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November 2000, Week 3


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Peter Rollins <[log in to unmask]>
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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 15 Nov 2000 12:36:20 EST
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This review is copyrighted (c) 2000 by H-Net and the
       Popular Culture and the American Culture Associations.
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Published By H-Net Humanities & Social Sciences

Stephen Prince. Ed. _Screening Violence_. Rutgers Depth of Field Series.
New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000. 240 pp. 36 b & w
illustrations. $ 19.95 (paper), ISBN 0-8135-2818-6.

Reviewed by Steffen Hantke ([log in to unmask]), Dept. of English,
Regis University

A Bit of the Old Ultraviolence: Bringing the Debate
on Media Violence into the Classroom

Stephen Prince's anthology _Screening Violence_ features an impressive scope
of articles on the problem of media violence and its increase since the
1960's. In his introduction, Prince states his editorial goals, which are to
examine "the origins of ultraviolent movies, the long-standing controversies
over the effects of viewing film violence, the evidence furnished by social
science about these effects, and the inherent characteristics of screen
violence that subvert its progressive, legitimate uses (the reasons why, in
other words, filmmakers cannot control the reactions of viewers to the
graphic violence they put on screen)" (1). The topic of the book, as well as
Prince's agenda, contribute to a public debate that has its roots in the
late 1960s, and, given the trends in contemporary media, is not likely to
subside any time soon.

The three sections of the anthology--"The Historical Context of
Ultraviolence," "The Aesthetics of Ultraviolence," and "The Effects of
Ultraviolence"--establish a clear internal structure for the individual
essays. The first section consists of reviews and articles from 1967 and
1968, years that see a significant increase of violence in the media with
the release of Arthur Penn's _Bonny and Clyde_ and Sam Peckinpah's _The Wild
Bunch_ and _The Dirty Dozen_. Besides the "Statement by Jack Valenti, MPAA
President, before the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of
Violence," the section features commentaries originally published in
_Newsweek_, _The New York Times_, and _Variety_. All three sources provide
insights into the non-academic debate at the time. They illustrate the
strong emotional response of contemporary viewers, whose judgments always
tend to lie somewhere between disgust about the celebration of antisocial
behavior and the defense of artistic freedom. The arguments presented and
considered in these articles--whether films passively reflect the culture
around them, or whether they help to establish its general rules of conduct;
whether film violence desensitizes the viewer; or whether viewers will have
to be educated to see beneath the surface of violent entertainment--are in
themselves not particularly interesting; anyone following the public
discussion between now and then will have heard them already, a familiarity
Prince acknowledges by giving the last word of the section to Jack Valenti,
who defends the film industry pushing the envelope by summarizing all prior
arguments in defense of artistic freedom. What is more interesting about
these pieces than the arguments themselves is their shared acknowledgment
that specific historical events and social developments during the second
half of the 1960s are the reason why the quality and quantity of media
violence increases during this time. The Vietnam War is mentioned over and
over as the most crucial factor why America becomes a more violent society.
Its gruesome realities, as well as its disturbing visual presence in the
media, become the touchstone for much of the debate on media violence.
Vivian Sobchack's essay from the anthology's second section corroborates
this historical interpretation, adding a slightly more theoretical spin.
"Our films," Sobchack writes, "are trying to make us feel secure about
violence and death as much as it is possible; they are allowing us to purge
our fear, to find safety in what appears to be knowledge of the unknown. To
know violence is to be temporarily safe from the fear of it" (117). The
necessity of having one's fears temporarily anaesthetized stems from the
increasing awareness that no one is safe from violent death in American
society, a recognition that Sobchack attaches to events ranging from the
Kennedy and King assassinations to the Kent State shootings.
Like _New York Times_ film critic Bosley Crowther, whom Prince gives the
opportunity to refine his first condemnation of ultraviolent films in a
second essay, Vivian Sobchack is allowed to add a postscript to her piece.
In it, she modifies her initial support of screen violence as a means of
staving off mortal fears. Written twenty-five years after the first piece,
this postscript pauses to consider a new wave of films that are not only
ultraviolent, but in which ultraviolence is "no longer elevated through
balletic treatment or narrative purpose." Under these circumstances,
violence "is sensed--indeed appreciated--as senseless. But then so is life
under the extremity of such technologized and uncivil conditions" (124).
Sobchack's harsh judgment, which sees little, if any, redeeming social or
psychological value in films like _Pulp Fiction_, _Payback_, or _Scream_, is
topped off by her admission that she stopped watching "compulsively" and now
merely watches "casually."

