Wednesday, July 16, 2003

The Other Pornography

Cut on the Bias points out this article from Slate on a new documentary about the highway safety films of the 50s and 60s. Unlike Susanna, I actually saw some of these in high school.

Our drivers-ed teacher called them “prom movies”. We saw them in drivers ed, health, or gym class a week or so before prom. The idea was to scare us into being safe, sober drivers on a night when our inclination was to be quite the opposite. The shocking footage was deemed necessary to cut through our adolescent sense of omnipotence and invulnerability.

Almost thirty years later I can still recall some of the footage.

Daniel Edelstein believes that there is a pornographic element to these films:

Whatever the filmmakers’ intentions, this was pornography then, and its liberal use in the documentary—which features stomach-turning shots of a dead baby under a car—makes it feel like pornography now.

Susanna disagrees:

Edelstein seems to think that pornography is about exploitation, which I think it is, but he doesn't mention the sexual element that I think is integral to calling it pornography. I'm sure there are people who do get off on it, there's people who get off on everything. I don't know what else I would call it

I find myself in agreement with Edelstein. If we choose to limit pornography to sex, then we need a word for the obscene exploitation of death.

Tom Wolfe wrote an essay years ago on “pornviolence”. One of his key observations was that the intense interest in the Zapruder film ha nothing to do with unanswered questions about what really happened in Dallas in 1963. Rather, people wanted to see the home movie because it showed a man’s head exploding from a real gun shot.

This sort of thing is not a relic of the 60s. Now this porn violence is on display every night of the week on TV and in thousands of book store across the country.

It is bad enough on CSI or Crossing Jordan. I don’t see the need to “show” the face of a decomposed body or a bag of stomach contents. But these shows are fiction and it is merely gross.

It is the nonfiction programs on cable (like Forensic Files or American Justice) and books that are really offensive. A university press recently published a serious book on Eliot Ness and his hunt for a serial killer in Cleveland. This “respectable” publisher chose to decorate the cover with the photo of a severed head of one of the victims.

For one thing, these photos appeal to the prurient interests of the worst kind of perverts. I see no need to provide them with their sick thrill when the pictures add no meaningful information. It is not as though the pictures show a vital clue; if the photograph wasn't there the story would still be understandable.

Second, the killer treated his victim like a garbage. A life is snuffed out and a corpse is left. The killer’s ego steals a life and the aftermath robs a person’s memory of the dignity we all deserve. None of us wants to be left on the side of the road like an empty McDonald’s bag. Crime scene photos are necessary for the police, but to broadcast them is to share in the killer’s indifference towards the victim’s life and dignity. There is an unthinking complicity in the selfishness that produced the ultimate evil.

Worst of all, some killers “pose” the bodies of their victims. Their goal is to humiliate the victim after death or to send a message to society. To broadcast or print photographs of their “work” in the reckless quest for ratings and sensation is to aid the killers in their demonic evil.

As for conventional pornography, this author makes a good case for racheting down our tacit approval of porn from a libertarian perspective.

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