Money, Violence and Film : A Filmmaker’s Choice?

This post is a part of the Morality Bites- blogathon over at Filmplicity and DWC and revolves around the question “Does the filmmaker have a moral responsibility?”.

There’s no denying that as human beings we have a profound fascination with death, violence and pain. For centuries violence and gore meant survival; hunting, skinning and death was a part of every day and as such, normal and necessary to sustain life. Along came the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution and the explosion of means of production, wealth and availability. No longer are we actively and concretely participating in making our own living, but adapting a more passive consumerist ideal of consumption, retaining a fleeting role as pawns in a big game of profit, profit and profit. Or so we’re lead to believe. An idea of an uncontrollable market force becomes a self fulfilling prophecy as the individual becomes the consumer making their decisions based on the current financial climate, rather than an active agent driving those forces in their own benefit and demise.

So what does any of this have to do with film? I hate to admit it but most of the film industries products have become a commodity, aiming for profit, in dire need of a large audience and thereby driven by ultimately financial motives. Films and plotlines, epic sagas and blockbusters are designed to pull in the crowds, to cash big at the box office. And there’s nothing like violence to gather up the troops. Armies of teenagers, socially akward men, self reliant women and other statistically analyzed target groups flood to cinemas to see the latest in gore, action, slasher, action comedy, splatter, survival, thriller, gothic, monster, underground, extreme, ultra.

For most part, violence on screen gets glorified. Aestheticization of violence is in no way a new phenomenon, it’s been known to raise its head on many a occasion especially in traditional Christian art, but we’ve come a long way from depicting demons, bleeding Jesus’ and medieval torture devices. Recurrent images of violence, torture, porn, mutilation and death have become a means to shock and aw, and by doing that to raise interest, gain popularity and evoke opinion, for both good and bad. Movies are trying to one-up each other, looking to be the year’s ‘most shocking’, ‘most graphic’, ‘most violent’, for one simple reason: it sells.

But the thing is, the more we see, the more we stand. People are desensitized towards violence and other graphic imagery. Classic, influential films that shocked nations decades back, now seem mundane and even laughable. Taking aside the psychological element of horror, thriller and action, it remains a fact that we are continuously shocked by less and less.

In reality, all this speculation and commotion around desensitization and the forceful grips of censorship and R-ratings relies on one underlying thought: that graphic imagery is somehow harmful to audiences. It’s assumed (but no means scientifically proven) that violence depicted in films goes hand in hand with violence committed in the real word, that porn affects rape rates, that kids are getting their hands on guns and drugs due to day long sessions of GTA. Are criminals getting away with murder by watching procedurals? If nothing else, common sense might suggest that at least people are absorbing unconscious models of behaviour, even if there’s no causal link between media violence and criminal acts. Are films encouraging bad behaviours by presenting it? Is the link that simple? If it is, who’s responsible?

Focusing on the financial aspects, as so far I have, limits the analysis of film into the corporate world (which in itself is an important influence in current filmmaking) but leaves little space for the creative forces in the process of filmmaking. The director is often given most the credit for a successful effort, a cinematic triumph but he also bears the burden for when things go south. Why then shouldn’t the person pulling the strings be appointed the moral responsibility as well?

As the director makes those final decisions on scenery, lighting, cuts, takes, lines few would argue that they’re not the creative authority on set. They pick a script they start working with, they pick the scene where they put the modified characters from the script and choose how they’re portrayed and how all the elements interact; it then would make sense that if indeed there were some repercussions as to the moral degregation, the director’d be the person to burn at the stake. Of course, legally and financially the responsibility will always remain with the production company who approves of the strategic outlines of a certain film’s process.

A member of the audience has to always adapt and be predisposed to the sensibilities of the filmmaker, rather than being able to impose their own values onto the film. There’s a clear line between the active motivations behind the film and the passive viewer who is subject to them, with or without their conscious realization.

