Back when I first began this essay, I'd wanted to make some comments about the need to use any means necessary, including deliberately provoking and disturbing the audience, to create high Art in drama. After two months and having my attentions dissipated by various computer crisis, these thoughts seem less than fresh and enlightening than they once did. Nevertheless, I do want to wrap up some of the loose ends I may have left from my last ruminations, and I hope you'll be patient with me.
I had previously discussed why it was important to be receptive to images and situations that might otherwise be deemed uncomfortable or disturbing in life, using my experiences at a storytelling event as the keystone. (I refer you to my last entry; basically I was almost denied entrance to the event because my appearance was considered 'unsettling' to some.)
But more than that, I put forth the opinion that quite often it was perfectly fine to deliberately place an audience in a position of discomfort; not only fine, but absolutely imperative to get across the highest concepts of drama. There are some or will undoubtedly disagree; many like their entertainment to go down as smoothly and bland as a spoonful of warm Cream-of Wheat, and are not looking for anything to shake the foundations of their basic belief systems.
Well, to each his own in that, and there are countless forms of activities from comic books to situation comedies to video games that will fill their leisure time sufficiently in this manner. There will be little thought expended about the human condition, political or social conscience or societal woes, and all will retire to bed free of dismay or concern. That such entertainment is, in my opinion, something as disposable as a used paper towel can simply be chalked up to a question of taste.
But I don't believe any serious artist, one who wishes his work to survive beyond the simple fifteen minutes that Mr. Warhol allotted everyone should be satisfied with simply 'entertaining' the audience, and I cringe deeply inside whenever somebody defends a brainless potpourri of wasted cinema such as SHARKNADO as, “It's just entertaining! It's not supposed to be anything other than fun!” The sarcastic rises in me and I want to shout out, “Oh thank the stars! Now we no longer have to suffer through such torment as offered by PSYCHO and ALIEN and THE SHINING and THE HAUNTING and HALLOWEEN and DEAD RINGERS and THE ROAD WARRIOR and BLADE RUNNER and other acts of outrage against our sense of pleasure!”
(I mean, really! Do people really think that those of us who cherish movies, books and music read “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” or “The Hound of the Baskervilles” or “Dracula” or watch 2001: A SPACE ODDYSSEY or THE MALTESE FALCON or HIGH NOON do so only because it's good for us? That we're not having fun? I'm truly baffled; there is so much quality entertainment that was meant to be nothing more than entertaining, from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK through STAR WARS and the recent GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY – a wonderful film! - that I simply can't see wasting what little time is available on anything less. End of long, familiar rant.)
The essence of drama, genuine dramas, is broken down quite easily into three basic themes: Man Against Man, Man Against Nature and Man Against Self. That's it; that covers all bases from THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE to HAMLET. And the serious artist, to get to the heart of the conflict ingrained in these themes, must use every talent and trick to prod the drama into the light to present it to the audience in the strongest possible light.
This includes shaking the audience to the core at times, taking the floor beneath them and ripping it free like a magician removing a tablecloth from a dining table stacked with dishes. Sometimes the cloth will rip free with an astonishing flourish, and sometimes the crockery will come shattering down around him; either effect is perfectly viable to achieve the desired goal of moving the audience and touching their souls.
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It's difficult today to think of the impact that PSYCHO had on its original audiences because the story is so famous; even those who've not seen the film know the basic plot details and twists. Yet at the time of its release, Mr. Hitchcock wasn't known for outright terrifying an audience; thrilling and exciting them, certainly, with elements of fear as in NORTH BY NORTHWEST and REAR WINDOW and THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. And audiences expecting a neat, pulse-quickening thriller followed the lovely Janet Leigh as she stole funds from her business to help support her lover and herself, then made a nerve-wracking cross-country journey of escape.
