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Filmism.net Dispatch July 9, 2020

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This time in the Filmism.net Dispatch I'm going to introduce a two-parter. It's adapted from an essay I wrote awhile ago I never found a suitable home for, but this newsletter couldn't be a better place for it.

It's about two of the central tenets of filmed entertainment, an idea thinkers from Jean-Luc Godard (who said 'all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun') to Pauline Kael (who characterised most movies with the phrase 'kiss kiss, bang bang', a line so evocative it became the title of a subsequent movie) have championed. I'm talking about sex and violence, and I decided to write down some thoughts on our relationship to both in movies. First up, violence.

From the time we can crawl we're given very complicated messages about violence. Voices of caring authority from parents to teachers constantly tell us violence is wrong, but from the time we go to the movies, watch TV or notice the foreign policy of a geopolitical superpower, we learn very differently.

Entertainment doesn't only tell us violence is okay, it teaches us it's necessary in a world with so many bad guys and threats. Every hero has his antagonist, and the antagonist - by the very nature of the word - must be fought. The way to fight him in a lot of movies, books and TV is with violence.

A good starting point is to examine how we react to real violence. Even though we willingly suspend disbelief in a movie theatre and react with fear, surprise, romantic longing or excitement, we inherently know nobody's really being hurt.

But no matter what political wowsers who want to ban video games tell you, we're not nearly as desensitised to real violence as we think. If we ever witness violence in the real world we quickly realise how scary and upsetting it can be. If we're of sound mind, most of us only commit violence in fits of heightened emotion or mania - we actually have a very strong in-built abhorrence against committing or seeing it.

Yet violence on screens and in pages is doled out so casually we're completely inured to it. We've all read the story of how many murders a child has seen on TV by age five, but how many of us have seen murders (or even violent death) in real life? It can be extremely traumatic for those who have. People still have nightmares about 9/11, and with good reason.

Our natural state of being repulsed by violence emerged from a distant past where our ancestors learned to protect themselves and tribe-mates from harm. Proto-humans who indiscriminately bashed enemies for every sleight or laughed as others were dragged to their deaths by sabre tooth cats wouldn't have survived in an environment where being part of a group was your only chance.

Some anthropologists think violence still has a critical place in the last few primitive societies left. And stories from the oldest tales told around campfires to Hollywood blockbusters understand why it's so enduring. If life had always been perfectly safe for humanity, what would there be to get our hearts racing in excitement, bringing us truly alive?

You've seen Edgewalk on Toronto's CN Tower, where a harness tethers you to the wall but you can lean out over the plunging drop below? Why do we pay to do stuff like that? The same reason we play sports, gamble, travel into space and a million other risky pursuits. Even though a lot of uniquely human activities have social, economic and ultimately survival utility, many of them were born out of the drive for sheer excitement.

When we bought down a rampaging auroch on the plains to feed the tribe, we sat around gleefully recounting the thrust of a spear, the swish of dangerous horns, the enraged tramping of the huge animal.

Movies and TV know just as well as those ancient campsite storytellers how exciting violence is, and they exploit it to the fullest. But modern media is unique in that it doesn't have to describe the most thrilling circumstances we can imagine, it can show them to us through elaborately (and increasingly realistic) staged illusions. What's more, we give ourselves up to those illusions willingly, knowing we're safe in a dark cinema or curled up in our bed with a book.

But something else changed in history that made our relationship to staged violence shift. During the 20th century we industrialised violence, realising the extent of the slaughter we could wreak thanks to our intelligence. In doing so we made violence a two-sided coin.

Prior to the industrialisation of violence, war was a tool of social relations that ensured survival of the fittest no less than any other evolutionary trait, but only human ingenuity gave us the power to wield violence to the point of genocide.

Violence grew bigger. Darker. Deadlier. What had been two people fighting in the jungle with sticks or rocks could now be the push of a button or the stroke of a pen wiping out millions. This isn't a treatise on loving each other and world peace, but somewhere we became aware of what a bad thing violence was, and until we gained such terrible dominion over it we might have considered it as much a part of the human condition as love or humour.

You can see the overlap in the media today. Violence in entertainment can be either fun or terrible and if you look carefully, sometimes you can spot the inherent tension between the two. If it's a fun movie like an 80s action flick, the violence will be gleefully unapologetic. If it's a serious movie like a domestic violence drama, treating violence so flippantly becomes tasteless and offensive.

