Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Heath Holland On...Movie Violence

by Heath Holland
Hasta la vista, baby.

Movie violence is a weird thing. It’s ubiquitous in everything from horror movies to children’s entertainment, and has been a part of our summer blockbusters for so long that we just take it for granted. Graphic violence on the film screen isn’t a new trend, either. I grew up during an era defined by larger-than-life action stars like Schwarzenegger and Stallone, and their movies were often categorized by ridiculous cartoon violence played for comedic effect and coupled with one-liners that would have made James Bond proud. Furthering the cartoonish nature of violence during the 1980s and 1990s were actual animated series based on R-rated properties like Rambo and Robocop which attempted to replicate the battles we saw at the movies on our television sets, usually by switching real bullets for things like laser guns to get the shows approved by standards and practices.

Frankly, I have loved movie violence for years, which feels strange thing to admit. I was an angry kid who resented the strict fundamentalist upbringing that was forced upon me, and I always saw the action heroes from those movies as an escape from that rigid way of life. And strangely enough, movie violence was almost always ok in my house growing up. Sex, nudity, and profanity were definitely out of the question, but no one was particularly concerned about me seeing all those people being blown away. Even horror movies (not that I was watching those as a kid) play by a certain set of rules most of the time, and the people that don’t make it to the end of the film usually have such big character flaws that you’re rooting to see them go down. Movies offer a very black-and-white sense of justice, with immediate and severe consequences for characters who behave unethically.
Lately, however, I’ve noticed my attitude on violence in the movies has changed pretty dramatically. Part of the reason I wanted to write about this publicly is because I’m struggling to figure out what exactly it is that I’m feeling (whenever you’re unsure about your true thoughts on something, writing about it always brings your innermost feelings to the surface), but also because I think it would be interesting to start a dialog about the issue and see where the movie-going community stands on the state of violence in movies.

Once you become aware of how saturated our culture is with violence, the more you start to see how much of it is in our movies. It feels to me like there is either glorified death or violence in nearly every mainstream movie that comes out today. Part of this is because violence is a way of life and we face a very uncertain and unhappy world outside our door everyday. Another reason for this is because movies are ultimately about the human struggle, and what do we struggle with more than death? But then again, there are lots and lots of movies that feature heavy violence and offer nothing on the human condition. These movies use violence as entertainment. And man, is it entertaining. Question: why does someone have to die in almost every single modern age Disney movie? There are some especially horrible deaths in Disney movies like Tarzan and Mulan that aren’t teaching kids how to be strong in the face of loss or adversity. They’re just killing bad guys because killing bad guys is the coolest.

I fully admit that I think a big part of my shifting feelings on the pervasive nature of violence in movies comes from being a parent and having my child ask questions about things that I can’t readily answer. My daughter understands the difference between fantasy and reality; she knows that what she’s seeing on screen isn’t real, but it still affects her. For example, Star Wars: The Force Awakens really affected her in a profound way and brought around some deep conversations that I wasn’t prepared for, and that’s a movie that I think actually speaks to the human struggle. It’s really hard to see your kid quietly sobbing during a movie because they actually understand death and loss. Our children will grow up in a world where they accept that their schools could be the stage for real violence. Their illusion of safety is broken, and it’s a bummer that my kid now identifies the emergency exits at the movie theater as soon as we sit down in the event that we have to make a mad dash out of the building. This changes you and how you feel about violence, both in real life and on the big screen.
To be clear, I’m not coming down on movie violence. I think that sometimes it has its place, and I applaud a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road for using that violence in service of a story that’s absolutely life-affirming and important. When I hear people criticize the violence of that movie (these people do exist, believe it or not), I feel like they’ve missed the point of the film completely. Similarly, I even understand the appeal and the success of Deadpool because it’s doing something different, and we need different. I don’t want a sanitized movie marketplace where every film beams sunshine and rainbows. You’ve heard I’m a big Chuck Norris fan, right? I like to see Chuck takin’ care of business. Let the bodies hit the floor! But as much as movie violence works in the right environment, I don’t want a movie marketplace that’s mostly filled with death. I don’t want an R-rated Wolverine movie or heroes that bathe in buckets of blood.

