In 1994, when he first saw Pulp Fiction, David Griffith was a Notre Dame underclassman who loved the film as much as anyone else his age. The jazzy dialogue and the abrupt yet casual violence seemed to confer upon audiences a sort of instant cool, even if -- especially if -- those viewers were nerdy white kids from the Midwest.
Several years later, Griffith watched Pulp Fiction again, this time sitting with his dad in front of the TV. The experience was utterly different. Scenes that had once felt entertainingly dangerous -- the notorious dungeon-rape sequence in particular -- now seemed cruelly exploitative. Griffith began to wonder how, even as a younger person, he could have missed this. He pondered his own small role in welcoming horrific acts of cruelty as cinematic jujubes.
In Griffith's fine new book, A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America (Soft Skull Press), the former Pittsburgher's reconsideration of Pulp Fiction -- probably the most influential American film of its generation -- is one aspect of a bigger issue: Why violence is such a compelling subject for art, and how it is used and misused.
With Pittsburgh-based illustrator Brett Yasko's plentiful and incisive photo-illustrations, the paperback reads like a monograph. It ranges widely, from Griffith's youthful encounters with the war stories of Dresden, and from John Hersey's Hiroshima, through Faulkner, Blue Velvet and the "Faces of Death" video series.
But A Good War's chief catalyst was the widespread shrugs that greeted the release, in early 2004, of photos depicting abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib at the hands of their often grinning American military jailers. The implications of that indifference, Griffith writes, are frightening:
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There seems to be no outrage because these are not easily grasped photos of war -- ignoble death and destruction -- rather, these are photos that show people operating in that DMZ between pleasure and pain. Our culture's fascination and willingness to indulge -- to revel -- in the ambiguity of such images (Is it a head or an arm? Human or animal? Terrorist or civilian?) strikes me as one of the factors that causes humans to remain silent even when the war effort injures and kills innocent civilians.
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A key moment in Griffith's understanding resulted from a Halloween party in Friendship, about six months after the Abu Ghraib images broke. Griffith, dressed as Capt. James T. Kirk, ran into an acquaintance who was costumed, in olive-drab T-shirt and rubber gloves, as Army Corp. Charles Graner, one of the Abu Ghraib jailers.
Griffith, then a young English instructor at Pitt, was rather drunk and feeling lonely. When "Graner" conscripted a passerby to pull a hood over his head, and asked Griffith to join him in a thumbs-up Polaroid tableau, the faux Kirk complied.
Amid the next morning's hangover, Griffith was mortified by the pose. But while many wouldn't even have gotten to guilt, Griffith continued thinking about the picture -- its context determined by earlier images it parodied. Griffith decided that rather than a document of heartless humor, or even a souvenir of drunken fun, the Polaroid was a bitter, cautionary reminder of the capacity for cruelty that lives in each of us.
A Good War is deeply informed by Griffith's Catholicism, his Mertonesque sense of faith as a struggle that calls us to constant awareness of our actions and how those actions affect others. A touchstone is the writing of Flannery O'Connor, a devout Catholic whose classic short story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" suggested his book's title.
Griffith offers O'Connor's stories -- along with more popular works, such as the film Deliverance -- as models for how violence can be depicted seriously: As an act with import, moral weight and consequences.
In Pulp Fiction, violence elicits laughs or the odd frisson. In O'Connor, violence can inspire awareness of humanity's divinity. (And if you haven't read "A Good Man" itself lately, do yourself a favor: It's at least as funny and twice as hard-nosed as anything in Pulp Fiction.)
Moreover, Griffith argues, the same Manichean worldview that lets Pulp Fiction tell us who's worthy to live (cool hitmen) and who should die (sodomites; minor characters), permits us to look at photos of naked men menaced by snarling guard dogs and conclude they are not being tortured -- or if they are, that it's OK.
Griffith was in Pittsburgh recently to lead a seminar at the 412 Creative Nonfiction Festival. Now 31, and back at Notre Dame as a teacher, he's tall, sandy-haired and unassuming. As with any good essayist, you can hear him thinking on the page; yet in print as in person, the boyish Griffith exudes the humility not necessarily of a trombonist (which he was in Pittsburgh with Johnsons Big Band) but of someone who has some pretty good ideas about the world but is asking your help to work through them.
A Good War is Griffith's first book; it grew out of a shorter, self-published version by he and Yasko that Yasko submitted to Soft Skull. Drawing a line between the news on our TV screens and the movies on our theater screens is an old endeavor. Griffith says he hopes to move the conversation beyond vengeance, rage and insensibility.
"My belief is forgiveness is going to trump everything," he says. "If you're going to radically reform culture, there has to be reconciliation. Changing not just minds but hearts."