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Wednesday, January 09, 2008


I count five bloody violent murders in the last scene of Hamlet; Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, drinks poison, Laertes is stabbed with a poisoned foil, Claudius the King is stabbed by Hamlet, and finally Hamlet dies, foiled earlier by Laertes. Five bloody, violent deaths in the course of five wordy minutes; it would have been six murders but Hamlet convinced Horatio not kill himself. Oh, and we also learn that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead so that’s 8 deaths. And that doesn’t even count poor old Polonius, murdered by Hamlet, and the loony Ophelia, whose suicide is brought on indirectly by Hamlet. So that’s 10 murders, not to mention Hamlet’s father – murdered before the play even begins, so it’s actually 11 murders. Of course none of the actors actually die, but this is “art”, which is maybe why you never hear the “too much violence in films” brigade preaching that Hamlet should be “Disney-fied”. They don’t want to be labeled as “anti-art”, although I’m willing to bet it’s been tried. Maybe it would help if Hamlet’s father’s ghost was played by Casper.
I bring this up because of a new study released at the American Economic Association alleges that violent films actually cut down on violence by keeping all the would-be Clyde Barrows and Bonnie Parkers locked up in movie theatres for two to three hours with no drugs or alcohol and no weapons more powerful than Juju Fruits. The study also claims that violent films decrease assaults by 52,000 a year, because those prone to commit violence are certain to attend the most violent and bloody films, and are thus distracted and evidently sated, because there is no spike in violent crimes following the premier of a violent film. So, the new argument seems to imply, there must be no connection between watching violence and doing violence. But on the other hand, if economists actually knew what the hell they were talking about we would not be suffering through yet another de-regulation disaster. First we had the Savings and Loan de-regulation, followed by electricity deregulation, and the deregulation of the FDA, with attendant infected hamburger and lead painted toys, and now the mortgage bank de-regulation mess is dropping us into a recession. It isn’t violence in films we should be worried about but economics professors looking for well paid positions as “Wealth Justifiers” at conservative think tanks. Leave “Die Hard” alone. Ban the “Wealth of Nations!” Trickle down” this, you ideologue bastards!
The whole violence in media argument really began in 1928 when a wimpy London momma’s boy murdered his girlfriend in Hyde Park. Her offence was in wanting to break up with the bastard, but at his trial his barrister pled temporary insanity brought on by the image of Lon Chaney in the movie “London After Midnight”. It’s a damn scary image. The “Man of a Thousand Faces” wore false teeth that look like something out of “Jaws” and attachments that pried his eyes wide open. Scary stuff; unfortunately the movie was just standard melodrama, and would be completely forgotten today but for two things; in the 1967 the last surviving copy was burned up in a vault fire thus transforming it into a “lost treasure”, and the hype surrounding the court case, where despite the hype the jury convicted the bastard in less than two hours. Now why couldn’t the O.J. Simpson and Phil Specter juries have been that logical?
And why doesn’t the murder rate vary as violent films wax and wane in popularity? Before gory movies the U.S. murder rate was 4.2 per 100,000 in 1909, 7.2 in 1919, then 8.4 in 1929, 6.4 in 1939, 5.4 in 1949, and fell to 4.9 in 1959. You could argue that gory movies began to arrive in the 1960’s, and the murder rate soared to 7.3 in 1969, 9.7 in 1979, and then fell again to 8.7 in 1989, 5.7 in 1999 and 5.6 in 2006. It would appear the rate peaks just after wars and with harder economic times, and not according to how many pretend murders are being staged. The folks in London in 1605, who could choose between going to see “Hamlet” or a good bear baiting, knew damn well that one was pretend and the other was real.
Besides, the argument that “By the time the average U.S. child starts elementary school he or she will have seen 8,000 murders…” fails to explain why, after 1979, as film and television content got even more graphic, the murder rates still declined. And if the root cause of the recent peak of murders was violent and gory movies, why did the murder rates also peak between 1919 to 1939? And if violent movies relieve pressure in the society why have the rates never fully returned to 1909 levels? The answer would seem to be that “violence” in film, like sex and laughter in films, is a topic of conversation, part of the social dialog within our culture, not a causative factor upon it. We don’t want young children watching violent films any more than we would want them watching porn or movies with a lot of cursing because they are not yet competent to appreciate that, though they should morn the wasted lives of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, they are not actually dead, just living just off stage.
And that is where we all actually live. Of course working with reality is a lot harder and far more ambiguous than drawing lessons from make believe.
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