The Cult of Violence in Popular Film

In my last year of high school, my American history professor decided he would show us Saving Private Ryan. The result was a litany of forms to be signed by parents for those not quite 18, and questioning by most students why this was necessary. Only the year before a film had been pulled from an English class in the same school, only rated PG-13 for its portrayal of 19th century sex, but here was our teacher showing us an extremely bloody, violent battle-ridden film. The argument―”it’s history”.

Violence has long-held a certain mystique, the ability to stand tall above the censors and display endlessly gratuitous imagery for all ages. But it’s always been sex that truly upset the stuffy conservative minds of this country. The MPAA arose not because of excessive violence in films, but because of worries over indecent imagery related to sex.

A video game was pulled from the shelves and slapped with an Adult Only rating (the only time ever given) because of a possible unlockable sex scene. The game is one of the most violent offerings around―Grand Theft Auto. It’s an epic assault on every law written, complete with random shootings, drug dealing, and cop killing. But, sex put it over the top.

Left to their own devices, the sex and violence in film has flourished, finding routes of their own, slowly but surely pushing the censors to the borders, and squeezing as much as they can out of an R rating. The result is a numbing of audience receptors to the true ferocity of some violence.

If one is to show a particularly disturbing scene, it’s necessary to take it to an entirely new level of grotesque. Realism is the next key, in which these scenes are made to look as wholly and truly realistic as possible. Gone are the hokey squirts and sprays of dismemberment. Film makeup has gone beyond that. That limb can really come off and it will look incredibly disturbing.

This cult of violence in our films has bred a new way of approaching it entirely. Instead of submitting to the desires of a so many blood thirsty film goers, directors are starting to experiment with how to turn violent imagery into an art form, not mere grotesquery to satiate the masses.

Exploitation films have been around since the ’70s, when the splatter genre arrived in films like ‘Dawn of the Dead’ and ‘Friday the 13th’. Those films took violence and made it so ridiculously over the top, especially in the case of Jason and his hockey mask, that they made it fun to watch. The idea was to be scary, but in truth it was a chance to watch horrific images so ridiculous that they toned down what you might see in everyday life.

Similar films came out of Asia in time, high-flying martial arts films with explosive bloodletting, almost comical at times in its lack of realism. A samurai sword to the shoulder blade might produce more blood than a typical adult male carries in his body. Anime took it to the next level, with gallons of blood spraying free of a severed limb.

Today’s experimental filmmakers are taking heed of the results and rewriting the violence code once again, crafting movies with all the sensibilities of a 70s splatter-fest or sword skewering anime in homage to a style that exploits. Comic books are proving a superb source for these films as well, the works of Frank Miller in particular finding a home on-screen when most assumed they never would. Sin City and more recently 300 are hyper-stylized affairs rimming with violence, the kind that you’d see on an ink drawn page, so carefully planned and executed as to be art rather than violence.

Quentin Tarantino started a trend all on his own when he filmed Reservoir Dogs, infusing what some would have seen as mindless violence with reams of witty dialog and well crafted plot, begging the question of whether the movie could be the same without those bloody scenes. Pulp Fiction’s gritty, humorous back and forths couldn’t exist without the explosive, disturbing images to offset them. It’s the perfect balance of that which both naturally disgusts and intrigues you and that which you find funny. The humor is only enhanced by all that blood.

Kill Bill, arguably Tarantino’s most exploitative homage, is a combination of all the stylistic elements he’d been developing, a campy plot with tons of splatter film derived frivolities, but more than enough serious, revenge driven action to drive the plot.

Dozens of filmmakers have followed suit, and not only have we seen a resurrection of the horror film industry as a result, the Tarantino-esque attempts of many directors to deftly combine slick gangster violence with humorous exchanges and a wickedly sadistic plot pop up annually.

Film’s cult of violent intrigue is one that some find disturbing, and still more find disgusting, but one thing remains true―human beings enjoy it. Whether it’s built into our genetic code, a throwback to caveman values and primal instincts, or an internal desire to find solace in all the violence that isn’t real to better absorb and digest the excessive destruction we wreak on each other in reality, violence has a particularly soft spot in our hearts. This is something that will always slide under the radar, as the staunch censor-happy few pick apart the latest revealing sex scene.

