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Overstreet

How do we determine if what we're seeing is "lurid"?

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I've been defending, for many years, the value of art that "exposes" evil in the way that Hamlet's play causes his murderous uncle to witness a poisoning... a depiction of darkness that does the good work of awakening, alarming, enervating the conscience.

But how do you distinguish between a depiction of evil that exists for purposes of truth-telling and troubling the conscience... and depictions that are merely lurid, or, in the language of Philippians 4, "dwelling on" what is evil?

I have fled the theater twice in the last year when it seemed to me that a movie was no longer studying evil, or seeking to expose the reality of sin... when it crossed over into a sort of revelry, when it seemed to continue in a way that seemed to cultivate enjoyment in demeaning portrayals of human beings.

I was experiencing what others have seemed to experience watching Coen Brothers movies... a revelry in mockery and humiliation of "those stupid people." (I still argue that the Coens are much better than that, but still... I would argue that other artists are guilty of this.)

One of the films I abandoned proclaims that it is "based on true events." Does that give the filmmakers a pardon for whatever they put on the screen? The scenes I watched were certainly "realistic" depictions of horrific, heartless behavior. But it reached a point where I had to leave... not out of fear, not in the manner of Hamlet's uncle who felt convicted, but because it felt wrong to stay there. In "real life," people had taken criminal advantage of a young woman and abused her. As the camera soaked up the sight of her humiliation, I felt that I was being forced to witness what nobody should have to see, what, indeed, it is immoral to merely observe. It felt like I was being dragged down into a state of mere contempt, and pleasure in contempt, at what I was seeing.

I am sure that this is one of those questions that demands an answer of "It depends" and "Each person's conscience" ... etc. etc.

But I also have a sense that there are better ways to describe this tension, better words that will help me understand and speak about the difference, as I am seeking to do in an essay this week.

Thoughts?

Can you think of scenes when you felt that you were no longer invited into a contemplation of evil, but that you were being drawn into a kind of wallowing, a participation in mere contempt, or even a celebration of the impropriety on display?

And how is this different from, say, a Flannery O'Connor short story in which the characters' ugliness is garishly displayed or purposes of "shouting" to a "deaf culture"?

Edited by Overstreet

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But how do you distinguish between a depiction of evil that exists for purposes of truth-telling and troubling the conscience... and depictions that are merely lurid, or, in the language of Philippians 4, "dwelling on" what is evil?

I have fled the theater twice in the last year when it seemed to me that a movie was no longer studying evil, or seeking to expose the reality of sin... when it crossed over into a sort of revelry, when it seemed to continue in a way that seemed to cultivate enjoyment in demeaning portrayals of human beings.

... As the camera soaked up the sight of her humiliation, I felt that I was being forced to witness what nobody should have to see, what, indeed, it is a immoral to merely observe. It felt like I was being dragged down into a state of mere contempt, and pleasure in contempt, at what I was seeing.

... But I also have a sense that there are better ways to describe this tension, better words that will help me understand and speak about the difference, as I am seeking to do in an essay this week.

I think British philosopher Roger Scruton has tried to explain what you are alluding to in his book, Modern Culture. For the purpose of finding words to label each side of the distinction, he used the words "fantasy" and "imagination," arguing that there are times when mere fantasy is degrading but that it is the use of the imagination in portraying evil that gives the portrayal it's moral worth. Without the active exercise of the imagination, all you are left with is lurid fantasy.

Here are a few excerpts from Scruton's book. (Just remember that, for purposes of discussion, he is using a distinct definition of "fantasy" in a very specific sense.)

pgs. 55-56 -

To understand this we need to make a distinction that was first hinted at by [samuel Taylor] Coleridge [in his Biographia Literaria]: the distinction between fantasy and imagination. Both fantasy and imagination concern unrealities; but while the unrealities of fantasy penetrate and pollute the world, those of the imagination exist in a world of their own, in which we wander freely and in full knowledge of the really real ... The fantasy object intrudes into the real world: it is an unreal object of an actual desire, condemned to unreality by the mental prohibition that also summons it. The fantasy object must be as realistic as possible, in order to provide the surrogate for which the subject craves. Fantasy covets the gross, the explicit, the no-holds-barred display of the unobtainable; and in the crisis of display the unobtainable is vicariously obtained.

