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January 4, 2013

Violence, Sex and Language — Style or Content?

by Howard Suber

The media are full of commentary on the National Rifle Association’s claim that film, tv, and video games are one of the main factors behind violence in our society. At the same time, there is a lot of commentary on Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and not only the issue of violence in this and his other work, but his propensity to use “the ‘N” word.”

Controversies about the effects of drama have been with us at least since Plato and Aristotle, and any argument that continues to be debated for centuries suggests to me that there will never be a resolution because people frequently talk past one another or focus on different facets of the diamond-like structure at the center of the debate.


On some levels, these arguments share elements with another age-old debate: that between content and style. Are the objections to violence in films, for example, protests about content or about style?

I am not one who believes it is possible to make an easy or clear distinction between the two, yet trying to figure out which is which may help us understand what the important issues are.

The Greek tragedies were full of violence, incest, cruelty, suffering, etc. So was Elizabethan tragedy. The Greeks were more fastidious about how they presented these things, however, relegating the depiction mostly to offstage, which is where Oedipus killed his father, slept with his mother, gouged out his eyes, etc.

Aristotle might have thought of such violent or sexual actions as “spectacle,” which he said was the least important aspect of drama. (Or maybe he just thought it improper to depict these things.)

But it was (and is) very difficult to have effective  spectacle on a stage. Even today the best theater can do with spectacle seems to be to drop a chandelier (or actors) on the audience.

Spectacle in modern times has often overwhelmed plot, character and the other elements of film. No medium has ever been as good at presenting spectacle as film, so it’s not surprising that spectacle has been at the core of many popular films since The Birth of a Nation. (We should note that early Italian films predating The Birthday of a Nation specialized in spectacles, and the French and Germans made their own spectacles later, so this is not something unique to America.)

I kept thinking of Aristotle’s theory of the relative importance of spectacle every time Quentin Tarantino in  Django Unchained splattered blood over huge swaths of walls or showed slow-motion shots of bodies exploding under the impact of bullets. This, of course, goes back at least as far as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), which also generated great controversy.

It’s not violence alone that’s generating the controversy over Tarantino’s latest (or earlier) spectacles — it’s how it’s depicted. (In earlier times, the debate was even over whether it should be depicted.)

There’s a kind of Victorianism about violence in our time that’s analogous to the Victorianism about sex in the last century – people know that it is widely engaged in, but proper people didn’t talk about it in public, and certainly didn’t show it. And they certainly aren’t supposed to dwell on it, as Tarantino inevitably does.

I suppose some doctoral student has written a dissertation on the style of death in American films. In the silent era and the sound period until the Sixties, someone fired a gun, there was a loud retort on the sound track and an actor clutched his or chest or side, dropped to the ground, and we knew the person was dead. No blood splatter or, for that matter, no blood at all except the occasional insert shot of a hole in the victim with a small painted-on ooze of chocolate (in many black and white films) or a ketchup-like substance dyed to darken it for early Technicolor cameras.

Isn’t the way in which death is depicted in film largely a matter of style? And isn’t a hallmark of Tarantino’s style his use of blood spatter? Other directors may have as many deaths; they just don’t depict it as vividly.

But I’ve made too much of the blood in Django Unchained. The V.P. of the NRA may complain about Tarantino’s method (and frequency) of gory deaths; but the ton of articles on the controversy over the film seem to be much more focused on “The ‘N” Word” (a euphemism that reminds me, again, of the Victorians).

It seems to me that the spoken word “nigger” in a film released in the second decade of the 21st Century fits into the form/content debate. Some people will say the decision to use the word is an aspect of the style of the film, while others will say it’s an important aspect of the film’s content.

But as I said, style and content often cannot be easily separated, and the relationship between the two varies over time and among audiences and of course over individual films.

I imagine that most people under 40 in our time find nothing exceptional in the huge number of people killed in gangster, horror, science fiction or films based on comic book characters.

But in the classic gangster films of the early 1930s, censors and groups who said they were concerned with protecting people’s minds from corruption were very much concerned about the presence of so many killings in film. This was true especially if the killings went unpunished; in fact, the Production Code– the industry’s internal censorship bureau intended to stave off public or governmental censorship — explicitly demanded that crime must be punished. That demand looks quaint today.

A man kills someone. That is, at its base, the content of most killing scenes. The man pulling the trigger in a 1930s gangster or western looks very much like the men pulling the trigger in a 2013 film – that is, what the killer does hasn’t changed that much. It’s how the victim dies that has changed. Is it necessary to show bullets penetrating bodies, blowing blood all over the set?

One could also apply this question about how something is presented to sex in films. In Casablanca, Ilsa Lund comes to visit Rick Blaine at night in the hopes she can persuade him to give her the “letters of transit.” The scene, if I remember correctly, ends with a cliché of the period – the camera slowly panning across a window, the window curtains wave a bit from some breeze, and we fade to black. Every adult knew this was a cinematic euphemism for “they have sex.”

Today, Lars von Trier tells us that in his next film, Nymphomaniac, when Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgård have sex it will be “the real thing.” Undoubtedly, there will be multiple articles and maybe even a doctoral dissertation or two here and in Denmark that analyze these scenes in exquisite detail.

I think it’s clear that, with sex even more than violence, the form of the depiction closely correlates with the emotions the audience feels. So, we mustlook not merely at the content, but equally at the style used to present violence, sex, and even language.

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