So much could go wrong! Her boss sees her at a traffic light while he crosses the street, his look of puzzlement a magnification of her guilt. A suspicious state trooper, eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses, follows her as she quickly sells her car and buys another to throw any followers off her track. And the audience is enthralled as they fear for her capture. When she finally makes it to that out-of-the-way hotel and has a calming, introspective conversation with a shy, handsome, and sympathetic desk clerk, she decides to turn about and face the consequences of her actions. And at this point the audience relaxes; certainly there will be a thrilling denouement and plot twists as she tries to make good her error, but this is all the comfortable landscape of the thriller, and it will be enjoyable to watch her work it out.
And then she turns on the water and steps into the shower...
To say audiences were shocked must be the understatement of the millennium. For absolutely no apparent reason the leading character was now dead, brutally and unexpectedly murdered, and there was a floundering sense of loss and genuine panicked uncertainty: what now? What do we do now? Who do we follow? Who do we root for? And because they are so at sea they launch onto the one character that seems a reasonable stand-in for the audience, someone just as shocked by the murder and the confusion as everyone else, someone who seems determined to clean things up and try and make sense of these actions. And so the audience transfers its identification from Marion Crane to that nice Norman Bates character; perhaps he'll get to the bottom of things and solve this horrible crime. Ah yes...
One of the reasons that I enjoyed the film SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE so much was that it presented very vividly a world where nobody had ever heard of “Romero and Juliet”, and the audience in the film was discovering the play for the first time. It was a joy to watch their reactions to the proclaimed love of Romeo for Juliet despite their warring households, the tragic street battle with Tybalt and the pursuit of Romeo, the plan to falsify Juliet's death and the terrible misunderstandings that result from it. It was an audience as clean slate, shocked and moved and enthralled by a fresh drama unfolding before them.
(I myself had the pleasure of experiencing this myself. Being a huge fan of Stephen King's work, one of my favorite of his novellas is “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption”, and I went to see the film version with a bit of trepidation for how it would be adapted. I was pleased and thrilled with it, of course, but because I was familiar with the source material a lot of the plot turns didn't catch me by surprise. I was free then to watch and listen to the audience's reactions. Towards the end of the movie the huge plot twist on which the tale hangs was reveled, and I was gratified to hear one of the largest collective gasps I've ever heard in any theater.)
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The 1960s and 70s were a wonderful time for the Dark Fantastic in feature films. The Universal Monster films of the 1930s and 40s and spiraled down from frightening to funny, culminating with the appearance of most of the Rogue's Gallery opposite comedians Abbott and Costello. The fear and wonder were gone, and the public was losing interest. Horror, once the province of such talents as James Whale and Val Lewton, were relegated to the Poverty Row B Picture, which again frightened very few.
The Hammer films of the late 1950s infused the genre with new blood (pun very much intended!) filling the screen with lavish sets, bright technicolor and full orchestral accompaniments. The talents onscreen were taken from the rank and file of Shakespearean-trained professionals, and the talent behind the camera proved worthy the trust imparted to them by owner and producer Michael Carreras. The classic monsters were reborn, and the second Renaissance of Dark Fantasy was welcomed by the public with open arms.
But even more so, the censorship of times past was crumbling fast, and the sexual and violent confrontations And situations hinted at in previous films were now placed front and center on the screen, shocking and titillating audiences unaccustomed to such visceral entertainment. Many were offended and outraged; read Ivan Butler's wonderful guide “Horror In The Cinema” to relive how some sat, arms folded, determined not to welcome this new permissiveness. It was controversial of Hammer to take this path, but out was also financially canny, because audiences loved the new freedoms proffered on the screen, and came in droves.
The independent and studio efforts of the 1960s continued with this trend, and truly adult Horror was being presented to the public, freed from the handcuffs of the production Code. Roger Corman pushed the envelope with his films THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM and THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, William Castle and Roman Polanski brought Ira Levin's groundbreaking ROSEMARY'S BABY to the theaters, and the foreign influx of Art House films delved into both Ingram Bergman's THE SEVENTH SEAL and Roger Vadim's BLOOD & ROSES. In the Grindhouse manner, meanwhile, George Romero shocked the nation by presenting the cannibalistic classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD to stunned moviegoers, and the highpoint came in 1973 when THE EXORCIST became the Horror Film of the Decade. (And just one year down the road JAWS was preparing to scare people from the water around the world.)
