There was an interview with a bunch of public intellectuals some time ago, where they were asked to reveal a guilty pleasure of theirs. Most of them were harmless — Richard Dawkins even calls programming a guilty pleasure; what kind of guilt that would entail, I have no idea. I have a few guilty pleasures myself, and the more serious of them shall never be heard by anyone, because they are either illegal or would lead to social isolation. The most socially acceptable guilty pleasure I have is watching action films. I try not to watch every piece of crap. Excluding porn, action is the genre in which the highest number of films are produced, and naturally most of them are really shitty. But there are also great action films, and the same slogan as with good science fiction being good literature is valid for action films: A good action film is a good film. An easy rule of thumb for picking action films to watch is whether the hero is morally ambivalent. If the good and the bad guys are not strictly split into the ethical black and white camps, but the good guy is still compelling as a character, and offers an entry point for the viewer, you can be sure that the creators of the film did not take the easy road.
You can’t really know whether the protagonist of a film is not an angel on earth without watching the film. Another good rule of thumb that you can use is whether many people die in the film — the body count, which is easily findable on the Internet for nearly every film. If the body count is too high, it’s a rather good sign that the filmmakers took the ‘action’ part to mean simply ‘violence’, and directly translated it to deaths. A film that recently entered my list of favorite action films pretty close to the top is Hanna, featuring a vicious twelve-year-old girl as the protagonist. Hanna had only 22 deaths, which sounds like a high number, but you need some deaths for a decent action film. As per the definition of a rule of thumb, this rule is not particularly strict. Among my action top ten are films that have a much higher count, like the second Robocop with 79 corpses in total, or Aliens (the second film in the franchise, directed by David Cameron) with a whopping 362 dead bodies. A high body count, therefore, does not necessarily mean a bad action film, or a bad film. What is important is that each death counts, that people are not mowed down like chicken, and the gravity of every death contributes to the story.
But still, too many deaths is a bad sign. Two of the worts hours of my life I spent watching Transformers, a film that dumbfounded me with not just the amount but rather the monotony of destruction on screen. Now, bad films have been bad since ages, and it is very poor use of your time —even poorer than watching them, maybe— to talk about how bad this and that film is, all the while verifying your own sense of being a cinema connoisseur. But there is something else about the Transformers films that is common among a class of action films, also spreading to the parallel world of computer games. This ‘something’ makes these films, at the same time, so essential to the modern entertainment industry, and so popular and vile. The violence in these films is not only excessive and mind-numbing, it is also self-congratulatory and completely justified in the context of the film, no matter how exaggerated. Once Transformers opened my eyes to this class of action films, I have been remembering and recognizing examples very often, and started grouping them under the sub-genre ‘Murder Porn’.
The first symptom of Murder Porn is what I mentioned earlier: Gratuitous and ugly destruction of human lives, without any hint of the gravity of what is happening on screen. In action films, the timing and psychological load of these deaths is very important. A good director can make them very sudden and excessive (a la Nicolas Winding Refn of Pusher and Drive fame), or show them coming from ten miles, and then depict the agonizing bodies in slow motion (as Sam Peckinpah did in many of his films, such as The Getaway). In both cases, the violence leaves a mark on you, and does not present itself as something that is fun. Good action films do not shy away from death, but have a certain respect for human life, and carry the cinematic weight of a death on screen when it happens. But in Murder Porn films, you will see unnamed people getting mowed by the hundreds, without a second’s time for what happened to sink in. Somebody just burns to death in a car, and the film moves on with full speed to the next scene, as if nothing happened on screen. The only lives that count are those of the main characters, and we get a long scene with emotional background music when one of them so much as cuts his finger.
The second and more insidious thing about Murder Porn films is the way a primitive logic of eye-for-an-eye violence is built into the fabric of the film. In Murder Porn, there is a direct connection between something that the bad guys do, and the eventual vengeance practiced upon them by the good guys. Now, there are many films about vengeance, and the best among them know in their deepest element that vengeance is never conciliatory or cathartic. One crime does not cancel out another one; it just makes two criminals out of one. Get Carter, a classic gangster film (whose ending I will spoil in this paragraph, so skip to the next one if you haven’t watched it yet and care about endings), tells the story of a man who sets on to revenge his brother’s death, and turns into a maniac in the process, killing people left and right, getting into awkward sexual relations with women just because he has to. He becomes such a repulsive bastard that his death at the end of the film feels like a deliverance for the audience. Another well-known film that drives home the darkness at the heart of revenge is Unforgiven, in which, except for the evil cowboys, everyone is taking revenge for something, and can get himself to justify the violence.
