July 21, 2009

On-Screen Violence: Absorbed or Ignored?

Filmmaking irony - the movie about nonviolence features more disturbing violence...

A few months ago I was flipping channels when I came across Ridley Scott's suffocatingly macho Black Hawk Down. I came in right after one of the shootouts on the streets of Mogadishu, and the American soldiers were collecting their dead and wounded. One of the soldiers was severed in half, another was simply in pieces - a helmet here, a blown-off hand on the ground there. Scott took his sweet time focusing in on these bloody casualties of war, no doubt attempting to make us experience a soldier's horror as we gobbled our popcorn and slurped our soda.

It didn't work, at least for me. I hardly reacted while watching these scenes, and I certainly didn't cringe in the same way that I remembered cringing when I saw it in the theater. Why wasn't I bothered by this graphic, based-on-true-life violence in Black Hawk Down? I didn't know, and it was an odd realization.

Flash forward a couple of months, and I'm watching CNN just after the Iranian presidential election results are announced. I follow the story for a couple of days (as I'd recently seen Letters to the President) and, as the protests begin heating up, I see a brief news flash about a protester being shot and killed in the street. This fact doesn't faze me (it happens frequently in many countries), but yet I'm drawn to the significance of it happening in Iran at this time and under the heavy load of state censorship.

Fatefully curious, I go online to read more about what happened (it was still breaking news at the time), and in literally no time at all I find myself almost accidentally watching a video that will over the course of the next few weeks be played repeatedly around the world. Many of you may have now seen it - the death of Neda Agha-Soltan. (The photo used here is from the comprehensive Wikipedia page about the incident, the simple existence of which proves how bizarre of a future is in store for us with cell phone videos and YouTube.)

Because the story was not yet well known and the video not yet widely seen, I really didn't know what I was watching in the first few seconds. Eventually, and ultimately, I have to consider Neda's death the most disturbing footage I've seen since watching the live destruction of the WTC towers on 9/11. Considering the saturation of "torture porn" movies, beheading videos, "Faces of Death" and otherwise increasingly violent video games and movies in the last seven years, some of you might find my statement outrageous. But in fact I've gone to great lengths to avoid all of that stuff, so seeing this video and knowing it was real (as opposed to United 93, which was nearly as unbearable but still ultimately fake), well it shook me to the core.

I felt ill for a couple of days. I couldn't sleep for fear that I was going to have graphic nightmares. The scene replayed in my head over and over and over and over: Felled by a high-caliber shot to her heart, Neda lands on her back in a state of shock. The people around her immediately try to stop the bleeding from her upper chest, but they're clearly no match for a cardiovascular system in chaos. As her brain function diminishes, Neda's eyes go cock-eyed in every direction before rolling back into her head, just as hot, dark crimson blood uncontrollably pours from her nose, mouth, and eventually eyes. In a matter of seconds, she is gone, the screams around her lost to silence.

Just thinking about this again has me disturbed, and I had to make that photo of her deliberately small because I still can't stand to look at it.

Why did this video, which is so much less graphic than so many movies I see on a regular basis, completely wreck me? The obvious answer is that it's real footage, and not fake blood on a set with a director who's just ordered another take before breaking for lunch. No, there's one take, and that's an actual live human, and her life is literally pouring out of her body as I watch. And that deeply disturbs me.

But I don't feel like it's that simple, and in the month or so since seeing the video I've been much more curious about and aware of my reactions to violence on screen. For example, if it looks real, does it really make it harder to watch? If the director wants to make it look "really" real but it ends up looking fake (Black Hawk Down, recently Public Enemies), does it make it easier to watch? If the violence is inflicted on people I don't know or care about, does it make it easier to watch? What about women and children? Am I entertained by shootouts and explosions, or do I simply tolerate them? Surely if there was a gunfight in the hallway of my apartment, or a car bomb explosion on my street, I wouldn't consider it "awesome". Right?

I haven't really gained any clear insights from these questions over the last month, but one clue, or maybe just another confusing addition, came just the other day. Flipping through channels again, I landed on Richard Attenborough's Gandhi, and the scene in which more than 1,000 Indians are violently gunned down during, ironically, a non-violent protest against the Brits. It was horrifying to see men, women, and children massacred, but this being 1982, the death was not visually graphic, at least in the blood-spatteringly way that it would be if it were made in 2009 (indeed, Gandhi was rated PG). Yet despite the lack of gore, body parts, and blood-soaked corpses, I found myself actually more disturbed by the Gandhi shootout than by the Black Hawk Down bloodbath.

