PAIN AND MAKING MOVIES
In her 1985 study on physical pain, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, Elaine Scarry (no pun intended… by her parents) poured over letters and testimony from torture survivors, diaries from soldiers, medical case histories, and other texts I wouldn’t like to read. What she found, essentially, was this: pain unmakes our world.
When our bodies are hurt, everything else ceases to exist. Pain is a black hole that sucks up perceptions, thoughts, and emotions into its infinite yet invisible mass (sorry for the over-the-top space metaphor: I just saw Melancholia, so cosmic disasters are currently a major preoccupation) until it is all that’s left. If you’ve ever even stubbed your toe, you know this is true.
Trained in English, Scarry was drawn to pain because of what she saw as literature’s inability to describe it. “The real problem for language wasn’t the abstract but the concrete,” she told The New York Times. “As hard as it is to get a notion of truth in a novel […] it can be done. Whereas I realized that no novel I was reading was about physical pain.”
Not only is pain incredibly difficult to describe; in its unmaking of the world, Scarry argues, it also erases language itself. It’s significant, then, that the media that today deal most often with the destruction of the human body are overwhelmingly visual. Unlike literature, film revels in the concrete, approaching the abstract only obliquely: to get at the truths it was so concerned with, Tree of Life had to show us a lot (I mean, really, A LOT) of shots of leaves, branches, and rays of sunlight. Yet for all its skill in specificity, film falters with the sensorially concrete, with describing sensations experienced internally without resorting to the non-visual realm of voiceovers.
Thus, faced with the impossibility of describing pain, film simply doesn’t. Instead, it shows us the violence that causes it. While there might be in the narratives that contain them, there’s no message in these depictions of violence — their metonymies lead only to different versions of themselves. Yet in this maze of mirrors, something is built out of the void of a world that’s been unmade.
Through its complex arrangements of blood and guts, film creates language out of that which destroys language. 2011’s aesthetically-kaleidoscopic representations of violence form part of this peculiar grammar of mutilation. Like language itself, film violence neither creates nor contains meaning: it gives us the tools do to so ourselves.
[Artwork: Keith Kawaii]