Somewhere in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle*, set in the 17th century, the heroine, Eliza, describes a crowd entertaining itself by tormenting animals. They’ve suspended a sackful of dozen or so stray cats over an open fire so they can laugh at the thrashing. Eliza, anticipating modern sensibilities, expresses her disgust at this sanctioned cruelty, a disgust shared — presumably — by the readers of the novel.
And we’ve all read about the English sport of bearbaiting, practiced not all that long ago, in which the Brits would allow a tethered bear to be nipped at by dogs for public amusement. We can hardly believe that people so close to us in time — people with whom we could manage to talk without too much difficulty — civilized people — could be so barbaric.
The new comedy from Ben Stiller, Tropic Thunder, is a spoof of every Vietnam movie from Deer Hunter through Platoon and the Rambos. A hapless troupe of washed up actors are stranded in an Asian jungle while trying to produce a war film. They unwittingly get caught up in an actual drug war, but still think it’s a movie.
Tropic Thunder has a lot going for it: A stellar cast, snappy lines, and some of the best action sequences I’ve seen in many a moon. It also offers this: In one scene, a man steps on an old French landmine and is blown to pieces. One of the actors (Ben Stiller), thinks it’s just a clever special effect. To convince the other actors, who are cowering in terror, that there is nothing to be afraid of, he picks up the head […I’m redacting this part. I had described in words how Ben Stiller treats the severed head, but, as one commenter points out, even without pictures it was too vivid an image. So you can trust me and skip the movie altogether, or half-trust me and avert your eyes after the mine explosion, or you can watch the scene and have your life made worse by a tiny but perceptible degree. Now back to the post…] and pretends to make it talk.
If you are undecided about seeing Tropic Thunder all you need to do is ask yourself: Do you want this scene in your visual memory?
*Quicksilver, Book 3: Odalisque