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Sex & Low Beach
by Annie Wang
If there is one way to make Quentin Tarantino defensive, it’s to question the violence in his films. The director’s latest movie, Django Unchained, hit theaters this past December, and in the trademark style of Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, and Reservoir Dogs, it contains a fair amount of bloodshed.
In an interview with a reporter, Tarantino explained why it’s ok to enjoy violence in films: “It’s a movie. It’s a fantasy ... You go and you watch a kung-fu movie and one guy takes on a hundred people in a restaurant. That’s fun.” The interviewer pressed Tarantino further, asking him whether there was a link between violence on-screen and off. Instantly enraged, he replied, “Don’t ask me a question like that. I’m not biting. I refuse your question.”
Tarantino’s reaction was immature, and his attempt to dodge blame irresponsible. But more importantly, the interview was representative of a larger national reluctance to consider the relationship between violence on-screen and in the real world.
This conversation between art and society has unfolded over several decades. In the 1980s, Tipper Gore campaigned to mark albums with explicit stickers in order to protect children from lyrical vulgarity. After the killings at Columbine in 1999, Marilyn Manson’s music was blamed for inspiring the shooters’ violence. And now, after the devastating mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., our popular entertainment is once again being subjected to attack.
The National Rifle Association suggested a connection between violent art and violent action in the statement it released one week after the tragedy in Newtown. At a press conference Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA said, “There exists in this country a callous, corrupt, and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows violence against its own people, through vicious, violent video games.” He added, “Then there’s the blood-soaked slasher films like American Psycho and Natural Born Killers that are aired like propaganda loops on ‘Splatterdays,’ and every day a thousand music videos that portray life as a joke and murder as a way of life. And then they have the nerve to call it entertainment.”
These comments incited a renewed discussion of the ramifications of violent films. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former California governor and star of a slew of popular, gore-filled movies such as The Terminator, has taken a different position on the issue. “I personally feel that this is entertainment. The other thing is a serious real-life tragedy,” said Schwarzenegger.
Schwarzenegger occupies an interesting position. One might expect the Governator, involved in both politics and entertainment, to bring a unique perspective to the issue of the real-life ramifications of on-screen violence. But his response—that Hollywood is merely a business, existing in a vacuum—resembles LaPierre’s statement in its simplicity. When we read responses like these from people who wield extraordinary influence, we are left feeling duped. Both provide arguments that are, on some level, logical. LaPierre’s descriptions of the grisly violence packaged in entertainment and marketed to youth make us cringe. No one feels comfortable with the idea of children seeing depictions of murder or of “killing” people with the click of a video game controller. Schwarzenegger’s words are equally as persuasive. Everyone enjoys entertainment, and no one wants to be told what to watch. Censorship is un-American. But both these sides of the debate ignore more important issues about violence in our society.
The random act of violence in Sandy Hook, commited against innocent children and adults, came as a huge shock to the nation. What was the shooter’s motivation? How can this be prevented in the future? Understandably, we wanted answers. The ability to identify a specific cause and look to political processes to cure our societal evils would be comforting in the face of such uncertainty. During the vigil for the Sandy Hook tragedy, President Barack Obama argued that immediate political action was necessary, even in response to a complex issue. “No single law—no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society. But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this,” the president said.
A majority of Americans (52 percent) now support stricter regulations on gun ownership, but we continue to wonder whether legislation alone can guarantee a reduction in future violence. Jeffrey Bland, the founder and president of Seattle’s Personalized Lifestyle Medicine Institute, believes that access to guns is not what drives regular acts of violence in the United States. In an article in the Huffington Post, Bland wrote, “There have been 29 mass shootings in the United States between the events of April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School and the Dec. 14, 2012 tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I propose these shootings were, in part, a health-care issue.” Bland’s piece speculates that the recurrent shootings stem from inadequate mental health services. This view renders the fight for gun control as an initiative that is temporarily advantageous, but ultimately ineffective—a mere Band-Aid placed over a gushing wound. Guns can be taken away, but the underlying pathos remains. When we realize that we, as a nation, have violent impulses, we most begin to scrutinize our culture.
It could be argued that our obsession with violence is the result of a society that has been desensitized through an overabundance of images. We need gore to satisfy our ever-waning attention spans. In this era of instant gratification—of Google searches, texting, and study drugs—the media fully exploits our fascination with the grim. Some of our most beloved TV shows include Showtime’s Dexter, a crime drama about a blood-spatter analyst who moonlights as a serial killer, and CBS’s CSI, where murders are analyzed in all their gruesome detail. Even apart from crime dramas, many of today’s most widely-watched programs fixate on death and revel in regular bloodshed. There is always someone being offed on Breaking Bad. The perished outnumber the living in zombie thriller The Walking Dead.
Not all of these depictions of violence can be grouped together: Some examples of violence in movies and television are more gratuitous than others. Some violence is shown for the purpose of telling a story, of reflecting real scenarios. Other images of violence are not as sophisticated; it is simply violence for the sake of violence, used to pull in a voyeuristic audience. But this trivialized, glamorized brand of violence is fun to watch. Under normal circumstances, it would be easy to side with Schwarzenegger’s viewpoint that these programs are purely entertaining, and nothing more. However, when murder happens in movie theaters and elementary schools, the on-screen violence becomes more sinister. The shootings of recent years have forced us to look at our culture more critically, to consider how what we see impacts who we are.
Vice President Joe Biden sat down with entertainment industry representatives in January to discuss this connection between what we see and what we do. Chris Dodd, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America, also attended. Dodd rejected the idea of forced regulations on content and instead proposed that there should be better information about films so that parents can individually decide what their children watch.
It appears that any changes in content will have to be made voluntarily rather than by force. It will be up to Hollywood to tone down the violence. Filmmakers, like Tarantino, possess the power of cultural production. They will either have to stifle their creative impulses and produce less violent content, or ignore popular concern and risk disapproval from those who believe that our images inspire our behavior.
But the idea that psychotic behavior can be induced from a single external influence—from a movie, a book, a song on the radio—is reductive. Blaming a single artist is taking the easy way out; it ignores, and thus excuses, society’s role in creating criminals. It would be refreshing to turn the question around, and to contemplate why we, as a culture, have such a taste for violence. Clearly, an audience for violent movies and TV shows exists. If it’s true that humans naturally have a fondness for this sort of content, is it wrong that our art depicts that reality? If we’re a culture in decline, should that not be reflected in our media? It’s a tricky question. Even if movies are simply reflecting a pre-existent penchant for cruelty, we have to consider whether it’s responsible for filmmakers to provoke these darker human emotions for the sake of commercial success. It remains to be seen whether artistic integrity can survive in a world where violence is used to titillate and exploit the public.
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