I am once again teaching one of my favorite courses this semester, an upper division course that I run every couple of years called Violence in Literature and Film. Among novels like Crime & Punishment and Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant and horrific Blood Meridian and films like Old Boy and A Clockwork Orange, my students and I are also reading Shakespeare’s bloodiest and most vile play Titus Andronicus.
Since I am not a Shakespeare specialist, I was brushing up the other evening on my knowledge of the Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge tragedy by reading a number of essays including a kind of quick and dirty encyclopedic entry on the topic over at Shakespeare Online. The essay notes some of the more common and more horrific types of subject matter presented in plays written in this mode, including “cannibalism, incest, rape, and violent death” (of which Titus Andronicus includes three out of those four elements and additionally offers dismemberment, which, like most of its other elements, is intended to occur on stage, right before the audience’s eyes).
The revenge tragedy, which this article briefly also notes, is a genre interested in the nature of justice, politically and personally. It ponders questions concerning lawful and unlawful forms of violence and how these relate to our understanding of what is just or unjust (see this scene from the first episode of HBO’s Deadwood to get a rather contemporary take on such ideas). The issue, of course, that one might take up with the revenge tragedy or other exploitative genres like it is the manner in which it raises those questions, doing so, as the revenge tragedy does, by painting such philosophical questions in blood and human viscera on the canvas that is the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage.
Indeed, the aforementioned article briefly notes that: “In these plays, the revenger is a kind of hero, avenging cruel and undeserved death, yet is a killer in his turn. The extent to which contemporary audiences would have sympathised with the avenger is debated by literary critics,” which upon reading this statement myself, I kind of laughed. My only thought was that at least in an audience contemporary with our own time: “They like Kill Bill just fine, thank you very much.”
Because there is nothing indeed that binds the methodology of the revenge tragedy or its components purely to the time of Shakespeare. Modern cinema has very much embraced the form of the revenge tragedy and is still very much interested in wading through the blood and viscera used to illustrate the more ethical questions that the form continues to raise. Sometimes those films do so more thoughtfully and sometimes completely thoughtlessly but always using blood and suffering as central ways of making its purposes starkly clear to the audiences lured in by the luridness of their subject matter.
In the Exploitation films of the ’70s (say, for example, I Spit on Your Grave (1978) or Blaxploitation films of the same era (essentially most any film with Pam Grier in it, like Coffy (1973) or Foxy Brown (1974), but also movies like the Fred Williamson vehicle Black Caeser (1974), one sees many of the trappings of the revenge tragedy through heroes that act as avengers of rape, violence, and murder by embracing violence and death dealing as a way of responding to injustice and making it clear how justice is tied to recompense in many people’s minds and — most importantly — their guts.
Additionally, such films raise questions about the nature of justice. Blaxploitation in particular is a genre very interested in using violence as a means of expressing political and personal anger. These films essentially function as an outlet for an oppressed group to express their rage at their oppressors. Black avengers function as kinds of superheroes in these films, wronged by a corrupt system in very physically demonstrable ways (through acts of violence), whose response is to mete out an unlawful form of justice as a means of accomplishing actual justice, since lawful means are unavailable to them. Of course, the super humans of Blaxploitation cinema are modeled more on figures like the Punisher than they are on Superman or on Elektra rather than on Wonder Woman.
Such revenge tragedies or revenge fantasies are, of course, deeply revered by even more contemporary filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Tarantino’s body of work and especially his most recent films, like Kill Bill (2003 and 2004), Inglourious Basterds (2009), and Django Unchained (2012), all dabble and exult in the modes, tropes, themes, and subject matter of both revenge tragedy and Blaxploitation cinema through their own avengers of systemic and personal violence. Indeed, I am following up my class’s discussion of Shakespeare’s own rather subpar execution of the revenge tragedy with what I think is one of the most brilliant contemporary examples of the genre, Park Chan Wook’s Old Boy (2003).
Of course, exploitation as a mode of expressing questions of morality in the most obscene, lurid, and (at the same time) strangely alluring images and situations possible is not merely represented through violence. Sex is both another lure to draw in audiences to media that embraces exploitation as well as a means of expression that allows the filmmaker or other artist to raise moral questions and consider them through erotic and highly sexual events. Witness, for example, the advertising for Craig Brewer’s incredibly lurid, but also incredibly moralistic Black Snake Moan. The poster featuring a black man (Samuel L. Jackson) holding a provocatively posed white woman (Christina Ricci) captive with a chain is accompanied by the text “Everything is Hotter Down South.” Hell, man, the title of the movie is Black Snake Moan. It is a full on embrace of provocation through exploitative imagery. It’s also quite a good film about sexual mores and morals, both in a cultural context and a personal context.
