The moment when you flinch as something violent or disturbing happens in the movie you’re watching: That’s probably art happening to you. You’re having a human reaction to an artistic creation. The violence in the movie isn’t real, but your reaction and sympathy bring it to life.
Pablo Picasso said, “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” Yes, sometimes the violence in films like Oscar-nominated Django: Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty is hard to watch, but this means that it likely has artistic value because it inspires a reaction.
Art is one way we come to terms with the human experience; this means examining humanity in its entirety so we can better understand it. Movies like Zero Dark Thirty and Django are relevant not in spite of their controversial subject matter, but because of it: They bring to light our society’s complex and convoluted relationship with violence and challenge us to think critically about the role that violence plays in our lives.
In an interview with The International Business Times, Django director Quentin Tarantino stated, “If you’re going to make a movie about slavery and are taking a 21st-century viewer and putting them in that time period you’re going to hear some things that are going to be ugly, and you’re going to see some things that are going to be ugly. That’s just part and parcel of dealing truthfully with this story, with this environment, with this land.”
The fact that the film has generated so much discussion is important. It has had an impact on viewers, challenging and engaging them. The torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty are graphic and have sparked public debate, bringing awareness to ethical issues. For example, Saahil Desai PO ‘16 said that Zero Dark Thirty “really made me question my values.” The artistry in movies like Django and Zero Dark Thirty is that they pull us out of our comfort zones.
But violence in the media doesn’t always have redeeming artistic value. It does not always challenge us to wash “the dust of daily life off our souls.” Violence for the sake of violence in film is desensitizing and causes us not to question violence, but to accept and condone it.
“Maybe every other American movie shouldn’t be based on a comic book,” political comedian Bill Maher said. “Other countries will think Americans live in an infantile fantasy land where reality is whatever we say it is and every problem can be solved with violence.”
Maher makes a valid point: Many movies show violence as appropriate means to achieve a necessary end. Although in principle we condemn violence, many movies establish violence as an acceptable norm. We find violence perversely fascinating off-screen as well—our obsession with violence results in traffic jams caused by rubberneckers.
Our attraction to violence makes it a viable option for artistic expression. In an NPR interview, Tarantino said “There’s the brutal reality that slaves lived under for … 245 years, and then there’s the violence of Django’s retribution. And that’s movie violence, and that’s fun and that’s cool, and that’s really enjoyable and kind of what you’re waiting for.”
Violence is the means by which Django achieves his revenge, and according to Tarantino, that makes it entertainment: it is what the audience is “waiting for.” The exaggerated bloodshed in Django serves as artistic illustration of the brutality of slavery and something “enjoyable” and impactful for the audience.
Violence in films is one thing. What happens when the violence is offscreen? After the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., the release dates of Django and of Tom Cruise’s film Jack Reacher were both postponed.
It’s not surprising that President Obama called for research into a correlation between violent video games and violence: We fear that violence onscreen can inspire violence offscreen. When it comes down to it, it’s plot-lacking films like The Expendables that are violent in a desensitizing way and video games in which violence and killing are the ways to win that establish violence as an acceptable norm. It’s the media violence that doesn’t inspire empathy and the brain-numbing violence that doesn’t make us cringe that should concern us. And let’s not forget the broader political issue of gun control. The availability and easy access to weapons in our society speaks for itself as an approval of violence as a viable tool.