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David Poland

By David Poland

WB, Violent Movies (& The NY Times)

A really bad piece of psuedo-journalism by Cieply yesterday, claiming to be “News Analysis,” got my hackles up this morning.

A Studio With Violence in Its Bones (sub-hed) Warner Brothers and Its Decades of Violent Films” got me thinking about Warners’ history of noir films. The picture on the piece was Clint Eastwood. Okay. Home of Dirty Harry. I have the box set. But then, reading the piece, it starts to get thick in there.

Disney is about family. Okay. True… until they fired Dick Cook. Do the distributors of The Avengers, Reel Steel, and Fright Night in the last year get to maintain that “DNA?”

Universal is about monsters. Okay. In a history book. Since 2007’s Van Helsing, which tried to revive that studio history, there has only been the failed The Wolfman and, if you want to stretch a bit, the sequel to Hellboy, which had started at Sony. But you could argue that the studio’s last year of Contraband, Safe House, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Savages, makes it the most violent studio in town.

And then, the piece gets into a factually accurate, but highly misleading argument about WB’s history with violence, “a discussion that is perhaps more familiar at Warner than at any of Hollywood’s major studios.” Perhaps you can come up with more history dealing with this issue of the public good vs artistic freedom in relations to violence at WB than elsewhere. But recent history does not offer a legitimate claim that WB’s modern branding is violence… and certainly not more than most of the other studios.

The thing that disturbs me most about this piece is that Cieply focuses on some of the best films of the last 50 years and leaves out all that messy pushback. How the NY Times can bring up Bonnie & Clyde and not mention that attacking it for violent content essentially ended Bosley Crowther’s career as a critic to be taken seriously? How stupid do you have to be to not understand that A Clockwork Orange is a movie that’s anti-violence, using the raw ugliness of disaffected youth – as well as acknowledging the uncontextualized pleasures of youth – to make its point masterfully, and why constrain the argument to the negative perception? Why no nod to the powerful and timely political subtext of Dirty Harry… or the later weight of Harry at the center of American politics when Ronald Reagan adopted, “Go ahead, make my day”?

There is virtually no modern controversy around any of these films. But no one would know that reading this piece.

The Lethal Weapon series was not seriously violent, even at the emotional center was a suicidal cop. It was big, masterful, edgy-enough-to-feel-new big audience filmmaking.

And again, the game of bringing up Last Action Hero as a move away from violence, somehow crediting another studio with greater sympathy to violence, is trash. Columbia/Tri-Star, which released LAC, was also the home of Paul Verhoeven, who was ground zero for the complaints about movie violence for the decade of the 90s. From RoboCop (at Orion) to Total Recall (both being remade outside of WB) to Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers, his was the brand that anti-violence crusaders cited for years. The Hitcher, by the way, another major lightening rod, at Tri-Star.

Commando, Predator, True Lies, all at Fox. The Running Man, another one at Tri-Star.

And at WB in the 90s? Stone’s JFK. Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Burton’s and then Schumacher’s lighter versions of Batman. Falling Down, Dave, The FugitiveMaverick and Kasden’s Wyatt Earp opened back-to-back. What was The Brand then?

And yes, there were violent movies as well. The most controversial was surely Natural Born Killers. I would argue that it’s one of the best films about the violent culture of modern America ever made. But to many, it was just a bloody rage party. It was also a film from a 2-time Oscar winner/10-time nominee at the time. Does that seem like pandering to violence because it’s “in your bones?”

But I digress…

As one swims through the last 30 years at the studios, it becomes apparent that the biggest difference between one studio’s level of violence in their annual output and the others is the talent that has landed at any given time at any given studio. As noted earlier, Columbia/Tri-Star was the home of violence when Verhoeven’s films were their bread & butter (as well as a relationship with producer Carolco). WB became “more violent” when Ah-nuld landed there. And as is pointed out in the piece, Steven Seagal had that effect for a moment, though he was created, essentially, by Andy Davis… and would people really put The Fugitive in the “big violence” category?

