Can violence in movies be ethically and aesthetically reconciled with the idea of popular cinema as ‘only entertainment’?

Matt Migliorini


The intention of this essay is to argue that violence in film is not ethically or aesthetically reconcilable with the notion of popular cinema as ʻonly entertainmentʼ because a true ethical or ʻrealʼ engagement with popular films is not necessarily separable from ʻentertainmentʼ. In pursuing this argument this essay will examine two Hollywood films that both represent violence on screen. The first to be discussed will be 8mm (Schumacher 1999) and the second The Dark Knight (Nolan 2008). Firstly it is important to deal with the notion of entertainment itself and why it may be ethically problematic for violence to be represented on screen if it is deemed entertaining. The main problem that arises from the issues of violence falling under the banner of ʻonly entertainmentʼ appears to be one concerning pleasure. In his consideration of entertainment Richard Dyer has stated, It is not possible here to provide the detailed historical and anthropological argument to back this up, but I hope the differences will suggest themselves when I say that entertainment is a type of performance produced for profit, performed before a generalised audience (the ʻpublicʼ), by a trained, paid group who do nothing else but produce performances which have the sole (conscious) aim of providing pleasure (1992: 17). If entertainment is, as Dyer suggests, a kind of performance geared towards delivering pleasure as part of a financial commodity, perhaps it can then be said that if violence is represented in popular film, that it situates a viewer in a position in which they can enjoyably receive it. However, as will be argued, this is not entirely the case. In identifying ʻassumedʼ ideas around cinematic spectatorship, it is useful here to draw upon Mary Whitehouse. Although not a film theorist or critic, as a campaigner against permissive society that lead to her becoming a public figure in Britain, Whitehouse with her many concerns of violence in the media make her relevant to this discussion. Her inclusion here also demonstrates that unlike many other theoretical discourses held in film studies, issues of screen violence and censorship exist well outside of academia in the public sphere. In her proclamation that screen violence is morally deplorable, Whitehouse has stated, We sensed it then [the 1970s] and believe strongly now, that the screening of violence . . . and obscenity into the home, where the viewer sits comfortably, detached, . . . where he can switch off mentally or physically whenever he wishes, can have nothing but destructive effects upon our sensitivities and our society. So do the real horrors of war, death, and poverty become no more than conversation pieces, fantasy worlds, increasingly accepted as no more than entertainment (Mary Whitehouse 1996: 57). Whitehouseʼs issue then is that the viewer is passive in their reception of violence and that this is wrongfully accepted as being no more than a means to an end in obtaining pleasure through film. From which the obvious question arises: can we ethically reconcile the idea of receiving pleasure through violence on screen? This essay will now move on to argue that a pleasurable

response towards violence in popular cinema, does not reduce or remove the viewerʼs capacity to engage with the film at a moral level. The narrative of 8mm deals inherently with this very issue of receiving pleasure through filmed violence. The film sees private surveillance detective Tom Welles (Nicholas Cage) investigate the authenticity of a snuff film - a snuff film being a film in which a person is killed for the pleasure of the viewer - eventually leading him to discover that the film was not the construction of special effects, and that a girl really was killed on film. Outraged at this, Tom then kills the snuff film producers. In Schumacherʼs film the violence on screen takes on two notable points of engagement. One position is that the screen violence of the snuff film is authentic and therefore disturbing to 8mmʼs protagonist. The second is that the violence then enacted by the protagonist in later scenes subsequently registers as comparatively inauthentic regardless of the filmʼs efforts towards realism or naturalism. The audience is constantly aware that any violence we witness is not real due to the filmʼs extra-textual considerations of ʻrealʼ violence being recorded. Does the fact that these two contextualisations of screen violence present in the film - one the fictional-authentic snuff film, and the other the overtly fictional violence of the feature film itself - mean that the latter can be enjoyed more as it is harmless by comparison? A figure such as Whitehouse would surely argue it does not. However this essay argues that the violence in both instances is aesthetically reconcilable due to their fundamental function within a narrative. Indeed, without some kind of representation of violence this film would be unrealisable as an investigation of violence. Further to this it should be noted that conflict has been a key constituent of storytelling since the dawn of stories, this conflict often taking the form of physical violence. Indeed, screening writing instructor Robert McKee has stated that a major event in a story ʻcreates meaningful change in the life situation of a character that is expressed and experienced on terms of value and is ACHIEVED THROUGH CONFLICT (1999: 34).ʼ His choice to type these last three words in uppercase, highlight the paramount importance of conflict for screenwriters in producing adequate drama. An issue that may potentially result in violence on screen being ethically irreconcilable, perhaps more than violence represented in any other medium due to its life-like immediacy, would be its glorification. However, it should be asserted that violence in 8mm is not glorified or deemed pleasurable by the protagonist or even by the film itself at any point. In the scene in which Tom watches the snuff film for the first time, the camera focuses in close-up on his reaction to the film rather than showing the audience the film itself. His expression is one of anguish and disgust (see Appendix fig 1). Tomʼs expression here is far beyond a position of non-caring that is perhaps too purportedly linked to notions of entertainment. Considering David Bordwellʼs observation that in classical narration, ʻthe protagonist becomes . . . the chief object of audience identificationʼ (1990: 15) Whitehouseʼs proclamation here that a spectator passively accepts violence on screen as entertainment, can be somewhat dismissed through our narrative alignment and with Tom and his reactiont. What is more, Sylvia Chong has stated that, ʻOur enjoyment of film narratives relies upon our identification with and vicarious enjoyment of the experiences of film charactersʼ (2004: 258). To link these assertions made by

