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Laramie Movie Scope:
Violence in cinema: An essay

The effect of violence in film and television on society

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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April 12, 2001 -- Violence has been a part of cinema since "The Great Train Robbery" of 1903, one of the first true narrative films made in this country. Violence had been a part of theater for thousands of years before that. Why worry about it now?

There are several reasons for worry. The events at Columbine and other schools across the country have a lot of people, including me, scratching their heads for answers. Although crime has declined slightly during some years in the 1980s (followed by more increases) and in some recent years, violent crime is much higher now than it was in 1960. The United States Crime Index Rates Per 100,000 Inhabitants went from 1,887.2 in 1960 to 5,897.8 in 1996. By 1996 the crime rate was more than triple the 1960 crime rate. In 1996 your risk of being a victim of a crime in the United States was 5.079%, and of a violent crime 0.634%. In 1960 these rates were 1.89% of being a victim of a crime and 0.161% of becoming victim of a violent crime, according to FBI figures quoted at the Disaster Center. Violence in movies was increasing during this same time period.

This level of violence is in spite of the fact that America, with less than 5 percent of the world population, has 25 percent of the world's prisoners. There are six times as many Americans behind bars as are imprisoned in the 12 countries that make up the entire European Union, even though those countries have 100 million more citizens than the United States. Our jails and prisons have become the 51st state, with a greater combined population than Alaska, North Dakota and South Dakota, according to an editorial in the San Jose Mercury News on 12-31-1999.

Violence in film and television certainly seems to be a contributing causal factor in the increasing crime rate, although there are people who say it isn't. Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Roger Ebert is one of them. In his 1971 review of the film "Dirty Harry," he writes: "I think films are more often a mirror of society than an agent of change, and that when we blame the movies for the evils around us we are getting things backward. If there aren't mentalities like Dirty Harry's at loose in the land, then the movie is irrelevant. If there are, we should not blame the bearer of the bad news."

Margaret Ervin Bruder, in her essay, Aestheticizing Violence, or How To Do Things with Style," deconstructs several films, including "Hard Target," "Tombstone," "Posse" and "True Romance." Bruder argues that highly stylized violence in films like these can be viewed as a commentary on new ways of thinking about the complex cultural interactions in our world. She argues that those who criticize such violence in movies simply don't understand this new language of film and how audiences relate to it. For instance, "Hard Target," is directed by John Woo, a longtime fixture in Hong Kong-based action films. Woo, director of "Mission Impossible 2," is typical of a new wave of directors depicting highly stylized violence in films. Critics have also defended violence in film by saying it may have a cathartic value. Others argue that it desensitizes people to real violence, making them more violence-prone.

Bruder notes that people experience films much differently now than they did a generation ago when a film was shown only at movie theaters for a short time and then it was locked in a studio vault. Now people can watch the film over and over on video tape or on DVD or laserdisk, studying every nuance of their favorite film. One young fan told me he liked "Last Man Standing," a film almost universally panned, precisely because of all the violence in the film. With a video tape, you can watch the most violent scenes in the film over and over again for maximum effect, whatever that effect might be.

The easy accessibility of video tapes and DVDs and movies downloaded over the Internet also makes it easy for younger children to see movies they might not be allowed to see in a theater. It is no secret that Hollywood makes many "R" rated films for children. "Starship Troopers" is a good example. A work of juvenile fiction written by Robert Heinlein, the book was made into an R-rated movie especially designed for teenage boys with a nude shower scene (not part of the original book), lots of violence and, on the surface at least, recruiting poster simplicity for its fascist political slant. The deeper satirical levels of the film are so thin and poorly developed, they probably go right over the heads of most of the target audience. A friend of mine admitted it was a "guilty pleasure" for him, mostly because of the shower scene featuring nude women. Sex and violence, that is a favored combination in many Hollywood films. This linkage was perhaps strongest in "Basic Instinct," a film that propelled Sharon Stone to stardom. Gone are the days of Doris Day when actresses could make a good living portraying people of good character. A starlet wanting work in Hollywood has to have a bad girl image.

Because children can obtain movies in a variety of ways outside the theater, I think the whole argument of the suitability of MPAA ratings is largely overstated. I agree with Ebert and others that the rating system needs to be revised (less restrictive for adults and more restrictive for children), but what is more important is for audiences, including children, to learn critical thinking skills. Too often, audiences seem to think that what they see on the screen is something remotely related to reality, or that the characters on the screen should be emulated, like the characters in "American Beauty." Teaching logic and rationality is easier said than done, of course, and film is an extremely manipulative medium. Film not only tells us what to think, it tells us how to think and how to feel about what we have experienced. It is a very powerful form of thought control, more powerful than most teaching methods. If it were not, large companies would not pay for television advertising (or for product placement in films). TV ads are like very short movies made to sell products and when made correctly, they work.