Just like Sobchack's essay has a distinct autobiographical bent, director
John Bailey speaks from personal experience in his piece condemning all
on-screen violence that is solely justified by technique. But
autobiographical writing in this section is supplemented by more
straight-laced academic essays. Prince himself, for example, analyzes in
detail the aesthetics of slow-motion and montage in Sam Peckinpah's films,
while Devin McKinney suggests a way of making a basic classificatory
distinction between certain forms of violence. McKinney distinguishes
between "strong" and "weak" violence, that is, between images that engage
the viewer emotionally, sometimes to a degree of painful intensity and
proximity, and images of distant, casual violence. Gratuitous violence is
dangerous; all violence, he argues, should matter, to the characters as much
as to the viewers.

The third section of the book features two essays summarizing the
bewildering flood of psychological research on the effects of media violence
on the viewer. Referring to some of the same studies, both authors, Leonard
Berkowitz and Richard Felson, admit that there is no clear, equivocal result
to all of this research; audiences are too diverse, and causal relationships
take place in a social field determined by too many factors acting
simultaneously and in combination. Both agree, however, that there must be
some sort of impact of these images on society, given the vast size of
audiences and the mass quantities of media violence they are exposed to.
Unsatisfactory as this conclusion may be, the theoretical overview presented
in both essays provides a fascinating glimpse of an approach that most
readers who come from the humanities are unlikely to come across otherwise.
All three section add up to a latter-day cultural Jeremiad. Committed to
premise that media violence does in fact constitute "a problem"--a premise
that is itself an ideological construction--the anthology stands its ground
against theories of catharsis. Prince's choice of words in his introduction
("the inherent characteristics of screen violence that subvert its
progressive, legitimate uses"), as well as the argumentative revision
Sobchack's postscript performs upon her original essay, indicate an
editorial tendency to give short shrift to all positions from which
ultraviolence can be ethically and socially defended. Though cathartic
theories are mentioned in a few of the essays, Prince's position prevails;
most viewer responses, he cautions, "should make us pessimistic about the
psychological health promoted in viewers by much contemporary visual
culture" (1-2).
Since all of the essays in _Screening Violence_ are reprints, most readers
are unlikely to encounter arguments they have never heard before. McKinney's
discussion of how viewer positions are constructed in regard to violence has
been developed more systematically by Laura Tanner in her 1994 book Intimate
Violence. The longest, most detailed, and theoretically most solid essay in
the anthology, Carol Clover's "Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher
Film," constitutes Chapter 1 in Clover's seminal and well-known _Men, Women,
and Chainsaws_ from 1992. The rest of the material Prince has collected
provides the foundation for Christopher Sharrett's anthology from 1999,
_Mythologies of Violence in Postmodern Media_, where they are applied to
"sexier" primary texts and examined in a greater variety of social contexts.
While academic readers may pass up Prince's anthology in favor of
Sharrett's, _Screening Violence_ offers an excellent introduction to the
topic for use in the classroom. The inclusion of autobiographical essays
makes the anthology as a whole more readable than Sharrett's and Tanner's
book, and the variety of sources invites selective courses of reading.
Students will also appreciate the focus on the historical moment, before
their time, when the discussion of media violence begins to take the shape
familiar to them from their own experience.

Regis University                                    Steffen Hanke

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