- Greetings from the slaughterhouse that is pop culture.
- Our most popular forms of entertainment -- TV, films
and books -- have followed video games into a ferocious new realm of ultraviolence
marked by increasingly graphic depictions of brutality.
- * In an episode of the Fox TV network's Killer Instinct,
a home-surgery victim wakes up on his patio to find his liver cooking on
the gas grill.
- * In Domino, now in movie theaters, bounty hunters shoot
off a man's arm and then carry the severed limb around with them.
- * In last year's sadistic film Saw -- whose sequel, Saw
II, opened Friday -- a man cuts off his own foot with a dull hacksaw.
- * In Stephen J. Cannell's new novel, Cold Hit, someone
shoots homeless men in the head, cuts off their fingers, and carves runic
symbols in their chests.
- You might think that you've already gotten a bellyful
of Hollywood violence, from Psycho to Pulp Fiction. But many pop-culture
experts agree that the lavish intensity of today's carnage makes previous
eras look dainty.
- "In the last few years, there's been a steady increase
in the amplitude," said Stephen Prince, a professor of communication
studies at Virginia Tech and president of the international Society for
Cinema and Media Studies. "Characters were beheaded in D.W. Griffith's
Intolerance in 1916, but it was shown quickly and in long shot.
- "Today you might see it in slow motion, with close-ups
from multiple camera set-ups. It'll have an aggressive sound component
to make it texturized and sensual. You'll hear the arterial blood splatter.
The whole treatment is much more detailed and loving."
- Novels are going down the same visceral path.
- "I have noticed an increase in gratuitous violence,
a desensitizing of violence," Oline Cogdill, the longtime mysteries
columnist for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, wrote in an e-mail. "Some
writers feel because films and television have gone so far, that they need
to do that to attract an audience."
- Margaret Cannon, a critic for the Toronto Globe and Mail,
concurred by e-mail: "In the old days of the thriller-mystery, murder
was the ultimate crime but it was usually just murder. Now we have ...
sexual crimes, torture, really nasty stuff, along with the murder."
- Violence instead of sex?
- The ratcheting up of violence is most evident in this
season's network TV series.
- "With competition from cable, I think, networks
have had to go further in graphic representations of violence," said
Cynthia Felando, a film-studies lecturer at the University of California-Santa
Barbara. "I've had squeamish reactions watching C.S.I."
- Television's top-rated show has certainly had its stomach-turning
moments, such as last season's buried-alive finale directed by Quentin
Tarantino, or the recent episode in which human remains were found grossly
decomposed in a steamy car trunk.
- But CBS's Vegas crime-scene geeks have plenty of company.
In the debut of the network's new drama Criminal Minds, for instance, a
woman -- bound, gagged and caged -- frantically struggles as her rapist/
serial-killer captor jabs at her bloody fingertips with pincers.
- Why are TV producers suddenly so enamored of hard-core
gore? They might be sublimating their frustrated sex drive.
- "In the post-Janet Jackson media environment, the
networks and TV producers and writers are wary of pushing the content envelope
as aggressively as they have with regard to sexual content," said
Melissa Caldwell, director of research for the Parents Television Council,
a watchdog group. "As the law stands now, the (Federal Communications
Commission) has no authority over violent content."
- The commission says it doesn't normally track violence
- Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has
introduced a bill that would give the FCC jurisdiction over egregiously
- "There's no question that violence in television
programming continues to dramatically increase," he wrote in an e-mail.
"More and more, broadcasters are looking for ways to increase ratings,
and unfortunately, increasing violent content seems to be their answer."
- Until now, politicians have focused most of their rhetoric
and concern about media violence on video games, because of their youth
appeal. In this era of an Xbox in every kid's bedroom, these kill-'em-all
games have set a new standard for graphic and casually cruel violence.
- Combine that with increasingly cutthroat movies, DVDs
and TV shows, and it's clear that today's young people are being exposed
to unprecedented levels of violence.
- 'That scares the hell out of us'
- What effect does all this savagery have on the audience?
- "It makes all of us fearful," said Scott Poland,
a psychology professor at Nova Southeastern University. As administrator
of a national task force, he has responded to 11 school shooting cases,
including Columbine and Paducah. "We'd all like to believe that man
is basically good, but with all the crime and violence depicted, it gets
harder and harder to hold onto that viewpoint."
- One of the popular entertainment media's glaring distortions
is a grossly exaggerated incidence of serial killing. If you judge by books,
TV and movies, about one out of every three people is a budding Ted Bundy.
The fiends figure prominently in prime-time shows from CBS's Cold Case
to ABC's Night Stalker, and in a coming two-part crossover episode of the
NY and Miami franchises of C.S.I.
- "That scares the hell out of us -- the idea of being
killed randomly by someone we don't even know," Poland said. "That
doesn't fit the real pattern of violence in America, where serial killers
are exceedingly rare. But it sells books."
- People in the TV industry maintain that this season is
merely business is usual.
- "When I was a kid there was violence on TV and there's
violence now," said Nick Santora, a writer-producer for Fox's Prison
Break. "In fact it's less gratuitous now. Physical confrontations
are story-driven. They're not there just for shock value."
- But he says that TV producers are operating without clear
limits for violence. "The standards are so ambiguous as to not give
you much of a guideline, so often you go by instinct," he said.
- The TV and film industries are self-governed through
content-ratings systems. And those classifications tend to be vague and
- "It's important for people to realize that ratings
have 'crept' over time," said Kimberly Thompson, director of the KidsRisk
Project at Harvard University's School of Public Health. "Looking
at films over an 11-year period, we showed that ratings crept so much they
moved almost a full category. Today's PG-13 movie is like an R-rated film
from 10 years ago."
- Made for home consumption
- Many film historians hold that serious directors are
immune to the siren song of violence.
- "Look at the box office top 10 last year" in
which the only big money-maker that drew an R-rating for its reliance on
graphic gore was The Passion of the Christ, wrote Michael Medved, film
critic and nationally syndicated radio host, in an e-mail. "This year
the most obnoxiously sadistic films -- The Devil's Rejects and the just
released Domino -- both opened to lukewarm ... business."
- But although obviously lurid movies such as The Devil's
Rejects aren't "date films," they enjoy healthy afterlives.
- "We are in a cycle ... during which horror films,
particularly violent movies like Saw, are selling unusually well on home
video," Scott Hettrick, editor of the trade magazine DVD Exclusive,
wrote by e-mail.
- Saw has earned more than $90 million so far on video,
nearly 65 percent more than it took in at the U.S. box office.
- And more and more Hollywood projects are based on hard-core
source materials. The films Sin City and A History of Violence, both critically
lauded, were adapted from gritty graphic novels. The Resident Evil films
and the new Doom are re-creations of violent video games. Other movies,
such as Dawn of the Dead, with its incessant skull-splattering shots, just
look like first-person shooter games.
- How far will this trend toward ultraviolence go? The
only logical answer is "farther." Once artistic boundaries of
taste or restraint have been crossed, they are rarely reinstated.
- We might have to resign ourselves to the entertainment
climate described by Mandy Patinkin's character in a recent episode of
Criminal Minds: "Finding new ways to hurt each other is what we're