Violence in Cinema
By Keith Allen

In Association with

Violence in Cinema
31 July, 2009
On numerous occasions I have encountered individuals who insist upon complaining about how some filmmaker has included in a movie vile, reprehensible depictions of violence. Often such a critic will slap on a movie a deliberately emotive and dishonest label, like 'torture porn,' hoping to make sure, by using such a loaded term, that he prejudices those reading or listening to his words against the work he dislikes (just as he might try to prejudice a person against a particular ethnic group by applying an emotive and descriptive term to that group, one that causes the hearer to form an opinion of the group prior to his encountering persons from the group). When, by some odd chance, such individuals do actually provide substantive criticisms of a violent film, instead of spewing meaningless slander, instead of engaging in mere name calling, they generally complain that such a work provides the viewer with the chance to enjoy the sight of someone enduring pain, that the film so glorifies cruelty and brings out the worst in those who watch it. Because the movie in question does this, it is, so its critics say, morally repugnant. Though, upon taking a cursory glance at such criticisms, these may appear to be legitimate, upon making a closer examination, I do not think they will be found to be so.

In order to look at this issue, depictions of violence need to be divided into two types, each of which must be considered individually.

First of all, there are those depictions intended to horrify the viewer. These are actually the ones to which the critics I've mentioned most often object. When violence is shown as being ugly, when it is not sanitized, so that its disgusting effects can be seen, and when it is inflicted on those not perceived as deserving it, then many people will complain about it. I find this very odd (though I do understand why some people, not wanting to be terrified or disgusted, do not desire to watch films that include such depictions). Clearly, in such instances, violence is not being glorified; it is, in fact, being employed to arouse feelings of horror, indignation, or the like in the viewer. Being so shocked and disturbed, this viewer can hardly desire to participate in violence like that he has witnessed and certainly will not admire the person or persons committing these acts. He is repulsed by both the acts and those performing them. How is it, then, that making violence appear ugly, shocking, and monstrous can be seen as glorifying violence? Though the viewer might well enjoy the artistic work in which such acts are incorporated, and can even savor the depictions of the acts themselves, when he does so he savors feelings of horror and disgust.

There are, however, other films in which the director obviously intends the viewer to take pleasure in watching acts of violence. Amongst these are those in which violence (which is often sanitized) is portrayed as heroic, in which acts of brutality are performed by a 'brave' and 'honorable' character against evil villains who deserve to suffer. Most people do not object to such films. If anything, movies including these sorts of depictions are frequently held to provide children with good role models and to show the viewer how he ought to behave if he found himself in a situation like that being portrayed. Just look at how admirable the protagonists of Star Wars, True Lies, and Saving Private Ryan are as they butcher more people than do most serial killers.

Fortunately, many of these films, being suffused with the fantastic or being highly stylized, divorce their depictions of glorified violence from the violence of actual life, so that, as exciting as the violence included in these works may be, it will not be connected with the violence of real life. With these movies, I can find no moral fault. The viewer realizes that the is dealing with something that has no practical connection with his ordinary existence and will not bring the fictional deeds of the film into the real world. Those movies that are closely connected to this world, that are intended to give the viewer an impression that he is seeing something from this world, are another matter, and to these I will return below.

Besides these movies, those that make violence look exciting and praiseworthy (and which are frequently lauded by those very persons who detest ugly presentations of violence), there are movies that revel in graphic, grisly, and thoroughly nasty depictions of savagery, torture, and suffering, which are often gleefully inflicted upon the innocent. While these films do appeal to something cruel and vicious in the viewer, I am not willing to condemn them. In fact, I believe that they can have a real pragmatic function (which is, of course, independent of any artistic worth they may have), one which, oddly enough, entails their being conducive to gentleness rather than to brutality.

