Philip Palmer glorifies violence

Paul Raven @ 14-07-2010

It’s not my accusation, mind you; he’s claiming it himself. Sf novelist and screenwriter Philip Palmer’s had it up to here with people bemoaning sensationalist violence in cinema – don’t they realise that sensationalism is the entire point of the medium?

What I’m saying is; let’s stop pretending.  Of course violence, when it’s in fiction rather than in life, is fun.  It’s part of the imaginative experience; imagination is our way of living other lives, and since we can do so without incurring actual injury, the more violent the better.  It’s cathartic, it’s exhilarating, it can be beautiful; but the key point is; IF YOU’RE A SANE AND MORAL PERSON, WATCHING VIOLENT MOVIES DOESN’T MAKE YOU VIOLENT.  Reality, fiction; fiction, reality: two different things.

[…]

Hell, I read this stuff all the time, and what I write is often WORSE in terms of gruesome barbarity. […] So does that mean I have calluses on the tenderest parts of my mind, the bits that are used to focus empathy, as Adam so beautifully if cruelly phrases it?

Well perhaps so.  But on balance I feel that constantly wallowing in imaginative violence has made me not one whit more aggressive, or capable of violence. I remain as timid, fearful, and cowardly as I have  always been. I would happily slay a Barsoomian plant man with my long sword; but I am not in the habit of mugging elderly ladies, or randomly shooting people in pubs.

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But why, I am forced to ask, does violence in fiction appeal so strongly, to me and to so many of you?  Why do we not daydream about peaceful characters, who broker peace and leave a trail of concord and amity behind them? Why do we prefer the Man with No Name, or Conan, who are more inclined to leave a trail of corpses behind them?

I guess the answer is obvious; we’re never more alive than when we are in fear of dying. And to experience that intensity of life while reading a book, or watching a film, and without any ACTUAL possibility of dying, is vicarious ecstasy.

Having met Philip in person a couple of times, I struggle to imagine a less aggressive or more softly-spoken man (with the notable exception of his part in discussions regarding the funding models of the film industry); having read a few of his books, I can also assure you he’s not overselling his own pleasure in writing (and by extension consuming) media with violent content..

For my money, I’ve always been opposed to campaigns against violence (or sex, or controversial topics) in media, not so much because I feel that they aren’t at all problematic, but because I believe that censorship is far more problematic to society than the media it seeks to control. The internet is something of a vindication to me in this case; as ill-informed and banal as some of them can be, the fact that we can (and do) have passionate debates about what art and entertainment should and shouldn’t say is one I take great comfort in. Let those who want to watch violent movies do so; if you don’t like ’em, don’t go see ’em. Censorship starts and ends with your own thumb on the remote.

That said, I’m not at all fond of gratuitous violence in movies. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve lived without a television for over a decade (and have thus become resensitized), but really graphic violence physically unsettles me to the point that I can struggle to watch a film that has more than a few moments of it*. But perhaps it’s as much to do with being more of a reader, too; strong fiction writing is all about implication, letting the reader’s mind fill in the nastiness in the gaps, and I still find implicit violence in cinema or television far more effective at generating a brainkick without booting me out of the narrative completely.

But what about you lot – are you gonna follow Philip down to your local multiplex for a ninja-swords gorefest, or stay at home and put your feet up with something more subtle?

[ * – My ex-girlfriend convinced me to watch P2 with her last year. Half way through, I had to leave the room. If you’ve seen the film, you probably know the scene I’m talking about; much as I understand Philip’s argument, I don’t know how I could justify the graphic nastiness of that particular bit of cinema on any level that makes a real difference to the story being told. And don’t even get me started on the Saw franchise. Your mileage, of course, may vary. ]

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4 Responses to “Philip Palmer glorifies violence”

  1. Joel Bass says:

    Personally, I think the author (or film director) is not only telling a story, but also, consciously or not, telling you about herself or himself. I see it as a sign of sophistication and creativity when a writer or filmmaker is able to get across the shock and pain of violence without needing to show us every graphic detail. And I don’t want to feel that the writer is relishing the violence they’re describing, because then it feels self-indulgent and sick, as if we’re watching the writer masturbate. I still regard “Rear Window” as one of the most chillingly suspenseful movies I’ve ever seen, and it featured very little in the way of onscreen violence. And none of it was graphic.

  2. Chad says:

    Violence has it’s place. Sometimes it needs to be done in a way that infers the violence and some times it needs to be laid bare for all to see. There is a different feeling we get from media with implied violence and opulent violence. The sophistication comes from knowing when to use each type. While Rear Window may work better with inferd violence, Pulp Fiction, Full Metal Jacket, and Saving Private Ryan work much better with the violence right out front and in your face.

  3. Paul Raven says:

    Fair points, Chad; I think my issue is with gratuitous violence rather than opulent and graphic. I mean, I love Full Metal Jacket, but the ubiquitous graphic violence makes sense in that context; a visceral illustration that war is hell (and that war in particular, perhaps), and it helps carry narrative weight in a movie with a sizeable cast. But the scene in P2 I’m thinking of just goes further than it needs to. I can imagine the mess that you’d make by repeatedly barging a man on a swivel chair in to the wall of a garage with a powerful car; a shot from behind the car that showed you nothing but the car’s acceleration and sudden stop would work just as well to carry the story, and wouldn’t have dumped me straight out of the flow through sheer disgust.

    But then that’s just me – the success of the Saw franchise among people I otherwise consider to be sane and well-balanced individuals indicates that I’m pretty much in a minority, at least among my own demographic. 🙂

  4. Chad says:

    I can’t argue with that. There definitely needs to be a reason other than just the display of violence or gore to show these types of scenes. My problem is society paints gore and violence with a broad brush saying it’s all bad (not saying you did), when a large part of it is vital to the story, provides a lesson, etc. Thus, in my mind, the typical argument, which is what Palmer might be trying to answer, is focused in slightly the wrong spot.

    I’m not one for the Saw type movies either.