Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Violins

When Larry the Stooge plays "Pop Goes the Weasel" on his violin, Curly is suddenly fearless and invincible, and can win a fight with anyone. Otherwise, he begrudgingly tolerates abuse from Moe, who squeezes his head in a vice, pokes his eyes, and strikes his head with a hammer.

Now, does that sound like comedy, or the sequel to Slingblade or Deliverance?

Sure, you say, laughing at three guys who do nothing but beat each other up does seem perverse. But those were the good old days of talking pictures, and the Stooges were masters of slapstick humor that everyone thought was funny in the 1930s.

But it looks to me like violence on film and tv has only gotten more Vaudevillian since the then. For example, wrestling fan Santino Marella recently won the WWF's Intercontinental championship after being pulled into the ring from his arena seat by Vince McMahon (this is according to people who are far, far away from where I am standing). Wrestling's new Cinderella achieved this high honor by beating someone named, "Umaga." Characters played by Bruce Willis, Jason Statham and Matt Damon are routinely beaten with metal pipes by guys twice their size in fight scenes that resemble professional wrestling, and they do it without smudging their greasepaint, or doing any unattractive bleeding or bruising. Their villains are poorly developed characters, as human to audiences as Star Trek extras, and they all seem to be alumni of the same school of cock-eyed marksmanship.

In the most ridiculous example of the invincibility of the contemporary action hero, we have Keanu Reeves' Neo, who fights hundreds of smirking Agent Smiths at the same time using powers few other action heroes can match, in the theoretical world of The Matrix (endearingly referred to as, "The Camer-a-trix," by a friend who calls this film her favorite guilty pleasure). Rules of physics exist in The Matrix only to keep Neo's sunglasses from falling off.

So why do we pay good money at the movies to see this stuff?

According to media author Barbara Olsen in her essay, "Violence Formula: Analyzing TV, Video and Movies," violence in entertainment has the following three characteristics:

1. Violence Drives the Storyline: Without the violence, there would be no story. A crime, a murder, a fist-fight are used to launch TV and movie plots. Violence is often the very pretext for the action that follows.

2. Violence Has No Consequences: TV violence doesn't bleed. There are lots of shootouts and fist fights, but amazingly! no one gets seriously hurt.

3. A World of Good and Bad: Media violence takes place in a world of good and bad. In most TV programs and movies, viewers' emotions have to be enlisted very quickly. Starkly contrasting good and bad characters help accomplish this. Deeper, more realistic, more ambiguous characterizations make it hard for viewers to know who to root for. It also requires more screen time that takes away from on screen action. "

In other words, violence sometime is the story, or at least, the reason an audience stays awake. And we know when violence (or violent opposition to violence) is justified because it happens in a world where absolute good and absolute evil are our only choices, and cannot coexist. It doesn't go far enough to turn us off, and it sucks us into the experience with emotion without letting our brains distract us.

But what consequences does this have? We know it's pretend, just acting and stunt doubles and special effects. And if characters are thin, could the violence mean very much?

I have observed a few things about violence in film that have made me think twice about its consequences. And while I am not suggesting that every kid who watches the Power Rangers will become a criminal or that violent films bring about bad karma, I think audiences should consider the effects of casually viewing the behavior modeled in violent films, and whether the entertainment value of these films is even worth the cost of admission.

One can hardly avoid violence in film. Recent Best Picture Oscar winners with violent themes include The Godfather and its sequel (1972 and 74), Rocky (1976), The Deer Hunter (1978), Platoon (1986), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Unforgiven (1992), Schindler's List (1993), Braveheart (1995), The English Patient (1996), Gladiator (2000), Chicago (2002), Lord of the Rings (2003), Million Dollar Baby (2004), Crash (2005), and this year's winner, The Departed. The longest span of time between these Best Pictures is eight years, and the average span is 2.25 years.


So a film with a violent theme has been given the American Motion Picture Academy's highest honor about every other year since 1970.

