If you've ever witnessed a fight (or been unfortunate enough to be involved in one) you'll know that violence is shocking. An audible fist-to-mouth thwack of a half-hearted punch is enough to stun a crowded, energetic bar into nervous silence. Witnessing someone forcibly shove someone else during the daily commute is enough to raise the heart rate and provide a "you won't believe what I saw" anecdote for the days (or weeks) that follow.
So why is it that Hollywood is nose-breaking, shin-splitting, roundhouse-kicking, forearm-smashing, bone-snapping, knife-plunging, pencil-blinding and head-crushing its way to billions at the box office? Violence, in all its forms, used to shock. Now, it sells. Cinema is painting the entertainment industry red with the blood of beaten and bruised protagonists who kill for fun — and we love it.
The rise of the ultra-graphic and the ultra-violent is undeniable. This year alone John Wick: Chapter 2 had an even higher bodycount than its predecessor with 127 kills; Logan released the shackles of a PG-13 rating in a brutal and graphic hit; The Belko Experiment envisioned a terrifying fight to the death. And there's much more brutality to come, with #KingsmanTheGoldenCircle and Atomic Blonde all on the agenda.
From Torture Porn To Funny Fights
Violence in cinema is nothing new, of course. Quentin Tarantino has been defending his excessive use of bloodshed for years, legendary director Stanley Kubrick was making films like A Clockwork Orange back in 1971, and Alfred Hitchcock was toying with audiences with scenes of shower-stabbings way back in 1960. In modern times, the wave of "torture porn" horror — including the likes of Saw (2004), Wolf Creek (2005) and Hostel (2005) — added a depraved twist by blending graphic, visceral violence with the horror genre.
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Although violence has been prevalent for decades, the audience's attitude toward aggression on the big screen is changing. Only five years ago, Tarantino lost his cool during an infamous interview with the UK's Channel 4 presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy in response to a question about whether he believed the violence in his films could have any link to real-life crime. Now, studios are making megabucks with films full of Tarantino-esque violence, including record breaker Deadpool, as well as the aforementioned #JohnWick and #Logan. What was once confined to the fringes has become the norm.
There's more to the shift in the consumption of readiness to digest graphic violence than meets the eye. Violence has been whittled down to an aesthetic tool, and what is most peculiar about the 2017 films mentioned above is that the violence contained in them is, more often than not, presented with a healthy dose of humor. Audiences are literally laughing in the face of violence, but what are the effects of this? Have audiences become fully desensitized?
Social Studies: Is Simulated Violence Good Or Bad For Us?
Two of the greatest philosophers to grace Earth held contrasting views on simulated violence. Plato was concerned that theatrical plays depicting violence could corrupt young minds, as for him, "reality" and "fantasy" are interlinked. Aristotle, on the other hand, felt that the depiction of violence was a cathartic process, one that purged the audience from unwanted, aggressive emotions.
Many studies have attempted to analyse whether watching aggressive acts has any impact of the psyche of those watching. Indeed, cinema is unlike any other art form; motion has the ability to strike a chord in a significant way as it's as close to real life as possible. Even those with the strongest of stomachs would feel a little queasy watching Gaspar Noé's ultra-graphic depiction of rape and later skull-smashing in Irréversible (2002), or a certain scene with a certain crucifix in Lars von Trier's Antichrist (2009).
The question is, does watching such types of media evoke similar behavior by desensitizing viewers? Although there has been no real conclusive evidence for or against this, there are a number of social theories on the subject — social learning theory, social cognitive theory, the catalyst model, and moral panic:
- Social learning theory: Psychologist Albert Bandura undertook a study known as the Boboo doll experiment in 1961, deducing that children learn aggressive behavior from watching others. However, there were numerous flaws with the study.
- Social cognitive theory: Building on the above, this is the theory that repeated viewing of violent media leads to the viewer becoming desensitized, and the level of disgust or anxiety around violence decreases, making such behavior more likely.
- The catalyst model: This is a more recent theory that claims that aggressive behavior is the result of genetics and early social influence. Consequently, violent media only acts as a catalyst to similar behavior in people predisposed to committing crimes regardless. The key here is that media has no impact on the motivation to commit such a crime.
