I have watched several films with a 12A categorisation whose excessive violence have made me want to avert my eyes, yet in the process of averting my eyes I have seen children as young as five glued to the screen. Casino Royale was available for children accompanied by adults to watch, but anyone who has seen James Bond being tortured in that film will know in their hearts that it was irresponsible to permit young children to see it at all. Does the 12A categorisation mean it is simply the parent’s responsibility to decide what to expose their child to, or is there a broader and shared duty not even to give them the option?
This question has become more acute with the film industry’s current pre-occupation with unremitting realism. Nothing is left to the imagination in sequences of violence conveyed as cool and sexy. Perhaps Quentin Tarantino shares some of the responsibility for this trend, but it is now widely practiced. Ironically it is precisely this trend that enabled Mel Gibson to turn the sparse prose of the Gospel writers: ‘they crucified Jesus’ into a graphic and unrelenting gore fest, a film nevertheless praised by Christians for its fidelity to the suffering of Jesus.
Some time ago, the argument over what it is acceptable to show on screen was lost to a culture grown narcissistic and libertarian. To object to violence, sex or language was to be branded an heir of Mary Whitehouse – the worst possible slur in a liberal society. And so many people, Christians included, gave up. I was not aware of any campaign to resist the new profit-driven 12A categorisation. There may have been one, but as I am a fairly socially aware Christian you can be sure there were plenty more like me who only realised what had happened when they turned up one day at the cinema.
The outcome of this has yet to be seen, and may be sufficiently intangible for others to deny. However, there is some evidence from the United States that the recent penchant for showing scenes of torture on screen has normalised it in the collective imagination and lowered civil resistance to the newly revealed coercive interrogation techniques employed in their name. It may be unpleasant, but if it is seen to save lives like it always does on screen then hey, why not?
In rounding off his letter to the Philippians, an imprisoned, abused and vulnerable Paul remarks: whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Phil. 4: 8). For a man who was enduring such misery to make a plea for others not to dwell on violence themselves is surely also a call across the ages for us to be less voyeuristic, in the name of those abused today.