Of course, film violence isn't always meaningless and formulaic. Besides Gladiator and Chicago, which are among Oscar's weakest Best Pictures, the violent Best Pictures are pretty worthy entertainment. Violence in these films is not gratuitous, and helps audiences understand a great story about worthwhile characters or important periods in history. It would be dishonest to water-down the violence in Schindler's List or Platoon. Though I would never recommend a child watch it, I think Taxi Driver is one of the best, and also most violent, films ever produced. And I am passionate about Shakespeare, whose work is full of duels, poisonings, torture, betrayal, and war; there is hardly a character in any Shakespeare play that doesn't have blood on his or her hands.

But lately the mark of a popular leading man in a Summer Blockbuster is his ability to give a tough look, deliver a perfectly timed one-liner, and punch another guy in the face. This hero usually gets the girl and is admired by others. His violent acts are justified because the bad guy did a bad thing, and he is called upon to make things right because he is either the fasted gun in the West, a cop who cares more about fighting crime than kissing up to the Chief, or just looks better punching faces than anyone else in the film. If an actor is very good at these hero-skills, he is seen by more people than most other actors, and gets to do it all again in a more expensive film the following Summer.

When I hear frustrated drivers react to the unsafe driving of others, it rarely sounds like, "I'm going to see to it that the careless drivers are forced to change their ways so that there are fewer auto accidents and fatalities in the future. I am going to ask my representatives in government to focus on this problem, which will make the roads safer and insurance cheaper." Way too infrequently does it sound like, "I had better be a more defensive driver in the future and model safe driving for my kids."

Usually, it's something like, "I'd like to run that Bleeping cabbie into a ditch," with a hand taken off the wheel to show the offender who is number one. Though it is probably unrealistic to expect drivers to lobby for more traffic regulation, the example demonstrates a common inclination we have to handle difficulties with knee-jerk emotional reactions rather than think, and to dehumanize the objects of our frustration, just like Summer Blockbuster heroes do. Even if it is only in the driver's thoughts that the cabbie is ever in the ditch, the fact that this is the initial, and usually the only, thought the driver will give to another human being is telling.


Does exposure to movie violence cause this? I think the short answer is yes. Stories told in many violent films teach impulse rather than consideration, not only by modeling violent behavior, but also by ending on a high-note; the good guy wins, evil is defeated, everything works out for the best. When you are the good guy, your problems can be solved just by showing the jerks how you feel. There is no need to think too hard if you are a generally nice person, if God favors your tribe, or if you are otherwise in the right; as long as you put yourself in the role of the good guy in the story, you have the right to abuse the bad guy, and probably will.

I also believe that the entertainment value of mainstream film has been compromised since the Stooges' prescient parody of films to come. How many times can producers churn out these formula films, and make millions for it? How many Teflon heroes will we watch before we walk out of theaters clutching our $8.00 bags of popcorn, wondering why this fiftieth incarnation of John Wayne is attractive to women of this decade? Isn't it finally time to demand a better and healthier story?


Here is one that could have had a better ending. In 1980, one of the century's most influential people, Muhammad Ali, was examined at the Mayo Clinic to diagnose the cause of slurred speech and tingling in his limbs, and a hole in the protective membrane of his brain was discovered. Today, Ali can no longer speak at all because of the hits he took doing something called an "Olympic Sport." Granted he might owe his influence to that sport, but the punishment Ali endured while boxing cut it short. Soon after his diagnosis, Ali decided to step into the ring for what was supposed to be his last fight, and took an embarassing beating from Larry Holmes, who played him like a violin.

Why did Ali decide to fight when he knew his brain was damaged? Why did he risk his future for a few more rounds? He was already rich and famous, and his best years could have been ahead of him in whatever field he chose.
Perhaps it was because he lived in a world in which he was expected never to back down from a fight, to sacrifice his health for glory, and to emulate a popular film character who endured unrealistic abuse from Apollo Creed to win the celluloid heavyweight title. In other words, Ali was motivated by the same insecurities and shallow impulses that motivate Rocky and too many other film heroes. Alas, Ali couldn't let his fight with Holmes be his last, and he took further punishment in a final loss to Trevor Burbick, which may have silenced him for good. Sylvester Stallone also did not know when to quit, and made millions producing and starring in Rocky III, IV, V, VI, and Rocky Balboa, which was released late last year.

