Original purpose of escalating violence in movies backfired, Virginia Tech film critic says

October 24, 1999

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Back in 1967, a couple named Bonnie and Clyde died slow-motion, bullet-riddled, body-jerking deaths in a film scene that scandalized society. Today, when Stephen Prince shows that scene to his film-studies classes, many students laugh.

The reason is that, between the time of productions such as Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde and Sam Pechinpah's The Wild Bunch and today's movies such as The Basketball Diaries and Natural Born Killers, a whole different cinema environment has evolved.

At the time that Penn and Peckinpah decided that movies needed to show what death really looked like, it was a legitimate issue, Prince said. Before that, death in movies was so sanitary that no blood oozed, no limbs blew off spewing gore across the camera lens, and no writhing agony made audiences cringe. The death usually came from one shot --bang!--with barely a bullet hole showing, and with a character's dramatic leap backwards to a seemingly painless death in the dust.

Penn and Peckinpah had good intentions in trying to show death realistically, Prince said. They hoped that if films showed the actual results of violence, audiences would be cleansed of any urges in that direction. But the opposite occurred. Audiences grew to like the violence and demand more. Filmmakers struggled to present violence in more graphic and glorious gore. People became desensitized to violence until today we have teen idol Leonardo DiCaprio in his now-infamous long black trench coat surrealistically blowing away classmates in The Basketball Diaries and two students in black trench coats walking into their school and killing 12 fellow students and a teacher before turning the guns on themselves.

But wait. That last wasn't a movie. It took place at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, this year. Two real, living boys, steeped in graphic fantasy movies, including The Basketball Diaries, according to Prince, killed 13 people and then themselves in a seemingly motiveless, senseless few minutes of mayhem whose consequences the boys might not even have understood.

Is there a connection between the violence in movies and violence in real life? Prince believes there is. Are there solutions to the concerns posed by violent movies? There are some. But Prince is doubtful the most logical remedy will occur.

Prince is a professor of communication studies at Virginia Tech who has written numerous books about cinema, including two about media violence: Savage Cinema and Screening Violence. In Screening Violence, Prince takes the position that the kind of violence found in films today desensitizes people and contributes to the level of fascination with bloodshed. "Social science shows that, for a small number of viewers, these films do help instigate aggressive thoughts, ideas, and behaviors," Prince said.

The question of violence in film has been around since the 30s, Prince said. The difference in today's movie violence is the way the filmmakers use media tools to "pump it up and make it attractive and make violence go on and on, where in older films, it was over in a second." Society once had rules against including close-ups of guns, for example. In contrast, The Basketball Diaries showed the fire coming out of the ends of the guns. "There have been real changes in the way violence is shown today that accounts for why we might see a different effect than we did in the early decades," Prince said. "The bar about what's permissible keeps getting higher."

Steven Spielberg, in Saving Private Ryan, pushed the limits of what a film could show, Prince said. "Spielberg showed violence in a way it had not been shown before. "Now, I think that's the new threshold that films in a few years will go beyond."

When Oliver Stone filmed Natural Born Killers in 1994, he used the same reason for violence that Peckinpah had used in the 60s'that it would wake people up to the realities of violence. "I think, as time goes on, that claim becomes increasingly untenable," Prince said. "There's very little movies have not shown us about what death looks like. You start preaching to a certain kind of audience that seeks that kind of material out."

"The big film last year was The Matrix, in which a very violent scene goes on and on," Prince said. "It's now selling like hotcakes on video." If one made a graph of the bar for violence from the time of Bonnie and Clyde to Taxi Driver to Natural Born Killers and Saving Private Ryan, Prince said, "it would be an ascending line."

One problem, Prince said, is that nearly all filmmakers are concentrating on the visual, physical aspects of the violence and not "on the emotional or spiritual dimensions of it." It is possible for a filmmaker to deal with violence without being visually graphic, he said, "but that's not where movie makers' emphasis has been. It's been on the visual phenomenon."

A second problem with using film to "show what death is like" is that "the visual rhetoric of the films is working in the opposite direction," Prince said.

Film makers claim they want to show what death is like, but "the visual effects such as slow motion make it mesmerizing and create a fascination with violence that very few films get beyond. For those in the audience who have trouble distinguishing between fantasy and reality and who harbor those aggressive thoughts, this level of media violence can stoke those kinds of fantasies."

About 40 years of social-science studies has corroborated that effect, Prince said.

Another problem with violent films is that most of them do not show a time of reckoning. "The lack of consequences is one of the damaging messages that get sent," Prince said. Even some adults, he said, cannot see the difference in fiction and reality, as the Littleton shootings show. The young men who killed their classmates and themselves "got caught up in fantasies," Prince said. "In The Basketball Diaries, Leonardo DiCaprio shoots up the place in a dream sequence without consequences. He can kill these people and nothing happens.

When you are at a certain younger age, it's hard to conceptualize mortality. They are going to live forever. The very glamorized scene reinforces the difficulty of conceptualizing what it means to kill somebody." In other words, the young men at Columbine might not even have been able to realize that the people they shot, including themselves, would stay dead.

A fourth problem with such films is that "movie makers cannot control the reactions of their viewers," Prince said. "Screen violence is exciting, and that may produce a volatile reaction in viewers that the movie makers can't control."

In his book Savage Cinema, Prince argues that violence is a legitimate subject for filmmakers to handle. "It's as old as art," he said. The question he raises, however, is "What are the gounds for its legitimate use?"

There was a very short window in the 60s and 70s during the Vietnam War, Prince said, after Peckinpah felt the need to change from sanitized to ugly violence as catharsis of violent feelings, when film makers might have gone on to do other things. But they didn't. A movie reviewer was fired for giving Bonnie and Clyde an unfavorable review, Prince said. But that reviewer asked questions still pertinent today --questions about where those kinds of films would take the industry. "He was very disturbed by them," Prince said.

The reviewer has been vindicated. "As Peckinpah realized toward the end of his career, catharsis is not what these films produce," Prince said. "Instead of releasing tension, they work people up into an agitated state." The result is "the problematic climate we inhabit today," including the new type of audience that demands such violent movies.

Prince believes audiences will have to be the ones to say, "Enough is enough." Things such as the Littleton shootings may cause people to demand that filmmakers think of other kinds of movies they can make, he said.

He is not in favor of censorship. "But I do believe in public pressure," he said. "It's an economic thing. Movies became violent in the 60s because they saw it sold. The Dirty Dozen was the top film of 1967, and Bonnie and Clyde set box-office records in 1967-68."

"What I would like to see the industry do,"Prince said, "is adopt a kind of voluntary process of self regulation. I don't think they will."

Virginia Tech

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