- Moral panic: Finally, this is a more general theory that claims any new medium is met with a pre-existing, negative belief that can take decades to die down and be evaluated in a more rational manner.
Those within the industry have always had an interesting view on violence in cinema; Alfred Hitchcock said "violence for violence sake doesn't have any effect," Peter Bogdanovich bemoaned the "general numbing of the audience" as "the respect for human life seems to be eroding." In an interview with Screen Rant, Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn also identified an issue with violence:
"If you see too much of it, you start to disengage from it, and that’s where violence can become dangerous for the psyche, because it no longer has any meaning. Like people who get addicted to pornography, the sense of empathy and emotion start to deteriorate within them – it’s a frightening effect."
Furthermore, in an unconventional move, actor Jim Carrey openly distanced himself from Kick-Ass 2 following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, in which 20 children and six adults were fatally shot by Adam Lanza. In a tweet, Carrey — who is an active pro-gun control campaigner — tweeted:
"I did 'Kick-Ass 2' a month b4 Sandy Hook and now in all good conscience I cannot support that level of violence. My apologies to others involve[d] with the film. I am not ashamed of it but recent events have caused a change in my heart."
Violence Changes The Brain
Such studies are far from finding a conclusive answer. But if monitoring behavior is one thing, what about the brain? Well, a study by Indiana University School of Medicine took MRI scans of the brains of young men who had played violent video games for a week. They discovered that there were visible differences, with the prefrontal cortex — responsible for self-control and concentration — decreased, while the amygdala — anger, impulse, aggression — increased.
Plus, a study by Macquarie University Children and Families Research Centre discovered that a child's entire worldview can be altered by the consumption of violent media — the brain scans of children who had watched television violence appeared similar to those who had actually acted in a violent manner. Such studies prove that while we sit back and enjoy the thrill, violence is changing the structure of our brains.
However, in an Aristotelian contrast, the National Bureau of Economic Research undertook a 2008 study on crime statistics and box office admissions for a ten-year period between 1995 and 2004, discovering that violent crimes such as assault and intimidation were lower at busy box office periods for violent films. The surprising conclusion saw that "violent movies deter almost 1,000 assaults on an average weekend."
So if our brains change, but aggressive behavior decreases, is this proof that Aristotle's idea of "purging" was correct?
Violence: The Good, The Bad And The Beautiful
So what about the future? Is violence here to stay? Certainly, cinema is at a point where the depiction of graphic aggression is evolving, becoming stylized and even humorous, with a host of films of this ilk seeping into the mainstream.
John Wick builds over-the-top, larger-than-life wish-fulfilment into its fabric, stripping back any ounce of humanity from Wick's victims while portraying murder with style and grace. Although altogether different in genre, Logan (a wide-reaching superhero flick) features one of the most popular onscreen mutants, Wolverine, opening the door to brutality thanks to an R-rating. Director James Mangold doesn't hold back, featuring slow-mo shots of henchmen being sliced like kebabs, and X-23 — an 11-year-old serial killer.
Another highly-stylized movie, Kingsman: The Secret Service, kicked off with a plot that is borderline meta considering the context of the industry. The head villain, Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) seemingly undertakes a good deed by handing out free SIM Cards. However, it's revealed these cards release a tone that causes people to become inhumanely violent. Cue a scene where protagonist Harry Hart (Colin Firth) barbarically shoots unarmed church-dwellers as an overlapping rock track makes the whole thing as serious as an MTV music video. Make no mistake, in this instance, viewers are on Harry's side.
And then there's the trailer for the upcoming action flick #AtomicBlonde (from John Wick director David Leitch), which uses violence as a marketing tool in a manner which shrieks of exploiting the trend while it's hot. Further still, the film's promotional material takes titillation into overdrive, making sex and violence sensual siblings, with scenes intended to elicit the same excitable response.
Judging from the upward trend, things are set to stay this way with the depiction of combat, assault, and even murder becoming a stylistic device intended to excite audiences. Hollywood will continue to pack a punch as it treads the line between gratuitous violence and entertainment — as the violence-o-meter cranks up to 11, as our brains change, as the bodies hit the floor, as the blood spills, as we laugh.
Is there too much violence in cinema? Or is it all harmless fun?