The world is a scary place. Nothing is sacred anymore, and the unfortunate truth is that our safety is not guaranteed. It makes sense that our movies reflect that world, but it would be nice if they would also offer us an escape from the bleakness of reality. I’m a superhero guy, but I’m worried about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and I’m also worried about how dark Captain America: Civil War looks like it’s going to be. In fact, it sure looks like Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is going to be 72% cacao (bitterly dark); I’ll be very surprised if all our heroes survive the next few movies. I’ve read the comics and I think I know where we’re going. Frankly, this is not the superhero environment that I want for my daughter, and it’s not what I want for myself, either. Yet through it all, these movies are consistently rated PG-13 for their violence, even though there’s usually a massive amount of destruction and devastation. Say the F-word or show a nipple and you’re probably going to get an R-rating (and my attention), but you can kill thousands and still get that coveted PG-13 rating. Seems kind of messed up. To make it even worse, these movies that use the death of a major character rarely even commit to that death to give it weight. When I was seven, Optimus Prime and a bunch of other Autobots died in Transformers: The Movie and stayed dead long after the end credits rolled (much to the horror of children everywhere). Those of us who saw that movie MOURNED Optimus Prime for months before he made his eventual return. Now major character deaths are usually undone by the end of the movie. What’s the point? While we’re at it, why did Transformers: The Movie kill a bunch of beloved children’s characters in the first place? S.O.B.s!
Maybe this is all just my own struggle with growing older and acknowledging my own physical limitations and mortality. You get to a certain age and you realize that life is beautiful and precious and that real violence is awful. Some movies (The Hateful Eight springs to mind) play violence as being very upsetting and traumatic (rightfully so), but I feel like it’s an exception to the rule. Maybe this is why I’ve developed such a passion for old black and white movies: they almost always focus on life over death, and violence is rarely done without deep consequence. They offer me an escape from the scary world just outside my window; they’re artificial, to be sure, but so is rampant destruction with no consequence. I’m possibly being nostalgic about a time that never existed. Maybe I just miss the days when Back to the Future, a fun adventure with a body count of zero, was the highest grossing movie of 1985. But then again, the second-highest grossing film that year was Rambo: First Blood Part II. If that’s not a telling dichotomy, I don’t know what is. “Marty………I’m comin’ to get you.”

Obviously I’m still working all this out. I’m not anti-movie violence, I just wonder sometimes why there has to be so much of it and why we’re so drawn to it. I also understand that they’re just movies, and that none of it’s real. I’m not sure about any of this, but I know that I’m concerned about the dark direction our entertainment seems to find itself headed currently. Even though they’re just movies and aren’t real, they are a reflection of us as people; we make them, we go see them, we allow them into our culture, and we talk about them endlessly. I’m just not sure that everything I’m seeing is an accurate reflection of who I want to be.


  1. Very interesting write-up, Heath. Since the dawn of civilization, culture has been dominated by violence to one degree or another. So I think it's a necessary part of the things we create.

    With that said, I wish violence would remain in just the fictional worlds we create. Because I'd much rather recognize and appreciate the stylized violence in a movie where I know it's fake and safe than turn on the news at any given time and see the real horrors that are happening all around us.

    I don't know if this will even come across as coherent. I have trouble expressing my thoughts accurately over text. But great article.

  2. I love movie violence and abhor real-life violence (even when it is unfortunately necessary). Speaking strictly for myself, I feel that enjoying screen/fictional violence the way I do is directly related to a purging, if you will, of the darkness each and every human being carries within us. It's a sort of therapy, a catharsis, a healthy outlet to work through all that -- and even ENJOY it -- in a manner we simply cannot in the real world. Not that we would want to, or should.

    Basically, most movie violence gets a reaction from me, and I'd be a hypocrite & a liar if I said that most of it wasn't "cool" to me. But where I scream "did you SEE that head come off?" with glee, or "FUCK YEAH!" at any given moment of asskickery...were I to see it play out of me in person, with real human beings, that would be nowhere near my reaction. Not even close.

    Horror and action just do it for me, movie wise, and almost always I prefer it be violent and bloody. Some people say that's sick. I disagree. I think I'm dealing with things in my own way, and that it's both safe for me to do so as well as for others around me. Quite unlike people who look down their noses at those like myself for enjoying it, tell us we're going to hell, then go home and beat their spouse, abuse their children, or even worse.

    I love movie violence, and abhor real-life violence. Perhaps I could have just stuck with that, but most of you know that's not my way. Thanks for giving me a forum to babble, and you wrote an excellent & thoughtful article, Heath.
    Good job as always.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts. I do think one of the reasons violence has become more difficult for me is because it's becoming more and more of a thing in real life. People are just crazier, and the world has gone insane. Here where I live, we had ANOTHER high school shooting this week (after I wrote this). This 19 year old kid just started blasting away, but luckily didn't actually manage to kill anyone. I always saw violence as escapism, but at the moment it just too close in our reality to be escapism, so escapism is becoming something else. However, I just want to make it clear that I'm not suggesting that violent movies or video games influence real life violence, because I don't think they do, at least not for normal people. Charles Manson didn't hear crazy messages in those Beatles songs because the songs were dangerous; he heard messages because he was nuts.

    1. Exactly. I always ask "what movie was Jack the Ripper watching? What videogame was Hitler playing?" Crazy is crazy, and art does not drive people there.

    2. Gosh. I am so sorry to hear about that newest school shooting where you live. It is the American tragedy that makes me the most sad.

