Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Violence in the movies

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?

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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25 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Violence in the movies

  1. Son of Rufus

    Wow, a lot of thoughts. First, while being absurd, at least someone who condemns Kung Fu Hustle for violence is being consistent…

    The Shakespeare point is a good one since he seems to often get a pass when so many of his works are quite violent (as much so as any Grand Theft Auto video game).

    It is interesting that usually violence gets more of a pass than sexual content in the U.S.; it is the complete opposite in Europe.

    But I will agree that violence is ingrained in cinema and it would be a boring, and perhaps even worthless, art form without it. Even that short list of violent recommendations that you have been criticized for are all great, or at least fun (Kung Fu Hustle) movies.

    PS. I couldn’t get past the first 10 minutes of Bad Education which I had chosen to watch with no knowledge of the movie other than that it was directed by the same guy as Talk to Her, which was a great film.

  2. Fran

    A friend of mine left in the middle of the second Lord of the Rings movie, The Two Towers. She left because of the violence of the fight at Helms Deep. Or maybe even earlier, when the wargs attached the traveling host. Another friend left during Dances with Wolves because of the dead buffalo. Another won’t watch any movies because of violence. But these folk also tend to refuse to deal with conflict when it is presented in relationships. So many of their relationships are shallow as they also don’t tolerate disagreement. I would love a world with passion but no violence, but that is not this world. I appreciate film as providing prophetic voices at times, even though the cost is violence. One popular example of that for me is Matrix.
    Also, many movies that have nothing of what one might typically call “violence” but are trying to manipulate thinking in such a way as to be “violent”. I prefer honest conflict, however expressed, to manipulative attempts to “convert”.
    I don’t like violence for violence sake. I would prefer that some scenes were not put out into the universe. But if a film is too violent for me, I don’t go see it.

  3. DrSerizawa

    I think that “Mama Mia” is far more repulsive than some of the worst screen violence I’ve ever seen.

    Everyone has their own level of tolerance for screen violence. Mine is pretty high, but violence that’s not in service of the story is occasionally offputting for me.

    The best recent example of violence that pushed the edge for me was the rape scene in “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”. It was extremely effective however and I don’t see how the movie could have done without it. I do have low tolerance for rape violence, much lower than my tolerance for buckets of blood in horror, war or action movies.

    Violence is real and common in the world. To expect cinema to ignore it is pollyannaish. Violence should sometimes be unsettling. A movie on the Holocaust would be worthless if it weren’t.

    The viewer needs to take responsibility for himself/herself before seeing a movie. How could anyone see the trailers, know that the movie was honchoed by Quentin Tarantino and then complain about the violence of “Inglorious Basterds”? It’s patently ridiculous. When has Tarantino ever done anything else?

  4. Ken Hanke

    First, while being absurd, at least someone who condemns Kung Fu Hustle for violence is being consistent…

    Well, I don’t know if the author of the e-maul shares that view, but he would seem to have to.

    It is interesting that usually violence gets more of a pass than sexual content in the U.S.; it is the complete opposite in Europe

    It is very strange, but I’ve actually seen a mother be given a catalogue the most outlanding atrocities in a movie, then ask, “But there’s no sex or nudity in it?” When apprised that there isn’t, the film gets a, “Well, that’s alright then.” It indicates someone with seriously out whack priorities to me, but…

    PS. I couldn’t get past the first 10 minutes of Bad Education which I had chosen to watch with no knowledge of the movie other than that it was directed by the same guy as Talk to Her, which was a great film.

    Now, it’s been a while since I saw Bad Education, but I don’t recall anything particularly off-putting about the first ten minutes — unlike telling people “If you can get through the first five minutes of Shortbus, you’ll probably be okay with it.” Personally, I haven’t seen an Almodovar film I didn’t think was great — or at least very close to it.

  5. killaure

    Honestly, I prefer movies without violence, although I don’t necessarily avoid them. Curiously, I had no problem with Pulp Fiction but found the violence in Fargo gratuitous, go figure. I will enjoy reading this thread:)

  6. Ken Hanke

    But these folk also tend to refuse to deal with conflict when it is presented in relationships. So many of their relationships are shallow as they also don’t tolerate disagreement.

