Can You (And Should You) Cinematically Desensitize Yourself?

It started with a conversation I was having with my friend Robert about Salo. You’d be surprised how many ideas for articles arise from discussing this film. Not so many dinner plans, though. Makes sense for a film subtitled 120 Days of Sodom. Anyway, being avid film lovers, we agreed Salo was a film we were glad we had seen despite the inability to ever be able to “unwatch” it. We love film, and we love the notion we could sit through and appreciate a movie like Salo despite the graphic imagery therein.

This spiraled the conversation into other films that our desensitized minds could handle, films we could observe from a film-lover or even a critical perspective even though they had imagery that could not be unseen. An hour later, we had disgusted ourselves to the point of seppuku, we went our merry separate ways, but a lingering idea was stuck in my head. Amidst all the onerous images I had conjured back into my mind from years and years of watching whatever whenever, a nugget of a question remained.

It was basically this: As a film connoisseur, can you desensitize yourself for the sake of cinematic appreciation?

Of course, the idea of desensitization is nothing new. Naturalistic violence for the sake of either entertainment or something more symbolic has been occurring in front of people’s eyes since before film even existed. Oppressive imagery was a staple of the Grand Guignol in 19th Century Paris. Violent images have been depicted in film since the beginning, and the modern culture has become so desensitized to much of it anyway that it is now a common thread in many mainstream films.

Look at the movies in wide release right now. Much of what’s playing in thousands of cineplexes across the nation depict extreme violence of some form or another. Movies like Super, Hobo With a Shotgun, and Scream 4 all depict extreme violence to a varying degree of sobriety. Even the current slate of comedies – Paul and Your Highness to be specific – incorporate gore in some way.

But it’s more than just blood and guts. In recent years, films like A Serbian Film and Antichrist have created paramount film-related controversy. While both of those films do include their own brands of bloody gore, it’s more than wall-to-wall violence and decapitations that makes them so contentious. Psychological? Sure, but it’s in their depictions of certain physical violence, too, that makes them targets for some critics who feel they have a moral obligation to dissuade movie lovers from ever watching them.

And this gets back to the question at hand. If you are a film lover, if you are someone who wants to see every film that comes down the pike regardless of content, do you or even can you desensitize yourself to the point where films like Antichrist, Irreversible, and, yes, Salo don’t have you instantly hitting the eject button on your DVD player? For the sake of the art you love to consume, do you watch anything that comes before you so the next time something like Visitor Q comes up, you will have no qualms in taking in that film’s particular brand of nastiness?

It’s not a question of being disturbed. There’s a knee-jerk reaction that can’t be helped, and everyone has their threshold for being unnerved. No one can be completely numb to everything they see depicted in film. That’s what makes us human, the uncontrollable discomfort that comes from something like the rape scene in Irreversible or the final reel of A Serbian Film.

But, and this goes back to the idea of forcing desensitization on one’s self, does someone who can sit through those scenes, finish that film, and watch it from an analytical eye become a better lover of the art form simply because they can? Are you more of a connoisseur of cinema than someone who instantly turns the movie off when extreme violence comes into play or even someone who doesn’t watch it in the first place knowing what may be in store for them? Does that make you more of a film lover than someone who can’t even hack an episode of CSI, because it’s too graphic?

These are just questions, and I don’t claim to have the answers to them. I’m not the foremost expert on what makes someone more a film fan than anyone else. However, it does bring up an interesting point about the idea of the connoisseur. If a connoisseur is someone who has vast knowledge of the art form at hand, should they shut any aspect of that art form out? If not, how much desensitization must they endure to keep their passion for that art form alive?

I know, more questions. Let us know what you think below then go watch a Gaspar Noe film. Maybe something lighter like Miike.

Jeremy's been writing about movies for a good, 15 years, starting with the film review column of his high school newspaper. He stands proud as the first person in his high school to have seen (and recommend) Pulp Fiction. Jeremy went on to get a B.A. in Cinema and Photography with a minor in journalism. His experience and knowledge of film is aided by the list of 6600 films he has seen in his life (so far). Jeremy's belief is that there are no bad films, just unrealized possibilities. Except Batman and Robin. That shit was awful.

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