Wednesday, September 23, 2009

More on Cinematic Violence: Clarifying the Conversation

I have been taken to task! A recent post of mine, concerning the question of how Christians ought to discern ethically what sort of visually violent content to view (and why), has been a point of debate over on one blog, and trickled over to another. I have deeply appreciated both positive and critical responses, but wanted to do my best to respond charitably and to clarify any miscommunication on my part.

More than anything, allow me to begin by summarizing my original intent with the post. My goal was (1) to extend a stimulating (and ongoing) conversation I had with my wife to others who might find it valuable, because (2) her conviction about feeling, for lack of a better word, "icky" with the amount and content of violence entering her head through film and television (represented, for better or worse, by Quentin Tarantino), seemed a fascinating and helpful response to engage my own questions about (3) the role, purpose, and human effects of simulated violence seen through the visual medium, as well as about (4) how to differentiate between said portrayals of violence that might be helpful, thoughtful, intentional, worthy, or ethically challenging and portrayals that might be harmful, exploitative, thoughtless, gratuitous, or morally damaging. Specifically, a central concern was (5) exploring the way audience members in America, particularly males in action movies, seem to have become so desensitized that they cheer on, laugh, applaud, and generally enjoy brutality, torture, murder, and all other sorts of violence in films whose portrayals are today (6) so extraordinarily realistic that they could be confused for the real thing if it weren't for the fact that we "know" going in that it is "just a movie."

The last point, or at least the phrasing of it, seems to be a unique point of contention, because in the post I say the following (bolded for poverty of forethought):
And this realization was uniquely directed at the medium of film; the written word involves and requires the imagination in such a way that we do not -- as we unarguably do with modern special effects today -- come face to face with what our brains understandably receive as the real thing. To read "And he took the adrenaline-filled syringe and injected her heart with it" is of a substantially different sort than to watch John Travolta stab Uma Thurman in the chest with a six-inch needle.
Clearly that was the wrong choice of words. Most sane people who see a movie at the theater qualitatively do not "receive as the real thing" simulated cinematic violence. A rhetorical mishap on my part, without a doubt.

But I hope the broader paragraph, and the post as a whole, make clear that I am not trying to say that cinematic violence is questionable because we are so stupid as to think it's real. Rather, I want to ask whether seeing realistically portrayed violence, however simulated and however cognitively acknowledged as simulated beforehand and throughout, can have deleterious effects on us over time whether we like it or not, and if so, how we should go about discerning the types and amount of visually simulated violence we choose to take in.

It seems to have been a poor choice to focus the discussion on Tarantino and Inglourious Basterds, mostly because people (rightly) see in him and it a lack of thoughtless violence, and in actuality a profound exploration of the power of film and the futility of vengeance. For those who made it all the way to the end of the post -- and I realize it was long! -- I should hope it was clear that I couldn't agree more! My choice of Tarantino and I.B. was partly the simple fact that my decision to see it was the spark for my conversation with my wife, but even more so precisely because it does not fit into any neat categories of "ethical" versus "non-ethical" cinematic violence. (Not to mention the fact that my fellow audience members were cheering on the Nazi-scalping.) So if the pervading theme of "Tarantino" so hangs over the post that it overshadows the fact that I love his work and that I am using him out of respect for the thought behind his films -- then I simply did not communicate.

Furthermore, to address Adam's post directly, I am unclear on where hypocrisy enters into the equation. I quote one of his comments in full:
I find it really amazing how many people responding here are so stuck within the frame of fake violence and real violence being the same that they’re basically unable to read my post with any kind of comprehension. It’s a simple accusation of hypocrisy — “you think portraying violence is a serious moral issue, yet your practice contradicts that belief.” There’s really nothing more complicated going on here than that. Nothing shutting down the actual discussion of filmed violence. Nothing calling for the end of crucifixes and passion plays — just pointing out hypocrisy, pure and simple.
I want to be careful in my response ... but I simply do not know what I said in the original post to give the impression that I do not think there are serious moral issues with traditional portrayals of the crucifixion of Christ through crucifixes in sanctuaries, passion plays, and Mel Gibson's film. Obviously, if I were to claim the latter are of no moral consequence or are not worth questioning, but violence in film is, my hypocrisy would be apparent for all to see. But all three of those examples -- alongside many other generally accepted Christian portrayals of violence -- are deeply problematic, and I would love to extend the conversation to those areas as well. It is unequivocally a public sign of the ugly contradiction -- and the politics behind it -- inherent in modern conservative churches that The Passion of the Christ could be hailed as messianic filmmaking, while radically milder content (sexual, violent, or otherwise) could be simultaneously dismissed outright or assumed to be sinful.

My only question is, Do I say something like that in my post? Either way, my intent was 100% the other direction. One of the examples I offer of artful, ethical, praiseworthy cinematic portrayals of violence is The Wire, which seems clear enough to me, at least, that I am not taking a simplistic or a priori stance against portrayals of violence, but instead want to call Christians to thoughtful conversation about creative and faithful ways to discern what is worth watching.

Responding to Marvin Lindsay, Adam says:
There is a conversation to be had on this topic [of cinematic violence], but posts like this and the one I was responding to totally shut it down from the start.
I confess, my only response to a statement like this is pure befuddlement. Going back through the post, I can see how the argument seems to be leading to a place where "the implications ... are not hopeful" -- i.e., "it looks like we're just gonna have to reject this whole thing completely." And to be sure, that was where my mind was as I was finishing up a beguiling, enormous, passionate post at 3:00 in the morning. But I also quite intentionally ended the entire piece with the fact that, while my wife has found her answer, "I'm still searching." In a sense, all 3,500 words served only as one long-form question mark, meant to inspire conversation and critical thought regarding our (usually unquestioned) assumptions about what we watch, why, and how it affects us.

At least, that was the hope. In one sense, I got exactly what I wanted: lots of conversation! And I am happy people at least found it worth thinking about. But I also hope that this post (the one you are reading right now) might serve to redirect the conversation from questions or assumptions (or understandable conclusions taken from poor communication on my part!) about me and my prudishness or hypocrisy or whatever, and instead back to the original subject.

Regardless, a final and sincere thanks to all my gracious interlocutors, as well as a reminder ... please be kind in the comments!


  1. My post was focused in an extremely one-sided way on that one line you bolded above, and as such unfair to you and your intentions. I apologize for that.

  2. Nice to meet you.

    I was going to paste the link without permission because I had very felt the interest for your blog.

    Please link me with the blog if it is good.


  3. Adam,

    Thanks for the apology. I do hope I was able to clarify some of my previous ambiguity, because your critique was helpful in aiding me to see, in the length and tone of the original piece, how I might be communicating something other than intended. More than anything I just appreciate the engagement, so thanks for stopping by.