Loosing Moral Muscle

Violence has particular power on film precisely because it involuntarily activates our powers of empathy. We imagine ourselves, as an unthinking reflex, into the agony. This is the most civilising instinct we have: to empathize with suffering strangers. (It competes, of course, with all our more base instincts). Any work of art that denies this sense – that is based on subverting it – will ultimately be sullying. No, I’m not saying it makes people violent. But it does leave the viewer just a millimetre more morally corroded. Laughing at simulated torture – and even cheering it on, as we are encouraged to through all of Tarantino’s later films – leaves a moral muscle just a tiny bit more atrophied…

…Can you love a film even while you are repulsed by its moral vision, or lack of it? This is a question that goes right back to the birth of cinema (and beyond). The three greatest silent films are all explicit hymns of praise for totalitarianism. ‘The Birth of a Nation’ champions the Ku Klux Klan, ‘Battleship Potemkin’ hymns for Bolshevism, and ‘The Triumph of the Will’ is a paean to the Nazis. They are ravishing and repellent all at once – and I defy anyone to watch them and not get swept up in their power, even as your frontal lobes yell: “Stop! Danger!”

But aesthetics and the rest of life are not entirely separable spheres – and anybody who claims they are is simply posing. We don’t leave our moral senses at the door when we go to the movies, or pick up a novel, or go to a gallery. We feel such tension in Tarantino’s movies because the good and sane part of us doesn’t want the violence to come – while the debased part of us is cheering it on. That’s a moral conflict underpinning the aesthetics; by denying it is there, Tarantino is wilfully misunderstanding the effect of his films on their audiences.

Johann Hari

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