Learning to see like Maya: brutalizing the audience


Criticism has been voiced of the new film Zero Dark Thirty for its apparently lengthy and vivid depiction of torture.

A character is strung up by a rope, waterboarded, dragged around by a dog collar and stuffed into a cramped box in an attempt to extract information concerning a terrorist network. The viewer witnesses ‘animal-like howls of anguish’ and ‘unintentional defecation.’

Such scenes are part of a familiar revenge narrative in which the good guy’s (and audience’s) righteous motivation is established in the early scenes and the baddie is eliminated, exhilaratingly and bloodily, at the end.

A fan of the movie describes it approvingly:

[CIA counter-terrorism officer] Maya (Jessica Chastain), looks on — it seems to be her first “enhanced” interrogation. We see [tortured detainee] Amar’s treatment through her eyes, and though she appears troubled at first by what she’s witnessing she’s also fighting off any feelings of revulsion. “I’m fine,” she says, in response to doubts from the more seasoned interrogator who is running the show. During a subsequent torture scene, Maya is left alone with Amar. He begs her for mercy; she tells him, “You can help yourself by being truthful.” Now we know for sure that she has steeled herself to be cold and hard—that she’s consumed with tracking down Osama Bin Laden and is willing to do whatever it takes to find the man responsible for the 9/11 attacks (which have been evoked hauntingly during the movie’s opening moments).

When Amar is led around by a dog collar and then finally, horribly stuffed into a tiny wooden box, we recoil at this treatment and feel Amar’s pain—but we also feel Maya’s sense of urgency. At the end of the interrogation scenes, I felt shaken but not morally repulsed, because the movie had successfully led me to adopt, if only temporarily, Maya’s point of view: This treatment is a legitimate way of securing information vital to U.S. interests.

Critics have deplored this as ‘endorsement’ of torture.

In response, some Democrat bloggers, posing as sophisticated aesthetes, have accused such critics of Zhdanovite philistinism, of ‘aesthetic Stalinism’ and of behaviour befitting ‘Bill Donoghue and the Catholic League’. (Nobody yet has applied the ‘moral panic’ label, whose use I described here.)

These bloggers identify themselves as liberals who would never support torture but who know how to appreciate a good film when they see one.

Meanwhile, according to film critics, the ‘morality brigade’ has failed to appreciate how the film’s hero is portrayed as ‘morally compromised’. The torture scenes are ‘squalid, vivid and brutally protracted’, and they generate a ‘horrible sense of complicity’ among the audience ‘when we realize we want the guy they’re interrogating to spill the beans and get it over with’:

There can’t be much question that the filmmakers mean this to be distressing and tarnishing, not something to cheer for.

Another film critic, seeking to rebut the pro-torture accusation, solemnly declares: ‘fleeting shots of Maya clenching her jaw, crossing her arms, and looking away, should leave no doubt as to where the filmmakers stand on the issue.’

Whether a film openly ‘endorses’ torture, or whether it styles itself as a Funny Games-type ‘critical examination’ of cinematic and real-world violence, is not irrelevant.

(Of course, in making Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, a former ‘embedded’ reporter who wrote The Hurt Locker, were granted ‘top-level access’ to White House, Defense Department, and CIA sources, as well as assistance from a commander of the Navy SEAL team that executed Osama bin Laden. Pentagon officials described their wish to ‘shape the story’ of the film, and expressed their satisfaction that Bigelow and Boal were using ‘White House-approved talking points’.)

To focus on this question is, however, to miss the deeper point.

What does it mean when world-weary film critics accuse Glenn Greenwald of interpretive incompetence, of failing to evaluate the torture scenes using aesthetic criteria rather than judging them on political or good-taste grounds?

When watched by a ‘naive’ or novice viewer, ‘graphically intense’ on-screen violence elicits a stress response. Activation of the HPA axis leads to increased heart rate, galvanic skin response, dilated pupils, uncontrolled breathing, and sometimes trembling, clenching, nausea and other physiological symptoms of arousal.

Attending to such unfamiliar and unpleasant symptoms (and to associated emotions) makes demands upon the viewer’s scarce cognitive resources and thereby distracts him from the film. (Put differently but equivalently, focusing on the non-violent aspects of the film requires effort rather than happening automatically.)

