Should We Censor Movie Violence?

Why critics on both the right and the left are wrong.

Last week, in the aftermath of the Aurora, Colorado shooting by James Holmes at the midnight showing of the magnificent film, The Dark Knight Rises, the press called for a closer eye on film violence. Peter Bogdanovich, one of the most overrated filmmakers in modern history, wrote a piece decrying movie violence: “[What happened last weekend was] modern horror. At first, some of the people [at The Dark Knight Rises] thought it was part of the movie. That’s very telling. Violence on the screen has increased tenfold. It’s almost pornographic. In fact, it is pornographic. Video games are violent, too. It’s all out of control. I can see where it would drive somebody crazy.” Bogdanovich made sure to tap the right wing as the source of gun violence in the United States, too: “Politicians are afraid to touch [gun control] because of the right wing. And nothing ever changes. We’re living in the Wild West.”

First off, it’s worthwhile noting that Hollywood, which calls the violence it itself produces “pornographic,” has no problem with actual pornography which it also produces. Secondly, Hollywood isn’t interested in horror movies, which truly are awash in blood and guts. They generally target action movies, which have good guys and bad guys and suggest that bad guys must be dealt with violently from time to time. It’s one thing to let crazies butcher scantily-clad girls on film; it’s another to show Dirty Harry blowing away criminals. The New York Times wrote about Dirty Harry, “It has no pretensions to art; it is a simply told story of the Nietzschean superman and his sadomasochistic pleasures.” The same paper wrote of Saw, “the movie's picture of two bewildered captives, each shackled by an ankle to a rusty pipe on opposite sides of a filthy subterranean bathroom, bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the infamous Iraqi prison photos. The movie does a better-than-average job of conveying the panic and helplessness of men terrorized by a sadist in a degrading environment.”

In other words, random violence is violence with a point; violence in the name of morality is simply evil.

The media has been all-too-eager to pile on to The Dark Knight Rises, largely because it’s a right-wing film. Had James Holmes dressed up as a character from Avatar and gone on a murder spree, would there have been a comparable condemnation of the violence of liberal director James Cameron’s Avatar? Certainly Bogdanovich wouldn’t.

There are those on the right, always eager to punch Hollywood in the nose, who suggest that showing violence onscreen somehow incentivizes people to engage in violent behavior – although studies are dubious on that score. Those on the left, meanwhile, are interested mainly in targeting movie violence so as to avoid scrutiny on film behavior that actually does cause behavior: sexuality. Hollywood has no problem decrying its own reliance on blood and gore. But when it comes to salacious material, Hollywood proclaims that it’s acting under the First Amendment. Hollywood’s fine with a culture of sex. They are concerned about a culture that sometimes advocates justified violence.

So what should be done about movie violence? Not much. Acts of real violence, for instance– snuff films-- should not be made, let alone seen. There is a difference between extreme violence and normal film violence. But millions of people see a film, and should filmmakers be held to account for one crazed individual whose pathological trigger is pulled by this film?  Should filmmakers worry about the fantasies of the craziest members of society before writing a script?

In short, Batman isn’t responsible for Colorado. One demented individual is.

Every time some isolated act of violence occurs, the media and the left look for a societal problem to blame. When JFK was shot, James Reston of The New York Times blamed the rhetoric of America’s conservatives, even though Lee Harvey Oswald was a communist (a “silly little communist,” in the words of Jackie O.). When Jared Loughner shot Gabby Giffords, Paul Krugman of The New York Times stepped into the echo chamber and blamed the tenor of America’s political debate for the attack.  All of it is nonsense.

When Hollywood leaps to condemn itself, we should be deeply suspicious. And the case of James Holmes is no exception to that rule.

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