Is the sanitization of cinematic violence what makes us numb to it?
I remember the first time I ever, intentionally, broke something. Not an accident or an “Oops!” moment, but a cinematic bottle breaking. Like the kind you see in films, typically a shot of just a hand arching back and with the swiftness of a snake, crashing into a bar (or table or chair or anything really), the shatter of the glass reverberating in their ears as it twinkles in the night sky, a mist of microscopic shards. This is always a last-ditch effort in a film, our heroes or villains are found empty-handed, so they grab the nearest thing and smash it against something for a makeshift weapon.
I didn’t need a weapon, this wasn’t in spite, I wasn’t upset: I just had the instinctual desire to break something. So I took a bottle, walked to my apartment complex’s parking lot, and smashed it on a parking barrier with all my might. I felt bashful afterward, the neck of the bottle still in my hand as I made my way to our recycling because while it did scratch the primal itch I had in my gut, I let myself express what could be seen as a violent act. A complex feeling when you grow up a pacifist. What about my actions were causing this pocket of shame? If these tendencies are innate in the human experience, shouldn’t we be actively developing ways to alleviate these aggressions in a safe, potentially positive way? While certain cities have Rage Rooms, think an Escape The Room except you get to break plates and glasses rather than solve puzzles, there is another: our cinemas.
I was in the air when the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting happened. I was on a flight to LA, first time sober, and the churning anxiety of traveling with heightened mental clarity was both a blessing and a curse when I finally landed and checked my phone. Seventeen dead in the sixth mass school shooting in 2018. Reports from inside the school slowly started to come out: text message conversations, phone calls, and most affecting, videos of the immediate aftermath. The things I saw from these young adults are categorically worse than anything I’ve ever seen in a film. Make no mistake: films have shown more grisly scenes, but nothing knocks your breath out like an abandoned backpack you know won’t be retrieved by its owner. Countless aftermath videos continued to pour out days after the tragedy, the news cycle playing them ad nauseam and for all eyes to see. And we needed to see them because, for every declaration of “Never again!” from politicians, it just won’t stop. We’re scared because it’s an epidemic without hope for a cure. And when we’re scared, we look for the easiest enemy to single out, and for many senators and politicians, that’s violence in film and media.
It’s the age-old scapegoat that’s been used since Columbine, that films like The Matrix and games like Doom are warping young minds by exposing them to extreme, virtual aggression. And even as the MPAA and ESRB have tightened their grip on what content is suitable for audiences, nothing has been solved by putting more restrictions on these artistic mediums. But, to take a point from The Purge franchise, now in its fifth year with the highly anticipated sequel The First Purge coming this summer, what if the answer to addressing societal violence isn’t by inhibiting the content, but facing it? If violence is woven into the fabric of society, what do we gain in hiding what it looks like? Now more than ever, don’t we need to see the accurate depictions of violence, ones that have been typically reserved for genre cinema, in other films? Could this actually be an out-of-the-box deterrent for the type of violence we’re seeing currently in the States? Maybe, but first, we need to understand the differences in what violence looks like on screen.
“Is it true that there’s a place in your head that, when you shoot it, it blows up?”
A hilarious line from 2007’s Hot Fuzz, but a rather fitting quote to help illustrate the differences in cinematic violence. As genre fans many times we find ourselves having to defend why we like violent movies while abhorring real-world violence. Violence in film isn’t a black and white issue, as if we cannot learn and teach the differences between fantasy and reality. The deaths that are ribbed in Edgar Wright‘s film are for an intentional effect. Many deaths in some of the biggest crowd-pleasing slasher films are for comedic effect. Adam Green makes a huge point that despite Hatchet 2 being slapped with an NC-17 rating and pulled from theatres, the violence in the film is cartoonish. In other words, the human body can’t do the things that are seen in these films. Their pedigree is aligned closer to Looney Tunes than Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Yet even then, they are lumped into the same category because Hatchet appears on the same video store shelf as Henry.
When Passion of the Christ came out though, younger people were allowed and encouraged by churches to see the film. They reasoned that this is a biblical story that audiences should witness for their faith, so families took their children despite Mel Gibson’s film having a hard R rating and being aggressively violent and gory. The hyper-realistic violence was just part of the story. But if this depiction of violence had been in, say, a Marvel film the MPAA and parents group would have likely been alarmed. This reinforces that younger people can handle seeing this level of violence, now more so than ever with the internet and 24-hour news cycle. But they deserve to understand what that means, especially as sanitized cinematic violence is becoming necessary for the superhero stories that have taken over Hollywood.
When I was watching Marvel’s Black Panther, Michael B Jordan‘s character Killmonger assassinates a Dora Milaje by slashing her throat. This act stops time, languishing in the violent moment until everyone, audience included, moves on to the epic final confrontations enraged by Killmonger’s actions. Earlier in the film during a heist of Wakandan artifacts infused with Vibranium, the films fictional energy source, countless people are shot in the head or riddled with bullets by Andy Serkis, many at point-blank range. What was noticeably missing? Blood. Realistic blood. While we do see a small puddle of crimson from one victim, an artistic choice rather than accurate physiology, we don’t elsewhere.
When the Dora Milaje guard has her throat slashed, a bread-and-butter death for the horror fan, we see nothing of the reality of what something like that would actually look like. For as far as we are concerned, Killmonger could have used a soft pillow to “kill” her. Ultimately: these deaths have no impact because they lack any realism, any honesty to the actions. More than anything else this lack of blood is what is glorifying the weapon, rather than the act itself. It’s what gives films like The Purge its punch.
While many may say that The Purge franchise is glorifying its predilection for violence, by making the deaths legitimate our eyes are forced to process what we are watching on a much deeper level. It’s in reason to then correlate that if younger people are exposed to violence that categorically does not look realistic, like the countless number of bloodless bullet-ridden bodies in the family-friendly Marvel Comics Universe, that what they are processing isn’t based in reality. It gives them a sterile view of what violence really is, and a shallow opportunity to process it.
While it is noble to want to shield younger generations from seeing overt violence on screen, at what cost is this censorship? If children who are mature enough to watch films like Black Panther see honest depictions of violence, could it be concluded that they too will be put off by it, reticent to even think about pointing a gun at another? This could help younger people to understand better the real world impact that violence, especially with guns, actually have. Because characters already die in these movies, by equating the same amount of carnage from shooting a target on a private range with shooting a person could be dangerous. We’re not afraid of showing our kids death, but we’re afraid of showing them the impact of death. And in a nation where active shooter drills are being taught to Kindergarteners, doesn’t our youth deserve to understand the implications of violence? Only through censorship do we set ourselves up to repeat history.