Friday, December 17, 2010

Violence and Drama

(Some) spoilers ahoy!

One of my favorite t.v. shows is Criminal Minds, about a fictional unit of the FBI that does nothing but hunt down serial murderers.  Actually, the FBI does have such a unit, but one a lot larger and less of a small elite team.  Dramatic license and all that.  I'm not complaining about that much.  Helps to make a more dramatic story-telling format and all.  Plenty of other absurdities in there as well--like the wonderful Dr. Reed whom I just don't believe as an FBI agent at all.  The current season is introducing a new character, a trainee with a unique insight because her father was a serial killer, a fact with which she struggles every day (at one point she almost cried when admitting that, try as she might, she doesn't hate him).  Good stuff, from a dramatic standpoint.  From a reality one?  No.  Just like Clarice Starling would never, ever, under any circumstances have been allowed to work on the Buffalo Bill case.  No way, no how.  But Silence of the Lambs is a totally brilliant film that I love dearly.

But I came across an interesting interview today about the spinoff being developed, starring Forrest Whitaker, Richard Schiff and Janeane Garofalo (wow--talk about a dream cast!).  Ms. Garofalo has mixed feelings.  Loves to have a job, grateful in fact.  But uneasy about a program that regularly depicts women being tortured and murdered.

With respect, I do believe she's missing the point.  It all comes down to context.  Depictions of something do not equate to endorsement.  Not in and of themselves.  Methinks she and anyone else would have an excellent case against a program (or movie, or book, or anything really) that treated the violence in what might as well be dubbed pornographically.   If we the audience are meant to revel in the violence for its own sake, if the violence is portrayed so as to get us all worked up--that is very different from what Criminal Minds does.

Let me mention here I don't mind portrayals like that, necessarily.  I loved both Kill Bill movies, and as my previous blog entry shows I adore the show Dexter.  But both those films do more than celebrate the violence involved--they examine it, stirring up more feelings that simple joy at "taking care of business."   Both explore the ambiguity of violence in what is after all a violent world (although not universally so).

Criminal Minds touches on that as well, barely.

Mostly, the show depicts serial killers as twisted human wrecks who need to be taken down, or at least neutralized.  The violence is played not for excitement, but horror.  We see the families of the victims, often in shock and dismay, as well as the sickened faces of those who confront the worst of what men do virtually every day.  No two of them respond the same, and the complexity of their reactions helps make it a successful, gripping series of stories.

In fact, I'd say this show avoids what has been a trap for the genre ever since Silence of the Lambs came out--the tendency to glamorize serial killers.  Yeah, Hannibal Lecter fascinates as well as horrifies, and in a weird sense we're almost on  his side.  But the human monsters the BAU confronts are never like that.  They are at best pitifully warped souls, at worst the equivalent of mad dogs.  People sometimes forget that memorable as Lecter is, the main character and spine of Silence is Clarice.  Sir Anthony Hopkins even said at the time the movie is a love story--about how the courage and compassion of Clarice stirs love in this terrible human being who cannot feel pity or kindness.  Without her, there is no story.  Or at least no good one.

So it is on Criminal Minds.  Whereas Dirty Harry might be an avenging icon of frontier justice in a modern world, the BAU team have more in common with Batman or Sherlock Holmes.  Theirs is not a mission of violence or revenge.  Rather they see themselves as guardians against chaos, who apply human genius against darkness threatening the innocent.

One episode in particular sticks in my mind, "The Uncanny Valley."  The Unsub (UNidentified SUBject) has been kidnapping women to keep them drugged and dressed up like dolls.  Not for any sexual reason, but as it turns out to substitute for the dolls her father took away.  Those dolls were all she had, what she needed to make herself feel whole following her own father raping her in childhood.  He wanted her to keep silent so subjected the then-twelve-year-old to electro-shock therapy, permanently damaging her brain.  This story could have been so incredibly ugly, so misogynistic, so unclean in its treatment of the subject.  For one thing, the Unsub might have repeated her own abuse onto her dolls.  But no, she just wanted to comb their hair and have tea.  What really got me was the end--not only how Dr. Reed defused the situation by giving this crippled soul her original dolls back, but the joy in the faces of her latest abductee and that woman's husband as they are reunited.  This was not a story wallowing in violence for its own sake, or lingering voyeuristically over torture.  Here we saw a tale of heroes, doing their best to protect and serve all the innocent victims--even those who go on to have victims themselves.

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