Sunday, April 01, 2007

Violence

After my last post, I got a comment from Vince, a friend from church, who writes, among other things,

A couple of very mature Christians that I respect were discussing and laughing about "Kill Bill". With some trepidation I decided to see what they were raving about. I was appalled and never got beyond the kitchen scene. The beauty of humans should remain so.

Certainly there is a place for graphic violence, but only in the despising of graphic violence ... "Schindler's List" for instance.

Just a bit of elderly exhortation.

Your character and kindness seem to bear the violence well, but only in spite of these gruesome selections.


Where to start? Maybe with kung fu movies. As long-time observers of my life will know, I have been a Jackie Chan fan since I first saw Rumble in the Bronx at Mike Tosch's house way back when. I find the cartoony violence of Who Am I? and Drunken Master II (in the US, dubbed and retitled Legend of Drunken Master) delightful, more people dancing and pretending to hit each other than actually violent. (Chan's taken a real downturn of late in the very soggy Around the World in Eighty Days and The Tuxedo, but I'm sure he'll be on top again any month now.)

Some of his grittier outings like Police Story appeal to me less, and I prefer to go without the gory stuff you could see in a lot of Jet Li's wire-fu and gangster movies. And then there is the really beautiful stuff in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. We could go on, but I think these three broad categories of kung-fu violence are a good place to start: cartoony up to delightful, realistic up to gory, and fantastic up to beautiful.

The first and third cases are not exactly graphic. Maybe they desensitize people to violence in the long run, slowly wearing down one's defenses, like gateway drugs. Start with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (or GI Joe, or The Lone Ranger?), end with Kill Bill. I won't focus on this slippery slope. Some people really do stop at social drinking and other people stop at Jackie Chan. I'll also include Buffy and Angel somewhere on the slippery slope, because violence is certainly a theme, but it's just not that realistic. Or, you might say, the violence is less realistic than the characters and their stories and relationships.

I am more inclined to think of realistic, gory violence like one might see in a horror film, an action movie, a crime drama, a war movie, a historical or similar depictions as the broad class of graphic violence that Vince is advising against. So let's try to make a case against gratuitous graphic violence. One film that pops to mind is Bad Taste, a zombie movie featuring a dude with his braincase falling open, said brains being munched on by scavenger birds and zombies, ripping apart said zombies with a chainsaw. Ad nauseam. (Incidentally, the director/actor of this movie is Peter Jackson, the same guy who made that Lord of the Rings trilogy and got that Oscar sweep. True story.) And the argument would go, whatever redeeming content this movie has, the violence is essentially at right angles to it, and overwhelms, say, the story, script, direction, cinematography, costuming, and such.

By changing the example movie and exchanging the word "sex" for "violence", we will essentially arrive at the Supreme Court's argument about distinguishing obscenity from art, or more specifically, pornography from erotica. And the infamous line from that argument is "I'll know it when I see it", which is really no argument at all. The reason they had to say that was the definition of obscenity that they used: "prurient, patently offensive expression, lacking serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value." The Supreme Court couldn't define most of those words, so they had to substitute human instincts, or community standards, or an appeal to obviousness to make these judgments. If our goal were to judge violence in movies by this legal standard, we would have similar problems.

Here's that list of genres again: horror, action, crime, war, historical/realistic. Here is an example each from these genres, so you know what I'm thinking of as I write: Nightmare on Elm Street, True Lies, Law and Order (a TV show, not a movie), Saving Private Ryan, Black Robe. Looking at it again, I suppose this is a rough order of how high the bar should be to consider violence as having serious artistic or literary value. The case is hardest to make for horror, with its splatter and torment of innocents, playing the notes of fear and disgust in relentless, dissonant jangles. Action movies at least excuse their killings by portraying the victims as evil and concentrating on killing as heroics. Which of these two last is more pernicious is an exercise for the viewer. Crime dramas, though, have the potential to tell us about human psychology and engage our minds in a mystery. Depending on how dark the psychology, we may encounter more graphic violence. In war movies, violence is still more germane to the action. Historical or realistic portrayals of human behavior, and the capacity of humans to do violence to one another, are extremely important too, even as Vince mentioned.

