10 May, 2005

Sex, violence, and film

I was reading comments by some Europeans who were criticizing Americans' "double standard": violence in film is okay, sex in film is not. This appears inconsistent to many non-Americans since violence tends to involve hurting someone, while sex is not usually violent.

I admit that I share this "double standard", and it seems quite clear to me why I hold this attitude. It certainly seems like a perfectly reasonable attitude to me, but I had never really thought about it before. I began wondering what reason there could be for it.

Naturally, any thoughts that begin this way should send up warning lights: I am rationalizing here. The reasoning process is colored by the fact that I am trying to justify a predetermined conclusion. That said, walk with me through the results and tell me what you think.

Firstly, let me point out that I am also uncomfortable with explicit violence in film, or with using violence as a solution to our problems. I have refused to watch Kill Bill for precisely this reason.

I think most Americans are also uncomfortable with excessive violence. There was quite a ruckus about how the Columbine killers may or may not have been inspired by the violence of The Matrix. I also remember a number of protests of Kevin Costner's film about Robin Hood, and I recall someone associated with the film (perhaps Costner himself) saying that counting the number of violent acts in a film is not a good measure of whether the violence is excessive. That's worth considering, but I won't consider it know; I raise the point only to illustrate that Americans are not happy-go-lucky with all violence, especially the romanticized violence of (say) The Matrix.

Having said that, let's also point out that when violence is depicted on-screen, it is almost always depicted along with its consequences, namely suffering. Except for comedies, most of the film violence that I can think of offhand depicts its consequences unpleasantly: bleeding, even death.

To follow up on that, I have read that, back before American films started depicting blood with violence, a lot more people were unhappy about violence in film. Think of cowboys shooting other cowboys, who groan, grab their stomach and fall bloodlessly to the ground.

Compare this to film depictions of sexual relations.

I have never seen a film with a sex scene that goes on to show the natural consequences of that act; not once. There is abundant sex in films: married sex, unmarried sex, adulterous sex, etc. I can't think of any instances where this act was then shown to lead to pregnancy, or to venereal disease.

I'm not saying that it doesn't happen in some films, mind you; I'm merely pointing out that sex is almost never depicted with regard to consequences in film. Sex in film is always romanticized; it is always a fantasy without consequences to anyone involved (except good feelings). One cannot say this about films that depict violence.

Last night, for example, I watched Kingdom of Heaven. The film itself is escapist fantasy and emotional self-gratification on an epic scale; nevertheless, by the standard I'm applying here, the violence is depicted quite realistically, especially as compared to the sex. I have to emphasize: by the standard I'm applying here.

Given that, I'd say that the American attitude towards sex and violence in film is more mature than the European attitude, not less.

I am very interested in other people's thoughts on this. It's quite possible that I'm totally out of the water in my reasoning. The reasoner is often the one most blind to his own faults.

11 comments:

Alessandra said...

"I think most Americans are also uncomfortable with excessive violence. "

I disagree in the sense that gratuitous violence is part of a lot of American "entertainment." I also disagree about what qualifies as "excessive" violence (we obviously have different criteria for it).

Alessandra said...

" I raise the point only to illustrate that Americans are not happy-go-lucky with all violence, especially the romanticized violence of (say) The Matrix."

to what extent do we get a realistic picture of American society by this generalization? I would say many millions of Americans are comfortable with various types of violence as entertainment and there are those who aren't. Certainly the number of people who are comfortable with violent entertainment in the US is significant. I have no idea percentage wise, statistically speaking what we would get, but box office numbers, tv ratings, porn sales show they make up a good part of American society. I also don't hear Americans criticizing violent entertainment usually, you know, speaking up about it, even if they may not like it. Only a few people express criticism.

Alessandra said...

"I'm not saying that it doesn't happen in some films, mind you; I'm merely pointing out that sex is almost never depicted with regard to consequences in film. Sex in film is always romanticized; it is always a fantasy without consequences to anyone involved (except good feelings). One cannot say this about films that depict violence."

That's an interesting point. Sex is usually very romanticized, or pornographied, but usually very de-emotionalized regarding other emotions besides desire. Sexual scenes usually have very little emotional intimacy, it's mostly a glamorized script. There is also almost total suppression of other complicated feelings that may be part of the depicted relation, such as rejection, insensitivity, insecurity, sexism, boredom, lack of communication, etc.

