Issue 193 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1996 Copyright Socialist Review

Natural Born Killers

Violent disorder

The fear that violent videos are corrupting children today and creating the violent criminals of tomorrow has captured both the headlines and popular imagination in recent years. Judith Orr looks at the debate

The tragic murder of toddler Jamie Bulger at the hands of two ten year old boys in February 1993 marked the beginning of the latest outcry about the dangers of screen violence. The effects of this case are still felt today in legislation and policy on film censorship. The scare began with the judge's summing up of the case which claimed the boys had been influenced by their viewing of violent videos, in particular the film Child's Play 3. These claims had a resonance largely as a result of an article by an eminent child psychologist, Elizabeth Newson. She claimed to have uncovered new evidence that kids could become violent after watching 'video nasties'.

Yet on closer examination this 'new' report was nothing more than a rehash of prejudice and subjective feelings which had been specially commissioned by the anti-abortionist Liberal MP, David Alton, as part of his campaign to create a new video classification: 'Not suitable for home consumption'. This would mean that hundreds of films would be banned from all homes, including the 70 percent which do not include children.

Even the police have dismissed any link between the Bulger murder and Child's Play 3, stating, 'If you are going to link this murder to a film, you might as well link it to The Railway Children.' But is there any evidence to support the now widely held view that some screen violence causes violence in society?

There is no evidence that films today are any more violent than in the past. Films like Friday 13th (1980), Stanley Kubrick's Clockwork Orange and Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (both 1971) all included scenes of graphic violence which caused huge controversy on their release.

Yet criticism normally hangs on the claim that the level of violence portrayed in entertainment is unprecedented. US presidential candidate Bob Dole has singled out gangsta rap and film directors Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone as particular culprits, while campaigning against the ban on assault weapons. As veteran Hollywood left winger Ed Asner has pointed out, 'Apparently Mr Dole thinks it's okay to carry a gun but not to write a song about it.' But it depends who's making the film or writing the song. Dole describes the Arnold Schwarzenegger blockbuster True Lies as 'family friendly', despite the fact that it has a higher body count in the first ten minutes than in the whole of Reservoir Dogs. Schwarzenegger is a Republican supporter and his film is a patriotic homage to American world domination, with the slaughter of hundreds of Arabs played for laughs.

Recent films--coined 'kiss and kill' by the press--have created enormous debate about the roots of violence in society. The film makers themselves, whatever their motives, do not offer explanations that would satisfy many socialists. The analysis of Natural Born Killers director, Oliver Stone, reflects his film's title:

This idea that humans are nothing but animals with a thin veneer of civilisation on top feeds into the argument that screen violence causes real life violence. Both The Guardian and the Independent have parroted the claims that 50 to 100 'copycat' murders have been carried out as a result of having watched Natural Born Killers. This is the sort of simplistic cause and effect explanation favoured by moral crusader Mary Whitehouse: 'Looking at the increase in crime figures before the advent of television and after it you will see evidence that television does have a direct effect.' This both feeds the common sense acceptance of a causal connection which has yet to be scientifically proven and encourages the view that violence in both art and in life is a modern phenomenon.

The reality is that both are as old as society itself A recent editorial in Sight and Sound magazine refers to the famous public readings that Charles Dickens gave in the 19th century, including 'his rendition of Oliver Twist which lingered on the blood splattered weapon to which strands of Nancy's hair still dung. So powerful was Dickens' performance that members of his audience regularly fainted and had to be carried out... he became a target for the moralisers of the day, the art critic John Ruskin denouncing Bleak House for the number of deaths it flaunted and for its effect on readers'. Today there is replacement of scientific rigour with panic, exemplified by Elizabeth Newson: 'If we wait for the research to be 100 percent perfect it may be too late, it might already be too late'. Her abrupt about turn on her position on screen violence and willingness to throw science out of the window have shocked fellow professionals.

