Essay: Desensitization in Cinema

At an early age, the silver screen enticed me with its tremendous power to generate new worlds, producing stories more satisfying and visually stunning than that of typical children’s ‘literature.’ But as I graduated from the sweet, sexist whimsies of Walt Disney, I found myself involved with the ethically-challenged teenage blockbuster.

The ethically-challenged teenage blockbuster (ECTB) does not indulge in Disney’s Law of Happiness-Ever-After; rather, it focuses on Michael Bay’s Law of Explosions. To adhere to Bay’s Law, the teen blockbuster requires a somewhat disadvantaged and flawed hero to be pitted against the forces of evil, and their reaction produces the raw outburst of matter, curse words, and slightly crude humor that may make some material inappropriate to children under the age of thirteen.

ECTBs drew me in like any other, but I struggled to enjoy them, because every time there was an explosion and someone’s car blew up, my stomach turned, and I thought, what is that man going to do without a car? Does he have insurance?

Guilt piled on guilt as I saw the explosions take their toll; wrenching my young brain’s naïve perspective of value as I took in the economic devastation. During a superhero film, how many times did you wonder whether the hero was doing more harm than good by engaging the villain on notable skyscrapers, recklessly damaging famous, historic landmarks that added character, pride, and high property value to the metropolitan centers of the world? The film Independence Day was horrific, to say the least.

The curse of empathy plagued my early cinematic experiences, as I did not yet recognize that all of Western culture centered on escalation, escapism, and intensity, emotions that certainly are present in everyday life but are never distributed in the perfect concoction of rise, climax, and fall to warrant the sweeping changes afforded to the lucky ones who survive the explosions.

As I saw more, and read more, I was surprised at how quickly I was desensitized; morally, I had thought, and still think, that every death in a film should be a tragedy, the cutoff of an existence, a personality, a being; yet how many times did I yawn when the best friend, the mentor, or the villain died?

If you’ve ever watched a football game, how many times did you cheer when someone on the opposing team gets hammered, only to watch with mouth agape as the wounded man is lifted from the field of battle unconscious, descending into the dark recesses of the stadium’s confines until no word is heard from him again?

Worse, when the innocent bystander or that annoying person in the horror flick is killed, you actually cheer. Like the savage seven-year old who fries ants with a magnifying glass, you relish the slaughter. You taste the blood, and it is good.

This apathy and wanton disregard for human life showcases the dark side of our culture, advertising to the rest of the world our greedy materialism and shallowness, but the converse—emotional exploitation—is evil in its own right. When films overemphasize deaths, like that of the lovers Romeo and Juliet, they pull every heartstring till you forget that they both were stupid teenagers who didn’t really know what love meant, clawing at your emotions until nothing is left but an oozing mass of red goo. That’s not cool, either.

My opinions regarding commercial entertainment swirl with contradictions. Even our culture is one big swirling contradiction. While we venerate liberty and the right to self-determination, we still impose freedom on others. In films, though explosions might inflict guilt on the part of the observer, we still relish them; despite the fact that our nation has vowed to stop explosions at home, we strengthen them abroad; while we mourn melodramatic deaths, we cackle in ecstasy at the murder of others.

Though I indulge in adherents of Bay’s Law from time to time, increasingly I am forced to look to literary books and films that eschew spectacle to quench my thirst for educated and intelligent diversion. Gone are the Ludlums, the Camerons, and the Transformers, while in comes the Le Carrés and the Huxleys, the Hitchcocks and the Kubricks. It is said that when a work hijacks an overused idea, it is cliché, but when a piece channels the fountain of universal truth, it is beautiful. It took some time to recognize, and hopefully others can escape the sensational and depraved reality of commercial entertainment to find enriching stimulation. Pop culture defies explanation, and the easy thing to do would be to let our wildly divergent values and actions run amok across the earth. But the sensible thing to do would be to achieve self-awareness, tighten the leash, and embody what the people of the free world should: be enlightened, sympathetic, and responsible. After all, the Cold War ended a generation ago. America has the chance to shape the world, at least for brief time. Can you imagine what our successors will do to mimic us? If we imitated the pomp and indulgence of Rome, of their gladiatorial and chariot racing tradition (football and NASCAR), then what would be the ultimate homage and escalation of America? The answer is something ugly, as anyone who’s ever seen a mediocre Hollywood sequel knows. The third time, if you get that far, isn’t fun or entertaining. Here’s to anyone interested in reforming our schizophrenic culture. It’s a good idea. After all, this is the future we’re talking about.

Featured image from:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s