Posted by Greg Ferrara on June 26, 2013
No, I haven’t become Bartleby, scrivener or otherwise, I’ve just become numb. Back in the seventies, when I was just getting into movies, the one complaint you always heard about new movies was that they were filled with sex and violence. You see, the ratings system had just come in a few years earlier in the late sixties and now filmmakers could show whatever they wanted on the screen without fear of censorship. This meant that within a matter of just five short years, we went from the F-word spoken onscreen in a couple of movies to a scene in The Exorcist with a crucifix, a twelve year old girl, and a shouted line of dialogue that, surely, no one in the previous 80 years of film history saw coming. I mean, you really just can’t predict that kind of scene will ever happen. And it only took five years. Today, showing horrifying sequences is easier than ever and, frankly, I couldn’t be more bored.
The same goes for the other side of that complaint, the one about sex. Once it got to the point where having sex on screen wasn’t something that required a fade out, it lost a lot of the allure. And violence lost a lot of its impact.
Here’s the thing: When I was younger, I thought it was a sign of edginess for a movie to show violent or sexual scenes. And, in some ways, it was and is. When I first saw All Quiet on the Western Front, I was taken by the scene of the soldier who gets blown up at the barbed wire, leaving only his hands clinging to it. That scene works because the movie isn’t about showing us endless violence but specific violence. It makes its point in a sharp and disturbing way but doesn’t linger.
But when I was younger, despite my love of classic cinema, I felt newer movies handled things like war and crime and romance better because they could show more. I was equating quantity of explicitness for deeper levels of realism when really it was just indulgence. Still, a war movie showing graphic violence, like Saving Private Ryan, has a point and one that I appreciate. And a movie like Last Tango in Paris that has a sexual relationship as a central focus of the story needs to show the sex, even if, in retrospect, it doesn’t show much at all.
As I grew older and the number of classic films I saw multiplied, I became accustomed to a style of storytelling in which sex and violence were implied more than shown. I also grew up and encountered all the real things the movies were showing in real life. And that’s when it started to get boring.
Don’t Look Now is one of my favorite movies of all time and I’ve written it up here before. The sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie is notorious for its “realism” as the two make love while the edits intercut between them getting ready for dinner afterwards. The scene itself is perfect in that it shows the couple in emotional and physical connection with each other, perhaps for the last time, and I wouldn’t remove it for anything. But at the same time, if they’d chosen to imply the sexual encounter instead, I think it would’ve had the same resonance. The editing would have to be different, obviously, as it wouldn’t be inter-cutting between the act and afterwards, but I think it could have worked with an allusion to sex instead, that is, a build up to it and then a fade to them preparing for dinner. And it’s not that I think the scene is awful, quite the contrary, it’s very well done. It’s just that, frankly, it’s dull.
Orson Welles once said that he hated seeing people praying in movies because he knew it was a fake and maybe the same thing applies to sex. It’s dull, very dull, onscreen no matter how well produced. But a scene of seduction and buildup, like the kinds between Bogie and Bacall or Stanwyck and MacMurray, are better. Or that scene in A Place in the Sun where the camera shows Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters going into the house together and then shows sundown and sunup and he comes back out? That works better. Admitting to that when you’re young feels old and stodgy because you’re not old enough yet to understand that it isn’t about stodginess, it’s about storytelling. Often times, the lesser a movie is, the more time it spends on filler and that filler often comes in the form of sex and violence.
So now, when I see filler sex and violence in a mediocre movie, it’s just as painful as bad dialogue and wooden acting. What worries me, or at least causes mild concern, is that I’m getting bored with it even in good movies. When I see an especially violent movie now, I’m not shocked or horrified or sickened. I’m anxious to a degree but only to the extent that I think, “Boooooring. When is this going to end?”
Now there are some people who might object to sex and violence on some Victorian or prudish moral grounds but I’m not one of them. If you want to load your film up with violence or sex because you think it’s necessary for the story, please do. But remember that showing less can sometimes mean a whole lot more. Like that scene from A Place in the Sun. Or any war movie from before the seventies or any western or any gangster film that all got their points across about violence without, remarkably, showing too much of it. What I perceived as a weakness in youth I now see as a formidable strength because it requires better storytelling to get the point across without just showing it.
So that’s where this journey through cinema has finally led me. It’s led me to a place where I appreciate seeing a lot less and understand the creativity that goes into that. Again, I’m not against showing anything in a movie if it’s got a point, I’m just against wasting my time with weak storytelling. So when it comes to gratuitous sex and violence, I’m not offended by seeing it, it’s just that, like Bartleby, I would prefer not to.
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