Pushing Boundaries

The other day, my wife the university professor asked another of her very good questions: “Why do so many critics equate pushing boundaries with excellence?”

Why indeed?  Does more violence, more nudity and sexual content, or the detailing of the depths of human depravity have much at all to do with excellence?  Let’s face it.  Nude human bodies are similar to other nude human bodies, and death and violence have always been with human beings. So have depraved behaviors.  With the advent of HDTV, Blu-Ray, and similar high resolution video media, nudity and violence are now depicted in stunning visual detail right in the home.  As I recall, the science fiction writer Marian Zimmer Bradley (who also wrote pornography under various pseudonyms) once made an observation to the effect that pornographic sex was like writing about plumbing.  And, in a way, excessive sword and slash fantasy is like rather crude dissection.  If adults want to watch detailed plumbing and dissection, so long as it doesn’t involve children or other perversions, that’s largely their right under the first amendment… but let’s not equate it with excellence.

At least in my mind – and historically – excellence is the concept for striving for something higher, not a depiction in greater detail of something sordid, fatal, or demeaning. And while Game of Thrones, for example, certainly has great supporters, and its visuals – at least from the trailers/ads – are stunning, I gave up on the books shortly after the first one, simply because, although Martin writes well, that skill is employed most effectively at portraying a society where there is really no such thing as excellence except in violence and betrayal.

Perhaps I’m dated, or old-fashioned, but to me, the employment of talent to portray the worse in human behavior with no counterpoint of the best in human nature is the equivalent of moral pornography, in addition to the pornography of sex and violence.  And even if it the best is portrayed along with the worst, humans being humans, they concentrate on the worst. In addition, such graphic portrayals also desensitize at least a percentage of younger viewers, a trend that is continuing in pretty much all forms of the arts, so that music must be louder and simpler to retain its appeal, movies – at least the blockbusters – are simpler (and, as an aside, there are so few good songs in movies that the Academy Awards might as well eliminate that category) and ask less and less of the audience in terms of knowledge and understanding, all of which is perfectly understandable from the marketing point of view.

Then again, it could be that pushing boundaries is the only thing some of these movies and mini-series have going for them… and the rest don’t even have that.

3 thoughts on “Pushing Boundaries”

  1. Sam says:

    I have to disagree somewhat with your analysis of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series.

    If I had one significant criticism of his series it is that it has become a bit too convoluted and doesn’t know where the plot is heading if it’s heading anywhere at all.

    That criticism aside I believe part of the strength of his series is creating characters your barrack for and others for whom while you may despise their actions the author still manages to evoke sympathy at times for their characters motivations.

    In many cases Martin doesn’t just write about depravity he writes about characters who rise above it. Characters who are surrounded by depravity and struggling to survive and yet strive to be better than the depravity that surrounds them.

    Some of his characters are nasty because they are just plain nasty pieces of work. However many of them behave as they do because of the culture they have been indoctrinated into that teaches them it is acceptable and in some cases weakness to behave otherwise.

    Martin’s story is complex with shades of grey. With good or at least sympathetic characters who commit despicable acts like a soldier who kills a butcher’s boy because he is ordered to by the king. The boy’s crime that he accidentally struck the crown prince.

    A brother and sister who have an incestuous affair that makes more sense when you learn of the cruelty and neglect that has surrounded them since childhood. That the only people they have truly cared for and trusted is each other. The sister having been married off by her father to an abusive husband who happens to be king.

    Martin doesn’t simply write/depict depravity. He explores the things that produce it. The motivations of individuals, the cultures of oppression and abuse, the simple desire to survive.

    Martin depicts the many facets of humanity and manages to create a plethora of sympathetic characters. He writes about characters surviving abuse and growing stronger. About characters who seek revenge and others who simply wish to survive.

    A few of his characters are truly despicable nasty pieces of work but they are the minority.

  2. JB says:

    I concur Mr Modesitt, thanks for elaborating on what has also been on my own mind recently.

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