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Violence in the Cinema


While cleaning out some old papers, I came across this curious essay that I wrote for some class – possibly social studies – when I was in my junior year in high school. It’s a little naïve but I thought it might give someone a little chuckle – and it does show some youthful insight into its subject (and, for the record, I got a B+ on it).



"I don' t mind saying that I myself was sickened by my own film."  It is one thing for an audience to be disgusted by images on a screen, but quite another for the director to admit he's disgusted as well. Why continue, in that case?  Because, in case you haven't heard, violence is the "in" thing around Hollywood. Movies, such as The Godfather, Dirty Harry, and A Clockwork Orange – all use violence as their prime staples and all have been incredibly successful.

The violence, scoff some to critics, is all in fun. However, where does the fun end and the reality begin? Are our movie theaters breeding grounds for would-be-assassins who, without the help of the psychopathic killer in Dirty Harry, might never have picked up a rifle or even thought of killing someone? 

Alfred Hitchcock (whose 1960 film, Psycho, might be called the first of the violent films because it included a gruesome scene in which a woman is stabbed to death while taking a shower) says no, movies are not harmful. (When asked what he thought of the man who confessed that he had committed an especially sticky murder after seeing Psycho, Hitchcock replied, "That man murdered three women. When the local paper called up to ask for my comment, I replied by putting another question to them. 'What film did the man see before he murdered the second woman?  And am I to assume that he murdered the first woman after drinking a glass of milk?’” Then, according to Hitchcock, if you’re the sort of fellow to go about stabbing people in the shower, you're not going to wait for psycho Tony Perkins to show you how it's done.) Yet, it's only natural for a director of violent movies to feel that way; perhaps he is trying to clear guilty conscience, or, perhaps he is right. 

If so, then why did there seem to be a great increase in crime and the many assassinations in the sixties? Was it caused by the movies? Or are the violent films  –  as some claim – actually betterfor society? According to this theory, viewing filmed violence allows one’s pent-up emotions to be released vicariously – and harmlessly.

The Surgeon General's Office conducted a study last year on the effects of media violence. The results partially agreed with Hitchcock, and totally disagreed with the catharsis theory. The study reported that the most direct effects of media violence may occur among children predisposed to violence. This group is “a small portion on a substantial portion of the total population of viewers. The present entertainment offerings may be contributing, in some measure, to the aggressive behavior of many normal children. Such an effect has not been shown in a wide variety of situations.”

If this is true, and motion picture theaters might indeed be the birthplaces of next year's killers, why do the powers that be treat violent films with such excessive permissiveness? What has happened to the censorship that existed in the thirties, forties, and fifties? In the pre-1960s fi1m era, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) had been much more powerful than it is today when it merely classifies the suitability of movies for children: in the past, it was able, if it found objectionable content, to keep that picture out of many theaters, causing its producers to lose money. To prevent this blacklisting, the producers would be very careful in how much sex and violence they included.

However, times change and in the late fifties and early sixties, the MPAA became increasingly less powerful and viewers were much less stringent, leaving the road clear for the crop that lives in the seventies. Censorship now, besides cutting scenes to get a better “children admission” rating, is non-existent in the flicks. 

And in a way, that is good. When the censors were going full steam they went to extremes in their requirements. The problem now is that without censorship, many films run wild with violence, going to the opposite extreme in their newfound freedom. Pauline Kael, movie critic for The New Yorker feels that there is such a thing as "objectionable violence”: when there is really nothing in the movie but the excitement of violence, so that you wait for it… “You should view every violent action as pure horror…whereas the tendency of thoughtless movies is to make you want the brutality. This brutality is disassociated from suffering, because those maimed or killed appear to be subhuman.”

And if that's true, and the audience no longer looks at the death as the death of a person, but as the death of a thing, the result can be very bad. It would tend to dehumanize an audience, so that it is longer shocked by attrocities that go on, by murders, crimes, or wars. It is a world where the hero has himself has been partly dehumanized, a world where the the animal instincts are brought to the surface and one finds oneself, as in Dirty Harry, sitting among a cheering audience – cheering for the hero as he tortures the villain…or laughing uproariously as people as a head is sliced off in Macbeth and goes bouncing down the stairs like a basketball. What is becoming of society's values?

Some say that the violence kick, that, like a child with a new toy, audiences are fascinated with the novelty of violence and will soon lose interest. But the other argument is that man was born in violence; his whole life on earth has been partially a violent one (wars, crime, the fight for survival - all basic, though sometimes not pleasant, parts of existence. The violent films show the ugly, brutal side of humanity, a side that we must sometimes see in order to understand ourselves. We need our savage instincts, for without them, we would no longer be human. 

What makes the difference is the ability to control your violent nature - to submerge and rechannel it into useful activities. At least, that’s one theory.

c. 1973