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Blood on Film: Violence and Morality…

I am always fascinated about discussions over violence in movies. Mostly because it’s one of those “hot button” issues which always comes up in some context or another and is typically portrayed as an argument with two extremes. This week, while promoting his new movie Faster, actor Billy Bob Thornton offered his own opinion of modern movie-making:

In our current state of affairs, especially in the entertainment business, we’re living in a time when we’re making — in my humble opinion — the worst movies in history.

They’re geared toward the video game-playing generation. And these video games, which I’m on my son about constantly, these games are people killing for fun, and I think traditionally in movies, there’s always been some kind of lesson in the violent movies.

In fairness, Thornton is a typically controversial figure (for example, recently alienating Canadian fans), but it’s an interesting idea to look at – the assumption that violence (and specifically how it is handled) can contribute to a movie’s quality (or lack thereof). Is he being just a little melodramatic?

Well, it is the second of December...

In fairness, some of what he said might have a point. He specifically mentions videogames as the cause of modern movies being terrible, and I think it’s reasonable to link videogames to bad movies. After all, most videogame adaptations, from Silent Hill to Postal to Max Payne to Super Mario Brothers, are just terrible films. Videogames are an entirely different medium from film and what works in one does not necessarily work in the other.

However, Thornton goes in to tie into the classic “all videogames are violent and evil” assumption, which is itself based on the second flawed assumption that “all violent videogames are evil”. Being entirely honest, I see videogames as an artistic medium which, like comic books and graphic novels, is making huge strides towards being taken seriously. Granted, early examples – like Tetris or even Super Mario – didn’t exactly revolutionise the manner of narrative storytelling, but in recent years games like Grand Theft Auto, The Legend of Zelda and Metal Gear Solid have experimented with interactive and immersive narrative. They already outsell movies, but I don’t see this as a competition – just as books and plays can coexist with movies and television, so can videogames. However, this is best left as a discussion for another time.

However, ignoring Thornton’s red herring about videogames, what about violence in films? Have modern attitudes towards violence changed in recent years? And are these changes such that they can be quantifiably labelled “bad”? Thornton’s position is undoubtedly linked to the promotion of his latest movie, Faster, in which he plays a cop pursuing a killer. He remarks of the film:

This movie doesn’t say, ‘Oh, here’s this fun guy and we’re going to do this tongue-in-cheek character right out of a video game who likes to destroy things’ and all this kind of thing. This movie actually shows what prisons create, what murder creates. It shows this perpetual, violent string of events.

One of the flaws in most commercial action movies is that the characters are usually not very developed. A lot of times you’ll have the movie star hero and then some bad guys who are just there to be killed by the hero, and they’re nameless, faceless people. And as a result, you’re usually not afraid of them because you don’t see them ask somebody to pass the salt, you don’t see them with their kids.

I am not necessarily convinced that seeing a character ask for salt or spend time with their family makes them more scary – after all, part of what is absolutely terrifying is the unknown and the unquantifiable. Perhaps the most terrifying thing about Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men was that he was utterly remorseless and just. wouldn’t. stop. The fact that he was utterly incomprehensible made him all the more frightening.

Granted, there are obviously exceptions, but I find that the more a movie attempts to “characterise” its villain, the less frightening and more relatable he becomes. Compare, for example, the Hannibal Lector from The Silence of the Lambs in his primal and mysteriously sinister manner to the developed and explained young Hannibal of Hannibal Rising. Both comment equally horrifying acts (indeed, I’d argue Hannibal Rising is even more graphic and violent), but the original is the most chilling version because you can’t understand him – he is nearly completely alien under his cold eyes and soft voice.

Maybe he just spilt some ketchup?

However, I am getting a little sidetracked in addressing the assumptions made by Thornton. His core argument is that modern movies seem to shout that a character who “kills for fun” is a “fun guy”, whereas in the good old days there was always “some kind of lesson in violent movies”. I don’t think that this represents a mischaracterisation of Thornton’s point. Given that he alludes, in the same interview, to Faster as something of a seventies throwback, I think it’s fair to assume that the “modern movies” he mentions were made after that point.

