On "Game of Thrones" everyone loved the Blackwater Bay "wild fire" scene,
so much like napalm.
The truth is that the professional fiction versions of immolations are much more chilling than the ones produced by some terrorist techie who doesn’t understand how to photograph fire. Accidental immolations are often photographed these days but with someone’s smart phone or by a person with a decent camera who is blinking through tear gas and shoved hard by crowds or threatened by cops. Anyway, it’s a well-known aesthetic principle that the most horrible stuff is that which is imagined or reflected in the faces of onlookers. Take “Game of Thrones” -- the wild fire destroying ships and sending sailors in pieces flying everywhere -- is not as horrible as the charred hanging bodies of the farmer’s two little sons, killed to mislead the enemies of two little princes. THAT’s horrible. But the critics LOVED the explosion.
Bill Moyers’ reaction to outrage over the death of the Jordanian pilot was to show an American version of the same thing, except the American version was a youth unjustly accused a little over a century ago.
“Jesse Washington was just one black man to die horribly at the hands of white death squads. Between 1882 and 1968 — 1968! — there were 4,743 recorded lynchings in the US. About a quarter of them were white people, many of whom had been killed for sympathizing with black folks.” They tortured him for two hours, raising and lowering him over a fire. Fantasy about sex was involved and they cut off his testicles.
In the Middle East and India it is COMMON to burn women alive to get rid of them or to make women in general realize they should be obedient or suffer. A death by fire looks very bad because the muscles shriveling in the heat make the body writhe long after consciousness is gone. And then there is the demon-black body.
People don’t need to be prevented from seeing such atrocities -- they love’em. There’s a computer program that will let you seemingly set anything on fire. People just like to pretend that they are shocked in real life, sometimes for political reasons, sometimes so their Mama won’t be faced with the reality of -- not the fire -- our own charred heart-corners. Don’t forget I’ve done cruelty investigations.
The fire that sticks in my mind most vividly was in NW Portland, which is the warehouse district -- in those days deserted at night. (Today there are a lot of galleries and so on, using the big abandoned spaces.) I had been out very late -- like 2AM -- and was headed home when ahead in the intersection I saw a car, “totally engulfed” as they say. Out there where street lights were dim and abandoned railway lines shone in the firelight, there was no sound. I stopped in the middle of the road -- there were no other cars. I finally deciphered that the burning car had crashed into a hydrant and bent it over, but it had not broken. Next to it was a photographer with a big 4X5 camera on a massive tripod, calmly working away.
I thought maybe it was a stunt or something for a movie, but then there would be a crew. No other people were around. There seemed to be no one in the car. I walked over to the man with the camera, “Is there anyone in the car?" I didn’t break his concentration. “Someone in the backseat,” he said in a monotone. Suddenly the fire looked horrifying.
Probably they had been drunk. Probably the man had been driving, maybe his partner was a sexworker who had passed out. I didn’t know that, except that the driver had left the scene which meant he was only saving himself. Or maybe it was a woman. Then I heard sirens, got in my van and went home. The police would only question me, suspect me, and I already felt guilty. It was one of the rare occasions when I’d had a couple of drinks. When I checked the papers all the rest of the week, there was nothing. Probably the editor suppressed it. Probably the photographer could only sell his photos to a tabloid.
When I was an animal control officer, the worst thing I ever saw was a puppy who tried to get into a garbage can that belonged to a Vietnam veteran who had rigged it with a napalm booby trap. It took a day to find and catch the puppy, still alive though it was very badly burned. We didn’t euthanize it right away because we photographed it oozing pus and blood, shaking, blind, ears and tail burned off, nearly unconscious. We charged the guy who was damned lucky it was not a neighbor kid who got into his garbage, but I don’t recall that he was convicted or even taken to court. Nothing in the paper.
In the Sixties the county sheriff decided he would discourage people from drinking and driving by creating a bulletin board display of wrecks. One was a teenager still seated behind the wheel of his burned out pickup, himself charred and contracted. We know what burned bodies look like because some prop man somewhere has studied them in order to create fiberglass replicas, maybe exaggerated a little bit. Movie companies must have a whole storage unit devoted to imitation corpses. Finally, the burned driver’s mother demanded that the photo be removed which the sheriff sheepishly did, at last realizing he was dealing with a human life connected to a lot of other human lives.
But someone, probably the Montana Highway Patrol, brought in a movie to show in the high school -- mangled bodies of people we didn’t know. At one point we saw the body of an infant with tire tracks running across its crushed middle. Everyone laughed. It’s a way of handling it. The hilarity and eroticism of the fragile human body. I’d tell you not to read the book that makes a sexual event out of car crashes, but you’d run out and buy it. The library probably won’t have it. "Crash," is the title and I think it was also a movie.
We’re emotion-eaters, we crave intense emotion, and the way we are wired in our brains means that putting a man in a cage and burning him is not anything we can turn away from, though we might be grateful if it’s only a photographed version. Imagined versions make our brains work at it, not leave it alone. I'm still wondering decades later about that burning car, because brains are built to resolve ambiguity, but the ambiguity of what it feels like to burn to death can’t be resolved.
Chickens burned in Asia because of a avian flu plague.
A few years ago I blogged about a photo of chickens in Asia being burned in a big pile because they had or might have bird flu. Some of the birds were still alive and there was a spectacular photo of a rooster escaping in flames. I tried to relate it to the ballet of “The Firebird” and the legend of the Phoenix.
In the Taliban territories the old men try to forbid all pleasure because, like European versions of those types, they think that they can only control the people by constantly pounding on hell, apocalypse, judgment. Fear. punishment, obedience. They forbid music, kites and pigeons. Homing pigeons are among the small but wonderful comforts of young men. They don’t cost much, but they are beautiful, require skillful care, allow for competition and pride. One can put a hutch on a roof and have an excuse for being up there with them, watching them tumble and slide across the sky and then come home.
So the old men, trying to control those youngsters, have been finding their pigeon hutches, jamming the birds into sacks and burning them in front of their keepers, then killing the keepers. It’s the same as the hideous killing of a man’s family while he watches and then killing him. Maybe he is grateful to die. Maybe he flies with his loved ones to paradise.
But the old men have probably gone too far. The killing of small, beautiful, beloved and innocent birds might trigger refusal of a system so dependent on destruction. We can get our minds around pigeons. We care about birds more than about brides.