Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Violence and its representation

A couple of nights ago, I was too tired from various reports at work to read too much, so I opened Gilbert Hernandez's Chance in Hell about a girl possibly abandoned by her parents in a surreal violent junkyard and rescued by a man who grew up in the said junkyard. Like previous Gilbert Hernandez graphic novels which I've read, Chance in Hell has a gritty social overlay; however, Hernandez also develops a more symbolic language to talk about the psychological effects of violence on his characters. Both trademark traits propel the plot of Chance in Hell in which the main character, Empress, is raped as well as watching people die in the surreal junkyard only to perpetuate an impulsive act of violence herself.

It is perhaps inevitable to be saddened and disturbed by such a book, particularly a graphic novel where the violence is visually rendered. One could argue, of course, that the visual representation of violence has been made quotidian through regular viewings on television and at the movies (and I must disclose at this moment that I gave up television a few years back and only watch television at friends'). However, I found myself startled by the violence in Hernandez's book; in retrospect, I wonder if part of that surprise and deep disturbance is the format of a graphic novel as opposed to a movie or a tv show.

In a book, whether it's a graphic novel, a poem, or a cookbook, one can return to different parts. While I am stating the obvious, I am intrigued in taking this ability to look again and again in conjunction with the fascination with violence and sex (by the way, on a very large theme...why is it that so much violence is often linked to sex in various plots, whether in novels, tv, movies, songs, etc.). In watching a movie or tv, the scene of violence moves. It is not static. Violence in photographs or art is static; it is "captured" in the singular moment or singular representation. Graphic novels takes the static and creates a moving plot...yet, one can replay the plot with a turn of the page. In this sense, violence, as represented in a graphic novel, can be viewed more easily many more times.

In thinking about violence, I am reminded of a friend who cannot watch any violent movies, including Hong Kong cop movies (some of my favorite movies are John Woo films). To me, such films, along with Quentin Taratino's riff on Hong Kong cool, are not real as violence due to the stylization which takes precedence over any pretense of representing reality. Yet, such violence when real, when enacted in life, is a negation of humanity itself. In saying that I don't mind stylized violence, am I unconsciously helping foster a "cool" view of violence? The very question smacks of morality, but I can't help but wonder what happens in an age and ethos when violence is so easy to represent with irony and style whereas tenderness and gentleness is almost impossible to represent without Hollywood sentimentality.

When considering tenderness and gentleness, I still think about the movie "It's a Wonderful Life," a movie I watch almost every year. It remains an emotionally moving film because it isn't saccharine. Instead, the movie ponders a very serious question about a good man on the verge of suicide after financial ruin. I don't necessarily think that "morals" are useful in thinking about the arts. Yet, I do want to consider carefully what is possible in various representations. Is it easy to represent violence? Is it difficult to represent tenderness? Is it easy to represent an evil person? Is it difficult to represent a good person? Or, perhaps even more complicated: how does one faithfully allow for the mix of both violence and tenderness, the mix of good and bad (evil always has such a metaphysical ring that it doesn't even seem to exist), the more likely reality that most of us encounter?

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