Truman’s Paradox

Imagine you live in a perfect world. Imagine that there is someone up there, somewhere, who watches your every step, and has future planned out for you-to the minutest of details, that everything about your life is personally being overseen by the omnipotent being, as if you’re the chosen one. You’re guaranteed a good education, a steady job, caring parents, and a loving spouse. Every problem that you might have, there is someone who’ll interfere, and solve things for you. Isn’t that the absolute dream of most of the religions? Isn’t that, in fact, a promise that organized religion holds up to you? The benign, omnipotent, and omniscient being, overlooking your life in every conceivable way. A guarantee, that whatever happens, is the God’s Will, and that there is a higher purpose determining the course of your life. Isn’t that what faith is all about-believing in that fantasy?

Ironically, for the character of Truman Burbank in the Hollywood flick The Truman Show, the dream turns into a nightmare. For those who haven’t watched the movie, it is a satire, and indeed fantastic, story of a man whose whole life is a televised show, watched by millions for years, without his knowledge. The town that he lives in is a phony town-an effect, a combination of a high-tech supported illusion, and a gigantic movie set. His life is scripted and executed to that script. People that enter or leave his life, are actors playing their own, prewritten parts. When Truman realizes the truth, however, he wants to break away from this fake, designed world. He wants to go (I almost said back, but he has really never even been there) to the real world, where everything is uncertain, where he might have to struggle hard to live a life that’s almost guaranteed to him in that fake world. And when he does that, finally, the same crowd that is vicariously enjoying his surreal life actually applauds his freedom!

It’s not just in the reel life that Truman’s newly found freedom is applauded, though. Even in the movie halls, there is a perceptible relief. When the crowds come out, they are obviously happy that Truman got his freedom-even if it’s just a freedom to embrace the uncertainty of the real world (the romantic sub-thread of the story notwithstanding, as the uncertainty is in fact more pronounced there). That got me thinking! These are the same guys who want to desperately believe that there is someone/something out there, which controls their destiny. In a strange way, Truman’s life is how they want their lives to be-safe, assured, and without the burden of choice. The only difference is that the controller is a media baron, with his own selfish motive. Still, Truman’s life is much more secured than an average person. And principally, there isn’t much difference.

Symbolically, Truman chooses free will over determinism, exactly opposite to the ideals of religious determinism. In short, free will is a philosophical doctrine that says that human being can (at least in principle) choose their thoughts and their actions. On the other hand, the doctrine of determinism postulates that everything is destined to be what it is, and human beings have absolutely no real choice, whatsoever. Religious ideal of a supernatural being/power controlling our life is positively a form of determinism.

The curious paradox that ‘The Truman Show’ brings forward-of ordinary people (implicitly) being happy about Truman’s symbolic rejection of a quasi-determinism, by an exercise (even if symbolic) of his free will, even while the same people implicitly (as well as explicitly) crave for another kind of quasi-determinism, with their religious world view-is actually a very central paradox of human life. In fact, determinism brings with itself a comfort, and free will, a risk. For instance, if you know that there is no real choice, things are much easier, as there can be no penalty for choosing wrong (for that matter, you can’t chose wrong-you can’t chose at all). When there is no choice, there is no morality either, as morality is the codification of value judgments. There is no value in the absence of choice. Everything, just is!

On a more pragmatic level, it makes a huge difference as to who controls your life. The benign and omniscient power would have no ulterior motives (otherwise, it won’t be benign). So, there is a consolation there, when your life is controlled by such a power. But that involves surrendering your value judgments completely, and having faith in such a power. When one looks around at the state of the world, it’s hard to find such an unshakable faith. But imagine that tomorrow you’re in Truman’s shoes, but this time, it’s the real thing. Imagine God asking you personally, as to what you want. A life that God has personally scripted for you, or a life that you can steer, with no guarantees, like a sailboat in a huge ocean. What would you choose? A benign determinism or a random free will?