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America, land of the depraved – Is the art of suspense dead?

Empty Theater

By Author E. Hughes (Click here for author page)


I was watching Psycho on television the other day. For those of you who happen to be a couple of generations behind, Psycho is an Alfred Hitchcock movie starring Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, the psychotic inn-keeper with a dual personality who slaughters a beautiful young woman staying at his motel. The scene is as infamous and chilling as it is iconic. The screeching violas, the unsuspecting woman innocently showering–to the old woman’s shadow looming on the other side of the shower curtain. The music, as terrifying as the act itself, shrieking as the blade comes down, blood swirling into the drain–in black and white, rendering the blood as sterile as it is frightening. Psycho made generations of movie fans think twice about getting in the shower. Fifty-three years later, the Hitchcock film still holds, even without the blunt over the top imagery and violence Americans have become used to in movies today.

Just as the television shows of Psycho’s era defined how America strived to perceive itself as a clean, idyllic homogenized suburbia, so does the gratuitous violence of television and film in modern times serve as a reflection of America’s self-conscious parody of modern American society–as vile and evil. There is as much an overabundance of murder and violence related themes on American television and  movies as there is an overabundance in the lack of creativity that would have us believe that blood and gore is a necessary component of filmmaking in depicting scenes realistically to audiences.

The truth is, what movie violence really amounts to is sating the viewer’s bloodlust, and of course, Hollywood’s lust for money.

I thought about this as I watched an episode of Spartacus on Starz. Sure, there’s a level of violence to be expected on a medieval series. However, did I really need to see a man bludgeoned until his face had all but disappeared and his head looked like a ball of meat? I turned the channel. I also thought about it when I watched a movie about a pair of depression era brothers who become involved in bootlegging and the resulting gang war with a ruthless gangster. In one scene  a man is tarred and feathered, and trust me, the filmmakers spared no detail. Would the scene have been less effective if we saw the bucket of tar moving toward the man’s back before cutting to another scene? Or did the audience really need to see a thick blob of tar pouring onto the man’s skin as we listened to his blood-curdling screams? Later–did we need to see his completely tarred body tied to a pole outside of his boss’ house, head falling limply to the side? What purpose did it serve to give the audience such a view? What purpose does it serve humanity? We get it. The fight  between the gangsters is bloody! I think I got it when a man’s scrotum was cut and placed in a jar or when the camera panned to a raped girl quietly sobbing in a hotel room–yes, I understand, these are very bad people. I turned the movie off. Which is a shame because I was really interested in the story…at least, what I could glean from it when my stomach wasn’t churning in disgust.

Americans now live in a country where young men randomly shoot innocent people in movie theaters, schools and churches, set off explosions at marathons, kill each other in random acts of drug and gang violence, where women (and sometimes men) can no longer jog or take a walk on a deserted trail for fear of being kidnapped and murdered, and children can no longer play in the front of their homes. We hear about it on the news daily, murder after senseless murder, in a society that grows more depraved and apathetic every day. What have we become and why are we so keen on glorifying death and murder?

Take it from a person who has actually seen a real-life human body riddled with bullets. It isn’t beautiful. It isn’t cool, and bullets don’t move in slow motion or pan around the victim before killing them.

Yes–Hollywood is merely a reflection of America’s societal violence, but really, can we get a reprieve from all of that? We even have an entire network dedicated to murder–the Investigation Discovery Channel which boasts itself as a network dedicated to murder and forensic investigations–some of their documentaries recounted in a format that makes these real life murder stories seem “fun”.

With movies like the Human Centipede, I wonder who is watching this sick stuff? Who watches Saw, and why is murder and the screams of women in horror movies so appealing? Why is it so appealing to psychos in real life? Where the 1960 movie Psycho was about a man with a psychological issue and holds up as a timeless study of filmmaking, there are few, if any Hollywood movies today that’s gratuitously violent in a way that enhances the plot or the movie. And it’s tiresome. And uncreative.

Americans don’t seem to understand their own freedoms. Here, some Americans have come to equate “freedom” of speech with marching outside of the funerals of fallen soldiers because they hate “gays”. Others, equate freedom of speech with the right to speak carelessly and without regard for others, or they equate freedom with being “free” of moral or social obligations–or responsibility to anyone other than themselves. We have set the bar so low anything goes in  film, music, and art to the point that it’s all vulgar. I guess what I am alluding to, is what we see in the media is a reflection America’s culture of selfishness, meanness and social immaturity.

We now live in a society where women singers wear meat dresses and make public appearances sans pants or skirts. The standards we have as a society seems to get lower and lower while the stakes–the bar if you will, for vulgarity gets higher. The question I’m asking is where do we draw the line and when did America become so irresponsible? When vulgarity became a billion dollar industry?

Having said all of that, I’ll get off of my soap box now.

A little “comic book” violence is okay. But do we need to see gaping holes, bullet wounds, gouged out eyes, guts, severed heads, mutilated or burned bodies? What happened to suspense? What happened to making the audience wonder? Or are we simply fueling the bloodlust of a very sick society? The art of subtletly is no more, and neither is suspense. I’ve taken to watching mostly foreign films, many with no shortage of violence in their films – but at least it’s not there for the sake of being violent or to perpetuate violence and murder as “fun”.  Bloody movie violence used to be shocking…now it’s just disgusting, exploitive and tiresome.


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