When I was very young, about eight or nine, my parents made a disastrous error of judgement.
In my house, we were absolutely not allowed to watch movies before the Motion Picture Association of America thought we should – if a movie was rated PG-13, then we would wait until the stroke of midnight on our thirteenth birthday to watch it.
There was only one exception to this rule: we could plead historical relevance. This was my father’s particular weakness, and it could be relied upon: if a movie took as its subject a historical event in which we had expressed an interest, then we could almost always convince him to rent it, no matter the rating.
Which is how we ended up watching ‘The Untouchables’ one Friday night. To this day, I wonder how he got that past my mother, who was of less amenable mind. But no matter – by the time everyone figured out that it was an enormous mistake, the damage was done.
‘The Untouchables’ was written by David Mamet, directed by Brian De Palma, and stars Kevin Costner and Robert DeNiro. It tells the story of Eliot Ness’ investigation of Al Capone in Chicago in the later 1920s, which culminated in Capone’s conviction for tax evasion in 1931. The title of the film refers to the team of men Ness built for that investigation, which includes, in the movie, a gruff old Irish police officer named Jimmy Malone. Malone’s character is based on a man named Marty Lahart, and is played by Sean Connery.
Of course, ‘gruff but lovable’ describes pretty much every character Sean Connery has ever played, but I was too young to realize that, and I fell completely for Jimmy Malone. It is safe to say that, after about ten minutes of screen exposure, I loved and trusted him.
So, when he was gunned down, when he dragged himself bloody and dying through his apartment to write the name of his killer in his own blood on the floor, I was frightened and inconsolable. My parents had to stop the movie; I lay my head down on the sofa cushions and sobbed for an hour.
I thought about that this week, as I binge-watched Marvel’s ‘Daredevil’.
As has been noted by all and sundry, ‘Daredevil’ is pretty violent. And I’m fine with it. Actually, I kind of appreciate it: the Marvel universe was getting way too cute. I would rather unrelenting violence than unrelenting self-referential smugness.
And I like violent movies, at least some of the time. But violence in movies is like horror in movies: it’s supposed to have an effect. But this week, as I was watching Vincent D’Onofrio beat a guy to death in a car door, just slamming him over and over until the car door decapitated him, all I thought was, ‘That interior is gonna be impossible to get clean.’
I love action movies, and horror movies, fighting movies, gory movies, and I hope I always will. I don’t ever want to be one of those flinching people who wring their hands about violence in movies, or video games, or AC/DC lyrics – I don’t care if teenagers play Grand Theft Auto, and I’ve never seen persuasive evidence that exposure to representational violence creates or encourages violent behavior in audiences.
But just because exposure to representational violence does not cause violence in life doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have any adverse effect, and it seems to me that I have changed a great deal since I lay down on the couch and wept about Sean Connery. Some of that change is doubtless due to growing up, and some due to better reality testing. But I don’t remember being confused about reality back then – I didn’t think that Sean Connery was really dead, and I wasn’t confused about the fact that he was an actor. I was shocked by the violence, and I knew that the ‘The Untouchables’ was based on a true story, and I was crushed, absolutely crushed, by the visceral realization that good people die horrible deaths.
And that is how violence probably should feel; at least, we should be able to feel that way. I’m not comfortable with my own lack of reaction now, which is a sort of a wimpy meta-concern, I know. I mean, I am human: I cried at the ‘Jurassic Bark’ episode of Futurama – if ‘Daredevil’ didn’t ruin my evening, that isn’t the end of the world.
But ultimately, this isn’t about ‘Daredevil’ – this is about me. I don’t want to become blasé about violence. I am not over-endowed with empathy to begin with, and I don’t want to lose what little I have. Maybe it’s too late, or maybe it’s just part of being an adult. But if I can’t still be that humane, it’s important that I at least remember the time when I was.