Media Violence and the Price of “Good” Art

I live in Arvada, Colorado and my birth­day is July 20th. For months I’d been plan­ning to see The Dark Knight Rises at mid­night, the first minute of my birth­day. My fam­i­ly and friends knew this, or at least those out of town guessed it, and my phone set to buzzing early Friday morn­ing with peo­ple mis­tak­ing Arvada for Aurora. If I didn’t have an inter­view at 8:30am this last Friday, I would have been at a Batman mid­night screen­ing. Not the mid­night screen­ing, though, not the one that has turned a week­end of cin­e­mat­ic tri­umph into a week­end of hor­ror and shock.

When I was younger, when GoldenEye was the king of video games and I was anoth­er loyal sub­ject, I remem­ber an inci­dent that made video games seem dan­ger­ous. One Easter, a youth pas­tor I admired joined our family’s hol­i­day gath­er­ing, which includ­ed sev­er­al other fam­i­lies as well. We youth, of course, played video games. It was only one of our com­mu­nal out­lets, but it was a favorite one nonethe­less. This pas­tor – a middle-aged man that we count­ed as hip and cutting-edge – vom­it­ed after play­ing five min­utes of the clas­sic James Bond title. It shocked me. “He threw up? Over what?” I wasn’t there in per­son when he react­ed, and as I try to recall the details it’s pos­si­ble my fam­i­ly wasn’t even there at all, though that was the tra­di­tion for many years. But I feel like I was there because I still haven’t for­got­ten it. I still cock my eye­brow and won­der, “Wait, what exact­ly made him that sick?”

As a video gamer, I was, at times, one of those kids who would dis­able the last bomb in Golden Eye’s first level and then run back­ward, enjoy­ing the tar­get prac­tice of hun­dreds of sol­diers try­ing to kill me. My favorite drama on tele­vi­sion right now is Breaking Bad, a show which dis­plays cre­ativ­i­ty most effec­tive­ly through bru­tal vio­lence. While I’m not here sim­ply to talk about desen­si­tiz­ing aspects of media, that’s where I’m start­ing. Because when I watch Breaking Bad I am some­times shocked, but more often than not, I’m com­pelled. I’m engaged by the cre­ativ­i­ty and the char­ac­ter build­ing revealed through the method­i­cal vio­lence of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. It’s telling that one of the show’s most mem­o­rable scenes is (warn­ing: graph­ic con­tent) this, which has sim­ply become known as the “Run” scene.

Before Breaking Bad was the crime dar­ling of both crit­ics and the inter­net, The Wire qui­et­ly dom­i­nat­ed claims to the best show of all time. More than Breaking Bad, even, its real­ism is unre­lent­ing to the point of unin­ten­tion­al­ly (or often quite inten­tion­al­ly) lay­ing guilt at the feet of its pri­ma­ry demo­graph­ic. “West Baltimore is being destroyed,” its hero shouts at pas­sive author­i­ties, pas­sive in the way a view­er might be pas­sive, sit­ting and watch­ing. Without bela­bor­ing the point, video games are like­wise steeped in a his­to­ry of graph­ic vio­lence mar­ried to crit­i­cal acclaim and artis­tic merit. Getting head shots, even, is the most basic iden­ti­fy­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of any expert in all of the major shoot­er games, Halo, Call of Duty etc.

Here is the point I’m dri­ving at: the con­sump­tion of graph­ic con­tent that is of a poten­tial­ly dis­turb­ing or desen­si­tiz­ing nature is the price of admis­sion, or has been the price of admis­sion, for con­sumers who desire the high­est filmic and video game expe­ri­ence. This isn’t a hard and fast rule of art-making and art-consuming, but it is cer­tain­ly an over­whelm­ing trend. Even I “over­came” a specif­i­cal­ly con­ser­v­a­tive moral upbring­ing to enjoy Call of Duty: Black Ops and watch Game of Thrones when­ev­er pos­si­ble. And I’ll be hon­est, I try to avoid the pornog­ra­phy of Game of Thrones how­ev­er I can, even mut­ing my devices/TV because I just don’t have any room for that in my life or mar­riage. But I still watch the show. I still watched the Kill Bill movies even though I found the vio­lence beyond egre­gious, and as I shook my head in shock I acknowl­edged and, yes, appre­ci­at­ed the aes­thet­ic value of Tarantino’s multi-homage killing style.

