“True Romance” and true compassion

posted by Mike Ciul on April 6th, 2007

A Good War Is Hard to FindWhen I was in college I watched the movie True Romance with some friends. I’d never seen anything so painfully violent, and I told them how it bothered me. Their response was dismissive and they seemed to think I was some kind of prudish weirdo for complaining about violence. The incident really affected me, and within a year I’d become a Tarantino fan and spent a lot of time trying to justify his use of violence in film.

There is, in fact, something special about the violence in Tarantino’s brand of film. You really feel the characters’ pain when they are assaulted and mutilated. That’s something I never saw in an action movie. I watched a lot of Schwarzenegger films with my dad and though the body count was much higher, I never felt the loss as much as in Reservoir Dogs or even Pulp Fiction.

In A Good War Is Hard to Find, David Griffith talks about how the violence is disconnected, even funny in Pulp Fiction. That’s true in some ways, but in a way Tarantino’s violence is more connected than in a lot of other films. When the guy’s head is accidentally blown off in the car, it is kind of funny, but his death is also very real. He’s not some enemy who won’t be bothering you anymore, and he’s not some mystic warrior who becomes one with the Force. He’s really gone, and it’s tragic. When you laugh, you feel ashamed.

If shame is the gateway to redemption, then it has a purpose, but it shouldn’t be an end in itself. By the end of this book I felt like Griffith had replaced his quest for cool by a quest for shame. He says he used to think it made him more tough or cosmopolitan to be able to watch shocking scenes. Now he says you have to put yourself in the picture and be shamed into repentance. So I’m asking myself, what’s the difference? Am I not cool enough to look at pictures of torture? Or am I not compassionate enough?

I think violence is an addiction, and despite Griffith’s warnings about turning a blind eye to it, I think you need to turn away from it. (I’m not a born Catholic, I converted 4 years ago, so maybe I don’t really understand the Catholic view of suffering.)

Griffith spends a lot of time trying to shock us. He describes horrible scenes, lurid photographs, violent movies. He talks with his students about these, and he clearly wants them to be shocked. He’s upset and disappointed when they think it’s no big deal.

I’ve decided it’s not a good idea to try to shock people. Despite the cliches, I don’t think shocking people makes them think. It makes them stop feeling. And that’s a problem. Many years ago, there was an article in Adbusters called “Soul Shock.” It described how shock value is used in advertising to get people’s attention, and as the intensity of shock escalates, advertisements try to shock us at deeper and deeper levels. The article stressed that exposure to such shocking media all the time has serious harmful side-effects. Now, several years later, it seems like Adbusters has joined the competition—their magazine is as deeply upsetting as any advertising.

In Griffith’s book, people looking at images of torture and violence are either shocked voyeurs or disaffected onlookers. He talks about the need to put yourself in the picture, to see that the world of the photograph is the same as ours. But there is still another way.

The image at the beginning of the last chapter shows a man pouring water on another man whose clothes are burning. Griffith tells us how horrible it is, how badly the man is burned. But when I saw the image (before reading the chapter) I said “Finally, an act of compassion amid all this violence!”


I’ve read some quotes from John Hersey’s Hiroshima, which had a big effect on Griffith’s life, and what I saw in it is that everywhere amid the tragedy and devastation there is compassion. Maybe this message is more prominent in Buddhism, but I think it is just as important to Christianity as the truth of suffering. In every image of cruelty and suffering we can look for compassion—we know that God is there, suffering with us, and so we know that compassion must be there too.

Photo: Detail of New York Times layout as modified by Brett Yasko. From “A Good War Is Hard to Find.”

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2 Comments Leave a comment.

  1. On April 6, 2007 at 10:13 Mike (Worcester) said:

    Mr. Ciul, who doesn’t have net access these days, wants to add that “He is very courageous to bare his soul in this book, and show a lot of his own flaws.”

  2. On April 7, 2007 at 14:32 Dave G said:

    I’m author of the book under discussion. I am writing a response to everyone’s reviews (which are very thought-provoking and at times humbling) at Mike B’s request, but I wanted to take on a couple things in Mike C’s comments that I just won’t have room for in my more formal response.

    First, an aside: True Romance was my first exposure to Tarantino, too–Tarantino wrote the screenplay. In fact, my college roommates bought me the screenplay to True Romance and Reservoir Dogs for my 19th birthday (the screenplays came together in the same book).

    Now for my response: Mike C writes:

    “When the guy’s head is accidentally blown off in the car [in Pulp Fiction], it is kind of funny, but his death is also very real. He’s not some enemy who won’t be bothering you anymore, and he’s not some mystic warrior who becomes one with the Force. He’s really gone, and it’s tragic. When you laugh, you feel ashamed.”

    I’ve never seen the tragedy in Marvin’s death. Call me a snob, but my concept of tragedy comes from folks like Aeschylus and Sophocles. His death is certainly pitiable, but not tragic. This is not an evaluation of Marvin’s worth, it is an evaluation of the casualness of the violence and the fact that the characters are clearly aware of the wrongness of the actions they have committed/are involved in. In order for violence to rise to the level of tragedy, there has to be a strong sense of the character having an unclear or clouded sense of what the correct path is. Of course, I’m using a formula for tragedy that is arguably outmoded, but my argument against Tarantino is that there is no clear efficacy to his brand of tragedy. Perhaps inherent in his representation of violence a critique of a “postmodern” attitude toward violence, but I don’t think so. Tarantino strikes me as a guy who is earnestly a fan of raw, senseless violence. He is even nostalgic for the days when one could go to the movie theater and see this kind of pulp in B-movie double features–See his latest film project, Grindhouse. Tarantino, unlike folks like Bergman, Kurosawa, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, just to name a few, has no ethic grounding his use of violence, other than: “Gee, sucks for that guy.”

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