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Calgary Herald (07/Aug/1994) - Sex and violence: is there a limit in today's movies?



Sex and violence: is there a limit in today's movies?

If love and death are the exalted themes of narrative and dramatic art — of classics like The Oresteia, War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Madame Bovary, Middlemarch and Romeo and Juliet — then their raunchier cousins, sex and violence, are the scapegoats, the lower-class relations, blamed for all the problems in the neighborhood.

And that's most obviously true in the movies. There, for almost a century, a fierce struggle has been waged over what kinds of sex and violence can be shown on screen, and how much or how little they wound the audience.

As I watched and enjoyed The Crow recently, I realized, once again, that in writing about it, I'd have to devise a way to note and justify the movie's large amount of sex and violence — the frequent lovemaking scenes, the over-the-top blood-drenched action. Citing a literary source or socially redeeming value wouldn't help. The Crow is based on a gory comic and its basic theme, like many post-'70s action movies, is Mess with the best and die like the rest.

It would have been phoney anyway, since what's impressive about The Crow is the incandescence of its sex and violence, the sheer feverish luridness of its sets and shots, the way it steeps you in its macabre, self-contained fantasy world. It isn't a work of higher significance — any more than the excellent chase thriller The Fugitive. It's just highly skilled and flashy melodrama.

Saying you like a movie despite its sex and violence is always a bit false. The phrase Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, as critic Pauline Kael once noted while using it as a book title, defines the basic appeal of movies. Part of what we admire most in Alfred Hitchcock is his talent for inducing agonizing suspense; in Sam Peckinpah, his dazzling skill at summoning up the hell of violence; in Bernardo Bertolucci or Luis Bunuel, their genius at evoking sensuality or perversity. All these film-makers offer much more. They give us the context and the consequences, the world around the acts, which their inferior imitators don't or can't. But that's the hallmark of all artists — the richness of their creations.

Even so, a detractor might ask: Is art or pleasure worth possible social damage?

Variations of the same debate have gone on since the first May Irwin-John Rice screen kiss or 1903's The Great Train Robbery, with its last shot of a cowboy firing point blank at the audience. The controversy continued through the epic debauches of the silent screen Roaring Twenties, the '30s gangster movies and sex comedies that helped bring on the Production Code, the steady erosion of that code in the '60s and the explosion that followed its abandonment in 1966.

The arguments never end, and never will, because the movies have always been a mass art or entertainment form, subject to the messy convulsions of the populace, while their detractors often come from the more fastidious upper classes.

The apocalyptic tone of Medved's much-criticized but surprisingly influential critique Hollywood Vs. America suggests Hollywood is engaged in a loony assault on values, egged on by loony critics. Medved supplies long lists of outrages in popular culture, ranging from (of course) sex and violence, to foul language and scatology, to insufficient respect for authority figures, businessmen and parents. He calls for more general-audience movies. (Most film critics would agree with him there, though not for the reasons he advances.)

But if there is an increase in the quality and kind of movie carnage and eroticism today, how and why are they different?

We start with Hitchcock. Erotic thriller is the name given to the new sub-genre that blends violence and sex. And though it seems primarily a post-1980 phenomenon, it's primal source is Hitchcock's 1960 Psycho. With this classic, controversial film, the modern era, for better or worse, begins. Here, to some extent, the current battle over sex and violence starts, too.

In a way, all Hitchcock's movies are erotic thrillers, from the 1930 Murder, which featured, like Psycho, a transvestite killer, to 1943's Shadow of a Doubt, about a gigolo-serial killer, to 1951's Strangers on a Train, about a buried homosexual passion erupting into murder, right up to Psycho and beyond.

But Psycho, whose centerpiece was the famous shower murder scene — which showed the presumably nude Janet Leigh assaulted by a knife-wielding lunatic — seemed to go beyond anything Hitchcock or others had previously dared. The biggest hit of his career, it was also his most scandalous.

Yet Psycho set what was to become the classic pattern. It begins with shocking scenes of illicit sexual arousal — erotic Leigh in her legendary white and black brassieres — and mixes them with scenes of anxiety and guilt, which finally explode into unexpected and terrifying violence. It's a voyeuristic film, made by a brilliant film-maker, supposedly celibate for most of his life, about what are probably his own deepest fears.

Psycho appeared in 1960. By the end of the 1960s, an X-rated movie about a male hustler, Midnight Cowboy, had won the Best Picture Oscar, and two watershed movies on violence, Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde and Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch — filled with intense, graphic and incongruously beautiful images of bloodshed and death — had shattered taboos there, as well.

Is it fair to say that the staggering real-life violence of the ' 60s came, to any substantial degree, from those four movies and others like them?

Didn't it stem instead from the Vietnam War, its TV coverage and its street protests, the massive proliferation of firearms, the spread of the criminal syndicate and its satellite drug industry and the crumbling of national morale after the assassinations of four major U.S. political leaders (the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X)?

Medved and company are right about one thing. There is something unusually unpleasant and disturbing about the violence and sexuality of post-1980 films — and it probably springs from a historical coincidence.

For decades, film-makers had been chipping at the restrictive Production Code, instituted in the 1930s. But a decade after the battle was won, the Code dissolved and any impediment to realistic depictions of society's truths, ills or evils removed, the focus of the big studios suddenly shifted to a predominantly teenage or young adult audience.

Consonant with the whole Ronald Reagan era, the studios also decided to focus on blockbusters, or huge moneymakers, and largely forgot about intellectual, unusual, adult-themed or minority films.

That's why the Rambo series, the Schwarzenegger movies, the horror shows and the endless raunchy teenage sex comedies seem so infantile. In the '30s, '40s and '50s, movies filtered adult subject matter through a code devised to protect children. In the '80s, the movies filtered adolescent subjects though a system intended for adults.

Are movies too violent or sexy? Probably. But what's bothersome is less any corpse count or excess of flesh, than the absence of context, theme, reality, intent, art.

In its day, Madame Bovary was regarded as a dirty book. So were Ulysses and Lolita. Life itself is often dirty, sexy, violent and unpleasant, and movies, which tend to show life at its most extreme, will always reflect that — unless they're censored.