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The Fascination of Film Violence is a study of why fictional violence is such an integral part of fiction film. How can something dreadful be a source of art and entertainment? Explanations are sought from the way social and cultural norms and practices have shaped biologically conditioned violence related traits in human behavior.




How can the depiction of anything as repulsive as rape be a part of art or entertainment? Jonathan Kaplan’s The Accused (1988) reaches its disturbing climax as we are shown in a flashback the brutal gangbanging of a young woman, Sarah. Earlier on in the film, the Deputy District Attorney, suspecting that Sarah would not appear convincing at court, made a deal with the defence attorneys of the rapists. The charge had been changed to reckless endangerment leading to 2½–5 years prison sentences. But this is not enough for Sarah; she insists on having proper satisfaction for her humiliation: the fact of her rape must go on record. In a new trial, the charge is criminal solicitation: a band of spectators encouraged the rapists by shouting, chanting, and clapping. The flashback is motivated by a statement given in the witness box by a young man who, like many other people in the bar in which the rape took place, passively watched it happen.

Henry Bacon

1. The Biocultural Evolution of Representing Violence

Violence is as much a part of art and entertainment as it is of life — if not even more so. Stories can be used to model the motivations, consequences and moral implications of action. Thus fiction is one of the most important ways by which we both as individuals and communities seek to cope with violence and the fears that it evokes in us. But even as we might genuinely learn something about the brutality and sordidness of real violence from its fictional representations, paradoxically enough, these representations can also serve as a source of pleasure and entertainment.

Henry Bacon

2. Symbolism of Evil in Film

A lawsuit in 1915 had a significant influence on the development of American cinema. The case of Mutual Film Corporation vs. Ohio Industrial Board was concluded as the Supreme Court ruled that cinema is not a medium covered by the freedom of speech act but mere representation of events. Making and screening films was deemed to be merely a business activity. There was also an interesting ethical dimension in the ruling: the court observed that films are “capable of evil”, and that because of their possible evil effects, the police had the right to restrict their distribution. The threat of such action taking place was one of the major reasons for establishing an internal system of control within the film industry. Nevertheless, depictions of evil in its various forms have always been an inseparable part of film culture — as well as of all attempts at representing the human condition through fiction.1

Henry Bacon

3. The Poetics of Film Violence

Violent entertainment feeds on a certain paradox. Although violence is generally thought to be something frightening and horrifying, for a significant if not major part of the population its representations award pleasures of sorts. In an aesthetic context, those negative primary reactions can give rise to a variety of meta-emotions as a way of coping with, even achieving a kind of quasi mastery over, the concerns and anxieties the very thought of violence evokes in most of us.1 As was argued above, due to certain patterns of responding to things that are thought to be horrific or which entail the idea of loss, aesthetic detachment also allows us to experience violence and our own responses to it as something almost involuntarily fascinating. This affective structure can be exploited by certain narrative and more specifically cinematic means to create a variety effects ranging from laughter to shock. Often these are based on appealing to prevailing notions about good and evil, treated either in an entertainingly simplistic fashion or with the aim of exposing their underlying complexities. Poetics is the study of how works of art generate certain responses in the spectator, possibly with the aim of influencing his or her norms and notions concerning the real world. The purpose of the poetics of film violence is to explore how violence can function as an element of a film as an aesthetic whole.

Henry Bacon

4. Women and Physical Screen Violence

Violence is commonly thought to be sexually biased: men are supposed to be prone to aggression more than women. According to statistics, men do indeed resort more often to physical violence than women, although in some modern urban environments there has been a notable increase of violence among adolescent females. However, as definitions of physical violence vary quite considerably among ethnic groups, sexes, and individuals, is it is quite difficult to compare figures. According to a survey conducted in Finland, among adolescent females, a slap on the face was not considered to be a serious act of violence.1

Henry Bacon

5. Relational and Structural Violence

If we define violence as deliberately causing harm to another person, we must also include attempts to harm someone’s self-appreciation, relationships with other people, or social standing. Such forms of relational violence are often based on prejudice and downright hatred of people classified on the basis of class, ethnicity, religion, sex, or sexual orientation. These attitudes might be crystallized in social or communal structures within which these classifications are used to position, manipulate, and exploit people within an institutionalized hierarchy to the point that this kind of violence becomes a structural feature of the society or the community. Both relational and structural violence connect closely with at least the threat and all too often also with the practice of physical violence.

Henry Bacon


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