SEE VIOLENCE PART ONE here
VIOLENCE ON THE GOGGLE BOX PART TWO
Martial arts films continue to be popular; despite often being highly unoriginal. With Bruce Lee dead (from nothing more sinister than an allergic tragic reaction to a simple aspirin) the main martial artist is Jackie Chan; who doesnít fight as Lee did (expertly) but as a desperate amateur, using any prop or stunt he can to get out of an extreme situation, often with hilarious results.
The seventies also produced a string of films which were violent in ways that provoked some social controversy.
Television is not without its Kung Fu stars either; News of a Tea Time Saturday TV show called Kung Fu to star David Carradine sent shock waves through the minds of many parents fearing the effects on impressionable minds. The fears were unfounded. This was not the Bruce Lee action fighting of Enter The Dragon, but a thoughtful western with a difference; the hero was an Eastern Cowboy; half Chinese, schooled in Buddhism, and often presenting Buddhist aphorisms and wisdom. He fights (usually in slow motion) only when provoked; trying to disarm villains rather than kill them. This was actually quite intelligent material. It features regular, occasionally irritating flashback sequences of his Shaolin training and the words of his masters who's advise he applies to each new problem encountered in the American West. A modern sequel updating the action to the present day and making Carradineís character a policeman fail miserably; heís too old and the plots are very poor.
Fear is a major factor of violent films and shows, but we do actually enjoy being frightened if we know the danger isnít real. We scream our heads off on fairground roller coaster rides or on ghost trains, and then go back to queue for a second ride on it; our knuckles barely unclenched from the first trip. Horror movies thrill us and often dare us not to be frightened. "Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water" boasts the JAWS 2 poster promising another shark-eats-peopleí scare-fest. (sadly we went to the waters gladly; the film is laughable compared to the atmospheric first fintastic tale; when the shark eats a helicopter you know the producers are stretching the idea rather thin). Horror movies actually start many people on the way to a healthy marriage. Many a lad has taken his girlfriend to a blood-soaked horror movie hoping she will be scared enough to hold him closer and hug him to herself during the really scary bits. Isnít it lovely to think you might owe your conception to The Blob Or The Creature From The Black Lagoon?
One actorís professional resume is worth looking at for charting a changing history of violence in film. CLINT EASTWOOD.
Already an actor in many B movies; Tarantula and Revenge Of The Creature, Eastwood shot to fame as Cinemaís brutally smug Man With No Name; the unsmiling, humorless, pitiless gunfighter with an eye only on the next dollar, in A Fistful Of Dollars. Here was the wild west anti-hero; indifferent to everyone; taking what he wants, but ultimately decimating the real villains of the feature along the way. These Spagetti Westerns (American, but filmed in Spain, hence the nickname) were blunt and viscous; with few likeable characters, and gunfights that involved the protagonists outstaring each other for long, tense periods before finally shooting. Eastwood went on to create a second anti-hero, albeit a very different one; a cop; Dirty Harry is a cop who plays against the rules. In many ways he is Bronsonís Death Wish character with a badge and a license to kill; but he exceeds the use of violence as he gets sickened by the extreme violence used by the senseless serial killer he pursues. Ultimately, when forced to play by the rules; he throws away his badge in disgust (only to later retrieve it for the sequels). Here is another anti-hero; a cop who cares; but is frustrated by a city state police bureaucracy that often lets the villains go, driven to take the law he actually represents into his own hands.
In The beguiled, Eastwood is a different kind of western character than he was in A Fistful Of Dollars. He has a name, and a persona of a different kind. He is a coward; a Confederate deserter, who finds himself shacked up in a women only homestead. Fearful that he might get too lecherous, the women drug him, and remove (amputate) his legs. Later, as he tries to escape they poison him. Here, the innocent man trying to escape the horrors around him is destroyed by them; he dies for nothing. By the Outlaw Josey Wales, Eastwood is in a western again, and the Man With No Name suddenly has one; J. Wales, and a conscience. When a young naive inexperienced gunfighter comes to him in a saloon to challenge him to a gunfight, Wales talks him out of it; saying simply "dying ainít no way to make a living, Son". The boy grasps this, and leaves, only to wonder if he has given in to cowardice by listening. He goes back, apologizes for having to do it; draws, and aims, and is gunned down by Wales who clearly regrets what he has had no choice but to do.
