Wednesday, April 18, 2007

"Violence is a very horrible thing!"

(The above title is a quote from A Clockwork Orange.)

Two great pieces on the blogosphere led to this entry.

The first is from Edward Copeland at his Institute for Lower Learning.

The second is from Damian Arlyn's Windmills of My Mind.

Check out their reactions to some of the stuff that's been going on the past couple days in regard to the media and the Virginia Tech tragedy. They've got more to say than my piece, which is just a reaction to issues they both pondered concerning violence in the media and the age-old "chicken and the egg" debate about whether or not violence in film inspires violence in the real world or if it's the other way around.

The way I see it, there are as many different types of filmic violence as there are sex, comedy, animation, etc. But for the purposes of my reaction, I’ll boil it down to 4 categories.

1. The type of violence Hollywood generates the majority of the time is the senseless kind, designed to titillate and thrill - the stuff displayed in most action films and video games. There aren’t any hard consequences from it and it (hopefully) doesn’t register to most as real violence. (Bond movies fall into this category; even Casino Royale --despite its attempts to “make it real”-- still resides here.)

2. Following right behind that is the slasher-type violence seen in horror films (and also in many video games). Again, we’re removed from this stuff because it’s usually perpetrated my some unseen monster with no personality or means of audience identification – and it also helps that we know our characters are set up to be victims anyway, so we invest nothing in them. (This category needs to be separated from #1 because it's typically drenched in blood, whereas #1 is mostly about action.) Oddly, this too is meant to be a form of "fun".

I’d guess that about 95% of all filmic violence falls into one of the above two categories.

3. Quentin Tarantino’s brilliant because he practically created -- or at least honed -- this brand of violence...and almost nobody’s as good at it as he is these days. QT’s violence occurs within his hyperreal, stylized world. Sometimes there are consequences; sometimes not. Sometimes you feel for the victims; sometimes you’re not supposed to. Sometimes you root for the perpetrator; sometimes you fear him or her. But whatever’s going on in a Tarantino film, a strange barrier still separates his world from our reality - worrisome is the notion that some people don't see that barrier. His brand of mayhem could be the most subversive – there’s arguably nothing more potentially dangerous to a weak mind than stylized violence that just looks fucking cool, especially when it's perpetrated by someone the viewer identifies with. Other good examples of this are Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange [1], Fincher's Fight Club and DePalma's Scarface. This category is very specialized and covers a mere 1%.

4. The other 4% is the “ugly violence with hard consequences” category. This is my personal favorite and the one that separates the men from the boys: A man will wince and feel the pain; a boy will laugh and think nothing of it. I enjoy feeling horrible about seeing atrocious acts of screen violence in a similar way to how I enjoy feeling horny as a result of a hot sex scene or laughing my butt off at some well-played slapstick.

Some examples: Dorothy Vallens getting raped by Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. The knifing of Billy Batts in Goodfellas (both in the club and then later in the car). The attack on Parry in The Fisher King. The killing of Honorah at the end of Heavenly Creatures. Pick a scene from a war movie of your choice (Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now, etc.), and it too likely fits in this category: Hard violence that hurts when you watch it -- as violence should and does. The Sopranos sometimes resides in this category, but also frequently dances with Tarantino and #3.

My son – who turns 14 next month – is as potentially “desensitized” to categories 1 & 2 as not only any kid his age, but also as most of us have become. I don't see a problem with that -- it's called growing up. I’ve yet to show him much fare from category 3 because of the potential dangers I outlined above.

Two things I’ve watched with him in the past week fit into category 4: A) A fairly lengthy sequence that closes Season 2, Episode 1 of Twin Peaks, in which snippets of Laura Palmer’s gruesome murder at the hands of Bob are shown in a very jarring manner and B) The movie Deliverance and all the nasty shit that goes down in that 2 hour period. He was disturbed and shocked and felt as one should feel toward the acts of violence he viewed in this fare – even though he full well knows it isn’t “real”.

So my point is that no matter how much carnage we view on our TVs and movie screens, when violence is presented as the horrific act it is, most people --I hope-- react accordingly. It’s difficult for me to swallow the accusation that watching one mindless action pic after another or playing Grand Theft Auto for 12 hours straight is making soulless zombies of us all…unless, of course, we’re beginning to appreciate bad screenwriting as a result – but that’s a different matter entirely.

[1] It's worth mentioning Kubrick's UK-only withdrawal of Clockwork when some copycat attacks occurred back in the '70s.