Mick LaSalle: Critics and audiences must confront movie violence

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By Mick LaSalle

We enter 2013 with the sickening, dispiriting events in Newtown, Conn., still fresh in mind and yet without much conviction that anything can be done to prevent such future horrors. Obviously, the overriding issue is that we have a gun problem in the United States and a political climate that has been, at least until now, too timid to do anything about it.

But we also have a culture problem, and we know this. We know, because though Newtown shocked us and stopped us in our tracks and continues to haunt our imaginations, it did not surprise us. If the Newtown killings were an act of terrorism, the whole country would be mobilized to protect itself from the Other. But this felt like something from within, not just from within our borders, but from within the soul of the nation. And in talking about matters of the soul, our cultural gatekeepers have been just as timid as our politicians.

Fourteen years ago, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Gloria DeGaetano, in “Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill,” were warning us about the effects of violent video games and movies on young and impressionable minds. They compared the games that kids play with the conditioning that soldiers get in order to desensitize them to killing. They pointed out that by the time children reach adulthood they have witnessed hundreds of thousands of simulated violent deaths and have come to associate witnessing death and mayhem with pleasure.

That same book contained an introduction by then-President Clinton, pleading with filmmakers and game makers to self-censor in the interest of children. That plea went unheeded, if it was noticed at all.

The interaction between real-life and movies is complicated. Some will claim that movies influence behavior, even as producers will invariably insist that movies only reflect society, as though movies were some unobtrusive aspect of culture, unnoticed by the world.
The truth is that movies and society influence each other in ways that overlap and are therefore arguable. But clearly something seems to be going on, and something is in need of changing.

My own epiphany came about six months ago and was occasioned by the film “The Dark Knight Rises.” When I saw it at an advance screening, I regarded it as a wallow in nonstop cruelty and destruction, a film that was anti-life. But when I wrote the review I said none of those things, which I considered to be too subjective and personal, and instead concentrated on objective aspects of the movie that I deemed deficient, and I gave it a middling-to-negative review.

Then came the events in that movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and suddenly my own writing about this film seemed to me limp and inadequate — no, flat-out pathetic. It’s not that “The Dark Knight Rises” directly caused a maniac to start killing people in a movie theater; obviously, it didn’t. But it did seem to me that the soul-crushing chaos of the film — ultimately reflected in what happened in Aurora — warranted a response that it never got.

Survivors of the Aurora tragedy mentioned that, at first, they thought the gunman was part of the movie’s promotion. That says something about the nature of our cinema, and it also invites us to consider what if that were true. Imagine Aurora never happened, but instead a summer movie contained a scene of a gunman going into a movie theater and slaughtering people. What would be the public and the critical response to that?

I think we know. Audiences would walk out saying that the theater-slaughter scene was the coolest thing in the movie, and critics, appalled, would nonetheless talk themselves into a neutral response by the time they wrote their reviews. For critics, the thought process would go something like this: Yes, it’s sick, but isn’t that a moral judgment? And is it my place to comment on morality and decency? I don’t want to be like that old dinosaur Bosley Crowther in The New York Times, slamming “Bonnie and Clyde” in 1967. Maybe this is something new that I’m not grasping. Maybe the very fact that I hated it so much means that it’s good.

And so the critic would end up writing something like this: “The movie contains a disturbing yet highly effective scene of violence transpiring at a movie theater.” Forget any mention of the insidiousness of inserting such poison into the national mind, of the morality or decency of feeding audiences crack. It would be a review as written by one of Mr. Spock’s dim-witted cousins, on vacation from Vulcan.
Well, fellow critics, it’s time to take off the big ears.

The central confusion that embarrasses critics, and progressives in general, is the notion that this is a free speech issue. Yes, it’s absolutely true that strong images are needed to tell strong truths. You can’t attack the old regime and talk about the violence of government, of sexism, and of racism without depicting that violence. Some of the best filmmakers of the 1960s and ’70s, coming off of decades of suffocating censorship, knew this.

But let’s not fail to recognize that today violent media is the new regime. The industry, in cinema and gaming, which is monstrously profitable, is a mechanical, repetitive neural training ground for action. And like the Taliban, it targets disenfranchised young men and boys who are unformed and weak in personality.

So what do we do? What can we do? Forget censorship. It’s socially immoral. It doesn’t work, and it makes for awful movies.
In terms of specific action, critics must, first of all, identify the messages that movies are communicating.

