By Elizabeth Waibel
An alien life form swoops down from the sky, crushing a hapless human victim in its metallic jaws, sending blood and guts everywhere. Just like in last summer’s blockbuster. And the one before that. Two lovers jump into bed, clothes flying and music playing. Again. It all seems so familiar, and so boring.
Americans buy millions of movie tickets every year, each new film screaming for attention. Blockbusters parade scantily clad Bond girls and CGI explosions, while smaller, more “artistic” films, try to impress film festivals and Oscar voters by tackling in-your-face topics and situations.
One problem with using sex and violence to get attention is that their emotional value is gone because the audience has seen it all before. Even in movies that increase the level of sex and violence in an attempt to shock movie-goers, like “Watchmen,” the gore can become so excessive that it is ridiculous and distracts from the story.
In one review, movie critic Andrew O’Hehir wrote, “Ours is a pornographic age, not an erotic one.” O’Hehir was referring to a culture that discusses sex and sexuality ad nauseam, but has often failed to find the artistic value of these topics.
War is, by nature, violent, but so many movies feature bombs exploding and people getting shot that they can seem more like action movie clichés than depictions of the tragedy of death.
Viewers and filmmakers alike should look not only at the morality of sex and violence in movies, but at how the content tells the story and communicates with the audience. While sometimes helpful to a story’s development, explicit depictions of sex and violence are not always necessary to making a challenging, quality movie. Some of the most memorable films that have the greatest emotional effect on their viewers are those in which the filmmakers find creative ways to connect across the screen.
Released in 1946, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious” was produced at a time when filmmakers had to use sex and violence sparingly. The story is about a woman who is asked by the CIA to seduce a suspected Nazi to gain information about his allies, but the characters dance around the details, always remaining vague, but revealing enough to carry the narrative.
Thanks to Hitchcock’s skill, the characters’ discussions about the questionable morality of the operation even contribute to the sexual tension, and the unseen means of one man’s death implies a danger and suspense greater than a bloody gunshot. In the mind of the viewer, what is hidden may become more ominous than what is on screen.
The movie “Schindler’s List” is set in the midst of World War II and Nazi death camps, but the lasting image that has stuck with people and is cited again and again as integral to the film’s power is not a massacre or a pile of burning bodies. It is one little girl in a red coat who has come to stand for all the horrors of the Holocaust suffered by those to whom the audience could not be introduced in person.
One figure, one carefully chosen stroke of color in an otherwise black-and-white movie, made a greater impact than any gruesome, realistic cruelty. The violence is there, but not glamorized. In all its ugliness, the girl in the red coat gives it meaning.
Graphic violent and sexual content may sometimes be useful in movies, but sometimes, less is more. Sometimes, attention to details and implied actions communicate more powerfully than sensationalized scenes.
Those who wish to produce meaningful, artistic films that resonate with viewers beyond a mere adrenaline rush will have to find new ways to make a connection with a jaded audience, and viewers will have to become more discerning if they wish to find art in the movies instead of mindlessly consuming whatever Hollywood throws their way.