For a time, just after the PTA mounted a national campaign against the quantities of violence on television and in motion pictures a half dozen years ago, the situation seemed to get a little better. But not very much better and not, as it has turned out, for very long.
"What are we saying?" one of Hollywood's best cinematographers asked me the other day. "What are we saying?" He had just been to three films in a row, he told me, and he found the violence in them very disturbing.
It's hard not to agree that there are more violent films around than ever and that the violence, as my friend was complaining, is escalating and growing more and more explicit. Violence has become its own kind of sexual arousal, especially the violence against women. It is, in fact, the worst kind of pornography.
It is graphic. The bullets tear through the cloth and the wall behind the victim is an instant wet, red mural. The body jerks convulsively and is still. And that, you are tempted to say, was only a comedy. (The scene I have in mind was from "RoboCop," skillful and supremely violent yet not really intended to be taken any more seriously than a comic book, which is one of the difficulties of talking about violence.)
Coincidentally, Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch," a milestone in graphic screen violence, has lately been showing in an uncut version on one of the cable channels. It is unquestionably violent; the cutting of a throat and the eruption of blood was I think a first. Yet Peckinpah's film is about violence.
The viewer who is repelled by the violence can disagree with Peckinpah's point--that men do not just have a capacity to do violence, they like it. It can also be argued that Peckinpah was cynically having it both ways, dealing with violence but also exploiting it to win an audience. His talent was unarguable.
Still Peckinpah's work looks better in retrospect than films in which the violence has no meaning beyond titillation and style.
The blood bath in "The Wild Bunch" is finally exhausting, sating, depressing. You cry "Enough!" and you'd have thought the collective diet of violence on the screen would have the same result on audiences. But it evidently has not; there seems only an increase of appetite, and a kind of inuring to the violence that demands ever larger doses. (I say seems , because you watch with gratitude the success of nonviolent films like "Roxanne" and "My Life as a Dog.")
The bedeviling question about violence is the nature of the intentions. Violent action has been central to the movies since they began. The full-frame image of a six-shooter taking dead aim at the camera that ends "The Great Train Robbery" is still the perfect symbol.
It seems to me that the Hays Code, prohibiting just about everything but the quick, vertical kiss in man-woman relationships, put a premium on violence as the principal substitute, offering drama, suspense, surprise, dismay or satisfaction. It was usually negative social behavior, but you can't have everything.
That earlier violence, like the murders in Agatha Christie, was usually tidy and bloodless; you could hardly see the bullet holes. And it was, I think, understood to be make-believe, a dramatic convention. You knew you'd see the bad guys as well as the good guys again.
In a later day, the range of intention is enormously wide. What the fun and games and the heavier pieces (in which violence is simply an organic reflection of life) have in common is that they all look terrifically authentic. If it is make-believe, the giggles are nevertheless harder to shake off than they used to be. A knife or a gun at the throat of a beautiful woman (as in "Stakeout," a suspenseful romance with a lot of comedy and a violent finale) knots the stomach.
(The scariest knife-wielder at the moment is of course a woman, Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction," but nobody said men can't be vulnerable, too.)
Some 20 years ago a Los Angeles psychoanalyst wrote an article for this newspaper pointing out that the real danger of violence in entertainment is not imitative action ("I'll kill like he did in the movie") but the constantly repeated lesson that only violence solves problems, only death finally settles the argument.
As a subliminal message, the sermon that only violence solves problems has to be as visible in a pointless but entertaining thriller as it is in a more serious film which also ends in violent death. And when the violence takes on the added overtones of sexual release--for the perpetrators and possibly for some spectators as well--even the most ardent defenders of freedom of expression have to step back and say, "Yeah, but freedom of expression implies a certain amount of responsibility as well."