Want some violence? Where is Joel Silver? Paramount and Fox carried his imprint until he settled in at WB in the late 80s. And for 20 years, he rolled out the mayhem there… including being behind The Wachowskis. (And what bizarre rhetoric is trying to pin WB with the work of The Wachowskis on The Matrix? WB didn’t know what they had with that first film. And it broke ground in the US, but a lot of what it was had already been done in anime’.)

And have we forgotten about the Bad Influence of Jerry Bruckheimer and the late Don Simpson? American Gigolo, Thief, Cat People, Flashdance, Thief of Hearts… and later, the era of Bad Boys, The Rock, and Con Air. They also had more mainstream hits and Bruckheimer got kinder and gentler in the years after that. But this was highly controversial cinema in its time.

I went back to look at the last five years and 2012 for WB to see just how much violence branded the studio. And there is little doubt that under Jeff Robinov, it is even more of a “boy” studio than it was before. But for a studio that releases about 20 films a year most years, does 20% of that output being violent (standard made up, of course) define a brand or make it any different than any other studio. I mean, this decade… not the 1940s.

The “worst” year of the last 5.5 as regards the percentage of violent movies was 2010, when WB released 7 such titles out of 19 new, wide releases. Clash of the Titans was the biggest hit, making $163m domestically and $330m internationally (where there aren’t as many guns or as many rage crimes). The Book of Eli was a modest success with $94m domestic and $62m internationally. And The Town grosses $92m here at home and $62m internationally. Perhaps the most problematic of the films, in the moral regard, was Ben Affleck’s Town, which had a criminal as its hero. But it was also a quality film with moral values and challenging, compelling ideas. Hmmm…

Of the other four titles, the biggest grosser was Edge of Darkness, a Mel Gibson release in the midst of his troubles, finding $43m domestic and another $38m internationally. A financial loser. The other three were all under $30m worldwide. The Losers and Jonah Hex were both financial losers. WB might have been okay with Splice, which was a pick-up.

But the point is… the market seems to be pretty good, even with more than 1/3 of the releases being “violent,” at making choices for itself about what it wants to see.

Meanwhile, in the same year, at Paramount, Iron Man 2, True Grit, Shutter Island, Jackass 3D, The Fighter, and Paranormal Activity.

Last year at WB, the only movie with violence anyone might take seriously was Sucker Punch… and even then, it was mostly fantasy. Green Lantern? Red Riding Hood? Contagion? And an apocalyptic thriller (didn’t see it), Unknown.

Not very good branding by WB, I guess.

As noted from the top of this piece…if the goal was to detail, as news analysis, that WB has faced public flack for violence many times in its history, that’s 100% legit. But “violence in its bones” is a load of crap and clearly meant to hype the notion that somehow, WB is at fault for this, whether in releasing a PG-13 movie with a hero who grows through each of the films in the Nolan cycle, or by (gulp) advertising said movie.

I do think there are many legitimate and complex avenues for discussion on the issue of violence and the current culture, in the US and worldwide… we’re a big exporter. But “violence in its bones” is very much, to me, like saying that Germans can never be trusted because of the Nazi era or Italians because of the Crucifixion or Muslims because of 9/11. Unlike a company like Cannon or even the old Carolco, Warner Bros is clearly not a studio built on violence. It is a studio that has made a lot of very good films – and some very bad ones – that are not afraid to deal with violence.

When I look at their “violent” movies, I see filmmakers, not pandering with bullets. I see Christopher Nolan and Steven Soderbergh and The Wachowskis and Ben Affleck and Clint Eastwood and Francis Lawrence and Neil Jordan… and even the ones I like less as artists, like Zach Snyder. I look at the producers. I look at actors. And to reduce it down to an easy-to-swallow form of blame… no. Not acceptable. Certainly not from the NY Times.

