Book Review – Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment by Harold Schechter

Savage Pastimes is an interesting little book that my esteemed associate, Skippy, loaned me recently.

Written by Harold Schechter, whose body of work consists mostly of books about serial killers, Savage Pastimes looks at the issue of whether modern violent media (i.e. video games and movies) are corrupting influences.

He approaches the question by looking at popular culture down through history, from the festival atmosphere of public executions in the middle ages, to Grimm’s fairy tales, to the horror comics of the 1940’s, to TV westerns in more recent decades.

His conclusion is interesting, but not altogether surprising.  I’ll get to that shortly, but before I do, I need to throw out some anecdotes.

I grew up in the 1970’s and 80’s.  The first TV show other than Sesame Street that I can solidly anchor in time1 is an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker that aired in the fall of 1974 – I would have been 5.  The episode in question involved an alien that sucked the bone marrow out of its victims – wholesome family entertainment indeed.  Mom and Dad had no particular problem with my little brother and I watching Kolchak.  However, we were shielded from cartoons like Spider-Man, because they were too violent.  Also banned at various points were Speed Racer and Ultraman.  Mixed messages, much?

Even while we were kept from watching the cool shows, we were allowed, even encouraged, to run around the yard with cap guns.  To this day, I have scars from accidentally self-inflicted cuts from hunting knives I was probably way too young to safely handle.  These knives came from a local flea market, where my brother and I purchased quite a few copies of the old EC horror comics.

When I was around 12, and we finally got cable TV, the main screening criteria for the movies that we could watch were how much nudity and sex were depicted, not how much violence.  When we were lobbying to watch The Howling, a werewolf film with a dizzying amount of gore for a mainstream film in 1981, the issue my folks had wasn’t with Robert Picardo’s2 character digging a bullet out of his head, it was with about 20 seconds worth of Elisabeth Brooks’ full frontal nudity – breasts being more damaging than dripping brain matter, apparently.

When my closest brother and I were in high school, and my youngest brother was around 5 (the same age when I was watching Kolchack), we’d rent all manner of films like A Nightmare on Elm Street and watch them together.  We all turned out more or less OK.

More recently, my son (13 as of this writing) is quite an accomplished player of pretty much the entire Call of Duty series.  He’s also enjoyed such fine films as Predator and The Expendables with me.  Nevertheless, he’s one of the most compassionate and gentle kids that I know.

So, considering my personal experiences, I wasn’t surprised when Schechter declared that violence in popular culture really doesn’t drive the crime rate up, or turn young consumers of such media into depraved killers.  I was surprised, when I thought back about it, how much violence there was in media that I ravenously consumed as a child.  (Schechter points out numerous instances of this – we as people tend to view our own experiences through a lens of nostalgia.)

What Schechter does well in Savage Pastimes is to clear off that lens, and remind the reader that there has been violence in media for as long as there has been media.  The book is worth reading for this alone.

What Schechter doesn’t do as well3, in my view, is dig into why popular culture is such an easy target for the sanctimonious to attack.  There are a lot of possible answers, I think, ranging from a sincere, but possibly misinformed, desire to make things “better”, to a purely financial interest.  It would have been interesting to look at different groups to see where they were coming from.  Perhaps in another book.

Overall, I think Savage Pastimes is an interesting and fairly quick read that gives the reader relevant historical background and demonstrates the need for a clear and objective assessment of modern media rather than taking the easy route of knee-jerk reactionism.

-Jay

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1I remember other shows, but I can’t tie them to a particular age or time.

2Later to portray the Emergency Medical Hologram on Star Trek: Voyager…

3Schechter also veers dangerously close to sexism a few times with the implication that socially constructed gender roles are the natural, default behaviors of boys and girls.  He’d have been better not to go there and stick with the general argument.

Cinematic Guilty Pleasures

Here’s a little warm-up post to make sure my keyboard still works.

At work recently, a discussion came up about “guilty pleasure” movies.

Everyone has them, and everyone has different reasons for picking the films they do for that honor – I loosely define the category as “films I would watch if I were home sick with nobody else around” – the cinematic equivalent of comfort foods.

As I was thinking about which movies I put into this box, I was surprised to realize how little rhyme or reason there is to my choices – they’re all over the map.

I’m going to reveal a partial list – in no particular order – of my guilty pleasure movies, then invite readers to comment with their own.  Some of mine have already been reviewed here, and I’ll link back to those posts where appropriate.

Nosferatu (1922) – This German film was an unauthorized version of Dracula, and was almost sued out of existence by Bram Stoker’s widow.  It’s a silent film, so much of the story had to be told through body language.  Even 90 years later, Nosferatu puts a creepy sadness to the vampire tale that modern films like Twilight can’t touch.  Unfortunately, to a lot of people, it’s just a grainy old silent movie.

M (1931) I reviewed this one a few years ago here.  Another old German film.  The parallel efforts of the police and the criminals in hunting down a killer is interesting, and the whole film has an uneasy tension to it.  Something about it just makes me feel that it should be watched alone.

Shaun of the Dead (2004) – Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are awesome in this horror comedy.  Pegg’s Shaun, totally oblivious to everything that’s going on around him in the first act of the film is perfect.  I don’t re-watch many comedies, but I watch this one every few months.  The catch is that you have to appreciate both British humor and zombies to really get this one.

Mr. Vampire (1985) – An entry from Hong Kong, this kung-fu horror comedy will leave you dizzy if you spend too much time trying to sort it out.  There’s a lot of – peculiarities, let’s call them – to the story that sail right past American viewers.  I have this one in the chute for a review, so I’m not going to say much about it.

Westworld (1973)Cheesy ’70s Sci-Fi yarn (and the first American film here) about cowboy robots run amok at a futuristic theme park.  The effects are nothing to get excited about, but Yul Brynner’s sinister Gunslinger was a pretty clear influence on the character of The Terminator in later films.  Notable for raising the ethical question of robot prostitutes, then scampering away while the audience contemplates it.

The Car (1977) – Reviewed here.  You’ve gotta take this one on its own terms.  This film got lodged in my brain when I was 8, and it just stuck there.

Predator (1987) – This was Schwarzenegger at the top of his game.  Enough of a plot to stitch together explosive set-pieces, memorable one-liners, and an alien monster that remains popular even now.  I like the fact that the film didn’t feel the need to over-explain the Predator – it was here, it was deadly, and that was enough.

The Untouchables (1987) – A tale of Prohibition-era gangsterism.  Forget Kevin Costner’s wooden Eliot Ness.  Sean Connery’s Jim Malone and Robert De Niro’s Al Capone are the high points of this film.  Never let Al Capone get behind you with a baseball bat.

The Muppet Movie (1979) – I love the Muppets, but in recent years they’ve drifted away from the simple charm they had when Jim Henson was running the show.  The opening and closing musical numbers still make me smile.

And to make this a nice round number…

Ed Wood (1994) – Tim Burton and Johnny Depp put together a wonderful, if under-appreciated, biopic about Edward D. Wood, Jr., the director of such masterpieces as Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 from Outer Space.  The performances in this film are excellent, but the relative obscurity of the subject matter probably kept Ed Wood from reaching a wider audience.

Nothing coherent here.  All over the place.  That’s part of what makes them fun.

Let’s see what you guys have to put on the table.

-Jay