City On Fire

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There are certain common threads that run through stories about violence. Violence has consequences – this is almost the very definition of violence. When you forcibly enact your will upon the world, things change, and often not in the ways you expected or desired. That permanence of violence, a permanence which outlasts any intent and causes unforeseen consequences to echo after its passage, is its most distinguishing characteristic – which is probably why, despite studies suggesting that the most harmful influence on young children comes from justified violence with minimal consequences, that that kind of milquetoast ‘good-guy’ violence is still the most commonly portrayed in media for youth. It may be a lie, and a dangerous one, but it feels safer because it is insulated from the honesty of violence, is violence with all of the blood and tears drained out. We need our bad guys and our good guys, and we need the good guys to stop the bad guys, and maybe it’s a failure of creativity but the solution is always to fight some kind of just war where no one is hurt. There aren’t really any just wars, just wars; and there are definitely no wars where no one gets hurt. This same kind of lie is popular in games, and has been all along, but has become more and more noticeable since the advent of recorded voice lines. We want to create enemies just human enough to be hated, but not so human that you feel bad for murdering them.

For most of last week I was awash in fictional blood. I played through Hotline Miami 2, and about halfway through that experience I went to see a stage production of Sweeney Todd, and something clicked there, a connection between disparate works snapped into place, the blood and the music pulsing under it, describing an arc of savage and hungry beauty. There’s meaning to the narrative, there’s ideas crawling on the surface, but there’s also the bloodlust itself, the Grand Guignol, the pure aesthetic of violence and shrieking sound.

So: Consequences. Revenge against those who have wronged us and then revenge against us for wronging those who have wronged us, echoing back and forth until it fades away, its memetic virus killing hosts faster than it can spread, or reaches an awful crescendo, a nuclear chain reaction, and destroys everything. Sweeney and Turpin destroying each other and everyone around them, the mob boss mowing down swathes of rivals in aimless vengeance, consequence outlasting intent by the echo chamber of revenge. Imitation as well, innocence becoming violence by learning it as the shape of power and respectability, the fans kill because Jacket killed, Toby kills because Sweeney killed – in this way, as well, violence reproduces and outlives intent. This is the story we tell when we talk about violence. The world twists off its axis, doomsday lurks around every corner, final judgment deferred moment by moment until its deferment run out, and those who live by the sword die by the sword, and when everyone starts living by the sword that is how everyone dies.

Maybe this isn’t a more honest perspective on violence than others – that which holds it to be hard and sad but necessary work, or to be naturally repugnant in every way but a behavior reinforced by the twisted incentives of a dying society – but it’s a perspective that at least looks at violence directly, as a force unto itself, rather than using humans as target practice and plot device without ever looking back at the trail of blood left behind.

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1 comment
  1. I was just chatting about this last night with a friend. My favorite moment in the Harry Potter series is at the end of The Goblet of Fire – not coincidentally, the middle book in the series – where for the first time we see the real consequence of violent death: Cedric’s father, keening in grief as he holds his dead son’s body. All of a sudden, the whole series snaps into a new, tragic mode: people we care about are going to die, and other people we care about are going to suffer terribly because of their deaths. All of a sudden they’re not children’s books/movies anymore.

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