Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Vicarious Homeric Experience

These days we all get unlimited access to the craziest experiences through various pop culture media. Perhaps because our everyday lives have become more sterile and predictable, movies and the internet have had to make up for the outrageous stories and exchanges that are no longer possible in hyper-organized, regimented existences. Take this picture of a young woman with Homer Simpson tatooed upon her nether region. This tatoo artist's rendition of those Homeric lips is pretty fly. I assume that this is indeed a permanent tatoo and that this young woman probably didn't know hundreds of thousands of strangers across the weblogistan would have visual access to her genital region. Thanks young Betty for providing us the pleasure of viewing your tatoo artist's illustration. You allow us to see phenomenal art on the internet that we would otherwise never have had the opportunity to peep.

This is the beauty of pop culture these days. Every instance that we submit to the power of entertainment media, we encounter episodes that are created precisely because we would likely not run into such events or images elsewhere. Interpersonal violence and pornography are two broad categories of experience that generally broaden our horizons as we are exposed to them in the media. For better or for worse, our entertainment options today permit us to indulge ourselves in sights that range from absolutely horrendous and shockingly gruesome to fanatically arousing and absurdly tantalizing. Either way, the vast majority of what we perceive on beaming screens is beyond the pale of our caveman ancestors.

There are a few examples of gruesome images in movies that I've viewed over the course of the past week. Capote features both gangland-style shotgun killings and a mildly conclusive act of capital punishment by hanging, which rapidly contorts the spine until it snaps. Munich, despite all its excessive sentimentality and over-produced inducements, provides cheap action thrills, replete with blood smattering walls and body parts rolling around on the ground. These two movies derive their cinematic energy from the shock and disbelief that goes into the witnessing of violent behavior. Regardless of how sophisticated the descriptive mechanisms are to embellish the tales, both films hinge on primordial violence and the subsequent reaction of political and literary agents.

There are three more examples that I wish to cite. Dancer in the Dark also is resolved in the brutal hanging of a blind Bjork, whose mystical aura is stamped out by heartless punishers and an uncompromising criminal justice system. Next, the Hungarian film Kontroll depicts the savagery encountered by subway employees as they check for peoples' tickets. With bodies shoved into the tracks and mutilated appendages galore, the movie cleverly portrays the struggle of Budapest metro workers to perform their daily grind. Lastly, Million Dollar Baby features a sliced tongue that leads to a geyser of blood, nastily broken noses, and a series of other viscerally horrific boxing-related injuries.

Given these five films I've just seen that deal in seriously gory images, I'm not really sure what to conclude about my cinematic preferences. Do I preselect movies that are bound to be visually extreme? Is there a basic standard of nastiness that must be displayed for a movie to excite? Are these specific films even that extreme in their depictions, relative to other films? Most of these images are definitely extreme enough that normal people would not encounter them in the course of a lifetime. Maybe the role of our entertainment culture is to provide us with enough vicarious experience that we don't actually seek to replicate such scenes in our own actual lives. Maybe humans emotionally need to be exposed to an extreme level of disgusting physical pain and suffering so that we can psychologically limit such experience to the realm of the imagination. Does this fantasy world represent a universal human aspiration? I suppose the violence of our movies does not directly correlate with our problems with gun culture and international militarism. But, it is certainly an expression of something deep within our zeitgeist.

Back to skin. Sexually amusing or enthralling images are certainly an outlet for much of the repression that characterizes American sexuality. Does the media consciously seek to provide us with enough vicarious experience (sex and gore) so that we remain distracted and immersed inadvertently in the spectacular convergence of drama and technology that we cannot possibly seek extreme pleasures in the real world? The virtual experience accessible to the modern-day media consumer is incredible. Dilbert can go to sleep happy because he was thoroughly fufilled by looking at his cousin Homer Simpson tatooed onto the underside of a comely young lady. If only Dilbert could see Homer's lips in person...then he wouldn't need the internets. And, if we fed heretics to the lions in Madison Square Garden, then Hollywood would be out of business.

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