Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Case of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds: On the Ethical Question of Cinematic Violence


Recently an ongoing discussion with my wife came to a head: for her, the violent content of today's movies as represented by Quentin Tarantino is the line in the sand and her wake-up call to the ill effects of cinematic violence in general. One of our favorite memories together is when, as a senior in high school, I organized a viewing of Pulp Fiction at my house for anyone interested, having done so out of the realization that so few people had seen such a great and influential film. I ended up hosting more than 40 fellow students, split between two television sets, and all things considered it was a successful night. I coveted Katelin's opinion in particular, and as I suspected, she enjoyed it as much as I did. We've returned to the film a number of times since, and she even made the goofy mistake of sharing with church camp leaders the following summer that Pulp Fiction was her favorite movie.

Six years later, she's reconsidering. It's not that that particular film has lost its charm, or that Tarantino's other films have disappointed, or that other movies in general containing violence have elicited disgust or rejection. It was simply the long-developed realization that it was not clear why she was choosing to subject her eyes and her ears (and thus her heart) to images and sounds (or, more broadly, to actions and stories) that in any other situation would rightly be deemed damaging, corrupt, broken, horrific, and sinful.

And this realization was uniquely directed at the medium of film; the written word involves and requires the imagination in such a way that we do not -- as we unarguably do with modern special effects today -- come face to face with what our brains understandably receive as the real thing. To read "And he took the adrenaline-filled syringe and injected her heart with it" is of a substantially different sort than to watch John Travolta stab Uma Thurman in the chest with a six-inch needle.

And so Katelin put the question to me: As an on-the-record unabashed lover of film in general and of Quentin Tarantino in particular, would I be seeing Inglourious Basterds, and if so, why? What theological and ethical reasons as a Christian persuade me either to eschew violent movies or to watch them? And is there any reason that would not merely be self-interested rationalizing?


Before we came to any sort of answer -- which, allow me to reveal immediately, has not been reached and is therefore not forthcoming -- we discussed the relative presence and merits of violence in the visual medium. At the very least, it was and is helpful for me (a) to recognize differences in style, purpose, and type of violence in film, (b) to refuse the temptation to label it "all or nothing" and then to attempt some arbitrary judgment in favor or dismissal of it, and (c) simply to name the amount and quality of visual violence that dominates so much of American entertainment culture, regardless of gender, race, or socioeconomic status. (The latter observation truly is staggering.)

So I arrived at a general formula or range to quantify or group examples of different types of violent films. If plotted visually, we might go from far left, to left, to center, to right, to far right; or, if plotted numerically, from one to five. (Please refrain from reading political assignments into simple horizontal direction plotting.)

Far left, or #1, would be a film or television show that, however violent or explicit in its content, contains incontrovertible social value, even to the extent that viewing it has the potential to make one a better person (though this of course does not require that people ought to watch it). Examples include The Wire and Schindler's List.

Left, or #2, would be a film or television show that, though undoubtedly artistic, unarbitrary, meaningful, and/or profound, contains enough violence or explicit content to render its relative import on the formation of human being questionable. Examples include The Godfather and Pulp Fiction.

Center, or #3, would be a film or television show whose relatively tamer violence is equal to its analogous taming of clear social, cultural, or ethical relevance or meaning. Examples include Lost and Collateral.

Right, or #4, would be a film or television show whose violence is actually the substance and purpose of the excitement and intent in viewing it, but for that reason is fantastic, unrealistic, heroic, or escapist. Examples include The Dark Knight and The Lord of the Rings.

Far right, or #5, would be a film or television show that both exists for the sake of its own explicit brutality and intends to push the boundaries of what can be created visually to represent as believably as possible the reality of death and violence (though, note that this does not exclude the possibility of artistic or meaningful intent as well). Examples include the Saw series and 300.

