01 Jun WHY VIOLENCE TODAY IS DIFFERENT
HOW PROFIT-DRIVEN FICTION CREATES A SOCIAL NORM:
A STUDENT SCREENWRITER’S PERSPECTIVE
An older Facebook friend wrote on his time-line about feeling manipulated by the forces who create the violent content on mainstream media, in this case it was an Amazon or Netflix political drama whose plot involved defeating terrorist in London. He was irritated and confused by his conflicting feelings of satisfaction, while simultaneously feeling taken advantage of. He had ingested yet another narrative he didn’t believe in.
It’s a subject that has concerned me most of my life, and I’ve tried writing on it at different times. But it was while training in screenwriting and encountering the personalities who teach it in Hollywood that I got the clearest view of what aggravates me and I’d like to share some of my findings because I believe they relate to the whole culture and are important now.
The very first commandment of screenwriting is: Conflict is the basis of drama. This is true of all fiction. Absolutely every compelling story is about someone we feel an empathic connection to, a protagonist or antagonist, overcoming obstacles. We are meant to relate to them through their struggles. Think of any fictional hero from the past and look there and you will see they were an individual or people in conflict.
It is the job of the Hollywood writer, for all writers in fact, to make you feel. People go to the movies ultimately, to feel.
Unfortunately, decades of teaching techniques involving character development and conflict development have led to a kind of lowest common denominator norm.
It’s a vicious cycle in which immature or hurried writers and profit oriented producers by default tend to the lowest common denominator in scripts, they have over time turned the emotional volume of scripts up to 10 out of 10 on the emotional scale for increased audience and market share.
Fear, and anger as a response to that fear, as violent reactions have become a normal genre of screenwriting. Viewer engagement achieved via promoting violence, lots and lots of violence, as quick as possible within a scene has proved to be as successful a recipe.
As feelings go, violence flares the primitive fight or flight adrenal floodgates and unfortunately for our culture, but fortunately for purveyors of entertainment, that is addictive as hell.
I want to coin a phrase here, let’s call this rush to violence in scripts INCOMPLETE VIOLENCE. I say incomplete because violence consists of a minimum natural cycle containing at least: precipitating factors, the violence itself, and the aftermath.
Unfortunately in the screenwriting world the violence is nearly always truncated. The cycle is cut-down, abbreviated to a very short portion of reality. Today, the precipitating phase leading up to violence is a fraction of reality. The violence itself is extended, prolonged in the extreme and over-dramatized. Often today, in many movies, series and video games NO aftermath phase is portrayed whatsoever. The dangerous message unintentionally being sent by this form of entertainment is that there are NO consequences to violence.
We live in a culture whose perception of violence is clearly a result of this trend.￼
But don’t take my word on this. Please, talk to any ethical hunter you may know, or know of, and ask him about violence and hunting. Ask a hunter about real world violence, about the cycle of violence in a hunt. I would say the majority of people who are staunchly against hunting simply don’t understand it, and they don’t understand it because their understanding of violence is largely formed by decades of the media type I’m trying to describe; violence of the incomplete type.
This is not an argument for or against hunting, it’s to illustrate an activity that is ancient, has sustained us a species and I believe is written into most human’s DNA. Consider a typical deer hunt if you will: 50 – 70% of the time hunting is spent tracking and then sitting and waiting for suitable deer and access to a clear shooting lane. Keep in mind , sometimes hunts yield nothing, so 100% of the time spent in the precipitating phase. If a hunt goes well, a hunter will likely spend hours waiting for his prey, processing, butchering, and or dragging a carcass through the woods.
I didn’t mention the ‘taking’ of the animal, the killing, call it what it is, the shooting of the deer. Why? Because as part of the time frame of the overall violence cycle, it represents less than a second in time. From conditions becoming optimal for a shot, the trigger being pulled, the arrow released, and the projectile entering the animal.
Do you see the radical difference between entertainment violence and real violence? Bring fighting to the street, usually two males. The average street fight lasts less than 13 seconds. If you watch a violent TV show for an hour you will probably witness more violence than you would ever witness in your life if you lived in a country without war. Perhaps many lifetimes.
I want to point out another piece of the hunting illustration that is vital to recognize; that it takes a deep understanding of the animal you are hunting, its habits, and its habitat, its life cycles, simply in order to locate it. It can take years or even generations to make excellent hunters acquainted with their environment capable of moving through it without setting off 1 million natural alarm bells within the animal world, it is a skill it is an art and there is also a science to it. No one simply walks out in the woods and plugs a deer with a rifle, if you’ve heard of such a story it may be an exaggeration or just a fluke, but it is definitely amongst the exceptions to the rule.
I’d argue that the public acquiescence to, and addictive hunger for the production of mainstream, fake, or incomplete violence, designed to stir up our emotions in gratifying hormonal releases, has produced an equally grotesque and maybe more dangerous cousin. Fake news.
