Violence In Our Culture

If artists, as Ezra Pound said, are "the antennae of the race," they're picking up some plenty bad vibes these days. A few years ago, who would have imagined that one of this season's top-grossing films (no pun intended) would be about a psychopath who not only murders women but also skins them? Or that the actor who plays the film's helpful psychopath - his quirk is cannibalism, but he finally helps track down the nasty psychopath - would be introduced by Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show" to a studio audience whose female contingent oohed and aahed as if he were Mel Gibson? Or that meanwhile, over in the world of letters, a young novelist would describe, in revolting detail, women (and, less notoriously, men, children and dogs) being tortured and butchered? Or that his novel, suppressed by its original publisher, boycotted by feminists and savaged by critics, would become a best seller? Or that the best mind in American musical theater would conceive a snappy show about the assassins of American presidents? Or that MTV would still be blaring last year's hit song about a teen incest victim pumping a bullet into her daddy's brain?

Sure, ultraviolent fare has always been out there - but up until now, it's always been out there, on the fringes of mass culture. Nowadays it's the station-wagon set, bumper to bumper at the local Cinema 1-2-3-4-5, that yearns to be titillated by the latest schlocky horror picture show. And the conglomerated, amalgamated media corporations obligingly churn out increasingly vicious movies, books and records. Mayhem has gone mainstream.

America's addiction to make-believe violence is like any other addiction: it takes more and more to accomplish less and less. Thirty-two people get offed in "RoboCop" (1987); the 1990 sequel serves up 81 corpses. The makers of "Die Hard 2" (1990) really outdo themselves: up from the original's 18 to a body count of 264 (this, of course, includes a plane crash that takes out more than 200 in one fell swoop). "Die Hard 2" makes "The Wild Bunch," a stomach-churner back in 1969, look, in retrospect, like "National Velvet." In his horrifying "Silence of the Lambs," director Jonathan Demme straddles the old and the new, taking a gruesome plot and filming it with Hitchcockian discretion and taste. "We wanted to exploit people's endless fascination with scary stories, and provide them with a tremendously powerful version of a scary story, but we didn't want to upset their lives," he explains.

But people are upset by the assault of brutal imagery on radio, TV, in the theaters, in best-selling books. It is not any one film or program that is singularly disturbing, it is the appalling accretion of violent entertainment. It is the sense that things have gotten out of control. And there is legitimate alarm at what all this imaginary violence might be contributing to in an increasingly dangerous real life. According to a NEWSWEEK Poll conducted by The Gallup Organization in mid-March, 40 percent think movie violence is a "very great" cause of the real kind and an additional 28 percent see it as a "considerable" factor (only 11 percent answered "very little").

Even as we express such heartfelt concerns, we are packing into the multiplexes, lapping up the fictive blood, renting $1.5 billion worth of "action" videos a year and eagerly awaiting the next Stephen King novel. "Like most Americans, I get off on make-believe violence to some appreciable degree," says King. "I was raised to think Audie Murphy and Sergeant York and Davy Crockett were great American heroes, that George Armstrong Custer was a great American martyr, and that Saddam Hussein needed to have his butt kicked. In a violent world, where violence continues to be perceived as a solution, violent make-believe will continue to be a part of that world's imaginative diet."

"Maybe," says "GoodFellas" director Martin Scorsese, "we need the catharsis of bloodletting and decapitation like the ancient Romans needed it, as ritual but not real like the Roman circus." The Roman analogy is somewhat terrifying. What kind of people find it fun to drop a Vio-lence cassette into the tape deck? (Break your knee caps, left then the right / Next your eyeballs, lose your sight.) What kind of people cheer lustily when Bruce Willis pokes an icicle through an eye socket into a baddie's brain? Or, to elevate the level of discussion, what value is it to have as talented a writer as Paul Theroux write "Chicago Loop," about a man who ties up a woman and literally gnaws her to death: "[He] snapped at the ragged flesh like a mastiff."

