I was beginning to think that I had an unusually low threshold for watching violent and gruesome scenes on TV and in film, until I came across this recap of the latest episode of Breaking Bad in Rolling Stone, a publication not exactly known for its cultural squeamishness:
"Gliding Over All," last night's "half-season" finale of Breaking Bad, was an exquisitely unpleasant viewing experience for most of its duration. Exhibit A: the first of the show's two montage sequences. Even on a show for which "Jesus Christ, I can barely stand to watch it sometimes" is a recommend-to-a-friend selling point, the montage of murders Walt orchestrates to eliminate Gus Fring's jailed co-conspirators was, for me at least, literally nauseating.
And I want to shake the hands of writer Moira Walley-Beckett and director Michelle MacLaren for that, because it didn't have to be so sickening. They could have taken the easy way out. Once we got an idea of the scope of the operation--the number of murders in separate locations that Walt decreed must go down practically simultaneously--and saw even hardened prison-gang killers balk at its degree of difficulty, the mass murder could have become another high-stakes heist, pretty much. You know, the sort of sprawling, dazzlingly choreographed, breathlessly edited loose-ends slayfest that gained prominence with the baptism massacre in The Godfather, and which crime shows from The Sopranos to Boardwalk Empire love to employ in their early seasons.
But instead of something slick and graceful, we saw men screaming in terror and agony as they were rendered immobile and stabbed repeatedly in the gut and chest, or shrieking as men tossed accelerants into their cells and then lit them on fire.
You get the idea.
Breaking Bad is an excellent show, by all accounts, including mine. I love the story, the characters, the drama, etc. But lately, it has gotten so grim that it's become hard to watch. And it's not alone in that distinction. The last season of Mad Men, for instance, had moments that went too far, like when Lane committed suicide and we saw his dead corpse hanging from the noose. Another recent example is the new movie Arbitrage, which is about the fall of a morally-challenged hedge-fund magnate Robert Miller (Richard Gere). It was a captivating movie, but again, grim: There's a car-crash death scene featuring a sliced neck that's spewing blood (Miller falls asleep at the wheel, and the car flips, killing his young and beautiful mistress in the seat next to him. This is the start of his downfall).
In each of these cases, the point seems to be that the immoral acts of other people leave a great deal of human suffering in their wake. Highlighting the blood and gore is, I suppose, meant to emphasize the extent of human suffering--which is a lot. That's a powerful message, certainly, but it borders on nihilism when all there is is evil and suffering and no redemption. In other words, there is no good that comes out the evil and suffering.
That message, repeated enough times in the popular culture, can be seriously demoralizing. It takes a toll on the psyche, as psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has pointed out in her great book from 2009, Positivity:
Violence is similarly used to captivate and entertain us, in movies, television, video games, and more. Audiences clearly enjoy being pushed to the edge of what they can comfortably take. Violent entertainment is becoming a booming part of the world economy. Yet the downstream psychological costs of viewing violent media have been well studied. Science shows that as you consume violent media, you increase the odds of becoming violent yourself, in large and small ways. You are more likely to hurt others, be suspicious of others, and find violence to be an acceptable solution to interpersonal problems. Media violence zaps your empathy and your kindness.
To Fredrickson, if we feed our negative emotions--as the media can do--then our happiness will pay the price. Her solution is to get rid of the gratuitous negativity that fills our lives. Instead of watching Breaking Bad, watch Modern Family.
Hollywood producer Lindsay Doran would agree:
After reading the book Flourish, by Martin E. P. Seligman, a catalyst of the positive-psychology movement, she began rewatching films through the lens of what Dr. Seligman identifies as the five essential elements of well-being: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. (He refers to these elements collectively as perma.)
The results surprised her. And they inspired a stealth campaign to reverse the Hollywood superstitions that a “movie is only art if it ends badly, and that you’ll only win an Academy Award if you write or direct a movie about misery or play someone miserable,” as she put it. During the past six months, at a symposium and in a series of presentations to filmmakers, she has strongly advocated the concept of cinematic Zoloft.
Her presentation hit a nerve with the actress Emma Thompson:
Ms. Thompson, who has worked with Ms. Doran on five movies including "Sense and Sensibility," was struck by three of her conclusions. First, some of the most elevating American movies “are about people desperate to achieve something that they do not get to achieve.” (George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” doesn’t get to travel the world, Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” doesn’t win an acquittal for his client.) Second, many of the greatest romances (“Roman Holiday,” “Casablanca”) are about lovers who can’t or don’t remain together. And in many of the most successful movies of all time accomplishment is accompanied by incalculable loss: In Ms. Doran’s words, “Obi-Wan dies, Dumbledore dies, Gandalf dies, 1,500 passengers on the Titanic die, thousands of Pandorans die.” The protagonist may be happy at the end, “but his smile,” she said, “is laced with the loss that’s come before.”
What this suggested to her is that “the accomplishment the audience values most is not when the heroine saves the day or the hero defeats his opponent.” Instead, she said, “the accomplishment the audience values most is resilience.”
So where does Ms. Doran go from here? As she continues speaking with filmmakers and studios, she said in an e-mail: “I think the thing that they’re getting out of it is that the ‘happy ending,’ the one that is most memorable and might make people go back to see the film a second time, might not be about winning. It might be about not winning, about finding something deeper that means more than victory.”
“A lot of people seem stunned,” she added, that ending with a character who survives loss “might be both the more inspiring and the more commercial way to end a movie.”
Along those lines, when I saw Arbitrage, one of the previews at the beginning was for a film called The Impossible, which is the incredible true story of a family who was caught in the tsunami that hit southeast Asia in 2004. The film's tagline is "nothing is more powerful than the human spirit." The trailer was deeply moving.