75 Arguments, Arnold Swarzenegger, Commando, Essay, Fall Out 4, Heavy Metal, Lateralus, Loony Tunes, Mark Millar, Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino, T.V. Isn't Violent Enough, TOOL, Vicarious, violence, Violence in Media, Wolverine: Old Man Logan
A humanoid stands in the desert with worms for eyes watching screens, while an insect gives birth to an eye. It was actually Wolverine: Old Man Logan however started the conversation.
It was graphic novel book club night at Ground Zero and we were discussing Mark Miller’s Post-Apocalyptic story, and given the fact the book is about Wolverine the issue of violence in art eventually came up. Wolverine as a character has enormous potential, and while the book was entertaining the group at large had to acknowledge the level of violence and gore given the fact a girl severs a man skull from his neck using a shotgun as a blunt instrument. One of the members of the group mentioned they were happy the artist represented it this way because too often in films someone would make this gesture and all that would happen would be that the character fell back with a heavy bruise or out of breath.
This in turn lead the owner of the store to discuss the idea that as a culture we’ve become rather bloodthirsty, using the example of Marvin’s death in Pulp Fiction specifically how the scene is treated as funny rather than horrific. Naturally as a Tarantino fanatic I did my best to defend the scene and the artistic vision of the man, but even I had to acknowledge that there is a problem when the desired aesthetic affect where a man has his brains shot out is the audience is expected to laugh.
The reader may protest before I even begin, if you’re about to say the reason violence happens is because of violent films you’re full of it. Studies have shown there isn’t a correlation between violent video games, films, books, etc and violent acts and for once I’m going to agree with my contester. I keep mentioning it to anyone and everything that asks (I think my neighbor spotted me talking to her rose bushes about it) but ever since my wife gave me Fall Out 4 for my birthday there’s nothing like taking an hour or seventeen and shooting Super Mutants and Raiders while collecting toasters for the springs. The violence is cathartic, but as the viewer or player I don’t have to see the lasting effects of it.
This eventually lead me to Mike Oppenheim and TOOL.
TOOL as a band is an institution, a living animal surrounded by smaller organisms feeding off of its sublime energy and esoteric aesthetic productions. That’s a fancy-pants way of saying TOOl is the fucking shit.
I recognize that as a fan of heavy metal and rock ‘n roll in general that it can become unnerving or annoying as fucking fuck to listen to someone prattle on about how “their” band supersedes all other bands in existence. Rest assured I went though that phase already, now I can move to objectively comment band to band. TOOL was a band that I largely avoided because from a distance the whole thing seemed so fucking weird. Just Google Image Search the word TOOL and the plethora of images that appear seem to be the stuff of stoners and that guy Gregg who works at the gas station on the corner who always asks if your Griffin has enough glitter, I mean, the fuck? The eyes with multiple pupils and the Buddhaesque head’s with the four sided faces at first seem to be nothing but yet another rock band trying to be deep to inspire fans to buy albums and t-shirts. That was before I bought the album Aenema and really began to listen.
TOOL as a band varied in its approach to crafting music because where other bands crafted their rhythms in an effort to push the melody towards the sick guitar solo, TOOL would employ mathematical philosophical concepts like the Fibonacci sequence to develop their rhythm. The song Lateralus for example actually employs the rhythms 9/8, 8/8, 7/8, which combines to form 987 which is the sixteenth integer of the Fibonacci sequence, and when you look at the lyricks which describe man’s desire to expand his knowledge into the deeper aspects of reality mirroring the spiral created by the Fibonacci sequence, sometimes referred to as The Golden Ratio a symbol that appears in galaxies, flowers, Nautilus shells, and geometry, it makes it difficult to listen to your friend tell you that Stone Sour are geniuses.
Mike Oppenheim came before TOOL for me however, and I promise I will return to them in a moment. One of my favorite books is a collection of essays entitled 75 Arguments and along with I Want a Wife, which I’ve written about before and published on this site, came an essay that immediately grabbed my attention. A title like TV Isn’t Violent Enough has that ability because so often the capitalized titles of essays dealing with “violence” and “television” tend to be yet another in a long line of boring pieces arguing how watching a Marilyn Manson music video will turn your kids into cat-killing psychopaths who listen to CHER. Oppenheim’s article tackles the unrealistic presentation of violence in media and before the reader thinks he’ll slam into every Wiley Cayote episode of Loony Tunes read for yourself and observe his premise:
Caught in an ambush there’s no way our hero (Matt Dillon, Eliot Ness, Kojak, Hoss Cartwright…) can survive. Yet, visibly weakening, he blazes away and we suspect he’ll pull through. Sure enough, he’s around for the final clinch wearing the traditional badge of the honorable but harmless wound: a sling.
As a teenager with a budding interest in medicine, I knew this was nonsense and loved to annoy my friends with the facts.
“Aw the poor guy! He’s crippled for life!”
