A friend of my grandparents once smashed up his television during the sixties because he was outraged at the broadcasted media bringing ‘the world’ to his living room. Today we truly live in a liberal age of television and film. I’ll never advocate dramatically cutting oneself off from culture, but I do want to question whether an all-accepting saturated media ever ‘goes too far’.
I’m a fan of Quentin Tarantino films. Many of them are truly iconic. They feature eye catching characters, great music and quotable lines. However, each of Tarantino’s film has that scene (spoilers ahead). The pawn shop sequence in Pulp Fiction, for instance. Or the cringeworthy story told by Samuel L. Jackson in The Hateful Eight. Scenes which seem irrelevant to the film and make most viewers uncomfortable. There is a general Tarantino mood of hyper-violence, foul language and sex in film and TV at the moment. This is seen in films such as Kick-Ass,Kingsman: Secret Service (Matthew Vaughn), 300 (Zack Snyder) and TV like Rick and Morty and Preacher. There’s something about ultraviolence that means we can’t look away. However, does it numb us to real-world horrors?
Maybe you’ll find me prudish, but I just don’t get it. Pulp Fiction would be a near-perfect film without that awful scene. It’s not just hyper-violence or sexual assault I find uncomfortable, it’s the blatant sexualisation of so much visual media. I’m a Christian and naturally that transforms my worldview. I firmly believe that sex is a private act of intimacy, not a commodity. So, when films like Deadpool have a two-minute montage glorifying Ryan Reynolds sexual conquests, I find it completely unnecessary. Of course, sex has its place in art. But there is a difference between a sex scene that moves the story along – for instance one that highlights two characters as being in a relationship – and one that is outright titillation.
My case isn’t just that these scenes make me uncomfortable, although they do. The fact is: they’re cheap. It’s easy to get a reaction by putting something explicit or controversial out there. It’s the South Park formula, do something outrageous, provoke a laugh of awkwardness. It’s fast-food cinema, and there’s so much more out there to enjoy. These uncomfortable scenes set off a gag-reflex which plays upon our incapacity to cope with awkward or offensive moments. Sometimes we laugh because we don’t know what to do, often if we’re with company we’ll make a comment or a joke, acknowledging the oddness. It’s like releasing the pressure from a gas valve. After we overcome this awkwardness, we are fascinated by the discomfort.
Now, the gag-reflex can shift our view a little. We might start to ponder what has made us uncomfortable, and whether our reaction was correct. At this point, art has the incredible opportunity to challenge perceptions or drive home a point. This happened for me in 12 Years a Slave – spoilers follow. The scene where Solomon Northup is hung from a tree low enough so that he can gaspingly tiptoe and only just support his own weight was supremely uncomfortable to watch. You watch the protagonist tread desperately, gurgling and choking whilst people in the background go about their daily activities. Director Steve McQueenhad reason for this scene. It made the viewer squirm because the brutal and grotesque reality of slavery in 18th century America should make you feel uncomfortable. Granted, people may not wish to watch the film, but it’s an appropriate use of the gag-reflex. It makes a point, and it’s not indulgent. I find it hard to claim the brutal violence in Kill Bill Vol.1-2 or Kingsman: Secret Service is making anywhere near a sophisticated point.
Violence and sex are potent things in cinema. Should they be used more sparingly? Maybe. Should cinema only use graphic content when ‘making a point’? I can’t answer that, but it’s a question I’d like to see debated more. Tastes are different from person to person, but general taste trends seem to be more accepting of R-rated content.In the age of trigger warnings and coddled political debate, I’m cautious to open this debate. I’m not shutting anyone down and I don’t want to judge anyone’s tastes. I just want to prod a little aspect of consumption. Do we think about what we watch? I think we must. It’s imperative that we engage with culture, even if that culture is a comforting episode of Eastenders. Art can change us, and impacts us more than we think, which makes it even more urgent that we critique our viewings. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on this. Feel free to comment or even write a response.