Cinematic Violence: Can Anything Be Justified?

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domino harvey
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Cinematic Violence: Can Anything Be Justified?

#1 Post by domino harvey » Tue Apr 13, 2010 8:04 am

I honestly thought that the Human Centipede was as low as humanity could go, but along comes a film called A Serbian Film, which played at SXSW to shocked hipsters and gore hounds. A reviewer for Bloody Disgusting, usually the firsts to find justification for graphic violence, responded that the pic had "no redeeming social or political or artistic value." The story of a former porn star who is lured to a mansion to participate in one last "artistic" porn film, only to engage in a series of vile-sounding sexual acts of deviancy. What could be so beyond the pale? An IMDB post briefly recaps two graphic occurrences in the film, and you'll regret ever having clicked that link.

My question is this: At what point can graphic films stop being defensible by free speech and censorship boosters? Is any act of on-screen violence fair game so long as it wears some veneer of artistry or social commentary (the likes of which for this film sound ludicrous)? Is there no breaking point for what should be allowed to be depicted in film? Is it wrong to even suggest limits? I'm aware that I'm judging a film unseen, but I cannot envision any scenario in which the actions linked above could ever be justified within any artistic medium, much less a visual one like film.

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Re: Cinematic Violence: Can Anything Be Justified?

#2 Post by accatone » Tue Apr 13, 2010 8:43 am

At least the first notion of above link can be found in de Sade (plus many other descriptions). Sade (and Bataille) had and have a big impact on me i.e. is a positiv/interesting one. In visual/photographic art one always has the "problem" of exploiting a real human being (fictional or not) whereas in literature its abstract - up in the recipients mind. What i find interesting with Bataille or Sade, i was never able to find in film (maybe Salo…but…no!). I think its important to see this in context. I have seen many horrible war photographies (Ernst Friedrich most recently) - but found the remake of The hills have eyes the most disgusting piece of shit in years. I think this could be a great topic - but needs in my opinion a little more focus. (I experienced enlightning discussions about Nachtweys INFERNO book for example - but obviously there was a more specific focus).
Is there no breaking point for what should be allowed to be depicted in film? Is it wrong to even suggest limits?
If the context/situation calls for certain images - there should be no censorship. Of course "context" needs to be defined first.

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Re: Cinematic Violence: Can Anything Be Justified?

#3 Post by TMDaines » Tue Apr 13, 2010 8:47 am

I must admit I do want to see this now out of sheer intrigue. I generally find the extreme stuff to be mild most of the time as it is so clearly over the top, like most of the "video nasties".

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aox
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Re: Cinematic Violence: Can Anything Be Justified?

#4 Post by aox » Tue Apr 13, 2010 9:45 am

To suggest limitations on free speech is dangerous to me and a slippery slope, but worst of all subjective. I feel your question takes the opposite approach because everything can be justified.

(This rest of this post is not a lecture to you Dom, as I am just going to say the tired, but still true to me):

If you don't want to watch it, don't. The people that do, will. If this film inspires acts of violence, there are laws to cover those acts separate of the film. If no one watches this film and it makes no money, another film like it won't be made, or at least it will be made knowing that it will make little money.

This film doesn't sound any more intense than the Guinea Pig films from Japan.

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Re: Cinematic Violence: Can Anything Be Justified?

#5 Post by Jean-Luc Garbo » Tue Apr 13, 2010 10:18 am

Domino, does that Stephen Prince book on violence provide an adequate standard for this? I know that you've discussed his commentary on Straw Dogs. Granted, this movie doesn't sound like Peckinpah (or von Trier), but maybe there's an answer.

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Brian C
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Re: Cinematic Violence: Can Anything Be Justified?

#6 Post by Brian C » Tue Apr 13, 2010 10:50 am

domino harvey wrote:Is there no breaking point for what should be allowed to be depicted in film? Is it wrong to even suggest limits?
I actually find this sort of stuff as repulsive as you do, but I also think there are already limits. Unless I'm really missing the boat here, all of the graphic occurrences are staged. They're fake. I don't think even the most stringent free-speech advocates think you should actually be able to make a brutal snuff film and distribute it as entertainment.

