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.