Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Reaping what we sow?

"Be One of Satan's Tools," exhorts the teaser for the new CW show, Reaper.

I guess it's important to have goals.

Interestingly enough, the advance word on Reaper is pretty positive. It appears to be another one of those slickly rendered bits of voyeur-o-trash for which our entertainment industry is famous. The Departed comes to mind. (WARNING: What follows is a 100-percent subjective rant. This is my gut talking, and I make no apology for it, nor offer any pretense of "fairness.") I still have a hard time believing that it's the film that finally won an Oscar for Scorsese; it frankly astonishes me that someone, anyone could deem it the "best picture" made in 2006. In fact, here's an experiment I invite you to perform: Scan the TV listings and see if you can find any of Martin Scorsese's hallmark films* on a channel like, say, TBS, which is going to take out all the profanity and edit or otherwise sanitize the most violent scenes. Tell me if the movie still seems anywhere near as "good." My theory is that we like Scorsese's film work (and Tarantino's and that of certain others directors), because it's a form of pornography. ("Permissible porn," if you will.) Not because the content is in any way "brilliant." We like these films in the same sense that we like to slow down near the scene of a fatal accident, hoping to get a glimpse of blood or brain matter so that we can then turn away in horror (but peek back again before we drive on). They have become not-so-guilty pleasures.

The popularity and critical praise that accrue to this stuff also says something about us, to my mind. We all have our flaws—I probably have more than most people do—but I wonder why we spend so much time reveling in them, as a culture. Today, an astonishing percentage of films and shows and music (and books and video games and etc., etc.) glorify wanton sex and willful violence. That is the all-pervading imagery with which today's young people are growing up. (And then we're shocked, just shocked, when something like Virginia Tech happens.) Add to that an overlay of the narcissism that we've discussed so often on this blog, and consider for a moment: We have, here, an entire generation of young adults who are coming of age amid potent, tantalizing, "well-done" depictions of violence and sex...and who've also been conditioned to regard the world as their own personal playground.

You gotta ask yourself: What do you think they're hoping/expecting to find on that playground?

* Goodfellas, Casino, etc. I exempt Taxi Driver here, by the way, because that may be the one film where the extreme, graphic violence at the end makes sense as an organic outgrowth of the plot. It doesn't feel gratuitous. Taxi Driver, to me, is "about something," unlike most of the rest of Scorsese's oeuvre, whichagain, to meis "about nothing more than violence for its own cinematically absorbing sake."


Cosmic Connie said...

I am so glad someone disliked "The Departed" as much as I did. I can't believe I actually BOUGHT the DVD.

Anyway... another good post, Steve.

Steve Salerno said...

Connie, I thought the film failed in every possible way; it was unwatchable. Even evaluated merely as titillating trash, I didn't think it was especially well-done. The acting in particular was excruciatingly, over-the-top-bad. I literally groaned at that early scene in the Internal Investigations Office (or whatever it was), where Mark Wahlberg is delivering his profanity-laced harangue to DiCaprio, the new recruit. It was like a bad parody of tough-guy acting. Jack Nicholson, at times, actually looked like he was playing Jack Nicholson. If you know what I mean.

I rented the DVD, gave up on it about a third of the way through, then felt duty-bound to watch the rest of it after everybody in my family told me I "must have missed something." So now I can say that I haven't missed a single minute of The Departed, and they all sucked.

Steve Salerno said...

Btw, I liked Goodfellas (though I still don't think it was a quality film in the tradition of, say, The Godfather). And I have a lot of admiration for Raging Bull and, especially, Taxi Driver. So it's not the violence, per se, that I object to. It's violence as a plot element in its own right.

A lot of these things--again, in my sole view--are little more than Nightmare on Elm Street with an A-list cast, better cinematography and just enough deft script-work to make you think you're watching "art."

Anonymous said...

Steve, I saw it in the movies and thought it was so-so. Then I saw it at home when we rented the DVD and thought a lot like you did the second time around. The only reason I didn't dislike it as much the first time, was it benefited from being shown in the theater- where movies always look better than they are. I thought Gangs of NY was way too long and got boring but, you have to give the guy credit for the Aviator, that was a good one.

Cal said...