“What do you mean? He’s just shot in the shoulder.”
“That’s the worst place! Vital structures everywhere. There’s the blood supply for the arm: axillary artery and vein. One nick and you can bleed to death on the spot.”
“So he was lucky.”
“Ok. If it missed the vessels it hit the brachial plexus: the nerve supply. Paralyzes his arm for life. He’s gotta turn in his badge and apply for disability.”
“So he’s really lucky.”
“OK. Missed the artery. Missed the vein. Missed the nerves. Just went through the shoulder joint. But joint cartilage doesn’t heal so well. A little crease in the bone leaves him with traumatic arthritis. He’s in pain the rest of his life—stuffing himself with codeine, spending his money on acupuncture and chiropractors, losing all his friends because he complains all the time…Don’t ever get shot in the shoulder. It’s the end…” (138)
Oppenheim effectively killed my ability to watch many action movies because this brief passage accurately destroys a majority of films. For example if one watches the last fifteen minutes of Commando, what is arguably one of the worst films ever made; objectively speaking the film has little plot and there are so many visual problems with the film it becomes a game watching how truly terrible this movie is. At one point the villain Bullock shoots John Matrix in the shoulder and within one or two minutes John is already back up fighting and swinging oblivious to the fact that he should be either on the ground bleeding out, holding his now dead arm while Bullock slices his throat, or else twitching on the floor racked with pain while Bullock and the little girl watch him eating popcorn and occasionally throwing pennies at his head.
Oppenheim’s critique is the fodder for freshman learning composition and rhetoric because the entire essay is a work of ethos, one of the three appeals Aristotle established in his brilliant and simultaneously insufferable book On Rhetoric. An ethical position or appeal implies to the reader that the speaker has expert or established working knowledge of a subject. I’m about to graduate with a Masters in English so obviously I possess an ethos when it comes to interpreting literature or writing, what I lack is a solid knowledge of how to fix a carburetor, or where to find a carburetor in the engine of a car, or telling you what a carburetor looks like…or what it even is. Ahem.
Oppenheim’s ethos comes across as humorous, the man is trying to poke fun at everything he believes is stupid, and thank Neptune because his article is a fresh take on an argument that has become bored with itself. Talking about violence in media has become a parody of itself and often the chief characters are either the sexless grandmother activist who watched five minutes of Scarface complaining about how Hollywood and liberals are ruining this country’s moral fiber, while her contester, the brainless Hollywood sleeze who wears leather pants to a debate, argues that violence in cinema and television is either parody or the right of the film maker. The two continue ad nauseum while the commentator wonders how many more blowjob-interviews like these he’ll have to host before he’s finally given his own television program after Anderson Cooper, before everyone decides finally to agree to disagree before ad hominem attacks become the rhetoric strategy and the show ends with thank yous and nothing has been resolved. And scene.
Rather than continuing this rhetorical farce Oppenheim’s essay takes a different strategy, namely by providing the reader with a real medical opinion:
No less unreal is what happens when T.J. Hooker Magnum, or a Simon brother meets the bad guy in manly combat. Pow! Our hero’s fist crashes into the villains head. Villain reels backward, tipping over chairs and lamps, finally falling to the floor, unconscious. Handshakes all around…Sheer fantasy! After hitting the villain, our hero would shake no one’s hand. He’d be too busy waving his own about wildly, screaming with the pain of a shattered fifth metacarpal (the bone behind the fifth knuckle) an injury so predictable it’s called the “boxer’s fracture.” The human fist is far more delicate than the human skull. In any context between the two, the first will lose.
The Human skull is tougher than TV writers give it credit. Clunked with a blunt object, such as te traditional pistol butt, most victims would not fall conveniently unconscious for a few minutes. More likely, they’d suffer a nasty scalp laceration, be stunned for a second or two, then be extremely upset. I’ve sewn up many. A real-life, no-nonsense criminal with a blackjack (a piece of iron weighing several pounds) has a much better success rate. The result is a large number of deaths and permanent damage from brain hemorrhage. (140).
It becomes difficult to watch films and television involving the “blow to the head” scene and take it seriously. Looking back to the movie Commando again Arnold Swartzenager at least takes the time to crack his villain’s neck on the plane after slapping him unconscious with his bare palm, though even this scene is polluted by the sheer medical and physiological absurdity that is taking place. Oppenheim’s argument becomes a fresh take on all of this violence, for like many of my generation I grew up watching Loony Tunes on Cartoon Network. It’s impossible to forget Daffy Duck taking a shot-gun blast to the face and having only his bill turned around. It’s impossible to forget Yosemity Sam blowing himself up with the piano and stumbling around as if he was simply on an acid trip. It’s impossible to forget every bad ACME device Wiley Cayote bought that ended in physical annihilation and borderline existential quagmire. Violence was a part of the show, however the characters never suffered long lasting effects from them. Before the reader believes my next point is to blame Loony Tunes, they’re mistaken for that program in my mind is buffered by the fact that it was a children’s cartoon and meant only to be absurd.