Now that may seem like an obvious point, but I think it makes for a pretty decent line to draw. Lots of onscreen violence is difficult to defend in humanistic and/or moral terms, even the sort that isn't nearly as graphic as this apparently is. Just think of how nonchalantly violence is portrayed most of the time, and then imagine someone coming after the movie you love after you've "limited" the stuff you don't like.

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Re: Cinematic Violence: Can Anything Be Justified?

#7 Post by Murdoch » Tue Apr 13, 2010 10:51 am

I don't have a lot of time to write right now as I'm in a hurry, but this question seems the same as the question posed at the end of The Shape of Things of whether art needs to have a certain morality. I am in the camp that believe it doesn't, since art is an expression of humanity it must explore the good and the bad and be non-discriminatory. Obviously I'm not advocating for more available snuff films, but I think that violence is a characteristic of humanity to a certain degree and to shy away from it seems an attempt to hide from it. The film mentioned may be a load of garbage, but I'm not going to be the one to say that the filmmakers don't have the right to make it.

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Matt
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Re: Cinematic Violence: Can Anything Be Justified?

#8 Post by Matt » Tue Apr 13, 2010 11:15 am

I regret even reading the plot synopsis of Human Centipede (I was warned) and am a little ashamed of the human race that it exists, but I wouldn't want it banned or restricted (apart from the usual ratings restrictions). As far as A Serbian Film goes, I never want to see it (and refuse to read that synopsis linked above), but I'm not surprised that it exists. Serbia is a deeply fucked-up place, and this film is surely nothing compared to the real-world atrocities committed during the Yugoslav wars).

Even though works designed to shock and disgust have been created for centuries, I think the internet has encouraged an accelerated one-upmanship that verges on monstrous. In the early days of the web, I remember easily coming across sites collecting pictures of corpses, coprophagia, bestiality, and the like. Then we got veritable phenomena like Goatse and Tub Girl, and then video equivalents like 2 Girls, 1 Cup. I used to consider myself mostly unshockable, but I now avoid this stuff as best I can. I also try to avoid actualities like the video of the Daniel Pearl execution and the recent Wikileaks video of the journalist and other civilians being shot (even though ABC happily foisted it on me without warning during This Week this past Sunday. Thanks, assholes).

I don't pretend to know the reasons why feature filmmakers have felt the need to join in this one-upmanship, but they have, from Saw and Hostel to the two films mentioned above. Some people have tried to provide a sociological justification, saying that these works reflect an effort to make sense of recent real-world barbarities like Abu Ghraib, Srebrenica, Rwanda, Darfur, et al, but I'm not buying it. I doubt the people making these films have very much awareness of those events, and I don't consider them artists trying to express something about the world around them. At the same time, I defend their right to make their stupid films as long as the people involved in the film are acting consensually and do not suffer any physical or emotional harm.

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aox
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Re: Cinematic Violence: Can Anything Be Justified?

#9 Post by aox » Tue Apr 13, 2010 11:23 am

Matt wrote:Even though works designed to shock and disgust have been created for centuries
As has "one-upmanship": Elvis Presley->GG Allin (40 years)

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Re: Cinematic Violence: Can Anything Be Justified?

#10 Post by Peacock » Tue Apr 13, 2010 11:25 am

I feel the roughly the same as accatone regarding this.
For me, if you were to ban this film because of those scenes, you'd have to ban most of De Sade. I don't believe he wrote about the things he did for sly comments on society, but to explore a philosophy. For this reason, I think it's dangerous to look at scenes from films out of context and presume the worst. Anyway, if adults want to watch extreme violence, let them, as long as nobody is getting hurt, it's not for us to decide.

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Re: Cinematic Violence: Can Anything Be Justified?

#11 Post by LQ » Tue Apr 13, 2010 11:31 am

"Screenwriter Srdjan Spasojevic fielded questions during a Q&A, framing the movie as an angry reaction to the country's rampant censorship laws. "This is a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government," he said. "We're giving this back to you." He pointed out that the movie, which has yet to play in its native country, reflects a hidden anti-government sentiment. "In the past 10 to 15 years, the only films made in Serbia have no connection to Serbian reality," he said."