What do movies tell us about violence? One message is that violence is funny. Bruder talks about the "fun" factor in highly stylized violence. A friend of mine used to go to movies and then tell me about violent scenes that he enjoyed. He told me about a scene in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" that he thought was very funny: Indiana Jones confronts a sword-wielding man who whips his sword around his body martial arts-fashion. Jones casually pulls out his gun and kills the man. Another scene he thought was hilarious was in "Crocodile Dundee" where Dundee becomes annoyed by a rival suitor for his lady at his dinner table. He knocks the man out. Assault and battery and murder for laughs. This particular kind of comedy seems to be gaining in popularity. A particularly striking example of this was the movie "Payback," in which the hero (played by popular actor Mel Gibson) kills a large number of people for revenge, with a wink and a smile, and gets away with it. There are literally thousands of examples of violence being depicted as comedy going back at least to the James Bond films and to the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. We are being taught that violence is not a serious thing. There are many more examples of violence being depicted as a very serious matter, of course.

War films, westerns, gangster films, martial arts films, many of these fall under the generic title of "action" films. These films generally involve a peaceful man or woman who is forced by circumstances to resort to violence in order to resolve a crisis. The more artful the film, such as "High Noon," the more elaborate and convincing the set up. The sloppier the film (martial arts films are notorious for this) the less provocation it takes for the fight to begin. The bar room brawl, in which fights started for no particular reason, was a staple of the western genre. There was even a bar room brawl in that most artful of martial arts films, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." The message seems to be that the only sure way to resolve a dispute is to use violence.

The key question is, of course, "is there a link between the violence on the screen and real life violence?" Intuitively, it would seem there is a link, because movies and television do influence behavior. Some statistical studies strongly suggest a link between violent behavior and exposure to film and televised violence. That isn't absolute proof of this assertion on a wide scale, of course. There are a few isolated examples of such proof, such as a New York transit worker injured by a criminal assault. The criminal directly copied his method of attack from a depiction of an assault on a transit worker in the film "The Money Train." Then there was the woman who burned her boyfriend's car, duplicating the feat she had witnessed in "Waiting to Exhale." The arguments saying that violence in films does not result in violent behavior are strikingly similar to tobacco industry claims that there was no link between cigarette smoking and cancer. There are billions of dollars to be made by making the argument that movies do not cause violence, just as there were billions to be protected by the tobacco industry arguments.

Tom Laughlin, actor, director and producer in Hollywood for many years, recently published an essay on the topic of violence in the media which can be found at billyjack.com. In the essay, he writes:
"There are two decisive questions that must be answered in the debate about whether or not entertainment and media violence, especially films, cause violence in our society:
Do films have the power to influence human beliefs, attitudes and behavior?
Is violence in films and the media a major cause of violence in the world today?
He answers both questions "yes."

Laughlin wrote, directed and starred in the "Billy Jack" series of films in the 1970s. Ironically, some of those films featured martial arts violence and even violence against women, movie themes he decries in his essay. In his essay he argues that Hollywood has lost its way and that it no longer produces what American audiences want. He said 93 of every 100 films produced by Hollywood loses money in American theaters. The real money is made in foreign markets and in video and other ancillary markets, such as product placement fees. Action movies translate easily into foreign markets because there is minimal dialogue and character development. Laughlin writes: "studio heads pander to producing films that pander to the lowest and most base among the weakest and the most vulnerable among us, and have turned our industry from the sacred art of filmmaking into a business that poisons and destroys children for profit."

Even most Christian critics, it seems, don't believe the answer to the problem of violence in the media rests with government regulation. From what I read, most media critics feel the industry should regulate itself better and parents should do a better job monitoring what their children are watching. Laughlin argues this is a simplistic solution, however. He writes: "we will show in-depth the fallacy of the ď...itís the parentís responsibilityĒ argument which assumes all children live in a Father Knows Best/Ozzie and Harriet type family where there is deep respect and trust and love between the children and these wise, understanding and caring parents ..." He argues that's not the kind of family millions of children are part of.

I've probably been as guilty as most critics in praising violent films. I like films like "Under Siege," "Die Hard," "Predator," "Terminator," the "Rambo" films, "Pulp Fiction" and "Jackie Brown." I also like martial arts films like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Black Mask" and "Fist of Legend." On the other hand, gangster films like the "Godfather" films, "Reservoir Dogs" and "Mean Streets" were too violent for my tastes, as are horror films like "Hellraiser," some of the "Scream" films and "Black Christmas." The violence in the murderer's-point-of-view slasher film "Black Christmas" made me ill and I stopped going to slasher films for years after that. What I try to do is warn people about violence in films so they, or their children, can avoid it. I feel it is part of my job. Hey, don't shoot me, I'm just a critic.

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Copyright © 2001 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)