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Pulp and Dagger Fiction!

Dec. 18, 2005

Handing the "Truth"!...(is Dark 'n gritty just a trend?)

With Christmas almost upon us, a sane and rational man might pen an editorial appropriate to the festive season. And, indeed, perhaps I have. But as this is Pulp & Dagger, we do things a little differently here. So we will examine a curious trend, the antithesis of good will to all men -- that little trend called “dark n’ gritty” that is popular in so many stories these days, sweeping TV series, comic books, and more.

Here’s a thought: what’s real and what’s not? Specifically, in the unreality of fiction and storytelling, what’s realistic and what’s not? It seems like an easy question with an easy answer -- every critic and writer breathing today tells you he (or she) can recognize the difference. But, really, it all depends on your point of view, and what you choose to focus on.

And many people choose to focus on “grittiness”. That defines reality to them, and anyone who disagrees is weak, wussy -- childish. When this argument comes up I’m always reminded of the scene in A Few Good Men when Jack Nicholson starts ranting: “You can’t handle the truth!” And a lot of writers (and their defenders) parrot the same line: anyone who doesn’t like what they’re doing just can’t handle it and should go back to watching Tele Tubies or something.

But, as I say, what is real?

One of the first times I remember really thinking about this was with the ultra-violent movie, RoboCop, directed by Paul Verhoven…

Okay, quick digression on Paul V. I’m not very impressed with him as a director; he seems to have no understanding of subtlety, or when something is over-the-top to the point of silly (and, frankly, I‘ve seen a lot of movies by him because he does a lot of SF and, hey, look at this site -- I like SF, and so do most of you). One movie I, sort of, liked by him was called The Fourth Man, a movie he made in Europe before coming to Hollywood. I liked it (mildly) as a wry black comedy, slyly spoofing pretentious film noir melodramas. Yet then the late Canadian film critic, Jay Scott (who was the host of the late night TV movie show I was watching) revealed that he had been with Verhoven at the movie’s North American premiere. The audience was really enjoying it, finding it very funny…yet Verhoven was miserable. Why? It seems that as far as the director was concerned, he hadn’t made a comedy! Which then makes me think of the movie Starship Troopers in which many fans and critics defended its blatantly fascist messages as being a spoof of fascism. Yet when I watched a behind-the-scenes documentary of the film, Verhoven never once mentioned the movie as being a parody.

End digression…

So, anyway, in the interviews surrounding RoboCop, Verhoven defended his violence as realistic, that to have downplayed or cleaned up the violence would have been the real crime. Which is an interesting point that has been made before and since. However, in the ultra violent RoboCop, there’s a scene where a villain is doused with toxic waste, and stumbles screaming and melting into the path of a car -- said car hits said villain who promptly explodes into goo that, then, if memory serves, is wiped off the windshield by the windshield wipers (the scene was reshot for TV so that the villain just gets hit, presumably so he could recur in the short-lived Canadian-made RoboCop TV series). Anyway, my point is, I don’t know much about biology, nor toxic waste, but the idea that someone could stagger about on his own two feet, yet then be reduced to liquid goo by the impact of a car, doesn’t strike me as very plausible…or realistic.

Verhoven defended his extreme violence by saying it was realistic, and, in essence, anyone who objected to it “couldn’t handle it” (as Jack said), even as the violence is completely ridiculous and unbelievable. And ever since I’ve kind of noticed that whenever someone claims their movie/book/comic is realistic, they generally mean it’s “gritty”, usually with a thread of nihilism, and brutality. And there’s no doubt, life can be like that. But as my RoboCop reference illustrates, that doesn’t mean if you’re story is violent and gritty, realism is the natural result.

In fact, gritty n’ violent is just one more escape, a variation on the creative contrivance, another childish fancy that then we are all expected to pretend is adult and sophisticated (and anyone who disagrees just -- say it with me -- “can’t handle the truth!”)

Needless to say, I can get a bit bored with incessant grittiness, precisely because it, like any storytelling cliché, is just that -- a style of storytelling, no more or less real than a kinder, gentler cliché. I was thinking about this while watching an episode of the HBO TV series, Rome (not to be confused with ABC’s identical, Empire). Rome is meant to be a gritty take on ancient Rome, with lots of sex n’ violence n’ profanity. And I’m probably being unfair to single it out. Like with HBO’s equally gritty western, Deadwood, there’s a lot of sardonic humour in Rome -- they know they’re being naughty; that’s the point. Still, to make a long story short (too late!) there was a scene where a character gets killed by thugs sent to kill him. And the point is: I knew he was going to get killed; I knew he wasn’t going to escape, or prove himself an unexpectedly adept swordsman -- he was gonna die. And I knew that…because Rome was a gritty series where anti-heroes win.