    It surprises me that they’d be capable of any relationships at all!

    I don’t like violence for violence sake. I would prefer that some scenes were not put out into the universe. But if a film is too violent for me, I don’t go see it.

    Of course, the trick to this is that there’s probably nothing the movies have shown that real life hasn’t out to shame in terms of cruelty and gruesomeness.

  7. Ken Hanke

    I think that “Mama Mia” is far more repulsive than some of the worst screen violence I’ve ever seen.

    I certainly felt more traumatized by it.

    Everyone has their own level of tolerance for screen violence. Mine is pretty high, but violence that’s not in service of the story is occasionally offputting for me.

    I’m hard to shock. The only film of recent memory that actually shocked me was Fat Girl. I don’t, however, like to see movies that seem to linger over pain for its own sake — or humiliation, come to that.

    The viewer needs to take responsibility for himself/herself before seeing a movie. How could anyone see the trailers, know that the movie was honchoed by Quentin Tarantino and then complain about the violence of “Inglorious Basterds”? It’s patently ridiculous. When has Tarantino ever done anything else?

    It is a little bit like going to a Busby Berkeley movie and complaining that there were musical numbers in it.

  8. Ken Hanke

    I have absolutely no objection to violence or sex, although I generally prefer the latter.

    You talking about movies, real life or both?

  9. Ken Hanke

    Honestly, I prefer movies without violence

    All in all, I tend to think that, but — using a broad definition of violence — I have to admit that many of my favorite movies qualify as violent. Tommy, The Ruling Class, Shanghai Express, Bride of Frankenstein, The Black Cat, Lisztomania all qualify.

  10. John r

    I sometimes think that valuable ideas can only be transmitted successfully by the use of images that will offend some viewers. “A Clockwork O range” is one of my all time favorite movies, and I don’t know if the idea of “my droogies” rights being sacrificed on the altar of rehabilitation could have ben made as effectivelty if he hadn’t been so excessively out of control in the early part of the movie. I have known several people that stopped watching the movie after certain offensive scenes, and beleived that any punishment was deserving to the young hoodlum, thereby missing what I deemed to be the most important concept in the movie-anybody can be a victim if someone elses morality is forced upon them.

  11. davidf

    Wow, I’d really like to chime into this conversation, but I’m afraid I’ll just have to wait. My brain is a bit scrambled from having just watched the embarrassingly ludicrous absurdity that is 2012. I’ve never laughed so hard at so many pointless deaths. I think my thoughts on misanthropic violence might be a little out of proportion right now.

  12. Dionysis

    Another interesting topic. Without giving it too much thought, my own view on the subject is that while I am not by nature a violence-prone person, I do at times get a bit of a charge when cinema bad guys get their just rewards. Knowing that no matter how graphic it may be, “it’s only a movie.” True, some clearly gratuitous violence turns me off. There are some examples of film violence that bother me a lot, and I will seek to avoid films with (a) ‘torture porn'(b) rape scenes (although at times they’re key elements of a film, which I understand) or (c) violence towards children or animals. Otherwise, I’m not too bothered by violence, since I admit to harboring a bit of misanthropy.

  13. Ken Hanke

    I sometimes think that valuable ideas can only be transmitted successfully by the use of images that will offend some viewers

    The one thing I’ve concluded is that you will find someone who is offended by anything — no matter how innocent or relevant you think it is.

    “A Clockwork Orange” is one of my all time favorite movies

    It’s certainly in my top 25 — and it’s also the film that first pops into my head when you say “violent movie.”

  14. Ken Hanke

    My brain is a bit scrambled from having just watched the embarrassingly ludicrous absurdity that is 2012. I’ve never laughed so hard at so many pointless deaths

    Roland Emmerich has a particular knack for that. If I thought it was intentional, I’d call him a genius. Unfortunately, I think it’s really ineptitude on a very large scale.

  15. Ken Hanke

    Without giving it too much thought, my own view on the subject is that while I am not by nature a violence-prone person, I do at times get a bit of a charge when cinema bad guys get their just rewards.