A goodly number of artists have worked within harsh, abusive climates under threat of harm or imprisonment to create works that potently show their unique insight as a member of the minority/the oppressed and that function as actual works of art ...without having to resort to depictions of infant-rape. When one takes a theme such as corrupt government=bad and relates it in the way that A Serbian Film does, that to me is infinitely more disgusting than your average Hostel clone.

However, as everyone else has said, I support their right to make this goddamn despicable film. (sigh)
Last edited by LQ on Tue Apr 13, 2010 11:38 am, edited 1 time in total.

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domino harvey
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Re: Cinematic Violence: Can Anything Be Justified?

#12 Post by domino harvey » Tue Apr 13, 2010 11:37 am

Great responses so far. It is a slippery slope, which is why my immediate internal response of "This shouldn't exist or be allowed to exist" shocked me. It just seems, for lack of a better term, wrong for literally anything to be depicted, no matter how abhorrent, even in the fictional realm. But of course this indeed is a question of subjectivity and what's to stop censorship on this level from snowballing into banning even the most minor of moral offenses. I feel like neither possible binary track-- allow or disallow-- is satisfactory.

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Matt
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Re: Cinematic Violence: Can Anything Be Justified?

#13 Post by Matt » Tue Apr 13, 2010 11:47 am

The morally responsible thing to do when confronted with a film like this would be: if you are a film distributor, do not buy the film; if you program a film festival, do not book it; if you own a theater, do not show it; if you sell or rent DVDs, do not by any copies. Show some backbone and don't chase the easy (sleazy) dollar.

If they want to make their film, they should be allowed, but people in the industry should feel a moral obligation not to help them get it in front of an audience. The act of making the film has defied whatever repression exists for filmmakers in Serbia. The act of seeing it accomplishes nothing. Whoever booked the film for SXSW is just as reprehensible as the people who made the film.

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Re: Cinematic Violence: Can Anything Be Justified?

#14 Post by Svevan » Tue Apr 13, 2010 12:07 pm

What Matt is referring to above is "de facto" censorship, an idea that is trotted out in censorship cases from time-to-time: let the "community" decide what it wants, and they will often censor. The premise can be a pro-censorship or anti-censorship argument: one could say that communities already censor through de facto censorship, and therefore nothing extra is required; another could say that since communities do it all the time, the institutionalization of censorship is not that different or foreign to our First Amendment understandings. I (more or less) take the first view: community censorship is a more fluid, less stringent process. I will never be able to rent this movie locally, and I doubt Netflix will carry it. I don't know Amazon's policy, but there's no way they're going to add it to my "recommendations" just because I've bought Dario Argento DVDs.

Great art sometimes pushes big-time societal limits, so an actual institutionalized censorship is damaging: very often we're protecting speech that we hate and abhor, but from a First Amendment perspective, the mantra is that's a price worth paying. I suppose what Domino is asking is whether that mantra is true or not. I find the question refreshing, as even those who heavily trumpet the First Amendment have to take pause at the gruesome things in question here.

Another sideline: parts of this film might actually be illegal, if the IMDB post is accurate.
SpoilerShow
There is a crackdown in Japan currently and I recall a similar case in California where merely simulated/drawn depictions of minors engaging in sexual activity were declared illegal, for promoting pedophilia while not technically constituting child pornography.
This also reminds me of the weird realization that multiple films with "non-simulated" sex scenes were available on Netflix Instant Play (Antichrist and Battle in Heaven are recent examples, I think 9 Songs was up there for a while). For some, the mere lack of simulation would = pornography, so I was surprised that Netflix threw them online with little hubbub and no warnings save the ones previously added to the films themselves.

I agree that the Internet has shown that there already existed, or has had a hand in creating, a subsection of humanity who literally have NO limits and will watch anything so long as they see it as a private act between themselves and their computer. The public nature of film-going will make this movie a hard sell, but woe once the thing is on DVD, ripped, and uploaded to the Internet.

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Re: Cinematic Violence: Can Anything Be Justified?

