Blood, Guts, and Unsafe Art

A grieving father gets revenge on the two men that brutalized his daughter by murdering them and baking them into pies, which he then feeds to their mother. A man dying of cancer kidnaps a woman and forces her to escape a “reverse bear-trap” device before the timer runs down and her head is torn in half. One of these scenarios is from a Shakespearean tragedy, Titus Andronicus (1594). The other is a scene from the movie Saw (2005). It is widely thought that Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus as a response to popular revenge tragedies of the era – namely those written by Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe. Revenge tragedies, usually based off classical Greek and Roman ideologies, usually contained a high level of bloodiness. The Saw franchise, and other films that fall into the sub-genre of “torture porn”, rose to popularity in the decade following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and provided a means for movie audiences to escape the violence and horror of the real world. 

Across centuries, Titus Andronicus and the films classified as “torture porn” are recognized as examples of unsafe art. These are pieces of an art form that are not identified as bringing anything deep and meaningful to the cultural conversation. Recalling an on-set conversation with the director Rob Zombie, an actor in the “torture porn” film The Devil’s Rejects remembers the moment of filming when he became deeply disturbed by the violent actions of his character and was hesitant about proceeding with the scene. Zombie pulled the actor aside and reminded him that “art is not safe.” The popularity of Titus Andronicus, and the rise of the horror sub-genre called “torture porn” in the 2000s, stand as examples that art is not always safe. Connected across centuries, these examples can show us that the world needs unsafe art. 

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To get started, we must establish the elements of a sub-genre. The sub-genre that is up for discussion is a direct offshoot of the horror genre known as the splatter film. Between 2003 and 2009, there was a resurgence of the 1970s original splatter film, with a very noticeable difference. The splatter films that were released following 9/11 lacked metaphor and depth. These films did not use horror as a platform for an existential conversation on humanity. 

Instead, these new films exploited and ante-up’d on the visceral gore and sexual exploitation. The film critic David Edelstein was the first to use the phrase “torture porn” to describe these new horror films. These films include gratuitous scenes of body mutilation and sadistic sexual violence. It is hard to say if these moments of gore and violence advance the plot because these moments are the plot. 

When juxtaposed against the rest of Shakespeare’s canon of tragedy – that include the well-known Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and MacbethTitus Andronicus is drowning in viscera and sexual deviance. Critics often refer to the play as “excessively bloody.” In the play’s first Act, “[…] Alarbus’ limbs are lopped / and entrails feed the sacrificing fire, / Whose smoke like incense doth perfume the sky” (1.1 146-148). In the same scene, references are made to the consummation of a wedding bed. Act One finds itself layered in blood and dismembered body parts, as it celebrates royal marriage. There is no deep thematic reasoning behind this action, it is merely the plot of Act One, which also includes the title character killing his own son out of displeasure that his son does not respect the emperor of Rome. It is violence and blood for the sake of violence and blood. 

Titus Andronicus is a tragedy that ends with a mother consuming the dead flesh of her sons, in a pie that has been prepared by the title character as a means of revenge. Revenge for what? That is the grisly moment the play is famously known for – the rape and mutilation of Titus’ daughter Lavinia. Captured in the woods as a victim of another revenge plot, Lavinia is brutally sexually assaulted, and has both her hands and her tongue cut off so that she cannot identify her rapists. It’s a violent and gory moment in the play, and when performed with full effects can border on farce in its bloodiness and viscera. This is sexual violence and body mutilation for the sake of violence. The audience is forced to bear witness and becomes farther entrapped in the violence of the narrative. 

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The most famous films that make up the sub-genre called “torture porn” also exhibit moments of pure gore and violence. Much as the audience is trapped watching the horrific violence unfold on stage in Titus Andronicus, so are movie-goers forced to be tortured along with those on screen. In a final scene from Eli Roth’s Hostel, a character has her distended eyeball cut at the nerve with a pair of rusty scissors. Saw II sees a character fall into a pit of used hypodermic needs, another character dissolves her hand in a jar of acid. Meanwhile, the camera doesn’t look away, making the audience become both the victim and the torturer. 

