THE MOVIE VIOLENCE DEBATE is as old as the medium itself: the famous image of a gunman pointing his weapon at the camera in The Great Train Robbery, Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 western, reminds us how long violent imagery has been an integral part of the medium and a topic of controversy.
The debate flares up cyclically, often after tragic events, usually framed by the question of responsibility. It has a way of getting stuck in ideological trench warfare, with a number of familiar arguments routinely deployed from either side. Consider the one about advertising: corporations spend fortunes on commercials because they’re effective in seducing consumers. Movies have the same seductive power (in fact, stronger): look how they made smoking “cool,” helping Big Tobacco poison millions of people. It’s only logical to conclude that violent movies can produce violent behavior.
I’ve been thinking about this. My film education started in Italy, at a time when everybody smoked: people smoked in classrooms, restaurants, airplanes, hospitals — and of course, in movie theaters, where you could watch actors smoking cigarettes through a faint cloud of real smoke. In other words: The act of smoking you might see on the screen was of a piece with the act that might take place in front of it, or on the street outside. Projected image and the world around it were ontologically consistent, part of a shared reality.
Movie violence, on the other hand, is always located on a different plane. It might involve gladiators, vampires, soldiers, cops, outlaws, gunslingers; it was the plane of the movie’s own constructed universe, moral as well as visual. Like everyone around me, I knew that this distinction was essential to the viewing experience, allowing us to perceive as bravery what in real life might have seemed like recklessness, to enjoy an action sequence without questioning its plausibility, or to relish a bad guy’s wickedness.
In my teens and 20s, my attraction to movie violence grew strong, manifesting itself in different forms and shapes. There was the basic rush of seeing things go boom; the curiosity to explore the darker side of human nature; the unruly pleasure of breaking conventions of “good taste.” Movie violence seemed subversive and vital, exposing hidden truths about how the world works. I became fascinated with American movies of the late ’60s and ’70s, where outlaws were often heroic and crime-fighters were fucked up. My touchstone was Taxi Driver, where two figures seem to blend together in an existential enigma named Travis Bickle: a loner searching for love and a man turning into a raging psycho avenger. I studied the character closely, analyzing its kinship with The Searchers’s Ethan Edwards, its relationship to Vietnam, its mix of Scorsese’s Catholic sensibility and Paul Schrader’s austere Calvinism. But ultimately, I loved that the core of the character resisted interpretation, that it felt as if it had been molded out of some primal matter of a young man’s psyche. That the audience cheered when Bickle goes berserk might have been out of line with the film’s intentions, yet it was the measure of its sheer emotional power. “Are you talking to me?” Well, he was.
Taxi Driver didn’t make me violent and neither did scores of purely exploitative movies that I remember from the same period. My personal history of violence can be summarized in a couple of fights and a few red cards on the soccer pitch. I once shot at birds, but I was glad I missed. I realize that my experience is my own. And yet, I never met anyone else who was made more violent by movies. I started noticing how the argument always seemed to be about “them.” No one seemed to ever say, “I have been made insensitive.” More importantly, having grown up in Europe before I moved to the United States, I learned the simple fact that the NRA spends millions to obfuscate: the whole world watches the same movies, but the amount of real-life gun violence is closely related to the amount of real guns.
Since those days, games and movies have become more graphic. It’s been called the “pornography of violence” — but as with the cigarette analogy, I think the expression might be misleading. With few exceptions, pornography’s requirement is the lack of simulation: the sex might be contrived and emotionally fake, but it is physically “real,” and that’s why people watch it. Movie violence works the other way around: people rely on the knowledge that it’s not real, in order to grant themselves permission to enjoy it. Some would probably watch anyway: executions remain public spectacles in parts the world, and snuff videos from ISIS or the drug cartels have a global audience on the internet. Still, the crucial fact is that we know the difference. (Sure, there are those whose minds blur the line. Those who may dress up like the Joker before killing people who are watching a Batman movie. But murderers have also been inspired by Salinger or the Beatles — not to mention holy books.)
Kubrick once said that movies make “convenient whipping boys for politicians, because they allow them to look away from the real social and economic causes of crime, about which they are either unwilling or unable to do anything.” How do we even measure the influence of movies separately from all other factors — social conditions, mental issues, drugs, education? How do we isolate a particular kind of violence from all others — especially in a country whose short history includes genocide, slavery, Hiroshima, legalized torture, the death penalty, mass incarceration, systemic police brutality, and decades of uninterrupted war? It seems more than likely that such a country would also have individual gun violence. It seems inevitable that it would have violent movies. If art has been preoccupied with the representation of violence since the time of The Iliad — which remains hard to match for the sheer amount of carnage — movies and video games seem inherently well suited to the task. (Even the military started to refer to lethal force as “kinetic action.”)
