One day recently I found myself in a warehouse soundstage in downtown Los Angeles, trapped briefly in a faithful replication of an Abu Ghraib cell. There may not have been a better place to contemplate the entangled questions of art, life, and violence.
I was in town mainly for the Los Angeles Times Book Festival. But the day after my panel, I stopped by the set where director Errol Morris (a friend and colleague) was completing his first new film since the Oscar-winning documentary The Fog of War. This as-yet-untitled documentary is a study of the Abu Ghraib scandal.
The set designers had constructed a photographically precise representation of the Abu Ghraib cell block in which the famous prisoner-on-a-dog-leash, naked-human-pyramid pictures were taken.
I was inspecting the interior of one of the narrow, darkened cells on the set, and—for a few moments, anyway—escape was impossible. Outside the cell, the prop department had been applying a blowtorch flame to a realistic-looking mortar shell covered in a flammable glue mixture, and then dropped the smoking canister onto the concrete floor of the simulated prison corridor a few feet away. (The prison often took mortar fire during the time of the abuse within.)
The whole scene certainly gave one cause to think about violence and the complexities of its replication. During a break, Errol speculated, for instance, that if it hadn't been for the desire to turn torture and humiliation into media, into digital-camera "entertainment," into visual spectacle for the perpetrators' private enjoyment, the scandal may never have come to light—or never would have had the worldwide impact it did. (The human-pyramid picture, he said, was reputedly a "birthday present" for Abu Ghraib's dog-leash-wielding icon, Lynndie England).
And in that regard, I'd just been reading the galleys of the remarkable investigative account of Abu Ghraib by my friend Tara McKelvey ( Monstering: Inside America's Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War). In addition to documenting the fact that the photographs were just the tip of an iceberg—a concerted system of abuse run wild—the book features a fascinating chapter about the media scandal caused by the "man on the box" photo: the scarily gothic image of a hooded figure dripping electrical wires while standing on a crate in Abu Ghraib. Indeed, there was a replica of that crate (stenciled "Meals Ready To Eat—Individual") in the corridor outside "my" cell.
Did it matter if—as it turned out—there were two people claiming to be the hooded (thus faceless) man in the famous photograph? A man interviewed by the New York Times who claimed to be the one in the photograph turned out not to be, even though he apparently had been subjected to the same hooded, electrical-wire treatment.
Although media critics seized on this misidentification, isn't it more important, as the McKelvey book suggests, that it happened at all to anyone—and doubly important that it happened to more than one detainee? Or is the lesson that if your torture is not photographed, it's like the tree that falls in a forest?
Anyway, aside from the Arabic words scrawled on the walls and what looked like simulated blood spatters, the cell itself was no worse than other prison cells I've been inside, in San Quentin, Calif.; Huntsville, Texas; and Starke, Fla., say. (I mean as a reporter, thank you.)
What made Abu Ghraib different, as McKelvey's complex and chilling account makes clear, is mostly what went on outside the cells, unphotographed in the interrogation rooms, in the corridors, in the pervasive atmosphere of executive-branch-approved anything-goes violence inflicted on detainees who (according to government reports) were largely innocent of the insurgent involvement for which they were being tortured. It is probably true, as Dahlia Lithwick pointed out in an astute piece on the famous photos, that their wide circulation eventually helped accustom Americans to the idea of torture. But McKelvey's account made me wonder how Americans would have responded if the unphotographed abuse had in fact been equally accessible visually.
Feeling trapped even momentarily, even in a simulacrum of such a site, led to my considering a theory I had about another convergence of violence and the media's representation thereof. I'd been trying to puzzle out that strange Sopranos moment, in Episode 3 of the new season, the one that aired less than a week after the Virginia Tech massacre, the one that featured "Carter Chong," a mentally troubled young Asian tech student (MIT) who befriends and then rejects Soprano mobster Uncle Junior and then attacks the aging gangster in a violent rampage.