Bordwell and Chong, not only does an identification with the protagonist go someway to relinquishing the notion of the ʻpassiveʼ spectator, but also demonstrates that spectator enjoyment, and therefore entertainment too, are reliant upon this identification. Continuing his discussion, Dyer pronounces that two taken-for-granted interpretations of entertainment are implications of, ʻescapeʼ and as ʻwishfulfilmentʼ, point[ing] to its central thrust, namely, utopianism. Entertainment offers the image of ʻsomething betterʼ to escape into, or something we want deeply that our day-to-day lives donʼt provide (1992: 18). Following that entertainment is designed to deliver pleasure and wish-fulfilment, and that violence is a stable and successful element of inclusion in numerous narratives in popular cinema, is it simply that humanity suffers from an unquenchable thirst for seeing violence on screen as it provides a catharsis not accessible elsewhere?; and that this then becomes ʻonly entertainingʼ?; simply as a means of receiving pleasure? If this were the case, how can, as Whitehouse declares, a viewer be passive? Surely the reception of pleasure requires some kind of active engagement with the source of the pleasure from which it may be derived? At a basic level, a spectator at the very least has to be continually paying attention to the screen. If one is not focusing on the screen, it is arguable that this is due to the absence of entertainment. While as Dyer asserts, entertainment can be described as a form of escape, it also perhaps more significantly assumes an engagement with the location of that escape; in the case of popular cinema this being a fictional else-where and else-when. Moreover, the notion of entertainment denotes that this engagement be agreeable and pleasurable. In 8mm Tom forces himself to watch various pieces of hardcore pornography in an attempt to locate the girl from the snuff film. In these scenes it is apparent that he takes no pleasure in watching them and that he would never chose to watch them otherwise. Unlike Tom however, the audience of 8mm may delight in the experience of voyeuristically witnessing his discomfort at the violence. Not because one can take pleasure from the violence, but because it affords an audience a mode of engagement with such obscene violence that is situated heavily outside of the mainstream as the film displays through Tomʼs struggle to find such material, therefore allowing the audience to consider their own feelings towards such obscenity without having to delve into the kind of dangerous environments, Tom does. Cinema offering audiences a safe space in which to explore dangerous issues like those explored in 8mm may provide a means through which we can ethically justify violence on screen. Much like the aggressors of 8mm the key antagonist in The Dark Knight is an entertainer driven only by a desire to produce chaos and violence. The Dark Knight is a super-hero film in which Batman (Christian Bale) must stop the anarchic Joker (Heath Ledger). However, Nolanʼs film is not a proto-typical super-hero film in that it carries many political and ideological pretensions. In one scene the Joker declares that he likes to kill his victims with knives apposed to guns as it produces a slower death in which he can savour the emotional response of his victim towards their death. The main aggressor in 8mm delivers a similar speech in which he says he takes pleasure in the look of realisation his victims have that they are actually going to die. Both of these charactersʼ

convulsive assaults upon other characters provide the audience with an example of the kind of monster that actually derives pleasure from violence. We are then positioned against them as they solicit a true approximation of what it means to truly take pleasure in pain and violence. If audiences are delighted by the violence of the Joker, it is not necessarily because they are supportive of it, but simply because it serves a narrative function to produce conflict, and notably, spectacle. Geoff King has argued that, ʻSpectacle offers a range of pleasures associated with the enjoyment of ʻlarger than lifeʼ representations, more luminous or intense than daily reality (King 2000: 4). As such, contrary to what Whitehouse believes, we can discern these images not to be like reality due to their overbearing relation to spectacle and not realism. Although both films contain clear efforts at a kind of naturalism or verisimilitude, neither are overtly realistic, especially The Dark knight. What spectacle therefore permits of violence is a kind of manipulated account of reality through which we may delight in such violent images. Of pain and death, eighteenth century philosopher Edward Burke stated that ʻ. . . When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful, as we every day experienceʼ (1990: 36-37). Considering this, it is applicable that spectacle in film may constitute what Burke refers to as producing a certain distance as a modification away from realism, that allows for such imagery of violence to be pleasurable, and thus entertaining. This is why a scene in The Dark Knight in which the Joker performs a magic trick of making a pencil disappear by driving it into the skull of man, may register as comically delightful, because it plays upon feelings of terror that are distanced by absurdity. The idea of having a pencil driven into oneʼs skull maybe terrifying, but performed by a clown on screen is also delightfully absurd. This in itself however does not allow us to ethically reconcile with cinematic representations of violence, but it does provide grounds for a justification of these filmsʼ choices of aesthetics in that their representations of violence are exploiting ideas of pain and death, of which Burke suggested that, Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger . . . or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling (1990: 36). These films therefore offer and exploit audiences capacities to feel fear and appropriate a position of sublimity towards images that evoke this feeling. However, this essay does not argue that either of the films in question fulfill this notion; merely that cinema is able to capitalize on it through representations of violence. Indeed, a popular childrenʼs film such as Bambi (Algar and Armstrong 1942) includes the violent death of its eponymous protagonistʼs mother. Where then is the line drawn between violence in Bambi and the exceptional bodycount stacked in a more violently explicit film like Rambo (Stallone 2008)? Do both films not portray violence? Are both not seeking to solicit an entertained response? It appears then that the problem with ethically reconciling violence