And as those who have read me for a while know, I can be a prick about violence. I broke my own rules as a journalist because I was so incensed by Hostel 2, because it did feel to me like the filmmaker was having too much fun torturing women. I felt that way about Michael Bay throwing bodies out of the back of a truck in a car chase in Bad Boys 2. I wondered whether the number of bodies in Total Recall (the first one) was a problem… or not. I am not a person who thinks that no boundaries are acceptable, certainly not in conversation.

But when you start finding ways to insidiously blame WB or Nolan or the movie or the advertising for what happened in Aurora, I have to object deeply… much as I had to object to WB being held up as the standard for sexism in Hollywood when, in fact, the other studios (two run by women at the time) were making fewer films for and/or about women. No one’s hands are 100% clean. This is not a black & white issue.

Nor, for that matter, is gun control in light of this slaughter. The difference is that one is a discussion of process and one is a discussion of ideas and mindset. Process is not judgmental.. at least it should not be judgmental. It becomes political when people want it to be. But it can be discussed objectively. Ideas & mindset cannot – at least not within years of an event like this – be discussed objectively. We may come to learn, to some degree, what this guy had in his mind. But even assuming that what he may say is true, it will always be warped by the prism of his full life and experience and memory.

So when you are slinging around the history of WB and tagging it with lines that suggest that, somehow, WB was playing with fire, you are not creating a factual basis for discussion… you are begging for people to riff and to manipulate the facts to fit their goals. And the responsibility not to write “analysis” that intends to or will easily open the door to people getting the wrong idea is a responsibility that serious journalists carry on their shoulders. It’s why there should be editorial caution, not a race to publish every idea or potential fact FIRST!. You don’t have to look further than the current battle over Obama’s “you didn’t build that,” a line that taken out of context is a lie… but that many in this country have no shame about spreading.

The New York Times is all the news that’s fit to print… not all the gossip. We have plenty of hacks for that, thanks.

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16 Responses to “WB, Violent Movies (& The NY Times)”

  1. etguild2 says:

    Bravo. Fascinating research.

    Only thing I’d add is if we’re gonna talk about Tri-Star, we must bring up Lionsgate, especially since it’ll probably gross more than Paramount and possibly Fox this year domestically. It’s first six wide release movies were massively violent and controversial: Dogma, American Psycho, O, The Rules of Attraction, (which few realize was heavily re-edited just to get an R) Confidence, and Cabin Fever. And that doesn’t count most of its niche horror stuff like House of 1,000 Corpses, Repo: The Genetic Opera, High Tension, Midnight Meat Train, Hard Candy and Three…Extremes.

    Throw in seven Saw films, Devil’s Rejects, Alone in the Dark, Lord of War, Open Water, Hostel 1 and 2, See No Evil, The Descent, Crank 1 and 2, Slow Burn, The Condemned, Bug, Rambo, Punisher 1 and 2, My Bloody Valentine, From Paris With Love, Kick-Ass, The Expendables, The Devil’s Double, Conan the Barbarian, Warrior, and Safe, as well as the upcoming Expendables 2, Dredd, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre reborquel, and you have the most violent, perverted decade of any mid-major or major in history.

    Hell even Hunger Games is strong stuff for a young adult movie.

  2. Krillian says:

    Worthy takedown.

  3. movieman says:

    Et- I’m glad you brought up “The Expendables,” one of the most nihilistically, mindlessly violent “action” movies ever made.
    Was Stallone given a pass for that sickening offal strictly because of its lack of pretension?
    He should have pilloried for an utter disregard for humanity instead.

  4. etguild2 says:

    movieman, just look at it vs. the RAMBO remake, which is the rare action movie I can’t believe escaped an NC-17. Bodies exploded in an orgy of blood and guts whenever hit by bullets, among many, MANY other things.

  5. brack says:

    Rambo, definitely one of the more shockingly violent films I’ve ever seen. Totally took me off guard.

