-a truly great work of art will always deal with three things: sex, violence and death. It is my opinion that any work of art which deals not at all with this omnipresent trio of human universals is not worthy of one’s time or, indeed, of really being called a work of art at all.
-Brief Primer on Fiction Writing, Part 1
-one can with absolute certainty say that there are Human Universals, that is, Human Generalities. Everyone who exists was born and everyone who was born will die. Everyone feels the pangs of hunger and thirst, of dread and envy, jealousy and admiration, lust and love, of purpose and purposelessness.
-Brief Primer on Fiction Writing, Part 2
All human endeavors bespeak of ourselves; such is the case with fiction which gives form and function to the nebulous, scattered and fevered energy of the brain’s wild imaginings all of which roil up from from the instinctual chasm. It is only reasonable, given their source, that those instinctual and often obfuscated outpourings would cohere to those elements of the human experience which broader humanity holds as paramount: fear of death, given the uncertainty of what, if anything, comes after; the desire for sex as a replicating process to transcend the certainty of death via propagation of a distillation(s) of oneself into those future times which one will not live to see (echos of one’s consciousness imparted to the surviving lover as memories; the genetic progeny – sons and/or daughters – who will retain some semblance of one’s essential attributes). Then there is the impulse to defend against, violently, all those things within life that are essential to the aforementioned project of transcending death (love, progeny, home, water, food, ect.) and to attack, vigorously, all perceivable threats to those hitherto mentioned qualities.
The greatest pieces of art give to wider humanity the tools needed to grapple with such questions. Not necessarily to solve them, for some are inherently – thus far – insolvable, but to better face them down and navigate their labyrinthine sprawl.
Fiction which does not deal with these primal impulses, with these most crucial matters of human life, can scarcely be expected to rouse the passions since they are inherently devoid of the most powerful of them. If passions can not be roused then men can not, in any large number be moved, if men can not be moved to act in congruence to all those aforementioned questions of import than entropy is intensified and process of social degradation sets in like a cankerous wound.
This is not to say that one’s work should mechanically fixate on the particulars of death, or on the process of copulation nor of the graphic outpouring of those redder urges. Such fixations lead to a cold, stiff introspection on the action alone, that is to say, it places death, or sex or violence as a self-encapsulated and self-sufficient module for the whole of human action; wherein discourse is repelled or stifled at the expense of display alone. It is life as a screenshot. Life as a museum display. Devoid of dynamism and adaptation.
Most everyone can here recall some film that featured countless explosions, and gunshots and great gouts of blood and copulation and yet was wholly boring (). Physical action, alone and isolated, is not particularly interesting, there is nothing there to make one think; all one can do is passively observe a manifest reality. Films such as Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai or Ran, in contrast both feature plenty of scintillating violence (that was shocking for its time) but focus just as much, if not more, time upon the consequences of that very same violence. One of the best examples of the divide we are here discussing (between violence-as-decoration and violence-as-a-window-into-the-primal-state) can be seen in contrasting two seemingly similar scenes from the two films, those being the Dostoevsky-influenced psychological samurai-thriller, The Sword of Doom (1966) and the actionsploitation film/videogame emulator Hardcore Henry (2015).
The Sword of Doom follows the exploits of a master swordsman named Ryunosuke with a unique and bewildering sword style in feudal Japan. His life would be splendid save for the fact that he’s a pure sociopath who derives his greatest pleasure from killing. Around the middle of the film he and the assassins who he is traveling with attack a man who they believe is a political target. The man, however, turns out to be a local swordsmaster named Shimada Toranosuke (he’s played by Toshiro Mifune so you know he isn’t messing around). The assassins attempt to assault Shimada anyways but are all promptly dispatched, one by one as the shots linger more upon their bodies then upon the lightening-fast swordplay itself. After the battle is over only the aloof Ryunosuke, Shimada and the leader of the gang of assassins remain (pinned beneath Shimada’s knee with a sword to throat); Shimada then has a conversation with the defeated leader of the assassin troupe as the normally icy Ryunosuke looks on with wonderment.
Shimada: “Who are you? Your name!”
Assassin leader: “Kill me!”
Shimada: “You’re the leader, it seems. Your hot-headed men made me kill against my will. The men lying here were good swordsmen. Now they’ve died like dogs! How will you atone for it, you fool?”
Assassin leader: [crying] “Kill me. It is the worst mistake I’ve ever made. Kill me!”
Shimada: [releasing the assassin and sheathing his blade, he turns to Ryonusuke] The sword is the soul. Study the soul to know the sword. Evil mind, evil sword.
Contrast this with the big fight scene towards the end of Hardcore Henry where our protagonist, Henry, a cyborg who is seeking to rescue his girlfriend from a albino warlord with psychic powers named Akan, must contend with an army of mind controlled slaves. Arteries are punctured, throats slit, bones broken and heads crushed but there is never any sense of loss or pain for two reasons, the first is that all of the enemies in the fight scene are nameless random goons without emotion or backstory. They aren’t really people, they are simply props and so when Henry is violently dispatching them he isn’t really killing a person he is merely destroying a prop. It certainly looks fascinating but one can not really take away much from the film other than just that: it was pretty cool.
[continued in part 4]