Last week as I was watching the new Addams Family, I questioned the extent of the debate regarding violence in cinema. There, Pugsley throws grenades around, and Wednesday plays with knives and guillotines. Nobody talks about how these characters are potentially bad influences on children. Yet, there has been a hot debate on certain films that potentially lead viewers to violence such as Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, and recently Todd Phillips’ Joker. While the argument seems to be specific for some certain films and not for the others, I would like to propose a general question: can any film lead people to violence?
If we are to comment about violence on screen, we cannot omit the western genre, which has gunfights as key plot points and doesn’t end without the killing of the villain. Then, why isn’t there a debate on how these films incite more violence in real life? Simply because westerns are set in a different time, the violence seems to be justified. As John Cawelti puts it in Savagery, Civilization, and the Western Hero: “The frontier setting provided a fictional justification for enjoying violent conflicts and the expression of lawless force without feeling that they threatened the values or the fabric of society.”
When the setting is not far from our reality, the situation changes. It is a fact that most of the viewers are moved after watching Do the Right Thing. But does “moved” mean having a new ground to base more violence on? If anything, the film shows how catastrophic it is. Violence exists in the social world, and representation of it in cinema is expected, if not inevitable. Do the Right Thing initiated a heated public response when it was first out in 1989. The viewers debated whether it runs the risk of stimulating or leading to additional violence. Some people thought it was dangerous. In my opinion, there wasn’t any glorification of violence in the film.
As far as I experienced it, it only underlined how upsetting violence is for all parties. So maybe the viewer interprets a movie in a way in which they are already inclined to. When asked about the primary purpose of the film, Spike Lee tells that he was in an attempt to “put Afroamerican experience on screen in theatres.” The film is an example of public art, which deals with controversy and deals with directly and in immediacy. There was great controversy on the issue because the film centered a vital political activity of the period. The viewers react unfavorably when the subject matter deals with a particular social-political issue straight from headlines; in this case, it was the racial conflict, public debates, and ongoing police killings of the black citizens.
A similar debate was ignited again recently with Joker. For me, Joker was the well-constructed back story of one of the most beloved and famous villains. For some others, it seems that the film was somehow glorifying anarchy. This argument most probably stems from the uneasiness within the societies in today’s circumstances. In Slavoj Zizek’s words, “To be shocked by violence depicted in the film is just an escape from real violence.” There is no doubt that the filmmaker argues how the social structure feeds these sorts of issues for the worse, but I don’t believe he had a certain hidden agenda regarding telling a glorified story of terrorism. Therefore, the final scene of the riot shows Arthur’s triumph as the main character, rather than the glorification of a generalized idea of a rebelling community. Zizek calls Joker a “social horror film,” which combines the two genres, “…it is only possible when many phenomena in our ordinary social life become phenomena which belong to horror films.”
Inciting more violence has been a concern for the people and the politicians for a long time, and the debate is not limited to what we see in the cinema. For a long time, video games had been argued to be normalizing violence, which could end up in more brutality in real life, and a generation indifferent to violence. However, the studies show they are not relevant. People who are great at slaughtering in video games are as disturbed by the violence in real life as any other citizen.
Regarding the depiction of violence in cinema, people seem to be sensitive about these issues when they see something from their everyday reality as if they wish to draw a thick line between fiction and real life. Killings are cherished in western or horror, and blowing up cities are magnificent in Marvel films. But it is challenging to put these on screen in a realistic content. Why violence is approved in some context but found intolerable in some others is a question of sociology, and the answer cannot be found in vilifying certain films that tell a story similar to the one we see on the news.