Fake news, like incomplete violence, is an abstraction of and concentration on a some limited aspect of fact, intentionally presented out of context and whose emotionally triggering aspects can be calculated for an audience of known biases and then exaggerated and compounded through repetition for the highest possible degree of moral outrage for the target audience. Both fake news and incomplete violence attack what we hold sacred, threaten it, and then offer sanctimonious indignation or violence as cures. It’s like a drug dealer inciting an addicts craving by presenting a stress and then appearing with a solution, a fix, for a small price.
Fake or incomplete news is juicy, sugary, and bitter, but it’s got a kick. Tell me you are above it, that you’ve never been caught up in this cycle. It’s exactly as addictive as incomplete violence is, and physiologically speaking, there’s no difference. It works as a stimulant in the same way within your body, and like incomplete or fake violence, it IS scripted, it is designed for maximum emotional and economic outcomes whose results are viewers hooked on the product; outrage and then relief for viewers and high profits for its producers.
Incomplete news, and the visions of incomplete violence that stem from it, have taken central stage for some politicians. We’ve seen sound-bites of outraged politicians on U.S. television networks calling for or hinting at the benefits of the assassination of their rival politicians. This was unthinkable when I was young. Incomplete fake news and incomplete violence have formed their own cycles within our culture that often replace political dialog within the media as well as on the campaign trail and the Senate floor.
I fear the reduction of complicated situations to incomplete facts as sound-bites, is a trend that if not recognized for what it is, for the scope of its destructive power to oversimplify and polarize, it will only become increasingly dangerous. The real kicker is, it’s all totally unnecessary.
I’m saying, for decades our most profitable entertainment industries have not explored the range and subtlety of emotion. We should certainly be writing about grief, because it is about loss, and loss is the root of fear, and grief unexpressed is the root of depression and of violent expression. Pharmaceutical and weapons manufacturers both profit from the depression, anxiety and anger that incomplete violence and facts help to produce.
It takes maturity and talent to write about emotions more complicated than fear and anger, it takes a subtlety and it takes courage and moral vision if you are a producer to invest in projects like that explore the more subtle realities that form our actual lives. It is much easier, much faster, much more profitable to fill the screen with horror, revenge, and explosives going off. It’s a fact we all know.
We may believe that we do not so easily become what we see, we don’t necessarily imitate it. But what of the impressionable young, their unconscious minds, that are holding all these violent images inside, where through repetition visions of incomplete and inconsequential violence have become not only acceptable but worse; mundane.
If you raised a child in the woods, in an agricultural area, in a nation not at war, what violence would they see? Would its emotional center seem organically created and be able to be traced back? Would the need for the violence be visible and obvious?
The hawk kills the rabbit, the farmer kills the pig. The school boys fight over the school girl. The hunter who eats his kill takes the healthy duck and the deer. It all makes sense. It’s proportional and makes common sense. It also usually, and rightly triggers feelings of disgust, remorse, grief and importantly awe; but only if we are aware of the spiritual implications of taking a life. And that’s where I fear the disconnect is widening. Whatever the reason or occasion, violence should naturally, and I think healthily, trigger some soul-searching.
I have not mentioned domestic violence, because it’s very subtle and varied roots in the psychology of the participants make it far too complicated and dark a subject for mainstream media to seriously engage in at length.
Since it is understood to be complex, and cannot generate quick feelings of adrenaline or endorphin release, domestic violence has no economic value to a studio. It is a negative. It has no more place in the industry than the subtler deeper emotions I mentioned before.
As a visual, I believe you could create a line-graph plotting corresponding peaks and valleys tracking elements of incomplete violence, hormonal release within viewers, and studio profits. I bet if you laid those three components out on a line-graph they would follow each other closely. And why wouldn’t they? Cigarette companies likely graphed similar physiological responses to their products, correlated profits and adjusted cigarette ingredients to suppress negative responses like ‘hacking up’ in the morning to the ‘high’ smokers got, all while increasing profits and turning a blind eye to public health implications.￼
The violence we’ve created in the media, I am told by a psychologist friend, does to a degree help us live out our aggression vicariously, help us deal with the stress from urban and suburban life in safe ways. That is a constructive use of the violent media.
I can see how older animated cartoons, the type we were speaking of, could perform that function because they are clearly abstract and humorous. To my mind they do not compare with the hyper-realism and seriousness of today’s incomplete violence-centered video games.
The trouble is we’ve gone far overboard. The scale has tipped too far in the direction of violence without subtlety or measure. It contains none of the natural antecedents that should build toward it. There’s little if any context, no lengthy process in arrival, those ‘boring’ scenes of precipitating factors and consequences have been cut or formulated into extreme and compressed caricatures of what should naturally be there.
In fiction, this was once referred to as the Rising Action.
Because today’s entertainment violence as portrayed has no, or minimal, natural genesis stemming from complex human needs. What was once seen as a rare form of conflict resolution has become a norm. As a result we don’t learn how to argue safely, we don’t know debate, we don’t learn the fine art of policing in which lengthy training can result in safely restraining violent individuals using pressure points in the human body, instead we jump to the nuclear option, it’s kill or be killed, in policing, in politics and in entertainment.