Sad indeed to watch two more violent Stooges waste their talent.


4 comments:

S is for Pseudonym said...

…and your point is?

Just kidding…that was quite a read!

I had not really thought about the ‘It is ok for the good guy to be bad if he is fighting a bad guy” angle. I suppose it plays to peoples’ ‘revenge at any cost’ kind of thing, as with your driver reference.

Do you think Movie Makers/Script Writers should change?

For me, I tend to have simple needs from a film. I may want it to make me laugh, or feel scared, or for my thoughts to be provoked, even a good old mindless Bruce Willis film such as the Die Hard series. …you get my drift. All depends on the mood I am in. So for me, I am happy there is a mix of styles and content available for me to choose from.

On the Sylvester Stallone point about him not knowing when to quit, the answer I think was following the comma “,and made millions”.

S

Rob said...

Funny you should mention the movie makers and writers; I am going to address them, and their creative process, in a post coming to a screen near you very soon.

I think mindless fun is fun, but audiences have by definition stopped thinking about what they are watching when they see a mindless film, and have also stopped making a real choice. What they see is accepted readily if their aim is simply to escape; however, the mindless-fun formula works so well that we are not only fed the same few plots repeatedly, but their repetition makes the behavior shown widely accepted, e.g. "Go ahead, make my day," "Yipee Ky Yay, M* F*," (for the Bruce Willis fan), and my favorite, "Talk to the hand." The good guy looks cool saying this stuff before he makes ground beef out of the bad guy, but also makes his audience self-righteous and boorish.

I suppose when a studio waved a multi-million dollar check at Stallone and told him to "Go for it," he had no choice, unless he wanted to go back to playing lead roles in cheap porn films, or wait for the sequel to Death Race 2000. But I think he and Ali qualify as Stooges 4 and 5 for their choices, and shame on audiences for buying it. I don't expect to win the war against Peoria here, but I hope against hope that there will be a breakthrough moment in some film that will give people a reason to think about what they watch one of these days.

I said in the first post that I wouldn't get too heavy, but film is a medium that has so much influence and potential that it is hard to watch it be wasted on Stooge movies, and audiences wasted along with them.

Hasta La Vista, Baby, I will talk to you soon I hope.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I read your article on Violins with a lot of interest as I also have a lot of misgivings about the widespread glamourisation of violent acts and behaviour in our culture today. Given the visual nature of film, it's difficult to see how this will change as more and more special effects are employed to ratchet up the tempo. And in the age in which we live, where violent, adrenalin-soaked computer games are widespread and a part of many peoples' home entertainment, I don't see how it would be possible for the film industry to eschew violence. Because the problem is not only in the cinema - if it stopped there it might not be so worrying - it's the constant merchandising, advertising and glorification of aggressive protagonists which pervades so many areas of our society. You can't buy items like clothes, food, many children's things like lunch boxes, toys and games, without being assailed by this brainwashing image reinforcement - and even if you DON'T go and see the movie, as a parent you're left feeling like there's almost no place to hide!
Yes, it does concern me a lot how much it is taken for granted and I don't feel for a second that we're a better, healthier society for accepting it.

In relation to film specifically, I'm reminded of a couple of recent James Bond forays. In Goldeneye, with Pierce Brosnan, there was some ambiguity and some doubt brought into the Bond character - he was shown to be vulnerable because he loved someone, and in a very vague way he was seen to be introspectively doubting his actions and maybe the consequences of them if he were to continue as a special agent. This development in Bond's character was not widely welcomed, however, and there were many articles written about the need for the hero to remain as a black-and-white stereoptype, good vs. evil, right vs. wrong sort of chap. Emotions were seen as very much surplus to requirements!

