Mark Terry

Sunday, August 03, 2008

On Violence

August 3, 2008
My oldest son had expressed an interest in seeing the movie "Rambo" even though he hasn't seen any of the earlier movies or even read the book "First Blood" which I have on the shelf. I was moderately interested, so I queued it up on NetFlix and Friday night we started to watch it.

I say started because about 30 minutes in we had to pause the movie and put the solar blanket back on the pool between thunderstorms. After that pause, my wife, who declined to watch, asked how we liked it. I said, "Violent" and Ian agreed. Leanne commented that there was no obligation to finish watching it and I asked Ian if he wanted to. He said no. So I shut down the flick and dropped it back into its sleeve to be returned.

The violence in "Rambo" is intense. Right from the beginning, which shows actual news footage of killings and dead bodies in Myanmar (Burma) to the point where we left off, which is when the bad guys came through a village shooting, raping and machete-ing everyone in sight. Limbs were lopped off, blood sprayed, children were beaten to the ground and shot point-blank in the face and as far as I could tell, little if anything was left to the imagination. 

I am not necessarily overly-sensitive to violence in movies. A lot of it depends on tone and to my mind, the necessity of it. I found the opening 20 minutes of Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" to be almost unbearable, but honestly in keeping with everything that went on in that movie. There was no attempt to sugarcoat the horror of war. These men were in hell and Spielberg didn't want to suggest otherwise.

I think Stallone was probably attempting the same thing.

Sometimes I have no problems with that. Sometimes it bothers me a lot. Honestly, when it bothers me, I'm glad. I haven't lost that. I'm not so desensitized that a depiction of violence doesn't bother me.

And yet, Saturday night we went to see The Mummy III and there were sword fights and one guy gets sprayed with acid and one guy is drawn-and-quartered (mercifully not shown) and several people are blown up and shot and burned and two get crushed to death...

One could argue that I'm desensitized to violence because this didn't particularly bother me. The tone is different, of course, and we're in a comic book. (You would have thought we were in Batman, as well, but apparently the filmmakers were trying to break the comic book out of the comic book genre).

So, in novels, how do I feel? I'm not phased by it, usually. Actually, there have been exceptions. I wasn't able to read any of Rob Walker's novels due to the level of violence in them, and Rob's a terrific writer. I have problems with the violence in JA Konrath's book, although I think I have problems with his for different reasons than I do in Rob's novels.

And what about my own? Good Lord, how many incidences of torture are there in my own, The Devil's Pitchfork? A whole family of four, although the description is afterward. Derek's torture of a terrorist (unsuccessful) to get information out of her. Derek's resultant torture by a psychotic doctor using a malicious form of acupuncture. And knife fights and gun fights and other things.

Certainly the violence didn't bother me. Or did it?

Well, here's the thing about the violence in The Devil's Pitchfork and if there were actually enough readers to debate this sort of thing, I would suggest that I wrote this with Abu Ghraib very much in the air. I also spent a lot of time debating how to handle (or even if to handle) the scene where Derek uses a plastic bag to suffocate a terrorist in the interest of getting information out of her. (It accidentally killed her). I waited for editors or my agent to tell me it was too much. Nobody did. No reader has ever suggested it was too much. Also, when I continued on into The Serpent's Kiss, there were a lot of repercussions for Derek for his actions. That was very important for me.


I don't know. I hope it's because none of it was gratuitous. I hope that it was handled with a certain degree of nuance. And maybe this is key. Derek Stillwater has problems with violence. When my wife read the books she commented to my son that Derek was flaky. He asked her what she meant and she said, "He's seen too much."

And done too much, I would add.

But I do find that the older I get, the more problematic I find how violence is often depicted. I don't know why it bothers me more than it used to. Maybe I'm just afraid I am getting desensitized to it.

How about you? What movie or book was too much for you?

Mark Terry


Blogger Maria Zannini said...

Apocalypse Now was my tipping point and I was in my 20s.

I don't think it's so much the amount of violence as it is the kind of violence. Fight scenes that go on and on, shooting sprees that kills dozens of people, and grisly torture scenes that are shot in close up feel staged to me, so not only do I not take them seriously, I find them silly because I feel the director is going for shock value.

Violence that is subtle, psychotic, or multilayered in meaning is the kind that bothers me. And the older I get, the more it upsets me.

1:39 PM  
Blogger kitty said...

