What’s To Eat?

eatingIf “we are what we eat,” then what about what we consume with our minds? If the food we eat becomes the substance of our muscles and bones, doesn’t the information we absorb become the substance of our thoughts and emotions? We understand that it’s not healthy to live on junk food alone; do we have a similar sense regarding our mental health?

I think a lot about the media content we absorb so casually day in and day out. In the last three or four decades, we seem to have come to an ugly, unfortunate place for entertainment dining. Our diet now is rich in violence and sexuality, and it’s served in a visceral emotional stew of force and conflict.

I think it’s disturbing, especially considering how few seem disturbed by it!

fx-movieRecently I watched a pair of movies: F/X (1986) and its sequel F/X2 (1991). Both films star Bryan Brown and Brian Dennehy, and both follow a similar basic theme.

Brown plays a special effects wizard forced to use his movie skills to get out of a real-life jam. Dennehy plays a cop-type (imagine that).

The sequel ends up being a bit “by the numbers” in that it repeats the motifs from the first. An original idea is better merely in virtue of being original.

But this isn’t a movie review. The plot and quality of the films aren’t important. (For the record, the first gets an “Eh,” and the second gets a “Meh.”) What struck me while watching them is how far we’ve come in the depiction of movie violence. The F/X movies were downright quaint — even rather old-fashioned — by today’s standards. Yet the first one is just 28 years old; the sequel is only 23.

Dennehy the cop

Brian Dennehy as a cop (proof just in case you were having any trouble picturing it).

There have always been violent films. Stanley Kubrick made A Clockwork Orange way back in 1962. Sam Peckinpah, who was known for his violent westerns, released The Wild Bunch in 1969.

The 1970s brought us Death Wish (1974) and Taxi Driver (1976, by Martin Scorsese, who also did Goodfellas). The 70s also brought us The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in 1974.

In 1984, two years before F/X, the Coen brothers released their first major film, Blood Simple. Quentin Tarantino released his first major film, Reservoir Dogs in 1992 — a year after F/X2.

Two movies that stand out to me in the 1990s are Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Total Recall (1990) and the movie Se7en (1995).

I’ve always thought that Total Recall was the peak of gratuitous violence in the Schwarzenegger movies (The Terminator came out in 1984; the kinder, gentler Terminator 2 came along in 1991, just after Total Recall).

Total Recall bystander

This innocent bystander really got on the wrong escalator! (Admittedly, first the bad guys shoot him, then Arnold uses his dead body as a shield, but it still marks a high (low?) water point in the Arnie movies.)

I judge movie violence depending on who is the victim. The story’s “combatants” (the actively participating Good Guys and Bad Guys) are all fair game in a violent story.

When involved parties (the friend, the shop owner, etc.) become targets of violence, that ups the “this is violent stuff!” load (although it can depend on the nature of their involvement).

When innocent bystanders become targets, that’s getting very hard-core, and if it gets up to women, children (especially babies) or dogs, it’s off the chain.

In Total Recall (the 1990 original), Ah-nold uses random bystanders as bullet shields, something he had never done previously (or since). Even worse, the ending of Se7en was a horrific shocker that I never want to experience again. Ideas are far worse than actual gore. At least Total Recall had a science fiction comic book feel that made it less real. Se7en was contemporary realism!

But to some extent, these were cult films with a select audience. At least until the 1990s or so. George Lucas brought science fiction into the mainstream with Star Wars. Filmmakers such as Tarantino and the Coen brothers brought violent films into that same mainstream.


“He’ll live.” A kinder, more gentle future killer robot.

At the same time, there was restraint in some quarters. Schwarzenegger movies did tone down their violence… at least until The Expendables came along. Lately it seems the appetite for violence has won out, and mainstream entertainment is permeated with it. I don’t hear much talk anymore about the “problem” of violent media.

TV shows today are grittier and nastier. They are more life-like, and that is part of the problem when it comes to violence. And they’re not just life-like, but life-like in High Definition wide-screen surround sound.

In F/X there’s a scene in a morgue, and they use the old-fashioned trick of lifting the sheet (which covers the entire body) such that they can see the body, but the camera (and hence the viewers) cannot. The body in question had some bullet holes, but nothing worse (well, admittedly, a number of bullet holes is pretty bad, at least for the body in question).

Contrast that with morgue scenes in CSI or any other cop show.


“I see dead people!”

Remember how people used to get shot back in the bygone ancient era of 40 or 50 years ago? They’d clutch their stomach, groan and fall down. That was it!

At some point we added “blood” oozing out between their clutching fingers — a simple effect involving a blood capsule — a small plastic container of stage blood. (In the black and white days, they used chocolate syrup!)

Next came squibs and blood bags so we could see the bullets hit. Then it was the blood spray from the bullet exit. Oh, joy, brains and guts splattered on the wall.

Where we are now… well, have you seen any of the Final Destination movies? (I have to confess there is something about those I like. I’m usually “meh” when it comes to monster and splatter movies, but I like that it’s fate in those movies, not some cheesy monster or slasher character. And especially in the earlier ones, the deaths were really clever and imaginative. Plus Ali Larter.)

close call

Whew!! Close call!

