Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Does Reel Violence Beget Real Violence?

By Steve Evans

There’s a lively debate underway at The about the alleged impact of violent films on the people who watch them. As it happens, this is a debate as old as cinema itself.

Hard for me to talk about cinematic violence without digging up “Bloody Sam” Peckinpah, who used an effective range of techniques to portray violence — but he also had a point to make. For instance, Straw Dogs (1971) argues that violence is innate in all people. It is a primal force that will inevitably emerge in everyone — if we are pushed far enough. To prove his point, Peckinpah pushes emotional buttons in his audience until they are raw. Rare is the individual who does not feel his pulse quicken as Dustin Hoffman’s pacifist mathematician defends his home from drunken marauders at the relentlessly bloody climax of Straw Dogs.

Does a violent film spur violent acts? Who is so arrogant as to provide a definitive answer to a question that has been argued endlessly – and thus inconclusively – for more than a century? And what is the option, anyway?

I will not advocate censorship or condemn escapist films, simply because they serve a purpose by their very definition. Hollywood product shows conclusively, time and again, that the big moneymakers are almost always escapist fare, which only reminds me of the old Kinks song, "Give the People What They Want."

Debate on what is ‘good" for you or "bad’ for you becomes moot. Public demand sets the market for horror films and violent action pictures.

This segues into the broader question of society and where it may be heading. Similar debates over the violence and horror in graphically gory comic books raged in the 1950s and early 1960s, so the medium is now different even if the issue is not.

I would argue, instead, that romantic comedies create more social problems than violent escapist films simply because romantic comedies tend to dwell in the realm of the plausible — if not the probable. Most people, if they are honest, will admit to desiring love and acceptance. Romcoms create unrealistic expectations and may actively encourage fantasies about love that cannot possibly come to life. Hell, Pretty Woman made a ton of cash and it was just a movie about a whore. But it appealed to Cinderella fantasies and made a mint.
Violent films, on the other hand, tend to be wildly implausible because of the situations depicted in them. Dust off your old collection of Schwarzenegger movies from the 1980s if you don’t believe me. Give Rambo another spin. Check out any Bruce Willis action flick made in the last quarter-century. Escapism? No question.

Perhaps the better question would be to ask how "serious" violent films impact an audience versus satirical or deliberately cartoonish violent fare. When I saw Saving Private Ryan in a packed theater on its original release in 1998, not a word was spoken as the audience filed out of the auditorium over the closing credits. A decade earlier, when Robocop was released, people left the theater laughing and jabbering excitedly at the ride they had just seemingly enjoyed. Both films are more or less equally violent. One treats the action seriously, the other is a satirical commentary. Each uses violence to different effect.

As for horror films, to take this genre seriously is to question your own emotional development. People who revel in watching other people maimed and hurt already have more problems than they can count before they buy a movie ticket.

Reasonably sophisticated people understand that when they pay to see a movie, that’s exactly what they get — to paraphrase the famous tagline of Last House on the Left, “It’s only a movie, only a movie….” Cinephiles may also note that Last House on the Left, a nasty little picture, is just an exploitative rip-off of the artful Ingmar Bergman film, The Virgin Spring.

As for ridiculously unsophisticated people and whether they are harmfully affected by cinematic violence, I pose the rhetorical question: who shall we appoint to protect these individuals from themselves?

Right. We come full circle to the notion of censorship, which to me is more repellent than anything in violent films.

The debate over violence in the cinema may never be resolved, although escapism – with or without violence – serves its purpose. Need more fodder for debate? You got it:

Die Hard is the greatest Christmas movie ever made.


Cinema Uprising copyright © by Stephen B. Evans. All rights reserved.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Understanding How The Avengers Became an ATM

By Steve Evans

To understand how a movie like The Avengers could pop a record-breaking opening of more than $200 million and show no signs of stopping, juggernaut that it is, I pulled a useful book off the shelf in my office and started re-reading the insights of some academicians who study such things as cinema, though especially pop culture and the interplay with those who consume it.

Movie Blockbusters (2003; ISBN-13: 9780415256087) tackles both the film industry and the ticket buyers who keep studios in green clover. Thoroughly academic in content, yet accessible to anyone who enjoys film, this book will expand your mind in understanding what drives Hollywood to produce noisy and ungodly expensive pictures for the widest possible audience.

Big-budget, spectacular films designed to appeal to a mass audience: is this what - or all - blockbusters are? Movie Blockbusters brings together writings from key film scholars, including Douglas Gomery, Peter Kramer, Jon Lewis and Steve Neale, to address the work of notable blockbuster auteurs such as Steven Spielberg and James Cameron, discuss key movies such as Star Wars and Titanic, and consider the context in which blockbusters are produced and consumed, including what the rise of the blockbuster says about the Hollywood film industry, how blockbusters are marketed and exhibited, and who goes to see them. The book also considers the movie scene outside Hollywood, discussing blockbusters made in Bollywood, China, South Korea, New Zealand and Argentina.
It is a sobering read for anyone who laments the languishing state of arthouse theaters, or who yearns for thoughtful, provocative films that you can enjoy in a theater without hearing Captain America and the Hulk yell their spandex-covered asses off through the wall adjoining the theater next door.

There are two broad ways of thinking about this division between blockbusters and smaller films that explore the nuances of complex issues affecting our lives.

Old school showmen, the long-gone heads of the major studios, would tell us that the job of a movie is to entertain people so as to turn a nice profit.

People who think of film as a serious art form that wields tremendous influence tend to prefer pictures that provoke and spark conversations that could – conceivably – lead to positive social change.

These are not mutually exclusive considerations. There need not be blockbusters at the expense of smaller pictures that address social concerns, just as provocative cinema need not (and probably never will) supplant noisy action films. There is room in the marketplace for both of these broad categories of films. Unfortunately, one category makes nearly inconceivable amounts of money and the other gets discussed in coffeeshops.

The real issue comes down to show business, which of course is most definitely big business. Companies that wish to continue making money must deliver products that people will pay for.

So why do people pay to see rambunctious blockbusters featuring fictional superheroes who spout painfully obvious witticisms and dialog that serves little purpose other than to advance the plot to the next big action setpiece? This is the essential question.

I argue that it is principally because they are bored with their lives, don’t particularly like themselves and may even be deeply frustrated with the doldrums of their existence. Noise and spectacle (bread & circuses in another time and place) provide blessed distractions from the reality of dealing with an incorrigible boss or a failing relationship. Contrast the appeal of the blockbuster with a movie that explores painful but real human problems. The latter has a harder time finding an audience because it’s hard work to confront your demons head-on or even deal with them vicariously through a motion picture. The number of people who want to think deeply about the complexity of existence is disproportionately smaller to those who would rather not think at all.

The Avengers was made expressly for the second group.

Blockbusters place no demands on your intellect, only your wallet. They are as fleeting and ephemeral as an amusement park ride, which is just another form of escape from a banal existence.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

The essential truth of that sentiment has evolved since the 19th century. Today, many people are content to let someone else do their singing and live adventures on their behalf.

It’s safe to watch life the way we wish to live it; much harder to see ourselves in films that explore real problems – and then do something about them. If you wish to be challenged, if you don't care for the status quo and yearn for art that advances your intelligence, not insults it, there are entertainment companies that want your business and will satisfy your desires.

Myself? I’ll keep supporting the Criterion Collection and Janus Films, Kino Lorber, RaroCinema and Blue Underground until they turn out the lights and shutter their operations, may that tragic day never come.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Stephen B. Evans. All rights reserved.