Damien on… Violence In Fiction
…is an issue that has had BOOKS written on it. Here is MY take…
Firstly, let us remember that without CONFLICT, there cannot be drama. However, that conflict does not have to be PHYSICAL – it can be intellectual.
But moviemakers today prefer BODY-counts to discussion. Ignoring the fact that a single bullet can END a decades-long life filled with experience, learning and social interaction in a SECOND, they present us with “action” films where villains are cut down like chess-pieces.
Human beings – with their loves, lives and souls – reduced to skittles.
But guns (with absurd sound-effects) and “splatterpunks” are sexier than talking heads.
And the carnage begins early: most video-games are of the “shoot-’em-up” variety. A waste, when the technology could be used to simulate FLIGHT – without a PLANE.
But this is where the arguments begin. Supporters of violence on TV and in movies point to the fact that countries like Japan have comics, video-games and movies that have always been FAR more violent than those found in say, America – and yet ACTUAL violence in Japan is MINIMAL, compared to The States.
They claim that violence in the media merely mirrors the violence in society, rather than CAUSING it.
They further claim that over previous centuries, when such media did not exist, violence in society was far worse.
They state that violence in the media is CATHARTIC – that it actually REDUCES violence in our society.
While those who take the opposite view claim that media violence – like exposure to explicit sexual material – DESENSITISES us to it.
And that while becoming desensitised to sex is harmless – as we quickly become REsensitised to it, when the occasion requires it – becoming desensitised to VIOLENCE is DANGEROUS.
They claim the constant barrage of violence INURES us to it.
And further, that whilst the explicit sex portrayed in porno movies is unrealistic – violent acts are all too EASY to perpetrate.
However, those with the opposite view claim that as with exposure to explicit sex, we RECOVER – that the effect of an action movie on our patterns of behaviour is only temporary. So long as no-one pisses us off during the first five minutes after we leave the cinema, everything will be fine.
Of course, censorship has always been seen as an attempt to limit both explicit sex AND violence. But the truth is far more complicated.
Pre-1970, it forced moviemakers to portray illegal and/or immoral acts as leading ultimately to DISASTER. Even COMEDY crooks could not be seen to “get away with it”.
But Hollywood still got away with a LOT. “Gilda” (a major 1946 feature) was DEPRAVED for its time. It was STEEPED in S&M. But by giving it an absurd cop-out ending, the studio managed to slide it past the censors.
However, one issue that would not pass the censors was anything they felt could be IMITATED, to the detriment of society.
A good example of THAT was the 1953 biker movie, “The Wild One” – featuring then-hot Marlon Brando. It did not get a UK certificate until 1967.
The fourteen-year OUTRIGHT BAN on the movie was caused not by any bits that could have been excised – but rather by the whole CONCEPT of the movie.
The plot of The Wild One (“What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” “Whaddaya got?”) centres around two biker gangs who meet up in a small American town and proceed to DOMINATE it.
Now in those post-war days, biker gangs were becoming a PROBLEM and while it was not quite what happened in The Wild One – the thinking was, supposing a biker gang cut the phone lines to a remote small town or village and just drove in? The place would be THEIRS.
And the thought of the potential resulting mayhem sent shivers down the backs of the British censors of the time – so they KILLED it.
But by the Sixties, the youth of the day had started buying CARS and the “Mods And Rockers” conflicts (vastly overstated by the tabloid press anyway) were a thing of the past.
Also, by then – The Wild One was an anachronism.
But violence never reduces in its effect. Forty-five years on, “Bonnie And Clyde” STILL has the power to shock – particularly the climax.
However, while violence taken casually COULD result in yet MORE violence – it can be shown to POSITIVE effect. For example, the rape scene at the beginning of “Death Wish” is repulsive – but it sets up the motivation for the central character to become a vigilante.
On the other hand, the violence at the END of “Witchfinder General” is an orgy of REVENGE.
Then again, what about the violence in cartoons?
It is all a matter of CONTEXT.
A good example of this was when the British censor handed down an “A” certificate for a film for which he simultaneously awarded an “X” certificate to its TRAILER (trailers had to be certified separately, as a trail for an “X” would often be shown in a “U” certificate programme).
The moviemakers were incensed: until the censor pointed out that while there were only a few minutes of violence in the actual movie – where good eventually triumphed – the trailer mostly featured action sequences and thus hit the audience with an onslaught of ferocity which had NO context whatsoever.
And thus it can be seen that the censor’s job is difficult. Constantly balancing the levels of violence with context and artistic merit – and an eye to the eventual audience.
Trying to gauge how realistic a movie can become – before it is likely to set off a feeble-minded member of that audience, to do something unspeakable. Almost everyone is capable of separating fiction from reality – but there is always the odd ONE…
However, it must be remembered that no censor really cares whether “gratuitous” violence makes our skin crawl – or triggers some looney.
Their job, as independent bodies, is merely to protect the industry from charges of running “disorderly houses” – not to protect our sensibilities. Or even our lives.
Finally, in this examination of the possible effects of violent fiction on the public comes the “psychological thriller” – which surely must be the most dangerous form of violent entertainment of all. Certainly it OUGHT to be the most iniquitous, because here the audience is invited to enter the twisted brain of a PERPETRATOR of violence.
In any drama, there must be a central character. And inevitably, we will come to consider them as the “sympathetic” character.
Which is unfortunate when they happen to be a MONSTER like Jack Carter, Norman Bates (Robert Bloch kills OFF Marion Crane half-way through) Hannibal Lecter (come on, were you REALLY rooting for Clarice Starling?) and the afore-mentioned Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, to name but five.
In fact, these last two are particularly monstrous because, like Albert DeSalvo, John Christie and Ted Bundy – they were REAL people.
In fiction, we can tell ourselves that the central character is like the boogey-man – but when monsters who actually EXISTED become the central characters of movies, we are on a slippery slope.
People actually MARRY individuals on Death Row. Would you want your daughter to do that?
So, in conclusion, this world is filled with REAL violence. And fiction has value, because it takes us OUT of that world. And fiction features drama. And drama needs conflict. And conflict often includes violence – which is what this world is filled with. Thus we are in a CYCLE.
Statistics show that violent people almost always come from violent backgrounds – and there is little we can do about that.
But every day, we feed violent imagery to those who are NOT infused with violence. Is this a good idea? But then, if they are NOT naturally violent, surely those images will not MAKE them violent?
And if that desensitisation effect really IS only temporary, where is the harm? Realistic drama cannot survive on a diet of fluffy bunnies, while the World is in turmoil.
But supposing it is NOT? By permitting violent imagery, are we allowing ourselves to become the CAUSE of that turmoil – rather than the CURE?
What is the answer? Damned if I know…