The last Eastwood film Iíll cover is Unforgiven. This is a real doozy; a violent western about the horrors of violence. Here is a film tat dares to address the question of how awful it must be to shoot someone in cold blood. The story is pretty basic. A girl is raped and mutilated. Her breasts are cutoff by her assailants. An angry posse gathers; and aging legendary gunfightr, Eastwood is drawn along for the ride. The violence they face sickens them as they assert their revenge. One villain is captured as he uses an outside toilet. A young inexperienced shootist pulls the trigger on him and fires. He only wounds him, and the man screams in sheer agony. Further bullets fail to kill him rather and in the end the posse gun him down and finishes him off more as an act of mercy killing than revenge. Their whole attack on him has become a cheap and disastrous unjust mess.
Suppose there were no violent films? We would still thrive on violent ideas. Camp fire ghost stories and urban myths abound. We have a fascination for the macabre. The story of Sweeney Todd, untrue as it is, still fires the imaginations of many. The quiet barber who occasionally cuts a customers throat with the razor, and sends the body down to his girlfriendís bakery where the corpse is baked into the finest meat pies London has to offer. All the half baked (pun intentional) unverified tales of foreign cooks serving dead cats, dogs and dissatisfied customers in their curries and pastas owe their roots to this same macabre legend.
Gangster films, for all their violence often have a strong moral heart. In Angels With Dirty Faces; Cagney (villain) is told by a priest (Pat OíBrien) that his legendary exploits are inspiring the local street kids to idolize him and that they may take to a life of crime too. Finally sent to the electric chair; Cagney, helps stop this by feigning cowardice as he is dragged to a death he actually cares nothing about. The kids, disillusioned by his sudden cowardice, show every sign of turning out good after all. A cliche of the crime film was the villain, finally brought down in a hail of bullets, crawling on his dying breath to a church, to suggest a hint of repentance and regret and hope of his salvation. Get Carter a 1960ís UK crime thriller is a gritty and viscous parable about the futility of violence and vengeance. His revenge finally administered on those who killed his brother, Michael Caineís Carter is killed himself; the film ends leaving a sense of the sheer pointlessness of what has gone on. The Godfather is a remarkable movie; depicting a loving, and wealthy family who care passionately for one another, but who make their living through organized violent crime. A rich, lavish, beautifully staged society wedding, Italian style, gives way to viscous criminal acts of revenge; a horse owner who wonít co-operate with the mobís demands awakes to find his severed horseís head in bed with him. People are gunned down in spectacularly staged violent set pieces. The family have more celebrations, in effect, living and oozing success and respectability despite how they earned it. Social realism? Is this perhaps an insight into how the Mafia really perceive themselves? Again, can such a depiction of violence truly be said to have no value or lessons to teach us?
War films are predominantly anti-war. War is hell. People die. All Quiet On The Western Front shows a class of school leavers inspired by propaganda to fight for Kaiser and country with zeal; by the end of the film they are all dead. In one famous scene a soldier reaches out for a butterfly and unwittingly to the sights of a sniperís rifle; his arm falls to the mud ; our only indication of his death. In the 1980ís a string of Vietnam war movies came up; these not only depict the horrors of war; (though that is an element; Hamburger Hill, we see is so named because the soldiers trying to capture it are sliced up in the gun fire like hamburger meat) , but also questions Americaís motives for going there in the first place. Platoon depicts scenes of fragging (US Grunts killing their own commanding officers in frustration at suicidal and irrational orders) and recreates the Mai Lai massacre. Underrated is Go Tell The Spartans, in which Burt Lancaster, shaken from his belief that the war in the Nam will be just like WW2 which he fought in too, finally says to one of his men; "I wish I could have shown you a better war."
A book, and two film versions of it that must be mentioned, is William Golding's Lord of the Flies. Here a party of middle class school boys are shipwrecked without parents on a desert island, and quickly degenerate into violent savagery and even cannibalistic fury. The question this dares to ask is will we, in the real world, follow suit? Would a party of Humanists on a desert island, even if adults rather than children, prove any better in mastering their inner bestial savagery? I doubt it.
