In the 19th century, photography brought the carnage of the American Civil War home to the civilian population. Photographers captured the torn and twisted bodies of anonymous soldiers strewn across battlefields, and those images were published in newspapers and journals to show the cost of a war that would go on to kill 2% of the entire population of the country. The barbaric violence was put on full display and changed our national perception of death.
During the brutal trench warfare of WWI, photography, and also increasingly the moving image, documented horrible new forms of mass death men inflicted upon men. Poison gas and the machine gun rendered killing impersonal. The brutal slaughter, the bloody sundering of bodies without discrimination, horrified a generation of European men.
Now such graphic violence is masturbatory fodder for men (almost always men) playing a gory video game or watching a violent movie. Especially a fucking Mel Gibson movie.
Anonymous men in uniform get torn apart let and right in Gibson’s new film– and most of the time in “cool” graphic ways bordering on both the sadistic and acrobatic. Unnamed soldiers are “disposable people” and their cinematic suffering is presented without any real thought or comment other than a voyeuristic pleasure inversely proportional to any audience’s sense of compassion. These torn-apart bodies are dehumanized on the screen (especially the non-Christian Japanese). They are background meat-scenery. They are not protagonists. They are not actual humans with thoughts and emotions, or anything the camera is willing to linger on except their blood, viscera, and gore. These men are mute but for their screams. In the larger narrative, they don’t matter because the camera only objectifies their anguish. The film perversely revels in their messy deaths. Their only role is to convey whatever pious, cruel, muddled message Gibson’s harping on now (jonesing for some sort of professional comeback without, you know, actually doing any real contrition to deserve it).
This lack of compassion, or at least the failure to apply it uniformly, is a tiresome hallmark of Gibson’s directorial work. It is also a theme in the novel I just finished. I’ve written a murder mystery set in the ancient Roman world– a brutal world Gibson would have felt at home in. But I didn’t want to just present corpses for my detective, already cold MacGuffins simply representing puzzles to be deciphered. I wanted to explore what it meant to be a compassionate man in that time who understood on a deep level that there really are no “disposable people,” and only our immature selfishness deems them so. My main character, Gaius Pedius, learns every life has value. He realizes that every man who dies on a battlefield (or is cut down by a murderer) is the subject of his own tragedy, his own subjectified reality. Pedius’ investigations are not just a search for justice, but a forceful rejection of men like Gibson (who exist in every age) and their bloodthirsty nihilism.
I’m assembling the final draft now and getting ready to begin the protracted process of querying agents to shepherd it toward publication. Along with hopefully being an enjoyable, amusing mystery novel, I hope A Murder of Crows on the Wall can also be, in its small way, a compassionate, Humanistic counter to our modern American trend toward dehumanization and cruelty. And anything else Gibson puts up on the screen.