Feeling Sick

That, my friends, is the CSI: Forensic Facial Reconstruction Kit: Case #2 Blue Eyes, available for the holidays from Toys R Us. Um. Let’s let that sink in for another second or two.

First thing, and you had to know this was coming, my wife is cooler than your wife. Second thing, I watched fifteen minutes of C.S.I. last night, and it is the most morally reprehensible thing on TV. Wife Swap, The Swan, Date My Mom — all pale in comparison.

Girish asked me once to name a film that I absolutely hate, and I didn’t hesitate for a second: The Cell, to me, is sadistic pornography. On the surface, its plot demonizes the serial killer for his twisted fantasies of torture and murder; Tarsem Singh, the film’s director, then renders those fantasies in beautiful technicolor for our viewing pleasure. Tarsem’s images seduced Roger Ebert into claiming: “It’s not often the imagination and the emotions are equally touched by a film, but here I was exhilarated by the boldness of the conception while still involved at a thriller level.” That word “exhilaration” is key, I think. The Cell seduces viewers into not only empathizing with a sadistic mind but enjoying it.

Sure Hitchcock was a bit hung up on mid-century psychoanalysis (which imbued him with an unfortunate propensity for overt phallus symbols, mother complexes, etc.), but that interest also gave him some insight into the moral problems of spectatorship. We turn our allegiances to Norman midway through Psycho, and, as his glare into the camera at the end of the film makes clear, that is a bad thing. We’re guilty too. Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is another classic example. Here is a film that aestheticizes violence but does so critically, foregrounding the ethical implications of our identification with Alex. (That so many people — college undergrads buying up posters for their dorm rooms, for example — read A Clockwork Orange or, say, Fight Club as anything but satire exposes the problems of irony among an effectively illiterate populace.)

And then there’s C.S.I., which would be a radical text if it weren’t so thoroughly uncritical of its ambitions. Like The Cell, this show is designed to put viewers “in the minds of killers” by way of hyperstylized and grotesque imagery. Dismembered body parts, gunshots, stab wounds — they are all lit, filtered, cut, distorted, and scored to the point of fetishization. Violence becomes pure aesthetic, arousing our (sexualized) emotions without irony or consequence or instruction. And now kids can play out those fantasies at home with a facial reconstruction kit of their own. That is fucked.

(I wonder how many people would be more offended by my use of “fuck” than by the sadism they invite into their homes each week when they watch C.S.I. and its spin-offs. All three are in the top 15 for the year.)