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Lights, camera … word bomb!

Hollywood continues to litter its films with violent language


©iStock.com/tschitscherin

Lights, camera … word bomb!

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.

I think violent language is bad for my health—my physical, spiritual, and emotional health.

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.

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Laura W

Yeah, it's bad enough that our culture has all these flaws already, but I wish Hollywood wouldn't insist on exaggerating them to the rest of the world. Especially when a lot of that world still thinks of America as a Christian country.

PSUBRENT

Movies reflect culture.  I'm more bothered by the rampant blasphemy than I am by f-bombs, etc.  Of course, I work in law enforcement, where some can't communicate unless they drop a bomb every 4th or 5th word.

narevalo3437

The effect bad language and sexuality in movies have on the outside world is tremendous.  Everyone watches American movies. Everyone thinks this is normal American life.  It is an insult to those of us who do not live like that.

NHA6748

John Erickson's essay has touched a nerve that has been raw for a long time.  Once upon a time in America we enjoyed standards of language in common parlance.  People kept vulgar words out of public discussion, gentlemen did not use bad language in the company of ladies, and a parent never cussed in front of the kids.  Movies varied in quality but did not wallow in the cesspool of the lowest common denominator.  Literature found ways of getting the point across without dragging its readers through a pig sty.  Indeed Virgil, Dante, Milton, and the Bible, among others, have all dealt with rough subjects, but Erickson is addressing something different. 

Very simply, we have become coarse and common again.  Somewhere in the past our ancestors were trying to crawl out of the mud and achieve a higher standard, but in my lifetime the higher standard got thrown out as the big change happened across the 1960's and 70's.  Foul language became part of the general rebellion of the times, and it only seems to have gotten worse as reflected in the movies and music and other cultural trends since then.  I am offended by f-bombs and other items used for shock these days.  What purpose does all this serve?

The English language is a great tool of communication, but the use of gutter talk only shows a lack of imagination on the part of our writers and artists.

Hans

Wait, have you read Gilgamesh? Or what about Ezekiel for that matter? The language in both is intentionally shocking and explicitly violent and sexual. 

I am not saying that sex or violence is necessary for literature  to be "authentic," but we also cannot act like either good literature or the Bible does not resort to language meant to shock or horrify its readers; that's part of what makes it good literature. Sex and violence are ordinary parts of the human experience, and so good literature frequently does dwell on both. So the Bible offers sexual jokes like Samson's accusations about "ploughing," or (comical?) violence like Eglon's fat swallowing the sword that stabbed him. It also offers crass sex like the description of Israel in heat lustings after her neighbors that is meant to shock us, and the disgusting descriptions of mothers eating their children, which are meant to horrify us.

The same is true if the pervasive violence in Gilgamesh, Homer, Virgil, Beowulf, Dante, and many others, or the sex in Gilgamesh, Horace, or Milton for that matter. 

 

DCal3000

Thank you, thank you, thank you for this column.  When I was a child, people used to be concerned about movie content.  Not anymore, and I had truly wondered if anyone cared--outside of a handful of aging evangelical organizations.  During the last election, evangelical and conservative leaders acted shocked that evangelical laypeople were unworried about Trump's outrageous and sinful statements.  My thoughts--hogwash! Those same leaders taught us not to be concerned--through every edgy sermon, every attempt to be hip by watching (and endorsing) the latest television fad, every frown at the presumptively legalistic prudes in their audiences.  And we learned--in no uncertain terms.  Our leaders liked shows like Family Guy, why shouldn't we?

That's why it's so refreshing to find a different message here.  The idea that we don't have to be happy about filth in what we watch is so rare now that it almost feels subversive to hear it expressed publicly.  The idea that we don't have to put filth in our own art--that is subversive.  Thank you for daring to utter such ideas anyway! Modern evangelicals worry so much about being authentic rather than legalistic, we forget that the compulsion to sum up complex emotion using only profanity can itself be legalistic and inauthentic.  We live in a fallen world, but God was merciful and left so many things of beauty here.  It would be nice if we focused on what was beautiful a little more--not in a legalistic sense but simply because the beauty with which God infused His creation is worth appreciating.

 

 

Allen Johnson

The pornification of media both reflects and drives a desensitized culture. Just as drug pushers know that opioid drug addicts need increased dosages to maintain their highs, so the "culture drug pushers" increase their "shock and awe" dosages to their desensitized and jaded consumers.

Clark Gable's infamous use of the "D" word in "Gone With The Wind" has traveled a long downward road. So has Hugh Hefner's Playboy centerfolds to the violentt mysosgeny of gonzo porn in which the average age of first exposure is 11 years old. Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger cleanly shot the bad guys off their horses, but now movies show the gore and guts. As do computer games played by pre-adolescents who get to kills dozens of people every game in gruesome detail. Even wildlife shows increasingly show gory predation in more detail.  And rock music, country music, and hip hop, with sex, drunkeness, and nihilism glorified? 

The film industry so often portrays Christians as prudish, boring, corrupt, wimpy,  and/or condemning. Romance is not in found in the long-term marriage but in the casual encounter.

The film industry will counter that viewers can separate reality from fantasy, that their stronger messages don't negatively affect behavior. But then, why would Super Bowl commercials cost $5 million per 30 seconds if but the desired effect is for viewers to be influenced to consume their product?

 

philoxfordal

Excellent article, as always appreciate the Saturday series and John R. Erickson's essays. I think he nailed it...it's the adolescent desire to shock and lack of creativity that keeps these words in the movies. There are multiple ways of developing character, it's just easier to throw in word bombs than to take the time to look for more creative ways to do so. The same could be said for bathroom humor. It's childish, watch any group of four-year-olds who giggle over the mention of it. The sad thing is that as "salt of the earth" those of us who should be the gate-keepers for our families and culture have opened the door wide and in many cases funded their efforts.