Critic's Notebook: Movie violence must not be stopped

I abhor violence. As a rookie police reporter years ago I saw the damage guns, knives, broken bottles, metal pipes, hands — humans — can inflict. From the terrifyingly premeditated to the unfortunately accidental, those images still have the power to shake me to the core. They will never leave me.

I don't, however, believe the movies are to blame for these acts. As good as Hollywood is at reimagining the intrinsic brutality that roams our streets, burrows into twisted minds, plays havoc with our world, nothing I've seen in movies comes close to what I witnessed firsthand.

Perhaps that is why movie violence doesn't offend me. I may be unsettled by it, but no matter the saturation level, I rarely turn away.

THE CULTURE OF VIOLENCE:  Art | Film | Television | Hollywood 

I want to ride the superhero roller coaster. I want to cheer as the bad guys bite the dust. I like the line between good and evil sharply drawn by a super sleuth like James Bond or blurred by an everyman like Michael Douglas in "Falling Down."

I want Steven Spielberg to keep reminding me in "Lincoln," "Saving Private Ryan" and "Schindler's List" what evil looks like and the fortitude it takes to face it down. I want Kathryn Bigelow to continue assessing the psychological cost of global conflicts in "The Hurt Locker" and "Zero Dark Thirty." And yes, I want Quentin Tarantino to keep spraying the canvas with blood, even when it is just in fun.

Whatever else the movies make me feel — horror, hubris, humor, humanity at its best and worst — I know it's real life, not Hollywood, that's the killer.

You can't tell that to the politicians or the talking heads on TV. They see in Hollywood an easy, highly visible — and disturbingly simplistic — target after tragic events like last summer's slaughter during a showing of "The Dark Knight Rises" in Aurora, Colo., and the more recent killings of children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Like history, the argument keeps repeating itself.

When bullets tore through bodies in Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" in 1969, there was shock. When Arthur Penn kept the camera running for the ballet of death that ended "Bonnie and Clyde," there was outrage. When Tarantino began his paean to blood-drenched movies with "Kill Bill," he was condemned; his latest, "Django Unchained," with its defiant blast at antebellum slavery, kicked up more furor. And when Bigelow showed the bloodless but chilling waterboarding of prisoners thought to be Osama bin Laden operatives in her Oscar-nominated "Zero Dark Thirty," public anger fueled congressional hearings.

THE CULTURE OF VIOLENCE:  Video Games | World Cinema

To denounce movies for the violence of our times, when unimaginable atrocity has been with us since the dawn of mankind, is at best misguided, at worst damaging.

Hollywood is not the reason for the wreckage made by madmen with guns. The troubled will always be with us.

To fault films for forcing us to consider that humans commit atrocious acts, that evil exists in far too many hearts, is to blame the messenger. It's classic displacement theory. "Zero's" Beltway brouhaha echoes the backlash that hit Michael Cimino's fabled "The Deer Hunter" in 1978 for its portrayal of Vietnam-era American POWs forced to play Russian roulette.

I'm not suggesting filmmakers have no responsibility for what they make — they do. But that responsibility is to the art as well as the audience. Within the mayhem, there is nearly always a message. Movies are our cautionary tales, fictional reminders of the true nature of humanity's baser basic instincts. And moviemakers — by that I mean every name above and below the title, for it takes a village — are the seers, the interpreters, the illusionists, the entertainers.

They are not the instigators.

THE CULTURE OF VIOLENCE:  On-screen history | Theater | Research

The topic has been a hot button for so many years that we don't even know how to discuss it rationally anymore.

Consider 1994's "Natural Born Killers," a provocative, satiric indictment of mass media's glorification of savagery and the way violence so often overtakes the TV news cycle. The controversy "Killers" triggered was about the movie's images — extremely graphic in showing the execution-style cross-country killing spree of the lethal lovers played by Juliette Lewis and Woody Harrelson — not its messages about the sometimes outrageous lengths the media uses to capture footage of real-life violence for mass consumption and the audience's appetite to watch it. Directed by Oliver Stone and with a story by Tarantino, it was still, 15 years later, among the top 10 on Entertainment Weekly's list of the 25 most controversial films ever.

Positive force

One question that always surfaces in the debate: What possible good can come from any depiction of the horrific on screen?