AROUND THE HORN: How dark is ‘dark’?

I recently binged on HBO’s TRUE DETECTIVE after weeks of water cooler talk and still managing to avoid any spoilers. Looking back at reactions I’d read way before starting the show, I saw many people claiming that TD was much ‘darker’ than other shows/movies they were used to seeing.

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Having now seen it all, I can confidently say I didn’t once get that feeling. Was it lines like “I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution” evoking these reactions? Because that’s not that bad and the murder scenes in NBC’s HANNIBAL are much more graphic. On the darker side of things, sure – but was it really that far off on that end of the spectrum? Nah.

By your standards, what’s a ‘dark’ movie/show/book? And why?

My kneejerk answer is almost always Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s THE MIST because of that ending (which he changed from the original novel). But in the interest of opening another film up to more audiences, I would say DEADGIRL.

A horror coming-of-age story, DEADGIRL revolves around two friends whose relationship takes a turn for the worse when they discover something awful in the depths of an abandoned building. With America generally turning away more from sex than violence in media, the film generates even more revulsion by adding in another element which you can probably guess from the title. La petit mort, indeed.

PHILIP: Not sure if it’d be considered dark in exactly the way you’re referring to but Sean Penn’s THE PLEDGE has one of the best “fuck you” existential endings I’ve seen. Jack Nicholson plays a cop on the verge of retirement who promises a mother he will find the killer of her daughter. He becomes obsessed with finding the killer and goes to extreme lengths–even to “sacrifice” those closest to him–to catch the killer and just when it looks like he will do so. Again, a great “fuck you” existential ending. Also, the movie came and went pretty quickly, but it’s a great film worth checking out.

If I look back to some of my favorite films of the Late 1960s-1970s, a lot of them had very dark endings–CHINATOWN, BONNIE AND CLYDE, THE GODFATHER, THE PARALLEX VIEW, SHAMPOO (and that was a comedy)–back then, popular films weren’t afraid to reflect the unease in the culture.

But if you really want to talk about dark endings, you can’t beat the “classics”–Shakespeare, the Greeks, even the Bible. There’s some messed-up things in there and that’s what we’re teaching as the “canon” in school. So I find it interesting that people will criticize the content of work coming out now and yet have no problem with something like MEDEA where she basically kills her children, cooks them, and feeds them to her husband because she’s pissed off at him.

ALFREDO: When I was a kid, my mom had a copy of “Helter Skelter,” the book about the Manson Family killings. I remember the black and white photos in the middle of the book of the dead bodies of Sharon Tate, Leno Labianca, etc., whited out because they were too gruesome. That, of course, made it all the worse. But it was the very randomness, ruthlessness and remorselessness of the whole thing that seeped into your bones like a thick black fog. By the killers’ own accounts, the victims’ pleading meant nothing to them. Moral of the story: “Helter Skelter” is not the kind of thing you want to leave lying around for your seven year old to find.

ROGER: Alas, over the many years of consuming media, there’s very little I consider “too dark.” But I do remember as a child, before media-jadedness set it, that anything on TV that involved Hells Angels or any variant of a biker gang would scare me deeply. I don’t know why. Perhaps the image of beefy, scraggly-bearded, bandana-wearing, leather-clad dudes barreling into town in a mean cluster of motorbikes with the sole reason of causing havoc, mayhem, and destruction was just too much for my pure, suburban mind to handle. They come, they do bad, they leave. I think it was my first true exposure to the thought that horrible things can come unexpectedly and can forever change the course of a peaceful existence. So yeah…biker gangs. Very scary and “too dark” for the young version of me.

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IRIS: In the movie AUDITION, there are many dark moments, including a piano wire scene, but the darkest moment was when the cute little puppy was killed. Come on folks, don’t kill off the cute little animals! AUDITION, though, was such a memorable movie that I will have to say ONLY GOD FORGIVES is just an abyss of darkness that is never redeemed. The movie was highly anticipated since it was reuniting Ryan Gosling and DRIVE director Nicolas Winding Refn. So despite hearing that the movie was booed at Cannes, I went to a screening where Refn gave an intro and basically told us that the movie was inspired by an LSD trip where you see a lot of crazy sh*t happen in front of you but can’t get up from your chair. I guess that is basically how I felt, although I did see some of my friends sneak out of the screening midway. Underage rape, torture, hands getting cut off, etc. It had all that. And yet it also managed to be dull. Probably because even Ryan Gosling’s performance, which was, according to the director, supposed to mimic something like sleepwalking, managed to do just that. He just walked around like a Zombie being unemotive.

DHH: Well, among recent films, there’s always OLD BOY (the Korean original, I haven’t seen the remake). But many plays, contemporary as well as classic, go to very disturbing places. Take BLASTED, by Sarah Kane, a British playwright who committed suicide at the age of 28, which includes scenes of rape (vaginal and anal), torture, and cannibalism. Similarly, the work of American playwright Thomas Bradshaw depicts such subjects as rape, pedophilia, racially-motivated murder, pornographic acting, and incest with a casualness which compounds the audience’s unease. One confluence of classical (as Philip noted) and contemporary darkness was Bradshaw’s recent adaptation of the Biblical tale of Job, in which Job is raped, then his son kills his sister and has sex with her corpse. Grizzly stuff, for sure, but so is the source material.

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EMMIE:  I think something is dark when the creator of the work purposely twists elements to make the fictional (or non-fictional) world bleaker, and minimizes (or completely erases) hope.

I avoid most dark things, so I can’t think of many examples. David Lynch’s Blue Velvet seemed dark to me, but I saw that a long time ago and can barely remember it. Sam Shepard’s play Buried Child seemed dark (but again, I saw it 20 years ago). And going with Phil’s answer, Oedipus Rex is also bleak.

Films like Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark are heartbreaking and extremely affecting, but I wouldn’t call them entirely dark. In the heroines’ characters, there is hope and lightness to counter the devastating stuff. Night by Elie Wiesel was also sad and sobering, but I wouldn’t call it entirely dark because he was just presenting his experience truthfully.

I’ve heard many say that Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is an incredibly grim and depressing book.

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One thought on “AROUND THE HORN: How dark is ‘dark’?

  1. NBC’s Hannibal got old after a while. It’s more about style than about substance. It’s shot amazingly, every episode looks like a movie. However, it gets old because they can only do so much “hinting” that Hannibal is a good bad guy.

    To me, what’s dark is something like Kubrick’s The Shining. As a child, you see the dead naked woman arise from the bath tub UNCENSORED on television (yes, back then, they didn’t censor some nudity on public television) and you don’t get it. You don’t understand movie language yet. Only when you get older do you realize that the filmmaker is using it to titilate, but also to spell out the character’s current psychological state. And adults are metaphorically symbolized through sexual context. There isn’t much else to depict an adult male’s psyche in a more concise way. You can’t have him drowning in gummy bears or lollipops anymore. Because other adult males won’t be able to relate to it (if they weren’t into gummy bears and lollipops). But sex, on the other hand, is a universal thing.

    Take this: imagine if the new Batman was a homophobe. “The Joker” is a derogatory term he uses for homosexuals. You later learn that Bruce Wayne’s father was a homosexual cheating with a man that played a clown and they used to go to costumed galas and stuff. They’d dress young Bruce up, thus why he grows up with that repressed memory and dresses up as a Bat and goes out in the night to fight “jokers”. Because Martha Wayne kills herself along with Thomas and his gay lover in front of Bruce. Man, someone give me an Oscar.

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