Horror and violence have undoubtedly grown more graphic and explicit than ever. The Exorcist depicts scenes of projectile vomiting. In Alien, a monster first appears by chewing its way out through John Hurtís stomach, killing him in the process. Asking no doubt, how to top such a famous event, John Carpenter, in The Thing, directs a scene in which a doctor tries to artificially resusuitate a man apparently killed by the shape-shifting parasitic alien. As he presses his hands on the manís chest, the rib cage collapses, and the teeth of the monster therin chew the doctorís arms clean off. This is a real challenge to horror fans. It says how much more can you cope with? How far will we go next time? Here is a savage act of brutal black comedy. No one could believe such an incident would really happen, this is extreme escapism; nothing more. It is an extension of the violent horror that was the shower scene murder in Hitchcockís psycho. Try to get to see this; and notice how minimalist this effective shock moment really is. You see a woman in the shower; you see a shadowy figure in a dress; a flash of a knife blade; the image is repeated over and over; the images of woman, shower water, knife silhouette flicker by. Next thing the shower curtain falls, ring by ring tearing out of the shower rail. We see Janet Lee on the floor of the shower cubicle, eyes wide open, but still. A brief glimpse of the plug hole shows a trickle of blood swirling away in the water. Thatís all you get. What you donít see is the knife penetrating her flesh; you donít see her struggle, or where the blade actually might touch her (breasts, legs, abdomen, head) and you donít see any cuts on her at all. Mentally though, you see her virtually torn apart and ripped to bits in a violent psychotic frenzy; the violence is all projected into your own imagination. Stylistically different from the Thingís graphic detail; Psychoís shower scene is actually doing the same thing; showing a horrible violent violation of a human being. In both films, the approach seems perfectly validated. We all have an idea of how we would like to die when the time inevitably comes. Peacefully in our beds aged 100, content that our families will think well of us; devoured by piranha fish while being slowly lowered into a tank filled with them by some deranged sadist, or slowly crushed by heavy farming machinery over three excruciating hours is something we naturally dread. In violent and horror based movies we get to see that happen to others instead. We get to explore the deepest taboos, and witness our fears. It helps us come to terms with ourselves. If it is done tongue in cheek, it helps. When Dr. Phibes pours honey through a tiny hole in a ceiling onto the face and body of the sleeping woman he is about to kill, and then fills her room with locusts who will devour her in consuming the honey laid on her for their benefit; we are both appalled and amused. This is Mr. Punch and Mrs. Judy for grown ups. You can almost hear Punch patting Phibes on the back saying "That's the way to do it."
The claim that TV violence desensitizes us is a fallacy. There is a wonderfully telling scene in the comedy (non-violent in itself) film, Splash, where the mermaid in New York first sees TV and bursts into tears. "Thatís the saddest thing I ever saw." she bawls hysterically., Her human boyfriend rushes to see whatís up to find that she is crying over a gunfight casualty in a run of the mill episode of Bonanza. "He just shot that man dead " she cries.
Having seen countless horror films, cop shows, and violent demises; I, and few others weep or feel nausea at every TV depiction of human cruelty to humans. We know instinctively that it is story telling. We may feel emotion if the story is strong enough to involve us, but we do stay detached. Similarly, we may be detached to much true life horror, regrettably. It is impossible to buy a daily newspaper without reading of a war, a devastating earthquake that has killed X number of people; a plane crash, a murder, etc. If we became uncontrollably emotional in distress over every such incident, we would never be fit for anything. We can't wail or weep over every obituary notice posted in the press. We can't be grief stricken over every distant earthquake that kills dozens or hundreds of our fellow human beings. Such occurrences are too real and too frequent. That's life; that's the grim reality of death. It doesnít mean we donít care. Sometimes the TV reminds us bluntly of reality. The breaking of the Challenger Space Shuttle Crash, presented in newsflashes and long repeat tracking shots of the debris shocked us rigid, precisely because we knew it was real, immediate and somehow personal despite our not knowing the astronauts personally. Reality reasserts itself over fictional violence every time. The same occurred with the JFK assassination, the breaking of the news of Princess Dianaís Death, the death of John Lennon, Hillsborough, Lockerbie, and many more incidents in the real world. We are not desensitized. We see the difference between Tom & Jerry violence and that of Dunblane.