If movies are cruel and nihilistic, say so. Say it explicitly. Don’t run from that observation. It may be wrong and certainly pointless to review films as good or bad depending on how well they comport with our own individual morality. But that does not obviate the clear obligation to report on the philosophical content of movies. Widespread disapproval will impact box office.

Likewise, critics need to let the public know, repeatedly and unrelentingly, each time the Motion Picture Association of America gives a PG-13 rating to celebrations of violence, such as “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Jack Reacher.”

The public has a bigger role, and that’s to insist that any movie with any violence at all — any shooting, stabbing, bombing or rape — gets an R rating. If enforced, this would reduce the violence in PG-13 movies and prevent some violent films from getting made.

Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese will still be able to make their R-rated movies for an adult audience.

If raising violent films to an R-rating has no effect, and it might not, try NC-17.

Just as there is profit in violence, there is enormous profit in pornography, and yet our films don’t routinely depict graphic sex acts for two reasons: (1.) The public wouldn’t stand for it; and (2.) Critics would feel on solid ground deploring it.

It’s time to stop behaving as if we were paralyzed. It’s time to lose our squeamishness about confronting screen violence — and the monolith of profit behind it — and to start acting like a community.

Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle’s movie critic.



  1. This is a very well written and well thought out article. The steady diet of violence in video games and movies may not turn everyone into a mass murderer, but it does have the effect of de-humanizing people, especially in impressionable minds both young and old. I am not sure what the answer is. We, as a society, have descended to the point where violence is a major source of entertainment. That is a very sad commentary on America and American “values”. I was hoping that Newtown would be a wake up call but then I looked at trailers for movies that are out in the theaters and of course, a whole lot of blood and gore. Guns, gore, and an accute sense of victimization are proving to be a lethal combination.


  2. It has always amazed me that as a culture we are quick to deplore sex in movies, but violence is accepted. Even television has become more and more graphically violent. And vomiting on camera is the norm these days! Are we no longer disgusted by anything? I would much rather turn on the television and see a woman topless, or a male butt than some of the gore that passes for evening entertainment. And, no I am not a baby boomer, although some may consider me an old fuddy duddy in my thirties.


  3. “Obviously, the overriding issue is that we have a gun problem in the United States”

    No. This is not “obvious.” Guns are not the problem. Violent movies are not the problem. Video games are not the problem.

    The truth is, bad things happen and it’s unfortunate. There’s no one to blame and people need to stop trying to look somewhere for blame.

    If there is ONE issue that is most concerning, it’s mental health.


  4. its easier to look outward than to look inward. I agree with the ghost. Better parenting is where this all comes from. Also common sense, kid get gun from parents safe, kid uses gun, parent says kid was crazy and they are sorry. Well why do you have a gun in a house with a crazy kid. I am not saying these people are malicious and they also lose but common sense is very lacking.

    And yeah blaming movies or video games (which parents let their kids go to and play) is a cop out and well lacking common sense.

    “and to start acting like a community” This would be better parenting and awareness not limiting free speech and the right to show films.

    “Just as there is profit in violence, there is enormous profit in pornography, and yet our films don’t routinely depict graphic sex acts for two reasons: (1.) The public wouldn’t stand for it; and (2.) Critics would feel on solid ground deploring it.”
    –All I have to say is it isn’t the critics or the public it is the ratings system, if they could display graphic sex and get it released with a lower rating it would be done.


  5. Violence and sex sells. It’s all over network t.v. Listen to the ads for the 11 o’clock news each day during prime time. We’ll tell you about the latest murder or sex pervert at 11…stay tuned.


  6. So, Jimmy D…how do you explain the way higher murder rate in the U.S. versus almost every other developed country? Our state of Mental health??


  7. Even if violent films got R ratings, would that really prevent those under 17 from seeing them? Even if the rating was enforced in movie theatres, what’s to stop kids from seeing these films on DVD?


  8. “Maybe proper parenting and education is more important.” I think this is a great point that is all too often ignored.

    I can agree that the violence in TV, movies, and video games are inappropriate for young children and may in fact be desensitizing them. The fault isn’t with those media; the fault lies with the parents who routinely park their kids in front of the TV and video games as a substitute for a babysitter.

    They aren’t monitoring what their children are watching, going out and buying games rated 13+ or 17+ for their 8 year olds. Society does its part by making it clear what kind of content is ahead, parents need to use those tools provided. We’ve all heard the saying “it takes a village to raise a child.” It’s about time that parents stop expecting the “village” to do all the work while not being held accountable. The community provides the tools, and yes media needs to have oversight and we need to make sure that they are adhering to those standards so people know what they are getting into. Parents need to use these tools and become an active part of their children’s lives.


