2. Our Romance with Violence
The world of movies has always had a neurotic relationship with violence. From the earliest cowboy films produced by Hollywood to the glut of action films currently in vogue, violence has been one of the staples of storytelling on screen, for better or (mostly) worse. Early film violence tended toward the slapstick, and in fact the comedic films of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy made effective use of physical pain to tickle our funnybones. The sight of blood—even in early adventure films (‘action’ movies as a genre are a latter-day invention)—seemed strictly forbidden. It took until the 1960s for directors like Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in the West, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) and George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) to finally break this taboo with at least tacit visual acknowledgment of the damage a bullet ripping through flesh could do.
Even the rash of war films made in the decades following World War II took some time to overcome the no-blood-on-screen taboo, despite showing soldiers being exploded by shells and mines. The war films of John Wayne are a case in point, far more concerned with hero worship than any meaningful portrayal of the horrors of the battlefield. But it’s interesting that with the new wave of directors in the ’60s, a new awareness was dawning and seemed to find its outlet in the popular Western genre. Peckinpah, Leone and company were more interested in creating films that debunked the Western even as they paid off-handed tribute through timeless characters like Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. It’s as if the collective psyche articulated by these film artists was waking up to the collateral damage wrought by an unquestioning promotion of violence.
By focusing on the trials and tribulations of the film hero, movies shifted attention away from the real-world consequences of violence. Early adventure films such as those starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Errol Flynn were pages right out of boys’ adventure novels and comic books. Early Westerns used the same comic book approach, relying on broad stereotypes of cowboys and Indians for what were essentially chapters in the myth-making of America the Great. Violence—or ‘action’ as it’s euphemistically dubbed today—are the visual equivalents of the page-turner in novels. It keeps the pulse racing and eyes glued to the screen. It bypasses the brain’s frontal cortex, the site of analytical thinking, and taps straight into the old reptile brain that kept us alive when we were still nomadic hunter-gatherers. But best of all, if you’re a Hollywood producer, it disengages critical thought and keeps the billions pouring in.
For decades now the question has been batted back and forth: does screen violence cause real-world violence? Clearly there is some relationship between the two but a definitive answer has been elusive. According to the New Scientist in 2007, by the time the average US child starts elementary school he or she will have seen 8,000 murders and 100,00 acts of violence on TV. It’s hard to imagine that this has no effect. “The results of one of the most extensive studies ever done on the subject of violence and TV were released in 2003. Researchers followed 329 subjects over 15 years. They found that those who as children were exposed to violent TV shows were much more likely to later be convicted of crime. Researchers said that, “Media violence can affect any child from any family,” regardless of social class or parenting.” (Source: http://www.cybercollege.com/violence.htm)
Part of the problem is that screen violence is subject to the Law of Diminishing Returns, i.e. the more often one sees acts of violence, the more numbed one becomes to its depiction, requiring ever-greater, more spectacular scenes of brutality to captivate attention. I believe this is what we are now seeing as an operative principle in action films and even many so-called ‘family’ adventure films. The constant visual hammering of chases, fights, explosions, intense confrontations and so on has reached a point where it is itself a form of violent sensory battering. The results to society of this steady escalation of violent titillation? According to Scientific American, “Research presented at the conference of the Association for Psychological Science in 2010 found that today’s college students are far less empathic than their counterparts 30 years ago. Researchers analyzed data from studies conducted between 1979 and 2009, and found the sharpest drop in empathy occurred in the last nine years.” (Source: http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=college-students-are-less-empathic-10-05-29)
And with the incredible advances in special effects technology, violence can now be more realistic (read: gory) than ever. The no-blood-on-screen taboo has been broken, but to what end? As with so much else at this late date in our civilization, we seem to have opted for Profit as the ultimate value, consequences be damned. This is a clear signal of a civilization on its last legs.
3. Violence as Storytelling Device
Yet violence as a storytelling device is not without merit. In the hands of a skilled, intelligent and compassionate director and screenwriter, it has the capacity to do the opposite: to instill such sorrow and distaste at violence that viewers are sickened, rather than attracted, by it. A case in point would be the Oliver Stone film Platoon (1986), a fictional story based on Stone’s experiences as a soldier in Vietnam. Instead of the lantern-jawed, stoic John Wayne war hero, Stone depicted a freaked-out, drugged-up platoon of kid soldiers who did what any normal human being does when confronted with seeing buddies ripped to bloody pieces: they screamed, cried, and even turned their weapons on their commanding officers when given insane orders. I remember a woman friend of mine telling me that when her son saw Platoon he changed his mind about joining the military, an appropriate response to realistically depicted violence. Ironically, except for the hit comedy series M*A*S*H, which disguised Vietnam as Korea, it took until the 1980s for directors to accurately depict that nightmare. Another good example of this was Brian DePalma’s Casualties of War (1989), starring Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn, and more recently, Terrence Malick’s exquisite The Thin Red Line (1998).
Malick does a great job of juxtaposing scenes of a combat unit that has gone AWOL on a Pacific island with battle scenes of Americans trying to dislodge Japanese soldiers dug into a strategically held ridge on Guadalcanal. When the bombardment begins and the Japanese machine gunners are raking the American position, we see the full gamut of human reactions to intense stress. One beefy, tough looking soldier is paralyzed by fear and starts screaming. Another shits himself. Yet another heads toward the pillbox like a crazed bird dog on a scent. It takes the company sergeant browbeating them at the top of his lungs to spur the entire unit into action. None of it is heroic, all of it is human and all too real. There is no glory here, as in a John Wayne war film. There is only fear, pain, suffering and death.
Based on James Jones’ novel, Malick wrote a screenplay that is of high literary quality, where ‘literary’ means writing that is astutely observant and revealing of the human condition. For example, the AWOL Private Edward P. Train questions the very roots of human conflict: “What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power, but two?” Train and his unit are men who have snapped under the pressure of combat and are desperately seeking a refuge of peace on a paradise island. The irony is that they would have been executed for desertion in World War I. Instead they find themselves rounded up and sent back to Guadalcanal. The depth of complexity in The Thin Red Line is further revealed in the words of a captured Japanese soldier: “Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness and truth?” And First Sergeant Welsh, played by Sean Penn, sums it all up: “What difference do you think you can make, one man in all this madness?”
Penn’s character reflects just another element of the collateral damage of violence: the hopelessness that can pervade a soul. It’s this kind of despair that can cripple a person’s commitment to social justice. It’s a cynicism cultivated by what Bob Dylan called ‘The Masters of War’, the trillion-dollar weapons industry that stands to profit from human misery and death. Instead, we need to keep returning to the poetic mantra voiced by Pablo Neruda: “I exist not if I do not attend to the pains of those who suffer; they are my pains.” In a word: empathy. It’s this kind of empathy artists like Malick employ so effectively in their work. Only with the cultivation of empathy in society will we have a hope of keeping the violent forces of darkness at bay.