TV violence fascinates as much as it appalls us. The real stuff when immediate as news, simply appalls us. Given time, we adjust. Lockerbie becomes a source as much of interest as of horror to our senses nowadays. In fact, part of the shock and horror we felt over Lockerbie was that the bomb laden plane happened to come down on that little Scottish town, but could just as easily have come down where any of us were at that time; it was the unluckiness of being in the wrong place at the wrong time factor; it was a tragedy that screamed loudly that it could have been any of us that made it all the worse.
On TV we thrill as we watch the effects of the violence lead to some kind of consequence, and isnít morality about understanding the consequences of actions taken? The evil violent villain on a spree of killing seems unchained, hedonistic, insensitive, uncaring, insane, and we feel horror, shame, apprehension, and anger at how he could do such things. The authorities seem helpless, and consider resorting to violence, sometimes taking that path, sometimes not; if the villain escapes and eludes capture the violence threatens to continue; If caught,, we see justice take its course or not as the case may be; the dilemmas and ethics of violent dram twist and turn many ways; should the police catch the villain or kill him; life sentence or electric chair, after what he has done to those victims? The potential for Humanism to show and extract values from such stories is extremely high; we should show TV show episodes and ask questions, and prompt discussions about them. It is often said that we spend too much time watching TV. Wrong, we donít spend enough time thinking about what we watch on TV. There is often more to gain from a show than its makers ever intentionally put into it. When the hero chases the villain into the quicksand where he perishes, do we cheer or mourn the tragedy? Is it poetic justice, or a sad sign of the awful times we live in?
Often the best way to show the truly horrible nature of the violent and ugly side of human nature is to look it straight in the eye; and drama is a means of achieving that; so we can laugh at the dangers that are far to fanciful, and see cautionary tales about that which is closer to home.
There is no doubt that children, and some adults imitate and mimic what they see on Television. When the zany U.K. comedy series ĎThe Goodiesí did a show about the Lancashire marshal art of ĎEcky Thumpí about people hitting each other with black puddings, every boy in our schoolís playground ran round for weeks shouting ĎEcky Thumpí and throwing things at each other. Stephen King, the best selling horror novelist, in his history of the genre, Danse Macabre, describes the sad incident of a boy blinded by his brother who was simply imitating the slap in the face humour of The Three Stooges. King also refers to the true and tragic incident of a woman doused in petrol and burnt alive in the street by hoodlums who confessed to the police that theyíd seen a similar incident in a movie (Fuzz). King argues rightly that given their disposition to violence they might well have just killed her in a less imaginative way had they not seen the film.
We cannot protect ourselves from all that can harm us in what is essentially a big, frightening, unpredictable and dangerous world. Cars run people over, but we canít ban cars. Kids play ion railway tracks, and sometimes get killed by trains in doing so, but we canít pull up all the railway lines to prevent it. We canít stop marketing solvents just to stop children sniffing glues and aerosols. Neither can we stop making films that show fight scenes, murders, and dramatic, dangerous situations. People are interested in such things; I am interested in such things. As escapism, they are fun. Itís quite hilarious to watch The Abominable Dr. Phibes where Vincent Price kills the surgeons who failed to save his wife by visiting them one by one with the ten Biblical plagues used on the Egyptians in the book of Exodus. The police, protecting one victim, wonder what the plague known cryptically simply as ĎThe Beastí will involve; and speculate on what manner of creature Phibes plans to unleash on the tightly protected victim. There is a twang and a whooshing noise. The policeman look around in horror to find the victim impaled on a giant lance in the form of a solid bronze unicornís head, that skewers him perfectly to the door. The police end up recovering his body by unscrewing him slowly off the horn. "Left hand thread," We hear one of them say to his unenviable colleagues. Trying to second guess such unlikely grotesques is great fun, despite setting your teeth on edge at the same time; and lets see any impressionable kids out there try to mimic that. As a study of human psychology, and an insight into the how and why of violent behavior, films can be educational. They show us the truth we like to hide from; violence can happen to us, and it can emanate from us. The film The Offence is a classic of this kind. Sean Connery plays a policeman who has beaten a suspected child-rapist to death during a pre-trial interrogation. His attack is so fierce that he has also injured several fellow policemen who were trying to stop him. At first, as the investigation into his own offence commences, it looks like a straight case of cop offended by the monstrous behavior of a sex offender, but slowly the truth comes out; the rapist has convinced the cop that he too (the cop) is a potential child molester; it is recognition of the truth about himself that has driven Connery to commit ĎThe Offenceí. Surely a film like this teaches us something?
