Tuesday 26 October 2010

Carnography: Vegetarians need not apply

Ah, we're talking about making maps? No, wait! That's cartography.

On May 29, 1972, John Skow wrote a review of the novel First Blood by David Morrell upon which Sylvester Stallone based his film Rambo. In this review, Mr. Skow speaks disparagingly of the "meat movie, the kind in which we pay to see meat fly off someone's head as he is shotgunned" then goes on to describe this book as a "meat novel". The reviewer explains that like pornography and its deliberate creation of a sexual flush to the exclusion of other emotional or intellectual reactions, the term "carnography" describes the deliberate creation of an adrenaline rush in the face of carnage.

I recently had the pleasure, perhaps dubious, of seeing the film Machete. Grindhouse indeed, Mr. Rodriguez. Like The Expendables, one needs to break the rules in the cinema by using the calculator function of a cell phone in order to accurately tally the body count. Is this something we should be bragging about? Unlike Hitchcock where one murder per film would be suspenseful enough, the carnographic œuvre is like suicide hot wings; there is no subtlety of flavours, just mind-numbing, brow sweating cinematic tobasco sauce.  And believe me, the use of the word œuvre seems totally out of context, like using the expression bœuf haché can somehow elevate the status of a hamburger.

However, like suicide wings, after the first one my mouth is so on fire, I am unable to distinguish the taste of anything else. It doesn't matter that I have French fries or a Caesar salad or carrot sticks to put in my favour blue cheese veggie dip; I literally can't taste a damn thing. Bring me the fire extinguisher.

Okay, just what happened to that? Agatha Christie spun a web of intrigue that at its worst, usually only meant one death per story: character development, plot twists, build-up of suspense, the climax of the whole shebang then a gracious dénouement explaining the various unknown details to the scheme. In the film Red, another Bruce Willis drama slash comedy vehicle, Helen Mirren, Queen Elizabeth herself, takes the helm of some mammoth automatic weapon to set about "mowing", yes mowing down like a lawn mower the bad guys by the dozen. Okay, that part was supposed to be funny but how everybody didn't get killed defies imagination.

Gratuitous Violence
The word gratuitous, according to Princeton University's WordNet means without cause, needless or uncalled for as in gratuitous insult. So we can define gratuitous violence as that which isn't necessary to the story. Hmmm, is this how a little T & A always seems to spice up a car commercial?

Considering the viewing public's penchant for this "gratuitous violence", one has to assume there is a need or a desire for it so why not just give the public what they want? Or is that what they want?

Machete had a budget of $20 million and so far (Oct 24/2010) has grossed $32 million worldwide. By my rough calculation, that's 152% or 52% profit. On the other hand, the film Easy A with a budget of $8 million has so far (Oct 24/2010) pulled in $60 million. That's 750% or 650% profit. Whew. I see a few more tickets sold for movie #2 and a higher profit margin.

Of course, The Expendables had a budget of $80 million and has clocked in so far with a gross of $252 million worldwide. That's a respectable 215% profit but look at the list of stars! Who could not go see it! Who cares about the violence?

We could continue to debate the question of whether we, the public, like our violence or whether violence is merely a niche market. However, I think we have to admit that this is a market and violence is part of our entertainment experience.

What is all this violence doing to us?
We as adults would probably put forward the idea that each one of us is free to choose what we want to watch. I suppose that goes without saying in a country which values and promotes freedom. However experts, pundits and professionals have turned their attention to a segment of the population where the "choice" of what to watch may not be so clear cut: children.

In the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Brandon Centerwall writes of television and violence.

The impact of television on children is best understood within the context of normal child development...
... infants have an instinctive desire to imitate observed human behavior, they do not possess an instinct for gauging a priori whether a behavior ought to be imitated. They will imitate anything, including behaviors that most adults would regard as destructive and antisocial...
As of 1990, the average American child aged 2 to 5 years was watching over 27 hours of television per week. This might not be bad, if young children understood what they are watching. However, up through ages 3 and 4 years, many children are unable to distinguish fact from fantasy in television programs and remain unable to do so despite adult coaching. In the minds of such young children, television is a source of entirely factual information regarding how the world works

Dr. Centerwall goes on to explain a "live experiment".

In 1973, a small Canadian town (called "Notel" by the investigators) acquired television for the first time. The acquisition of television at such a late date was due to problems with signal reception rather than any hostility toward television. Joy et al investigated the impact of television on this virgin community, using as control groups two similar communities that already had television. In a double blind research design, a cohort of 45 first and second grade students were observed prospectively over a period of 2 years for rates of objectively measured noxious physical aggression (eg, hitting, shoving, and biting). Rates of physical aggression did not change significantly among children in the two control communities. Two years after the introduction of television, rates of physical aggression among children in Notel had increased by 160%.

