silver screen offering a shield to those uncomfortable with the idea of literally sating their appetite for sadism. Yet with Americans entranced by the perverse and willing to spend ever more money for the pleasure of viewing ultra-realistic simulations of torture, I imagine we’ll only see more real-life imitators. Already we see savagery crossing the border of fantasy into the realm of reality, particularly in the chaotic arena of war.

March 31, 2006