There is no question that violent entertainments shape popular attitudes toward violence. But do they really make the culture as a whole more violent? Can they work to make it less violent? This article considers shortcomings of conventional scholarly approaches to these questions. It outlines an alternative “ecological“ approach and tests it by examining two movies that treat violence in strikingly different fashions: The Dark Knight (2008) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). It tests empirically whether and how Saving Private Ryan actually changes college students' attitudes toward violence, and summarizes the best current psychological models of the causal connection between violent thoughts and violent behavior. The article concludes that while violent movies do indeed prompt violent ideas and impulses, these are not necessarily antisocial and can, in fact, be prosocial. The critical factor is not what they show or how they show it; it is how they are used.
Do films that challenge us to turn away from the screen as a result of their depictions of violence raise issues about the ethics not of regarding the pain of others, but of watching films as a whole? Drawing on Stanley Cavell's notion of revulsion, recent investigations into “extreme“ cinema and, Antonin Artaud's concept of a “theater of cruelty,“ this article argues that watching violence on screen is not necessarily a negative and voyeuristic exercise, but that it can be good for viewers to see graphic violence on screen. This is not simply a question of viewing onscreen violence per se. What also is important is that the filmmakers adopt a set of stylistic techniques that are defined here as “cruel.“ Films (typically art house films) that adopt these techniques encourage viewers not to view violence for entertainment, but rather they encourage viewers to understand the potential in all humans to commit such acts. Such an understanding in turn forces us to lead our lives in an ethical fashion, whereby we do not unthinkingly follow a moral code, but rather choose and take responsibility for what we do. Furthermore, it encourages an “ethical“ mode of film spectatorship in general: we watch films to learn not just voyeuristically about others, but also about what we ourselves could become.