Notice, too, that some films or shows fit awkwardly in between certain categories, and that others have elements of multiple categories. The premier example of the latter is The Sopranos, which unquestionably has extraordinary meaning on multiple levels, yet at times seems to exist merely for the sake of being entertained by brutal, voyeuristic violence. An example of the former might be Ong-Bak (a Thai martial arts film, probably a 4.5) or the Revenge Trilogy of South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-Wook (whose films some would place at 2 and others at 5, but probably lie around 2.5).

Regardless: The point is, what is or can be justified for a Christian to watch, what cannot or should not, and why? More to the point, where does a film like Inglourious Basterds lie -- and how can one know in advance? If the artistic merits of a film can commend itself over against the content or amount of its violence -- like, for example, Schindler's List, or as many Christians would argue, The Passion of the Christ, though that is a different case altogether, and not necessarily a happy one -- is it reasonable or foolish to "try out" films before, by point of fact, one can know whether its merits do in fact trump its violence? And is all of this merely a moralistic or pietistic or bourgeois conversation to begin with -- or, alternatively, self-justifying and blinded by forgetfulness of the gravity of sin and by a false desire for cultural participation or relevance -- and therefore to be shunned from the outset?


In After Virtue, in a discussion of the potential defects of an inadequate account of the virtues, Alasdair MacIntyre notes the possibility of "too many conflicts and too much arbitrariness" (p. 201). He finds an example of this endless oscillation between innumerable and irrational choices in the life of T.E. Lawrence. MacIntyre goes on to say, "Commitment to sustaining the kind of community in which the virtues can flourish may be incompatible with the devotion which a particular practice -- of the arts, for example -- requires. So there may be tensions between the claims of family life and those of the arts..." Though in many ways unrelated to our discussion, here MacIntyre names a very real but often overlooked fact of a coherent moral life: sometimes things have to be cut out completely. For example, I am sometimes amazed when I hear the responses of Christian friends who fear the specter of sectarianism if the church were to embrace the logical consequences of the renunciation of violence toward enemies -- for think of all the jobs and offices and positions they would be unable to inhabit! Well, we don't think much of the fact that we assume a Christian cannot ethically or coherently make his trade as a pornographer, or a sex trafficker, or a mercenary torturer, or a thief, or a professional propagandist; yet exact or similar forms of every one of these professions exist in the industrialized West today -- many of which are occupied by self-professed Christians!

The point being, as MacIntyre notes and as I argue with others regarding the practice of violence, there are actions and decisions that cannot coexist together coherently or for the betterment of the human person. In this discussion, it may be violence in film, or at least certain types of cinematic violence or certain types of film. Irrespective of the real or supposed artistic merit of a film, the brutality depicted visually and the rawness thereof may overwhelm any reason to see it.

In an essay entitled "Freedom and Decency," after a blistering assault on the argument against any form of censorship followed by a nostalgic remembrance of cinema days long past, David Bentley Hart writes:
Nevertheless, the current state of cinema seems to suggest that where good or at least clever writing is not a commercial necessity, and where there are no artificially imposed limits within which writers must work, the general intellectual quality of the medium cannot help but decline, and do considerable cultural damage as it descends. It would certainly be hard, if nothing else, to argue credibly that artistic expression has been well served by the revolution in standards that has made script-writing an occupation dominated by sadistic adolescents, or that the art has exactly flourished in an era in which it has been proved that immense profits can be generated from minimal dialogue but plenteous bloodshed, and in which practically nothing is considered too degraded or degrading for popular tastes. (In the Aftermath, pp. 75-76)
As a frequenter of "fanboy" movie websites like Ain't It Cool News and /Film, I can attest to this reality: strangely, hauntingly, the more violent, bloody, realistically gory, and/or brutal a film is or possibly will be lends itself in direct proportion to the (froth-)level and groundswell of anticipation. But this phenomenon is not limited to the geeks: legitimate or arthouse critics, though sometimes more sophisticated in their language or their reasons, are just as guilty as their despised brethren of swooning for awful realities depicted visually. As long as it is "honest" or "soul-bearing" or "meaning-filled," or sometimes just plain part of the fun of the movies, the respectable guys are just as much along for the ride, and just as much give their ringing endorsement to films whose content is unspeakably violent, with little to no question of the effect(s) the images and sounds might have on living, breathing human beings who are shaped, molded, and formed by all that they receive through their senses.