Much of the research does not stand up to close examination. A fascinating book by David Gauntlett, Moving Experiences (Acamedia 15.00), looks at the problems of many studies in the highly artificial situation of a laboratory. Here it is often obvious what the experimenter 'wants' to happen, so the subject's wish to be helpful can completely distort results. In one instance an experiment was set up which involved showing a short film to a child which portrayed someone hitting a plastic rocking doll. They were then shown an identical doll and watched to see if they would imitate the behaviour. On her first visit to the lab one four year old child commented, 'Look mummy there's the doll we have to hit.' As Gauntlett points out, this is the most obvious reaction to being shown into a room containing only a mallet and a rocking doll regardless of any other stimulus.

In one study the amount of aggression displayed by subjects was significantly greater when someone who was apparently a karate enthusiast was watching, than if they were being watched by someone who appeared to be in a pacifist group. People's assumptions and expectations affect their behaviour, which in itself undermines claims of simplistic cause and effect.

Sexually explicit films of the 1960s caused headaches for the censors

Gauntlett shows the variety of contexts in which violent acts can be portrayed--wife battering, revenge, riot, self defence, police violence against criminals--all of which give the violence a different significance and moral judgement. Thus any objective measurement is utterly futile. He also shows that, 'Antisocial acts with no point, no moral justification, are almost never portrayed as good, or their perpetrators left unpunished.' So far from violence being 'celebrated' or 'promoted' on our screens it is most often shown in a negative light.

Also screen violence is not particularly popular. Studies show that overall in the population only 3 percent of people list horror as their favourite film type. Young offenders have been shown to have the same viewing habits as non-offenders--putting soaps at the top of their television favourites.

Only one thing can be said for certain about violent films--no two people have the same reaction. None of us are blank pages waiting to be filled. We all have different sensitivities, social backgrounds, families and different experiences of discipline and violence in real life. It is impossible to make predictions about how different people from different cultures and in different situations will react to the same images.

Some like to make comparisons between advertising campaigns which purport to change viewers' buying habits and the cinema's influence. Yet advertisements are made with no other purpose than to attempt to change behaviour and still many people buy according to price, quality and personal preference. The idea that it might be easier to influence you to murder your parents than to persuade you to buy a soap powder deserves little serious attention.

Yet it has become the commonsense view that the 22 inch screen in the corner of the living room has more influence on people's lives than the real life experiences of unemployment, desperate poverty, abuse, the violence of the police and the state, religion or racism. That someone sits in front of a screen absorbing images like blotting paper and turns into a serial killer is on the face of it ridiculous. But this utterly reductionist approach characterises the debate and has resulted in a level of censorship in Britain which is greater than any other country in the western world.

Censorship has always been stricter in cinema than in the theatre, though 'art house' and foreign films suffer the least restrictions. The violent Man Bites Dog was released on video uncut while Reservoir Dogs was held back. As the current censor explained, 'Man Bites Dog is not the same kind of issue because it will have a fairly narrow release, it's a subtitled film and I don't expect it to go very wide.' It is felt to be safe to allow the middle classes to watch any amount of violence, sex and subversion, but as soon as this is portrayed in a format that is seen to be accessible to the mass of the population it becomes dangerous.

Battleship Potemkin: banned in the 1920s

So in the 1920s Eisenstein's great films of the Russian Revolution, October and Battleship Potemkin, were banned from general release. A special request from the London Film Society resulted in a private showing there but a similar request from the Workers' Stage and Film Guild was turned down.

Today videos are seen largely as entertainment for the working class and class bias seeps out of every attack on their availability. James Ferman, the chief censor, has talked of his big fear being the 'unclassified videos sold through car boot sales to council estates'. In the 1980s Britain had the biggest audience for videos in the world. The fear that the masses were gaining access to images they couldn't understand and would simply imitate was crystallised. Now films that have been shown uncut in the cinema are regularly banned from video release, cut or put on a higher rating.

After the passing of the video recordings act in 1984 all videos had to be classified. All titles were removed from the shelves for classification and some like The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Driller Killer have simply never been returned. The current legislation covering newly released videos has been tightened up with an amendment agreed secretly between the home secretary, Michael Howard, and Labour leader Tony Blair.

Much as many of us abhor some of the images that are portrayed in some films, this sort of state censorship is not the answer. The state is never neutral. What David Alton thinks is perverted or unacceptable--an explicit guide to safe sex for gay men for example--may simply be educational or just fun. Any strengthening of state control of what we see, read or listen to should be resisted. The criterion will not be how violent are the images, but what's the moral, who is killing whom and why? It is at heart a deeply political judgement.