Various experiments are cited which provide a correlation between the watching of violence and learned behaviours in children. However the author points out that behaviours learned at an early age can be an indicator of behaviour patterns which will persist into adulthood.

It's obvious
We as adults sit and watch our television ofttimes with our children and think nothing particular about what makes up a show. Is there violence? Is there no violence? What is the degree? Does it really seem to matter? Hey! What's the big deal?

Our capacity for imitation must come in to play somewhere. Dr. Centerwall compares data from the United States, Canada and South Africa. What's interesting is that television in South Africa was banned prior to 1975. Consequently comparative data shows the rates of violence with and without television. The doctor subsequently compared data from South Africa after 1976 when TV was available. His conclusion is that

if, hypothetically, television technology had never been developed, there would today be 10,000 fewer homicides each year in the United States, 70,000 fewer rapes, and 700,000 fewer injurious assaults.

That is an amazing statement to make. Are we collectively overlooking the obvious?

This 2005 non-fiction book by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner analyzes several commonly held "truths". I refer here to a chapter devoted to abortion.

During the 90's crime rates dropped and everybody was attributing this to better crime prevention. Levitt proved a correlation between the drop in crime and the legalization of abortion in the U.S. in the 1970s. Apparently, many abortions were occurring in lower income, possibly single parent families; families who were more susceptible to producing children who eventually ended up involved in crime.

Cars vs. Parachutes
In going out to do a tandem parachute jump (Parachuting: If God had meant me to...), I did a little research into the safety of the sport.

In the United States, there are over 3 million jumps each year and about 30 people die as a result. This works out to approximately 1 death for every 100,000 jumps. So, your chances of dying by doing a skydive are 1 in 100,000.

In comparison, 40,000 people die each year in car accidents. That works out to 1.7 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles. If we take the average person driving 10,000 miles a year, you have a 1 in 6,000 chance of dying in a car accident.

You are almost 17 times more likely to die getting in your car than by jumping out of an airplane; 1 in 100,000 versus 1 in 6,000. However the web site howstuffworks explains why we're afraid:
  • Skydiving accidents are so infrequent, they usually hit the headlines. In contrast, car accidents are so frequent, they are either not reported or we just tend to ignore them.
  • Familiarity: we are familiar with cars; we drive them; nothing bad happens; we think it's safe. It's only when we check out the stats we may clue in to just how dangerous cars really are.
Does watching violence affect us?
Norman Herr, Professor of Science Education at the California State University states using data from A. C. Neilson:

The average child will watch 8,000 murders on TV before finishing elementary school. By age eighteen, the average American has seen 200,000 acts of violence on TV, including 40,000 murders. At a meeting in Nashville, TN last July, Dr. John Nelson of the American Medical Association (an endorser of National TV-Turnoff Week) said that if 2,888 out of 3,000 studies show that TV violence is a casual factor in real-life mayhem, "it's a public health problem." The American Psychiatric Association addressed this problem in its endorsement of National TV-Turnoff Week, stating, "We have had a long-standing concern with the impact of television on behavior, especially among children."

Aside: How does TV affect all of us?
I repeat some statistics Norman Herr mentions:

According to the A.C. Nielsen Co., the average American watches more than 4 hours of TV each day (or 28 hours/week, or 2 months of nonstop TV-watching per year). In a 65-year life, that person will have spent 9 years glued to the tube.

Good gravy, square-eyes indeed. (square-eyes = someone who watches too much TV)

Final Word
We as a society seem to have some sort of proclivity for violence. Is it innate? Is it learned? Is it also something we may be all inadvertently passing down to future generations? As with eating spicy foods, our palettes seem to be getting incapable of perceiving a subtlety of flavours and so we seem to keep needing more and more tobasco sauce. Evening television? Movies? There's the body count I'm watching and the kids may very well be watching it right along side me. The protagonists would just as soon kill each other than talk to one another.

At least there is a ray of hope: StatsCan reported in July, 2010 that crime in Canada is continuing a downward trend. Can we hope Canada is escaping a possible trend to violence despite its television?

Oh yeah, by the way, I personally found the movie The Social Network a far more entertaining film than Machete. Picture this: there wasn't a single murder!


Wikipedia: Carnography

Time Magazine - May 29, 1972
Review of First Bood by David Morrell

Journal of the American Medical Association, June 10, 1992 Vol 267. No. 22
Television and Violence: The Scale of the Problem and Where to Go From Here
Brandon S. Centerwall, MD, MPH


Why South Africa’s Television is only Twenty Years Old
TV banned in South Africa before 1976

Norman Herr, Ph.D.; Professor of Science Education, California State University

StatsCan: 2010 Crime


No comments: