Bringing True Violence to the Simulated Screen.
Once again, THE SOPRANOS explores the nature of True Violence, impacting our atrophied sensibilities with its directness. But how is the beating to death of a stripper so disturbing to our supposedly hardened psyches?
Surely what we have seen over the years on our cathode-ray tubes and in darkened theaters has prepared us for the shock of witnessing simulated violence? We’ve seen Sam Peckinpah’s interminable, mercilessly ruthless gun-battles in THE WILD BUNCH; we’ve seen De Niro and Pacino burp 200 rounds a minute in the painfully overwrought HEAT; we’ve seen Mel slice and dice his way through English infantry in BRAVEHEART with bloodied longsword and arrows protruding from his forearm-protector; we’ve seen Arnold with twin rocket launchers in ERASER, quipping laconically as he fires off projectiles which should realistically careen him off the back walls and dislocate both his shoulders; we’ve even seen a bear-trap close over someone’s head in STRAW DOGS…
We think we’ve come away unscathed; we believe we are the tougher for having been able to digest this violence and still get on with our lives with nary a sociopath amongst us (drooling schoolkids with automatic weapons notwithstanding); oh, we really believe that we are veritably inured to violence – but the masses of square-eyed Great Unwashed should ask themselves: what kind of violence have we become inured to? We have become inured to a cartoon representation of violence. And in this sense we have been psychologically scarred into erroneously believing that we are tougher than we really are. Oh, we’re scathed all right – because though we believe we are Hard Guys in Clive Owen longcoats, when we are faced with True Violence, our innards behave as if they were amidships during the rounding of Cape Horn in monsoon.
“Cartoon violence” has developed purely because of the two-dimensionality of TV (despite all efforts to involve audiences with quadrophonic audio, vibrating seats, smell-o-rama, and foisting ill-fitting, dual-colored plastic glasses upon us, et al). Without the visceral “feel” of reality (i.e. three dimensions), filmmakers have to make up for it by overstating a point.
Overstating A Point #1: When there is a malfunction on a jet, or any kind of conveyance in which there are lots of lighted controls, something always blows up with SPARKS flying out of it. Now you know as well as I do that for your car to malfunction, there doesn’t have to be any noise, any lights flashing, any indication at all that you have been rendered powerless – if something actually BLEW UP WITH SPARKS FLYING OUT OF IT in your car, not only would you suffer a myocardial infarction, you’d return the car to the dealer and probably shoot him in the head for selling you a deathtrap. (Yes, I know – shooting in the head is hyperbole, generated from our Cartoon Violence background.)
Overstating A Point #2: In the days when it was not permitted to show the gunner and the gunned-down in the same framed shot (who can fathom the mind of the intrinsically-braindead Censor?), the victim would have to really make a melodramatic hash of his death, knocking over chairs in a saloon, falling off a flat roof – even though the force of the bullet would have knocked him backwards instead of off the roof – smashing through a glass window, etc., to alert the obviously mongoloid audience that HE was the one who had bought the farm (even though he sports no entry or exit wounds, sometimes not even a trace of ketchup masquerading as blood).
Overstating A Point #3: How many times do you knock over garbage cans when you come to a skidding stop at your destination? This aspect of overstatement was satirized viciously in the POLICE SQUAD series (precursor to THE NAKED GUN movies) with Leslie Nielsen somehow knocking over conveniently-placed garbage cans whenever he would come to a stop, no matter his location.
In modern times, overstatement has become the norm. Ironically, audiences need to see and hear this overstatement, or events onscreen will not seem “real” enough for them – all explosions are tweaked sonically, so that they resemble The Coming of The Lord, or viewers won’t feel that the explosion was a major catastrophe; there is sound portrayed in airless space, or viewers will feel disoriented, because they have only existed in an atmosphere all their lives; every knife makes a steely “shink” sound at its appearance, even if it is being plucked from a leather holster or just brandished in the air; a car has to blow up if it crashes; to be stopped, a train has to derail…
Yet the other end of the pendulum of cartoon violence is the Wile E. Coyote syndrome: Steven Seagal can jump off a moving train, roll down a rocky hillside and walk away with only a scratch above his left eye as testament to the bad day he had; a bus can jump a freeway chasm with no form of approach ramp; a punch can send a man flying through a plate-glass window, only to get up again and go at it like he was just hit with a pillow; and James Bond can do just about anything he pleases…
And then there is the redundancy overstatement (which is probably tautologous and oxymoronic): not only do we get to see a car explode, we see it from four different angles, one after the other, the same explosion thundering over the THX Digital again and again; the same train goes over the same trellis from three different angles…
So we get the idea – that we have been insulted no end with the gradual insinuation of stupidity into the movie-making community, who take it for granted that we, the viewing audience, are AS DULL AS THEY ARE. Keep in mind that people who happen to be involved in the movie industry are “only human” as well, prone to all the same foibles that any one of us outside the movie industry is prone to. Therefore, there is nothing that precludes them being the same dullards that you would encounter at the DMV – the movie industry just happens to be their job. It says nothing about their intellectual proclivity.
And the same goes for Censors, who are, without a doubt, as a collective entity, THE narrowest-minded, most hypocritical, contradictory and inept gaggle of morons ever to be granted the seed of life by an insensate god. Only Censors could conceive of this inanity (which eventually does relate back to THE SOPRANOS, I promise): creating acronyms for categorical descriptions. Graphic Violence = GV, Adult Language (an egregious tag which I won’t begin to dissect in this essay) = AL, etc. Do these bean-stems actually foresee a time when these subjective, impotent acronyms will enter common usage? Will a parent ever say, “I’d let young Berty watch CALIGULA if it weren’t for the GV, SR, PN and AL”? But here’s the point of this paragraph: There is a designation for Simulated Rape – SV. “Simulated” rape? Why does the word rape have “simulated” appended and the word violence does not? Are they implying that the violence is real? Lemme clue you in on an aspect of the movies, you Censors – the laughter is forced, the tears are crocodile, the orgasms are faked, the killings are staged, the blood is makeup, the background is bluescreen, the saloon is a soundstage in Burbank – the whole celluloid concoction is SIMULATED, you dunderheads!
