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Guest Post: Violence and Entertainment

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Matty P. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Thursdays.)

I am a hypocrite. On one hand, I oppose violence. To me it is a reminder of how far we still have to come as a species. Yet at the same time, I find it enjoyable. Not that I enjoy hurting others or picking fights in bars, but I do enjoy violent sports, action movies, and even competitive martial arts. Where is the line of that divides when violence is appropriate or acceptable to enjoy? (If there is a line, if it is ever acceptable.)

We use analogies to analyze where we are compared to where we’ve been. The closest and most classic comparison I could muster to our society’s violent entertainment is how the Roman Empire watched slaves battle in arenas; comparing MMA or professional boxing to gladiatorial combat. The only difference seems to be the use of lethal weaponry in combat; one form of entertainment is designed for the kill while the other to test how much of a beating two men can take. Gladiators received the reward of life while our current competitors receive a life riddled with pain resulting from repeated trauma. Consider Muhammad Ali and the results of repeated blows to the head or retired football players who can't bend at the knees.

Now compare the movies we watch. Martial Arts movies demonstrate the subtle beauty and complexity of combat. It entertains us because of it’s intensity and departure from the common concept of fighting depicted by two angry men wrestling each other to the ground and swinging their fist wildly in every direction. The violence portrayed in these films is unrealistic. It’s more art than combat; a choreographed dance between two masters. While there is portrayal of death, blood, and injury; it is depicted with a detachment from the real. In Jet Li's Fearless (2006), the main character uses a single simple strike to kill a man with an impact that resonates through his enemy’s chest resulting in a bulging of the posterior rib cage. It's a feat that defies physics.

Then we come to war films like Saving Private Ryan, Platoon or Black Hawk Down. The war film depicts violence that correlates to actual events the audience is familiar with. Do these scenes--this manner of depicting violence--cause the same level or quality of entertainment as the martial arts movies? Arguably, no. Watching Saving Private Ryan or the series Band of Brothers, I swell with intense displeasure at shear magnitude of violence that man inflicts on man. Watching a man cry for his mother as he attempts to shovel his own intestines back into his abdomen is not an image that psyches me up. This types of movie attempts to show how terrible actual violence is. They portray the cost of the devastation not just on a landscape, but to those who enact it and those who endure it.
I would end there with this simple distinction, but there is another type of entertainment. One that treats the act of violence as pure entertainment, made guilt free because it is being justified. The most poignant examples are the movies 300 and Inglorious Bastards. In these movie, acts of violence are made to be entertainment in of themselves. The intense and graphic slaughter of Persians by Spartan soldiers or the slaying of Nazi soldiers is made to serve as heart pounding enjoyment. Arguably for 300, you can compare it to martial arts movies because the level of swordplay and combat no longer exists and the action is exaggerated. Yet so is nobility of one half of the conflict and the villainy of the other half. Regardless, where is the justification for action movies that prey on our bloodthirsty nature?
What Tarentino does in Inglorious Bastards is not new to cinema. We have an entire genre called action movies dedicated to senseless mayhem and carnage. And I love action movies. I enjoy it when a good guy shoots a bad guy and throws out a dry quip. I enjoy watching Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson trade bitter remarks as they scour New York for a terrorist or the Governator battling a predatory alien. The moral question is whether I should.
We can justify it all we want. We can say that the good guy is killing someone evil or is righteous in his slaying because his enemy is a Nazi or an impending conqueror or that our hero has no alternative if he values his own life. We can say it’s not real. The truth is that we are still entertained by a man inflicting violence upon another. We are entertained by the worst part of our nature. As much as I enjoy action movies, there’s something morally questionable about my enjoyment.

six comments

A lot of great points in here. I guess I why would ask why we don’t still have gladiatorial combat. Why don’t people fight to the death anymore? Is it because certain rational object? Or is it because of sentimentality? Has society evolved, or have we replaced it with fiction?

I’m glad you brought up Inglorious Basterds, because when it comes out on video I know I’ll have to address it.

Yeah, tons of points that we need answers too. My demon, that we will address later, is gangster films. I love’em but they don’t make sense when you think about it. They describe a life dedicated to enforcing will through violence or power. Yet, critics love these films and I believe the Godfather, Godfather Part II and Goodfellas are fantastic.

I know a comment with no answers but there it is.

Well Matt, you preempted the article I was going to write, but mine was going to focus on video games. All the same principles and questions raised above still apply though.

Will I would still love to hear what you have to say about video games because they are a vice of mine as well. I frequently tell people that I was spending my time saving the universe playing Halo when it really means killing tons of simulated aliens.

@Eric: That’s a great question. I think our fiction satiates our bloodlust enough to prevent actual mortal combat. But also, a sport to the death is considered barbaric, yet one to incapacitation (which may lead to permanent damage or death) is considered a badass sport.

@Will: Do it. I want to hear whether Grand Theft Auto makes teens more or less violent. On one hand it allows them to take out their aggression on fictional beings so they don’t explode onto real people and on the other they’re learning violent tendencies.

@Michael: Simulated aliens I have no problems with killing. They don’t bleed red so how can I get the same satisfaction from killing them?

Lol at padge’s last comment, because it was what I was thinking.