We are teaching this and have been teaching this for generations. Unconsciously perhaps, for those who are not particularly conscious, or for those who through real circumstances are particularly angry and who experience such violence as somehow a reflection of the only ‘reality’ they have ever known.
The real schoolyard fight was probably not such a bad thing. It’s certainly taught limits and very rarely did anyone die. We were angry, but not that angry.
When I was 10 years old I was fighting with one of the neighbor kids who was my age and a little smaller but very quick. I have no idea what we were mad about. ￼We were tussling on the ground in his backyard. At one point I got an arm free, didn’t have room to throw a punch anywhere so elbowed him in the ribs in the mid side.
Before I knew it his father was standing above us and broke it up. He was a slight but agile man. He knelt down next to us very calmly. He wanted me, and his son, to listen to him. “Do you know that there are seven ways to kill someone with your bare hands?” He matter-of-factly showed each of them to us, then explained how I had to be very careful not to elbow his son in the kidneys; because it could do permanent damage. “It could even kill him.” He pointed out the kidney area again to us to be sure we comprehended his instructions, then quietly walked back into the house, leaving us to our own devices.
I remember at the time being struck by his calm, most dads would want to beat the hell out of me.
On several occasions, decades since that day, I have recalled and made sense of that scene. With the perspective of time, it occurred to me we lived on an Army Base, Fort Bragg North Carolina “Home of the 82nd Airborne”.
The man was a Green Beret, home on leave from Vietnam. He probably had been teaching the same lessons to South Vietnamese soldiers days before, that’s what Green Berets do, and that is why he was calm about two boys scrapping in the backyard. He understood fighting, he understood the realaties of physical violence, he was filled with real experiences in escalation and reaction, and all of that gave him; real judgment. That’s how it used to be.
If any of this has made you more curious about what I’m talking about in film, and how it can fail or help to succeed in making us aware of what’s going on inside of ourselves, ￼I’d like to offer up two extreme examples of films separated by time.
Look at the way violence is treated as a theme, how it is handled as a subtle subject in the writing, in the story told by Horton Foote in TENDER MERCIES￼￼ of 1983, and then compare it to Clint Eastwoods’ AMERICAN SNIPER.
It is incredibly sad to me that AMERICAN SNIPER is held up by some as a masterpiece while very few people have ever heard of TENDER MERCIES. Foote also wrote the screenplay for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.
I want to highlight the violence portrayed in TENDER MERCIES, which is mostly inward. It is the kind all of us actually experience everyday in our lives, but don’t necessarily deal with, because we don’t even recognize it as occurring. Why not? Because awareness, perception, pain and violence are all relative. We behave as if our internal thermostats swing wildly. We might think: ‘Unless there are Apache helicopters attacking or someone is being beaten in the street, it’s not violence.’ I want to say, that is the problem.
AMERICAN SNIPER for me does represent a problem in our culture. It is a movie about war, yes, about extreme conflict, yes, and it’s not that movie itself that is the problem for me, it is the gulf in the perception of violence between the two movies that is the problem.
I believe that we understand and recognize only the one, AMERICAN SNIPER as ‘violence’ because we have been conditioned by concepts of incomplete violence, that we’ve lost the sensitivity to see the other, TENDER MERCIES as the more real, the more present and destructive violence, mostly because it is commonplace, and so becoming increasingly invisible to us as such, because of this ratcheting up of degrees of what is acceptable as entertainment.
I’m told you can put a frog in a pan of cold water on the stove and turn the gas on. I’m told the frog will not notice the gradual heating of the water. I’m told that at some point, something within the frog’s physiology, because it is a cold blooded animal, does not sense the danger as its surrounding temperature increases. It allows itself to be at first overheated, then to lose consciousness, boil and then eventually to be consumed by the flames..
I’m writing this because I am truly afraid that we as a society are like the frog, slowly numbed by the effects of extreme violence on our collective psyche. The unrealistic leap to extremes taught by incomplete violence is heating up personal relationships and politics. It’s heating up conflict in the world and I do not want us to be consumed by the flames. ￼This is preventable.
One last example from recent headlines. The actor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently had a professionally produced short film of himself made for the purpose of dissemination to the Russian public via social media and Youtube. His message was to denounce Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the Sovereign Nation of Ukraine. In the broadcast he referred to Putin’s actions as ‘Mad’.
Interestingly, Schwarzenegger has made many films showcasing incomplete violence, after which he went on to govern the state of California. On the other hand, Vladimir Putin has twenty Twitter accounts he follows, one of which is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s. Putin is known to portray himself as grotesquely macho to give his followers and enemies a vision of himself as invincible. Given his actions against Ukraine have universally been described as ‘insane’ or ‘out of touch with reality’ which of these two men would you say, has not learned the valuable lesson of identifying the risks of living in a world of fantasy, the world of incomplete violence, the world where violence appears easy, gratifying and has no apparent serious consequences?