What was that all about? Obviously the Sopranos episode was filmed months before the Virginia Tech killing spree. So it was clearly a coincidence, but what a coincidence. It caused me to revisit the issues raised when the videos made by Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech killer, came to light: Do such images help us understand the roots of violence? Or do they rather perpetuate violence and encourage copycats who murder to promote their images of themselves? I've found myself arguing both sides of the question in my head—without any resolution.
At first I thought the episode might be a form of subconscious anti-Asian prejudice on the part of The Sopranos, some old, buried Orientalist narrative of "inscrutability" combined with some contemporary stereotype of Asian youth in America.
These troubling racial overtones perhaps explain why the mainstream media seemed relatively silent about this weird, extremely touchy juxtaposition of violent American tragedy and violent American entertainment, even as the blogosphere and the chat boards were rife with references to the coincidence.
But then after Episode 4—when Christopher, speaking of the troubled son of the murdered gay mobster from last season, speculates the kid is "probably thinking about how to pull a Columbine"—I began to think that the meaningful synchronicity was not about Asians so much as about The Sopranos' self-consciousness about its own representation of and preoccupation with killing sprees. (Surely it's no coincidence that one of Uncle Junior's favorite illicit candies in Episode 3 is conspicuously called "Sprees.") The show's writers took care to establish that it's Chong's infatuation with a Soprano (Uncle Junior) that triggers his violent outburst.
And in my simulated Abu Ghraib cell, I began to elaborate on another theory about what was going on: I began to wonder whether The Sopranos as a series was acknowledging that its casual treatment of violence could be a source of the casual violence that seems to be an increasing part of American culture.
True, Sopranos violence is not glamorized, a la The Godfather, or ironized and aestheticized a la Quentin Tarantino. It's more that it's trivialized, made quotidian and all the more accessible somehow to those like Carter Chong who see mobsters as celebrities. Not for nothing is Uncle Junior seen in the mental institution signing photos of himself for one of the orderlies to sell on eBay! Nice touch. It captures the show's complicity in commodifying violence.
Most telling is the fact that Carter Chong's subsequent violent flip-out is triggered when Uncle Junior fails to live up to his celebrity killer-mob-star status. Chong had wanted to become Uncle Junior's junior partner. When Uncle Junior agrees to numb himself out with meds, a disillusioned Chong violently attacks the Soprano mobster for this betrayal.
What that outburst suggests to me is that The Sopranos' creators are acknowledging that making violent goons whose whole lives are essentially one long killing spree—they don't kill 32 at a time, but they've probably killed a comparable number in their lifetime—seem so sympathetic, even in some ways admirable ("family" values, etc.), might have real-world consequences. As Chong's mother puts it, "You're becoming a bully," and it's because of "that gangster."
Almost as if in their final season they're engaging in what I would call laudable introspection, though some might see it as admitting to feeling guilt.
I don't want to come across as one of those anti-violence scolds. As Lisa Simpson put it (I'm doing this from memory): "If you won't let me watch violence on TV, how will I ever get desensitized to it?" So let me close with a voice from the other side of the debate. Say what you will about Quentin Tarantino, no one's going to guilt trip him into disparaging violent images. He's not apologetic. Death Proof is proof of that.
You know, of course, it's his contribution to the "double feature" called Grindhouse that he made with Robert Rodriguez. I've only read the screenplay because I find I enjoy Tarantino as a writer more than as a filmmaker (aside from Pulp Fiction, which I still love). His scripts, this one published as a paperback with an entertaining introduction by Elvis Mitchell, make great reads, however violent the content. And Death Proof is—in at least one place—horrifically grim and sick. ("So ghoulish I hesitate to speak it out loud," one character observing the carnage says.) Maybe it's the fact that it's on the page that makes it feel more "made up" than on the screen, with real bodies and fake blood.
But Tarantino once said something fascinating in defense of violence on screen: "To me, violence is a totally aesthetic subject," he insisted.
If only that were true. If only "totally aesthetic" subjects had no deleterious consequences. If only violent culture never led to violence ... Tarantino went on to contend, "Saying you don't like violence in movies is like saying you don't like dance sequences in movies."
Well, he may have a point, but I'm one of those people who doesn't like dance sequences in movies.