It would be crazy to assert that there are no movies being made which match Thornton’s criteria above. Recent years have seen a huge rise in “torture porn” films like Hostel or the later Saw movies or countless others. These movies do ask us to vicariously enjoy the torture and murder of various individuals and ask us, in some small manner, to engage with the people causing the suffering (a point made rather bluntly, and arguably counterproductively, in Funny Games – since anyone who agrees with this point of view is unlikely to watch that type of movie). It’s more blatant in films like Freddy v. Jason, for example, which ask us to pick one of two monsters to root for. I do think, though, that it is a tad misleading to classify these films as the bulk of modern cinematic output – they are a relatively minor number of productions in the grand scheme of things.

However, even keeping that in mind, these sorts of films have always existed. After all, half of these films are just remakes of original films, like the recent Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Last House on the Left or I Spit on Your Grave remakes, where the same sort of themes play themselves out. Hell, the slasher genre has been the refuge for all manner of gratuitous violence for decades (there have obviously been a few high-quality, well-made and “meritorious” slashers – I’d argue the list includes The Shining, Scream and the original Halloween), and is not a recent development. The only thing that has changed is how graphic the directors can portray violence – the core themes (and many of them are deeply disturbing and some even revolting) were always there.

If one argues that the graphic nature of the violence is the problem – and movies have undoubtedly been getting more graphic in recent years – then does that also affect “good” films (even artsy and indie ones) that use it? The physical violence in films like Saving Private Ryan or Schindler’s List is incredibly disturbing – but it’s meant to be. It is intended to illustrate the horror of warfare and the depths of man’s inhumanity to man. Violence itself is a tool which can be used for many purposes – Thornton himself hints at this when he talks about the “lessons” which used to come with violent films. If Thornton accepts that graphic violence on film is not inherently evil of itself (that even the most graphic violence can be appropriate in context), then it becomes an issue of how it is used.

On a tangent, I’ve always found the way that films are classified as counter-productive, contributing to this idea that context is irrelevant. Take, for example, the blockbuster The Dark Knight. The film features an amazing amount of violence, with one character sticking a knife in the mouth of others or one breaking a mobster’s legs by throwing him off a building, for example, and yet the movie was able to secure a relatively low rating because it didn’t feature any blood. This is the same logic used in making the Alien vs. Predator films, which were based on the assumption that you could be as violent as you wanted, as long as you didn’t show human blood (green alien blood is fine).

Such logic seems a little silly to me, as surely a movie which displays the consequences of violence (rather than treating it as something that is casual and almost throw away) is less in need of censorship? Surely impressionable viewers (and I’m not convinced that they exist in numbers as high as most moral guardians would suggest) are better to actually witness the consequences of these actions so that they know that playing with knives is dangerous and not just a bit of practically harmless fun? And, while I’m pondering, why is sex censored more harshly than violence? You can fire a machine gun into a crowd in a PG film, but showing a nipple will immediately garner a 15 rating or higher (and a penis is an assured 18 rating). I am all for appropriate age ratings on films, but it all seems arbitrary and counter-intuitive – surely it’s the principle rather than the action which is offensive?

Do we need to cop on?

Anyway, let’s assume that we aren’t talking about the graphic nature of the violence itself, but the context. Has the context in which we show violence changed much within the past forty-odd years? I am not convinced. I don’t subscribe to the idea that Thornton proposes – that violence needs to teach the audience a “lesson” in order to be valid – but I can’t argue that cinema has changed its perspective on that since the seventies.

In modern cinema, we do accept violent characters as heroes (or at least anti-heroes). We embrace the idea that sometimes good men need to kill in certain circumstances. The most obvious example of film is the entire “war film” genre, which is predicated on the idea that the audience sympathises with characters who occasionally have to take lives. Sure, the film might treat the entire situation as tragic, but it doesn’t suggest that the character is a bad person for killing – and this has been a standard for decades. The same logic applies to crime films, dating back to the time of Howard Hughes and earlier – we accept the idea that cops have to kill criminals in certain circumstances in order to stop them or save lives. Both of these examples stretch back a lot earlier than the seventies.