  6. Yet both Lionsgate blood-fests are about more than just mindless carnage. Rambo is Stallone’s Unforgiven, a brutal and outright hopeless horror show that serves as a quasi-apology for how the Rambo sequels were used to make war look fun, harmless, and a noble solution (that at least the first two Rambo films were more complicated than they are given credit for is beside the point). Sure certain kids/young adults may have been cheering the violence, but the movie does not. When the carnage stops, everyone is either numb or crying their eyes out in despair and horror while acknowledging that nothing has really been accomplished. It’s no masterpiece (especially the overly talky director’s cut), but it’s a stunningly cynical and sorrowful little action picture.

    As for The Expendables, it actually serves as an antidote to the pessimism of Rambo, suggesting that morally-virtuous mercenaries *can* make a difference as long as they maintain the moral high ground even while in combat. And the film makes a point to stay out of politics and nationalism, as the picture pits mostly American heroes against an American corporate villain who is manipulating a South American country for his own gain. Again, it’s not a ‘great’ movie by any stretch (it’s barely good), but The Expendables works as a nostalgic throwback to that optimistic era where America still believed it could solve the world’s problems, even ones that America created.

  7. movieman says:

    I wish that I’d seen your “Expendables,” Scott.
    The one I saw thoroughly sickened and depressed me.

  8. Paul D/Stella says:

    Is The Expendables genuinely attempting to communicate that mercenaries really can make a positive difference in the world as long as they maintain strong morals? Is that a common reading of the movie? Seems like a stretch and an attempt to bend over backgrounds to find a positive message where it doesn’t exist. And it’s kind of a strange message. Do mercenaries need defending? Does the world need to know that mercenaries can be a force for good if we let them?

    I tried watching Rambo but couldn’t finish it. I found it pretty terrible on every level. What I saw sure seemed to be cheering violence.

  9. christian says:

    I’m probably a bad person but I loved RAMBO. Stupid beyond belief but so single-minded in its carnage.

  10. hcat says:

    Haven’t read the article but how did this guy do a piece about violent content at Warners and leave out The Wild Bunch? They haven’t been at it lately but if you look at the films that have pushed the envelope on violence, there are a significant number of Warner titles there. Bonnie, Wild Bunch, Exorcist, Clockwork, Road Warrior, NBK ..etc and thats not counting the gangster titles they made their name.

    Think of the films in the Warner ‘Canon’, the ones you consider best reflect the studios most exceptional work. Goodfellas, Unforgiven, Wild Bunch, Searchers, Clockwork, Shining, L.A. Confidential…..not a lot of romantic comedies in there.

    Now I am not saying that it is a bad thing and think it is awful to say this is a case of the chickens coming home to roost. But I do think his underlying point that Warners is historically the most violent of film studios is accurate.

    When Hunger Games came out and a lot of people asked how the majors had let the property slip through their fingers I commented that the premise of kids killing each other is something that the majors would shy away from and Lions Gate is willing to take a chance on material of that nature (their early hits O, Dogma, and Corpses all started at other studio). When I thought of majors that might have taken a chance on HG, Warners is the only one that came to mind.

  11. Rashad says:

    Any studio that puts out Safe House, and Contraband in one year, deserves a medal.

  12. The mercenaries are technically stand-ins for American soldiers/heroes. The Expandables are thematically proto-American freedom-fighters. I doubt it’s a common reading of the film, but it’s how I personally reacted to it upon my opening day viewing (the director’s cut is actually a better film, with more character beats but a more somber tone). It doesn’t make it a great film, or perhaps even a good one (although I enjoyed it overall), but it goes to, in my opinion, the exact sort of nostalgia that the film is targeting.

  13. Paul D/Stella says:

    Well yeah the nostalgia factor in it was always obvious. I’ve always said the pro-mercenary crowd is woefully under-served.

  14. etguild2 says:

    I agree with your take on RAMBO Scott, but that’s kind of an Armond Whitish reading on EXPENDABLES.

  15. JoeLeydon says:

    And this just in from Dane Cook (bet it really helps him promote his upcoming NBC sitcom):

  16. Irene Sobel says:

    Classic article on the Colorado tragedy by Armond White. It should be essential reading for anyone who cares about film.

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