Most mainstream violence falls either under the umbrella of social critique or fits into classical stories of the bad guys getting what they deserve (a phenomenon ranging from Disney’s Snow White to rape-revenge films like I Spit On Your Grave). But to what extent can we portray extreme, ultraviolence à la Clockwork Orange as social criticism?

‘This film depicts the decline of culture / the lack of morality in society / the emptiness of modern living / nihilism imposed on as by a crude corporate world / the perversion of normality’ is the classic explanation to the actual depiction of film violence as graphic, crude and pseudorealistic. Of course the analysis of current society, the breakdown of individuality, the rise of anomié, isolation and the ‘impending’ detention from society’s norms is crucial to the understanding of modern society and should be analyzed both scientifically and through art. But can we really put torture porn in the same category as Clockwork, Natural Born Killers and Taxi Driver?

Thankfully there are a lot of smart people out there that do appreciate some of these films as what they are: irrational, meaningless violence meant to titillate your brain’s entertainment centre for a few moments and then remain as a distinct movie experiences, separate from reality. But for those that can’t make this distinction, or those who are afraid they might not be able to, the world of censorship and age restrictions gave an out that contributed to the moral restraint, that the director or the production company didn’t feel was necessary to be bound.

For years on end audiences, filmmakers, production companies, even states have debated on the issue of film censorship. Do we need to be protected from content assumed harmful by the current social climate? Can we not as individuals make choices, to either see or not see a film rated a certain R or K? Who, if anyone, has the authority to judge what can and what can’t be shown?

There’s really no objectivity when it comes to censorship, there’s often an agenda, and let’s face it, something others might find offensive others don’t give a crap about. Different countries, different cultures have very different notions as to what is acceptable when it comes to showing violence and depicting death. One could argue then that censorship is never absolute, nor is violence. Most often than not sexual “immorality” and imagery is considered more despicable, more influential than any violent image. American Psycho didn’t fight against a theatre ban for ‘too much violence’, but a threesome. Blue Valentine (almost) got censored because of infamous, and dare I say quite tame scene involving oral sex.

Are people getting their knickers in a twist for no reason? There are multiple directors out there defending and applauding the use of violence in film, considering it a sacred art form and necessary to show the reality that we live in. Does the motivation of social or political statement justify the use of graphic imagery? Is there any need to justify it? Often scenes of violence do indeed give that shock and excitement, don’t feel out of place and look great, as a bonus entertain. People like Scorsese and Tarantino wouldn’t be making films at all if they wouldn’t be using violent imagery, or at least they wouldn’t be near as great and legendary.

Not everything can be passed on as ‘educational’ film violence, but imposing a ban on violence in film altogether is taking it so far across the line that we’re breaking all kinds of rights from self-expression to freedom of speech. Restricting creative freedom can result to no good. But as there are extremes to both the use of violence and graphic imagery, and extremes to the assumed responsibility, film makers, especially directors are facing a thin line. The question no longer is about the use of violence, and how far it can be taken in its magnitude but rather the strength of its effects. Directors do have a personal responsibility in what they do, and why they do it but there are no means, and really, no reason to force any type of accountability that can be pushed on them. The discussion on the moral responsibility of the filmmaker has been most often approached from the consumerist point of view, a point of view where the passive audience absorbs mindlessly what is presented to them; rather than assigning the blame to filmmakers who are expressing themselves through certain mediums (focusing here on those not so indulged in the glory of money) we should activate the viewer, assume they have the power to fight this subliminal derogation of their values and the behavioural models they ensue, and encourage them to critisize, evaluate and appreciate the variation of quality and prowess in movie violence.

