Pursuing an acting degree at the University of Southern California meant getting an education in an environment not always suited to my Victorian sensibilities. I didn’t want a reputation as a scold, so, whenever possible, I kept my prudishness to myself. But I recall one occasion where I found it necessary to say something.
As part of a class project, two of my friends, a man and a woman, had chosen to perform a scene from a play that involved a brutal rape, an overdose of profanity and a climax where the woman was struck in the face with a telephone receiver. Watching this being rehearsed in class over and over again almost made me physically ill. So, finally, between classes, I drew up the courage to approach the male part of the duo and ask him why he had chosen that particular scene.
“Because it’s real,” he said. “That kind of stuff happens, man.”
I’ve thought about that answer as I’ve watched the Deseret News discuss the impact of violent films on our national culture. Many of the online commenters on the columns and editorials that focus on this subject have offered variations of my friend’s prescient reply. They maintain that purveyors of cinematic sadism and bloodlust are only following Shakespeare’s charge “to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature.” Fiction is violent and cruel because we live in a violent and cruel world.
That kind of stuff happens, man.
I used to be somewhat persuaded by such reasoning, but, over time, that answer has lost its potency for me. Yes, that kind of stuff happens. So what? There’s a lot of stuff that happens, and most of it never ends up on a silver screen. I frequently brush my teeth and tie my shoes. I walk my fat dog, Titus, twice a day, or else something happens that ought to happen outside. While showering, I am unclothed on a daily basis. It just so happens that this will never be shown at a theater near you or anybody else. (Be grateful.)
Just because something “happens” isn’t sufficient justification to inflict it on an audience.
Novelist John Gardner wrote a book-length essay titled “On Moral Fiction” in which he offers this helpful insight on this issue. “Life,” he wrote, “is all conjunctions, one thing after another, cows and wars and chewing gum and mountains; art — the best, most important art — is all subordination: guilt because of sin because of pain.”
Good art, then, isn’t content to show vile things just because such stuff happens. Art focuses on why things happen. As such, the cows and the chewing gum that don’t serve the purpose of establishing moral causality don’t end up in the final product. It would be nice if other gratuitous garbage were left out, too. But sometimes, terrible things do make the cut, and, what’s more, good stories need them to be there. Otherwise, virtue never gets a chance to shine.
I realize now that the main reason my friends’ college performance was so disturbing wasn't the laundry list of offensive items; it was the nihilistic worldview such bile was employed to serve. Good art include lots of bad stuff that happens. All of the most powerful stories in our collective history include dark elements, but those parts are necessary to create an inspiring whole. Sherlock Holmes is nothing without Dr. Moriarty; Luke Skywalker is nothing without Darth Vader; and those Twilight vampires are nothing well, let’s just leave it at that.
Anyway, it’s time for me to walk my fat dog again.
Alert the media.
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.