Uncomfortable Moments in Film and Literature
Over the last forty or so years the advent of better special effects coupled with a retreat of movie censorship (NC-17 being the last hurrah) there are few limits to what we can see and what we can read. Some boundaries still exist in television and film, but we have come a long way from a time when an image of two married folks sharing a bed was taboo. As images and scenes have become more graphic, the audiences have become more desensitized to those images. It’s a natural human psychological and physical trait – more always requires more to get the same response. While literature has suffered less of the censorship, a few decades ago it seemed impossible that “mommy porn” could ever become mainstream, let alone be on the best-seller list.
As a horror fan and writer, it takes a lot to shock, scare or otherwise disturb me. A handful of movies and books have been able to keep me up at night. Of course, there are still those movie scenes that make be turn in shocked disgust. Human Centipede would top my list of “good lord why am I watching this” films. These things are all uncomfortable in a very thrill seeking way. Sort of my version of the roller-coaster – we laugh, we scream, sometimes we cry – but we did stand in line with full anticipation of those very things. Then there are the other things. Things that are like the sound of nails on a chalkboard or perhaps realizing there are ants in the cereal box only after you ate a bowl of it. We do after all expect the adrenaline rush of the roller-coaster – we do not expect it to go off the tracks (well I do which is why I don’t ride them).
In my experience there have been thankfully only a handful of movie and book scenes that have given rise to true discomfort. The kind of feelings that are in no way “good” nor part of the anticipated “experience.” Moments that I turn away (or want to) although I understand they are a part of the story, but that I wish were not. I am not suggesting they be removed. In fact, I give the writers credit for daring to go to a place that I don’t think I am capable of going in my own work. I don’t believe they are crossing a line, I think they have just added a degree of reality that most of us prefer to ignore. I don’t presume that the examples I will share have the same effect on all. It is possible that these things bother only some and not others – much like those who will ride the monster coaster and those of us who will not. For better or worse, in agreement or not, here is my list of truly uncomfortable moments in film and literature.
Last House on the Left: I had seen the original so I knew what I was in for. As a rule I do not like rape scenes. Adding a visualization to what I already can comprehend as a horrible event doesn’t add to my experience. The scene itself was fairly censored it terms of filming. It’s a credit to the actors that it seemed far to “real” for my taste. It was disturbing and one of the few times I turned away from a scene and considered the fast-forward button. I have seen other rape scenes in movies, but this one, which was far less graphic, remains far more disturbing.
The Girl Next Door: The movie version is mild in comparison to the book. This novel by Jack Ketchum is based on “actual” events. I put it on my list of the most disturbing novels I have read. It wasn’t just the violence or the fact that the victim was young and innocent. It was the permanence of the damage done to her and the utter inescapable craziness of the “normal” kids who perpetrated the violence. I am not a violent person by nature, but the book angered me to the point of wishing I could visit some street justice to these characters.
Saving Private Ryan: There is no shortage of death and dismemberment in the movie. It is a landmark for being perhaps the first film to take WWII off the promotional posters or yesteryear and away from the “clean” John Wayne action and demonstrate war for what it is – bloody and violent. Although in the first scene I was struck by the thought of being on one of those boats when the door opened and the bullets flew, that was not nearly as uncomfortable as what was to come. For me the scene that stands out is the “knife scene.” If you’ve seen the movie you know what I am speaking of, if you haven’t there is no way to explain it with the same impact as the scene itself. Perhaps I just hated the “begging for life’ when one knows no mercy will be shown. Perhaps it was the feeling of being trapped and knowing you are powerless to prevent the inevitable. Whichever it was, I have watched the movie a dozen times and I still turn away, fast forward or leave the room for that scene.
RoboCop: It would seem an odd entry for this discussion, but there is still one scene that stands out. In the beginning, when the police officer played by Peter Weller is attacked, the criminals hold him down and shoot off his hand. The acting of the scene is superb and Peter Weller makes the loss of his hand believable. The way he walks around looking at his stump in disbelief was more real than I needed. It wasn’t the loss, it was his reaction to the loss that made me uncomfortable. Again this is such a violent act of permanence. It’s not like being shot in the leg or even a kill shot. It sounds crazy but death seems less disturbing than the loss of a limb. The criminals intent wasn’t just to kill Weller, it was to torture him. The next time I saw a scene that drew up that same feeling was the last of the Dark Knight movies where Bane breaks Batman’s back. I guess I can understand murder more than I can understand mutilation. It’s these moments when I’m reminded that maybe the electric chair isn’t such a bad form of rehabilitation.
Open Water: It is no secret that I am not a fan of swimming with sharks. Every time I hear a story about a surfer getting bitten I think, “yeah don’t dress like a seal and go for a swim.” Jaws was certainly the pinnacle of Shark movies and changed my love of swimming to a healthy suspicion of large bodies of water. Open Water was something a little different and a little more disturbing. It was the manner in which we were pulled into the film. The time the viewer has to contemplate being out in the open water surrounded by sharks. There is no boat to climb aboard, there is no shoreline to attempt to reach, there is only a dwindling hope that help is coming while the tides pull you along. I think the most uncomfortable moment came when the husband dies and the wife is left alone in that water. I’m a survivor but I can’t say with any certainty I wouldn’t opt for a quiet drowning over being the shark buffet.
Blood, guts, creepy monsters, shock and awe – these things I find completely manageable by my human psyche. The things that seem to bother me most are less about the big things and more about the little ones. There is something extremely disturbing about the lack of mercy some humans can show. It makes me very uncomfortable that we exist side-by-side with people who have no empathy and no sense of right and wrong. We all feel “bullet-proof” to a certain extent. Such optimism is a requirement of function in an otherwise dangerous world. But like these scenes remind, we are a fragile creature dependent on social mores and insulation from nature in order to survive. So perhaps these scenes disturb me because they demonstrate all the places where the treads of existence wear thin.