My husband teases me because I say I won't watch violent things, and yet I love The Godfather (I & II) and The Sopranos (even its finale).

While The Godfather movies are relatively tame by today's standards, there are cringe-worthy scenes in The Sopranos, scenes I can't watch a 2nd time: like when Tony curb-stomps that guy and his teeth scatter.

Just an aside...Apocalypse Now was not only violent but depressing as hell. My husband spent 2 (volunteered) years in that war and came to terms with the aftermath by obsessing over that movie. In particular, the scene with Martin Sheen, drunk, in the hotel room.

I can't watch films I know will be violent. Passion of the Christ is one. I was interested in seeing Sin City until a friend warned me not to because it was violent.

When GreystoKe: The Legend of Tarzan first came out, my mother and I took my children, who were 13 and 15 at the time. The very beginning of the movie shows poachers butchering gorillas. We all got up and walked out in tears. To this day I have not seen that movie, and it was very well received.


2:15 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

We all have our things, I suppose. My wife and I pretty much refused to see "Ransom" even though we like Ron Howard as a director and Mel Gibson and Rene Russo. But it dealt with the kidnapping of a child and we both just find that a tough subject to deal with. (Although to be fair, we both thought "Gone, Baby Gone" was brilliant, which deals pretty much with the same topic."

2:39 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

The acupuncture thing surprised me, and I was sorta intrigued on an intellectual level.

Saving Private Ryan traumatized me. No joke. I remember walking home in shock, and I pretty much remember nothing from the following three days.

I am, however, glad I saw it. I will never see it again. And I was appalled when a 9 year-old told me it was his favorite movie. He even got the special edition DVD that Christmas when it came out from Santa, which was even more horrifying to me than the movie, I think. I rarely judge, but sometimes...

3:01 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Hell, Spy, I wouldn't let my 10-year-old see "The Dark Knight" and I previewed "The Revenge of the Sith" before I let him see it (he was what, 8 then?) and even then I took him out of the theater when Anakin got his legs and arm chopped off and set on fire.

Some parents are just plain irresponsible. And then they'll freak out about some little bit of nudity in a movie like "Fool's Gold" or something.

I. Don't. Get. It.

4:32 PM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I think there's so much real violence easily available via the news that there isn't much point going out of one's way to depict it fictionally. Obviously, if you write mysteries or thrillers, there's going to be violence and then the question is how much time do you want to spend on it, how graphically should it be depicted? For our classical style mysteries, Mary and I figure, we want the violence toned down. For some kinds of books, I suppose the violence could be toned down to the point it would seem unrealistic.

I surely don't think, though, there's any reason to show readers violence as a way of supposedly preaching against it. If anyone "get" that violence is a bad thing from observing the world around them, they're not going to find any enlightenment on the subject in a book.

4:34 PM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Hi Mark:
As I have commented (I think here . . . and definitely elsewhere), I am OK with violence in the interest of story--like Saving Private Ryan. I actually didn't flinch . . . and rarely do in war movies. While I did not see the new Rambo with Stallone, I would also LIKELY (don't know) not like watching it, but feel that the poor people of Burma went through it, so that it brings their plight to new eyes and people in a realistic way--however, this is RAMBO and not Saving Private Ryan, so I don't know.

However, when violence is TORTURE PORN, for the sole purpose of (in my opinion) commercialism. Of coming up with ever more depraved ways to kill people (particularly women) and torture them, of showing degradation because it's what sells (versus, for example, adding a realistic scene of prisoner torture in the debate on terrorism and the policies of this administration), I have an issue with it. One author you cited I tend to believe does it for sales, not art. Not debate.

So, that said, like "art," I am not sure who defines what's violence for story and what's torture porn. I have my own internal barometer. I know it when I see it. In general, I do not read serial killer books--again, not because I can't stomach it, but because I think many, many of them are really just that--showing human degradation to enhance sales. I am not for censorship in any way. But I sleep better at night knowing my $10 movie ticket didn't support something that was exploitation. Same with books.

4:51 AM  
Anonymous jw johnson said...

For me personally I was appalled at the level of violence in The Dark Knight. PG-13 violence (how did they ever pull that off?) in the fact that the don't show detail's, but there were what? 30 deaths? Brutal deaths at that. I know your state of mind at the time has a lot to do with it but to me it was just too much. Took away from the movie imo.

4:57 PM  

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