Quotes

Violence is one of the most cinematic things you can do with film. It’s almost as if (THOMAS) EDISON and the LUMIERE brothers invented the camera for filming violence. The most cinematic directors, they’re taking cinema and exciting you. I really do think about it like that.
Quentin Tarantino

“I like to use violence in a symphonic way. I don’t use too many images of brutality, but the ones I do use have to be strong – to jolt the audience. You have to be quiet before you get loud.
Brian DePalma

There is no such thing as pointless violence. CITY OF GOD, is that pointless violence? It’s reality, it’s real life, it has to do with the human condition. Being involved in Christianity and Catholicism when I was very young, you have that innocence, the teachings of Christ. Deep down you want to think that people are really good – but the reality outweighs that.
Martin Scorsese

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37 responses to “Money, Violence and Film : A Filmmaker’s Choice?

  1. Thanks for the post, and i happen to agree with the idea that viewers should take more responsibility for what they take from a given movie. When i post my response tomorrow i will be sure to post a link to this.

  2. Tom Araya (from the band Slayer) made a statement which I think rings very true, and justifies the use of violence in all forms of media. “Art can be a reflection of society, and we’re picking up the dark reflections.”

    The real responsibility lies in the viewer, not the film maker. If they can’t handle the violence they see in films, then they shouldn’t be watching said films.

    • Dig the quote, and agree, there’s really a lot of great things to be found artistically on the flip side.

      I mean, it’s not like viewers aren’t given a warning with the censorboard and the ratings and the press, but tbf that adds a lot of intrigue especially when teens/kids are considered. It’s the same phenomenon as with alcohol and cigarettes; it seem dangerous. adult etc. to be doing certain things (watching restricted movies included) but unlike drugs,alcohol and cigs there’s really no campaigning/educating coming from anyone except for possibly parents. It’s never mentioned in school or nothing. Not that I think it should be! BUT those who insist on its (violence’s and horror’s etc) harmful effects aren’t really making any noise about it. If as an adult you can’t see the difference between a film and reality, and do go about mimicking behaviours you’ve seen in films, you’re moral development hasn’t gone very far anyway, and that doesn’t have anything to do with films.

    • Without wanting to sound to cliched or TV evangelisty… Why reflect darkness when you can reflect light? There is so much good in the world, why focus on the bad? Reality doesn’t become any less real because you aspire to an ideal, if you aspire to an ideal it becomes more wothwhile.

  3. But violence is part of life so movies are only a reflection of life in general. Everyday I must stomp on the head of my enemies so I can put bread on the dinner table!

    • Haha, get out my way fool! I’ll get you on the way back down! Cinema isn’t supposed to be an end in itself but a means to bring us closer to a truer understanding of what it means to be fully human and fully alive. How many films can honestly claim to be that?

  4. Wow, this is deep and incredibly well-written, Anna. I’m afraid there is really no clear cut answer on this topic, isn’t it? Interesting quotes at the bottom of the post, nice touch!

    • Thanks Ruth! You’re absolutely right. I think i’m stomping the middle ground here rather than taking a definitive stance on NO for violence or YES for violence. If we were to talk about a particular movie it then would be easier to say whether the use of violence is excessive or necessary to tell the story, whether it’s used in a way that indeed does reflect society or is ment to shock / to sell tickets.

      • I think it is helpful to take each film as it is, on its own merits. What does it portray? How does it portray it? What is the message? Does the message justify the means used to communicate it? That would certainly be a simpler approach. Though no less difficult :-)

  5. Blimey.

    What an amazing bit of writing. I am shocked and awed by it if I am honest.

    I struggled with this Blogathon, mainly because my writing skills are pretty poor and my brain is incredibly small. I could only write on what I know. BUt after reading this I wish I had not bothered……

    Fantastic job :-)

    Custard

  6. Pingback: Filmplicity » Blog Archive » “MORALITY BITES”: HOLLYWOOD… A HEALTH RISK?·

  7. Pingback: Do filmmakers have a moral responsibility? | DWC·

  8. Great article. I think as film has become more of a mainstream commodity filmmakers have an increased moral responsibility as they are making films that they expect will serve their multimillion dollar pay packets. They are expecting audiences to see these films in their masses and therefore they have an influence on society that potentially outweighs anything else (notably schooling for under 18s).