Alessandra said...

Last night, for example, I watched Kingdom of Heaven. The film itself is escapist fantasy and emotional self-gratification on an epic scale; nevertheless, by the standard I'm applying here, the violence is depicted quite realistically, especially as compared to the sex. I have to emphasize: by the standard I'm applying here.

Given that, I'd say that the American attitude towards sex and violence in film is more mature than the European attitude, not less.
====================
Why? What is your criteria for maturity regarding this subject?

Alessandra said...

this is an excerpt of a review of Dreamers:
Les enfants terribles Isabelle and Theo are involved in an incestuous relationship. Both are attracted to Matthew. On one level, ``The Dreamers'' is a ``Jules and Jim'' for the new millennium, an hommage to threesomes and the French New Wave filmmakers who were the children of the cinemateque.
But the writing is often banal - there is an idiotic exchange about the cosmic implications of a Zippo lighter - and the dialogue is constantly upstaged by the lyrics and sounds of the '60s music so intelligently layered onto the soundtrack.
cw2 Bertolucci (``1900,'' ``The Last Emperor'') and cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti (``Besieged'') also beautifully weave vintage clips into their film.
But ``The Dreamers'' begs the question: Can sex be boring? The answer is yes, if the actors have been cast primarily for their looks. Green especially is a problem, and as Yeats might have said, if one corner of your triangle cannot hold, the thing falls apart. Pitt is zonked-out and affectless in that adenoidal Ryan Phillippe sort of way, while Garrel appears to be even more in love with his aquiline profile than the camera.
The film is also confused. What Bertolucci thinks of as Utopian looks monstrous to me. His lovers are holed up in their own shock corridors, cutting themselves dangerously off from the street and life. They run out of food and wash down leftovers picked out of the trash with dad's Chateau LaFitte-Rothschild.
The film suggests that movie lovers are modern-day lotus eaters seeking oblivion and death. On an obvious level, Matthew, Isabelle and Theo are acting out a sexualized, incestuous version of ``The Lord of the Flies'' in a type of Parisian House of Usher. If Bertolucci were presenting this ``vision'' as a metaphor for the malaise of modern Western cinema, not to mention his own recent work, I might be tempted to agree.
But I'm not sure he knows what he's saying. Bertolucci once airily remarked that ``French is the language of the cinema.'' But his new film is largely in English, the language of money. It's less ``Breathless'' than an invitation to heavy breathing.
http://theedge.bostonherald.com/movieReviews/edgeMovies.bg?articleid=253

Seems like a very good review to me (I didn't see the movie, and by the reviews, I won't go see it, it's such trash).

But regarding your post, the above film is very violent and full of sex. The violence is emotional, apparently not physical. And if a film contains tons of emotional violence towards sexual relationships, and that is posited as some Utopia, I mean, it's a sad thing such mentally diseased guys get to be film directors...

Alessandra said...

you commented on my blog:
"She looked unhealthily slender; needlessly to say, that is almost certainly historically inaccurate (from what I've read, medievals preferred their women plump)."

ah yes, but box office profits today come from thin women :-)

I had never seen this actress before, and in KofH I didn't notice she was that thin, since you almost always just see her face (bare), all those veils and jewelry. Or maybe it's because that's where my attention was focused. I found her costumes very beautiful. I got tired of the close up shots on her eyes. Ok, we've seen she has green eyes, some other shot please... It almost looked like a CoverGirl commercial, over and over again...

I did wonder as one more historical innacuracy thing in the movie about her riding around on a horse, even with a small troupe of guards. It doesn't seem like queens would be allowed to ride around like that, so independently, not important queens anyways. But then there were medieval women who broke all the rules, even in Europe, because they had the power to do it.

jack perry said...

I disagree in the sense that gratuitous violence is part of a lot of American "entertainment."

Perhaps I shouldn't have said "most Americans", but rather "a large number of Americans". In my experience, these tend to be the same who are uncomfortable with sex depicted onscreen. I have to emphasize that this is my experience.

to what extent do we get a realistic picture of American society by this generalization?

