Friday, March 31, 2006

More Thoughts on Realism and "Ultraviolence" in Film

I've been thinking a little more about horror/thriller films and how we got to the sadistic ultra-realism I wrote about below. As usual, Satan introduced things little by little, so that people would be slowly deceived.

Think about it: wasn't Rock-N-Roll rebellion much the same? Bill Haley invited teens to "rock around the clock," Elvis shook his pelvis, millions of girls screamed, and a new culture was born, built around worshipping rock idols and subverting authority (okay, it's more complicated than that, but not much). The Beatles didn't venture into America with long hair, Yogis and drugs; they came in suits, pleading, "I Want to Hold Your Hand." The enemy knows better than to bust in yelling, "HEY, who wants to offend God and go to Hell?" Instead, he comes in as a handsome suitor: "You shall be as God!"

In that vein, I believe, the film industry in America has pushed boundaries sexually and psychologically. These posts haven't really addressed the sexual aspect of film history; at this point I'll stick to psychological, since we're talking about horror and thriller films (though, of course, these films often also manage to include disturbing sexual content).

I am not a film scholar; I'm just a former film buff who has worked more years in video stores than she cares to admit. I can't detail the history of filmmaking for you and definitively point to the One Movie that Started it All--but I do want to point out a couple of watershed moments that popped out for me.

1. A Clockwork Orange came out in 1971 (three years before I was born!). has this synopsis by Steven Pemberton:

Alex, a teenage hooligan in a near-future Britain, gets jailed by the police. There he volunteers as guinea pig for a new aversion therapy proposed by the government to make room in prisons for political prisoners. "Cured" of his hooliganism and released, he is rejected by his friends and relatives. Eventually nearly dying, he becomes a major embarrassment for the government, who arrange to cure him of his cure. A pivotal moment is when he and his gang break into an author's home: the book he is writing (called "A Clockwork Orange") is a plea against the use of aversion therapy, on the grounds that it turns people into Clockwork Oranges (Ourang is Malay for "Man"): they are not being good from choice (sentiments later echoed by the prison chaplain). The film reflects this: many bad scenes in a Clockwork Orange are accompanied by jolly music; if we are to experience them as we should, we have to do it consciously, by realising they are bad, and not because the director tells us so through the use of music and images.

A Clockwork Orange has many brutal scenes--horrible scenes I don't want to describe to you (I saw the movie as a teenager)--that are, as Steven describes, accompanied by light-hearted music and performed in a humorous way. (The word "ultraviolence" was coined in this film.) While I see the point that Steven says Kubrick is trying to make, I also think that movies like this cast the villains in a sympathetic light: audiences are inclined to laugh at the horrific rather than have the natural reaction (which would be, uh, horror). They are inclined to like the bad guy and root for him rather than reject or hate him.

This can be said for countless films where the villain is more interesting and sympathetic than the hero, or where the villain is the hero. At the extreme end--the Saws and Saw IIs of the world--the audience laughs when they see terrifying, realistic suffering.

All this makes me think of

2. Quentin Tarantino movies. I was still working at video stores when his movies first came out amidst much positive buzz and fanfare. I saw Reservoir Dogs and part of True Romance--and then swore him off forever. Tarantino has made his name writing and directing films that are ultra-hip, ultraviolent and ultra-realistic. He combined humor, slick editing, quick dialogue and gore to entice audiences and introduce a David Cronenberg-like, macabre filmmaking style.

As a moviegoer at the time, I felt deceived by him; I thought I was getting an action movie with Reservoir Dogs, and I got torture. I thought I was getting a love story with True Romance, and I got violent, sadistic beating scenes (and not much else, since I walked out). I've read enough about his other movies to know they didn't get any better. People praise his originality and flash--but I seldom read any protests or concerns.

Do people really, really think that watching movies like the above don't have any effect on them or on others?

Several of you commented on the last post, wondering aloud about desensitization and the effect of violent programming and film on audiences (particularly impressionable children). On one hand, I do think there are different "kinds" of violence, and I think some ways of presenting it are more damaging than others (e.g., Die Hard versus Saw--there's a difference). The lines being crossed, with even industry insiders labeling films "torture porn", should concern everyone. I don't know just how it might affect the children that watch this stuff for entertainment now, but I can't imagine the effect being neutral.

Psalm 18:48
He delivereth me from mine enemies: yea, thou liftest me up above those that rise up against me: thou hast delivered me from the violent man.

Prov 16:29
A man of violence entices his neighbor
and leads him in a way that is not good.