Get it? Far from shaking up convention, far from stunning us with unexpected twists (y’know, what gritty realism is supposed to do) it had simply substituted its own cliché. And that’s the problem. When everyone’s seeking to prove how gritty they can be…gritty becomes its own “safe” style.

One of the reasons I never really enjoyed the 1990s revival of the TV show, The Outer Limits, was because it seemed to me it relied a little too heavily on downbeat endings, where the heroes die, the monsters win, the world is destroyed. Fans would say, that’s because the series was trying to shake things up, and that I couldn’t handle stories where everyone doesn’t live happily ever after. Touche. However I would also argue that once downbeat endings become the norm, rather than the exception, they just become boring, dull, cliched, predictable, trite -- ho hum. Not to mention creatively lazy. A happy ending requires setting up a dilemma, then concocting a clever resolution…a downbeat ending requires setting up a dilemma, then not concocting a clever resolution -- which is the trickier to write do you think?

And before I send the wrong message: I enjoy gritty as much as the next guy (heck, I‘ve watched a bit of Rome, I was enjoying Deadwood). I like things that can be raw, that can be dark, that can shock. It’s just, I like other things, too. I like adventure stories where a tough anti-hero does tough things (this site is full of ruthless barbarians and pragmatic private eyes)…but I also like adventure stories where a noble hero refuses to compromise his principals, even though it’d be easier to do so. To me, that’s the challenging, provocative story -- the one that says the world can be tough and unfair, but we don’t have to be tough and unfair with it. We can be rebels.

In the TV series, Angel, there was a story arc in which the brooding vampire hero discovers the world might, literally, be Hell on earth -- yet far from destroying his resolve, it strengthened it. As he explained, “If nothing we do matters…then all that matters is what we do.” Or, as I interpreted it, the end doesn’t justify the means, the means is the end. In this cynical world we have, I thought it was amazing anyone would express such an idealistic, Pollyanna sentiment on TV. Of course, by series’ end, the “gritty” had taken root, and the series had Angel violating all sorts of means to achieve his ends. To some, that made the series better, more sophisticated, more “gritty”…to me, it made the series safer, weaker, more complacent.

The thing is, when everyone starts doing something, you have to question whether it’s really all that edgy or groundbreaking. When everyone rallies around the flag of grittiness, and dogmatically chant the pledge of allegiance (“you can’t handle the truth!”), you have to ask, who’re the real rebels? Those who people their gritty stories with anti-heroes, nihilism, rapes and murders…or those who don’t?

I’m reminded of my brother, Jeffrey Blair Latta (our temporarily absentee editorialist), who has talked about people he knew, years gone by, when he took film classes. They all wanted to be gritty, to prove their artistic mettle, and they all saw the way to do it being through violence. One school chum apparently suggested he knew how to do a great Batman movie -- it would begin with the Joker committing a heinous murder -- a gory, brutal, R-rated murder! -- while incongruous classical music played in the background. What was the plot of this masterpiece? Apparently he hadn’t got much past the R-rate murder scene and the cliché of incongruous music. But he was still convinced it’d be a great movie. Other chums wanted to do a short film about kids burning down their school and killing the teachers. When Blair innocently asked what was the story for this magnum opus, he was met with blank stares.

Back in the 1990s, comic books went through their own dark n’ gritty phase, where every villain was a serial killer, and half the super heroes compromised their ethics in one way or another, usually up-ing their own level of brutality -- and any reader who didn’t like it was regarded as a wimp who “couldn’t handle it”. Then something happened. People got bored. Bored with the violence. Bored with the nihilism. Suddenly the dark n’ gritty crowd were the ones being mocked as arrested adolescents, playing out impotent power fantasies, desperately trying to shock a readership that was becoming jaded. And there was a shift back to a slightly kinder, gentler super hero. But it didn’t really take, and recently, comics seem to be sliding back into a dark n’ gritty era, where every super hero has committed a moral lapse and where you don’t even qualify as a villain if you haven’t killed at least a dozen people.

But is that real? Sure, the world is full of brutality and cruelty…but it’s full of other things, too. Puppy dogs and people doing favours for strangers, for example -- and, yes, that ol‘ Christmas Spirit. After all, statistically, most police officers still retire without having fired a gun in the line of duty. More people are killed by drunk drivers than by criminals…yet you won’t be seeing a “gritty” Batman comic anytime soon where the Dark Knight joins MADD.

So maybe this “gritty realism” isn’t really about “grittiness” or “realism” after all. It’s just another narrative style, a different cliché. Maybe it’s about the fact that some people like it, they enjoy it -- and they just can’t handle anything else.

D.K. Latta (sitting in for Jeffrey Blair Latta, editor and Supreme Plasmate)

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