When the benevolent doctor started sawing off the wounded guerrilla's leg, I turned away from the screen. As so often happens in movie theaters, I found my wife's face turned toward mine. We cringed together.
The movie was this year's "Pan's Labyrinth," a tapestry of amazing images that we talked about for days afterward. But I would have enjoyed it more without the amputation and without the fascist captain smashing the peasant's face to a bloody pulp with a bottle.
The director would argue that this brutality – the reality the protagonist flees from to an alternate, magical, subterranean world – is half the point of the film. I agree: it would be hard to imagine a more justified use of gore.
Still, my stomach rebels. As increasingly creative forms of brutality show up more explicitly on the screen, moviegoing has turned into a traumatic experience.
Admittedly, I'm more squeamish than most. It doesn't matter if the movie is based on true history or cartoonish: violent images touch a place in me that doesn't want to be touched.
Like a roller coaster cranking its way up to a peak that never appears, movies have gone to extremes I couldn't have imagined when I was a teenager – back when "Bonnie and Clyde" passed for a violent movie.
Recently, I found an entry on Wikipedia entitled, "List of Films By Gory Death Scene." The list went on for screen after screen, but I couldn't get past the first subheading, "Death by bisection or dismemberment (excluding decapitation)," because my gut began to writhe. (Others may have had the same reaction: that entry is gone now.)
It doesn't matter that it's 'make-believe'
These fictional outrages against the human body are far from any reality I recognize, far beyond any punishment I'd want to see inflicted on the worst villain on earth. I'm not saying that torture, murder, and battlefield carnage don't really happen, but when they do, it's horrifying not entertaining. That's the point, I guess: In the movies, you get to see things you don't usually see in real life, and it's OK because it's not real. But I don't want to watch a mutilation even if it's staged.
Does anyone really want to see a gorgeous woman holding up the bloody stump where her hand used to be? ("Sin City," 2005.) My wife left the room long before that scene; I stayed through the end of the DVD, because I found the movie visually stunning. But I still have unwanted flashbacks of its horrific images. I wish I'd never seen the movie. I'd rather not be stuck with so much ugliness returning to haunt me in the middle of the night.
Eli Roth, director of "Hostel," said in an MTV interview, "It's all pretend. It's all fake. It's just acting" – and went on to wish for movie violence without limits. When I go to a movie, though, I sink into the story and the lives of the characters. (Remember suspension of disbelief?)
Mr. Roth's self-defense reminds me of my father's oft-repeated reassurance during horror movies long ago, "It's only make-believe." Those words never helped at all, because images on a screen – real or not – have an almost magical power.
You could argue that gore serves different purposes in different kinds of movies. But, whether the dangling guts are there to make a thematic point or because the target audience demands mangled flesh in its entertainment, the filmmakers are crossing the line for the same reason: to get a visceral reaction. The line drifts further away every time one of them crosses it, though, and the next auteur has to invent a more grotesque atrocity to get the same reaction.
This is not to say that I wish Hollywood would return to the days of "The Sound of Music." Still, I respect and appreciate directors who, when they deal with violence, make their point artfully, without positioning the camera for maximum horror. (Consider, for example, the violent but masterly D-Day sequence in 1998's "Saving Private Ryan.")
Film violence as catharsis?
It would be possible, I suppose, to defend all this dismemberment by calling it a rejection of society's false, smothering politeness. You could argue that these filmmakers want to force their audiences to confront the violence that really exists in the world and inside our heads.
The more our culture requires us to be good all the time, to behave ourselves and respect the rights of others – even if we can't stand them – the more we seek outlets for the aggression that has been forced underground.
Film violence as catharsis: It's a plausible argument, but I'm not buying it. I don't think people have an innate need to see this stuff. They're just going to see whatever's playing.
In the quest to create indelible images, filmmakers have gotten in the habit of taking a sleazy shortcut. Grisly mutilation has become a nasty game of one-upmanship.
By shoving brutality in our faces, filmmakers push our culture in an ugly direction. I don't want to see a young man tortured with a drill, or an eyeball getting cut out ("Hostel," 2006) – and, to be blunt and un-American, I wish other people didn't want to see those things, either.
Apparently, though, they do: "Hostel" grossed more than $140 million in its first month. I guess fans wanted an extreme experience, something that would knock them out of their seats with fear and shock and never be boring – unlike school/work/life at home. What bothers me more than my own nausea is that violent entertainment has become so much a part of the mainstream that my children are growing up accepting it as a norm.
I wish I could persuade all the filmmakers in the world to leave the splatter behind and go a different way – but that's not going to happen until they start losing money at the box office.
Amazingly, that actually seems to be happening. The New York Times reported in June that horror movies like "Hostel II" are selling far fewer tickets than in the past. The likeliest explanation: not public revulsion, but boredom.
Apparently, even horrendous atrocity gets tiresome after endless repetition.