There is an argument that realism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Our stories of 50 years ago were sanitized, and good always prevailed. They were hopeful stories about a world we wanted to be true. Today’s stories more reflect our grim view of a nasty, ugly world.

There is also an argument involving the idea of better in our stores than in real life. There is the idea that perhaps, at least for some, our nasty urges are sublimated by our entertainment. Better to steal cars in a video game than in real life.

But there is a problem when this is the only entertainment consumed. Without a varied diet, one gets only one view of the world — a view where force and conflict are the norm.

The real problem is that, like fast food, this sort of entertainment is everywhere. It’s hard to avoid. How many scripted prime time TV shows do not involve hitting and/or weapons? How many movies do you see that don’t involve death and destruction?

holmes movie

Not my Holmes!

The recent Sherlock Holmes movies were action movies filled with violent thrills.

And while true fans know that Sherlock and Watson were fit and physically capable, Holmes is the epitome of intellectual detective (contrast with, say, Mike Hammer).

I think there is increasingly a direct line from all this to much of what’s going on in our real world. The casual violence done every day does not exist in a vacuum. Whether it be gun violence or woman-beating professional football players, we live in an era with a constant message — despite our protests to the contrary — that violence is the norm.

We can’t talk about gun violence without talking about entertainment violence. We can’t talk about violence against women without talking about entertainment violence.

We can’t pretend those things aren’t connected. We can’t pretend what our minds consume constantly doesn’t affect these things.

I’ll have more to say about this anon…

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

14 responses to “What’s To Eat?

  • Hariod Brawn

    It seems to me that the marketing people – Gawd bless ’em – have thoroughly convinced those who run the mainstream media channels, and this includes ‘Hollywood’, that emotion is the most potent of sales tools. So conflict and sex are used to goad us into a masturbatory state of emoting as a result of which we cleave to their products in a vicarious sense of involvement.

    The same applies in the advertising industry, and it’s long since been the case that businesses take a tangential approach to selling their wares, attempting first and foremost to engage us emotionally with their corporate identity, knowing that once thusly hooked, we consume submissively from their benevolent teat. And all of this applies to the political parties too of course.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Isn’t the fault ours for proving them right? Emotions have been known to be effective (and false) for a long time — at least back to those ancient rational-thought-inventing Greeks. Corporations selling things, politicians begging for support, even charities begging for money, all trade on emotions to achieve a good result.

      But they only get away with it because we let them. Anyone marketing anything uses the most effective tools they can, and we’ve made it pretty clear we’re suckers for cute, we’re stupid at doing the math, we prefer cheap over quality, and we don’t like examining the fine print. We don’t like anything that’s too long, let alone too complicated or nuanced.

      The media, and corporations and politicians, are just giving us what — we’ve shown repeatedly — we really want. I believe I said this recently: The problem is us. We need to act a little more intelligently — we need to take rational thought seriously. We need to stop putting such a high value on emotions and such a low value on intellect.

      We did used to be better balanced in that regard. People used to think it was cool knowing things. Being smart used to be a lofty goal — something parents dearly wished for their children — something many dearly wished for themselves. What goals do we have these days?

  • Lady from Manila

    It’s a good thing I haven’t had time to watch TV for years now. The thing is, most weekends I enjoy passing by mall theaters just to take a look at the films being shown — and many of them I find revolting or plain inane. I’m lost as to how moviegoers of this era have developed a predilection for such genre.

    Don’t they realize the shrewd movie makers of Final Destination, Resident Evil, Chainsaw Massacres, etc. are chuckling up their sleeves as they earn boatloads of money making ridiculously stupid movies for equally stupid audience?

    Horrible scenarios you wouldn’t even dare imagine are now in your face, evoking something unpleasant in you. Yet people want more and more gory realism for entertainment it makes me deduce they must be sick in the mind.

    Oh wait, I liked Kill Bill, though :-). Out-of-this-world action flicks are ok by me if they seem like animation. Besides, I don’t mind watching a female protagonist kick some ass. 🙂

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Watching women warriors kick ass is what makes the Resident Evil movies such a great (guilty) pleasure for me! 😎

      And you’re right; the over-the-top melodramatic cartoon goofiness reduces the impact of many of these movies. At the same time, the shooter in that Colorado movie theater not long ago was clearly influenced by the then recent Batman movie. It’s the high-energy level and loudness and motion and destruction (all applications of force) that make these movies like food with lots of high-fructose corn syrup.

      My grandmother had a great line about bad habits being like feather beds: easy to get into and hard to get out of. I wonder if our fast-paced modern life isn’t similarly seductive.