There are all kinds of possible explanations for this, and maybe I'll consider them here at another time. This post was really just a spontaneous reaction to the trifecta of the Neda video and those two movie scenes that I saw in the last couple of months. I guess it was my attempt at simply beginning to process how I may or may not have been sensitized or desensitized by violence on screen throughout the course of my life. I would hope that most people have the same thoughts from time to time; if you have any insights feel free to share them.


  1. Daniel: Nice post that reflects your efforts to understand your gut reaction -- not always easy to do.

    I think you're correct that the "obvious answer" is a major player. Your knowledge that you're watching real life adds gravity to the image. The same thing happens in United 93, because even though the footage isn't real, we know that they represent real life.

    Beyond that, there's this: a single tragic image tends to leave a greater impact than a collection (or outright onslaught) of them. When the tragedy happens to one person, your emotions are brought to a fine, overwhelming point. When it happens to a group of people, it can be easier to disengage. (The scenes you mentioned from United 93 and Gandhi are exceptions in that in those cases the collective has a single tragic identity. So the effect is essentially the same.)

    I'm rambling myself now, but in the end it's about emotional connection. In a film like Black Hawk Down, the action can be so big that it becomes almost alien. It's hard to relate. And perhaps in some cases when the carnage is especially massive, our brains prevent us from being able to relate, because otherwise we'd overload.

  2. I sort of agree in the assessment that an anti-war film depicting war is difficult to make and think that applies here.

    How did you feel watching Children of Men, with the death scene in the car? You know, the unexpected one. It reminded me of Neda's murder.

  3. I have often said that the single most wince-inducing scene in movies for me is in Chinatown, when Nicholson's nose is slit. Why? Because I can totally identify with it, can completely imagine how painful it is. I think fiction films can have the same effect as real footage if they touch a place in us that pulls us into the shoes of the victim. Of course, seeing someone die before your very eyes is probably the most painful act of witnessing at all. Even imagining the death of someone (for example, I was haunted thinking about the life draining out of someone I knew who deliberately OD'd) can have that effect. It's hard to say what particular occurrence will resound with us the most; I don't think it's necessarily universal. But I do think that in-their-shoes moment, that confrontation with our own death through the death of another, is necessary.

  4. BLACK HAWK DOWN was, for me, one of the absolute finest films of the decade. I think it's one of the all time great war films, because it is so frighteningly real.

    When I saw it in theaters I was probably 14 or so, and I was pro-war and pretty conservative thanks to certain parts of my family.

    This movie single-handedly set me on a totally different road.

  5. Sorry for my temporary absence.

    Jason, thanks for understanding that I was exploring my understanding and not make some kind of political statement about violence. Your point about the scope/impact of violence is an important one that I didn't fully consider, including the caveat about the scene in Gandhi involving a collective identity. Your description of Black Hawk Down brings to mind any Michael Bay movie, too (or even Star Wars or LOTR or other epics), which exhibit completely unemotional violence.

    Tommy, Children of Men is actually another interesting example. Overall I think I might have been more tramautized by some of those scenes, but more than anything else I was cognizant of how long the takes were, so I was just trying to imagine the production process above all the gunfire. The car scene...hehe, well let's just say Julianne Moore and me aren't on the best of terms, so seeing her character go bye-bye was a guilty relief. But I'm sure others were much more disturbed.

    Marilyn, it was just a few months ago that I learned how "real" that nose scene was. Apparently, Polanski was using a real knife and could have seriously injured Nicholson had the stunt gone wrong. Anyway, your point is right on about the intimacy of the experience. It doesn't necessarily have to be a first-person perspective (often that actually detracts if it's trying to be too artsy, i.e., Children of Men), but you have to be able to imagine it happening to you. That wasn't necessarily the case of me with Neda, in terms of imagining myself there, but of course the problem was that I didn't have to imagine anything. It actually was happening to her and it wasn't a movie.

    Matthew, we clearly had different experiences with this movie (though when I saw it in the theater on a big screen, the carnage was a little more personal), but what you say about it is in line with much of the critical acclaim the movie received when it was released. It shares a fair amount of DNA with The Hurt Locker when I think about it (at least the urban warfare aspects), but for whatever reason I was more turned off by Black Hawk Down (the overall movie, not the idea of war) than anything else. Go figure.

