When Movie Violence Harms, When Movie Violence Moves

I used to enjoy watching the television program, Law & Order. Its formula was a winning one. The first half of the hour-long show was devoted to the story of police detectives ferreting out criminals for prosecution; the second part told the stories of how the district attorney’s office worked to prosecute the criminals. There was violence on this show; sometimes it crossed the line into gratuitous violence.

The show generated a series of different spin-offs. While it followed the same basic formula, Law & Order “Special Victims Unit” proved to be a turning point for me. From my perspective, there was something untoward about singling out violent sexual crimes as a vehicle for entertainment. More importantly, from my view, the program seemed inclined to depict the outcomes of gratuitous acts of violence. Further, the “Special Victims Unit” motif also seemed to give the producers license to depict violence in a quasi-sexualized way. For me, the representations of violence seemed unnecessary; they did not contribute meaningfully to the artistic quality of the program. Instead, they seemed to be included to titillate; it seemed wrong to me that such depictions of violence should be viewed as a legitimate source of entertainment.

But not all violence is gratuitous. Sometimes, violence contained in movies and television can serve the function that we associate most often with art: It can move us. And in its capacity to move, it can instruct; it can foster reflection; it can even serve as a call to action.

For me, depictions of violence and sexuality in movies or television must be earned. They should contribute significantly to the artistic function of the movie. A series of recent movies contain scenes of violence that, in my view, live up to this standard. The first violent minutes of the movie Lincoln are reminiscent of the brutality depicted in another Spielberg film – Saving Private Ryan. Both depicted events of harrowing and almost unbelievable horror. While Saving Private Ryan is by now somewhat distant in my mind, I still remember the waters of Normandy Beach turning red as young soldiers on both sides met their deaths as powerless pawns ordered into battle by kings watching from behind the scenes. The civil war violence in Lincoln was more palpable: Hand-to-hand combat; bodies pressed so close together they could barely move; soldiers plunging their bayonets into each other in a battle that would ultimately prove futile. The vast majority of soldiers on both sides will die.

As I watched the movie, I was overwhelmed with a nauseating sense of powerlessness. How is it that humans, with all our powers of thought and reflection, are unable to escape from the traps that we create for ourselves? We fight – not like animals over physical territory or prey – but over conflicts that literally have their origins in the powers of human imagination. When two nations go to war over land, for example, they fight over symbolic or imaginary borders.

Of course, humans rarely fight simply over physical boundaries. The American Civil War was fought over the issue of states’ rights – particularly the rights of states to identify certain classes of people as slaves. Such conflicts are crises of our own making. There is nothing “natural” about a “state” or the “rights of a state” or “slave”. “States”, “rights” and “slaves” are all human creations. Animals could never fight over the right to retain “slaves”; only humans can.

I am not a person who believes that humans and animals are on the same level. Because of our powers of imagination and language, humans operate on a much higher plane than other animals. But sometimes it feels as though it simply doesn’t matter. It seems that all our complex powers simply allow us to get ourselves into more sophisticated forms of trouble.

We see similar themes in other movies that have recently appeared on the big screen. Most of us are familiar with the horrific injustices that form the content of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Although critics have characterized Hopper’s film production of Les Miserables as overblown and uneven, it nonetheless has the power to move us. When the movie is successful, the interweaving of music, plot and acting makes us feel the indignities of the poor and destitute. Because we identify with the misery of the characters, we feel the injustice that arises from the juxtaposition of the agony of the poor against the comforts and powers of the French aristocracy. As I sat comfortably in my chair, I was aware that these indignities continue unabated in many places around the globe.

Then there is the masterfully disturbing movie Argo, made more real because it is based on events that actually occurred, that actually occurred in my lifetime, that I actually watched on television, albeit through the distracted fog of late adolescence. Argo tells the story of the successful rescue of six Americans who escaped from the American embassy during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 and 1980. Argo is full of suspenseful tension. It is thus with relief that we witness, at the end of the movie, the happy circumstance of the successful escape of the six American diplomats.

Leaving the film, I did not feel relief or happiness. I could not escape the feelings of fear, fury and helplessness that accrued from having identified with the six American escapees. I also could not erase the faces and sounds of unmitigated rage that drove the Iranians into the American embassy. At one point, an Iranian militant, having broken into the American embassy, came upon a photograph of Ayatollah Khomeini – the Islamic leader of Iran – with three darts dangling from the image of his face. A look of horror appeared on the soldier’s face at what he took to be an act of blasphemy against his religious and national leader. Again, I felt consumed by feelings of powerlessness over the seeming inevitability of intractable human conflict. I wanted to be able to fix something that seemed unfixable.

These are not happy feelings. However, they are, of course, the types of feelings that can arise when one encounters an effective piece of art. My encounter with these movies, of course, raised more questions than answers. However, that is part of the function of art. It is up to us to try to find answers.

There are many reasons to go to the movies. To be sure, we go to movies to be entertained; to have fun; to escape from the everyday; to project ourselves into the story and, in so doing, lose ourselves. However, these are not (or should not) be the only reasons we go to the theater. Movies entertain; however, at their best, they are forms of art. As forms of art, they have the capacity to move us and prompt reflection. We should recoil at the depictions of gratuitous violence in film, television or anywhere else. However, when carefully crafted in the service of artistic expression, depictions of violence move us in positive ways.