Feedback: The culture of violence
Betsy Sharkey’s premise, “A Critic Says the Problem Isn’t the Movies but Real Life, Where Killing Is All Too Common,” is misguided and unrealistic [Feb. 17]. If killing and violence are all too common in real life, does producing more films, which seem to glorify gratuitous killing and violence, alleviate the problem? I don’t think so.
After all, fashion, sexual behavior and language in films seem to have an influential and imitative effect in people’s lives. Why would violence be exempt?
Sharkey claims that nothing she’s seen in movies comes close to what she’s witnessed firsthand. How can this be? In real life, one kick to the head could end a life, or most likely end the fight, but in films, a dozen kicks to the head seem to prolong a fight rather than end it.
We live in a culture of violence, and that culture is nurtured and glamorized by the movies. We can become only more inured to that violence and more violent as a society, because ultimately, life imitates art.
As a Vietnam-era Navy and county hospital-trained doctor and movie buff, I think Sharkey’s is the best-written piece I have seen in years in Calendar. I agree with her 100% that real-life violence (as we just witnessed with Christopher Dorner) is much worse than the buckets of stage blood on the big screen. Real-life violence is unscripted, not played out in front of a camera with predetermined endings. Anyone who has personally experienced extreme violence realizes that it has existed long before the first moving picture at the turn of the last century. Hollywood always tells us a story, and the bad guys always lose in the end.
Michael L. Friedman
Sharkey’s piece forced me to rethink my position. She makes good arguments about how violence in film serves a useful purpose and why we should accept it. I think it is also important to understand where the responsibility lies for violence in our schools, malls and streets. It is most likely not in the media, as the National Rifle Assn. would have us believe. A large share of the responsibility clearly lies with the gun manufacturers. And it should be noted that it is primarily these gun merchants that the NRA now serves.
The real reason that the movie and entertainment business is increasing the graphic depictions of violence is the bottom line. As the viewing public becomes more and more desensitized to gore, murder and mayhem, the industry must increase the level of its output. Sharkey maintains that the problem is that it is the “art” that is in jeopardy. If she wants to be exhilarated, enriched and able to vicariously experience violence, I feel alarmed and saddened for her.
Sharkey’s contention that her exposure to real-world violence as a police reporter informs her lack of offense to film violence asserts that witnessing the appalling effects of violence upon the human body is the same as viewing the commission of the acts that caused them. It isn’t. The experience of viewing a photograph of a homicide victim is by no means the same experience as viewing documentary footage of the killing taking place. The photograph produces any number of emotional reactions but fails to produce the adrenalized thrill of watching the act itself.
The films Sharkey cites are, indeed, serious and artistic films whose makers are aware of their content and its thematic applications. Those films are the minority of Hollywood’s product, however; most films contain mindless violence aspiring to catharsis but achieving little more than titillation. More troubling than mankind’s endless commission of violent acts may well be its ability to derive entertainment from watching them.
For a woman who “abhor[s] violence,” Sharkey seems giddy about the amount of violence she gets to see in the movies. From her insider position as a film critic, living in symbiosis with the movie industry, she seems to forget that the vast majority of moviegoers are not critics worried about the filmmaker’s “responsibility ... to the art.” They are young people who are as easily influenced by the actions of a movie as they are by the commercials shown during a television show. Advertisers willingly pay for those commercials because they work — they change how people act. To casually assume that a person watching violence and gore in a movie won’t be negatively affected by it is to become a citizen of the alternative reality created by movies.
I agree with Sharkey that Hollywood isn’t to blame, in general, for the violence in American society. But I think it’s complicit in one area — and that is in making so many films where the “hero” endures many real or imagined threats from others and retaliates (in a fit of rage) by mowing down all his perceived enemies in a bloody massacre. I think these films contribute to a national folk-hero illusion that having a gun and killing people can solve problems. Because that view kind of prevails in our society, not only the mentally unstable but also the emotionally troubled can seize on this idea of mass slaughter as a way to get resolution.
What nonsense! There is a book I would recommend to Sharkey, “On Killing” by Dave Grossman, an Army psychologist. He describes how the Army changed its training after World War II to reduce the number of infantrymen who did not fire their weapons in combat. It seems that a quarter of men in combat did not fire their weapons, even though they did not run away and often did their duty to assist others. How did the Army change training? By altering the experience to resemble present-day computer games and movies. For target practice, they stopped using simple targets and began to use pop-up targets that looked like men and that popped up suddenly and at closer range. The reactions of soldiers were altered to require less thought and more reflex.
