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.

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