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The Case for Cinematic Violence

I had an interesting discussion recently with a Hollywood writer-producer of crime dramas, regarding a Hollywood Reporter essay by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, in which the veteran director of The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon laments the violence and vulgarity of the contemporary cinema. Stopping just short of sounding like an old fogy — or, for many readers no doubt, going well into that territory — Bogdanovich complains that the most popular, big-budget movies of the current day "are all violent comic book movies," and he says that "doesn't speak well for our society."

Bogdanovich does well to observe that the industry no longer has room for movies like How Green Was My Valley and From Here to Eternity, but his concern here is clearly about style rather than substance, a desire that films engage the mind a good deal more, rather than relying strictly on appeal to the sensations. Any sensible person can agree with that.

His specific complaint about the current cinema is rather more debatable:

Today, there's a general numbing of the audience. There's too much murder and killing. You make people insensitive by showing it all the time. The body count in pictures is huge. It numbs the audience into thinking it's not so terrible. Back in the '70s, I asked Orson Welles what he thought was happening to pictures, and he said, "We're brutalizing the audience. We're going to end up like the Roman circus, live at the Coliseum." The respect for human life seems to be eroding.

My producer friend observed that although Bogdanovich is correct to state that not showing graphic violence is typically more effective in dramatic terms than is the kind of mayhem frequently depicted in films today, the meaning of the violence is far more important than Bogdanovich seems to realize. In the comic-book films against which Bogdanovich directs his complaint, the violence is seldom without consequences, and the characters depicted positively in such films are fighting against random violence and against the use of violence to exploit other people. As the producer pointed out, the meaning of violence in contemporary big-budget films is pretty much the same as it was in days past, from Intolerance through The Adventures of Robin Hood and on to Lawrence of Arabia and Star Wars.