But if that's so, where do you draw the line on violence? Can extremely graphic violence be excused by extremely artistic content? Or by extremely probing, meaningful human stories? Or by meditating on violence? Vince says no to the first. However amazing Kill Bill is as film-making art (I haven't seen it), that doesn't excuse the wanton, graphic violence, which Tarentino could have omitted, if he wanted to, just by making a different sort of movie. When violence is entwined inextricably with the story, though, or when violence is the story, what then?

For instance, was the violence in The Passion of the Christ gratuitous? I read some reviews saying it was overdone. I could see that. I cringed as I watched it, I felt numbed by it all. I found myself translating Latin numbers as the soldiers counted out the strokes of Jesus' flogging. (As an aside, I also do prime factorizations of the timestamp on the DVD player when I find myself looking away from a movie.)

On the other hand, although some of the incidents in the movie came from extra-biblical sources (such as the face of the Messiah on St. Veronica's handkerchief, or the sopping up of the blood by Mary and the other women), most if not all of the violence is right out of the Gospel narratives, and it's probably never been as completely depicted on film as it was there. Was there value in seeing that, value that I couldn't have gained by just watching the Jesus film (mostly Luke's gospel; this is the one that has been translated into almost a thousand languages) and letting my imagination do the work?

Just before Vince wrote, by chance, I saw another movie that put these issues in perspective for me. When I told Sarah about it, I said, "Well, it was really violent, but..." It's called Children of Men, and it just came out on DVD. It's the year 2027, and women mysteriously ceased to have children eighteen years previously, and the youngest people are now 18. So long without a cure for infertility, without children, and the world has descended into madness, despair, loss. It is a harsh, violent world. England is cracking down on illegal immigrants, sending them to camps. Revolutionaries rebel against the totalitarian government by blowing things up. A man makes his way through this world and kills when he thinks he must. The violence is very realistic, although it's more realistic as in war than as in gruesome gory details.

The movie is amazing. I can't help but highly recommend it. It's deep, it's poignant, it made me cry huge sobs near the end. It has a lot to say about children, and violence, and hope, and it's very well made. Of course, if you are deeply offended by realistic violent content, you'll have to steer clear. And that's the crux of the thing right there: how much violence are you willing to watch in the pursuit of these human moments, or otherwise redeeming content?

When I talked about obscenity, I mentioned that we'd run into major quandaries trying to judge the artistic value of movies to the precision of a legal standard. In America, we tend to rate more heavily against sexual content than violent content, or at least the ratings board of the Motion Picture Association of America does for us, but this is all very ad hoc and informal.

Suppose we want a higher standard than just legalities and broad cultural opinions. How does being a Christian play into these issues of adult content? I am no expert, so what follows is all me. The verse that comes to mind is Paul's "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." There's an obvious interpretation of this verse (no doubt similar verses could be discovered) that suggest that Christians are to confine themselves to milquetoast art. All I can say about that particular interpretation is that I've tested it with my own life and found it wanting.

Vince's comment hints at the idea that there is such great non-violent art out there that I could spend a lifetime on the excellent and praiseworthy, without getting around to the violent and disgusting. And the work he points to, while excellent, is not just naive about human behavior. Silence, one of my favorite books, depicts the torture and martyrdom of Christians in feudal Japan, and tells the story of a priest's loss of faith and renunciation of Christ. The first time I read this book, it was like a bombshell going off in my newly-minted fundamentalism. I was drawn afterward, like the author, Shusaku Endo, to the worrisome cases, to depictions of sinners more than saints. Lurking underneath this is probably a connection to my relative tolerance of violence and inhumanity in literature and on the screen.

I find that it's hard to compromise on excellence in art, to censor that great emotional connection I make as a reader and viewer with the artist who created the work. Sometimes they will show me, horrified, things I might prefer not to see, but things they think are important for me to see. Shusaku Endo certainly goes that route in one of my other favorites, Scandal, probably the most affecting portrayal of evil I have ever read. I would certainly call it excellent and praiseworthy, but co-mingled with the story's beauty is a very real heart of darkness. Did God want me to go there? I say yes.

