Setter’s ‘Spectives: Will You Take That Violence Offscreen, Please?

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613If Sophocles wrote Oedipus Rex today, I’m sure he’d have the doomed king pluck out his eyes onstage amid a free-flowing stream of fake, ketchup-colored blood.

It’s the sort of thing we’re seeing in the movies of this era. Lots of onscreen violence. CGI corpuscles. And plenty of slow-motion fights, allowing us to leave no “cool” move unwatched.

I think I know why this is happening. It’s not to call attention to the evils of violence, as some may have proposed years ago following the decline of Hays Code limits on cinematic vices.

In the movie Dirty Harry, Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan noted why he thought the Scorpio killer would murder again: “He likes it.”

That’s what’s going on. Audiences enjoy onscreen violence. And they always have.

It’s not necessarily worse than having the bloodshed occur offscreen. It certainly depends on the context … and the movie. But many films these days are taking advantage of humans’ primal desires—without providing opinions other than “Doesn’t this look cool?”

I’d like to see more than that.

There has to be a reason for every action in a picture, especially when it concerns a person getting hurt. We have to ask: Why are we seeing this? In Ran, the brutality conveyed the horrors of war. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the ruthlessness of a villain and his regime. Yet in 300, what are we looking at? The glories of stylized Sparta? How awesome it is to see a bunch of macho guys slice up ancient Persians in athletic ways?

Sorry, that’s not a valid perspective.

I’m not saying we should feel bad for enjoying a violent film—if it’s good enough. And a bloody movie needn’t be pro- or anti-war to justify its gore. Yet there should be some context to warrant its depiction; it can’t just be cosmetic, as 300 is. Humans don’t just want Titus Andronicus; they want Macbeth. We need substance with our violence.

The popularity of 300 may suggest otherwise, but that movie’s appeal won’t, I believe, last as long as, say, Ran‘s. The difference is in filmmaking—plus, in part, the outlook on violence. Something I wish more pictures today had.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: Wizards and Balrogs and Oscars, Oh, My!

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613It’s become trendy these days to knock The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, as well as draw unfavorable comparisons to its immediate predecessor, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King—with the underlying suggestion that the era of taking these fantasy films seriously is over. We’ve grown out of that, right? We’d rather watch important flicks such as Lincoln from now on, no?

Perhaps some critics might. But I don’t. I thought Peter Jackson’s Hobbit was brilliantly done and see no reason to dismiss it because of its genre, length or resemblance to his cinematic adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s LOTR trilogy, which I adore as well. And I’m looking forward to the next hobbity installment, The Desolation of Smaug, which I’m sure will be much more entertaining than any prestigey part of Lincoln—and less pretentious to boot. I’ll venture to guess that any picture with a talking, fire-breathing dragon in it won’t be in the same “for your consideration” pool come Academy Awards time.

But that’s the problem. Return of the King set a precedent for CGI-filled fantasy films … and the awards folks have been reluctant to dip into that well since. Look at Guillermo del Toro’s spellbinding Pan’s Labyrinth, as great a movie as any that has appeared in the last two decades, yet it was stepped over at the Oscars some years ago for The Lives of Others. I gotta think the special effects were the deciding factor. They’re components that everyone wants to see at the movies—as long as no one thinks they can help create a work of art.

I don’t believe in that balderdash. It’s based on the idea that popular entertainment can’t be important, which has remained pervasive despite centuries of being disproven by everyone from Charles Dickens to Aaron Copland. Art isn’t restricted to any particular theme or genre; it’s restricted to quality. And I think The Hobbit makes that grade.

Do I think it’s the most fabulous film? Nope; it’s got script issues like almost every movie, and it does feel padded in parts. But by and large, it channels the stirring spirit of Jackson’s previous LOTR flicks, and that’s a worthy breed. I’d rather watch that any day of the week over Lincoln and won’t convince myself not to because it’s based on a fantasy novel.

“What does your heart tell you?” Aragorn asks Gandalf in Jackson’s Return of the King.

Not what Lincoln tells me, that’s for sure. And boy am I glad about that.