The New Violence
By Peter Travers
(US: The Entertainment Magazine, # 182, March 1993)
Children roaring with laughter at the sight of human beings roaring in pain. Hold that image. Think about it. Have these children sneaked into a theater showing “Reservoir Dogs,” “Bad Lieutenant” or any of the other maverick adult films sparking a new and typically idiotic uproar about movie violence? Hardly. Even if they did, the brutality on view would reasonably prompt terror not giggles. If you really want something to fry your nerves, check out a kiddie matinee of that smash family hit “Home Alone 2.” Midway through the film, Hollywood’s boy king Macaulay Culkin stands on a roof of a Manhattan townhouse and hurls down bricks at the two bad guys, played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. His first throw scores a direct hit on Stern’s forehead, raising a large welt. The audience, ranging in age from toddlers to preteens, squeals with delight. They squeal even louder as their ten-year-old hero throws another brick and then another-each time hitting the howling Stern as the camera zooms in to show bruises getting bigger, redder and uglier.
Later, Stern turns the tables. “Suck brick, kid,” he yells, taking aim at his tyke target. He misses, but a good section of the audience wouldn’t mind if he did conk the Culk. “Suck brick! Suck brick!” they shriek in a spectacle more unnerving than the “Kill the pig! Kill the pig!” chorus in Lord of the Flies.
The remainder of Home Alone 2 is a torturefest engineered by tricky little Mac. Stern and Pesci are smacked, whacked, sliced, diced, set on fire and electrocuted. “Have you had enough pain?” Mac asks, rubbing his hands together in the happy anticipation of inflicting more. When Stern is shot in the face with a nail gun, there’s a closeup of him yanking the nail out. It’s another major laugh-getter.
Meredith Day, founder of MACE (Mothers Against Child Endangerment), has said the producers of Home Alone 2 are “guilty of gross negligence” in showing a child playing with such items as matches, kerosene, electrical wires and power tools. Day asks: “How many children will go home and act out Home Alone 2?”
Day’s concern is understandable, but she’s missing the real point. Movies can’t create violence-we have society to thank for that-but they can and do desensitize children to cruelty. It’s a dangerous trend, and it’s on the rise. Kids see Home Alone 2 at the movies, watch Batman cartoons on the tube and play Terminator games at the video arcade (rack up that body count!) After a steady diet of sadism, no wonder they’re shouting “suck brick!” and laughing. Violence has become a game that brings no remorse or consequence. And who’s to blame? We are. We’re not paying attention.
For starters, we’re not looking in the right place. Violence is bred by social and environmental factors; it’s not conceived in the multiplex. Its root causes are slippery and frustratingly difficult to categorize. So we grab at the high-profile target. Pop culture is a sitting duck. So we demonize it, especially movies. Yes, Reservoir Dogs is a bloody piece of work featuring a stomach-churning scene with Michael Madsen slashing off the ear of a cop. But the film is also bluntly honest. Says the film’s writer-director Quentin Tarantino, “It’s disturbing, it’s brutal, it gets under your skin-that’s what I wanted it to do.” Reservoir Dogs respects its audience by not treating violence as a game without cost. The same goes for Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant in which Harvey Keitel tracks down two hoods who have beaten and raped a nun in a church they’ve just desecrated. Ditto Joel Schumacher’s just-arrived Falling Down: Michael Douglas plays a fired business executive who turns vigilante in Los Angeles overrun by racism, hate and drive-by shootings.
These are disturbing movies, representative of a world where violence is escalating and remorse is on the wane. They follow in a responsible tradition set by Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs. These are assuredly movies unsuitable for children, but if they should glom on them by accident or subterfuge, they wouldn’t end up laughing them off. They’d squirm, maybe even have nightmares, which is the truthful reaction to human savagery. In Unforgiven, an Oscar front-runner, Clint Eastwood plays a former bounty hunter whose return to killing is properly seen as a moral defeat. Yet, it’s just this kind of film that draws fire from the moral watchdogs, while nonredeeming junk such as the Halloween, Friday the 13th and Child’s Play flicks often slips by the radar. Some parents think that the violence in these horror films is so frequent and fantastical that it’s rendered meaningless.
Down that path, of course, lies madness. But kids are experts at playing their parents for suckers. If they want to rent a Child’s Play video to watch Chucky the killer doll, they’ll resort to the familiar mantra: “Mom, Dad, all the other parents let their kids see Chucky.” Judging from the rental profits for horror movies, the ploy is effective.