None of that is to say that I'm ignoring Vince's lists of great works (on the books, I actually have a generous head start). I want to see great stuff that's not also rated R. And I do avoid gratuitous violence on principle, as an offense to human dignity. But there's a big grey area in between that I haven't sussed out yet.

I guess I'll mention, last, that I too am a non-violent sort of person and I haven't had any need to create graphic violence in my little world. I imagine myself as a conscientious objector and hope I'd be brave enough to say no in the event that someone asked me to pick up a gun for my country, or design a better nuclear bomb.

4 comments:

vince said...

Dan,

Excellent post. I am working up a response. I am also going to direct my '2s' of readers of my blog to your post.

Vince

PS. I want to qualify an adjective I used in my comment:

"Just a bit of elderly exhortation."

I don't qualify for the religious designation of 'elder', but I do have growing resemblance to an old geezer. So mentally replace the sentence with:

"Just a bit of 'geezerly' exhortation."

jonathan said...

I am one of Vince's regular Blog readers. The question, where to place the line for violence?

First off, I am tired of the world being divided by straight and precise lines. There are definitely some things that have nice clean black and white edges, but not everything in the world is that orderly. I spend a lot of time drawing boundaries around stuff to separate things, it is not always an simple task. This will be like one of those tasks, not so simple and easy. In the end it does come down to "freedom in Christ" and conscience for each individual, recognizing that your freedom in Christ is not license to cause a brother or sister to stumble or give you card blanc to cover your evil (sin).

A two-dimensional straight line will probably not be up to the task of dividing acceptable violence from unnecessary brutality. Probably a three or four dimensional 'construct' would best describe the gulf that divides the two. For example a fourth dimensional 'construct'; before September 11, 2001, I would probably not want to watch a movie with 4 hijackers slashing up some pilots, flight attendants, and passengers with a plane crash at the end. But since that infamous day. I might want to see it (incidentally I have watched the Hollywood version), because in reality all the passengers on United Flight 93 probably did not want to see that either. They did not have a choice. They lived it. They saw it. Why shouldn't I see it also, If I want to try and connect to the tragic loss?

For me displaying historically accurate violence helps to connect me to the events, Saving Private Ryan, the Patriot, Passion of the Christ.

As for fantasy violence, including horror, I am still exploring the edge and at times cross the line and quickly retreat back in shock. For me, The trilogy movies adapted from Lord of the Rings are near the boundary of acceptable violence. Others I have seen probably cross the line. And several stay well away from the edge like the Chronicles of Narnia.

vince said...

Dan,

I repeat your questions for focus:

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"Where do you draw the line on violence (sex) in movies?"

"Can extremely graphic violence be excused by extremely artistic content? Or by extremely probing, meaningful human stories? Or by meditating on violence? "

--------------------

I do believe there are Biblical categories of good, useless (neutral), and evil. Good is ‘choosing to create beauty in obedience to God'. Evil is ‘chosing to despise goodness of God’. However, these starkly named categories are difficult to judge perfectly by any but God … but we must try. The ‘useless’ category is not evil or good, it is purposelessness. Everyone spends some time there, but exclusive time in the useless category leads to a chaotic life.

These categories are ‘doing’ categories. Movies are probably one-step away from ‘doing’, but movies do train us how to think about situations and relationships. The wise person will be able to discern an evil movie for their soul. The key phrase "for their soul". The wiser person will be able to discern the amount of time that they should be spending watching movies in the useless category. The wisest person will know how to seek out the good movie for their soul. The quote from Paul’s “Letter to the Philipines” that you identify is very much in my mind when I judge movies.

"whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things."

I also agree with you that “There's an obvious interpretation of this verse … that Christians are to confine themselves to milquetoast art.”

