Screen violence: the tide turns: The Hollywood dream factory is now a nightmare, say critics who accuse it of peddling horrific brutality. Cal McCrystal reports
Sunday 14 March 1993
The answer, in both cases, would appear to be no. Apart from the Prime Minister's recent suggestion that screen violence begets street violence, our political masters seem relaxed about screen cannibalism. It was the Secretary of State for Defence, Malcolm Rifkind, who casually remarked, on BBC Television's Question Time last week, that he had been introduced to The Silence of the Lambs by his 14-year- old son. No one on the panel expressed surprise that a film to which only 18- year-olds and over should have access had been viewed prematurely.
The boy is not alone: on the day Mr Rifkind made his disclosure, the Daily Mirror interviewed an 11-year-old girl who had watched the horror film 200 times, remaining composed about the flesh-eating villain, Hannibal Lecter. 'I like the way his mind works,' she explained.
Most film critics, too, are sanguine. There are notable exceptions: the American Michael Medved says in a new book, Hollywood vs America, that the Hopkins film served no discernible artistic purpose 'beyond horrifying and titillating the movie-going audience'; Alexander Walker, of London's Evening Standard, wrote the other day that the Oscar won by Hopkins 'for playing one of the most debauched human monsters ever seen on the cinema screen' should be returned to Hollywood.
By and large, however, the industry and its acolytes have either ignored the alarm bells or responded to them with disdain. Does this mean there is not much to worry about? Leaving cannibalism aside, have we become impervious to the increasingly grotesque violence erupting from our cinema screens and high-street video shops?
Last week, I had a chance to study my own reactions. In Reservoir Dogs, men of limited vocabulary and intelligence taunt and whack one another with expletives in the way children do at school. Indeed, these grown-ups are portrayed as overgrown boys. They shout, strut, bully and test one another, until at one stage their gang boss actually reprimands them thus: 'You guys like to tell jokes and giggle and kid around, eh? Like a bunch of broads in the schoolyard]'
In subsequent scenes the lads apply torture in large measure to several victims, one of whom is told: 'All you can do is pray for a quick death, which (pause) you ain't gonna get.' His ear is then sliced off and he is soaked with petrol.
During a robbery, a bank manager is threatened with the amputation of a finger, then a thumb, and finally a trip 'to ladies' underwear' (minus his testicles). The whole idea seems to be to make one laugh at butchery.
Since I had been warned about Reservoir Dogs, I was neither terribly shocked nor especially titillated. Unease came chiefly from inability to decide if the film mirrored a section of society (often the stated justification for making such movies) or if a section of society would be inspired to mirror the film.
I then rented, among others, Robocop II (for 18-year-olds) and Terminator II (15-year-olds). Both were disturbing in that they placed sub-teenage boys at the centre of extraordinary violence. In the former, a boy aged 10 to 12 throttles a policewoman while shouting, 'You're going to run out of breath, bitch]' There are scenes showing swarms of children looting shops and assaulting the elderly in a society where honest authority has all but vanished. Satirical intent may be detected, though possibly not by today's young.
After interminable slaughter in Terminator II comes a 'sense of hope' from the heroine that because a Terminator 'can learn the value of human life, perhaps we can too'. Given earlier jokey dialogue over human limbs that have been mangled or severed, it is hard to judge how many viewers would absorb this pious message.
The Robocop and Terminator films are critiques of a society that has ceased to function properly, rather than proposals on how social reconstruction might take place. Therein, for officialdom, may lie genuine cause for concern. The films depict and sometimes seem to encourage anarchy; an intense, childlike rebelliousness that regards the act of rejection as a moral region of its own. It might be argued that some of these films are about individuals winning against the anonymity and standardisation of monstrous urban neighbourhoods where affections are thwarted, wasted or betrayed. It might also be argued that they appeal to nihilism, now running through society at worrying levels.
But however one interprets them and analyses their impact on us, they finally are the subject of debate of an intensity rare for the entertainment industry.
In Hollywood itself, yet another violent film, Falling Down, so brutal that at first all major studios balked at making it, is exposing raw nerves. It is about an ordinary man who becomes maddened by modern life and takes a machine-gun to things and people he finds irritating. Sections of American audiences have whooped and stamped their feet in approval as the madman (played by Michael Douglas) runs amok.
A review in the New Yorker described the film as 'a wolf in sheep's clothing: a crude vigilante picture disguised as social satire. . . . If the audience, caught up in the excitement of watching the hero beat up an Asian shopkeeper or induce a heart attack in a country-club fat cat, were to miss the picture's subtle satiric content, the film-makers would, I suspect, be able to live with it.' And what if it bred copycats?
Responding angrily to this question, the producer, Arnold Kopelson, has been quoted as saying: 'Listen, the crazies are out there. I have made a movie that touches nerves. Some people are offended, but this is what's out there on the streets, not just of LA but all over the world.' Less angrily, Michael Douglas declares: 'The first responsibility is to entertain.'
But other actors are twitchy. Sir Anthony Hopkins last week expressed doubts about making a sequel to The Silence of the Lambs. Jack Nicholson told the Independent he thinks 'films should inform you about life, not just show violence. I worry about where movies are going'. Michael Caine feels that screen violence is 'definitely related' to a rise in violent crime. Clint Eastwood and Richard Dreyfuss are scratching their chins and agonising.
