I have loved movies all my life. And, to be honest, the movies I have loved have included a fair quotient of violence. I like quiet dramas with quirky characters. But I have also enjoyed shoot-’em-up westerns and action films. I’m not a real fan of horror movies, and certainly not slasher flicks, but I have seen a number of these over the years.
After the Newtown shootings, however, I find myself cringing at Hollywood’s obsession with violence and gore. Before Newtown, I probably would have seen Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher without hesitation. But now I know it opens with a scene of sniper surveying his targets among civilians, and the thought of seeing it is repulsive.
I have similar feelings about Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which reportedly includes prolific stretches of gun violence, as well as a whipping and slaves fighting to the death.
I worry about other films that I would never see, but have reportedly been met with cheers and glee by the audiences that have flocked to them. The lead example here is Texas Chainsaw 3D. It made $23 million on its opening weekend (barely a month after the Newtown massacre). As the antihero Leatherface chops off the hands and feet of his victims, globs of blood (virtually) fly out from the screen at the viewers’ 3D glasses. One film critic reported that during these scenes the theater audience shrieked and sometimes clapped.
Experts in psychology and violence disagree on the effects of media-fictional carnage. But one thing is clear. Our movies have coarsened over the years. It seems we need ever greater quantities of gore to achieve the shocks and thrills these films intend to elicit. Ten or fifteen years ago, Texas Chainsaw 3D would have been rated NC-17. Now it “earns” an R rating and is able to draw a teenaged audience. The evolution (or should we say the devolution) of the ratings system is one gauge of the coarsening not only of movies, but of the movie-going culture.
The early church reacted against the coarseness and obsessions with violence of its culture. Augustine and others protested the “entertainment” of the gladitorial games. Their arguments included the opposition of “bloodlust” they believed was cultivated by the games.
Of course, there is one big and significant difference between our movies and the gladitorial games. The games involved actual violence and death. Our movies, on the other hand, depict but do not enact actual violence and death.
This is the difference many filmmakers cling to. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, recently argued that Newtown and fictional violence must be kept “separate.” He elaborated, “This is entertainment, and the other is a tragedy beyond belief and serious and the real deal.”
Notice, incidentally, that the strategy has the effect of downplaying the significance of film as an art form. It says that art (movies) has no real-world effects and makes no difference there. It logically denies that art can make us worse, but also can in any way make us better.
Whatever the experts eventually make of media violence’s effects, what cannot be denied is the coarsening of our films and our culture with them. This coarsening may indeed inure us to real-world violence and make us more accepting of its supposed inevitability. Unlike Schwarzenegger, I care enough about movies to think they can make a real-world difference. Right now, though, the difference many make is unfortunate and dismaying.