July 23, 2014

Of Violence and Popcorn

The release of several major motion pictures has given me serious pause for reflection. They’re not movies I’d generally pay to see, but they reflect blatant and hidden messages representative of our times, the times we, as activists, are creating.

Gladiator is a blockbuster, all the betrayal, violence, handsome lead characters, and special effects, one can possibly wish for in a theater. In fact, I caught myself actually hoping our hero remained alive long enough to avenge the wrongs committed against him. Good triumphs over evil, or so you pray.

In the story, Maximus, once the general of the Roman army, is sold into battle slavery, and ultimately ends up fighting for his life in Rome’s coliseum before his arch nemesis, Commodus. Despite its noble message and sometimes over-the-top heroics, I found it terribly sad. In fact, while the audience cheered, I sometimes cried.

There was a kind of eerie analogy being played out on the big screen. I couldn’t escape the history of the crowded arena, the one grounded in reality. Christians fed to lions. Dogs pitted against tethered bears. Deadly swordsman facing off against “fighting” bulls, a spectacle legally practiced to this day, and shielded in the guise of tradition. All of those haunting images played over in my mind as Hero Maximus fought for his life in a bloody, violent show of arms. And though violence may beget violence, it makes for a better play; forget the romantic An Affair to Remember, we want blood-and lots of it.

Despite the film’s violence — or maybe because of it — I encourage you to see it. Take a friend, relative, loved one, but preferably someone who needs the enlightenment. And then make analogies: use the film to open other doors: Bullfighting differs only in degree, but not in kind, from the movie’s foundation. Such so-called “fighting” animals are equally exploited and disempowered by needles in their scrotums, Vaseline in their eyes, the breakdown of their neck muscles — which they need in order to make their horns effective — through the repeated stabbings of the picadors.

In another movie, this one geared toward children, the violence is another sort: it’s much more direct regarding the exploitation of animals. In the clay-animated feature, Chicken Run, our captive feathered friends are threatened with their lives should any of the hens slack off in their egg-laying productivity. The chicken farmer epitomizes evil: turning living, feeling, thinking creatures into profits and pot pies.

Hen houses are set within the confines of high wire fences and patrolled by Rottweilers, quite reminiscent of Nazi concentration camps. Plagued by falling profits, the Farmer acquires a chicken pie-making machine, and our band of threatened hens desperately seeks a way to escape the camp and their impending doom before they’re turned into a mass market product. Little kids cheer when the birds prevail — and you can count the vegetarians being born in the process.

Which leads me to The Perfect Storm. The violence here is secondary: a Maine-based fishing vessel must also circumvent elusive profits, so our boat crew sets out into treacherous waters, risking their very lives when several hurricane-force storms collide, in order to haul in the ultimate catch. In fact, they do, and the screen is filled with writhing, trashing swordfish, complete with meat hooks gruesomely stabbed into their faces. The catch scene is bloody, just the way American audiences seem to like their movies.

But I was amused. And inspired, really. For our work has paid off, albeit in little ways. I was certain, absolutely positive, that the fish used in that very real sequence weren’t real at all. Of course I was right about that. Times have changed. Moviegoers may want their blood and gore, they just don’t want it authenticated — and movie producers are serving it up as demanded. In the end, a disclaimer (as was also true in Gladiator) explains how all violence perpetrated against animals in the film was “simulated,” and, in the case of thrashing, bleeding swordfish, animatronic artists had a field day.

Our weapons on behalf of animals are sometimes packaged in Hollywood’s films. After witnessing the audience reactions, I’m all the more convinced that the battles on behalf of animals must be fought using the language of our times: Economics. Politics. And blockbuster movies. Through our individual activism, we can wage an effective-albeit, bloodless, nonviolent-war against the exploitation of animals.

Steady as she goes. And don’t forget to enjoy the popcorn while you fight the good fight.

Changing the world doesn’t always have to hurt.

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