Violence Revisited

I’ve been thinking about young men and violence. And now, in the wake of the Pentagon’s announcement earlier this week that women are henceforth approved to engage in front-line combat, young women and violence, too. And this matter of how much violence some of us can stomach—and how much violence others of us seem to need (and even celebrate).

As Layne astutely pointed out in her comments to my previous post on movie violence, such films tend to attract huge audiences, and ergo, must be filling some need. The fact that fellow commenters Fred and Dennis, along with myself, are revolted rather than fed by such violence suggests how wide is the gap between different people’s temperaments and sensibilities. One person’s intolerable and gratuitous gore is another’s ecstatic celebration. (The fusion of these was on prominent display in last weekend’s seemingly endless loop of a commercial during the NFL playoff games, touting the latest incarnation of the Die Hard movies. One fiery explosion and gunburst after another plays out to the soundtrack of Beethoven’s triumphant Ninth Symphony and its resounding celebration of universal brotherhood. “Oh, the atrocity,” I thought. “Oh, the hilarious irony,” the filmmakers undoubtedly thought…)

So: Dennis’s 16-year-old son can’t get enough of film violence, while Dennis himself checked out of such fare with Taxi Driver in 1976—when Dennis was a very young man himself. Does this suggest that the depiction of violence fills some type of developmental and sublimatory need for testosterone-fueled young men, and that we do well to provide these outlets for them—courtesy of Quentin Tarantino, Bruce Willis, et al—lest their instinctual urges turn to more ominous outlets? Maybe. On the other hand, in the wake of my previous post I received the following personal note from a dear and gentle-souled friend of mine, female and 60+:

 I feel this way about horror movies, too—that somehow if I allow such evil to be entertainment, I’m making a place in my soul where evil is acceptable. And if evil and horrific violence at this level are acceptable, and even entertaining, today, what will be entertaining tomorrow? Why then, do I love The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo? Hmmm. Maybe I’m not as clean as I like to think.

The deliciousness of this musing cannot be overstated—why indeed does a peace-loving, peace-practicing mature woman enjoy her own version of Tarantino-Willis fare in the best-selling vengeance thrillers of Stieg Larsson? She offers a possible answer, but I would amend her first-person speculation to this:  Maybe because we, that is, the entire human race, are not as clean as we like to think.

Turning away in disgust from that dark side, or blaming it on an explicit devil as various simplified theologies do—is to ignore the fact that the devil resides within us and always has.

Who can argue with that, given the long history of blood-drenched violence that requires no elaboration here and stands stoutly alongside our capacity for love and goodness as a competing narrative of the human soul? Turning away in disgust from that dark side, or blaming it on an explicit devil as various simplified theologies do—is to ignore the fact that the devil resides within us and always has. The psychologist Carl Jung famously called this humankind’s “shadow,” and he posited that the best and only way to overcome its influence is to extend a hand to it, embrace it as part of ourselves, a prima facie component of our multi-faceted inner lives.

So, back to the developmental aspects of this seeming need for explicitly rendered violence: Perhaps, once we grapple with and come to accept and understand its residence in our own souls—in other words, once we become conscious—we no longer need or desire to either practice it or see it explicitly depicted. Indeed, we may come to experience it as offensive and even painful, rather than as the release of tension that so many young men seem to experience with their mayhem-filled films, football, cage combat and video games.

Women, psychologically the more sensitive gender, have historically been more repelled by violence, but that may be changing along with all the other roles they have been assuming in society over the past century. Numbers of women in the audience at football games: way way up, as are women boxers and wrestlers and, of course, soldiers. And now those soldiers will be on the front lines of combat, in real war, not the sublimated kind that humans have devised in competitive athletics. Real war where real flesh is sliced and blown to bits and one kills in order not to be killed.

Will this latest “barrier” to fall in gender roles ultimately help change the nature of war and our cultural romance with violence? Or will such change await our first female secretary of defense, or first female president? Or the first time that the sum total of female presidents and prime ministers around the world finally outnumber males?

Or will none of that make any difference, since the only women assuming such roles will be those who have bought into the same approaches and tendencies that have fueled their male counterparts over the eons?

The answers to these questions will play themselves out over time, but meanwhile, what we know is that violence will likely remain with us for a good long while, artists will continue to reflect it, and some of them, driven by their own testosterone-fueled fantasies abetted by vast commercial riches, will continue to churn out work that offends many of us while keeping others of us entranced in giddy amusement. And to all of this, we most tellingly can quote another who beheld violence with a sardonic and saddened eye:

And so it goes…

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8 comments to Violence Revisited

  • Layne  says:

    I want to make it clear that I too avoid violent films. This essay made reminded me that the earliest films that horrified me–I'm going to age myself if I list them–gave me nightmares for one reason alone: I was told that I should close my eyes during the scary parts of the films.

    This technique did me no good at all because I'm imaginative. What I imagined was far worse than anything that could have been shown on the screen. Psycho's punchline is a skeleton, for example. Had I looked at it, I would have faced the horror instead of aggrandizing it. But yes, film techniques have improved and the gore is more realistic. I'm agreeing with your concern, but audiences are savvy and have the ability to shrug away "sick" filmmakers. Or not.

    Moderation in all things. Art is supposed to be entertainment. My complaint is that most movies are either political or documentaries about disasters. What do you want to experience in a two-hour break for entertainment? The Civil War or a tsunami?

