If you were going to the movies in the 1980s, you were probably watching films that were rocked with wall-to-wall violence. From the various slashers who cut their victims to pieces to the tough guys who blew up everything and everyone in sight to a variety of malcontents who took their animosity out on the world – it was a raucous decade on screen.
James Kendrick, the long-time film critic at Qnetwork.com, reviews this blood-soaked period in his new book Hollywood Bloodshed: Violence in 1980s American Cinema. Published by Southern Illinois University Press, the book offers a comprehensive and entertaining overview of how 1980s cinema appealed to changing tastes in movie audiences and changing attitudes in the wider American society.
Film Threat caught up with Kendrick at his office at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where he is an assistant professor of communications studies.
What was the inspiration for the book, and how long did it take you to write it?
It seems like I have always been fascinated and enthralled by violent movies, which I think is true of many people, but few want to admit because it somehow sounds wrong. Violence is wrong. We’re not supposed to like it. Yet, virtually everyone on some level is intrigued and excited by make-believe violence, although lots of people won’t admit that what they like is “violent.”
For example, there are plenty of people who refuse to watch horror movies because they’re “too gory,” yet they happily sink into an armchair and watch the graphic autopsies on “CSI.”
My own fascination with movie violence stems back as far as I can remember — at least as far as Road Runner cartoons on Saturday morning — and as I grew older and more self-reflective I started to become fascinated by my own fascination. Why, for example, could I be exhilarated by the violence in “Die Hard,” laugh at the violence in “Pulp Fiction,” and be disturbed to my core by the violence in “Saving Private Ryan”?
One of the real turning points came when I was in college and the editor of the student newspaper wrote this op-ed piece criticizing David Fincher’s “Seven” for being too violent. He then went on to ask why movies had to be so explicitly gory and why couldn’t they be more restrained like Hitchcock’s “Psycho”? It was a ludicrous argument, of course, which I pointed out in a letter to the editor by drawing attention to the fact that there is virtually no direct violence in “Seven.” Sure, we see the constant aftermath of violence and the film’s atmosphere is suffused with dread and the threat of violence, but there is only one person killed on-screen in the entire film, and it’s depicted in an extreme long shot. “Psycho,” on the other hand, is an explicitly violent film that shows the hacking to death of several characters. But, it’s a bona fide classic movie and it’s in black and white and it was directed by a cherished master filmmaker, so it must not really be violent. At that point, I began to realize that so much of what we talk about when we talk about film violence has nothing to do with the movies and everything to do with our own political and ideological convictions.
About the same time that I was entering the doctoral program in film studies at Indiana University, there was a significant outpouring of critical writing on film violence by scholars like Stephen Prince and J. David Slocum and Steven Jay Schneider, all of whom were interested in what film violence means. They were looking at violence and asking questions from thematic and ideological and narrative and social perspectives that had been largely ignored in the academic community because the study of media violence had essentially been defaulted to social science, rather than the humanities. I read all of their works and felt like, as good and enlightening as it was, there seemed to be a huge gap in the middle: the 1980s.
Virtually all of the scholarship on film violence talked about either the violent films of the 1960s and 1970s — Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch,” Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather,” Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” etc. — or the violent films of the 1990s — Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” and John Woo’s “Face/Off” and Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” with the recurring argument being that the film violence of the ’60s and ’70s was radical and socially meaningful and the film violence of the ’90s was postmodern and ironic and empty. And I kept finding myself asking, “Okay, how did that happen? What happened in between? How did we get from there to here?” And in the middle was the 1980s, which no one was writing about. So, I saw a gap in the literature and sought to fill it, and the result is “Hollywood Bloodshed.”
As far as how long it took me to write it, much of the initial research and writing was done while I was a doctoral student at Indiana and wound up in my dissertation, which I started working on around 2003. After I graduated and started teaching at Baylor University, I dedicated most of my research and writing to further developing my arguments and adding to them, in some cases
quite substantially. So, all told, it was about a five-year process.
The 1980s saw the creation of the PG-13 rating as a bridge between the family-friendly PG and the rough R ratings. How did that rating come about? And, in retrospect, did the PG-13 rating accomplish its intended purpose?
The MPAA ratings system is a fascinating element of the modern movie marketplace that has received surprisingly little scholarly attention. I think it’s been with us for so long now and is such an accepted part of the system that we simply take it for granted. Yet, we need to stop and ask ourselves what do those little letters mean? Kirby Dick’s documentary “This Film is Not Yet Rated,” while a bit too slanted in my opinion, brought up some important issues and made a lot of people aware of how the ratings system does have an ideological agenda (whether acknowledged or not) and has a significant impact on what you see in the movie theaters.