What makes this qualify as art? Is it enough that both are textual examples of story – one a stage play and the other a film script? T.S. Eliot argued that Titus Andronicus was “one of the stupidest and uninspired” plays that Shakespeare ever wrote. While the Saw franchise has been called “crap” by various film critics and audience members. Yet, audiences still attend. Performances of Titus Andronicus were popular, and the tragedy “delighted audiences of the 1590s.” In his play Bartholomew Fair, Ben Jonson referred to Titus Andronicus as a “famous old crowd-pleaser.” The original Saw movie made 103.9 million dollars at the box office, and went on to become an eight-movie series. Hostel made 80.9 million dollars at the box office, and the sequel was even more over-the-top in its violence and sexuality. Does art always need an audience?

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While we can never definitively settle on a meaning of art, both Titus Andronicus and the “torture porn” movies of the 2000s pushed audiences beyond their comfort zones. In unsafe territory, these narratives of gore, violence, and sexuality allowed audience members to disengage from reality and become both a victim and a torturer. By making unsafe art, Shakespeare and the screenwriters of a horror sub-genre gave audiences a safe place to find escape into violence instead of continuing to run from it. And that might be the most cathartic art form of all. 

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Context Matters: Hatred for Trump Blinds the Media

President Trump is no stranger to verbal missteps and political “incorrectness.” One merely has to visit his twitter posts to encounter grade-school level name calling and unnecessarily unpresidential racial remarks. Usually, Trump puts his foot in his mouth entirely on his own, and rarely needs help from the media to showcase his lesser qualities.

So its interesting just how much “out of context” spinning the media has done today regarding Trumps comments on immigrants. Quick to jump on board an erroneous conclusion, media outlets claimed that Trump had referred to all illegal immigrants as “animals.” The media cruxifixction was rampant and quick, making comparisons between language used by the Nazi party in the 1930s to describe Jewish people as “vermin.” Pop culture news sites, like Vox, breezed over the context of the quote in order to paint a version of Trump that is unapologetically racist and volatile.

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While it is true that Trump has a past history of racially prejudice statements – “bad hombres” comes to mind – in the case of calling illegal immigrants animals, the context works in his favor. To be fair to Trump, he was most likely referring to a specific group of violent illegal immigrants called the MS-13.

Coming into the United States from the Mexican border, the MS-13 gang is known for gruesome acts of violence, from kidnapping to chopping up the bodies of rival gang members. Calling these types of criminals “animals”, is not a difficult comparison to make. However, the media’s insistence on attacking Trump and taking these words out of context has actually served to do the opposite of the media’s intent.

By wrongly attacking Trump as racist for calling immigrants “animals”, the media has helped to contribute to dehumanizing language. By generalizing Trump’s original statement and connecting the term “animals” to include a larger racial and cultural group, these misguided media outlets are solidifying this label. In this instance, it is the media, and not Trump, that are guilty of dehumanizing people. And that is dangerous.

Trump knows the power that the media can yield – why else would he be so adamant about “fake news”? And this out-of-context reporting by various outlets is no exception. It is the responsibility of the media to tread carefully. There is enough hate being promoted from the Trump presidency. Please do not fuel the hate.

Musings on Emma Gonzales and the Power of #NeverAgain

For almost six minutes on March 24th, Emma Gonzales stood straight and strong at the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C. Her decision to remain silent proved to be a powerful message to the world. In her silence, millions across the globe were able to feel the agony that her and fellow students at Stoneman Douglas High School felt as they waited at the mercy of a school shooter. As Gonzales stood strong and silent, the audience watching could see tears fall down her cheeks, the pain still raw from the shooting that took seventeen of her classmates in February 2018.

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Since Gonzales decided to join her fellow survivors as the #NeverAgain movement, she has become the visual figurehead for pro-NRA scapegoating. Since calling “B.S.” on gun advocates and lawmakers, she (along with other members of #NeverAgain) has received death threats. Adults have thrown public insults from right-wing television programs. A Maine politician resigned from his campaign after receiving backlash for calling Gonzales a “skinhead lesbian.” Yet, despite this hatred, Gonzales continues to spread the message of gun control and continues to encourage young people to show up at the polls.