Which brings me to what I consider to be the most ironic thing about the exploitation genre. Moralists hate it. It doesn’t matter who that moralist is, be they politically conservative (say, perhaps, the religious right) or politically liberal (say, certain strains of feminism), whether they embrace an ethics grounded on theology or on humanistic philosophy, the concerns always raised about such works are with their subject matter and an anxiety about whether they should or should not be consumed by the public. Be they Jack Thompson, Anita Sarkeesian, or Frederic Wertham, critics of subject matter that may corrupt the young, the impressionable, the state, or the culture on the whole often cannot bear media in this mode. The irony is that those artists that work in media of this sort often create the most morally interested and morally concerned works of art about the ethical questions that surround sexual and physically violent behaviors.
I often say that while many folks of a religious type think horror movies are the worst kind of trash that these same folks seem to not realize that almost all horror movies are about the nature of good and evil, the nature of crime and punishment, or the nature of injustice and justice (or some combination of these). Horror just uses the most simple and straightforward kinds of imagery, hideous monsters and horrifically violent punishments, to express the sorts of themes that the most religious of people (once again, be that religion Christianity, feminism, or whatever) are most deeply concerned with themselves. The artist that utilizes exploitative imagery needs the examples they use in order to express something about them. They also need the examples in order to interest us in them. The naysayers, though, want to discuss what they deem to be good and bad sexual and physically violent behaviors, and yet they don’t want works that represent these issues the most palpably, the most clearly, and the most viscerally to exist because, after all, such works “talk” about sex and violence by giving examples of sex and violence. Oh, and, yes, they also realize that their audiences are very much drawn into these conversations because of the degree of lurid detail in which they are presented.
All of which brings me back to the subject of video games, my usual topic on this blog, because, well, I’ve been playing Metal Gear Solid V, a game that that has been branded exploitative by some, mostly because of the very sexualized character called The Quiet (The character may also be associated with sexual violence as well. I’m not far enough along in the plot of the game to know that one way or the other, but I’ve been getting that vibe from some things that I have read. However, I could be wrong about this. Excuse my error if this is the case, but I don’t want any plot points spoiled for me at this point.), the existence of which in the game makes me do little more than shrug. Sexuality exists in media. I’ve seen it before, and it isn’t going away.
However, I have also played Hideo Kojima’s games before, and I am also aware that he often grapples with interesting themes and ideas, sometimes through exploitative subject matter and sometimes quite absurdly and sometimes in grittily realistic ways. Yes, the man teases his audiences with breasts and butts, but he also had a woman partially expose her chest, belly, and cesarean scar in Snake Eater, mixing symbols of violence, pain, and sexuality, in order to visually represent this woman as the mother of war in one of the more profound scenes that I have ever seen in a video game. This moment allows us to consider issues raised in the game about warfare, the way that it devours the young and scars the mature and a host of other interesting things that are less relevant to my current discussion. All I’m trying to say is this: it’s a really smart scene conveyed through appropriate symbols that are both sexual and that provide evidence of violence.
I’m not far enough into Metal Gear Solid V yet, though, to fully understand its themes. (Fans of Kojima’s work should know, though, that the richer themes, ideas, and experiments in most of his games tend to be rather backloaded in his games. Metal Gear Solid, Metal Gear Solid 2, and Snake Eater tend to be the most interesting and the most experimental as they near their conclusions.). Instead, I’ve have only played about a dozen of the game’s main missions, so I’m still focused on determining the best infiltration strategies, still actually learning some of the game’s systems, and still learning about its characters.
I don’t know much about the super sexed up soldier, The Quiet, but as I wrote about yesterday in my article “Dog of War: Doggy Representation and Metal Gear Solid V“, I have managed to fall in love with my now matured, but formerly cute and cuddly buddy, Diamond Dog. As facile and superficial as it might be to write an overly long essay about my love of a digital doggy, it does expose yet another exploitative quality of Metal Gear Solid V that also became a very meaningful one to me.
Guess what two characters were featured in the half hour trailer of Metal Gear Solid V? The two most overtly pornographic, exploitative, and, thus, alluring ones that could sell the game, a cuddly puppy and a sexy woman, Diamond Dog and the Quiet. That trailer exploits its audiences most visceral desires in ways quite akin to the Black Snake Moan poster that I mentioned above. Let’s face it, the internet is often charged with being a gigantic interface for all of the pornography that anyone could ever desire access to. While most people allude to pictures of women, I would have to include the vast collections of kitties and puppies among that pornographic treasure trove, images alluring and appealing enough to drive just as many retweets and Buzzfeed clicks as near nude and nude images of women. Puppies are simply the other side of exploitation, a side more patently acceptable to moralists and to your mom.
None of which is to say that Metal Gear Solid V is Hamlet (a tempered version of the exploitation genre, the revenge tragedy, and also a hell of a lot better play than Titus Andronicus). I will wait and see what Kojima has cooked up for me eventually (and I’ll probably write about it here). However, it is to say that while I’m waiting, I remain stupidly infatuated with a digital creature because it appeals to my most basic human instincts. Kojima knows how to exploit those feelings and a cuddly puppy. But at least at the moment, I am more than comfortable with his manipulation of my basest feelings through pornographic puppies and other such lurid and corrupting materials.