But of course, I have no room to speak: last night I saw Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. I saw it with the expressed interest of using it as a test case in my wife's and my conversation about the ethics of cinematic violence. And as I suspected, I walked away with more questions than answers.

On one level, I find myself utterly befuddled at any attempt to assess the film critically (more on this confusion below). On a technical level, as with all of Tarantino's films, it is a work of identifiable excellence. The man was born to make movies. As a film, it works even better than the sum of its parts (and if you've seen the movie, you'll know that description is as literal as it is metaphoric): it is patient, steady, detailed, well-acted, emotional, engaging, creative, funny, surprising, and morally suggestive. Some critics are decrying the blatant ugliness of rewriting history through a reversal-of-fortunes tale of Jewish vengeance on the evil-and-deserving Nazis; some are commending the well-written, well-directed, superb craftsmanship of it; some are saying there is a great deal more going on than many are recognizing -- namely, Tarantino is turning vengeance itself upside down on its head.

Personally -- and I speak as someone for whom all of Tarantino's previous work stands as the tireless output of an inimitably gifted auteur -- my first thought is that it was brilliant. And setting aside the standards by which I did or ought to judge the film, I was actually surprised by how much less violence there was than I had prepared myself for. There were a few scenes easily anticipated, and brief, from which I chose to avert my eyes for a moment, but as seems to happen with every new Tarantino film, even when expecting the unexpected, the unexpected is a surprise.

What was profoundly more disconcerting than my enjoyment of the film or the relative presence of its violence -- and what is keeping me up into the night even as I write this -- was the reaction of those around me. I saw Inglourious Basterds at 7:00 pm on a Monday night (alone), and I would say there were maybe a dozen other folks in the theater. Of those, most were between 16 and 24 years old. (There was actually a woman with an infant near the front, who left multiple times when the baby would start crying.)

During the most explicit and horrifying violence being broadcast onto the screen, multiple voices, both male and female, from different groups sitting in separate parts of the theater, would start laughing hysterically. (Spoilers herein.) When Eli Roth's character "The Bear Jew" was bashing some Nazi officer's face in with a bat, they were laughing. When Brad Pitt's character was bloodily and gruesomely carving a swastika into the forehead of a Nazi officer, they were laughing. When the Nazi-filled theater (in the movie) was bathed in flames and two of the Basterds started unleashing their machine guns into the fleeing audience, they were laughing. Cold-hearted, real-looking, torturous and terrifying pain and suffering were depicted by moving image and sound on a large screen, and my stranger companions of a similar generation were laughing and giggling and having a grand old time.

This isn't a new experience. I remember the opening night of The Dark Knight, when The Joker is introduced and does his "magic trick" of killing a random criminal by smashing his face down onto a table where a pencil is pointing upward and smashes through his eye -- just describing the scene makes one nauseous, and yet this is a movie young teenagers saw repeatedly! -- and hearing in response a smattering of applause and (masculine) cursing (in approval). Or the packed opening weekend of M. Night Shyamalan's (awful) The Happening, in a scene where out of nowhere a young boy is shot through a window by a shotgun, and a handful of teenage boys on the front row of the theater started laughing and cheering and high-fiving.

These instances are neither rare nor trivial. They are no less serious or concerning than a group of guys cheering on John McClane in Die Hard, or laughing at the gore in Dawn of the Dead, or applauding Maximus or William Wallace slaying their enemies by the sword. Violence on the television or the big screen is cool, fun, funny, removed, heroic, virtual, distant, laudable, amoral, and something to be watched and rehearsed, alone and in groups, as much as possible, and in the name of entertainment.


A few things require further elaboration.