Again however, in Casino Royale, the latest offering from the 007 camp, there were a few references made to the sacrifices Bond was forced into making on a personal level in order to pursue the life of an agent. If it were a morality play, we would have understood that he had effectively sold his soul for a greater good. Again, Bond fell in love and even resigned from his post because of his realisation that if he were to continue in his present work, his "soul", his humanity, (whatever your beliefs on this) would be lost. As a "Summer Blockbuster Hero" I felt that Bond was showing signs of complexity which are not often apparent in many of our action heroes, and I welcomed this. Having said this, it's hard to know whether the constant violence (and seeming invulnerability of human flesh in the face of it! - I'm thinking particularly of the opening sequences here) is at all offset by this vague nod at the morality of it all. Is it just another example of hypocrisy, as seen in our tabloid press, which points out shocking depravities, denounces them and at the same time revels in them because they sell copy?

Given the world in which we live, it's hard to imagine how the film industry could do more on its own. I guess it is both reflecting and self-perpetuating and it will continue to be so until things change at a different level. As kids, we probably all liked cartoons, westerns, all that good guy vs. bad guy stuff. But the difference was that it was set in this fantasy, make believe world - either animated or firmly in the past. Today we are shown images and films which are praised for their realism, in which special effects budgets are astronomically high in pursuit of this realism - we are not supposed to be able to see the difference between what's on the screen and what's around us. This is the difference. Add this to the glamour of an all-action, attractive, larger than life protagonist who has all the best lines - and how can we not be seduced? How can we not want to emulate them in OUR daily lives? How much easier not to have to think, just to react?

Sorry, I feel like I've touched on areas which are probably not wholly specific to your debate, and also gone on a little too long - I apologise! But thank you for your thought-provoking article. I don't know where the ultimate responsibility for screen violence begins and ends. But I don't like it, and it often feels like a constant battle to try and counteract this endless drip-drip effect, this desensitisation to normal human feelings.

Best of luck with your blog!

Rob said...

A,

Thanks for your note. As a new parent, I am anticipating the barrage of high-powered ads, TV shows and movies that will not only sell products to my daughter, but also an attitude and way of thinking about the herself and world. And given the number of times per day she'll be exposed to this stimulus, I am concerned that she'll only aspire to own what she is pitched and not consider other possibilities for herself, especially if her peers are buying the limited view of the world they are sold. I expect my daughter to be the most beautiful and intelligent child of all time of course, but even if she has reason to doubt it, I don't want her to measure her value as a person with the criteria these ads and kid's shows offer, or be concerned that she can’t live up to the standards set by the TV or movie starlets she sees, that other kids try to emulate. I think girls have their own aggressive protagonists who model negative social behavior that doesn’t involve violence, but it can do at least as much damage as wrestling; a film like Mean Girls is extremely real to anyone who has been through High School in the United States, there is no writing it off as fantasy. And though I don't mind if my daughter follows fashion for fun, if she felt estranged from the world because she couldn't or wouldn't adopt the world view offered by Hollywood or Madison Avenue, I would consider it a personal failure.

I agree with you about the new Bond films, James is a more complex character and the films are better than they used to be because of it. Broccoli and company made the right choice with Daniel Craig and have the ability to start fresh and make Bond films that are more than Sean Connery’s old, “dreams of a Tuxedo mannequin.” The names of the old Bond girls are laughably sexist to audiences these days, and a Bond character that has any resemblance to a real person couldn’t possibly make life-changing sacrifices for the love of anyone named Pussy Galore, Chu Mei, or Holly Goodhead.

You mention what we watched as kids, and I think characters like Bond, and good Commie-fighting American heroes, are used to demonstrate what it means to be on the home team, defend and promote certain values, and be willing to make appropriate sacrifices. Much the way kid’s stories teach us not to lie and wash behind our ears, the good vs. evil stories for adults keep us in line and make sure we think it is cooler to be a good Dad than a bad one, a cop than a criminal, James Bond than Goldfinger. Given how audiences can copy violence modeled in film, it might just be better that there are so many simple stories in which good defeats evil easily and with style; the alternative, regardless how entertaining, might lead to more Violins.