      I actually do have a post in Drafts that’s about three movies that would qualify as “feel good” films. (The post is called “Sexy Trio” so you can just imagine!) There’s also About Time, made by the same guy (Richard Curtis) who made Love Actually. Curtis has done other films I’ve liked — superior romcom films, which are just one kind of feel good story. Which makes me think of other types…

      Sports movies are (usually) feel good movies. I have mentioned baseball movies on occasion. I wrote about Brassed Off, which at heart is really a sports movie (rag-tag team of people face a major, even life-changing-slash-affirming, challenge where initial failure ultimately turns to success (and lessons are learned and life-long bonds are forged)).

      You can also read Film Clips, which mentions quite a few uplifting films, or Funniest Movies Ever, which talks about my favorite funny movies.

      You see! Not only is your wish my command, I have anticipated your wish! Voila!! XD

  • Lady from Manila

    I forgot to include: What an excellent post this is.

    By the way, when are you going to write about “feel good” movies? 🙂

    • Wyrd Smythe


      You see! I have even anticipated this question and answered it already! Magic!! 😎

      • Lady from Manila

        As a westerner, you may find filipino taste for “feel good” movies way too sentimental and spirited – corny even. That’s just the way we are 🙂 .

        “Love Actually” was a hit here many years ago. But on the whole, we deem Western romance and dramas to be more subtle; we consider them a bit bland, to be frank 🙂 . I believe many other Asian countries share the dramatic thunder we plonk in our film plots.

        Really funny flicks make my day, too. I already read the posts you mentioned (in the past) and we see eye to eye on some of your choices.

        Voila! Magic! Abracadabra! My question got answered, my wish was granted. Please accept my deep gratitude, Smythe the Magician. 😉

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yes, well you primitive third-world natives aren’t as cultural and sophisticated as we are! 😐

        Seriously, though, most (most! (but not all)) “Made in the USA” movies are a bland pablum designed to be acceptable to as many people as possible. There are the occasional gems — wheat to make all the chaff a bit more worthwhile.

        As a general rule, I think we USAnians don’t celebrate life quite the same as other folks in the world. For all our material goods, we have a secret sadness and rage (not so secret sometimes). Just last night I heard a comedian joke about how grim American airports are compared to most around the world. There is a certain grimness to us, even when we party.

      • Lady from Manila

        Ouch! Wyrd, the first paragraph was bordering on rascism! How could you even joke about it (to me)? 🙂 Seriously, though, (if I may digress) I’ve experienced that everywhere I go. In my travels, in my previous blogging experience… Even within our continent, the filipinos are considered the “blacks” of Asia. 😦

        Materialism has invaded the whole world–including my country. One thing I notice (which foreign visitors also do): poor people manage to remain happy despite their condition. It’s a mystery to me. 🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe

        (Hopefully you know that first paragraph was totally ironic? Just checking. The “straight face” 😐 was supposed to be the giveaway.)

        Being poor limits your choices; there have been studies showing that having too much choice can stress people out, especially if they are the type to worry about getting the best deal (people who take what they get are often happier than people who work to insure they get the best — the latter are never completely satisfied and always worrying they ‘could have done better’).

        There is also that material things can’t bring happiness. Comfort and pleasure, sure, but not happiness. The poor only have each other, and not only are often happier, but also more generous with the little they have. It’s hard to know need and not be.

        It’s a great life lesson. You can be happy with nothing and miserable with everything!

  • reocochran

    I found this to be well-written and thought-provoking. I had not considered how the level of violence with the intelligence of the plot, how those justify the violence. I guess I prefer the violence not to be seen, I don’t need to see the morgue or crime scene when the words can describe the horrors. I don’t like the bodies to be decapitated and for us to view them. The junk we put into our minds can affect us, we need good comedy, smart drama and I don’t think many people can differentiate. I liked the “F/X” movies, but it went along with the banter of the Bruce Willis and Danny Glover/Mel Gibson movies, where the violence wasn’t necessary, the teamwork made the difference in how I appreciated them. I really like the way I feel after I go to movies that present teamwork, whether they are ‘smart’ or not, mostly because of shows like “Leverage” and old “Mission Impossible,” where murder and mayhem aren’t the goal, serving the public and doing ‘good acts’ is how it makes me feel better about movies these days. Although it is not ‘smart,’ I really liked Arnold S. in “The Last Stand.” In that one, everyone in a small town works together, some butt is kicked but that is not the reason for the whole movie! Didn’t expect to, but did! Smiles!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I think it’s possible that people do differentiate. There’s a reason the sensational, sexy stuff is popular while more thoughtful, intelligent material struggles to survive. People don’t like being challenged — they mostly want to sit back and passively absorb the sex and violence.

      The Die Hard (the first one is a favorite of mine) and Lethal Weapon movies (which I can never enjoy again thanks to Mel Gibson) were pretty violent (the Die Hard series perhaps more so), but they’re also kind of tongue-in-cheek and so over-the-top that the violence has a cartoonish aspect. But even a steady diet of those wouldn’t be ideal — one need to toss in a bit of Shakespeare or something along those lines once in a while (or some Star Trek or Doctor Who or something).

      We’ve talked about Leverage and Mission: Impossible before, so you know I’m a fan of those, too. And the teamwork aspect of those shows is something quite special, I agree!

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