Violence is one of the most ubiquitous motifs across the entire history of human storytelling, and it’s no real surprise. An act of violence is the purest form of drama, conflict refined to its simplest expression. It’s easily implemented and easily understood, making it both the perfect catalyst and perfect climax for imparting some form of emotional resonance upon an audience.
While violence has been a part of our stories for millennia, the rise of cinema and television has changed our experiences with it and certainly warrants a reconsideration of our ethics of violence in arts and entertainment. That reconsideration thus far has shown itself in a couple of curiously juxtaposed ways: simply judging violence at its face value (where blood and gore are considered a “more inappropriate” expression) and an insatiable lust for violence as a form of amusement.
The aversion to violence in cinema, a phenomenon I’ve noticed amongst American evangelical Christians in particular, is curiously fickle, generally abiding by hard guidelines along the same lines as the MPAA’s rating system while sometimes affording exceptions to both war films (modern and medieval) and films depicting the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (I’m sure you can guess which one I’m thinking of in particular). This is admittedly an oversimplification to some degree, as many individuals will have convictions that err in either direction, but for the most part, outside of the aforementioned genres, if there’s blood, gore, or anything grisly involved, then a film is almost automatically classified as “inappropriate.”
The issue I have with this concept of adjudicating the “appropriateness” of violent content is it fails to consider the context of the violence or the nature of what the director is trying to communicate by including it in his or her film (while also severely underestimating the viewer’s ability to separate fantasy from reality). It’s a haphazard attempt to use an objective measuring stick to draw conclusions about a subjective matter, a symptom not of good Christian discernment but of the artistic illiteracy plaguing the evangelical church and the cult of positivity that rejects things that are unpleasant without first asking why they are unpleasant.
Maybe that sounds a bit forceful, and I certainly don’t mean to disregard people who genuinely just can’t stomach it. By all means, much as I said in my previous article regarding the horror genre, stick to your convictions and don’t engage with violent content if it’s not something you can bear. But I implore you to respect it and refuse to denounce it without first giving it the proper consideration. Explaining what that consideration entails would take up far too much space in an already overlong blog post, but for an entirely too simple illustration, just start by contemplating the difference in presentations of graphic violence between this scene from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and this scene from Thir13en Ghosts (just reiterating, both scenes contain contain graphic violence and the latter some nudity). Consider not just what but why. What is the motivation for each of these scenes? What do they hope to accomplish using violence?
As you dig deeper into film, you’ll notice the “why” of violence can get increasingly more complex, which is the beauty of it as a storytelling device. It’s malleable and able to spark virtually the entire spectrum of human emotion. The truth is that violence is an immense and unwieldy tool that has the equivalent capacity for profundity in the hands of a master storyteller and bawdiness in the hands of someone more juvenile.
However, I find that it’s that more juvenile understanding that drives our culture as a whole, resulting in a bizarre sort of bloodlust in entertainment. Sure, we’ve long since moved away from things like gladiator deathmatches where human lives were sacrificed for the enjoyment of others, but there remains this sort of vicarious engagement with that form of entertainment that exists in the cinema, on television, and especially in video games. Of the top ten highest-grossing films so far in 2017, six are action/adventure films, and another is a (brilliant) horror film with a violent climax. TV dramas are in a fairly similar position, while the bestselling video games are usually first-person shooters, with the vast majority of games involving killing/maiming of some sort or another. And that doesn’t even include other forms of entertainment like sports, of which in the US American football is the most popular thanks in part to explosive plays involving big hits and brutal tackles.
It’s not that I think any of this is wrong on the outset. There’s an innocence to our desire for action; I believe the motivation behind watching Terminator 2 or The Avengers is similar to the thrillseeking that leads to something like riding roller coasters. There’s some primal piece of us that longs for excitement, and what better way to get that than the one that provides zero risk of bodily harm to ourselves?
But then there’s the whole matter of just how dismissive of human life some films seem to be. When watching films like Transformers, 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, The Avengers, etc., it feels like the director is instructing us to take pleasure in the utter destruction of humanity and the world around us. And not to make any immediate moral judgments about that, but it’s hard for me to understand how each of those PG-13 films where millions (if not billions) of people die with minimal consequence and horribly emotionally immature thematic elements attached develop a healthier understanding of violence than notoriously grisly films like No Country for Old Men and Taxi Driver. Visceral violence of some sort seems to be an essential ingredient in a blockbuster, and it’s something that Americans not only tolerate but seem to encourage. Someone taking a bullet to the face on screen is more readily accepted than showing a woman’s nipple – admit it, you were more perturbed by the half-naked woman in the clip from Thir13en Ghosts I linked earlier than you were about the man being sliced in half by a door. Surely it must say something about us if we’re more willing to tolerate the destruction of the human body than admire its beauty.
I’m not really sure what to say beyond that, because honestly I have no answers for this puzzle, only the question. I love gritty action films like Die Hard, The Raid, John Wick, and Hard Boiled, and I love blowing enemies up in Battlefield or smashing people to bits with my giant robot in Titanfall 2. I’m just as “guilty” of this bloodlust as everybody else, and I’m not even sure whether or not it’s something I ought to feel guilty about. I’m aware of the differences between reality and the screen, and my belief in the sanctity of human life is as strong as ever. But if I believe human life is sacred, is it right for me to derive laughter and joy from murder and death of any sort, even if it’s pure fantasy?
I don’t know where that line is or how far we’ve crossed over it. I’m not even sure that there’s a “line” at all. I know there are films like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Unforgiven which handle violence with a brilliant grace and gravity, and there are other films like The Belko Experiment and Hostel that have such an abhorrent attitude toward human life that it makes me genuinely sick to watch them. And then there’s the entire spectrum of film in between. Maybe that’s the thing, though, that violence is far too complex to be discussed in such black-and-white terms as “right and wrong” or “appropriate and inappropriate.” And maybe that’s what makes it such an essential and engaging piece of human stories.
I guess what I want is for us to change our way of thinking, whichever side of the spectrum we approach entertainment from. I want us to stop considering art from a strictly moralistic viewpoint and start diving into its murky waters. I want us to stop asking the irrelevant questions we’ve asked before, and I want us to stop asking no questions at all. Then we can begin to engage this critical aspect of the human experience with a level of nuance that is sorely lacking.