Revenge candy

Sep 23, 2009 at 5:00 am

If asked to draw up a dossier of America’s current psychic, mental and emotional well being based on random artifacts pulled from Ye Olde Pop Culture Grab Bag, my diagnosis would read:

Patient suffers from delusional schizophrenia stemming from repeated, acute exposure to environmental/media traumas. Continued forced and self-inflicted exposure to these traumas will result in further violent, sadistic behavior and will culminate in irreversible vegetative paralysis.

Treatment requires immediate and compulsory puppy/kitten therapy combined with a warm Valerian root/Nestle Quik cocktail to be administered via constant 24-hour drip to every person in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

In my quasi-professional opinion, we are inuring ourselves with pop culture. I’m not just talking about Bob Seger and Super Bowl ads. I’m talking about the heavy stuff (again), namely Hollywood blockbusters.

This summer I not only willfully exposed myself to, but actually fucking paid to see “Inglorious Basterds” and “District 9.”

Instead of being seduced into the cinematic mood as the lights dimmed per my romantic expectations, the previews immediately scared the absolute bejesus out of me, rendering my previously sturdy constitution into emotional cottage cheese. Mistakenly believing I couldn’t sink any lower, I stayed to watch the movies I’d paid for.

Both were mental gangbangs of relentless, exhuasting violence, and both merit discussion. But I’d like to relegate my skewering to Tarantino’s juvenile revenge fantasy, which may have single-handedly damaged the collective unconscious more savagely and with greater precision than anything in recent memory (Sarah Palin notwithstanding).

In short, “Inglorious Basterds” encourages its audience to literally revel in a two-hour orgy of horrifyingly realistic brutality. This crucial point, which sets the movie apart from other less noteworthy ultra-violence, deserves some discussion.

In an alchemically nuanced combination of super-realistic violence, cheap evocation of our culture’s ever-present need for retribution, and cartoonish comedy, “IB” turns standard movie violence on its ear, making it more toxic than usual. Most stylized violence presents its viewers with a small, token morality compass that reiterates, if only briefly, pretty airtight social sanctions against hurting people. (This obviously excludes serious pop-snuff gems like “Hostel,” “Last House on the Left,” “Saw,” etc. — all films I won’t ever watch and that, my intuition tells me, are squarely outside the realm of reason.) I say this not as an apologist for excessive or even moderate movie violence, but to highlight “IB”’s oblique differences.

“IB” gives its audience a golden ticket to laugh, applaud and rejoice in totally grotesque violence. The rapturous enjoyment of murder — usually seen as anti-social and even taboo — is turned into a get-out-of-jail-free card that is snatched up without a second thought because those being brutalized are (tah dah!) Nazis.

Given the opportunity to watch those responsible for the Holocaust murdered and burned (the audience gets to watch a tight close-up of Hitler himself riddled in the face and chest with bullets and then burned), Tarantino presents us with a back-door pass to engage in the primal, lustful and destructive tendency of revenge.

But it’s the comedy that roils in my belly. In real history, when Mussolini and his mistress were executed, thousands of people lined up in Milan to throw rocks and spit on their corpses, which hung by their ankles. This is gross and does not represent humanity at its best. The rage that compelled the gathered hordes, though, was real and immediate. I suspect there was little laughter that day. The need for retribution, too, is ugly and real. To turn that need into a sugary simulacrum and bend it into comedy seems, to me, disrespectful. Our vulnerability and anger are not addressed in any fruitful sense. Instead we are divorced and dissociated from it. Our laughter is turned into poison in our own mouths. It is revenge candy, and just like simulated food is bound to rot your guts, I’m starting to think simulated revenge can only rot your spirit.

They say you can’t take it with you when you go. I hope that’s true, because what they neglect to also say is that you can’t shake it until you’re gone. Everything you see, read, hear and think is going to rattle around in your frail little brain until you see the grainy 3-2-1 countdown reel at the moment of your death. I hope they’ve got puppies and cocoa in the afterlife, and a copy of “Fletch.”