The flip side to all of this is that television, the great communicator, was slowly being strangled and straitjacketed by its own internal censorship (known to the industry as “Broadcast Standards”) while the rest of the entertainment world was flying free on wings of experimentation. It hadn't been this way; during the 1950s and 60s television was surfeited with some of the best drama offered to the public. Television's Golden Age produced the anthology series that specialized in powerful adult content.
True, they also had to deal with “suggestions” from the sponsors and studios, but that era was able to produce such classic tales as REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT, TWELVE ANGRY MEN, THE MIRACLE WORKER, THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES and many, many others. Shows like PETER GUNN and THE UNTOUCHABLES were as violent as any feature films, and series such as THE FUGITIVE, EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE and ROUTE 66 explored the world with stark, intelligent scripts.
As far as Horror and Dark Fantasy was concerned, there was THRILLER, which presented some of the most terrifying tales ever shown on television (and they still hold up well today). THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR introduced stores penned by ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, John D. McDonald and Robert Bloch that were grimly effective. And of course, when Mr. Serling tired of fighting the censors, he created his own series of fantasy tales that couldn't possibly be interpreted as anything but simple entertainment – and with THE TWILIGHT ZONE commented fiercely on war, prejudice, social reform, totalitarianism, fascism, the replacement of man by machine, poverty and injustice, and offered episodes that have yet to be equaled today.
But something began to happen. The networks began to tighten their hold as television became bigger and bigger business, and the keep phrase uttered was “inoffensive”. Programming must be inoffensive; anything that pushed at the membrane was batted down and sent home bruised and bleeding. Comedy was raised, drama watered down, violence eliminated, and the gatekeepers poured over every script, every scene, every line of dialogue to maintain the bland promise of inoffensiveness.
Think I exaggerate? Pick up “The Making of STAR TREK” and page through it, and note the constant memos from the networks: “Avoid the open-mouthed kiss”; “Don't dwell on the injuries suffered as that may upset the audience”; “The alien creature must be photographed sop as not to upset viewers”.
A little-known fact: when Stephen King began to gain recognition as the premiere author of the Dark Fantastic (I believe not long after “The Shining” was published, along with his first collection of short stories “Night Shift”, from which the inspiration probably arose) the networks approached him to create a television series for himself. He would host it, ala Rod Serling, and the episodes would be adaptations of his short fiction or original tales written for the series.
Mr. King was flattered, of course, but he had his reservations. According to him, he met with the network and said that he'd be happy to write and host such a series...provide that he could be assured by the Broadcasting Standards department that he's truly be able to do frightening, terrifying stories to scare the audience.
Absolutely! they said.
Well...umm...what exactly did he have in mind?
Let me give you an example, he said. On the old series THRILLER they'd done a classic episode, an adaptation of Robert Howard's “Pigeons From Hell”. In that episode a young man is spending the night at an abandoned bayou mansion. During the night the young man is attacked by something, and he slowly walks down the steps of the mansion, his head bleeding from an open wound where an axe split it open. Would I be able to do that today?
The network thought. Well...maybe he could have an ax buried in his chest...
Mr. King didn't believe them, but he did write a pilot script for them based upon his horrifying short story “Strawberry Spring”, about a modern day Jack the Ripper. Shortly after he submitted it, the Broadcast Standard people called him. We can't have the killer using a knife. Too phallic. Too brutal. Too...upsetting.
OK, said Mr. King. How about we make him a strangler instead?
Great! they said. That'll work.
The script was never filmed. The final decision at the network? It was too frightening, and might be...offensive. (Which is what fans of Horror want – but don't tell the executives that...)
