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Movie Violence: How Far Is Hollywood Willing to Go?

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While watching the uber-violent film, Killing Them Softly, starring Brad Pitt as a droll, existentially-challenged assassin (picture Soren Kierkegaard as a professional hitman), I was struck by the extent to which Hollywood movies, over the last quarter-century or so, have embraced gritty realism.

Although I can't recall the name of the movie, I can clearly remember the first time (25 years ago?) I saw a person fly backwards after being shot at point-blank range. It was an electrifying, absolutely stunning moment. Even having never before seen such a thing depicted on the screen, I instantly knew I was watching "real life."

A man is sitting in a bar. The killer enters, mutters something cold and heartless, and shoots him. The victim is propelled backwards, sent sprawling head over heels, the chair overturning. Prior to this depiction, when people got shot in the chest, they would look pained, slump forward, and fall to the ground. Not only was it unrealistic, it was boring. Being blown backward by the impact was a landmark moment in movie realism.

Another landmark moment was showing cops using what was then called the "cup-and-saucer" grip on a handgun. This was an arrangement where one hand is used to steady the weapon, while the other hand pulls the trigger. I believe I first saw this device on a television cop show. It was the coolest thing I'd ever seen.

In the old days, movie cops fired their pistols one-handed, more or less flinging them forward, the same way cowboys did in the early Westerns. But this two-handed grip was not only a more accurate representation (it's how real-life cops hold their weapons), for whatever reason, it seemed far more sinister and deadly.

But the major landmark -- the event that sent special effects spiraling exponentially forward -- was Hollywood's depiction of brain matter being extruded from the back of the skull. A man gets shot in the face, and we see all this blood and gooey stuff leave the back of his head, and splatter on the wall behind him. That, my friends, is show business.

A bit of trivia: The first film to win Best Picture by including a scene where blood leaves the back of the skull and splatters on the wall was The Godfather, Part II (1974). It's the scene where De Niro, playing young Don Corleone, wedges a gun in the mouth of the Mafioso. The man's head jolts spasmodically, and blood flies out the back of it. This may be ho-hum today, but believe me, in 1974, it was spectacular.

But all of this raises a question: Given that the depiction of movie violence is inexorably evolving -- constantly seeking to shock audiences in new and more graphic ways -- what are we going to be watching 10 years from now? Clearly, seeing some guy's head evaporate in a blood mist won't be enough. They're always pushing the envelope. We're going to need more.

It gives me no pleasure to say this, but here are three things we may be seeing in the next decade: women, children, and loveable house pets being graphically murdered. As hideous and depressing as this prospect is, where else can Hollywood go? There's only a finite number of choices.

We'll see slow-motion shots of Mildred, the town librarian, losing the back of her skull in a glorious pink mist. We'll see Little Leaguers having their tiny heads caved-in like those zombies on The Walking Dead. And we'll see Rex, the family dog, having his head sawed off by a mental patient. Hollywood can only go forward.

David Macaray, an L.A. playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor" 2nd edition), was a former union president.