With the experienced viewer, who has become accustomed to doses of cinematic violence, this stress response is inhibited. Rather than triggering anxiety or overwhelming distress, such visual and auditory cues (gaping wounds, blood, screams) generate a manageable kind of excitement, heightened attention or amusement.

Familiarity thus allows what is known as perceptual fluency – in which ‘easy’ processing, born of repeated exposure, enables a favourable affective response to a presented stimulus.

The positive evaluative judgements of film critics are underpinned by their familiarity with the visual material and the consequent ease with which they process it. Repeated exposure facilitates liking of a stimulus, generating a positive appraisal of what initially may have been neutral or even aversive. (Thus the manipulation of consumers by advertisers pursuing brand recognition: familiarity enhances product preference.)

Indeed, viewers of mainstream films, TV and video games undergo a kind of stress inoculation. Having been exposed repeatedly to doses of horrific brutality, and having become habituated to them, the cinematic adept or initiate is imparted with a newly found tolerance during subsequent encounters. He or she gradually acquires resilience – an attenuated stress response – because it’s all been seen before.

This adaptation to aversive stressors also describes the kind of ‘hardening’ undergone by the character Maya. What initially are novel and unpleasant stimuli (the sights, sounds and smells of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’) rapidly become familiar, and she can ‘steel herself  to be cold and hard’ (although developing this sort of emotional resilience in its recruits is something imparted by training and by self-selection of Washington’s military death squads and CIA torturers).

To be capable of appreciating films that expose viewers to realistic violence, audiences and critics must (like Maya) have ‘steeled’ themselves.

Only once this state has been reached, i.e. after they have been brutalized by repeated exposure, can viewers appreciate what they are seeing on other levels or derive pleasure from it. Thereafter violence can be enjoyed in several ways.

What is required from the audience of a Quentin Tarantino film is self-conscious savviness: getting the allusion, generic reference or cinematic in-joke. (This is what allows such films to function as a signal of the audience’s quality – acquiring competence, being able to appreciate them, requires a costly investment of time, effort or money that cannot easily be faked. Self-congratulation is one of the rewards of such films.)

Violent ‘anti-violence’ films such as Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, and ‘deconstructed’ shooter games such as Spec Ops: The Line, which hope to ‘implicate’ the viewer or player, also demand a ‘competent’ audience, i.e. one that can appreciate it on the ‘right level’, get the message or appreciate the style without being distracted by their repugnance or feeling too sick to watch. (Haneke has said that his ‘ideal scene’ would impel members of an audience to look away because they are ‘panicking’.)

And, viewed with enough aesthetic distance, Zero Dark Thirty‘s ‘squalid, vivid and brutally protracted’ torture scenes, its ‘morally compromised’ protagonist, the blood, bestial howls and involuntary defecation, and the ‘horrible sense of complicity’ generated among its audience, can be understood, like The Hurt Locker, as some sort of nuanced critical statement on ‘the moral, psychological and even spiritual price’ of war, the ‘sacrifices and costs of keeping America safe.’

In other words, the aesthetic and commercial ambitions of these films depend upon, just as the films themselves help create, an enormous oversupply of media violence. The latter produces ‘literate’ viewers of the required sort.

This desensitization of audiences has broader social correlates and consequences. By brutalizing consumers of media and entertainment products, it is helping to encourage a shift in social norms, internalized preferences and individual tastes.

Increasingly, perpetrating lethal violence or enjoying it for entertainment purposes does not lead to ostracism or sanction, but is positively rewarded (c.f. Bigelow and Boal’s reverence for the armed forces, the CIA and the ‘American triumph, both heroic and nonpartisan’, of killing Bin Laden).

Over time, this mix of incentives and cultural influences is causing a shift in the population distribution of attitudes to violence and the psychological traits needed to undertake it.

For the average person, this general shift is scarcely observable: it merely makes the median viewer more resilient (i.e. less prone to negative emotional states) when horrific violence appears on the movie screen.

But a rightward shift in the tolerance for violence will also increase the number of people at the sparsely inhabited tail (i.e. the extreme upper range) of the population distribution: those psychological outliers with the capacity to kill people and undertake torture while remaining composed, emotionally stable and task-oriented.