With this kind of handcuffing and footbinding, it's astonishing – nay, it's miraculous! - that television was able to create anything as frightening as DUEL, THE NIGHT STALKER, TRILOGY OF TERROR, BAD RONALD, DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, the NIGHT GALLERY episodes “The Caterpillar” and “Pickman's Model” and a handful of other examples. One can only imagine the herculean efforts it took to get these made against these odds and shake one's head in admiration.
But surely this is not the best way to work. True, an artist can work around structures and barriers set up against him and still succeed, much like a martial artist constantly hones his skills by the tension opposing it. But the best work of an artist is undoubtedly done with hands and imagination freed of any constraints to soar unfettered.
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Of late there's been a new phrase cropping up in various places online and in written text; it's called “trigger warning”. The practice is that these words indicate a possibly upsetting subject matter about to be broached in an article or essay. Often these are used in situations of sexual assault, such has discussing incidents of rape and sexual abuse, the purpose being to alleviate any residual suffering of somebody who experienced a similar incident and having them relive it emotionally and mentally by giving them the opportunity to avoid the article or paragraph in question.
I believe these “warnings” do have a place in some discussions, and understand the reasoning behind them; certainly no one wants to be forcibly confronted against their will with a painful past incident. And I am not in the least unsympathetic to the pain suffered by those who experienced such trauma.
What doubts I have about the process are twofold, one personal and one artistic. On the personal side, I'm concerned that using these warnings as a preemptive bubble to avoid painful subjects can inhibit the healing process and lock the individual into the mindset of “victim”.
Quite some time ago, in perusing an episode of a famous talk celebrity hosting a panel about sexual assault (no, I won't name the individual) the comment was made repeatedly by a psychiatric expert, “These people will never be the same again; they'll always be crippled and damaged.” (I paraphrase; it's been years since I saw the segment, but I believe I'm getting the point across accurately.)
I rebel against that notion. Families who saw their loved ones die in the Death Camps of Auschwitz and Dachau returned to give testimony to the world courts to see justice done. Certainly those were horrendous experiences, and in doing so these people demonstrated an uncommon strength. Similarly other so-called “victims” have gone to court to testify against their attackers, or against those who harmed family members to see that they would not escape indictment.
Sadly, I know several human companions who've suffered this experience, and not one of them consider themselves “damaged” or “victims”; they've grown strong and fierce in their day-to-day lives and would balk at being labeled thus. It most definitely wasn't easy for them, but one of the benefits of scar tissue, both emotional and physical, is that it toughens the surface so that the healing can commence more easily and successfully.
But my bigger concern is the damage that can be done to the artist who deliberately wants to make a strong and uncompromising point, and who runs up against a wall of what is commonly called “political correctness”.
(Let me make a point completely clear: I consider those that complain about Political correctness most often boors, bullies and fools. What they dislike is having their bad habits called out, and resort to this as a way of deflecting what is usually well-deserved cr4iticism. In polite society, when you offend someone, you generally apologize, even if no offense was meant. This didn't use to be called “political correctness”; at one time it was known as having “good manners”.)
Having said that, there does seem to be a state of suppressed hysteria running rampant in society as far as works of art are concerned. Most recent was the suggestion that major classic works be accompanied by “warnings”, much like the parental labels on music CDs. For instance, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” would contain a warning because of the racial epithets used in the story (never mind that Mr. twain was using those epithets to make a point against racism), “The Great Gatsby” for suicide and domestic abuse, or “The Merchant of Venice” for its themes of antisemitism.
(There was also a famous recent incident where a petition was circulated to have a statue removed – the statue being a young man in his underwear – because it might trigger memories of sexual assault.)
The biggest problem with all of this, of course, is that there is something to offend anyone if you search hard enough. Sometimes these are completely without merit (anyone of a certain age will recall the controversy of “Louie, Louie” being banned from some radio stations because of “obscene language”, which the song didn't contain in the least). Art is most often a Rorschach test for those who view it, as well it should be. Blanding it down, trying to offend no one and present every side of an argument can result in dull, dull programming, as inoffensive as a Hallmark television film of Thomas Kinkade print.
