Last week I began a three-part series about the three biggest movie taboos, at least in American cinema — the things we seem to often have both a disdain for and a sick fetishistic fascination with. This week, I’ll be discussing the use of violence in cinema.
We’ve all heard the argument about art imitating life and vice versa. This tends to be similar to the evolution vs. creationism debate. Both sides are so stuck in their ways that they cannot see any wisdom or validity in the opposing argument; however, in both cases, we have two sides that are wasting their time in a pointless argument. Neither side really has a real conflict with the other; it is, in fact, a fabricated quarrel created by those who have a lesser understanding of the situation.
To say that a movie containing scenes of violence will spawn copycat cases in real life is a fairly ridiculous argument. To start with, that would be a very definite statement, similar to saying that everyone who eats at McDonald’s will become morbidly obese. Yes, we do have isolated incidents in which we actually knowÂ someone has attempted to reenact a scene from a movie or video game. Neither side can really ever win the argument, not only because both sides have evidence supporting their claims, but also because they both happen to be correct.
These particular instances of violence, however, can be triggered by anything. I was a high school student when the Columbine massacre happened. The very next day there were rumors and whispers about a troubled student at my own school. We could all envision him doing something like that, because he had an irrational and volatile personality. Even if these individuals never see a violent movie, surely they will gain inspiration from a historical act or merely from the chaos of life.
My intent is not to apologize for some of the more irresponsible uses of violence in film. The problem is that finding the very definition of “irresponsible” is so subjective. I’ll give a few examples of how the argument can swing.
In my recollection of violent films, few stand out above The Passion of the Christ. Here we have a movie so exceedingly violent that it makes the Saw movies look tame by comparison. Imagine if the main character were not the Christ, but some buxom young teenage girl. There would be an outcry over the movie, and the very same Christian organizations that praised Mel Gibson would instead decry the film as torture porn. Bear in mind that I am not a Catholic now, nor have I ever been. Perhaps this explains why I view the violence in Gibson’s film to be irresponsible. To me, it’s like making a movie about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. that is only five minutes long and only shows the bullet entering his cheek from multiple angles and different camera speeds, all the while expecting people to empathize with his message.
There is another film about a character with similar teachings to Christ. The violence in this film is used only to further emphasize the message of the main character and to show the lunacy of violence in our world. This movie is Sir Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. Attenborough could never have made that movie without showing the scenes of cruelty that Gandhi himself worked to put an end to, yet there is nothing tasteless about these scenes.
People seem to be okay with extreme violence in movie theaters because individuals have an idea of what they are getting into. Television always remains a few yards back in the race, but it always catches up eventually.
There is a very funny example of the extremes of censorship, involving one of my favorite filmmakers, Sergio Leone. A Fistful of Dollars placed a new spin on the old Western themes. Clint Eastwood’s character was simply a bounty killer, but because he was placed in the hero role audiences would view him as such. Many years later, the film was shown on American television, but with a new introduction. The TV studio went so far as to hire a stand-in for Clint Eastwood, shot mostly from behind and in wide shots, entailing his supposed early release from prison with the caveat that he must clean up some dirty criminals in order to maintain his freedom. Apparently the station thought that audiences were too naÃ¯ve at this point to see an anti-hero, and that it was more acceptable for him to kill bad guys if the law instructed him to, rather than for his own personal gain. The result is a hilarious butchering.
In the most widely beloved films, we often see a trend in the usage of violence. The filmmakers tend to delve into the psyche of the killers, be they the hero or the villain. The violence doesn’t necessarily need to be justified, but rather make sense based on what we know about the character. Hannibal Lecter, in Silence of the Lambs, spends most of his time behind thick glass. Throughout the film, he teases us, so that when he escapes and goes on a rampage it is frightening, thrilling, and totally within the capacity of his character. Would it inspire some nutcase to pull a similar stunt? Perhaps, but if someone is already a psychopathic nutcase does it really matter from where he gets his ideas?
It is tempting to say that there is a thin line between using violence tastefully and merely for perversion. This really isn’t the case, however. The line is very well defined. A recent case is the film Watchmen. I was a Watchmen virgin, never having read the graphic novel, so I didn’t quite know what to expect. What I saw was a director who occasionally stumbled onto moments of near-brilliance but in the end couldn’t get out of his own way. The fight scenes in Watchmen are so overly choreographed that they feel non-threatening. Director Zack Snyder’s solution is to crank up the gore. This felt phony to me, and from my understanding the comic book wasn’t nearly as explicit in its usage of blood. This is an example of a director using violence to cover his own lack of self-confidence.
Films tend to be about the most interesting parts of our lives, so naturally the more violent aspects of our lives fascinate us. Literature and theatre has always used violence. The difference is that movies are a more visual medium and allow for greater realism. It’s also fair to assume that throughout history there has been a lot of trashy art that has been cast aside by the greater works. What is important is that we celebrate the better films, not for their violence, but for what they tell us about ourselves.