Film reviewer Anthony Morris responds to Bruce Guthrie’s recent suggestion that violent films might cause real-life violence. He argues that if you’re looking for answers to the Colorado killings in your local movie theatre or on your television screen, you’re looking in the wrong place.
In the 15 or so years since I started reviewing movies professionally, I have been in exactly one fight. Not that you could call it a fight: a man who’d been behaving erratically at the train station I was at suddenly ran up to me and punched me in the face without saying a word, before just as quickly running off. I was too surprised – and later, too busy bleeding from my nose – to try and chase him.
My reaction (or lack thereof) may come as a surprise to you if you read ‘Biting the Bullet’, Bruce Guthrie’s most recent column in the Fairfax papers on the weekend. In the wake of the recent shootings at a Colorado cinema, he argued, ‘any intelligent person would have to at least acknowledge the possibility that some violent films could cause violence’.
Going by Guthrie’s logic, the vast number of violent acts I’ve seen on the big screen over those 15 years should have inspired me to instantly throw my assailant in front of an on-coming train – or better yet, wait until the train had come to a stop, then used the doors to scissor his head off. I’ve seen all that and more take place on-screen – what stopped me from acting out what I’d seen?
The obvious answer is that, despite a decade and a half spent watching over 250 movies a year, I’m not a murderous lunatic. Or as Guthrie calls them, ‘some people’. (As in, ‘are filmmakers too quick to depict violence without any thought of the effect these scenes might be having on some people?’) You know he doesn’t mean people who dress up as Na’vi from Avatar, either.
Trouble is, if simple moving images on a screen can set ‘some people’ off, then clearly pretty much anything can set them off: the Bible, a bad relationship, being cut off in traffic. And if that’s the case, why are we only blaming movies? When a parent acts up at their child’s sporting match or a coach punches a hole in a wall of the coaching box, we’re rightly appalled and concerned … about the person involved. No one says ‘any intelligent person would have to at least acknowledge the possibility that some violent sports could cause violence’. America’s seen plenty of workplace shootings over the years; no one seems to be worried that workplaces might be turning people violent.
Having revealed that it’s only ‘some people’ at risk of being turned into killers by movies, Guthrie decides that ‘surely it is time for another discussion about whether the entertainment industry is fuelling, rather than just reflecting, societal violence’. Considering western society has been getting less day-to-day violent since the invention of movies (while presumably movies have only been getting more violent since the Lumiere brothers), this shouldn’t take long.
To have a proper discussion though, first we need to agree on what we’re talking about. For starters, how do you define ‘violence’ on film? A film might contain a scene of brutality and then spend 90 minutes showing the devastating results in such a way that it’s obvious that violence is a horrific, appalling thing (Boys Don’t Cry). A film might contain a scene of violence that society considers perfectly acceptable to depict in a positive way (The Passion of the Christ). A film might contain a scene of violence that’s obviously being played for laughs (The Three Stooges). Which is the bad kind of violence? ‘If a story needs an arsenal of weapons and a litany of killings to be told, then perhaps it’s not worth telling,’ Guthrie says. There goes coverage of Anzac Day.
But it seems narrative and context isn’t really what matters here, because for Guthrie movies exist solely to push emotional buttons: ‘we accept the proposition that a TV ad can influence behaviour – in fact, an entire multibillion-dollar industry is built on that very premise,’ he writes. ‘So there must exist the possibility that a 165-minute film carefully plotted, planned and executed to press all kinds of emotional buttons could quite possibly affect people’s actions.’
This sounds like it makes sense, except for one thing: that’s not how advertising actually works. Advertising doesn’t create desires out of nothing. Rather, it seeks to shape and exploit desires we already have. The goal with a fast food commercial isn’t to drive you instantly out of your house shrieking with hunger and racing manically for a specific burger joint. It’s that next time you feel hungry, you’ll think of the burger joint you saw advertised and – hopefully – stop off there.
Movies don’t advertise murder, because murder isn’t a product they’re trying to sell. Why would they? Having your audience end up dead or in jail is a pretty poor business strategy. Murder is part of the story they’re trying to tell, alongside human kindness, the value of friendship, helping those less fortunate, finding someone to love and dozens of other positive elements. Those sinister ‘some people’ who see only murder in movies have problems that go a lot deeper than their choice of evening viewing.
Guthrie’s solution to the concerns he raises is as difficult to follow as the rest of his article. ‘I don’t want more censorship or regulation,’ he writes, ‘just good old common sense and sensitivity.’ The question is, who’s going to define this ‘common sense’?
Clearly, Guthrie and I disagree on what is common sense as far as violent films are concerned, and no doubt many film-makers would also disagree with him. Without imposing the evils of censorship and regulation that Guthrie deplores, they’re just going to keep making the movies that Guthrie also deplores.
Maybe it’d be easier to just call for tighter controls on guns?
Anthony Morris has been writing about films for the last 15 years. He writes regularly for Empire magazine, among other publications, and is the DVD editor of the Big Issue.
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