#15 Post by Tribe » Tue Apr 13, 2010 12:13 pm

While it's become something of a cliche, there is truth in the notion that the viewer is complicit when he or she sits down to voluntarily watch some of the egregiously offensive stuff that is out there. Aside from the moral and ethical implications, can't we say that the production, screening and viewing of the ultra-nasty stuff seriously desensitizes us to the extent where we can convince ourselves that everything is fair game except for snuff films?

I'm certainly not one that shirks explicitly transgressive ultra-violent movies, but as I get older (older than many of you) I do question the necessity for the violent tone...which appears more often than not to arise out of some casual oneupsmanship...a game of I can out gruesome you. Maybe that's the problem...it doesn't arise out of any artistic imperative, but instead out of doing something because one can rather than whether or not one should. And if that's the rationale behind it all, well, maybe the future is gonna get worse before it gets any better.

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Re: Cinematic Violence: Can Anything Be Justified?

#16 Post by aox » Tue Apr 13, 2010 12:17 pm

I think we could see this decade as finally being the last in terms of one-upmanship. Where can it go from here? Infant rape is a great start...er....should I say, 'end'? I mean, I feel like by 2020, we can finally say that everything has finally been done in terms of shock and now everyone can finally calm down. I am sure a lot of generations since the early 1900s have had this notion before, but really, what else can there be after this film and surely other competitors over the next ten years?

If anything, we should be thanking the internet for speeding this process up; otherwise, it might have been 2040 before we got to this point. Now we won't have to suffer and whenever some young filmmaker or musician tries to shock, we can say, 'it's been done'.

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Re: Cinematic Violence: Can Anything Be Justified?

#17 Post by Brian C » Tue Apr 13, 2010 12:24 pm

Matt wrote:The morally responsible thing to do when confronted with a film like this would be: if you are a film distributor, do not buy the film; if you program a film festival, do not book it; if you own a theater, do not show it; if you sell or rent DVDs, do not by any copies.
Even this is a little too simple, though, isn't it? For one thing, it's impossible to know if it's actually "a film like this" until you've actually seen it. It's easy to draw conclusions, but the Antichrist discussion on this forum is a good example of how something pointlessly graphic in one person's eyes is a bold artistic statement in another's. Would you be comfortable with someone categorically saying that no one should screen that film or even watch it their own? I have no desire to see A Serbian Film, but I'm also uncomfortable dismissing it out of hand; unlike Domino, I think the filmmakers' justifications actually make some sense. Not that I agree with them or even necessarily assume their sincerity, but I can at least accept the possibility that they're coming from a place of good faith.

At any rate, certainly there are any number of films with genuine merit that have been suppressed, either by government censors or otherwise, under the same kind of reasoning you're deploying here. I mean, there were theaters that refused to show something as innocuous as Brokeback Mountain because it was deemed offensive. Are they less "reprehensible" than the people who booked the film at SXSW? That seems like a hard argument to make without resorting to personal tastes and biases.
domino harvey wrote:It just seems, for lack of a better term, wrong for literally anything to be depicted, no matter how abhorrent, even in the fictional realm.
I actually agree, but at the same time, I can't think of what a less "wrong" alternative could possibly be; the solutions all seem worse than the problem.

And at the end of the day, when I really examine how I feel about it, I have to conclude that my objection is simply that someone, somewhere, is getting away with something they shouldn't be ... according to me. And put like that, it seems like an underwhelming argument to make.

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Matt
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Re: Cinematic Violence: Can Anything Be Justified?

#18 Post by Matt » Tue Apr 13, 2010 1:08 pm

Svevan wrote:What Matt is referring to above is "de facto" censorship, an idea that is trotted out in censorship cases from time-to-time: let the "community" decide what it wants, and they will often censor. The premise can be a pro-censorship or anti-censorship argument: one could say that communities already censor through de facto censorship, and therefore nothing extra is required; another could say that since communities do it all the time, the institutionalization of censorship is not that different or foreign to our First Amendment understandings. I (more or less) take the first view: community censorship is a more fluid, less stringent process. I will never be able to rent this movie locally, and I doubt Netflix will carry it.
Not quite. In 2010, there's nothing stopping the filmmakers from distributing the film themselves. They can stream it and sell DVDs on their own website or simply release torrents. More and more filmmakers of all stripes are choosing this avenue of distribution. As with 2 Girls, 1 Cup, anyone who wants to see it can fairly easily do so, but I don't have to help it along by posting a link to it here.

