I got an interesting question in the mail:
“I am not very familiar with your website but I came across an article you wrote about the increase in violence in cinema while doing research for a paper I have to do. I found the article very interesting and was wondering if I may ask a question to you. I am a student at the University of Notre Dame and am writing a paper dealing with violence in movies. Specifically, if violence in movies is ruining the art form of cinema. I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject. Thanks.”
This is a very interesting topic, and one that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about.
The answer is easy, however: violence isn’t ruining cinema, it’s part of the evolution of cinema. The question instead, perhaps, is whether it’s evolving in a good direction or not.
I think that if we review the last hundred years of cinema it’s clear that things have become more and more overt, more and more graphic and less subtle. Film was the language of metaphor, of the nuance. Consider Nosferatu (1922) as a splendid example of an early film with a fairly violent theme (vampires) presented in a non-violent manner. Everything was off screen and the filmmakers were careful not to offend or upset the audience with anything graphic or intense.
Zoom forward to Gone with the Wind (1939) and, again, most of the actual violence is off-screen or is painted in such a sweeping manner that it’s almost abstract (I’m thinking in particular of the scene where Selznick shows Atlanta burning). The film is intense, but not violent or graphic.
Going further forward in time, consider Casablanca (1943) or A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), both intense movies that take place in violent environments, but are still not intensely violent as movies. Let’s just consider the brilliant Casablanca: all the violence of World War II and the tension of Germany occupied Morocco, and yet what we see is a scene played out with the Nazi officers singing a German song and being drowned out at Rick’s Cafe Americaine by the locals singing the French national anthem. Intense, but extraordinarily abstract, even as it’s a clear metaphor for the tension and horror of the war and the occupation.
It’s this era that Hitchcock produces his best works too, including the thrilling Rear Window (1954) and North by Northwest (1959), both of which deal with very violent situations in a way that has moments of undeniable tension, but without slapping you in the face or shoving the violence down your throat.
Let’s move forward a bit further. West Side Story (1961) is a story about street gangs in New York and the problems that arise when the leader of one gang (Tony) falls for the sister of the leader of a rival gang (Maria). There are gang rumbles, run-ins with the cops (Officer Krupski, famously) but it’s all set to music and is again played out with the film as a metaphor for what the viewer knows would otherwise be a scary, tension-filled situation.
A few more years forward, to Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and we have the unimaginable horror of nuclear armageddon played out as a vicious satire, the most incredible violence as, again, a metaphor.
I think it’s the early 1970s that begin the major change in the appearance of violence and loss of film-as-metaphor. Consider both The French Connection (1971) and A Clockwork Orange (1971). Both are aggressive, violent films and both are scary in a way that earlier films, even just two or three years earlier, weren’t. Even given that, though, it’s also true that there’s a sense of morality, a comeuppance for criminal acts that still helped audiences have a sense of justice (although Kubrick clearly played with that idea in A Clockwork Orange, making the very ending rather ambiguous).
That’s when I mark the turning point in modern cinema, and then it’s a matter of degrees to watch cinema evolve to The Deer Hunter (1978), which I remember seeing while I was in High School and being quite affected by and The Killing Fields (1984), among many others.
I’ll suggest that another line was crossed with the release of Pulp Fiction (1994), which I still think is one of the most graphically violent and aggressive films ever made. But then again, consider the first hour of Saving Private Ryan (1998), or the phenomenally aggressive (and frankly mediocre) Gangs of New York (2002).
And, finally, we come to the modern era, where dreck like There Will Be Blood (2007) is a self-fulfilling prophecy and films like Kill Bill (2003) parody themselves with the graphic violence and explicit, well, everything.
Have movies been ruined? No, I don’t think so. But I do find myself enjoying the older films for their lack of ambiguity. Key Largo (1948) is intense and has scary bad guys, but in the end it resolves so that the bad guys are caught and justice is served. Compare that with the film Gone in 60 Seconds (2000) where the bad guys are celebrated as heroes by the end of the film.
But that’s how I view the evolution of cinema. How about you?