A gut reaction to movie gore
Grisly mutilation on the big screen has become a nasty game of one-upmanship.
When the benevolent doctor started sawing off the wounded guerrilla's leg, I turned away from the screen. As so often happens in movie theaters, I found my wife's face turned toward mine. We cringed together.Skip to next paragraph
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The movie was this year's "Pan's Labyrinth," a tapestry of amazing images that we talked about for days afterward. But I would have enjoyed it more without the amputation and without the fascist captain smashing the peasant's face to a bloody pulp with a bottle.
The director would argue that this brutality – the reality the protagonist flees from to an alternate, magical, subterranean world – is half the point of the film. I agree: it would be hard to imagine a more justified use of gore.
Still, my stomach rebels. As increasingly creative forms of brutality show up more explicitly on the screen, moviegoing has turned into a traumatic experience.
Admittedly, I'm more squeamish than most. It doesn't matter if the movie is based on true history or cartoonish: violent images touch a place in me that doesn't want to be touched.
Like a roller coaster cranking its way up to a peak that never appears, movies have gone to extremes I couldn't have imagined when I was a teenager – back when "Bonnie and Clyde" passed for a violent movie.
Recently, I found an entry on Wikipedia entitled, "List of Films By Gory Death Scene." The list went on for screen after screen, but I couldn't get past the first subheading, "Death by bisection or dismemberment (excluding decapitation)," because my gut began to writhe. (Others may have had the same reaction: that entry is gone now.)
It doesn't matter that it's 'make-believe'
These fictional outrages against the human body are far from any reality I recognize, far beyond any punishment I'd want to see inflicted on the worst villain on earth. I'm not saying that torture, murder, and battlefield carnage don't really happen, but when they do, it's horrifying not entertaining. That's the point, I guess: In the movies, you get to see things you don't usually see in real life, and it's OK because it's not real. But I don't want to watch a mutilation even if it's staged.
Does anyone really want to see a gorgeous woman holding up the bloody stump where her hand used to be? ("Sin City," 2005.) My wife left the room long before that scene; I stayed through the end of the DVD, because I found the movie visually stunning. But I still have unwanted flashbacks of its horrific images. I wish I'd never seen the movie. I'd rather not be stuck with so much ugliness returning to haunt me in the middle of the night.
Eli Roth, director of "Hostel," said in an MTV interview, "It's all pretend. It's all fake. It's just acting" – and went on to wish for movie violence without limits. When I go to a movie, though, I sink into the story and the lives of the characters. (Remember suspension of disbelief?)
Mr. Roth's self-defense reminds me of my father's oft-repeated reassurance during horror movies long ago, "It's only make-believe." Those words never helped at all, because images on a screen – real or not – have an almost magical power.