Lights, camera … word bomb!
Movie | Hollywood continues to litter its films with violent language
by John R. Erickson
Posted 2/25/17, 09:30 am
I don’t get it. From the time The Gilgamesh Epic was written on clay tablets 5,000 years ago, until recent times, world literature got along fine without word bombs, and so did the movie business in its first five decades.
So on this weekend of the 89th Academy Awards, I have to ask: Why do filmmakers keep using those words? You know the ones. WORLD Magazine doesn’t print them. My wife and I have a strong negative reaction to them. When Kris and I were growing up, we never heard them in our homes. We never heard them in movies or saw them in books.
That began to change during the unrest of the 1960s, which started as a reaction against racial segregation and the Vietnam War, but became a rebellion against almost everything. Prominent writers (Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Phillip Roth, John Updike, Larry McMurtry, and others) began using forbidden language in books and articles. They won prestigious awards and kept pushing the limits, and the words started showing up in movies.
It’s been going on for more than 40 years. In time, maybe violent, abusive language will lose its punch and fade away, but that hasn’t happened yet. It infuriates me when I spend money on DVDs that bring it into my home. It instantly makes me dislike the movie.
It’s as though I had bought a box of granola that was loaded with salt. I’m buying cereal, I don’t want salt, and why should I be put in the position of eating something that is distasteful to me? It destroys my interest in the product, and it’s bad for my health.
I think violent language is bad for my health—my physical, spiritual, and emotional health. The words we’re talking about are weaponized, loaded with anger, and their intent is to smash and incite. Are we supposed to believe that weaponized language has no effect on an audience that hears it over and over?
Past generations who relied on common sense and Biblical wisdom understood that what we say often becomes what we do. A film that teaches viewers to use violent language moves them one step closer to violent action. A domestic argument that begins with angry, violent words can end with one party in the emergency room and the other in jail.
Our grandparents would have predicted a high correlation between violent language and domestic violence, child abuse, divorce, and murder. Where you find one, you’re likely to find the other. I’m betting that an objective scientific study on this subject would confirm that link.
A movie director might say that violent language is necessary for explaining the characters, but that is a specious argument. Film is a picture-medium. In a 90-minute film, the director has 5,400 seconds to reveal characters through facial expressions, body language, makeup, lighting, music, camera angles, and the action of the story.
If we turned off the sound and heard no dialogue, we would still know the characters. Charlie Chaplin, one of the most gifted actor/directors who ever lived, made movies for years without a word of dialogue.
Pictures tell us who the characters are. We don’t need to be assaulted by their abusive language. Some of the best movies of all time (Casablanca, Singing In the Rain, Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia) contained no violent or abusive language, even though three of those films dealt with military action.
Kris and I have watched Casablanca many times, and have never felt cheated that we heard none of Hollywood’s favorite word bombs.
Has the repeated use of violent language ever brought a moment of joy or enlightenment to any human being? It baffles me that filmmakers continue to inflict it on their audiences. I’m sure they know the effect it has on viewers like me. They show breathtaking sensitivity for the feelings of certain groups, but none for me. Like sullen teenagers, they glare at the audience and snarl, “You don’t like it? Tough. Eat it.”
During the late 1960s, Kris and I were living in Austin, Texas, and I was trying to write important novels that would be relevant to the culture. I went through a period when I tried to convince myself that my aversion to explosive language was silly and irrational.
I was being too judgmental, puritanical, prudish. Words are just words, right? Often you can change just one letter in a bombshell word and it becomes harmless. What’s the big deal?
The argument resolved itself when we left Austin, a city that rather enjoyed using naughty language, and moved to a small town in the Texas Panhandle, whose Protestant culture didn’t approve of it. In the 1980s, when I found an audience for my books, my readers were on the traditional side, and I wrote for them, in their vernacular. I found their language rich enough so that I could accomplish my goals as a writer. I lost my adolescent need to shock them.
Now I wonder … why did I ever think that I needed to shock my readers? Most people who deal with the public and provide a service don’t set out to shock or insult their customers. Tamale vendors, carpenters, plumbers, bricklayers, snow cone peddlers, doctors, and mechanics don’t do that. It never even enters their minds.
It’s not smart to insult your customers or to show contempt for their values and sensitivities. If you do it too often, you’ll go out of business … unless you’re in the movie business. There, oddly, it’s viewed as enlightened and courageous.
Also see Marvin Olaksy’s interview with John R. Erickson from the upcoming issue of WORLD Magazine.
John R. Erickson
John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.