Is the moral pendulum turning against film violence? The Daily Telegraph’s Jenny McCartney for one welcomes actor Jim Carrey’s criticism of Kick-Ass 2, a film he made before the Sandy Hook massacre gave him qualms about kicking ass. After 13 years of reviewing films, McCartney notes that she has “watched the emphasis gradually shift towards the consumption of extreme screen brutality as a simple, almost sensual pleasure”. Having grown up in Northern Ireland when it had by far the highest murder rate in Europe, she has every reason to object.
Looking back over 40 years the increase in the quantity and quality of screen violence has been even starker. Graphic brutality did not really begin to be depicted until the early 1970s but even in my youth the 18-rated films were by today’s standards tame. Arnold Schwarzenegger movies like Commando, Predator or the Running Man were all given an 18 certificate; compare that with the 12A rating for The Dark Knight in 2008, which was far more violent and dark and disturbing than most of the 18s of the 1980s. Since the 1980s screen violence has intensified, Quentin Tarantino in particular making it an art form in itself.
There has often been public unease about this, but most of the debate focuses on whether violence inspires and encourages violence in real life, just as whether pornography leads to more rape. The evidence is inconclusive, though it’s not a statement of stubborn prejudice to suggest that images of violence may be unhealthy to people who already have mental problems or very poor judgment. You might consider this a small and insignificant section of the population, unless you live next door to them, which opinion-formers generally don’t.
I don’t know whether cinematic violence has a crucial influence on spree-killings like Sandy Hook, either, which have arisen due to a combination of factors, but that’s by the by. But even so it could be argued that, even if no link is proven, cinematic violence should be reined it because it intrudes on the public space we all share, and that even those who do not wish to partake must endure a coarser and more brutal (and stupider) culture.
People get very agitated about the idea of censorship, in some ways more so about their right to watch sex and violence than censorship of the things that matter, such as free speech. But the two forms of censorship are not the same thing and do not go hand-in-hand: the same government in Britain that legalised hardcore porn also introduced the most outrageously illiberal restrictions on the freedom to say controversial things, or to “glorify terrorism”. New Labour almost outlawed the freedom to criticise religion. Censorship and censorship are not the same thing.
But restrictions on screen violence, whether legal or (I would much prefer) cultural, can benefit the art form, providing discipline and structure and disincentivising shock-making and thrill-seeking. When film or television makes know they can get a cheap result through sex, violence or explosions, they’re likely to try to do those things.
The problem is that a lot of very good television contains a great deal of violence. Imagine Game of Thrones or Spiral, to take two of the best, without the violence. On the other hand we gave up on Boardwalk Empire, partly because it was just too pornographically violent. The Sopranos, the greatest programme of this golden age of television, featured some very sickening violence and this cannot be taken out of the show anymore than the lewdness can be removed from Chaucer. Some 19th century publishers did santise Samuel Pepys, and I’ve heard of a video shop in conservative Utah which only allowed a censored version of the original Bad Lieutenant, which when cut for their tastes was a whole 36 minutes long (and must have been very confusing), but that may be an apocryphal story.
But many aspects of public life are becoming more prudish and serious, and cinematic violence may well join such activities as smoking, drink-driving and casual sexism as things to which society has become more judgmental. Mostly what becomes more or less stigmatised depends on whether the people doing it are perceived to be victims, and that’s something Hollywood producers can hardly claim. Perhaps a more puritanical future age will find much of the cinema and television of the fin de millénaire too obscene and box sets of The Sopranos will be cut and sanitised in the same way as Victorian editions of Pepys.