Horror and violence are often highly moralistic. Adulterers, murderers, etc, are doomed to perish horribly. They get their just deserts. The moral is that evil ends in pain and death for the one committing such acts. More modern films create anti-heroes and more ambiguous villains, to ask, what if fore once the goods guys suffer and the villains win the day? What if instead of dying before the crucifix that symbolizes Christian ethical purity, Dracula laughs, crushes the crucifix, and makes the priest his next victim? What if the evil endures? What if there is no happy ever after? In reality of course, the dreams we try to live, do become nightmares. The bride discovers she married not a handsome Prince Charming, but Bluebeard, or a wife-beating alcoholic.
Bluebeard is a good example of the mechanisms of violence. Warned not to open a locked room, the last bride is filled with curiosity and investigates only to discover why she ought to have heeded Bluebeardís advice. Kids are curious about pain and violence. They have an urge to understand the nature of horror and pain. My first encounters with horror were as secretive as any flirtation with pornography. I wanted to see Dracula. I wanted to know about the ghosts, and Norman Bates. What kids donít see, they imagine for themselves. Many a boy who is now apparently well adjusted and no menace to society, experimented on flies and spiders with a sense of exquisite torture. I did, Iím sorry to say. Deprived of action toys, and action movies; we seek such gratifications elsewhere. Mollycoddling us and wrapping us in cotton wool wonít save us from violence; it will only end up erupting from within ourselves. The Spanish Inquisition had no TV or Video nasties to inspire them; they got their ideas from scripture and text books.
We should show children the various uses and abuses of violence in films and TV and demonstrate to them the mechanisms of what is involved, so they think more about what they are seeing. Gandhi is a good anti-violent film. If you havenít seen it youíd assume a movie about such a famous pacifist would be quite safe to watch, but it does have violent scenes; notably the recreation of the British Massacre of the Indians at Amritzar. The film shows the way people react and interact with a violent society and take responsibilities for its end; but the end comes as a timely warning; Gandhi is shot down dead by someone who missed the point.
Schindlerís List is another must see for children. It should be impressed on them that the horrors depicted are so very true. This is a wonderful film bar its last twenty minutes, when the hero breaks into a long patronizing speech about the need to end such wars and sufferings; and almost spoils the rest of the movie.
See those, then take in Britannia Hospital. Here an ailing NHS Hospital becomes the epicentre of a brooding mob, supporting the striking health workers, and the police. A girl walks up to the police, who are armed in riot gear and carrying truncions. She hands a policeman a flower. He punches her in the face for no reason at all. Violence explodes across the screen. Much true violence is senseless, so depicting senseless violence on film seems not unjustified.
There are films that are gratuitous, where people have made them with violence with no social or textual context, purely as exercises in violence. A film with the gory title The Texas Chain Saw massacre actually tries to say something about taste and the dangers of isolated inbred communities. The Day Of The Dead, a notorious film, has its zombies trapped with the living in a shopping mall; is the sight of dead people walking round aimlessly in a chain store not saying something interesting about brain dead consumerism? Of course it is. Sadly, films like The Ghastly Ones also get made; this is one which attempts to look like a Snuff movie (although it is artificially done). Stephen King, the horror story writers makes it clear that while he would defend the Texas Chainsaw Massacre as art in any court in the land he regards The Ghastly Ones as the work of 'morons with cameras'.
If a film with violence and horror in it has some other merits, then we put the violence in context and subtext. Violence, like pornography, in isolation from such subtext, comes over as mere juvenilia, and bad art; in fact such bad art is less likely to inspire real acts of violence, simply because it will fail to capture anyone's imagination. Violence fascinates us precisely because it frightens us. Notice the use of other phobias in such films. Scared of spiders? Avoid Tarantula, The Giant Spider Invasion and Arachnophobia. Then again, don't avoid them. Watch them. Confront your fears. See people facing up to your fears, and suffering your worst nightmares.