  9. Why didn’t you mention the violence in Django Unchained in your review in this morning’s e edition? Do you just assume that everyone knows Tarantino films are violent?


  10. http://www.comm.ucsb.edu/faculty/lieberman/

    Brown, S.J., Lieberman, D.A., Gemeny, B.A., Fan, Y.C., Wilson, D.M., & Pasta, D.J. (1997). Educational video game for juvenile diabetes: Results of a controlled trial. Medical Informatics 22(1), 77-89.

    “This study demonstrates that well-designed action-adventure video games can significantly improve learning, skill development, and behavior change. Video games can be highly appealing and motivating learning environments in which players have unlimited opportunities to rehearse skills, receive immediate feedback on performance, obtain and make use of information, experience social support when interacting with other players, and develop the confidence and ability to carry out new skills in their daily lives.”

    Note: This was a controlled scientific study. There are many more similar studies where video games were used to teach children to change their mindset and mannerisms to manage their illness. If video games are proven to teach desireable behaviors, why are they not, then, by using exactly the same immediate feedback and social support techniques, teaching undesireable behaviors?


  11. The USA has a high rate of unemployment, terrible medical care for the mentally disabled, and allows people to buy guns of almost every type, including semi-automatic weapons with big clips of ammo.
    Since 1968, the USA motion picture industry has told the 13-to-16 year old that they are old enough to pay adult prices, but, are not old enough to see a R rated movie without a parent or guardian. Since the cinemas make most of their money from the snack bar, they could say 17 and older pay adult prices, while 16 and under pay children’s prices, but, they will not do that because they are greedy.
    I disagree with a blanket statement that all movies with violence should be rated R. That would not distinguish between a great movie, such as The Longest Day or Patton, and a terrible film, such as a “slasher” movie that identifies with the murderer.
    The Academy Awards giving a standing ovation to Roman Polanski (who drugged and raped a 13 year old girl in 1977) after he won the award for Best Director for The Pianist (2002) was a bad message to send to the people watching the program at home.


  12. I disagree with those who think this issue lies entirely on better parenting. Movies and video games represent what society deems as cool. It’s time to rate violence for what it is — really uncool. As a working member of the entertainment community having worked on major big budgeted films to miniscule independents for the past two decades, I applaud Mick LaSalle’s ‘confession of a guilty bystander.’

    Yes, film critics are our gatekeepers. Like an umpire behind the plate, please ‘call ’em the way you see ’em’ and let the chips fall where they may. This is a big industry which will find a way to re-invent itself. Like all industries, including the obvious manufacturers of guns and ammunition, we as a community should strive to serve the community, not destroy it.

    This letter to the editor outlines where LaSalle and I agree and calls for our film community to do more.


    We can start by reforming State and Federal levels to support less violent storytelling and employ the MPAA to reform it’s rating systems — a long over due measure to restore consumption in our community.

    Here’s more how the NRA could have helped two years ago:


    TOO MANY lost opportunities to intervene. Miss this one and we’ll all start missing a whole lot more.


  13. Mick, Thanks for having the courage to write this. It is only when an individual is willing to share their own abilities, experiences, or knowledge, no matter how small or large that contribution may be, that we can collectively make the world a better, safer, more peaceful place to be.


  14. Sorry, but as much as I like your reviews (which are generally superbly entertaining – never mind the movies!), I cannot agree with this essay at all. Human behavior is complex, and there are very likely people for whom fantasy violence (as in video games or movies) leads to real life violence, just as there are those for whom marijuana leads inexorably to heroin and a life of drug addiction. It is easy to find not just individuals for whom the fantasy to violence link does not hold, but entire countries. Violent video games and movies are very popular in Japan and South Korea; Japan’s gun homicide rate is 1/200th of the U.S.; Korea 1/90th.

    Both of these countries have vastly fewer guns per person. But total murder rates, while not as dramatically different, are in the same order: Japan is 1/10 of the U.S., Korea 1/2 (from Wikipedia, based on UN data).

    There are countries with far more violent death rates than the U.S.; these are characterized by relatively lawless conditions (and a great deal of poverty). But among “orderly” countries, the U.S. does stand out for such violence. It has a lot of guns, and it does glorify violence. I am not talking about fantasy or movies; I am talking about the national culture: we worship the John Wayne gunslinger. And our government behaves like one.