It’s remarkable that your feature on “The Culture of Violence” managed to avoid any reference to numerous studies showing that watching violence can make children more aggressive. The American Medical Assn., the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and the National Institute of Mental Health all recommend that a child’s exposure to violent entertainment be minimized. The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a seven-year study in which economics, alcohol abuse and availability of firearms were all invalidated as a contributor to the increased rate of violence, except for television. They concluded that approximately half of the homicides and rapes committed in the U.S. were directly related to violence shown as “entertainment.”
James M. Winterroth
Kudos, guns ... and a request
Thanks so much for your very informative focus on violence in our culture. We surely have a long way to go to understand, much less mitigate it, but your various pieces reassure me that I’m not alone in my failure to understand the appeal of and reasons for violence, whether in real life or in movies, nor in my desire to try to understand.
Kudos to Calendar for a sociology course on the relationships between violence and films and TV, or not. “The Culture of Violence” is real and has risen to the forefront of the public’s psyche with Sandy Hook and other killings.
Betsy Sharkey and Susan King list examples of violence as “The Godfather,” “Apocalypse Now,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Reservoir Dogs,” all physically violent and psychologically disturbing.
Contrarily, I await a Calendar special on “The Culture of Happiness,” which would examine the link between films espousing social harmony, self-esteem and personal achievement, resulting perhaps in our happiness. A list might include “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Zorba the Greek,” “Life Is Beautiful,” “The Artist,” “Win, Win” and “The King’s Speech.”
That violence is pervasive in society and the media is a fact, and the chicken-and-egg argument that surrounds it will no doubt go on for a long time. Clearly, we are capable of great violence and cruelty. Just as clearly, we are drawn to it and fascinated by it in storytelling of all kinds. Movies, comics, video games, print, no doubt they have an effect of some sort on behavior; yet it is also true that Jack the Ripper predates the Lumière brothers.
That all being said, it is curious that a new TV program, “The Americans,” though reviewed and discussed extensively in terms of the main characters’ subtle dance of being deeply embedded Soviet spies in 1981 America, is advertised on billboards by a picture of its two stars prominently displaying .45 automatics. No movie or TV print promo ever misses an opportunity to display a gun where the logic can remotely be twisted to include one. In the days of “Mad Men,” it was “sex sells.” Apparently, today, guns do too.
Interpretation of everyday life?
Christopher Knight seems to imagine that Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece had “a benign purpose” and represents “an act of compassion” [“Shocking, Yet Comforting,” Feb. 17]. There are museums in France and Spain, as in Vézelay and Ronda, featuring permanent exhibitions of torture machines, used daily by the Inquisition almost up to the French Revolution. The last auto-da-fé public burning of a Jew after torture and “compassionate” conversion to Christ’s ministry took place in Lima in 1745, although it was more or less going on in Europe long after Grünewald worked. In short, his horrific images were really an interpretation, symbolically, of everyday life throughout Europe. Crazed Americans with guns are not to be equated with the systematic violence of imperial states and the contemporary Vatican, though it is invoked on TV by Islam’s clerics.
Professor emeritus of
modern English and
American literature, UCLA
The car-gun argument
My heart bleeds as much as Dan Baum’s does, maybe more [“One of the Gun Guys,” Feb. 17]. Like Baum, I earnestly seek to engage in rational, calm discussion about gun control. Put aside for a moment that, though well-regulated, car ownership and use are not constitutionally protected. What I wish to understand is how, in the first instance, there is any basis on which to compare the societal worth of cars and guns in the context of gun control.
Cars areabsolutely necessary to modern commerce and society. As any number of gunless societies have proved, guns are not necessary, much less absolutely necessary, outside of war or law enforcement by law enforcement personnel.
Elizabeth Daley sounds like a K Street lobbyist — glib answers that deflect any responsibility for the entertainment industry to examine its role in promoting violent behavior, hiding behind the 1st Amendment, blaming everything on guns, giving lame statistics to back up her points [The Sunday Conversation, Feb. 17]. Her interview would qualify her for a seat at the table with the lobbyists in the satirical movie “Thank You for Smoking.”
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