Today, movie violence tends to be at odds with my political views. The ethos of the violent hero (or as it’s typically called, the “action” hero) leans right. It is bound up with machismo, warmongering, fear of the Other. And yet it’s not quite as simple as that, because the action hero is also often an Everyman standing up to power. If the protagonist of mainstream Hollywood drama might be defined by his or her decency, the action hero’s virtues are courage, resilience, and defiance toward prevaricators. Action stars don’t become popular just because they shoot guns on film, but because they can — at their best — embody such qualities; we root for them because we share a fundamental antipathy for injustice and a desire to fight it. A couple of years ago, The New York Times published a piece by Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø about the enduring power of revenge narratives. Nesbø suggested that revenge and its representation actually fulfill a biological imperative, functioning as a deterrent toward those who might harm our offspring. Some of his arguments would have been familiar to readers of René Girard, whose body of work analyzes how mythology, religion, and culture have “organized” violence into a symbolic order. According to Girard, witnessing violence in the form of a ritual or a cultural artifact is not, historically, how human beings became more violent: on the contrary, it’s how they learned to think about violence in the abstract.
Of course, not all movie violence is culturally valuable. The majority of it is just junk food for the mind. But there could hardly be great movie violence without the junky kind, because greatness is relative: the difference is for us to learn and decide — unless we prefer government bureaucrats to draw lines between Travis Bickle, Rambo, Robocop, Scarface, Leatherface, Freddy Krueger, Death Wish, and A Clockwork Orange.
This does not mean that there is no problem with movie violence. I think there is.
In addition to watching my share of violent movies, I’ve worked on a handful of them — including American Psycho, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (in producing capacities), and the Stallone action vehicle Bullet to the Head (I adapted the graphic novel). The last in particular was a learning experience. At the time, I had co-written a war-related screenplay called The Messenger, which people liked, but no one seemed too eager to finance (although it did eventually get made). When I was offered the Bullet job, I liked the idea of working on a genre film. The job itself was fun, at least until I was replaced. But that can always be expected: screenwriters are replaceable, especially on this kind of assignment. What I didn’t expect is that the movie would come out shortly after Sandy Hook.
Regardless of how the script had changed, I always knew it was going to be a violent film. The graphic novel was violent, and director Walter Hill was a master of violent action. None of this had given me pause. In fact, I’m a big Walter Hill fan. The violence in his films can be brutal and shocking, or it can be highly stylized, but it is never frivolous or inconsequential. You’re never allowed to forget that it hurts. Still, Sandy Hook brought something into focus for me. It wasn’t a direct connection between the massacre and the movies. It was, in a sense, the opposite: the disconnect between movies and real-life tragedy. Separation between fiction and reality suddenly appeared in a different light as something disturbing rather than reassuring.
The fact is, movie violence is a product, designed, packaged, and marketed by a big machine. The machine might employ thousands of smart and compassionate individuals — but the machine’s purpose isn’t compassion or understanding: its purpose is profit. The machine mines violence — real and imaginary — as raw material, a valuable resource; it processes and refines it into set pieces, iconic imagery, narrative shorthand. Violence becomes style, fashion, and attitude. The gun itself becomes a fetish: holding a pistol in the poster is an actor’s rite of passage into stardom, or confirmation of Alpha status.
This industrial-scale commodification of violence saturates the landscape. Through screens, speakers, and billboards, it integrates violence into our lives alongside clothes, cars, food, and other products. The film and game titles released this year (just like any other year) provide a litany of Doom, Apocalypse, Civil War, Total War, Suicide, Assassin, and so forth, replete with striking visual presentations of bloodshed and its tools. They live in perfect harmony with slogans and images promoting fitness, sex, hedonism. What’s missing from the imagery is any sense of real loss. The bleeding child in the back of the ambulance, the grieving mother at the roadside memorial, the dazed survivors among the rubble are mostly framed out of representation. We are not being asked to think about the violence — in fact, we are asked not to think about it. To the extent we are invited to feel anything, it is through the identification with those who dispense “righteous” violence against villains, aliens, and monsters — an identification which is literal and complete in the case of first-person shooter games, where we stare at the world over the barrel of a gun.
The cumulative effect of this landscape isn’t measurable with statistics: it’s both more subtle and more profound. Language (including visual language) shapes the way we understand the world: the more it presents violence as a product to be consumed, the more it decouples it from the actual destruction of life. On a basic level, commodification is the opposite of empathy. It’s not that the individual is immediately affected; it’s that our collective culture is being drained of compassion. The effect is incremental, generational, with built-in ways of eluding awareness, but eventually we lose empathy, and empathy itself loses its cultural currency.
But if this is the problem — not that some violent film makes us more violent, but that an entire culture makes us less empathetic — then there is no easy fix. There is only a process: taking stock of the violence that we produce and consume, learning to think about it critically. The questions are not simple. An action film with bloodless, cartoon violence can be more insidious than one realistically displaying body damage. Movies we now consider classic were once disreputable; Sam Peckinpah’s films, now in the canon, were once called irresponsible and nihilistic. It can seem to be about intent — what is the artistic purpose of the represented violence? — and yet even that is problematic: there is something sanctimonious about the notion of justifying violence through a proper amount of drama.
In asking what violence means, we will inevitably get the answers wrong. But the asking is right. It comes down to this: we need our freedom to make and watch violent movies. We also need to keep questioning why without getting either preachy or glib. We need to think about how it makes us feel — and more important: how it makes us not feel.