Thursday, September 29, 2011


I suppose any sort of artist who deals with violence struggles with the question of how to depict it. TV producers covering 9-11 in real time made an instant decision not to show us images of people plummeting from the Towers--a decision that still seems right a decade on. The most violent thing I've ever seen on film was the episode in Jewel in the Crown when Mildred Layton tosses a glass of water at Barbie Batchelor. But Laocoon was originally painted in gory polychrome and the Sopranos was hardly an exercise in restraint. Emmett Till's mother held the service with an open casket, the pages of Dante fairly dance with horror, and no one calls Guernica gratuitous.  Fiction or reality, epic poetry or television specials; if there is a rule here about when violence should be rendered and when only alluded to, I can't find it.

Nor is it an entirely misguided to reset the violence of Congo in the British countryside. Violence in the Congo has become a dog-bites-man story; it needs to be seen afresh or it won't be seen at all. Besides, white people's sympathetic motor neurons don't register the experience of the darker skinned, or anyway not as much. A few years ago, a Belgian charity used popular cartoon characters to depict the plight of the refugees they were helping. I wondered if we could ever borrow the Simpsons for a similar purpose. Done right, this could be effective.

So what's the matter with Unwatchable? Nearly everything. It's too much and not enough, shocking yet inert, baffling rather than mimetic. It substitutes agitprop for understanding. We end less enlightened than we began, alienated instead of sympathetic. It is possible to depict the most horrifying sort of violence, I suppose, but only if it's done in good taste, a quality as elusive as humor--and at root as moral.

1 comment:

  1. agree...i heard a quote from the director that I thought was strange. he said soemthing to the effect of "if you don't know what it's about then you shouldn't watch it." well....then what was the point? everyone in the ngo world already knows this stuff and everyone who doesn't know is just going to be horrified and think they're watching an awful snuff michael bay and lars von trier worked together.