Thursday, February 18, 2016


Chris Kyle, the original "American Sniper"

In the last few days I’ve watched two movies that I hadn’t planned to admit to anyone that I’d seen.  They’re niche movies and the two niches would be -- SHOULD be -- totally opposed to each other.  One is about violence and the other is about sex.  One is conventional and one is transgressive.  One is gritty and one is faux glamour.  Some of my friends would be shocked and horrified that I watched either one or the other, but a few wouldn’t be shocked by either — have probably watched them.  I sort of hate to tell you about them, not because they’re outside the American mainstream, but because they are not, though the two subjects are usually mingled enough to be unrecognizable. Violent military movies are a staple and have been from the beginning.

Popular novel or perfume ad?

Okay. “American Sniper” and “Kink.”  Both streaming on Netflix, both recommended to me by the Netflix algorithm through interpreting what movies I’ve already watched.  (I never do the stars thing.  They only label content subject, never quality or style.)  “American Sniper” is represented to be a “true” biography of a SEAL sniper though there is a website that will tell you all the things that turn out NOT to be true.  The man himself is dead.  One of the things that was added for the movie is a recurrent figure of a little enemy boy who tries to act like an adult combatant, which requires him to be targeted by the sniper.  One is killed and one is spared.

Otherwise, all the deaths are deserved, necessary, so long as the victims were on the other side — if on “our” side, they are tragic, demanding vengeance.  There is online discussion about whether this is patriotism shadowed by necessary killing, whether the emotional effect on the sniper is as bad as physical wounds, and whether the story should have been presented differently.  I haven’t read the book and even if I had, I couldn’t have known what the real experience was like, so I can’t pretend to know what is true and what is not.  But it seems clear that PTSD is real and that this man and a lot of others suffer from it.

The movie called “Kink” shows the making of movies about “algolagnia” which is a kind of extreme pleasure resulting from pain, bondage and mechanical stimulation.  It’s not about the audience or psychological theories — just the people doing it and telling about doing it.  No judgement.  They are all aware of the endorphins generated by extreme experience and how addictive they are.  Compare an adrenaline high from bungee jumping.

James Franco, kitten cuddler

“Kink” is curiously benign, though a few persons hired to be acted upon — who are specifically asked NOT to act, but to just react —freaked and had to stop in spite of having been promised lots of money.  This specific film was prompted and sponsored by James Franco, who clearly has an interest and appetite for extreme experiences, so much so that he’s served time in jail.  He can’t be jailed for auto-generated drugs. Nyah, nyah.  There's a PR agenda.

The film went to Sundance and so on, and was praised in a condescending way.  One reviewer pointed out that this was the shallow end of the pool — everyone is so NICE, everyone had a safe word and it was observed, and so on.  The person doesn’t sketch in what the deep end might be like.  I suppose it might not be voluntary.  I suppose people may be permanently damaged or even killed.

The cat's choice: watching.

Every night on television we watch plots and acting that mix killing and sex.  We pretend it has no effect on us.  Some people say they will NOT watch it and so will leave the room, but leave the door open a crack in order to watch unobserved.  Anyone who thinks they have control over who watches it (including themselves), that children can be prevented from watching, or that evil, violent and violating people don’t watch it to get ideas — is just wrong.  (I am not recommending that ANYONE watch it.)

Several of the producers and directors — who were all kind and appealing folks — said that in high school and college they were not the delinquents flirting with crime and gangs and drugs and all that.  They were nerds.  They read a lot of French philosophy and social criticism that was often framed in fire, blood and feces.  Neither substance is in this sex film, but quite a bit is in “American Sniper.”   (No feces.  No one is scared shitless.)  Mostly just squib splats of blood but spectacular explosions.  Not as much gore as in the more extreme CSI shows.  We aren’t asked to peer into chest cavities.

