Anyone who watches thrillers sees a lot of torture scenes, on film or TV. This is a good thing, enabling writers to examine characters under duress, and real confrontations in a fantasy setting. I don’t watch the kind of drama where it is merely for shock value. My first was in Genesis of the Daleks, when I was eight. It is played straight: the Doctor is interrogated, while his companions are strapped to a machine which induces pain. Shortly after I saw my first satirised torture scene, the Vogon poetry reading.
People confront each other in real life all the time. Sometimes, one desires to crush the other- sometimes they succeed. You can be in a position where backing off or running away is impossible. Instruments of torture make the cruelty and destructiveness explicit, and often there is a consoling ending: the character tortured recovers. The torture scene enables us to contemplate such encounters at a safe distance, before we meet them in real life.
In Casino Royale (2006), James Bond is whipped in the testicles. He responds by acting as if the pain is some benefit. This is a useful technique with pain, to see good coming of it, which makes epilation easier. And the Hero, as always, refuses to back down or give up, though his situation appears hopeless- I love such stories, of human beings overcoming all odds, they are reassuring. My radical feminist friend loathes men’s action movies, where the Hero is in a series of unlikely situations, achieving his goals by shooting or beating up a series of mooks, getting away when the chasers crash and burn, etc. Well, they can be samey, they have a small repertoire of scenes, but there can be humour and creativity in the execution, just as Burns did so much with Standard Habbie.
Maybe I do watch for shock value.
In The Transporter TV series, there is a woman who threatens to remove fingers with secateurs, smiling delightedly as if she loves the game of it. The amputations happen off screen, but the fantasy element of it- I giggle nervously, and say “Ooh! Gross!“- is a way of distancing the viewer from the situation, enabling us to approach destructive confrontation. It is like a lurid, brightly coloured cartoon, showing a real facial expression.
In Versailles, M. Marchal usually kills his victims. He is the quiet, imperturbable policeman, getting on with the job, doing what he needs to do to preserve his master’s rule. I loved defiance in some, and the abject terror of the Chevalier de Lorraine, who was not chastened after, at all. People, confronting an irresistible force, not backing down.
In Cardinal, there is some exploration as to why the torturer might want to torture another. Why does he induct his apprentice? He says, because once she has done this no-one will be able to oppress her. He enjoys the teacher’s role, getting her to stand in the middle of the road with her arms out and legs spread. Make yourself as big as possible. His teaching works- she graduates to cutting off a finger with secateurs. Cardinal is full of people whose jobs do not use their talents- the torturer is just one such. Some resent it and act up, in self-destructive ways; Cardinal himself, the detective, just gets on with the job.
I was sitting in the yard when a kite flew overhead, and I saw its action silhouetted against the sun. A haiku:
Red kite nibbles at
the morsel in its talons
adjusts tail, flies on