    But I hate the idea of censorship. We have a moral responsibility to ourselves and should make the choice not to watch something or turn it off/walk out of the cinema if we find a film offensive. That said, I don’t think something like violence should be watered down and like others have said, it is a reflection of the world we live in. A great example is Dawn of the Dead. Special-effects creator and actor Tom Savini concocts some horrifically gory creations. Yes, it is violent and bloody and quite disgusting but so was Vietnam and much of his work is directly based on his experiences during the Vietnam war.

    • I didn’t know that about Savini, interesting detail.

      Yeah walking out of cinemas because you’re not happy (“offended” … hate that word) with what you see is ridiculous, it goes hand in hand with purposfully limiting yourself of certain types of cultural and life experiences just because they might different/dissatisfactory, and thereby missing out on so many great things and actually learning / educating yourself. Thankfully it’s mostly an American phenomenon : — )) GBA

      • I don’t think being open to anything everything necessarily constitutes and more rounded education. I think a good education recognises the need to exercise discretion and use our judgement wisely to determine if this or that will be of real benefit to us. Will this contribute to my truest good?

      • I didn’t actually mean that, but rather than consciously restricting yourself. Saying something like “I don’t like European cinema” f.e. with a very limited background on the topic can be very restricting and counterproductive. There’s a really thin line between discretion and ignorance if not done by someone with actual insight. I’d rather give a shoutout to someone ‘that’ll try anything once’ than someone who calculates their actions and experiences based on its benefitial value. Thirst for knowledge is a very underrated quality.

  9. In my experience when there is graphic violence depicted in film it nearly always makes me respond as horrified. So I can’t say where people get the idea that it inspires others to commit atrocities.

      • They only get used to it because there is so much of it around. It becomes habitual to yawn at a masacre etc. (not literally but you get my meaning). Familiarity in this case breeds indifference. Indifference is not the same thing as being tolerant. Watching something that promotes something that goes against what we stand for or believe in is imo a bit hypocritical. So the we have to ask ourselves what we stand for when we go to the cinema. I like the quote: ‘If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything’.

      • Great quote indeed.

        I don’t know whether its hypocritical, I mean should we not partake in poltics because we don’t agree with certain politicians? If I was completely against the use of graphic, radical violence in film, I’d like to see the film and then critisize rather than accuse based on assumption alone.

      • I get that. It is difficult to criticise something that you refuse to watch, though I didn’t go see The Hangover II because as far as I could see it followed in the same vein as the first one and it just wasn’t my cup ot tea. Having said that, I don’t think it is necessary to see the most vicious films just to have an opinion on them or just to confirm what the ratings, reviews and promotional material clearly show.

      • Well of course, if you’re not interested in a film there’s no need to see it and you can base that opinion on a previous film in the same series. If you would then say that “it’s worse than the second one” or “showcased immoral behaviour” or “had bad jokes” or “wasn’t funny” is quite difficult. Of course you can base some opinion on ‘what it seems to be’, but I’ve realised that often my preconceptions of something have been completely false.

        The problem is that often a film gets promoted by the production company in a certain way to insure sales. I mean Love and Other Drugs was completely promoted as a fun light romantic comedy with lots of sex and erections, but it turned out to be a romantic drama with a quite interesting take on Parkinson’s disease. It’s ticket sales. A film that might actually have some interesting things to say about society and violence, might get marketed with the ‘really cool action scenes’ and not every reviewer might agree that it does indeed have some analytic content.

        Obviously there’s no need for me to see Transformers 3 to know it sucks, but that’s a different type of movie. You know it’s Michael Bay (so there’s no chance the film hasn’t been pushed through an evil cult machine of-disgust-and-badness), you know the acting abilities of those involved, but most of all you know there is no story. Something like A Serbian Film is completely different, because you have no idea who the director is, who the actor is, whether there’s a plot or not and if there is meaning to it, unless you see it.

