KENSINGTON. — Kensington. -- Sex sells. So does violence. No doubt about it. But neither works well if the viewer can see too much.
Near the end of the movie "Blade Runner," the dying android, played by Rutger Hauer, drives his fist through a wall and grabs the gun-holding hand of his hunter, Harrison Ford. Hauer pulls Ford's hand and gun through the wall. He pries Ford's fingers off the gun and then one by one breaks three fingers.
With each crunching snap of a finger, Hauer tells Ford why he is doing it. And with each crunching snap, the audience groans in sympathetic pain.
Language -- even the new digitized electronic broadcast languages of television and high-concept special effects -- cannot convey pain. For that matter, no language can convey feelings of any kind. At most, language provokes sympathy from those who have had similar experiences.
When I was in college, I worked in my back yard as a car mechanic. My neighbor Carter, who was a few years older and had been in the Navy, would sometimes sit and watch. When you work on cars, wrenches slip or bolts break and your knuckles smash into hot or sharp or hard things. Whenever I hurt myself and made a noise of pain, Carter would say, "What're you moaning about? I don't feel a thing." Then he'd laugh.
Had Carter had more direct experience with smashed and cut knuckles he might at least have been sympathetic -- unless, of course, he'd already learned, wisely, that such pain is transient and not fatal, and that likely it held a lesson of the kind that only pain teaches.
In "Blade Runner," the audience's sympathetic response to Harrison Ford's fingers connects with common experience. The shootings in that movie provoked no similar sympathetic response. Broken fingers we understand, but being shot, no, not the way it's shown in movies.
During the Vietnam War I saw a photo of an American soldier lying naked and prone on a table in a field hospital. Across his back at the base of his spine was a gash about four inches deep and maybe two inches wide. Clearly, his spine had been severed; he had been nearly cut in half. The wound, if not fatal, was at least going to leave him paralyzed. No one who viewed that photo could feel what that soldier must have felt, but most people have had enough experience of lesser wounds, and of being confined, as by one's parents when young or by several days of flu, to sympathize with the horror of both the pain and the prospect of spending a lifetime in a wheelchair.
Somewhere I saw another photo of another naked young man, this one purportedly a communist guerrilla undergoing torture in Latin America. He was blindfolded and his hands were tied behind him. He was sitting astride a square steel bar about one inch on an edge. His hideous discomfort could not be felt by the viewer, but it was easy to sympathize with by extrapolating from lesser personal experiences.
Pain is totally personal. Pleasure, too. All feelings are only personal.
Violence on TV and in the movies is dressed-up violence. It is stylized in a way that blocks the viewer's sympathy by omitting the close-up, hard-edge reality of reality. Naked violence is the kind one sees in news documentary. The picture of the South Vietnamese officer shooting the Viet Cong suspect is naked violence. So is the tape of Rodney King.
The popular objection to violence in movies and on television is similar to the objections to sexual vividness in the media. But even sexuality on television is not naked sexuality; the blemishes, asymmetries and other deviations from perfection that are part of every human body are covered by at least some clothing. The pock-marked, freckled, unpowdered naked reality of an actual human body in a skin flick is usually enough after the first few moments to put off any healthy, semi-sophisticated person. Almost always the human body is more sexually attractive when at least partly clothed than completely naked -- even of cosmetics to cover the freckles, rashes and the rest of stark reality.
Violence on television, as with sex on television, is clothed. Television violence is dressed with quick editing cuts and with the heroic victim's unrealistic strength. Clothed violence, as with clothed sexuality, is inherently more attractive than the real violence that even the news media will not show, the kind of violence that resides in news archives, of pieces of bodies blown apart, or of sexually mutilated torture victims -- or of torture itself.
How might our society respond to uncensored naked violence? People of unsophisticated mind might be provoked; but for most of us, the fine details of broken fingers and severed genitals, and of blood, guts, brains, teeth and eyeballs lying about would be too easy to sympathize with, and that would make it repellent. Not many people would be a faithful audience of naked violence; censorship would not be needed; viewers would change channels rapidly to the clothed violence that currently provokes objection.
On the other hand, were it not for a society's attraction to clothed, glorified violence, the society might not have at its disposal the ignorant strength of male youth ready to spring to violent defense when perceived collective threat looms. The actual violence in our society is the same naked violence that exists in all societies; it is among the things that human beings do to one another. It is part of us. From Homer to Peckinpah, a society's literature -- now projected, digitized, and televised -- carries the eternal promises of fun, excitement and glory. The glorified clothed portrayal of violence keeps it alive in our imaginations -- perhaps to our collective benefit, if one inclines toward a collective view of natural selection. Were we to see true naked violence -- from which we do indeed shield our collective eye -- we might be less violent than we are -- and thus less ready to fight for survival.
Violence on television, while excessive by some measures, is well clothed. As such, it might be socially and biologically healthier than little or no portrayal of violence -- or by the portrayal of true naked violence.
Robert Burruss is an engineer who writes about society and technology.