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Bond, violence, and mayhem in modern culture

December 16, 2012
Daniel Craig

Image from “Skyfall” is from The Times/The Sunday Times.

We went out late one afternoon to see the new James Bond film, “Skyfall.” Generally I don’t enjoy or watch movies featuring high levels of mayhem, but I watched my first Bond movies during my long-ago adolescence in the early ’70s, and so each time a new movie has appeared I have gone to see it out of a sense of nostalgia and continuity.

I have no quibbles with Daniel Craig; he’s as good a Bond as Connery ever was. My quibble was with the degree of violence that permeated the movie. The storyline, essentially, was about a strong and demanding mother (Judy Dench, as M) and her two emotionally damaged sons (Bond and bad-guy Silva). This could have been examined in more depth, but instead the scriptwriters went for all-out shock and awe, with explosions, bodies falling off of high objects, automatic weapons spraying helpless victims, assault helicopters, rockets, and a finale in which Bond’s ancestral house in Scotland, Skyfall, gets gradually blown to pieces and hideously incinerated.

Perhaps I was simply not in the mood for a film like this when I walked in, but I spent the 2-1/2 hours in the theater flinching and gritting my teeth. Before the film even began, I had to endure a barrage of overly-loud advertisements as well as six previews for pending films. Five of these films featured explosions, guns, car chases and superhuman combat, while the sixth was yet another low-grade comedy about immature adults who never progressed emotionally past the age of twelve. I have a slight degree of Asperger’s and my gut response is to react emotionally as though each image of violence is real, rather than faked. Because it’s difficult to endure such images, I generally bow my head and shut my eyes until all the previews are over. It’s a mental exercise, making myself go somewhere inside that’s far away and peaceful, while the sound of assault weapons (or of human stupidity) shakes the walls and floor of the theater.

So when we emerged from the building following the extremely violent ending of the Bond movie, we immediately launched into a debate about whether the degree of violence was justified, or whether it was simply a cop-out by scriptwriters who know that their largely adolescent and male audiences crave the sight of mayhem.

highnoon2

Gary Cooper as the last brave man in town, in “High Noon.”

“Compare this with a movie like ‘High Noon,'” I said; “that’s a movie that is quiet for the most part, until the very end; and yet it’s a movie in which the level of emotional tension rises higher and higher despite the comparative lack of action. Why do modern moviemakers think that they need to pile on the effects instead of going after more subtle emotional reactions?”

F. replied, “They make different movies for different times. You can’t turn back the clock and keep making movies that are all like ‘High Noon.'”

I argued, “But movies today are all like this one: filled with explosions and gunfire. Why can’t they have some nuance as well? When movie audiences have nothing to watch except violence, it inures them to the sight of blood and pain and creates a more violent society.”

“There is no proof that watching violent movies makes people more violent,” F. said.

“I can’t imagine that people can watch this stuff week after week, year after year, and play violent games on their electronic devices at home all the time, and have it NOT make an impact,” I said, without any proof other than my gut feeling.

And when we got home the news was filled with the horrifying massacre of twenty small children in Connecticut.

I suggest that people are harmed inwardly by constant images of violence in games and movies. When they blank out any emotional response, telling themselves “this is fake blood and computer-generated mayhem,” they shut off the emotional reaction that is natural to a human who beholds another human in pain. When a person becomes adept at shutting down this innate emotional response, and happens to be mentally ill, and happens to have guns on hand, a deadly synergy is formed. To identify this core formula — mental illness + access to guns + emotional blanking-out — is the first step toward working out what can and should be done about it. As for me, although it will not benefit anyone but myself, I have sworn off violent movies for good. They are now irretrievably linked in my mind with real-life mayhem.

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2 Comments
  1. Tom Phillpotts permalink

    You make an interesting comparison between these two films. I saw High Noon last year and I loved it. Gary Cooper was amazing.
    I think your gut feeling is right, that being exposed to violence does affect us. Perhaps not in making us more likely to commit physically violent acts, although that’s difficult to prove.
    Surely one of the effects of being exposed to violence is a dulled sensitivity to things in general. I think many people today wouldn’t be able to appreciate High Noon. They would find it slow and boring. Personally, I have consciously cultivated a sensitivity to ‘art house’ films, and classic films, simply through watching them. But initially some of them felt slow. The reason I persisted was that I trusted people who said these films were amazing. I wanted to see what they saw. I’ve tried getting my friends to watch more arty films and they often feel bored. They can’t appreciate the subtlety, because they’re used to high action, fireworks shows and special effects.
    We do live in a different time. We are constantly bombarded with stimuli, and we become desensitized to the world around us. But it’s reversible.

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