The larger problem becomes as those cartoon attitudes to violence infect the larger adult oriented art being produced.
Critics of TV violence claim it teaches children sadism and cruelty. I honestly don’t know whether or not TV violence is harmful, but if so the critics have it backward. Children can’t learn to enjoy cruelty from the neat, sanitized mayhem on the average series. There isn’t any! What they learn is far more malignant: that guns or fists are clean, efficient, exciting ways to deal with a difficult situation. Bang—you’re dead!—Bop!—you’re unconscious (temporarily)! (140)
Oppenheim concludes this saying
Ironically, the problem with TV violence is: It’s not violent enough. (141).
This brings me back to the humanoid though, and those worms slithering around from his pupils.
Lately I’ve become “yet another weird TOOL fan,” though I’m still in the early phase where the monkey-humanoid-robots will appear out of the corner of my eye reading passages from Jung. I like to have music playing in the background while I put works into my “reading list” and so I saw the title “Vicarious” in my YouTube que. Originally the song was going to be “just background” but after seven minutes of watching the humanoid stand in the desert watching the floating screens and the insect give birth to a Lovecraftian eyeball squid I was hooked. Like all TOOL music videos I recognized that being stoned helped with appreciation, but even without hallucinogens I was able to feel the sublime power of the video, recognizing that beneath all of this oddity there was a genuine artistic statement being made.
At the point when I’m taken into the hall of heads I searched for lyrics:
Eye on the TV
’cause tragedy thrills me
It happens to be like;
Killed by the husband
Drowned by the ocean
Shot by his own son
She used the poison in his tea
And kissed him goodbye
That’s my kind of story
It’s no fun ’til someone dies
Don’t look at me like
I am a monster
Frown out your one face
But with the other
Stare like a junkie
Into the TV
Stare like a zombie
While the mother
Holds her child
Watches him die
Hands to the sky crying
Why, oh why?
’cause I need to watch things die
From a distance
Imagine then that while I licked time off the surface of the fifth dimension and felt oblivion tremble beneath my feet, I was thrust back into the twenty-first century and was reminded that I can’t stand murder mystery programming. My wife however is a fan of the ID channel and so often when I come home I enter my home hearing of some atrocity X performed to X person and how X is either free, in prison, or dead before commercials for, and these are real: I’d Kill for You, Too Pretty to Live, A Taste for Murder, House of Horrors: Kidnapped, A Stranger in My Home, and those are just a few. My purpose here isn’t to shame ID however, for whatever you say of them they are only supplying a demand. Action films abound with ostentatious displays of sanitized violence that only ever ends with an arm in a sling. Much as I hate to admit it, Dave had a point. There is some desire to live out pornographic fantasies of violence through the avatars of characters in film.
Maynard whispers and then screams the final summation:
We all feed on tragedy
It’s like blood to a vampire
Vicariously I, live while the whole world dies
Much better you than I
There seems to be the answer for the prevalence of violence in American culture, and who ever thought that answer would be in Heavy Metal?
Oppenheim and TOOL arrive at different conclusions in some respects though, for while Oppenheim’s concern is tackle the problem, TOOl’s concern seems to be to trace that desire to its origin, and in true TOOL fashion its origins are in the, to quote from Faulkner, “universal bones” of the species and the Universe itself.
Credulous at best, your desire to believe in angels in the hearts of men.
Pull your head on out your hippy haze and give a listen.
Shouldn’t have to say it all again.
The universe is hostile. So Impersonal. Devour to survive.
So it is. So it’s always been.
This may be a bleak assessment to some, but honestly I’m not sure I can argue that in some way it isn’t correct. The tragedy of the French Revolution was that the promises of philosophy and reason over impulse were ultimately abandoned to a public desire to satiate their hatred, greed, desperation, and pain with displays of violence. Reason lost because it wasn’t flashy, nor did it satiate a desire in the public for the catharsis of physicality. The human species has only come so far in our evolution, and while we pride ourselves over our technological and artistic accomplishments, there is still the physical impulse for sex and bloodshed that is hardwired into our brains.
Ultimately the conflict with violence in media is not really resolved because violence does hold some place in our culture, and, as the group agreed, in some narrative structures violence is necessary. I’m as human as the next man. Pulp Fiction remains one of my favorite films, alongside Django Unchained, Gladiator, 300, Seven, Alien, and that’s not going to change. Violence should remain a rhetorical tool for story tellers, however the more important question for writers, directors, painters, video game designers, and sculptors should be: is the violence advancing the plot or filling a hole in it?
I’ve included TOOL’s music video for Vicarious. It’s worth your time, though I would encourage you to be sober the first time you watch it otherwise you may enter deep space and never come back.