I remember the first time I listened to Metallica’s ‘One’ from their 1988 classic album ‘…And Justice For All’ when I was 14 years old. It was slightly different from the usual testosterone-pumped hyper aggressive and abrasive music that I was so used to listening from the Thrash Metal stalwarts. This particular song had an atmosphere that was somber and serious and spoke of great pain and tragedy. The song, inspired by Dalton Trumbo’s 1971 anti-war drama ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ chronicles the pain a soldier goes through after being seriously injured when he gets hit by an artillery shell during World War I and ends up as a quadruple amputee with no arms, legs, eyes, ears or mouth.With no senses left in his body, Johnny is left alone with his thoughts as his life flashes in his mind and he reminisces life spent with his loved ones.
Fed through the tube that sticks in me
Just like a wartime novelty
Tied to machines that make me be
Cut this life off from me
Hold my breath as I wish for death
Oh please, God, wake me
-Lyrics from ‘One’ by Metallica
Years have passed since I last saw the music video for the song but I see images of the video flash in my dreams ever so often. The song and its imagery have left a very deep impact on my brain. Which had me pondering, why would Metallica (or Trumbo, for that matter) create something so tragic and disturbing in nature? The answer, I have realized after years of subjecting myself to tragic tales, is to generate that one emotion humanity needs the most: empathy.
Along similar lines is the Japanese animation film ‘Grave Of The Fireflies’ which follows the journey of two infantile siblings- a brother about 8 years old, and his baby sister- as they try to survive in a village devastated by American bombers during WW2 after both their parents are killed and the other relatives become hostile towards them. Tales such as these force you to see things from the perspective of those who we would never hear from. They put you in the shoes of the innocent lives who are destroyed because of no fault of theirs. Yes,they are tear jerkers and are extremely difficult to watch but the experience is always a rewarding one. I paused Grave Of The Fireflies more than 5 times because some of the scenes were too emotionally overwhelming, but the film gave me a new found sea of emotions about the World War and war in general. This is the kind of art that screams for peace by subjecting you to the agony of characters stripped bare of any melodrama, glitz or glam. The deliberate portrayal of characters belonging to middle class families and who lack any interesting personality quirks is a pattern I have noticed in many tragedies. Why so?
By portraying them as normal individuals who let us in on their psyche only through their interactions with others onscreen, we as the audience are left with no choice but to see a reflection of ourselves in them. By making the characters as relatable as possible and not going to great lengths to define them in any way- politically or religiously, for example- you end up making them far more universal. Tales like these make the underlying morals and the overarching story lines their protagonists, and not the characters themselves. As a result, you see yourself in the story. Tragedies thrive on empathy.
The very purpose of any art is to give its audience perspective.It carves out windows in our brick houses and allows us to have a view outside our cocooned lives. The best way to make an anti-war statement is to subject the viewer to the horrors of war faced by its victims.
The film focuses its attention almost entirely on the personal tragedies that war gives rise to, rather than seeking to glamorize it as a heroic struggle between competing ideologies. It emphasizes that war is society’s failure to perform its most important duty to protect its own people.
An excerpt from Grave Of The Fireflies Wikipedia page.
Immortal Technique’s Dance With The Devil from his 2001 album Revolutionary Vol.1 is another masterpiece that comes to my mind. The song speaks of a black/latino character named William. Raised by a single mother who works very hard late into the night to ensure her son gets a proper education and a respectful career, William eventually succumbs to pressures of the Ghetto lifestyle and chooses a life of crime instead. To seal a spot among fellow gangsters, he decides to showcase his skills as a cold hearted criminal and plans to gang rape a woman he and some men find walking alone down a street at night. An intoxicated William covers the womans face with a shirt from behind and beats her up brutally and then proceeds to violently rape her with his comrades. When they finish, it is up to him to decide what happens to the woman who is a witness of the crime and he chooses to kill her. With a gun in his hand and a smile on his face he pulls back the shirt covering her face only to realize that the woman they raped was his own mother.
She looked back at him and cried, ’cause he had forsaken her
She cried more painfully, than when they were raping her
His whole world stopped, he couldn’t even contemplate
His corruption had successfully changed his fate
And he remembered how his mom used to come home late
Working hard for nothing, ’cause now what was he worth
He turned away from the woman that had once given him birth
And crying out to the sky ’cause he was lonely and scared
But only the devil responded, ’cause god wasn’t there
And right then he knew what it was to be empty and cold
And so he jumped off the roof and died with no soul
They say death takes you to a better place but I doubt it
After that they killed his mother, and never spoke about it
(Excerpt from the song ‘Dance With The Devil’ by Immortal Technique)
The song, with its beautiful poetry and raw language can send shivers down the spine of any listener. Immortal Technique then proceeds to deliver some of the most beautiful lines of poetry I have ever come across:
The devil grows inside the hearts of the selfish and wicked
White, brown, yellow and black color is not restricted
You have a self-destructive destiny when you’re inflicted
And you’ll be one of god’s children that fell from the top
There’s no diversity because we’re burning in the melting pot
So when the devil wants to dance with you, you better say never
Because a dance with the devil might last you forever
The lyrics not only highlight the horrors of rape and intoxication but also the sorry plight of Ghettos and the African American and Latino American communities. The song also hits a philosophical and moral note by speaking of the ills of taking ‘shorcuts’ to success.
I feel tragedies are underrated by society and many people actually look down upon them. Be it Darren Aronofskys Requiem For A Dream which chronicles the descent into oblivion of 4 lives when all of them become drug addicts or Lars Von Trier’s Breaking The Waves which shows a mentally handicapped woman struggling to find acceptance in society or Eminem’s song ‘Stan’ from his album ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’ which tells the story of a fan who is so obsessed with his music that he ends up killing his pregnant girlfriend after Eminem fails to answer his fan letters (inspired by Eminem’s well documented hatred towards his wife who apparently cheated on him) or Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday, about the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts which captures in the most brilliant way the anger of both the communities and the resulting bloodshed; well executed tragedies always manage to leave a lasting impact and give the audience enough fodder to empathize with the marginalized and the wronged and quite possibly alter the viewer/listener/readers perspectives about society. It comes as no surprise that the Nobel Prize for literature this year was awarded to an individual who spent most of her life documenting the pain and horror of war and its impact on humanity.