Hard-core pornography provides another instance. Indeed, modern society abounds in fantays objects, since the realistic image, in photograph, cinema and TV screen, offers surrogate fulfilment to all our forbidden desires, thereby permitting them. A fantasy desire seeks neither a literary description, nor a delicate painting of its object, but a simulacrum - the nearest alternative to the thing itself. It eschews style and convention, since these impede the building of the surrogate, and veil it in thought. The ideal fantasy is perfectly realised, and perfectly unreal - an imaginary object which leaves nothing to the imagination ...

pgs. 56-57 -

Through the work of art, by contrast, we encounter a world of real, vulnerable and living people, which we can enter only by an effort of the imagination, and where we, like they, are on trial ... The matter of the imagination is not realised but represented; it comes to us, as a rule, heavily masked in thought, and in no sense is it a surrogate, standing in place of the unobtainable ... Hence in Greek tragedy the murders took place off stage, not in order to deny their emotional power, but in order to contain it within the domain of imagination - the domain where we wander freely, with our own interests and desires in abeyance. The Greeks well knew what our cineastes have since discovered - that the portrayal of sex and violence is the natural object of fantasy, and slides of its own accord from realism to realisation. Hence it disrupts the work of the imagination ...

Coleridge described the posture of the reader (and therefore of the spectator in the theatre) as a "willing suspension of disbelief." He should have written a "willing suspension of belief": all pleasure and emotion depend on knowing that the action on stage is unreal. And the spectators enter this unreality by an act of will, not in search of surrogates for their own desires, but in order to explore a world that is not their own ...

pg. 58 -

... In fantasy the object of desire loses the ability to withhold itself. And since gratification through fantasy is without apparent cost, it is endlessly repeated; desire invades the world and cancels the world's demands. The character of the fantasy object, moreover, is entirely dictated by the desire which seeks for it - the object is tailor-made, the perfect dummy, the walking talking Barbie-doll who does what I want since my wanting and her doing are one and the same ... The pornographic image is designed both to arouse sexual appetite, and to provide it with a surrogate object. The girl encountered in the image is the object of my desire, miraculously offered on a plate, without the impediment of real existence, and slavishly obedient to the lust that she arouses ...

pg. 59 -

... Since imaginative emotions are responses, they are determined by their imaginary objections. They arise out of, and are controlled by, an understanding of the world. And to exercise this understanding is to take an interest in truth. The questions arise: are things really like that? Is it plausible? Is my response exaggerated? Am I being invited to feel what I should not feel? Such questions are the life of imagination, and also the death of fantasy, which withers as soon as its object is granted independent life or subjected to interrogation ...

pg. 60 -

... The ennobling power of the imagination lies in this: that it re-orders the world, and re-orders our feelings in response to it. Fantasy, by contrast, is frequently degrading. For it begins from the premise of a given emotion, which it can neither improve nor criticize but only feed. It is a slave of the actual, and deals in forbidden goods. Where imagination offers glimpses of the sacred, fantasy offers sacrilege and profanation ...

_________________

Thus, I personally think there is a sense in which sometimes the mere portrayal of evil in a film - either has the intention, or at least the effect, of appealing to our desires to be entertained or to be thrilled. We have a desire to entertainment. Many films are designed solely to sate this desire momentarily. We have desires for other things too. Many films have the effect of meeting these desires for us. The whole process - need to be thrilled, being thrilled, need to be thrilled again, being thrilled again - requires little to no imagination.

Get a camera. Get special effects for violence and gore. Pay women to take their clothes off. Sell the film. Rinse and repeat endlessly. (Although you probably need to constantly ramp up the gore, violence and sex as in order to keep giving thrills.) Show more. More pain and suffering, more death, more nudity, more horror - anything to get a little thrill.

Acted out "pretend" evil on the camera can be used to entertain us as well. Doing so is, I think, what you would call "lurid." Hope this is on topic.

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I think this might be relevant to the conversation. Here's what Ingmar Bergman wrote in defense of the intense scenes of evil in THE VIRGIN SPRING (note "spoilers" for the film) (via The Criterion Collection liner notes):

A Letter from Bergman

Fundamentally, an artist finds it difficult to explain why he has fashioned his work in this way or that. If, despite this and actually against my innermost conviction, I give my opinion of the rape scene in The Virgin Spring, I do so in order to save my work, as far as possible, from irrelevant humiliations.

For me, the rape scene has an ethical significance. It shows the crime in its naked atrocity, forcing us, in shocked desperation, to leave aesthetic enjoyment of a work of art for passionate involvement in a human drama of crime that breeds new crime, of guilt and grace.