A recent book on censorship, Censorship and the Permissive Society, by Anthony Aldgate (Oxford University Press 9.99), reveals how the strict controls over theatre and cinema of the 1950s strained under the new wave of films produced in the early 1960s which looked at the reality of working class lives. Negotiations could go on for months over the use of words like 'bugger'. This word, the censor claimed, was 'freely used in such places as the public bars of provincial pubs' but not in front of men's wives. So even in the film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which was 'obviously designed for the factory worker section of society', it had to be cut.

Yet not all the cuts demanded were trivial. Of a gruelling portrayal of a backstreet abortion in Alfie Trevelyan wrote, 'These are strong scenes, but they will probably be acceptable in the context, since they do make a valid point against abortion.' Abortion caused many problems for the censors in the period before legalisation. The abortion in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning caused concern precisely because it was successful. One of the BBFC script readers said, 'I have strong misgivings about the slap-happy and successful termination of pregnancy which seems to be very dangerous stuff for our younger X cert customers.'

Homosexuality was also censored in the early 1960s. Of Victim a film about the blackmail of a gay barrister played by Dirk Bogarde, Trevelyan requested cuts where the case for gay sex was 'too plausibly put and not sufficiently countered.'

Now censors don't simply cut what they don't like. Current technology made it possible for Ferman to change the order of scenes in Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer giving a different understanding of the story in the video version. Such state interference in any film sets a dangerous precedent.

This is not because as socialists we in some way support violence, or that we think that anything the state wants to ban must be good. Nor do we think that all violent films are a valid reflection of and an insight into a violent society. A look along any video shop's shelves shows that many violent films are the most crudely produced films with little artistic merit and ultimately reactionary messages.

The portrayal of violence in itself is no way to judge the value of a film. More important are the artistic skills of the filmmakers and their motives. Does the film tell us anything about the human condition, does it shed light on the world we live in and its contradictions, does it do so convincingly, does it in any way challenge accepted values and notions, does it engage and stimulate you? A film need not have an overtly or consciously political agenda to be stimulating, inspiring or powerful, nor does it have to offer solutions or answers.

Taxi Driver: not just another vigilante

The psychology of a violent vigilante was the subject of both Michael Winner's Deathwish films and Scorsese's Taxi Driver yet the two films could hardly be more different. Winner executes a simplistic, voyeuristic and crude morality tale of righteous anger against criminals--usually hippies and blacks--and the liberals who are soft on them. In contrast Scorsese's film is a visually powerful look at the darker side of America distorted through the rear view mirror of De Niro's taxi and his alienated mind.

Socialists do not want to be a sort of left wing police--banning Michael Winner and Rambo instead of Tarantino. There is no abstract principle we can lay down about images that should be banned, even an image of something like a brutal gang rape. In the film The Accused, the horrific scene of a gang rape shows the experience of rape from a woman's point of view and makes the subsequent attitude of the legal system to her ordeal all the more shocking.

We have nothing in common with those whose enthusiasm for censorship is rooted in a fear of what the mass of the population is capable of. John Major says, 'We should condemn a little bit more and understand a little bit less.' Far from worrying about the brutalisation of young children in society, many of those in the ruling class positively endorse it as a means of class rule. So while schools for children with behavioural difficulties close, money is poured into prisons. All society can offer are solutions which reflect the very values which are the root of the problems.

Love on the Dole, a film which looked at the hell of unemployment in the 1930s, was initially banned because it, 'showed too much of the tragic and sordid side of poverty.' A closer look at the 'tragic and sordid side of poverty' might give some clues as to why children and adults sometimes have so little feeling of self worth, so little stake in society, that they carry out acts of violence against themselves and others. It is the barbarism of real life that is too much to bear.

However powerful, art, cinema and music are not the motors of society. The images of the horror of Auschwitz, Hiroshima and the charred bodies on the road to Basra were brought to our screens by 20th century capitalism, not 20th Century Fox. If we want to protect children from being the future victims or perpetrators of violence then, unlike those desperate for scapegoats, we will have to look beyond the television screen.


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