This is a topic that dropped from heaven—or at least from a Facebook acquaintance of mine who sent me a private message that (I guess) was taking me to task for giving The American a good review. The review was never mentioned specifically, but The American was the example used to apprise me that violence is not entertaining, and that all violence that isn’t historical is gratuitous and only illustrates boredom or misanthropy. This rather neatly disposes of D.W. Griffith, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Sam Fuller, Stanley Kubrick and Sergio Leone, pretty much puts the kibosh on the horror genre, takes a chunk out of Mr. Shakespeare, and dispenses with the entire catalogue of Warner Bros. cartoons.
This isn’t the first time I’ve run into a criticism for recommending a violent film. I was once taken to task for recommending Kung Fu Hustle (2005) by a friend who was so sickened by the violence in the film that he walked out (as, he assured me, did a lot of other people). I was perplexed by the idea of being sickened by the utterly cartoonish violence in that film. To me, it’s like being sickened by Bugs Bunny or Wile E. Coyote. There is absolutely nothing in this movie that you haven’t seen in an animated cartoon.
I’m almost equally baffled by this because The American didn’t—and doesn’t—strike me as an excessively violent movie, though I can see where the almost off-hand approach to what violence is depicted could be upsetting. But compared in a general sense to other currently playing movies that feature violence—The Expendables and Machete—it’s a model of reticence. Then again, I don’t know if my friend has actually seen The American. I would assume so, but at the same time if you have a four-square stance against violence, would you go to see a thriller about a professional assassin—with a poster showing George Clooney running with a gun in his hand? That seems like asking for trouble.
But this is a very broad condemenation of violence in movies in that it rules out anything other than historical recreation. As such, Inception, The Last Exorcism, The Other Guys, Takers and Winter’s Bone would also qualify, I think. I can attest that Resident Evil: Afterlife (in or out of 3D) would. Violence is a fairly common thing in movies—one that becomes more common as you narrow the field for what is “acceptable” in terms of violence. For that matter, a case could be made against Despicable Me. (Actually, most animated Disney films are rife with violence, if you want to get down to it.)
This past Thursday night we screened Jacques Tourneur’s The Comedy of Terrors (1963) at the Thursday Horror Picture Show. In the course of the film, we have one smothering by pillow, a shooting, several attempts at ax murder, several attempts at poisoning, one successful poisoning, two blows to the head and a swordfight. My parents took me to see this when I was nine. I don’t feel that this made me misanthropic. I don’t feel that I am misanthropic. I’ve never emulated any of the behavior in the film, nor have I felt inclined to—save for a few times when I wouldn’t have minded hitting someone on the head with a mallet. Yet by the definition outlined, the violence contained in the film would be gratuitous—it’s certainly not historical—and therefore, I’m guessing, reprehensible and certainly not entertaining.
My problem—or one of my problems—with this is that the history of film—indeed the history of drama—is a history of violence. Oedipus Rex—an historical work, but based on myth, not history—is a tale filled with violence. While Shakespeare’s historical dramas (no matter how specious) would, I suppose, squeak by, two of his most highly regarded, Hamlet and Macbeth, are both violent works—in fact, rather extremely so—and are not histories. No, I’m not putting The American on a par with these things, but how do you make the distinction if the basis is that all violence that isn’t historical is gratuitous?
Presumably, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) gets a pass because it depicts historical violence—no matter how dubious the film is on other grounds. At the same time, his Broken Blossoms (1919), a much better film—and to my mind, a much less morally questionable one—would be out of bounds. It has child abuse, child murder, a shooting (designed to be satisfying to the viewer) and a suicide. It is based on a violent story. It is a violent story, but it can hardly be said to promote violence. But is it reasonable to condemn a work based on violent content alone without considering theme and intention? In my mind, the answer is no. It is not reasonable.
Also, let’s be honest here, violence is part of the human condition and ignoring it is not only false, I think it’s potentially dangerous. Nothing was ever gotten rid of by pretending it didn’t exist, which is what you’d end up doing with a violence-free cinema. Saying that depiction of historical violence is acceptable seems to me to indicate a desire to present an “of course, the world isn’t like this today” notion, which is demonstrably untrue. And this doesn’t even address the veracity of the depiction of historical violence, which usually isn’t very great and is largely grounded in guess work and supposition—or the mood of the day. Shakespeare’s Richard III was written with pleasing the the royal family of his era much more in mind than historical accuracy.
A violence-free cinema would also be pretty darn boring. We would have to dispense with westerns, horror pictures, crime dramas, gangster films, spy movies, virtually all action films, disaster movies, murder mysteries, a good many comedies, even some musicals and childrens’ classics. If this begins to sound a lot like the world depicted in Ricky Gervais’ The Invention of Lying (2009) where movies consist of someone sitting in a chair reading historical facts, that’s because you’re getting very near that. I don’t think this is what the writer is after with this generalized condemnation of fictional violence, but I can’t be sure.
It seems to me that there are many types of violence—and that even within those types there are variations. For example, the comedic violence in Chaplin movies is in a different tone than the comedic violence in a Laurel and Hardy movie, which in itself isn’t the same as that found in the Three Stooges. None of these are like the deliberately exaggerated over-the-top violence used to comedic effect in more modern films from Flesh for Frankenstein (1974) to Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) to last week’s Machete. The only common factor is that the violence is intended to be absurd.
Is the slow-motion balletic violence of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) the same as the almost hyper-kinetic violence of his controversial Straw Dogs (1971)? Is the “ultra violence” of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) interchangeable with the horror violence of his film of The Shining (1980)? Is the seriously intended violence of Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971)—which, yes, can be called historical—anything at all like the jokey violence of The Lair of the White Worm (1989). I’d say no, but it’s all violence and I don’t think it’s misanthropic or the result of boredom, nor do I find it gratuitous.
Remove violence and you knock out a significant body of movie history and some of the most highly admired films of all time. This isn’t to say that all violence in movies is good. A lot of it is just rubbish and a lot of it is pretty contemptible—torture porn, anyone? But I do believe there’s a distinction to be made and that it’s not a simple case of one-size-fits-all.
The odd thing about all this is that this is only the third time I’ve been criticized for recommending a violent film—the other times being the already mentioned Kung Fu Hustle and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Oh, I do know of people who were appalled by the violence in Slumdog Millionaire (2008), but I wasn’t actually criticized for the review. I have a friend who is quite horrified by my recommending Inglourious Basterds (2009). Of course, he hasn’t seen the film, but he’s read about it.
I’m much more often criticized for a secular humanist viewpoint or for “overthinking” a film or for liking “artsy” stuff—not to mention recommending films with “language” or, worse yet, sexual content. That last, of course, resulted in the letter about Bad Education (2006) that provided the useful phrase, “We are not all Cranky Hankes.”
Indeed, I find most criticism comes from giving what someone else thought was the bee’s knees a bad review. This knows no boundaries. I’ve seen it applied to art house fare like Cache (2006), to stupid comedies like Step Brothers, to innumerable action pictures. In the last instance in particular, it’s usuallly of the “you need to check your brain at the door” stripe, though I’ve yet to understand why I need to dumb-down to the level of the movie. Of course, one person did suggest I needed psychiatric counselling for not liking Mamma Mia (2008) and someone (who would not give his name) called the paper all the way from California (he said) demanding I be fired over Million Dollar Baby (2004). But I digress.
The question I’m throwing out here is whether anyone really wants a world of movies where violence is unknown?