Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Tortured Media

Maybe we need a new catchphrase for it, some word-bundling which easily fits into headlines and ad copy and gives the buzz of it's discussion an easily identified handle.

"It" is a topic I've been writing some about recently, mostly in entertainment posts or film reviews. But a couple of stories I've seen in the last week has nudged my thoughts on it again. "It" is the fairly recent trend of horror/thriller movies and television shows where torture and it's every agonizing detail is prominent - and more important - financially rewarding for the makers and distributors.

In the last few weeks some billboards advertising a movie called "Captivity" from Lionsgate Films appeared in NY and LA that started a firestorm of anger at the way actress Elisha Cuthbert was shown under headings like Capture, Confinement, Torture and Termination. Jill Soloway wrote about her shock and disgust and her actions to get the billboards removed in this piece at Huffington Post. She and others were successful in getting the billboards removed and the film is now using it's "banned billboard" incident as part of the film's advertising.

Last week, a TV Guide blog reported the National Organization of Women was complaining about an episode of a "reality" show, "America's Next Top Model" for making a competition for the would-be models by having them pose as semi-naked corpses in fake crime scene photos. You can, if you wish, take a peek at the NSFW pics via this LiveJournal page where fans/detractors discuss and debate the show, just scroll to the top of the page for the images.

Now let me explain something here -- you can do your own searches for the "Captivity" billboard if you wish, but I decided to include the link to the ANTM pics since they were featured nationwide, not just a few billboards in two cities. This show was available to any home with a cable TV connection. So it isn't as if the images are obscurities --though, no, I don't think this ANTM show is very highly rated. But it's been on for years and makes lots of cash for Tyra Banks. It's a show focusing on what it takes to reach the heights of Fashion.

And for me, it shows what has been a constant theme in film and TV (and some books too), violence and women and sexuality all stirred together in a strange psychobabble language. There is an inherent oddness of Voyeurism in TV and movies, the topic of endless thesis papers and master's degrees and semiotic/cinematic studies. Yet, it seems of late the imagery is "fashioned" more starkly and more grim.

How can you help but notice the large presence in TV and films for deeply detailed forensics/crime stories and graphic torture? But the themes extend far beyond such graphic images from a modeling shoot or the latest episode of "24."

I'm perplexed that people tune in to watch something like "The Apprentice", eliciting drama/comedy from wondering who's the next to get fired, who'll fail the popularity poll of "American Idol," who will fail on "Survivor", who will be "The Weakest Link", who will fail in "The Amazing Race," and on and on the list goes. I'm sure you'll say most people are tuning in to see who wins, but all the weeks of watching which occur and sustain these shows concern those who fail.

It's a tough, tough world, yep. But entertaining myself in the evening watching someone struggle to get a job, become a chef, a model, a pop singer, or the no-longer-popular performers who try and lose weight, get off drugs, learn a dance step, check into rehab - whatever - watching such stuff is not on my list of things to do.

And for any regular reader here, I've confessed it before, many times - I am a horror movie/fiction fan. I have been reading Poe and Lovecraft and watching vampires and monsters and all the things that bump you into the world of fantasy or dystopia for most of my life. I just see a difference between those manufactured works and the manufactured "realities" of what's often on television. The difference would take me far too long to explain, though I'll try.

It's kind of like this -- I've taught classes on horror films, researched and studied them and written them for years. I've learned there are easy ways to make an audience frightened or uncomfortable and there are subtle and more complex ways to achieve that as well. There are constants in the struggle of Life and Death, sometimes told in a story very well, sometimes clumsily hurled at you in hopes of making a quick profit. Sometimes imagery emerges in the media that seem to appear as if from nowhere, as if some mad thing has gotten hold of the image-making machinery with nothing in it's cold heart but cruel exploitation.

However ....

There is the reality today in this country of such struggles taking place on a global scale. All day, for many years now, the imagery and the language of our society is fused with references to torture, to cruelty, to despotism. It's natural, I think, for the collective American mind to start displaying similar images via a movie or TV show or even a billboard. We observe the imagery, we perhaps say "this crosses the line we should not cross." It's far simpler to identify and excoriate a billboard than to identify the real life line-crossing actions conjuring with torture, endless or secret imprisonment, and the nefarious secret plots of cults to dismantle and destroy a place, a people or a policy.

So I'm not really surprised our media culture continues to mirror bizarre horrors. It's one, albeit murky, way to talk about the things we fumble to understand.


  1. Anonymous3:47 PM

    nothing scares me anymore. i'm use to all the bumps and bugers. and you can explain why some watch reality crap as well as you can for viewing jerry springer(which scares me more). the bottom line is that these shows exist because someone out there is pushing a remote control button. now if i can just FIND that person!

  2. Anonymous12:20 PM

    I've been thinking about this a lot lately because the only thing I can't handle in a movie is torture-type stuff. It's really become prevalent with the Saw movies, Hostel, Turista and now Captivity. As with anything, the "action" is going to have to be more hardcore each time to top the predecessor and to impress "horror" audiences. What really scares me is that, in a very bizarre way, these films glorify torture, the more twisted the better. To a mind already on the edge, a film like this can validate and even encourage these impulses. I have been surprised and dismayed at the extent to which network TV allows torture and twisted violence against women to air. I've been shocked at what they show for a few seconds in an ad for the crime shows during a football game. Even NBC's To Catch a Predator series is pure voyeurism and gives these sick f*cks more TV time than they deserve. Have you noticed that even with the expose shows, there seems to be no end to the line of losers willing to risk everything for some taboo sex?

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