Worrying about violence in film

Summer blockbuster season is approaching, and with that comes the inevitable worry about what all this violence in film is doing to us. Last summer, I already spent a significant amount of time dismantling the blog posts of people who want to find some way to square the instincts they were taught in youth group (basically summarized in the classic song “Input Output,” which I cannot find on YouTube currently) with the level of “actually good” culture that they have somehow managed to obtain despite wasting their youth on Christian pop culture.

A more sporting target, however, might be two pillars of the critical community, namely A. O. Scott and Anthony Lane, both of whom are really worried about the violence in Kick-Ass. Lane even goes so far as to say that the movie’s underlying fantasy is parallel to that of child pornography: “Kick-Ass is violence’s answer to kiddie porn. You can see it in Hit Girl’s outfit when she cons her way past security guards—white blouse, hair in pigtails, short tartan skirt—and in the winsome way that she pleads to be inculcated into grownup excess. That pleading is the dream of every pedophile, and I wonder if Goldman [the female co-author of the script] paused to examine her contribution to the myth.” This is unexpectedly heavy-handed from a critic who is most famous for writing ironic reviews of pop-culture dreck, and I quote it mainly for its over the top character. There is always more work to be done on how film reflects and shapes our fantasies, but I don’t think this is a particularly helpful instance.

For Scott, the release of Kick-Ass is more of an excuse to reflect on violence in film in general, and he displays similar subtlety. Discussing The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (which I’ve not seen), he enters into familiar territory: “While the film may want to draw a moral distinction between the episodes — one an unprovoked and heinous assault [i.e., the main character’s rape], the other an act of righteous vengeance — their intensity renders them equivalent.” Now, I haven’t seen the movie, but I somehow doubt that our culture has become so debased that people display the same exultation when the character is being rapped as they do when she gets her revenge — just as I’m sure that audiences, despite all the movie violence that dulled their senses, somehow managed to be horrified when the family hiding under the floorboards in Inglourious Basterds was machine-gunned even as they exulted in the machine-gunning of Adolf Hitler.

Scott follows this up with a bizarre claim: “In other words, movie violence has a way of existing for its own sake. It can’t really be rationally defended or condemned, only experienced and judged according to taste.” I’m not sure — that only seems possible if you’ve already decided, axiomatically, that all violence is morally equivalent, something that Scott, the very epitome of the liberal cultural commentator, seems fairly close to doing in a lot of his criticism.

And perhaps that move is possible when one is thinking exclusively about violence that takes place on a screen. I’ve long maintained that people can obviously tell the difference between on-screen violence and real violence (for instance, we’re disturbed by Reservoir Dogs, but if the same scene played out before us in real life, we’d have PTSD) and that there’s not a clear correlation between one and the other.

What’s really disturbing about our culture, to me at least, isn’t that it includes so much simulated violence — for people who worry a lot about that, I would recommend looking up Aristotle’s discussion of “catharsis” — but that it includes so little discussion of real violence. We’re very worried about what all this on-screen violence is doing to our children — where is the concern about what multiple deployments and torture shifts are doing to our soldiers? How does police brutality warp the personality of the police officers themselves, leading to an ever-greater escalation? These are serious questions for all of us, as we have to deal, for example, with urban police forces that are increasingly accustomed to brutalizing unarmed civilians.

“Movie violence” may contribute to this cultural trend, insofar as it can turn violence into pure means, into a kind of pure competence (think of the satisfaction of watching the Bourne movies, which consists entirely in the continual surprise that he keeps on knowing how to do things) — but then again, it may simply reflect that underlying fantasy, the fantasy that those who “use” violence “for us” are simply good at a particular skill that they can set aside at will, the fantasy that they aren’t brutally misshaped precisely by what they do rather than what they watch. And then “movie violence” would shape us not by changing our internal attitudes toward brutality (which would then presumably lead us to go on killing sprees or something), but by training us that what we do when violence is going on is simply to sit and watch.

2 thoughts on “Worrying about violence in film

  1. This is an excellent piece. Thanks for it. I don’t have much else to add on the subject but I wanted to say that.

    Actually, I can add this. I used to know a guy (whom I later concluded was a sociopath) who watched all kinds of garbage and found most of it uproariously funny. Anyway, even during more somber pieces he could find amusement. For instance, I wound up somehow watching Tom Tykwer’s excellent adaptation of Perfume with him. During a sequence toward the end when a traumatic event occurs Alan Rickman’s character collapses into hysterical wailing. This guy collapsed into hysterical convulsions of laughter declaring, “Look at his face! His face is hilarious!” I then said, “Well, okay, but you know he did just discover the murder of someone dear to him.” He straightens up immediately and with a serious expression says, “It’s just devastating.”

  2. Milbank cares about violence in film. See John Milbank, “Violence: Double Passivity,” in Must Christianity be Violent? Reflections on History, Practice, and Theology, ed. Kenneth R. Chase and Alan Jacobs (Michigan: Brazos Press, 2003).

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