WHEN THE SUBJECT of violence in films and television gets taken up by politicians and educators after an apparent real-life imitation of movie mayhem, the tendency in Hollywood has been to circle the Range Rovers and shout the 1st Amendment. And certainly when the anti-Hollywood voices are as opportunistic and moralistic as they seem now, it’s tempting to think whatever they’re against must be OK in the first place.
After the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., brought immediate comparisons to scenes in The Basketball Diaries and The Matrix, filmmakers once again began running-for cover or assumed the us-against-them position.
But this defensive attitude, born of the billions at stake in the hometown industry, obscures the extent to which Hollywood in the past 15 years has indeed redefined violence as entertainment, led by such visionary producers of flaming death as Joel Silver and Jerry Bruckheimer and neo-noir hipsters like Quentin Tarantino.
Movies, like all forms of storytelling, express values based on an internal logic and point of view. And when you leave a theater having watched scores, even hundreds, of people cheaply slaughtered, innocent characters humiliated and laugh lines tagged to otherwise realistic maimings, you wonder, what are those values? And why were those people in front of me laughing?
The late screenwriter and playwright Steve Tesich, who won an Oscar for the coming-of-age film Breaking Away, said before he died, in 1996, “The audience has become violence junkies. And if you use the argument, ‘We’re just portraying what’s in society,’ it’s the equivalent really of giving the junkie more crack to go crazy on. I think that somewhere the central moral standard of what we as a people will do or not do has been lost.”
The point so often missed in the quick sound bites favored by politicians and TV news shows is that “violence” itself in movies is not the problem, and shouldn’t be the issue. Drama is conflict, and violence is conflict writ large.
The real issue is how some Hollywood filmmakers have glamorized and romanticized violence into a nihilistic thrill, made killing sexy, cool and funny, and with the bravura force of technical artistry, rendered quaint the notion that the effect of all this could possibly be antisocial.
The films of macho action stars like Steven Seagal and Arnold Schwarzenegger have routinely found full-Dolby excitement in graphic mutilations and sadistic decapitations of enemies, asking you to share their joy in cruel and unusual punishment. Richard Donner’s hugely successful Lethal Weapon series with Mel Gibson also found an alarming amount of popcorn pleasure in pain (as did Gibson’s last release Payback).
To millions of moviegoers this is all good, clean fun, including, it would appear, a fair number of respected critics whose reviews find no fault in the gleeful gore or numbing body counts but dwell instead on matters of style. And while there is sometimes ample room for disagreement about the moral failings of a particular film or show, the argument I have never understood is the one that movies exert no real influence over the people who watch them.
Of course they do. Social scientists have done the legwork and shown correlation in laboratory studies between exposure to violent media and violent behavior, but do we really need the studies? Just look at the movies’ power through the years over the way we dress, act, talk, smoke, drive, drink and think. The movies have long shoed young people how to be cool, from Lauren Bacall’s way with a cigarette to John Travolta’s New York City street strut. To Leonardo DiCaprio’s effortless impudence.
A few years ago, former FBI agents turned authors Joseph P. O’Brien and Andris Kurins, in their book Boss of Bosses, documented how real gangsters were patterning themselves after the figured they saw in Francis Ford Coppola’s movies, right down to the jargon they spoke. Ron Kovic, the paraplegic Vietnam veteran, bitterly recalled in his book Born on the Fourth of July how the initial shock of combat was that it wasn’t like the John Wayne movies he grew up on.
The culture of Hollywood surely informs the psyche of America as much as America informs the psyche of Hollywood, Movies are potent, gleaming dreams, and they play a leading role in our imaginations.
To point out that a gloriously violent movie doesn’t make most people want to buy an Uzi and blow somebody away doesn’t preclude the possibility it has altered the collective unconscious in some small degree or tweaked an individual fantasy of what it might feel like to try.
None other than Oliver Stone, our revisionist historian and febrile moralist, and the director who made a film out of Born on the Fourth of July, once explained his decision to become a filmmaker by saying, “I do believe in a collective unconscious, the Jungian unconscious. And film is the easiest way to access it. It takes longer to read, and the reading audience is much smaller.”
Sadly presaging last week’s bloody events in Colorado, where the two student killers evidently enjoyed violently morbid video games, Tesich had said, “We have this video game attitude toward human life now, which we saw in the Gulf War, where our soldiers were laughing when they were blowing up those defenseless Iraqi trucks. That was proof to me how much we’ve become desensitized to violence.”
In venturing such comments to a reporter, Tesich was in the minority among those who take home paychecks from film studios. Even as thoughtful and skilled an actor as Nick Nolte once had to defend his role in auteur of overkill Walter Hill’s Another 48 HRS this way: “Action films have a certain illogicalness to them. They’re what we call, when we’re working, ‘exaggerated realism.’ It’s really an art form of violence, using violence not to illustrate death but more as an instrument of rhythm.”
Sam Peckinpah, a director who predated the super-splatter era but became famous for balletic blood baths like The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, once told me he strove for a kind of realism that would show “that it does hurt when people get shot and people bleed.”
Which sounds like the right idea, and yet who can forget the way he choreographed the erotic rape scene in Straw Dogs so that actress Susan George clearly was meant to be enjoying he manhandling by a band of thugs? Now, there was a film with a message.
Other directors have used violence sensibly to show the horror of murder and brutality up close. And while such movies (including the two recent WWII epics Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line) retain a certain sensational allure, they don’t relish the pain and killing in their stories.
There remains an important distinction between this kind of film and those that showcase and ogle arsenals of flesh-shredding weaponry, making guns seem like the greatest toys in the world. Stone’s much-maligned Natural Born Killers at least had a point of view that tried to comment on the public fascination with violence and the media’s eager exploitation of same. The film was far from mindless, yet it couldn’t help but make its own murderous couple
look somewhat romantic as they blasted their way past bumbling law enforcement authorities. That’s the thing: Movies by their very nature tend to glamorize and distort what they depict. It’s the blessing and curse of the medium.
It’s often said that violence has been part of entertainment going back to the plays of Shakespeare and even further, to the Greeks – so what’s the problem? Are we just looking at a difference in scale and video hardware? Certainly Shakespeare, limited to the potions and sword wounds would marvel at the fireballs and fusillades that explode across our movie screens, but it’s hard to imagine the Bard of Avon at the deal meeting setting up Total Recall or Con Air.
In the end, it comes back to values and point of view, qualities too often overlooked by our film culture’s obsessions with the nuances of camera technique and the iconography of stars. The least we can ask is that filmmakers think about what their movies are really telling us as they cast their spells. Mo one but but maybe Jerry Falwell wants government intervention or a new Hays Office to dictate what kind of movies get made
But the next time you’re in a theater and your eardrums are caving in from a sonic-boom trailer for one of those action-packed high-body-count “Coming this summer!” bloodlettings, you’ll have to remember this is the price we pay for democracy and that in Hollywood a good citizenship award is never going to replace the importance of being No. 1 next weekend.
Los Angeles Times 1999