To be fair, violent narratives go back a lot further than the Steadicam - or even the Marquis de Sade. But the amount of explicit carnage in both serious and popular fiction has exploded, and there's a similar trend in detective novels, whose villains have become increasingly psychotic and whose medical examiners must find it increasingly hard to act blase. Victims in James Ellroy's "The Big Nowhere" - praised even in the culturally conservative Wall Street Journal - have their eyes poked out, genitals mutilated and (ho hum) their flesh chewed. And worst of all is detective fact. Rex Miller's "Chaingang" Bunkowski isn't as compelling a monster as the real-life serial killer Randy Kraft, subject of L.A. Times reporter Dennis McDougal's forthcoming "Angel of Darkness." Kraft tortured and murdered 67 people, snapping Polaroids throughout. Our fascination with such material is older than Lizzie Borden. What's new is the obsessively detailed description of all 40 whacks, with their attendant shrieks and splatters.

Movie violence these days is likewise clearer, louder, more anatomically precise and a lot sexier. When a gunslinger got shot in some black-and-white potboiler, all we saw was a white puff of smoke and a dab of fake blood. When Jamie Lee Curtis takes one in the arm in the protracted climax to Kathryn Bigelow's "Blue Steel" (1990), there's a slo-mo eruption of ersatz fabric, gristle and blood that ends up looking as pretty as a nature film's blooming desert rose. And the claret of Curtis's precious bodily fluid is nicely set off against the light blue of her uniform, which is melded subtly with the gray Wall Street facades. This movie isn't so much directed as it is designed.

In the past decade, a growing number of feature directors (Ridley Scott and Adrian Lyne, among them) got their training in TV advertising. They are masters of seduction. They can make a soda pop glisten and crackle so you can almost feel it on your tongue. Give them 30 seconds and they can make you feel the wind in your hair as a car takes a curve on the screen. This new breed of director has been bringing ad techniques to the larger screen. But where, on the small screen, one hears a pop can hiss, on the large screen one hears black matte ammo clips clackering like castanets. Or bones being cracked. "Today we have the technology to do sequences that are louder and bigger and more effective than before," says "Die Hard 2" director Renny Harlin. But it's not simply that the special effects are more sophisticated than before, it's the way in which - and the purpose to which - directors use them. In Harlin's film, Bruce Willis seems to be constantly rolling across the floor, blasting away at several neo-Nazi ninjas at once, making plate-glass partitions swell and break and sparkle like lovely surfers' waves. It's all so insidiously yummy that you lean forward to get closer to the action. Our ability to feel compassion is brutalized by excessive brutality, especially when it's given that Hollywood sheen.

In all of pop culture (as in most of society) women are the victims of choice. "Consider this a divorce!" Arnold Schwarzenegger bellows just before he blows his wife away in "Total Recall. " Audiences love it: she got hers! Just like Laura Palmer, "Twin Peaks's" homecoming queen who was actually a slut, got hers. (And judging from the latest teaser, another one of those "Twin Peaks" girls has something coming, too.) An awful lot of hostility against women is being played out in popular culture these days, and it's not pretty.

She begged me not to kill her, I gave her a rose Then slit her throat, watched her shake till her eyes closed Had sex with the corpse before I left her And drew my name on the wall like Helter Skelter*

That's from the Geto Boys' recent "Mind of a Lunatic," a sort of "American Psycho" with a bass line. It sold about half a million copies. Maybe that was 500,000 too many.

Playwright Steve Tesich (whose currently running "The Speed of Darkness" has its own moments of stunning violence) notes, "I haven't seen a single anti-rape movie that doesn't promote rape. The very manner in which sexual scenes are shot causes rape to look like an activity that is energizing."

There are those who argue that none of this means much. That no one, except perhaps a lone sicko, listens to the Geto Boys and then jumps the next woman who passes by. That healthy American families don't rush out to buy Uzis just because Schwarzenegger seems so cool wielding one. But the psychological road between real life and make-believe doesn't run only one way. In this society, mass-produced and mass-consumed movies, books, records and TV programs are a considerable part of our real lives; they contribute greatly to making us behave the way we do. To argue otherwise is to consign the arts to a total passivity - always mere reflections, never real influences. The popular arts are certainly quick enough to claim allegedly positive effects of their noble-farmer movies, triumph-of-the-spirit novels and anti-drug rock records; they ought to accept some blame for the negative ones.