Though I reject the idea that art is defined by its pragmatic functions, I do not deny that art can have pragmatic functions. While a work of art might not be a source of knowledge about anything other than itself, an artist can use a work to trick the stupid into believing some opinion, admiring certain behaviors, emulating certain character traits, etc. For example, a stupid person might be incapable of being convinced that bullying is wrong by rational discourse, but he might be capable of being convinced of this by a movie in which he is made to sympathize with a victim of bullying. Insofar as a movie prompts a person to modify his behavior by engendering in him a belief that a certain behavior is either right or wrong, it can be said to have a sort of didactic function (although, obviously, since the opinion of the person so influenced is formed without relying upon some means of valid knowledge, he is really being deceived rather than being taught).

In addition to such a didactic function, a work of art can have a cathartic function. A person inclined to acts of violence, who could achieve personal satisfaction from performing such acts, might be able to achieve this sense of satisfaction merely by watching depictions of violence in film (or reading about them in books, looking at them in paintings, etc.). By immersing himself in the savagery and degradation of such a film as Star of David: Beauty Hunting or Inferno of Torture, an individual is so able to satisfy his violent inclinations without anyone actually being harmed. I am not here, I might add, simply talking about deviants sating themselves. Every person (whether he admits it or not) has violent, predatory aspects of his personality (those who deny they do are usually far more vicious and predatory than are those who are aware of such traits and are therefore able to deal with them). Artistic works can give a person a chance to release these desires, to fulfill them in the world of the imagination, and so do have a cathartic function. I would point in support of this opinion to a study examining how the incidence of sexual crimes committed in Japan declined as pornography became more widely available in that country. This study makes it clear that as people were able to satisfy their sexual urges by watching, and so participating in, some movie portraying sexual acts (or by enjoying pornography in some other media) they became less inclined to commit aggressive acts in order to fulfill these desires. In other words, pornography had, and has, a cathartic effect. It allows a person to fulfill a need without having actually to perform the act he desires to perform. Depictions of violence have a similar effect. The viewer of a violent film or play, the reader of a violent book, or the enjoyer of some other violent artistic work is able to sate his predatory urges without having to prey upon anybody.

In fact, a large proportion of the artistic works of every civilization are produced as a result of some artist sublimating his violent inclinations and directing them into the production of an artistic work, which work is then enjoyed because the members of its audience are able to indulge their own violent inclinations by relishing it. There certainly can be no doubt that much of our artistic heritage is every bit as violent as are films today. Just look at Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy, Greek epics, the Mahabharata, and so on and so on. Human beings have been expressing their violent urges in countless works of art in every age and nation that has ever been so that other persons could enjoy brutal, thrilling spectacles without reducing their society to chaos.

In a very real way, by indulging in presentations of violence, by relishing the sight of imaginary people suffering, a person becomes more civilized. He becomes less inclined actually to enjoy inflicting pain on another because he will have purged himself of such desires by having satisfied and exhausted them. The person who turns from such works is, in general, more likely to act cruelly since he will still need to express his own predatory instincts.

All of this said, when an artistic work has both violent content and didactic elements (even when these are merely implicit, as when a film does glorify a violent character and lionize his acts of violence against those it demonizes), I can have real problems with it. No sane person, having watched Ichi the Killer, is going to believe that the director of that movie, Takashi Miike, meant for his deranged protagonist, Kakihara, to be an admirable individual, one after whom the viewer ought to model his behavior. Wolfgang Petersen, the director of Air Force One, however, clearly did mean for his violent protagonist, President James Marshall, to be a hero, someone who should be admired. While I cannot believe that any sane individual would be influenced to behave as does Kakihara, I can believe that a sane person could be influenced to behave as does Marshall (or, at the least, to endorse such behavior). That troubles me. When violent heroes are portrayed as individuals whose actions should be admired and emulated in life, that is bothersome. However, these individuals rarely occur in movies that emphasize the grotesqueness of violence. They are more likely to be encountered in mainstream films.

Violence in cinema, or in any other artistic medium, is hardly in itself reprehensible. In fact, such violence can incline the viewer to be less violent, and so can help to create a more gentle society, one inhabited by persons who realize how ugly violence is and who have satisfied their own dark impulses. There are times, however, when depictions of violence can lead a person to admire the performer of such acts, and these portrayals, I do believe, are morally indefensible. If we are to criticize violence in cinema, we should be aware of these distinctions.

By Keith Allen

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