Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Torture, the Ticking Time Bomb, and Film History

The debate about torture during the administration of George W. Bush often had less to do with real life than with Hollywood cinematic recreations of real life. Nowhere was this more apparent than with the endless philosophical debates about "the ticking time bomb" scenario and whether this scenario justified the use of torture to prevent the bomb from going off. According to Darius Rejali's Torture and Democracy, the origin of the "ticking time bomb" scenario comes from Jean Larteguy's Les Centurions, a novel about the French war against Algeria's independence. In the novel, the protagonist Boisfeuras tortures a dentist fighting with Algerian resistance who has hidden 15 time bombs. After being tortured for several hours, the dentist then reveals to Boisfeuras the location of every single bomb. Aside from the credibility problems inherent in that version of "ticking bomb" scenario (Could you remember a list of 15 items after being tortured for hours?), it turns out the incident in the novel is a distortion of an actual incident from the Franco-Algerian War from 1956, when forty people were treated to electric shocks, choking, and other tortures in order to locate some hand grenades seized by Algerian rebels. In the real life incident, only one female prisoner confessed, but her confession gave false information. Despite the distortion of the reality of the Algerian war found in Larteguy's novel, a 2007 article by Robert Kaplan in the Atlantic Monthly revealed that the English translation of Les Centurions is a cult novel among many high-ranking members of the American military, including General David Petraeus. To see more about how the Franco-Algerian War has been portrayed in fiction, watch the trailer below for the 1966 movie, Lost Command.

After reading Rejali, I started thinking about how the history of film has influenced what people think about torture. It was at that point that I wondered what was the first movie to include the familiar cliché of the ticking time bomb. The earliest example I could find was from David Bordwell's book, The Classical Hollywood Cinema. According to Bordwell,
In The Dynamiters, a drunken man joins an anarchist group and is given a time bomb to plant, set to go off at noon. When he sobers up, he races around trying to get rid of the bomb, finally leaving it in the anarchists' own hideout. Inter-titles punctuate the action, informing us that it is "20 minutes to 12," "10 minutes to 12," "5 minutes to 12," and "12 o'clock."
Evidently, the "ticking time bomb" cliché is so old that it existed during the silent film era when movies couldn't even include the sound of a ticking clock!

In fact, the use of a ticking time bomb in films is so familiar to us that screenwriting manuals often encourage writers to include a metaphorical "ticking clock" in their film. In metaphorical terms, a "ticking clock" refers to any implicit deadline that the main characters of a film must adhere to. When the protagonists in the Hangover have to find the missing groom before the wedding happens, that's a "ticking clock." More subtle variations of the "ticking clock" can even be found in classic foreign films, such as when the protagonist in Bicycle Thief has to find a replacement for his stolen bicycle before starting his job on Monday.

One of the best directors at using "ticking clocks" was Alfred Hitchcock, who once used a scene with a time bomb in the movie Sabotage to illustrate the important distinction between surprise and suspense. Surprise occurs when nobody knows what will happen. It's the equivalent of yelling "Boo!" at somebody from behind the door. Hitchcock, to his credit, generally viewed surprise as a cheaper stunt to pull off than suspense (although we must grant that Psycho includes one of the best moments of surprise ever captured on film). Suspense, on the other hand, occurs when the viewer has more knowledge about what's going to happen than the characters onscreen do. (See the YouTube clip below for more info about the distinction between suspense vs. surprise in Hitchcock's Sabotage.)

What does this have to do with the debate on torture? The answer is that the ticking time bomb cliché is so politically powerful precisely because it manipulates how we experience suspense and surprise. Would-be political philosophers who try to justify torture with the ticking time bomb scenario are just like hack screenwriters who are looking for a cheap stunt to generate fear, when they haven't really earned those emotions from the audience.

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