  6. I watched the Neda video after reading this post - I didn't before. What actually made it horrifying to me wasn't Neda going through the graphic process of dying (and I thought that kind of bleeding only happened in movie, eg, Let the Right One In), it was her father's screams. I read a translation of his words, first comforting her and then pleading with her not to go. It was so pitiful. I hope that doesn't sound cold to Neda, but it's really hard to take in a scene like that, to stay with it. You have to kind of awaken yourself from a distancing trance, which her father did for me.

  7. Well, the screams definitely made it worse on a more emotional level, but for me it was (I think, and I won't watch it again) the actual sight of seeing the blood totally wash over her blank face - Let the Right One In is a pretty good comparison.

    I have no idea how I would react in such a situation if I had been her father (or even a bystander). I would imagine you don't have much "control" over your reaction, and in his helplessness all he could do was try to deny that it was happening. The whole thing happened so fast - really, she must have been dead within 30 seconds - that it's really hard to process.

    I suppose it did resemble many on-screen deaths that I've seen, but for whatever reason it was so viscerally "real" to me that it affected me in a completely different way.

  8. Though I haven't had a polarizing "incident" along the lines of the Neda video as you have, this is a subject that's been in my mind (on and off, currently off) for some months now. I think one such time that I was thinking about it a lot (and almost wrote something about it, but never did) was when Watchmen came out.

    See, I don't think of myself as a "violence prude" in any form, despite the fact that I'm like you in not being a horror/torture porn fan. But something about the carefree use of what I would have to call unnecessarily graphic violence irked me. It's not just enough for our movie heroes (and villains) to kill one another; nowadays, we have to hear the crunch of the bones and see arms sawed off and bodies torn in half, etc etc. I think it desensitizes the audience to what REAL violence looks, smells and sounds like (not that I'm an expert at all). At least Black Hawk Down is in the context of a true story, so I can understand and forgive its use of graphic violence.

    Sidenote: this also makes me think of the infamous pencil scene in The Dark Knight. I was one of the apparent few that was thoroughly unoffended by it: for once, a graphic act of violence was subtle.

    Like your post, I don't know if there's an end to this comment, but I'll stop now. :)

  9. The violence in Watchmen definitely tested my tolerance, but that was primarily because I saw it in IMAX and every crushing punch and snapping bone exploded in my ears as if firecrackers were going off next to me head.

    That said, an excellent, excellent point about violence for the sake of violence (Watchmen) vs. violence to portray reality (war movies). It's likely that the former disturbs me more than the latter simply because it seems as if there is real joy and/or satisfaction (dare I say arousal) for some people in seeing people maimed but being "removed" from it in their seats.

    And I can't really get into criticizing video games since I played GoldenEye for about a million hours a decade ago, but something about contemporary soldiers playing first-person shooter games before they go out on patrol disturbs me, I think because I fear it gets into that killing for fun/sport category.

    And I'm right in line with you on the pencil scene - and much of the rest of the violence in TDK. I know others have thought it could have been a better movie had it gone all the way with the violence and not appease the marketing experts, but I was thrilled to not have to see somebody's face impaled with a pencil, or somebody's cheeks sliced open.

  10. The Neda video, which I also saw without preparation, affected me due to the first few seconds, when she makes eye contact with the camera. In her eyes, I saw pleading, fear, and surprise. Instant empathy, and I wanted to take action, to save her, to stop what was going to happen. And I couldn't. I could only watch. The scene in Gandhi, though historical, had a similar impact. It was about death, unnecessary death, and an impulse to stop it from every happening again. It was only later that I perceived the specifics of the violence, the details that would later force my memory to remain so vivid, but it wasn't the violence itself that created the initial horror.

  11. Thanks for adding your thoughts, Jeff. I have to say I don't remember her eyes in those first few seconds of the video as I think I was focused on the wound and the surrounding people. But naturally your focus moves toward the person's face, and by that time her eyes were already, horribly, out of control.

    And I like your thought about the Gandhi scene, too, particularly because it ends so abruptly and is immediately followed by the scene in the courtroom, in which the commanding officer defends his actions to quell the crowd. The iciness of his motive, experienced right after seeing his actions, make the violence that much more disturbing (it's also not until that courtroom scene that we learn exactly how many people were killed). I'm not sure if that's the point you're making, but in any case I would say that the memory of the violence often amplifies its effect (what happened with me and the Neda video, which I only saw once).


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