Here’s an interesting article by ELVIS MITCHELL of The New York Times regarding violence in the movies:
Is the depiction of violence America’s most heavily exported cultural product? After the events of last Tuesday, the question hangs in the air. The issue of violence in movies was raised in Senate hearings last year and figured to some degree in the presidential campaign.
Now, after so many have compared last Tuesday’s disasters to events depicted in movies like “Independence Day,” we have to face the question of violence as our country’s cultural touchstone. If it’s not our native tongue heard in the movies that we send around the globe, then it’s the language we speak most ardently. The graphic image of the White House exploding in “Independence Day” has a frightening quality, and in hindsight, since the Bush administration has said the White House was a target of the terrorists, perhaps suggested the way to unlock the door to our national nightmares — a horror-movie symbolism that shows the power of a grand gesture.
It is possible to tick off similar scenes without much effort, even in a serious drama like “The Siege,” which doesn’t treat terrorism as little more than a a playground for action sequences. The televised images of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers will occupy our dreams as similar scenes in “Independence Day” do, only without the fictional hero coming to the rescue to salve our damaged psyches. The dirty little secret that never comes up when Congressmen and concerned adults get together to rail against violence in movies is how effective an entertainment device the action sequences in movies are. The debate about film violence is conducted without acknowledging a sad fact: violence creates genuine excitement. And the bold, sweeping inventiveness of action sequences, the one thing that American movies consistently do well, has grown over the years. The vicarious thrills deliver the kind of goose bumps that we used to experience by reading violent fairy tales. As a country, we’ve probably lived too long like children, listening in rapt wonderment to gruesome tales from the Brothers Grimm.
The action movie has supplanted the musical, and the vitality of the action sequences in a movie like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which moved the once marginal Hong Kong action film into the Oscar-nominated mainstream, can be as exhilarating as watching Fred Astaire float across the screen in “Follow the Fleet.”
The replacement of dance numbers by shooting and hand-to-hand battles can almost be traced to the shoot’em-up action parody Astaire performs in “The Band Wagon” — a balletic flair replicated by Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix.” A nonpareil action director like John Woo uses tension in an enclosed space the same way that great musical directors like Stanley Donen and Mark Sandrich did. The technique generates a similar anticipatory vibrancy.
Action and violence in the hands of a gifted filmmaker function like a dance number, offering a display of explicit physical exertion. Dance numbers in musicals served as a stand-in for the sweatiness of sex, since for a long time studios couldn’t show such encounters on the screen. The exuberant energy contained in on-screen violence appeals to young audiences because it stimulates them.
Classic depictions of action and violence can even stand alone like a musical number. When Quentin Tarantino used “Stuck in the Middle With You” by the group Stealer’s Wheel in a bloody sequence, he forever changed associations with that song. And that was just half a mile away from what Steven Spielberg did with the music strings in “Jaws.”
Some of the most remarkable filmed violence has an explicit quality that would not be allowed in depicting sex. In “Saving Private Ryan” there’s a horrifying scene of a young American soldier in a knife fight with a Nazi that has the unforgettable feel of a rape scene; the American is pleading for his life, and the German is angrily telling him to stop fighting and give in. In its precise ugliness, it may the closest thing to a sex scene that Mr. Spielberg has ever made and underscores the ease with which filmmakers can manipulate violence.
The scary fact no one admits is that the technology of violence improves every year, and the power of such scenes keep audiences roaring with excitement. Violence is the one area where big-budget mainstream movies have shown confidence; the only moments of assurance in an awkward jumble of a picture like “Swordfish” — which featured domestic terrorism as a plot gambit — came in the action. Its star was John Travolta, an actor with an extraordinary amount of physical confidence (so much so that it borders on arrogance) and an actor who initially found stardom in musicals like “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease” in the late 1970’s when the form was considered moribund.
A movie made with conviction in the straightforward and blood-soaked depiction of violence, as opposed to movies that manipulate it to crank up adrenaline levels, can still shock. When “The Wild Bunch” was rereleased a few years ago, the potency of Sam Peckinpah’s imagery did what it was supposed to do: stun, not numb. The picture received an NC-17 rating.
After the pain inflicted last week, many movie releases have been swept under the rug. The adaptation of the comic novel “Big Trouble” has been shelved at least until early next year. (A plot point is how easy it was for several of the book’s characters to gain access to potentially dangerous materials and transport them through airports.) The annual Arnold Schwarzenegger blood sport — the very title, “Collateral Damage,” comes from the phrase that sent a chill during Desert Storm — has been postponed indefinitely. This takes care of a question that the film industry won’t have to answer for a while: Who will be the next action hero whose name automatically draws the prized young audiences to movies again and again? It was Mr. Reeves in films like “Speed” and “The Matrix” — the latter made such a cultural impact that it inspired two high-budget sequels. What will happen to the “Matrix” sequels now?
And what will be the future of violence in the movie industry? The highest-grossing movies of all time are action-oriented, ranging from all four “Star Wars” movies, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and “Terminator 2” to “Armageddon,” “Jurassic Park” and “Independence Day.” (The No. 1 movie of all time is based on an era-defining disaster: “Titanic.” Last year’s Oscar winner for best picture was steeped in gore and blood oaths — “Gladiator.”)
When people claim that movie action is bad — and in many cases it is just that: thoughtless and childish, a reflexive and easy way to involve an audience — they tend to be immune to its allure, which is perhaps why they can never suggest an alternative. After all, it’s Jean-Luc Godard who noted that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.
Millions of dollars are at stake for the movie industry. As source material, violence sells overseas, splashes onto many genres, makes instant movie stars and has been with us from silent movies to the present.