The Violence of Narrative

“You can not narrativize a topic without doing violence to it” – that phrase keeps running through my head, from an excerpt I posted here a few weeks ago.

An ex-girlfriend of mine used to get upset about phone calls in movies and on television – “they never say hello or goodbye!” – it would drive her crazy. Once you start paying attention to this fact it becomes hard to ignore – almost no phone conversation in a movie is an accurate portrayal of how phone calls work in real life. They begin abruptly and end just as abruptly, trying to convey the necessary information as efficiently as possible.

These alterations made by screenwriters, directors, actors and editors, turning “real” phone interactions into concise movie calls, are understandable and necessary, and subtle enough to go unnoticed by most of us, most of the time.

I’m not saying that every movie call should include “Hello! This is Bob. How are you?” – merely that already, in this simple microcosm, the behavior of humans in movies is a significant step away from reality. And whether this shift is considered “violent” depends, somewhat, on one’s definition of violence. Done well, it is surgical – a moment of a common lived experience is cut out with a scalpel (probably at the screenplay stage, well before the actual film editing) and the space is sewn up carefully so no noticeable scar remains.

And yet, when one wakes up from surgery, no matter how talented the surgeon and how good the anesthetic, the body is unavoidably aware that it has experienced trauma – there will be bruising, swelling, the pain of the healing process, physical therapy to regain mobility, etc..

Perhaps sculpture is the most analogous art form. Turning a chunk of wood into a work of art involves all of the cutting, tearing and grinding, the impacts of mechanical blades and hand saws and chisels and sandpapers. However brilliant and beautiful the result, the organic fibers of wood undoubtedly experience the process of being sculpted as violent action upon their natural shape and form.

Turning life into narrative can be an elegant or a clumsy process – it can involve amputation with a chainsaw or smoothing with 200-grit sandpaper. But regardless of the level of finesse, narrative is by definition neither objective nor comprehensive – large and small things will always be cut apart, stripped away, twisted and distorted into new shapes to fit the conventions of storytelling and the desire for audience engagement, the style and sensibility of the author(s), and then reinterpreted by the subjectivity of the audience.

And it’s not wrong to use violent means to shape either a sculpture or a story – any more than killing animals for meat or mowing your lawn is wrong. But there is value in identifying these actions as violent – or, if that word has too many negative connotations, it might be useful to find another word that conveys a similar degree of active, physical exertion of will to change the state or shape of organic material.

People in the film industry are fond of all kinds of romantic euphemisms for what they do everyday, calling themselves Storytellers who Paint with Light, for example. There is certainly an art and a craft to the technical and visual elements of the filmmaking process as well as the narrative-making part of the job – the writing and rewriting, followed by translation and interpretation by actors and directors. But there’s something very interesting and, I think, useful about adding an awareness of violence to this equation.

It’s very easy to be cavalier about this aspect of storytelling and filmmaking – of course you have to change things to make them interesting, cut out the parts that don’t serve the story, even at the limited and straightforward level of altering the form of a simple phone conversation.

But if these changes involve a form of violence, then the action must be balanced or tempered by a sense of responsibility in order to be done in good faith. A hunter or a chicken farmer can thoughtfully and responsibly be in the business of feeding dozens or thousands of people by the violence they are willing to enact on behalf of the community, or they can be dismissive of the value of the life they are taking, wasteful and contemptuous and cruel.

If it is impossible to turn the organic, lived human experience into film narrative (or text narrative for that matter) without some degree of violence, that creates, one would hope, the need for a sense of responsibility, ethics and intentionality on the part of those committing the violence.

I believe that killing a deer quickly, efficiently and respectfully, in order to feed one’s family, is a very different action than killing a deer clumsily, painfully and casually, for no good reason. The fact of violence is the same, but the context and other intangible factors (whether they are considered spiritual or humanist) are vastly different.

Today, around the world, there are literally millions of people making media for public consumption every day. It amazes me that on Hulu, you can see episodes of a dozen new shows released every single day – this is a mere fraction of all that media, but the amount of work and resources that each episode represents is vast.

Though most of the people involved in making it are intelligent and good at their jobs, in my experience there is not much thought given to the purpose all of it serves, beyond “Entertainment.” To give people something to watch, to occupy their eyes and their brains for twenty-three or forty-two minutes. It is not, I believe, sustenance on any other level – feeding a sense of purpose or a constructive, thoughtful view of the world, with an explicit or implicit message that needs to be shared, which in turn justifies the violence the filmmakers have committed against organic, lived human experience.

That sounds pretty extreme as I write it out – but it matches my experience as a viewer, sampling a wide range of shows on a range of networks. Propaganda can be dangerous and insidious, but at least its values and intentions tend to be fairly clear and straightforward. “The Battleship Potemkin” is a story about oppression, the atrocities of war, and revolution. “Modern Times” by Charlie Chaplin is a story about the dehumanizing absurdity of industrialization.

If unable to hide behind the safe-word “Entertainment,” what is Jurassic World about? Hubris? The human spirit triumphing over adversity? Family Values?

It sounds almost fundamentalist to say out loud, but is it really so farfetched to claim that all media is ideological, and that we should, when making and consuming media, consider what (and whose) ideology it serves?

The thing is, the idea that it’s just harmless entertainment, and it doesn’t have to mean anything to anyone, is worse, in a way – because it means that the violence of narrative has been committed thoughtlessly, that those resources have been consumed pointlessly and needlessly, which is kind of grotesque, when you think about it.

That, in itself, is some kind of ideology, something like cynicism, nihilism – and if that’s what we’re going to the multiplex to experience, we owe it to ourselves to at least be honest about it.

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