Back in the early Seventies, Andrew and I used to go out to the movies almost every week. The legendary Orson Welles Cinema on Mass Ave. in Cambridge always had a terrific line-up of independent and foreign films, and I particularly remember delighting in the French ones: François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Eric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee, and Louis Malle’s Phantom India and Murmur of the Heart. We also watched Philippe deBroca’s The King of Hearts, which had a four-year run at the Welles, and Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come, which broke all records with a continuous 10-year run there.
In general, I found these films full of joie-de-vivre and a pleasure to watch. Whatever their sexual and sensual content—and they were certainly not prudish, as many Hollywood films are—it was consensual. But then something changed—something perhaps in the times, and certainly in the films we started seeing. For me, three extremely violent movies, all of which came out in 1971, were responsible for that change: The Devils, Straw Dogs, and A Clockwork Orange. I heartily wish that I had never seen the first two, and am glad I chose not to expose myself to the third.
Andrew and I went to see the British director Ken Russell’s The Devils because we had heard that it was based on a novel by Aldous Huxley (The Devils of Loudun). Unfortunately, the film—or all I remember of it—was one unrelieved succession of sadism and perversity involving nuns, sexual repression, and religious persecution. It didn’t seem to have much of a point, and certainly gave me no pleasure at all. I think I may have walked out and asked for my money back, something I have never done before or since; in any case, I remember being extremely upset and having a terrible argument with poor Andrew afterwards, who became the target of my righteous wrath simply because he happened to be a man.
The gratuitous violence in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs had already created a stir before we went to see it, and I ought to have known better. However, it had been filmed in a small community in Cornwall, England, where our old family friends Mag and George lived with their three children, and because I had heard that some of them were extras in the film, I decided to go anyway, hoping to catch a glimpse of them in one of the crowd scenes. I’ve regretted that decision ever since. Not only was there an extended rape scene in the movie—in fact, two, not one—but its female victim was portrayed as enjoying it, thereby perpetuating the myth that women “ask for it” and “say no when they mean yes.”
After that film, cinema-going was spoiled for me for a long, long time. In fact, Andrew’s and my regular outings to the Orson Welles came to an abrupt stop. I felt personally violated by the vicious attacks upon the heroine in Straw Dogs, and came to believe, not without cause, that most screen violence (for which I had a low tolerance at best) was sexual violence (for which I had zero tolerance). It seemed that Straw Dogs had inaugurated a new era in the movies, one that made all earlier violence seem tame. But then Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange swaggered onto American screens (it was banned in Britain, as was Straw Dogs), and introduced ultraviolence.
This time I took precautions, read the reviews in advance, and made a firm decision that seeing this movie was out of the question for me. Not only was it packed with violence perpetrated by young men upon defenseless elderly men and women and underage girls, but it was violence for the sake of violence, meaningless and entirely without motive. But when A Clockwork Orange came to the Harvard Square Cinema, my college suite-mate Sheila went with her boyfriend, and I witnessed the fallout. Later that night she came home shaken and distraught: on the way home from the cinema, crossing the Cambridge Common in the dark, her boyfriend had suddenly seemed to lose all control and attacked her. Watching the movie had somehow set something off inside him—something waiting to go off, perhaps, with A Clockwork Orange serving as the catalyst. Even though I regularly teach the Anthony Burgess novel on which it was based, I still have not seen the film, and intend never to do so. (Interestingly, the version of the novel on which Kubrick’s film was based was the American edition, which has a completely different ending (and thus, a completely different moral) from the British original.)
Since 1971, moviegoers have been exposed to increasingly more violent films (Pulp Fiction and Natural Born Killers come to mind, neither of which have I seen), and each time the acceptable level of violence shifts, setting a new norm for the future. Perhaps America has always been a violent place and the movies are all of a piece with the general ethos; probably a causal relationship between cinematic and “actual” violence in society at large will never be able to be established; but I know that I was harmed by the movie violence to which I unwittingly exposed myself as a teenager, and that it destroyed my innocent enjoyment of sensuality as loving play.