Jackson Pollock, an abstract expressionist painter whose works of splatter draw you in. When you walk away from one of his paintings, you leave a small piece of you in the thickness of its tangled chaos. Of course anyone can throw paint at a canvas, but very few could say so much with that painting style, his artful quality appreciated both by those who knew what they were looking at and those who just stumbled upon it, taken by its striking magnitude.
My feelings about gore in film are similar to that of a Jackson Pollock painting. To some, it looks like artless blood gushing, inserted purely for the gross-out. To me, it represents the chaos that is the human fragility. It reminds us that we’re just water-weighted animals who can be drained of life with the flick of a sharp edge. Sure it’s sickening, but nausea is a common symptom of being forced to face a truth we’re not used to facing, that life is precious.
Jackson Pollock said: “Abstract painting is abstract. It confronts you. There was a reviewer a while back who wrote that my pictures didn’t have any beginning or any end. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but it was.”
I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing for a film to be best known for its gory scenes. It’s not ideal, at least not from the storyteller’s perspective, but what does that say about the cinematic experience? Even today, you can get away with conveniently subtle wounds hidden behind and seeping through articles of clothing. In fact, stabbing cut-aways and suggestions of gore date back to Hitchcock and earlier, arguably due to the otherwise lack of realism, but the style’s continued prevalence suggests that it’s a strategy used to appease the audience’s potential discomfort.
Leaving them guessing is one thing. Budgetary restrictions are understandable. But if it’s just because someone asked, “Do they really need to see that?” without the answer being properly considered, there’s an inherent problem. It’s art for the sake of commercialism, and that rarely has any impactful value.
I don’t blame anyone for preferring not to see the gory in all its glory. But it’s difficult for me not to find a parallel between your distaste for seeing faux bloodshed alongside your love for news stories about bloodshed. Your kneejerk reaction to cover your eyes feels like the same instinct you have to cover your ears when social issues don’t align with your worldview. Embracing discomfort leads to higher understanding. Gore is an important artistic expression for the simple reason that it makes you squeamish and uncomfortable — it brings you face to face with your mortality.
Beyond its validity as an important filmmaking inclusion, gore is an art form no different than any special effects. It’s an obvious observation, but it’s an important one. A large indicator of the era in which a horror movie came out is the realism of the gory scenes. There has been continuous artistic improvement in regards to that realism, meaning the art itself has improved.
For example, if a group of people start the photorealism painting movement and ten years later, you can’t tell the difference between photorealist paintings and a photograph, I’d call that an improvement. The goal of the creative undertaking is in its title, “photorealism,” accomplished in spades when the finished result is as realistic as a photograph. With the gore of today, it’s as realistic as if you were there. The real-life experience is vastly different, of course, but the realism can be on par with video journalism, with the real-life truth of the hard-to-see, and the even harder to un-see.
Further, the insistence on the realism of gore is extremely noticeable between movies, even among films that came out during the same era of filmmaking. It could be argued that how well a horror movie ages is directly contingent on its realism, from the believability of the acting to the authenticity of the gory scenes and other special effects. One movie in 1985 could be laughably difficult to appreciate given the special effects we’re used to in the modern day, while another can be absolutely on par with today’s special effects. Both filmmakers (presumably) had access to comparable special effects capabilities, yet one treated horror with the respect that artistic expression should always demand. And time has rewarded those efforts.
As a side note, the timeless accessibility of the film’s story is largely contingent on how well it ages more so than the realism of the gore. I just wanted to get that out there before it’s argued. But the realism of the gore is an undeniably large factor.
As we wrap up our horror month here at Heard Tell, my appreciation for gore is slanted toward the horror genre. But gore’s importance spans genres. The importance of forcing viewers to come to grips with how quickly they could be screaming in agony, that there are thousands of people screaming in agony every second of the day, that some of us are capable of doing monstrous things or can fall victim to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. These are realities gore forces us to face, and it can do so on screen with photorealistic quality. The effect it can have spans genres, from suicide scenes to fist fights to gun battles to freak accidents. Nothing in this life is so sacred as to be immune to gory possibilities. That’s what makes it so frighteningly fascinating, so viscerally disorienting.
When it comes to art, what is more important than being impactful? At least as an artist, as a storyteller, the impact of what you’re trying to say is more important than why you’re trying to say it. From the 1935 Nazi propaganda film The Triumph of the Will to the 2016 Ava DuVernay Netflix documentary 13th, the motivations and potential social impact come secondary to the film’s impact as a piece of art. If there’s no impact to be had, then the motivations and potential social impact become irrelevant to the general public. It turns, “That was good,” into, “Good for you.”
The reason I used those two films as examples is for the sake of the larger point. Whether the motives are good or bad, progressive or regressive, the message is lost if it cannot be found.
The next time you see a gory scene in a movie, really embrace it. Think about how it makes you feel, why it was included, the plot and character ramifications of its graphic nature. Whether you see gore and normally clap with glee or feel prompted to cover your eyes, think about gore for its artistic value. It was put into the script, it was polished by the director, it was crafted by a special effects team, it was enhanced by the actors, it was considered by the set designer, it was shot by a cinematographer, and it was cut together by an editor, and I’m assuredly forgetting some people along the way. Every drop of blood, piece of torn flesh, shrieks of agony, they’re in there for a reason. Primarily for impact, but it’s easy to simply move on from there. There’s a reason for it. If there’s truly no reason for the gore, then you can criticize, but it’s far too often that a movie is criticized for its overuse of violence for the simple reason that the person criticizing doesn’t like excessive violence on screen.
The next time you see a gory scene in a movie, consider the implications. Use it as an excuse to reconsider your humanity, your fragility, your mortality. It might just change your life, because gore, like all art, has the power to do exactly that.