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.


Much more corrosive, my producer friend said, is the current trend of “reality shows and twenty-four hour news cycles”  which “has engendered the feeling in a lot of people that everyone should be famous in some way and that causes a level of frustration (to those that aren’t) that can explode.” I think he’s got a very good point, in that the “reality” trends he describes elide the crucial difference between fame and notoriety.

An already highly frustrated, angry, and demented person seeing people becoming “famous” — actually, merely notorious — for acting like knuckleheads on Jersey Shore or the Real Housewives series may turn to violence as a way of seeking attention, but such a person most certainly has not been led by Batman Begins or The Avengers to think such random violence is justifiable. No, for such a person violence is a means to express their rage — which is exactly what one sees, on a much smaller scale, in those reality shows. The individual’s presumably amusing lack of self-control is the key element of such programs.

By creating a false sense of what fame is supposed to be, reality shows — like the yellow journalism of days past — suggest an easy route to social prominence through outrageous behavior. Another contributing element to such a mindset is probably the social-promotion trend in schools (where students are passed on to the next level even though they haven’t mastered the material for the grade they’re being promoted from) and the Everybody Gets a Medal culture in schools and many sports activities. When people thus indoctrinated get out into the real world and don’t get the praise they have come to expect as a birthright, their response may well be extreme and in accord with their personality type: rage, despair, positive determination, etc. In that light, it’s interesting to note that the professors who actually worked with the Aurora killer in the science program he participated in said he was not a good student. Whether that was a new thing for him and a source of serious frustration is something I’m sure the “twenty-four hour news cycle” will be happy to debate in the weeks to come.


Blaming cinematic violence for real-world violence is an easy conclusion to which to jump, but as my producer friend notes, it entirely ignores the actual meaning of what is shown on-screen. These arguments have a parallel theme in the discussion of cultural concerns: the long conflict between those who think that there is too much sex and profanity in popular culture and those who say such depictions are simply realistic and thus certainly do no harm. Partisans of the latter position, interestingly, often refuse to allow that same argument to apply to cinematic violence. That is their right, in my view, as I adhere to the principle that it is correct to treat different things differently.

It seems to me, however, that those who maintain that sex and profanity in the culture should be treated more leniently than violence actually have it exactly wrong: earlier social values, which were lenient toward depictions of violence but were fairly strict about depictions of sex and the use of profanity, had it right, and the modern, more “enlightened” approach is in fact blinkered and wrong. The reason lies precisely in this matter of consequences. When sexual license is depicted without the consequences — broken homes, never-formed families, betrayed loved ones, suicides, disfiguring and deadly venereal diseases, agonizing confusion about one’s sexual role, etc. — all the audience is left with is the lure of erotic pleasure. Bad consequences are either ignored or are seen much later than the choices that led to them, thus greatly weakening any connection the audience may have between the action and any deleterious effects.


The same is true of depictions of profanity and other vulgar behavior: what the audience sees immediately is a cathartic effect, not the generalized loss of self-control that pervades society when such things are allowed.

With violence, by contrast, the consequence are always there, as they are part and parcel of the action. If two characters in a television drama episode get into a fistfight, an audience member cannot help but observe the hurt that is being done, and if, as is the case with any effective fiction, one identifies with at least one of the characters in the fight, the audience member will sympathize vicariously with that person’s pain and immediately appreciate the consequences of violence. Hence, it seems clear, any depiction of violence necessarily contains the antidote to any perverse appeal that this depiction of violence could have.

A further implication is this: a society in which depictions of violence are constrained is one in which people will have somewhat less familiarity with the pain violence causes, other things being equal. Instead of persuading people of the awful truths about violence, such a society will encourage ignorance about it and foster defenselessness. That, in turn, will create a lure for criminal violence — as James Q. Wilson’s studies showed, individuals considering whether to engage in criminal activities judge the risks and potential rewards of their actions, and crime rises when the perceived risk is lowered. It works analogously to the situation with guns: more guns, less crime, as John Lott has vividly proven.


Of course, depictions of violence in which sympathy is clearly — or, perhaps, even subtly — directed toward the perpetrator of the harm and away from the victim would seem likely to have harmful effects on the audience’s psyche. One could indeed suggest that such “torture porn” should be condemned by society — and it is. Such extreme, deliberate glorification of sadism, however, is decidedly not what Bogdanovich and other critics of violence in the popular cinema are complaining about. Moreover, it seems likely that any reasonably normal person would be repulsed by cultural products that suggest sympathy with sadistic behavior, and therefore would voluntarily stay away from that sort of thing. And that indeed is the case, if people’s buying habits are any indication.

Thus the  crusade against depictions of violence in the culture may well have the exact opposite effect from what is intended by it. The conclusion to be drawn from all of this is rather startlingly contrary to popular contemporary thoughts about culture: a heavy amount of sex and profanity in popular culture is likely to do harm, whereas depictions of violence may actually contribute to the social good. In culture as in politics, we ignore the Law of Unintended Consequences at our peril.


Related at PJ Lifestyle:

 The Wall-to-Wall Macho Violence of The Expendables 2

The 3 Most Poisonous Movie Clichés of the 60s and 70s

The Dark Knight Comes To Life


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