This outcome is functional for the US ruling elite, which for the past two decades has advanced its strategic objectives through belligerence and lethal violence. The state leadership’s policy of military aggression is facilitated by population-wide habituation to violence.

The likes of Bigelow and Boal are thus participating in a war drive. So too are the countless film critics, writers, bloggers, academics and paid ideologues whose own set of professional incentives leads them to apologize for her work and other products like it.

Tarantino, of course, has always disclaimed any extra-aesthetic relevance for the torture and sadism shown in his films. They are just movies. Few have bothered to challenge this line over the past two decades, even as sinister musings on torture by Alan Dershowitz became publicly acceptable fodder for ‘liberal’ editorial columns, and the creative efforts of John Yoo were taken on as policy by the US Justice Department.

Now, with his Django Unchained due to be released one week after Zero Dark Thirty, will its torture scenes be judged worth of comment? Will critics note the resemblance of Tarantino’s various sadists to Bigelow’s interrogators (and to the real-life versions working in Bagram, Cairo, the West Bank, the basements of Mogadishu, etc.)?

If so, will this be thought to mean anything, or will any such suggestion be dismissed as embarrassingly unsophisticated?


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7 Responses to “Learning to see like Maya: brutalizing the audience”

  1. Ali Says:

    This is a pretty good lecture by Adrian Martin on critical positions on Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds that addresses some of the concerns of your article.

  2. Nick Says:

    Thanks a lot for this, Ali.

    I’d never really got a fix on what Martin’s view of Tarantino is – finding “QT” so tedious myself, I don’t read much about him. So I was pleased to hear Martin attribute the revenge stuff to the political miasma of the “GWOT”.

    I have no idea how Tarantino’s more “serious” acolytes explain the fascination with revenge/torture. Sartre/Fanon?.

    One query: has Martin anywhere explained or justified the claim he makes here: that film criticism tends towards one of two polar attractors (or maybe just forms a spectrum between two extremes), taking offence or absolving of blame? It seems unconvincing to me. And it would seem to prepare the ground for some hackneyed “golden mean” or “everything in moderation” advice.

  3. Brad Says:

    When talking screen violence in terms of “mere-exposure effect,” isn’t there some ambiguity over what exactly the viewer is developing a preference for in their repeated exposures? I’m asking this as someone who has watched, and even liked, a fair number of violent films. Let’s take a theoretical, realistically violent, anti-war film: Does repeated viewing of said theoretical film really produce a preference for war or does the viewer develop a preference for being “confronted,” and a preference for images that teach the handy lesson that war is evil? Just going on intuition here, I feel that the functional purpose of violence within the narrative is still important and one cannot generalise about a film producing a pro-war attitude in its viewers from the mere fact that it contains images of violence.

    I would also argue that in spite of all the violent films I have seen, I have retained the ability to be repulsed by violence and, again, this depends on the function of the violence within the narrative. (Just watched Les Miserables at the cinema recently and was pretty disgusted by how the film invites the audience to take some perverse pleasure in Javert’s suicide – we watch his body crash against the ground when he jumps from a bridge, and this is after a scene in which we applaud Jean Valjean for showing mercy towards Javert. Obviously, Tom Hooper doesn’t imagine his audience to be as noble as his lead character.)

    I think this is a great post by the way in spite of my disagreement, but are you concerned that by writing so much about how the media desensitizes people to violence that your readers will over time find pleasure in the unsavoury fact of the public becoming desensitized to violence?

  4. Nick Says:

    Thanks for your comment and the compliment, Brad.

    A person who watches lots of realistically violent war films doesn’t thereby develop a “preference for war” or a “pro-war attitude”. But he or she does reliably become habituated to depictions of violence (i.e. become less disagreeably aroused upon seeing them). When faced with repeated exposure, our responses adapt whether we like it or not.

    This person may still find film violence unpleasant, but unless they are psychologically unusual (e.g. have PTSD) then this response isn’t an automatic gut reaction but a higher cognitive activity.