Where does it begin and end? Does a past victim of torture from another country receive a warning about scenes similar in George Orwell's 1984? Does someone who served time in prison need to be coddled from unpleasant memories brought on by ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ? Those who've suffered homelessness and the pain of the Dust Bowl; must they be forewarned before indulging in "Of Mice & Men" or "The Grapes Of Wrath ? What of the act of discovery? What of catharsis?
Anything that interferes with the artist's intent – not matter how well intentioned – is censorship; those who would voraciously oppose book-burning seem to be the same ones in some instances calling for limiting the access of these works. And to those who would say that just adding a “warning” isn't censoring, since the work is still available for viewing or reading, consider this:
One of the seminal moments in television occurred in the early 1980s on a wonderful series called ST. ELSEWHERE, a groundbreaking medical drama. During one early episode, the very nature of episodic drama (and comedy, for that matter) was forever changed.
Let me backtrack a moment...
From the very beginning of television, the average series maintained a continuity that would remain unbroken until the show went off the air. Characters remained exactly the same so that writers could come on board and script interchangeable episodes, and stringent policies were established about what could and couldn't happen on any particular show.
One of the most famous examples of this was the STAR TREK episode “The City On The Edge Of Forever”, considered the best episode ever written. (We'll discuss the author later.) It postulated a time-travel story in which Kirk and Spock must return to Earth in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. While there, Kirk falls in love with a visionary woman named Edith Keeler, and in the course of this tragic drama discovers that for history to go on unchanged, Ms. Keeler must die in a traffic accident. The story is agonizing and heartbreaking, and the final moments some of the most powerful presented in the series. The depth of Kirk's love for Edith is explicit and inarguable, and it's clear as he returns to his present he'll never be the same again.
Except...that's not what happened. The following week all was as it had been before, and it continued that way throughout the run of the series. (It should be noted that the author was very unhappy with how the show had been rewritten; he felt it diluted the drama. Indeed, the original script went much deeper into Kirk's grief and anguish about what was to happen.)
It would be wrong to blame the producers entirely; this was, after all, how all series were produced at the time. Characters never changed, and situations never varied from one week to another in fear of destroying the all important continuity. (This attention, for example, allowed the shows to be rerun in syndication without having to worry excessively about the order the episodes were shown; not having a major character die and then return if and earlier episode was broadcast out of sequence.)
ST. ELSEWHERE introduced in the first episode the character of Dr. Peter White, played with a brusque charm by Terrance Knox. The doctor was a likeable character, not terrible suave but appealing in his rough goofiness. He was a bit of a Lothario, cheating on his wife and having an affair with another character. He was flawed, but nice and capable and caring, and you hoped he'd pull his act together and straighten up.
Not long after the show began, a ski-mask wearing rapist began to terrorize the hospital. While in the process of attacking a woman in the hospital morgue, the mask is ripped from the attacker's head, revealing...Peter White. He continued on for another several episodes before he was discovered, and another several before his character was shot dead by another doctor.
To say that the revelation of Dr. White was a shock to viewers would be understating enormously. Never before had a television character, a continuing character, gone through such a drastic change, from likable oaf to horrifying menace. His actions and subsequent death left a long shadow over the remainder of the series, and nobody from that time on could be trusted to be who they were initially taken for. Characters went mad, developed AIDS, left their spouses, returned, committed suicide and went through all the permutations that people genuinely experience in life.
And where other shows had characters come and go, live and die (perhaps the most famous being the death of Henry Blake on M*A*S*H) and “character arcs”, as they came to be called, were not unheard of (Richard Kimble running for four seasons to finally, in the final episode, find the one-armed man and prove his innocence on THE FUGITIVE), usually these changes signaled a transition for the series, one season into another of the conclusion of the run. Never before could characters literally change week by week.
Needless to say the effect wasn't contained to ST. ELSEWHERE; character transitions occurred on shows as diverse as HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET, CHEERS, and BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. From that point on, no one simply drifted from episode to episode unaffected by what had gone on before. The final irony being perhaps, on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, with Captain Picard undergoing a life-changing experience after being captured and used by the Borg, and the references and fallout from the incident continuing right through to the series's finale.