My phobia is an unlikely one. The war movie Ice Cold In Alex features a terrifying quicksand scene; and I have been terrified of deep mud and quicksand ever since I saw it. I find my stomach turns if I watch a film where it even looks as if someone might walk into a quicksand. Sometimes I sit through such a scene; other times I have to walk out or switch channels until the sequence has passed. Sometimes, if I walk through a muddy field I wonder if the mud isn't really Ö Even when I know that it isn't Quicksand having passed that way many times before. I tend to read up everything I can find on the subject; from real and literary sources. I looked up quicksand on the Internet only to find that the word applied to search engines actually leads to sites dedicated to quicksand as a sexual fetish. That's right; my worst fear is someone's sexual turn on. Quicksand fetishists take a girl (voluntarily) to a quagmire, she goes in; they film her in various poses as she sinks, (clothed or naked) and pull her out before it gets too serious; makes bunjee jumping sound like a game of ludo, doesn't it?
I admire these people, able to make fun of my fear, enjoying and laughing at what gives me undue stress even when the very phobia I have makes my death by such a means so unlikely. Horror and violence as entertainment can teach us so much about human nature. Putting an end to it, and giving us a saturation diet of cutesy wutesy Floppsy Bunny goes to crochet class style harmless shows in its place might well make me walk out to Morecambe Bay to cross the quicksands there, in protest. There are of course many great shows, books and films that are devoid of violence, and nevertheless great art and entertainment; and the world would be a sorry place without these too. But of course, violent entertainment will never leave us; it is as much a fact of life as its real life equivalent, and that is something we do need to challenge and stop wherever and whenever possible, but making scapegoats of the Peckinpah's, Michael Winner's and Stephen Kings is barking up the wrong tree in the wrong forest.
There is a classic joke of some relevance here. A teacher asks her pupils at Sunday School for a story with a moral. One boy, excitedly narrates a graphic description of the violent Indian war he saw in the previous eveningís episode of The Lone Ranger. "It was great, Miss! Blood & guts everywhere; he shot three Indians in the Ďead with one bullet, he gouged one Apacheís eyes out with his thumbs; he scalped dozens of Ďem; cut another oneís head off with the Indianís own tomahawk..... " etc. The teacher interrupts to ask what the moral to all this is. The boy smiles; "The moral, Miss? Thatís easy. Donít jerk about with The Lone Ranger; coz heís well hard."
Is there a better moral? Yes; the Lone Ranger stops the Indians; (admittedly by killing them); he fights for good; he isnít anti-Indian of course; his best friend is Tonto, Indian brave. Moral - Do whatís right; fight for whatís right. The Lone Rangerís fight doesnít sound so much excessive as desperate. Fight to survive? Then again, could the moral be the Lone Ranger discussion leading the teacher to ask the boy whether there was any other way to deal with the situation than being so Ďwell hard?
When my nephew cried that Dracula might get him in the night, I told him vampire jokes fore a while; What if Dracula came out in an eclipse? Could stewing steak kill him as easily as a wooden stake? Reduced to absurdity, the monster ceased frightening him. Violent films can be funny. Several of them are intentionally so. In The Chiorboys, a cop on a stag night is tied to a tree and stripped naked by his drunken pals. After some time alone in the dark, a good Samaritan appears to be on the scene asking what has happened. As he explains, the poor man sees the stranger taking his own clothes off with intent to bugger him whilst he is still tied up. Our violent assailants are often amusing themselves on our distress this tells us. Violence is often a sick joke. On the streets of reality itís hard to be amused if you are the victim. On film, or TV, you get to share the joke. And you learn something about yourself too, that helps you not to turn out that inclined to real violence yourself. TV isnít too violent; it is our reaction to it that jars our senses. If we learn to watch it properly it has lessons to teach us; even those of us who would never hurt a fly.
Isnít that of course Norman Bates' line in Psycho, that he would never harm a fly? Me neither, honest. HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! . Pleasant dreams.
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