Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Old dogs learn new tricks

(April 1993)

From Socialist Review, No.163, April 1993, p.12.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Violence has been the flavour of the month for the Tory press and politicians. Or rather, the contention that there is too much of it in films and on television. This followed on from their claim last month that Britain was being engulfed by mass terror from eight year old teenymuggers.

The campaign over film violence seems to have started with the book by a certain Michael Medved, Hollywood versus America. But the notion that there is too much film violence has been endorsed not just by John Major but by as liberal an actor as Jack Nicholson.

Medved’s own approach flows from his belief that American life has traditionally been based on a fine set of Christian values that are being undermined by ‘the degradation of our popular culture’. Chapters have titles like, The attack on religion, The assault on the family, The glorification of ugliness.

His solution to these ills is to return to the golden age when those who ran the US film studios signed the Hay’s code, with its insistence,

‘No picture shall be produced which lowers the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown on the side of crime, wrong doing, evil or sin.’

The code certainly did not prevent violence in films. It only ensured that it was a certain kind of violence, directed against specific groups of people – and usually in such a way as to hide the horrific effects it had.

So someone like myself who started going to the cinema in 1945 will have seen thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of people gunned down in one sided battles. It didn’t worry those responsible for the cinema industry’s self censorship, since the victims were American Indians. A little later, at the age of 12, I was expected to rejoice at the climactic moment of The Dambusters (since brilliantly parodied in the lager advert) when scores of German workers made a futile attempt to avoid drowning.

The Hay’s code was about ensuring that Hollywood produced suitably sanitised images of American capitalism, that it was indeed a dream factory and did not convey the reality of a century of nightmares.

The film industry did not really begin to challenge this until American society was torn apart by the Vietnam War and the rise of the black and student movements.

Now, aided by the break up of the studio system, some directors, actors and screenwriters began to question the things hammered into their heads by old Hollywood.

For the first time, in films like Soldier Blue and Little Big Man, you got the Indians’ point of view, and you saw the horrific results of violence. If it was repulsive, that was because there was no other way of conveying what the American dream had really been about.

Similarly, films occasionally began to show what people’s sexual and family lives were really about, that they often tore each other apart in a way you would never guess from the Doris Day/Rock Hudson films, let alone Lassie Come Home.

What was true of the cinema was true of other elements of popular culture. The old pop music which relied on exploiting teenage bewilderment and sexual frustration (Dennis Potter’s Lipstick on Your Collar gets this across brilliantly, whatever its other weaknesses) no longer had a complete monopoly of the charts.

This rise of a critical popular culture worries Medved and Major. They want films in which you see lawmen pull triggers but never the agony of the victims, and they want song lyrics in which boy meets girl and nothing ever goes wrong.

For these reasons there has to be strong opposition to their pressure for censorship. However, that does not mean to say that every violent film or every song lyric about sex has a positive content. Far from it. Old dogs sometimes do learn new tricks. Those who profited from providing sanitised sex in the 1950s have learnt there can be profits from soft porn. And those who used to pretend state violence never hurt now try to pull in the audiences with images of lingering pain.

Just as opposition to censorship should not mean support for the pornographers so it should not mean claiming every violent film is a good one.

The issue has arisen with the Australian film Romper Stamper, which shows the pleasure a gang of skinheads take in beating up immigrants. A call by the Anti Nazi League and other anti-racist bodies to boycott the film has been criticised by some on the left (including both Militant and the Morning Star) who say this is jumping on the anti-violence bandwagon. They claim the film is good because it shows the racists inflicting the violence as normal human beings and not as ‘caricatures’ and ‘stereotypes’. To take any other approach, they claim, is to substitute ‘agitprop’ for realism.

But the left has often been prepared to boycott films without joining in calls for censorship. It did so with the John Wayne film The Green Berets which glorified the US killing in Vietnam. It was extremely critical of the sexploitation movies of the early 1980s like Dressed to Kill.

And the argument over agitprop is completely misplaced. ‘Reflecting’ the reality of a violent and dehumanised society can mean two things – showing violence as an inevitable, ‘normal’ part of human behaviour, so implying there is nothing wrong with it, or showing it as a horrific product of a horrific society and those involved as dehumanised.

The left should be in favour of the second approach and extremely critical of the first. That was why the Marxist critic George Lukacs made a distinction between critical realism and ‘naturalism’. It was why, using a different approach, the playwright Bertolt Brecht argued for an ‘alienation’ effect in the theatre, so that the audience would judge rather than identify with the characters.

Today we should oppose every attempt to prevent portrayals of the violence which capitalism produces, but we should also criticise those who use images or lyrics to extol that violence.

Last updated on 18 June 2010