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.
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.
“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.
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.