  • Sandy  says:

    Violence exists. All we have to do is look at the news, newspaper, the street outside our home. In some sad cases, our own homes. For the most part, movies offer us an easy out. A hero/ine who is smart enough, fast enough, brave enough to face it head on and in most instances—win. The fatal wounds last a few seconds, the wounded are somehow brave and carry on. A short-lived, false respite from the more complex and realistic picture of violence. The real picture of violence consumes fast, smart, brave individuals. The wounds—be they psychological or physical or both—that bring the best of us to our knees. These are the heroes of the real movie. They bear the burden of the real violence far far worse than any movie could begin to depict. I don't think anyone could watch that movie and leave feeling like there's a hero out there somewhere who will solve it all for us.

  • Joan Voight  says:

    This violence discussion is intriguing, especially with the Superbowl ahead. Unlike combat, this is violence for entertainment—we rally and party around it. Ironic, really.

  • Dennis Ahern  says:

    I gave the impression I had renounced violent films after Taxi Driver in 1976, when I was 18, but that is a false impression. I actually saw it many years after it came out and enjoyed the gritty reality of it immensely at the time. I still think it's a great film. But that is the first time I recall asking myself consciously "do I really want to subject myself to watching this sort of thing?" It took a solid 10 or 15 years after seeing Taxi Driver before I made an active decision that, for the most part, I would not bother subjecting myself to screen violence. I don't have a strong moral judgement about it. I don't think screen violence is a cultural pathology. Nor am I haunted or do I wish I could un-view anything I have seen as you mentioned about Reservoir Dogs in the first post. Well….I wish I could wipe Jersey Shore from my brain, but I digress.

    And like Layne I believe its popularity is an indication that it serves some collective unconscious need. Football is just a modern form of Gladiators, or Our Village against Your Village, but sanitized and made acceptable because we don't actually kill anyone after all. Just pulverize their brains and wreck their knees. All in good fun.

    To your point, Andrew, about embracing the shadow in order to move beyond the fascination with screen violence, my move away from interest in violent depictions coincides with an interest in Jungian psychology and my own exploration of my relationship to my "shadow" side. So maybe that's all that is needed to move beyond the desire to watch screen violence? To shake hands with it? I'm not so sure. I've had plenty of discussions about evil and shadow with my 16 year old son, who has read Jung and Bly and Bukowski. He came home the other day raving about "Kill Bill". "Inglorious Bastards" is one of his favorite movies. But how much can a 16 year old really embrace the shadow side? He is far from ready to turn away.

    This is the sort of discussion best had over a good dark beer or strong coffee and Coltrane in the background.

  • ahidas  says:

    Dennis, I didn't mean to sound facile (my worst Hitchcockian nightmare) in suggesting that embracing the shadow effectively settles whatever need there may still be to experience violence, even gratuitously on the movie screen. Sizing up, confronting, and dancing with the shadow is more a lifelong affair, though I do think it is full of increasingly subtle encounters rather than the blunt-force trauma one sees depicted in uber violent movies. And, I doubt a 16-year-old can embrace his shadow yet—he has to see & experience it first, and let us hope your son is blessed thus far in being mostly spared such visions. Plenty of time for that as he motors along toward adulthood.

  • Jim Malin  says:

    Along with the guns and violence discussions, I continue to be amazed at the legitimizing of MMA and "Unlimited Fighting" spectacles that were once relegated to Pay per View, but now seem to have found a home on: (Where Else) the Fox Network. Boxing is bad enough, but "cage fighting" is ridiculous. We outlaw dog fighting, and cock-fighting, but cannot seem to put a stop to these human gladiators???? It makes no sense.

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Very much enjoyed following the two posts and the thoughtful responses – a major conundrum indeed, our attraction to violence in so many forms (football, movies, stories etc) appears to be magnified in our media saturated culture, yet objective evidence seems to suggest we are becoming less violent as a species, at least according to Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, nicely summed up in his recent TED talk:… – so maybe individual film makers like Tarantino are less potent than we may think (personally I was done after R. Dogs never saw any others, not interested)… Do they contribute to any moral/artistic vision? Hardly in my view – yet some cinematic portrayals of violence do serve an important purpose I would argue (the D-Day invasion sequence from Saving Private Ryan) creates a far different visceral experience than the sanitized version a generation earlier in The Longest Day… and one that serves a moral purpose, telling the truth about the horrible senselessness of war while at the same time honoring the unimaginable bravery of young men giving their lives to free Europe from the Nazi nightmare…(as well as the young Germans who were victims of the Nazi hallucinations) tough questions Drewski & fellow blog respondents… thanks for taking the time! PS My 22 yr old son loves Tarantino films, and he is a really good "kid" so go figure! I don't get it…

  • Dennis Ahern  says:

    Kevin, I thought of "Saving Private Ryan" as I pondered the problem of film violence. It could be hardly be argued that there was anything gratuitous about the invasions scenes. When something is viewed as historic, it is easier to imbue that sort of violence with an air of respectability as opposed to the Tarantino sort which seems to be primarily cathartic or entertaining (maybe the same thing). Tarantino might argue (as he did on Fresh Air recently) that he could put much more violence in and it still would not be anything like the true horrors inflicted by the slave trade. True enough. I loved the Private Ryan invasion scene. I think that one will be used in film classes 30 years from now. Still…….I find myself reluctant to put myself through the ordeal of watching it. Ambrose's D Day book seems so much more palatable.

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