I should like to point out that the rape sequence, in its mercilessness and detailed objectivity, corresponds to Master Töre’s administering of justice to the two malefactors, as well as-and this is of primary importance-to his bestial murder of the little boy. We must, in our very bowels and apart from all aesthetic judgment, take part in the two herdsmen’s crime, but we must also, in despair, witness the father’s evil deed.

We must not hesitate in our portrayal of human degradation, even if, in our demand for truth, we must violate certain taboos.

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And how is this different from, say, a Flannery O'Connor short story in which the characters' ugliness is garishly displayed or purposes of "shouting" to a "deaf culture"?

I don't think O'Connor's fiction should automatically be regarded as beyond reproach here. I have sometmes wondered whether shouting to an already cacophonous culture is actually a worthy endeavor; will the shout be heard above all the others, or will it just add to the overwhelming din?

Edited by Ryan H.

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And how is this different from, say, a Flannery O'Connor short story in which the characters' ugliness is garishly displayed or purposes of "shouting" to a "deaf culture"?

I don't think O'Connor's fiction should automatically be regarded as beyond reproach here. I have sometmes wondered whether shouting to an already cacophonous culture is actually a worthy endeavor; will the shout be heard above all the others, or will it just add to the overwhelming din?

I want to clarify this statement: I don't necessarily mean to suggest that O'Connor's fiction's can be qualified as "lurid," because it isn't, or that there isn't some value to be found in art that emphasizes the grotesque. I just question the validity of this specific rationale.

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Here's what Ingmar Bergman wrote in defense of the intense scenes of evil in THE VIRGIN SPRING ...

Unlike much of the stuff the camera focuses intently upon in modern films, during the first scene Bergman refers to here the camera actually backs away. Yes, you see the beginnings of it and it's relentless, but it's from a distance. The second scene Bergman refers to is powerful, but some of the worst of it occurs off camera.

I don't think O'Connor's fiction should automatically be regarded as beyond reproach here. I have sometmes wondered whether shouting to an already cacophonous culture is actually a worthy endeavor; will the shout be heard above all the others, or will it just add to the overwhelming din?

I want to clarify this statement: I don't necessarily mean to suggest that O'Connor's fiction's can be qualified as "lurid," because it isn't, or that there isn't some value to be found in art that emphasizes the grotesque. I just question the validity of this specific rationale.

Isn't one of the reasons O'Connor is special because of how she gives the reader little hints or glimpses of grace amidst all the depravity and grotesqueness? It takes a powerful imagination to weave something like that in successfully, but I'd say she had it. There are, I would suggest, other authors who describe human depravity with exquiste detail for the sole purpose of allowing the reader to experience the thrill of reading about it (a number of "True Crime" books come to mind). That is night and day different from O'Connor.

Edited by Persiflage

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Isn't one of the reasons O'Connor is special because of how she gives the reader little hints or glimpses of grace amidst all the depravity and grotesqueness?

According to her admirers, yes. (I am not one of them.)

But I was questioning only the rationale assigned to O'Connor by Jeffrey, not the validity of her fiction in general. I do not see "shouting to a deaf culture" as a particularly effective rationale for emphasizing the grotesque and the depraved in a work of art, if only because I don't think "shouting" works all that well.

Edited by Ryan H.

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I think JAA Purves has it right in how he describes O'Connor. In all depiction of depravity there must be a measure of grace as well. A point to look up to as how we should then act in such a situation. In the movie Jeffrey refers to, there is actually moments of this, in the way the teenage boy reacts and the way the elderly janitor does as well. My problems with the movie came less from how the scenes were depicted and more to the heavyhandedness that the director was using to push his moral of the story. I like it when stories step away from darkness in a sense without being afraid to depict it. Camera angles and all that. I hate it when directors use darkness to push a certain kind of light without any sense that they actually understand how that darkness should be depicted. Compliance was an instance where the moral of the story became more important than the story itself. Possibly the only artistic part of the whole story is at the very end, but by then it's too little too late. He adds nothing to the story that I didn't already get from reading the newspapers. And that is why the movie fails.

Another story that I think reflects the idea of depicting evil, but showing intense light in spite of it is Leo Traynor's blog on meeting the troll who had harassed his family for months. I think the light of his act of forgiveness loses it's intensity if not for his descriptions of the truly evil acts of the troll. But even then he knows when to "pan away the camera" so to speak. And that is what makes one person an artist, and another simply someone retelling a story but adding nothing to it. http://www.traynorseye.com/2012/09/meeting-troll.html?spref=fb (link to the Troll story. I'd like to see a movie made out of this.)

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