I'm not much of a movie fan. I guess I'm too cheap or something to pay $8.50 (or whatever the cost is) to waste two or more hours of my life for most of the dreck that passes for cinema. Most of the time current films seem like derivatives of each other. I'm more interested in the movies of the past that are classics.

But it always interested me that people want a non-violent society but will pay money to watch it on the screen (or in the videogames they play). I guess I'm not entirely sure that empirical studies show that kids who watch a lot of this stuff are more likely to commit violent crimes. But I do think that some things these kids get into I would never even have thought about as a child.

Steve Salerno said...

Carl, I agree about The Aviator--but remember, that's the one movie where Scorsese abandoned his usual formula and did a film that was truly "about something"! The plot was already laid out for him, in the form of Hughes' own life. And I guess Scorsese couldn't figure out how to work in too many killings or at least a handful of savage beatings (though I'm sure he tried).

Steve Salerno said...

Cal, I sort of issued a blanket disclaimer at the beginning of the post, but once again here, I feel compelled to say that we're working in the realm of opinion (Steve's). The evidence on the effects of violence (video games, cartoons) seems very inconclusive to me; I've seen "persuasive" studies and arguments both ways. But I ask myself: How can what people see all day long--especially at a tender age--NOT have some effect? The images we see shape our perception of the world in which we live. Could anyone argue seriously that the antics of the Britneys and Parises and Lindsays (sp?) have NO effect on the outlook and behavior of many of today's teens? Is it really that far-fetched to propose that the rampancy of easy, promiscuous sex depicted in films and shows has at least SOME bearing on the epidemic of "hooking up" that we now see among college kids and young adults?

I'm not contending that Martin Scorsese caused Virginia Tech. But anybody who says that films of that genre don't desensitize people to violence and its effects...well, I simply fail to see how one could make that argument with a straight face.

Anonymous said...

Steve, you sound a little prudish if you ask me. You almost seem to be implying that we live the life we see in the movies, instead of the other way around. Life is life, and movies reflect life. For better or worse, this is what we are today. Frankly I think it's better, at least where attitudes toward sexuality are concerned. Or would you have us revert to the Puritan ethic? I also wonder why you single out women for most of your criticism. (Look at your examples: Britney, etc.) It's as if you're saying everything was fine when only men were pigs, but now that women have joined the sexual revolution, suddenly you're dismayed and the sky is falling.

Tsk, tsk. As I've said to you before, your chauvinism is showing.

Matt Dick said...

I think it's all non-evidence-based hand-wringing. Americans are safer than they used to be, the proof is clear. Violent crimes are down over the last 30 years, kidnappings are down, deaths by war are down.

Perhaps we are experiencing death on screen (Computer, TV and Movie) because we aren't experiencing it in real life any more. We are obsessed with the idea that Virginia Tech happened because of something. Well VA Tech happened in the midst of, and is part of, a trend of lesser and lesser violence and a safer and safer society. But we're desperate to explain it, because if we can explain it, we can try to avoid it for our own kids. the truth is, we are safer than ever and more worried than ever.

Steve, my guess is that you're more worried about letting your grandson out of your site at whatever age he is now than you were about letting your son out of your site 20-30 years ago. But the truth is that it's a better bet now than it was then, and the unspoken little secret is that it was never unsafe to begin with, the chances of bad things happening is pretty darned low. We tolerated death a lot more 30 years ago than we do now -- just consider how many deaths it took in Vietnam to unseat a president and turn a congress' approval rating in 1970. Consider it now. It's about an order of magnitude lower to get us unraged enough to consider things like impeachment.

Doom/Quake/Halo, Reservoir Dogs/Saw, CSI, etc. are not making us more violent because we are in fact less violent.

Steve Salerno said...

Many good points here. I will address when I get back from Vegas. Thanks to all for weighing in, as always.

Citizen Deux said...

Matt's comments are very interesting. If we examine a society like Japan, homogeneous and suitably controlled and repressed, we see a fixation with violence (and sexuality). I personally detest any film which glorifies crime in any form. Casino was well acted - but was it necessary?

At least Tarantino's work is so absurd as to border on the fantastic. Scorsese's work inspired the pathetic Sopranos series.

Hooray - we are cheering for a thuggish mysanthrope in New Jersey.