The post title is a question that I see asked quite often, especially by Christians, whenever a depiction of historical events, or events that happen in real life, depicts those events in great detail. See the controversy over the brutal violence depicted in The Passion of the Christ, which is essentially two hours of watching a man be tried, tortured, and executed–emphasis on the latter two parts–for an example. For a more recent example, see Twelve Years a Slave, which includes graphic depictions of whipping and rape, and historically accurate renderings of slave auctions, including full nudity.
Now, here’s the question: in both cases, was including all of that necessary to get the point across that the events shown onscreen–the crucifixion of Jesus and slavery–were unimaginably horrific?
There’s a couple of different schools of thought on this. There’s the school of thought followed by such gentlemen as the directors of those movies, which claims that it is necessary that audiences fully understand the horror of what they’re watching, and that in order for them to do so, what happened to the people involved should be depicted in full and agonizing detail–or at least as far as you can get without earning an NC-17 rating. This school of thought in a more extreme form can also be seen in film critics who believe that showing death without going into detail about the blood and guts and whatnot is “whitewashing violence.”
Then there’s the school of thought that leans a bit more towards “less is more,” and tends to want to leave things to the audience to take as far as they want to go–describe verbally, imply vigorously, but don’t just throw intestines and naked bodies on-screen–you can get the point across without those. While there is something of a dearth of recent examples of this school in mainstream cinema, examples in previous eras include most movies made between 1930 and 1960.
The primary criticism of the former is that is too graphic, sensational, and desensitizing, while the latter is criticized on the grounds that it is safe and sanitized and allows the audience to get away with not thinking about what’s actually happening.
Here’s the thing: there’s a reason you sanitize things–it’s so you can avoid getting sick. On the other hand, it’s also true that sometimes you can avoid catching a disease by being exposed to a weaker version of that disease–inoculation, as it were.
On the other hand, what’s the likelihood that you’ll have to deal with watching your friends dismembered, or slavery? And, more importantly, what is the likelihood that watching graphic depictions of the above will actually help more with that than simply understanding that such things have happened and do happen?
In other words, let’s not automatically say that a “serious” film is artistically better because it has graphic depictions of sex and violence, and let’s not say that such a film is artistically worse because it doesn’t have those elements. Simultaneously, let us not make the opposite assumption. Because here’s the the thing about realism–it’s not about what people do with each other or to each other, but rather about the people themselves, and you don’t need lots of graphic content to explain what people are like.
‘Til next time,
Lowell Van Ness