I am not in favor of de facto censorship, and I never said or even implied that no one should be prohibited from watching the film; I only said that nothing could be gained by doing so. Let me again make clear that I have no desire to watch this film to find out if it's really a film I don't want to see (as far as I know, Transformers 2 has no scenes of infant rape, but I also know that I don't have to see it to know that I don't ever want to see it), but I'm not in favor of deciding for someone else if they can see it. The number of people I am comfortable deciding whether or not they may see the film is one: me. I do, however, applaud anyone in the industry who, when presented with the opportunity to distribute or screen the film, decides that they would rather not support it. I don't want the film to be banned, but I wouldn't necessarily mind it languishing in obscurity before being ultimately forgotten.

Yes, I'm aware of the theaters that refused to show the Brokeback Mountain. The owners of those theaters made a decision that I would not have made, but I support their freedom to decide what kinds of films they want to show in the theaters they own. In the end, nothing stopped anyone in the US from seeing the film if they really wanted to see it. But if you support freedom of choice, you have to support it both ways. I encourage film distributors and theater owners to turn away films like A Serbian Film, but I also have to respect their freedom to turn away Brokeback Mountain (or Antichrist or Transformers 2).

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Re: Cinematic Violence: Can Anything Be Justified?

#19 Post by aox » Tue Apr 13, 2010 1:17 pm

Wow, I can't believe a film I knew nothing about a few hours ago, already has a gushing review up on AICN.

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domino harvey
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Re: Cinematic Violence: Can Anything Be Justified?

#20 Post by domino harvey » Tue Apr 13, 2010 1:22 pm

Man, when even AICN commenters are crying foul...

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Re: Cinematic Violence: Can Anything Be Justified?

#21 Post by Tribe » Tue Apr 13, 2010 1:27 pm

aox wrote: I mean, I feel like by 2020, we can finally say that everything has finally been done in terms of shock and now everyone can finally calm down. I am sure a lot of generations since the early 1900s have had this notion before, but really, what else can there be after this film and surely other competitors over the next ten years?
I have no doubt that over the next decades things will arise that we simply don't have a clue about today. Back in the days of Melies...did the average movie-goer ever imagine that films of someone ejaculating on someone else's face could be made, for example? I have no doubt some very small segment had thought of something like that, but I doubt very much that it was even a fraction as common as it is today.

The human imagination is literally boundless...I'm sure all kinds of fucked up, tasteless shit that we have never thought up yet will be readily available by the year 2525.

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Re: Cinematic Violence: Can Anything Be Justified?

#22 Post by Mr Sausage » Tue Apr 13, 2010 1:44 pm

Tribe wrote:can't we say that the production, screening and viewing of the ultra-nasty stuff seriously desensitizes us to the extent where we can convince ourselves that everything is fair game except for snuff films?
I've has this kind of discussion before, and the question of desensitization is usually always brought up; but rather than being confined simply to what is tolerated onscreen, as your post does, Tribe, the question is usually extended to what we will tolerate from people in society as well. In discussions like this, the question of "desensitization" to violence is usually posed along moral lines: whether a lack of sensitivity to onscreen violence correlates with a lack of sensitivity to actual violence, and whether that makes the viewer either more disposed to commit atrocities or more inclined to apathy when confronted with genuine atrocity or even with immoral actions. The arguer opposed to desensitization, in my experience, says that desensitization does produce moral apathy and that certain violent movies are pernicious because they make society more tolerant of atrocity, violence, immorality, ect.