Emma Gonzales and her resolve and persistence have not been able to end the voices of adults across social media. Each day, a new post or meme is shared that attempts to discredit her and the other teenagers leading the #NeverAgain movement. Blatantly photoshopped images of Gonzales ripping up the constitution have circulated at a massive rate, as those that support her rush to spread the truth. She has been called a “crisis actor” and a fraud. There are many adults that have become so used to dumb teenagers that eat Tide pods, that they are unable to process that smart teenagers still exist. Spoiler Alert: They do. And they are at the gates of the White House.

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The truth is that Emma Gonzales and her peers from Parkland, Florida are not typical teenagers. They did not receive the underpaid and unappreciated public education that millions of students across America receive. These particular students are in AP classes, and have been trained in speech and debate techniques since elementary school. Their teachers have prepared them to fight. They have been prepped to become leaders of this country. That they happened to be at the center of the most recent large-scale school shooting is a matter of coincidence. This coincidence might just change the world.

Musings on the Immigration Debate

Since taking the oath of office, President Donald Trump has met with numerous controversies regarding policy and law. One of the most urgent – immigration reform – has become a hotbed of debate. Currently, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have been unable to reach an agreement about the changes that need to be made to America’s immigration policy.

Aviva Chomsky, an academic and historian who also happens to be the daughter of political activist Noam Chomsky, has entered her voice into the debate over immigration. In her article, “Dividing Immigrants into Good and Evil is a Dangerous Game” republished on the Nation’s website, Chomsky delineates the current debate on immigration from a political and historical perspective in order to effectively criticize the Trump administration.

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Chomsky begins her article by describing the current state of immigration policy reform in the United States, stating that “the immigration debate seems to have gone crazy”. This use of subjective language sets the reader up to view all the information that Chomsky presents about the struggle to reform immigration policy as just that: crazy. This has the effect of placing her audience on the side of the Liberal left. However, based on Chomsky’s conversational tone when discussing the negative aspects of both Trump and the Republicans that support him – the reader gets a sense that she knows that her audience was already on her side.

In order to show just how wrong Trump and Republicans are in regards to how they view immigration, Chomsky uses select quotations to prove her point. Taken out of direct context, there is rhetorical power in showcasing Trump’s “sweeping references to ‘foreign bad guys’ and ‘shithole countries’.” This evidence of Trump’s racist speech helps to support Chomsky’s main argument – that current immigration debate is just fuel for the racist opinions that currently hold power in government.

Chomsky’s observations of the state of immigration debate is not confined just to her words. The accompanying image to the article is a picture of ICE police agents handcuffing an (illegal) immigrant. While the audience is not privy to the face of the arrested individual in the picture, it is clear that this person is not of the Nordic blond and blue-eyed persuasion. This image helps to drive home the fear that Chomsky builds into her rhetoric by calling attention to the threats posed by ICE agents to turn America into a police state. Chomsky describes this “concept of criminality” being taken to “new heights” by ICE agents, with the intent to escalate her audience into perhaps taking a more active role in defending the rights of immigrants.

One of the points of Chomsky’s article that she executes effectively is to draw attention to the misuse in government and the media of the term chain migration. She unabashedly calls out both Democrats and Republicans for their misuse of the word. For the benefit of her audience, who may be on the Left but may lack historical background, Chomsky provides the socio-historical background of the term and how its place in immigration policy has led to a systemized racism towards Mexicans and other Latino groups attempting to immigrate to the United States. Chomsky places this distinction between family unification and chain migration as the crux of her rhetorical analysis of the immigration debate. It is with this quasi-history lesson that Chomsky is able to direct the rhetoric back to her main goal: placing a spotlight on the racist Trump administration.

The article ends with Chomsky calling out Trump and his overuse of the concept of threats to national security for what it is, claiming that with the administration’s view on immigration policy “race has again reared its head explicitly.” It is clear from the audience for this article that Chomsky knew she was presenting information to fellow liberals and anti-Trump Democrats, however her sense of urgency as portrayed in evidence and word choice presents a powerful level of exigency regarding the current debate on immigration.