I was naturally drawn to question the PG-13 rating for two reasons: First because it was created during the 1980s, and second because it was created in direct response to public outcry about the levels of violence in two PG-rated films that were ostensibly aimed at kids: “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and “Gremlins,” which were released within a few weeks of each other in the summer of 1984, and by August the PG-13 rating was officially part of the MPAA ratings system. Prior to this, virtually all controversies about a certain movie getting a certain rating had been about sex and nudity, not violence. Thus, the creation of the PG-13 rating was spurned by the question of how much violence is too much for a movie that any kid can see on his or her own?
And what makes this development even more important is the fact that, since the creation of the ratings system in 1968, PG-13 is the only new rating that has ever been added to the system. Previously existing rating categories have changed names (for example, M changed to GP and then to PG in the early ’70s and the X was replaced by the NC-17) and the restrictions on them have changed slightly (R-rated films originally required a parent for those under 16, not 17), but there has never been an entirely new category created except for the PG-13.
The creation of this rating was not sudden, though. In fact, the idea for a rating between PG and R had been kicking around Hollywood for nearly a decade. Richard D. Heffner, who was chair of the ratings administration from 1974 to 1994, was constantly badgering MPAA president Jack Valenti, who had helped created the ratings system in 1968, to introduce an intermediate rating,
but Valenti resisted mainly because creating a new rating would suggest that there was a flaw in the system and he was not about to do that. Heffner argued that there was too big a gap between PG and R and the studios were constantly trying to get more and more “adult material” into the “nonrestrictive” lower rating because it meant greater profit potential for them, and Heffner correctly foresaw that someday this would come back to bite them. There had been other
flaps about the ratings system before, especially the controversy over the R rating given to William Friedkin’s “Cruising” in 1980, which many theater owners felt should be rated X, but there had never been such an outcry about material in a PG movie before. When Mola Ram ripped that heart out in the “Temple of Doom” and the mother shoved those gremlins in the blender and the microwave, a lot of American parents said enough is enough. So, recognizing that something had to be done, Valenti formally announced that he would be meeting with heads of the studios, theater chains, and distributors to create a new rating, which they did.
Ultimately, the PG-13 rating did not serve the purpose that it was ostensibly serving, which is to help parents steer their kids clear of adult material. As I argue in the book, the PG-13 rating has become a cash cow for Hollywood by signaling to teenage viewers that the movie has plenty of illicit content, but not so much that they have to get their parents’ permission to go see it. There was a lot of argument about whether the PG-13 rating should be “restrictive,” meaning that anyone under 13 had to be accompanied by a parent or adult guardian like the R rating. When the rating was first announced, it was made to seem like it was restrictive, when it fact it wasn’t, which Valenti played up to make the industry appear more responsible. Instead, what has happened is that material that, prior to the PG-13 rating, would have gotten an R rating is now accessible to anyone. As a result, the PG-13 rating is extremely desirable, and it’s not surprising that six of the top 10 highest grossing movies of 2008 were rated PG-13.
The slasher films were the rage in the 1980s. What was it about that decade that encouraged this genre to be so popular?
The slasher film and the 1980s have indeed become synonymous, which is perhaps why so many critical scholars tend to avoid taking about this decade. Yet, however you feel about slasher films, they represent an important trend in filmmaking that is still with us today. As to why this genre became so popular during the 1980s, I think part of it was simply economics. In 1978 John Carpenter made “Halloween” for about $325,000, and it made nearly $50 million at the box office, making it the most financially successful independent film of all time. That gets attention, and thus you had everyone trying to ape Carpenter’s success with generally diminishing levels of quality.
Audiences, particularly teenagers who were drawn to anything disreputable or otherwise despised by their parents, couldn’t get enough of it. Part of the enjoyment of slasher films is that they are formulaic and rely on conventions that the audience quickly learns. Thus, there is a payoff for the self-aware viewers, which turns the act of watching the film into a kind of fun, communal experience (hence people yelling out at the screen, running up and down the aisles, cheering and laughing when scared, etc.). Of course, there was also a major financial incentive for filmmakers to keep churning these movies out: slasher films could be made for little money and didn’t need high-priced movie stars to make substantial profits. At the same time, the Hollywood studios were generally steering clear of such movies because they were trying to put forth a better, more responsible public image in response to the conservative ethos of the Reagan era, which meant this genre was open for aspiring independent production companies.
