Note: The date on this essay (again) is 26 Sept. 2013, and it deals with movies. The topic, however, is relevant for real-world police shootings, media coverage of kidnapping and child abuse, and a number of other topics. The analysis of how audiences evaluate the suffering and deaths of dramatic characters goes back to studies of Christopher Marlowe's 16th-c. play Tamburlaine the Great, especially Part I, which celebrates the historical mass murderer.
All fiction requires some "willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith," but the excellent 2013 movie Prisoners requires
a good deal of suspension of disbelief for a bit over two-and-a-half
hours. Among other things, you have to believe, tentatively, that the
citizens of a small Pennsylvania town would comb the area strenuously
searching for two missing little girls, but that a brain-damaged young
man (Alex Jones) who is a person of strong interest to the police on the
case can drop out of sight for a goodly while without much attention
being paid by anyone. The point for this essay is that that nonchalance
about the disappearance of a marginal young man really isn't difficult
to believe, and not just tentatively. Nor, for the point of this essay,
should we ignore that it's no spoiler if I tell you that audiences are
only moderately upset by the on-screen torture of that brain-damaged,
marginal young man, while they would not tolerate — indeed,
law-enforcement officials might prosecute — on-screen torture of the
little girls, even if the images with the tortured girls were in some
advanced-version CGI or animation and there was no question of harming
or exploiting actual child actors.
Discussing Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film A Clockwork Orange, my students would talk about "the Rape Scene" and strongly condemn, justly, the vicious young thug Alex "DeLarge" for
leading a home invasion and gang rape. They would also condemn him for
murdering the victim, Mrs. Alexander, and I would have to tell them to
hedge a bit there: our source for the cause of her death, a while after
the rape, is the testimony of her husband, who is not in sound mental
health; and death by the trauma of rape is a convention going back to at
least the 18th-century novel Clarissa,
and is a convention with problems. In any event, if they want to
condemn Alex further, I would tell them, they can note that Alex also
batters Mr. Alexander, and then forces him to watch his wife being
raped; when we next see Mr. Alexander, he is crippled and crazy. "After
this, therefore because of this" is a logical fallacy in the real world
but standard in stories: If Mrs. Alexander is horribly raped and then
dies; it's legitimate for many in the audience to take that to mean
that, as her husband is convinced, she died from the rape; if Mr.
Alexander is battered with savage artistry — Alex stomps him while
singing "Singing in the Rain" — and then goes mad; it's legitimate for
audience members to infer that the pain and horror visited upon his wife
and him drove him mad.
In our discussion of the film, a number of my students needed to be
reminded that it wasn't just "The Rape Scene" but "The Rape, Battery,
and Crippling Scene": Mrs. Alexander is a victim, but so is Mr.
This got me interested, so I did some timing on the film and an
informal (as in totally unscientific) survey of a couple of classes
asking about victims of violence in A Clockwork Orange.
Few of my students caught that in terms of screen time, the primary
victim of violence in the film is, at least by my rough calculations,
the ultraviolent sociopath, Alex.
My conclusion was that violence against Alex really didn't count much
for my students or for audience members generally for Kubrick's Orange; and I pushed this issue a bit with my students as to why this happened with Orange,
and more generally. (Definitely more generally: for one thing, audience
reaction to violence is an important issue in studies of the plays of
Shakespeare and, maybe more so, those of Christopher Marlowe.)
Primarily, my students didn't count as violence what they saw as more
or less legitimate punishment by agents of State and society. This is
common: unless they're reading about something grotesquely cruel like breaking on the wheel, most people don't consider even executions acts of violence. They are. The State claims a monopoly on legitimate
violence — although that gets complicated — but even the most
legitimate violence by the State is still violence. Less extremely, one
of the reasons school violence has decreased greatly in the last century
or so is that school children, especially schoolboys, are no longer
routinely beaten. Having lived thirty-five years more or less around the
corner from a large high school, I would protest only moderately
against the reintroduction of flogging in the schools — but no honest
debate about hitting kids can proceed without the basic observation that
hitting people to cause them pain — especially when the people you hit
are small and weak — is an act of violence (injuring them with the blows
My students were also willing to judge leniently, and often enjoy, acts
of violence done for revenge and acts of violence performed subtly: In a
central sequence, Alex is immobilized in a chair and tortured, but
tortured pharmaceutically, with nothing immediately perceptible by the
audience except Alex's squirming, voice-over distress, and eventual
screams. By means of the torture sessions — politically formulated,
application of "The Ludovico Technique" of
aversion therapy — with the conditioning sessions, Alex is rendered
harmless and released, to be attacked one way or another — and
symmetrically with his attacks on them — by his former victims.