This is purely anecdotal, and is being floated as an idea precisely because I can't possibly know how most Americans feel.

Why? What is your criteria for maturity regarding this subject?

My criterion is this: Is the act depicted with consideration of its natural consequences? With sex, this is never the case (in my experience); with violence, this is nearly always the case.

In Kingdom of Heaven, Balian and Sibylla (or whatever her name is) carry on an adulterous relationship. In fact, she moves into his "castle" (not sure if that's the right word) and takes up with him. In one scene, the two are shown beginning to copulate. Not only does this strike me as an anachronism designed to tickle "enlightened" audiences' sensibilities, but the natural consequences are never shown — especially considering that effective birth or disease control simply didn't exist in that era.

All the violent acts, however, are portrayed realistically. Not only to warriors suffer damage in battle and die, but at least one of them (Balian's father) dies from an illness incurred during recovery from a wound.

Does that help explain it?

The violence is emotional, apparently not physical. And if a film contains tons of emotional violence towards sexual relationships, and that is posited as some Utopia, I mean, it's a sad thing such mentally diseased guys get to be film directors...

I'm addressing physical violence vs. sex, because this seems to be what the Europeans (and a lot of "enlightened" Americans) are so snooty about. You're right to raise the issue of emotional violence, but I've never really thought about it before, and I don't really know if it appears often in cinema, aside from a certain kind of film. (Drama)

zsolt said...

I believe movies are not about reality in its purest form, and that depicting the consequences of one act doesn't make it more real, especially not in the case of sex vs. violence. The consequences of sex are too complex I guess for the needs of most directors needs anyway.

I believe the answer to the original question must be sought in the relation between our everyday reality and the depicted act.

jack perry said...

Dear Zsolt,

I believe movies are not about reality in its purest form...

True enough. However, it seems to me that those films that do aspire to approximate reality are less likely to portray irresponsible violence in a romantic light, and more likely to portray irresponsible sexual acts in a romantic light.

...and that depicting the consequences of one act doesn't make it more real, especially not in the case of sex vs. violence.

I agree that it doesn't make it more real; but that's not the same as being realistic.

I believe the answer to the original question must be sought in the relation between our everyday reality and the depicted act.

Can you explain more? This is an interesting observation. Violence doesn't occur in the everyday reality of most Americans, regardless of what television and film might suggest. Sex, on the other hand, does.

zsolt said...

When I talk about violence, I mean some guy beating some other(s). Although this is not the only way of violence in movies, this is the most general I believe, I include war movies here too.

I can believe sex without consequences much easier than one guy beating 10 other without getting hurt, so that's why I believe violence is not more realistically depicted.

Also, sex is much more complex in itself and in it's consequences and these are much harder to express in a movie than violence, maybe that's one more reason why the consequences are not depicted as often as those of violence, where somebody just has to stay on the ground.

Both sex and violence are not the main themes of most movies, they're just episodic scenes trying to express something about the character of the actors doing them, but they're not their most important feature. Usually the actors fight for the greater good in one way or the other, and sex or violence is only a way of achieving it.

What I'd like to point out, that the consequences of either acts are not that important for the plot of the movie, unless of course it's a movie about the very special act, but those are rare. Nobody really cares how many ninjas get killed, or how many lovers did the Highlander have before.

On how the depictions of these acts relate to real life, I wish not to comment. :)) I don't know American society at all, besides what I see in the movies. :))

jack perry said...

I can believe sex without consequences much easier than one guy beating 10 other without getting hurt, so that's why I believe violence is not more realistically depicted.

That's a good point. I was going to ask, How often does that happen? but I really don't know.

sex is much more complex in itself and in it's consequences and these are much harder to express in a movie than violence, maybe that's one more reason why the consequences are not depicted as often as those of violence

Personally, I don't think so. But it's possible.

the consequences of either acts are not that important for the plot of the movie...

I agree with this, but: it's not the point of my thoughts to question whether sex or violence ought ot be in these films, in the first place. My point is simply to explore why Americans are less comfortable with on-screen sex than with on-screen violence, especially when children might see it.

I don't know American society at all, besides what I see in the movies. :))

Alas, that seems to be how most Americans know American society, too. :-( Well, that and MTV. It's terrible.