With this subliminal slipup the Censors have demonstrated that they – the self-proclaimed and publicly-endorsed highest authority on moral standards – CANNOT TELL THE DIFFERENCE between simulated violence and true violence. Any wonder that we have grown up believing that a man can rise from the dead? (Here comes Easter like a dog in heat!)
Into this vernacular of Cartoon Violence comes a show which pulls no punches in its portrayal of reality (something which even the pus-ridden ‘reality-based’ TV shows cannot achieve – after all, anything that winds up on broadcast tape is tailored to fit the perceived needs of the target demographic – and the ‘reality-show’ target demographic has grown fat on a diet of Cartoon Violence, ergo Cartoon Reality served up). Note that SOPRANOS fans are well aware that it too is only a television show; we are aware that it is only “simulating” violence, rape, murder, etc. yet it is the way that the producers have chosen to portray these aspects that leave us spent psychologically. They have chosen not to go the worn-to-shreds route of Cartoon Violence and have opted to portray the gritty realism of personal, intimate True Violence.[N.B. True Violence and True Crime are two separate entities and should not be confused. “Crime” is a subjective term, altering with the political environment, whereas “violence,” though it may affect people subjectively, is a destructive element no matter what politics it is couched in. Buying your meat from Ralphs in neat, sealed packets is an indirect result of True Violence. How many people really want to see their family meal being butchered? Every aspect of True Violence has been slowly leached from the forefront of society’s consciousness, which is why it is so hard to face when confronted by it without a Hollywood safety net.]
In Episode 31 (“Another Toothpick”), Mustang Sally golf-clubbed an Aprile family member into a coma. Unlike other portrayals of golf-clubbings, where the victim of such an attack would come out with a small Make-Up Department scar above their left eye, THE SOPRANOS drives home the brutality and realism by putting the victim in a coma. And when Sally gets his come-uppance at the hands of a fragile Burt Young, his shooting, though a violent vignette (and almost humorous, with Young trying to focus his murderous intent over his hacking cough), is upstaged in “realism” by Young crashing his car into a pole; this car did not catch fire, did not magically leap over another car and land on its roof – it simply hit a pole, violently, and killed its passenger. True Violence. It’s just around the corner.
In Episode 30 (“Employee of the Month”) we are confronted with Melfi’s rape scene. Though we know it is “simulated,” the seeming unpreparedness of the actors’ positioning on the stairs, the brilliant terrified acting by Lorraine Bracco and the suddenness and viciousness of the attack elevated it far beyond any Censorship-Endorsed “Simulated Rape.”
And in this Episode 32 (“University”) a young stripper named Tracee (Ariel Kiley) is murdered – but not in any conventional way. She is beaten to death with full fists by her boyfriend, Ralphie (Joe Pantoliano). It was this death which made me contemplate the desensitizing nature of violence in the visual media, and how true violence is much rawer than we think it is.
Tracee’s murder was made even more tragic by the insidious way that the writers cajoled both sexes of the viewing audience into sympathizing with her. Firstly, it’s obvious how to get the male viewers onside: achingly beautiful nymphette with sob story (a guy can go all night listening to a chick’s woes if there is even the whiff of Count Dooku at the end of it. But mind: us males won’t listen too long to a chick’s woes UNLESS she looks like our flat-bellied, angel-faced, luscious-breasted Tracee). Getting guys onside? Easy.
Now getting the female populace onside would be trickier, considering Tracee’s profession is one which is usually disparaged by females in average, suburban society (and even by many who are more than willing to dance naked/hook/sell their wares, yet are too monstrously ugly to do so). But there is one universal selling-point that can get even the pointiest dyke, even the hairiest-backed truck-driver; even the filthiest, butt-cracked cement-shucker onside: get her pregnant. And make her want to keep the baby, which gets the Right-To-Lifers onside AND any guys who just want to mother her. And make her get pregnant to an asshole – an obvious asshole, not just the type who thinks it’s an unnecessary expense to re-wallpaper the baby’s room in that stunning loden pastel that you picked out after much consultation and deliberation with your manicurist. And lastly, make her realize that she needs help with her personal situation i.e. she’s not just some bim who is going to drink the baby into an early miscarriage.
The stage is set for True Violence.
When sociopath Ralphie callously kills this girl who is so obviously in need of understanding and help, we see the darkest human emotions surface onscreen. We are disturbed by it – this was never in Tom & Jerry. We see again the deep, bestial side of humanity – the side of us which, if there were no societal inhibitions imposed, may well be loosed at any time. And we realize, in our ids, in that place where we thought we had overcome the sensitivity to human suffering, that what we have been seeing in World Vision ads and Stallone movies is truly NOT what this is – we realize we have inured ourselves to nothing but fantasy and that this kind of reality is still out there. Just around the corner.
Ralphie beat Tracee to death with his fists alone. True Violence. It wasn’t “just business.” It was very, very personal. Each punch was felt like a baseball bat to the back of the head. And we see even deeper into the psyche of men like Ralphie: The baddest men take the greatest pleasure in taking life from those who most value it.
And we come away from the truthfulness of THE SOPRANOS once again… disturbed by the “reality” in its simulated portrayal of real truths.