Analysis: Movie violence out of control?

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  Oct. 16, 2003 at 6:13 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Oct. 16 (UPI) -- Quentin Tarantino's new movie, the orgiastically violent "Kill Bill: Vol. 1," has turned up the heat once again under the long-simmering controversy surrounding media violence.

Critics have generally been kind to the movie, but the reviews have mostly come with qualifiers to the effect that audiences should be prepared to accept or excuse the violent content. The New York Times' A.O. Scott wondered whether Tarantino is in complete control of his faculties.

"The sordid creepiness that occasionally seeps into 'Kill Bill' makes you wonder ... whether (Tarantino) is entirely in control of his own imagination," Scott wrote.

The assorted amputations and decapitations resulting from the director's luxuriant presentations of martial arts influenced sword- and knife-play in "Kill Bill" are so stylized, there should be no danger of a viewer confusing fantasy with reality. When blood gushes from a combatant who has just lost a limb, it brings to mind the ridiculously, and intentionally, cheesy spurting effects from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."

If you want a genuinely disturbing picture of blood loss, check out Robert Altman's "M*A*S*H."

Tarantino added a new talking point to the media-violence conversation when he told reporters at the movie's London premiere that pre-adolescents should see the movie, which is being distributed by Miramax Pictures, a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Co.

"If you are a 12-year-old girl or boy you must go and see 'Kill Bill' and you will have a damn good time," he said. "Boys will have a great time, girls will have a dose of girl power. If you are a cool parent out there go take your kids to the movie."

During the California recall election, action star Arnold Schwarzenegger instructed us that people say "outrageous" things to promote movies. That might be what Tarantino was up to in London, but his pitch infuriated James Steyer, CEO of the San Francisco-based Common Sense Media.

Steyer, who founded the non-partisan organization to help families make more informed media consumption choices, told United Press International he isn't objecting to Tarantino making "any movie he wants to" -- he just doesn't think it's right to sell this one to pre-teens.

"I think that's an extremely ignorant and irresponsible statement on his part," he said, adding that Miramax executive Harvey Weinstein and Disney CEO Michael Eisner should be criticizing Tarantino for the comment.

Representatives for Tarantino and Disney did not return telephone calls seeking comment. A spokesman for Miramax suggested that the comment may have been intended as an attention getter for the movie.

"Quentin Tarantino has always been known as a provacateur," said the spokesman, "and many things that he says are in a tongue-in-cheek fashion."

The spokesman pointed out that the movie is rated R by the MPAA, and said Miramax "in all its marketing efforts has honored and respected its guidelines to reach out to those that are of legal age to see the film."

According to the spokesman, company exit polls show that the majority of the movie's audience so far has been age 21-39.

A researcher at the University of Southern California has just published a book -- "It's Not the Media: The Truth About Pop Culture's Influence on Children" -- suggesting that anxiety about the effects of media violence on young minds is misdirected and, in many ways, overstated. In an interview with UPI, sociology teacher Karen Sternheimer said that although media certainly merits scrutiny and analysis, it is not responsible for all the social problems that many critics pin on it.

"Rather than fear the media, we might want to be concerned about public policies ... that might impact the realities of violence," she said. "A lot of the things that we're concerned about, that we project on the media ... have a much more direct link to poverty than media exposure. I think that's something that we're really reluctant to look at head on."

Sternheimer said the public is tuned in to entertainment, and turned off to "looking for the roots" of social problems.

"It's so fascinating to ... look at one particular movie, for example, and see what it's going to do to people," she said. "That's much more interesting to look at on the news at 11, than it is to listen to in a public policy discussion on Sunday morning."

Still, Sternheimer isn't suggesting "a free-for-all" where kids can see whatever they want.

"The fear that (exposure to media violence is) going to turn a 12-year-old into a serial killer or to become more violent, that fear is ungrounded," she said, "but that's not to say that it would be appropriate for all 12-year-olds."

Onscreen violence has come a long way since Roy Rogers and Gene Autry movies generally limited the action to fistfights and bloodless shootings. But even that was more than Rogers wanted his own children to see.

Cheryl Rogers-Barnett, the oldest daughter of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, told UPI that when she was on the set of her father's pictures, he insisted that she be led away so she would not witness the make-believe violence. But even the King of the Cowboys became increasingly violent over the course of his movie career.

"In his early movies, he hardly killed anybody," said Rogers-Barnett. "Dad always tried to shoot the gun out of the bad guy's hand."

After World War II, action director William Whitney -- who had just completed service in the Pacific with a U.S. Marine combat photography unit -- began a collaboration with Rogers that Rogers-Bartlett said upped the action in her dad's movies.

"When Billy started directing dad's films, the films became more violent," said Rogers-Barnett, who has just published a memoir, "Cowboy Princess: Life with My Parents -- Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.".

It is tempting to suppose that critics of that earlier, milder, onscreen violence complained that even bloodless fistfights and shootings were over the top -- compared with the offstage violence that characterized classic Greek drama. But a more fundamental question also comes up: Is violence ever appopriate to conflict resolution?

While Miramax was promoting "Kill Bill," Family Communications -- the media company that Fred Rogers built -- was promoting a special series of programs on PBS, intended to help children deal with anger without resorting to violence. "What Do You Do with the Anger You Feel?" was constructed around the theme: "It's okay to be angry, but it's not okay to hurt."

Rogers, who died of cancer at 74 in February, is featured in the episodes showing ways that children can use art, dance, exercise and music to channel their anger without resorting to hurting others.

"Angry feelings are a natural part of being human," said Rogers. "We can't expect our children never to get angry, but we can help them find healthy outlets for the mad that they feel ... and help them know the good feeling that comes with self-control."

It is unlikely that either Quentin Tarantino or Fred Rogers will have the last word in a conversation that seems to have no end.

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