NEW YORK — Cause or effect?" asked a headline in Variety, the entertainment trade paper, over a recent article on whether movie violence produces social ills or simply reflects them.
"Clear answers were scarce," the report continued, noting that a Hollywood panel on the problem found it too complex for easy solutions.
Whichever answer comes closest to the truth, Hollywood shows few signs of moderating its violent habits. Current movies like Martin Scorsese's disturbing "Bringing Out the Dead" and David Fincher's sadistic "Fight Club" serve up megadoses of bone-crunching images enhanced by high-energy cinematography and eardrum-quivering sound.
These put both pictures beyond the limits of acceptability for moviegoers craving a warmer, more uplifting vision of life. In addition, both pictures show early signs of polarizing the audiences they're primarily aimed at.
Each has enough star power and promotional clout to guarantee a strong start at the box office. But some feel "Bringing Out the Dead" dilutes Scorsese's stylistic brilliance with too much of the ambiguous philosophizing of screenwriter Paul Schrader ("Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," "Affliction"). And rumblings are being heard from Fincher fans who think "Fight Club" substitutes action-fantasy clichs for the sardonic originality of his earlier "Seven" and "The Game."
Whatever their financial destinies ("Fight Club" was No. 1 at the box office last weekend), what's most interesting about these pictures is not the violence they flaunt but the twists they bring to the "cause or effect" question. In different ways, Scorsese and Fincher both suggest that misery and malaise are running rampant in American society, creating a dehumanized environment in which suffering and brutality are taken as natural parts of life.
Viewed from this angle, "Bringing Out the Dead" and "Fight Club" are noisy wake-up calls that may jolt complacent attitudes even as they capitalize on the less-appealing aspects of current taste.
Taking a cue from TV's popular police and hospital dramas, Bringing Out the Dead focuses on an ambulance driver (Nicolas Cage) whose working hours are filled with one awful emergency after another. On one level, the movie - set in central Manhattan, not a slum or ghetto - is a catalog of how many horrors can erupt (drugs, crime, exploitation) in a modern city. Deeper down, it's a heartfelt cry of rage against these evils, as experienced by a protagonist who's literally haunted by the people he's tried and failed to save during his harrowing career.
While the story is underscored by Scorsese's trademark bursts of visual expressionism, its driving force is the murky but sincere humanism of Schrader's screenplay, which sees every new affliction as an opportunity for self-sacrifice and perhaps redemption.
Being an all-too-ordinary human who never asked to be a hero, Cage's character bungles these opportunities with amazing regularity. But their presence is a sign that "Bringing Out the Dead" has more on its mind than the depictions of decay and despair that provide much of its content.
Fight Club begins with the fashionable pop-culture message that middle-class life is too boring and brainless for a truly cool person to put up with. Freed from this tedium when an explosion destroys his earthly goods, a young man (Edward Norton) teams up with an alienated friend named Tyler (Brad Pitt) to start a new kind of secret society, dedicated to the proposition that feeling a punch in the nose is better than feeling nothing at all.
Their masochistic clique spreads far and wide, and soon Tyler starts planning the next logical step: escalating from personal pain to terrorist violence that will inflict maximum punishment on the society he despises so much.
Sliding from ersatz sociology to sadistic comedy to apocalyptic hallucination, "Fight Club" undermines any seriousness it might have harbored with an avalanche of smirky cynicism designed to flatter the hipper-than-thou fantasies of adolescent moviegoers.
This said, it must be added that the picture offers an implicit critique of its own unpleasant agenda, since the spectacle it provides - full of rage, hate, and aggression - is an obvious equivalent of the fight club itself, which merely adds the extra ingredient of bodily sensation.
Fincher's movie joins "Bringing Out the Dead" in suggesting that social dysfunction breeds a tragic heritage of human pain and suffering. The irony of "Fight Club" is that it embodies the very symptoms it calls attention to.
*'Fight Club' and 'Bringing Out the Dead' have R ratings and contain hard-hitting violence, sex, and foul language.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society