    Like learning to laugh at the game where someone claps in front of your eyes to startle you, a taste for being “confronted” or “challenged” by violent images, or enjoying the narrative they’re part of, means inhibiting your initial (wholly negative) reaction to them.

    You might, on reflection, retain an explicit dislike for such images. But they become easier to watch, which means implicitly you don’t find them so unpleasant any more.

    That is why I’m very suspicious of contemporary films that claim to “critique” (or parody or pastiche) something or other by depicting it. It’s a way of having your cake and eating it.

    I think that a dampened stress response is unfortunate in itself: it means viewers are taught (regardless of whether they are consciously persuaded or aware of it) that violence isn’t as aberrant and unbearable as it seemed previously. You can watch it for two hours and come out okay.

    But in our political circumstances such desensitization also has further bad consequences. A person who finds fun in watching a violent film may not become consciously pro-war. But diminishing his or her innate aversion to images of violence surely doesn’t help. Holding all else equal, it’s likely to increase favourable attitudes to war, the armed forces, etc. within a population.

    Over the past two decades, Washington’s recourse to endless war and state murder has been accompanied by an appreciable lowering of the US cultural level. These things are complementary if not causally related, and the violence-laden content of films, TV, video games, etc. is one part of this cultural degeneration.

    Finally, I don’t worry that readers may come to enjoy the things I’m describing. Of course dissonance reduction is a powerful motivating tendency: people are always seeing the upside of a bad situation or electing to love the one they’re with. But it’s only necessary if the distressing circumstance or premise is inescapable. If you can’t avoid the bad thing you must decide it’s good. Anyone can easily avoid being confronted by my argument by not reading the posts or deciding they are unpersuasive.

    Aside from that, I can’t think of any mechanism that would lead someone to take pleasure from what I’m describing and how I’m doing it. Can you?

    • Brad Says:

      It sounds like you prefer preserving our absolute aversion to violent images but it also isn’t clear that someone who is disgusted with violent images would necessarily be pro-war. Could it also be that a population’s assent to war in their name is predicated on an absence of images? Thoughts on the importance of war images for the public consciousness during the Vietnam War?

      • Nick Says:

        Obviously, as far as any particular individual is concerned, there’s no necessary (i.e. airtight) causal relationship between a taste for violence as entertainment and attitudes to imperialism or war. That’s why in the post I spoke about the population distribution of attitudes (evaluative judgements which are underpinned by affective responses, i.e. emotions and physiology, which in turn depend on familiarity and repeated exposure).

        In any population there are people with varying propensities and susceptibilities, and what Fredric Jameson has called the “violence pornography” of mass culture will work in different ways on different people. But overall it is propitious for breeding more killers and for shifting the median person in a more bellicose direction.

        I’m not informed enough to talk usefully about Vietnam. I suspect that e.g. the “And babies” photo of My Lai contributed usefully to the radicalization and spread of antiwar attitudes at the time, while (in retrospect and the long term) being part of a gradual commodification of suffering and misfortune as entertainment. As Susan Sontag said about Diane Arbus and Vietnam photojournalism, they encourage voyeurism not intervention.

        Note how in Nick Ut’s famous photo of burned people fleeing a napalm attack, they always crop out the press photographer running alongside to Phan Thị Kim Phúc’s left (in the right of the frame) and loading a roll of film into his camera. The Washington Post recently published a piece by a photographer lamenting how he missed out on taking the photo, which ‘would transcend politics and history’, because he was re-loading film.

        It’s not just for reasons of external belligerence that the United States has become a more pro-violence place. The perpetuation of existing economic institutions (i.e. enforcing contracts and defending the unequal allocation of property rights and claims to income) depends more than ever on a massive coercive apparatus. If you include the judiciary, security guards, prison employees, and supervisory personnel, then more than one-fifth of the US workforce is engaged in controlling other people. That’s a tenfold increase from one century ago.

        And the task of producing these tens of millions of dutiful functionaries, willing and able to exercise authority over other people, is performed by the household, the school and the broader culture.

  5. Doubt as a free good; or, ‘Product defence’ as an externality « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] spokeswoman, in response to criticism from within Hollywood of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty: ‘The film should be judged free of partisanship. To punish an artist’s right of […]

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