    As a child I watched the likes of “Gunsmoke” and “Rawhide”, in which murders took place weekly without a hint of blood, let alone gore. War movies were all about heroes; for the reality one had to be old enough and educated enough to read “All Quiet on the Western Front”. Excessive patriotism is popular in most countries, but the association of military idolatry, unfettered gun ownership (with no safety or training requirements) and social attitudes typified by “Stand and Deliver” make a particularly toxic brew for this one. It has very little (if anything) to do with fantasy and everything to do with officially sanctioned attitudes and behaviors.

    And your glowing review of “Zero Dark Thirty” just continues this pandering to official violence.


  15. It is not the Government’s job to ‘take care of you’; that is YOUR
    job. Taxing cigarettes out-of-reach, mandating vaccines and taking
    away your guns “in the interest of safety” is not their privilege.

    Their assigned mission is to get the hell out of our way, and STAY
    there. They are required to obey the United States Constitution for
    exactly that reason.

    America belongs to Americans. Not the Corporations. Not Government.
    And not the ‘do-gooders’ who think there will ever be ‘safety’.


  16. I really appreciate that Mick wrote honestly, accepting responsibility for not posting his personal view that violent entertainment begets violence. I truly hope that his voice has clout with audiences and other critics to strengthen the moral and ethical threads that should be binding us together as a nation instead of tearing us apart under the guise of “freedom.”


  17. As a theatre manager we try to do our best keeping customers informed and trying to keep unaccompanied kids out of rated R movies. When parents bring their kids to a rated R movie, we politely say, “Just want to make you aware, that movie is rated R.” Most of the time the parent just shrugs and buy the tickets anyway. Rarely do they turn away and occasionally they scold us for even bringing it up.


  18. Django Unchained should have been titled “Tarantino Deranged”! If you’re looking for a film that has something to offend everyone, this is central to this unbelievable, mindless excursion into the bizarre psyche of Tarantino. A trip that I am regretting with all my heart that I ever took.
    What an incredible waste of time and talent. Tarantino and his equally disturbed counterpart, Martin Scorcese, constantly produce tripe and call it Chateaubriand–and the Pavlov, so-called critics who are in lockstep with these self proclaimed film geniuses are equally disturbed by calling them “masterpieces”!
    This promisuous use of that term does no one justice, least of all us moviegoers–not to mention the producers of true masterpieces like “On the Waterfront”; “The Godfather”; “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, to name a few.
    Beauty and art is in the eye of the beholder. It appears that Mr. LaSalle’s is bit jaundiced.


  19. There have been worse massacres across the world than Newtown, why is it that you artsey fartsey film critics are all of a sudden concerned about movie violence, or specifically Tarentino’s level of violence (Pulp Fiction=Good; everything else=bad because its not as artsey fartsey as Pulp Fiction).

    This is simple narcissism. Guilt-ridden middle-class Americans want to put the blame on the murders on someone or something to make themselves feel part of the “solution.” Yes, it would be nice to have an assault gun ban, I want that, it will help, but in this specific situation the ultimate responsibility for the Newtown massacre is a mother who unwisely decided to teach her autistic son how to shoot guns in a bizarre attempt to bond-not Tarentino’s artistic sensibilities, or the lack thereof.

    I bet a good political cartoonist would help make sense of this. Too bad the Times Union fired theirs so they could hire an “art critic.”


  20. Among the many well-written, thoughtful and helpful comments (#3, 12 and 14 in particular, and #16 raises points worth pondering as well), we always have to endure ignorant, mindless right-wing rants like #17. However, the kernel of truth hidden within this hostile, angry (probably white) man’s outburst is that government cannot stop bad behavior by issuing decrees, passing laws, or restricting choices alone. While #17 advocates anarchy as the answer, the key is for us collectively as a society to become more reflective and learn to exercise self-restraint. In other words, behave like adults instead of toddlers. Mr. La Salle’s article provides an incomplete picture in that it indicts only violent movies and video games, when violence and overly aggressive, in-your-face behavior is ingrained and reinforced in television, sports, all forms of entertainment, advertising…practically everywhere you look in America. Guns are a problem, but they are symptomatic of a behavior and conduct disorder on the part of the entire nation, and simply controlling access to guns will not be successful in attacking the root causes of this cultural psychosis we suddenly find ourselves in without other, broader informal social sanctions. The sex analogy is quite apropos and gratuitous and excessive violence needs to be subject to the disapproval of opinion leaders and the cultural vanguard much like urinating on a host or friend’s living room rug would be viewed. Any society that finds the natural beauty of the undraped human body or expressions of intimacy abhorrent and the most heinous mayhem imaginable “cool” is sick to the essence of its being.


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