Emergence Of Violence In American Cinema Essay

, Research Paper

Cinematic violence has been in films since the start of movie making. From Orson Wells tearing up his estranged wives room in Citizen Kane to Anthony Perkins slicing up Vivian Leigh in Psycho, violence has always been present in film in one form or another. It was not until the late sixties and seventies that such visionaries as Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Sam Peckinpah, and William Friedken, to mention a few, came and put on film what was to become a trend in American cinema that would flourish until the present day. Graphic violence has become as important to film as the happy ending. The nineteen seventies was a time that filmmakers started to make extreme statements about our society and they often used extreme measures to achieve this.

To understand violence in film it is first wise to understand the MPAA. Founded in 1922, The Motion Picture Association of America s home page on the World Wide Web explains it like this, we are the trade association of the American film industry whom have broadened it s mandate over the years to reflect the diversity of an expanding industry. So in short, they say what can be put into a film and what cannot. It was not however until the late sixties that they started allowing the content in film to which we are accustomed today.

The MPAA had been run the same since 1922 and towards the end of the 1960 s it was foolish of them to believe they could keep up with a system that was designed forty years previous. Jack Valenti, the current president of the MPAA, took his position in the company in 1966 and knew these changes had to occur. As he states in the MPAA internet site, it would have been foolish to believe that movies, that most creative of art forms, could have remained unaffected by the change and torment in our society. The outcome of this decision was the abolishment of the Hays Production Code and the beginning of a new era. The filmmakers and the ratings boards however, do not always see eye to eye.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines violence as; Physical force exerted for the purpose of violating, damaging, or abusing. This is a pattern for any film s alleged, bad guy. It is the extreme which the bad guy uses this force that is the cause of so much public back-lash against filmmakers. This did not however deter them in achieving their visions.

In 1969, Sam Peckinpah released his film, The Wild Bunch. William Holden and Ernest Borgnine starred in this bloody western that literally left the dirt streets on the screen stained with blood. The grim standoffs in this film let way for a flood of directors to try their hand at creating the horrors of life.

The latter part of the Vietnam war brought a new type of violence to our screens, although this was not the movie screens, it was our television sets. Television was broadcasting terrifying footage of the carnage going on in the Vietnam conflict. This news coverage was also ending up in the hands of directors like Michael Cimino, Francis Ford Coppola, and Hal Ashby, all of whom made a film about the war experience or/and about the post-war experience. It was in fact a war for the men who fought in it as well as a war for the people back in the states. Thanks to Hanoi Jane we will also not forget about the people we were fighting against.

The war was in effect a cinematic challenge. The filmmakers had to deal with a conflict for which the public was already familiar with. It took an American icon in the movie industry to pave the way for future films of the genre. John Wayne did The Green Berets in 1968, however this movie was nothing in the way of violence compared with it s seventies counterparts.

Francis Ford Coppola s, Apocalypse Now opened in 1979 and it was an instant hit despite the extreme violence. A year previous, Michael Cimino s, The Deer Hunter was released and also did well at the box office despite a grueling scene in which two friends are forced by the Vietcong to a deadly game of Russian roulette. That film won three Oscars.

We know however that war is violent, so what other genres need to include such violent subject matter? I like to look at violence as three separate categories.

1. War Violence- could be gang or different nations, or for that matter could be

two different planets.

2. Realistic Violence- basically anything that can realistically happen to you or I. Rape, murder, mugging, beating, etc…..

3. Fantasy Violence- Luke Skywalker gets his arm cut off with a light saber, or Linda Blair’s head spin in The Exorcist.

The realistic type violence of the seventies was used often and used quite effectively. John Boorman s 1972 film, Deliverance, was a haunting look at a buddy film gone bad. The four business men were to run into the two hicks from hell. Not only did this film have plenty of blood, but it also incorporated a sodomizing scene that had never before been put on the screen. This sound like an MPAA nightmare, but with a few cuts hear and there, the film was given an R rating.

American cities were also the subject of many films that portrayed violence, after all where is most of the violence played out. Dirty Harry in 1971 showed the harsh realities of a police officers life in San Fransisco. It also showed that a cop can go beyond what the badge entails to bust his man. In the 1995 Leonard Maltin Movie Guide, he states that the film was in tribute to the police officers of San Francisco who gave their lives in the line of duty. Harsh realities breed harsh films. Police officers have died in the line of duty forever, however it was not until a film like this did people sit up and say wow it s not pretty when they do die. The film was criticized for it s violence, but would the impact of the streets been there without it?

The same is true about rape scenes in films. In 1977 John Badham released his gritty look at the New York disco scene, Saturday Night Fever. The film has a brutal rape scene, and despite the success of the film was still attacked by some womans groups. Again, why deny the truth about rape. It is brutal and it is ugly, the film did it s job.

Scorsese is a master of showing the realities of street life. Two of his films stand out in the seventies that took the viewer on a seedy side of life that actually exists. Mean Streets is a look at the survival of a few friends who have grown up in the inner-city. Taxi Driver is a look at the life of an out of touch taxi driver with a flair for rigging hidden guns. The ending of this particular film is extremely violent, however the film would of not been what it is without it. Not the same impact. Later in 1980, the President of the United States of America was mortally shot by a man. John Hinckley stated that he had watched Taxi Driver, and wanting to impress the young co-star, Jodi Foster, he decided to kill the president. When the case went to trail the lawyers played the film over and over for the jury. In Mary Pat Kelly s book, Martin Scorsese A Journey, Scorsese states, Showing the movie in court is unfair. It s like the end of Fahrenheit 451, where the guy is chased, and they pick up anybody at random so they can tell people at home, It s okay. We caught him. You can rest. It s okay; he did it because of our picture. Now you can all sleep. (98)

A similar situation arose in 1973 when the release of William Friedken’s, The Exorcist, gave way to a worldwide demonic possession scare. Apparently viewers of the film claimed to be possessed after watching the film. Of course this was not true, but this is a good example of the power that filmmakers have over their audience.

We have seen violence in cinema create all types of reactions from people; tough criticism, assassination attempts, and claims of demonic possession. There is something else that these films have in common besides the violence though. They are of course all GREAT films. All of these filmmakers set out to make a film that for the most part tells the truth, whether it be about war, street life, or demonic possession for that matter. The truth sometimes hurts, and as long as there are filmmakers and film to use, there will be things about the films they make that people won t like. People will always have there opinion and they are entitled to that opinion, but like the old wise man once said, opinions are like assh*&%$, everyone’s got one.

So now as we enter into the next millennium the filmmakers are still making violent films, in fact more violent than ever before. They are however under more pressure from the MPAA. Hopefully soon the MPAA will take another look at it s system and do some updating to keep up with the times. Violence is now a type of art form. Tarantino, Stone, Hughes Bros., and Rodriguez are the names that are synonymous with violence today. Tim Roth, an actor whose film credits include Reservoir Dogs and Bodies, Rest & Motion, states in the February 1993 issue of Premier: I love violence in films, but you have to do it well. I don t like films where the consequences of shooting someone are abandoned (28).


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