The banality of screen gore and violence

The word banal is often used to describe something that is obvious, ordinary, or as the dictionary puts it: “so lacking in originality.”

But this ordinary word acquired some significance when Hannah Arendt, a political theorist, coined the phrase “banality of evil” as she composed her thoughts after watching the 1961 trial of Nazi SS officer Adolf Eichmann. For Eichmann, mass-murdering prisoners was just an ordinary normal act because he was just following orders.

The word “banal” came up to me because I was searching for the most appropriate term to use in relation to the scenes of gore and violence that people are now accustomed to see in action/thriller movies and series on the streaming platforms that are being watched together at home.

Let me cite just three of the highly popular titles seen by millions around the world:  Squid Game, Alice in Borderland and the first 3 chapters of the John Wick saga. Our family watched them all. Except for my wife, no one in our home would flinch at the violent and gory scenes, which were continuously and copiously served in every episode or sequence.

Truth to tell, in the case of the two mentioned series, we eagerly clicked the button on to the next episode for more, consuming at least 4 to 5 episodes per night till our strained eyes could take no more.

Our family is a microcosm of today’s world of viewers who get a thrill and pleasure from this carnage, the non-stop choreographed set pieces of slam-bang bloody action. Some of us in the family are sometimes so carried away as to spew expletives, urging on the protagonist to keep pummeling the villain to a bloody pulp or pump more bullets as the case may be. My wife, the resident KJ, would then yell at us, to restrain ourselves and tone it down. I stay detached, preferring to spot the flaws of the movie.

There was a time when extremely violent scenes were rated X, in the same way movies with graphic sexual scenes were banned. Remember the time when the Exorcist was shown and moviegoers were said to have fainted or went out of the theaters because they couldn’t stand scenes that were said to be excessively gruesome?

In the wake of rapid advances in the craft of prosthetics and CGI technology, scenes of violence and grisliness are now being rendered so ultra realistically in high definition. Yet people no longer turn away when a face is being battered again and again or a knife is shown being stuck to the head, eye, groin, ear of screen characters. The shot stays on for God knows how long and yet people keep watching.

I call it full frontal violence. Nothing succeeds like excess. Every director is trying to push the envelope of violence and gore, exploring ways to show off, as if daring the viewer and his peers “to top that.”

We at home quietly applaud the violent mayhem. And haven’t you noticed?  More and more lead characters are now women with attitude, carrying killer weapons, with no hesitation or compunction in maiming, shooting or twisting the knife against all antagonists who get in their way. Astig women with angas (strong women who bite back.)

Even movie language has become deliberately offensive. The more smart assed the dialogue, the more people love it. So much hate language, so much violent tirades so much obscenities spewing out like bullets aimed at putting holes into the enemy. It is as if the language of violence is now the appropriate lingua franca of our dealings with our fellow human beings. Are we still surprised that four-letter words are now allowed to pollute or foul up our airtime?

Our society is being influenced, or worse, corrupted by making excessive violence routine. It explains our tolerance and support for EJK and our way of justifying police violence.

Thanks to the trend that the movie Dirty Harry started, any one who has a gun, licensed or not, won’t think twice in using it when provoked. He will use it because he can, just like the way he sees it in the action violent movies he watches. The violent way is the standard or default quick fix solution: kill the bastard and the problem is solved.

Lawyers, gays, social activists, and even women are being gunned down in broad daylight nowadays. It’s run of the mill, ordinary, nothing unusual anymore. People just shrug their shoulders when they catch the info bite in passing on the running news bulletin. That’s how banal violence has become in real life.

No compunction, no remorse from perpetrators who happen to be law enforcers or connected to those in power, with total impunity, no accountability. Just like in the movies when our anti-hero kills every which way and casually leaves the carnage behind. It’s reality imitating the movies. Has it ever crossed moviemakers that real life killers and criminals can pick quite lot of tips on how to kill and get away with it just by watching movies?

“Gratuitous” is a word I have learned to abhor in movies or even in any form of art. Its synonyms are unwarranted, needless, superfluous, and unnecessary. In my college days, my professor used to bemoan the showing of gratuitous violence and sex in the films during our time. He made us hate the word by continuously pounding it into our heads by asking:  Does it have to be shown? Can’t it be left better to the imagination? Can’t sound effects better deliver the impact of the scene? Seeing today’s gratuitous violence and gore on screen would probably make him throw up.

I guess even the Church has given up on bringing it up. As it is, the man of peace, the advocate of gunless society, the nonviolent man is now out of place, an anachronism in contemporary society.

Am I a lone voice imagining this worrisome development? My word of caution would probably be unheeded, now that Squid Game has become the most popular series streaming around the world.

But consider just for a moment what new research has found out, as published online in the Journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience: watching violent films, TV shows or video games desensitizes teenagers, blunts their emotional responses to aggression and potentially promotes aggressive attitudes and behavior.

The paper’s conclusion: “The important new finding is that exposure to the most violent videos inhibits emotional reactions to similar aggressive videos over time and implies that normal adolescents will feel fewer emotions over time as they are exposed to similar videos…continued exposure to violent videos will make an adolescent less sensitive to violence, more accepting of violence, and more likely to commit aggressive acts…”

That’s certainly a red flag for us. But who cares? We scoff and go on being complicit in normalizing screen violence as it insidiously infects our sense of humanity.

I can imagine a scenario in which somewhere, someone is gunned down on a pavement, and people would initially swarm to take a look and shrug their shoulders then leave, habituated to such happenings because it has become a normal part of daily life. They then casually go on with their lives, have coffee, chat, exchange jokes.

Like in the movies, so in real life.


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