In Murder Porn, however, the initial violent act which has to be revenged later on serves as the entrée to the lavish dinner that follows it. We get to watch the main character or characters go from dish to dish, doling out ever more vicious justice to the miscreants, as if he is enjoying different savors with each bloody murder. And all of these acts are justified thanks to what these evil dudes did at the beginning; this point gets reminded to us lest we forget it and think our man might be the evil one after all. Films such as these are too many to count, but I would like mention just a few which are classics or too blatantly smug in their violent glory. The two classics of this genre are series of films both made in the 1970s: Death Wish and Dirty Harry. The former tells the story of a man who goes on a killing rampage, shooting criminals who happen to fall from the trees right to his feet in bunches, after his wife is killed and daughter raped. The people he kills have nothing to do with the crime committed earlier, but, you know, they are also evil, and did we mention that this guy’s wife was killed and daughter raped? Four more Death Wish films were made, each with the same story: some female character close to the hero gets hurt, and Charles Bronson is let off the leash to bite and maim whoever he can get his paws on. Dirty Harry is a more refined film, with a beautiful score by Lalo Schifrin and great acting by Clint Eastwood, but the storyline is horrendous (the first draft of the script was written by John Milius of Red Dawn fame, which might partially serve as an explanation). The lead character, Harry Callahan, is a big-city cop, chasing a serial killer who kills two women at the beginning of the film. Callahan nearly gets him, but because he searched the killer’s flat without a warrant, the attorney decides not to charge the killer. Who would believe that something like this could happen in real life? Many people, appearently, because the film was wildly successful. Anyway, Callahan goes ahead and executes this guy while saying something cool, after he does more criminal stuff.
As the film gets cheaper, the connection between the violence and the revenge aspect of it gets more direct, and the action gets more over-the-top and sadistic. A great example for this is an early Arnie-action titled Commando. In Commando, the bad guys kidnap Arnie’s daughter, and ask him to do something or other for them. He goes on to kill 81 people in various creative ways, all the while cracking jokes so that the audience does not get bored of the violence. The golden standard for the you-killed-my-family-first is set not by a film, but by a comic, the notorious Punisher, in which an average man who also happens to be a special forces veteran becomes an ultra-violent vigilante when his wife and two children are killed. Every super-hero has his origin myth, and this guy’s is his family getting killed. This, however, does not give him any super powers, like the ones the radioactive spider gives to Spiderman. His superpower is that he’s allowed to kill and murder as he wishes; when Spiderman does something super-human, the explanation is that he got bitten by the radioactive spider. When the Punisher does something super-violent, on the other hand, the explanation is that his family got killed.
The examples I’ve been giving all come from the US American entertainment industry, which admittedly is the biggest and most widely consumed. The domination of Murder Porn by the US Americans just does not solely have to do with the volume of output, in my opinion. This justifying manner of engaging violence is acceptable only in a society that considers violence a good thing, not something you might have to do out of necessity, but something that, when done by the good people, is actually good and justified. The righteous have their right to violence, so to say; the proper response to any deviantly aggressive behavior is stronger aggression. I know one other culture which has similar standards when it comes to violence rather well, having grown up in it, and attended its schools. The experience that made clear to me how ingrained violence and its justification is in turkish culture took place in high school. Our history teacher explained to us in elaborate terms that the kurdish guerillas actually deserve torture when they are caught, because they torture and murder people themselves. And would you believe it, one of the most successful films the turkish cinema industry has produced is a rather crude and racist piece of Murder Porn itself, with a muslim-childrens’-organs-harvesting Jew and a turkish-wedding-ambushing American. This wedding-ambush also serves as one of the acts to be revenged later on.
The European attitude towards entertainment violence, in comparison, is much more nuanced. This is of course a result of the excesses of the earlier centuries, but still, it’s good to know that a society can actually see violence as never properly justified, and a sad thing not worth celebrating whether you are on the giving or taking end. This perspective is present in the most popular action films too. I know of no german Murder Porns, and in pretty much the only German film I have watched that can be classified as an action film, Das Boot, the ‘good guys’ travel in a Nazi submarine. After much hardships in various seas, this submarine is destroyed, and most of the crew dies. The French have made some very successful action films, and all these films end with a full stop to the violence, be it Leon: The Professional, or one of my favorite martial arts films, the spectacular Unleashed. I’m sure there are european Murder Porns, but they are not as elaborate or popular, since the soil is just not suitable for them to grow.