What almost nobody is noticing is the way violence has infiltrated the family film market. In one of last year’s biggest hits, Batman Returns, tots are squeezed into cages as part of the Penguin’s plan to drown every first-born child in the industrial waste of Gotham City. And who can forget how the Catwoman’s high-powered kiss reduces villain Max Schreck’s head to a mound of steaming, burning flesh? Then there’s Beethoven, a sweet little number about a family dog who falls victim to grisly scientific experiments. Or how about Toys, in which kids play wargames on video consoles without knowing they’re playing for real? Toys, a putrid movie, nonetheless raises a pertinent question: Aren’t vid-age kids, who’ve made a game of destruction, ripe for exploitation? As futuristic nightmares go, that one hits close to home.
It’s not just children who’ve become desensitized to the violence in the movies; adults have as well. Otherwise we’d do something about it. But many refuse to see what’s happening. They buy the propaganda that this stuff is just cartoon violence with real people. They think it’s like Wile E. Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons when the flattened victim pops up unharmed after being socked, stabbed, shot, spindled and mutilated. But take a closer look. The characters may pop back, but that’s a realistic gash on Daniel Stern’s forehead in Home Alone 2, that’s graphic gore in Batman Returns when the penguin chews on a man’s nose. The kid’s won’t settle for less-they want each movie to top the last in gross-out thrills. Using the excuse that nobody dies, we’ve made an entertainment out of watching people suffer. Now if someone slips on a banana peel in a movie, you better hear the jerk’s neck break in Dolby sound and see the bones protruding through the skin like in Death Becomes Her.
By the way, these so-called family films are all rated G, PG or PG-13 by the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), a scam operation passing itself off as a guidance counselor. “If violence is rough or persistent,” says the MPAA handbook, “the film goes to the R (restricted) rating.” Sure it does. And MPAA President Jack Valenti also cares more about the public interest than the film industry that pays his salary.
The ratings board has been harshly accused of going soft on violence and tough on sex. The unofficial rule of thumb is that if the sex partners are enjoying each other, it’s an R. The idea that sex corrupts makes about as much sense as critic Michael Medved’s book, Hollywood vs. America, which sees the entertainment industry in an insidious plot to undermine traditional values. In fact, Hollywood cares nothing of values and only of profit. It’s a business. Sexy movies make a little money, but violent movies make lots more. Check Variety’s list of the top moneymakers of all time. The biggies-E.T., Home Alone, the Star Wars trilogy, the Indiana Jones series-all involve cruelty and they’re all aimed at the family crowd. You won’t find an R film in the top ten. There’s little doubt that the PG-13 rating was devised in 1984 to protect salable but violent product such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins from being tainted with an R rating that could cut their box office potential.
It’s not that the MPAA, owned and operated by the major studios, hopes to blind us to the increasing violence in PG and PG-13 films-it’s depending on it. Slap an R on Home Alone 2 or Batman Returns and its profits are cut in half. Bring down the vividness of the gore in those films and the kids won’t come. It’s a vicious circle, and we’re all wearing blinders, bowing to peer pressure and propaganda that the MPAA knows best. Here’s a scary fact: It’s parents who decide those rating on movies. The rating board consists exclusively of parents, serving for limited periods, with no special qualifications except, says the MPAA handbook, “The capacity to put themselves in the role of most American parents so they can view a film and apply a rating that most parents would find suitable and helpful in aiding their decisions about their children’s moviegoing.” Of course, the MPAA picks them, scoring a coup the drug industry would envy: It’s turned parents into shills, selling toxins to their own kids.
Change is imperative and possible. The next time an MPAA parent sits down to rate a movie it might be beneficial if he or she considered that a film that makes a joke of violence might be more dangerous than one that takes it seriously. These exploitative kid movies-wolves in sheep’s clothing-are taking a toll on the human spirit.
As for the rest of us, forgetting the rating system and thinking for ourselves would be a good start. Sit down and watch a movie with children and see what’s going on. Try 3 Ninjas, from the once trustworthy Walt Disney studios. Among other treats, you’ll find a trio of boy warriors slam-kicking a fat villain in the crotch and giggling as he chokes and doubles over. You’ll even hear the cutie-pies sing a school song:
“On top of Old Smokey/All covered with blood/I shot my poor teacher/With a .44 stud.”
How do you react to a movie like that? The ratings board gave 3 Ninjas a PG, the kiddie audience clapped its approval and the video release is expected to do gangbusters at Blockbuster.
Children roaring with laughter at the sight of human beings in pain.
Hold that image. Think about it.