First, I have to pay attention to the spelling of the pejorative “Milk toast”. You are a smart man. The word piqued my interested and I discovered that ‘milquetoast’ comes from an early twentieth cartoon character, Casper Milquetoast, in the comic strip ‘The Timid Soul’. Even as an old man, I can still learn something. Thanks.

Second, milquetoast entertainment is not the best interpretation of these verses. I agree with Paul that I want to feed my heart with things that draw me to God and cause me to love humanity, identify with the needy, and hate injustice. Some violent movies can fit into this exhortation to dwell on good things. Fine examples of are "Schindler's List", “Amistad”, “Braveheart”, “The Killing Fields”. These movies sharpen the sense of justice. However, some movies do the same without extreme violence or even an R rating. Excellent examples are “Life is Beautiful”, “The Great Dictator”, “A Man for All Seasons”, and “Breaker Morant”. One of my suggested books was a book of violence (Silence). I am not opposed to the use of violent art to expose injustice (Picasso's Guernica.) Many good movies do not dwell on the graphic detail of the violence in their stories, you just know that it was happening. In any case, I can forgive the movie that uses graphic violence to heighten a sense of outrage against injustice, but if it is too graphic it may overwhelm the good intent.

Third, there is a ‘useless’ category that is not necessarily enriching the soul, but is beautiful to watch. Elegant fantasy violence is eye-candy. I have laughed and gawked through Jackie Chan movies. Admittedly the violence is beautiful, but, for the most part, not graphic. Jackie is fun on two levels, first, amazing stunts and, second, the self-effacing humility of his character. These are lost qualities in high-tech American movies for the most part. A better example is “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. Gorgeous. Stunning beauty. The fight in the bamboo forest was as beautiful as any movie scene I can think of. Violence as choreographed dancing is to be enjoyed. There are scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that begin to touch the ‘graphic’ adjective that lose the ‘beautiful’ adjective. For example, the sheriff has his forehead split by a martial arts weapon. I wanted to dope slap the director for his graphic ugly choice in this otherwise beautiful movie. What is the purpose for this graphic incident? It is ‘to shock’.

This brings us to the evil category … graphic violence to shock .. to show the audience something that will turn the eyes of the sensitive, desensitize the eyes of the malleable, and to please the eyes of the sadistic. This is my protestation against graphic violence that is evil to the soul. It only degrades the beauty of the art, despises humanity, and panders to bestially. Unfortunately, there are some worthwhile movies that have only a few scenes I would rather not see.

I have decided that most R rated movies have too much violence or uncommitted sexuality for my own good. The R movie must have exceedingly great qualities before I will watch it. There are some that I stay away from just because I know that I cannot take the graphic quality. I have not seen “Private Ryan” for that reason. I have not seen "Scarface" and other mafia movies because of the language.

It seems you and I are very much alike. I do enjoy some fringe movies like “Dr. Strangelove” and “The Producers” (the original). I enjoy thinking about movies with conflicted sensibilities like “Through a Glass Darkly” or “The Third Man”. I will cry at poignant scenes of B movies like “Because of Winn Dixie”.

I am sure that you have a good sense of when a movie is evil for your soul. Listen to your good sense.



PS. A related movie beef of mine is inappropriate movies for kids. I despise kids movies with ugly behavior and language. I also hate it when a parent takes a young child to an intense movie. I have seen 5-year-olds begging their parents to take them out of movies like “The Matrix”. It is abuse. For parents:

http://www.med.umich.edu/1libr/pa/pa_rrmov_hhg.htm

Thank you for your blog.

jen said...

This has been a good conversation to listen in on. We watch very few violent movies, but I confess to enjoying the crime dramas on tv. I was horrified at the idea of parents allowing their kids to watch R-rated movies. I don't let our girls watch Dumbo (they use words like "stupid" and they behave cruely to poor Dumbo.) This was good stuff for me to think about...sometimes we get lazy and forget to constantly be evaluating ourselves. As I grow in maturity as a Christian, my responsibility to live in a way that brings glory to God must grow as well. Sometimes that means turning off a show that I very much enjoy but serves no purpose in my life but to let my brain go to sleep for an hour.