You could suggest that even though we accept heroes that do violence, both films clearly push a moral – that violence is acceptable under certain specific circumstances when exercised by the proper authorities, or that war is hell, or that crime will lead to an early and unfortunate end. However, there is a long cinematic tradition dating back years surrounding violence – it isn’t just authority figures in films who can use violence and remain sympathetic. The Carleone family in The Godfather are not villains, nor do they use their violence in any sort of endorsed manner. There is an element of tragedy around the story, Don Vito Carleone is portrayed as a very pious and moral figure – an ethical individual, even – despite orchestrating a violent and criminal organisation (and killing unarmed people himself).

This is because, in movies, we do not treat – nor have we ever treated – violence as the supreme arbitrator of morality. In the above example, the audience’s sympathy for Vito is rooted in his decision not to sell drugs (even he decision is based on practical reasons rather than principled ones) and later the council of mobsters manage to avoid appearing like truly morally bankrupt individuals to the audience by refusing to sell near schools. Such a distinction seems ridiculously arbitrary on paper – these men are murderers who fuel vice and corruption, but can remain sympathetic because they don’t sell drugs to kids? – but it reflects a long-standing cinematic tradition.

Certain actions, though they might have less of an impact than physical violence, more clearly establish characters as either “good” or “evil” than a willingness to kill. Sure, characters who kill for fun will always be evil, but violence is rarely the sole indication of a character’s morality, nor has it ever been. A character who is casually racist or sexist is far more likely to draw hatred from an audience than one who solves his dispute with bullets. Any character who preys on those weaker than him, whether physically or otherwise, is normally morally irredeemable.

However, these characters who “kill for fun” are not new to cinema. The leading character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is the serial killer Norman Bates, not any of the “good” guys. The Night of the Hunter features a completely irredeemably psychopath as its leading character. In a way, these characters are the forefathers of modern characters like Hannibal Lecter or Anton Chigurh, among others. Yes, they are among the better-written examples (and hence why they have endured), but that doesn’t mean that they are really too philosophically different from the characters we see today. Modern “splatter films” can trace their origins back to the Grand Guignol theatre in nineteenth century Paris and perhaps even further.

This ignores any pseudo-psychological argument about whether or not the release that film can offer is a good thing – I’d argue that horror movies offer a great way to confront latent anxiety in a perfectly controlled environment without consequence (much like, say, rollercoasters). I know that the notion of such a release is a hotly contested academic and psychological topic, so I only mention it in passing.

Violence is like any other artistic tool – it can be handled well or it can be handled poorly. However, I think that all too often it serves as a red herring – we assume that a film containing violence must be morally bankrupt and thus more objectionable than a film which doesn’t contain it. I find, for example, the themes of The Reader and The Blind Side to be far more objectionable than, say, the ridiculous levels violence in Machete, because of what the movie is actually saying (rather than how it choses to say it). However, Machete will draw far more flack because it features guns and blood packs.

Yes, a lot of movies that contain violence are reprehensible. But they aren’t made more so due to the graphics – it’s the ideas and themes which are worrying. Yes, the vast majority of slasher films are misogynistic and sexist, but, you know what? So are a huge number of romantic comedies. I am just as uncomfortable about my little sister watching The Ugly Truth as I am about her sneaking in to see Halloween II. Well, actually, I’m more concerned about Katherine Heigl movies, because she’s more likely to want to see those.

So I think I’ve had my rant, but it has been bugging me for a while. I know it’s only so long before I hear another “violent videogames” moral outrage, and I’ll probably think the exact same way, but it’s good to get it out of my system.

One Response

  1. Violence can absolutely contribute to the quality of a movie; kung fu movies and martial arts films in a broader sense hinge on the quality of their violence. I don’t know if Billy Bob counts those films in his diatribe, since most of them tend to be fairly bloodless and fights are won when the bad guys tuck tail and run rather than eat more knuckle sandwiches from their high-flying adversaries, but a movie like Ip Man or Ong Bak totally depends on its violence being well-choreographed and entertaining in order to succeed. (As a generalization.)

    More than that, I think violence can be essential to making the point of the film, which you seem to be touching on in your arguments. Billy Bob particularly seems to be against violence that doesn’t serve a purpose, which sort of leads me to think that he’d be in favor of movies like Oldboy that show the consequences of violence rather than treat it as a catch-all way of responding to a problem.

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