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A few words on violence

A few simple truths about violence in the movies and on TV:

1. You can't talk about violence being "justified" if the movie or TV program is a "good one," because which of us is to say what's good and bad? I admired the use of violence in "One False Move," but you may admire the violence in "Friday the 13th."

2. You can't talk about "gratuitous violence" because everything in a movie or on a television show is gratuitous. That is, nothing is necessary. It's all escapism and entertainment. That's why it's made, that's why people watch it, and everybody knows it. The violence in "Macbeth" is just as gratuitous as the violence in "The Evil Dead."

3. The people who are most outspoken about media violence are usually concerned on behalf of others. If you tell them that they do, after all, have the option of not viewing violent movies or watching violent TV shows, they get a funny look in their eyes. See, they don't think that they're the problem. They worried about what other people are watching. They want to change your viewing behavior, not their own. (Censors always defend their own right to see the material because that's how they can decide what's best for us.)

4. Nevertheless, it is true that movies and television are more violent than ever before. There are two reasons for this: (1) Violence is easier to write than comedy and straight drama. All you have to do is plug your characters into a series of killings and chase scenes. (2) Violence is easier to watch. You don't have to think. You can sit there mindlessly and watch the kinetic action.

5. In other words, there's a lot of violence in the entertainment media because the suppliers and the consumers are both lazy.

6. Children raised on a televised diet of nonstop gunfire, chases, shootings and beatings are likely to become desensitized to it. True, it would be better if children watched more intelligent and wholesome programming.

7. Adults should have the right to watch what they choose, within the limits of the law.

8. The congressional proposal for "labeling" TV shows is horsefeathers. Everyone knows it. Only one or two shows are likely to be found very offensive. Nothing will change. Jack Valenti and the networks and Congress worked out a nice compromise that will provide the illusion of action while actually changing very little.

9. The worthlessness of the ratings system is illustrated by the morally and intellectually bankrupt Motion Picture Association of America ratings code, which inhibits artistry on adult themes while hypocritically permitting more and more meaningless violence in R and PG-13 rated movies.

10. The various proposals for enforcing anti-violence policies are mistaken because they put the cart before the horse. They want to punish the networks because people watch their shows. They place the burden of enforcement on the networks, producers, television manufacturers and everybody else except the viewers themselves.

11. There is a solution so simple, obvious and workable I am not surprised no one has thought about it. It would involve a positive approach: Parents should choose the programs they want their children to watch. Right now there is a gadget called the VCR Plus. It uses those code numbers in the newspaper TV listings. You punch in the number and your VCR automatically tapes the right show. It would be a simple step to adapt VCR Plus to another function: Parents could pick the shows they want their children to watch, punch in the numbers, and then that's all the kids would be able to watch. Parents and church groups could issue lists of recommended programs on a voluntary basis.

12. As for the movies, if and when theater owners decide to enforce the MPAA ratings (which are a smokescreen and don't work), maybe kids under 17 wouldn't be able to see R-rated movies anymore. That would cost the tens of millions of dollars, so don't hold your breath.

13. You would think that the opponents of media violence would also be in the crusade for gun control. Curiously, the two causes seem to draw different sides of the political spectrum. Think about it.

14. The appetite for mindless, meaningless violence will begin to disappear about the time that Americans spend as much money on our children's educational resources as we spend on nonessential perks and privileges for grownups.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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