Monday, October 24, 2005

Empathy

Art, film, literature, music, & (I'm reluctant to say) television capture human emotion in short bursts of visual and aural expression - those that we are drawn to are used to characterize our identity and individualism, and increasingly initiate and define our relationships with others. As an angsty teen, I ran to Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, Tori Amos - any number of musical artists to make manifest emotions I couldn't define. I hang prints on my apartment walls that aesthetically and emotionally appeal to me.

I find film to be one of the most dangerous media for this phenomenon. The combination of picture and sound maximizes emotional effect, and provides a vehicle for manipulation of that effect that has fascinating and horrific consequences. Quentin Tarantino can make a whole audience laugh when someone is shot in the face. Horror films have people screaming and jumping out of their seats. Films "based on a true story" inspire us, terrify us, anger us, sadden us.

It's not real. Except when it is.

Yesterday I sat through North Country, a film recounting the story of the first class action sexual harrassment case in the country, which took place in Minnesota's Iron Range. I knew, walking into the theater, that it was bound to be disturbing. The movie contained clips of Anita Hill's testimony against Clarence Thomas. The movie showed what that might have looked like, multiplied exponentially. Being a woman who has suffered the embarrassment, indignity, confusion, helplessness and panic evoked by unwanted touch & dialogue, I can safely say that it is not an experience I need to relive in a movie theater. Suddenly I'm not watching a movie. I'm reliving my own. Charlize Theron is "forced down" and "groped between her legs", "terrified", "unable to move or escape", "crying". I can't breath. I can't look away. I can't stop thinking about when that's been me. I go home to safe, loving arms and cry. I can tell him her story, but my throat closes when I try to tell mine.

Where does film cross the line?

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