First, it still may not be clear why, either from a Christian perspective or for human persons, it might be dangerous or harmful to view violence depicted through the visual medium. Of course, after 2,500 words I am not going to offer a unified theory about the negative potentialities of violence in film. Instead, I simply want to emphasize that Christians, over against the regnant spirit of American culture, not only believe in healthy limits to every aspect of life, but believe that whatever comes into our bodies and upon our spirits shapes us into the type of persons we will be. Moreover, we have no stake in the belief that each individual is so lord of her own life or captain of his own ship that each person knows what is best for his or her own well-being. Instead, we only know what is best for us because God has revealed it to us, and he has done and continues to do so through the life of his Son, through the presence of his Spirit, through the discipline of Scripture, through the gift of prayer, and through the discernment of the community. These are the loci around which our ethical questions and answers, however tentative or guessed at or believed with conviction, gather and are shared and take tangible form through truthful openness, listening, trust, and surrender.

And so on the one hand, I am not addressing the question of cinematic violence as one of those "bad" areas of "the world" or of culture "out there," which Christians ought to be afraid of or reject out of hand. Christians are most uptight in this sort of way about language, and in my experience such rigidity is detrimental to the possibility of meaningful relationships with large segments of society whose language is just too salty for good middle-class suburban folks. Therefore my concerns in this discussion imply no fearful seclusion of the church into a safe bubble free from the world's dirtiness.

But on the other hand, Christians also believe that by faith we see the world as it is: a place and a time of conflicting powers, a fallen and violent age passing away before the suffering groans of the coming new creation in which all will be made well. Foremost among the awful continuing realities in this contested arena is the presence of violence, and the gospel of the crucified one speaks a word of peace to a world caught up into the awful machinations of suffering, torture, disease, murder, war, and death. Thus it is or ought to be unquestionably problematic for Christians uncritically to view movies or television shows full of violence, much less for them to enjoy them for that very reason.

What is closer to my heart, and which was borne out in my conversation with Katelin, is that on the broadest level possible, I am simply unsure how to orient myself with regard to the art of film. For, as MacIntyre rightly notes elsewhere in After Virtue, to come to excel in a particular practice -- such as filmmaking or film critique -- one must "accept the authority of those standards [of excellence internal to the practice] and the inadequacy of my own performance as judged by them. It is to subject my own attitudes, choices, preferences and tastes to the standards which currently and partially define the practice" (p. 190). And surely this is right: in order to learn what good film is, I must immerse myself in the happy but patient process of learning what movies are considered to be "good" versus "less good," of watching them, of identifying what makes them "good," and of training my eyes and my language to see these traits, and then eventually to find other previously unknown traits or even to disagree with previous assessments of viewers.

Applied to film, then, the question arises: How, as a Christian, can one come under the tutelage of the art of film at a time when the medium is dominated by the explicit visual representation of realistic and believable forms of violence? The question was not necessarily pressing 60 years ago, for much was left to the imagination, by reason of either artistic restraint or lack of resources. But today, if a medium is so compromised as to render it unable to be healthfully or ethically engaged in its fullness by Christians, does that entail giving it up entirely?

The implications for lovers of film, and for self-fashioned amateur film critics -- and in both categories I place myself -- are not hopeful.


As it stands and as I promised, even if one seems obvious, I ultimately have no answer to offer. I want the awful and seemingly apparent effects of movies on demand that feature uncensored, graphically realistic violence to move me immediately to forsake all or nearly all violent cinema from here on out. Unfortunately, not only did I enjoy Inglourious Basterds, not only did I think it a worthwhile film -- I am deeply glad I am now able to share in the cultural conversation it has produced. Does that mean I should have seen it? Absolutely not. Does its violence render it morally questionable as a piece of art to be digested with the eyes and ears? Without a doubt. Should the state of desensitization and agreeableness toward violence in current American culture (and especially in males) cause Christians to reconsider the content they choose to intake? There can be no question.

But is there an answer in this case? More importantly, is there an answer in the broader sense? Is there any justification for viewing violent films and television shows except on rare occasions?

For my wife, a time has come when the line is drawn and can be seen with clarity. As for me, I'm still searching.

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