    At its best — think the 1934 Black Cat — this works because it causes you to realize the darkness inherent in your own being. Unfortunately, it’s rarely at its best. Having sat through the alarmingly fascist Gabriel Over the White House (1933) last night (I’d seen it once before), a perfect example of that is fresh in my mind.

    Otherwise, I’m not too bothered by violence, since I admit to harboring a bit of misanthropy.

    I don’t think I’m misanthropic, though I admit to frequently being disappointed by humankind.

  16. Dionysis

    One experience I recall as it relates to violence in movies was my reaction upon first seeing ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (also among my top favorite films) upon its release. I recall vividly walking out of the theater feeling like Arlo Guthrie in ‘Alice’s Restaurant’…”I want to kill…see dead, burnt bodies…kill…kill…KILL!!!!!”

    Fortunately, that lasted about as long as it took to get home from the movie, but it was a singular experience for me, never repeated (thank goodness).

  17. Ken Hanke

    Fortunately, that lasted about as long as it took to get home from the movie, but it was a singular experience for me, never repeated (thank goodness).

    Yes, I suspect we’re all better off for the brevity of that isolated response. I was too young to see the film when it first came out and didn’t see it till it was re-issued in 1975. Initially, I didn’t see what all the fuss was over — though I certainly admired the way it was made from a purely filmmaking standpoint. It took me a few encounters over the next couple of years and seemingly endless trips to rep houses (thanks to the fact that I was living with someone who thought it was the end-all-be-all movie) to “get it.”

  18. I recall vividly walking out of the theater feeling like Arlo Guthrie in ‘Alice’s Restaurant’…“I want to kill…see dead, burnt bodies…kill…kill…KILL!!!!!”
    And they all moved away from Dionysis on the bench there.

  19. Dionysis

    “And they all moved away from Dionysis on the bench there”

    Had they been able to read my mind, they surely would have moved away.

  20. Kevin Deany

    Slightly off topic here, but while watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” I always get the feeling that Pottersville would be a more entertaining place to live than Bedford Falls. When George Bailey runs through the streets of his town, the theater marquee advertises “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” Now I like that film a lot, but I think the theater in Bedford Falls would show nothing but movies like that.

    Whereas the theater in Pottersville would show film noir, murder mysteries, horror films, action epics, etc. It would likely be open 24 hours a day and routinely change bills of double and triple features, including lots of B movies. Yes, I think I would prefer to live in Pottersville.

  21. Ken Hanke

    Slightly off topic here, but while watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” I always get the feeling that Pottersville would be a more entertaining place to live than Bedford Falls.

    Actually, that’s probably not off-topic at all.

  22. brianpaige

    Here’s what I don’t get: Why can’t a town be a little bit of Bedford Falls and a little bit of Pottersville? As in quite a bit is this nice middle class town, but if you want to amuse yourself there’s the crazy, sleazy area of town with gambling, bars, strippers, and grindhouse theaters.

    As someone who grew up watching stuff like Steven Seagal movies (my dad is a huge Seagal fan) a movie like Inglourious Basterds is actually quite restrained in its violence. I remember having to do a presentation on violence in film for Children and TV class in college and I showed the class various clips of Marked For Death. The class was 80% female too, so you can imagine how shocked they were at Seagal slicing Screwface with a sword, gouging his eyes out, breaking his back, and impaling him.

    Come to think of it, this excess might be why I prefer Van Damme to Seagal. He might kill someone if he has to, but largely he beats the villains up and his characters are much easier to root for.

  23. Ken Hanke

    Here’s what I don’t get: Why can’t a town be a little bit of Bedford Falls and a little bit of Pottersville?

    Well, it’s not an option that Capra’s little fantasy offers.

  24. brianpaige

    It should be. I always thought it was funny that no one else bothered to save Harry since George wasn’t there to do it. Or that Harry couldn’t have gotten a football scholarship at somewhere besides an Ivy League school, so that George could go to college as well.

    Besides being a war hero and all, Harry was kind of a scumbag, huh?

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