My response is to point out that those who are against desensitization might in fact be absolving people of their individual moral choice by insisting on an idea of "innocence" against that of "experience" which, philosophically, admits to a desire for external moral control. Desensitization to violence always becomes a generality, since no one against it is in any position to decide specifically what people should or should not be desensitized to. In the argument, desensitization itself becomes either good or bad rather than any specific act in a specific movie. Now, what the position of someone against desensitization implies is that it is the desensitization itself which corrupts morals or induces moral laxity and not any subsequent choice by the viewer. One is more likely to be apathetic or permissive of immorality because one's 'innocence' has been violated, or at any rate more likely to make the wrong moral choices because one's watched an immoral act onscreen X amount of times. This amounts to saying that morals are not a decision but a reaction, and that what should be protected is not our ability to make clear moral decisions based on a rational consideration of the evidence, but that what should be protected is an inviolate state that preserves our ability to be knee-jerk about moral issues. According to the desensitization argument, our apathy or tolerance for real-life immorality comes not from our choice to accept such things but from whether or not we have been exposed to visual representations of it in the first place. The argument raises the moral difference between someone who can get away with commiting a crime but chooses not to commit that crime, versus someone who doesn't commit a crime because he knows he would not get away with it, but if he could, would. Neither commit a crime, but whose decision was truly moral? Morality, for me, does not come from preventing the possibility of people behaving immorally, and therefore I cannot abide by the idea that movies of a certain level of violence should be opposed because they might desensitize a viewer to their contents. Morality begins with experience; if you cannot choose, then you have nothing to be moral about.

Now, regarding specifically A Serbian Film, I'm not arguing that we should all force ourselves to watch it as a duty to our own morality. What I am saying, however, is that we are not going to be made moral, and our society's morality is not going to be preserved, by banning the movie, or more broadly, by insisting that there are certain acts whose representation we should never be exposed to. Morality should not work that way, and I think we should keep in mind that the anti-desensitization argument is about what choices you should or should not be capable of making rather than what choices you just plain should be making.

I admit I haven't addressed whether such violence is justified, but I have tried to show what arguments do not make it unjustified, in my opinion at least.

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Re: Cinematic Violence: Can Anything Be Justified?

#23 Post by aox » Tue Apr 13, 2010 2:05 pm

Tribe wrote:
aox wrote: I mean, I feel like by 2020, we can finally say that everything has finally been done in terms of shock and now everyone can finally calm down. I am sure a lot of generations since the early 1900s have had this notion before, but really, what else can there be after this film and surely other competitors over the next ten years?
I have no doubt that over the next decades things will arise that we simply don't have a clue about today. Back in the days of Melies...did the average movie-goer ever imagine that films of someone ejaculating on someone else's face could be made, for example? I have no doubt some very small segment had thought of something like that, but I doubt very much that it was even a fraction as common as it is today.

The human imagination is literally boundless...I'm sure all kinds of fucked up, tasteless shit that we have never thought up yet will be readily available by the year 2525.
But that is my point.. what else is there? The people from the time you are stating didn't imagine that shit (someone ejaculating on screen) because there was so much left to imagine and you didn't need to do much to shock (Elvis shaking his hips on national TV; Lucy being pregnant on primetime).

Now we have people fucking corpses, horses, eating people and finally infant rape. I don't see where else we can go. I posit that we have reached the bottom of the barrel of every carnal aspect of humanity. Sex, Murder, Rape, Torture, etc....

And yes, I realize this is a stupid argument. I'll quit now and hope (or maybe not hope) that I am proven wrong in the decades to come.

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Re: Cinematic Violence: Can Anything Be Justified?

#24 Post by John Cope » Tue Apr 13, 2010 3:50 pm

aox wrote:Now we have people fucking corpses, horses, eating people and finally infant rape. I don't see where else we can go.
Oh boy. Never pose that as a challenge to some people...

Actually, there was a guy on MySpace a couple years back, some kind of aspiring nihilist provocateur, whose page was literally filled with a catalogue of atrocities under the heading of "interests". It was, ultimately, hysterically funny because the further into extreme territory he ventured (and did he ever venture) the more ludicrously absurd the whole enterprise of finding shocking stuff came to seem. My pal Jay (who occasionally posts on here) saved that list I think before said listers page was deleted or banned from the site or whatever--which seemed his full intent to begin with. If Jay still has that list though he should really post it. It's something quite special.

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Re: Cinematic Violence: Can Anything Be Justified?

#25 Post by Matt » Tue Apr 13, 2010 3:57 pm

John Cope wrote:If Jay still has that list though he should really post it.
I'd rather he didn't. Not here, at any rate.

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