But imagine how the power of discovery, the heart-clutching betrayal and unsettling truth of the moment would have been diluted by a warning: “Tonight's episode of ST. ELSEWHERE features a reference to sexual assault, and illustrates the statistic that it's commonly somebody known to the victim and not a complete stranger that is often the perpetrator. Viewer discretion is advised.”
Truth can be painful and disturbing and catch someone completely by surprise. That's a simply fact of life, and to rob somebody of that discovery is to cripple them in other ways.
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One of the finest and most important voices in the field of the Dark Fantastic (and literature in general, for that matter) is the author Harlan Ellison, who scripted the STAR TREK episode mentioned above, "The City On The Edge Of Forever". (I make no apologies for my admiration of him, and accept to call for dissent. You may not approve of his style or his subjects, but if you can't agree that he is a major talent and one of the founders of modern Speculative Fiction, then we simply have no basis for communication.) He is assuredly controversial, not merely for his artistry as for his refusal to suffer fools in any manner.
There have been many times when one of his stories (“Crotoan” or “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”; “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” or “A Boy and His Dog”, perhaps) have drawn the ire of those who like to maintain an even keel with their existence, and he has often been confronted (with much pointing of fingers and raised voices) with the, in his own words, “...stunning accusation, 'You only said [or wrote] that to shock!'”
His answer, which I heartily endorse, is rendered thus (and please be aware that the following language is definitely for the more mature readers):
“ My response is always the same:
You bet your ass, slushface. Of course I said it to shock you (or wrote it to shock you). I don't know how you perceive my mission as a writer, but for me it is not the responsibility to reaffirm your concretized myths and provincial prejudices. It is not my job to lull you with a false sense of the rightness of the universe. This wonderful and terrible occupation of recreating the world in a different way, each time fresh and strange, is an act of revolutionary guerrilla warfare. I stir up the soup. I inconvenience you. I make your nose run and your eyes water. I spend my life and miles of visceral material in a glorious and painful series of midnight raids against complacency. It is my lot to wake with anger every morning, to lie down at night even angrier. All in pursuit of one truth that lies at the core of every jot of fiction ever written: we are all in the same skin...”
There's more of the same, but that remains the core of it. (You can find this in his introduction to his wonderful collection “Shatterday”.)
And I believe this to be, if not the last word, then a definitive one. The power of drama lies in its connection to the truths contained within, and those truths can be uncomfortable. To deny them is to live a life unexamined.
Well, I can hear you saying, what of that? What could be wrong with that if everyone's happy?
Consider: Oliver Stone created one of the most important war movies put to celluloid with PLATOON, a searing look at America's experience in Vietnam. Many of the incidents had a sense of authenticity because Mr. Stone was in Vietnam himself, and experienced what he wrote of. And in interviews before the film, he repeatedly sited the film SANDS OF IWO JIMA as an inspiration to enlist. He thought that was what war was like; you went and fought and came home, or you were killed. No one told him about coming home crippled, missing a limb or suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The movie didn't tell the truth, and he was caught unprepared.
We've heard the cry from editorial writers to the average person in the street that a police incident, or an earthquake, or poverty in a third world country or other recorded incidents “...weren't like they show you in the movies or on television.” Violence, relationships, marriage, politics, religion, all social interactions are neatly scripted and carefully photographed, and even the most carefully produced dramas sometimes make situations much neater than they genuinely are. (“The following story is true, but some incidents have been fictionalized and characters combined in the interest of time,” as many opening credits declare.)
All an artist has to commend himself is truth and honesty, and that is often unsettling. Misleading others with his art can have devastating and unforeseen effects. The artists is not only allowed to disturb; he is often commanded to, as Mr. Ellison puts it so succinctly.
This is as it should be, whether exploring life as it is known, the Twilight Zone, or realms of the Dark Fantastic.