Take the war movie. Most of the genre was about pure adventurism, recognition and glory bestowed upon the heroes for the violence they commit against an enemy who deserves it for its inherent evil.

No matter how intelligent the scripts were for movies like Where Eagles Dare, The Guns of Navarone, the Indiana Jones movies (not strictly war movies, but depicting the Nazis as deserving of violence nonetheless) and The Sands of Iwo Jima, they were rough and tumble action stories, purebred heroes cleansing the world at the barrel of a gun with a completely clear conscience.

Violence against the enemy was welcome and even fun, a sentiment parodied by Paul Verhoeven in 1997's Starship Troopers, where the enemies of the pure-bred race of heroes were literal insects - an attribution used in plenty of real-world warfare to justify the slaughter of perceived enemies from European Jews to the Tutsi of Rwanda.

But there was another kind of war movie that gained visibility with All Quiet on the Western Front and became more and more popular towards the end of the 20th century. Movies like The Thin Red Line, Flags of Our Fathers and Saving Private Ryan depicted the killing of German and Japanese soldiers as grimly (and the results as heartbreaking) as those of Allied soldiers.

Even the Western - a genre very much steeped in violence - wasn't immune. Clint Eastwood, who'd killed his share of Nazis for wholesome family entertainment in Where Eagles Dare, mused in Unforgiven about how killing isn't to be taken so lightly, countering the wisdom of decades where shooting the guy in the black hat at high noon was the noble thing to do.

It might also be the case that most of the films from the war-is-hell school (particularly those made after World War II had actually happened) came from Europe. Right up until Vietnam, war was seen, and sold, in America as something brave boys embarked on like a weekend of hunting or sports, the homeland untouched by the hordes swarming across Europe.

Of course, action movies fell victim to real events too. In the immediate post September 11 era, many films were either embarrassingly out of touch or took on new and urgent relevance when it came to depicting threats on America's own soil. The previously unshakable cultural certainty about being safe at home was badly bruised, and it changed the outlook of foreign adventure most American movies until then had used to portray armed combat.

Another facet of our love of movie violence might be a cultural expression of our collective belief in a higher power. Even if you're an atheist, you live as part of a species that puts stock in supernatural entities acting as the ultimate arbiter of justice in a universe that seems anything but just. Artistic entertainment is a very carefully structured vessel to leave us in little doubt about who deserves violence, and we trust the writer or creator the same way we trust God (whatever that means to you) to see into all our hearts, discern true good and true evil and reward or punish it appropriately.

In movies, the villain and hero and clear, even if from only the subtlest of clues, and Hollywood has spent 100 years laying down the templates for showing the difference through the portrayals of things like hurting children, women and animals, helping those less fortunate, flaunting riches and a hundred other social touchstones by which we've been taught to judge each other.

Where the tension between violence being fun and traumatic is overcome (and where fun wins out, like in the action movie), entertainment tells us violence is okay because of our innate hope that the people who get it deserve it.

Think about how easily we accept it when the hero has to kill the villain and his minions, an act most of our society forbids and which most of us could never be coaxed into doing (and which has led to the popular meme about how many innocent civilians and contractors were killed in the destruction of the two Death Stars.

And if you're unsure of the power of the deserving violence narrative, look at how many times it's bled over into real life. When news emerged that American commandos had infiltrated a compound in Pakistan, found and killed Osama bin Laden, the mood was one of justice served, not whether a handful of soldiers killing a guy and dumping him at sea was preferable to the due process of extraditing him to America to face trial. And that was under a progressive government, no less.

If we ever see violence against women or children in entertainment, it's probably what the story's actually about and will almost never be portrayed as the 'fun' kind of violence except if it's in extremely poor taste. But real life is full of violence and mistreatment against women and children. Who'd torture or kill a little kid, movies ask us? Plenty of sick, unhinged or desperate people, the evening news answers.

Maybe the way we respond to violence in entertainment and media versus the way we respond to it in real life is a good thing. To the balanced mind, violence should be abhorrent, and watching Stallone or Schwarzenegger blow away a room full of the bad guy's goons when we're already sure they deserve it is the modern equivalent of talking about the crashing hooves of a woolly mammoth later than night, safely back at camp.

Recently on social distance-approved movie viewings (ie at home), I'm a big fan of Rebecca Hall, and her portrayal in Christine of tragic 1970s Florida newscaster Christine Chubbuck was as nuanced, complex and human as any film character you've seen in recent years. It was also great to see Eddie Murphy come back to adult entertainment in Dolemite is My Name.

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