  10. You managed to delve into many interesting issues, maybe there should be a warning system for grown-ups on the dvds(for ex excessive violence/profanity), not just for under-18s.

    Love your quotes section, I likewise also added a quote by a famous director ( David Lynch) in my piece. I’m surprised you didn’t mention fight club here, which you recently said was your favourite , maybe you felt you didn’t want to repeat yourself?
    I’ve just written a post for the blogathon, should you be interested!

  11. Nice idea to focus on violence as it relates to this topic. This seems to be a very hot-button issue especially as it relates to Americans’ consumption of cultural material. Part of me thinks that it is somewhat cyclical in that “society is violent-art often reflects society-back to society is violent” and so on … The subject of vigilante crime being a prime example. I do not think that it is a coincidence that less than a decade after the release of “Death Wish” stories like that of Bernie Goetz in NYC and the subway shooting grip the national conscious, especially those of us who lived in metropolitan areas at the time and who felt powerless in the face of the rampant crime in these cities.

    I also am left wondering if it is a case of images being more powerful than words – the thought just came to me as I was looking at your screen shots especially at “Clockwork Orange” and “History of Violence” which both come from written source material. Granted “History” is a graphic novel.

  12. The more we see the more we stand, sure, but what exactly does that mean? I can sit through harsh violence on screen without flinching but that’s not to say that it doesn’t repulse me morally as a human being or unsettle me; in my case it just means that I can watch it without my stomach churning or without closing my eyes. People talk of desensitizing, understandably, but that doesn’t strictly signify indifference, either.

    I do find it interesting that most cases of modern censorship come down to sexual content more than graphic violence. That alone speaks volumes about where America’s priorities lie as a culture.

    • “I do find it interesting that most cases of modern censorship come down to sexual content more than graphic violence. That alone speaks volumes about where America’s priorities lie as a culture.”

      Absolutely true Andrew!

  13. Interesting and thought-provoking topic which you give a good round-about!
    A few important notions came to my mind.

    One is about “the clear line between the active motivations behind the film and the passive viewer who is subject to them” you mention.

    In the canon of Film studies, this kind of notion of passive viewership is nowadays disputed, more than often declined altogether.
    Viewers are not tabula rasa (which you, of course, didn’t argue) neither are they passive but rather active in bringing in their own viewpoints, moral values, experience and media skills unconsciously.

    In the same way the motivations of the film-makers should not be overemphasized. Many times I’ve read or heard people quoting the director/screenwriter/producer’s intentions almost as a starting point for how they should take on the film.
    Auteur’s intentions are not the same as what the end product is or what it means. This is only ethical, let alone realistic.

    I noticed you credit the director as _the_ film-maker, ie. you support the auteur theory of film-making. It is a prominent theory which I myself believe and rely on a lot. But since you also talk about economics of film, the producer should get a major role.
    Just think about the Weinsteins rubbing their palms together while watching the rough cut of Quentin’s upcoming “Django”: “Oooh yess, we need more this here, and this need to be cut here. And more blood!!” ^_~

    The way and the reasons why Scorsese uses violence differ greatly from Tarantino. At some point you seem to be piling those two together effortlessly.

    The issue of censorship is very intriguing and as you note, highly varied culturally since the standards on which it is based are negotiated inside cultures and based on completely different standards: some are religious (India), others “scientific” as in based on what goes currently undisputed in psychological research. Usually it is a mix of all kinds of things which makes it harder to start deconstruct it. Still, there are multiple overlappings and the film itself as universal language unites all standards. I don’t think we need to succumb to cultural relativism.

    • I thought it was clear from the context that I very much do not agree with the supposed passivity of the viewer, assaigning the “consumer” an active role both responsibility and morality wise.

      I do indeed believe that the creative force behind every film is the director, but as I said “legally and financially the responsibility will always remain with the production company who approves of the strategic outlines of a certain film’s process”, but I wouldn’t want to assign creative credit to them.

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