These self-doubts are not new - the American director Stanley Kubrick years ago withdrew A Clockwork Orange from circulation - but they are being more vehemently revealed.
I asked one of Britain's most distinguished directors, Sir Richard Attenborough, what he thought. 'I do deplore the pornography of gratuitous violence,' he said. 'Precisely what effect that has on the social scene is open to enormous conjecture. But I would find it impossible to dismiss the contention that it has a bearing.
'Years ago a ghastly piece of violence shocked one - Psycho and A Clockwork Orange - but now we are inured and young people no longer react in that way to something extraordinary like that.'
In Sir Richard's view, the 'terrible danger' lies in violent cinema's challenge to 'idle hands and thoughts' in an environment of unemployment and inadequate housing. 'It would be appalling to bring in some form of censorship, but we film producers do have a responsibility. There are things I see on the screen I wouldn't wish to be a party to. Indeed, I don't go to movies or watch television where gratuitous violence is shown. And anyone who attempts to say that these reflect society are hypocrites. They make these films because a fortune can be taken from the worst elements of human depravity.'
Not all his British colleagues are so impassioned. The director Lindsay Anderson is sceptical of the renewed Hollywood controversy and of Hollywood vs America: 'Hollywood is aware of a relatively young audience which goes for something more sensational. It's what one expects in the world as it exists at the moment. It is a fuss to sell newspapers. I wouldn't take Medved terribly seriously.'
Last week, the Sunday Times invited Mr Medved to London to debate the issue with the director Michael Winner, producer David Puttnam, and Josephine Hart, author of Damage (now a film containing 'rough sex'). His arguments did not impress everyone, but some are pretty persuasive none the less.
Earlier, I asked him if clear evidence connected screen violence and street violence. He said that after The Deerhunter was shown on US television, 26 suicides from Russian roulette were recorded, thought to be related to a scene in the film. One of the author's gurus, the American criminologist James Q Wilson, had written that fear was probably the most important cause of the rising crime rate. Fear caused people to leave the streets to the criminals, with the inevitable result that criminality reigned and nothing could be done about it. 'It's the same with the cinema and television; the idea that the only kind of art worth creating today is that which is shocking, brutal and nihilistic.'
His book claims, however, that this inert acceptance may be coming to an end, and that the US's 'long-running romance with Hollywood is over . . . The dream factory has become the poison factory'. Mr Medved believes Hollywood set out to attack and undermine Mom, apple-pie, religion and other props in US culture because the industry believed these were less profitable than their antitheses. In pursuing this revolution, he says, Hollywood made a tragic error: whereas many gratuitously violent films were box office failures, more wholesome offerings, such as Oliver, Funny Girl, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Chariots of Fire, were winners.
A counter-revolution may be starting to bite. Hollywood's error was even conceded the other day by Mark Canton, the chairman of Columbia. He said that while research showed that films to which parents could bring their six- and seven-year-old children were three times more likely to gross dollars 100m than R-rated (restricted) fare for 18-year- olds, 58 per cent of films are R-rated.
According to Mr Medved, Hollywood 'toxins' include assaults on the family, the 'glorification of ugliness', poking fun at clergymen, an infatuation with foul language, and addiction to violence. He quotes David Puttnam, producer of Chariots of Fire: 'As you move around Hollywood in any reasonably sophisticated group, you'll find it quite difficult to come across people who are proud of the movies that are being made.' Insularity and nepotism in Hollywood are to blame for this state of affairs. Mr Medved said: 'Sons follow their fathers into the industry - the president of MGM is Alan Ladd Jr - and these people have never known anything but Hollywood. One of the things that led me to write this book was the level of anger from ordinary Americans. Film critics, on the other hand, have lost their capacity to be shocked. They're part of the problem.'
But while he rails convincingly against the film industry, he acknowledges the difficulty in identifying certain films as triggers of street violence and other crime. This is not surprising. Professor Donald West, of the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge University, says much of the research has been done in artificial conditions. Students who filled in questionnaires within half an hour of viewing a violent film might have different feelings about it two days, or two weeks later. Besides, 'there are so many fluctuations going on in society that might cause a change in people's violent habits'.
Dr James McKeith, a forensic psychiatrist at Maudsley Hospital in London, who has interviewed three British serial killers, thinks the causal relationship may not be capable of proper research. But he has been struck by the fact that since the production of Night Stalker, a film about a New York serial killer, several non-fiction books on serial killings have appeared in airport bookshops.
It was 'interesting' that people wanted to entertain themselves with such material, he said. 'Serial killers are depicted as an interesting topic, whereas it is something disgusting and worrying. I really wonder what it means to have a society in which there is a significant industry based on this extremity of the human experience.'
The Reagan years produced that President's favourite film, Rambo, a work of unfettered, gratuitous violence, copied by many studios since. It ushered in an era of movie iconoclasm which audiences seemed to welcome, or at least tolerate. That era is ending. If Hollywood, in its insularity, fails to acknowledge this and proceeds with such planned films as Boxing Helena (in which a doctor amputates the limbs of a woman patient and keeps the rest of her in a box for his future sexual gratification), then it will be biting off its nose to spite its face.
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