When it comes to the impact media violence has on children, well, moviemakers are quick to insist these flicks are not for kids. At the same time, they will market an unnecessarily violent film like the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle "Kindergarten Cop" as if it were meant for kindergartners (it isn't), and they hide behind the Motion Pictures Association of America's ratings system, as if an R rating means much anymore. When was the last time a kid was turned away from a theater for being underage? Any child can catch a movie on cable or pop a cassette into a VCR. Five years ago Purdue University researcher Glenn Sparks surveyed 5- to 7-year-old kids in suburban Cleveland. Twenty percent said they'd seen "Friday the 13th"; 48 percent had seen "Poltergeist" - in almost all cases they'd watched them on cable.

By the age of 18, the average American child will have seen 200,000 violent acts on television, including 40,000 murders, according to Thomas Radecki, research director for the National Coalition on Television Violence. (The average 2- to 11-year-old watches TV 25 hours a week.) University of Illinois psychologists Leonard Eron and L. Rowell Huesmann studied one set of children for more than 20 years. They found that kids who watched significant amounts of TV violence at the age of 8 were consistently more likely to commit violent crimes or engage in child or spouse abuse at 30. "We believe. that heavy exposure to televised violence is one of the causes of aggressive behavior, crime and violence in society," they wrote in 1984. "Television violence affects youngsters of all ages, of both genders, at all socioeconomic levels and all levels of intelligence. It cannot be denied or explained away."

Seven years later, Huesmann remains convinced: "Serious aggression never occurs unless there is a convergence of large numbers of causes, " he says, "but one of the very important factors we have identified is exposure to media violence. If we don't do something, we are contributing to a society that will be more and more violent."

As disturbing and repellent as its subject was, Demme carefully considered what to show and not to show when transferring Thomas Harris's best-selling "The Silence of the Lambs" to the screen - a book so horrifyingly graphic that some Hollywood honchos deemed it unfilmable. It's the story of FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), whose assignment is to crack the case of a serial killer who skins his female victims. She turns for guidance to a brilliant but violently psychopathic psychiatrist, Dr. Hannibal (the Cannibal) Lecter (Anthony Hopkins).

Much of the movie's power comes from Demme's delicate, masterful use of suspense - planting terrifying ideas in our heads but leaving out a lot of potentially horrific images. "For a two-hour movie, there are very few minutes devoted to anything that would be described as a scene of violence or gore," the director says. "It makes you think about awful things and tries to stimulate the audience to use their imagination as much as possible."

The movie has topped the box-office heap for five consecutive weekends. There are morguesful of recent films with more hurtling bodies, more blood, more slo-mo sundering of flesh and more preening self-satisfaction when, toward the end, good guys start dishing out punishment. But none are more successful in turning an extraordinary cast, literate screenplay and arty cinematography into an ode to the subtleties of violence. In one harrowing sequence, when Lecter does attack his keepers, Demme used a classic Hitchcockian trick: just as the Master of Suspense never showed the knife actually piercing Janet Leigh in the shower scene in "Psycho," we never see Hannibal so much as nibble somebody's ear. But for the aftermath of that sequence, Demme decided the scene of carnage was so tame a - long shot that pulled away from any detail - that the audience was cheated. "We were beginning to betray the book and more importantly we weren't giving the viewer the elements with which to react with appropriate horror to the idea of someone doing this to other people," he says. So in the editing room, Demme added one brief, graphic close-up of one victim. "We slam in there for just a split second," he explains, "so either you've looked away or you're going to get the relief of the pullback, but we're not going to rub the audience's face in it."