on screen is as much to do with its narrative functioning and purpose within the text than it has its representation; the violence in Bambi being part of a story, not the reason for the existence of the story as one might argue the to be the case with Rambo. In 8mm and The Dark Knight, however, violence is both capitalized on for entertainment purposes and is unequivocally integral to their narratives. These films would not work or exist without their being afforded the possibility of representing strong violence. Herein lies the distinction that Poppy Z. Brite makes in writing that, ʻThe media capitalizes on violence just as it capitalizes on whatever else it thinks it can sell, but capitalization and glorification are not necessarily the same thingʼ (1996: 64). Rambo however is harder to defend with the filmʼs protagonist senselessly killing hundreds of people in the guise of a narrative purpose that is comparatively tenuous. However, there is still a value to be found in Rambo in that it provides an opportunity for a spectator to consider their enjoyment of such violence on screen. Where one my revel in it due to a kind of response to what Burke describes as the greatest of human emotion (one in which we consider death), another viewer may assume a similar position to Tom watching the snuff film in 8mm. Regardless of how a spectator may react to violence in the four films mentioned this essay falls into agreement with Brite in her argument that, . . . the ultimate value of seeking . . . violence . . . [is that] it forces the viewer to arrive at his own conclusions about death, pain, and the visceral soup inside us. It forces him to understand his own feelings about these highly personal matters, rather than reinforcing what society says he should feel (fear, disgust) (1996: 70). Here Brite suggests that the value of experiencing violence in cinema is that it forces the spectator into a position in which they have to consider its very nature for themselves; a notion through which screen violence maybe ethically reconcilable due to its inherent appeal to freedom of thought and experience. To summarize, having examined the proclamation made by Whitehouse that violence on screen is passively accepted by the cinema spectator due to its being entertaining, this essay, having drawn upon theories of entertainment put forward by Dyer, has argued that a true engagement with screen violence is not inhibited by notions of entertainment. Furthermore it has, through its discussion of The Dark Knight and 8mm, fallen to agreement with Brite that violence in cinema - like any other exchange of ideas between filmmaker and audience holds value in its ability to challenge a spectators understanding of both themselves and the issues the film presents. In concluding, we can identify that representations of violence in popular cinema are ethically and aesthetically reconcilable through certain necessities of narration and stylistic choices, namely conflict, narrative alignment with protagonists and notions of spectacle supported by Burkeʼs considerations of the sublime, with their happening to be ʻentertainingʼ, and not with the notion of their being ʻonly entertainmentʼ. As has been argued, films, including popular ones that function as business commodities of Hollywood studios, can never be ʻjust entertainmentʼ.


Bibliography Bordwell, David (1990) Narration in the Fiction Film London: Routledge Brite, Poppy. Z (1996) ʻThe Poetry of Violenceʼ in Screen Violence [ed] Karl French London: Bloomsbury Burke, Edmund (1990) A Philosophical Enquiry: into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful Oxford: Oxford University Press Chong, Sylvia (2004) ʻFrom “blood auteurism” to the violence of pornography: Sam Peckinpah and Oliver Stoneʼ in New Hollywood Violence: Inside Popular FIlm [ed] Steven Jay Scheider Manchester: Manchester University Press Dyer, Richard (1992) Only Entertainment London: Routledge King, Geoff (2000) Spectacular Narratives: Hollywood in the age of the Blockbuster London: I.B. Tauris McKee, Robert (1999) Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the principles of screenwriting London Methuen Whitehouse, Mary (1996) ʻTime to Face Responsibilityʼ in Screen Violence [ed] Karl French London: Bloomsbury


Filmography 8mm Joel Schumacher (1999) USA Bambi James Algar and Samuel Armstrong (1942) USA The Dark Knight Christopher Nolan (2008) USA Rambo Sylvester Stallone (2008) USA


Appendix Fig 1


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