      Although I know a lot of nonviolent people who love violent movies, I still believe there's some desensitization that occurs to some degree. Maybe the effects of desensitization are not the obvious ones we'd think them to be- like a person becoming violent him or herself. I wish I knew more- like where to find the scientific articles on it.

  4. It's a complicated subject, and like most people responding here I also have a hard time wrapping my head around it and trying to figure out what crosses the line for me and why since there are plenty of examples of violence in movies that I love.

    I don't think I've come up with any compelling answers, but I do want to mention the Hunger Games movies as a recent example of movies that made me question the depiction of violence. The novels and the movies have always struck me as an odd thing to market specifically to young adults. I get that their message isn't pro-violence, but at the same time they make the violence such a centerpiece of the story that message feels a bit disingenuous at times. Particularly when the second book/movie largely rehashes the setup of the first because people being forced to fight each other to the death was the draw of the franchise.

    But then even thinking about this makes me feel hypocritical. I loved Battle Royale so I can't really say I object to the concept of kids having to fight each other to the death. So maybe I don't like that Hunger Games was aimed specifically at teens, but then I was watching horror movies probably as early as 7 or 8 and it ultimately didn't harm me at all. Maybe it's just that these don't feel like PG-13 movies I. Honestly I'm not sure what it is.

  5. I would argue that The Hateful Eight presents violence as humor. The outrageous violence in that film is staged as comedy meant to garner laughs rather than portray the acts as upsetting or traumatic. Tarantino seems to get away with sensationalist violence with viewers (myself included) and I believe it is because he is so good at crafting story and staging the violence within the context of the narrative. But it's usually there for laughs, and he has said as much in interviews.

    Thinking about the most outrageous violence in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, they all possess elements of comedy. SPOILER (for a movie that came out 7 years ago) "The Bear Jew" bashing in the Nazi soldier's head is played as comedy even though it is a horrific death for that character, and a graphic depiction of violence. The punchline of that scene is the next guy "on deck" immediately gives the Basterds the info they want. The most poignant death in the film, Shosanna, while not an outrageous depiction of violence, was still a moment of tragic comedy, and a scene filled with comedic beats and timing. Then, of course, there's Hitler's head being machine-gunned to oblivion.

    I think it's fitting you saw the violence in The Hateful Eight as upsetting and traumatic and accentuates the point of your piece, which I enjoyed reading.

  6. I'm guessing you're not a Daredevil fan...

    1. The show, the comic, or the character? I really like two out of three.

    2. The Ben Affleck movie! No, kidding. The show. I only mention it because it really embodies everything you seem to dislike about comic book movies.

    3. The violence in the Daredevil Netflix series doesn't really bother me. I have problems with that show, but the violence isn't one of them. Also, I really do like the Ben Affleck movie.

    4. Interesting! I think it's unfairly persecuted. It's not terrible, and Ben Affleck isn't one of its problems.

  7. As I grow older, and I'm only 28 by now, movie violence becomes less appealing to me, which does not mean I don't like violent movies. Take The Hateful Eight for example: That movie shows graphic and exaggerated violence, but there is a sense to it... and I don't enjoy the violence in this movie, but I still enjoy the film and what it is presenting.
    Mad Max: Fury Road is another good example: There is violence, but it serves the movie... and yet is never the main attraction of it.
    If violence is shown as the biggest attraction of a movie, I need it to be as silly as in Tokio Gore Police. It's out of this world, over the top, so far away from reality, that I do not connect with those characters, so that I don't care and I can have something like fun with it. But if it is shown in a brutal, reality based style, I don't see no fun, no entertainment.
    So as far as I'm concerned, movie violence has a place in my entertainment, when it is used for another purpose, but hardly ever only for my pure joy.

    1. I was about to write almost the exact same thing. When I see violence in a Tarantino movie or I go see a Paul Verhoeven movie, I know what I'm going in for -- a ton of violence that is disconnected from reality. It's a style choice and it's part of the movie experience (the Criterion version of Robocop is actually funny at times like in the boardroom scene because of how over the top it is).

      But when it's grim reality, I don't enjoy it, and it's painful to watch. I remember going to see the Revenant and thinking, wow, that was an amazingly made movie on all levels, and I never want to see it again. Or take Jessica Jones -- I REALLY liked so much of it, but then they (semi-spoiler) throw some guy's arms down a blender because...why? It didn't ruin my overall feeling about the show, but it definitely lessened it somewhat.

      Also, I will say that once I had my daughter, my take on a lot of this changed quite a bit. Heath, you brought up modern Disney, and I don't think you're wrong, but when I think of the "children's movies" I watched as a kid, I'm somewhat shocked. Secret of NIMH always comes to mind, I

    2. Still I have to disagree on The Revenant, cause that movie has more than violence... especially the capturing of the nature. The violence is still harsh to watch and not enjoyable, but the movie in general is, I think.