So a main criterion here — as Elizabethan dramatists knew — regards who is doing what to whom. Watching A Clockwork Orange,
audience members who might feel a little guilty identifying with Alex
in his criminal violence can enjoy a bit more freely the cruel but
esthetically appropriate (if also illegal), revenge-violence against
Alex. And that's, against Alex and against many other eventually
victimized victimizers through the great tradition of Revenge drama
running from Hamlet and its less respectable tragic and melodramatic cousins to the first Mad Max movie to the Dirty Harry and Death Wish films to I Spit on Your Grave to, well, to a whole genre including by one recent count at least 140 movies.
More problematic is that Alex is a physically healthy young man, in the
film of ambiguous age, but definitely older than the juvenile juvenile delinquent of Anthony Burgess's 1962 novel and definitely intelligent, lacking the excuses and pathos of Prisoner's Alex Jones. With Alex "DeLarge," we encounter a variation of what Robert Martin and I have called "The Law of Todd.".
Todd was a film-studies student writing on gender issues in how "the
camera" handles violence. He noted that feminist critics were correct,
that the camera often luxuriated in images of violence against women; he
added, though, that the camera is often casual in handling violence
against men, especially young, healthy men: a casualness rarely seen in
the handling of violence against women and never seen, as far as he
could tell, with violence against children.
I came of age during the Vietnam War as a healthy, draftable young male
who got pissed to hell at my fellow Americans who, occasionally, got
strongly distressed by the occasional accidental killing of women,
children, and old people in Vietnam but weren't overly upset by the
routine intentional killing of young, healthy, usually conscripted male
fighters. Many of my fellow Americans also didn't get upset by our
killing of National Liberation Front "Viet Cong," female fighters or
killing children or other noncombatants by aerial bombardment — but that
gets into other issues.
Relevant here and now — in an essay written in 2013 — is that "Law of
Todd" casualness of the camera-work in hundreds of fictional movies
reflected a cultural attitude on the expendability of young men and in
turn reinforced that attitude — and was thereby directly dangerous to
actual young men.
And to others, given that once wars get going, a lot of people beyond
the various warriors are going to end up dead; but that, too gets to
those other issues.
I was a healthy young man when my political consciousness got formed
and was considered White by most people. I was insufficiently aware of
my privileged status at the time, but even looking back I'd say that
that privilege was balanced in part by my expendability as far as the
camera was concerned, and as far of much of the US government and people
It is a kind of progress that the camera nowadays can dwell on the
suffering of men as much as that of women. And it is unambiguously good
that the cinematic taboo remains against handling casually violence
against children; and it is better that casual violence against children
is becoming increasingly taboo in much of the real world.
Still, it is bad that violence against children remains, but also bad
that violence against older boys and young men is not taken seriously
enough; it is bad that State violence and acts of violence by other
authorities are usually not seen as violence at all.
The State usually demands a monopoly on legitimate violence. In the
United States we balance that doctrine with the Second Amendment and the
right to bear arms and loose laws on self-defense and a cultural
acceptance of much "self-help justice."
Violence is violence. Some violence is justified: up to and including
lethal violence in self defense, up to and including shredding people
with high explosives if warfare is the least evil of your options. Most
violence is not justified, and just about none is good.
In A Clockwork Orange,
punishing Alex is appropriate, and imprisoning him is an act of
societal self-defense. Torturing Alex is wrong, as is depriving him of
effective free will, which is the upshot of the Ludovico Technique
"therapy" that makes him unable to strike back. In Prisoners, torturing Alex Jones is understandable but wrong, and it is to the credit of Prisoners
that it explores the complexity of the moral issues of that torture.
The problem remains with the audience: we should be far more upset by
the torture of the Alex of Prisoners and a bit more upset by the torture of Alex of A Clockwork Orange.
Generally, violence in films is something we should think about more
and enjoy less. Violence in the real world is something we should think
about a hell of a lot more and tolerate one hell of a lot less.