November 26, 2007

Screen Violence

Both Fabian and James have posted articles over the last few days about screen violence. I was meaning to respond immediatly but have been busy applying for jobs so left it. Both of them make interesting points. Both of them are worried about what violence does to the watcher. I learn some responses to others off the screen and so am more likely to repeat them. Casual violence breeds a culture in which casual violence is accepted- and possibly there is a truth to that. However I do think its worth in this context putting in two comments- the first is a historical one and the second a partial defence of violence.

Firstly it is worth recognising that as violence on screen has risen, society has got less violent. That might seem odd to many who see levels of crime which are higher than they were fifty years ago. But going back a hundred or two hundred years, violence is definitely diminished. Partly that is a result of urbanisation- anyone living on a farm is much closer to death than your modern day urban horror fan, they see a lot more of it a lot more realistically. Furthermore domestic violence was more common, though less commonly a crime all those years ago. Partly violence on screen may have replaced violence off screen. Don't forget that violent films began wiht the breakdown of Hollywood censorship in the sixties and seventies, a generation split by the experience of Vietnam came back to watch these films and partly that was an act of attempted remembrance and an act of communication- people wanted to communicate what went on out in the field to those that had not fought.

Secondly, as someone who has written about some of the most violent films ever made, violence can be indispensible to art of a movie. In all three of the cases I have just linked to (Casino, Bonnie and Clyde and Scarface) the violence is neccessary to convey the vision. Its neccessary for very different reasons. Scorsese wants to convey the results of corruption, Bonnie and Clyde is about the narcissm of its leading characters and their callousness and Scarface is about madness and its callousness. In all three cases the violence adds something- without it you wouldn't understand the point as well. One of the most violent films I have ever seen is Downfall- but its also a film for which violence is absolutely neccessary- because without it you don't understand the horror of the Third Reich. Ultimately I think films tell us something, often something important. They can corrupt of course. But the test of that I think is whether the violence is essential to the vision, there are very violent films where it is essential. There are others where it isn't essential and where violence seems to be the only point- the Hills have Eyes 2 would be a great example, a film which should never have been made.

I share some of Fabian and James's concerns but I think they are wrong to aim at all violence. Violence can do good things on screen, reminding us of reality or illustrating an idea. But it can be purposeless and a kind of masturbatory pleasure and then it deserves every denounciation. In truth it is the purpose behind the violence which matters, and whether the violence has a point to it, a context which explains it and something we can learn by it.


jmb said...

As I commented on James's post, I'm not convinced that the increase in violence on the screen is translated into more violence in real life, nor that we are more accepting of it.

I think we can distinguish between film and reality and the portrayal of violence in today's films is so realistic that it is certainly repelling.

As you say, sometimes violence is indispensable to a film to portray something but even films with gratuitous violence send a message against it, in my opinion. These days there are problem more films of the latter kind. Film makers love to show off these things because the technology is so great nowadays.

That said I avoid it if I can for I find it quite upsetting.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

I share James's concerns too, but I agree that violence is integral to some films. But it depends who is watching them, doesn't it how can we control that? I hadn't thought about the generation returning from Vietnam in this context before.

lady macleod said...

"it is the purpose behind the violence..."

that can apply to everything yes, but it can also be used as an excuse.

edmund said...

nusually for this blog i have more time for the political/ethical claims here than the historical

I'm unconvinced that screen violence leads to real violenc-america over the last 20 years and Japan would seem to argue against that-i agree violence can also be used well-though i think taboos against it and practical restricti0ons on visual representations of it- for example in the elizabethen stage c an also have a good effect not least in artistic originality to convey violence.

i found the use of framing as an example of "violence" 0dubious- it is after all violence against non humans. What about the violence of abortion- which is at least directed against humans?

As i understand it the murder rate was a lot lower 100 years ago than it is now and has consistently increased- i think it fell in the 19th century

Domestic violence (at least against women)was I think banned at least since the mid 19th century? Is there any actual evidence that's it's fallen? note the low murder rate 100 years suggests that at least very bad domestic violence was comparatively rare. Moreover there's a good reason to think that some social changes will have increased it- for example the rise in cohabitation and divorce, e.g in the US 65% of domestic violence against women was by boyfriends, ex-boyfriend and ex-husbands compared to 9% by husbands(note the latter category is bigger and also . There's an obvious causality since this increases sexual jealousy insecurity ect ect it'd be interesting to have some actual proof the rate's gone down.

What would work much better is the middle ages (and after all the rise of reading and illustrations arguably did more to widen access to images of violence than the cinema or the tv) -where the murder rate was very high , it seems in normal medieval villages it was like New Orleans today.

This of course raises the issue of law enforcement-the development seems to me the most likely explanation of the fall since the middle ages to the early 20th century as a whole though no doubt Victorian respectability , domesticity et also played a big part. This also makes sense given the incredible rates of violence among primitive societies – which presumably have a less developed law and order apparatus even than medieval villages.

Matt M said...

I think that the way in which violence is portrayed is the key issue (for me at least). I have no problem with honest depictions: brutal, ugly, painful, etc. but find glamourised violence (as in most mainstream action movies) slightly disturbing - no scene with people being injured or killed should seem "cool".

Violence hurts. Watching violence should hurt as well.

Gracchi said...

Edmund thanks for the historical corrective! There is my penalty for straying from my area!

Matt yes great point.