Which, of course, leads us back to The Dark Knight Rises. To a sense­less shoot­ing that gave my state the largest case of sec­ond­hand PTSD it’s had since Columbine. We’ve had other shoot­ings, and those vic­tims and cir­cum­stances should not be for­got­ten as eas­i­ly as they are. But like Columbine, this one cap­tures the imag­i­na­tion for all the wrong rea­sons. The shoot­er sup­pos­ed­ly called him­self the Joker and paint­ed his hair red. This sort of detail is going to cause debate about the extent to which Nolan’s Batman fran­chise can be blamed for the shooter’s crime. It may be a sub­tle assig­na­tion of blame, and it may not be. What may also emerge as a theme is the way in which the Batman movies and comics have addressed this claim. Indeed, have pon­dered exact­ly how much Batman, as a char­ac­ter in our world and a hero in fic­tion, can be blamed for some­thing this hor­ren­dous because of his own dark, the­atri­cal trap­pings. Even the ani­mat­ed series had this episode, in which Batman is lit­er­al­ly put on trial for the charge of inspir­ing his own ene­mies.

Perhaps they shouldn’t, but peo­ple will talk about how much the movies helped cre­ate this mess. In the midst of such a debate, I think it’s rel­e­vant to remem­ber that these movies, and comics and ani­mat­ed series, are thought­ful enough to aid that very con­ver­sa­tion. The writ­ers for Batman, whether comics or oth­er­wise, almost always con­clude that Batman may have inspired the style, but not the mad­ness and actions of his ene­mies. We shouldn’t make a hard con­nec­tion between this logic and the shoot­ing of July 20th; that would be too pre­sump­tive and too easy. But I think it’s use­ful to remem­ber that media often cre­ates a space and the tools for dis­cussing trau­ma, if only for those of us blessed to have a sec­ond­hand per­spec­tive.

I wish I could talk more about the vic­tims, those killed and those crit­i­cal­ly injured. A sis­ter of an old col­lege acquain­tance was hurt, while my wife had a sim­i­lar con­nec­tion to a girl at the the­atre who some­how left unin­jured. But thank­ful­ly, I don’t have any spe­cif­ic ties to that calami­ty. All I have is my own imag­i­na­tion and a renewed sense of hor­ror at some scenes of vio­lence. At scenes in the final chap­ter of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight tril­o­gy, even, where shoot­ers enter a familiar-looking space (a hos­pi­tal, for exam­ple) and kill with casu­al bru­tal­i­ty.

I liked The Dark Knight Rises. I was com­pelled by its inten­tion­al­i­ty and, if noth­ing else, its visu­al power, but I’ve become desen­si­tized. The cre­ative vio­lence of Breaking Bad is all about inge­nu­ity for me, and not vio­lence. Doesn’t that miss half the point? The con­sumer and pro­duc­er of high-minded media seem to need the dark­er places of human liv­ing splayed across the screen. And this is under­stand­able, in many ways. We want some sense of urgency, some sense of dark­ness to relate with and con­tem­plate and use for self-examination. It invests us, and yet, in light of the Colorado shoot­ing, I can’t help but won­der whether such mate­r­i­al real­ly shouldn’t repel and dis­gust us in equal mea­sure. And if doesn’t, whether we’re not, at best, miss­ing the total­i­ty of the art-consuming expe­ri­ence.

I believe some graph­ic con­tent in art is sim­ply waste (most of the nude scenes in the Game of Thrones), but much of it is essen­tial­ly tied to the stakes of the story and its char­ac­ters (the nudi­ty, arguably, of American Beauty). The Colorado shoot­ing shouldn’t be some gate­way to a high­er artis­tic expe­ri­ence – that’s pos­si­bly a bit sick and at best min­i­mizes the tragedy for what it is. Rather, the shoot­ing in Aurora recalls the actu­al stress and trau­ma of vio­lence. Such a per­spec­tive may be emo­tion­al or vis­cer­al in nature, and there­fore per­haps inher­ent­ly ephemer­al for those of us unscarred per­son­al­ly. But I felt the weight of vio­lence the last few days in a way I didn’t before, a way I may not in a few months, and that changes my con­sump­tion, at least for the moment. It changes what movies and video games can mean, should mean, and makes me won­der about how I’ve got­ten to a place where their graph­ic con­tent some­how means less than it should.

Joel Cuthbertson

About Joel Cuthbertson

Joel lives and writes in Denver. An editor for the Ontological Geek, he currently works for the University of Denver and moonlights as a writer of fiction and screenplays. He encourages you to comment below, especially if you disagree with anything he says (but only if you do so with some sense).