THIS past year at the movies, Japanese soldiers clutched hand grenades to their chests and waited for them to go off. A sadistic Spanish army captain bashed in a farmer's face with a bottle. Mayans busied themselves with around-the-clock organ extraction. Bombs exploded at random on city streets in a not-so-futuristic London even as soldiers tortured illegal immigrants in a style alluding to now-iconic real-life photographs.
Escape was futile. The little girl in "Pan's Labyrinth" sought respite in a fantasy world that at times was no less frightening than her real one. In "Inland Empire," a movie star stumbled through the looking glass of a role and wound up on the sidewalk with a knife in her gut. In "Children of Men," a child is born amid savage violence, the miracle of her birth causing the fighting to stop momentarily. Then it resumes with even more force.
These, of course, are serious films, each with a serious comment on violence, though they all arrive at the same baffled conclusion -- the only possible conclusion -- that it's incomprehensible, unthinkable, inescapable, ubiquitous. So is it surprising or not at all that 2006 was also a big year for the recently revived torture-porn of death-trap films such as "Saw III," "Hostel" and "Turistas"?
Talking about "Saw," director James Wan has said that the movie is a comment on people who don't value life, but I'm not buying it. If the constant flow of bad news imagery and the hopeless outlook of last year's best films have taught us anything, it's that violence is meted out at random, without rhyme or reason, and that the innocent suffer disproportionately.
If serious films find themselves increasingly concerned with violence, what are we to make of the escalating trend of violent entertainment? One possible theory is that the transformation of extreme violence into entertainment -- in movies, video games, television -- is an unconscious attempt to place violence inside well-defined parameters. It lulls us into thinking of the inflictors of violence as human monsters, and not just mere humans, which is perhaps the truer and more disturbing reality.
Is it more comforting to imagine that it takes a fundamentally flawed, flamboyantly aberrant outsider to commit atrocities? Is there a correlation between our avoidance of news of actual atrocities and our indulgence of fictional violence? Do we seek out movie violence as an unconscious escape from actual violence?
The urge to look upon the suffering of others is ancient and ingrained, and the act of committing the atrocities to paper, canvas and film is as old as civilization. But its uses are no better understood now than they ever were. It's a defining experience of modernity that we consume more images of pain, mutilation, degradation and death than in the past, and that the proliferation of these images has curious and multifarious effects on the way we consume them.
In her essay, "Regarding the Pain of Others," Susan Sontag argued that feelings of sympathy inspired by looking at images of faraway suffering are a way of proclaiming our "innocence and impotence." It's interesting to consider our taste for fictional violence as an unconscious rebuke to this fallacy.