“Rambo: First Blood, Part II” turned military violence into a living cartoon, while simultaneously rewriting the ending of the Vietnam War. In your opinion, what resonating impact did that film have on both filmmaking and on the American cultural absorption of violence?
“Rambo” was a real turning point for American movies that, more than anything, signaled the end of the lowly, defeatist attitude of the ’70s that had made possible so many antiheroic films. When you look at action and war movies from the previous decade, their violence is frequently tempered with a sense of loss and injustice, or least some kind of recognition that there is ugliness in bloodshed. Even if we’re rooting for Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle in “The French Connection,” we are also at all times aware that he is an exceedingly complex character with a lot of problematic traits: his racism, his cruelty, his willingness to shoot someone in the back! The lesson from such films is always that violence comes from a dark place and usually creates as many problems as it solves.
Even the vigilante films of the ’70s like “Dirty Harry” and “Death Wish,” while playing to the vicarious pleasures of seeing evil punished, are also situated in a world of such darkness and corruption that you still feel that any victories are at best temporary, at worst meaningless.
Rambo, on the other hand, turned all of that upside down in suggesting that one man — if he’s strong enough, dedicated enough, and American enough — can literally win a war for us. History can be and will be rewritten, and it’s going to be done with explosive-tipped arrows and an M-60. Stallone recognized this, and talked about Rambo in terms of allowing Americans to express repressed emotions that had been “out of fashion” since the Vietnam era. More than any film of that decade, Rambo tapped directly into the mood of the times. By 1985, American audiences wanted to feel good about themselves, and a fantasy about an unstoppable one-man war machine who could effectively right all the wrongs of the previous two decades with simple, blunt force fit the bill.
If the previous decade of films had mostly been about how violence was a problem, Rambo returned us to the idea that violence is the solution, which played in perfect synchrony with Reagan’s rhetoric about the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union and the concomitant necessity of increasing military power and the amassment of nuclear arms. This is not to say that Rambo is to blame for this, but rather that it was expressing in fictional terms many of the same sentiments that were driving political decision-making.
You have another book coming up that explores violence in films at greater depth. What is that book all about?
I do. It is it’s called Film Violence: History, Ideology, Genre and it is being published as part of the “Short Cuts” series by Wallflower Press. My hope for the book is that, in a fairly concise form, it will offer a comprehensive and systematic overview of the role violence has played in the cinema from the silent era to the present. Thus, unlike Hollywood Bloodshed, which focuses in detail on a particular era, “Film Violence” will provide a kind of broad overview for those who are interested in the roles violence has played in the history of the cinema. As far as I know, it will be the first book that provides a general foundation for understanding film violence from historical, ideological, and generic perspectives.
My argument, of course, is that understanding film violence is central to understanding the social and historical role of the cinema; thus, the book overviews how film violence has affected and been affected by government policies, box-office receipts, gender differences, changing notions of genre, well-known auteurs, changes in narrative, and broad social trends. The goal is to provide the reader with a thorough historical, cultural, and industrial context for analyzing film violence across the vast spectrum of world cinema. The book is broken down into four chapters. In the first chapter I examine the term “film violence” and argue against the idea that it is a monolithic “thing.”
Instead, I present it as an important mode of signification that needs to be thoroughly grounded in historical, cultural, and industrial contexts. The second chapter traces filmic depictions of violence from the silent era to the present day, focusing on both aesthetic innovations (special effects, slow motion, etc.) and the various social responses to it. It references a comprehensive list of both films and filmmakers from across the spectrum of film history that were instrumental in defining and redefining the visual, narrative, and thematic possibilities of film violence. In the third chapter I focus more closely on how film violence is used in genres that are immediately associated with violence (horror, action-adventure, and Westerns) and show how representations of violence function ideologically within the generic structures and how those ideologies have shifted over time. Finally, the fourth chapter offers a specific case study to illustrate how the close study of representations of violence can help us better understand other aspects of cinema history and aesthetics. Here I look at the centrality of film violence to the young directors of the New American Cinema (Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma, etc.), who reworked classical representations of violence to distinguish themselves from the previous generation of Hollywood filmmakers.
Thus, the case study offers a strong example of the book’s fundamental premise: that violence, history, ideology, and genre are all deeply intertwined.