I must interrogate myself about my own reactions, not just guess how others react.  “American Sniper” left me largely untouched.  To my sensibilities the hero himself was a caricature.  It’s not the fact of him being a sniper.  What was the name of the film in which Rudy, called “Fruity”, taught sharp-shooting?  The one with an embedded reporter?  It was more convincing.  And as for “Kink,” if I’d been hooked up to one of those plethysmograph gismos, well —  forty years ago I saw the fashionable porn movies which were explicit to the point of being silly ("Deep Throat"), but they were nothing like this.

So now I’ll do what some people consider worse than porn, which is to reflect from outside the experience.  Head tripping.  Unforgivable to some. “Algolagnia,” is the fancy name for pleasure that is mixed with pain or caused by pain.  Scab-picking, cutting, beatings, and worse things like joint-stress and muscle distortion.  Water-boarding.  (The official USA guide for torture is no major organ damage.)

Mixed with eroticism: the female guards performing. Jailers who rape.  I suspect that a lot of the people tortured by the US military forces have taught prisoners that nothing can be so intense again.  Done to young people it can so confuse and distort their hard-wiring that they cannot recover normal physiological reactions, let alone psychological.  And what about the torturer?  Those have been interesting movies.

Abu Graib photo.

These practices have been done as long as there have been, well, modern humans, because they are products of empathy — second-hand extreme sensation and reaction.  Brain-blasts in the pre-frontal neocortex and parts of the limbic system.  The imposer of the experience watches carefully, eats empathy.   A black and perverse sort of empathy, but not available to sub-primates at least, and probably not to pre-human primates.  I haven’t read any convincing evidence of chimps torturing — just killing and eating each other.  

Humans do that, too, even to their own family.  Maybe mostly to their own family — because they have access and get aggravated and think they have entitlement.  People feel they own their children and partners and pets, right out to the ultimate death, but sometimes only to near-death.  This is not like a sniper dropping someone from far away, portrayed as like hunting a deer.  Nor is it like the emergency adrenaline explosion of shooting someone close, maybe to prevent them from killing you.  

It’s like trying to change destiny, to deflect blame, to go to the infant’s level of rage.  It’s power.  It is so powerful that people who could and ought to intervene don’t do it, paralyzed by the second-hand experience, imagining themselves as the object.  AND torturer.

Humans incapable of ordinary emotion can sometimes get to feelings through this intense empathy, esp. with someone with whom they are intimate.  But also empathy can transfix with second-hand algolagnia, unresolvable in the moment.  To the victim, failure to intervene will haunt and torment them forever with the conviction that no one will protect them.  

Add that as a third wire.  It will hook helpers, none of which can meet the challenge, assuming they ever get access.  It is well-known that wife-beating episodes are followed by dramatic performances of regret and renewed love, sometimes amazing rough sex — until the addicted victim leaves, if only through death.

The terms “algolagnia” and “kink” and BSM, etc. etc. are terms made up by people who had realized what was happening and wanted to talk about it.  Mostly in the 19th century.  They are not diagnoses, just labels.  Before the words existed, no one really knew these practices existed as something beyond ordinary brutal behavior, sanctioned or not.  No one knew anything about endorphins.

Some of them couldn’t have existed since they are technological (vibrators).  Ingenuity is part of that culture.  But as soon as there were labels, diagnoses, secrets, opinions, confidential reports, they were everywhere and none of it is secret now — not even discrete.  Nor is the use of snipers in urban combat, even domestically with SWAT teams.  

Where do we go from here?  Will there be a return to secrecy and taboo, something like the countries where virgins are so valued that a surgeon can make a living sewing the tissue back together?  And then the women make a living pretending it's the first time?  Some parts of the world now watch beheadings and mass murders, routine rape and torture.   Their ordinary lives are so tough, they are prepared by being numb, emotionally calloused.  But some fight back and others critique the relationships, as in the vid linked below.  Not us.  We think watching movies about people watching the real thing is different. 

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