For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a lover of fictional violence. From the comparatively innocent adventure of Indiana Jones and the Sinister Racist Stereotypes, in which he vanquishes a Satanic Indian cult with his fists, to the fraught scenes of Bruce Willis exacting grisly revenge with a samurai sword in Pulp Fiction, violence runs through my choicest items of entertainment media like a bulging, adrenaline-filled vein.
What could be wrong with that?
Well some people do look askance at unabashed delight in fictional violence, suspecting, I suppose, that it betokens an underlying desire to see or engage in it in real life. These people are too lily-livered to have been in a proper fight, and if they were to go toe to toe with me, I’d probably beat them, and so they better not say anything to my face.
Actually, I don’t like real life violence, and this has a lot to do with the fact that the few incidents in which I’ve been a reluctant participant have shown that I’m terrible at it. Like, properly shit. My throat closes up, my limbs turn to jelly, and I want to run away, which I nearly always have done. There may appear to be a contradiction here, or so I take Burgun to be arguing when he says people like me are subject to (cognitive?) ‘dissonance’ on the topic of violence: for we like it in fiction on the one hand, whilst we are also faced with the fact that:
Actual violence is not cool. It’s never glamorous, and it’s never fun. If there exist situations wherein it becomes necessary, those situations are all tragedies – displays of weakness, and cowardice; a wasteful failure of humanity.
Even the most graphic and realistic depictions of violence cannot hope to capture the full psycho-physical toll on both its perpetrators and victims, the horrible aspect to which Burgun refers; nonetheless I don’t think this disqualifies it from telling us something about the circumstances in which violence embodies more than just the ‘weakness’ and ‘failure of humanity’. The formula is in fact a simple one. In fiction as in life, violence has to be a more or less proportionate response to the immoral acts of bad people, and it has to be a last resort. In other words, any dissonance is removed if you can accept that there are situations in real life, as well as fiction, in which violence is not only justified, but even brave and noble. And I think it’s not difficult to demonstrate that there are. If you want a powerful, contemporary image of violence as a just and noble force, you only need look at the situation in the Levant between the Kurds and ISIS, and perhaps specifically at the sight of female Kurdish soldiers ready and determined to fight an army of misogynistic, marauding, raping fascists.
Burgun, somewhat summarily, addresses this point thus:
A counter-argument I’ve heard is that actually, the primary values of these movies and games are about “good defeating evil”. My counter to that counter-argument is: “good defeating evil” is just another way of phrasing the same problem. In both cases, the problem is reducing human beings to “objects that need killing”.
Earlier on, he says that the moral justification for violence in fiction is merely a ‘manufactured disguise’ he suggests is a pretext for an exercise that is fundamentally about violence for its own sake. I think this is completely false. Even films notorious for their gratuitously violent content, such as Sin City and Dirty Harry, can only get away with such content by virtue of the abhorrent nature of their villains, and convincing us that even the most brutal violence against them is more or less justified. True, the likes of Sin City aren’t terribly edifying, and the above may beg the question: ‘if the subtext is fundamental and it’s really about ”good vs. evil”, then why does the conflict almost always take the form of violence?’
Although not exclusively, there’s no argument that violence is the dominant solution to the problems that befall the fictional worlds of Hollywood. However I doubt the reason for this is any more troubling than for why in Bond films our hero is constantly going off on picturesque jaunts abroad, and hardly ever within the boarders of the dreary country he’s actually meant to protect: it’s exotic, exciting, basically as far removed from our own comfy and mundane lives as it gets. Of course, as regards violence, it’s true that it’s easy and it’s lazy as well, but that is a point against the paucity of originality and imagination on the part of studio execs and screenwriters, not violent fiction itself.
There is also undoubtedly a visceral or, you might say, ‘primitive’ pleasure to be had in seeing violence performed with great skill and finesse, of seeing one man taking on ludicrous odds, bench-pressing them into the air before kicking them out a conveniently placed window, and so we move onto the issue of violence being glamorized or glorified. By this process, violence is simplified, detoxified; nuance and realism are sacrificed while glory and gratification brought to the fore. But I would argue this is no more true of violence than it is of, say, the triumph of the human spirit, like in that God-awful film about the holocaust ‘Life Is Beautiful’, or in Shawshank Redemption.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t more problematic depictions of violence than others. A film like the last Rambo is, in my view, guilty of failing to balance the potency of the moral component with the astronomically high body count, with the result that the former does feel more or less like a pretext, and the baddies are basically reduced to ‘objects to be killed’, to use Burgun’s phrase. But again, dumb films are dumb, whether the means by which the hero prevails is mowing down Burmese soldiers by the hundred with a Gatling gun, or acting like a clown in a concentration camp to maintain a pretense of normality for his equally imperiled son.
But I suspect my disagreement with Burgun is more fundamental. In reference to a video showing the various murder scenes in the series Breaking Bad, he gives this analogy:
By the way: that video has a kill counter on it. Let’s take a moment and imagine if there was something else just as horrible with a “counter”. Perhaps if there’s some crime show that has more than one rape scene, we could have compilation video with a “rape counter”? Does that seem tasteful? While there might be small disagreements, I think for the most part we’d generally agree that killing is at least roughly as horrible as raping (here’s a good lengthy discussion on that topic).
For me the difference between rape and violent killing is that there are no circumstances under which the former is justifiable, and hence there is no conceivable work of fiction in which it can be defensibly ‘glorified’. Not so violent killing. Burgun says ‘Obviously, the world is not full of good guys and bad guys’. I can agree that the black and white categories that exist in fiction do not precisely mirror reality. But they are sometimes, sadly, a decent enough approximation of it. And far from declaring them weak for participating in the ‘failure of humanity’, there should be no shame in showering in glory the ‘good guys’ when they win.