The Greek dramatists, interestingly, kept their violence offstage. Oedipus appeared with his eyes already out. We did not see him yanking them from his face, yet we knew and know the terrifying act that occurred and its import. Shakespeare too was not graphic in modern terms, even in King Lear.
Only in the modern era of the cinema, however, have we had the potential to be explicit in these matters, but great films have exercised restraint in their portrayal of violence. Hitchcock’s Psycho and Fritz Lang’s M (about a serial killer), scary as they may be, are considerably less explicit than Natural Born Killers and considerably better artistically as well, yet it is Natural Born Killers that is said to have inspired copycat crimes. Screen violence always has the potential to glamorize mass murder. After all, it’s on the screen — where so many want to be. It is indeed time to exercise restraint.
But none of this is simple. We are in the realm of the diciest of judgment calls. And some of what I am writing is colored by the events of early this morning. Still, I wouldn’t want to be an executive at Warner Brothers today. Or one of the filmmakers of the latest Dark Knight. If I were, I would have a lot of sleepless nights ahead.