Brief as it is, Demme didn't flinch at showing "real" carnage - nor did he back off from an autopsy scene that shows glimpses of a partly skinned female corpse. More than two decades ago, in praising the landmark gore of "Bonnie and Clyde," critic Pauline Kael wrote, "The dirty reality of death - not suggestions but blood and holes - is necessary. It is a kind of violence that says something to us; it is something that movies must be free to use."

It's an important point, the key to the somewhat elusive distinction between "good" violence and "bad" violence; what is art and what is gratuitous. Few movies are as raw or vicious as Martin Scorsese's extraordinary "GoodFellas." The blood and bullet holes in his true-life tale of modern gangsters have a brutal immediacy. "I know that violence personally," Scorsese says. "Growing up I had a sense that it could erupt at any moment, over nothing. It is really frightening." To critics who've charged he went overboard on the gore in a scene where a Mafia lieutenant is executed, he admits, "I never intended the scene to be so bloody," but says he felt it was necessary to "engrave on the minds" the real cost of the mob lifestyle. Forget engrave; Scorsese shatters. There is nothing seductive about the violence in "GoodFellas."

At the same time, because we are being so inundated with violent images - both artful and manipulative - it is almost impossible to resist growing numb. We risk becoming insensitive to the horror of suffering, and that is probably what worries social scientists most. "Sadly enough, that [numbing] is normal," says Edward Donnerstein, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "Think of the tape of the Los Angeles police beating Rodney King. Everyone was initially horrified, but now, when you've seen it several times, you've become desensitized. Your outrage is moral, intellectual, not visceral."

Last winter, following the massive box-office success of the comparatively benign "Ghost" and "Pretty Woman," the press was quick to predict the doom of violent biggies. "People were saying, 'You've got to make romantic comedies and lighter fare'," says Joe Roth, chairman of Twentieth Century Fox, studio to both the very violent "Predator 2" and the cozy comedy "Home Alone" (the third biggest hit of 1990, with that charming tyke still blow-torching the burglars). "But it was just a combination of studio execs who think it makes their job easier to follow trends, and journalists who have their own biases. They think they can wish [violent movies] away quickly. But there's no monolithic response against movies like these. 'Total Recall' grossed $117.5 million and 'Die Hard 2' grossed $112.7 million - those movies delivered. And now here comes 'New Jack City,' and it's a hit and it's hardly an upbeat, romantic little movie."

Roth ain't seen nothin' yet. "On the escalator of violence, no sooner has some movie established itself as the new standard, the pressure mounts in Hollywood to outdo it," says Todd Gitlin, professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. Lurking just offshore, waiting to hit the beach on July 3, is a real monster: the $88 million (and still spending) "Terminator 2: Judgment Day." This bulging Schwarzenegger epic, whose plot is still swathed in secrecy, indicates not only where Hollywood will continue to put its serious money, but its ethical rationale as well. James Cameron, director of both "Terminator" films, explains: "If you're making films for mass-audience consumption, there is a fine line between action, which is good, and violence, which is bad. Now, basically action and violence are the same thing. The question is a matter of style, a matter of degree, a matter of the kind of moral stance taken by the film, the contextualization of the violence."

And what, you may well ask, is the moral context of the sequel to the film in which our Arnold strolled into a police station and mowed down 17 cops? "I think of 'T2' as a violent movie about peace," Cameron says with a laugh. "And I'm perfectly comfortable with these ambiguities. It's an action film about the value of human life." Such a have-it-both-ways attitude is not confined to Hollywood: Bret Ellis maintains that "American Psycho" is an anti-greed tract; Eazy-E, of the rap group famous for "F--- tha Police," joined a $2,500-a-pop GOP club for a luncheon with President Bush, and the same public that complains about too much violence in its entertainment lines up to shell out for more. For the time being there's no light - just more fright - at the end of the tunnel.

*Copyright 1989, N-the-Water Publishing, Inc.

'I come out of "Alien" or "The Texas Chain-saw Massacre" refreshed. Movies can provide catharsis.'

Jonathan Demme

Martin Scorsese